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Watching Buffy: s03e15 “Consequences”


“Buffy, if you know something, if you’re protecting someone, I promise you it’ll be better for everyone if you just come clean.”

Detective Paul Stein is probably the least-celebrated recurring character in all of Buffy. He’s the cop who investigated Buffy’s involvement in a suspected murder in Ted, and then again in Becoming, Part 2, and then yet again in this episode. Each time, he has a thankless task: to ask Buffy Summers to account for the ways in which her fictional world doesn’t mesh with reality. We take it as a given that Buffy cannot speak truthfully to him, she must hide the supernatural world of which she is a part. There is little reason for this discretion, given the world the show has presented to us – the high death rate joked about in numerous episodes, the constant weird events and monstrous deaths in the town, the fact Stein’s boss is actively covering up vampire activity. The real reason she must hide the supernatural world is because the structure and metaphor of the show demand it; if Buffy told the truth, and Stein was allowed to act on this in a realistic way, the whole world of the show would shift. And that can’t happen, because the show is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So Stein is (inadvertently) trying to break the show, and Buffy is trying to defend it, and we know she must succeed so the show might continue. Why is Stein there at all, then? What’s the point of bringing him in for a conflict with a foregone conclusion? The answer is the episode’s title, Consequences. The show has committed to realistic emotional consequences since the beginning, but it has always played pretty fast-and-loose with other types of consequence. Here, however, it has trapped itself, since the emotional consequences arising from the accidental murder of Allen Finch can only work if real-world consequences are allowed to play out as well. The show says Faith has crossed a line by killing Finch, and that charge would feel weightless unless the world around the characters endorsed it with a police investigation.

I argued last episode that Faith killing a human, not a vampire, was a cheat as an ethical line to divide Faith and Buffy. This show now presents monsters, vampires and demons as persons, so it’s on shaky ground when it says killing monsters is fine but killing humans is unthinkable. The presence of Detective Stein here is a clear marker of this odd double standard. It’s all too easy to imagine Stein, if made aware of the existence of demons and vampires, applying his diligent questioning approach to seek out the cause of a suspicious death even if the victim was a monster.

Richard Williams wrote something interesting in a Google Plus comment on the last post: “In Buffy the protagonist exists in an environment outside our society, there is no justice, no protection, no law that she does not have to enforce herself.” I agree with this description, although I think the show has no good justification for why this must be so. The supernatural is real in this world, and those in authority – the Mayor, no less – know about it. There is no reason why justice, protection and law should not be extended into this new realm. (Cue countless urban fantasy books about police detectives dealing with vampire crimes.)

Nevertheless, reasonless or not, Williams’ comment is right on point, and it goes to the heart of the conflict between Faith and Buffy. To its credit, the show has gone a few steps beyond the obvious differences between them – it would be fairly easy to build more conflict where Faith’s adventurous risk-taking style causes problems for Buffy’s more reserved and cautious nature. Instead, the show has used these differences to create a problem that illuminates a completely different (although related) conflict, regarding how the Slayer sees her responsibility to the world. As Faith says: “What bugs you is you know I’m right. You know in your gut we don’t need the law. We are the law.”

And this is a real, deep, powerful conflict for Buffy, because it strikes right at the core of Buffy’s greatest flaw. Buffy’s instinct to take on too much herself, to refuse help from her friends and bear the brunt of risk and pain alone, has got her into trouble before and will get her into trouble again. Buffy’s refusal to be honest with the police is simply more of the same. The conflict between Buffy and Faith that splits them apart in this episode is not the risky vs cautious angle the show’s been playing all season, but something much more powerful. The question is, when you have the power to sit above the world, must you sacrifice yourself to it?

Buffy spent season one convincing herself that her answer was yes. But what right does Buffy have to tell Faith to make the same decision? It’s meaty stuff, a big question with no clear answer and lots of provocation for story. It’s the kind of question you can only get to in your third season, relying as it does on a deep understanding of your characters, your themes, and your world. It’s a conflict so good that it makes Faith retain some sympathy even as she turns to the dark side in this story. And that dark side is, of course, the Mayor, the embodiment of someone with the power to sit above the world who has not the slightest intention of serving it. The show is dropping the key parts of this season-long story arc into place just in time for a heck of a run to the season finale. This is gripping, mature, sophisticated television.

Other notes:
* Poor Cordelia is still filling in time until the end of the season, but her flirtation with Wesley is amusing at least.
* Another lovely reversal where we expect Faith’s lie that Buffy was responsible will put her at odds with Giles, but he saw through her immediately.
* Xander actually gets some great stuff here. He goes to talk to Faith to try and get her to open up to him, and it is a horrific misjudgment on his part as Faith assaults him. In the process he also hurts Willow, who divines the reason for his approach to her and cries in the bathroom.
* Alas, Mr Trick. We knew him, Horatio, but not that well. An underserved bad guy, wasted to put over the Faith-turns-bad storyline. Bother.
* Does Faith kill Trick selfishly or selflessly? Does she do it because Buffy’s in danger, or so she can create an opportunity with the Mayor? Or both? I don’t know. I think the show wants us to think she did it selflessly, then stun us with the revelation that her motives were different all along. It doesn’t come across clearly, however, and my assumption (on first viewing and now on another look) is that Faith killed Trick to save Buffy, but then thought about it and realised the Mayor might have a place for her.


Ermahgerd Lernky

Vanity Fair has a nice interview with the woman from the ermahgerd meme

Russia has made a Blade-Runner-Hunger-Games movie based on the party game “Mafia”/”Werewolf” (trailer is here). I think this makes perfect sense but everyone else is freaking out.

Infographic of bizarre stuff found in sewers. Cute, but perhaps a sign we have reached Peak Infographic.

Some people want to Boycott Star Wars because it is against white people!
Actually they were just trolling everyone!
(Some say these guys meant it and are now saying they were just trolling as the reaction pours in. I think they never meant it, because internet!rebel! culture promotes a discursive style where meaning is actively suppressed, everything is just provocative words, and meaning/purpose can be added post-hoc to serve strategic needs. The reason they get away with it is that a surprising amount of human interaction works exactly like this; they’re just using the form to cause trouble.)
Anyway: Some better reasons to boycott Star Wars, of which my favourite is:
“He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil.” Kind of a jerk thing to say about someone whose machine prostheses are the result of you cutting off his limbs and leaving him in a volcano earlier, leaving aside the other ways this is problematic.

Fake Halloween costumes by a prank artist. I’m going to be scared-of-socks this year. (Scroll down the page to see his great Trump bit, too.)

Musical tribute to David Bowie’s Area as it appeared in Labyrinth.

Neat photos of some movie miniature sets.

Some of the shots with a digitally created Paul Walker from the last Fast & Furious film. There were loads of them. Bloody impressive. Martin & team honestly deserve to walk away with a statue or two for this one. (There’s a link onwards to a Variety interview about it.)

There once was a dildo in Nantucket. – fascinating article on local history, and trying to decide what is actual history and what is just a story told about the past.

You might have seen coverage of the sleeping study that says early humans didn’t sleep longer than we modern humans do – The Atlantic has a good, clear overview and interview. (via D3vo)

And finally, via Scott A, Thinkprogress provides a valuable factcheck on whether George W. Bush was President of the United States of America on September 11, 2001.


Watching Buffy: s03e14 “Bad Girls”


It’s almost surprising we’re half-way through season three, with only a few episodes left before high school is just a memory, and the show is only now getting to the Bad Influence story. You know the one: don’t hang out with the wrong crowd, or they will lead you astray. You’ve seen it in a dozen films and TV shows, and there’s an even chance you’ve lived it. The Bad Influence story is one of the fundamental morality tales of youth, and it is intimately entwined with high school, that era of surging hormones, growing independence, and very poor judgment. It also has a surprising amount of resonance with the threat of the vampire – you can see the outlines of the Bad Influence story in Dracula, with Mina watching in prudish horror as Lucy falls under the sway of a sexily alluring bad boy.

Despite this, the show has avoided the Bad Influence story so far, and it isn’t too hard to see why. The Bad Influence story is about the normal kid who is led astray by the glamour of rule-breaking, but in this show, there is no normal kid. These kids are the nerds. They hang out in the library and obsess about their subcultural thing and exist a step or two removed from the social world of high school. Why would a heartthrob rebel influence them? They’ve got coding/larping/vampire-slaying to do, dammit! In fact the show’s effectively run a Good Influence story on Cordelia, who is no longer a mean socialite, and now limits her sniping to the very deserving target that is Xander.

The closest the show has to a normal kid is Buffy. She has been tempted by a sexy older-man rule-breaker, but one so diligently moral the show really had to stretch to make Buffy compromise herself for him (for example, her unlikely decision not to tell her friends he had returned from death). She’s also been the rule-breaker herself – Snyder identified her early on as the Bad Influence on Willow and Xander, but again her clear commitment to doing good rather undermined that allegation. Even her influence on Giles, luring him away from the accepted practices of the Watcher’s Council, is clearly presented in the show as a good thing (witness Kendra’s growing acceptance of their unorthodox partnership).

Buffy herself, her character, has never really been tested. She has been a good girl for forty-seven episodes. When the show starts easing her into temptation here, it immediately feels heavy with accumulated potential energy. It also feels entirely organic because of the show’s patience with the Bad Influence.

Which is to say, Faith finally has a role in the story as of this episode. She’s been kicking around since episode three but apart from featuring in the seventh episode (the one with false watcher Gwendolyn Post) she’s basically contributed nothing of substance to the show. Even Oz and Cordy have had bigger impacts on the series narrative. She’s become just another member of the ensemble, turning up to deliver sass and sex appeal. For such an epic character – the new Slayer, the new Chosen One, Buffy’s counterpart self – her impact has been underwhelming.

While somewhat unsatisfying, that’s been part of the show’s long game. We’ve become comfortable with Faith and her rebellious appeal – in fact, we’ve enjoyed it, because while she hasn’t been given much to do, she’s stolen a lot of scenes along the way. When Buffy actually starts paying attention to her message, it makes sense immediately, because we’ve been getting comfortable with it too.

Like most Bad Influence stories featuring young women, this is all about sex. The episode opens with Faith quizzing Buffy on why she hasn’t slept with Xander, and mocking her for worrying that sex might ruin a friendship. Later Faith talks about the charge she gets from slaying a vampire, and challenging Buffy to say “staking a vamp doesn’t get you a little bit juiced…” Later, obviously excited by the new world Faith is showing her, Buffy sneaks out of class to fight vampires and then hits the Bronze to get into some sexy dancing. She wraps her legs around Angel when he shows up. All of this is very out of character for the sexually reserved Buffy, very in character for the sexually adventurous Faith, and yet somehow it’s easy to go along with simply because we (and Buffy) have had so long to get used to how Faith moves through the world.

That gets us to the halfway point. The mid-episode cliffhanger is a clear sign that we’re in trouble, as Faith and Buffy get stopped by two police officers. The police always serve as an intrusive presence in Buffy, breaking the logic of the story world and dragging the whole narrative towards collapse. They don’t respect the rules of story, and they can tear apart the whole structure of the show if they are provoked. You don’t mess with the police.

Faith immediately pulls Buffy into messing with the police.

In most Bad Influence stories, this is the climax. This is where the kid who’s just playing at rebellion realizes that nothing lies down that path but misery and pain and prison and diseases and every other dark future their parents and teachers warned them about, and they tearfully renounce badness and split with their “bad influence”, expressing only pity for that rebel’s empty lifestyle. Here, however, things are going to play out differently. This show presents a heightened world, where a cheerful teenage girl engages in deadly battle with vampires while keeping up with her homework. The police signal the upset, but they do not mark its final form. The true crisis happens when an overeager and careless Faith accidentally kills a human.

It’s a genuinely shocking moment. The victim is a minor recurring character, and to see him bleed out after being murdered by Faith is deeply unsettling. That’s the three-quarter climax, and it’s a heck of a good swerve.

It’s also fraudulent.

This show has evolved substantially from its early presentation of the supernatural. In season one, the enemy were almost all cruel and weird murderers – the glorified serial killers that were the Master’s vampires, and an array of inhuman devouring demons. Since then, the show has slowly shifted the enemy to suggest that there is an entire supernatural subculture out there, a hidden world with its own rules and rumours and seedy dive bar hangouts. Key vampires like Spike and the Gorches and Mr Trick have had personalities with more human dimension than the Master or Darla managed in season one. Demons like Anyanka appear to have personal depth and internal lives. Questionable figures like Ethan Rayne hover around the edges, greying out the moral boundaries between good and evil. The villains have become people, and the Buffy universe is vastly richer as a result.

However, the meaning of the Slayer has changed as a consequence. The idea of a young girl who murders a succession of irredeemably cruel murderers, as in season one, is black-and-white enough that we can round down the moral questions and end up with a fun monster-fighting show. The idea of that young girl murdering a bunch of people – even if they are bad people – doesn’t sit as smoothly. And yet that is what this show has become. This is a show about a vigilante murderer, and we are encouraged to overlook this fact simply because the victims don’t exactly fit our category of “human”. They are people who laugh and love, but they are demons or vampires or whatever as well, and that means Buffy and Faith can kill them with impunity. It’s fundamentally false, as is immediately apparent when you consider who among the Scoobies would even support the death penalty. (Xander, maybe?) And yet they all jauntily participate in the execution of any monster who crosses their path.

This is another faultline in the moral world of the show, and this episode seems to walk right along it without really pausing to properly consider its ramifications. The epic crisis in this episode occurs because Faith kills a human, and we do feel it. But I think we feel it because we have seen Allan Finch a few times before now and we understand him to be potentially sympathetic. It isn’t because he is a human that we are shocked by his death at Faith’s hands, but because he is a non-combatant, even an innocent.

The show doesn’t seem to see it this way. Buffy and Faith fall out over the murder of a human, not the murder of an innocent. (Would Buffy be so concerned if Faith had killed a demon who had done no more or less harm than Allan Finch?) For all that this crisis is not on solid ground, it is still remarkably effective. Faith reveals to Buffy that she doesn’t feel at all bad for what she did, and in fact she has disposed of the body. Again, we’re meant to be shocked at her amorality, but we’ve been watching Buffy kill for two seasons now, and so Faith’s reaction does carry a certain layer of sense.

The police arrival at the midpoint shattered the walls that keep this show safe in its own little world of monsters and vampires; Faith is showing that she doesn’t intend to show the wider world any greater respect. The relationship between Buffy and Faith finally has a real conflict driving it, and it’s a good one, but if they aren’t careful they could knock the whole show off-kilter. Best of all, we are once again in a situation where it’s impossible to know what will happen next.

Other notes:
* The Mayor is finally back on the scene, once again lurking in the background and performing a weird magic ritual. Several moments sell his character beautifully – laughing at the anodyne Family Circus cartoon, then reacting with distaste to Mr Trick’s affection for Marmaduke because he’s unhygienic. Opening a cupboard full of sinister magic objects to retrieve… a packet of cleansing wipes. Crossing “become invincible” off a very mundane to-do list.
* Mr Trick is still not in any kind of focus. He and the Mayor are so far removed from the Scooby Gang that it’s hard to really invest in them emotionally as bad guys.
* The new watcher Wesley arrives – he’s a nicely played comedy character, but he’s mostly treated with respect by the show. Until the end of the episode when he’s capture and promptly spills every secret he has. Way to throw the guy under the bus in his first appearance, show. Can’t see how he’ll be sticking around!
* Xander’s eye-twitch whenever Buffy says Faith’s name is genuinely funny, but his desperate attempt to insult Cordelia’s clothing for being like a hooker is another sign of how making the instinct character also the voice of masculinity leads you right into trouble.
* There’s a story a few places around the net that the original plan for the episode was to end with Buffy discovering Faith has killed herself, and this was only changed because the creative team liked what Faith brought to the show. I find myself unconvinced by this story – it might contain a small bead of truth, but it just doesn’t sound right for the show. (Not to mention that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere or provoke any action from anyone, it just ends Faith’s story abruptly.) I’d welcome a link to any of the show’s actual creators commenting on this idea.


School dance linky

Lovely wee article from the Sunday Star Times about school dances for 12-year-olds. I like to imagine Ira Glass introducing this as a “This American Life” story.

This one has spread steadily across my social networks this past week: Why do we hate things teen girls love?

David R shared this great Digg longread about the secret history of the Myers-Briggs test (including a foray into racist detective fiction, oddly enough).

I love it when Andrew O’Hehir, Salon’s film reviewer, files on politics. This is epic:
The Republican suicide ballad: The party that can’t govern and the country that hates its guts.

The Alligator shared this link about a group of restaurants moving to a no-tipping-allowed model, adding the comment: “An excellent read as to why we need to pay people in the restaurant industry more than a pittance, and change how we think about dining. We need to move away from an antiquated system that evolved from having servants & slaves- and recognize the value of the people providing your experience.” It’s also just a great read to discover how the economics of a restaurant play out – of course it’s US-specific but there will be stuff here relevant to business owners and particularly hospitality peeps anywhere.

And finally, via Karen, Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting.


Watching Buffy: s03e13 “The Zeppo”


What is the point of Xander? He doesn’t offer Willow’s empathy and nerd abilities, or Giles’s knowledge and common sense, or Oz’s wisdom and wolfy-powers. He doesn’t do anything particularly well, except screw up. Why is he there? Why do the others allow him to get involved?

Revelations offered a compelling answer: Xander could disrupt the patterns the rest of the group tend to follow, and hold them to account when their ethics and morals are getting tangled. He could, in short, be the guy who cuts the crap. And as the most vulnerable person on the team, he’s a natural in the role, because uncut crap gets guys like him killed. That was a Xander with a point, a Xander who could justify his presence in the group.

Now forget that Xander. The writer’s room did. Maybe deliberately, deciding it was a narrative dead-end or something Nick Brendan couldn’t pull off or something else. Maybe they simply didn’t remember what Doug Petrie had done with the character. Maybe they didn’t understand how Petrie’s version would play out. Who knows? Whatever the reason, the show lined up this episode to tackle the same question again. What is the point of Xander? Writer Dan Vebber would deliver a very different answer.

In this episode, the Scooby gang face a grave and apocalyptic threat that forces them to confront their fears and feelings, before the danger culminates in an epic showdown with terrifying demonic enemies. Big, epic stuff. Also, in the opening scene, Xander is hurt, and the other Scoobies suggest he transition into more of a support role. While he is unhappy at the suggestion he can’t handle himself, he ends up fetching snacks while the rest of the Scoobies prepare.

In a more conventional show, things would play out from here in a predictable way. The Scoobies would face the horrific threat and the terrifying climax in the A-story. Meanwhile, in the B-story, we’d get glimpses of Xander slumping about the place, sad about being unappreciated. Then at the end of the episode the stories would recombine, as Xander would discover some crucial weakness and show up at the climax to provide the right assistance at the right moment. Everyone would win, the Scoobies would concede Xander was valuable after all, Xander would concede he shouldn’t be charging into battle so readily, they’d all laugh together, freeze frame and out.

Not this show. The episode completely flips the A story and the B story. The apocalyptic threat is gleefully relegated to the status of a runner, allowing the comic misadventures of Xander Harris to take centre stage.

The episode takes its time to let this reversal become clear. Early on we get our standard scenes of Buffy receiving portentous information from Giles in the library, and then a research scene that sets up information-gathering moves from Buffy and Giles. Everything looks very normal except we’re spending more and more time with Xander, to the point where the camera just stays with him for most of the second act. Soon the episode becomes a series of vignettes where Xander stumbles into a moment with each of the other characters, each time with steadily increasing comedy, culminating in the stupendous moment where Xander interrupts a charged tragic-romance scene between Angel and Buffy. Dramatic music stops and starts around his interruption, as the episode has become a parody of itself, while at the same time being absolutely sincere in every way. It’s utterly hilarious – Xander disrupts the show’s normal form by violating the way its stories are (through careful editing) assembled into dramatic narratives. We’re not just getting Xander’s perspective on life in the Scooby gang, we’re getting a sideways glimpse of how Buffy stories are made.

Throughout, Xander has an arc. After having his confidence sapped by the Scoobies telling him to step back and Cordelia attacking his sense of self-worth, he tries to act cool, and ends up being recruited by some very scary (but very street-level) thugs who turn out to be zombies trying to blow up the school. Across the episode Xander’s attempts to get help from the others come to naught, and he ends up having to stop these guys and their bomb himself, which he does by demonstrating that he is in fact willing to die in order to save the day. He then goes on to keep the whole affair to himself rather than brag about his success or show how he has been misjudged by his friends, and his new sense of self-worth allows him to brush off more invective from Cordelia and embrace his role as snack-fetcher. (Notably, no-one in the Scoobies reconsiders their decision to keep Xander away from the danger zone.) It’s a lovely arc, and the final confrontation, where Xander gently engages in a showdown over a ticking bomb, is perfectly played by Brendan.

So we finish this episode with a Xander who is at peace with himself. Roll credits.

And now we know: what is the point of Xander? He’s the snack guy, and he’s cool with it.

Wait. What?

This is a resounding personal triumph for Xander the character, finding self-acceptance; but it is a disaster for Xander the member of an action-drama ensemble. The problem was “he contributes nothing substantial to the Scoobies”, and you can’t fix that with “and he’s okay with it”. That is the opposite of fixing it! Nick Brendan will still be turning up to work every Monday, and every script will need to find stuff for him to do. At least his anxious inadequacy was a source of some kind of plot energy and character motivation, forcing him to try and justify his presence. Now he isn’t even going to do that? How is this better? How can this do anything but make Xander even more redundant?

This episode is surely one of the best chunks of TV to go out under the Buffy name – it is intelligent and suspenseful and laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s a failure where it matters. It set out to fix Xander, and it ended up making things worse. Xander is still broken, still pointless, but now he’s even harder to fix.

You had one job, episode. You had one job.

Other notes:
* Have to mention the highly-memorable scene where Xander is deflowered by Faith and then decisively shown the door, with the romantic/sexy music abruptly ending and Brendan looking absolutely bewildered.
* Willy at the demon bar again makes an appearance – this is likely a riff on Josie’s Bar, a staple of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run during Joss Whedon’s phase of high comics geekery.
* Vebber’s previous Buffy episode was the superb return-of-Spike episode Lover’s Walk. This one is even better, and while it is certain that the whole room was pitching laugh moments aplenty, the result feels expertly judged and strongly unified. Might as well give Vebber the credit for another classic. He never works on Buffy again.
* Okay, there is one moment in this episode that stretches credulity too far: that it’s Cordelia who calls Xander “the Zeppo”. That’s the kind of reference that might be believable coming from a TV nerd brought up in a family of TV writers cough cough Joss Whedon, but Cordelia? What, she’s been watching Animal Crackers while recovering from her impalement?
* Not really a fan of Xander desperately calling for those guys to throw him the ball at the top of the ep. I have never seen someone do this.
* The Buffyverse creative team decided not to transform the useless comedy character into a badass. Probably a good decision – no way the audience would go along with that sort of thing, huh. In completely unrelated news, new character Wesley debuts next episode!


Dia de los Meurtos Linky

Dear white people, stop colonizing the Day of the Dead (via Evie)

Relevant to my interests right now: the rise of Buffy studies

Another cool interview with Kate Beaton, whose comics are just so great you guys.

The linguistic principles behind those cutesy couple names like “Bennifer”

Fonts In Use goes deep into the Cheers logo, but I opened this link because Jason M said it had a wonderful Halloween costume in it, and you know, it really does.

Via Stephanie P: “somehow we have constructed a language that adheres uncannily to an abstract mathematical idea” – fascinating look at some odd stuff about English words, and a look at whether the pattern is the same for punctuation.

Via Theron: web-based ambient sound mixer.

Via John F: Hell’s Club, where fictional characters meet

NYT opinion piece that recycling is overrated and often counterproductive. This piece irritates the hell out of me, because it makes some very solid points but wraps them up in some really, really unhelpful BS. (I guess straw men are pretty recyclable at least.) Well worth a read, but make sure your critical thinking cap is in the ready position.

The Daily Beast digs up some solid info on the shady group that set up the “Pope loves Kim Davis” silliness the other week.

And finally, many many Love Boat guest stars that I would’ve loved to see.


Watching Buffy: s03e12 “Helpless”


The relationship between Buffy and Giles sits at the centre of the show but is never the centre of attention. He was initially a stuffy patriarchal authority but across the first season, Buffy slowly won him over, until he adopted an unorthodox style that complemented her own. In the second season their relationship was shown to be strong and loving, with Giles giving Buffy support (and, occasionally, correction) in what was very much a parental mode. It is no accident that Buffy has been without an actual father! Giles has been shown to consistently be the conscience of the show, the higher-order Freudian superego that keeps the other aspects of the show’s character balance in check. Giles the character has been broadened and explored in other ways too, through his romance with Jenny Calendar, and subsequent loss and hardening; but throughout, he has been the show’s bedrock, a reliable presence who only wavers in the most extreme circumstances, and the one who gives comfort and safety to Buffy on her very worst days.

With this context in place, the first act break in this episode gives us a devastating revelation: Giles has been hypnotising Buffy and secretly injecting her with some drug or other. The betrayal is absolutely enormous. It isn’t absolutely clear that these injections are the source of the lethargy that is affecting Buffy – just one episode previous, after all, the first act break was Willow’s involvement in a sinister ritual that turned out to be innocent in nature – but the act itself is violation enough, a deeply creepy penetration of Buffy’s bodily autonomy without her knowledge or consent. This alludes to the crime of drugging a woman and then sexually assaulting her, which even in metaphor is a horrific association with Giles. While shocking, this intrusion into our safe assumptions about Giles is one the core themes of the show: women are hurt by men.

This episode puts at the forefront a problem with the show’s structure that has sat quietly unaddressed since the end of season one: even though her personal relationship with Giles has changed, Buffy is still subject to a large patriarchal institution. It turns out that Giles’s betrayal is mandated by his own masters, the Watcher’s Council. We have heard much about them before now – most recently, that they tend to exclude Giles from their activities – but this is the first appearance on-screen of the embodiment of establishment power that is Quentin Travers. Giles cannot protect her from the Council. Women are hurt by men, and the Watcher/Slayer relationship, even in the ameliorated form existing between Giles and Buffy, is impossible to fully reconcile with this theme.

The Council was never made to be looked at closely. If there is an global organisation with the resources to put a highly-trained occult researcher into an undercover role in a school she’s going to attend – well, then, surely the global org can deliver other support too, especially given Buffy seems to keep saving the world. Of course, this would violate the thematic structure of the show – Buffy cannot be part of a large organisation or all the metaphors break down! So the Council is portrayed as distant and virtually uninterested in Buffy and her activities. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but we roll with it, because that’s how we get the show we want to watch.

It is notable, though, that the Council’s first appearance in the series is through a violation of Buffy’s autonomy that is inexcusable and abhorrent. The nature of the Council is being made absolutely clear by this storytelling choice: although they speak loftily of the importance of their work, they exist to harm those with less power. They are tainted and corrupt and inimical to Buffy.

The drama of the episode arises from two questions: how will Buffy manage to overcome this dramatic trial? How will Giles respond to the test of his character posed by his part in the abuse of Buffy? Both are answered in most dramatic fashion.

The challenge Buffy faces is depicted with as much intensity as anything in the series. Without her powers, she is extremely vulnerable, and the show makes you feel it by deploying the visual structure of a horror film – doubly effective because of the jarring awareness that it is powerful Buffy stumbling about in terror here. (The only precedent for the sustained and terrifying chase sequence is the one where Angelus hunted Jenny Calendar through the school, and that ended in a shocking fashion.) The episode’s monster, Kralik, is a fantastic threat, charismatic and unnerving and full of personality – exactly the kind of figure that could carry the dramatic weight of doing something really bad to the show’s balance. The showdown between Buffy and Kralik, when it comes at last, is again right out of a horror movie, Buffy as final girl, and edge-of-seat terrifying to watch. It would be easy to let down this storyline with a resolution that feels false, Buffy winning because she must for the show to continue, but the show doesn’t drop the ball here. It finds a beautiful resolution where Buffy outsmarts Kralik, and her victory feels totally earned.

The challenge to Giles is similarly powerful, albeit less breathlessly thrilling. The parental aspects of his relationship to Buffy are highlighted by the failure of Buffy’s father to come through for her, and the presence of Joyce in the narrative, and even the clear evocation of Buffy’s teenage sexuality in her sweaty sparring session with Angel and the suspiciously phallic crystal (another reading of Giles’s intrusive injection is a father sedating and annulling the sexual urges of his daughter, because he doesn’t want her to be a sexually independent being).

Obviously and unsurprisingly, Giles does not hold the line for Travers and the Council, but defects to confess the truth to Buffy. And here the show does not do the unsurprising thing: Buffy does not forgive and appreciate Giles’s confession. She is horrified and repulsed and flees from him, forcing him to appreciate that his actions were even more awful than he has admitted to himself. Later, after the danger is past, Giles faces the consequences of his actions: he is summarily dismissed from the Council and his role as Buffy’s Watcher. Although he is affronted because he sees this as a disruption of his relationship with Buffy, it is in fact the best thing that could happen for their relationship: he is freed of the tainted institution and can give Buffy support without the unsettling structural power hanging over their every interaction. There is a lovely scene where they reconcile as he gently, silently tends her wounds.

The show reasserts its fundamental opposition to structures where men claim power over women. The imbalance that has been part of the show since the first episode is finally expunged, and patriarchy is properly undercut. The show celebrates the occasion in typically distinctive style: by ending on Xander failing to open a jar. Just one more great moment in an episode full of them. Buffy‘s third season continues to excel.

Other notes:
* Typically Whedon geek reference, where Xander and Oz debate types of kryptonite. This kind of nerdery has become a lot more common in the years since this show!
* And, as is now customary, some gratuitous continuity references to Amy the rat and even Kendra’s stake, Mr Pointy.
* Angel confesses to Buffy that he saw her before she became a slayer. It plays… weirdly. Their relationship is kind of fuzzy and strange here, guilt-wracked self-denial replaced with a kind of self-deprecating chemistry.
* One interesting switch on a recent episode – once again Buffy steps up to stop some schoolyard bullying, but this time the guy she steps to doesn’t even know who she is. This isn’t really a continuity error – it’s a big school! – but it does jar.


Apophenia Linky

The puzzle book that drove England to madness (doubles as a primer on where conspiracy theories come from)

Via Marieke, a good explainer on Syria and the migrant crisis:

Last Week Tonight on the migrant crisis has a particularly lovely finish (but you can’t skip to it, you gotta watch through or it doesn’t make sense).

Downton Abbey characters battle each other with lightsabers. (Star Wars is everywhere, Star Wars goes with everything.)

Ten minute creepy horror film by a friend of Pearce:

Chess master analyzes chess games from films.

More 70s ads from Dangerous Minds, this time, sexist stereo ads. “Here is a picture of a naked lady, buy our stereo” is just the beginning.

Also via DM, another Twin Peaks video game: Fire, Dance With Me

Via Allen Varney, two articles about how the world is all broke:
From the Boston Globe, a look at how much of the government of the USA is unaccountable to the President or to anyone really. And at the Awl, the gathering mess of “fascist teenage dungeon master[s]” that is Neoreaction, and why they are really bad news.

And finally, try to read this to the end – Pearce and I didn’t make it.


Watching Buffy: s03e11 “Gingerbread”


We know by now that this show isn’t afraid to mess you up. So when the broad comedy opener of Buffy’s mum bringing her a snack while she hunts vampires – a joke that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Scooby Doo – suddenly swerves into an unnerving tableau of murdered children, it hits harder than it might on any other show. The show has been working up the ability to punch the viewer in the chest like this for a long time, funny enough that you laugh along, and yet able to kill off Jenny Calendar in brutal fashion and make you feel every moment. In the audience, it takes you a moment to take it in, and the credit music is pounding before you catch up and remember that kids don’t die in horror stories from the USA. With only a few exceptions, if there’s a kid or an animal in your horror film, they’ll make it intact to the final scene. (One of the many unnerving delights of insane Italian horror flick Demons is its eagerness to turn both a pet and a child into grisly victims of the monsters. If you were raised on a diet of US horror, as I was, then you’ll get the full jarring effect of the culture clash.)

It isn’t at all clear what the show is doing, but it is obvious you’re out of familiar territory. After the credits, we’re straight in on a police investigation scene, which once again signals a violation of the usual narrative rules in place around the show. Buffy‘s narrative world is collapsing. It actually started to break even before the kids were revealed, when Joyce identified a random vampire as “Mr Sanderson from the bank!” Very rarely does the show give its vampires identities and human pasts, and I think this is the only time it’s someone from the “normal” adult world.

Continuing the theme, when Buffy reports to Giles on the crime, Giles almost immediately voices the idea that the culprit might be a person, not a monster. If I remember correctly, this is not something he has ever said before now, which seems a bit strange if there is (as Buffy mentions) an important Slayer rule against killing humans. He’s never much needed to say it before now, of course – the show is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the narrative therefore provides vampires and monsters to slay. But in this episode, the bounds of the narrative have been shaken, and the possibilities are broader.

This episode, then, presents a collapse of Buffy‘s fundamental narrative structure. The proximate cause is the two dead children, an event so shocking it cannot be contained within standard Buffy. On a deeper level, however, this collapse is caused by something else: the looming presence of the world beyond high school.

The fundamental metaphor and mythology of the show thus far has been intensely linked with the high school experience. Keeping this association intact has forced the show to weird contrivances. (Remember a season ago in What’s My Line, Part 2 when a police officer visiting the school turned out to be an armed assassin who tried to execute someone? Remember how no-one ever referred back to this moment?) For some time, however, the show has been sketching the outline of a world beyond the school. This is a tricky process – the high school setting is well-established and insular, and it isn’t clear how to make the rest of the world function next to it.

Especially because, as this episode shows, that “rest of world” is not inclined to sit passively outside the school fences. As soon as it is invoked in this episode, it begins an intrusion into the safe and familiar world of the show. As Buffy says to her mother in a school corridor, “his hall is about school, and you’re about home. Mix them, my world dissolves.” The show has been mixing them more and more this season with the introduction of the Mayor as a major villain, and the narrative collapse in this episode is the dissolving world of which Buffy speaks. There is no greater symbol of the extent of this intrusion, and the way it wrecks the show’s narrative structure, than the sight of police officers confiscating books from the school library: what are these occult tomes doing there anyway?

This intrusion is, cleverly, itself an element of the high school experience. The parental/adult world’s interference is explicitly tied into the kind of moral panic that runs through a community from time to time, and which is inevitably focused on the misdeeds (real or imagined) of independent teenagers. Partner to the confiscation of library books is a scene where school lockers are searched, filmed as a queasy handheld sequence that disrupts the visual vocabulary of the show as much as the events violate its fictional structure. Amy the witch is marched away after something is found in her locker, which directly evokes a panic over drugs on campus (the contraband in question is even a baggie of herbs). The flip side of this panic is the dismal truth that the adult world mostly does not pay attention to teenage existence. Parents mostly don’t care, and so when they do look, everything appears shocking. It’s a difficult bind.

This whole process of collapse and disruption reaches its apex when Joyce voices a criticism of the show that only becomes visible when the usual narrative structure is pulled apart:

Buffy: …you have to let me handle this. It’s what I do.
Joyce: But is it really? I mean, you patrol, you slay. Evil pops up, you undo it. And that’s great! But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?
Buffy: I don’t think that you run out of…
Joyce: It’s not your fault. You don’t have a plan. You just react to things. It’s bound to be kind of fruitless.

Buffy doesn’t have a good response, of course. How can she? The episode is challenging fundamental aspects of the show’s premise. Bringing Buffy into the wider world means these difficult questions need to be addressed, and Joyce’s words hang in the air, aching for response, and it becomes clear that this episode might just change everything.

Then the show reveals that Joyce is being haunted by the two dead children, and everything goes spectacularly off the rails.

It turns out the children are a monster, the adults are being mentally influenced to act out of character (again – Band Candy wasn’t that long ago!), and everything goes absurd very quickly with Amy and Willow and Buffy tied to stakes to be burned as witches. Somehow pointing out the children don’t seem to have parents is enough to break the spell (huh), but not before there’s a wildly uneven attempt at a farcical comedic action showdown.

The back half of the episode abandons all the important material that was in play. It’s a shame. This season is the final season of the-show-as-it-is. The high school setting is about to run out as the cast all graduate. The characters and the show both share the queasy knowledge that the end is coming and what the hell will you do next? Everything in the world beyond school starts to matter. Many a show before now has foundered on the rocks that lie just outside the safe harbour of the high school setting. Buffy has no intention of finishing at the end of season three, so the invocation of the wider world this season performs a very important function of readying the show for this change. But every time you reach further into that wider world, you run the risk of the show collapsing in on itself, as happened here.

And for all that, the show still answers Joyce’s question, and gives once again a clear statement of purpose, one that reaches beyond the high school setting and shows just why the show is confident it can sustain itself against a wider canvas.

Angel: Buffy, you know, I’m still figuring things out. There’s a lot I don’t understand. But I do know it’s important to keep fighting. I learned that from you.
Buffy: But we never…
Angel: We never win.
Buffy: Not completely.
Angel: We never will. That’s not why we fight. We do it ’cause there’s things worth fighting for.

Earlier in the episode, two bullies start causing trouble for vulnerable goth kid Michael. That’s why Buffy fights. And she just has to show her face to make the bullies back down. She’s done with high school, and ready for the wider world.

Other thoughts:
* A bunch of characters get good moments that don’t amount to much here. Once again, Oz is basically wasted, despite the amazing line: “Just so we’re clear you guys know you’re nuts, right?” He is funny as hell, but contributes nothing at all to the story.
* Returning player Amy is similarly squandered. She’s the narrative’s object, not it’s subject, with her only clear action in her own right being turning herself into a rat to escape being burned alive. Amusingly, she doesn’t turn back into a human at the end of the episode – this is classic Claremont-style long-form plotting.
* Even Willow, who should by rights have a big role in this story considering it features her mum and directly challenges her growing involvement in witchcraft, ends up with little of consequence to do. Although you do get a lovely first-ad-break cliffhanger of seeing Willow involved in a small witchy ritual with Amy and Michael – the early placement of this shock revelation allows the audience to enjoy it while knowing full well they’re not actually bad guys.


Ballet Linky

Happening in Wellington: Ballet for Everyone. This video is the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe your city needs Ballet for Everyone too?

The most misread poem in America: interesting article that, oddly, includes a very detailed recap of a New Zealand car commercial.

1902 trading cards depicting “women of the future”

Paintings tell kind of a love story in the shadow of giant robots… (via Craig Oxbrow)

The British PM and the pig. Two articles that are worth your time: Why people are laughing and (via Ivan) what it says about the state of British politics.

This sounds lovely – how traditional stories become part of the British landscape (via Hugh Dingwall)

Charming short telling a story with 1978 vintage Star Wars figures. (Coulda done without the “twist ending” though…)

The Twin Peaks tarot (via Pearce)

Someone discovered a third all-purpose caption for New Yorker cartoons.

And finally… I almost didn’t include this because I prefer not to go blue in the linky, but somehow I’ve talked myself into it… a hilarious three minute re-edit of apparently-legendary 1980s spoken word album “The Way to become a Sensuous Woman”. Definitely NSFW. (Dangerous Minds has more info.)