This is a tricky one.
Buffy’s mother takes up with a new man, Ted. Buffy is protective and suspicious, and it is revealed that she is right to be: Ted is dangerous and abusive (and a robot). The experience of a divorced mum or dad meeting a new partner is a common one for teenagers, and although it falls outside the high school environment, it still slots neatly into the core “high school years are hell” premise. Put Whedon and Greenwalt on the script and cast the marvellous John Ritter as the boyfriend, and you’ve lined up a solid episode. You’d think so, anyway.
Sometimes, however, when you start actually turning an idea into a series of actual scenes in which things happen, you find things don’t turn out as you expected. Hidden in this premise are a bunch of nasty hooks, enough to rip down the whole Buffy machine and transform it into something else.
Before tumbling into this pile of trouble, the episode checks in on Giles and Jenny. This is part of the show’s new commitment to ongoing/longform storytelling and emotional consequences. Jenny is still in a bad place after the events of The Dark Age. Giles is desperate to help her, to restore their connection, to fix things. And he can’t. This is quite an emotionally sophisticated move. Typically, conflict in a dramatic situation is generated by a character who gets pushed to change but, for reasons sensible or irrational, refuses to budge. Then the story forces the character to appreciate the consequences of both paths, and lands them in a crisis where they have to either stand firm or give way or (often) compromise. That’s the basic structure underneath enormous amounts of dramatic entertainment, including the last trauma-coping episode of Buffy, When She Was Bad. This situation, however, is different. There is no refusal to move here. Jenny, we sense, would like to make the change Giles is ever-so-gently pushing her towards, but she is emotionally unable. It’s a jarring, unpleasant situation. As viewers we feel the helplessness that torments Giles here, because it’s clear the usual story pattern will be no help at all. Jenny has fallen outside of the story. We’ve lost her.
Jenny’s trauma doesn’t lend itself to typical storytelling structures, especially not the abbreviated versions you need for a 45-minute television episode. The creative team seem well aware of this, although it isn’t clear how they’re going to land a resolution out of it. The same team, however, seem to have missed that the episode’s A-story presents the same kind of difficulty. I presume it slipped by because everyone was so focused on the evil robot stepfather, which seems like a solid Buffy premise, that they missed the real problem area until it was too late. The problem here isn’t what the robot boyfriend means to Buffy, it’s what the robot boyfriend means to Joyce.
To make the episode work, the show has to put the relationship between Buffy and her mother under enormous strain. Buffy witnesses abusive behaviours from Ted, but for the episode to work, Joyce can’t listen to her. Buffy is subjected to psychological and then physical abuse from Ted, but Joyce can’t protect her. In a stunning mid-episode swerve, Buffy causes Ted’s death, and Joyce has the shocking experience of finding the man she has fallen for dead at her daughter’s hands, but the two characters have no way to make sense of this. When it turns out Ted is a robot, it’s a thin salve on what has been a very straightforward portrait of a family becoming overwhelmed by toxic abuse. The show puts a wash on it by indicating Joyce was not properly herself, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough to create a protective layer around this plotline that will allow Joyce and Buffy to walk away from the experience unscathed.
There is a clear sense throughout of the episode getting out of control. It breaks the rules of Buffy by bringing in the police. (Recall we last saw the police in The Dark Age when Buffy lost control of her own narrative and it became the Giles show – here the show itself is losing control.) This violation is especially jarring when those rules were just restated one episode previous, when Buffy was shot at in a school by an assassin posing as a police officer – those events wouldn’t just have drawn police attention, they would have made global headlines.
But all of this is necessary because we are invested in Joyce, who is Buffy’s only remaining foothold in the normal world. A story that threatens Joyce is led inexorably towards police intervention. (The school, meanwhile, is so thoroughly framed by the supernatural that the assassination attempt seemed almost reasonable; it would be far more shocking to see Buffy actually attending a class or handing in some homework.)
In this way, by relentlessly following its own logic, the episode forces Buffy into a new shape. It is as if Ted’s robotic need to remodel the world around him is reaching outside the fiction to affect the show itself. And as with Ted, the corrective has to be drastic. Buffy has to break its own principles to get out of the situation. This is supposed to be the show where emotions are real and danger is real and things have consequences. Jenny is embodying those principles, but in the very same episode we have Buffy and, particularly, Joyce dodging them entirely. If the same emotional care was applied to Joyce as to Jenny, then these events would destroy her emotionally and change her forever. The wrap-up mother/daughter bonding scene is laughably inadequate at providing a realistic emotional resolution to the awful experiences depicted throughout the episode.
The episode ends with Giles and Jenny getting back together. Jenny just announces she’s stopped being upset, and happiness ensues. It’s a funny way to play out the conclusion of this subplot, but it gets the job done, and the overall feeling I get from this episode is getting the job done. At the end of act one you know Buffy’s mum is in a relationship with an abuser while Jenny is experiencing trauma – and in both cases the end of the episode just announces “problem fixed” and hopes that’s enough.
So Ted disappears down the memory hole to allow Joyce to remain the same. It’s sad to break the run of great episodes with this – and it is a good episode, even a good Buffy episode, but it’s one that can’t be subjected to the same emotional scrutiny as the rest of the Buffy narrative. It’s the Problem of Jesse, of course, and proof that part of how you deal with that problem is by avoiding some tricky situations entirely.
And it should be said, also, that I can’t really see this episode as a failure. Sure, it has to be yanked unceremoniously back into line at the end, but it’s a heck of a ride getting there. (Also, John Ritter!) It’s a problematic piece, a misfire, but also a brave attempt to keep pushing into risky territory with intense emotional stories about women being challenged and rising above the threats they face. One of the big reasons people have started to care about Buffy is because this show takes risks. An episode that jumps the rails is part of the deal, and ultimately, a small price to pay.
* As noted before in I Robot, You Jane, Buffy’s robot/technical episodes often feel a bit wrong. This one is no exception. I still have no clear sense of why this might be. Any new ideas, anyone?
* Imagine an alternative version of this episode that wouldn’t mess up Joyce – it could be a friend of Joyce, with a daughter in Buffy’s class, who’s just found a great new man. This is more or less how Some Assembly Required insulated the regulars from the weight of its intense abuse storyline. It could work, but the episode would lose a lot of its juice as a result (see: Some Assembly Required).