Watching Buffy: s03e17 “Enemies”

Image: Turning evil is the best hair straightener.

The Mayor
The Mayor remains, seventeen episodes into season three, an awkward fit as a Buffy villain. He is now a well-defined onscreen presence – his screen time in this episode is almost as much as all previous appearances added together, and we get plenty of his ’50s-TV-dad charm as he develops this or that supernatural threat. And yet for all that we are clear now on how the Mayor behaves, he remains essentially a cipher.

He is, of course, the Mayor of Sunnydale. We are given some backstory here, suggesting that the Mayor is very old and in fact founded Sunnydale on the Hellmouth in order to set up the plan he is currently unfolding. That does give him some civic weight, but apart from that historical association, his status as Mayor is utterly irrelevant to the story. He seems to spend all his time plotting his supernatural ascension; if he has responsibilities as Mayor, then they are handled entirely off-screen and never mentioned. In fact his presentation resembles nothing so much as the Master in season one. This is unfortunate; while the Master was trapped underground with just a few acolytes to bounce off, the Mayor is holding the office of Mayor and has all of Sunnydale’s infrastructure and society at his beck and call. From what we see onscreen, you wouldn’t know it.

In his insightful essay “What stories want“, Alasdair looks hard at my regular references to the “logic of Buffy‘s story world”, and argues that the structure I’m referring to is “myth as metaphor”. He pulls some fascinating observations out of this analysis, such as identifying Buffy as supernatural law enforcement.

I think, with his essay in mind, that this shows why the Mayor’s presentation is so thin. If Buffy’s world is a metaphorical infrastructure where she is the law enforcement, the Watcher’s Council is the government, and the school is the community at risk, then the Mayor of Sunnydale is simply redundant. The Watcher’s Council in Helpless metaphorically communicated rule and misrule in a way directly relevant to Buffy’s life and milieu; what space is left for the Mayor? What is he going to do to affect Buffy – change the parking laws and raise taxes? All he can do is move right back into the supernatural space, where his civic/metaphorical role loses all its meaning. The Mayor-as-villain was an attractive construction because it reaches out beyond the limitations of the show’s usual setting at the same time as the characters prepare to graduate from it, but it turns out there isn’t anything much out there of interest just now.

The Mayor spends a lot of time in this episode with Faith. He has very quickly formed a fatherly affection for her, which Faith clearly finds strange. It is suggested that this aspect of their relationship is part of the appeal for Faith – she is obviously looking for an accepting parental substitute to give her respect and love, and the Mayor for better or worse fits the bill.

It is an odd relationship, and the show doesn’t put much effort into making it feel authentic. Richard Williams in a G+ comment points out the strangeness of Faith’s sudden decision to ally with the Mayor: “It’s a huge jump to go from ‘I don’t like my side and they’re after me so I’m going to get away from them’ to ‘I don’t like my side and so I’m going to switch and actively start working for the incredibly evil enemy and try to kill them’.”

He’s right, of course. There are two other aspects of the situation that provide useful context, however. First, although Faith is around all season, she is almost always presented only in a shallow way. Apart from the business with the fake watcher, she has not really been tested or exposed, and neither the Scoobies nor the audience really get to know her. This means that we can argue that Faith’s heel turn is in fact a simple revelation of her true character all through the season, and if we thought otherwise, that was simply because we were filling in gaps to make her seem nice than she was.

The idea that we are finally seeing the true Faith is bolstered by the other aspect. In this episode, Faith sets about torturing Buffy. Her ostensible friend, her fellow Slayer, an innocent young woman – Faith eagerly announces her desire to inflict on her to the agonies of torture. This is an awful moment. The Faith we had assumed we were dealing with – troubled, but ultimately good – is clearly not the Faith we actually have.

And if that is so, then retroactively Faith’s alliance with the Mayor makes more sense. She was on her way out of a place that didn’t seem fun any more, and then Trick ended up dead and there was a job opening at the Mayor’s side, so she impulsively changed plans. It isn’t the greatest storytelling, but I think it does hold together and it does assemble from the facts of the case.

Their continued relationship makes more sense. It is easy to see how someone mistreated and guarded like Faith might rapidly build loyalty to a strong, kind, lovely father figure who makes her feel appreciated – particularly if he also indulges and normalizes her most suspect impulses. The idea of a father sending his daughter to seduce an enemy is almost gleefully perverse.

The Angelus Gambit
Faith tries to fool Angel and get him into bed. It doesn’t work, except to set up a much more elaborate con job played right back on her. Angel apparently loses his soul and becomes, once again, Angelus. As he acts out his brutal alter ego he gathers information about Faith, the Mayor, and the big plan of the bad guys. The episode keeps this reveal up its sleeve, swerving the viewer and Faith alike in the final act. While there was never enough information available for viewers to work out how the switch-up worked (it turned out a small character helping the Mayor owed Giles a favour and told him about the plan), the show did drop a few clues, such as Angel’s eagerness to torture and kill Buffy – season two made very clear that Angelus prefers to ruin people by harming those they care about, instead of coming right at them.

However, perhaps the biggest clue that all was not as it seems was simply that more Angelus seems like too much, too soon. This show has been enthusiastically driving itself into new spaces and pushing innovative new character challenges, and dragging Angelus out of the closet feels immediately like a step backward. This, more than anything else, makes it satisfying rather than frustrating when Buffy and Angel reveal to Faith that they’ve played her.

This episode is credited to Doug Petrie, who also wrote perhaps the best take on Xander in a long time in Revelations, which also turned on the scary prospect of Angelus. True to form, Xander gets some good stuff to do here. While most other writers shrug and just make Xander the butt of jokes, Petrie gives him a few solid beats that show how he belongs in the team. He goes on an information-gathering mission to Willy the snitch, and he’s successful (although, he confesses, he bribed Willy to cough up what he knew). And as in Revelations, says out loud what others are thinking, noting the chilly tension between Faith and Buffy.

In fact, through the whole episode, he is never made the butt of the joke – Petrie comes close with a bit about Xander asking if some secret books might have dirty pictures, but it’s clear Xander’s making the joke himself and at his own expense.

He is also much less objectionable in his treatment of Cordelia – while he is still (unjustifiably and obsessively) on the offensive whenever she’s in range, he only comments on her actions, not her looks or intelligence or choice of clothes or anything else. (And her actions are pretty mockworthy.) When he’s alone he rants to himself about her interest in Wesley, and while again it’s not a good look, his resentment and jealousy are very human and not particularly expressive of the awful toxic masculinity that has sometimes been a feature of his behaviour.

Having played particularly deftly with Xander for the first half of the episode, Petrie then gets deliberately reflexive for the back half. First, Angel (in character as Angelus) punches Xander cold in the middle of his anxious chatter, and saying “that guy just bugs me.” It is no accident this comes right after Xander’s selfish fretting over Wesley and Cordelia – Petrie is giving the audience a moment of pleasure here and indicating that we shouldn’t think Xander’s behaviour is acceptable.

And then, as a direct outcome of this moment, Petrie has Xander consciously follow up his big moment in Revelations, once again speaking up to argue an unpopular opinion as he tells the others Angel has flipped back to Angelus, and that Faith is at his side. This time he takes the opportunity to lay blame for the situation on Wesley, who should have Faith under control. Just as in Revelations the self-serving aspect cannot be ignored, but like his charge against Buffy in that episode it stands up as a fair point – and one that only Xander could vocalize.

So what we have here is Petrie following on with some of the aspects of Xander we saw in Revelations – but also discarding the noir “hard-boiled” aspects teased in that episode. Instead he fills the spaces with the goofball Xander who was a product of The Zeppo, making this a episode effectively a proposal for a best-of-both-versions take on the character, and proof that using Xander just for cheap laughs does him, and the show, a disservice.

Buffy Loves Angel
Jealousy is something of a theme here for the Scoobies, in fact. While Xander frets about Cordelia and Wesley, Willow is troubled by Faith and Xander, and Buffy is upset about Angel and Faith. The Buffy/Angel relationship is back in the spotlight here, opening on some cute romance between them as they emerge from an unexpectedly steamy foreign film and get all awkward. It’s the first good look we’ve had at their relationship since way back in Amends, where Angel was ready to kill himself to keep Buffy safe. Turns out they’re a cute romantic couple pledging forever love to each other, and all that angst is behind them. I can dig it – I guess that moment in The Zeppo shows the same – although it feels like clumsy storytelling to have avoided a clear picture of what was going on between them for so long after the ambiguous resolution in Amends.

Typically for this show, the relationship is foregrounded at the start only to lay the ground for upheaval. The Angelus gambit worked a little too well, and at the end of the episode a shaken Buffy tells Angel she needs some time and space. I think this is a simply remarkable move by the show. That commitment to realistic emotional consequences is again honoured, in the process splitting Angel and Buffy apart in a dramatic way that requires no misunderstanding or misdeed on either part. The fact that Buffy is unsettled so deeply as a side effect of her own successful plan is a painful irony, and it provides real uncertainty about what lies ahead for the two characters and their relationship. As much as the world around the narrative has flattened into irrelevance, that narrative is regularly delivering excellent and unexpected character-based stories.

Other notes:
* As fake-foreign-film names go, Le Banquet D’Amelia is very fake.
* Why the heck does the Mayor want to take Angel’s soul away and bring back Angelus? Surely that plan would fall into the “more trouble than it’s worth” box?
* More Willow/magic stuff, as Willow gets into Giles’ secret stash containing magic that (as she acknowledges) Giles doesn’t think she’s ready for. Her confidence – overconfidence? – is notable here, and while it isn’t exactly presented as a flaw here, it’s easy to see the writing team trying out that idea to see what Alyson Hannigan does with it.
* The demon in this episode calls himself “people”, and brings into question Faith’s equation that “a demon’s a demon”. That distinction between humans and monsters is continuing to break down. Wesley says “And you say this demon wanted cash? That’s very unusual.” – and it is at this stage of the show’s development, but in a year’s time when we’re deep into Angel this won’t seem unusual in the least.
* The late-episode reveal that even the audience wasn’t in on the hero’s plan, and that moment when all seemed lost was really just things falling into place, was most famously pulled off in The Sting. It isn’t much done on television, although I think it plays a bit better as an instalment of an episodic narrative rather than as the structure of a whole; false jeopardy is an interesting twist when you know there’s more trouble coming next week, but can feel like a cheat when that’s all you’ve been watching.

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