Monday, March 04, 2013

Spend the Night Alone: Notes on "Conversations With Dead People"

Notes on "Conversations With Dead People" — Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 7ABB07

What's Wrong With Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Seven? The season doesn't sit right with a lot of people, and the issues are not necessarily so surface-level as "I don't like the Potential Slayers storyline" or "It's not so bleak as Season Six, but still too dark-hearted for my liking." Not to discount those complaints, but the reasons the season-story as a whole doesn't cohere might be of a more deeply rooted.

Season Seven is a tough nut for those who want to make with the cracking. I usually prefer the close read over the critical evaluation, but it's hard to analyze drama that one suspects is dramatically unsound. It is hard to extract meaning when the text is garbled. Up on the Review Level, where we evaluate the quality and qualities of the work, things are terribly cluttered, making it difficult to get down to the basement or up to the towers. That is: The plot is either inelegant or incoherent, the characters are written in confusing fashion, there is a high percentage of what are generally agreed to be weak episodes, and so forth.

Rather than dismiss these 22 episodes as a text unworthy of scrutiny, I'd like to take some time and care and get to the bottom of What's Wrong With Season Seven?, because it's right there at the end, messing things up, causing caveats, a sinkhole in the giant BtVS/Angel OneStory. Perhaps, like other imperfect spots, it can be redeemed by thorough understanding (BtVS S6) or salvaged by focusing on the positive (Angel S1).

We begin with "Conversations With Dead People" not because it is where the problems start, but because I perceive it to be a much-loved episode (statistically, the 17th most popular) in which the problems with the season have piled up nicely and are affecting the show on a second-by-second basis. "Conversations" is the seventh episode of the season, a slot that generally closes the first act of the overall season arc. Working backward like the First Evil at the end of "Lessons," this place in the season structure was previously occupied by "Once More With Feeling" (6.7), "Fool For Love" (5.7), "The Initiative" (4.7), "Revelations" (3.7), and "Lie To Me" (2.7). To indulge a tangent, the two-part pilot episode serves as a "first act" for Season One. At this point the seeds have usually been laid for the season's plot to unfurl, the configuration of character dynamics is in place (Internal and External Conflicts established), the major themes have been laid out, and the end foreshadowed.

I. STRUCTURE, SUMMARY

"... the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people." —Kazanian, Inferno

"Desde abajo te devora." —Jonathan Levison, "Conversations With Dead People"

Mutant Enemy's unconventional, format-busting episodes are fan-favorites and critic's darlings. They're designed to dazzle, and always succeed. What's on your Top Ten Episodes list? Dunno, but odds are you put "Once More With Feeling," "The Body," "Hush" and "Restless" on there, and if "Storyteller," "The Zeppo" and/or "Superstar" aren't in the mix, I'll eat some kind of hat. "Conversations" both is and isn't so show-offy. Five extended dialogue scenes unfold in simultaneous story-time, the series regulars are isolated from one another for the entire episode, and their stories do not literally intersect, but all end up having ramifications for the rest of the season. Or, simply, it cross-cuts five vignettes to tell one story.

As to the matter of Conversations, two of the vignettes consist largely of what we'd typically think of as "conversation" — Buffy in a cemetery getting free psychoanalysis from newly-sired Sunnydale High alum vampire Holden Webster (Jonathn M. Woodward), and Willow in the UC Sunnydale library visiting with an apparition in the form of Cassie Newton (Azura Skye), the doomed high school poet who the Scoobs were unable to assist in "Help" (7.4). Meanwhile, repentant S6 villains Andrew and Jonathan return to the Hellmouth, doing the hijinx-and-sci-fi-reference-patter thing; their Dead Person takes the form of deceased evil-ringleader Warren Mears, still egging on the weak-willed Andrew. Theirs is a sort of extended tragicomic skit as "conversation." At 1630 Revello, Dawn faces down some kind of poltergeist that is apparently tormenting her mother on the spirit plane or something, with much ghostly spookery and windows imploding. Dawn's bit is conversation as people talking to themselves. Finally, Spike drowns his sorrows at the Bronze and picks up a blonde woman (in his tale, Spike is the Dead Person). Wordless seduction as Conversation.

TV is talky by nature, this show is particularly chatty, and the point is that this isn't exactly the BtVS equivalent of My Dinner with Andre. Jonathan and Andrew are engaged in plot-forwarding footwork in conventionally paced scenes. Dawn mostly monologues in terrified screams because of a ghost, and otherwise helps meet the episode's quota on FX and explosions. Spike's story has no dialogue whatsoever. Willow's story is the episode's gushy love scene stuff. Buffy's conversation is punctuated by intermittent outbursts of classic kickboxing combat. So on one hand, this could've been more daring and ambitious, and most of the plot threads are not "conversations" per se. On the other hand, because they are explicitly framed this way, the episode encourages us to understand these conventional BtVS elements as "conversations." The Dialectics of Buffy, if you need some kind of idea for awful papers.


The cold open sets the stage for each Conversation. We open on a guitar amp being switched on, and an über-rare title card (the only other is in "Once More With Feeling"). Frente! singer Angie Hart does her Julie-Cruise-at-the-Roadhouse thing on the Bronze stage, the Whedon-penned ballad "Blue" uniting the introductions of the main cast. So Buffy's on patrol, shuffling, glum, and tiny in dreamy crane shots over a big blue cemetery. She's a solo act by calling, which is what this is about. Dawn is home alone; her only contact with Buffy is a note on the fridge. She's in need of parental guidance, which is what this is about. Willow is buried in books, or maybe retreating there, feeling unworthy, insecure and unlovable when she starts to nod off, which is what this is about. Spike is wallowing, drinking, and relapsing, which is what this is about. The first gimmick that doesn't quite come off is in a pair of title cards as the band sets up, reading "November 12, 2002" and "8:01 P.M." The idea is that the episode takes place in real time. This bears out, more or less/in a way, with no temporal gaps within each scene, but attempting to cross-cut the stories leads to such implausibility as Willow asking a question of Cassie and waiting in silence for several minutes until we cut back for an answer. That is, the episode cheats just a little too much to say it takes place in real time, but even if it did, the effect probably wouldn't be much of a wow.

This is either glaringly obvious, or the product of my imagination, but if you haven't noticed, the cold open always encapsulates or points to the larger concerns of the episode. Sometimes there's a cliffhanger button afterwards, but usually the very last line of dialogue, final image, or both — the last moment before the theme song — announces the theme. In this case, Angie Hart sings Whedon's final lyric: "Can I spend the night alone?" and Buffy rejoinders: "Here we go." Wolf howl, organ, guitar, and so on.

So this isn't about how we commune with the dead (or it is, but a little) so much as it is about being alone. The first discordant note has been hit. Buffy/Holden, Dawn/Joyce, Willow/Cassie, Andrew and Jonathan/Warren, Spike/Blonde. What's off about this roster of players? For starters, this is notoriously the only episode in which Nicholas Brendan does not appear; no Xander, though he is currently feeling as alone as any of the above. We know from legend and lore that a Xander subplot was planned and axed due to time constraints; if it was ever written or just discussed, I cannot rightly say, but it does not appear in the shooting script.

Here we go.

II. THE LATCHKEY'S TALE — Home Alone With Dawn

Not to harp on the matter, but Xander's absence from "Conversations" sort of summarizes the treatment of the character throughout S7. Things happen to him occasionally, but he isn't given a subplot of his own, and does not contribute or to the central season plot in a meaningful way. Xander is AWOL all year. The same may be said of Dawn, who suffers through several false alarms before an ultimately non-starting character arc fizzles out on the periphery. As if she were a refugee from Angel S1, Mutant Enemy keeps coming up with concept makeovers for the character: we could follow Dawn and her chums on adventures at Sunnydale High, like BtVS 2.0 (this has already petered out by "Conversations"); Dawn could be a Potential in the chain of Slayers (forthcoming). In the end, M.E. opts for: Dawn feels left out and misunderstood, and has a meltdown until someone reaches out to remind her that they care. This is all the writers know how to do with Dawn Stories, and it is because the character was built to tell that story in Season Five and they've been stuck with her since.

The story on the table is a compact little home-alone-with-a-poltergeist sketch and provides the bulk of the horror business. There is a vampire in Buffy's story, but he is never a serious threat. The plot construction is slick and tidy, with the teasing appearance that Dawn is left to fight the episode's threat alone, until the climactic revelations of each story click into place and set up a villain in every corner except, it would seem, Dawn's. When the windows have blown out of 1630 and the demonic spirit seems to have been bested, exorcised by the scrawny teenage girl, an apparition of Joyce Summers appears to Dawn and offers the cryptic bummer "When it's bad, Buffy won't choose you. She'll be against you." (For Teleplay Class Know-It-Alls, note how that vague, evocative set-up allows Mutant Enemy ample wiggle room for misdirects, mistakes, and improvisation.)

On this night that everyone spends alone (and alone with a dead person), Dawn's specific sense of "alone" has to do with feeling neglected at worst, at best a peripheral concern to her sister, kept on the sidelines of Scooby activity, and otherwise not-atypical teen angst. In a bit of sloppy narrative housekeeping, we will never specifically be told that the Joyce Ghost Thing was actually shape-shifting villain The First Evil, intentionally misleading Dawn. In a sense, the shape of the episode is not clear until the matter of "Buffy won't choose you" is settled. Throughout the hour, Dawn comes to believe that Joyce's attempts to communicate from beyond are being blocked by an ambiguous force, but she's being distracted and played for a sucker. Instead, (ambiguous force) The First Evil systematically breaks Dawn down, makes her vulnerable, and picks at a scar that was just beginning to heal, all in order to sever the arteries of Buffy's support network. I believe they call this move The Yoko Factor.

So it is not un-compelling stuff, The First taunting Dawn with images of her dead mother (though Joyce's body prone on the sofa seems more like a moment that would haunt Buffy specifically; likewise, when a radio blares the mariachi music from "Listening to Fear" [5.9], heralding Joyce's "return"). The conversation is a cold-water plunge that sends Dawn back into the immediate, freak-out stage of mourning — the Trachtenberg Screaming Show — and leaves the shaken girl crying at a glimpse of her mother who does not even respond. It is not unrealistic that it might take two years for a child to recover from a parent's death (and a sister's death on top of it, + a bonus pack of additional traumas), but Dawn has not been/will not be depicted as preoccupied with her grief as of late. One might say that the story of Dawn's grief and recovery formed her primary character arc in Season Six and resolved beautifully at the end of "Grave" (6.22). This is inherently powerful material in terms of BtVS lore, but it pops up at a point where it is redundant and in a story about The First manipulating emotions, pushing buttons and taking cheap shots. You just got got.

III. THE WITCH'S TALE — Willow and the Bad Oracle

"High tide inside."
—Angie Hart, "Blue"

"The moon to the tide / I can feel you inside."
—Tara Maclay, "Under Your Spell", "Once More With Feeling"

Unlike Xander and Dawn, Willow has some semblance of a B-story built around her in Season Seven. It might charitably be described as "patchy" or "underwritten," but Willow's arc takes the shape of a recovery narrative. It is also problematic because this Will-in-rehab material is intrinsically linked to the screwy "magic addiction" thread from last season. These issues aren't specific to "Conversations With Dead People," so we'll deal with them as they crop up.

As the cat is already out of the bag, we can begin at the end. The First Evil appears as the ghost of Cassie who claims to speak for the spirit of Tara (to that: Jesus, man!). The First-as-Cassie attempts to convince Willow to never, ever do magic again. When that proves difficult, Cassie suggests Willow kill herself. The object of this round is for The First to remove Willow from the playing field. Willow, like Dawn above and Andrew below, is being duped throughout her conversation, and the First Evil plays on its victims' grief and insecurity.

The first time around we take the conversations at face value, on second pass one can focus on the gamesmanship. Precepts on reading this story: A) It was conceived as an exchange between Willow and Tara's ghost, but either Amber Benson was not available (as per Mutant Enemy) or she didn't want to do it (as per Benson). Television production is nothing if not the art of compromise and resourcefulness, so whichever honorable party one chooses to believe, the result is that Cassie is onscreen and Tara not. B) Looking at what's in and not-in the scene, M.E. could have applied some topical phlebotinum to explain why Tara can't materialize, or more accurately, if/why The First can't appear as Tara. The dialogue offers only First-as-Cassie's explanation "You killed people. You can't see her. That's just how it is. I'm sorry." Oh. Okay, if that's just how it is...

It's impossible to determine the veracity of that claim. The assumption must be made that The First has chosen to appear as someone Willow never met in life. Amber Benson has a point. For Tara's death to carry the weight that it does, the character cannot continue being resurrected in flashbacks, dreams, fantasies and parallel universes; the loss is permanent. Willow knows who Cassie was, but has no real personal connection to the girl, so it is merely "weird" when Cassie appears. The First's gambit is still unbelievably cruel but at least Cassie's presence alone is not emotionally wrenching (as it would be with Tara, or, say, Jenny Calendar). As a Lil' Cassandra figure in "Help", Cassie spent the episode predicting her own death with calm certainty, and proved herself a prophet. If Willow knows anything about Cassie, it's that she wrote doomy poems and was right about what was going to happen. You can trust her.

First-Cassie tells Willow it is her own fault that Tara can't be here ("Because of what you did... you killed people"), then says Willow will heal and be strong again. The conversation keeps making these turns, if you're looking for them, where Will is determined to try to own up to her sins and The First bobs around the issues.

WILLOW: It was horrible. I lost myself — the regular me.
CASSIE: Well, you were grieving.
WILLOW: A lot of people grieve. They don't make with the flaying. I hurt so many people.
CASSIE: It was the power.
WILLOW: I am the power. It's in me. Did I mention the random destruction of property? The Magic Box is not so much a box now...
CASSIE: The power is bigger than you are.

First it's "you were grieving" then "it was the power" then The First tries undermining the idea that Willow is personally responsible for Dark Willow's rampage at all. The Rosenberg girl has always had problems coping with unpleasant feelings, particularly loss and guilt. She has a tendency to seek shortcuts and easy solutions rather than march into the house of pain and take a hard look at the root causes (down in that basement, that tomb, that alley, among those monsters; that's where Buffy does battle, because she's different, you see). Here's Willow finally trying to take responsibility, and The First Evil keeps beating her down. Encouraging her to frame the Dark Willow Experience as a possession brought on by temporary weakness — a virus telling a compromised immune system to hate the game, not the player — The First rubs Will's face in her worst self as she is working on embodying her best self. The First wants her to wallow in self-pity, doubt, fear and lazy moral thinking.

(The Reviewer perpetually on our shoulder whispers that on one hand this hard-won shift in Willow's attitude is rather the topic of this scene, without ever being directly addressed. It's the dramatic core of the scene. Three-Kleenex stuff though it is, this is not about watching Willow cry because she misses her girlfriend. It's about Willow trying to be strong and The First trying to tug her back into the abyss. On the other hand, this epiphany within Willow happened off-screen during those months in England with Giles, and, really, is sketchy even in this very scene.)

When the real attack comes, Cassie offers up a trademark pre-vision: "You're not gonna be okay. You're gonna kill everybody." If Willow uses magic under any circumstances, she'll be too weak to resist turning into a walking, evil neutron magicbomb. This is just what Willow is struggling with, her bleakest self-doubt being broadcast from right across the table: Tara is not here and that's Willow's fault. In the wake of Tara's death, Will did not honor Tara's memory by remaining Amazon-strong. Any backsliding will mean total failure. Relapse would be the end of the world.

And that's what we're all wondering, isn't it? Can Willow be allowed to do magic? What are the parameters? She's been off materializing Indian flowers in England and regenerating her stomach skin, and didn't that seem okay? Twice, Willow invokes the authority of Giles, who apparently warned that "it isn't as simple as quitting it all cold turkey." Perhaps he did at some point. More precisely, in "Lessons" (7.1), he explained that no one can take Willow's power away by force, and that "this isn't a hobby or addiction. It's inside you now, this magic. You're responsible for it." Furthermore, Willow, who has undergone more drastic identity shifts than any character save Spike, must be troubled: if she can't be The Witch, who is she? We run into trouble if we forget that The First is bullshitting Willow, but these questions hang in the air, and the subject of what is to be done with loved ones who have transgressed, and who to allow into one's inner circle are central concerns of Season Seven (see under: Willow, Spike, Anya, Andrew, Faith, and, eventually, Buffy).

As villains tend to do, The First mistakes love for weakness, shifts its approach and suggests Willow kill herself to be reunited with Tara. That is at odds with encouraging her to remain magically straightedge, but most importantly Tara would never suggest it. When Willow recognizes this, the jig is up, The First does some archvillainy taunting business and disapparates. We go out on Will gawping at the sight of First-Cassie literally turning inside out and swallowing herself, but consider who really won here. The First has outed itself, and Willow knows that the enemy sees her as a formidable opponent and has learned that even in the face of temptation and easy succor, she wants to be in this world, wants to live, wants to fight for it.

[ Note: This handful of scenes is a useful example by which to point out the sketchy way in which "magic" is defined on BtVS. That is, the rules, and mechanics, but also the meaning of magic. How it operates physically is less important than how it operates metaphorically. In the mess of addiction/not-addiction/lost-myself/it-was-the-power/I-am-the-power/no-magic/no-black-magic it is impossible to determine Willow's moral culpability and roster of mortal sins. This was a major issue through the latter half of S6, and continues to spread befuddlement into the present story. If anything "works" in this formulation, it's that Willow seems confused as the rest of us. ]

IV . THE FOOLS' TALE — Jonathan and Andrew at the Mouth of Hell

"Can I make it right?"
—Angie Hart, "Blue"

"We're outlaws with hearts of gold!"
—Andrew Wells (Tucker's Brother), "CWDP"

Jonathan and Andrew are coming home. Like "power," "coming home" is a Big Theme this season, one that was promised by The-First-as-The-Master in "Lessons": "... that's where we're going: right back to the beginning. Not the Bang, not the Word, but the true beginning." Roots are being sniffed out, loops are being closed, cycles are, well, cycling. "You keep circling around," groans Andrew in the car, "Just drive straight in."

So these "former" villains are drawn back to Sunnydale, back to the Little Schoolhouse on the Hellmouth. It does that, the Hellmouth; it lures evil, and so it also summons heroes. It's a focal point for converging forces, appropriate, because it is the subterranean dramatic engine of the series. When it all drops away, as Jonathan says about his memories of high school, past the Bang and the Word, the Hellmouth is Narrative Necessity. It's the reason and excuse for every vampire, every MOTW, every drifting scrap of bad juju. When it all drops away, the high school, the second high school, the 'Dale itself, all are just a manhole over the pit of sorrow, the hole in your world, the very idea of dramatic conflict. The Hellmouth is foundational stuff, and if you're taking the tour, you're gonna have to go down to the basement.

We won't know where they're headed or why until the final moments, but it seems there's a sort of literal plug over the Hellmouth, the Seal of Danthazar, and the boys know something about it. Jonathan says he is determined to "make it right," driven by a desire to help, an innate responsibility to the rest of humanity, even if this won't quite redeem him, and can't undo what he's done. Andrew keeps trying on comforting, prepackaged narratives that tidy up his messy reality; they're on "a trial by fire — a quest," and when it's complete, Buffy will let them "join her gang and possibly hang out at her house." Now, Jonathan is obviously not immune to the attraction of making up stories about one's self (see under: "Superstar" [4.17)], but his understanding and clarity deepen as he progresses toward quest's end. And when he's on the spot, standing directly atop the Hellmouth, an epiphany: 36-19-27.

Consider, briefly, the case of Andrew Wells, who is about to stab Jonathan, spill his blood on the Seal of Danthazar, and unleash untold evils upon the world. Now, poor Andrew believes he's being guided by the disembodied spirit of Warren, who promises eternal life and power in exchange for Jonathan as sacrifice. So it's The First again, though that reveal, and exactly what is going through Andrew's head are subjects for another day. What we have is two men walking the same path to the basement, taking the same test — or no, that's what Andrew would say — more to the point, they are faced with the same opportunity. Andrew uses this opportunity to lie and kill his only friend.

Jonathan remembers his old locker combination, and with it is overcome with affection for his high school classmates, even those that bullied and ignored him — which is everyone apart from Buffy, except when she was bullying and ignoring him. So let us consider the last speech of this well-liked, long-running peripheral character before we say goodbye to him forever.
"I miss my friends, I miss my enemies. I miss the people I talked to every day, I miss the people who never knew I existed. I miss 'em all. I want to talk to them, yknow? I want to find out how they're doing. I want to know what's going on in their lives."

This sentiment is colored by nostalgia ("All the cruelty, all the pain, all that humiliation — it all washes away"), but Jonathan expresses an abstract connection to the rest of humanity that grows out of his specific, personal relationships. He has suffered enough ("Earshot", S1—3), and transgressed enough ("Superstar", S6 in full) to know from experience what it takes to be a villain — to actively work for the Greater Bad. Jonathan's previous scheming has all been markedly selfish. The boys have been bringing up Buffy all night: should they seek Buffy's assistance? Will Buffy be impressed? Will Buffy be their friend? Clearly the Slayer is on Jonathan's mind, and she remains some ideal of Heroism to which he might aspire, but he's not bound to duty by calling or imbued with magical martial arts skills. So look at that, Jonathan has a little revelation about what it means to take positive action, to help, to fight the good fight because it is the good fight. When Andrew turns cold and sneers "All those people you just mentioned... not one of them cares about you," Jonathan's love proves simple and unbreakable. There's a correct answer to this, and Jonathan knows it: "Well, I still care about them. That's why I'm here."

And so does Jonathan's Dork/Heel/Face Turn come full circle, and the sometimes-selfish boy dies a man who knows something about selflessness (and psst, hey Angel: ARE U LISTENING?). The question of what it means to be selfless runs through Season Seven, linked to Big Idea themes of Power, Identity and Inevitable Adulthood (if you hadn't noticed, episode 7.5 is helpfully titled "Selfless"). Why, even Buffy constantly struggles with this one, but this sacrifice is pure. And sacrifices? Did somebody say "sacrifice"?... If this seems too little too late, well, after this declaration of universal luvz, Jonathan gets a dagger in his gut, courtesy of his last remaining friend.

With a demon looking over his shoulder, Andrew watches Jonathan bleed out, opening the Seal of Danthazar, as Angie Hart croons "I fell into the moon and it covered you in bluuuue." As if transformed into one final symbolic illustration, Jonathan's body has fallen into the posture of the twelfth tarot trump, The Hanged Man. Does Andrew see it?


A range of The Hanged Man's associations may apply. See under: willing self-sacrifice, suspension between planes, the punishment of traitors, a wisdom gained through inward journey. The annihilation of the body is very literal in this particular sacrifice — the blood opens the Seal — but as Jonathan's body fades, the Allegory of the Locker Combination hangs in the air. Does Andrew hear it?
"Redemption is a bad word; it implies a debt. For every star possesses boundless wealth; the only proper way to deal with the ignorant is to bring them to the knowledge of their starry heritage."
—Aleister Crowley on Hanged Man traditions, The Book of Thoth

V. THE SLAYER'S TALE — Buffy on the Couch

"No friends. Just the kill. We are alone."
—The First Slayer, "Restless" [4.22]

Buffy opens up to a vampire, go figure. This conversation is explicitly staged as an informal psychoanalysis session, so this section is largely about what it is about, if you will, and we needn't walk through it beat by beat. It is, however, backbone of the episode, and this nuanced, lengthy voyage into Buffy's skull is nearly as strong as Season Seven gets, so it is due some examination. "Psych 101 alert," Buffy scoffs at the beginning, and, well, perhaps so, but maybe she could use a refresher course, given that her own Psych 101 experience ended with the professor trying to kill her.

Before we dive in, "Conversations" is a great performance showcase for Sarah Michelle Gellar. Devoid of hysteria, shouting or inconsolable weeping — Big Acting Moments — these intimate scenes are complex and built on seven seasons of Buffy's accumulated history. Gellar gracefully slides around every curve in the conversation, which swerves from comic small talk to dark, confessional monologue and back again and again. The way she absentmindedly fiddles with her massive crucifix necklace when the conversation gets uncomfortable is a personal favorite touch.

The freshly-sired Holden Webster is a terrific one-off character, the quippy and chatty (and potentially obnoxious) writing rounded out by Woodward's intelligence and geniality. Buffy repeatedly goes deeper than she means to, dredges up some difficult confession, or starts wallowing in self-pity, and Holden meets her with perceptive questions, disarming jokes, and the perspective available only to someone on the outside. That is, as he puts it, and we all know, "there's some things you can only tell a stranger." In part, this is all a move in Holden's battle plan; twice when Buffy arrives at a breakthrough, he takes advantage of the moment to resume their physical combat. Once it's all said and done, after the patient has covered her relationships with friends, boyfriends, parents, her past, her duty, God, sex, death and vampires, Holden's conclusion is simple: "It all adds up to you feeling alone. But Buffy, everyone feels alone. Everybody is. Until you die." And well, maybe also after you die, if one is, say, a vampire with a soul or a microchip or both.


I haven't any examples handy, but it is not uncommon to hear Mutant Enemy called out for falling back on the Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown stuff but having little to actually say about it beyond that being special sets you apart by definition and the burden of leadership is, y'know, burdeny. However repetitious it may seem, this is a foundational theme, one of the springs that makes the character go, and the tension is built into the Buffy right in the title: Buffy. Vampire Slayer. On one hand, this eternal back-and-forth drives us in narrative circles; Buffy keeps experiencing the same stories of leadership angst, of extremely gifted and misunderstood angst, misc. & assorted angst, etc. When you keep learning the same lesson, you're not really learning it. On the other hand, like Angel's cursed soul, because Buffy's Chosen One gift is fundamental and non-negotiable to the concept of the character, it is a developmental block that the character can never evolve past. To do so would be to conceive an ending. Because, you see, when you're the only Slayer, then there is truly no other soul alive who can relate. And that, I think, is Heidegger.

The point of this squirrelly aside is that being the Slayer has always caused Buffy some degree of alienation, but by Season Seven the way this manifests has evolved significantly from Season One. The problem with Slayer duty is no longer, say, that it is a chore that prevents her from hanging out at the Bronze on Friday night, or that patrolling cemeteries is not a great place to meet normal boys. Holden's bummer of a conclusion is less helpful than his clinical assessment: "You DO have a superiority complex, and you've got an inferiority complex about it." It's something he spotted early on, and has been prodding Buffy to admit to herself. So yeah, it's lonely at the top and nobody understands, but now it's making her neurotic. You tend to develop messiah complexes when you have sacrificed your life to save the world; and Holden points this out and suggests it these feelings are kind of to be expected ("who could live with that for seven years and not feel superior?"). It's making her hard. It's making her unkind. Unlike Angel, Buffy operates under no edict to help the helpless. Her mission statement is simply to "stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness." There's nothing about life, liberty, or the pursuit of anything in there. Being the Slayer is finally turning her into a Slayer.

FAITH: Something made us different. We're warriors. We're built to kill.
BUFFY: To kill demons! But it does not mean that we get to pass judgment on people like we're better than everybody else!
FAITH: We ARE better.
"Consequences" (3.14)

"It is always different! It's always complicated. And at some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the Slayer is always cut off. There's no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing Council. Human rules don't apply. There's only me. I am the law."
—Buffy, "Selfless" (7.5)

Angel's Soul Thing is designed to torture, punish, and possibly to take the vampire out of commission, but his conscription by The Powers That Be instructs him to make meaningful connections with humanity. Buffy's task as the People's Warrior is to combat evil, but tradition instructs her to forgo personal relationships. There actually was a "guidebook" (Giles didn't give it to her) and a Council (she fired them). This is a Slayer waaaay off Standard Operating Procedure. The conflicts laid out above play out across Season Seven in interlocking threads. Buffy as Leader, general of an army of allies and associates, is in conflict with the lone wolf element of the Slayer paradigm — how can you lead, when part of you thinks you don't need your followers? Buffy as The Law, the Slayer as judge, jury and executioner, has always had to deal with the reality that any time, any place, she may have to kill someone she cares about in the line of duty. The first time she did it, stabbing Angel before a portal to Hell (See under: Andrew & Jonathan), it marked her for life, and she couldn't do it again. And so she could not sacrifice Dawn, tried to domesticate Spike, and dithered too much as Willow fell into shadow. After last season, she can't do that again, and two episodes ago ran a sword through the relapsed Anya without hesitation. It's always different!


As their conversation closes, Jonathan and Andrew discuss those high school classmates that have forgotten them, which is where Buffy and Holden begin their chat. She's forgotten him from school, but they quickly catch up, get chummy and get highly, highly personal. They make fast friends and then she drives a stake through his heart. So much for the "never kill a boy on the first date" policy. Buffy forms bonds with people, and at some point the Slayer ends up having to deal with them. The Buffy/Holden conversation plays out this dynamic in miniature and she has to dust the boy just as he reveals the identity of his sire. As the problem stands right now, this is really all about Spike.

VI. THE MONSTER'S TALE — Spike Drinks

"The living dead and the dying living are all the same; cut from the same cloth."
— Francesco Dellamorte, Dellamorte Dellamore

Spike, after throwing back some beers and walking that blonde home, vamps out and drinks her in front of her apartment. This, if you need a refresher, he should not want to do, on account of his having a soul, and should not be able to do, what with the violence-inhibiting microchip in his brain. On the other hand, the fellow has been mentally unstable and unpredictable since regaining his soul. The ramifications will be dealt with for a good portion of the rest of the season, but here it's all set-up and shock ending.

The hows and whys are complicated, but The First Evil is also manipulating Spike. As with Willow, Dawn, and Andrew, The First has burrowed into Spike's head and dredged up evidence of lingering issues he thought he had moved past (and even without The First's help, Buffy is out there delving into her parents' divorce); their worst traits are pulled up to the surface. The First Evil chips at weak points, gnaws at anxieties you want to think you are above. But from beneath you, it devours.

A long memory is one of the finer qualities of BtVS. Everything that happens counts, stories grow out of continuities that were set in motion in the first episode, right up to the end. That said, it is appropriate The First appear in the guise of familiar characters, as all of these vignettes revolve around old plot material. Willow and Andrew are at least dealing with logical fallout from their Season Six disasters, if not breaking much new ground. Dawn feeling left out is warmed-over Season Five, and Spike as mad dog killer demon is ancient Season Three history. It would seem that going right back to the beginning does indeed look an awful lot like driving around in circles.

In the chorus of "Blue," a plaintive request for solace directed at an absent lover — "Can I spend the night?" — becomes "Can I spend the night? Alone" or maybe "Can I spend the night alone?" We hear it as Holden climbs out of his grave and again as he blows away on the wind, leaving Buffy with a nasty revelation and a nastier duty ahead. It's a question uniting all the conversations. How can any of these people make it through the rising darkness and pooling blood, let alone get through this night alone?

* * * * *
Extra-Special Thanks to the folks at BuffyWorld, easily the greatest online Buffy and Angel resource. Their database of shooting scripts, transcripts, screencaps was invaluable in preparing this piece.
All screencaps courtesy of BuffyWorld.

7 comments:

BrianZ said...

Yikes, this is good. You're really onto something with this piece and thanks for it.

KatieJ said...

An excellent read -- thanks for posting this! Definitely feeling the need to go re-watch the episode now. :)

William B said...

Hi Chris, excellent piece and I agree in the broad strokes for the most part. I think that the Buffy material, reportedly written by Mr. Whedon himself, is the strongest and funniest, and also the material whose purpose in the seven-year story is clearest. I do ultimately think that the Dawn material is the fuzziest, and the payoff such as it is is the weakest—“Buffy not choosing her” was paid off in, I guess sending her away in End of Days, or reverse-paid off in Dawn not choosing Buffy in Empty Places? Maybe? It’s never clear. I agree that her story just fizzles out, though I do love the Xander-Dawn scene at the end of Potential something fierce. The Jonathan and Andrew material, despite working for peripheral characters who may not be strictly necessary to the season (though Andrew, perhaps unfortunately, has one of the strongest arcs of any character this year), works well and closes out Jonathan’s story from anonymous high schooler to heroic high school sacrifice.

The Willow section is enlightening for me to read and reminds me of my frustrations with the story. Willow is my favourite character and I love her story—but you know, with caveats. The Dark Willow story, for its flaws, is one of my favourite things the show did and I love the end of season six dearly. Emotionally it hits all the right notes for me—a six-year-delayed (or, maybe, 21-year-delayed) despairing tantrum at a manifestly unfair world and expression of years of piled-up resentments, some partly justified, all the while sublimating grief and self-loathing into apocalyptic rage because the possibility of living in a world without Tara is too painful. But when I try to dissect and figure out how to know how to read the extent to which magic influences her I struggle to make it work. Wrecked plays best for me thinking of it as a misdirect—Willow has used magic to soothe her pain before (Something Blue, in which she only turned to magic after her friends made clear that beer was evil), and Rack’s spells clearly have some druggy/psychedelic element not found in all magic. The gang then hang all Willow’s moral failings and emotional needs on the hook of “addiction” rather than something deeper which would require them both to ask real questions about Willow and to give her more/deeper help than they are capable of in midseason. It also encourages Willow to revert, post-Wrecked, to the shy computery nerdy “good girl” persona she mostly hates and who is once again vulnerable to kidnappings (Gone) or attacks by her best friend (Normal Again) which contribute to her resentment and rage and (false) fears that she has no emotional space to be a good and empowered person without Tara’s love to buoy her.

But anyway, while I think this read is somewhat supported by the text, it is generally not supported by dialogue or to the extent that it is is very muddled. So my struggle as a fan is to figure out how much I can accept the flaws in the text while “keeping” the emotional attachment that I really do feel to it and the really real things about human nature that I think it says. Somehow, these flaws seem in keeping with the spirit of season six—in which so much of the season is deliberately, more so than in any season, about the characters being wrong and making wrong assumptions about themselves. Buffy thinks that she lets Spike “do those things to [her]” because she came back wrong, but that’s not true; Giles is so set on leaving as the right thing to do but admits in Grave that he shouldn’t have left; Xander can’t see into his own pattern with Anya until too late; the metaphors are all wonky and confusing because life has moved from season 5-epic to season 6-messy upon leaving adolescence and entering adulthood.

William B (cont'd) said...

cont'd -- sorry, this got too long for one comment. Hope that is not too annoying....

Despite the confusion, “emotional control” was pinged as completely central to what Willow’s magic use is “about” in the teaser to Doppelgangland, and the way magic seems to work as you get to higher and higher levels of power is that it runs on, and thus reinforces, emotions. Willow’s “will it so” spell in Something Blue (inadvertently) creates reality when she’s angry when she says it; “Girl’s running on pure fury,” Rack says in Villains, for example; and in season seven Willow’s major concern is that she’s got so much power that any extremes of feelings—especially guilt, but even things like sexual pleasure—could set off a mental/magical chain reaction inside her. And I don’t find that hard to understand, even if I find it hard to explain. There’s a reason people on the internet use “trigger warnings” (and of course Spike has a “trigger” somewhat in parallel to Willow)—in the wake of trauma, the slightest emotional disequilibrium associated with that trauma can make anyone, especially someone as messed-up as Willow is, “lose their cool” or lose emotional track of themselves.

In that sense, while Willow’s steps in this episode to taking full responsibility for her actions verbally are tentative (as you point out), they’re not, to me, the real time she takes responsibility. The real responsibility taking -- the "marching into the basement" equivalent, is when she marches back in and takes command of her magic again, gaining both the trust in herself and the emotional fortitude to use those powers without losing any of her emotional disequilibrium or losing sight of the world around her. Which…is in practice a “patchy and underwritten” arc, but it’s one that makes emotional sense to me and hits enough of the right notes for me to still hear the song.

Back to CWDP specifically, I think that the First’s assault makes sense. Its attempt to convince Willow she’s not responsible for the Dark Willow rampage (which Willow is) is designed to appeal to Willow’s avoidance of hard emotional work and hard truths, as you say. But the purpose is not so much to lull her into lazy moral thinking—that’s part of the seduction—as it is designed to convince her that she has no control over her dark side, so that she’ll be ready to recognize that there is absolutely nothing she can do save killing herself to make herself no longer a danger. The First does make the big mistake of not recognizing that Tara would never do that—but I think the mistake might be, even more, failure to recognize that WILLOW has enough faith in Tara to believe that. Willow is the girl who assumed that Giles took her to England to kill her or put her in a mystical dungeon for all eternity, who knows that Buffy is ready to kill her, who asks Kennedy to kill her later on—the First knows that Willow suspects on some level that she thinks she deserves to die. It “just” didn’t realize that Tara had a different status from the others in Willow’s mind. It’s in its own way a triumph of Willow’s strength overcoming her self-centredness.

Chris Stangl said...

Hey William —

Yeah, I think we're mostly on the same page as regards Willow in S7, and S6 for that matter. We could kick this around all day, I'm sure, but The Thumbs Up or Down guy in me says the story of what Willow goes through emotionally (OKAY, HER ARC) in S6 makes almost perfect sense and Hannigan plays it with conviction and internal unity. It's consistent in the important things, is what I'm trying to say. The damages from the magic-addiction angle aren't enough to destroy ONE OF THE GREATEST STORIES IN THE ANNALS OF TELEVISION. I don't love the game of constantly second-guessing the writers (the AV Club Commenter guy), but the "Smashed"/"Wrecked"/"Gone" mini-trilogy is maybe pretty great in and of itself, as a one-off (on the nose) metaphor for the ways that Willow's psychological dependancy on magic IS like addiction. But then the ideas from Rack-as-MOTW sort of escape the episode and overwhelm the story in progress, and in that story magic is thematically associated with capital-P Power — control and agency, not self-obliteration and dependancy.

So I like your idea that after "Wrecked" her friends sort of latch onto this limited, unproductive metaphor and try to treat a physical addiction, because it's easier than dealing with what Willow's really going through. As you say, maybe it doesn't totally work, because the show lives and dies with what's onscreen. Second-Guess Guy has an easy fix, which is to make a bigger deal out of what Giles says in "Lessons": "This isn't a hobby. OR ADDICTION."

Now, considering that Mutant Enemy is basically forced in S7 to come up with a way to nerf an absurdly overpowered magic tank... "Willow in Recovery" is a pretty logical solution (and thematically on point! Everyone's getting rehabilitated!)

Spoiler alert, but S7 ultimately delivers a worthy ending for Willow (and Buffy, and Spike/Buffy, the Scoobies as a unit, Angel/Buffy, the Hellmouth, Sunnydale, and the concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer itself). The road to get there though, oh dear.

Okay, so I kicked it around anyway. As long as I'm here...

There is a serious problem with the Jonathan/Andrew/Warren section that I didn't address; the complaints seemed a better fit for a discussion of later episodes or problems vis-à-vis The First Evil as Big Bad in general. But basically, there's no compelling reason for The First to have summoned Andrew and Jonathan to open the Hellmouth. There are compelling reasons why The First should not be using Andrew, not least of which being that he is in Mexico. It is kind of amazing how much lazy plotting the season nearly gets away with, because it spends so long between set-ups and reveals, leaks information so slowly that the audience may have, oh, say, forgotten the Bringers of the First Evil. See, the M.O. is consistent. Psychological manipulation is The First's weapon of choice. Like Angelus, it specializes in emotional pain. And its plans are overly complicated and mostly terrible.

William B said...

I pretty much agree with everything here. Just to kick this around a bit more, the overtly (overly) explicit Buffy/Willow parallels in Smashed/Wrecked/Gone(/Doublemeat Palace) help contextualize where the Willow addiction material stands, too. Buffy’s tryst with Spike in those episodes is raw, carnal sexual desire, with seemingly no emotional import besides a generalized sense of self-loathing. Is a dirty, grimy sexual obsession all there is to Buffy’s “thing” for vampires, dating back to her love for Angel, to Spike’s slayer-love motivated climb into the light, to both characters’ deep existential crises and the slayer/vampire dance in general? Leading to one of the big questions of season six: is THIS all there is to life, a series of dull physical drives in a moral void? (Spoiler for end of S6: no.) The Buffy/Spike material in S/W/G is more clearly continuous with the season and doesn’t introduce any confusing new mythology (besides Buffy’s “cellular suntan” that lets Spike hit her), so it doesn’t present the same issues as the Willowy parts do, though obviously fan reaction to both is, er, mixed.

Good point about the First’s summoning Jonathan and Andrew. Anyway, in addition to the general poor planning the First makes, I think the season shoots itself in the foot by never really providing any limitations on the First’s abilities which would help explain why it doesn’t win right out of the gate. It may be noncorporeal, but in Never Leave Me, the same episode we learn it has the resources to have the Watchers Council blown up it’s still sending Andrew on butcher shop errands. And it is not given physical/psychological reasons to withhold the use of its full force for some time in the way other (nonhuman) Big Bads are, whether it’s the Master’s entanglement in the Hellmouth with decreasingly few lackeys, Angelus’ focus on emotional damage to Buffy, the Mayor’s propriety and desire to maintain his public image, Adam’s curiosity and initial isolation, or Glory’s vanity and Ben half, in addition to the arbitrary but clear timelines the Mayor and Glory have.

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