The Cultural Catchup Project: “The Dark Age” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“The Dark Age”

April 26th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

Picking up where “Lie to Me” left off in an indirect fashion (actually owing more to “Halloween” in terms of direct connection), “The Dark Age” is an important episode for the series’ negotiation of the student/teacher relationship between Buffy and Giles.

While the events in the episode do a lot in order to add depth to Giles as a character, including complicating his relationship with Ms. Calendar, it makes explicit the parallels between Buffy and Giles’ experiences. Like Buffy, Giles has inherited a responsibility, and there was a time in his life when he threw everything away to run with a bad crowd who happened to awaken some bad magic.

It allows Giles to avoid feeling “above” Buffy’s problems with the demonic, meaning that the show has the potential to both confound and envelop Giles’ character just as easily as it can corrupt and complicate Buffy’s life, a potential which can occasionally result in an episode which feels congruous with past stories but finds some new life by placing Giles at its centre.

One of the things that is really interesting about this season is that there’s some stealth seriality going on. If you were to read basic loglines for “Lie to Me” and “The Dark Age,” the connection wouldn’t be overly clear, and you’d presume that the episode is more or less just a continuation of the Ethan Rayne story from “Halloween.” However, the final scene of “Lie to Me” sets up questions between Buffy and Giles as it relates to maturity and challenges of the future; Giles’ lie, that good and evil are always clear, plays as a broad statement about the series as a whole in that moment, but viewed in the context of “The Dark Age” we realize that Giles was talking about his own past, and his own present.

The story surrounding the Mark of Eyghon isn’t particularly complex: there’s a cult, there’s some tattoos, and there’s some blue goo which transfers into dead (or almost dead) bodies. And the Buffy part of the story, as the character finds herself tricked by the duplicitous Ethan and caught up in the ritual herself, feels like something you’d expect from the show, and it’s no surprise when she breaks free and Willow’s plan to use Angel’s lack of alive-ness to their advantage works like a charm.

However, the Giles side of things is much more interesting: it’s not surprising that the show would have fun with turning Ms. Calendar into a demon in order to play into the fun horror trope of mixing sexual and murderous desires, but it is surprising that they are willing to show Giles as derelict in his duties as Watcher. The story doesn’t force Giles’ hand in terms of abandoning Buffy alone at the blood drop-off; he is so wracked with guilt over his past that he falls into a darkness, another burden he is forced to bear. The idea that Giles didn’t always want to be Watcher, that he was once like Buffy in feeling intense pressure from the responsibility of a destiny, nicely connects the characters, and having Buffy become more mature in order to take care of Giles (and protect him from the weight of his conscience as much as from Eyghon) nicely plays into the apprehensions we saw at the end of “Lie to Me.”

There are a lot of shows which struggle with this sort of generation gap: the show generally uses their differences for the sake of comedy or conflict, whether it’s over what they define as music or their views on the importance of proper study and diligence. However, in this instance, Giles becomes the tortured soul while Buffy becomes his protector, and it allows for their relationship to be something more than student/teacher. They each have a lot to learn from one another, and stories like this nicely play into the dynamism of their relationship both as a standalone piece and as a continuation of themes which have been present, and will continue to be present, throughout the season.

Cultural Observations

  • In case it wasn’t implied, Anthony Stewart Head was pretty damn great in this episode.
  • You can spoil me on this: do we ever learn that Angel took that human blood for himself? I think it’s implied that he’s living on pig’s blood, but the awkwardness of the scene made it seem like we were going to go back to it and we never did.
  • I see that Ethan is going to be one of those villains (not unlike Spike) who tends to slink away into the shadows as everyone else is getting organized. Scenes like the one in the costume shop are actually very Scooby-Doo esque, except that the villainous types occasionally act in a rational fashion.
  • One thing I don’t want spoiled is the fate of Ms. Calendar – she’s obviously shaken by Giles’ past and the fact that it would place her in danger, but I would tend to think that those crazy kids might be able to work it out in the future once she realizes how much that darkness haunts him [I wrote this before I finished watching “Ted,” if you can’t tell]. I am glad, though, that the show was willing to go so far as to show some consequences from the episode’s actions, resisting turning Giles into a completely heroic figure who wins back Ms. Calendar as a result. The show is more tortured than that, which is something I quite admire about it.
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24 Comments

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24 responses to “The Cultural Catchup Project: “The Dark Age” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. Tripleness

    Very nice review. I’m actually going through Buffy myself, but not nearly as quickly as you are, so I’m looking forward to being able to read these as I watch the episodes.

    I always got the impression that Angel periodically stole blood from hospitals and such and just never brings it up with Buffy. There was never anything explicit one way or the other that I can remember.

    • deducter

      This issue with human blood was explained in Angel. Hence the reason to watch the shows together.

    • While not explicitly stated, if you think back to Angel (the Buffy episode) – remember when Darla opened the fridge doors? There was definitely blood bags there. And, with the way that she says that he’s not exactly one of them – it seems obvious that Angel has stopped by the hospital in the past to steal blood.

      The question is, does he continue to do it after this episode? He seems embarrassed when Buffy asks him to make sure the blood gets into the hospital, making me think that he may stop taking it from the hospital after this point.

      • Surgoshan

        Also, in the first episode of the second season of Angel we see, in a flashback, that he has a bottle of human blood.

  2. Susan

    IMO, there’s some discontinuity with Angel and human blood, at least early on (through the first season of Angel). It’s implied, and occasionally stated, that Angel subsists on animal blood, and it makes sense, considering the ways in which the show conveys the powerful draw of human blood and his struggle to resist (like in the ep “Angel” from season 1).

    But there are shots of his fridge (again, in “Angel,” for example), showing blood in what sure looks like medical packaging for humans. And a couple of scenes in Angel the Series in which that blood is a major feature.

    I suppose that animal blood for medical use comes in similar packaging. In season 3, though, we’ll see him getting pig’s blood from the butcher in, essentially “go cups”–as if getting carry-out soup.

    I’ve always noted this as a problem, but not one that bugged me overly. Eventually, the continuity evens out so that we’re all sure he’s only drinking animal blood. Or intending to, anyway.

    Anyway, there’s no further reference to the blood pick-up. I’ve assumed the writers would suggest he was there to protect it, but it’s anyone’s guess.

  3. Confession: Buffy/Giles is my favorite relationship (the non-shipper kind) on the show.

    • Eldritch

      There’s a line in an upcoming episode which is spoken by Giles to Buffy. In that episode’s commentary on the DVD, the writer said that when he showed it to a friend of his, the friend cried out, “Giles is the best father ever!”

      And he is.

      Recall, in “Nightmares” he experienced his worst dream, Buffy dying.

      • JJ

        Which episode? For some reason I don’t know which line you’re referring to, but if you say the ep I’m sure I can figure it out. 🙂

        • Eldritch

          Well, I’m trying not to be spoilery, but ..

          It’s at the end of “Innocence” with the two of them conversing in Giles’ car in front of Buffy’s house.

          I misspoke/typed to the extent that it’s more than just one line. It’s a short conversation. however, one line in it struck me the most. With that line Giles shows her how understanding and supportive he really is.

          The commentary on that episode went to to say the writer’s friend said “Buffys mom is the best mom” after seeing the scene which immediately follows the scene in the car. Buffy’s mom is actually pretty terrific.

          Whedon’s portrayal of her mom, Joyce, is also terrific. In most shows about teens, the parents are brainless, out of touch, and often negligent. Joyce is an intelligent, capable woman who loves her daughter. She doesn’t know about her daughter’s secret life, but in the same way Whedon gives depth to villains, he makes Joyce’s misguided demands on Buffy founded in realistic parental concern.

          She’s unaware, but she’s not a doofus.

      • You can’t beat “Helpless.” That shit gets me every time.

    • Katie

      I Love Buffy and Giles’s relationship; it’s so complex and involved, and when you learn more about Buffy’s real father later on, you realize that Giles is the father figure Buffy never had. But wait until you get to season six. Hoo Whee it gets complicated.

    • Tausif Khan

      Myles,
      What is your policy on shipping for commenting the Buffy and Angel tv series?

  4. Eldritch

    “One thing I don’t want spoiled is the fate of Ms. Calendar …”

    I’m glad that her future hasn’t been spoiled for you. That future has twists and turns that are well worth watching in the wholly unspoiled state.

  5. JJ

    I can’t resist adding…

    Jenny: And the first thing we’re going to do is…. Buffy!
    Xander: What? Did I fall asleep already?

    I just love that moment 😀

    Angel and the human blood is just an odd bit of ambiguity. The shows eventually make it clear that he lives on animal blood, so that the rare instances he happens to taste human blood are a really big deal. So I guess we just assume he’s there to protect it.

    I do enjoy Giles’ vulnerability in The Dark Age. It’s one of those “Wow, my parents are actually people,” moments, and it’s very well done. The viewer gets a great deal more connection with Giles, and Buffy gets — well, more responsibility, more complications in her life, more things to have to grow up about. Poor Buffy. Season Two sucks for her.

    • Susan

      As does Season Three. And Season Four. Also Season Five. And oh, Season Six! Not to mention Season Seven.

      Won’t say from whence this comes (it’s future-y, but not spoiler-y), but a favorite Buffy line of mine is: “My life has, on occasion, sucked beyond the telling of it.” Great line delivered brilliantly by SMG.

  6. Gill

    I do enjoy watching the way the show is already sucking you in, making you look more closely at each episode. This will accelerate.

    The ways in which the past lives of some characters are explored give them depths rare in other-than-lead roles in TV shows. Giles becomes more and more complex as this season continues.

  7. Ethan Rayne will pop in a couple more times… just enough to spice things up a bit without letting you get tired of him. He always has some devilishly brilliant and amusing plots to put into place too! 😉

    And the looks exchanged between Jenny and Giles at the end of this episode… hearbreaking! Relationships are never easy on a Joss Whedon show, always full of ups and downs, sometimes rather dramatic and violent, sometimes sweet and lovey-dovey…

  8. Pingback: The Cultural Catchup Project: “What’s My Line Parts 1 & 2″ (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) « Cultural Learnings

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