Cultural Catchup Project: “Ted” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Ted”

April 28th, 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.

What strikes me about “Ted” is that it was entirely possible that the story within the episode could have been real. Being that this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not Buffy the Normal Teenage Girl, we presume that Ted is some sort of demon, and that his sudden intrusion on Buffy’s life as an unwanted father figure is some sort of dastardly plot. However, the less-than-malevolent stepfather figure is both a real circumstance and a fairly familiar trope independent of the supernatural, which means that for much of the episode we’re wondering whether this could really just be Buffy and her mother being victims of an angry, abusive man rather than a robotic Frankenstein monster obsessively trying to recreate his creator’s wedded bliss.

It results in the right kind of standalone Buffy episode, one which captures a unique tone that differentiates the episode from the rest of the series while still fitting into some ongoing storylines and the dominant themes of the season.

You can tell that this was co-scripted by Joss Whedon when the show actually, at least briefly, kills Ted before we learn for certain that he is some form of demon. Whedon loves death, not because he’s some sort of masochist but because the way people respond to death says a great deal about their characters. Even though Buffy knows that Ted hit her, and even though she knows that Ted was dangerous, she nonetheless feels intense guilt over killing someone who wasn’t a demon. Even if he may not have been innocent, there is still that barrier to killing someone who isn’t trying to destroy the world – her guilt isn’t over his death so much as it is over the misuse of her powers, letting her Slayer-side infilitrate what at that point seemed like a human problem which could have been dealt with through human channels (the police, for example).

Ultimately, we learn that Buffy’s instincts were correct: Ted rises from his grave his normal, robotic self, and the episode shifts gears into your traditional “stopping the monster of the week” scenario. However, Whedon and Greenwalt maintain the façade of normalcy long enough for Buffy to feel what it’s like to kill someone who perhaps didn’t deserve that fate, lingering on Ted’s humanity long enough to make us wonder if this is really a life lesson for Buffy rather than just another Hellmouth-powered phenomenon. John Ritter was perfectly cast as the eponymous robot, able to transition between pleasant and threatening at the drop of a hat, and the battle between Ted and Buffy ends up feeling much bigger than your basic fistfight as a result of the character work he does in the episode. It’s another piece of Ritter’s work which makes me sad all over again regarding his much too early passing in 2003.

The episode also balanced the robotic heartbreak within the A-Story by having Giles and Jenny Calendar rekindle their love affair. It wasn’t a particularly complex story: she remains distant, he remains earnest, she shoots him with a crossbow, and they decide to call it even. The show, even at this early stage, is very clearly interested in how people overcome these sorts of hangups, how they move past the challenges of this life and maintain some form of human connection. In this case, as we learn in “Surprise” and “Innocence,” this is only one part of a larger journey for these characters, but it’s a nice way to sort of balance the darkness and guilt of the A-Story with something that finds some levity amidst the carnage.

The Scoobies were for the most part placed into a supporting role here (helping the unlock the mysteries of the robot situation, largely for the purpose of exposition late in the episode), but I really liked the moment where Cordelia discovers the location of the secret room by noticing that the rug was aesthetically out of place – it’s a small moment, but it really stuck me with as a way that Cordelia’s character has been adapted into this setting rather than changed in order to reflect the scenarios involved.

“Ted” is just a sharp little episode: it doesn’t try to fundamentally change the series, or explicitly create any sort of patterns, but it works hard to make us question the show’s central premise and delivers some powerful emotional moments that may eventually be undone but which linger on with characters in a way that Whedon is very fond of, and which makes for a compelling hour of television.

Cultural Observations

  • The storyline nicely plays with the idea of food as the way to a woman’s heart, or in this case the way to forcing women to be compliant while you plan to kidnap them and lock them in a basement to play out a nearly half-century old life that your creator once lived.
  • Kristine Sutherland is always pretty good as Buffy’s mother, but it’s weird for her to be quite as absent as she is at times – I know she’s off buying art and the like, but if she only shows up when it’s convenient or to be placed into danger it’s going to become a bit too transparent, even if it’s probably as much a budgetary concern as it is a creative one.
  • I don’t think I’ll be quite as bad as Ted (I certainly wouldn’t threaten them), but if my would-be stepchild was that bad at mini-golf at Age 16 I would certainly NOT let them take a mulligan. They should know better by then, gosh darnit.
Advertisements

22 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

22 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: “Ted” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. kaan

    Whedon loves death, not because he’s some sort of masochist but because the way people respond to death says a great deal about their characters.

    Truer words were never spoken. It’s pretty much become a Whedon cliché at this point.

    I liked “Ted” because we never got to see enough of Buffy’s home life. I love any ‘sitting around the dinner table’ type of scenes, even though they pretty much only showed them when Buffy was morose.

    I wouldn’t worry to much about Kristine Sutherland. She’s never in the foreground like the main cast, but she holds her own. On the whole it doesn’t disappoint with how they use her. At least for me it didn’t.

  2. Tausif Khan

    “Even though Buffy knows that Ted hit her, and even though she knows that Ted was dangerous, she nonetheless feels intense guilt over killing someone who wasn’t a demon.”

    This to me is a huge sticking point in the series. To me I felt that Ted was a real demon (as opposed to the metaphorical demons we see from the hellmouth). I didn’t like how the show had to step back from saying that demons come in all forms internal and external and sometimes they are human. They allowed the logic to develop that demons take a specific physical form and that beings with souls don’t do terrible things.

    Apparently according to Jane Espenson Joss Whedon never intended to show Buffy’s parents in the series. This to me is odd given that Whedon is fascinated with portraying real situations in SciFi of people just getting by.

    • Tausif Khan

      However, because Buffy has superpowers it does raise the question who had the power in the relationship between Ted and Buffy and how does gender help to conceptualize our understanding of power in that relationship?

    • “They allowed the logic to develop that demons take a specific physical form and that beings with souls don’t do terrible things.”

      The first half is undoubtedly true, however I’d argue that it’s not that souled beings don’t do terrible things it’s that they have the choice not to, and therefore to summarily kill them – as Buffy would a demon – is to cut off the hope of any moral reform (even if it were reform behind bars). Un-souled beings on the other hand it seems have neither the ability nor the inclination to resist the temptation to evil. In fact they revel in chaos and pain.

      Of course because this is drama, and particularly because it’s Whedon who loves to subvert expectations, as soon as we are able to define a rule like that it’s almost immediately time to break it. Because that’s the interesting thing to do. But I would (have often) argue that an exception does not disprove the rule – the existence of a soul-less creature with the ability, and agenda to choose “good”, does mean Whedon has thrown out the Buffyverse mythology completely, rather it highlights the uniqueness of that particular individual. It’s a way of saying “watch this one, he’s special”.

      Or to put it another way – an apparently non-evil soul-less thing is an anti-red-shirt.

      • Must proof-read before posting!

        That should be “…does *not* mean Whedon has thrown out…”

        • Tausif Khan

          I don’t think this topic can be fully debated because we haven’t reached episodes yet which allow me to solidly back up my statement. However, I will say this. I think that part of the network mandate was that because this was a show aimed at teenagers Buffy couldn’t going around killing humans as it would be something reproducable in real life. This is why I think the distinction was a originally made and also why Buffy kills monsters people would only see in their dreams.

          Also I think they way I put: “souls don’t do terrible things” was not clear. I meant to imply this as an implication of the first statement and not a second rule for the show.

          However, when a specific episode comes up I would like to debate this issue with you further because I think the implication I made get explicitly made.

          • Tausif Khan

            Also I do think they complicate this issue more toward the end of the show but I don’t think they do it enough to shake up these rules.

  3. Eldritch

    “Even though Buffy knows that Ted hit her, and even though she knows that Ted was dangerous, she nonetheless feels intense guilt over killing someone who wasn’t a demon. “

    Buffy has a very strong put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of morality. She has clear principals which she does not break. She doesn’t kill humans.

    I don’t remember any discussion in previous episodes in which that morality was defined. There are bad people on the world. Certainly, some humans need killing. But though we never see Giles and her discussing that choice, it’s a line she doesn’t intentionally cross.

    And it’s not just that she doesn’t want to cross that line. While she believed she killed Ted, when her mother tried to protect her with a white lie, Buffy didn’t go with the flow. She unhesitatingly took full responsibility.

    I wish I were as certain of my own morality.

    • Tausif Khan

      The other thing that got to me in this episode is that she doesn’t directly kill Ted. He dies as a result of a stumble down the stairs. So it was a little difficult to say that her powers were the direct result of his death for me. However, the themes presented in the show still stand out as something important to discuss.

      • Eldritch

        He fell because she hit him. I believe she took that as cause (by her) and effect (on him). He wouldn’t have fallen had they not been fighting.

        • Tausif Khan

          I agree that she took it as her cause. However, one could easily say

          a) anyone can push something down the stairs an destroy it so the issue doesn’t become about super powers but more about a man hitting a girl

          b) because she doesn’t directly kill him it can be said that it was pure self defense.

          I thought she took the whole thing a bit too hard. She might have been punishing herself for her intentions and that she thought that he was just an average human but because he hurt her I think this becomes more complicated. Then again how would we reconcile this with batter wives and children?

          • Eldritch

            “b) because she doesn’t directly kill him it can be said that it was pure self defense.”

            Except she has super powers which gives her greater responsibility.

  4. Gill

    Kristine Sutherland is always pretty good as Buffy’s mother, but it’s weird for her to be quite as absent as she is at times – I know she’s off buying art and the like, but if she only shows up when it’s convenient or to be placed into danger it’s going to become a bit too transparent,

    It’s the age-old problem of children’s literature – how do you make it possible for young people to have adventures which, in the real world, adults would intervene in. Joyce Summers isn’t centre stage but her character, like most others, is developed and rounded, sometimes to extremely good comic effect too.

    it works hard to make us question the show’s central premise and delivers some powerful emotional moments

    It makes us look at the difference between being a Slayer and being just a killer, something Whedon will return to again and again. And the concept that those close to you or part of your everyday life can also be monsters. Well – you’ve seen “Surprise” and “Innocence” now. I can’t wait to read your response to them.

  5. The fact that Ritter wasn’t nominated for an Emmy for this is a shame.

    Of course, typing that only stirs up my sadness that Buffy as a show never got as much love as it deserved in Emmy nods and/or wins.

    I know “Hush” got a nod, but that was it.

    “Ted” only confirms my feeling that season two is my favorite Buffy year.

  6. sam

    John Ritter was like the WB’s go-to guy for playing creepy father figures at the turn of the century. Anyone remember him as Ben’s gropey alcoholic dad on Felicity?

  7. shannon

    “They allowed the logic to develop that demons take a specific physical form and that beings with souls don’t do terrible things.”

    I think this is an oversimplification – there is certainly a lot of emphasis on the soul in this and later seasons, but there are also many examples of beings with souls doing terrible things throughout the seven seasons of this show (most of which I can’t mention to avoid spoilers). The show doesn’t seem to explicitly point out that these souled beings are essentially the equivalent of demons, but I don’t think it shies away from showing that either.

    “She has clear principals which she does not break. She doesn’t kill humans.”
    Exactly – Buffy administers justice to supernatural beings; she makes it clear that justice for humans must go through human channels. At some point in the series Buffy points out that the police/the law must take care of a particular situation, and she never wavers from that stance. So while there may be evil humans, and some viewers may feel that Buffy would be justified in killing humans, she does not.

    “The other thing that got to me in this episode is that she doesn’t directly kill Ted. He dies as a result of a stumble down the stairs.”
    True, but Buffy also has an immense capacity for guilt and self-blame – it’s often frustrating.

    • Eldritch

      “I think this is an oversimplification..”

      My simplified view of it is that in the Whedonverse the soul is the source of kindness and morality. Without a soul, one becomes a sadistic, amoral monster.

      Buffy sees herself as law enforcement for souless creatures and as an ordinary citizen for humans.

  8. AO

    “Kristine Sutherland is always pretty good as Buffy’s mother, but it’s weird for her to be quite as absent as she is at times – I know she’s off buying art and the like, but if she only shows up when it’s convenient or to be placed into danger it’s going to become a bit too transparent, even if it’s probably as much a budgetary concern as it is a creative one”.

    This absence is part of a trend in which we don’t see very many parents of any of the characters. Some people also wonder why most of the regular students don’t seem to know what’s going on, where the police and other authorities are, why the Watcher’s Council isn’t more involved, and so on. As the show continues then some of these people/groups appear more often, or there are explantations provided for why some others don’t. I was satisfied with some of the answers and resolutions provided to these questions, less so with others. I don’t want to spoil anything if I can help it, so I’ll say no more, but you definitely weren’t the only one asking some of these questions at this point in the show.

  9. Pingback: Cultural Catchup Project: “Bad Eggs” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) « Cultural Learnings

  10. Jessica

    I am watching this episode and I am angry at the mother. This reminds me of cases where the man shows a fake side to the woman, but abuses her child. I also think of women who turn blind eye to sexual abuse inflicted on their daughters so that they can keep a man. I feel she betrayed her daughter also by choosing to believe him over her.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s