Post-“Innocence,” It’s Personal
May 2nd, 2010
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When I wrote about “Surprise” and “Innocence,” I entered into the posture I tend to take at certain points along this journey: when you know that things eventually get very dark and complicated, you tend to cry wolf at any sign that things are becoming very dark and complicated. It was clear from fan response that these two episodes represented a turning point of sorts, and watching them you see a dramatic character transformation that does in fact “change” the series in a way that seems pretty substantial.
However, the interesting thing about the episodes which follow “Innocence” is that the changes are for the most part subtle rather than substantial. While people tended to agree with my statement that Angel’s transformation represents a true “game-changer,” I have a feeling that the impact has more to do with the series’ long term changes than with any sort of immediate shift in the series’ narratives. While you could argue there is now more darkness in Buffy’s world, that doesn’t really change the tone of the series, nor does it dramatically alter the kinds of stories the show decides to tell.
Rather, the changes during this period come in the form of the supernatural becoming personal, with supernatural phenomenon presenting itself (primarily) in ways that tap into something inherent to these characters rather than inherent to the Hellmouth or some sort of demonic power. It’s a subtle shift in the series’ dynamics, but it is nonetheless a fairly important development which reinforces the events of “Innocence” within, rather than against, the series’ typical narrative structures.
Starting with “Phases,” the show begins to remove a few degrees of separation between Buffy and the Scoobies and the demons they fight on a regular basis. Oz turning out to be a werewolf isn’t really developed in any way: he doesn’t appear after “Bewitched…” (I’ve yet to watch “Becoming”), so it’s not like the show is suddenly really interested in werewolves. Rather, it’s a point in the story where we learn that someone we met in one form may in fact take another, where someone who first appears as a love interest can become something more. It is, in some ways, an extension of what happened with Angel in “Innocence”: we knew him as a man (or as close to a man as Angel was), but we now have to reconcile that knowledge with a monstrous form. In the case of Oz, reconciliation is possible because it’s only three days a month, and because the regular Oz will return for the other twenty-something days – in the case of Angel, we struggle with the fact that this man we once saw as a hero is now something very different.
Buffy’s relationship with Angel was always about bringing demon and human closer together, so we could presume that the emergence of Angel’s true form would shatter that connection. However, as “Passion” so eloquently points out, those connections still exist despite Angel’s transformation. For better or for worse, Angel was welcomed into these people’s lives, and his behaviour (while now for the sake of sick, twisted obsession rather than love) is still focused on Buffy just as it was before. “Passion” puts us inside Angel’s shoes to revel in our inability to reconcile his soulless form with the Angel we once knew, forcing us to watch as behaviour which once would have been romantic (like stroking Buffy’s face as she sleeps) has become chill-inducing. It’s not as if Angel has suddenly lost touch with his past life with Buffy: just as the show still understands its past patterns and behaviours, Angel knows what love felt like and what personal connection meant to these people. However, by viewing the action through Angel’s eyes, we see that he’s using this knowledge to torture them, taking what could be simple murder and turning it into a personal catastrophe in order to heighten human suffering.
Jenny Calendar’s death is your typical Whedon tragedy: just as she is about to reconnect with Giles after his struggle to reconcile her connection with the gypsies who cursed Angel with her love for him, and just as she was working towards a way to restore Angel’s soul and try to undo what she feels was her mistake, Drusilla gets wind of her plan and sends Angel to murder her. However, the episode is very focused on both how the characters and the audience perceive her death. First, Angel stages the elaborate scenario for Giles in order to heighten his suffering, creating the ultimate in romance before tearing it away. Next, though, we get Buffy and Willow’s reaction from Angel’s point of view, watching through the window as the news reaches them. The episode is interested in what is to this point the most substantial death in the series, certainly, but it’s also interested in explaining how it is that Angel perceives this death, and how he sadistically uses it just to torment Buffy and to cause suffering. It’s a unique structure that make the episode something more than just another stop on the season’s arc, and really encapsulates how the demonic is colliding with humanity in a more substantial fashion at this stage in the season.
While incredibly apparent in “Passion,” the personal plays an important role in the standalone stories which follow. In “I Only Have Eyes For You,” Buffy finds herself “chosen” by a Poltergeist still seeking forgiveness for shooting his teacher over their forbidden love, and while there’s an element of humour in Angel and Buffy playing the roles (especially with Angel in the role of the female teacher) there’s also a poetry to it. There’s a sense that, even in disconnected cases, Buffy can’t escape what happened with Angel, and it gives the case a certain resonance by tapping into the characters’ personal struggles. This isn’t always entirely effective, mind you: in “Killed by Death,” Buffy fights the Der Kindestod not only to protect the children who are currently being attacked, but to avenge the death of her cousin Celia, but that piece of information has no background and feels pretty contrived. However, it demonstrates an ongoing attempt to personalize Buffy’s crusades: sure, Angel popping in to disrupt her life is reminder enough to keep the serialized story alive, but the show is very clearly interested in taking things a step further.
When they don’t, it almost feels strange: “Go Fish” isn’t particularly great when considered out of the context of this late stage in the season, but it’s worse when it lacks any of that personal drive. After feeling like Buffy or someone in the group was getting drawn into the past mysteries for a clear reason, “Go Fish” felt like it reverted back to ideas like school spirit without much attention paid to the changes in previous episodes. I’m not saying the show is unable to do standalone episodes without such a personal focus in the future, but “Go Fish” seems really out of place, and I think that heightens its more embarrassing qualities to the point where it feels even more skippable than it already is.
That’s the challenge, though, when you change things up: once everything starts connecting back to a key moment or theme in the series, an episode which doesn’t will seem even more out of place than before. It’s obviously a step forward for the series, as personalizing these demons does a great deal to make these standalone stories more compelling, just as Angel’s new position makes “Passion” stand out even from other serialized episodes. However, it’s going to create some imbalances, something that the show will have to contend with in the future.
Episode Spotlight: “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”
This week, I thought I’d try something different: I want to try to focus on general themes rather than episodes in the future, but I know that others want some direct commentary on certain episodes that are their favourites/are really important/etc. So, when I write pieces like this, I thought I’d solicit some comments from readers or critics about particular episodes that I can respond to directly. This week, I asked Maclean’s TV critic Jaime Weinman to offer some questions regarding “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” since he noted on Twitter that he was interested to hear my thoughts on the episode.
1) As a comedy episode (and Xander-centric episode) coming so soon after the “Innocence” game-changer, and coming right before another game-changing dark episode, did this episode feel like filler?
This is a fair point, but I’d return to my point about personalization – it may be a standalone episode, but it derives from Xander’s relationship with Cordelia, which makes its supernatural elements entirely character-driven. Any episode which takes that form can’t be called filler, as it clearly adds to our understanding of who these characters are (which is something the show is particularly interested in post-“Innocence”).
2) Were you conscious while watching it that the episode was deliberately trying to minimize Buffy’s screen time, or was that something they successfully disguised?
I didn’t really think about it, to be honest: the episode was clearly set up to focus on Xander and Cordelia’s relationship, which has been an important enough part of the show that I didn’t find it odd. It also made sense that Buffy, still struggling over Angel, would sort of disappear in a Valentine’s Day episode, even if the “turned into a rat” scenario seems a bit hackneyed out of context.
3) What do you make of the parallels they’re setting up between the Angel/Spike/Drusilla triangle and the teen relationships? Is there an ironic commentary on their own genre (the teen angsty relationship-y show) implied here? Or just an additional triangle to add to the many triangles on the show?
I think the idea of the human and the demonic coming closer together is very much possible due to the conflict created between the three vampires. I know enough about the show that I’m watching to see how Spike evolves further, and I think the show is starting to shift our sympathies to the character by contrasting him with Angelus (who the audience has, at this point, turned on). I don’t know if I’m willing to suggest that there’s an ironic commentary on the genre, but rather that their genre does not discriminate: while “The Dark Age” worked to build parallels between Giles and Buffy to demonstrate that there was cross-generatonal impacts of living on the Hellmouth, the similar drama surrounding Valentine’s Day for both the living and the dead works to imply that even 200-year old vampires are not immune to the crippling weaknesses of humanity. The episode’s comic tone is probably ironic, but the long-term effects of the parallel strike me as genuine and honest to the show’s aims.
4) Fans of the show come to blows about whether Xander is sympathetic or a jerk (this comes to a head in discussion of a key moment in the season finale). How jerky do you find him in this episode?
I didn’t find him particularly jerky in this episode, but I think part of the point of the episode is to sort of contextualize his past behaviour. At this point, Xander gets the sort of attention he always desires (and jokes about in a sometimes jerk-like fashion) but he ultimately backs away: when Buffy comes onto him, he refuses to make a move, and while he overreacts to Cordelia’s rejection it isn’t entirely unjust. The episode’s conflict stemps from when his entirely human response to Cordelia’s behaviour moves into the realm of the supernatural, a move which we can’t entirely vilify considering how often it’s happening and how tempting it must be when on the Hellmouth – that he doesn’t take advantage of that situation (especially with Buffy) makes the episode work, and makes Xander and Cordelia’s reconciliation resonant.
[Interested in offering some similar questions/topics/comments for me to respond to for a future episode? If so, I’ll be posting something once I get into Season Three (I’ll be doing the finales/premieres separate from these types of posts) to solicit some responses – thanks to Jaime for helping out this week!]
- Really enjoyed the neat bit of long-term serialization we saw with Amy’s return in “Bewitched…” – not that the character would return (that’s logical), but rather that the show reminded us of that story by having Oz note the Cheerleading trophy’s eyes seemed to follow him in “Phases.” It’s a nice little “Oh, I remember that now!” moment that helps our recall in the episode which follows.
- Familiar faces all over the place here: Wentworth Miller and Shane West in “Go Fish,” Willie Garson in “Killed by Death,” and Christopher Gorham in “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
- I’m going to presume that Whedon is a big fan of endings like the one in “Passion” where Jenny’s computer program is lost between the two desks. It’s the sort of “Argh, no!” moment that seems like something he would enjoy.
- Speaking of those desks, I’m noticing the way in which Willow is slowly being brought further into the occult as a result of Jenny’s departure – this is one of the elements of the show that I have some knowledge of, so it’s fun to see it start small considering where it’s headed. The show can’t come right out and suggest that Willow is replacing Jenny, out of sympathy to the characters, so the slow build as Willow takes over her class and her research is (I presume) a gradual process.
- “I Only Have Eyes For You” is a really packed episode: note also Principal Snyder speaking with the Chief of Police about the demon, and providing some exposition. I quite like that Snyder was actually brought in to control the Hellmouth, and that the Mayor (who I know arrives sooner or later) is some sort of shadowy figure. It means that Buffy and Snyder should be working together, not separately, and yet he either doesn’t know she’s the Slayer or there’s some sort of larger power struggle. Either way, I’m warming to the character and look forward to seeing how the bureaucratic side of things evolves.