The Challenge of Clarity Amidst Chaos
May 7th, 2010
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When I say that Buffy the Vampire’s third season gets off to a rocky start, your immediate response should be “of course it gets off to a rocky start.” The show completely threw a wrench into things by having Buffy leave Sunnydale behind for the bright lights of a rundown neighbourhood in an unnamed urban centre we presume is Los Angeles, and the consequences from that event are going to be significantly more damaging than the more subtle psychological impact felt at the start of the second season. You can’t expect “Anne” to feel like just another episode of the show, just as you can’t expect for “Dead Man’s Party” to quickly bring things back to normal now that Buffy has returned to Sunnydale.
However, I do think that there are elements of both episodes which feel just a smidge too convenient; while the situations may be messy and complicated, the metaphors and themes are all clean and concise. They represent necessary parts of Buffy’s journey, and the emotional conclusions to both stories (first Buffy rediscovering part of her identity and then the gang coming to terms with what has changed over the summer) are well played by all involved, but the linearity of this particular course correction feels odd when watched directly after the depth of the second season’s final stretch of episodes.
This doesn’t mean that the show is off to a bad start, but rather that “Anne” and “Dead Man’s Party” wear their purpose in their sleeve a bit too plainly for my tastes.
I really like certain parts of “Anne,” so I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy the episode. The re-introduction of “Lily” (who we met as Chanterelle back in “Lie to Me”) is a really deft move by Whedon, giving Buffy both a point of comparison for her current situation (which could be a lot worse) and a blast from her past to remind her of what she left behind. For someone who knows who she is to show up completely disorients Buffy, but more importantly she gets to know someone who is having a true crisis of identity – “Lily” doesn’t have a name, or a home, or parents, or anything to identify with. Buffy is trying to disassociate from her identity as a Vampire Slayer, but she has some point of reference: Lily has nothing, and so Buffy both sympathizes with the character and uses her as a source of psycho-analysis for her own position. It’s a really smart decision from Whedon, and the show gets a nice emotional scene from the conclusion as Buffy leaves her behind with an apartment, a job and a hope for the future. The idea of Buffy as a street youth was in danger of becoming a cliché with the pained montage of kids struggling to eat or stay warm (which I sympathize with, but which seemed a bit over the top), but having someone we recognize serve as the face of their struggles helped keep things grounded.
However, while that part of the episode worked pretty well, I think the rest of Buffy’s story felt like it was going through the paces. The central identity issues were fine, but the diner patrons slapping her ass veered into the unnecessary, and the Demons seemed like a carefully designed tool rather than characters with motivations. Their plan was well formulated in the abstract, but in the context of this story it was too well-formulated, too well-designed to feed into Buffy’s current situation. While Lily’s return felt like it used the show’s existing continuities to its advantage, the Demons’ plot felt designed to take advantage of this episode’s continuities, which pulls me out of the action a bit. It also didn’t help that the large scale of the situation was only really there so that Buffy could get some ass-kicking in – the action didn’t feel particularly organic, especially after coming from Buffy’s epic battle with Angel and switching to Buffy in a generic factory fighting faceless, nameless goons. There was no suspense, and no surprise, and no subtlety in terms of where the story was going or what it was supposed to mean for the character. I understand that it’s important for Buffy to come to this understanding so that she can return home, and Whedon was smart not to push her so far that she entirely resolves her issues through these experiences, but I think the metaphor was just too clear for me to really engage with the story as I might have in other circumstances (or if I had waited an entire summer to watch the episode).
The non-Buffy portion of the episode felt like it was working more effectively: it was similarly predictable (Cordelia and Xander bicker after reuniting, for example) in some ways, but the idea of the Scoobies taking over the slaying was a great deal of fun, and the characters were able to step outside of their comfort zones a bit. Whedon is at his best when he’s surprising us a bit, and I guess the A-Story in “Anne” didn’t really have much surprise once the connection to “Lie to Me” was played out. The episode reaches expected conclusions effectively, but it also reaches them precisely as we would have predicted if reading a synopsis of the episode’s basic plot.
“Dead Man’s Party,” meanwhile, is the sort of episode which is meant to be unpleasant, as characters hide their emotions from one another and it leads to a charged confrontation at episode’s end. I like the darkness inherent to this concept, as it places Buffy’s friends as the antagonists as she struggles to return to life in Sunnydale, but I would have much rather not been dealing with a silly Nigerian Zombie mask at the same time. I get the point: you can’t bury things or else they come back to haunt you, just like zombies and just like the resentment that Willow, Xander and Joyce are feeling after Buffy’s return (and that Buffy feels in, well, return). And I also see how Marti Noxon uses the Zombie attack to diffuse the intense conversation and force the characters to come to terms with their relationships, a nice way to say “Sure, feelings were hurt, but at least we weren’t killed by zombies, so let’s let bygones be bygones.” But I found the mask so silly that I was more frustrated than anything else: I wanted that intense conversation to play out, and the Zombie conclusion just never felt like it never became so amazing that I was okay with the conversation getting sidelined in favour of the action-packed climax.
The episode is filled with some great performances: Anthony Stewart Head is spectacular as he can’t keep hiding his emotions and breaks down (in a good way) in the kitchen after Buffy arrives safely to his door, and Nicholas Brendon (in particular) was fantastic in the climactic showdown as Buffy threatens to leave again. And there is a lot to be said about Alyson Hannigan, whose Willow is becoming more and more confident: she begins here as restrained and shy around Buffy, but eventually she beautifully (and heartwrenchingly) captures how it felt to be abandoned by your best friend. I wanted a bit more of that in the episode, for the reconciliation to perhaps be achieved through those discussions rather than through a shovel to the eyes, but it gets the point across: Buffy’s departure left consequences behind that won’t just disappear upon her return, but they will disappear when a convenient thematic device puts life into perspective so Willow and Buffy can go have coffee and talk about boys.
The show is very clearly not heading in a bad direction or anything of that nature: I’ve seen the two episodes which follow (the first of which I’ll be showcasing tomorrow), and they’re pretty great stuff which builds on the emotional maturity that goes through growing pains in these hours. The issue is that rather than wholly embrace the complexity of these emotions, the show uses thematic anvils to force the issue, and any subtlety is left to performance rather than the way in which each episode was designed. The show’s cast and characters are strong enough that the two hours remain plenty engaging, but I definitely think that the re-entry into the season could have been handled a bit less efficiently.
- As I hinted at in my review of “Becoming,” I have some serious issues with David Boreanaz remaining in the credits. Yes, Angel appears in dream sequences in both episodes, so it’s not like we think the character is entirely dead, but for him to remain in the credits implies a larger role later in the season which seems to be contradicted by the whole “condemned to hell” situation. I understand there’s contracts and the like, but how much more effective would it have been if he had appeared as a guest star in these episodes before shifting back to the credits once he returns “full time”?
- One bit from “Anne” that I commend Whedon for: the introduction of the “demon dimension time/space continuum” in order to foreshadow what they eventually do with Angel upon his return. Nice subtle bit of work there.
- Buffy’s complete and total failure to go undercover in “Anne” was a lot of fun – the character is in a no-nonsense mood, so any sort of elaborate scheme wouldn’t have seemed right, so it was a cute bit of subversion. She doesn’t bother lying to the nurse at the blood donor clinic for the same reason, and it shows how well Whedon understands her situation.
- Nancy Lenehan’s Pat is a functional character, but she’s just too one-dimensional for my tastes: she exists so that Buffy can feel like her mother has moved on without her and so Buffy can overhear her mother having a conversation about her, which works fine but doesn’t build enough character that we really care when it’s her who gets possessed by the mask.