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.
33 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: The Challenge of Clarity Amidst Chaos (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)”
This is the second write-up in the row that feels like an apology more than anything! I know you said not think you didn’t enjoy these episodes, but it’s hard to avoid thinking that. However, I can’t disagree with you on any criticism made…well, except two. You know, the slap on the ass thing–it’s so funny that what one person sees as unnecessary, I see through the lens of recent experiences. I was out at bar with a female friend of mine and we were talking casually with some patrons and I noticed one guy slap her ass, out of nowhere, she was uncomfortable and it was indeed unnecessary. She says it happens all the time (she’s a waitress). But anyway, I digress.
“after coming from Buffy’s epic battle with Angel and switching to Buffy in a generic factory fighting faceless, nameless goons.”
—Would this have worked as well another way? The story is clearly just about Buffy. If Whedon had instead created a villain with “personality,” I could see this easily robbing the story of it’s narrative intent. I love that the villains here are merely extensions of the Buffy’s own internal struggle. I like that they’re distant, abstract, and that we never really have all the details of their existence. I’d find that superfluous. I know that when I watched it the first time after waiting three months, those goons could have been purple monsters on pogo sticks with PhDs in Sociology and it wouldn’t have mattered because I was only interested in discovering what was going on with Buffy. In the television format, you have time for that in episode four or whatever. The moments she reclaims her title as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer–that’s the joy. Subtle it isn’t, but I have to say I find it satisfying.
In regards to the slap (to address all of those who’ve commented on it), I think my issue is that so much of Buffy’s pain is psychological, so I would have rather Buffy been made uncomfortable by their stares, or their comments. I like the idea that, despite living a life which could create those sorts of interactions, most of her pain and struggle is self-inflicted, and the slap seemed too easy (and a bit too “superhero trying to remain undercover despite extreme anger”). Again, I wanted more subtlety from the episode, and that moment became emblematic of that for me.
I’ll respond to your second point on another comment below.
Nice review. I’ve never been happy with these episodes, and you’ve nailed the reasons why. I have to say that for all the good parts in “Ted”, it suffered from the same sense of “efficiency” in dealing with a major moral crisis, when Buffy thought she’d killed a person rather than a demon.
The good news is that the anvilgrams get a lot less anvilicious from here on out, and Whedon gets less “efficient” in cleaning up consequences. The rest of season 3 really shines in that regard. Starting with “Faith, Hope, and Trick”, this season gets so, so, so much better, and builds efffectively on the development of all the Scoobies.
Another enjoyable review. I disagree with you regarding Anne, at least in your comments about its efficiency–or at least in your suggestion that the efficiency is problematic. I think it works really well, and I think that this particular set of demons and their victims is just what we need here. Demons and baddies in the ‘verse often prey on very specific weaknesses, and this is the kind of hell “Anne” (not to mention “Lily”) is already in.
And I like the butt-slap moment. Buffy would have broken that jerk’s wrist–or sprained it badly, anyway. “Anne” has to walk away.
Dead Man’s Party, on the other hand, is one of my least favorite episodes. There are wonderful moments, certainly, but I think the zombie stuff is just stupid (and anvil-y), I think the way the whole party itself evolves into a hootenanny is outrageously contrived, I think the tension and resolution among the group is played far too broadly, and I think the final scene with Buffy and Willow is way too pat. And speaking of Pat–you’re right. Red shirt. And this writing team doesn’t usually fall victim to that trite crap.
Things look way up from here, though.
I agree with the comments above about the ass-slap. It’s a bit over-the-top, but the payoff we get in seeing Buffy’s face, where she makes herself walk away, is totally worth it.
Susan, I couldn’t agree with you more! The zombie stuff is stupid, the hootenanny is stupid, and the tension/resolution is way too broad.
Dead Man’s Party really, really bothers me, to the extent that I do actually skip it in the rotation. Buffy went through a LOT at the end of season two, and her mother even tells her not to come back home, and yet when she returns, apparently everything is all her fault. I can’t stand the guilt trip everyone puts her through.
I with you, JJ! I get so pissed off that everyone is shrieking at her as though she wasn’t told not to come home, as though they don’t all know what she had to do to save the world (even if they don’t know yet the *full extent* of her sacrifice), as though they don’t know how horrible the last several months were for her more than anyone else (except for Giles, perhaps, who’s the only one who behaves with a modicum of decency).
And *Xander* getting all sanctimonious after what he pulled in “Becoming?” Someone posted to an earlier analysis that Xander saved Buffy’s life with The Lie. That’s a good point and could well be true, but it doesn’t matter; that’s not why he lied.
Well, that was ranty, wasn’t it? 😉
The old “The Lie!” or “Xander saving Buffy!”
Real people are a mixture of selfishness and enlighten unselfishness. And there is nothing contradictory in that Xander motives could be that also.
He just wants a rival out of the way.
He wants some sort of justice, over a creature who had killed people who he knew, threaten on their life and hurt himself and people he love.
He thought it was it to big a risk for Buffy and or the world, if Buffy went in the fight, and was not 100 % committed in taking Angel out.
And we can’t know how much, the different scenarios was weighting in Xander decision
I can’t give Xander–at least not S2 Xander –that much credit. He reacts, and often selfishly. He wanted Angel dead. Understandably? Sure. But he wasn’t trying to save Buffy. For that he came with a rock. Nice metaphor, actually.
I agree that it’s possible–maybe even likely–that in a real-world analogue to the group conflict in Dead Man’s Party the people might have acted very much like this. I just don’t think *these* people really would have. Especially not Joyce.
(Most of this is a general reply, except for the first line below)
That would be me on “the lie”, and why he did it was never stated and therefore up for interpretation, and it also doesn’t matter for his reaction because they don’t know what actually happened. He has no reason to believe he had any impact on her leaving. As far as people treating her that way, they might not entirely right to do it, but emotionally, for all of them it makes sense, including Giles different reaction. But Buffy leaving, leaving them on the Hellmouth with vampires and demons still out there, meant she left them in mortal danger. Not that that was the intent, but it doesn’t change the fact that that is what she did. I went through this whole argument back on the Bronze at the time. It’s all fuzzy now almost 12 years later.
In a completely different thought, if all Buffy needed was Angel’s blood to seal Acathla, did she really need to do more than cut him, move him aside and then shove the bloody sword in without him?
I had major issues with Anne at the time, though I actually sort of loved it as I thought it had all kinds of hints of what was to come in it and it turned out all of those little details were just miscellaneous meaningless stuff that didn’t even have a point at the time. After removing that I was just left with “DESPAIR!” And yet the anvils of these episodes seem like feathers compared to too much in S6. Oy. And I didn’t really like DMP at the time or in looking back at it. Though it led to some heavily quoted lines about hoot and a little nanny, I have no clue where the idea of a major party would come from. But like S2, I felt the season hits it stride in ep 3.
Side note again: The band featured in Faith Hope Trick is Darling Violetta, who would go on to do the Angel theme song.
There are extenuating circumstances with some of the exposition this season, though.
Whedon’s original plan for Angel was to kill him off. But the WB liked the character, and wanted to give him a spin-off, so Whedon chose to bring him back, and then had to start setting him up for the new show.
Which is why Buffy goes to LA, and Angel ends up there. The demons in “Anne” were pretty much a teaser, to show the things that Angel would be dealing with when he arrived. “Anne” tonally, feels more like an episode of Angel, than Buffy, IMO.
Also, Carlos Jacott, the actor who played Ken the demon, in Anne, will appear in the fist season of Angel, in LA, as another character, which is just frustrating to me considering how well Whedon is with continuity.
Usually, when you see a familiar face, you are supposed to recognize them as their character, but not so with this one.
Actually, Whedon is well known for going to his “stable” of preferred actors repeatedly, and not necessarily to continue previous roles. Carlos Jacott is a “hat trick” (appearing in Buffy, Angel, and Firefly as different characters), and is, most famously, Jonathan M. Woodward.
I meant: *as* is, most famously, Jonathan M. Woodward. Damn fingers forgot to consult with my brain.
Someone else from this episode (“Anne”) will also cross over into Angel… 2nd season if I right. 😉
Here’s my thinking — they’re both Demons, who appear human likely as the result of some magicking. So it does make a kind of sense that two demons might have the same model of human.
Far more frustrating is the fact that Knox and the psych 101 vamp from season 6 are the same guy. I mean, they’re both originally human. (I don’t think that spoils anything).
I don’t necessarily enjoy watching these two episodes, because they are pretty wrenching. But they pay off in the fullness of time. Killing Angel changes Buffy in a fundamental way, and it sets up the evolution of her character for the rest of the series.
In particular, I very much like the group dynamic that goes on in Dead Man’s Party. Every time I watch that episode, I always come down on Buffy’s side, and think that her friends and family are acting like complete jerks. Sure, they went through some difficult things as a result of her leaving, but it doesn’t compare with what Buffy went through, and her running away is a completely understandable response for a 17-year old girl to have in response to those circumstances. Joyce, in particular, has no right to angry at her since she basically sent her away, which is a horrific thing to do to your daughter.
It really shows that Buffy cannot act like a child, or even just a regular person, around them. She has to be the strong one, the powerful one, the leader. They can’t handle her pain, and so she has to do that alone. That feeling is carried through for the rest of the series, and it’s really unsettling.
Yes! They really REALLY cannot deal when she has emotions of any kind. This is especially relevant in seasons 6 and 7, tho at that point she does have one person she can talk to (“It’s okay, I can be alone with you here”). I feel like Buffy’s biggest developments stem from the fact that she really is THE slayer, even when she’s not the only one.
“Every time I watch that episode, I always come down on Buffy’s side, and think that her friends and family are acting like complete jerks. Sure, they went through some difficult things as a result of her leaving, but it doesn’t compare with what Buffy went through, and her running away is a completely understandable response for a 17-year old girl to have in response to those circumstances. Joyce, in particular, has no right to angry at her since she basically sent her away, which is a horrific thing to do to your daughter. ”
Buffy left without them knowing anything of what she went through. Nothing. She comes back with the attempt to act like nothing happened. They Can’t compare what they went through to what she went through because they have zero clue of what she went through. Joyce never should have said not to come back, but she also had just learned about the whole slayer thing. Everyone was both right and wrong. The anger at Buffy was as natural and real as Buffy running away, it doesn’t make Buffy leaving right, nor them right either, though everyone had valid points.
Some nice observations there which kind of make me understand my feelings about these two eps more – which I’ve enjoyed at times
but have never been particular faves and I could never really put my finger on why…
Like most people on here so far I think I enjoy Anne more and actually think its pretty exciting and interesting for a season opener – it’s very different to everything else “Buffy” has done before and will do after (which i know is the case for many eps but it definitely isn’t just another Tuesday night in Sunnydale or whatever) – I think the hell dimension was a decent aspect and it actually feels ok to have a more ambiguous (and rather dictatorly) evil for once which not every motivation or reason behind was explained (though this is not ok when done on a weekly basis i.e. Doctor Who not giving any logical explanations for the various obstacles they face and their little “quirks” or random uncomprehendable plot devices).
I also like the (slightly obvious santimonious yet still worthy) Communist symbol of Buffy with the hammer & sickle amid a torrid hell-sweatshop of toture-labour, which will be used as the final image of the starting credit for the next 3 seasons.
Plus Buffy and Joyce’s reunion at the very end is surprisingly heartwrenching, and more so every time I watch it.
oh and Dead Mans Party – good/amazing even for character tension, bad for demon-of-the-week (read that as either Pat or the Zombos).
I think people have already said that season openers are not in general Whedon’s greatest strength. “Anne” does its job quite well, but suffers from the lack of interaction in the storylines. There are some terrific moments, though, especially the point where Buffy reclaims her name and calling, and it helps establish certain aspects of LA which will prove useful when Angel gets started. Dead Man’s Party again suffers from telegraphing some of the themes, though there are again some outstanding moments and it does begin to explore some of the emotional fallout from the end of S2. Pat is one of those annoying non-characters whom we notice precisely because so many minor characters are so fleshed out – compare her with “Lily” to see that. Oz has some delightful lines, but the development of the party does seem a little contrived – unless you have a teenager of your own and have seen how a small gathering can get out of hand. These events when gatecrashers outnumber guests are a not infrequent aspect of parenting someone of Buffy’s age.
Again an enjoyable, thoughtful review.
I understand parties getting out-of-hand. The thing that ticks me off so much is the passive-aggressive way they plan such a party, in Buffy’s home, without consulting either Buffy or Joyce, and deliberately create an environment where it will be impossible for Buffy to talk to them. “Welcome home, Buffy!”
Yes – that is bad behaviour on the part of the Scoobies – but not actually out of character. They feel aggrieved and resentful that she “just vanished” from their POV, leaving the Hellmouth unguarded. It’s not the first time and certainly won’t be the last that we see them acting as if Buffy’s primary duty is to them. I don’t see it as out-of-character – and it’s understandable in many ways. They are also seventeen, remember – they have a growing-up process to undergo this year too.
That’s a good way to put it, Gill, that the Scoobies are acting as if Buffy’s primary duty is to them/the Hellmouth/Sunnydale, etc., without giving her any leeway to be a real person who has to deal with real emotional fallout. That makes me feel more sympathetic towards their reactions (though not to the passive-aggressiveness of throwing a party in Buffy’s home without asking her).
But the way Joyce responds… that’s just too painful for me to watch again. IIRC, Buffy’s crying and she pleads, “But you *told* me to not bother coming home!” and Joyce says, “I was upset; you weren’t supposed to take me seriously!” Excuse me?!?!??!?! You kicked your DAUGHTER out of the house and you’re made that SHE wasn’t adult enough to know you didn’t mean it?
I know parents are human too, but that moment makes me so, so angry.
Agree on the relative weakness of the season openers – I think there’s only one season that truly nails the season opening, and it’s definitely not this one.
I also think you perfectly captured the issues with the reconciliation of Buffy and crew in Dead Man’s Party – it would have been far more satisfying for them to hash out their conflict and emotions. However, this failure to communicate properly is something that comes up between them again and again throughout the show.
Which season do you think nails its opener??
I think personally I like the 4th the most, despite not being the best season overall, I think the feel and story of the episode is perfect for the beginning of a new high-school-less era of “Buffy”.
The 6th is pretty epic and deals with a lot but I’m not sure I think it quite nails it.
I think the season openers for 4 and 5 do what they set out to do, even if the MOTW for each might not be everyone’s cuppa. (I’m not a Sunday fan.)
I do think season 7’s opener nailed it.
Yes, season 6’s opener is epic and manages to deal pretty well with some impossible expectations. But the scene that really nails season 6’s “opening” is Buffy’s monolog near the end of “After Life.” You know the one.
Seasons 4 and 6 are the best opening episodes in my opinion… Season 4 if nothing else for that shockingly surprising last scene 😉 , and Season 6 well… just is! 🙂
Sorry, that second paragraph should have referred to the actual Cultural Learnings review.
Another good review.
A point, and a couple questions~
I think it’s okay that some episodes have MsOTW without much originality or organic development. Buffy is the Slayer. It’s her job. It isn’t always mythic and heroic, sometimes it’s a grind; a workaday, boring, tedious pain-in-the-ass. I think Joss plays on that quite a bit in places. Yes it can be too “efficient” and pat, but I think he does avoid true cardboard generic blandness 98% of the time. A lovely moment, opening a late S5 episode, captures that attitude perfectly.
I’d like to comment that the music is also such a great enhancement to the episodes. Any thoughts Myles?
And I wonder how the time compression should be judged. For me, the break between Becoming and Anne meant I was pumped and psyched for the moment Buffy reclaims her destiny, as Jason comments. Is it fair to judge the impact of these moments using a DVD experience? As a critic, should quality television reflect the idea that episodes represent serialized drama, and that the summer hiatus has an impact on perceptions, or should that be irrelevant?
I certainly take it into account, I think – as mentioned, I knew that most people would not have watched “Becoming” and “Anne” on consecutive days, so I know I’m coming at the season from a particularly odd perspective.
However, rather than necessarily creating new problems as a result of the lack of the summer hiatus, I think my experience highlights and draws out concerns which have always been present in the episode. I think time leads to forgiveness, as we look past certain shortcuts taken because we want to return to this world and these characters – seeing them back-to-back makes things a bit more transparent, which means I will see it differently than fans watching at the time.
As a critic, I judge it on both criteria: I respect what Whedon accomplished, and how this would have played at the time, but at the same time new fans will experience it in this way, and it reveals underlying concerns which deserve to be discussed (if not used to retroactively destroy the premiere’s value to viewers at the time it aired).
[I’ll get to the music at some point in the future in more detail, but it’s gotten better as the series has gone on, or else I’ve just gotten used to it and stopped remarking on how I wished Michael Giacchino could go back in time and score the series. Either way, it’ll be considered in a future post.]
Enjoying these posts – keep ’em coming.
On the credits thing – my understanding is that there are real-world contractual issues. I’m not entirely sure but they may be protected/mandated by the unions involved. I do know for example that if an actor has less than a certain number of lines you can omit their name.
Anyway my advice is to try to avoid looking at the names on the screen.
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