Cultural Catchup Project: Bewitched, Bothered but Familiar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Bewitched, Bothered but Familiar

May 19th, 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.

As viewers of television, we value the element of surprise: we like to be shocked, to see things we didn’t expect and get that surge of adrenaline that comes with the best kind of storytelling. However, at the same time, we want to feel as if things are familiar: we may not want to be able to predict precisely what will happen, but we do want to have some sense of how things would play out should something unexpected unfold. In short, the best television delivers familiarity within the unfamiliar, going beyond our expectations without shattering our understanding of these characters or this universe.

With a show like Buffy, the greatest challenge is separating the intense fan responses to the series from the characters themselves. When Angel suddenly returned from the realms of Hell and struggled to reconnect with his past life, I was pleased: he’s an interesting character who complicates the protagonist’s life in fascinating ways, so why wouldn’t I want him to return and bring with him the baggage from “Becoming?” However, I realized in “Revelations” that the rest of the show’s characters wouldn’t be quite so pleased to see him, their own reactions to Angel as a character separate from their enjoyment of complex serialized narratives.

Angel’s return was unpredictable (except for the decision to keep him in the opening credits, of course), but the way in which characters respond feels familiar, continuous with what we’ve seen in the past two seasons. And when the show turns over the spotlight onto the character’s past in “Amends,” as he becomes weighed down by the intense guilt pervasive within his soul, it manages to capture the unique qualities which make the character so difficult to relate to and thus so easy to empathize with – this is not a show with one-dimensional struggles, and Angel’s return manages to be both dramatic and intriguing without turning any of the show’s characters into single-minded archetypes in the chaos surrounding his mysterious return.

“Revelations” isn’t really an episode about Angel, but rather about how everyone else views Angel: Buffy trusts him because she loves him and feels responsible for his current state, but the rest of the show’s characters have plenty of reason to think otherwise. It isn’t really a “revelation” that Giles doesn’t cheer about Angel’s return considering that he last saw Angel when he was being tortured by the guy, and Xander has always held a grudge against Angel which was only confirmed when his actions placed both Willow and Cordelia in trouble towards the end of the second season. And if you consider the basic facts of the matter, there’s no reason Faith would trust Angel both considering her love of killing vampires and her severe trust issues when it comes to her relationship with Watchers.

None of these responses are particularly surprising, but that’s the point of the episode: the revelation is not the way they respond but rather the fact that Angel is alive at all. We’ve known this for a few episodes, and had time to figure out what it means to us as viewers and to Buffy as a character, so we suddenly have to put ourselves in the shoes of everyone else. The show often asks us to relate to Buffy as a primary protagonist, but the episode forces us to question whether she’s making a rational decision, and prompts us to consider whether Angel really can be trusted. Personally, I think I trusted Angel upon his return because of the fact that we saw Willow’s spell work and because we saw in “Becoming” the ways in which the curse changed Angel’s persona, but only Buffy was able to see those final moments, and if I hadn’t seen them I don’t know if I would have believed Buffy either. Accordingly, while they may be acting against our own sense of where this story is heading, I understand the characters’ reluctance to believe Angel, which is why the episode works well in terms of getting them on board: Angel saves Willow’s life, endearing him to pretty much all involved, and his efforts to destroy the glove help Giles at least open up to the idea of it all.

However, his return is not without consequence: while the episode smooths over the group’s view of Angel, it does nothing to solve his crisis of identity, nor does it help Faith learn how to trust in others as everyone learns to trust in Buffy. Eliza Dushku has some great moments as yet another role model in her life is torn away from her (this time due to her hidden motives of world domination), and it makes sense that Faith would be collateral damage in this situation. She struggles to trust Buffy because she doesn’t want to trust anyone but herself, and because trusting Gwendolyn Post placed her life in jeopardy and proved yet another mistake that nearly got other people killed. As much as you could argue that “Revelations” comes to a positive conclusion, Faith is evidence that it is never quite that easy, a lesson which Angel continues to learn throughout this section of the season.

“Amends” is an episode which isn’t important narratively so much as it is important emotionally: yes, this show has enough stories focusing on love and tragedy that you can’t necessary separate narrative and emotion, but The First Evil are not a villain we’ve seen before nor do they have any particular personality. Rather, they are a clever excuse for Angel to become haunted by his past, as victims from his distant past and his recent exploits (Jenny Calendar, in particular) appear to him and serve as the world’s least effective psychologist. What Angel wants is to be able to be with Buffy, but he knows this is impossible, and so the First traumatizes him to the point where he chooses to sacrifice himself to end the suffering after rejecting the suggestion that killing Buffy would be easier.

Willow and Oz reunite within the same episode, and we’re meant to look at their hangups (her infidelity) as something that can be worked through with the sense of trust and love that we saw such a focus on in “Revelations.” The problem with Buffy and Angel is that they can’t just “work it out,” which leads to the sort of broad character actions (Angel’s attempt to kill himself to stop the pain) that could become too big for the show to handle. However, while Willow humorously overplays her side of the reunion in an effort to win back Oz’s trust through sex and Barry White, Angel’s actions are much more internal and wonderfully played by David Boreanaz. This episode, unlike “Revelations,” is definitely about Angel, and Boreanaz is really tremendous as he captures the character’s inner pain without chewing the scenery in the process.

And it all culminates, of course, with that scene on the hill overlooking Sunnydale. While it events with the magical snowfall which allows them to enjoy the remainder of the evening together, the scene is filled with raw emotion that I honestly didn’t expect. While Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar have had some strong scenes, they really brought something different to the table here: Buffy isn’t willing to see Angel leave her life all over again, and Angel isn’t willing to keep suffering this personal struggle, and both actors captured the intensity of those emotions without going over the top. I say that I want things to seem both surprising and familiar, and this scene is really the ultimate test of that: I’m surprised that they were both able to pull it off with such nuance and emotion, but yet the way those emotions surfaced felt perfectly in-tune with their characters and the journeys they have taken.

Angel’s return started out as a mystery, but over time it became a catalyst for these sorts of emotional episodes that speak to the other characters and their struggles. The show went back to the character because of just how complicated his existence became, and rather than ruining the impact of the tragedy of “Becoming” it has extended its impact on the show’s characters rather than allowing it to remain isolated within Buffy. There are some risks involved with this particular decision, but the show (and in particular Boreanaz) stepped up to the plate to deliver a continuation of Angel’s story which feels like a revelation while remaining familiar in ways that tie it into past storylines and continues to build future potential.

Cultural Observations

  • In another connection between the two episodes, Faith arrives at Buffy’s house for Christmas Eve in “Amends” despite her trust issues which played out in “Revelations” – the beat really only allows Buffy to leave Faith at the house to protect her mother, but it’s still a nice turn for the character that Dushku handles nicely.
  • There’s something interesting in the way that the First influences dreams – while we’ve seen dreams serve as prophecy in the past, here they became a sort of living trauma, reflecting the increased dynamism in the series as a whole at this point in the third season.
  • It’s been too long since I’ve seen the episodes to really comment on small details (forgive me!), but I do remember that this series of episodes has led to the “throw your hands in front of the screen and blindly press Play Episode to avoid seeing clear spoilers in DVD menu images” strategy being mandatory.
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36 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

36 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: Bewitched, Bothered but Familiar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. Mimi

    we saw Lily’s spell work

    😉 Lily’s on How I Met Your Mother – I think you mean Willow here.

    And totally agreed on the DVD menus – I watched Buffy for the first time post-Firefly (my Whedon intro back in 2002/3) on DVD and wow are they some sucky DVDs! Don’t watch any extras at all until you’ve seen the episodes (that’s right, the extra on disc 3 will spoil you for disc 6!) and keep your eyes off the menu!

  2. “the fact that we saw Lily’s spell work and because we saw in “Becoming” the ways in which the curse changed Angel’s persona” – I think somebody’s been watching a bit too much “How I met your Mother.”

    “Amends” is kind of a precursor to Angel’s own series. We see alot of the same themes and even the same storyline played from this episode that resonate heavily with “Angel”. The episode is kind of a necessity if you want to truly understand the spin-off. Just thought I’d mention it.

    Great evaluation though. How far are you into the series at this point cause you’ve not posted in a while?

  3. Cheyne

    I also recommend blocking the lower half of the screen when they are showing guest stars.

    • Jimi

      I almost would just skip the intro all together when you are early in the season as well.. Then again.. I can only watch the intro so many times per season before I want to jam a stake in my ears so I don’t have to hear the song 24 times. lol

  4. lyvvie

    Yay! Despite having seen every episode of Bufffy at least 20 times I still want more so reading through new eyes is great. Really enjoying these reviews.

    ‘Amends’ is an really an important episode for Angel the character and Angel the series. But more on that later no doubt! I find it quite hard to comment without being spoilery so I’ll keep things vague.

    Have you decided on whether you’re going to watch Buffy and Angel as aired of season-by-season. I’d recommend as aired. Actually I’m really looking forward to you getting on to Angel, I think you may like it even more than Buffy. For me Angel S2 in particular is a masterpiece. The idea of watching that and Buffy S5 together for the first time fills my with jealousy.

    • Aeryl

      Don’t forget that certain “elements” introduced in Amends end up being pretty crucial in the Buffy, too.

      I find that the way Joss & Co dealt with Angel’s return within Buffy to be totally awesome, knowing that Joss fully intended to leave Angel for dead after Season 2, which as you pointed out Myles, would have left the emotional impact of “Becoming” solely with Buffy.

      • Eldritch

        At first blush, bringing back a character from the dead strikes me as a real groaner, an obvious pandering to the audience for ratings. On another show, I’m sure I’d feel cheaply manipulated.

        But I have to say, the way Whedon and Co. handled integrating Angel into the ongoing plot lines went a long way to smoothing over that concern for me. Once things got going, it didn’t feel like Bobby stepping out of the shower again.

      • Becker

        Are you sure about hat as the spin-off was mentioned on the news five minutes after S2 ended.

        • Aeryl

          Yep.

          They finished shooting the season months before it aired, so that’s probably when the decision was made.

          • Susan

            Yeah, I’ve heard/read/whatever that Joss originally meant to kill Angel off, but then the network indicated its interest in spinning him off. Joss has said (on the ep commentary, IIRC) that it was “I Only Have Eyes for You” that convinced him that DB could carry his own show.

    • Susan

      “Yay! Despite having seen every episode of Bufffy at least 20 times I still want more”

      So glad to know I’m not the only one that just can’t let go, even for a minute. 😀

      • diane

        “Let go”? What does this mean?

      • lyvvie

        I don’t know what it is but I never get tired of watching Buffy and Angel. I’m even watching an episode on SyFy UK as I type this! I start watching the series an I keep thinking ‘ooh, can’t wait for S4/S5/S6 etc but then when I get to those episode I think ‘ooh, would love to watch S2 again’, and so the cycle goes!

        Plus there are plenty of people out there to convert…

  5. tjbw

    “Rather, they are a clever excuse for Angel to become haunted by his past, as victims from his distant past and his recent exploits (Jenny Calendar, in particular) appear to him and serve as the world’s least effective psychologist. What Angel wants is to be able to be with Buffy, but he knows this is impossible, and so the First traumatizes him to the point where he chooses to sacrifice himself to end the suffering after rejecting the suggestion that killing Buffy would be easier.”

    Nope. I have a feeling that you will get the urge to rewatch ‘Amends’ at a later date.

    • diane

      Exactly right. Angel’s curse is to be haunted by his past. He gets his soul back, plus he has perfect memory of everything he’s done. His suffering doesn’t start with “Amends”, although this theme plays out much more in Angel, the series.

      The key line in “Amends” is, “Am I a thing worth saving?” The question of redemption becomes a key for many character arcs in both series, especially as “high school is hell” is pretty much finished with Graduation Day.

      • lyvvie

        I agree. I also think ‘it’s not the monster in me that needs killing, it’s the man’ is also a rather important line.

        • diane

          I’ve never quite understood this one, because the definition of Angelus is the monster, without the man. How do you interpret that line?

          • lyvvie

            For me it’s the blurring of the line between Angel and Angelus. Is Angel a thing worth saving, is a he righteous man? Angelus did bad things without a soul, without a conscience, Angel still wants to do bad things even though he has one. He has morals and knows the consequences of his actions – who is worse? Not sure I can expand on that further without being spoilery but as you’ve seen ‘Angel’ you probably see what I’m getting at. Free will. Redemption etc.

            I suppose also add to that that without the human part of Angel would Angelus have been so sadistic? As Willow says in S2, despite losing his soul Buffy is still the only thing he thinks about – albeit in a different way. It’s a big argument over how much of the original personality of the person who is turned influences what the vampire becomes.

            And some of The First’s angel in this episode is to show Angel how worthless he was as a human before he was ever a vampire, somehow implying that a better man would have the strength to resist, or the strength to kill himself. Does he need redemption for just his acts as Angelus or for what he did as a man as well? If he was never good, even as a human, is he a thing worth saving?

            Hope that all makes sense!

          • diane

            Lyvvie, thanks for the thoughtful response. The question of how Angelus’s personality and behavior fuse with the man Angel was before is a very complicated issue. We have glimpses, but not much more. And yeah, beyond here, there be spoilers.

            I do appreciate how Joss has dealt with the questions of redemption and free will. It’s a bit early to start that discussion, too, but a point for Myles to consider might be that if he wants to go deeply into this topic, he might want to view Buffy S4 and Angel S1 in parallel. The mid-season cross-over that starts with “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You?” is really fertile ground for discussing redemption. (As are some of the preceding Angel S1 episodes.)

          • Eldritch

            I never got the impression Angel was ever all that bad. True, he was a wastrel and a layabout, but he never did anything all that evil.

            Without a soul, Angelus was remarkably cruel. Re-ensouled, Angel remembered all Angelus had done as though he had done those things himself.

            I never saw Angel as a man who was guilty over evil he wanted to commit. He felt guilty, because he remembered Angelus’ acts as his own. As example, the killing of his own family and enjoying it.

            To me, it seemed Angel was suicidal because he felt over whelmed by Angelus’ memories, not because he wanted to commit evil acts himself.

          • Susan

            I agree, Eldritch. Also, less subtly, because he doesn’t feel strong enough to withstand the temptation to slake his need for Buffy, or to continue to live with the torment of the unsatisfied need.

          • diane

            Really trying to tip-toe through the potential spoilers here… Myles, maybe you don’t want to read this!

            Yes, pre-vamp Angel was a layabout and wastrel, but I suspect that underlying all that was rage, self-hatred, and self-destruction. As evidence, look at his first acts after being turned.

            It’s hard to say much more than that until Myles has seen the relevant episodes. But I’d love to come back to this topic when it’s time. Especially after the big confrontation in “Orpheus.”

  6. Aeryl

    Also, since you brought up the dreams. I would recommend jotting down all the nonsense stuff that’s brought up in the Slayers’ dreams, just so you have something to reference back to when it all starts coming true.

  7. Yes, yes, I finally got caught up on Lily/Willow – guess I’ve got HIMYM on the brain since I’ve yet to watch Monday’s episode.

    And to answer an above question, I’ve yet to get beyond Gingerbread due to life commitments and the like.

    • Susan

      You know, I’ve never been able to really get into HIMYM, strictly because I can’t let Willow go. Lily irritates me because she’s not Willow. Sad, I know. But Willow is, hands down, my favorite character in BtVS.

      Then again, I loved Hannigan’s turn as Trina Echolls on Veronica Mars–so maybe it’s that the character of Lily is just similar enough to Willow to cause me heartburn. I don’t know.

  8. mothergunn

    Yeah. “Amends” is definitely an important ep narratively, although you can’t really see it on a first viewing. Seriously, you’ll get the itch to come back and watch it again.

  9. rosengje

    Revelations, Becoming Part 2, and Dead Man’s Party are the episodes that conspired to make me hate Xander in Buffy’s early seasons. Xander eventually redeemed himself for me in the later seasons (although that has a lot to do with how sidelined he was), but I really find his behavior toward Angel to be indefensible. I know that his decision not to tell Buffy about Willow’s spell is probably the character’s most controversial decision, but his speech in Revelations just makes me irrationally angry. Particularly when he mentions Jenny without any regard for Giles’s feelings. I do wish that they writers would have given Buffy a better chance to defend her decision to hide Angel– I think there’s a lot of emotion that gets tossed aside there because of how combative the discussion becomes.

    • Eldritch

      I mean this in a constructive way, but I thought everything Xander said was right.

      Frankly, as the audience, we want Angel to return, because he’s Buffy’s boyfriend. We love Buffy so we identify with her and what she wants. I love her too.

      But looking at it from the point of view of the other characters, Angel’s a ticking time bomb. Let me ask, is it possible that he might go evil again? I’m sure you’d look askance at me if I asked you to store my dynamite in your home. I might assure you that it’s perfectly safe if handled properly. But it’d be reasonable for you to have your doubts.

      As Myles said above, everyone but Buffy has good reasons to see him dead. Xander and Faith distrust all vampires. Not only did he kill Jenny, but Giles was tortured for hours by an Angel who enjoyed it. Every Scoobie has good reason to worry about Angels’ return to evil.

      I sympathize with Buffy, but it was wrong of her to keep his return secret. She acted selfishly and I feel it’s reasonable to call her actions reckless.

      • Susan

        I agree with both rosengje *and* Eldritch on this point. I get so infuriated with Xander and the whole gang during the “intervention” scene in “Revelations” that I fast forward through it these days. But that’s my visceral reaction, being privy to private moments with Buffy and between Buffy and Angel that the group isn’t.

        Truly, I think the situation is played perfectly–every character behaves exactly as he or she should, considering who he or she is and what he or she has been through regarding Angel.

        Considering that a feature of my Buffy obsession is a tendency to forget they’re not actually real people :), I’ve often wondered what would have happened if, during “Beauty and the Beasts,” Buffy had opened up to Giles when they were sitting on the library steps talking about how Angel would be if he came back from hell.

        It makes sense that she wouldn’t–Buffy doesn’t really trust her friends, or anyone, in that way–but that might have been her opportunity to avoid at least Giles’ condemnation.

      • Mel

        what Xander said was right, and I love him, but he is such a dick about it it makes me want him to be wrong.

  10. Bob Kat

    I think you mostly grasped “Amends” accurately, but yes, you’ll want to re-watch it at future points.
    Oz forgives Willow with the cheating issue only being about 97% resolved; Wil has that effect on people.
    I do see the issue with Angel’s dangerousness; yes, the curse is in place, but even if he and buffy are careful, how do they know it can’t be broken differently? But (okay, screen time limited for dialogue details) I still think one of the Gang could’ve acknowledged Buffy’s point that the re-curse had worked. (that’s soemthing I refer to in my own fnafics; I ahev a self-insertion character who sees Angel durign the snowstorm and immediately goes for his cross but, when Buffy assures him things have changed back, he takes her word for it.)
    Importantly, Angel still ends with less confidence in himself than Buffy has in him.
    and the woman who palyed Gwendolyn Post, Mrs., amiddle age-ish authority figure, also once starred ina TV-movie as Diana Spencer, who was younger than I. BtVS is not good for my personal ego.

    “Corn grits” on the graduation.

    • diane

      “Corn grits” &emdash; love it! Very southern. Right up there with my old favorite, “Conga rats” (envision a line of dancing rodents).

  11. Bob Kat

    I seem to kill every thread here :-).

  12. On the subject of DVD spoilers: this is still far off, but with the first disc of season 6 there’s a real whopper of a spoiler on the disc itself; that is to say, a major plot point of the season is spelled out in the image printed on that first disc. I didn’t want to spoil it for other people I might lend the show to, so on my copy I’ve scribbled over the image with a black marker. You might want to have someone else do the same for you.

    On the other hand, you may already have been spoiled somewhere, and the same massive spoiler is also on the inside cover of the season 6 case. So maybe there’s no point in even trying.

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