Plumbing the Depths of Darkness
May 23rd, 2010
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I am at the point in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s run where I’m starting to see the trends forming: when I hear that it’s Buffy’s birthday, for example, I know that things aren’t going to go so well.
However, I’m still capable of being surprised when I’m supposed to be surprised; when the show wants to pull the rug out from under me, chances are I’m still going trip and fall just like everyone did at the end of the last century. Part of Buffy’s appeal is the ability to zig when you expect them to zag, to turn a story from a playful romp into something much darker. What I’m finding really evocative in the third season is the ways in which the darkness seems darker (see: “Consequences”) even as the lighter stories are perhaps the lightest we’ve ever seen them (see: “The Zeppo,” although in a weird sort of way I’ll get into), two things which few shows rarely attempt to do simultaneously.
I think it ultimately works, both because it’s extremely well-executed and (more importantly) because it’s remarkably ballsy.
“Helpless,” you may have noticed, is a dark episode: Giles purposefully placed Buffy into a dangerous situation, the Watcher’s Council strips Giles of his title as Watcher, and Buffy and her mother are nearly killed. It is an episode with intense consequences, and an episode where trust and loyalty are thrown into question. The idea that the same people who are supposed to protect Buffy are those who would place her into danger entirely erodes what faith we have in the Watcher’s Council, which means that our central characters really are alone in this fight. This doesn’t mean they are helpless, of course, but it does mean that they don’t have an army behind them. While the Watcher’s Council wages war, Buffy is the person who has to fight it, and doing that without any knowledgeable support is a handicap that an 18-year old shouldn’t have to deal with.
What’s intriguing to me is that “Helpless” achieves this without placing the world in peril: Kralik is dangerous but has no plans to take over the world, which means that all of the consequences are about character rather than the end of the world. It’s fitting, then, that the following episode (“The Zeppo”) is played for laughs despite actually featuring the end of the world. The idea of telling a story from Xander’s point of view, showing mere glimpses of the greater conflict where Buffy and Faith deal with an opened Hellmouth, is an inspired one in general, but it raises some interesting questions. Does it cheapen the show’s storytelling to have the Hellmouth open without really spending time on how, why, or the way in which it’s closed? Or is the potential desensitization within the story worth it for the statement it makes about Xander’s value as a character?
I’m tempted to lean towards the latter: while there has been plenty of discussion of late as it relates to Xander’s character and his actions as it relates to Angel (and his treatment of Buffy as it relates to those actions), but I think Faith’s arrival and Willow’s growing usefulness from a witchcraft perspective have in fact left his character in the lurch, so the speak. The episode comes at a key time to sort of celebrate what the character brings to the show, and it is smart to have all of the episode’s plot developments be largely vague and unexplained. We don’t know why the school bully is raising the dead or why these new arrivals are trying to open the Hellmouth, but we do know that Xander is the only line of defence. The episode also works because it isn’t without consequences: Xander sleeping with Faith emerges (not coincidentally in “Consequences”), which means that this wasn’t just some madcap adventure. The world will never know that it almost came to an end, but the rest of the gang may never know that they would have died were it not for Xander’s own heroics.
Still, though, there’s a lightness to the episode that we haven’t seen from the show before: it’s not that the show hasn’t had its quirky episodes, but it has rarely ever done an episode where quirkiness overrides the ongoing apocalypse. However, when read back-to-back with “Bad Girls,” you see what they’re going for: when Buffy and Faith start skipping school, you expect that the episode might just let the girls have some fun and continue the lighter perspective that “The Zeppo” offered. However, then the girls are arrested, and then the girls murder Deputy Mayor Alan Finch, and then you remember the darkness of “Helpless” and understand that whatever lightness you saw was only temporary. The episode is like a twist on S1 episode structure, where Buffy and Faith’s behaviour seems to demonize (or in this case exaggerate) traditional teenage rebellion but confined entirely within human nature. This make Finch’s death that much more shocking, coming right after a moment where we are distinctly reminded that this is a very real scenario as opposed to some sort of demonic possession.
“Bad Girls” is a strong episode, but “Consequences” is where the true darkness of this story starts to unfold. The episode plumbs the depths of Faith’s inhumanity, questioning how someone could feel nothing after taking an innocent life and then showing us how she uses his affiliation with the (vampire-affiliated) Mayor as justification, and as she attempts to place the blame on Buffy in order to avoid facing her actions. Eliza Dushku has been pretty great overall, but she is particularly strong when portraying Faith as a teenager withdrawn into a state of denial, and the episode is about seeing how far she’s willing to go. While I never quite believed that she would let Buffy die (since, you know, it goes on for another four seasons and I know that Buffy only dies once more before “Once More, With Feeling!”), I never expected she would affiliate herself with the now invincible Mayor – that final scene entirely took the rug out from under me, presenting a situation where it seems like the status quo could be restored and then showing us something which completely undermines any such restoration.
Early in the season, the show was getting mileage out of conflict which festered so long that it exploded (the gang’s response to Buffy’s runaway act, for example), but in “Consequences” we see a new twist on this. Willow’s concerns about Buffy and Faith’s closeness (as seen in “Bad Girls”) is fairly quickly resolved as Buffy breaks down and tells her what happened, while Faith’s denial is allowed to fester not because no one is willing to talk about it but rather because things keep getting in their way. I’m loving Alexis Denisof as Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, but we’re meant to despise what his character stands for, and it’s possible that Angel might have gotten through to Faith had it not been for his meddling. While before it felt like the show was keeping things from happening because they wanted to build suspense. It would seem strange if Giles and everyone else didn’t at least try to talk to Faith, so the show creates logical barriers that would keep them from getting through to her.
And yet to some degree Willow is right: Faith might be too crazy to be tamed, too willing to nearly kill Xander in an act of sexual foreplay and too willing (as we see) to fall in line with the Mayor when things don’t go her way. However, that craziness merges with the series’ darkness to create a situation where we have no idea what to expect next, and where the show could head in any multitude of directions thanks to the current state of affairs. While the second season clearly setup Angelus as the villain at around this stage in the season, here the show is blurring the line between human and demon in a more complex fashion which could have very easily backfired on a lesser show, and I have to commend them for that.
- I didn’t actually realize that I stopped my recent Buffy watching right before the one episode that everyone cried out for an individual review of, so I’ll be getting to “Doppelgangland” on its own later this week.
- Interesting use of Cordelia in these episodes: she’s returning to her Season One position of just hanging around and making wisecracks, but the cracks are wiser, and I liked her role in “The Zeppo” as a foil for Xander.
- Alyson Hannigan and Sarah Michelle Gellar both had some strong moments in “Consequences,” but boy did Hannigan ever nail Willow’s response to learning that Xander slept with Faith. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to have that response in an episode with no Oz whatsoever, but it was still a beautifully honest scene.
- Speaking of Oz, “I’m oddly full today” was a wonderful final line in the generally great final scene of “The Zeppo.”
- Sad to say goodbye to Mr. Trick: after his introduction he never really got to do anything, and while I was pleased to see the Mayor emerge as the “real” Big Bad I think it sort of kept Trick from getting his due. Still, he was funny until the bitter end, so it seemed a fitting way for him to make his exit.