Cultural Catchup Project: Plumbing the Depths of Darkness (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Plumbing the Depths of Darkness

May 23rd, 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.

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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21 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

21 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: Plumbing the Depths of Darkness (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. jbucksnb

    I’ve been lurking for a while, but just now decided to pop in and leave a comment- great reviews, by the way, it’s great to read them.

    I went through Buffy at the end of last year and ended in January, then immediately tried to get my friends hooked. We had an intense weekend finishing up to season three, and on a rewatch, The Zeppo is an amazingly strong episode, probably one of the best in the first three seasons. What’s so great about The Zeppo is how the developments to Xander’s character aren’t immediate, but instead the beginning to a gradual change which his season seven character embodies.

    I can’t wait to read the Doppelgängland review… that entire disc is full of great episodes!

  2. Mel

    Wes is my favorite character in the entire Buffy/Angel run, though when I saw season 3 live I hated him (and I still find delight when everyone flouts him and Giles is the “cool” watcher)…with Angel, he has the most interesting character arc I have ever encountered in television (though I suspect Mal could have rivaled or exceeded it, had Firefly continued long enough)

    • Susan

      I agree completely. Willow is my favorite character, but Wesley’s arc is a thing of beauty.

    • Eldritch

      “… Giles is the “cool” watcher…”

      At this point, it’s almost hard to remember that Giles started off as the stiff prig Wesley is. Watching the two of them remove and wipe their glasses in concert was a good laugh. Giles seems like a constant, yet he has grown considerably through the series thus far.

    • Tausif Khan

      Joss was asked in some interview which character was his favorite to write and he said Wesley because of his character arc. I hated Wesley on his run in Buffy (because I was supposed to). But yes There is a lot of richness in the character. One of those one offs that Joss turns into a really deep character, a trademark if you will.

  3. Susan

    “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 think you’re right, Myles, in preferring option #2. It’s also interesting to think of the desensitization as the *point*: the opening of the Hellmouth is so constant a threat that it’s almost a workaday problem. Sure, it’s world in peril stuff; sure, lives are in danger and loved ones are almost lost. Must be Tuesday.

    “The Zeppo” offers us a chance to understand that Xander is/can be more than the doughnut guy, even if the rest of the group doesn’t see it, but it’s also true that he *isn’t* needed to fight the battle the rest are fighting.

    Each season’s Big Bad presents a new and increasingly complicated challenge; defining that challenge and understanding the battle informs each season’s major arc. But meanwhile the Hellmouth is always chomping, and Buffy and the Scoobies wake up each morning knowing that they might well encounter one kind of demon or another. The minor ones, even the end of the world AGAIN, become almost comforting in that they remind our heroes that the world is still spinning.

    Another really insightful review, Myles. I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying your project!

  4. Austin

    Hey! Haven’t left a comment in a while.

    I told you when you were doing Season 2: the camera (Joss) love Willow crying. You will see more. But I will agree I think this is one of the better ones.

    I was going to leave a comment about how you ain’t seen nothin’ yet as far as Wesley goes, but I was beat to it. I will have to disagree with the commenter that said Mal might have eclipsed Wes had Firefly gone on long enough. I don’t see Mal changing so fundamentally as we see Wes do, no matter how long he might have been given. I think the core principle that made him who he was would have stayed with him, something I can’t say about the Wes we see in later seasons of Angel.

  5. Eldritch

    “What I’m finding really evocative .. is the ways in which the darkness seems darker …even as the lighter stories are perhaps the lightest we’ve ever seen …..two things which few shows rarely attempt to do simultaneously.”

    This is part of Whedon’s magic, combining dark and scary with funny. It was his mission with the original movie (though that was taken out of his hands by the director). Nobody does it better.

  6. Ahhhh… you’ve finally reached Faith’s first steps down the dark path. I’m not sure Angel would have been able to reach her, or any of them. She wasn’t ready at that point to face up to the consequences of her actions. She wasn’t emotionally stable enough… but we can all agree that Wesley made things much, MUCH worse.

    And I agree with those above: Wesley’s character arc throughout both series is the best! Followed by Willow’s and Faith’s in my opinion.

  7. diane

    Welcome back, Myles! Missed you, and the whole cultured catsup thing.

    Great reviews, as always; I want to read it again before commenting in much depth. However, one interesting point of meta-story can be raised at this point.

    This was David Fury’s first episode as solo writer for the series. (He and his wife co-authored one in season 2, “Go Fish” I think, but this was David trying on his own to become part of the writing staff.) It was Fury’s idea to fire Giles from the Watchers’ Council; that was not in Joss’s story plan. But Joss loved it and ran with it. If not for that bit of major risk-taking, there would have been no Wesley Wyndam-Price.

    There’s been previous discussion of the Watchers’ Council, how they withhold real information and assistance. Now we’ve had our first glimpse of them in action. Giles is dead-on when he says they’re removed from the front lines of the battle. Whatever their origins (covered in season 7), their business, and their real reason for existing, is power, and they achieve that by controlling the core sources of information. They raise the value of their information by controlling its scarcity. It’s a lousy way to run this war.

    • rosengje

      And I love how deftly they set that reverse of the Watchers Council up. In Revelations, Giles brushes away the Gwendolyn Post debacle with a comment that the Council swears there was a memo. I originally took that as just a funny throwaway line, but a few short episodes later we see just how problematic their inefficiencies can become.

  8. Bob Kat

    Another indicator of what can happen to/in a bureaucracy, again losing sight of what it’s really there to do.
    Some fans defend _Cruciamentum_ as a reasonable test of a Slayer’s adaptability, but I side with those who say once she’s called she isn’t going to *be* without her powers so it isn’t testing anything real.

    Wesley was annoying and meant to be, but at the same time he never really was given a fair shake. His decision to interfere in Faith’s “Angelhab” was probably driven mainly by his own orthodox adherence to the rules, but was also driven by the sheer fact that he had to find out about her killing Finch by eavesdropping. And maybe it would ahve worked; Fiath was at least mouthing the words, more than she’d done before.
    Keeep your eyes on how Faith’s relationship with the Mayor develops in detail.

  9. Eldritch

    A thing I like about the “Bad Girls” episode is how the writers let Buffy explore Faith’s dark side of the force.

    In the season one episodes, Buffy was introduced as a rebel. She rebelled against her destiny and the discipline Giles (and through him, the Watcher’s Counsel) tried to impose on her. Butt frankly, she really wasn’t much of a rebel. She only rebelled as any middle class high schooler. She only wanted to be normal.

    Her rebellion focused just around her wanting to have a social life. Dating boys; leading cheers; being popular. At no point did she assume her special destiny and powers granted her exemption from the basic social contract that binds us all. Her moral compass never deviated from true north. She may have skipped a class or two, but she didn’t rob banks or violate the rights of people she didn’t like. If you imagine the 1950’s when they claimed the biggest high school student problem was chewing gum in class, she was like that. Basically, well behaved. I mean well behaved in the best sense, but it’s also seen as having a stick up your butt. Fighting evil reinforced her strict conventional morality.

    Of course, once she embraced her destiny, she became the the big dog in the group.

    Then Faith blew into town like Hurricane Katrina . She was looser than Buffy, funnier, and much more fun. The Scoobies gravitated around her as she stole Buffy’s thunder. Initially, suspicious, then simply jealous, Buffy was slow to fall under Faith’s spell. But in “Bad Girls” she give’s Faith’s approach a whirl, and she soon runs into trouble because Faith lives by a very different moral order.

    Their adventura starts, innocently enough with cutting class (though it still kind of makes me squirm that she skips a test). But their adventure quickly intensifies. Quickly, Buffy finds herself escaping arrest for burglarizing a sporting goods store. Then zap, she’s an accessory to murder.

    Faith’s moral compass tells her she has special rights because she’s saved so many people from evil. So if she needs something, she has the right to take it. It’s a tempting posture to assume. If a hero saves a town, don’t the townsfolk reward the hero with special treatment? However, she doesn’t just accept special treatment, she feels entitled to take special rights. But she goes on to believe when someone gets in her way, she has the right to push him out of the way. So she has no problem covering up her unintentional killing of Assistant Mayor Finch. To her, collateral damage is okay. And she’s dragged Buffy along with her. Buffy’s experiment with the wild side plunges her into a nightmare.

    If “What’s My Line” showed how Buffy might have become had she been as no nonsense as Kendra, “Bad Girls” shows us the other extreme. You have to wonder what kind of Watcher Faith had. Did she teach her she was special privilege? Was she too laissez faire? Did she try to restrain Faith’s behavior? Or was Faith just out of control from something within herself? Whatever it was, Faith embraced the dark side, making her overly independent, untrusting, self-important, and driven by fear and insecurity.

    I felt “The Wish” showed a version of Buffy who was the slayer Faith would had become. She was like a Faith who had fought evil too many years. As bold as Faith was, she had only been a slayer the short time since Kendra’s death. Perhaps her inexperience was the source of her boldness. With more years of experience, “The Wish’s” Buffy had become darker. She was withdrawn, uncaring, and reckless in the fearless, self-destructive way a soldier who has seen too much can become.

    It was an interest study in contrasts.

    (sorry about the length.)

  10. Andie

    I know it’s been said by commenters above, but Wesley’s character development is awe-inspiring. I’ve never seen a character undergo such drastic change while still remaining true to their nature. Wesley is a work of genius.

  11. diane

    Just for the record, evil does take MasterCard. It’s a hell of an interest rate, though.

    For all Faith’s brashness, she’s a very frightened, lonely, and insecure young girl. What kind of watcher did she have? For one thing, dead; that’s an abandonment as much as Faith’s parental issues. Plus the guilt of watching her watcher die. Plus the total head-frak of Gwendolyn Post.

    Who can lead her out of this? Not Buffy, for all she tries; too much friction there. Not Giles. Not Wesley, at least not now. But watch Faith’s relationship with Angel.

    My favorite episode from this sequence is “Helpless.” Regardless of the absurd cruelty of the Crucimentum, the courage and resourcefulness that Buffy shows is amazing. So is the slow reconnection between Buffy and Giles, which wouldn’t have happened if Giles had not been fired.

    Consequences is a good episode to compare with “Ted.” “Ted” hit all the right notes about the problems of a Slayer killing a human, but then waived it away by making Ted a robot. No such escape here; Buffy has to deal with it, because it’s going to happen again, sooner rather than later.

    Goodbye, Mr. Trick. He’s really the last vampire to make a play for being a major villain. For Buffy to continue grow, each major villian must be harder to fight than anything she’s ever fought before. But Buffy knows how to fight vampires. Onward and upward, as they say.

  12. Bob Kat

    eldritch; Good poitn about Bizarrobuffy’s having spent more years at it than Faith; I’ll admit I hadn’t considered that before as part of it, altho I still think my explanation of Faith’s having coping skills Buffy didn’t as the bigger explanation for the Faith/BizarroBuffy differences.

    diane: I don’t recall its happenign again in any rela sense, but we’ll see when we get there, don’t want to spoil Myles.

    I’d never cosndiered before the possible shortcomings of Faith’s first Watcher. I’d always thoguth she was comeptent and did ehr best and the issue was Faith’s personality and more important her upbrininging in bad neighborhoods with real family support.

    • diane

      I have no reason to question the competence of Faith’s first watcher, but Faith did watch him/her die. For someone with Faith’s issues, that might be considerably more traumatic than Buffy’s experience of seeing her first watcher die.

      By the way, one of the few really good Buffy novels covers Faith’s pre-Sunnydale time, including her first watcher. Non-canon, of course, but worth a read. Go Ask Malice.

      • Eldritch

        I don’t think we know enough about Faith’s first watcher to make any firm statement, so her competence is an open question.

        But she (I think the watcher was a woman) was the first to have the opportunity to try to work with Faith. Whether she was a Gwendolyn Post or a Rupert Giles, Faith saw her powers as a source of entitlement.

        • Aeryl

          I think we are supposed to think that Faith’s problems with morality and authority come from her traumatic and abusive childhood.

          She mentions her alcohol absentee mother a few times, and she has obvious control issues with sex, **SPOILER FOR REAPPEARANCE** especially in “Who Are You” where she is obviously is triggered during Missionary sex, which explains her desire to always be on top, as demonstrated with Xander and explained with others.

          The lure of power and wealth was too strong after a life of abuse and poverty. Also, like Buffy, she was obviously not on the Council’s radar, as Kendra was, and other Potentials are, so the lessons about power and responsibility never had time to sink in before she was left to her own devices. But, where Buffy came from a comfortable (if emotionally unstable) middle class household, Faith didn’t, and this didn’t give her the same morality that Buffy brings to her powers.

          **More Spoilers from Season 8 comics**

          It’s also interesting that Buffy eventually adopts Faith’s morality about possessions and wealth, especially once she has to deal with the adult issues of how to pay the bills. This of course causes repurcussions, but it wouldn’t be Buffy without it.

  13. powertrash

    Just keep an eye out for Mr. Wesley–I personally believe that he’s the *best* character in the Buffyverse. While he doesn’t get much showtime here, he is badass.

    I blame the Scoobies a good bit for the way Faith reacted here. How is she paying for that motel room? With odd jobs? Buffy genuinely should have let her move in with them. There wasn’t much genuine attempts at integrating her into the group, despite what we see in Faith, Trick and Love. She’s lost a lot and had a hard life and the only person who treats her right in all of Sunnydale is, well, you’ll see.

    Anyway, I love Season Three and it is very, very consistantly good. I really enjoy reading your reviews of this show; I keep trying to get my friends into BtVS but the problem is you really have to watch it from the beginning-ish.

  14. Pingback: Cultural Catchup Project: “Doppelgangland” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) « Cultural Learnings

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