Pulling Back the Curtain
June 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’ve talked a bit along the way about the notion of spoilers as it relates to watching these series. I know enough about Buffy as a whole that there are certain things I have unknowingly committed to memory which have effectively spoiled certain elements of the series. For example, I distinctly remember a marathon of the “Top 10” Buffy episodes that my brother taped on television at some point early in the decade, and during that time I remember seeing bits and pieces of “Hush,” and “Once More with Feeling!” As a result, there are certain images etched in my mind, in some cases mistakenly (as we learned when I thought it was Cordelia with Xander in “Once More with Feeling”) but in all cases meaningfully. For better or for worse, Buffy’s substantial cultural capital meant that there were things about the show I internalized without fully understanding the context.
In some ways, the Cultural Catchup Project is a dangerous way to watch the show if I’m concerned about further spoilers, but in reality nothing that has been “revealed” by the comments on these posts hasn’t been fairly clearly choreographed by other signifiers. While I remain wary of substantial plot spoilers which may not be so easily predicted, it is only inevitable that watching a series which aired a decade ago and doing so with an observational eye will undoubtedly reveal things that may have surprised other viewers at the time.
So long as the show around them remains entertaining, as it does when Joss Whedon and Co. finally pull back the curtain on Buffy’s fourth season in “Wild at Heart” and (particularly) “The Initiative,” all these subtle spoilers will do is alter the experience from one of shock and surprise to one of appreciation and curiosity. It may not be the same, but it is not definitively less rewarding either, indicating how no one person will view a series in an identical fashion as any other.
Seth Green’s exit at the conclusion of “Wild at Heart” is one of those circumstances where spoilers have somewhat affected my attachment to a character from the very beginning. I like Oz quite a bit, but there was never a point where he felt like he was going to stick around forever as a result of my knowledge of Willow’s impending romantic involvement. Yes, I am aware at the direction which Willow takes in subsequent episodes (I’m avoiding spoiling in case others with less knowledge are reading along at my pace), which means that I’ve always known that Oz was not “the one” for Willow. However, what’s interesting is that I think the show has always sort of reflected this: Oz has always been a transient figure, never entirely involved in the Scoobies’ efforts and always somewhat detached through both his mono-syllabic nature and his general lack of emotion. I think Seth Green played those qualities well, and I think that they speak to Oz as a character: here’s someone who didn’t bother graduating out of high school out of sheer laziness, which could be considered a plot contrivance to keep him around but still reflects on his character at the end of the day.
In some ways, I thought Oz’s general behaviour did a better job of writing the character off than did “Wild at Heart” itself. Alyson Hannigan is stunning in the episode, as she reacts to Oz’s lycanthropic tryst with Veruca, but despite a bit of foreshadowing in a previous episode it feels as if too much of the conflict is worked into the single episode. Oz’s concern that the wolf is taking over his human self doesn’t really mesh with what we’ve seen of the character over the previous episodes, considering that he’s been just as mono-syllabic as usual. Reading on Wikipedia, it is as I suspected: Green left abruptly to pursue a movie career, which meant that the plans to establish this love triangle over time were scrapped in favour of sudden realizations and immediate betrayals of trust. You can see evidence of the themes they wanted to play out within a longer storyline, like Willow being caught between her life with Oz and her life with magic offering a parallel to Oz’s position caught between his two sides. It makes Oz’s inner werewolf out to be a bit of a horndog, being attracted to the first female werewolf he finds, and it makes Willow pain that much more damaging.
Ultimately, it’s not the worst case scenario: Hannigan is so good at playing emotional beats that the sudden nature of the breakup ends up playing out beautifully, and the actress playing Veruca is unpleasant enough that I wouldn’t have wanted her to stick around forever. I know that Oz returns in a recurring capacity a few times this season, so I know it’s not the character’s goodbye, but it’s an end to an arc which couldn’t have really been spoiled. I knew he was departing, and that it wasn’t forever, but I was still surprised to see it happen this quickly, so of course it was some behind-the-scenes decision making which would lead to such spontaneity overcoming my previous knowledge.
Meanwhile, in terms of the reveal of the season’s overarching storyline in “The Initiative,” this is one of those circumstances where the show really didn’t hold its cards very close to its chest. The conclusion to “The Freshman” very clearly indicated that these masked men were demon hunters of some capacity, so it’s not as if we shared Buffy and Giles’ confusion as to their function (throw in Spike being taken at the beginning of “Wild at Heart,” as well). And while the show has been a little bit more subtle in terms of involving two recurring characters (Maggie Walsh and her T.A., Riley), I saw both of them coming: I have vague recollections of Riley and Buffy together wielding guns from my vague remembrance of that marathon, and the fact that Lindsay Crouse was listed in the credits with an “as Maggie Walsh” credit which indicated her character was more important than simply a recurring professorial role. Combine with the purposefulness of a groundbreaking psychiatrist as one of Buffy’s teachers, which would tie nicely into some form of experiment, and I wasn’t particularly shocked to see Riley and his buddies turn out to be the key strike team for The Initiative.
In terms of how the storyline developed, I think parts of it are quite interesting and other parts threaten to be a bit repetitive. As for the former response, I’m fascinated by the idea that Spike has been implanted with something which keeps him from killing, both because it’s an interesting philosophical state for the character (who has, as I had known ahead of time, been added to the main cast) and because it resulted in that wonderful (if a tad bit repetitive itself) scene where Spike’s struggles become an extended play on erectile dysfunction. And I think the notion of two different schools of thought as it relates to stopping vampires is intriguing: it’s funny in that the Slayer side of things is more focused on killing the vampires and demons, but in many ways the Initiative is more cruel both in terms of their use of violence and their choice to use vampires and demons as lab rats. I like all of that potential, and I think it sets up plenty of interesting questions moving forward.
What I’m slightly more concerned about is Riley’s involvement, which says less about the character himself and more about Buffy once again finding her Romeo on the other side of the conflict. Marc Blucas and David Boreanaz have some similar qualities as it is, both in terms of basic physical stature and certain halting speech patterns, but the idea that Buffy has again entered a relationship with someone from the other side of the tracks, as it were, seems a bit suspect to me. I like the way Riley sort of stumbles into his realization that he likes her, and I thought Riley and Willow’s teamwork in trying to make first contact was really charming stuff. It’s one of those situations where it’s about diminishing returns: while I think they do everything quite well within the storyline, as they bring the two characters together and fully reveal the parallel lives they lead, there’s still that uncomfortable comparison with Angel. It isn’t that the storylines are identical, but rather that Angel and Buffy’s conflict was complicated by Angel’s soul, and then Angel’s lack of a soul, and the ways in which the human/vampire binary was subverted by their relationship. Here, there’s a similar conflict in that Buffy and Riley are ostensibly on two different teams, but there’s really no comparative complexity to be found at this early stage. Perhaps if Blucas didn’t remind me of Boreanaz I wouldn’t have had such a strange reaction to the storyline, but for as much as I enjoyed what I was seeing I couldn’t help but be a bit wary of where things are headed.
However, it’s not shocking that the show would use a certain shorthand to get itself into a relationship, or to write a character off the show, or to write a character into the show more thoroughly. Part of what makes this season of Buffy so interesting, if perhaps a bit predictable at spots even without spoilers, is that they’re purposefully playing with previous tropes but giving them a little bit of a college twist. “Beer Bad” is sort of a college version of “Band Candy,” for example, while “Fear, Itself” presents itself as a sequel to “Halloween” (as humans once again create demonic activity on the day demons find too commercialized to wreak havoc on). At this point, the show has built up a back catalogue of character interactions and relationships, and the change in setting those moments still mean something (like Oz bringing up “Lover’s Walk” in his confrontation with Willow) and will still inform future storylines. And so, while “The Initiative” may be the start of something new, and “Wild at Heart” may have been a turning point for Willow, any of their current problems are only problems if they don’t evolve into part of that catalogue, which has never really been Buffy’s problem.
- So how’d that movie career turn out, Seth Green?
- Loved the Harmony/Xander slap fight a great deal – I will say that I think they turned Xander into a bit too much of a sissy (considering he’s been knocking people out for a while), but it was worth it for the comedy, and that was a wonderful use of slow motion.
- I remember back when discussing an earlier episode that the comments were more or less “If you think this episode shows that Whedon loves to make Alyson Hannigan cry, then just wait until Season Four.” Well, your predictions were right: while Green was quite good in those scenes, all of my attention was on Hannigan, who was just mesmerizing.
- Not too much to say on “Fear, Itself” beyond the fact that Giles with a chainsaw and Anya in a bunny outfit were both highlights – felt the conclusion (with the “actual size” demon) was a little bit too slapstick for the series, but I laughed, so I guess mission accomplished.
- “Beer Bad” was a bit all over the map, but it shows (like “Living Conditions”) that Sarah Michelle Gellar is quite engaging in more comedy-focused roles, and the final bit of slapstick in this one (Cavewoman Buffy hitting Parker over the head) was satisfying even if it came a few episodes too late for me to give Buffy credit for it. She ignored the poophead principle a bit too long, I think.