July 1st, 2010
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I’ve fairly certain I’ve seen the final few minutes of “Hush” before.
It was some time early in the decade, and Canada’s SPACE was airing the “Top 10 Buffy Episodes” in a day-long marathon which my brother was either watching or recording. I have no memory of watching an entire episode, or even which episodes I was seeing, but I remember Riley crouched down in some sort of crawl space with a gun, and I recognized the Gentlemen in that vague type of recall which is created when you aren’t really paying attention to what you’re watching.
I don’t know if I want to go back in time a la the Doctor and force myself to sit down for the entirety of that marathon, as watching the episode out of order would rob it of some of its appeal, but I do certainly wish that I could go back in time and experience this with everyone else at the turn of the century. More than any other episode of Buffy so far, I wish that I could have been there to write a review and to analyze the myriad of ways in which this is easily the most well-executed hour of television Buffy has produced to this point. While other episodes have been more emotionally resonant or explosive, no other episode has felt this expertly and ingeniously crafted. Compelling both as a standalone piece of entertainment and as an advancement of the season’s story arcs, “Hush” didn’t leave me speechless so much as it made me wish that I could go back to the turn of the century and be part of the initial response to what is rightfully heralded as one of the series’ finest moments.
And since I don’t have a TARDIS sitting around, writing about it now will have to do.
What makes “Hush” so interesting is that it doesn’t only derive fear from the Gentlemen. A true achievement of production design/performance, the Gentlemen are the most legitimately terrifying creation that Buffy has brought to television (to this point), and yet the silence they create allows many of the characters to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t find the words for. I won’t spend too much time focusing on this particular theme, considering that it’s pretty obvious to anyone who watches the episode: while there is a lot of subtlety in this episode, Whedon quite plainly lays out the ways in which words can often get in the way with Riley and Buffy’s first kiss, or Tara getting the nerve to connect with Willow, or Xander showing Anya how he’d avenge her death. At the same time, though, Whedon emphasizes the ways in which words are indispensable, with Riley unable to operate the voice-activated elevator, or Spike unable to contextualize his bloodied mouth, or Riley and Buffy being unable to properly communicate during the climactic battle in the belfry. The two sides come together in that final scene, as Riley and Buffy are able to talk about what they’ve just experienced with the Gentlemen having been defeated but neither of them can find the words, creating an open-ended notion of speech and its role in our lives rather than a vilification of the Gentlemen for stealing a precious gift.
This is not to say that the Gentlemen aren’t a villain, but so much of the episode is spent with the characters unaware of what, precisely, has taken away their ability to speak that they don’t really take on their villainous role until Giles learns of and communicates their identity (which I’ll get to a bit later). It’s not dissimilar to an episode like “Band Candy,” where the means to an end (stealing the maturity of Sunnydale’s adults) becomes the focus of the episode as opposed to the plot itself (the sacrifice being taken for the Sewer Demon). In both cases, a town-wide epidemic is designed to distract everyone from the real function, the difference being that “Band Candy” was humorous and playful where “Hush” is creepy and disarming. It isn’t that “Hush” is that fundamentally differently structurally speaking than past episodes so much as its creative decisions within that structure heighten its impact considerably.
Playing out like a silent film for a large bulk of its running time is a huge risk, but Whedon and Christophe Beck do a tremendous job of bringing the story to life without words. In Whedon’s case, his use of silent comedy is perhaps the funniest thing the show has done to this point, delivering on so many levels that I couldn’t possibly list them all. It starts from the very beginning really, with Xander calling Buffy and very quickly realizing that this isn’t the smartest of plans, and it continues throughout. I love the moment where we think Willow’s about to write something important on her message board and it ends up being “Hi Giles” (Hannigan’s smile kills me in that scene), and how the Initiative gets to take part in the fun (“Come On Come On” on the notepad, the “In case of Emergency take Stairs” sign). And there simply cannot be enough superlative things said about Giles’ presentation about the Gentlemen, which is filled with so many amazing moments that listing them would take away from the humour of their silence (if I had to pick a favourite, it’s Anya’s casual popcorn eating after the images of the Gentlemen ripping out the heart – so simple, so great). While the comedy is necessarily broad (in order to register), it never feels particularly silly, the episode capable of balancing its suspense and comedy as well as it balances its various views on the importance of speech.
While Whedon was working without his usual tools in constructing the episode without any dialogue, Christophe Beck was given his largest canvas yet with an episode devoid of dialogue. While I’m pleased that Whedon was rewarded with his lone Emmy nomination for the series for his work in writing the episode, that Beck wasn’t recognized for having to carry so much of the episode’s weight is a real shame. There’s been a number of calls throughout these pieces to discuss the music in greater detail, but to be honest I haven’t really noticed it: it has been good, the themes swelling when they’re supposed to be swelling, but I think I’ve become so accustomed to the use of character or event-specific themes in the work of Giacchino or McCreary that this sort of more general dramatic underscore is just not as memorable (or, rather, its memorability is so explicitly tied up in the collective impact of those scenes that I don’t notice it in isolation, which isn’t an insult so much as a compliment). However, “Hush” shows Beck doing some really tremendous work defining the Gentlemen (before Giles provides the expositions regarding their origin) and capturing the action of the later portions of the episode, stepping up to the plate when his music really becomes the center of attention.
Beck’s score is one of many areas where “Hush” could have theoretically come apart at the seams: Whedon wrote a script that placed a great deal of onus on his cast and crew, as well as his own skills in the director’s chair, and that he would conceive of the episode shows his level of confidence in those individuals. This isn’t a throwaway episode that could go either way: unlike other shows which can be more experimental due to a lack of direct serialization (the aforementioned Doctor Who springs to mind), “Hush” is caught up in ongoing and newly emerging stories to the point where its failure would have been a major setback for the season. Riley and Buffy’s relationship, whatever you think of where it evolves from here, would have been quickly derailed if this pivotal moment had played out in a mess of an episode, and Tara’s entrance into the series could have felt like a contrived meet cute as opposed to a meaningful connection. In both cases, their experience during the silence becomes intricately tied into their connections, Tara and Willow sharing a bond which must to some degree remain unspoken (out of fear of persecution) and Buffy and Riley sharing an experience which raises the questions that both of them have been tip-toeing around since the start of their relationship.
There’s a moment after the silence ends where Giles and Olivia discuss how, for the latter, witchcraft has finally become real, Giles’ stories becoming more than just fairy tales. This isn’t news for the viewers, who have seen numerous things they presumed to be unreal come to life within the series, but this is the most potent example of the series’ reality being subsumed by such an insurrection. Rather than interrupting storylines, disrupting the logical progression of things, “Hush” actually brings each character’s ongoing lives into the Gentlemen’s terrifying plot, using it add complexity to the season’s storylines that wasn’t there before. I don’t yet know how that turns out (I stopped after “Hush” to write this review without moving onto “Doomed”), but that’s part of the fun of the way this episode was initially scheduled: coming right before the Christmas break, I imagine “Hush” would have had plenty of time to settle in viewers’ minds by the time the show returned in January. And the episode isn’t just sitting there because of the stunning depiction of the Gentlemen or the novelty of a silent episode: it sits there because of the meaning it created for the characters, and the ways in which the episode takes the series’ existing structures and executes them to a level that it hadn’t achieved previously.
On my Twitter feed, I compared to episode to Doctor Who’s “Blink,” (which I reviewed, in a way, here) a comparison I make for two reasons. One is that “Blink” takes your basic Doctor Who storyline (the Doctor and his companion assist a stranger by saving them from some sort of fantastical calamity) and turns it on its ear by taking advantage of elements inherent to the series’ premise as opposed to the introduction of shocking new elements (if you haven’t seen “Blink,” it’s tremendous stuff and I suggest you seek it out). The episode changes our perspective on what is possible through the series less through reinvention and more through reminder, tapping into the “timey-wimey” potential that had to that point manifested in a less elaborate fashion, and I’d argue that “Hush” similarly builds on the series’ past structures and storylines as opposed to inventing something entirely new. However, my second reason is more personal: much as “Blink” blew me away on first viewing and fundamentally altered my expectations on Doctor Who as a series, so too did “Hush” cause me to step back and consider Buffy differently. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the show was good before (you would have noticed), or even that I had any nagging doubts about the show’s potential. However, as a critical observer of television, “Hush” is what every great show should be capable of creating: an hour of television which on its own is an ingeniously crafted piece of dramatic narrative but which, taken as part of the series as a whole, becomes something even more substantial.
- There will be a point where Anya’s inability to understand the notion of a private conversation will cease to be funny, but so long as she uses terms like “Orgasm Friend” I think that point is a long ways off.
- Spike takes a definite backseat in this episode, but it’s interesting to see that he’s up and walking about – there’s a sense that Spike is becoming more domesticated, and while he doesn’t play a major role in the episode Marsters still gets to have some fun with Xander’s misinterpretation of his actions. Spike is a character very much known for his witticisms, so the silent aspect of things takes some of the bite out of the character, but Marsters does a nice job of selling it non-verbally (as does the entire cast really).
- The two instances of speech within the silence, coming from the television and from Prof. Walsh’s computer, were interestingly deployed. The former nicely stressed Sunnydale’s isolation (in that the outside world is unaffected), while the latter was another interesting way in which the technology gap between the two sides plays out (Giles relying on an overhead projector, Walsh with her talking software).
- Speaking of the Initiative, I’m not sure how much of the episode’s plot they piece together: it’s clear that Riley has no idea what kind of enemy he’s really facing and certainly not that they need to destroy the box (which only Buffy knew), but did the Initiative piece together the fairy tale or simply that there were people being harvested for their organs? Walsh seems to be of the capture/research mode, while the Slayer is very much the research/kill kind of operation, and I thought that was nicely captured without words in the way the episode played out.
- Anyone know how spoilery the commentary is on “Hush?” I’d love to watch it, but I don’t want Whedon to ruin something for me, and the episode features enough foreshadowing in terms of Tara and Riley/The Initiative that I figure there’s some red flags to be worried about.
- Since a few people asked, I’ll talk about the Buffy/Angel credits at some point in the future, likely when I find an episode that captures some of my (minor) misgivings about them. I haven’t been ignoring you!
- Interesting to see Whedon get nominated for writing, but not directing, the episode – it’s a deserved nomination, but so much of the episode depends on its execution that to nominate him for one task and not the other seems bizarre. However, those categories at the Emmys are peer-determined, so it’s clear that Whedon has more respect in the writing community as opposed to the directing one.