July 12th, 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.
There have been a few points in this project where my thoughts on Buffy and Angel have diverged from the general sentiments of the commenters, and I am very glad for this fact: I like that there’s some disagreement, as it allows for new perspectives and for intriguing discussion.
However, I do wish that two of those points hadn’t come in such close proximity with one another, as they have with “To Shanshu in L.A.” and “Restless.” Leading into these episodes, a lot of comments were building up the hype for these hours of television, suggesting that the former was a major turning point for the series and that the latter was on a level with “Hush,” and inevitably I feel that both episodes fail to live up to those lofty expectations.
While I thought “To Shanshu in L.A.” was inherently flawed in terms of how it exaggerated certain developments for the sake of thematic convenience, my issue with “Restless” is that it doesn’t live up to the hype, ending up more generic than I had expected. While the central idea of the episode is well-executed, and I can see the seeds of where the show intends to go with the show’s fifth season, I expected the episode to mean something, for its oddities to coalesce into something tangible which would speak coherently to either the season we just witnessed or the one which is yet to come – instead, the episode coalesces into a pretty typical monster of the week storyline which happens to use dreams as its central construct.
This is not to say that some of the dreams aren’t successful, or that the episode isn’t well-executed, but rather that the same quality which made “Hush” so effective, its connection with ongoing storylines, feels lost when the abstraction gives way to a storyline which fails to capture the full potential of this premise.
Dreams are a function of the dreamer, manifestations of anxiety, or desire, or unconscious feelings that the dreamer does not understand. Within the Buffyverse, dreams are also the realm of prophecy, offering a glimpse into an uncertain (and often unbecoming) future. In this sense, an episode like this one seems like an ideal bridge between two seasons, functional both as an emotional denouement for the transition to College and a launching pad for the next stage in the Scooby Gang’s experience in Sunnydale.
However, the problem with “Restless” is that it’s actually doing three things: not only is it offering a glimpse into the state of mind of our four principal characters and unearthing some anxieties which will carry over into next season, but the episode is also a direct consequence of actions within “Primeval,” as the first Slayer haunts their dreams in order to punish them for tarnishing that power with the spell cast to help bring down Adam. It’s an interesting idea, but once the episode’s narrative shifts from abstract dreamscapes to a direct effort to defeat this primal evil I feel like it loses its momentum. While Willow and Xander’s dreamscapes feel like manifestations of personal trauma and capture that sense of being “lost,” Giles and Buffy’s dreams are too caught up in closing off the story to be as successful.
This isn’t to say that Giles breaking out into a musical number in order to describe his plans on how to stop the Slayer isn’t entertaining, or that Buffy’s brief moment with Tara (about making the bed with Faith) or her showdown with the Slayer (and the idea of who is truly the source of Buffy’s power) don’t gesture towards bigger ideas that are quite compelling. However, I felt like the episode started running out of momentum when we reached Buffy, as Joyce living in the wall or Riley and Adam commiserating over world domination felt as if they lacked the subtext of the earlier visions. As the episode became more linear, so did the content of the visions, and I feel this does a disservice to Giles in particular. His character has meaningfully taken a backseat all year, and yet his dream was caught between investigating his own life (Olivia’s presence, Buffy as child (the stroller)) and hinting towards the identity of the evil chasing them. I wanted to see more of Giles, to get a better sense of how the season impacted him, and his dream was unfortunately trapped in the most awkward part of the episode (and considerably shorter than the others).
Willow and Xander’s dreams are the most successful because they are largely independent of the episode’s structure. Willow’s dream, which takes place before we understand that the Slayer is stalking them, offers an intriguing glimpse of her mind in the wake of having kept secrets – there are hints that there are other secrets she has yet to tell her friends, or Tara, as well as a central feeling that she believes her current identity to be a set of clothes which hides the sly, nerdy girl she once was. It refers back to anxieties like those which were stirred up in “Doomed,” as well as the nods towards greater power which we saw in “Something Blue.” There is no question that Willow’s experience is abstract and playful, considering the ridiculous performance of Death of a Salesman, but the opening scene with Tara beautifully captures the romance of their relationship, and there’s a sense that the dream is a consistent reflection of Willow’s innermost emotions as opposed to a manipulation by an external force.
Xander’s dream, meanwhile, is a really nicely designed glimpse into a character whose struggles were largely trapped in the comic realm this season. Xander didn’t get an equivalent to “The Zeppo” this year, and while his relationship with Anya was central to the season it was largely confined to comedy as a result of Anya’s lack of social prowess. This isn’t a complaint, really, as Anya was a highlight this year and the couple still had some heartfelt scenes like the moment early in “Primeval,” but it does mean that a lot of Xander’s issues which emerged in “Doomed” or “The Yoko Factor” weren’t really allowed to completely play out to conclusion. His dream nicely balanced his more base desires (a crush on Joyce, his response to Willow and Tara’s offer) with some more complex emotions (losing Giles as a father figure of sorts, conflict with his real father, his role as Buffy’s protector). It also features the most impressive bit of aesthetic work in the episode for me, capturing Xander’s aimless existence by having every door lead to a different set, sending him on a journey through the soundstage which gives visual weight to a psychological struggle.
In their dreams, the Slayer is a generic threat, that force in our lives which makes us anxious and which pushes us to go through that next door or make the decisions we do. Once you get to Giles’ dream, it becomes just another case, and while I love the small details (like Willow and Xander raising their lighters while reading) in the dream it just doesn’t have the same sense of impact. When we eventually get to Buffy, it doesn’t feel like a trip into her mind anymore, and when they wake up from their dreams and debrief about their experience we end on the cheese slice punchline instead of the contexts of their dreams which spoke only to them. Yes, each person is obviously shaken up over the entire experience, but the episode values their imminent danger over their psychological turmoil, taking the episode from an evocative glimpse into the minds of the series’ protagonists to a fairly typical story told through an evocative structure.
“Restless” is a compelling hour of television, but it’s hardly groundbreaking. It would have been groundbreaking, perhaps, if it had avoided the Slayer storyline altogether, and simply showed each character’s nightmares (which would be natural after their experience in “Primeval”) without the sense of an overarching storyline, each act featuring a character’s state of mind and ending on a note of pure reflection. However, even then, dream sequences are hardly a new idea in television, and the show has used them in the past, so I guess I’m struggling with why the episode has been placed on a pedestal. Is it the joy of Watchers defying gravity? Or the pleasure of Vampire Harmony trying to bite Giles while he gives his inspirational speech? Or black-and-white movie star Spike? I thought the comic elements of the episode worked really well outside of Cheese Slices (which I think went too far), but it’s not as if the show hasn’t been funny in the past, and I prefer the subtle humour of “Hush” to the sort of broad material we saw here.
While I understand it’s purposeful, for me the dreams and the standalone storyline of the first Slayer are at odds with one another, and the result is a less cohesive episode than I had expected. I’ve talked about Doctor Who before (in regards to “Blink,” which I hope you’ve all watched or plan to watch), and earlier this Spring that show did a dream episode called “Amy’s Choice.” And while the episode isn’t trying to do as much in terms of having four separate dreams or dealing with seasons of character development and an expansive ensemble cast, the Doctor Who episode is upfront about the identity of the dreamweaver of sorts, which allows the dream and its source to coalesce and work in each other’s favour from an early point in the episode. And while “Restless” starts with a pure character piece and devolves into a “Monster of the Week” storyline, “Amy’s Choice” does the opposite, starting as your typical Doctor Who mystery before becoming an intensely personal journey which handles some pretty substantial character development. I think “Amy’s Choice” struggles a bit with its more basic elements in a way which “Restless” handles more successfully, but the central premise is more cleanly connected to character, a connection I feel “Restless” loses track of by the end of the episode.
When first considering the episode, I came close to calling it indulgent, thinking that Whedon had gotten so carried away with crafting fun dream sequences that he had lost sight of the real function of the episode. However, when considering it more carefully, I realized that he had in some ways not indulged enough. It’s very possible that the “First Slayer rebels against spell” storyline is going to be super important going forward, but I felt as if it kept the later dreams from being as effective as the early ones, and kept the episode from entering into the upper echelon of Buffy hours. By clearly defining the primal evil which chased each person, and by shifting the story towards stopping that external force, Whedon’s script loses its abstract qualities and becomes linear in a way which makes it less successful as a denouement and less successful as a launching pad for a fifth season.
It’s still a successful hour of television, but it just doesn’t live up to one’s wildest dreams.
- Not to speculate, as I am sure you’ll all have plenty to say, but I think a lot of the love for the episode, as Noel Murray notes in his review, might come from the fact that it feels like a return to the core group and their core issues – however, I never really felt like they got entirely lost in the fourth season, and so that sense of “return” wasn’t as potent for me.
- Sharing Noel’s concern, not seeing Willow and Tara kiss is a bit copout – sure, perhaps Whedon didn’t want to cheapen their first on-screen kiss by having it be in a dream sequence, but it actually feels more cheaply exploitative when it’s just implied.
- Always nice to see former guest stars return, but there is a difference between meaningful (Oz in Willow’s dream) and fan service (Principal Snyder, Harmoney); this doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the latter, but they’re two different modes of recall.
- I know it makes sense that Spike and Anya remain secondary here, with Anya largely constrained to Xander’s dream and Spike a recurring bit player in all of them, but I wish that they could have done something to indicate their growing prominence. This is obviously an episode focused on the core group, but part of the season’s development was how that group is expanding, and so their lesser roles still bug a bit (especially since Tara, who is important but newer, has a more prominent role in the dreams).
- Without spoiling it for those without this knowledge, was surprised to see that the hint dropped in the Faith/Buffy bedmaking sequence in “This Year’s Girl” was absent from this bedmaking scene.
- Probably going to take a bit of a breather this week, but I do expect to get started with Seasons 5/2 by the weekend, so stay tuned for that.