May 27th, 2011
“What else is different?”
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.
The term “Cultural Catchup” really has two meanings.
The first is the broad notion of catching up on television shows which have proven to be important cultural touchstones but which have escaped my gaze.
The second, however, has been the experience of witnessing the conversation on a post and then quickly “catching up” with the context that informs the conversation. This is not to say that anyone has been spoiling the show, but it’s a basic fact that those of you commenting know what’s ahead, and so as I watch through a season I often find myself rereading (or at least thinking about) previous comments and putting two and two together.
I raise this point in part because the unique nature of this viewing experience is something I like theorizing and because this sort of retroactive sense making is at the heart of “After Life,” an episode that serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the season premiere and the season as a whole. In many ways, this is the start of the season: whereas “Bargaining” was saddled with the task of getting from Point A to Point B, “After Life” is allowed more space to breathe and more time to explore the magical and psychological consequences of that transition.
While I don’t think the result is particularly subtle on the level of plot, coming in the form of a metaphor-turned-monster-of-the-week, the strength of that metaphor is confirmed by the unbearable weight of Buffy’s return on her friends, the audience, and more importantly Buffy herself.
And although I don’t think it retroactively solves my issues with “Bargaining,” it certainly gives the title greater meaning and establishes a tragic and poetic frame to the show’s sixth season.
I do not have a great deal to say about the Monster of the Week stuff here: the episode is interested in exploring the consequences of the decision to bring Buffy back from the dead, and so the episode features a demon by-product of Willow’s spell that provides a narrative thrust to the episode and an episode-ending battle to fulfill the general requirements of what an episode of Buffy should look like. The special effects were effective, the various possessions were well-realized, and the spell necessary to make the demon more solid offered another opportunity to emphasize Willow’s growing power (given that she completes the spell even once Tara is disconnected).
However, everything in the episode really comes down to its final moments, when Buffy confides in Spike the circumstances surrounding her resurrection. It’s a moment that the episode spent a lot of time building towards: Buffy has seemed more stunned than traumatized, slowly but surely becoming more comfortable with her new surroundings throughout the episode. That moment where she runs out the door with Dawn’s lunch feels perfectly normal, as if the rhythms of fighting a demon have brought her back to “life.” As a viewer, I figured that was the upswing, and that the season would explore the diverging paths of Buffy (who is returning from hell and rediscovering reality) and Willow (who is moving further from reality as she descends further into dark magic).
And so I was left sort of slack-jawed at Buffy’s revelation that she had been torn from heaven and not hell. In retrospect, it makes “Bargaining” much more purposeful in its artificial creation of a post-apocalyptic hellscape, given that it made the “Earth as Buffy’s Hell” metaphor much more pointed (and, if I’m being frank, way too obvious). While this does not make my issues with “Bargaining” disappear, I do think that it effectively takes the premiere and spins it into a larger framework for the season.
What I like about this framework, at least at this early stage, is that Buffy’s logic isn’t entirely sound. Now, don’t get me wrong: she has every right to feel betrayed and damaged by being ripped from heaven, and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays that pain incredibly well in that sequence by focusing on resignation (and to some degree understanding) rather than outright anger. She knows why her friends did it, and she understands that this is something particularly miraculous for Dawn, so she is going to keep on living without telling them the truth.
My problem with her logic is the idea that her friends were safe in her absence. Now, I have a whole bunch of questions relating to this that I’m not sure the season will answer. Did Buffy assume that they would send another Slayer to protect the Hellmouth, or did she believe that her friends could defend themselves against the steady flow of evil-doers? The show certainly wants us to believe that Buffy’s logic was false, given that it is her absence which prompts the bikers to descend into Sunnydale, but the situation requires us to presume certain things about the show’s world (such a the Watcher’s Council) that may never be addressed as far as I know.
At the end of the day, though, what I like about this is that Buffy and her friends have different perceptions of what safety means. Buffy needs to know that her friends are safe, but the gravity of her sacrifice felt as though it ended the great threat against them and she seemed to have some sense of faith that they would figure out a way to deal with the riff raff. Meanwhile, at the same time, her friends were struggling to deal with her absence, believing themselves to be less than safe without her. Of course, beneath physical safety is another level entirely, wherein Dawn missed her sister and Willow missed her friend and Giles missed what had effectively become his surrogate daughter. Is safety really emotional rather than physical, a psychological condition more than anything else? I would certainly argue that this is the case here.
I raise these points without really offering judgment: in truth, we could easily see both sides’ actions as selfish if we take a different perspective on the issue, which is integral to the season as a whole. On one side we have friends who are trying to convince themselves they did the right things even as they see the consequences of their actions manifest around them, and on the other hand you have someone who knows how she is supposed to feel (thankful) but feels something entirely different inside. Although there are a few moments of “normalcy” within “After Life,” normalcy seems to be unattainable given the turmoil under the surface, even if that remains largely subtext in coming episodes (presuming, of course, that Spike keeps her secret).
Not everything has started to come together quite yet, although some of this has to do with my knowledge of where this is headed: I have to imagine, for example, that the “Willow is becoming evil” foreshadowing would be less obvious if I hadn’t seen the box/disc art that confirms such a thing. However, “After Life” manages to spin Buffy’s return into something that is both sustainable and powerful, allowing the series to return to its basic rhythms while simultaneously upending all interpersonal relationships. While everyone is aware that Buffy is fighting both literal and psychological demons, the majority of our heroes are unaware that those psychological demons are more present and “real” than they imagine. Those flaming barrels and overturned cars didn’t just remind Buffy of hell: they were hell, at least for her, and that reality (if not the way the story was told in “Bargaining”) has a great deal of dramatic potential.
Of course, given the nature of this project, this could all be unwritten in time, the potential unrealized and these broad strokes more disruptive and enriching. However, that’s just par for the course, so we’ll see to what degree “After Life” is retroactively framed as we venture further into the sixth season.
- I plan on watching a few more episodes before returning to the project next week – it’ll probably be late next week again, as it’s a busy screener season still, but I do plan on a more regular schedule after that point.
- Some fine work by the entire cast here, I though, but James Marsters is doing a fine job of drawing out the subtleties in Spike’s response to all of this. He’s the most skeptical of the entire process but also perhaps the most overjoyed at its result, resulting in some compelling inner conflict that can’t help but bubble to the surface. His knowledge of Buffy’s secret should only heighten this, so very curious to see how Spike develops this season.
- Anyone else find the end of the cold open almost obnoxiously abrupt? I get that they’re carrying over directly from the premiere, but it just felt very rushed (and sort of tonally off from the rest of the episode, if consistent with “Bargaining”).
- Given our discussion last week about Anthony Stewart Head wanting some time with his family and thus a reduced workload, not surprising that the phone call with Willow is handled off-screen, but it still made for some awkward exposition which made the call seem like a missed opportunity. Plus, I find it hard to believe that Giles wouldn’t immediately rush back out of concern, but such are logistics I guess.
- Anya’s little rant about the bookstore turned coffee shop, ending with “It’s like evolution without the getting better part,” seemed almost meta, although I might be reading too far into it. Perhaps Espenson just has a grudge against Starbucks (which would be understandable).
- Speaking of Espenson, I thought this was a really sharply written outing even in spaces where the plot sort of got in the way. The various possessions were very broad on a plot level, making the metaphorical into the real, but there was a very visceral quality to the dialogue that kept it grounded and creepy instead of seeming too obvious. That’s partly in performance/effects, of course, but the material was strong as well.
- I’m hoping to find a way to use “Rolling in Puppies” in casual conversation.