Things I Liked – June 2019

This is going to be another long-form, well, I was going to TIL but TIL is Today I Learned, so … another long-form Things I Liked. And like the last long form Things I Liked it’s going to be long because it’s about a Thing I Liked way more than I expecting to.

That thing being Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Don’t @ me.

Obviously part of the reason I responded more positively to Season 6 than I was expecting was that it would have been very, very hard for me not to. I mean, I was seriously considering just not watching it on the grounds that Seasons 1-5 have such a beautiful and complete arc as Buffy goes from out-of-her-depth schoolchild to confident teenager to fully developed vampire slayer to decisive leader to straight up mythic hero. And having that crash back down to the Double Meat Palace is as jarring as shit. And don’t get me wrong, musical episode aside and to some extent musical episode included, there’s an awful lot to criticise in Buffy Season 6. It’s tonally inconsistent, the character work is uneven, it has very little of the sharp wit of the earlier seasons, and all the subtlety of an insult comic beating you over the head with a VHS recording of an after-school special. But there is something about it that feels … almost like it could have value. If you ignore all of the stuff that really doesn’t.

I suspect partly here it’s just about the way I react things. Broadly I like things that do what they do well, dislike things that do what they do badly, and get totally obsessed with things that do what they do in a way that almost but doesn’t quite come together. And Buffy Season 6 is the most like that a show could possibly be. Basically, if it was 10% better it would just be bad. If it was 10% worse it would be unwatchable. Instead, it’s just this weird, perfect storm of so many great concepts colliding with so many shit concepts in a vortex of distinctly variable execution. I mean come on, what’s not to love.

Let’s get the obvious things out of the way first. In rough chronological order:

  • Giles leaving makes no sense and, yes, Tony Head wanted to go back to England but, bite the bullet and kill him. I mean, the character, not the Gold Blend Man. It just makes Giles look like an oblivious prick. Buffy has literally come back from the dead. Her feeling that she needs you around is totally justified. Also she did fine developing independence and self-sufficiency while you were actively her Watcher. Over-relying on Giles has never been Buffy’s problem.
  • Magic isn’t heroin. I can’t even be arsed to unpack this because it is so clearly awful.
  • I lied. If you are going to make magic heroin, keep it heroin. Don’t have some people taking heroin fine and being all like, “oh no, it’s cool, I’ll do the heroin so you don’t have to”. Also maybe don’t have people start experimenting with heroin at school, under the supervision of the school librarian who also does heroin.
  • Also also: maybe don’t pick the same metaphor for heroin and lesbian sex.
  • Wrecked. Gone. Although I will admit some of the invisible Buffy stuff is quite cute.
  • You can signal that being a teenager is difficult without making Dawn a kleptomaniac.
  • Why is a thousand-year-old ex-demon obsessed with the idea of a fairytale wedding to which she has had no cultural exposure? Bonus points for it flying in the face of a millennium-long career specifically based around the consequences of bad marriages.
  • Don’t randomly kill off half of your only gay couple. I seem to recall at the time, Whedon played the sexuality equivalent of the ‘don’t see race’ card here, insisting that it would be homophobic to decide against killing a character just because that character was gay. This was in 2001. We are still, as a culture, not in a place where that argument holds water. Twenty years ago it barely held air.
  • Going out on a limb here, maybe don’t put a graphic and realistic attempted rape scene into a show otherwise built around sanitised fantasy violence. Also maybe don’t spend the rest of the season and most of the next season setting up the attempted rapist as a romantic hero.
  • In-between the cliff-hanger ending of ‘Seeing Red’ and it’s immediate resolution in the start of ‘Villains’, Willow apparently bothers to source and put on a scary black outfit and Buffy gets her hair permed.

Not all of what I’m going to say next will be positive, but a surprising amount of it will be. (Editorial note: actually very little of it, which may nevertheless still surprise you, depending on how you felt about Buffy Season 6).

In a sense, Season 6 is a return to form for Buffy. It’s just that ‘by return to form’ I sort of mean ‘return to central narrative structure’ rather than ‘return to quality’. The formula of an early Buffy season was “take a teenage-type problem that teenagers have, then put a supernatural twist on it” and that worked for three seasons. Season 4 briefly tried applying the same formula to not fitting in at college, realised that didn’t quite work, and then developed into an almost explicitly science-fictiony adventure plot about a secret government conspiracy. And on a meta-level became really invested in the idea that Buffy was the best in the world at what she did, and this played off well against The Initiative because suddenly, instead of Buffy fighting demons and dealing with real world problems, the real world was trying to deal with demons and Buffy was showing them how it was done. Then Season 5 went full epic and had her fight a God, redeem an irredeemable character, lose her mother and take on a more adult role, and sacrifice herself to save the world.

Season 6 brings it all back to metaphors for real life problems, and in some ways that makes a lot of sense. I originally watched Buffy Season 6 at university, hating it along with the rest of the world, and part of me does wonder if I’d have responded to it better if I’d been just a few years older. Because weirdly it spoke to me quite clearly on this re-watch because I could look back with a lot of emotional distance on a time in my life when I’d got to the end of a journey and then hadn’t known what to do next. The season is a really good evocation of that point of becoming an adult when you’ve just got off the conveyor belt of school-adolescence-college-ohwhatthefucknow. I think at the time I was annoyed by Season 6’s assumption that Buffy wouldn’t know how to be an grownup because I thought it lost sight of the fact that everything Buffy had been through had been a metaphor for the stuff that’s supposed to teach you how to be a grownup. I think what I hadn’t appreciated was that the stuff that’s supposed to teach you how to be a grownup kind of doesn’t teach you how to be a grownup . And in that context the terrible decisions the characters make feel really grounded and real. The problem is, the (arguably) terrible creative decisions that went into framing the terrible character decisions made all of Season 6 into a bit of a hot mess.

For example, in a vacuum I really like Anya and Xander’s arc. I suspect we’ve all had friends who ran too hard at adulthood, trying to immediately get the job and the wife and the kids and the picket fence without stopping to thinking whether that was something they really wanted or could sustain. And I think Xander’s coming to the realisation that he has seen precisely zero good models of marriage (his parent’s relationship is clearly a nightmare, Buffy’s are divorced, and we know we nothing about the Rosenbergs) and that he is over-committing to an institution that he doesn’t necessarily have faith in is surprisingly nuanced and believable. And I can see why Anya is really hurt by that, because he does literally leave her at the fucking altar and is incredibly bad at talking to her about things (although, thinking about it, she clearly hears everything he says during ‘I’ll Never Tell’ in Once More With Feeling and, like, do they talk about that afterwards or just go back to ignoring it, which says other, deeper things about their relationship). But her reaction to the whole wedding arc is so Bridezilla-ey and gendered that it was really uncomfortable for me to watch. I suspect part of it was that the show was never quite sure where it was going with Anya. She’s always kind of been comic relief and, in some ways, it’s a bit weird that Xander winds up marrying the comic relief. Like, apart from the fact she’s quite conventionally attractive I’m not sure what you can say about Anya that would make you want to be in a relationship with her. And don’t get me wrong, I love quirky people and think quirky people are valuable. But I can’t think of a single personality trait she has that isn’t a joke: scared of bunnies, obsessed with money, strangely literal. The whole wedding thing is actually a fantastic idea for a storyline. It’s just Anya’s not quite a real person and her relationship with Xander is so lightly sketched it’s hard to know what it working or failing would look like, and so everything has to fall back on these very broad tropes about women liking weddings and men getting cold feet and women being cross.

Buffy’s money problems have a similar issue. The broad idea that Buffy is now wholly responsible for a family unit and that is too much for her because she’s just come back from the dead which, in this context, is kind of a metaphor for “has just got out of university or the equivalent”, is actually really smart. The problem is, it involves suddenly looking hard a bunch of questions the series has previously ducked. Like Giles does not have a job for half of Season 3 and all of Season 4 – we’re never asked how he pays for his flat and scones. And in Season 5 the Watcher’s Council re-hire him and give him backpay. They’re also apparently able to keep black ops teams on retainer, throw lavish retreats, and pull political and economic strings at the highest level. You’d think they could set up a trust fund so the Slayer—who is their entire reason for existing—doesn’t have to flip burgers to pay the bills. On top of which, Buffy had no trouble finding a job when she’s a teenager living alone in Los Angeles, and yes, it was waitressing but it’s not like Double Meat Worker is a step up from that. Again, in a vacuum, Buffy realising she now has to provide for herself and Dawn (and, also, weirdly Willow and Tara who appear to be living in the Summers’ house rent free) is a good arc. But it feels like the way it was executed relied on throwing artificial obstacles into Buffy’s path and deliberately humiliating her. Like the show deliberately had her wind up at a weird, parody fast-food joint with a comical uniform, and a greasy smell, because it would make her sadder. And the writers seem to subscribe to the notion that making Buffy sad is the key to good storytelling.

Of course, the other big thing that goes on with Buffy this season is the Spike arc. And there is so much with this that nearly works and so much with it that really, really doesn’t. Oh, where to begin. Like, in some ways Buffy’s boyfriends have always existed to reflect on where Buffy is in her life. Angel flat out makes no sense outside the context of a melodramatic teen romance, but works perfectly in the early seasons because, well, Buffy is a teenager and Angel is what you want love to be when you’re a teenager. Season 4 Riley is a really interesting portrayal of a more adult relationship: he and Buffy are genuinely interested in the same things (admittedly, those things are fighting monsters but at least he’s not going to buy her a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese), he’s supportive while finding it non-trivial to come to terms with the fact that she’s better than he is at the stuff he values about himself, and they kind of learn from each other about how to communicate and support on another and, um, kick demon ass. Season 5 Riley is a total dick and largely just a way of dealing with Riley’s poor audience responses. But Season 5 Spike really interestingly demonstrates Buffy’s growth into an almost archetypical figure. Spike’s arc in Season 5 is about him wanting to be the kind of person who is worthy to be in Buffy’s life. And Buffy’s arc is about accepting that but not reciprocating it. Which, y’know, I think is about right because Spike is a monster. Because, as Xander reminds us, vampires are monsters. They make monster movies about them.

Season 6 Spike is, well, that’s the problem. It could be a couple of different things, and most of those things are bad either from an in-world or or out-of-world perspective. No matter how you look at it, Buffy’s relationship with Spike in Season 6 is definitely not supposed to be a healthy one. The issue is you can interpret that unhealthiness in a variety of ways, some of which are ever-so-slightly victim blamey round the edges. The way I read Buffy’s relationship with Spike on the most recent re-watch is that his behaviour towards her is fairly uncomplicatedly emotionally abusive. Yes, he listens to her, and is there for her, but he repeatedly reinforces to her that she is broken and wrong, and he is the only one who understands her. It is not okay to treat someone like that, even if you’re in love with them. And this is where we get into difficult L-word territory (in the love sense, not the early 2000s show about lesbians sense) because I think my attitude to love is a bit … uncommon, in that I view it as quite a morally neutral thing. Probably not want you to hear from a romance writer, but stay with me.

I personally feel that it’s important to recognise that you can love a person but still ultimately be harmful to them. A lot of people find that notion really, really offensive for reasons I do understand. They will tend to take the line that if you’re abusing someone, you don’t love them, you just think you love them. And I think this is one of those situations where both ways of looking at it are true and have value, depending on what outcomes you’re looking for. The issue I have with the “you can’t love someone if you’re harming them” line of reasoning is that, to me, that makes it very easy for people to justify their behaviour: I love [x], therefore the way I am treating [x] cannot be harmful. The strength of that line reasoning, I think, is that it can make it easier to encourage people not to justify the behaviour of other people who are harming them. I think it’s probably a lot cleaner to sit someone down and say “if [x] really loved you they wouldn’t be making you feel this way” than it is to say “yes, [x] might love you but independently of that, [x] is also making you feel bad and the one doesn’t justify the other.”.

And this is where Buffy/Spike gets messy because while I am okay simultaneously entertaining the ideas that Spike loves Buffy and Spike treats Buffy abusively for a lot of other people those two concepts are mutually contradictory. And this gets really tough because the show sells the notion that Spike loves Buffy incredibly hard. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen both possible interpretations of that dynamic in the fandom. There’s “Spike treats Buffy badly, therefore he can’t really love her which makes sense because he’s a demon and doesn’t have a soul”. And I’m okay with that one because it at least acknowledges Spike’s mistreatment, although it does mean that his (spoiler for a 20 year-old TV show) getting his soul back at the end of Season 6 erases a lot of the frankly unforgivable stuff he did earlier in the season. Which, thinking about it, is kind of the standard Angel gets held to but we’ll come back to that if I ever write about Season 7.

Then there’s “Spike loves Buffy, therefore he can’t be treating her badly”. And this is a little bit problematic on one level, although if I squint I can see how you might emphasise the supportive elements of his relationship with her and downplay the negging her, deliberately isolating her from her friends element of the relationship. Where it strays into super not okay for me is when it gains the corollary “and therefore she is treating him badly” which I feel does cross the line into straight up victim-blaming, although it’s not helped that the show sort reinforces this interpretation by having Buffy say “I’m using you and it’s killing me.” And, to be fair, there is a way of way looking at that line which is more nuanced, since it’s about how Buffy feels about herself, and her own behaviour. i.e. that she is not comfortable being in a relationship where she is getting what she needs, and the other person isn’t—and that arguably reflects well on Buffy, if you are willing to overlook some of the statement’s more difficult implications. Like, you shouldn’t have to have sex with someone just because they’re in love with you. But it’s also okay to have sex with someone who is in love with you when you’re not in love with them as long as you’re both aware of that, and consenting to it. And, obviously, the power dynamics in the Spike/Buffy relationship are really difficult because they’re both in their own ways very damaged people.

As a coda to the Spuffy ramblings, because I do view their relationship as abusive (and pretty uncomplicatedly so) I’m left in this odd place where, on the one hand, I think it kind of has value as exploration of that dynamic, and has some genuinely interesting moments when it’s not smashing a symbolism house, but on the other hand it’s just not what I’m expecting to see in my escapist feminist power fantasy. Which is not say that an escapist feminist power fantasy can’t explore those themes, and Buffy often does, but not normally through the character of Buffy herself. And maybe it is important to point out that even a kickass super-heroine can find herself trapped in an abusive relationship. But I think it needs to be done in a world where Buffy already exists. This is sort of like if Jessica Jones had come out in 1996. You need to do the thing, before you can deconstruct the thing. Otherwise you’re just taking away some people’s thing.

Which kind of leads us into Willow/Tara. The thing is, Season 6 is absolutely Tara’s best season. Up this point, she’s just kind of been Willow’s girlfriend, or a fairly generic helpless bystander. There’s a bit of development of her relationship with Dawn and the Scoobies in Season 5 but it’s mostly highlighting the fact that they don’t really have one. But in Season 6, because her relationship with Willow is falling apart, and also perhaps there’s a greater emphasis on small-scale domestic storytelling, Tara really comes into her own. We see being a friend/parental figure for Dawn, a non-judgemental, non-negging, non-trying-to-get-in-her-pants confidante for Buffy (she’s the only one, in my never terribly humble opinion, whose response to Buffy sleeping with Spike is remotely appropriate or supportive),  and obviously this feels a bit manipulative because you’re kind of watching it going “oh Tara’s having a really good arc in this season, this is just so we’ll feel sad when she dies” but it’s actually really … nice. And well-done. And, I’m aware I’m saying this a lot, nuanced. The thing is, Tara’s defining characteristics have always been that she’s steady and sweet and reliable and nice, which don’t come across well in a high-drama show about government conspiracies and fighting gods. But once Giles leaves and everything starts to fall apart and you need someone to, say, deal with the teenage girl who’s starting stealing shit or listen to you talking about your destructive relationship she really shines. And, actually, this watch through has been the first time I’ve been able to look past the series’ many flaws and my general distaste for the Killing The Gays trope to actually feel sad for the loss of Tara as a person. Which is ironic, in a way, because Tara’s role in this season is very much as a plot device.

The thing is, I do see the appeal of Evil Willow as an end of season bad guy, and I do see that killing off Tara was an obvious way to get her there. It’s also kind of the only obvious way to get her there. I mean, you could have killed Xander who was technically her best friend since childhood but, firstly, we have this difficult cultural thang that means we assign far greater weight to romantic relationships than non-romantic relationships and, secondly, Willow and Xander have barely interacted since, well, kind of since they stopped making out. You could do some wobbly plot device where she gets gradually taken over by dark magic although that’s not really her. Then again, it’s kind of debatable the extent to which Scary Magic Willow is Willow either. And the turn comes very late in the season because she has to have her temptation-redemption-fall arc all kind of from nowhere. Which, when you think about it, is peculiar because it’s not like they haven’t done Willow drawing more and more deeply on darker and darker magic before. It was quite a big theme in Season 5 as well, but turning it into a drugs metaphor meant you couldn’t readily build on what happened previously. And, in fact, actively detracts from it. I mean, we see Floating Black Eyes Willow in Season 5, and it was so much more interesting when it was a choice, rather than “oh noes, now she is hooked on the bad magic smack.” And I do appreciate that I started this discussion of the positive bits of Season 6 by highlighting that Buffy was kind of always about taking a real world issue and putting a supernatural twist on it but magic has been used constantly throughout the series, and it’s never been drugs, man, drugs. At no point has it been suggested that you can buy magic as a substance from shady dealers—but apparently Amy was doing that while she was trying out for cheerleading at the age of 16.

I think what I’m trying to say is that Willow Going Evil, or being tempted by darkness, works for me emotionally and thematically. Her whole identity has always been that she’s been an outsider, and she kind of racks up marginalisations as she progresses through the series: in Season 1 she’s too nerdy, in Season 2 she’s too nerdy and too smart, in Season 3 she’s too nerdy, too smart and too magic, in Season 4 she’s too nerdy, too smart, too magic and too gay, in Season 5 she’s too nerdy, too smart, too magic, too gay and too powerful. The whole thing is really well set up for her to go evil in Season 6 if they hadn’t crowbarred in this totally out-of-left-field drugs metaphor that taints every other instance of magic being used in a show that, let’s not forget, is about magic. Yes, there’s one line from Riley’s wife about how they knew some shamans who, like, got addicted, man, and one of them ate his face and the other one microwaved a baby. But there is no literally no other example anywhere in the extended Buffyverse of it being at all a thing that this is a thing. And this is beyond annoying, because without this bullshit, the arc is really good.

Dark Willow is exactly the right villain for Season 6: it’s just they needed to get her there in a way that set up the themes she talks about in the final episode, when she has a big verbal sparring match with Buffy about how Willow was a loser and an outcast instead of having her taste like strawberry. In this very mundane “we are in our early twenties now” season that is about questioning yourself and your choices, and wondering Where Do We Go From Here (ah, d’you see) “your best friend has gone evil and you didn’t quite notice because you were too distracted with your own shit” is perfect. And, again, it fits wonderfully with the villain progression of previous seasons. Season 1 Buffy fights a vampire that’s slightly more powerful than some other vampires. Season 2 Buffy fights her own boyfriend. Season 3 she fights the mayor of her town. Season 4 she fights the actual government. Season 5 she fights a God. There’s nowhere to go from there so you have to bring it back down to the personal level—and what could be more devastating than the loss of someone who has always been there for you.

I guess since I’m on villains, I should probably mention the trio. Again, in some ways they’re the perfect choice for the season where, ah d’you see, the real world is the real enemy. Y’know, because the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. And in a strange, I think perhaps unintentional way, it’s almost affirming of the first 5 seasons. The biggest supernatural danger Buffy faces in Season 6 is three guys who aren’t really particularly good at being a supernatural danger. They see themselves as Buffy arch-nemesises but she finds them annoying at worst, and when she needs to take them out she can, almost trivially. All of which suggests that Buffy has, actually, done the job she gave her life to do: which is save Sunnydale. When she rocked up, the town was a nightmare hellscape, with dead bodies showing up in highschool lockers, and the whole place at a constant risk of being sucked into hell. Now the biggest thing it has to worry about is three dudes with some wacky plans because Buffy has stopped everything else really effectively.

The thing about the trio is that they engage in some really interesting themes, in ways I don’t always agree with, and that sometimes come across as a little bit hypocritical. Like Warren is noticeably much eviler than the others, and part of me is like “fair enough, you often have one person who is the ringleader in the kind of dynamic” but part of me says that because the trio are really specifically engaging with questions about real world misogyny and male privilege, pinning all that on one objectively evil guy is … awkward? Like the bit where they get the mind-control orb and they’re all completely up for using it to turn a woman into a their willing sex-bunny, and then Warren uses it on his ex-girlfriend and Jonathan and Andrew are impatient for their turn is really nicely observed. And then it wears off and she’s all “guys, you realise this is rape, right?” and part of me like the fact that Jonathan and Andrew are shocked by that, and I think Jonathan even begins trying to deny it. But I feel like it kind of lets them off the hook because they blatantly would have gone through with it if Warren hadn’t been so selfish and the machine hadn’t worn off. Also, not inconsequential point of order. In the episode of ‘Superstar’, Jonathan does a spell that makes everyone in Sunnydale (possibly the world, it’s never entirely clear) think he’s super awesome and he definitely has sex with two hot blonde women while they are under the influence of this spell and it is played for laughs in the moment and it is not called back to here. And, I mean, if you want to get really technical you could argue that there’s a difference between straight up mind-control and altering reality so that you occupy a more prestigious position within it, which independently causes some other people to want to have sex with you. But firstly the Superstar spell does seem to affect people’s feelings directly and, secondly, you don’t want to be playing with technicalities when you’re talking about, y’know, consent.

So what this leaves us with is a situation where Jonathan, like Warren, has a history of doing this kind of thing and he and Andrew are both completely on board with doing it in the moment, but only Warren is held accountable for it. Essentially we’re invited to see Jonathan and Andrew as two nice guys who are a bit lonely and a bit nerdy and have been led astray, whereas Warren is, as Xander, ever the moral mouthpiece of series puts it, a cold-blooded killer of women just warming up. And this is … complicated? Like in a lot of ways, I find the alpha-nerd dynamic in the Trio really interesting, and I find the way that Warren lets that power go to his head quite well observed (for example, in the second episode, they each—when asked—identify themselves as the leader, but by the end of the series, Warren has clearly taken that role and the other two acknowledge it) but there’s a difference between being the most toxic and dominant guy in your friendship group and being responsible for all misogyny. In a similar way, I find Andrew’s gradually building hero-worship of Warren kind of fascinating because, on one level, that feels very real to me as a way that nerdy men interact. In my experience, geek social dynamics develop those kind of hierarchies quite quickly and you often see it played out in fandom in a number of different ways. Where it bothers me a lot more is that they also make him ambiguously gay. It feels really regressive, especially for a show that was quite lauded in its day for having a lesbian couple in it, to fall back on having him say things like “he never really loved … hanging out with us”. The whole thing is just played for laughs in a way I’m not super comfortable with.

Basically, although I like the Trio in concept I think their portrayal is problematic insofar as it engages with some quite important gender politics issues but then takes what you might call a really Captain Planet approach to them. Which is to say, it takes a complex sociological phenomenon and boils it down to individual bad people being bad, usually deliberately. And part of me says that this is necessary because you need Willow to be able to horrifically torture a guy to death without the audience completely losing all sympathy for her. But another part of me says that the issue isn’t so much that Warren is too evil so much that Jonathan and Andrew are too good. They both willingly participate in a group project that rapes and kills women—and, yes, they grumble bit, but they’re quite enthusiastic about at least half of that (and, in Jonathan’s case, have done similar things before). They just don’t like being confronted with the reality of what they’re doing. Having Warren going full “by the way, I also hate all women now, you’re all bitches and deserve to be murdered” isn’t actually necessary (I really think killing Tara is enough to make Willow going House Bolton on him understandable) and just flattens out something that was previously quite complex.

Which is sort of Season 6 in a nutshell really. And I’m starting to realise that as defences of cultural artefacts go this has very much been praise with faint damnation. All of which said, despite its many, many, many flaws Season 6 did actually do a way better job of giving me things to think about any of Seasons 1 through 5, possibly even Seasons 1 to 5 put together.

Also: musical episode was fun.

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One Response to Things I Liked – June 2019

  1. Jeanne Hurley says:

    Always love your “never terribly humble” opinions although my age gets in the way of following many of them since I watched neither Game of Thrones or much of Buffy. Haven’t tolerated violent for a long time having watched so much of it IRL. But thanks for finding time to blog and even more for finding time to write and publish!

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