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Monday, November 21, 2011

I Robot, You Jane

[Updated April 29, 2013]

After waxing enthusiastic about The Pack and Angel, I can’t find much good to say about I Robot, You Jane. It’s generally rated as one of the very weakest episodes by most fans, and I concur. Still, we should see what we can get from it.

Moloch was the name of an ancient Canaanite god whose worship featured the sacrifice of children by burning them alive. Worship of Moloch became a stereotype for the worship of pagan idols generally, which, in the Bible, distracted the Hebrews from worship of the true God. Moloch is the paradigmatic false idol.
The person seduced by the false idol is Willow. She’s seduced away from Buffy and Xander, in this case by the internet. I don’t think it has to be the internet per se; that’s just the particular venue for the seduction which would affect Willow. More generally, Moloch the false idol represents any distraction which pulls someone away from the true path.
Mapping this onto Buffy, Willow is Buffy’s metaphorical spirit. Thus, the message of the episode is warning Buffy to maintain her focus on her true destiny and not to let herself be diverted from her destiny by the pursuit of false idols.
Why does this episode appear at this point in the season? Well, Willow’s love for Xander is unrequited. She lets herself be seduced by Moloch in an effort to escape the pain of that. Since Buffy just walked away from Angel, she’s at risk of sublimating herself into something or someone else, as Willow did, and needs to be warned against that.
Well, maybe that’s what’s intended anyway.
Even the weakest Buffy episodes usually have some nice scenes, and IRYJ is no exception. The interplay between Giles and Ms. Calendar is fun, particularly her “that’s not where I dangle it”. The ending scene is terrific.
Trivia notes: (1) The title is a play on the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” joke first uttered by Johnny Weissmuller (the original movie Tarzan). It may refer also to the Isaac Asimov series I, Robot. (2) The name of the character Dave was probably taken from the character Dave Bowman in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some aspects of the plot bear a vague resemblance to Kubrick’s masterpiece. (3) The monk who gathers the circle to bind Moloch at the beginning is named Thelonius, a play on the famous jazz composer Thelonius Monk. (4) It’s probably too obvious to be considered trivia, but Giles’ suggestion of using a computer virus to disable Moloch comes from the movie Independence Day.


  1. It's also very interesting, given Willow's thirst for knowledge, that the way to seduce her would be through the internet.


    It also fits in with her later falling for Tara, since Tara's the perfect guide to the world of witchcraft.


    Would that Willow had only let herself be more guided.

  3. My love of sci-fi predisposes me to appreciate the theme of this episode. And I do enjoy the juxtaposition of technology and mysticism that it proposes. While I can conceptualize the threat Moloch presents, however, I never actually feel threatened. We only hear about some of the widespread mayhem being created elsewhere. It just doesn't hit close enough to home.

    So, what's the Buffy here? Love demands death. Is death, then, a gift? When Willow states "I'm not yours; I'm never going to be yours," should we also apply this to Buffy and Angel (or Buffy and anyone)? Buffy certainly seems to be reassuring herself when she says that Willow's attraction of a demon doesn't say anything about her as a person. Another message for Buffy could be that she should examine others' intentions...and that things that seem too good to be true often are.

    Then, as Moloch says, "I was omnipotent, I was everything. Now, I'm trapped in this shell." Aren't we all? Or, at least, that's one theory. Also, I like Giles' insistence on texture and context: "If it's to last, the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be smelly." Yes, although the mystic is amorphous, it does generally entail more sensory context--and smell--than computers. I think he hit upon why this episode just doesn't feel like most of the others.

    I had missed the Thelonius Monk reference. Nice catch!

    1. A reasonable suggestion. The problem is that the episode is so vague about its point that I go back and forth on whether it has oneat all or if the possibilities are just obscure.

  4. local max again.

    I think this episode only really makes sense in the full context of Willow's arc, where I think it *does* actually come together very well.

    Without getting into spoilers: we learn that at some point in the past, large, dangerous power was locked away by religious officials so that it cannot be found by ordinary people, who if they are lonely, isolated, depressed, and ostracized, can easily be manipulated into giving their identity/soul to "Moloch," who is a literal demon here but is also the representation of destructive (and self-destructive) power. This remains hidden away from the reach of most ordinary mortals for centuries. Then Buffy, blissfully ignorant of history but curious and on the verge of being an Enlightened Woman of sorts, opens the box and hands the book over to Willow, in a project set by Old Order vanguard Giles and neophile Jenny. Xander abandons Willow with an "I love you, but bye," and leaves her alone with the dangerous knowledge which is only just now available due to the specific combination the decaying of old (religious) institutions which kept dangerous knowledge from individuals, the way Buffy literally and symbolically functions as Willow's entry point to a new world without even intending it, and the extreme democratization of information that new technology of the net creates. What we are looking at is that there are ancient dangers which have been dormant, but which new technology will place in the hands of individuals who otherwise would have had no ability to access it.

    There's a spectrum from Jenny to Fritz (Dave is somewhere in the middle) of using the internet as a tool for counterculture, and we are asked to see where Willow will fall. Like Xander in "Teacher's Pet" and Buffy in "Angel," Willow is seduced because she is lonely, insecure, and has existential terror at the prospect of growing up, especially because she is essentially alone. The threat of Moloch from the internet plays both as the obvious IM predator story and as the larger danger of having access to abstract knowledge, de-contextualized ("not smelly"), in a world which eschews human contact. Willow can operate in that abstracted world and she's under a threat from it in a way much more kinesthetic Buffy and Xander can't. She falls for Moloch/Malcolm for a while. And it's explicitly romantic here, but what Moloch/Malcolm offers is love, knowledge, and power, which end up being big issues for Willow down the road. Willow rejects him when she sees who he truly is. However, she doesn't recognize Moloch for what it is until her friends help expose it.

    I think the episode is about the dangers that the very fast changes in forms of communication, interaction, power, etc. that are happening at the end of the 20th century/early 21st, will mean. Some well-known "bugs" in human behaviour are mostly kept in place by various gate-keeper organizations, including organized religion, but in the Internet Age there are no ways to keep these from individuals. This is dangerous. However, Willow's rejection of Moloch and Jenny's argument to Giles that it's wrong for information to just be kept in the hands of a few white men point out that this danger can be overcome and that it's ultimately better to localize and deal with/destroy the dangerous temptations rather than have them hidden away.

    1. The spoiler comment is to add that Moloch's offer of power/knowledge combined with a sexual component gets repeated over and over again for Willow -- see also vampWillow in "Doppelgangland," D'Hoffryn in "Something Blue," Rack in "Wrecked" -- and Willow is somewhat less inclined to refuse it each time. However Willow triumphs over temptation in each case. Mostly though I think Moloch is sort of specifically about the idea that power and domination are necessary ways of interacting with the world, and the only way it is possible for one to gain love, security, an end to loneliness and sadness, etc. This is something that Willow eventually falls into -- as much as she has Power/Control Issues, she is seduced into trying to accrue power because she wants love, and not the other way around, and Moloch's MO and Willow's reaction when she sees him for who she is work out with her overall arc.

      As for Buffy, I dunno. I think she and Xander mostly play "somewhat clueless but well-meaning friends," who fail to get why Willow is seduced by Malcolm because they have trouble quite getting how low Willow's self-esteem is (though Xander's cluelessness is more deliberate blindness than Buffy's). Buffy is the one to defeat Moloch and it's important for Buffy ultimately to defeat that belief in ultimate power too (big theme in the last few seasons especially), but it doesn't quite work. Because Buffy is the one to uncover the book that contains Moloch, I might argue that Buffy has to take some responsibility for how her power affects others, which is again a big theme especially later on, both for Buffy/Willow and for the other people Buffy opens doors for (e.g. with the potentials).

    2. Which is to say, "as for in what way this story is about Buffy" in the last paragraph.

    3. The spoiler comment is very insightful about Willow's issues (as usual).

      Some day I'm going to get the chance to ask one of the writers what the Buffy is of this episode (and maybe Go Fish too).

  5. I just wanted to point out that for me this episode is all about solidarity, not within the Scooby Gang but between "techno-pagans" everywhere who probably don't know each other, let alone Buffy and Willow, but share their energy and unite to defeat evil.

    The union of witches via the internet finds a mirror in the spreading of slayer power via magic at the end of the series. But in the latter, Willow has mastered magic and is no longer a victim of it.

    The obvious message of the episode is that any given power can either be good and bad depending on who's using it, as was the internet who helped spreading Moloch's evilness and then helped destroying him. As such, this is the beginning of Willow's journey with magic, an intangible knowledge and power that can have devastating effects in season 6 or great ones in S7.

    As for Buffy, I think she has to deal with the fact that sometimes her friend want to exclude her from some parts of their lives. She has also to ask herself if her job is not aking her paranoid and turning her into an overprotective mom (when she doesn't have any proof or reasons to think that Malcolm is bad but inscinctly wants to protect Willow). Ironically, Buffy fears what she does not know and does not see, for her it's not monsters but the invisible force that makes Willow slowly turn her back to her. This is the same type of incomprehension between her and her mother and later on with Dawn, and she has to find an equilibrium between a friend's trust and a slayer's instinct and define her place in society, whether or not it's okay to barge into every aspect of their friend's lives to protect them. She is slowly realizing that even if she's special, the Slayerettes are teenagers just like herself with their strenghts and flaws, she is not their boss but their friend.

    PS: I've started watching this show with my sisters when I was 3 so of course for me it was only 'yay, monsters' back then (my mom was not pleased). I've grown up with it and every time I rewatch it it feels totally different, I discover new layers, jokes, references, metaphors, this show will never stop being relevant and new. More than once, my opinions on characters or episodes have changed, sometimes radically. Your website gives me new angles of reflection and points out things that completely went above my head the first times, so thank you!

    1. All fair points. Thanks.

      Wow. You were 3 when you watched? And I thought my daughter was young at 9.

    2. I also watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I was 10 so I'm probably not the one to follow here... For Buffy my mom was pissed off against my sis and asked the pedatrician to be sure it was ok to let me watch.

    3. Heh. The first season would have been no problem, but S6 when you were 9? That's, uh, brave.