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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lie to Me

[Updated April 29, 2013]

Lie to Me is almost certainly the best episode which I rarely see on Top 10 lists, including my own. In his reviews for The AV Club, Noel Murray suggested it as the episode he’d use to introduce a new viewer to Buffy. It’s truly a wonderful episode.

Before I get to the episode itself, I’ll note a structural point. The seasons have a definite structure to them. The first 3 episodes lay out plot, metaphor, and theme(s) for the season. It’s worth thinking about this while you watch the first few episodes of each season, but it’s generally impossible to pick out the themes except in hindsight because they’re deliberately subtle. Episode 7 – Lie to Me is Episode 7 of S2 – is a major episode that establishes the most important ideas for the season. Most of the time, Episode 7 will be rated one of the top episodes of the season.
So let’s take a look at it. When Drusilla tells Angel in the teaser that “it is just the beginning”, I relate that back to my theory that Halloween is the transition episode symbolized by Janus. Lie to Me very much marks the beginning of what we’ll see for the remainder of the season, including much more emphasis on dark settings (note the lighting). It also marks Buffy’s first attempts to understand the adult world.
Lie to Me defines, for me anyway, the theme of the show – growing up – and the dialogue makes it easy to see why. Like any teenager, Buffy’s starting to wonder what growing up actually means. One thing it means is that there aren’t any easy decisions:
“Buffy:  Nothing's ever simple anymore. I'm constantly trying to work it out. Who to love or hate. Who to trust. It's just, like, the more I know, the more confused I get.
Giles:  I believe that's called growing up.”
When Buffy says this, she’s sitting at night in a graveyard waiting for her childhood crush to rise so she can slay him. That’s pretty clearly the kind of thing I had in mind in the Introduction, when I said that Buffy slays vampires on her journey to becoming an adult. Consider it in the context of Ford’s situation and his plan. Ford’s fate – to die bald and shriveled and in pain – is a metaphor for the aging process. It’s that resistance to aging which characterizes the vampire. Ford’s solution is to die young and stay pretty. When she slays Ford, Buffy’s not just putting her childhood behind her for good, she’s rejecting the very idea that there can be any permanent childhood.
Buffy’s argument with Ford in the club is also very revealing. Ford’s situation is dire, but his solution is worse. Aside from the fact that we all think very highly of ourselves, and therefore are sure we’d take Buffy’s side of the argument, there’s a good reason why Buffy can lecture him about choices without sounding self-righteous. She herself made a very difficult and similar choice in Prophecy Girl: she chose to die in order to do what was right.
This seems like a good place to talk about the importance of choice in BtVS. We saw it was an important theme in S1 – Buffy wasn’t really the Slayer until she made the conscious choice to commit to her destiny in Prophecy Girl. Now, in Lie to Me, which is a very important episode, we see choice emphasized again. It is literally true that the power of choice will remain important to the show through the very end: if you don’t know already, the very last episode is entitled Chosen.
So where is Joss – who wrote Prophecy Girl and Lie to Me and Chosen, and many others as well – coming from when it comes to the importance of choice? Joss has said in the DVD commentary to the Firefly episode Objects in Space that the most important book he ever read was La Nausee. In fact, if you watch carefully, this book will make an appearance in S3.
La Nausee was written by the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. This novel is considered the seminal work for Sartre’s version of existentialism. Joss says that he was heavily influenced by existentialism but describes himself as an “absurdist”, which is closely related to but not identical with an existentialist. It’s a term Sartre’s contemporary, Albert Camus, used. I don’t want to get too technical about this, and Joss isn’t a philosopher per se, so I’m going to treat the two schools of philosophy as substantially identical here and just refer to existentialism.
Back to La Nausee. While Wikipedia is far from the best source for discussing the details of philosophy, its plot summary of the ending is fair:
“In his resolution at the end of the book [the protagonist] accepts the indifference of the physical world to man's aspirations. He is able to see that realization not only as a regret but also as an opportunity. People are free to make their own meaning: a freedom that is also a responsibility, because without that commitment there will be no meaning.”
Let me try to translate this into Buffy. Buffy is in constant peril from the world because it – that is, the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness – doesn’t care about her; it’s indifferent to her at best, actively opposed to her at worst. She therefore can’t rely on the material world to give meaning to her life. Nor is there any higher power which might give such meaning. Only within herself can she find that meaning, and she does so through the power of choice. She chooses her friends, she chooses to commit to her destiny, she chooses to accept responsibility for the world, because in so doing she gives meaning both to herself and to the world at large.
Some people see the world of the existentialists as very bleak, but they actually saw it as both realistic and quite optimistic because the power to make the world resides inside each of us. In their view, it’s only realistic to admit that there is no power watching over us and that the natural world is indifferent to us. That’s Ford’s situation with his cancer. What the existentialist insists on, though, is that the power of choice always remains to human beings. They may not have good choices, as Buffy tells Ford, but they have them:
“A critical claim in existentialist thought is that individuals are always free to make choices and guide their lives towards their own chosen goal or "project". The claim holds that individuals cannot escape this freedom, even in overwhelming circumstances. For instance, even an empire's colonized victims possess choices: to submit to rule, to negotiate, to act in complicity, to commit suicide, to resist nonviolently, or to counter-attack.
Although external circumstances may limit individuals..., they cannot force a person to follow one of the remaining courses over another. In this sense the individual still has some freedom of choice. For this reason, individuals choose in anguish: they know that they must make a choice, and that it will have consequences. For Sartre, to claim that one amongst many conscious possibilities takes undeniable precedence (for instance, "I cannot risk my life, because I must support my family") is to assume the role of an object in the world, not a free agent, but merely at the mercy of circumstance....” Cite.
For an existentialist, this power to make choices allows people to create their own authentic self. Simplifying somewhat, it’s the anxiety about death which leads us to the liberating power of choice:
“This experience of my own death, or “nothingness,” … can act as a spur to authenticity: I come to see that I “am” not anything but must “make myself be” through my choice. In committing myself in the face of death … the roles that I have hitherto thoughtlessly engaged in … become something that I myself own up to, become responsible for.” Cite.
I think it’s pretty easy to see how this fits in with Prophecy Girl. Buffy faced her fears and made a conscious choice by committing herself in the face of death. She therefore became responsible for her destiny. An existentialist would say that she was true to herself, or in their word, “authentic”.
Ford’s situation here gives us another reflection on this. He blamed the world for his actions and refused to accept responsibility for the choice he actually was making, even as he denied the possibility of choice to his unwitting victims:
 “Ford:  Okay, well, you try vomiting for twenty-four hours straight because the pain in your head is so intense, and *then* we'll discuss the concept of right and wrong. (points down) These people are sheep. They wanna be vampires 'cause they're lonely, miserable or bored. I don't have a choice.
Buffy:  You have a choice. You don't have a good choice, but you have a choice!”
To an existentialist, Ford was rejecting his own humanity when he said he had no choice, trying to make himself an object rather than a person. That’s the sign of someone acting in what Sartre called “bad faith”. Quoting again from Wikipedia:
“As a human, one cannot claim his actions are determined by external forces; this is the core statement of existentialism. ... One must not exercise bad faith by denying the self's freedom of choice and accountability.”
Buffy’s reflections with Giles at the end show that she recognizes both the need to make choices and the difficulty of remaining true to herself while doing so. “This inner anguish over moral uncertainty is a central underlying theme in existentialism, as the anguish demonstrates a personal feeling of responsibility over the choices one makes throughout life.” Id.
Ok, that’s enough on philosophy for now. I’ll revisit some of these issues later on. Just keep in mind that Joss has a particular view of the world which informs the Buffy we see on the screen.
In addition to philosophy, we also learn some important facts in Lie to Me. For one thing, we learn that Angel sired Dru. He did more than that, though – in a very real sense, he made her. She is what she is today because of Angel. This is a critical fact for explaining my view of what Dru represents, which I’m holding off for a while.
Lie to Me is also important for the seasonal arc, but I can’t explain that now because of spoilers. I’ll talk about it when we get to the end of S2.
Trivia notes: (1) The title of the song which plays when Ford first goes into his “club” is “Neverland”. And what’s the story of Peter Pan all about? (2) The TV movie which Ford lip synchs is the Jack Palance version of Dracula. (3) Xander’s reference to Angel as “Dead Boy” is perhaps a reference to the US punk band The Dead Boys. (4) Ford asking Buffy on a date, telling her that it’s a “surprise”, parallels Jenny’s invitation to Giles. Buffy probably would have preferred the monster trucks.


  1. I don't really have anything to add to your amazingly profound and insightful reviews, I just wanted to let you know that you still have readers.

    I think the commenting will get a little more lively the further into the show we get, right now it's hard to talk about what's going on without referring to what will happen.

  2. Wow, that's a really nice thing to say. Thank you.

    I know my no-spoiler request does make it hard. If people think this is too inhibiting, let me know and I'll rethink it.

  3. Another comment to support your reviews. I especially enjoyed the philosophical discussion.

    Yeah, the problem with rewatching is that a strength of the series is the interconnectedness, but there abide spoilers!

  4. Thanks.

    Re spoilers. I'm inclined to keep them out of my posts because I can (and did in S1) bring the story lines together when they do intersect. But like I say, if people are feeling restricted in the comments, I can just issue a blanket warning and leave the comments unrestricted.

  5. Mark,

    yes . . . please keep posting. These are invaluable reviews of Buffy and I think your readership will grow. They'll also be great resources for future viewers going through Buffy for the first time.

    The holidays makes it tough to keep up, but I for one am always keeping an eye out for them.

    Happy new year.

  6. Your reviews are extremely insightful and intriguing, Mark! Keep up the great work!

    Personally, I've only recently become a fan of Buffy and Angel, but I really love both shows (particularly BtVS). One of the reasons why was because of the philosophical depth and worldview Joss brings to each of his shows, which you've so eloquently written about here. Another is because of this specific episode, which I loved from the moment I first viewed it.

    Even as a thirty year old male who does not have the weight of the world on his shoulders as Buffy does, I feel I can still relate to her and how she handles her problems. When she tells Giles to lie to her at the end of the episode, I can't tell you how often I've felt that same need for reassurance that everything will be okay. Of course, this isn't always the case.

    Indeed, the anguish of growing and learning and making choices is one of the most beautiful aspects of life, and one of the hardest. Buffy as a show encapsulates this, while also being one of the funniest, most heartfelt, and thrilling TV series of all time. A triumph, to be sure!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  7. Thanks aaron and Keona.

    I'm relieved the philosophy stuff came out ok. I find it really interesting, but I know not everyone does. It is, I think, essential to understanding where Joss is coming from though.

  8. another reader here who agrees it's hard to comment without spoilers - but i respect your policy, and really enjoy reading your reviews. please keep them coming.

  9. Just to be clear, I don't have any problem with spoilers in the comments as long as they're labeled.

  10. It's not so much about spoilers, it's more that as these storylines come to fruition, there will be more to talk about as we reach back to the philosophical and psychological connections you've made here.

  11. Yeah, that's definitely true. Innocence will be a key episode for that.

  12. Count me as another who really looks forward to reading what you've written, but hasn't felt moved to comment yet (not so much worrying about spoilers, but feeling like I haven't got anything worthy of saying in such a rarified environment!).

    I mean, I'm thoroughly enjoying another site ("Mark Watches") as that reviewer is discovering "Buffy" for the first time (in an amazingly un-spoiled state), and I really enjoyed "Nik at Nite" who just finished the whole series, but I find your writing, Mark, to be at another level of depth and thoughtfulness. I'm getting so much out of your particular, philosophical approach to the greater themes of the series. You've illuminated moments from the text in new ways for me, which once again proves to me the worthiness of this show for the kind of textual analysis usually reserved for Literature. Please know you are being read, even if folks are not commenting as much as you might expect them to.

  13. Just another voice of appreciation—

    I am an academic—a literature professor—who made a conscious
    decision to not work on Buffy not because I deem it unworthy—far
    from it—but because I wish to keep it uncontaminated from the
    at times poisonous aspects of publishing—

    In my own work, I read far differently than you, and I do not post
    much because my agreements and disagreements with you are
    too complex to compress into short replies (and I am, I confess,
    too obsessive about all but the most casual writing)—but no matter
    the differences, I enjoy your work tremendously: it always opens
    new ways of reading, alternate interpretations, ever more complex
    connections between episodes, &c.

    So do keep writing—and know that we are out here, reading,
    silent though we be...

    PS For what it is worth, from someone who has studied continental
    philosophy, I found your explanation of existentialism cogent,
    correct, and concise.

  14. I really do appreciate the encouragement and the kind words. Thanks both of you.

  15. *spoiler*
    the foreshadowing in the opening conversation between drusilla and angel only increases my anticipation for mid season... another reason that this show remains one of the best written and executed that i've ever found.

  16. Oh yeah, nearly every word is meaningful.

  17. amazing, and i give a nod to you, mark, that i've until i started reading your writeups, did i pay such close attention to detail, and understand the full meaning of what joss has done here. i always knew it was amazing television - but it's really so much more...

  18. One thing I've learned is that I see many more connections from reading the transcripts than from even repeated re-watches. That may be because I just do better reading, but I think it also focuses you more on the dialogue.

  19. are the transcripts still available online? i know the shooting scripts site was shut down, i figured they all were... i wouldn't mind going back and reading them all.

  20. Buffyworld ( still has transcripts up.

  21. Celia:

    I've been reading Mark Watches too! So not prepared!

    One thing is kinda interesting to me now, is that Angel's statements(is it in this episode?) about how the demon is totally different than the person it was before, is taken very seriously by people(characters on the show, and fans of it), but I think the way Angel is spoofed on this episode, where he states that these people have no idea what vampires are really like, or how they dress and act, and then a vampire wannabe walks right past him wearing an identical outfit, is an indication that Angel is not necessarily reliable in these things he states.


    I mean it is pretty simple to understand why Angel would want seperate the actions of Angelus as far from Liam as possible, but I do think that the show is fairly blatant about the fact that Angel is wrong when he says this.

    I think this becomes very pointed in season 3, with Amends and Doppelgangland, where the parallels between human and demon are very explicit.

  22. I have a long post on Amends to explore exactly this issue.

  23. aeryl & celia - i've been reading mark watches too. i cannot WAIT until he gets to mid season. his brain might just literally explode. LOL.
    (sorry for the segue, mark, and thanks for the heads up on the transcripts. i see a lot of reading in my future! - speaking of reading - have you gotten thru any of the scripts yet?)

  24. No problem on the segue; I've read some of his posts too.

    I've only had the chance so far to read The Gift, which was worth it all on its own. Thanks.

  25. i cried reading it. it was that good. glad i could share :)

  26. Ha! I know! Innocence is going to be nothing but all caps and nonsense. It'll be great. I went over there when he was linked on whedonesque, but got hooked when I read his reviews of Hunger Games.

  27. his firefly recaps are what got me reading - and his absolutely hysterical recaps of twighlight... he mocks the thing to death, and it's all sorts of awesome.

  28. They were, I read all those too. I haven't read anything else, except for LoTR, that he's reviewed so I haven't done anymore.

    I did love when he got to "Angel" that he was all THIS IS HOW IT'S DONE TWILIGHT!! ROFL

  29. I actually theorized at one point when I was thinking about the series, that the arc for each season kicks off at episode 7 of each season of the Buffy shows. If you look at all the 7th episodes (Titles only for spoiler folks) You'll see what I mean. It holds true fairly well for Angel, too. Firefly and Dollhouse, well, that's less clear, but, had there been full seasons of either of these, well, maybe the case could be better made.

    Season one: Angel
    Season two: Lie to Me
    Season three: Revelations
    Season four: The Initiative
    Season five: Fool for Love
    Season six: Once More With Feeling
    Season seven: Conversations with Dead People

    (BTW: just found your site recently, and have been reading all your Buffy posts, and enjoying them quite a bit. Thanks!)

    1. First off, thanks.

      Your theory is mine too -- the seventh episode is critical to the season in every case.

      In fact, the structure of the seasons is fairly standard. The first 3 episodes of S2-7 (S1 doesn't count for obvious reasons) set the themes and often plot points for the season. A mid-season ep (e.g., Bad Eggs) will set up the ensuing season arc as it plays out over the last 8-9 episodes. It's clear to me that they outlined the season beforehand and filled in the blanks once they had that.

  30. Great minds, I guess. :) It's a pretty cool pattern, really. I entertained putting just episode sevens as my "featured" episodes for my annual "Slayerfest" one year. Maybe this year, as it's the 10 anniversary of my annual Buffy/TV event.

  31. I love that you bring philosophy into the discussion, as it is an essential part of the show and why I enjoy it so much. The themes you mention here remind me of the line that made me fall in love with Angel (the series): "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." (Epiphany, 2.16)

    I also enjoy Chanterelle's reappearance on that show. Funny how LA seems to be the place to find redemption.

  32. Just joining the queue to say how incredible your insights and analyses are! I've been reading them all but, like so many others apparently, have had nothing extra to add. I watched the series when I was younger when it first aired in the UK (or rather, I hid behind the sofa while my elder sisters watched it). This means I know pretty much everything that happens, but can't really remember any specific episodes, so rewatching them all now is wonderful, if detrimental for my uni work. BUT I just wanted to say thanks for this concise and clear explanation of Existentialism; I'm just about to start studying Camus, so it's really useful.
    Look forward to working my way through the series, thanks.

  33. Thank you! If you're just starting on Camus, you'll really appreciate S3 on re-watch. Let me know how it goes.


    This really is a great episode, though I admit I didn't truly appreciate it until I got all the way to Season 2 of AtS and the episode "The Trial," which shares some plot and thematic elements with this.

    One of the problems I had with the episode on first watch was that the scene with Angel in Willow's bedroom made me deeply uncomfortable, and now I think that was probably deliberate, or at least it works on that level.

    This episode is all about showing us gray areas. Angel, who we know as a mostly good guy, turns out to have tortured and corrupted innocent, saintly Dru during his Angelus days. And what better way to drive home the parallels between Angel/Buffy and Angelus/Dru than to put Angel in the bedroom of Willow, Buffy's spirit, who is considerably more childlike in appearance and attitude than our Slayer?

    Buffy has been forced to grow up more than her best friend, given the responsibilities she carries on her shoulders. She has a lot of self-confidence and can clearly take care of herself in an ass-kicking sense. And SMG is styled in a way that makes her look much more sophisticated than AH. So scenes with Buffy and Angel don't carry the same "wow, he's a man and she's just a girl" creepy vibe (at least to me -- I know the age difference bothers a lot of people)!

    But Willow talks about not being allowed to have "boys" in her room ... and at the end of the scene, Angel makes her promise not to tell Buffy what they've been up to. So a lot of "predator" foreboding there that I guess I understood subconsciously.


    I know you don't really address AtS. But the opposite endings of "Lie to Me" and "The Trial" are so interesting, especially the choice of placing them basically at the same point in both shows (Season 2, episodes 7 and 9, respectively).

    Ford, having no idea what he's getting into, chooses to become a vampire (presumably at the fangs of Spike, though it's fun to imagine that maybe it was Dru!), and gets immediately staked by his childhood friend, who tried so hard to convince him not to become a demon.

    Darla, knowing exactly what being a vampire entails, is also eager to shed her soul to save her "life," though her longtime companion tries to convince her otherwise. In the end, it takes Angel being willing to be staked himself to convince her of the value of that soul (and, basically, of growing up instead of being solely self-interested). But just when she decides to die a "natural" death, Dru shows up to take it away.

    Both episodes have so much to say about selfishness/selflessness, the power of choice and the value of a single human life.

    Sorry for the long comment!

    1. Nice parallels, which I'd never noticed. And I agree with you on the sense of wrongness when Angel went into Willow's room. There was something creepy about it.

  35. I have a slightly different reading of Ford, though one that is very close to yours and developed out of thinking about your essay. I suppose it's more of an attempt at an extension of your reading in this essay (which turned this episode from one I liked to one I love, btw).
    Some facts about Ford: he’s an old crush of Buffy’s who was part her childish fantasies of what love and sexuality would entail. He’s tall and dark, like Angel, and, also like Angel, he seemed unattainable or forbidden at first because he was older and aloof “Buffy: Ford wouldn’t give me the time of day FORD: I was a manly sixth grader”. His appearance now represents the last, um, gasp of her childish fantasy of what a sexual relationship with Angel would be like. Her earlier fantasies of what it would be like if she and Ford got together (ahem, “I touch myself”) tell us how she’s been thinking of Angel up to now. Ford is appearing now, dying, because Buffy’s this childish and idealistic notion of Angel and sex with Angel is starting to die as well: her seeing him and Drusilla together, her hearing the story of how he made her, her faltering trust. Ford, her childish fantasy, is trying to tempt her into abandoning responsibility, which has been an undercurrent (sometimes an overcurrent) of the season so far. If she adopted Ford’s view of the world, she could pursue a sexual relationship with Angel regardless of the consequences (like innocent people dying!) and feel no guilt. She would argue that her passion overwhelmed her, and she had no choice. But such a view is monstrous to Joss, and so Ford’s plan turns him into a vampire. And Ford’s childish fantasy about dying young and staying pretty, just like the childish fantasy of consequence-free sex with Angel that he represents, is a lie: even if he succeeds, he will be dead. Even if Buffy has sex with Angel, there will be consequences. Ford refuses to accept the fact of his death. Through her encounter with him, this episode sets up Buffy’s season 2 journey as an answer to this question: if (okay, when) Buffy does have sex with Angel, will she accept the responsibility and the consequences? Will she cling to her childish notions of responsibility-free sex with him even in the face of consequences? If she does, she will be pretty darn vampiric, in the sense you explicate so well. Of course, all of this can also be read more generally, and I think Ford can be read more broadly as representing her childish nostalgia for simpler times. But I like how the Angel/Ford reading sets up the rest of season in minute detail. I’ve already said that Ford is dying because her fantasy is dying, but it might be more precise to say it like this: her fantasy is dying because it’s being confronted with a world of complex choices, responsibility, and death. That’s part of her issue for the season: her innocence is dying because the complex adult world is closing in on her, and she wants to complete her childish consequence-free fantasy about Angel before it does (“I might never feel like this again (Surprise)”. Doing that means abandoning growing up (her role as the slayer). Ford's plan is to kill Buffy, specifically by turning her over to Spike and Drusilla, which fits your reading of their metaphorical roles: Buffy, by pursuing her adolescent fantasy about sex with Angel is sacrificing her adult responsibility to her ego and id if she doesn't accept the consequences.

    1. I also like how this episode raises the question of comforting/noble lies, and doesn't gloss over the consequences of knowing the truth. The truth of the world is very painful for Buffy here, and will be for the rest of the series. Her allegiance to it is not some abstract value or self-righteous stick, but a real sacrifice, which has consequences for her, many of them negative (like those we see in Intervention). While I think Buffy comes down squarely against lies "for the greater good," with Lies My Parents Told Me and the aftermath in Chosen being the show's brilliant final word, even while rejecting them, it does a brilliant job of showing their allure and the negative side of rejecting them in favor of the truth. Being able to recognize that, but make the sacrifice anyway is real maturity. And we see Buffy possesses that, or at least the potential for it, here.

    2. I really like this reading, so much that I have nothing to add. Thanks.