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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reptile Boy

[Updated April 29, 2013]

Reptile Boy, whether in spite or because of its heavy-handed, sexually charged theme and metaphor, is ranked consistently down there with IRYJ among the least liked of the series. Perhaps we can find a nugget if there’s a way to reconcile text and subtext.

Let’s start with what I’m calling subtext, though it’s just barely disguised. Buffy has been having dreams about sex with Angel. Just after the break we get this dialogue:
“Willow:  You dreamed about Angel again?
Buffy:  Third night in a row.
Willow:  What did he do in the dream?
Buffy:  Stuff. [Her tone of voice here says it all.]
Willow:  (smiles wide) Oh! Stuff! (Buffy smiles) Was it one of those vivid dreams where you could feel his lips and smell his hair?
Buffy:  It had surround sound. I'm just thinking about him so much lately.” 

Then, in the graveyard with Angel, Buffy makes it even more explicit:
“Angel:  I knew this was gonna happen.
Buffy:  What? What do you think is happening?
Angel:  You're sixteen years old. I'm two hundred and forty-one.
Buffy:  I've done the math.
Angel:  You don't know what you're doing, you don't know what you want...
Buffy:  Oh. No, I, I think I do. I want out of this conversation. (starts to walk past him)
Angel:  (bumps into her) Listen, if we date you and I both know one thing's gonna lead to another.
Buffy:  One thing already has led to another. You think it's a little late to be reading me a warning label?
Angel:  I'm just tryin' to protect you. This could get outta control.
Buffy:  Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?
He grabs her by the shoulders and pulls her closer. She draws a startled breath.
Angel:  This isn't some fairy tale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.
Buffy:  No. When you kiss me I wanna die.” 

“Die” I think we should read here in the Shakespearean sense of sex/orgasm as the “little death” (in French “petite mort”). It’s particularly meaningful when we remember that she’s talking to a vampire, and the various metaphors available for the vampire’s bite.
Sex is one of those things which adolescents think of as “adult”. The rest of the episode – the text – deals with Buffy’s desire to be treated as an adult. The scene transitions from Buffy’s conversation with Willow to Giles telling her, very tediously, that romance is a distraction from her destiny (another theme from S1). After Giles first criticizes Buffy for blowing off training recently, we get this dialogue:

“Buffy:  Digging on the undead doesn't exactly do wonders for your social life.
Giles:  That's exactly where, where being... different, uh, comes in handy.
Buffy:  Right! Who needs a social life when you've got your very own Hellmouth?
Giles:  Yes! Y-you, you, you have a duty, a-a-a purpose, y-y-you have a commitment in life. Now how many people your age can say that?
Buffy:  We talkin' foreign or domestic? How 'bout none?
Giles:  (he's had enough) Well, here's a hard fact of life: we all have to do things we don't like! And you have hand-to-hand this afternoon and patrol tonight. So I, I suggest you come straight here at the end of, of period six a-and you get your homework done. And don't dawdle with your friends.”

The next transition takes us to Buffy patrolling, where she runs into Angel and has the conversation I quoted above. I see this back-and-forth movement between the issues as noting the connection between the two.
The remainder of the episode plays out a teenager’s sense of adulthood, which involves acting like one but without actual responsibility. Buffy resists Giles’ advice and ends up lying to her metaphorical conscience in order to go to a party because the pressure of her destiny makes her “tired of being mature”. The consequence gets spelled out via a metaphor that’s about as subtle as an anvil but does tie text and subtext together again: she’s nearly devoured by a snake-shaped monster living in the basement of frat boys who worship it. Buffy then cuts the head off the snake monster. Ahem.
In the end we see that Buffy’s regained control of herself, including her fantasies about Angel. First Cordelia, her shadow self who lured Buffy to the party, swears off older boys, then Buffy tells Angel – who’s very much older indeed – that she’ll “let him know” about “coffee”.
Trivia notes: (1) Sixties songs references: Buffy said there was a “kind of a hush all over Sunnydale”. “Kind of A Hush” was by Herman’s Hermits; Xander said, “okay boots, start walkin’”. “These Boots Were Made for Walking” was by Nancy Sinatra. (2) Writer David Greenwalt says the name of the demon, Machida, came from the name Makita on the drills carried by the crew. It’s a tool company. Get it?


  1. When Buffy says that Angel's kiss makes her want to die, I think she additionally may mean that she's willing to let him completely take her over. As we saw in IMG, she could easily become a slave to her more selfish desires. Interestingly, Angel's predilection for torment actually prevents Buffy from becoming like Ampata after the events in Innocence--a potential fate that was hinted at in Nightmares.

    1. Yes, I see that line as kind of a Bella-like desire. Maybe we can see Twilight as fanfic on that point. :)