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Thursday, December 8, 2011

When She Was Bad

[Updated April 29, 2013]

While Joss got to tell his story in outline form in S1, beginning with S2 he will pick up on themes which first appeared in S1 and expand on them. This adds both depth to the story and sophistication to Buffy’s journey to adulthood. When She Was Bad transitions us from the clear but relatively simple outline we saw in S1 to the profound and deeply moving experience of S2. If Buffy was the show which made television great, to paraphrase Robert Morgan from the Introduction, Season 2 was the season which made Buffy great.

In my experience, Buffy fans tend to underrate the season openers. I think there’s a simple explanation for this: the openers are setting the stage for the rest of the season and contain important clues to other episodes. On first watch, we don’t realize this. Since our first impression tends to stay with us even after we’ve watched them a second time (or a…. well, manyth time for some of us), they never get their due.
WSWB is perhaps my favorite season opener, partly on its own and partly because it sets in motion events which will have ramifications throughout the entire series. What’s remarkable about this is that I can tell a new viewer this and it isn’t a spoiler because that new viewer will have no idea what the important points are. Joss (who wrote this and most other openers) weaves the story together so subtly that you don’t even realize it.
The straight story line makes perfectly good sense, with one caveat I’ll note below. Buffy really did die in Prophecy Girl, even if only for a few minutes, and anyone who suffers such an experience is bound to have a few “issues” about it, as Giles says. If nothing else, it would tend to isolate you from your friends who haven’t undergone such trauma, all the more so if the reason it happened was something unique to you: being the Slayer. Making matters worse, Buffy can’t tell her parents that she’s the Slayer, so it’s not surprising that her father would find her “distant. Not brooding or sulking, just... there was no connection. The more time we spent together, the more I felt like she was nowhere to be seen.”
Similarly, the events of Prophecy Girl brought home to Buffy in a very direct way the risks she, like every Slayer, runs. Xander, Willow, and Giles have taken some chances so far, but none have faced the prospect of death every single night. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real phenomenon, and we see some here with Buffy. This will naturally isolate her even from her friends.
This isolation interacts with her friends’ inability to grasp emotionally what Buffy goes through nightly, which we see most acutely in Xander’s reaction when Buffy returns to the library. Xander had the right to be angry with Buffy for her attitude – and I’m not even counting the dance he finally got that didn’t really work out for him – but his reaction was over the top. First, while everyone had recognized the note as a trap, all of them thought the trap was for Buffy: “It is a trap. … It just isn’t for her.” Xander’s angry reaction suggests that Buffy could have avoided the problem if “she’d worked with [them]”, but that’s not really true because no one realized the nature of the trap (nor could they have).
Second, Xander completely failed to show any understanding of Buffy’s emotional state. His reaction – “If they hurt Willow I’ll kill you.” – was indefensible. I mean, let’s get real here. Kill her? This was the first time I got angry with Xander, but it won’t be the last. There’s always going to be some distance between Buffy and her friends simply because she’s following such a different path.
Now let’s consider Buffy’s situation in metaphor. She made the commitment in Prophecy Girl to face her fear of adulthood and to grow up. She can’t tell her parents that; it’s just not what a child does. In fact, parents are often reluctant for it to happen, and the child thinks the consequence will be losing her parents. Hence the commitment to growing up means that you become more distant from your parents, just as Hank described.
It also has consequences for Buffy’s friends. They haven’t yet made that commitment, or at least she doesn’t sense that from them; she even tells Willow to “grow up”, while Xander is childish with his “bitca”. As a result, she’s feeling isolated from them. Then too, the push for her to make the commitment came from Giles, her metaphorical mind. While Giles therefore is the most insightful now in explaining her situation to others, Buffy sees him (in her dream) as the one who killed her childhood.
Worse yet, her heart (Xander) and her spirit (Willow) don’t understand the consequences of Prophecy Girl and may not be all that sure about this decision. In her dream they ignore her as she struggles with Giles/The Master. She sees them as not understanding her situation and lashes out at them in return. I’ll hint for the season that it’s no accident that Xander bears the brunt of her anger in the painful but brilliant dance scene.
Her shadow self makes matters worse (h/t Cherrycoke), which is what the shadow often does. Cordy’s first words in the episode are “it was a nightmare, a total nightmare.” She’s not talking about Prophecy Girl, or is she? Practically the first thing Cordy says when she sees Buffy brings back the worst memories: “I'm talking about big squiggly demons that came from the ground? Remember? Prom night? With all the vampires. … it was all so creepy. That Master guy? And all the screaming? I don't even like to think about it.” This could be Buffy talking to herself.
Of course, the shadow didn’t really like the effect of all that on Buffy’s conscious self and later tells Buffy to knock off the Joan Collins ‘tude. The shadow really doesn’t need the competition.
Why is it that Buffy is so upset about the Master’s bones? The obvious reason is that it leaves open the possibility that her fears of adulthood are buried but not destroyed like she thought. Only at the end, with the catharsis of grinding him into talcum powder, can she be certain that her fears are gone forever.
Trivia notes: (1) The title of the episode comes, of course, from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem: “There was a little girl, who had a little curl/Right in the middle of her forehead,/And when she was good, she was very, very good,/But when she was bad she was horrid.” (2) The presence of the Master’s bones requires a little comment. It’s the only time we ever see a vampire’s bones survive dusting, and it’s never really explained. This drives some people crazy. As I mentioned in the Introduction, though, Joss doesn’t really worry about plot details when he’s trying to get at an emotional truth, which is the whole point of art. This is a perfect example. (3) While I haven’t mentioned the song lyrics in every essay, and don’t plan to, it’s worth noting how perfectly Alison Krause’s lyrics capture Buffy’s emotions in the car ride: “You've been on a road… Don't know where it goes or where it leads….” The Cibo Matto lyrics similarly fit the scene.


  1. I was always a bit confused about Buffy grinding up the master's bones: why she would do it and how it helped her resolve her issues. I really like your explanation linking the whole thing to the death of her childhood and her fears of growing up. I hadn't considered that perspective before.

    I'm really enjoying this series. Looking at everything through the lens of how it relates back to Buffy is a perspective I haven't encountered before. It's a fascinating way to analyze the series.

    BTW, I never commented over the The AV Club, but that's where I saw the link to your blog.

  2. Thanks! I'm glad the links at AV Club didn't get buried in all the comments. Good to know.

  3. Hi ! I got the link from the AV club too and I'm glad I did : I finally convinced my boyfriend to watch BtVS with me, and I can read your reviews after each episode while they’re still fresh (well, it's not like I ever needed an excuse to re-watch those, but it's really interesting to have "new eyes" watch them with me).
    I think that almost everything you point is spot-on - even though I am sometimes not that convinced, I have to admit you're very consistent. I especially enjoyed your review of Prophecy Girl.

    I am also really interested in the idea of Cordy as Buffy's "shadow self", and I was surprised when I did not read more about that in your review of WSWB, that’s why I would like to share some of my thoughts on it – I hope I’m not imposing here.

    I think both interactions between C & B in this ep could be extremely important when you keep the shadow-self idea in mind. When Cordy walks up to the gang in the hall to bring up the Master :
    "It was all so creepy. That Master guy? And all the screaming? I don't even like to think about it."
    I felt like I was hearing Buffy talk about her dreams. Buffy’s answer then is strong too when you think of the idea of her having a “split personality”:
    "Well, that works out great. You won't tell anyone that I'm the Slayer, and I won't tell anyone you're a moron."
    After all those times Buffy said “I’m ready”, it felt like she hated that she could not still be a child – still be Cordelia-like, shallow and easily scared – and she found it easier to deeply despise what she couldn’t be instead of embracing the idea of managing her “two Buffys” – managing her new experience without forgetting who she is outside of the Slayer.
    Then, IMHO, the fact that it’s Cordelia who tells her to “get over it” outside the Bronze is also powerful : Cordelia is the ugly part of Buffy, and even she thinks that Buffy’s being too much of a bitca. Suddenly, Cordelia is the grown-up and Buffy is the child being told off.

    Sorry for the length of this post, and maybe I am all wrong here (I am not even sure I’m making that much sense - not a native speaker) but I have faith that you will be able to put words on what I felt watching these two scenes !

    (I’m sure you never thought your commenters would give you homework!)

  4. Heh on the homework.

    You make very good points. I was focused on other issues for WSWB and didn't really consider Cordy's role there. Good catch.