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Monday, January 23, 2012

Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered

[Updated April 29, 2013]

BB&B is one of the best beloved Buffy (heh) episodes. It’s funny, it has great scenes – Xander’s walk down the hallway, Buffy in her raincoat – and it makes fun of Valentine’s Day. Hard to imagine what more anyone could want from an episode. Anything beyond that is just the cherry on top.


Giles tells us what the episode’s about: “I know it's not love. It's obsession. Selfish, banal obsession.” It’s pretty easy, also, to identify one person who’s obsessed: Angelus. He’s obsessed with Buffy. The reason Angelus has this obsession begins with Buffy herself. She gave her heart to Angel, but a magic spell converted Angel into Angelus and Angel’s love into Angelus’ obsession. In pursuit of that obsession, Angelus threatens to destroy Buffy’s metaphorical heart, Xander:
“Angelus: I wanted to do something special for Buffy, actually to Buffy, but this is *so* much better!
Xander knees him in the crotch, but Angelus isn't fazed. He flips Xander over backward onto the grass again. He bends down, grabs Xander's hair and lifts his head up.
Angelus:  If it's any consolation, I feel very close to you right now.”

Mapping this onto the metaphor is easy. Amy’s spell backfired on Xander, just as Buffy’s love has now backfired on her. The women of Sunnydale pursue Xander like Angelus pursues Buffy. Those plotlines intersect when Angelus realizes that he can attack Buffy through Xander. Dru is the one who saves Xander from Angelus because the id must protect the heart – the heart was the focus of the id’s desire and the id needs to preserve that.
I should add a comment at this point about the particularities of the love spell. The misfire of the spell is very subtle and very revealing about what it says about Xander (not Buffy in metaphor, just Xander). Amy recites “Let my cries bind the heart of Xander's beloved.” The problem is, Xander pretty much loves all women. In Phases, Willow told Cordy that “He's so busy looking around at everything he doesn't have, he doesn't even realize what he *does* have.” That’s Xander’s emotional state which the spell picks up – he doesn’t really love Cordy, he’s busy looking around at everyone else. (In fairness, the way Cordy hid their relationship created an incentive for Xander to act that way.) Because Xander is in some sense attracted to all women, the spell causes all women to become obsessed with him rather than Angelus, as it might have done if the metaphor became too literal (so to speak).
In reading more recent reviews of the shows, I see that a lot of commenters dislike Xander in this episode because they see him as “roofie-ing” Buffy. (h/t anonymous) My basic view is that Xander certainly didn’t intend that result, so I cut him some slack on it. Now, I don’t think he deserves very much credit for not taking advantage of Buffy (or others). After all, given the circumstances it really would have been rape. The idea of giving credit for not doing something that would have been obviously wrong is problematic.
The way I'd phrase it is that it was nonetheless good for the show to reinforce the point by having Buffy praise Xander. Praising someone for doing the right thing, even when that's expected, seems like a good way to encourage it. Still, Xander does get off pretty easy here -- his original intent was pretty awful, but he pairs up with Cordy at the end. He does get some punishment from Giles and Willow, but we don't see it.
At the end, it’s Giles who breaks the spell Xander caused. That’s what Buffy needs to do, namely break the spell under which she caused Angel’s love for her to turn into the obsession of Angelus (unintentionally, just as the effect of Xander’s spell was unintentional). Exactly how to do that is her challenge.
Trivia notes: (1) The title comes from the show tune of the same name in the musical Pal Joey. (2) Having Oz notice the cheerleader statute at the beginning of Phases seems like a clever and subtle way to remind everyone about Witch before Amy makes her reappearance here. Amy, you’ll notice, didn’t seem to need much persuasion to perform the spell. (3) The transition between scenes is typically clever. At the end of the scene in the warehouse where Angelus gave Dru the still-warm heart, Dru said “Don’t worry Spike. Angel always knows what speaks to a girl’s heart.” The episode shifted immediately to the Bronze and we heard the music of Dingoes. The title of the song they were playing was “Pain”, which is obviously what Dru meant. In mid-song we broke to Buffy and her mother at home discovering the sadistic roses Angelus left for Buffy, then it was back to the Bronze where it picked up in mid-song and the song continued to play until Xander approached Cordy, whereupon the song stopped and she broke up with him. If you watch very carefully, there was a red-haired female student in the background of the X/C scene. That student then walked past Xander in the hallway the next day and giggled at his misfortune. The show is filled with neat transitions like this and I haven’t mentioned any before, but this sequence was particularly good. (4) “Say it with flowers” was an advertising slogan for florists. Buffy used the phrase to tell Giles about Angelus’ “gift”.

18 comments:

  1. Mark, as one of those readers who appreciates this blog but has yet to comment, I thought I'd chime in here. I've been following some of the discussion at Mark Watches and am surprised at how many people really hate this episode. The outrage stems from the "roophiness" of the whole thing, and the way Cordelia and Buffy forgive Xander so easily for stealing their free will/not raping them. I like your take, and think the obsession idea makes sense thematically in terms of what the writers intended. Personally, I like the episode and think Xander does get punished, especially by Willow and Giles.

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  2. Thanks. I haven't read much of the comments threads at Mark Watches, but I've been surprised by the dislike of Xander. We were discussing this yesterday and today on a friend's lj page, and it's especially strange to me because I was Xander's biggest critic at ATPO. Obviously there are many people who feel much more strongly than I do.

    I think part of it is cultural. I'm obviously older, but I do have kids who are now in their 20s. Attitudes have shifted on what is appropriate behavior and the anger towards Xander is partly a consequence of that, perhaps.

    I actually am impressed that the show can raise such intense passion (heh) 10+ years later. Still, even as a Xander critic, I can see that he didn't *intend* to "invoke the great roofie spirit", so I think he does get credit for behaving himself afterwards (which he wouldn't if he had done it on purpose). Plus, you know, metaphor.

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  3. I realized in reading this post, that it would be fascinating to watch just the Amy episodes and see how her arc was built...it's clear that Joss had a plan for her from early on, and your point here about her willingness to do the spell without much persuasion points to the direction her character will go once she's de-ratted later...

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  4. Spoilers above. Mild ones, but spoilery nonetheless.

    But yes, I think Joss did see the potential there.

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  5. I always thought Cordelia wasn't affected by the spell, because she actually did have feelings for Xander, the spell couldn't make her fall in love, she already was.

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  6. The reason I read it the way I do is that it says "Let my cries bind the heart of *Xander's beloved*." So I start by asking "who was beloved by Xander?".

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    1. I originally had the same reading as Aeryl, that Cordy did have feelings for Xander and that's why the spell didn't work on her, but on rewatch, I changed my mind. I think Cordelia does have feelings for Xander, but I don't think they're nearly as deep as Willow's, so if that was enough to prevent the spell from working, Willow shouldn't have been affected either. I think that Giles' quick exposition about the use of Cordelia's necklace actually protecting her from the botched spell suffices. And I agree with your reading of how the spell did backfire. It also explains why Larry or other guys attracted to guys would not have been affected by the spell (which I've seen some people wonder about), since they wouldn't be Xander's "beloved."

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    2. Good point about Larry. Someday I'd like to ask someone just how this spell worked.....

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  7. I don't disagree with your reading, I think that there is room for both. Yes, EVERY woman is Xander's "beloved" but that doesn't exclude Cordelia from the spell. Her existing love for Xander protects her from the spell.

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  8. I know that you have moved to the next episode, but I was wondering if you had any comment (using your analogy for viewing the characters metaphorically) on the fact that Xander (the heart) rejects Buffy's offer in the library? Using your analysis it suggests that Buffy's heart is not willing to engage in the rebound sex even if there is a part of her that wants to, but I am not sure since I have not put as much thought into the show as you have, especially not with this analytical framework.

    P.S. I would like to add to the many that I enjoyed your write ups over at the A.V. club and am enjoying them here, so much so that this is my first internet comments post.

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  9. I really appreciate your PS. I remember how long I hesitated before making my first internet post, and I hope you'll feel comfortable joining in.

    The Xander/Buffy issue is one I've thought about a lot. In Phases they seemed to raise the possibility in the scene in the mortuary where Buffy hugs Xander and he says (after she leaves) "oh no, my life's not too complicated". I decided that this was done mostly to set him up as noble here in BB&B for turning her down. He's still into her, but won't take advantage.

    What this says to me is that this is a situation where we're dealing with just the character, not the metaphor. Metaphors can get very complicated and confusing in some cases, as became all too apparent in S6 when SPOILERS FOR S6...

    the magic which had represented Willow and Tara's relationship in S4 and S5 suddenly became a drug metaphor in S6.

    END SPOILERS

    In short, I don't want to oversell the metaphor aspect. But if someone came to me with a good argument for applying it here, there's certainly enough that I'd listen.

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    1. S6 Spoilers

      See, I know the characters viewed magic as a drug, that Will had to go cold turkey from, and that viewing is enhanced by the scene where they are throwing all the magic supplies out of the house(I had done something similiar with a friend dealing with a drug problem not even a year before that scene, so it really hit home for me), and I know the audience took it that way.

      But I think that looking at Will's subsequent actions(her immediate reversion after Tara's death) and the things Giles tells her in Lessons, it wasn't supposed to, and that's why she failed to "break the habit".

      Tara didn't help in this, in Tabula Rasa, where she requests that Will quit magic for a week. Instead, Will should have spent the week examining her own motives for using magic. I think the drug metaphor everyone was seeing was a deliberate misdirect, though parallels were made, so Will's problem would not actually be solved, leading to the events after Tara's death.

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  10. Reflecting back on my response to Anonymous (first one), I don't want to leave the impression that Xander deserves very much credit for not taking advantage of Buffy (or others). After all, given the circumstances it really would have been rape. The idea of giving credit for not doing something that would have been obviously wrong is problematic.

    The way I'd phrase it after thinking about it is that it was nonetheless good for the show to reinforce the point by having Buffy praise Xander. Praising someone for doing the right thing, even when that's expected, seems like a good way to encourage it.

    Also, as I said originally, the fact that Xander didn't intend this specific result from the spell is a factor. Still, Xander does get off pretty easy here -- his original intent was pretty awful, but he ends up with Cordy at the end. He does get some punishment from Giles and Willow, but we don't see it.

    I try in writing my posts to be as fair as I can to the characters, though I've made it clear in comments that I'm a strong critic of Xander. So there is a balancing act going on.

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  11. Well damn, another case of a comment not showing up even though I got notice of it. Here's what Aeryl said in case others don't see it:

    S6 Spoilers

    See, I know the characters viewed magic as a drug, that Will had to go cold turkey from, and that viewing is enhanced by the scene where they are throwing all the magic supplies out of the house(I had done something similiar with a friend dealing with a drug problem not even a year before that scene, so it really hit home for me), and I know the audience took it that way.

    But I think that looking at Will's subsequent actions(her immediate reversion after Tara's death) and the things Giles tells her in Lessons, it wasn't supposed to, and that's why she failed to "break the habit".

    Tara didn't help in this, in Tabula Rasa, where she requests that Will quit magic for a week. Instead, Will should have spent the week examining her own motives for using magic. I think the drug metaphor everyone was seeing was a deliberate misdirect, though parallels were made, so Will's problem would not actually be solved, leading to the events after Tara's death.

    Now my response:

    MAJOR SPOILERS FOR S6

    I'll talk about this in more detail when we get to Wrecked, so what I say now will probably seem too abbreviated.

    I wish I could see it the way you suggest. For me, unfortunately, the show hammered home the drug analogy to the point that I think they meant it as Willow's "real" problem. All S6 I kept defending the show to other fans by saying "they don't really mean this, we all know that her real problem is abuse of power", but they never backed off even in Grave. Thus, I saw Giles' comment in Lessons as pretty much a retcon to get them back to where they should have been originally.

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    1. I see it just fine, I wonder if it's because it's nested as a response to an earlier comment.

      Now to reply, it was hammered home, ALOT, so I can see what you're saying. Perhaps, they were going with power=drug, and went overboard on the magic side of it IDK. I do agree what they were going for was lost,if most the audience didn't get it that way. I didn't see Giles' statement as a retcon, more of a clarification.

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  12. Ok, now I'm embarrassed. Aeryl's comment is above, nested. I just missed it because I only looked at the bottom of the comments.

    Carry on.

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  13. Oh hey Mark. I just discovered your recaps. I'm gonna go back and read them all. I'm currently doing a re-watch. This is one of my fave eps. Great analysis, thanks!

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    1. Hey, welcome. I hope you like them all!

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