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Monday, February 13, 2012


[Updated April 29, 2013]

Season 3 differs in many respects from S2, but in one way that’s very important for purposes of my posts: it’s much less dependent on metaphor to tell the story. The writers still use metaphors, but they aren’t the focus of the story the way they were in S2. Season 3 places greater emphasis on plot line. I don’t mean that as a criticism; whether you like this better or not is, in my view, mostly a matter of taste.
I think there’s a good reason for less metaphor, namely, that S3 has much less sex in it than S2 did. Let’s face it, American TV isn’t particularly open to sex in the early evening time slots (or even later for that matter). If you’re going to tell a story about a 17 year old girl having sex, it’s probably safest in metaphor. Season 3 has a little bit of sex in it, but the sex isn’t the centerpiece of the season the way it was in S2; Buffy’s faced that issue. Season 3 is about other aspects of character and maturity now that she’s a high school senior. That means I’ll be giving greater emphasis to those issues.

There is a metaphor in Anne, but it’s pretty straightforward: Buffy sends herself to Hell for her sin of killing Angel. I don’t mean the Hell dimension we see late in the episode. No, Buffy’s in Hell from the moment we see her. She’s living in Hell even if looks like part of Los Angeles. This becomes apparent in several ways: the diner where she’s working is called “Helen’s Kitchen”, an obvious play on Hell’s Kitchen; in her first interaction with Ken he tells her that “This is not a good place for a kid to be.  You get old fast here. (Buffy looks up at him knowingly) The thing that drains the life out of them is despair.” Later, when she really is in Hell, he equates despair with the lack of hope: “What is Hell but the total absence of hope?  The substance, the tactile proof of despair.” IOW, the despair, the lack of hope, of those trapped on the streets is precisely what makes those streets hellish.
During her final conversation with Buffy in Becoming 2, Joyce asked her, “have you tried not being the Slayer?” Buffy’s trying that now; she has given up on her destiny. She’s no longer committed to her authentic self because she’s simply accepting herself as an object in the world (for example, the way the restaurant patrons objectify her). The song lyrics which we hear as Buffy walks away from Ken after they first meet set the theme and the challenge: Why did I come again? / To find my own way to freedom/ And the change is gonna come / I'm gonna find my way / Find my way / Find my way back to freedom.
The parallels between B/A and Lily/Rickie reinforce this. DreamAngel tells Buffy that he’ll stay with her “Forever. That's the whole point.” Rickie repeats these exact same words in describing the heart tattoos he and Lily got. Lily, like Buffy, has given up her own identity, and they end up in Hell together, that being the place where one truly does lose one’s identity (“I’m no one”). Ricky remembered Lily’s name long after he’d forgotten his own, just as Buffy remembers Angel even after giving up her own name in favor of “Anne”.
Along the way, Buffy’s statements to Lily could really apply to herself, while Lily suggests that Buffy actually has brought this on herself (as, to some extent, she has):

“Lily:  …Why would this happen to him?
Buffy:  That's *not* the point. (Lily calms a bit) These things happen all the time.  You can't just . . . close your eyes and hope that they're gonna go away.
Lily:  Is it 'cause of you?
Buffy:  (confused) What?
Lily:  You know about . . . monsters and stuff.  You could have brought this with you.”

Lily, like Buffy, is trying to deny her authentic self, an attempt the name changes make obvious for both of them. Joyce asked Giles, “And who, exactly, is she [meaning Buffy]?” The question seems ironic because of her name change, but the very next scene will begin to answer the question. Lily came up and started to address her with her real name: “Buff—“.
Joss set up Buffy’s decision to reclaim her identity as the ultimate test of existential authenticity. Remember this quotation from my post on Lie to Me:
“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.”

Buffy finds herself actually in the most overwhelming situation imaginable: she’s outnumbered, she’s trapped in Hell, and her potential allies have already given up. In the face of all this, she retains her freedom to choose; she just had to find it. Buffy definitively reclaims her chosen (heh) goal – her authentic self – when she makes the choice to fight, namely when she declares to the guard, in one of the show’s great moments, that “I’m Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” Inspired by Buffy’s example, Lily then shows that she has the courage to make a choice of her own and push Ken off the ledge. And both of them find their way back to freedom as a result.
Two quick points:
Joyce blamed Giles for Buffy’s departure. This seemed pretty harsh to me when I first saw the episode, but it actually has some merit. Giles has been a secret influence on Buffy’s life, guiding her on a journey that excluded Joyce. And it was Giles who insisted, in Passion, that Buffy not tell her mother that she was the Slayer:
“Buffy:  …I'm gonna have to tell her something. (sits on a wall and looks at Giles) The truth?
Giles:  (approaches her, waving his finger) No. You-you-you-you can't do that.”

Buffy had to violate this instruction at the worst possible moment. That left Joyce in the position of reacting badly, for which she no doubt blames herself while she’s taking it out on Giles.
The attempts at slayage by Xander, Willow, Oz and Cordy raise an interesting question: Why not resoul all the vamps? After all, Willow just resouled Angel. I think there’s actually a reason beyond the fact that this would destroy the premise of the show. It can’t be done. It’s not even clear that Willow did the restoration spell herself, much less that she has the power to do it again. Unfortunately, the vamps still need to be slain.
Trivia notes: (1) “This time it’s personal.” comes from Jaws: The Revenge. (2) “What is Hell but the total absence of hope?” This is standard, among poets at least. The sign over the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. Also see John Milton, Paradise Lost, describing what Satan sees when he first opens his eyes in Hell: “No light, but rather darkness visible/Served only to discover sights of woe/Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/And rest can never dwell, hope never comes/That comes to all.” (3) The scenes in the factory pay visual tribute to the Fritz Lang film Metropolis. (4) There’s a visual joke at one point in the scene where Buffy is fighting the guards, as Buffy is holding both a hammer and a sickle, the symbols of communism or worker revolt against oppressive capitalism. I think the scene can be interpreted two very different ways, either as a revolt against capitalism or as Buffy seizing the symbols of the communist oppressors in order to liberate the workers.


  1. I love that the hammer/sickle image became one of the iconic images of the credit matter how you interpret it :)

    1. Yeah, that was one of the best opening montage scenes. The look on her face is also great.

  2. Marc -

    Thanks much for all of your analyses - a sheer joy to find an insightful, academic, and thorough assessment of the show's themes and (higher) purpose as an existential statement. It definitely makes me appreciate the show more, and grateful I was introduced to your work via the AV Club.

    I do take exception with one statement in your introduction to this, the introduction to Season 3 (and BtVS's apex IMO). You state, "Season 3 has a little bit of sex in it, but the sex is tangential to the storyline and the season isn’t in any sense about sex; Buffy’s faced that issue."

    I find a lot of fault in this conclusion, both in regard to this season and in the larger context of the show. If anything, Season 3 is overwhelmingly focused on sex - just not for Buffy. Willow/Oz, Cordelia/Xander; Spike/Dru/others; even [SPOILER] Joyce & Giles [END SPOILER] all explore their sexual desires, motivations, and, in some cases, justifications over the course of the season. Faith, in and of herself (and without spoiling things), is - among other things - a sexual being, standing in contrast with the abstinent Buffy. By your thesis of the show as a construction of the identity of Buffy the person over her identity as the vampire slayer (her preordained "destiny"), this indicates that her mind is obsessed with sex, but that the rigorous asceticism she ascribes to much of this season is in response to her actions regarding sex in Season 2 (see Faith).

    Indeed, this is the one department that Buffy never successfully gains closure on with the show's completion [VAGUE SPOILER - both times END SPOILER]. All other characters in the show arrive at some level of comfort with their sexualities, but there is limited evidence that Buffy ever does. There are good reasons for this, but the ramifications of her awakening in Season 2 define all of her romantic and sexual relationships and many of her actions throughout the series. I think that silo-ing sex into Season 2 and claiming that it is resolved there is missing an enormous and important part of Buffy, and what makes her a flawed and fascinating person and perhaps a stronger vampire slayer.

    BTW, I am really looking forward to your review/thoughts on "Normal Again." I really disliked much of S6, but loved that episode.

    1. First, thank you very much for the kind words. I really appreciate it.

      I didn't mean to leave the impression that S2 permanently resolved the issue of sex for Buffy. It doesn't, as you say. Sex is always present on the show and it's always an issue for Buffy. I agree with you that Buffy's love and sex life never do get resolved. In fact, nobody's ever seems to in Joss-World.

      I also agree that the sexual lives of supporting characters are notable in S3 and that this is meaningful for Buffy. I'd still, though, say that sex is not the centerpiece of S3 in the way it is in S2. That's what I meant when I said that "the season isn’t in any sense about sex". I can see how that reads stronger than what I just said, so I probably should modify it.

      For me, the centerpiece of S3 is Buffy's ability to deal with other aspects of her journey (SPOILERS FOLLOW), including the dark aspects of her Slayer side, her understanding of the absurdity of the world, and her insight into the proper way to deal with that absurdity.

    2. Fair enough - she definitely wrestles with her sexual power as much as she does with all of her other powers and responsibilities this season. Oh, and sorry on the spelling of your name!

    3. No problem on the name, it happens a lot.

  3. It seems to me that during the exchange between Buffy and Lily, when Buffy is breaking the news about Ricky - possible SPOILER - I see the first hint of Buffy the General. Just no empathy. She didn't even mention that the way she knew it was Ricky was his tattoo. Somehow I felt that even that detail would have helped Lily understand and believe.

  4. Sorry for the delay in responding, but I went on a hiking trip (no email) and just got back today.

    I agree with you. Mentioning Ricky's tatoo seems like an obvious thing to do and I don't have a good explanation why Buffy didn't.

  5. "I think the scene can be interpreted two very different ways, either as a revolt against capitalism or as Buffy seizing the symbols of the communist oppressors in order to liberate the workers."
    I personally interpret the scene as Buffy's rebellion against the American culture of work. The guard says to Buffy and the people with her, "You work, and you live. That is all. You do not complain, or laugh, or do anything besides work. Whatever you thought, whatever you were, does not matter. You are no one now, you mean nothing." This is a perfect description of the life that Buffy was living in Los Angeles before she ever got to Ken's dimension. She did nothing besides work for the purpose of continuing to live. There was no happiness in and no meaning to the life that she was maintaining. Historically, this is the kind of life lived by many working people in the United States, from Chinese immigrants who were expendable people building the railroads out west, to blacks who, when they weren't slaves, were either denied employment or given degrading jobs, to miners in West Virginia or Colorado. They work hard to "get ahead", or even just to meet the basic necessities of life, but their wages don't go up, their benefits are cut (if they ever had any to begin with), and they can't afford to do anything besides work. They get old fast (poor people have much lower life expectancies). And what is the work that they do? They make stuff. What is Ken going to do with that stuff his workers are making? Probably nothing besides use it to maintain his power. Perhaps the workers are even making the tools with which their successors will work. Sounds like a perfect description of capitalist ownership to me.

    However, given that most countries that called themselves Communist during the 20th century were really just totalitarian regimes, the other interpretation makes sense as well. I suppose the reason why I pick the revolt against capitalism is that it is more relevant to Buffy's situation. She isn't faced with living in a communist world as an adult. She will be faced with living in a capitalist society, and I think Joss is showing us what can happen when kids are thrust into that society with nothing to fall back on. Buffy can go home (where she can continue to develop her authentic self through introspection/the Hellmouth) once she reclaims her identity, but most of those kids can't. Also, I think Ken's handing out of pamphlets about hope and "Family Home" is important. Ken is also vaguely religious. These are the things that capitalists often use to convince people that the work is worth the suffering and abdication of agency: If you work for us obediently until you die, you can get a home, support a family, and have a God to make your world have meaning. Of course, your wages will be too low to afford a home, so you'll be in debt, and have to work that off; and you'll be working so much you'll never even see your family; and there is no God (from Joss's perspective) to give your life meaning, so all you're really doing is putting a paper covering over the gaping Hole in the World. Sounds like reason enough for despair to me.

    1. The dual capitalist/communist critique does seem in line with Joss's philosophical influences, namely Camus. In The Rebel, he criticizes both capitalism and communism as being equally destructive to human beings because they are societies of compulsion (communism through state force, capitalism through the force of necessity and private monopoly on property and capital) that force human beings to become producers instead of creators. Well, that's what Ken's hell does: it produces for no apparent reason other than self-perpetuation. Ken marks out Buffy's act as rebellion, which seems to fit ever so nicely with the title of Camus's work.

      Camus said, "The only way to deal with an unfree society is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion." Buffy's very existence, "I'm Buffy, the Vampire Slayer", is an act of rebellion here, as it will be for the remainder of the series.

    2. I like your interpretation better than my own. Also, the connection to Camus fits perfectly with my interpretation of the episodes from The Wish through Gingerbread, so your suggestion adds an additional connection there.

      I really appreciate this.

    3. Thanks, Mark, that means a lot from you. I actually became a fan of Camus through Buffy, and through reading your essays on S3, which inspired me to read The Rebel and, later, The Fall, The Myth of Sisyphus, and The Stranger. Though not quote as profoundly as Buffy did, The Rebel changed my life. My appreciation to you as well.

    4. That's pretty cool. I read Camus for a political theory class in college. I didn't agree with him much then, but I've come around on a number of issues since.

      You'll be happy to know that I updated the book with some of your comments (chapters on Anne and GD).

  6. Great analysis as always, Mark! Do you have any theories about why vamps continued to be pretty active in Sunnydale between seasons 2 and 3, while they weren't when Buffy left between seasons 1 and 2? From a metaphorical/thematic perspective, that is. Do you think it had to do with Willow and Xander's development in S2, since all of the Scoobies lost their innocence in a way with Jenny's death? Or is there a Buffy-related possibility? (Lily's comments in this episode made me think of the magical realism idea you've discussed before.)

    1. Sorry for the delayed response. I've been on a hiking vacation with very limited internet.

      To deal with your last point first, yeah, Lily's comments here, plus a few from Giles earlier on, are what made me consider the magical realism theme.

      I do think the vamp activity is related to the idea that Xander and Willow have to grow up just as Buffy does. SPOILERS THROUGH S3: We see this with Xander in The Zeppo and The Prom, and with Willow when she has sex with Oz in GD. The way I'd interpret their lack of success in the summer is that they can't succeed without Buffy to show them the way.

    2. Hope you had a great trip!

      I like your interpretation. It makes sense to me. Also, I read a comment recently elsewhere that suggested part of the difference was that Xander and Willow actually went out patrolling and looking for vampires, as opposed to between Season 1 and 2, when we don't have an indication that they did (that I remember). So that could be interpreted as them actually being interested in growing up after the events of S2, which they may not have been the previous summer. And that still fits in with your interpretation, too.

    3. I did, thanks. Yeah, that makes all kinds of sense too.