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Monday, February 6, 2012

Go Fish

[Updated April 29, 2013]

If S2 is a popular favorite because of the many great episodes, it comes in for its share of criticism due to really weak episodes like Go Fish. The fact that Go Fish interrupts an otherwise incredible run from Surprise through Becoming certainly doesn’t help its reputation, but it’s a regular on bottom 10 lists for the series. While I’m sure that there is a point to Go Fish, I’m not at all sure that I’ve identified it. I struggle with this episode, as I did with IRYJ, and what follows is my best shot. So what’s it doing here?

When the SG walked back into the library after the James got his closure in IOHEFY, Buffy didn't seem very happy (you have to watch the way SMG plays the scene; the transcript doesn't show her emotional state). She was subdued, even sad, during this dialogue with Giles:
“Buffy:  I still... (exhales) A part of me just doesn't understand why she would forgive him.
Giles:  Does it matter?
Buffy:  No. I guess not.”

As I read it, she’s realized the point intellectually but her guilt hasn’t yet completely dissipated. For that we need Go Fish.
What I notice about the fish monsters is that they’re internal. It’s not a case where an external monster devours the boys, it’s something which comes out of them. Another metaphorical case of the monster inside us all. That leaves us with the question what caused this particular transformation.
This particular monster comes out, in three of the four cases (we don’t see Sean change), after the boy confronted Buffy and then blamed her for the confrontation:
(After Buffy saves Jonathan from Dodd) “Dodd: I can't believe Buffy. Man, that girl gives me the creeps.”
“Cameron:  I don't know what happened. I mean, first she leads me on, then she goes schizo on me. … Oh, come on. (to Snyder) I mean, look at the way she dresses.”
“Gage:  You're one twisted sister, you know that? Cam told me about your games. Go find someone else to harass. … What a psycho bitch, man.” (And there’s more he says to Angelus.)

In each case, Buffy was wrongly blamed, since the boy either had been an aggressor or was being protected by her.
At the end, Buffy didn’t slay the monsters; she was confident we wouldn’t be seeing them anymore because they were going “home” as Buffy described the sea. Her statement here should cause us to reread Cameron’s description of the sea in the teaser: “Eternal. A true mother, giving birth to new life and devouring old. Always adaptable and nurturing... yet... constant... and merciless.”
The sea can stand as a metaphor for the un/subconscious and that’s what his description reminds me of. See, e.g., the explanation of archetypes for AP students here (pdf: “Water (and bodies of water like the sea, the river, etc.): the mystery of creation; eternity and timelessness; birth-death-resurrection; purification and redemption; fertility and growth. According to Jung, water is also the most common symbol for the unconscious.”). See also here (“Water represents the subconscious mind. Comparing the human mind to the sea, that world in the deep waters is our subconscious, filled with creatures we can only glimpse briefly.”), and here (“The ocean is mysterious, uncharted territory. It can mean excitement at tapping into your potential, or it can be a frightening symbol of your fear of what's hiding in the deep, dark, depths of your subconscious mind.”).
The way I read the episode, then, is that the swim monsters represent Buffy’s blame of herself for the loss of Angel’s soul. That wasn’t really her fault; when the monsters returned to the sea, those feelings were metaphorically absorbed back into her subconscious (“devoured the old”).
Trivia notes: (1) This is the last episode in which Giles narrates the “she is the Slayer” intro. (2) Xander’s “This was no boating accident” came from Jaws. (3) The fish monsters are based on the movie Creature From the Black Lagoon, which Xander mentions. (4) The Blue Lagoon – the movie Cordy confused with the Black Lagoon – was a 1980 movie starring Brooke Shields. (5) This was David Fury’s first episode as a writer for the series (with Elin Hampton).


  1. Well, Mark, this is a valiant effort you've got here. I do like the take that, in a metaphorical sense, the fishmen represent Buffy's guilt and her dealing with it.

    But it's a stretch for me. I think this episode tops my worst-of list. Taken on its own, there might be worse episodes out there, but when its positioning in the season and its lame, heavy-handed "message" are taken into account, this one just leaves me scratching my head and thinking, well, let's just move along, shall we . . .

    1. I'm inclined to agree. Joss obviously saw something in the episode because he hired Fury as a writer full time starting in S3. What he saw, though, is kind of a mystery to me. I might rank a couple of episodes as worse, but it's bottom 5 no doubt.

  2. I saw this, in part, as Buffy's confidence returning. She's resuming mastery of herself in potentially intimate situations, reasserting that she can, in fact, control her passions.

    Indeed, even her jokes are returning. She made the joke with Giles about "Any demons with high cholesterol?" And when he gave her a pained expression, she says "You're gonna think about that later, mister, and you're gonna laugh."

    Her joke about "making it with the entire swim team" is a wry reflection of her beginning to distance herself from the pain of her situation, and making it part of her past.

    There's also hints of her "being comfortable in her own skin," (gross metaphor intended, of course) she's back on mission protecting Gage, so, when she's following him around, and he confronts him, and her excuses are pathetic, she says "Obviously, my sex appeal is on the fritz today, so I'll just give it to you straight. There's something lurking out there, and it's making fillets of the populace, and I think you might be next."

    Also, well, there's Xander in a Speedo, which is one of this episode's redeeming features.

    1. Could be. That's sort of the flip side to my suggestion that the fish monsters represent her guilt feelings slipping away.

      I'd love to ask Fury what he was going for in this episode.

      The speedo scene really does emphasize that Nick Brendan was much too good looking for the part.

    2. Very true, on all counts.

      I have "talked" to Fury a few times, even had a bit of correspondence at one point when I was working on the Bronzer cookbook, but, I admit, this is one I failed to ask about. I'll remember it next time I have the chance. I think the last Buffy related conversation we had was when I got to say "Thank You" for the Angel episode "You're Welcome." He's a good guy.

    3. He always seemed very open to discussing the show.

      JE once said that the writers were always asking themselves "what's the Buffy of it?". That's what I'd like to know about Go Fish -- how do the fish monsters relate to what Buffy's going through at that point in S2? I'd love to have him walk us through his thought process on the episode (or, indeed, on any episode).

      Let me know when you do your episode 7 thing.

    4. Agreed.

      And, yeah, good old Jane. :) Your point is a good one, though. The "Buffy" of Go Fish does seem tenuous at best,especially given its placement in the season. I'm with you on the walk-through idea. That would be pretty awesome.

      Anyway, the 7th episode extravaganza might be this year, either on Memorial Day, or on the 19th. I'm late starting to plan it for this year.

  3. I agree with everything you've said. But let's not forget the simple plot device of keeping Angelus' death count down so that he won't be irredeemable later. Also, Buffy is allowed to build up her inner fortitude for the eventual showdown. If she faced him too soon, the result would not be as satisfying or believable. On top of all this, Xander gets a chance to build up (or regain) some credibility.

    1. All very true. I'm not sure these points save the episode, but they are necessary.

    2. Upon review of this episode today (it's a slow week for me), I now think that Fury tries to address the male adolescent perspective within a show about a girl finding her power. Nearly every male character here seems to be struggling with what it means to be a man. We see bullying, misogyny, athleticism, sexuality, and bravery--especially as they arise in response to Buffy's presence/intervention. And for two episodes in a row, Buffy's had to duck the attentions of men. The metaphor of suffocation, or drowning, seems to fit both her social life and her internal struggle.

      Now, I'm not saying that all of this was enough to keep me enthralled, but I can better appreciate what the writer(s) may have wanted to convey.

    3. I think that's all very fair.

  4. IMHO, as an episode, this one is enjoyable enough and well-thought-out, (unlike, say IRYJ, which is just...), it's just it's placing in the series which causes problems. It feels like a 3rd or 4th episode, rather than a penultimate one.
    I feel it's definitely something to do with Buffy asserting her confidence a bit more, and getting over her guilt, seeing at least the previous 3 episodes have all involved her blaming herself, or being blamed by others, for something.
    I especially like your highlighting of the fact that the monsters were internal.

    1. If Go Fish had appeared in S1, we probably wouldn't think twice about it. Placing it just before Becoming, and after the incredible run up from Surprise, just seems.... off.

  5. After watching this episode, my first thought is to view it primarily through the lens of gender, similar to the way I did "Phases," as it shares many recurring themes: men regressing to purely animalistic states and having no control over their biological needs, like sex and food, and Buffy's disregard for traditional gender norms.

    I didn't think this through as well in "Phases," but I think the writers use masculinity, rather than femininity, to explore gender. We see the behavioral consequences and emotional effects of traditional gender explanations on characters like Xander, Larry the coach, and Jonathan throughout the series in contrast to Buffy's disregard for gender expectations (Willow said it in "Phases": "You're supposed to be a meek girl like the rest of us," after which Buffy promptly flips Larry on the ground) by not being submissive to Cameron, wearing what she wants to the dismay of the principal, etc.

    Though the masculine depictions here do tie back to Buffy, I would say that that is "the Buffy of" this episode.

    Having watched a lot of television series, I can say that "episode 20 problem" is a real thing, where it seems like season long plotlines stall and a filler episode is placed. With Buffy, I don't know that any episode is a filler, as they all continue characters emotional journeys.

    This may be a gross oversimplification, but I would say this season was about sex and death. After two episodes which focused very heavily on the latter, this one didn't at all. Early on, Giles states that the swimmers did not die, and they never ended up dying. Their ending was peaceful.


    After the death-centric KbD and IOHEFY, I wonder if this episode prepared us/Buffy that death maybe isn't the only possible end for Angel, as KbD and IOHEFY may have led us to believe, but rather that redemption/peace could be found for Angel. In this scenario, Buffy is "the true mother," who will be simultaneously "giving birth to new life" (in redeeming Angel) and "devouring old" in killing Angelus.

    Or, maybe, that death for Angel didn't have to be the awful, evil thing it was in KbD, but maybe the peaceful end that James finally got in IOHEFY, and that the swimmers enjoyed here.

    Also in this episode, Buffy's shadow-self Cordelia confesses to Xander at the pool that though he is now a beast, she still loves him and will do what she needs to. Perhaps this is an example of Buffy's recently complicated view of Angel and what she needs to do.

    I may be grasping at straws, but I think there's something there. I think this sets up "Becoming" nicely. What will happen to Angel in the next episodes isn't definitively spelled out, but it does seem to set up dual possibilities for him.

    Cameron describes the sea as both "adaptable and nurturing" and yet "constant and merciless," endowing it with a sense of duality that mirrors both Angel and Angelus, and Buffy's options for dealing with him Angel.

    Very important, then, is how the final shot ends with the swimmers enjoying the ocean, with peaceful tranquil music (the peace that I think James and Grace found), which gradually turns very ominous and alarming (as death was personified in KbD).

    While I know my analysis is fairly scatterbrained, the episode actually builds and and continues the themes explored in the previous two episodes quite nicely, and I think sets up the finale pretty well also. Thought the tone is totally different and feels like it should be mixed in with "Inca Mummy Girl" and "Reptile Boy" it definitely serves a purpose.

    1. I like the idea of the episode as being about "letting go". That's consistent with my suggestion, but with a different focus. Someday I'd like to get the chance to ask David Fury what he was going for.

      I'm less sure about the masculinity, if only because jocks are often portrayed as jerks and it's hard to separate that from a gender statement. There's no doubt, though, that Joss rejects all of that, whatever the perceived source of privilege (athletic prowess, masculine, "we are the law", or anything else).

  6. must proofread: I *wouldn't* say that gender is "the Buffy of" this episode.