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Thursday, February 2, 2012

I Only Have Eyes For You

[Updated April 29, 2013]

When I first saw I Only Have Eyes For You, I completely missed the point and therefore didn’t originally realize how wonderful the episode is. I thought Buffy needed to forgive Angel for what he’d done to her. I was so certain that Buffy had done nothing wrong that it never occurred to me that she herself thought she might have been wrong or that she might want his forgiveness. This, in turn, left me confused about who was supposed to be who in the James/Grace scenarios.

So, to anyone else who was as confused as I was: IOHEFY tells us that Buffy does see herself as “guilty” in some sense, and the whole point of the episode is to allow her to forgive herself by learning that Angel forgives her. I’m still not sure why I missed this, because Cordy tells us this directly. When Buffy shows her anger about James, it’s Cordy who hangs a lantern on the fact that Buffy is blaming herself for Angelus:

“Buffy:  No. James destroyed the one person he loved the most in a moment of blind passion. And that's not something you forgive. No matter why he did what he did. And no matter if he knows now that it was wrong and selfish and stupid, it is just something he's gonna have to live with.
Xander:  He can't live with it, Buff. He's dead.
She just looks back at them all for a moment, then stalks off into the kitchen.
Cordelia:  Okay. Overidentify much?”

Thus, Buffy sees herself as in the same situation as James; she’s the one who “destroyed the one person [she] loved the most in a moment of blind passion”. Think about this in the context of all the anger James expresses in the episode: the snakes, the vortex, the wasps; if James is Buffy, then that’s her anger too and it’s all directed at herself.
James, in turn, identifies with her, which is why we see the gender switch when the ghosts take over: James possesses Buffy and Grace – the name is surely deliberate – possesses Angel. It’s grace which allows Angel to forgive Buffy and Buffy then to understand that she can let go of her guilt.To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It's, it's not done because people deserve it. It's done because they need it.”
So if this is the point of the episode, we need to consider why Buffy blames herself for her role in Angel’s loss of soul/death. First, we have this dialogue from Innocence:
Buffy:  So it was me. I did it.
Jenny:  I think so.

Second, consider the implications of Inca Mummy Girl. The mummy was a chosen girl who sucked the life out of others for her own selfish purposes. That’s exactly what Buffy sees herself as having done with Angel. In Buffy’s view, she gave in to her selfish desire when she slept with Angel and that sucked the (metaphorical) life out of him. She therefore sees herself as no better than Ampata.
Third, Buffy’s decision to have sex with Angel played out in horror format the stereotype of “girl sleeps with boy, boy rejects her in the morning”. In this stereotype it’s often the case that the girl experiences a feeling of guilt that she must have done something wrong, something which caused him to stop loving her. In fact, that’s what Buffy said in Innocence: “Was it my fault? Was I not good?”
Now let’s turn this around. The relationship between Grace and James was one between a teacher and a student. That’s not a situation we generally approve because the age difference and the teacher’s position of authority make it, well, icky. James may be the one at fault for killing Grace, but Grace was certainly at fault for the relationship generally. She should have been the one to control her passions and not let it get out of hand in the first place. James obviously wasn’t mature enough to handle it. The problematic nature of the relationship would have been perhaps too obvious had the genders been reversed, hence the Sadie Hawkins theme.
And Angel is Grace, now with the genders in the stereotypical pattern. He was older than Buffy, not just counting his age when sired, but also the 100 odd years with a soul he spent honing his brooding skills. Like Grace, he’s also in the position of having abdicated his adult responsibilities out of passion. What he does – what Grace did – is assure Buffy that she may have pulled the trigger (so to speak), but that he understood his own responsibility for the tragedy and truly loved her even as he realized what had happened. “It was an accident. It wasn't your fault. … I'm the one who should be sorry…. You thought I stopped loving you. But I never did. I loved you with my last breath.” Angel’s apology both touches the wellsprings of Buffy’s feelings of guilt and shows her his own culpability.
IOHEFY is a great episode generally, and few scenes in the whole series are as dramatic as Spike standing up from his wheelchair at the end. Buffy’s not the only one who’s angry. Somehow I don’t think Spike’s blaming himself, nor do I think that forgiveness is on his mind.
Trivia notes: (1) Angie Hart, who sings at the Bronze in the teaser, is a friend of Joss and will appear in two more episodes later on. (2) The classroom lesson was on the Depression, and of course Buffy is depressed about Jenny and Angel. (3) The Hemingway book James was reading was A Farewell to Arms. If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of a love affair which ends tragically. (4) Xander’s “I’m dead as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” plays off the movie Network. (5) The scene where Cordy’s snake-bitten face suddenly becomes rotten is similar to one in the movie Poltergeist. (6) Xander’s “The quality of mercy is not Buffy” is from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, sc. 1. (7) The movie Cordy saw where “even the priest dies” was The Exorcist. (8) The song which gives the episode its title was a cover by The Flamingos. The episode used it anachronistically because their version came out in 1959 but the events supposedly occurred in 1955.


  1. This was one of the first Buffy episodes I ever saw, and I was hooked. The repeated dialogue suddenly got so poignent and heartbreaking when it was finally spoken by Buffy and Angel. I didn't even quite understand what had happened previously, but the emotions and the twist were really impressive to me, so I decided I needed to start watching. What a great and lucky choice on my part, eh? ;-)

    I love that you pointed out that the teacher was named "Grace." Once you say that, I suddenly did a face-palm...but of COURSE that was intentional! Perfect. Thanks for another great insight into the metaphorical messages in these episodes.

    I'm really enjoying this series, Mark...and I was already impressed from reading your commentary at the AV Club.

    1. Thank you. I really appreciate it.

    2. One of the most shocking and effective moments for me, from the "reverse dialogue," was when Buffy calls Angel a "bitch." Somehow that one utterance works so well with where the Angelus arc is at this point - including in all the ways Mark outlines above. It's so striking, but it's also one of those great Whedonesque moments where all the inversions and reverses tell us more about a given character than she can tell us about herself.


      In a very different way the technique works very well again in S04's "Who Are You."

  2. God I love this episode. It is so heart breaking, yet also healing. She needed to hear Angel's forgiveness and have some closure, and I think the audience needed it to. After the events of Passion, we especially needed to remember Angel as he was, even if only for a moment.


    Of course, this had the additional benefit of making the events of Becoming so much more tragic, as we had a more recent memory of the goodness of Angel, right before he was truly resurrected and sacrificed.

  3. Angelus himself states that Buffy's making him feel human again is not something he can forgive. So, I agree that this episode is very fitting for both of their situations.

  4. I love this episode so much, but reading this made me think of something that had never crossed my mind, quite biasedly so! I never even though of buffy being guitly in their relationship. Granted that I was very young at first watch I mean I am only eighteen now but yeah I just, these things are clarifying everythings so much its unreal!...... Oh befire I forget, im most likely just being stupid here but I dont get the relevance of the teachers name being grace, care to fill me in? :-D

  5. Grace forgave James as an act of grace. So when she possessed Angel and he forgave Buffy, that too was an act of grace.