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Thursday, April 12, 2012


[Updated April 30, 2013]

Those who watch Buffy on DVD get to experience something the TV viewers didn’t: Earshot in the correct order. The originally scheduled air date was the week after the shootings at Columbine High (April 20, 1999), and the network decided that the Earshot storyline was too similar. It eventually aired on September 21, 1999, just before the beginning of S4.

In the comments on Enemies, deidre asked an excellent question which hadn’t occurred to me: how was the season arc affected by the fact that Earshot got skipped? I wish I could remember my thoughts on the season when it first aired, but I don’t. I mostly remember seeing Earshot and thinking that they should have aired it on time because there was nothing in it which would have suggested any “approval” of Columbine.
When I look at it today in context, it seems to me that Earshot contains important elements leading to the season finale. The empathy we see Buffy develop (see below), in particular, strikes me as crucial for understanding both the behavior of her fellow students in The Prom and her own actions in Graduation Day. That said, those of us watching it live must have filled in those blanks because I don’t recall thinking that something important had been left out. That’s a sign that the story arc was strong enough to carry the conclusion.
The irony of the delay is, of course, that the actual message of the episode is diametrically opposite that of the Columbine murders. Not only were no murders shown or even committed, but Buffy stopped them because the telepathy enabled her to empathize with her fellow students. That’s something we all (hopefully) learn to do as we grow up. It’s particularly important for Buffy because being the Slayer tends to isolate her from others, even her friends, and could lead her to stop caring about other people. We get reminded of some of that isolation early in the episode when Willow tells her that “everyone” is going to the basketball game, but Buffy can’t because she has patrolling (i.e., adult responsibilities). The isolation and its potential consequences would be a serious problem for anyone, but could make it eventually impossible to function as the Slayer – why bother to save people if you’re that distant from them?
The telepathy enables Buffy to understand the internal pain of her fellow students, which she describes to Jonathan in the tower. However, it also reinforces Buffy’s isolation, to the point where she “can’t really be around people anymore”. In metaphor, Buffy is isolated precisely because she alone has come to understand the internal lives of her fellow students. The telepathic demons have no mouths because the pain we all experience comes in part from the lack of communication (consistent with the message of Dead Man’s Party).
The subplot works in unison with the main one. Buffy’s concerns about Angel are a specific example of the insecurity her fellow students experience. In her case it’s a matter of jealousy, as we see from the classroom discussion of Othello. Faith preyed on Buffy’s insecurities regarding Angel in Enemies, much as Iago did on those of Othello. The dialogue between Buffy and the teacher describes the way Joss saw Buffy and Faith:
“TEACHER:  Jealousy clearly is the tool that Iago uses to undo Othello. But what's his motivation? What reason does Iago give for destroying his superior officer?
BUFFY: Well, he, um, he sort of admits himself that his motives are... spurious! He, um, he does things because he, he enjoys them. It's like he's not, he's not really a person. He's a, the dark half of Othello himself.”

In the same way, all the students have their own little Iagos preying on their insecurities: “How can I be her friend now? She doesn't need me.”; “I hate my body. No one is ever gonna love me.”; “Am I normal?”. Buffy realizes that and tells Jonathan: “Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own.” Joss describes this insight as “the key to the whole show” (Joss has too many “keys”). Further tying together Buffy’s individual concern with this theme of the episode, Buffy solves her problem with Angel in the same way she solves it with Jonathan: by talking about it.
The ending scene might well win a contest for favorite in the whole series.
Trivia notes: (1) Joss rewrote the classroom scene and changed it to the discussion of Othello. He wanted the scene to relate to Buffy’s situation. (2) In the DVD commentary, Jane Espenson says that “In general, if a line’s really good, it tends to be [Joss’s]. It’s remarkable how many times the writers get complimented on a line and it turns out to be one of Joss’s.” (3) Willow’s interrogation of Jonathan was a deliberate callback to the similar scene in Go Fish. (4) Don’t be puzzled if you were wondering where the bell tower came from. They built it for this episode. (5) Joss also wrote the bell tower scene. (6) Xander’s frantic efforts to prevent anyone from eating the Jello are an homage to the movie Soylent Green.


  1. I've kinda been waiting for you to get here, as "Earshot" was the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I saw in its entirety.

    I live in Denver. My boss at the time had 2 kids at Columbine. Later, I worked less than two miles from the school, at a Community College where several survivors later attended, and where one of the employees was the mother of one of the shooters, so, the tragedy is something very real to me.

    I remember hearing that they'd pulled this episode, and I was derisive, and couldn't believe that the fear mongers had struck again.

    I understood it a bit better when I'd watched it.

    This episode of television changed the way I watched television. I can't understate the impact of watching this one hour of television. I finally understood how remarkable a thing was this show.

    I wrote in my blog about it on 15th anniversary, so, I won't be a broken record, but, I did want to comment about this. Thanks again for doing your analysis, which I'm quite enjoying.

    1. It's interesting which episodes really made people believe in the show. For me The Pack was an eye-opener. I thought then that it was remarkably dark for what I considered a "kids show". I can't say that it became "must see" at that point, but certainly by Lie to Me it had.

    2. Absolutely. I had a similar reaction to The Pack when I decided I needed to "catch-up," and finally watched the earlier seasons. I could not believe they actually went there. I had to talk to someone immediately, and I called the only person I knew (at the time) who'd seen it, just to talk about how shocking it is. I really started wishing, and not for the first time, that I'd given in much sooner and watched it. I'm wishing it again.

  2. I don't think this episode could be seen as "approving" of Columbine, but this is an episode where the characters describe school shootings as "practically trendy" and where the actual plot by the lunch lady to murder students is used as a joke. I can't see it going over well that soon after the tragedy and I think the network probably made the right call from their perspective.

  3. I always had an issue with this episode because of the whole "vampires are immune to telepathy" thing, as well as Angel's frankly absurd (on the surface, anyway) explanation of it: "It's like the mirror; the thoughts are there, but make no reflection." It's very poetic but it doesn't really say much.

    I'm curious as to how you interpret it, but after reading through your blog I have an idea at least. Taking vampires as creatures with an id that overwhelms their superego entirely, as you put forward as a possible explanation in the Amends post, it would follow that vampires entirely lack the capacity for introspection. Introspection involves looking at past experiences and reevaluating them in a new context. If a vampire exists, by and large, as a creature of pure instinct with some human cunning, they would have no reason to rethink their decisions, as every choice was 'pure'. They never change, never develop or mature (a point you've also made, I think).

    Taking that as an assumption, I'd argue that the lack of reflection vampires have (something the show never really focuses on that much, IIRC) is a metaphor for that idea of an utter lack of introspection/self-reflection, ditto with the immunity to telepathy.

    I'm not sure if this contributes much to the reading of the episode, mind you, but it's the only justification I can find for an otherwise slightly ridiculous non sequiter. Do you have any thoughts?

    1. I think you've got it exactly right and said it very well. I think your point is summed up


      when Spike tells Wood in LMPTM that "I'm not much for self-reflection."

  4. I remember being so impressed with the reading of "Othello" that Iago is his shadow self (incidentally, my childhood love of Shakespeare is what lead me to my Buffy obsession).

    I am similarly floored realizing that Faith is Buffy's shadow self and that scene where Buffy talks about "Othello" is a direct correlation. It all makes so much sense now!!!

  5. I was struck by how your discussion of this episode unearthed some themes that would become even more important on "Angel: the Series": empathy as a difficult and painful process, and the dangers of allowing one's role as guardian of a community to isolate one from that community. The first theme is explored in Cordelia's arc, and the visions she receives from the Powers are represented as similarly crippling to Buffy's telepathy, most explicitly in "To Shanshu in LA." The second theme is what drives Angel in S1 and S2, and arguably throughout the rest of the show. Doyle specifically says in "City of" that Angel's isolation from the people he helps will inevitably lead to his demise. Unlike Buffy's shadow Faith, his shadow self Angelus is not external to him and therefore cannot be dealt with head-on (at least until Faith returns in S4 to help him out).
    I'm curious--your critical analysis of BtVS is so thought-provoking--do you have any insight on AtS?

  6. For some reason the reply button isn't working, but this is in response to KingofShredsandPatches.

    I absolutely agree that Angel's isolation is a key part of his journey. In addition to Doyle's statements, remember what Whistler tells Angel in Becoming: "You lived in the world a
    little bit, you'd know that."

    I don't feel like I have that much insight into Angel, overall. I haven't obsessed about the show, and I haven't re-watched it like I have with BtVS. The main view I have of Angel is that he fits the classic hero pattern with a fatal flaw. In his case, his fatal flaw is that he needs to see himself as a hero in order to assure himself that he's redeemed (or on the road). He's so anxious to do that, though, that he sometimes takes actions which actually cause him to regress.