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Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Freshman

[Updated April 30, 2013]

The production of a play, movie, or TV show isn’t the work of a solo artist like a novel might be. It’s a group effort which involves, at least, the writers (not all of them Joss); the actors; the directors (even on his own episodes, Joss didn’t always direct); the Standards & Practices department (which controls what you can and can’t say and do on the air); make-up artists; costume designers; and musicians. The actions of all of these will affect what we eventually see on the screen.
This will be all the more true when events in the real world make it impossible to tell the story which the writers originally intended. We saw a little bit of that at the end of S3, where the broadcasts of Earshot and Graduation Day were delayed because of events at Columbine. While nothing that dramatic affected S4, the things which did happen caused probably an even greater impact on what eventually appeared on the screen. I’ll talk about those outside factors when we get to the relevant episodes, but I can’t do it until then because of spoilers.
You need to bear in mind that this is true when I discuss the opening episodes of S4. It may be that those episodes don’t give us the usual clues about the seasonal themes, or that those clues are less obvious because the eventual story got modified from what the writers expected at the time they wrote them. Worse yet, actually identifying the seasonal themes is itself pretty difficult. At the time S4 first aired, many fans were disappointed because the season seemed a little disjointed. That’s a fair criticism in a way, but in retrospect it’s my impression that they’ve come to like the season because so many of the episodes are individually good.

The Freshman is one of those good episodes. It shows us Buffy in the common emotional state of college freshmen: nervous about moving on from high school and unsure of themselves in the new environment. This plays out in metaphor through the character of Eddie. He’s equally “lost”, both physically when he and Buffy look at the map and emotionally because of his insecurity. He even mentions that he keeps the novel Of Human Bondage by his bed as a security blanket. I see this as a telling detail, as I’ll describe below.
I hope I’ve convinced you by now that these seemingly random literary references are not accidental at all. The novel Of Human Bondage establishes the theme for this episode and one of the important themes for the season. The message of the book is open to some interpretation, so I’m going to quote a summary of the plot and interpretation from the Penguin Books website (I’ve edited it to make it shorter):
Of Human Bondage is a bildungsroman [a “coming of age novel”, like BtVS itself] made unique by W. Somerset Maugham's minute dissection of the limitations of individual freedom. The novel delineates the coming of age of Philip Carey, an orphan with a clubfoot. Raised by his aunt and uncle, a vicar, Philip grows up under the rules of their house and church. He is tormented at school but excels academically and even aspires to be an ordained minister. Just before graduation, he takes off for a year in Heidelberg, where he is plunged into a world of ideas and succumbs to religious skepticism. But he finds nothing to replace his religion or his identity as an English gentleman. Attempting to fill in the blanks and follow his true nature, Philip struggles by trial and error to establish a philosophy for himself. The novel relates the weight of each failure, each disappointment that Philip endures, in realistic detail. As a result, Maugham convincingly shows a sensitive young man's battle to eliminate the constraints imposed on him so that he may live freely, but at the conclusion of the novel, it is unclear whether Philip ever attains the freedom he desires—and whether Maugham's title, Of Human Bondage, suggests that humanity's natural state of being is one of freedom or rather one of perpetual restriction.
…Philip loses his faith as a result of the buildup of years of repression imposed on him while living in his uncle's vicarage and while attending King's School. In both places, Philip's pious caretakers often treat him with indifferent cruelty. The reality that Philip experiences does not match the professed ideals of his religion. … But just because Philip sheds one unrealistic ideal does not guarantee that he won't fall for the next one. …Philip frees himself from a religious upbringing that he realizes contradicts his reality. But what does he replace it with?
Philip's preoccupation with freeing his spirit leads him to read philosophy in order to find "some guide by which he could rule his conduct", but he ultimately decides to become his own philosopher. …His failed attempts at finding an occupation are not without their benefits. Once he enters medical school to begin his third attempt at a vocation, Philip has pieced together a philosophy, albeit an incomplete one. He doesn't believe in right or wrong, yearns to discover the intention of the soul, and is still trying to define a mode of conduct and the meaning of life. At this point in the novel, it is important to wonder whether Philip's fragmentary philosophy affects how he lives: whether it helps him free his inner nature or merely restricts it in a different way….
The desire for happiness is, finally, the last ideal that Philip casts aside in his pursuit of freedom. When he realizes that "his life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness" and that "it might be measured by something else", he disowns his desire to be happy and in turn is happy. But what is this something else by which life might be measured? Perhaps it is his belief that the pattern one chooses to follow in life determines the meaning of one's life. In the end, when he decides to marry Sally, Philip chooses ‘the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died’. And with this decision to pursue the mundane—a departure from the typical bildungsroman in which the sensitive protagonist turns out to be an artist or otherwise realize his potential—we are told, ‘It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories’.”

Think about this story from the perspective of an existentialist. I don’t know if Albert Camus or Jean Paul Sartre ever read the book, but if they interpreted the ending in the standard way I suspect they would have been horrified by it. It’s a story of the way Philip struggled against the world and failed, in the sense that he sacrificed his hopes and dreams for “normality”. If the existentialist project is to create your own authentic self, Philip’s story is a bleak warning of the way the world at large blocks your efforts to do so, forcing you to settle.
What makes one vulnerable to this fate is, in part, insecurity. If you come to college insecure in your own identity, the influence of your professors and classmates will force you onto the “normal” track. We can see what Joss thinks of this in Eddie’s fate: he becomes a vampire. He’s frozen in his insecurity, never able to grow up in the sense Joss considers meaningful, which is to create one’s own authentic self.
This is the challenge Buffy must overcome in the episode. Her insecurity about college has left her insecure in her identity as Slayer, which is to say insecure about her path to becoming an integrated adult. Part of that insecurity is her sense that she can’t call on her friends – her metaphorical heart, mind, and spirit – in her struggle, yet she needs them:
Buffy: It's just... there was this vampire, and she took me down, and I just... I don't know how to stop her.
Xander: Then where's the gang?  Avengers assemble!  Let's get it going!
Buffy: No, I don't want to bug them.  I mean they're just starting school, and they don't need this.
Xander: Ok Buff, what's the 'what' here?
Buffy: It's just, what if I can't cut it?
Xander: Can't cut what? Slaying?
Buffy: Slaying, everything.
Xander: Buffy, this is all about fear.  It's understandable, but you can't let it control you.  'Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to anger.'  No wait, hold on.  'Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.'  Hold on, no, umm, 'First you get the women, then you get the money, then you...' okay, can we forget that?
Buffy: Thanks for the Dadaist pep talk, I feel much more abstract now.
Xander: The point is, you're Buffy.
Buffy: Yeah, maybe in high school I was Buffy.
Xander: And now in college you're Betty Louise?
Buffy: Yeah, I'm Betty Louise Plotnick of East Cupcake, Illinois. Or I might as well be.

Her initial defeat by Sunday, who represents the way insecurities prey on us, illustrates that Buffy’s vulnerable to Eddie’s fate. In fact, Buffy’s emotional state always governs her ability to exercise her Slayer powers. The key moment is therefore Xander’s speech to her in the Bronze, probably his second finest moment in the series after Prophecy Girl: “Buffy, I've gone through some fairly dark times in my life, faced some scary things, among them the kitchen at 'The Fabulous Ladies Night Club.'  Let me tell you something, when it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?'  You're my hero. … Let's put this bitch in the ground!”
Her metaphorical heart restored her sense of confidence and then went off and recruited her spirit. With them in support, and her metaphorical mind following, Buffy’s able to face college confident in her own identity.
I’ll have more to say about Of Human Bondage and the issues it raises when we get to Goodbye Iowa.
Now let me talk briefly about Giles. Any parent who has sent kids off to college knows what Giles is feeling – that he needs to back off, to let Buffy develop on her own. At the same time, he still wants to keep the role of mentor which he’s had for the last 3 years. This tension between the two roles will be a consistent theme going forward, just as it is for all parents and kids in the struggle to create a new relationship as the kids become adults.
Trivia notes: (1) Oz’s description of the campus as “a madhouse, a madhouse” is from Planet of the Apes. This is the second time a season opener used the phrase, the first being WSWB. Joss wrote both, so obviously he liked the movie. (2) Buffy’s description of the library as big enough to hold the Nuremberg rallies refers to Hitler’s infamous speeches to the Nazi Party faithful in Nuremberg, Germany. (3) Willow asked Riley if they were going to study operant conditioning. You know by now that I think that these classroom topics are not accidental. (4) The stoner vamp is modeled after the character Jeff Spicoli from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (5) If you’re not watching AtS, the scene where Buffy picked up the phone and no one was there mirrored a scene in the AtS episode City Of in which Angel called her but said nothing. (6) Angie Hart and her band, Splendid, previously appeared in IOHEFY. (7) Xander’s “Avenger’s assemble” comes from Marvel Comics The Avengers. Joss is, of course, the writer on the film version. (8) Xander’s “first you get the money…” comes from the movie Scarface. (9) The Dadaists – “thanks for the Dadaist pep talk” – were anti-war critics of modern culture who ridiculed the meaninglessness of the modern world during and shortly after World War I. (10) Xander’s “What would Buffy do?” is a play on the Christian “What would Jesus do?”. You know you really want the T-shirt.


  1. Another bit of trivia - the 'fear leads to anger' (mis)quotation is, of course, Yoda's advice to Anakin in the Star Wars.

    1. (*jeff* spicoli)

    2. Ouch, yes. Can't believe I messed that up. I've fixed it.

    3. I haven't been annotating the Star Wars references because I think most people recognize them. And by S6 there are so many of them that I'd go nuts.

    4. There can never be too many Star Wars references mentioned! I say, let's all go nuts together. :)

    5. You know, I'll be the first to admit that the prequels have problems, but after much (tearful) consideration, I have finally come to the conclusion that they weren't made for *us*("us" as in fans of the originals).

      They were made for the next generation of Star Wars fans, like my daughter, who absolutely loves them. When given the option of watching the originals vs prequels, she is all over the prequels. It helps that Anakin started as a kid near her age as did Padme, because it brought her into identifying with them more.

      Plus the final lightsaber fight between Obi Wan and Vader was completely worth it. I was destitute when Sith came out, so all I had to hold me over til the DVD release was a special on the special edition DVDs(I own almost every edition released, haven't gotten the blu-ray, cuz I don't have one) that showed MacGregor and Christenson rehearsing that fight, and it was intense. And that fight did all that preparation justice.

      And I did like that Vader was really just an emo boy who couldn't deal with loss. And that Yoda and Windu were so blinded by their own arrogance, that every action they took to "protect" Anakin from the Dark Side, drove him more and more to Palpatine. It made the whole story much more tragic than I was expecting from Lucas to be honest.

    6. That's interesting. My kids aren't big Star Wars fans, so I'm not sure which set they prefer. Maybe I'm letting my generation gap show.

      Mostly, though, I was thinking of the line "I'm bored. Episode 1 bored." :)

    7. That is a GREAT line.

      The pod race was excessive.

  2. Goodness I’m intrigued about these factors that affected this season!
    I’m also loving that new Buffy aspect now fits my TV.
    And that Xander ended up helping Buffy move in the end anyway!