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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hush

[Updated April 30, 2013]


Regardless of the success or not of the seasonal arc, S4 contains two of the most innovative episodes of any TV series ever. Hush is the first of these. It’s a very popular episode, regularly appearing on Top 10 lists and often cited by fans as their favorite episode. There are so many great little details and great scenes that I can’t even try to describe them all.
Worse yet, from my perspective, there’s been so much discussion about Hush that it’s hard to come up with anything new to say. Note, though, that it fits right in with the theme of identity I’ve been discussing, particularly when it comes to Buffy and Riley, but also for Willow as I’ll explain later in order to avoid spoilers now.


Joss explains in the DVD commentary that he had wanted to do a silent episode for some time:
I early on, wanted to do a show where people didn’t talk. As the show went on, I became more and more obsessed with it because I felt as a director I was degenerating. I was turning into a tv hack, over, over, two shots. Shot of him, shot of her, they’re talking to each other, shot of them both, and back….and I was beginning to fall into a shorthand. One thing that I don’t love about tv is that a lot of it is what I refer to as radio with faces. If you want to shoot a scene quickly, you put someone up against a wall, have them say their lines, and boom, it’s done. From the start, one of the important things about Buffy is that I wanted the show to work visually, so much so that a Fox executive told me that I was putting too much visual information on every page, that it was not going to be possible to shoot it. …
By the fourth year, I had kind of fallen into the people are yakking without really thinking about it, and I wanted to curtail that in myself. And so, on a practical level, the idea of doing a show where everybody lost their voice presented itself as a great big challenge, because I knew that I would literally have to tell the story only visually. That would mean I could not fall into tricks.”

What makes the episode brilliant is that Joss found a way to tie this need for change to the actual plots and themes of the show. Hush is an extended metaphor about communication. As I see them, The Gentlemen represent the fairy tales we all tell ourselves and others. At the end of Buffy’s dream in the teaser, Riley morphs into one of the Gentlemen. That’s telling her that the Riley she sees in the dream is a fairy tale. The destruction of The Gentlemen represents the destruction of the tales they’d been telling each other. And they’re the creepiest villains in the entire series.
Prof. Walsh sets up the problem of communication in the teaser: “"So this is what it is… talking about communication, talking about language... not the same thing…. It's about the thoughts and experiences that we don't have a word for.” We then see an example of non-verbal communication when Buffy and Riley kiss. The fact that part of what we see takes place entirely in Buffy’s imagination reinforces the point.
Buffy and Riley haven’t been and aren’t communicating, as we see at the end of the teaser from the babblefest and missed kissage. More significantly, they’re both hiding an important feature of their respective identities, namely the fact that they are Clark Kenting their way through life. This causes both of them to lie, an obvious form of non-communication.
It may seem peculiar to raise a theme about communication in an episode which has so little dialogue, but Joss explains it this way: “I had a general notion that what it was about was the idea that when people stop talking they start communicating. That language can interfere with communication, because language limits. As soon as you say something you’ve eliminated every other possibility of what you might be talking about. We also use language to separate ourselves from other people, we also use language as white noise, we also misuse it horribly. All of those things appear on the show.”
Here’s one of the examples he gives (there are a great many more scattered throughout the episode):
“(Spike on the couch, Xander and Anya arguing in Giles’ apartment)

For example, in this scene, I hope we learn that Xander can’t express himself. He can’t tell Anya how he feels because he’s not that kind of guy, and she of course says something inappropriate because her understanding of language is very rudimentary and straightforward and like it’s her second language, because it is! She’s ex-demon. Also the fact that everyone keeps talking and Giles desperately wants them to shut up, he can’t take all the noise. Later on in the Wicca scene, the misuse of the word empowering. People just using language to block themselves from expressing themselves.”

Buffy and Riley end up learning a lot about each other in this episode, much more than they’ve learned in their previous interactions. They kiss for the first time, demonstrating that they care about each other (somewhat less aggressively than Xander and Anya). They each learn that the other has a secret identity, not from saying it but from seeing it. Ironically, they sit awkwardly silent at the end because their failure to talk has led them to a situation in which explaining it all – their relationship, their identities, how their identity might affect their relationship – is awkward now that words have become necessary again.
Other characters learn about themselves and about each other during the episode as well. Anya learns that Xander really does care about her; maybe Xander learned that about himself too (see Joss’s comment above). Olivia learned some possibly uncomfortable truths about Giles. And Willow learned something about being a real witch. I’ll have much more to say about Willow in the future, and how her arc in S4 fits in with the seasonal theme of identity, but I’ll leave it there for now so as not to spoil anyone (unlikely on this point, I suspect, but an excess of caution can’t hurt).
Trivia notes: (1) Andy Hallet, who later played Lorne on AtS, was in the classroom audience for the teaser. (2) “Fortune favors the brave” is a line from the Aeneid. (3) “Blessed be” is a greeting or farewell for Wiccas.  That’s why Willow described the wicca group as a bunch of “wanna-blessed-bes”. (4) Spike’s gesture to Xander – holding up two fingers, palm facing Spike – is the British equivalent of the American middle finger. (5) The prayer group meeting had sign reading “Revelations 15:1”, which reads (King James Version): “And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God.” (6) The music Giles played during his “lecture” was the “Danse Macabre” by the French composer Camille Saint-Saens. (7) The “hips” joke was SMG’s idea. (8) The little club Riley drew out of his boot is a telescoping baton made by ASP, Inc. (9) I particularly liked Myles McNutt’s review of this episode, so I’m reproducing part of it here:

I do certainly wish that I could go back in time and experience this with everyone else at the turn of the century. More than any other episode of Buffy so far, I wish that I could have been there to write a review and to analyze the myriad of ways in which this is easily the most well-executed hour of television Buffy has produced to this point. While other episodes have been more emotionally resonant or explosive, no other episode has felt this expertly and ingeniously crafted. Compelling both as a standalone piece of entertainment and as an advancement of the season’s story arcs, “Hush” didn’t leave me speechless so much as it made me wish that I could go back to the turn of the century and be part of the initial response to what is rightfully heralded as one of the series’ finest moments….
There’s a moment after the silence ends where Giles and Olivia discuss how, for the latter, witchcraft has finally become real, Giles’ stories becoming more than just fairy tales. This isn’t news for the viewers, who have seen numerous things they presumed to be unreal come to life within the series, but this is the most potent example of the series’ reality being subsumed by such an insurrection. Rather than interrupting storylines, disrupting the logical progression of things, “Hush” actually brings each character’s ongoing lives into the Gentlemen’s terrifying plot, using it add complexity to the season’s storylines that wasn’t there before. I don’t yet know how that turns out (I stopped after “Hush” to write this review without moving onto “Doomed”), but that’s part of the fun of the way this episode was initially scheduled: coming right before the Christmas break, I imagine “Hush” would have had plenty of time to settle in viewers’ minds by the time the show returned in January. And the episode isn’t just sitting there because of the stunning depiction of the Gentlemen or the novelty of a silent episode: it sits there because of the meaning it created for the characters, and the ways in which the episode takes the series’ existing structures and executes them to a level that it hadn’t achieved previously.”
Proving that good analysis of BtVS can appear in seemingly unlikely places, here’s an excellent point I’d never seen before which appeared on a political blog:
“As noted above, the only time Whedon’s not tracking [camera shots] is when he’s tightly framing faces.  That technique makes sense in an episode in which all the information about the characters’ respective mental states is going to be non-verbal.  In his excellent post on non-verbal facial cues in The Social Network, David Bordwell argues that the “intensified continuity” in modern cinema requires actors to “be maestros of their facial muscles and eye movements,” and though “Hush” is an episode of a television show and not a film, the same applies here.
Because even shows like Buffy prefer some sort of realistic acting, this almost qualifies as over-doing it: this is intensified continuity intensified, but it remains naturalistic in the hushed context of the episode.  The only way the characters can communicate is to over-act.  Looking concerned no longer communicates being worried unless, as per the last frame above, that concern is exaggerated.  (I could demonstrate that this dynamic is operative when Xander and Spike are conversing or when Riley’s trying to enter the Initiative, but in the interest of space and bandwidth, just take my word for it.)  In sum, Whedon is setting the audience up by having it pay closer attention to facial expressions than they otherwise would.  Why would he do that?  Meet the episode’s antagonist:
They would be the Gentlemen, and creepy as they would be otherwise, their creepiness is heightened by the fact that in an episode that keys the audience to pay attention to the plasticity of faces, theirs don’t move.”

9 comments:

  1. 4) Spike’s gesture to Xander – holding up two fingers, palm facing Spike – is the British equivalent of the American middle finger

    Huh. I always thought Spike was trying to initiate a round of charades.

    Also, I don't know if its a southern thang, but down here we referred to ourselves as "Wiccans" not "Wiccas".

    Of course I don't really identify as a Wiccan anymore, more of a non-affiliated pagan.

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    1. I did a Word search on the transcripts and found both uses. I guess either is correct.

      That's my obsessive deed for the day.

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    2. I'm sure it is, but I began practicing at the same time I started watching Buffy(S5) so it always severely irked me that they got this "wrong".

      I'm sure that both uses are appropriate, but TBH after watching the whole series I never understood why they chose to use the more modern terminology, which was coined in an attempt to disassociate from the negative connotations from witchcraft. But what Willow practiced was demonstrated to be very old, not modern, and I don't see why they didn't just stick with "witch" after Willow's attempts to join the Wicca group fell flat.

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    3. Some of the wiccas at ATPO objected to her use of "wicca" altogether on the ground that her spells too often violated the Rede ("an it harm none", for those unfamiliar with it). "Witch" probably was a better term, all things considered. Maybe we could see it as just Willow's attempt to associate herself with something which seemed more comforting.

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    4. Exactly, it was re-associating the negative stuff that modern wicca was trying to separate itself from.

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  2. Just thought I should break my usual "cone of silence" to say that, as a life-long horror fan, "Hush" would certainly make my list of top ten favourite horror movies -- and it's the only TV episode to do so. (Okay, honourable mention goes to the 3rd segment of the TV movie "Trilogy of Terror" -- the one with the little doll with the big knife -- but "Hush" is the only instance of episodic TV on my list.)

    Speaking of horror films, everybody's seen "Cabin in the Woods" by now, right?

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    1. I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't. Yet.

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  3. The two-finger gesture stems from English archers taunting the French, does it not?

    Also, Doug Jones! He's the gravy on this deliciously meaty episode. I'm going to have watch this again now to look for Andy Hallett. I had no idea!

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  4. SPOILERS THROUGH "CHOSEN"

    Quick thoughts about "Hush" and BtVS' mythical structure:
    For awhile. Hush seemed like the auteur-Joss episode that was to me more gimmick than great. But your essay here helped me view it in a completely new light.

    "As I see them, The Gentlemen represent the fairy tales we all tell ourselves and others."

    YES.

    It's the first postmodern episode of the series. As such it maps out Buffy's postmodern solution to the Slayer myth in season 7. Her solution in "Chosen" greatly resembles her acts here, as do the circumstances.

    I think "Restless" explicates what was implicit in structure and narrative in "Hush".

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