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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Goodbye Iowa

[Updated April 30, 2013]

Goodbye Iowa ties together all of the themes I’ve mentioned thus far as important to S4: identity, including the creation of one’s authentic self; identity theft; indoctrination, including its relation to identity theft; family; science v. magic; individualism v. collectivism. It’s a little hard to discuss them all because they’re intertwined with each other, but I’ll do the best I can.

In my post on The Initiative I mentioned the concept of a “panopticon” and its origin with Jeremy Bentham. For Goodbye Iowa I want to expand on the panopticon and talk about how it fits in with the season themes.

There is a very important discussion of the idea of a panopticon in the book Discipline and Punish by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. I don’t know if Joss has read this book (or some derivative of it), but themes from it appear very obviously in the show Dollhouse so I assume that he has. I’m writing this post on that assumption. First a description of Foucault’s work from the link:

“Discipline and Punish (1975) is a … study of the development of the “gentler” modern way of imprisoning criminals rather than torturing or killing them. While recognizing the element of genuinely enlightened reform, Foucault particularly emphasizes how such reform also becomes a vehicle of more effective control: “to punish less, perhaps; but certainly to punish better”. He further argues that the new mode of punishment becomes the model for control of an entire society, with factories, hospitals, and schools modeled on the modern prison.

At the core of Foucault's picture of modern “disciplinary” society are three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. To a great extent, control over people (power) can be achieved merely by observing them. … A perfect system of observation would allow one “guard” to see everything (a situation approximated … in Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon)….

A distinctive feature of modern power (disciplinary control) is its concern with what people have not done (nonobservence), with, that is, a person's failure to reach required standards. This concern illustrates the primary function of modern disciplinary systems: to correct deviant behavior. The goal is not revenge (as in the case of the tortures of premodern punishment) but reform, where, of course, reform means coming to live by society's standards or norms….

The examination (for example, of students in schools…) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment. It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”…. It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know…) and controls their behavior (by forcing them to study…).

Bentham's Panopticon is, for Foucault, an ideal architectural model of modern disciplinary power. It is a design for a prison, built so that each inmate is separated from and invisible to all the others (in separate “cells”) and each inmate is always visible to a monitor situated in a central tower. Monitors will not in fact always see each inmate; the point is that they could at any time. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must act as if they are always objects of observation. As a result, control is achieved more by the internal monitoring of those controlled than by heavy physical constraints.”

Ok, let me try to put this in terms of what we’re seeing in S4. Foucault’s argument is that modern society functions very much like Bentham’s panopticon, that is, society functions like a prison. We’re constantly under observation by others, whether parents, police, or (one of Foucault’s prime examples) college professors. Society uses those observations in order to indoctrinate us, to mold our behavior towards a “norm”. If I were to put this in existentialist terms (which would be controversial in discussing Foucault, but I don’t want to get too technical about this), society’s attempt to force us towards what it considers “normal” interferes with the existentialist project of creating our own authentic self.

This should sound very familiar. In my post on The Freshman I pointed out that Philip, the protagonist of the novel Of Human Bondage, ended the book believing that adopting “the simplest pattern” was the best. That “simplest pattern” is the one society expects us to follow, it’s the “normal track”. Philip viewed this as an insight; an existentialist finds it horrifying.

Then, in my post on The Initiative, I noted that the Initiative raised themes of indoctrination, identity, and identity theft. Foucault’s arguments show us how these relate to the “normal track”: it’s indoctrination by society which forces us to be “normal”; forcing us to “be normal” prevents us from developing our authentic identity; and the conditioning we receive from society can be seen as stealing our true, organic identity and replacing it with one society prefers (remember Alex in A Clockwork Orange).

Prof. Walsh was a metaphor for all of these aspects of society. Because she occupied multiple positions, including professor – professor being one of Foucault’s primary examples – and military leader, she served as a representative of the way school, government and society in general force us in the same direction. We originally saw this aspect of her in relation to Spike, with his chip as the equivalent of the operant conditioning Alex got in A Clockwork Orange. Since then we’ve seen that she used her position of authority to direct her students and the commandos towards her preferred goal. Consider this dialogue from A New Man:

“Walsh: (returning to her desk) I don't lecture from the text book.  But I'm glad she's inspired by the material. She's bright.  All she's really been lacking is encouragement in the academic sect.
Giles: Oh, uh, I think it's best if-if. . . if we let a young person find their own strengths. If you lead a child by the hand then they'll never find their own footing.
Walsh: And if it's true about hiking, ergo, it must be true about life.
Giles: (removing his glasses to polish them with a handkerchief) That's not, uh . . . I'm just saying Buffy is, uh, well she's not the typical student. Once you get to know her, she's a very unique girl.  I hope you're not going to push her.
Walsh: I think I do know her. 
Walsh: She's very self-reliant, very independent-- 
Giles: Exactly!
Walsh: --which is not always a good thing. (this causes Giles to pause) I think it can be unhealthy to take on adult roles too early.”

Giles argued for letting Buffy develop on her own. Prof. Walsh wanted to control her development and didn’t want Buffy to take on an adult role even though she legally is an adult. She decided to kill Buffy in The I in Team because she didn’t feel she could control her.

Prof. Walsh functioned as a paradigm case of the observation and control that Foucault discussed in other ways as well – remember her heartless response to Willow’s concerns about Oz in The Initiative? She used the classroom not to expose the students to new ideas, but to indoctrinate them in her own: “I run a hard class, I assign a lot of work, I talk fast and I expect you to keep up.” Indoctrination was, remember, one of the themes of The Prisoner, from which The Initiative took its inspiration, and it’s the key point raised by Foucault’s criticism of society. 

We saw further evidence of indoctrination in her treatment of the men under her command. The military always depends on indoctrination, but we see it taken to another level under Prof. Walsh. It was suggested with Riley’s “vitamins” in The I in Team, but we learn definitively in Goodbye Iowa that the soldiers were being drugged without their knowledge. In The I in Team we saw that she maintained surveillance over Riley (and Buffy) even in the most private moments (panopticon). 

The dialogue in The I in Team gave us a succinct explanation of kind of soldiers the Initiative produces:

“Riley: I am how they trained me.
Buffy: They?  Who they?
Riley: You know, the government.  Plucked me out of special op training for this.
Buffy: What did they tell you it was for?
Riley: They didn't.  In the military you learn to follow orders.  Not ask questions.
Buffy: I don't understand.  Aren't you curious about all the science and research stuff they're doing?
Riley: Hm.  I know all I need to know.”

Riley, as he tells us, is the result of this training: he’s the epitome of “normal”. In The Initiative Riley described himself as “Joe Regular”. In Pangs he said his home was like a Grant Wood painting. In Doomed Buffy described him as a “corn-fed Iowa boy”. In Goodbye Iowa she says, “Riley was supposed to be Mr. Joe Guy.”

The description of his training Riley gave us (quoted above) shows us the consequences: he’s not becoming an authentic adult, he’s being molded into the role society demands from him. Philip could hardly have defined it better in Of Human Bondage, and the result is that Riley is in bondage in the sense of not being free to develop on his own. Consistent with Foucault’s theory, the control is subtle rather than overt, but it’s all the more effective for that:

“Riley: I'll kill you!!!
Adam: You won't.  You haven't been programmed to.
Riley: I cannot be programmed! I'm a man!
Adam: It's here. [He holds a diskette up.]
Adam: The plan she had for us. What happens. How it ends.”

The drugs fed to Riley and his withdrawal symptoms we see in Goodbye Iowa serve as a metaphor for the reaction of someone who suddenly realizes what has been done to him. He rejects the idea at first (denial):

“Giles (softly): See I've heard rumors that the Initiative isn't all that we've been told.  That, um, secretly they're working toward some darker purpose, something that might harm us all.

Riley: No! That's - that's not what happens there.”

Later, in the confrontation at Willy’s (anger), he asks Buffy a question he needs to ask himself: “Who are you?” This question gets asked a lot in S4 and will be very frequent in the next 2 episodes. Obviously his question directly relates to the seasonal theme of identity, in this case relevant to Buffy as well as Riley.

He then reaches the crisis point: “Except rules don't seem to apply much these days do they? … I mean who do you believe?  First it sounds like lies, then it sounds like truth. … What’s happening to me? … I thought I knew, but I don't.  I don't know anything.” Buffy herself sums it up at the end: “Everything's he's ever believed in has been taken away.” And the reason that happened was precisely because Riley followed the rules others gave him instead of developing an authentic self.

Riley’s world crumbles upon the exposure to reality which his relationship with Buffy has brought him. We see that moral crisis reflected metaphorically in his physical breakdown.

Riley is losing the identity he thought he had, and he now will need to construct a new one. Here’s where I think the departure of Lindsay Crouse had a significant impact. Try to picture this scene, or something similar, with Prof. Walsh rather than Adam:

“Adam: Oh! Mother created you too.
Riley: Maggie's not my mother!  I have a mother!  A real …
Adam: A birth mother.  Yes.  But after you met Maggie, she was the one who shaped your basic operating system.  She taught you how to think, how to feel.  She fed you chemicals to make you stronger - your mind and body.  She said that you and I were her favorite children.  Her art.  That makes us brothers. Family.” My emphasis.

Adam’s description of himself and Riley as “family” brings us to another related theme. One method the military uses to mold its soldiers – and again, Prof. Walsh’s multiple roles allow us to generalize this to society as a whole – is to create an inorganic, and therefore inauthentic “family”. We can see immediately that this “family” shows us the twisted reflection of Buffy’s organic – that is, naturally developed – family (the SG). In Joss’s view, Buffy’s family can be a true one even if it’s not the standard parent/child relationship, because it developed over time and with love:

“I am a great believer in found families and I'm not a great believer in blood. Although I love my family, even the ones I grew up with, to me I've always felt that the people who treated you with respect and included you in their lives were your family and the people who were related to you by blood might happen to be those people but that correlation was a lot less [strong] than society believes it is.” Joss Whedon.

Riley’s case is paralleled with Spike’s. In fact, there’s a flash cut from Riley being escorted away from Buffy after he was stabbed by Adam to Spike being left bloody in the street by the demons. Spike’s experience with the demons in the bar follows the story line of A Clockwork Orange. There, Alex suffered physical violence at the hands of others after his conditioning in prison. In Alex’s case he had no choice because he couldn’t fight back. In Spike’s case, it’s precisely because he can, and therefore does, fight demons that they reject him. We can say that the reaction of other demons is a sign that, like Riley, he’s now lost – had stolen, actually – the identity he once thought he had. He’ll need to construct a new one.

Now let’s add to this Prof. Walsh’s creation, Adam (name obviously chosen for its resonance with Genesis). What is Adam, that is, what is his identity? When he shows up at the Initiative, he asks that very question:

 “Adam: …So now I want to learn about me.  Why I feel.  What I am. … Buffy: She pieced you together from parts of other demons. Adam: And man.  And machine.  Which tells me what I am, but not who I am.”

Who I am. That’s the key to the season, meaning that it’s the key to Buffy and her goal of becoming an adult.

Adam’s an artificial construct stitched together from otherwise incompatible parts, creating a monster. The metaphor of Adam is that this is what college tends to do to us – we get force fed disparate philosophies and theories with no unifying conceptions. Professors insist that we follow their ideas, cramming them into us, to the point where it’s difficult to maintain our own integrity (the existentialist project).

Because Prof. Walsh occupied several different roles, we can also see Adam as a metaphor for what society generally does to us. Prof. Walsh intended for Adam to become the first of a new breed; the paradigm case of what society could create unencumbered by the individual struggle to create one’s own self. Those who see Adam truly, like the little boy, recognize him as a monster. But as Adam says, Riley is a creation of Prof. Walsh just as Adam is. The natural conclusion is that Riley’s “normality” is just as monstrous.

Unfortunately, the departure of Lindsay Crouse made it all too easy to believe that the Big Bad for the season was Adam, the monster, rather than (as intended) Prof. Walsh, the creator of the monster. Her role as creator brings me to yet another of the interrelated themes of S4. I see this as another example of the “science/magic” theme. Note this dialogue:

“Buffy: She pieced you together from parts of other demons.
Adam: And man.  And machine.  Which tells me what I am, but not who I am.  Mother wrote things down.  Hard data, but also her feelings. That's how I learned that I have a job here.  And that she loved me.
Riley: She wasn't your mother and she didn't love you!
Xander: Is that really the issue?
Riley: She made you because she was a scientist!”

Riley’s still trying desperately to cling to his training at this point, but his “defense” condemns Prof. Walsh’s whole project more than any direct criticism could do. You’ll recall that I suggested in my post on The Initiative that we can see this conflict more generally as one between masculinity and femininity. There are contrasts between Prof. Walsh (masculine, military, “scientist”, “mother” of a “family”) and the SG (female-centered, inclined to magic, much too anarchical for the military, with Giles as the true father of an emotionally real family). This contrast will provide the key to Buffy’s resolution of the challenge posed by Adam and the Initiative.

In my reading of S4, the basic idea is that we’re supposed to create our own identity in the face of society’s attempt to impose one. If that’s a theme for the season, then we should expect to see that developed in Buffy’s journey. While the plot line has thus far focused on Riley, and will focus on him and on Adam, it’s Buffy who needs to answer the questions Riley’s experience poses. She already tried out the idea of taking on a new identity by becoming part of a new “team” in The I in Team, but that nearly led to her death – in metaphor, the death of her Slayer project, namely becoming an authentic adult. Over the remainder of the season she needs to understand her own identity in order to meet the challenge she faces. The next 2 episodes, a two-parter, will make this connection explicit.

Trivia notes: (1) Prof. Walsh suffered same fate as the anthro prof. in Pangs – murdered by something she created when delving into matters she didn’t fully understand. (2) Buffy’s description of the sewer as “raining monsters” and Xander’s response (“Hallelujah”) refer to the song “It’s Raining Men”. (3) The scene with Adam and the little boy is an homage to the 1931 movie Frankenstein, which contains a very similar scene. (4) Giles’ reference to Anya’s “Wagnerian” snoring is to the German composer Richard Wagner. (5) Buffy’s comment about Anya and Giles replaying “scenes from my parents’ marriage” refers to the movie Scenes From A Marriage. (6) The apocalypse demons who nearly did Willy in were the Sisterhood of Jhe from The Zeppo. (7) The spell which Tara spoiled sets up a plot point for S5. (8) Xander’s comment upon seeing the Initiative – “can I have sex with Riley too?” – continues the double entendre in the dialogue between Buffy and Riley from The I in Team. (9) Sadly, this is the last appearance of Willy, another of my favorite minor characters.


  1. The Avengers: tall enhanced military guy meets fellow with glowy nuclear thing in his chest.

    1. That's funnier than you know given what I wrote last night for the next post.

  2. Great, great stuff -- I've been remiss in commenting of late. Season four is one of my favourite seasons (I think it's third after six and five), but it could very easily have been better, maybe the best, if Lindsay Crouse had been there for the rest of the season (and if Buffy's own emotional ties to the Initiative were stronger). The point about Maggie Walsh as mother, university professor, scientist, government operative and military chief is spot-on, and ties in with some of what I think about the metaphor of Riley. (MILD SPOILERS) As you say, Riley's Joe Normalcy is a construct -- and in particular, Riley is the type of guy who has everything together, who is basically decent and good, but very much in support of, and supported by, the current normative way of the world. Which means he's benevolent patriarchy, benevolent military, etc. -- but still benevolent. And given that he's introduced as a T.A. before everything else, he represents an enforcer of the professor's whims and her view of the way people work (and in particular, her somewhat reductive psychological beliefs, that people have no real free will and can't come together without control mechanisms as Buffy and her friends can). So Buffy's relationship with him is then a flirtation with, and finally a triumph over, that philosophy -- she finds the "good" in benevolent normalcy, turn the head of her T.A. by showing him other paths to knowledge, and thus encourages him to use his powers for good / leave the Initiative and become an "anarchist". Of course -- on some level this is still unstable, because Buffy has a reckoning with the primal forces inside her, and Riley is still only able to take baby steps out of his old life. (And season five's arc with Sandy shows that Riley is not really prepared for being able to be cozy with demons.)

    1. Heh. What you say about Riley is what I was (very literally) just thinking as I was drafting my post for New Moon Rising. MILD SPOILER Here are the 2 sentences I wrote just as your email came in: "And Riley declares a new identity for himself as an anarchist by punching out his commanding officer. Is he more like Willow, committed to his new identity, or is he more like Oz, perhaps less firmly in control than he thinks?"


  3. Having studied the panopticon in school pretty deeply, its cool to see it tied here into the seasonal arc of identity. I also like the way both you and the show tie in other works of fiction. It goes a long way in communicating ideas. After I finish my Buffy/Angel viewing, I might have to check out Dollhouse (I saw the first season, trailed off during the second) and see these themes explored again.

    Do you have any thoughts on the way that Walsh's creation of Adam ties back to the creation in "Some Assembly Required" back in season two?

    1. S1 of Dollhouse very definitely uses the panopticon theme and a lot of the issues raised in S4. I've never really been sure, though, what S2 of Dollhouse was going for.

      No particular thoughts on the Frankenstein issues you note. Darryl was entirely human, so in that sense he was different than Adam. There's bound to be a theme in both cases of arrogance by the creators, which we see clearly in Walsh and somewhat less obviously in Chris. But ultimately I think the two episodes are using the same basic idea to explore different issues (which the show does a lot).

  4. This. Is. GENIUS.
    It has already thoroughly improved my enjoyment of this season :)

    It hit me when watching this episode, when Willow went to see Tara and said that she wasn’t just there for the magic...that maybe she is?! Though it’s clear that Willow loved Oz and Tara deeply, she also needed them for her own gains. She relied on Oz to make her less of a geek (“dating a guitarist” re Percy’s comments), back when that was one of her biggest concerns. And her concern now is being a more powerful witch. Perhaps you discuss this later, but I was wondering on your take on that, and in relation to your thoughts on identity?

  5. You're very nice. Thank you.

    As for your spoiler question about Willow, I do discuss it a bit in the essay on Wrecked.