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Monday, June 25, 2012

Where The Wild Things Are

[Updated May 1, 2013]

I have a hard time writing much about Where The Wild Things Are. I see it as one of the very weakest episodes in the series. While there are good scenes with Spike and Anya in the Bronze, with Giles singing, and with Spike talking himself out of helping rescue Buffy, the sexathon manages to be boring – even disgusting for some viewers – and the religious fundamentalism explanation is used as an anvil rather than a metaphor.

I think my view is pretty general among fans; I’ve only see a few people defend the episode as a whole. Here’s Rob from AtPO explaining why he likes it:
“I think I'm the only person who likes Where the Wild Things Are. I will admit that it's not the best episode, but there's a lot about it I really enjoy, particularly the thorns. The episode first came out when I was doing a term paper on fairy tales for a children's literature course, and I found the "Sleeping Beauty" visuals very striking. Given that Bruno Bettelheim interpreted Aurora pricking her finger as being symbolic of her first menstrual cycle and the sleep as being the transition between her childhood and sexual awakening, I always thought the episode worked as a more adult spin on the fairy tale.”

Rob’s explanation seems reasonable, though it doesn’t have much to do with the seasonal themes. If we see it as basically a stand-alone episode – that is, we don’t try to force the episode’s themes or metaphors into some relevance to the season themes – then the vines growing outside Riley’s door represent the way repression serves to conceal sexual desire. Much of the episode consists of various forms of concealment and/or repression: the orphans were repressed; Buffy and Riley make flimsy excuses for their lust; the party-goers play “Spin the Bottle”; they talk about “sensuality” when they mean sexuality; and Willow and Tara talk in code filled with double meaning:
WILLOW: Horses, like big ... tall ... teeth that can take your arm off horses?
TARA: Well, sure. I learned to ride when I was a kid. It's fun. (Smiling) And, by the way, most horses don't like arm very much.
(Willow looks uncertain.)
WILLOW: I had a bad birthday party pony thing when I was four. I, I look at horses and I see really big ponies.
TARA: You should ride with me sometime. I guarantee safety and fun.
(Willow smiles.)
WILLOW: Well... if you promise you'll look after me.”

In this interpretation, Xander and Anya are the ones who can break through the barriers of repression to rescue Buffy and Riley because they’re the most open and uninhibited about their sexual desires. The problem is that if we’re supposed to find sexual openness a good thing, then it seems a failure of execution for the sex scenes to be pretty universally condemned.
The message is both fairly obvious and spelled out directly for us in the dialogue at the end:
“WILLOW: Don't be too hard on yourself.
BUFFY: He's right, Will. If Riley and I hadn't ... gotten so wrapped up in each other, none of this would've happened.”

Tracey Forbes, who wrote this episode and Beer Bad, never wrote another.

Trivia notes: (1) The episode title comes from the children’s book of the same name by Maurice Sendak. (2) Buffy’s “who says we can’t all get along?” plays off the statement by Rodney King after the Los Angeles riots in 1994. (3) The “wrinkled man” Anya saw on TV talking about erectile dysfunction was Bob Dole. (4) The guy at the party who discovered the orgasm wall was the snobby one from Beer Bad. Tracey Forbes also wrote that episode. (5) When Xander described people as “going Felicity with their hair” he was referring to Keri Russell, star of the TV show Felicity, who cut her hair between seasons. Julie, the one who cut off her hair in the closet, had long curly hair somewhat like Keri Russell’s. (6) Spike wondered if Danger Mouse, a cartoon show, was on. (7) The song Giles was singing was “Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who. (8) Xander’s “she who smelt it dealt it” is flatulence humor. (9) Xander’s “House is clean” comes from the movie Poltergeist. (10) In comments, William B suggested a good way to relate this episode to the seasonal themes, and I’ll discuss that in my post on Primeval.


  1. As much as I dislike this episode in general, the brief scene of ASH singing does make it worth not skipping entirely :)

  2. Aw. I am with Rob. I don't think this is an exceptional ep or anything, but it makes sense to me. The frat house is a typical place, pop culturally, for sexual excess, so it makes sense to take a look at it in the episode. And having the spirits be those of students from an earlier, more repressive era, makes sense. Sex is something that healthy adults should be willing to communicate about openly with each other (in relationships), and one’s sex drive should never be completely repressed (as in the case of Mrs. Holt’s children) nor should it be allowed to become an obsession (as is the case with Buffy/Riley). In fact, the implication here is that the spirits from repression actually cause the obsession. So the broader point here is that the sexual obsession of early twentysomethings, of college, and of the modern age generally, finds its roots in the total repression of sexual activity or frank discussion in adolescence, or in (religious?) moral instruction, or in the more repressive 1950’s. The energy has to come from somewhere. Buffy’s pent up sexual energy—part of it, I think, left over from her forcing herself to be entirely chaste with Angel—is so powerful that it releases evil spirits. The Buffy/Riley sex is not supposed to be healthy—they are still not communicating openly, and they are not integrating sex into their lives honestly, the way, for all their problems, Xander and Anya are.

    Its connection to the season four themes: well, Mrs. Holt does her own “behaviour modification” akin to the Initiative, and tries to control the personal demons (like lust) within her students. The problem is if you cage demons up rather than facing them—they will eventually escape. This is the Initiative’s failure as well—they don’t slay demons, but cage them, and so it’s inevitable that they will be released. If the demons are not faced regularly, they become overwhelming. So in this sense, Buffy and Riley being overwhelmed and having their will obliterated by their lust is because they have put off their demons for too long.

    1. That's an excellent suggestion for the tie-in to the season theme. Thanks.