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Thursday, June 7, 2012

A New Man

[Updated April 30, 2013]

A New Man is another POV episode, this time seeing the world through Giles’ eyes. As was true for the previous POV episodes, we learn important things about Buffy in the course of this. That’s because Giles is reacting to what Buffy does and, more importantly, doesn’t do. We can see the episode title as referring to him – he’s a “new man” in the sense that his role has changed this year, and he wakes up after his evening with Ethan very new indeed. But the title also refers to Riley, as the new man in Buffy’s life. It’s Buffy’s relationship with Riley which is the source of Giles’s alienation.


Giles is filled with anger and rage, he says when he’s a Fyarl demon, and it’s easy to see why: Buffy, for the most part. She treated him as so unimportant that she neglected to tell him that Riley was one of the commandos. In fact she didn’t tell him about Riley at all until she introduced him as her boyfriend at the party. She followed those omissions with comments about Prof. Walsh’s age and intelligence which implicitly compared Giles unfavorably to her. Bringing up her previous birthdays didn’t help, considering Giles probably wouldn’t care to be reminded of his role in Helpless.
We can look at the situation in metaphor as well. Giles is Buffy’s metaphorical mind. Buffy hasn’t been using her mind very much lately. She began the year doing well academically, even being asked to lead a discussion section. Then she got distracted from class by Parker, by Oz’s departure, by the mysterious commandos, and by Riley. Her school work dropped off, as Prof. Walsh noted: “And to think all that time you were sitting in my class.  Well, most of those times.  I always knew you could do better than a B minus.” The metaphor tracks the story line.
Giles also serves as Buffy’s surrogate father. When kids go off to college, they don’t need their parents as much and they don’t communicate with them as often. At this stage of Buffy’s progression to adulthood, we’d therefore expect Giles to feel neglected. In fact Giles was feeling useless as early as Wild at Heart, when he showed up at the Bronze very awkwardly, and then later when he was watching game shows on TV and appeared over-eager to see Buffy:
“Giles : You come on business, I hope?
Buffy : (Giving him a look.) Yes. Lucky for you, people may be in danger.
Giles : (Embarrassed.) I only meant, uh, that I'm at the ready.”

Then, in The Initiative, Giles and Xander both felt useless:

“Giles : Oh, I think we can safely assume they're human, So, um, no research needed.
Xander : No studying? Damn! Next thing they'll tell me is I'll have to eat jelly doughnuts or sleep with a supermodel to get things done around here. I ask you, how much can one man give?
Giles : Not too much, I'm afraid. Um... Once again I'd say that you and I will not be needed to help Buffy.
Xander : Really?
Giles : Really.”
 

In the commentary to Wild at Heart, Joss and Marti Noxon describe Giles like this:
Joss: It was season 4 where Giles has no life.
(Marti laughs)

Marti: It's sort of "creepy hanging around for no reason" Giles.

Another factor, played out in metaphor, added to Giles’s sense that he didn’t belong. Buffy and Riley are courting. She introduced him to her surrogate father, albeit without mentioning Riley’s “job”. Riley, in turn, introduced Buffy, in her capacity as Slayer, to his “mother”. When the in-laws meet, they stereotypically don’t get along and so it proved here. Prof. Walsh – whom Buffy had just praised so extravagantly – was arrogant and rude to Giles in suggesting that Buffy lacked a male role model. I’ll have more to say about his conversation with Prof. Walsh, but I’m holding off for 2 more episodes.
To make his bad day even worse, Giles then mistimed the rising of the “demon prince” and learned from Willow and Xander, rather than Buffy, that Buffy’s new boyfriend was one of the commandos Giles had been searching for.
After his experiences at the hands of Buffy and Prof. Walsh, Giles naturally believed he must be some kind of hideous monster whom nobody listens to, that he might as well be speaking Fyarl. And there’s a small additional metaphor thrown in for good measure, as we see Giles wake up a demon after a night of drinking. The blind rage of the demon reflects Giles’ anger at his situation, which dissipates at least somewhat, after he’s able to express it in his fight with Buffy. The fight scene also teaches us something important about Buffy, though I won’t mention it for a few weeks until we get to the episode which this sets up.
Yet another metaphorical point also tracks the story. Just as Buffy failed to tell Giles about Riley and the commandos, Willow conspicuously omitted Tara from her description when she told Buffy about the failed magic experiment:
“Buffy: Hey.  I didn't hear you come in last night. Where were you? 
Willow: (quickly) The chem lab, by myself. (a beat) I-I was trying this new spell; floating a rose, when all of a sudden (motions with fork) zing, zing, zing! Like all over the room.  It was like a rose-based missile.”

Buffy’s spirit is focused elsewhere than on her immediate family. As usual, consequences will follow.
A New Man gave us additional signs of the conflict between science and magic, as well as some hints about where this conflict might be going:
“Prof. Walsh: … We use the latest in scientific technology and state-of-the-art weaponry and you, if I understand correctly, poke them with a sharp stick.” Apart from being condescending, Prof. Walsh demonstrated with these words the shallowness of her understanding. She followed that by praising Riley’s kill/capture count and implying it would be higher than Buffy’s. This served only to reinforce her shallowness; at the risk of being crude, I’d say she volunteered Riley for a cock-measuring contest which he proceeded to lose. To a girl.

“Ethan: Heh, you know demons. It's all exaggeration and blank verse.  "Pain as bright as steel" things like that. They're scared. There's something called "314" that's got them scared most of all. The kind of scared that turns to angry. I know we're not particularly fond of each other, (Giles chuckles scoffingly) Rupert. But we are a couple of old mystics. This new outfit, it's blundering into new places it doesn't belong. It's throwing the worlds out of balance. And that's way beyond chaos, mate. We're headed quite literally for one hell of a fight…. We're just a couple of sorcerers.  The night is still our time. Time of magic.”
Trivia notes: (1) Giles described himself to Prof. Walsh as like Theseus in the Labyrinth, but his reference made no sense. Quick review: Theseus was the son of the King of Athens. Every year Athens had to send a number of boys and girls to be devoured by the Minotaur on Crete. They were put into the Labyrinth, at the center of which was the terrible beast. The victims couldn’t find their way out of the Labyrinth so were eventually killed. Theseus seduced the daughter of the King of Crete, Ariadne, and she provided him with string which he could lay down on the path as he wandered. All he had to do was follow it in order to get out. Thus, if Giles had really felt like Theseus, he could have found his way to Prof. Walsh very easily. I don’t know if we’re supposed to see this as a mistake by Giles, setting up Prof. Walsh’s dismissal of him, or if it’s just a mistake by the writers. I suspect it’s the latter because when Giles turns into the Fyarl demon he has a bull’s horns on a man’s body, just like the Minotaur. That makes it seem as if the earlier reference was somewhat shoehorned in for the joke. (2) Spike’s “What do I spy with my little eye?” refers to the child’s game “I spy”. (3) Sadly, this is the last TV episode in which we see Ethan Rayne, one of my favorite villains.

7 comments:

  1. I don't think the Theseus/Minotaur reference was a mistake - the thread would lead Theseus back *out* easily, but it wouldn't make the journey to find the Minotaur any easier.

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  2. ...also, it would imply that Giles, as Theseus, planned to "kill the Minotaur" (vanquish Professor Walsh) - but instead he becomes that which he would dispatch.

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    1. Yes, I thought about that potential meaning. The reasons I decided against it were that (a) it's an insulting way for Giles to begin with Prof. Walsh, because it implies that she's a horrible monster. Giles would have understood that implication, but he had no reason at that point in time to make it.; and (b) the traditional story pretty much assumes that the captives would find their way IN to the Labyrinth -- the hard part was getting out. Either way, Theseus had the advantage of the string.

      I probably should have laid this all out in the post, but I felt I was devoting too much time to a nitpick on my part as it was.

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  3. Well, I guess it seems to me (not to nitpick your nitpick into infinity) that whether or not he had a specific reason to think she was one to kill, given his situation as one ousted from a high school situation where he knew his place in the world and his place in Buffy's world, coming into a collegiate situation where he is a bit off his footing might make the reference go down a little easier? So that - not necessarily to insult her, but thinking whoever he might find at the heart of the labyrinth might be a monster? I hope I don't seem querulous. I am quite tired and yet I like this discussion - wish I had more sleep and food to fuel my thoughts. Thanks for this site!

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    1. Oh, no problem at all, and thanks for the compliment.

      I can't rule out the possibility that Giles intended it. It could even be a subtle hint to the viewers about Prof. Walsh's nature. But it's a strange reference at best IMO.

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    2. I always read it as Giles just trying way to hard to impress, and with Buffy's impression of Walsh and Walsh's rude behavior, he got tongue-tied, and was trying desperately to claw back to making a positive impression, which was in shambles. I know I've done that sort of thing.

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    3. Also quite possible. The main reason I think there may have been more intended is that FyarlGiles looked so much like a Minotaur. Perhaps, like Giles, I'm trying too hard. :)

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