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Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Moon Rising

[Updated May 1, 2013]

I really like New Moon Rising in many ways, but it walks a very fine line with its metaphor. There’s a tolerance theme, obviously, with Oz as the text, and Angel, Willow and Tara as the (barely) subtext. That’s all good, but it creates a real potential for misunderstanding the entire rest of the series. I’ve actually seen people argue from this episode that vampires and demons symbolize an oppressed class, and that Buffy is an oppressor because she slays them. I’ve even seen the syllogism that (a) blacks are the most oppressed class in America; (b) vampires and demons therefore represent them; thus (c) Buffy is racist.


Far be it from me to tell anyone how to watch the show. I’m of the school that we’re all entitled to our own interpretations; in some sense, every viewer watches a different show. I’m pretty skeptical, though, of treating vampires and demons in general as representatives of an oppressed class. For one thing, I seriously doubt that blacks, or any other minority, would appreciate the comparison to blood sucking fiends. For another, it’s pretty clear that the external demons we see in the show are intended as metaphors for our internal demons.

“To Joss, vampires were supposed to be ugly, evil, and quick to be killed. He got talked into one romantic vampire by his writing partner David Greenwalt and that was Angel. Of course Angel took off like a rocket and when I was cast Joss did not imagine me to be popular; Spike was supposed to be dirty and evil, punk rock, and then dead. Things started to turn out differently and I think Joss was passionate that I would not corrupt his theme, which was basically trying to find a metaphor for all of the problems you encounter during adolescence. Vampires stood in for those problems and I think I endangered that theme by being popular. He did not want people to like me at all.” James Marsters, http://www.411mania.com/movies/columns/228484/411mania-Interviews:-James-Marsters-(Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer,-Angel).htm

In my view, the metaphor in NMR can work but only in very narrow, carefully defined cases. As a general rule, the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness are evil and should be slayed (as Buffy does on sight with vampires). There have been and will continue to be exceptions to that rule, but it remains the default.

NMR gives us another take on identity, consistent with the season theme. Willow commits to the identity she’s been moving towards since Hush. Oz returned believing that he had come to terms with his identity, but maybe not as much as he had thought. For all of Riley’s experience with Prof. Walsh, he hasn’t yet fully understood the way the Initiative (metaphorically) establishes the rules to which he conforms:

RILEY: … Is it that whole thing about Willow last night? (He sits on the bed.) Look, I only said what I said because I'm concerned. I don't wanna see her get hurt.
BUFFY: You sounded like Mr. Initiative. Demons bad, people good.
RILEY: Something wrong with that theorem?


Only after the events of this episode reinforce the problematic nature of the Initiative does Riley reassess the track he’s on:

RILEY: I don't know. I'm sorry it ended that way. But I am glad it's done. I'm glad I know where I stand, finally.


Riley declared a new identity for himself as an anarchist by punching out his commanding officer. That was a reasonably satisfying scene, given how they portrayed Col. McNamara, but it’s another instance where we can imagine what was lost when Lindsay Crouse left.

Is Riley now more like Willow, committed to his new identity, or is he more like Oz, perhaps less firmly in control than he thinks?
Trivia notes: (1) Willow suggests that a cat might be a “familiar”. A familiar is a supernatural entity, often in the form of an animal, which helps a witch do magic. (2) When Forrest came into Riley’s room to announce that “beta team” had been “hit”, Buffy was wearing one of Riley’s shirts. It was the same shirt Faith-as-Buffy wore in Who Are You? That undoubtedly reinforced Forrest’s negative view of Buffy after Faith’s dismissive words to him in that incident. (3) The Initiative “doctors” gave Oz haloperidol, which is an antipsychotic drug. A metaphor, obviously, given his inner wolf. (3) When Buffy threatens to “pull a William Burroughs”, she’s referring to the author who killed his wife (he was convicted of manslaughter). (4) When Oz wolfs out and attacks Tara, that’s a metaphor: Tara, naturally, feels threatened by Oz’s return.

4 comments:

  1. I tend to see all (or most) characters as mirrors for Buffy. Each one is dealing with issues of identity right now, but your comparison of Riley to Oz intrigues me. I enjoy a bit of dramatic irony.

    One thing Angel and Spike help us see--and that Joss perhaps explores more fully with Oz--is that often our inner demons need to be accepted and, at times, assimilated, not vanquished. These characters provide another way to explore the shadow self, and they seem to add to the show's dynamic in ways Joss hadn't anticipated. (Of course, one could argue that he understood this on some level when making his casting decisions. Obviously, something resonated with him.)

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    1. I definitely agree that the other characters tell us important things about Buffy. As you can tell from my previous posts, I've taken a generally Jungian approach to Buffy's shadow metaphors (Cordy and Faith), and integrating one's shadow is critical in that theory.

      I'm not so sure Joss didn't anticipate it. Not from the beginning, but as he went along I think he understood what he was doing. I mostly say that due to hints dropped along the way (e.g., in Restless), but also to the way he teased out the character development in consistent directions.

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  2. You are much kinder to the Buffy as Racist reading than I am inclined to be… I am reminded of something one of my favorite professors said during my undergrad years: even in the world of the free play of interpretations, there is such a thing as dopey misreading…

    I could go on a rant about how such a reading goes against canon on countless levels, but I’ll just point to Phases and move on.

    (And note, too, the excellent point Catherine made above about learning to live with one’s demons.)

    The one point that I would like to make—one I also wanted to make after your post on The Initiative, but, as has been the case, through much of S4, found I myself unable:

    Aside from all the problems that you outline in the Initiative’s practice—

    The Initiative errs not in killing demons, it seems to me, but in not simply killing them: it experiments upon them, tortures them.

    The Initiative inflicts immense pain—and I think that the show puts a certain emphasis upon this, visually or verbally, in TI, TIIT, and here—in its pursuit of a dreadful knowledge (beyond even the vain project of demon-reclamation and reform) that will at most simply make use of demon parts to produce better fighters (demons), at worst be an end in itself—a thing the Slayer would never do. Demons may be often bent upon destruction, but that does not justify, the show seems to be saying, cruel and unusual suffering.

    (Nor, even on the metaphorical level, would the Initiative’s practice bear recommending: slay one’s demons or learn to live with them, but do not torture them… That way is crazy-making for both self and demon… )

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    1. I like that: "dopey misreading". Good description.

      Excellent point about making the demons suffer, one I should have made.

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