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Thursday, June 21, 2012


[Updated May 1, 2013]

For all that S4 gives us a generally favorable view of magic, Superstar demonstrates that magic can be carried to excess. The episode is another take on identity, this time Jonathan’s attempt to magic himself an entirely new one at the expense of everybody else. There’s no doubt that what he did was wrong. An authentic self isn’t constructed out of thin air, it’s the process of a lifetime of work: "Buffy: Jonathan you can't keep trying to make everything work out with some big gesture all at once.  Things are complicated. They take time and work."

Jonathan’s world was a pastiche of fantasy and real life. It’s possible he got the motivation from this dialogue in Earshot (also written by Jane Espenson):
“WILLOW Fantasies are fun, aren't they Jonathan?
JONATHAN Uh... I guess.
WILLOW We all have fantasies that we're powerful, more respected. Where people pay attention to us.
JONATHAN Uh... maybe.
WILLOW But sometimes the fantasy isn't enough, is it Jonathan? Sometimes we have to make it so people don't ignore us. Make them pay attention.”

Jonathan’s spell here is certainly consistent with the season theme that others try to force you into becoming a different person than you are. In this case, Jonathan got tired of the identity he felt others forced on him and decided to push back. He ended up trying to force others to conform to him: “Buffy: I think that Jonathan may be doing something so that he's manipulating the world and we're all like his pawns." For all that we like Jonathan, and sympathize with him, he’s no better than Maggie Walsh once he does the spell. The consequence is even the same – the creation of a monster which must be defeated. Hint.
Fear of change can block some people from even trying to defeat the monster:
“Riley: "So if this is the world he created, what's the real world like?"
Willow: "I'm scared.  Everything's going to change."
Giles:  "Well, actually it'll remain pretty much the same except Jonathan won't be Jonathan - not our Jonathan, anyway."
Xander: "No! No! No!  World without sunshine!  World without joy!"
Adam, ironically enough, tells us how to see through efforts to manipulate the world:
“Adam: "These are lies." [He turns off the TVs.] "None of this is real. The world has been changed.  It's intriguing but it's wrong."
The vampire looks back and forth.
Vampire: "Feels ok to me."
Adam: "You're under his spell just like the others.  I seem to be the only one who is not."
Vampire: "Really?  And what makes you so special?"
Adam: "I'm aware. I know every molecule of myself and everything around me.   No one - no human, no demon - has ever been as awake and alive as I am. You are all just shadows."

A real adult sees through the efforts of others to impose their identity on us and finds her own authentic identity. Buffy was the first to realize Jonathan’s deception because, deep down, she knows her true self. Self-awareness. “Riley: … She sees things that the rest of us don’t.”
Note Jonathan’s mention of the incident from A New Man where Buffy recognized FyarlGiles: “I mean you have this amazing connection with him… and then at the one moment when it matters the most he looks into your eyes and he doesn't even see that it's not you looking back at him."
Trivia notes: (1) The opening credits are hilarious. The last scene – Jonathan’s power walk wearing a cape – was taken from the credits of Angel the Series. There are so many funny background props in the episode that I can’t possibly list them all. (2) When Jonathan recognized that Giles was playing the Nimzowitsch Defense, he was referring to an actual chess opening. However, the chess board in the scene doesn’t show the real thing. (3) Jonathan aiming at the apples on the soldiers’ heads is from the story of William Tell. (4) “Witch Doctor”, the first song we hear playing in the Bronze, was a 1958 hit by David Seville of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame. The title of the song naturally suggests what Jonathan is doing in this episode. (5) When Xander accused Anya of moaning Jonathan’s name, he said she wasn’t “fluffing up the old ego”. “Fluff” in this context refers to a woman (usually) on the set of a porn movie who gets the male star hard when necessary. (6) Jonathan sings “Serenade in Blue”, a 1942 song by Harry Warren with lyrics by Mack Gordon. The actual singer was not Danny Strong (Jonathan), but Brad Kane, who played Tucker Wells in The Prom. (7) The US women’s soccer team did win the Women’s World Cup in 1999, the summer before this episode aired. But Jonathan didn’t coach them. (8) The movie marquee advertising “Being Jonathan Levinson” plays off the movie Being John Malkovich. (9) Anya’s “alternative realities are neat” seems to be a reference to The Wish.


  1. I'm curious about how telling this Xander line is: "I'll always remember the way he made me feel about me. Valued, respected, sort of tingly... Now I'm just empty."

    One of my favorite aspects of Buffy's character is that in trusting, loving, and believing in others she elevates them. By inspiring them to join her in the struggle against evil, and by having them to do it her way, she helps them gain confidence and a sense of purpose. Giles separates himself from the Watcher's Council and integrates the Ripper into his personality, Willow completely redefines herself while still retaining many of her "wily Willow charms." With one sentence Buffy provides Angel with one of the basic premises of his own show: "Strong is fighting. It's hard and it's painful and it's every day." And by causing a CertainSpoilerySomeone to fall in love with her she leads him on a path of redemption. I'm not trying to say that their character growth is all because of Buffy, and I'm not trying to take any credit away from them, but even in a basic meta sense they HAVE to grow in order to be supporting figures in the Slayer's narrative.

    And yet to what extent is Xander elevated by knowing Buffy? We know she puts a lot of trust in him (his role in "Graduation Day Part II" comes to mind), we know she's his hero ("The Freshman"). We know from countless occasions that Xander is impressively, and often stupidly, brave; he's no longer the boy who "laughs in the face of danger and then hides until it goes away." Although, (SPOILER QUOTE AHEAD) unfortunately, due to his upbringing, experiences, and personality he might still "spend [his] whole life telling stupid, pointless jokes, so that no one will notice that [he is] just a scared, insecure little boy." (END SPOILERS) Perhaps I should rephrase the question - to what extent will Xander ALLOW himself to be elevated by knowing Buffy? Out of all the characters on this show, he changes the least, and many of the changes in his career and relationships have little to do with Buffy. Does Buffy make him feel "valued" and "respected," or does it take a male hero figure, a Jonathan, to do so? Maybe I'm reading too much into this, or maybe I'm just letting my slight anti-Xander bias (not that I don't love his character for many reasons) get the best of me. But that line made me wonder.

    Last thought, and SPOILERS here -
    I think it's also meaningful to point out that Xander appreciated Riley the most out of all Buffy's beaus. They shared a certain common insecurity with their purpose and masculinity/macho-ness.

    1. I agree with you that Xander changes the least. As I see it, that's a necessary attribute of his "everyman" role. He has to stay in that role no matter what happens along the way. Ironically, the journey means less to him than to the others.

      That said, lots of people disagree on this. They see Xander much more mature as the seasons progress.

      His tendency to put Buffy on a pedastal and then criticize her for not meeting his expectations, always annoys me. I'm not sure if there's a sexism component to that so much as something we all tend to do to our heroes.

  2. I normally rush through S4 in my re-watches, skipping huge chunks of it, if I watch the season at all. I just never liked Riley, the Initiative, or Adam (maybe I would have if the season had played out however it was originally intended). I've recently come to appreciate S4 for its stand-alone episodes and have spent some time recently re-watching many of them (though I still can't bring myself to re-watch Beer Bad or Where the Wild Things Are...).

    I digress.

    I agree with your thoughts on identity, misuse of magic, and how this episode ties in with the seasonal themes. SPOILERS below.

    However, I think this episode is MUCH more important in terms of foreshadowing and setting up the major arc of S5. Jonathan has altered reality in Sunnydale, and with it, the memories of those who are part of it. This will happen with greater consequences in S5 with the monks, Dawn, etc. In both instances, it will be Buffy who first realizes something is amiss.

    To some extent, it has a relationship with Normal Again as well.


    1. That's a great way to look at it, one I'd hadn't thought of. Thanks.

  3. Do you think when Adam refers to the vampires as shadows this is a reference to Plato's cave? I seems to describe this episode particularly well. The world Jonathan created is a shadow of the real world, Jonathan a shadow of the slayer. When on of the prisoners realizes the truth, (who else but Buffy), the other prisoners don't want to believe her and fear the true world outside the cave. And what are vampires but shadows of the people they have taken over. The role of escaped prisoner seems to also fit Riley very well. He believed in a false shadow world. To quote wikipedia quoting Plato: "Suppose... that someone should drag him... by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun. The prisoner would be angry and in pain, and this would only worsen when the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes and blinds him." Also the prisoner seeing the fire, hurting his eyes, rejecting reality and preferring the shadow world seems to fit well with his arc and the seasonal theme.