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Monday, June 18, 2012

This Year's Girl and Who Are You?

[Updated May 1, 2013]

Who Are You? is the 72nd episode, exactly the half-way point of the series. Although it could never have been intended, I think it’s fitting that the whole series is pretty much designed to answer the question posed in the episode title.

This Year’s Girl and WAY? revisit plot and theme from S3, but nicely tie them into S4. TYG opens on the same themes we’ve been seeing, namely identity and family. As Myles McNutt put it in his review, these are episodes
“about identity, which plays a key role for Riley (who’s struggling to discover who he is without his role in the Initiative), Spike (who questions whether he’s truly a vampire if he can’t bite anyone) and Faith herself. It’s also been playing a key role for just about every other character on the show, so there’s great meaning even in Tara and Willow confidently using a spell to assist Buffy in her efforts to return to her rightful body (despite the fact that the characters’ questions of identity have played out in a very subtle fashion).”

Buffy raises identity theft early on when she expresses her concern about Riley: “The Initiative has all those brainwashy behavior modification guys.” Then Xander asks Riley “Did they put a chip in your brain?” Buffy again, this time to Riley: “I . . . am looking for brainwashy chips in your head.”
Riley, in turn, struggles to define himself, no longer sure who he is. Forrest offers him one solution, the Initiative as “family”:
Forrest: We have a problem, we deal with that problem.  You know the most important part of the equation now is that we keep said problem within the family.
Riley: Family?  Is that what we are? 

Riley’s seems sure he wants no part of that “family”, but beyond that he’s confused about who he is anymore:
Buffy: You seem a little . . . somewhere else. (takes his hand) Is there anything I can do?
He sits down on the bed next to her.
Riley: (sighs) Give me an order.  It's what I do, isn't it?  Follow orders?
Buffy: You don't have to.
Riley: Don't I?  All my life that's what I've been groomed to do. They say jump, I ask how high?  I get the job done.  Just don't know if it's the right job anymore.
Buffy raises a hand to touch his cheek.
Buffy: I know how you feel.  Giles used to be a part of this council. And for years all they ever did was give me orders.
Riley: Ever obey them?
Buffy: Sure. (a beat) The ones I was going to do anyway.  The point is, I quit the council.  And I was scared.  But it's okay now.
Riley: See.  Now that's where you and I are different.  I just suck at the whole gray-area thing.
Buffy: It's a choice.  Go back in there and maybe make some changes from the inside.  Or you can quit the team.  Fight demons in your own way.
Riley: You make it sound so simple.  I don't even know what my way is.
Buffy: Well, it's time to find out.
Riley: I'm a soldier.  Take that away, what's left?

At this point the word goes out that Faith has escaped the hospital, so we need to consider how her story ties in to these themes. Faith’s second dream tells us what she wants: an idyllic life with the Mayor as her surrogate father (family). When she wakes up, she’s no more sure of her place in the world than Riley is of his. She wanders the streets, seeing fathers and daughters who remind her of her relationship with the Mayor (Doug Petrie states in the DVD commentary that this was deliberate). She blames her loss on Buffy, again reflected in her dream when Buffy stalks her with the knife. Then she gets the opportunity for the revenge which she thinks she deserves.
The body switch is a classic example of identity theft, prefigured in Living Conditions and The Initiative. What TYG and WAY? do, I think, is maintain the identity theft theme while switching (heh) the focus from Riley to Buffy.
In my post on Graduation Day, I argued that the Faith arc drew inspiration from the movie Single White Female. These two episodes reinforce that conclusion. The basic story of SWF was that Hedy, who had lost her twin sister, became the roommate of Allie and tried to force Allie into the role of replacing that twin or being killed. Along the way, Hedy (a) masqueraded as Allie and (b) slept with Allie’s boyfriend. At the end of the movie a photo montage combined images of Hedy and Allie into a single girl, suggesting that in some ways they were indeed alike.
To state what is probably obvious, Faith (a) masqueraded as Buffy and (b) slept with Buffy’s boyfriend (in a truly disturbing abuse of Buffy’s body). At the end of WAY? we see the superimposition of images of Faith and Buffy similar to the one which ended SWF. Remember this line from Faith’s first appearance in Faith, Hope & Trick: “Buffy: She doesn't need a life. She has mine.”
While the identity theft is the whole point of the two episodes, the title Who Are You? gives us a theme for the season as a whole. That’s what Buffy has to find out – just who is she? When Faith takes on Buffy’s identity, we learn a great deal about what Buffy is like as a result: Buffy’s mother loves her; Buffy has friends who treat her with respect and include her in their lives (I’m paraphrasing Joss’s description of a family which I quoted in my post on Goodbye Iowa); Buffy has a boyfriend who’s tender and treats her with respect and love; that acting as the Slayer results in gratitude from those she helps.
Most important, Faith learns that Buffy is the Slayer:
“Forrest: Yeah, you're a killer.
Faith-as-Buffy: I am not a killer!!! I am the Slayer!”

At the same time, Spike and Forrest think they learn something about who Buffy really is, but in fact they’re learning about Faith. This mistake will, I believe, have consequences for both of them and perhaps for Buffy too.
The lesbian subtext in the Buffy/Faith relationship – re-watch the dialogue for the double entendres when they meet on campus – brings us to another important question of identity. I’ve held off discussing the issue since it was first hinted in Hush, but several scenes in WAY? make it obvious where Willow and Tara are heading.
Tara herself says it: “I am, you know. Yours.” Faith’s cruel lines to Tara demonstrate that Faith has recognized it: “Willow’s not driving stick any more.” Still more obvious, I hope, is the famous “Floating O” spell. Let’s face it – a big “O” floating above Willow as she lies back with a look of ecstasy on her face? The cuts from her to Riley making love to “Buffy” reinforce the blatant orgasm metaphor in the spell. Joss describes it as “one of the steamiest sex scenes we ever shot”.
In the DVD commentary for Hush, Joss explained the practical reasoning for Willow’s recognition of her sexual identity:
“Seth Green, who played Oz, left rather abruptly, and we weren’t sure where to go. And then she, Amber Benson, appeared, sort of made up our minds for us. We had the idea of introducing the character Tara, a very shy girl who falls for Willow early on, because college is the sort of place where people expand and explore their sexuality.”

The lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara was groundbreaking at the time. It was also controversial in several ways. Putting aside the moral disapproval from bigots, some fans of the show were upset that Willow had moved on from Oz; others argued that she couldn’t have a relationship with a woman because her relationship with Oz meant she couldn’t be gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that…). There were even obnoxious comments at The Bronze that Amber Benson (Tara) was “fat”. I’ll have a great deal more to say about this relationship as we go along.
Because of concerns about the relationship both within the corporate hierarchy and the audience, magic was used as a metaphor for their relationship in S4 and S5. One obvious example was the Floating O spell here, but there will be others. Since the show clearly viewed the relationship as positive, the association of magic with it was also intended as positive. Tara’s ability to sense that Buffy isn’t herself is one example, but we can see Joss’s attitude even in the two magical devices used for the body switch. Faith’s device, presumably the result of dark magic, had a harsh, mechanical look. Contrast that with the cool glowy thing Willow and Tara conjured to reverse the spell.
Finally, we learned something about Riley in these episodes as well. When I first saw WAY?, I thought Buffy was unfair to Riley when she was so upset that he had slept with Faith-as-Buffy. In my view then, Riley had no idea that such a thing was possible and he didn’t even know who Faith was, so couldn’t recognize aspects of her personality. I had completely forgotten the point of A New Man, where Buffy recognized Giles when she looked in the Fyarl demon’s eyes. Buffy-as-Faith even referenced that incident when she was trying to convince Giles that she wasn’t Faith: "Can't you just look in my eyes and be all...intuitive?". I still missed the point, but it should be apparent that Riley’s failure to recognize that it wasn’t Buffy he was having sex with pretty strongly suggests that Riley doesn’t really know who Buffy is.
Trivia notes: (1) As in Buffy’s joint dream with her in Graduation Day 2, Faith’s dream in the teaser to TYG includes a cryptic prophecy. (2) Another cultural reference that should be pretty well known: Buffy’s comparison of Adam to the Terminator refers to the movie franchise of that name. (3) Willow’s description of Riley as “their top gun guy” refers to the movie Top Gun. (4) Writer Doug Petrie describes the scene with the demon tied to the trees as a Silence of the Lambs scene because it’s similar to one in that movie. (5) The scene where Faith climbs out of the grave in the rain was an homage to The Shawshank Redemption. (6) Buffy as bad predictor: she tells Riley “Whatever comes, we can handle.” Then Faith wakes up. (7) Buffy’s description of Faith as her wacky identical cousin from England refers to the 1960s television comedy The Patty Duke Show. (8) When Buffy suggested that Faith should “get out of Dodge”, she was playing off the expression “get the hell out of Dodge”, meaning “get out of here”. (9) The black helicopter which brought the Watcher’s Council retrieval team is a joking nod to the Black Helicopters of right wing fantasies in the US. (10) Faith looked at the knife display in the store she and Buffy broke into in Bad Girls. (11) Faith’s mention of being stuck like “animals in tar pits” refers to the La Brea Tar Pits. (12) Faith’s description of Riley as “the clean marine” comes from the movie The Right Stuff. (13) The scene with Faith and the credit card she found is a prophecy which requires spoilers to explain. (14) Willow’s reference to “hyena possession” is a callback to The Pack. (15) Buffy’s mention of Giles and Joyce having sex refers to Band Candy. Buffy learned this when she had psychic power in Earshot. (16) Spike’s description of himself to Faith-as-Buffy as “helpless as a kitten up a tree” comes from the song “Misty” by Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. It’s a double pun because the movie Play Misty For Me involves a female stalker and features the song. (17) Willow’s name for the spell which switched bodies – “Draconian Katra” – was probably taken from Star Trek, where a “katra” is the essence of a Vulcan mind and can be transferred to another in the moments before death. (18) When Faith-as-Buffy tells Riley “I can’t use you” and orders him to stay outside the church, there’s a double meaning to her words: he won’t be any good in a fight because of his injury; and she can’t treat him as an object to be used (what Faith originally intended with the sex). (19) There’s also a pun when Faith-as-Buffy tells the vampire “I’ve just come to pray [prey]”. (20) During the fight in the church, Buffy-as-Faith saves Faith-as-Buffy by staking the vampire in the back. The scene is nearly identical to the one in which Faith saved Buffy from Mr. Trick in Consequences. They’re even now. (21) Faith’s story continues on the AtS episodes Five By Five and Sanctuary.


  1. You might find the lyrics to Elvis Costello's "This Year's Girl" interesting. Or perhaps you've already discussed this elsewhere. It was a new revelation to me. :)

    See her picture in a thousand places
    'cause she's this year's girl.
    You think you all own little pieces
    of this year's girl.

    Forget your fancy manners,
    forget your English grammar,
    'cause you don't really give a damn
    about this year's girl.
    Still you're hoping that she's well spoken
    'cause she's this year's girl.
    You want her broken with her mouth wide open
    'cause she's this year's girl.
    Never knowing it's a real attraction,
    all these promises of satisfaction,
    while she's being bored to distraction
    being this year's girl.

    Time's running out. She's not happy with the cost.
    There'd be no doubt, only she's forgotten
    much more than she's lost.

    A bright spark might corner the market
    in this year's girl.
    You see yourself rolling on the carpet
    with this year's girl.
    Those disco synthesizers,
    those daily tranquilizers,
    those body building prizes,
    those bedroom alibis,
    all this, but no surprises for this year's girl.
    All this, but no surprises for this year's girl.
    All this, but no surprises for this year's girl.

    1. I've seen suggestions that the episode got its title from that song, but I can't confirm it. Given the lyrics (which I hadn't seen; thanks!), it's plausible.

  2. There's a moment in this episode that I really love and I think I finally put my finger on why. Up to this point I felt like it was a little unfair (though understandable) that Willow kept Tara hidden from the Scoobies. When Tara meets Buffy for the first time she's able to realize, before her family and friends, that she's not herself. Yeah, a big part of it is her magical perception but I think another part is that she's just naturally observant, thoughtful, and humanly perceptive, if that makes sense. She notices something off-putting about her energy but she also points out: "Plus she was kinda mean," trusting that Willow's descriptions of Buffy up to this point do not fit with the Buffy she meets. I love this moment mainly because if this were a different show they could've taken some different paths: 1) Tara could have just silently internalized resentment for Buffy after she mocked her. After all, she has no reason to like or even care about Buffy except for the fact that Willow cares about Buffy. 2) Even if Tara did decide to speak up, Willow didn't have to believe her right away, and could have even been insulted that Tara was saying Buffy was mean, or suggesting that she wouldn't have noticed if something was wrong with her best friend. Instead, as Willow explicitly says and demonstrates with their spell, she truly trusts Tara, and it's moments like that that make their relationship genuinely sweet, meaningful, and believable.

    Despite Tara's insecurities it's also moments like this that reinforce her usefulness to the SG. Without her perceptiveness and magical knowledge Faith and Buffy would remained trapped in each other's bodies.

    Plus, her being so attuned to Buffy's behavior/nature is also a precursor to their conversation in The Body as well as their interactions in Dead Things (that scene at the end kills me, I know SMG didn't like Season 6 that much but that didn't stop her from emotionally committing 100%) Buffy is able to confide in Tara because she understands her in a way the other Scoobies often can't or won't. I love how this show builds on all these moments so that future interactions make sense and are not just tossed together - Buffy wouldn't have turned to anyone else in those situations, and there's a reason why.

  3. I'd say it's a little unfair to judge Riley for not recognizing that Buffy was not in her body without also blaming the other Scoobies for doing the same. Especially since Faith is not exactly being subtle.

    I get that it's kind of a trope with body-swap or doppelgänger episodes that the characters surrounding the victim don't necessarily notice that something is different right away (otherwise the story would be over pretty quick and there'd be less acting going on) but I think it says a lot that it was someone who hadn't even met Buffy before (albeit a magical person feeling vibes) that was able to figure it out.

    1. I think that's fair, but only up to a point. After all, I would assume that Riley's interaction with "Buffy" was longer and much more intimate than the SG had. That should matter.