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Monday, July 30, 2012


[Updated May 1, 2013]

I see Family and NPLH as a two-parter; Family opens the same night as NPLH ended. Both episodes deal with someone who’s not technically a member of the family, but who is accepted into it through love. One deals with Buffy/Dawn, the other with Willow/Tara, the teaser highlighting both stories. Tara’s story of the kitty can even serve as an allegory for what happens to Dawn and to her:

WILLOW VOICEOVER: Tell me a story.
TARA VOICEOVER: Okay. Once upon a time, there was, um ... a kitty. She was very little, and she was all alone, and nobody wanted her.
WILLOW VOICEOVER: This is a very upsetting story.
TARA VOICEOVER: Oh, oh, but it gets better.
TARA VOICEOVER: 'Cause one day the kitty was running around in the street and a man came, and swooped her up...
TARA: And took her to the pound. …
WILLOW: (cuddling kitten) Did the kitty get chosen by some nice people?
TARA: Well, now you ruined the ending.

The two episodes parallel each other in important ways:

  • Tara and Dawn are both outsiders who feel left out of the SG. From Real Me: “TARA: (OS) Poor Dawn. … It's just ... I, I think it's tough for her, not being able to ... well, allowed to, you know, help. WILLOW: Help? TARA: Oh, you. You guys. The slayer circle. WILLOW: Well, Buffy doesn't really need ... a-and I think Dawn's a little young. TARA: I-I know, you're right. It's just hard. That outsider feeling. Willow looks over at her. WILLOW: Tara ... you're not an outsider. TARA: Well, yeah. I kinda am.”;
  • In NPLH Buffy thinks Dawn may be a demon or evil. That’s the concern about Tara in Family. Just to give you some idea of how far in advance this point was planned, in Goodbye Iowa Tara deliberately ruined the spell to find the demon: “Willow: Thespia, goddess, ruler of all darkness, we implore you, open a window to the world of the underbeing. (Both blow but Tara surreptitiously lowers her hand and dumps her powder under the bed spread while Willow is actually blowing her powder.)” Willow even refers to that spell in this episode: “WILLOW: … I was thinking. Maybe we could try that, that spell, you know, the one to find demons? TARA: That didn't work.” We’ve had a lingering doubt about Tara ever since: who or what is she? Can she be trusted? Those doubts were reinforced by Tara’s look in this scene in Real Me (I mentioned it in my post there): “WILLOW: You're one of the good guys. (Tara's smile disappears and she pulls away, disengaging herself from Willow's embrace. Willow doesn't notice her expression.)”;
  • Buffy “pulled back the curtain” to see Dawn’s true nature, while Tara “lifted the veil” so that Buffy could see what Tara thought would be her own demon side;
  • Glory demanded the return of her Key, Mr. Maclay demands that Tara return to her family, and both find their true home;
  • We learned the origin of Dawn in NPLH just as we learn the origin of Tara here;
  • At the end of Family, Willow tells Tara that it’s “magic” which causes her to love Tara (“TARA: Every time I- (takes a deep breath) even when I'm at my worst ... you always make me feel special. Willow smiles. TARA: How do you do that? WILLOW: Magic.”). It’s magic which generated Buffy’s feelings towards Dawn (“BUFFY: My memories... my mom's? MONK: We built them.”).

On the surface, Family demonstrates that Tara is part of Buffy’s family, but in a deeper sense it reinforces Buffy’s decision to accept that Dawn is. Joss: “When she realises “Dawn is not actually my sister” and says “I don’t care, I feel a need to protect this girl” – it’s about accepting that family is part of your life, even when you think of yourself as independent, and it’s about the extraordinary love that a family can bring you. And we’d very much said Buffy’s love interest is going to be her sister for year five. We knew way back when. It actually started with a conversation I had with Doug Petrie in year three, where we said well, they’re going to college and we’ll do that crazy freedom in year four, and in year five, let’s bring it back to family.”
Two quick, related points about Willow and Tara’s relationship. First, the witch/gay metaphor is front and center in this episode, as it has been since Hush. All the dialogue about Tara being a “demon” and the references by Mr. Maclay to that being the source of her witchcraft could apply equally to her being gay. And did you notice the crystal “toy” Mr. Maclay picked up next to the bed?
Second, the scene in the teaser with Tara and Willow actually in bed together seems so natural nowadays that it’s easy to forget just how UNusual it was when it first aired. Another scene of two women in a bed playing with a cat? As Whistler might say, “Hello to the imagery!”. This was a BFD at the time, as Joss kept pushing the envelope with respect to what could be shown on TV with gay couples.
Although the episode focuses on Tara (and Dawn, in my reading), there are quite a few scenes in Family which affect the ongoing seasonal plot. Buffy “could definitely use a break from all this craziness”, but there’s plenty of it in Family. Leaving aside for now the crazy people filling up the hospital, I’ll just talk about the regular characters. Dawn “makes [Buffy] crazy.” Buffy, in turn, seems to have that effect on Riley and Spike.
Riley told Buffy in NPLH that he was “ok”, but we see here that he’s gone further round the bend. Hanging out in Willy’s Place is borderline suicidal; he’s probably safe only because they know his relation to Buffy. He thinks he’s being daring and proving his ability to handle the dangers, but really he’s not escaping Buffy’s protection, he’s taking advantage of it without her knowledge or input. As a result of going off and being foolish, he wasn’t present in that scene where Buffy declared “we’re family”.
Spike has gone from wanting to kill Buffy in OomM to saving her life here in Family. You have to wonder what a vamp psychologist would say about that.
We got another clue about Glory in Family as well.  Buffy described the new villain as “kind of like Cordelia”. This is just as significant a clue as the ones we were given in NPLH.
Trivia notes: (1) The teaser builds on an incident from Out Of My Mind towards a plot development which will be important at the end of S5 and the centerpiece of S6. (2) Buffy’s reference to Glory as “Miss Congeniality” refers to the movie of that title which came out in 2000. (3) Megan Gray (Sandy) also played the girl bitten in the Bronze by VampWillow in Dopplegangland, suggesting that VampWillow sired her then. (4) Amy Adams played Cousin Beth. It was one of her very first acting jobs.


  1. Yeah, but she's OUR witch. So cut her the hell down.

  2. So Glory is Buffy's shadow self? Is that what you're getting at? Intriguing!

    1. Not quite, but very close. :)

    2. I see her as a mirror, just as Cordy and Faith were.

      Cordy to show us what Buffy'd be like without her power(and the ability to empathize she gained from it, which Cordy gets later, and thus ends her usefulness on Buffy)

      Faith to show us the dark side of the Slayer.

      And finally, Glory shows us what Buffy could have been like with the power and no empathy.

      And I think all of them teach us about Buffy.

  3. Beyond seeking and unknowingly failing to show his daring, Riley, I think, is showing, in this episode, his failure to understand the meaning of family. Yes, he is present to help Buffy move, as he was to help Xander, but that is a guy thing to do, a thing that could easily be expected of him: otherwise, we have barely seen him act as part of the group since BvD—he seeks only to interact with Buffy or act on his own. He also has a potential friendship with Xander, but he never pursues that after tR, never seeks to discuss his difficulties with the man in the group who, I think, would be more than willing to bond with him (I have always thought that Xander has a bit of a man-crush on Riley).

    The problem, I think, lies in Riley's past: his experience with the dysfunctional family of the Initiative. Thus, much as I want to be sympathetic towards him because Buffy does not love him, because unrequited love is so painful an emotion... because Dawn, in Willow's words, is such a spas... this episode makes it hard—unless I remember that his actions serve as a foil to theme of family. For his inability to understand family and a real intimacy lead Riley, in the wake of his loss of power—if not before*—to veer wildly between incommunicativeness (he won't talk about that loss but assures Buffy that he is fine, even as he runs off to WIlly's—something he's been doing for a while, the bartender makes clear), intemperate demands (that Buffy open up when he wants her to, rather than when she is ready, as love—and family—would do), and rash (false) shows of independent strength (the demon bar again, as Mark points out**).

    I think that Riley has not recovered from the trauma of the Initiative and refuses to deal with it—both its loss, which he needs to mourn (Maggie was his mother), and its violence—leaving him incapable of forming intimate bonds within a group or even with Buffy herself—.*** He seems to distrust groups, to want to work independently, but he seems to be unable to function without someone to give him orders: when Buffy said in NMR that he could choose to "fight demons in [his] own way," he said that he did not know what that way was—and told he to give him an order. I think he still needs orders to function, much as that thought would anger him... (But then, everything seems to anger him these days, which may be another of his problems... )

    But an army is not a family, as Mark so clearly showed in his analysis of S4: it is based upon hierarchies of power, not love. And Riley's love, as he expresses it here, is not, I think, unconditional: he wants Buffy's love on his terms, wants to be part of the Scooby family on his terms—and when he does not get what he wants, he does not want to play... Although he then relents, and the part of him that vaguely remembers his family in Iowa comes through, and he does, too—at least for a while.


    *As we'll learn in ITW, he'd been drawn to this scene since BvD, so his loss of strength was not the impetus—Dracula—or the realization that Buffy did not love him—was.

    **We will see more of this in the next episode.

    ***This is my whole problem with the coming "Riley left because [Buffy] was shut down" and "[Riley]'s the one" line of analysis. I do not find Riley's behavior that loving at this point—find it more petulantly demanding... But I'll save that argument for ITW...

    1. Nicely done and I agree. As I intend to say in my post on ItW (no spoilers), I see Xander and Riley as two points on a spectrum that runs Jonathan < Xander < Riley. Xander does worship Riley (we'll see an example next episode), and he thinks Riley should succeed with Buffy because Riley is a better version of himself.

    2. Thanks—

      And I had not thought about it in terms of the scale you propose or the reason for Xander's position, but very much yes, exactly.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. Sorry, I deleted Janice's comment because it had a major spoiler in it. Here it is with the spoiler labeled:

      I agree with so much of what you say here. sos97. I mentioned in a comment on ItW in another posts my reasoning behind Xander's attachment to Riley, but Mark sums up my thoughts on that above, in addition to the notion of having a guy friend to hang with (Xander bemoans the lack of other guys in the group after Oz leaves).

      I think your analysis is spot-on bout Riley's grief after the experience with Maggie's betrayal and death, the loss of the initiative and his status and security in it, and how using it as a surrogate family is unhealthy. (Although AYW in S6 seems to argue otherwise *SPOILER*- that since he went back he's back to being shiny and secure Ok Joe - for the sake of making Buffy's life look worse *END SPOILER*)

      I disagree that Buffy did not love him, however, but that's just my opinion - I see plenty in her actions to tell me she did - but simply not in the way Riley wanted her to, which is different if subtle (so subtle that Riley fails to see it, as he failed to see that he was not making love to Buffy herself in WTG in S4.) And just as using the Initiative as a surrogate family or going to vamps for a fix are not healthy, neither is trying to fit a relationship into any box or "label" that ignores the realities of the people who participate in it. (This comes into play SPOILER in S7 with Buffy and Spike END SPOILER, esp in contrast to why Angel and Buffy or Riley and Buffy couldn't work.)

      Something I wanted to say about this episode - I loved the notion of exploring Tara's past (she gets too little development until S6, and MAJOR SPOILER her being mindwiped by Glory END SPOILER in facts stunts her development entirely for the remainder of the season after TL). I was therefore excited that it was a Joss-penned episode, expecting good if not great things, and found it the most mediocre ep he'd written so far in his ham-fisted handling of Tara's family as stereotypical conservative southern rednecks who suppress their womenfolk. It's ironic because the show does a great job with certain things - the use of the gay/magic metaphor in the show is done brilliantly IMO; and I still can't think of a lesbian couple on TV who come close to Tara and Willow in being a realistic, well-rounded relationship (with all the flaws and mess that come with relationships); but Joss' handling of southerners here is offensive and somewhat lazy writing.

  4. One other very small thought: rewatching this, I could tell it was a Joss episode just by the segues: they were beautiful...

  5. One thing I like about this episode is the way that Tara's (and, by extension, Willow's) witchcraft has become so layered metaphorically by this point in the show. With Tara's possible demon background seeming to be a ruse to cover fear of her witchcraft, there's really alot going on about gender, sexuality, patriarchy, etc. It could have been oversimplified, but instead it's really very nuanced.

    Also (imo), it's a testament to how great Season 5 is that Joss's first entry of the season is sandwiched by two episodes that are actually better than it, both in terms of narrative and style.

    1. I agree on both counts. Of course, Joss's next two episodes...

  6. Yes, Joss's next two are stunners, for sure.

    As is Family, really. I can see why he would chose to direct this one. In a typical season, (is there a "typical" season of Buffy?) I guess I could see him directing the next episode, FFL. It's combination of dynamic action, stylistic daring, and thematic exploration seem ripe for Whedon treatment.

    But Family really does explore so much of what, at its heart, Buffy's about in terms of addressing questions of patriarchy, misogyny, etc. Spike's talk at the end, might be close to on the nose in spelling that out, but mostly, like I said above, the episode is really nuanced in its approach, and I can see why Whedon would have wanted to take this on.

    Also - well, I wasn't watching at the time, so I don't know how the fan reaction to Tara had progressed by this point - but it also seems to be sending a pretty clear message to the viewers that, um, you better get used to Tara, she's sticking around.

    Do you have any memory of how this episode played out in relation to how fans were reacting to Tara at this point?

    1. My best recollection is that by this point Tara was accepted, kind of the way Xander and Buffy react to her in the episode. I don't believe there was any remainder of the angry reaction that I saw shortly after Oz left. The Kitten Board, which I mentioned in my post on Restless, was up and running by then, and of course they were thrilled (if a bit nervous going into the episode).

  7. I'm sure you'll be bringing it up in your review of that episode, but the Tara/Dawn mirror is also reinforced by


    Glory explicitly confusing Tara for Dawn by identifying the former as The Key. She even identifies both characters as outsiders.

    You could also use this to draw a comparison between Willow's straightforward rampage against Glory using power we've never even glimpsed by this point in the series (--SLIGHT SPOILER-- but will see again under similar circumstances, obviously) and Buffy being far more conflicted when a similar situation arises with; according to your reading of the series, we know what her spirit wants to do (KILL KILL KILL) but other elements of her self (her mind/superego, Giles, mainly) overwhelm that desire.

    Layers upon layers! I could go on but I should get back to work. Great stuff, as always.

  8. I've wondered for a while whether the whole "Tara is a demon, but not really" thing was always planned out the way it was. It seems kind of odd to have the possibility set up at the way back in Season 4 only for it not to lead to anything particularly huge.

    This makes me wonder if there was a possibility that Tara being a demon was what they were originally going to do but once the whole lesbian angle got introduced they figured it might send a bad message so they dropped it. Shame it had to be there at all since it made me a bit distrustful of Tara for a while despite her overall positivity.

    I'd also argue that Supernatural managed to sum up the message of this episode in a few lines better than the whole episode does actually.

    “A wise man once told me family don’t end in blood, but it doesn’t start there either. Family cares about you, not what you can do for them. Family’s there through the good, bad, all of it. They got your back even when it hurts. That’s family”

    This episode is kind of bizarre for the Whedon canon as it's probably the the least great Joss written episode (outside of maybe some of the premieres) outside of Season 1. Maybe he was saving up the quality for his other entries this season (my issues with The Gift notwithstanding, mine with The Body are more due to outside reception).

    1. I'm pretty sure from Joss' comments that the lesbian relationship came first. I noticed the connection between Willow and Tara on first watch of Hush, and I thought the events of The I in Team reinforced that. The "is she a demon" concerns arose in Goodbye Iowa, but the famous "Floating O" spell occurred just 2 episodes later (Who Are You?). That means GI and WAY were shot about 2 weeks apart, at which point the lesbian relationship was pretty open.

      The idea is flexible enough that they could have played it out differently, but it works pretty well this way.

      That's a good short summary of what it means to be a family.

  9. I think this episode is quite underrated. People usually like it, but with reservations. I absolutely love it though.
    Yes, it might get a bit over-sentimental at points, but it's​ never phony. The final scene with Willow and Tara never fails to warm my heart.
    Besides, I just love when Whedon takes down the patriarchy.

    PS: God, I had forgotten how brilliant season 5 is. The run from episode 1 to 7 is just outstanding.

    1. Your comment inspired me to check the IMDB ratings for S5. I was a bit surprised that the first half of S5 (prior to Checkpoint) doesn't rate all that highly. FFL rates the highest, of course, but NPLH/Family are next. After that, the first half episodes don't get much love. That's a shame, because there is a lot of good stuff in there.