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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Yoko Factor

[Updated May 1, 2013]

The Yoko Factor threads together several of the themes we’ve seen earlier in the season. The disputes among the SG were foreshadowed in Pangs, and their insecurities in Fear, Itself. Spike aggravates the insecurities of the SG, playing on them to bring their fears to the surface. That causes Buffy’s family to fall apart, setting up the events of Primeval.


ADAM:  Friends?
Spike:  There's your --what do you call it-- variable.  The Slayer's got pals.  You want her evening the odds in a fight you don't want the Slayerettes mucking about.
ADAM:  Take them away from her.

What are these insecurities on which Spike so cleverly played? In Giles’s case it was the sense of becoming irrelevant, like most parents feel when their children go off to college. We saw that feeling, and the internal sense of frustration (even rage) which it generated, in A New Man. Spike saw and understood that reaction then and played upon it here:


Giles: I'll tell her.
Spike: Oh, you'll tell her! Great comfort that. What makes you think she'll listen to you?
Giles: Because . . . (trails off, unsure)
Spike: Very convincing.
Giles: I'm her Watcher.
Spike: I think you're neglecting the past-tense there, Rupert. Besides, she barely listened to you when you were in charge. I've seen the way she treats you.
Giles grows uncomfortable at those words. He grabs a bottle off the bar and starts to pour himself a drink.
Giles: Oh, yes? And how's that?
Spike:  Very much like a retired librarian.

The fact that Giles was himself responsible for this in some sense – Anthony Stewart Head says that Giles “cut himself adrift” in S4 – perhaps made the sense of abandonment all the more painful.
Somewhat the same dynamic plays out with Willow and Xander. Spike states it expressly: “And you know how it is with kids.  They go off to college, they grow apart.  Way of the world.” Similarly, Willow tells Tara that “It hardly feels like we're roomies now.  I mean, she's busy with Riley and I'm gone a lot too.” This separation from our friends is a natural part of growing older, so it tracks a journey to adulthood.
Turning to the specifics for each character, Xander fears being useless to his friends and hence invisible to them. That was his fear in Fear, Itself, and the whole season has shown him rather isolated from Willow and Buffy. It’s aggravated by the fact that he loves Buffy and his love is unrequited; Buffy pays a lot of attention to Riley and therefore necessarily less to Xander. He’s also living in his parents’ basement and has failed at all his jobs. That’s not going to boost your ego:  “Xander: Like I'm some sort of useless lunk.  It happens I'm good at a lot of things.  I help out with all kinds of . . . stuff.  I have skills . . . and . . . stratagems. I'm very . . . (looks to Anya) Help me out.”
We saw in Fear, Itself that Willow felt unappreciated for and insecure about her magic. Spike played on her insecurity by questioning her computer skills, but did so in the context of magic as metaphor for Willow’s relationship with Tara. Willow’s very insecure indeed about this – she hadn’t even told Xander or Giles until she said it in the heat of the argument. While Buffy covered pretty quickly in New Moon Rising, Willow must have noticed that she was initially thrown (as Buffy herself admitted in her conversation with Riley in that episode). Oz reacted still more noticeably, which naturally would have made Willow even less sure of her decision. As a result we get her reaction in the brilliantly constructed argument scene:
Willow: (sarcastic) Right.  (stands moving to the living room) And then maybe you'll get lucky and he'll still be there and he can rip your arms off for you? (sternly) Buffy, you can't go back alone….
Buffy: Willow is not going either. I'm doing it alone. …
Willow: (still sarcastic) Oh, great.  And then when you have your new "no arms" we can all say "Gee, it's a good thing we weren't there getting in the way of that!"…
Buffy:  Okay, I need you.  I need both of you.  All the time! Just ... not now.  Adam is very dangerous.
Willow:  Wait.  How do you need me, really?
Buffy:  You're ... good with the computer stuff. (Willow accepts that)  Usually. (Willow glares at her) And-and there's the witch stuff.
Willow: (accusingly) Witch stuff?  What exactly do you mean by "witch stuff?"…
Willow:  It's not today!  Buffy, things have been wrong for a while!  Don't you see that?
Buffy:  What do you mean wrong?
Willow:  Well, they certainly haven't been right, since Tara.  We have to face it.  You can't handle Tara being my girlfriend.”

Buffy fears being alone: “Hollow voice:  “All alone.” Buffy pushes herself up:  “Who said that?”
… Guy:  “They all ran away from you.  They always will.  Open your heart to someone and….” (Fear, Itself). That’s not surprising considering her experience with her father, with Angel, with Parker, and the more general sense of isolation we’ve seen which comes from being the Slayer. It’s precisely that fear which comes true after the fight at Giles’s:


Buffy: (somberly) So . . . I guess I'm starting to understand why there's no ancient prophecy about a Chosen One ... and her friends.
She hurries to the door grabbing her jacket.
Buffy:  If I need help, I'll go to someone I can count on.

While these insecurities and fears have been re-emphasized during S4, many of them trace back to much earlier events. For example, during the fight in Dead Man’s Party Willow’s attack on Buffy arose out of her sense that she was going through important transitions in her life and that Buffy hadn’t been there for her. The same is true here. Willow wants to be a full participant in Buffy’s life, and for Buffy to be a full participant in hers, so when Buffy refused her help in TYF, Willow reacted just as she did in DMP, as she did in Bad Girls, and as she did in The I in Team.
Xander’s concerns about feeling useless date back even further. In The Harvest he got angry when Buffy wouldn’t let him go with her to rescue Jesse: “I’m less than a man.” Buffy played directly into those concerns when she said nearly the same thing she’d said then: “You're not going, Xander. Y-you'd get hurt.”
While Buffy’s angry reaction to the attacks from Willow and Xander stemmed in part from her stress level generally – emphasized in her conversation with Angel – the specific fear of being isolated and abandoned is longstanding. It’s probably fair to say that Xander’s Lie in Becoming remains in the back of her mind when Willow and Xander both end the argument by refusing to help her now:


Buffy: Enough! All I know is you want to help, right? Be part of the team?
Willow and Xander shake their heads, grumbling.
Willow: (unison) I don't know anymore.
Xander: (unison) Really not wanted.

There’s another “family” which falls apart too: the Initiative. “Family’s tearing apart”, says Forrest. The Initiative serves as a parallel case in which the concept of “family” is yanked out of its organic sense and applied to an artificial construct which isn’t a “real” family in any meaningful sense. The Initiative is the Adam of families.
The fact that both “families” disintegrate, and that Adam very deliberately sets about causing that disintegration, tells us that this is an important consequence of society’s forced “normality”. By acceding to the pressure from society to conform, we end up abandoning the things that are not just important, but critical to our ability to function as authentic individuals. “How can you possibly help?”, Buffy asked. We’ll see the answer, and how it affects Buffy’s authentic self, next episode.
Spike plays a crucial role in TYF. When I was discussing the effects of the chip/internal panopticon in my post on The Initiative, I mentioned that one way to see it was that it interfered with Spike’s essential nature. Adam puts that into words here: “You feel smothered.  Trapped like an animal.  Pure in its ferocity, unable to actualize the urges within.  Clinging to one truth.  Like a flame struggling to burn within an enclosed glass.  That a beast this powerful cannot be contained.  Inevitably it will break free and savage the land again.  I will make you whole again.  Make you savage.”
In Doomed Spike showed his true nature underneath the effect of the chip. We’ve gotten repeated reminders of this since: in Who Are You? during the alley scene with Xander and Giles; in Superstar; and when he talked himself out of helping Buffy in Where The Wild Things Are. This gets us back to the issues raised by Alex’s conditioning in A Clockwork Orange. Here we see that the conditioning hasn’t changed Spike’s underlying nature. He joined with Adam quite easily and reveled in his ability to harm the SG with words alone.
I need to talk about Riley a bit too, both in his relationship with Buffy and in his status vis-à-vis the Initiative. In the teaser we got another statement of the attitude the Initiative has towards its soldiers (again, pretend a similar scene has Prof. Walsh in it):


“Mr. Ward: And the men?
McNamara: These are exceptional boys. …
Mr. Ward: This incident with Finn was unfortunate.
McNamara:  Fell in with a bad crowd.  Quite frankly, I don't think he was ever the soldier that you all hoped he was.  Boy thinks too much.” My emphasis. 

This is precisely what’s wrong with the Initiative and with society in general, according to the metaphors and themes playing out in S4. It’s treating adults as children, demanding that they conform without thinking. Col. McNamara may believe that “thinking too much” is a bad thing, but that’s hardly how Buffy behaves. We’ve seen since at least Angel that she very carefully makes distinctions in the course of carrying out her Slayer duties. It’s precisely those distinctions which the Initiative refuses to make: “they’re just animals”; “what kind of demon? Does it matter?”. The Initiative’s failure even to try to understand the enemy – previously signaled by Buffy’s questions in The I in Team – will have drastic consequences.
Riley’s behavior at the end of New Moon Rising seemed to bear out Col. McNamara’s statement, though the ending of TYF is nicely ambiguous about Riley’s intentions. There probably would have been greater emotional tension to this scene had we seen Prof. Walsh, instead of Adam, with Riley.
Now let’s talk about his relationship with Buffy. During their conversation in Buffy’s room, Riley tells Buffy he loves her. He previously said these words to “Buffy” in Who Are You?, but that was actually Faith. Buffy has never heard the words before. Note specifically that she did not tell him that she loved him back. What’s also very interesting is that during the entire conversation, Riley never asked her about the big bloody scratch on her forehead even though Buffy asked him how bad he was hurt. Angel asked.
You want a metaphor, I’ll give you a metaphor: while Willow is contemplating whether she’ll live with Buffy next year, she’s playing with Tara’s, uh, kitten. Ahem. Censorship is the mother of metaphor.
Trivia notes: (1) I absolutely refuse to explain Yoko Ono more than the episode itself does. That would make me feel entirely too old. (2) If you don’t watch Angel the Series, or haven’t started watching it yet, this episode takes place after Buffy made a trip to Los Angeles to see Angel (the episode Sanctuary). That trip ended in a fight between Buffy and Angel. The trip is why Xander later refers to her as “L.A. Woman”, which is also the name of a song by The Doors. (3) Spike’s reference to Buffy as “Little Miss Tiny” refers to one of a series of children’s books by Roger Hargreaves. (4) Tony Robbins is a motivational speaker. Spike compares Adam to him after Adam’s “you feel smothered” riff. (5) Spike’s phrase “when the wild rumpus begins” comes from the book Where The Wild Things Are. (6) Giles was playing the song “Freebird” by Lynard Skynard on his guitar. (7) “Be all you can be” – part of Spike’s insinuations to Xander – was a recruiting slogan for the US Army. (8) Buffy’s blaster was the one she got from Prof. Walsh in The I in Team. Riley fixed it in This Year’s Girl. (9) When Buffy referred to Forrest’s “family” as the Corleones, she was referencing the mafia family of The Godfather. (10) Willow’s “if ever a whiz there was” plays off The Wizard Of Oz. Duh. (11) Angel was able to recognize Riley because he saw Buffy talking to Riley in Pangs. (12) Spike wasn’t surprised that Adam liked Helter Skelter because that was an obsession of murderer Charles Manson. (13)  Do I really need to explain that Batman’s butler is named Alfred? (14) Fort Dix is an actual army base in New Jersey. (15) Since TYF is the episode in which Willow formally comes out, it’s worth remembering this dialogue from Doppelgangland:
Willow:  (appalled) It's horrible! That's me as a vampire? (Angel closes the door) I'm so evil and... skanky. (aside to Buffy, worried) And I think I'm kinda gay.
Buffy:  (reassuringly) Willow, just remember, a vampire's personality has nothing to do with the person it was.
Angel:  (without thinking) Well, actually... (gets a look from Buffy) That's a good point.

4 comments:

  1. Spike is really perceptive--he's the first to see that Willow and Tara are a couple, for example. He's like Jubal Early in Firefly's Objects in Space: evil people (or close enough) don't just wear hats, they also understand you.

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    1. I agree, though it's not just Spike. The show uses other evil characters to give insight into Buffy and her friends. Faith is another good example, but there have been and will be others.

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  2. Wow, I love this analysis.

    Spike's involvement with everyone here begs the question I've been wondering for a long time now: why haven't they killed Spike?

    Like, I think Spike is, by his nature, evil. He doesn't have a soul like Angel, so not only is there no good in him, but I also don't think there's any possibility for him to be redeemed. I understand Buffy's resignation about not wanting to hurt someone (or something) that doesn't really have the ability to harm people any longer, but as seen here, Spike is still capable of hurting people and doing terrible things. I have read clockwork orange, so maybe the theory is that Spike will just lose interest in doing good and end up being resigned to an okay life? I don't know, the chip doesn't change him, and while his knowledge might be valuable, he seems more detrimental than beneficial. And I like Spike, so I'm happy he's around, but from the characters' perspectives I just don't really get it.

    That being said, what is with everyone's needy-ness? I didn't realize helping your friends was a means purely based out of one's own feelings for significance. Maybe I'm being too harsh and I would do the same thing, though, and that this is all just a little too humanizing for me, but they are sidekicks. And that's not an insult! I don't think Buffy would have made it this far if she didn't have Giles, Williow, and Xander, but that doesn't require her to integrate them in every facet of her life, especially when it means facing a far superior opponent in Adam who would easily dispose of someone like Xander. Please, let me know if I'm off here, or being to harsh, please let me know.

    Loveeee what you said about the Angel /Riley dynamic. I noted the fact that Riley neglected to ask about Buffy's injury, and I think this is evidence of how self-absorbed he actually is. Maybe I'm blinded by my hatred, but god he's so insecure. He's so threaten by Angel, which I get, a little bit, but his statement of "I'm not moving from this spot" strikes me as someone who cares less about what Buffy feels and more about his own needs.

    Lastly, Adam is one scary dude.

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    1. Ah, why don't they stake Spike? It's hard to find a good answer to that, other than Buffy's sense that he's harmless. Which he is physically, but not otherwise. But he's also defenseless against her, or for that matter any of them, and I think discomfort over that is part of the answer. I don't know how you'll react to Spike's journey overall, but trust me that it's fascinating.

      I'm inclined to agree on the fight, though there's more to the roles of Xander, Willow and Giles than "sidekick", as you'll see in the next 2 episodes. On the storyline, it's hard to justify their anger at Buffy (putting aside Spike's lies for now), but there are other, better reasons.

      Thanks for the kind words. I'll be interested in your reaction once you finish the season. Restless is a highlight for most fans.

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