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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fool For Love

[Updated May 1, 2013]

Episode 7. We expect something dramatic and important from Episode 7 and we certainly get it from Fool For Love. It’s a fan favorite and in my personal top 20. The whole episode is beautifully constructed, but I have to give special praise to the way Spike’s fight with the NY Slayer intercuts with his present dialogue/fight with Buffy. At the end, the past Spike talks directly to Buffy in the present. Brilliant.

The most important feature of the episode is that it employs the literary device of the unreliable narrator (Spike). Watch the first two transitions between his present dialogue with Buffy and the scenes we see from his past. In each case, Spike’s claim about his past is directly refuted by what we see after the cut. I’ll give you the first example; the second is the same:
Were you born this big a pain in the ass?
What can I tell you, baby? I've always been bad.
Spike, then the human William, is sitting and composing poetry off in the corner of a dinner party. The spirited laughter of the party-goers can be heard in the background. William's hair is long and unruly and he's dressed as a proper gentleman, complete with tie and reading spectacles. He's awkward and bookish- none of the confident swagger we're used to.”

The only thing bad about William was his poetry. Spike was in no way “always” bad. He created his persona after Drusilla sired him. “Was he always tough, was he always bad? It was much more interesting to make him a foppish dandy in the beginning and have him turn into Spike. What you'll notice too, if you're watching carefully is that you'll see James [Marsters] transform from this guy here, having his feelings hurt, being this dandy poet. Piece by piece he will turn into Spike throughout this episode. Here he's got different hair, different clothes, glasses, a different accent even and no scar over his eyebrow. And you will see one by one him acquire all these things. So he literally builds Spike piece by piece.” (Writer Doug Petrie, DVD commentary.)
One way to interpret this process is that we, the viewers, are seeing Spike’s actual memories of what happened. What he told Buffy was likely something quite different, though we have no way to know with certainty. We definitely should doubt that he told her some of the more embarrassing points, such as Cecily’s “You’re beneath me.” That would undercut his carefully cultivated self-image in front of someone he’s trying to impress.
Now, if it’s true that these flash cuts completely undermine what Spike has just said to Buffy (and it is), consider (1) whether he told her the truth or told her lies about his past, that is, whether he told her what we saw or something else; and (2) assuming, as seems likely, that he told her at least some lies, whether we should trust anything else he tells her in the present dialogue. On the latter point rests a crucial interpretation of the season finale.
For all Spike’s braggadocio in this episode, the message he delivers to Buffy takes no credit for himself in his most (in)famous feats, namely killing the two Slayers. “That final gasp. That look of peace. Part of you is desperate to know: What's it like? Where does it lead you? And now you see, that's the secret. Not the punch you didn't throw or the kicks you didn't land. Every Slayer... has a death wish.” Spike didn’t kill the Slayers; they wanted to die. Note that we have no idea if this is true – the Slayers themselves don’t get to speak. All we know is that Spike makes this claim and that it’s against his interest to claim it.
As I see it, there are 2 reasons to believe Spike and 3 to disbelieve him.
He's credible because what he says underplays his own abilities and attributes his success to the Slayers wanting to die. In addition, there's the fact that he does hit a nerve with Buffy. We’ve seen since Faith’s arrival in S3 the sex and death and love and pain issues of Slayers and vampires.
The reasons we shouldn't believe him are (a) that he doesn't know those Slayers well enough to judge their mental state and, in one case, never even spoke to her; (b) that we don't actually see them "want" to die in either case; and, (c) that as I emphasized, the episode itself undercuts Spike's narrative.

There's a point of logic here as well, since Spike reasons from the particular to the general: even if we assume that the two Slayers he killed did have a death wish, that wouldn't necessarily mean all others did or that Buffy herself does.

I do think it can be read either way, and I'll have more to say later on.
Let’s talk about the implications of his claim. In my Introduction, I said that if I were asked to identify the single most important message communicated by BtVS, my response would be this: accept responsibility. I’ll continue by quoting myself:
“This theme appears early in the very first episode, Welcome to the Hellmouth:
“Buffy:  Oh, why can't you people just leave me alone?
Giles:  Because you are the Slayer. (comes down the stairs) Into each generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires...”

If Buffy didn’t accept her responsibility as The Slayer, there’d be no story to tell. That’s why the Prologue to every episode in Season 1 recites that “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” (My emphasis.)
Note that word, “alone” and its complements, “One” and “the”. That’s responsibility, all right. There’s nobody who can take her place, no higher power to aid her:
“Buffy:  (exhales) You don't have anything useful to tell me, do you? What are you, just some immortal demon sent down to even the score between good and evil?
Whistler:  (impressed) Wow. Good guess. (grins)
Buffy:  (steps up to him) Well, why don't you try getting off your immortal ass and fighting evil once in a while? 'Cause I'm sick and tired of doing it myself.” Becoming 2.

One consequence of death is that it removes the responsibility we all accept as authentic existentialists acting in the world. The Slayer bears the ultimate in that responsibility: she alone can save the world from the demons, the vampires, and the forces of darkness. And it’s only by her death that she can pass that responsibility to another. The Slayers he killed, Spike says, wanted to let go of that responsibility; it had become too much for them to bear. Keeping in mind the good reasons to be skeptical of Spike’s claims, the message to Buffy that only death allows the Slayer to pass on her responsibility strikes me as correct and consistent with what we’ll see later in the season.
What makes the whole sequence particularly brilliant is that every bit of Spike’s description of his encounters with the previous Slayers is rife with sexual innuendo. We know he’s now in love with Buffy. At the end of the scene in the alley he insists that she wants to “dance”:
“His passion aroused, Spike leans in to kiss her. She backs away in horror.
What the hell are you doing? 
He grabs Buffy by the arms, his words coming in a breathless pant.
Come on. I can feel it, Slayer. You know you want to dance.”

Everything Spike says or does regarding the two Slayers has a sexual implication. He’d previously said he could have “danced” all night with the NY Slayer. He got off on the death of the Chinese Slayer in a blatantly erotic scene with Dru, and insists that Buffy does when she slays: “I suppose you're telling me you don't?” He uses terms with double meaning throughout the night (“How many of my kind reckon you've done?”). Even his description of the Slayers’ deaths reads that way: “That final gasp. That look of peace. Part of you is desperate to know: What's it like?” And how will that happen? When he “slips in” and has himself “a real good day”.
Spike’s whole discussion of the Slayers “wanting” death nearly screams out that he’s talking about the Little Death – orgasm – as well. The erotic metaphor of the vampire here overlaps completely with the death of the two Slayers, with Spike’s feelings for Buffy, and with the essential point of the episode as it affects the finale. It’s beautifully done.
So given the double meaning, what did Buffy mean when she said, “Say it's true. Say I do want to [“dance”]. It wouldn't be you, Spike. It would never be you. You’re beneath me.” I think the whole point of the dialogue is that you can read it either way. She rejected his sexual advance, of course, but she’s also telling him that she’d never let him be the one to kill her even if she got to the point where she “wanted” to die.
In fact, we could interpret the whole episode as one of projection on Spike’s part. Whereas Angelus always remained in control and wanted his victims helpless, Spike was in for the thrill. He needed to be close to the edge: “Come on. When was the last time you unleashed it? All out fight against a mob, back against the wall, nothing but fists and fangs? Don't you ever get tired of fights you know you're going to win?”
He sought out the Slayers because they alone could give him the rush he craved. He dances right to the edge of death. And, of course, he has experienced it – it made him feel alive for the very first time.
Because the interpretation of FFL so strongly affects the interpretation of the season’s conclusion, I’ll have more to say about it when I discuss the last two episodes.
Some additional points:
The physical injury Buffy suffers at the beginning of the episode – a stab in the gut – serves as a metaphor for the emotional one at the end (Joyce’s need for a CAT scan to evaluate a condition much more serious than anyone thought).
Riley’s behavior towards the vamp who staked Buffy veers wildly from protective to reckless. He may have seen Buffy’s vulnerability as his opportunity to prove that he’s her equal. All he really proves is that he’s rash.
We could have a big debate even now about the meaning of Spike’s behavior in the last scene. Why didn’t he kill Buffy? I’m holding off on that for a while because it’s nearly impossible to say anything meaningful without spoilers. I will say that I think it’s a key moment in the progression of his feelings about Buffy.
Trivia notes: (1) Remember that word “effulgent”. It means “glowing”. (2) The taunts William suffers at the party – “They call him William the Bloody because of his bloody awful poetry!”; “I'd rather have a railroad spike through my head than listen to that awful stuff!” – use the words which described Spike when we first saw him in School Hard: “He's known as 'William the Bloody'. Earned his nickname by torturing his victims with railroad spikes.” Puts a whole new light on Spike, doesn’t it? (3) The reference to Spike as a “bloody awful poet” gave rise to a Spike-centric fan club called the Bloody Awful Poet Society (spoilers at link). (4) When William collided with someone on the street after leaving the party in tears, if you look closely it was Angelus walking with Darla and Dru. (5) In FFL we see that Drusilla sired Spike. In School Hard, Spike referred to Angel as “my sire”. We can fanwank this – Angel as his “grandsire” – but it’s contradictory. (6) Spike taking the coat was inspired by the Frank Miller comics series Sin City. (7) This is the second episode to use the phrase “here endeth the lesson.” The Master used it in Never Kill A Boy On The First Date, as Spike does here. It will be used once more in S7. It’s the standard closing after a Bible reading in traditional services. (8) Fool For Love was shot at the same time as the AtS episode Darla and many of the flashbacks were used in both episodes, albeit from a different perspective. The different perspectives give a Rashomon quality to the scenes and create still more uncertainty about the “truth” of what we’re shown. (9) The scene with Dru and the chaos demon refers to Lover’s Walk: “I caught her on a park bench, making out with a *chaos* demon! Have you ever seen a chaos demon? They're all slime and antlers.” (10) Note that Spike got a memento from each Slayer he killed: the scar over his left eye courtesy of the first, the duster he wears from the second.


  1. Spike is therefore not only a Bloody Awful but an Undead Poet.

    About "here endeth the lesson": it's used in Anglican services, of which Whedon must have attended many at Winchester.

    About the coat: so, basically, Spike has been walking around in drag for a couple of decades.

    1. Best I can recall, all of the expressly religious ceremonies we've seen have been Anglican, and that's probably the source.

      Spike in drag? I'm sure that's a fanfic already.

    2. He's making himself a Slayer suit out of real Slayers?

  2. Spike reacts to Buffy's rejection the same way he did to his peers' jibes: with a sulking rage. And in both instances, a woman touches his heart, which changes his life's course.

    I credit this episode with teaching me a cool new word (effulgent) and providing a nicely nuanced definition for it as well.


    Oh, Cecily. I'm sure we'll be discussing her again. Also, AtS fans will likely recognize Spike's poem. I like it better the second time 'round.


      Catherine—I like the parallel you draw... It has always struck me as significant that Spike shows no fear when he sees Dru's vamp face: he is afraid of her before (for his purse and himself), but not then...

      The one difference between the two events, and I think it is a crucial one for his future development, is that in the first, Dru's heart moves him to feel a truth about himself—one he did not know—for the sake of himself; in the second, Buffy's heart moves him to feel something in himself—compassion—that he did not know he had—for the sake of someone else. Spike is moved to comfort Buffy, take care of her, something he should not feel compelled to do, as a soulless vampire...

      (And we know that she takes comfort in him, because although she initially says that she does not want to talk about it, she does, as we will learn in the next episode—and to talk to him rather than Riley.)

  3. "I'd rather have a railroad spike through my head than listen to that awful stuff!"

    "Earned his nickname by torturing his victims with railroad spikes."

    Damn, I really want to see a very bloody comic about Spike's initial vengeance rampage.

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  5. I tend to believe Spike, not, of course, because I find him generally credible, but for two other reasons. First, Spike has shown an ability to be radically observant, incisive—even when, in the next breath, he is radically obtuse, as here. Second, and most important—and, here, it does not matter whether Spike is telling the truth or not—Buffy believes him to be: the slight elevation in her breathing, her initial speechlessness, her fury, her very inability to hit him (or to do anything at all)—all these suggest that Spike has hit a nerve, that he has told her something about herself that she does not want to know.* Then, too, when he tells her that “Death is your art; you make it with your hands day after day,” he identifies, for the moment, the darkness Dracula revealed to her.**

    Does this mean that Buffy actively wanted to die when she let the fetid rocker turn her stake against her?*** No, not in my reading. For as Spike adds, she has ties to the world, and those ties present other obligations, give her other things to love and wish. But it does mean that her relationship to death—and life—is more complex, more ambivalent than she would like to know. And that spooks her. Buffy rarely shies from the difficulties of self-knowledge, and I do not think that she does so here, but she does take her difficulty out on Spike, echoing Cecily’s cruelty…

    *That is not the only thing she does not want to know: the crossing of sex and death in vampirism is far from unknown to her, and she is being more than a bit disingenuous in her disgust—there was Dracula, after all, and more importantly, in GD2, there was Angel—his feeding off of her was undeniably sexual, and Buffy clearly “got off on it.” Is daily slaying sexual for Buffy? I do not think so, but it clearly gives her pleasure, as the first episode of the season (and its title character) made clear. But admitting this is something Buffy has had problems with ever since Faith, and while she seems to have resolved them for herself, the “naked” statement of her enjoyment by someone else continues to disturb her. I suggest it does so, at least in part, because of her ambivalent relationship to death.


    **That darkness will come to have other interpretations, such as the inability to love, later in the season (in Intervention), and I see the two coming together in Buffy’s misreading of both Spike and the First Slayer in tWotW.

    ***I tend to see him as 1) a wannabe member of the band Slayer (he has the hair) and 2) a tacky rocker wannabe to contrast with the Spike in full Billy Idol form whom we’ll see later.

    1. As I see it, there are 2 reasons to believe Spike and 3 to disbelieve him.

      He's credible because what he says underplays his own abilities and attributes his success to the Slayers wanting to die. In addition, there's the fact that he does hit a nerve with Buffy, as you say. I agree with all your points about Buffy and her relationship to the sex and death and love and pain issues of Slayers and vampires.

      The reasons we shouldn't believe him are (a) that he's doesn't know those Slayers well enough to judge their mental state and, in one case, never even spoke to her; (b) we don't actually see them "want" to die in either case; and, (c) that as I emphasized, the episode itself undercuts Spike's narrative.

      There's a point of logic here as well, since Spike reasons from the particular to the general: even if we assume that the two Slayers he killed did have a death wish, that wouldn't necessarily mean all others did or that Buffy herself does.

      I do think it can be read either way, and I'll have more to say when we get to TWOTW.

    2. I understand the reasons why we should and should not believe Spike, but the more I think about it, the more I think that that does not matter—whether he thinks he is telling the truth does not matter. What does is that Buffy believes him—and that there is an internal logic to what he says, a logic that makes me deem him correct: although I would not go so far as to say that each Slayer has an active enough death wish to effectively suicide, I would argue that she is “just a little bit in love with [death]”… I do not know how the Slayer could not have an ambivalent relation to death—as Spike will say in another context, “It’s [her] calling.”

      And this works for me on a metaphorical level as well, wedded as I am to the Death Drive…

      On another note, Spike’s argument about what ties Buffy to the world—this, too, is telling to me, as plays a significant role in my alternate—I suppose one might call it a more postmodern, relational—reading of identity in Buffy… I had the better part of a post outlining it written up for Primeval, but never finished it… Ah well… Perhaps someday…

      Last thought: as I wrote further above, I thought it significant that Spike was moved by compassion, an intensely human emotion, at the end of the episode, implying that I saw this as a turning point. Now, having re-watched Shadow, I also think it significant that he engages in the seemingly passive activity of listening, which is almost diametrically opposed to vampiric blood-sucking: it takes (words) from the other as a way to nourish the other, diminishing one’s own energy in the process.

    3. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say Buffy believes Spike -- she doesn't commit to it here -- but I do agree that she thinks he might well be right and it's in her mind. And the impact on her is, I agree, the important thing.

      If you ever do finish that post on identity, let me know. I'd like to read it.

  6. One thing that made Spike's story unreliable to me within the context of this episode: Spike claims that Buffy has ties to the world (family & friends) that the other Slayers did not, but when dying the (nameless) Chinese Slayer tries to give him a message to send to her mother (I don't recall the exact wording); clearly she does have ties to the world but of course Spike doesn't know this, as he can't understand what she's saying. (This could be read as a subtle criticism of white imperialism, or the failure to bother to understand other people/cultures, although I'm not sure that was intentional.)

    We all discover later on more about Nikki Woods' ties to the world, but that's after the fact in terms of this episode, and possibly an afterthought by the writers.

    There's also the fact that he can't know what they are thinking/feeling as you've mentioned above, Mark; but also there's a misunderstanding on his part IMO: curiosity about death when one is involved in it, deals in it and is part of one's pysche as a Slayer does, and/or the wish to rest, to be free of the burden of being a Slayer (or the burdens of life) do not on their own constitute a death wish any more than suicide generally does. (the suicidal person is motivated by a desire to be rid of their pain, not to actually die per se.)

    But that lack of trustworthiness by various characters, and the complicated underpinnings of motivation (it's never just one thing or another) are part of what make this show fascinating to me; and this is a truly great episode. I think it's where Spike really "comes into his own" as a mesmerizing character in his own right, not just an adjunct to Buffy.

    1. That's a good point about the Chinese Slayer.

      I agree with you on the distinction between having a death wish and wanting to lay down the responsibility of being a Slayer. That's crucial to how I interpret the season.

      I think Spike was always a popular character, but I agree that he came into his own with FFL. I think that was the point where fans started to become really enamored of him.

  7. Whether intentional or not (I'm not sure when Joss planned this dynamic between Buffy and Spike) there's a few things that tie back to "School Hard."

    When Spike notices Buffy is wounded here, Spike smells her bllod. In "School Hard," he had a line that (as you pointed out in your analysis of it) implies that he smelled her menstruating.
    In SH, Buffy told Spike to drop his sword, and his response created an association between the object and phallic imagery. Here, Buffy knocks Spike's sword out of his hand.

    If I recall the episode correctly, their dialogue described Spike's longing to kill the slayer with a similar double-meaning to the one you describe here, which ended in Joyce saving Buffy.

    If Buffy being saved by her mother in SH indicated that Buffy was not ready to have sex (as I believe you pointed out in your analysis of it), the drastically different substitution Joyce finds herself in here, could imply a major change in the dynamic between Buffy and Spike, which is that sex between them, which may juxtapose sex and death as both their conversations in SH and here do, could be nearing.