Follow by Email

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Listening To Fear

[Updated May 1, 2013]

The Queller demon in Listening to Fear might very well win a contest for lamest demon in the series. The episode also suffers, I think, from the far too obvious metaphorical vampire whorehouse. I’m not fond of this metaphor. Don’t get me wrong. LtF is not a bad episode like, say, I Robot, You Jane is bad. There are important developments here, both in plot and metaphor. It just suffers a bit from weak execution. That said, I do want to praise the scene of Buffy crying privately as she washes the dishes to the sound of her mother’s deranged ramblings. SMG really sells that scene.

Riley let the SG down when he failed to show up for their slay date, instead spending his time in the aforementioned “whorehouse”. Aside from the fact that the metaphor’s an anvil, I never really saw Riley as the type to “stray” in this way. Sandy, ok; that can be explained by his obsession about Angel and Dracula. The suck job we see him getting in the teaser is less plausible to me, and I say that as someone who’s not a big fan of his.
Riley also lied to everyone about not wanting to do research because he wanted to summon the commandos. As he has before, Graham called him on it:
GRAHAM: You found a stiff in the woods and called us in? Don't you usually call your girlfriend for this kind of thing?
He grins. Riley gives him a dirty look.

We as viewers learn in LtF that Ben has some connection to Glory. He seems like a nice guy, a caring doctor, but think about what Ben has done here: he deliberately caused the murder of half a dozen mental patients. Maybe this is a good thing – after all, now those patients can’t say anything which might reveal Dawn’s nature to, say, Glory. It’s unclear if this is why Ben summoned the Queller, though it’s probably his best reason.
In my essay on Choices, I discussed the distinction between consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics. The former judges ethical decisions by their impact on others. A consequentialist might very well justify Ben’s action depending on what the consequences would be if Glory were to find Dawn. It’s a conditional approval because we don’t know (yet) what would happen if she did, and we don’t know (yet) if Ben knows. In contrast, a deontologist would argue that those innocent victims (doubly victims, in fact – made crazy by Glory, killed by the demon) have a right to life which can’t be erased simply because others might benefit from it.
A parallel debate about the proper moral course will be central to the season finale.
Xander guessed that Glory was responsible for the Queller demon, but it turned out to be Ben instead. Glory is the one creating the epidemic of mental patients, as we (but not Buffy) now learn: The crazy man we see in the hospital who’s later the first victim of the Queller demon was the security guard from No Place Like Home. It’s not expressly stated, but Glory caused his madness by what she did to him in that episode. Moreover, we also learn that those with mental problems can recognize that Dawn doesn’t belong. In effect, Glory is creating her own “key detectors”, parallel to the Geiger counters used by the commandos.
The basic rule of the show is that the demon tells us something metaphorically about Buffy. What we see in LtF is that Glory is inadvertently, unknowingly, creating the ability to see Dawn’s true nature, i.e., that she is the Key. By summoning the Queller demon, Ben is, in essence, repressing the discovery. Translating this to Buffy, the episode tells us that some part of Buffy is resisting the knowledge of what Dawn represents, even as other parts try to tell her. Consistent with this, Dawn expresses doubts about her own reality, doubts which get to the heart of Buffy’s challenge for the season and fit perfectly with Dawn’s metaphorical role:
DAWN: (teary) She hates me.
BUFFY: (kneeling beside the bed) No.
DAWN: She called me a thing.
BUFFY: She loves you. Okay? She's not herself. (puts her hand on Dawn's) I told you what the doctor said about the tumor.
DAWN: (shakes head) No, not just Mom. People. They keep saying weird stuff about me.
BUFFY: Are you talking about the man in the hospital?
DAWN: He called me a thing too. And there was another one. Weird guy outside the magic shop. (Buffy looks concerned) He said I didn't belong. He said I wasn't real. (Buffy sighs) Why does everybody keep doing that? What's wrong with me?

Joyce then tells us directly what we inferred from the previous episode:
Suddenly Joyce gasps and sits up, staring at Dawn.
JOYCE: Don't touch me! You - you thing!
DAWN: (backing up) Mom, please!
JOYCE: Get away from me! You're nothing, you're, you're a shadow!

The fact that Joyce recognizes Dawn’s importance is therefore a critical step towards Buffy’s end-of-season revelation:
JOYCE: No, I guess it isn't. I do know I was ... pretty out of it, and I had ... not-not a dream ... exactly, more like I had this ... knowledge, i-it just came to me like ....truth, you know? (Buffy frowns) Even though it didn't seem...possible, even though I shouldn't even think such things.
BUFFY: What?
JOYCE: That Dawn...
Buffy looks very startled.
JOYCE: She's not ... mine, is she?
Buffy stares at her mom, then looks down. She comes to a decision and looks Joyce in the eye.
Joyce absorbs this for a moment.
JOYCE: She's ... she does belong to us, though.
BUFFY: Yes, she does.
JOYCE: And she's important. To the world. Precious. (Buffy nods) As precious as you are to me.
Buffy smiles and nods again. Joyce nods back.
JOYCE: Then we have to take care of her. Buffy, promise me. If anything happens, if I don't come through this-
JOYCE: No, listen to me. No matter what she is, she still feels like my daughter. I have to know that you'll take care of her, that you'll keep her safe. That you'll love her like I love you.
BUFFY: (teary) I promise.

Trivia notes: (1) When Willow tells Giles she doesn’t want to be the one to find the bodies, she’s probably remembering her experiences in Prophecy Girl, Doomed, and Real Me. (2) Contrary to Willow’s statement, the Tunguska event was in 1908, not 1917. (3) Dreg referred to himself as a “humble postulant”. A postulant is, generally, someone who makes a request or demand. It also has a more specific sense of a candidate for a monastery. The more general sense seems meant here.


  1. I agree with your assessment of the episode: it is worth the re-watch, to me, primarily for the scene of Buffy in the kitchen and the one between her and Joyce at the end.

    With regards to Riley's infidelity, it always seemed to me that they should have played it as his turn to the army: as you point out, he leaves the SG to call them, and Buffy had explicitly asked that he not involve them—moreover, in S4, Forrest had always seen Buffy as a kind of homewrecker. Having Riley turn to the army not only for help with the Queller, but also for the fight against Glory, would have been, to me, both a true betrayal of Buffy and an action more truly in line with Riley's character...


    They could have taken the above even further: Buffy could not only have broken up with Riley over this, but Riley and the army boys could also have gone to fight Glory, and Riley could either have been killed or so seriously wounded that he had to go to the army's hospital to heal.* Combining this with bitter words from Riley before the fight would still have given Buffy a reason to feel the break-up was at least partially her fault for shutting down, if they absolutely had to pursue that line, and would have created a more satisfying, character-driven end to the episode than the one we get, which has always driven me a little crazy. I usually do not second guess the show, and I am never given to propose alternate plot lines, but I admit that the vampire-whore story strikes a special nerve...

    *I remember someone at the AVTV club commenting that it seems unrealistic that Glory, for all her power, does not get to anyone in Buffy's inner circle until Tara, and this would have solved that problem, too.

    1. It's funny - the vampire-brothel seems obvious now that you've both written about it, but I never really thought of it that way, or not so much. To me, the depiction of the "brothel" seemed more like a crack house. It's always led me to believe that Riley was looking for a "fix" - a danger fix, a darkness fix, something like that. I related it to his going to the vamp nest alone. In that sense, his calling in the army boys and sort of "re-enlisting" makes a bit more sense - he's doing it for the danger fix, because it fulfills some need he has that he thinks he's not getting from Buffy or the SG work he's doing.

      SPOILERS for the next episode

      Buffy might see it as a sexual thing, because it's a female vamp and she probably conflates vamps and sex in her mind (for obvious reasons), but I always thought she misread the situation. As I said with last week's ep, I think Riley's reasons for feeling abandoned by Buffy are fairly lame, but I also think Buffy misreads his reasons for going to the vamp house.

      Having said all that, yeah, to me this ep is pretty much the one major flaw in an otherwise perfect season and I agree that Riley's exit, overall, was done in pretty clunky fashion. But to be honest, by this point I was pretty much just happy to have him gone, so I've never had too too many complaints on that front.

    2. I really like your spoiler suggestion. Much better.

    3. Aaron: I can't get this to go in direct reply to you, so I'm putting it here.


      I think you can read the vamp "nest" both ways, but I lean to the "whorehouse" metaphor because of the dialogue in ITW. It's not just Buffy, Riley and Spike both speak of it that way. And while the danger fix is definitely there, what Riley emphasized in his ultimatum to Buffy was how much they "needed" him.

      I also agree that LtF is probably the weakest of the season. One reason I like S5 so much is that LtF really isn't nearly as weak as some of the ones from previous seasons: IRYJ, Go Fish, WTWTA, etc. It's weak, but not bottom 20 weak for me.

    4. Maybe it's more like an opium den. Another betrayal: Riley doesn't mention a major vamp hangout to the slayer.

  2. I think a case can be made for virtue ethics this season too. (SPOILERY: For example, what Giles says to Ben in The Gift.)

    I've been performing some mental gymnastics myself lately to reconcile my essentially existential (heh) outlook and my leaning towards virtue ethics. Joss has helped immensely with my endeavor. If all that matters is what we do, and if what we do is an extension of who we are, we have the power to create the person we want to be (and the life we wish to have) by engaging authentically with ourselves and the world. Does that make sense? I'd love to get Nietzsche and Aristotle in a room together to hash this out more fully. :)

    1. I've tried to keep the various schools of ethics somewhat distinct in my posts for the sake of clarity, but IMO they bleed together at the margins. A very instinctive form of existential deontology strikes me as hard to distinguish from virtue ethics.

      I'm sure a philosopher would tell me I'm wrong....

  3. Interesting comments - I just wrote (ranted, really) about Riley and the vamp whores at your post for ItW, so I won't repeat myself here.

    I definitely agree that the scene in the kitchen is one of SMG's finest moments in the entire series, especially as we know it takes quite a lot for Buffy to break down in this way. (Which only emphasizes for me how alone she is, and how, for all of Riley's shaming her and blaming her for "not opening up", he fails to see how she might need him to be there for her in the ways SHE needs him to be.)

    I wanted to touch on something regarding the conversation you quote with Buffy and Joyce because I think it's very important to Buffy's decision in the Gift, yet I never read fans talk about it. I think you're trying to keep this blog "spoiler free" as much as possible however?

    1. As long as you clearly label your spoilers in the comments, it's perfectly ok. I do keep the posts spoiler-free, but the comments almost always raise them.

  4. "Maybe this is a good thing – after all, now those patients can’t say anything which might reveal Dawn’s nature to, say, Glory. It’s unclear if this is why Ben summoned the Queller, though it’s probably his best reason."

    I am a bit surprised that you raise the possibility that Ben might know Dawn is the key here. It certainly never occurred to me at this point that he might (on either first or subsequent viewings) and I don't remember anything that might have suggested he did. In fact at this point I think (going on possibly faulty memory) he has had very little contact with Dawn so far. Do you raise this just as a hypothetical, as an "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" type thing? Or was there something that suggested to you that Ben might know at this point?


    Of course Blood Ties proves he didn't know until then.


    1. No, I meant it only as a hypothetical: if he had known, then he could use this as an excuse.


      Ben possibly does know at this point that the crazy people could identify the Key (it's unclear). He doesn't know about Dawn, but he still might want to prevent Glory from finding the Key.


      It's possible that even if he didn't know about the Key detection stuff that he figured that the mind-suckees would serve as Glory's helpers and that having them around would only cause trouble.

      Incidentally this episode is another indicator of the incompetence of Sunnydale, and perhaps a point where Joss wanted to comment negatively on the health care system in general, since apparently the solution to having a rising number of mentally scarred people was just continue to stick them in a room and apparently let the problem sort itself out.

      Outside of Season 6 the show apparently doesn't have the best depictions of mental health :/

    3. To the extent there was social criticism, it probably was directed at the US as a whole -- all too often here the mentally ill are put out on the street. But overall I think it's more of a plot device.

  5. "Translating this to Buffy, the episode tells us that some part of Buffy is resisting the knowledge of what Dawn represents, even as other parts try to tell her."

    On rewatch, it really stood out to me that Willow brings Buffy (not Dawn) a yo-yo in the hospital, given the significance of that particular object metaphorically in School Hard.