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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Forever

[Updated May 1, 2013]

Forever provides an opportunity for Buffy to grieve, while giving us a major clue to Dawn’s role this season. It also raises some disturbing issues about other characters which will be explored at more length later on.


Regardless of what you think of Spike’s behavior before this episode, he got something right in Forever: bringing Joyce flowers without a card. Before this, everything he did was designed to bring attention to himself as a method of getting Buffy’s respect: “Look at me, I’m doing what humans think is good” (e.g., not feeding off of bleeding disaster victims). The lack of a card shows that he actually did understand Joyce in some way.
At least since Becoming, Joyce had treated Spike as if he were just one of Buffy’s friends. She listened to him after Dru left him. She made him cocoa. She told him jokes about amphorae. She acted, in a way, like his mother might have. It’s odd to think that a vampire could recognize this, but perhaps Spike’s chip has prevented him from acting on his instincts and left open the possibility for another kind of reaction.
OTOH, helping Dawn with the resurrection spell may reflect his liking for Joyce, but ranks pretty low on the good judgment scale. The easy way to see why it’s bad judgment is to quote the reasons Dawn gives for wanting to do it: she hurts; “I don't have anybody.” These are selfish reasons, they’re what Dawn wants without reference to Joyce or anyone else.
Dawn’s attempt may have been selfish, but it was understandable to an extent. She’s young and innocent; she didn’t seem to realize what she was getting into with Doc. As she says, consistent with her metaphorical role this season, she also feels like Buffy’s ignoring her:
DAWN: I don't have anybody.
BUFFY: What?! Of course you do. You have me!
DAWN: No, I don't. You won't even look at me. It's so obvious you don't want me around.
BUFFY: That's not true.
DAWN: (harshly) Yes it is. Mom ... died, and it's like you don't even care.

Buffy’s breakdown at the end, which proves to Dawn that she desperately needs her mother, just as Dawn does, and that she needs Dawn as well, takes place in the very room where Buffy found her mother’s body in the opening to The Body. This is no accident: when Buffy hears the knock on the door, she says the words “Mommy? Mom?”, the exact reverse order of her words in The Body (reverse because now Joyce is coming back).
Spike had good (well, you get my meaning) company in his poor decision to help Dawn. Willow’s action in drawing Dawn’s attention to the book (and lying about it to Tara) raises a good many issues about both her judgment and her character. William B in comments: “I'd argue that if Willow really strongly believed that Dawn's Right To Know overwhelmed Tara's concerns, she should just give Dawn the book openly rather than hide it from Tara. The fact that she hides it from Tara shows that she either 1) partially knows that Tara might be correct but is trying to dismiss it, and so knows she can't handle an argument with Tara about it; or 2) doesn't trust Tara to be convinced by Willow's arguments even if Willow is correct. I think that it's a combination of the two; I think 1 is closer to the objective truth (which is that Tara has a very good point) and 2 is closer to how Willow rationalizes it, but even if Willow were entirely right and Tara entirely wrong, Tara has a right to be included as Dawn's co-guardian for the night.”
We know Willow doesn’t like to see people in pain – and this was pretty much the same reason Spike gave for helping – but using magic to make it go away didn’t work very well for Willow in Something Blue and was nearly a disaster here. This seems to be a case when a real strength – not wanting to see others suffer – can lead to very dubious responses.
Willow has always wanted to help. As early as The Harvest she “needed” to: “Buffy, I'm not anxious to go into a dark place full of monsters. But I do want to help. I need to.” Back then she helped by using her computer skills. Now she relies more and more on magic. It may seem like the two are similar, in that both involve arcane knowledge which Willow has worked hard to acquire, but beyond that they aren’t all that similar. Computers behave in predictable ways because science, by definition, operates within the laws of nature and therefore can’t change the fundamental character of the world. Putting aside the fact that Willow doesn’t treat magic like science (e.g., she doesn’t experiment on small things first), magic isn’t limited like that. It has the potential, if one is powerful enough, to change the natural order of things. Tara tries to deny this, but Dawn isn’t fooled:
TARA: (steps forward) Of course you wanna bring your mother back, and ... I wish we could, but it's not possible.
DAWN: Why? You guys do magic for all kinds of things.
WILLOW: We do, but...
TARA: This is different. Magic can't be used to alter the natural order of things.
DAWN: But all you do is mess with the natural order of things. You, you make things float, a-and disappear, and-
TARA: But we don't mess with life and death….
WILLOW: I'm not even sure it's possible, Dawn. I mean, I've ... seen things on resurrection, but ... there's books and stuff ... but I guess ... the spells ... backfire?
TARA: That's not the point.
WILLOW: That's not the point. The, the point is it's bad ... because ...
TARA: Because witches can't be allowed to alter the fabric of life for selfish reasons. Wiccans took an oath a long time ago to honor that.
DAWN: So it's possible ... to bring someone back? They wouldn't have taken an oath if they didn't know they could do it.
TARA: Maybe they could, but we can't.
WILLOW: She's right, Dawn. It's too dangerous.

Tara’s “can’t” really means “shouldn’t” when Dawn presses them. The more accurate reason is that every use of magic has to be balanced against the potential for drastic and unforeseen consequences.
This brings us back to an important distinction which arises out of the basic philosophical view of the world we’ve seen within the show. To get at this, we need to consider what it is that’s wrong about resurrecting the dead on a show which, after all, uses magic for many reasons. I think it relates back to the distinction I noted in S3 between revolution and rebellion (posts on Gingerbread and GD2). Revolution is wrong because it attempts to remake the fundamental nature of the world. Failure to respect the limits of the world leads to tyranny and cruelty.
Death is inherent in the human condition. Resurrection is therefore a revolutionary act – that is, bad in Joss’s view and in the view of Albert Camus – because it tries to overcome this inherent fact of the human condition. I’ll have more to say about this in S6.
Then there’s the emotional cost. Imagine how either Dawn or Buffy would have reacted had Joyce come back “wrong” (to use Tara’s word). That would have been devastating to the way they want to remember her. Worse yet, Buffy might have had to destroy the thing which now walked the earth wearing her mother’s face. That’s a whole new level of trauma. There’s another reason, related to this one, but it involves spoilers so I’ll discuss it later.
Some additional points:
A good measure of Buffy’s sense of guilt and lack of confidence in being a grown up can be seen in this part of her talk with Angel:
BUFFY: (shakes her head) I don't know. I keep thinking about it ... when I found her. If I had just gotten there ten minutes earlier...
ANGEL: You said they told you it wouldn't have made a difference.
BUFFY: They said ... "probably" ... wouldn't have made a difference. The exact thing they said ... was "probably." I haven't told that to anyone.

In fact, neither the paramedics nor Dr. Krieger used the word “probably” when they told her that there was nothing she could have done.
The episode title seems to apply in some way to Angel as well as to the fact of death. Buffy says she wants Angel to stay “forever”, but they both are reminded by her kiss that the curse is “forever” too.
Dawn reinforced the message of Blood Ties by behaving much like Buffy. She was brave, impulsive, and ultimately did the right thing. Spike even comments that she’s “Bitty Buffy”.
The brief shot of Giles listening to “Tales of Brave Ulysses” hearkens back to Band Candy. That was the song he and Joyce listened to in his apartment. Note the last line we hear from the song: For the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white-laced lips...
Doc humming “Peter and the Wolf”, though, has a very different implication.
Trivia notes: (1) The episode bears a loose relationship to the short story “The Monkey’s Paw”. (2) Buffy previously mentioned that her father was in Spain in Family. (3) The funeral service we hear for Joyce is from the Anglican service. (4) There’s an extremely subtle clue in this episode which helps explain something which happens in the finale. (5) Ben previously hit Jinx in Checkpoint. (6) Dawn invoked Osiris in her spell. He was the Egyptian god of the afterlife. (7) Those of you who watched on DVD don’t realize how lucky you are. In the original run, seven weeks separated The Body and Forever.

17 comments:

  1. Another key reason Willow lets Dawn have the book, which is both sympathetic and worrying, is a matter of identification. Giles kept books away from Willow, and Willow knew how that felt; Willow identifies with Dawn's curiosity and believes that she has the right to know whatever she wants to know. In fact, I'd argue this impulse is (again) a good one; but it's irresponsible because Dawn is not in a position to use the knowledge correctly. It's also a problem because Willow circumvents Tara. I'd argue that if Willow really strongly believed that Dawn's Right To Know overwhelmed Tara's concerns, she should just give Dawn the book openly rather than hide it from Tara. The fact that she hides it from Tara shows that she either 1) partially knows that Tara might be correct but is trying to dismiss it, and so knows she can't handle an argument with Tara about it; or 2) doesn't trust Tara to be convinced by Willow's arguments even if Willow is correct. I think that it's a combination of the two; I think 1 is closer to the objective truth (which is that Tara has a very good point) and 2 is closer to how Willow rationalizes it, but even if Willow were entirely right and Tara entirely wrong, Tara has a right to be included as Dawn's co-guardian for the night.

    SPOILERS

    In season seven, Anya and Willow indicate that magic comes "from physics" -- i.e. that magic actually is part of the physical nature of the world, and is another form. Part of the way computer hacking works is by repurposing code for purposes other than its original design, and a lot of scientific achievement is about reconsidering physical laws in a way that was not altogether obvious leading to synthetic compounds that are not produced by non-carbon-based lifeforms. So I'm not actually sure that magic is so different, insofar as magic creates "synthetic" changes to the world which would not result through non-human processes. The fact that the show's SF and fantasy material exist on a continuum, with robots and aliens (in Listening to Fear) being treated somewhat similarly to various fantasy elements under the general "genre" umbrella, suggest to me that the distinction is not so fundamental. And crucially, part of the point of "I Robot - You Jane" is about the way the internet, which gives unheard of levels of power to whoever can code quickly enough, gives power that is almost magical in nature; the episode is mostly foreshadowing for Willow's having the power to affect the whole world. Note that Moloch gets the power to disrupt the entire social order with a thought.

    THAT SAID, I agree that Willow doesn't follow the scientific method as such; she does do some small-scale experiemnts leading to bigger ones (getting a light in "OOMM" or whatever which she later tries to make bigger later), but she doesn't have the proper care that a scientist should. And it's also true that part of Willow's problem right now is that she's blind to the way that the metaphor of or poetics of magic is different from that of the usual social/scientific experiment.

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    1. CONTINUED SPOILERS

      My background in Camus is weak, but I think that the distinction between revolution and rebellion is one that makes a lot of sense to me. However, in a lot of ways I see revolution as being wrong for practical rather than abstract reasons: it is possible that the world could be different than it is now, and so we don't know a priori which apsects of the world are so fundmanetal that they can't be changed. However, revolution is dangerous inherently because some things are fundamental and disaster will occur if we try to change them. Which is why incremental change, or change from below (rebellion), is preferable to wholesale change from above. Which is to say that I'm not sure that it's 100% clear that resurrection is intrinsically, always immoral, but I agree that it is generally a bad idea because we can't know what the consequences will be, and it reflects too big a paradigm shift for the consequences to be something we can deal with. Conversely, I don't think it's impossible that resurrection from brain aneurysm could become commonplace through some kind of gradual process, just as many medical procedures in current existence would have seemed impossible centuries ago.

      Anyway. I'll talk about this last point more when we get to Bargaining, but I think the show's repeated emphasis on the distinction between mystical death and natural death is very important. Resurrection from natural death is a denial of the realities of life. But mystical death is not a reality of human existence, really: it is a specific cirucmstance, and the metaphor of mystical death is not necessarily the same as the metaphor of brain aneurysm death (which is not really a metaphor at all: it is a representation of actual death). As a result, I'm not sure that the resurrection of Buffy should be looked at with the same automatic dismissal as we should, I think, give to the idea of resurrecting Joyce. What it *is*, is risky and reckless, and it has some grounding in Willow's hubris, and the fact that she deals as badly as she does with Tara's natural death at the end of the season helps to show that the resurrection was partly Willow's attempt to convince herself that she has the power to reverse death generally. All of which are bad and worrying. But I am ultimately agnostic and possibly even mildly positive on the question of whether resurrection from mystical death is okay. Part of this is, too, that I think that I read Buffy's death itself as being more a metaphor for..."acceptance of death" than as being her actual death; Buffy needs to, at the end of s5, accept that her death can be generative, but it's not really the end of her story and indeed is in some senses (to me) an escape from it. That said, I go back and forth on the question, since her death is also the thing that allows Dawn to live, and so since Dawn moves from "metaphor" to "real" at that point, maybe has to be "real." So, I go back to being mostly agnostic on the question.

      On Spike, I can't remember who pointed it out, but I like the observation that his attempt to bring back Joyce has a lot in common with his attempt to prevent his mother's death -- so it's interesting that he either denies, or represses, the possibility that Joyce might indeed "come back wrong" as his own mother did.

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    2. On your first point, I'd vote for #1. I think Willow hates confrontations and doesn't want to get into one with Tara. Willow does have an argument -- "it's just a history book" -- but it isn't a great argument and the failure to recognize that Tara might have a role to play in the decision is at least as bad as her action itself.

      SPOILERS FOR ALL FUTURE EPISODES

      I was never entirely happy with the idea that "magic works off physics" (Get it Done). It's true that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", but that's at the observer end, not the working end. Be that as it may, I agree that Willow's statement there is probably inconsistent with my point here.

      As for resurrection, I agree with you that the distinction between "normal" death and "mystical" death makes sense within the show. I see the metaphor a bit differently (as I'll explain in The Gift), but the result is the same, namely, that Willow's resurrection spell is less worrisome in itself than in the hubris which accompanied it.

      Agreed on Spike. If we take a retrospective view from LMPTM, I guess we can say that Spike's felt need to prevent a mother figure's death remains the same, and he's now willing to try a more effective method.

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    3. Excellent, excellent posts, and not much to add.

      MILD SPOILERS

      On the subject of Willow - since you bring up the difference between her computer-based contributions and her magic-based contributions. One thing the show does very well, I think, is show how her sense of determination and effort slowly diminishes the more she comes to rely on magic - it's very subtly done over time. The Willow of the early seasons was always up for an intellectual challenge - it wasn't just her computer savvy that helped the group, but her overall problem solving abilities. The more she comes to rely on magic, the less she seems interested in solving problems and the more she just seems to want to make them go away.

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    4. Very good point about Willow. I agree.

      And thanks.

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  2. OK, you are bugging me, what is the subtle foreshadowing in your trivia number 4?

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    1. Heh.

      SPOILERS FOR THE GIFT

      Doc's tail is reptilian. Per Shadow and Blood Ties, that means he can detect that Dawn is the Key. That's how he can show up on the tower in The Gift.

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    2. Sweet observation . . . what's the clue from Blood Ties? I'm drawing a blank.

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    3. CONTINUED SPOILERS FOR THE GIFT

      This dialogue:

      "SPIKE: What else does it say about this key? Is it made out of gold? Maybe we can hock it, split the take.
      DAWN: Um, (reads) "The key is also susceptible to necromanced animal detection, particularly those of canine or serpent construct."

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    4. Excellent. God, I love this show!

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  3. What's the implication of Doc humming "Peter and the Wolf"? I read the plot on Wikipedia but I still don't get it.

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    1. SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF S5

      That Doc is very dangerous, like the wolf in the story. The music starts out bright and cheery (that's the portion Doc was humming), which encourages Peter to follow the duck past the safety of his gate. The duck ends up eaten and Peter ends up in a tree and is rescued by the hunters. In some versions, he manages to get a rope around the wolf, but either way, Peter can't come down until the hunters kill the wolf.

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    2. It was also a chance to get Joel Grey, a talented musical performer, to hum for us...

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    3. It probably would have been overkill if he'd sung "Willkomen".

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  4. I couldn't help noticing that all three Summers women have intense exchanges this season that include the line, "Good... Good."

    Joyce says it in "Listening to Fear" when Buffy promises to protect Dawn if she dies. Buffy says it in this episode when Angel says he can stay a few more minutes, and Dawn says it later when Doc tells her that resurrected Joyce will still be her mom, "more or less."

    I don't think that particular line means anything, but I like all the subtle emphasis of the similarities between the characters. We see Buffy trying to be like Joyce and Dawn like Buffy.

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    1. Nice catch. It's impossible to know if those parallels were intended, but I'd guess they were.

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