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Monday, October 1, 2012

Bargaining 1 & 2

[Updated May 2, 2013]

I need to begin S6 with some comments about how I see the season in the overall context of the series. I saw S1-5 as tracking Buffy’s progress to becoming an adult. As I read The Gift, she dived off the tower into adulthood. The natural consequence of that reading is that S6-7 should be understood as dealing with the first stages of Buffy’s journey as an adult.

In all previous seasons, Joss never knew if the show would be renewed for another season. At the end of S5 the show moved to a new network and he had a two year deal. I see S6 and S7 as one long, extended story about Buffy’s adult journey. That, in my view, explains both why Joss didn’t write the finale to S6 (the only finale he didn’t write), and why S6 ends on a cliffhanger.
Because of the move to the new network, because UPN had a very relaxed view of “standards and practices” (i.e., censorship), and because Buffy moved into new territory as an adult, S6 made some daring choices. There are very dark passages, very adult themes; naturally, the taste for such things will vary, especially given the contrast with previous seasons.
To say that S6 was controversial would be understating the situation a lot. I doubt there’s ever been a more controversial season on any show (not that I could measure such a thing anyway). As if further evidence of this were needed, the Mark Watches reviews of S6 episodes within the last few months generated raging internet debates over 10 years after the original air date. I guess I should be impressed that the show can inspire such emotion over such a long period of time, even if things got more than a bit out of control. Still, what happened there was just a small sample of the fights which took place in real time.
The season as a whole was controversial, one particular metaphor was controversial, and one episode, Seeing Red, became probably the most controversial episode of any TV show ever. Since I think the social impact of the series is important, I’ll be discussing all of this in addition to the individual episodes as we go along.
In previous seasons we saw Buffy learn from the mistakes of others. The show used devices such as “shadow self” (Cordelia, Faith) to tell us what she should not do, leaving Buffy herself to learn to follow the right path after seeing the wrong one. This changes to some extent in S6 and S7, and I think that the change is one reason why these two seasons are so controversial among fans. In these two seasons, Buffy often learns from her own mistakes, as adults generally do. That is, we see her take the wrong path initially, only to figure it out by the end. Many people felt that this made her unsympathetic as a character. I disagree – I see that as true to life and as making her character less remote, as superheroes so often are.
My overall assessment, up front, is that S6 was like A Tale Of Two Cities: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The peaks of S6 are (JMHO) the highest of any season. Unfortunately, I have very strong criticisms of one part of the story. Whether you love it or hate it, though, there’s nothing else like S6 in the whole history of television.

Joss wrote the season openers every year except in seasons 5 and 6. I don’t know why he didn’t write the opener in S5, but he had a very good excuse for not writing Bargaining in S6. We’ll see the result in, yes, episode 7.
The title – Bargaining – has multiple meanings in the episode:  Willow bargains for Buffy’s life; the vampire attempts a bargain with the demon bikers. Most important, though, is that “bargaining” is one of the five “stages of grief” hypothesized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The reference to the five stages is very clever on multiple levels, but I want to remind you in particular of this dialogue from Intervention, which I obviously think is intentional:
ANYA: We’re just kind of thrown by the you having sex with Spike.
BUFFY: The ... who whating how with huh?
ANYA: Okay, that's denial. That usually comes before anger.

Denial and anger are, respectively, the first two stages, bargaining is the third.
As applied in its original form – to impending death – bargaining “involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, ‘I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time...’” Quote from link.
It’s worth asking whether someone in these episodes promised to be better – to reform her life – as part of a bargain, and what that might mean metaphorically:
DAWN: You told me I had to be strong ... and I've tried. (tearful) But it's been so hard without you.
Buffy still has eyes closed, frowning.
DAWN: I'm sorry. I promise I'll do better, I will! (still tearful) If you're with me. Stay with me ... please. I need you to live.

In my view, we need to interpret this via the metaphor. Dawn isn’t the Key anymore, but she still has a metaphorical role as Buffy’s inner child. Buffy’s inner child wants her slayer half – the adult half – to pay more attention to her, and promises to be better in return. Keep that metaphor in mind as we go through S6.
But remember also that there are 2 more stages; I think those are critical for understanding this season. That’s a hint.
Willow’s behavior in Bargaining touches on the debate regarding Buffy’s refusal to kill Dawn in The Gift: what price is worth paying, when does the end justify the means? It seems to me that when Willow sacrifices the fawn she’s metaphorically sacrificing her own innocence. She tells Tara that the ingredient was “vino de madre”. Literally translated, that means “wine of the mother”. Symbolically, it means “blood of Mother Earth”. Note the color change of Willow’s clothing: she’s wearing white in the scene with the fawn, red afterwards. She’s stained with blood. Will she ultimately think it’s worth that price?
Making matters worse is the fact that Willow concealed her actions from Tara and everyone else. I was a bit surprised that Tara went along with the idea of resurrecting Buffy, but it seems likely that pressure from Willow, her own sense of wanting Buffy back, and an unwillingness to ask the hard questions about Willow’s methods led Tara to agree.
For all that Willow gets a lot of criticism for resurrecting Buffy, she has some good arguments to make on her side. One is the one she emphasizes in these episodes, namely, the need to rescue Buffy from Hell. If you honestly believed someone was in Hell, I assume you’d be willing to do a lot to try to get her out. Medieval Catholics paid lots of money for indulgences to keep themselves and their loved ones out of “mere” purgatory or to shorten their time there. The incentives are huge.
In addition, there’s the fact that we as a society go to fairly great lengths to preserve life. Doctors try their best to restore a beating heart or otherwise bring back someone from the brink of death. Willow’s actions are consistent with that.
There are personal and consequential arguments too: Willow understandably misses her best friend. She recognized Buffy when Xander, Anya, and Tara didn’t; Buffy’s especially important to Willow, and there’s a good metaphorical reason for that in S6. Bear in mind also that Willow’s been saddled with a great deal of responsibility, and it’s clear that she’s barely held herself together except with the thought that Buffy might be brought back: “Nothing, it was all for nothing. Buffy's gone. She's really gone.”  She’s obviously been leading the SG in the nightly war against vampires, but Sunnydale needs a Slayer. Giles strongly implied this in the teaser and the invasion by the demon bikers reinforces Willow’s exercise of responsibility to restore the Hellmouth’s guardian.
Against all these, though, are some pretty serious downsides. Willow didn’t just conceal her methods from everyone, she and the others hid the very deed itself from Giles, Dawn, and Spike, all of whom had a right to know. It’s doubtful that Willow considered the full price of her spell, assuming she knows it. The gang seems never to have considered bringing Faith into Sunnydale in order to establish a new guardian. There are some other downsides in addition, one of which we’ll see next episode.
I’ll talk more in my next post about what it means for Buffy to be back. For now I’ll just make one point. Buffy’s first words were “Is this Hell?”. Writer Marti Noxon refers to the destruction Buffy sees as “the external manifestation of Buffy’s inner turmoil.” Buffy must have thought that her sacrifice in The Gift had been for naught. When she looks out over the tower, remembering back to the events of The Gift, it’s hard to tell if she’s thinking of suicide or if she believes she needs to jump again in order to save the world from the Hell it appears to be.
A final comment:
I’m not at all a fan of the demon bikers. The writing of them is over the top and needlessly heavy-handed. Worse yet, most demons on the show serve a metaphorical purpose. If there is one here, I don’t get it.
Trivia notes: (1) Xander’s “great googly moogly” comes from Maggie and the Ferocious Beast. (2) Xander referred to The Fury when Willow used telepathy to talk to him because that movie involved a girl with psychic powers. (3) Spike mentioned Dadaism after some of the Buffybot’s word salad. See the link (and recall that Buffy used a similar expression to Xander in The Freshman). (4) The fact that Dawn’s class created a high-tech, futurist society after reading Walden is surely intended as irony. Thoreau’s purpose in living by himself in the woods was to “see if I could not learn what [life] had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." That may refer to Buffy’s situation here. (5) Tara mentioned that they could perform the spell because Mercury was in retrograde. Mercury was the messenger god. One of his duties was to guide the souls of the dead to the underworld. In astrological retrograde, Mercury would then do the opposite, meaning guide the souls of the dead back to the world. (6) Willow’s invocation to the fawn – “Adonai, Helomi, Pine”, etc. – comes from a 17th Century book of demonology called The Lesser Key of Solomon. The specific words are from the “Prayer at Calling”, which you can find here. (7) Tara’s “Grr! Arrgh!” as they bid goodbye to Giles is an in joke because it was taken from the closing credits of the show. (8) Willow calls on Osiris to resurrect Buffy, and it was Osiris whom Dawn invoked in Forever. (9) In Nightmares (S1) we saw that Buffy’s nightmare was rising out of a grave as a vampire. Here she has to claw her way out of her coffin just like one. SMG, as I mentioned in my notes on Nightmares, is somewhat claustrophobic and was not happy that Joss made her do this again after he promised not to. (10) Razor’s “I’ll service ya, girl toy.” is a pun. To “service” someone in American slang is to have sex with them. The phrase “girl toy” is a play on “boy toy” and may also refer to sex toys generally. (11) Xander’s “We got trouble. Right here in Hellmouth City.” plays off the lyrics from the song “Trouble” in The Music Man. (12) Tara’s spell invoking Aradia to find Willow is the same one Willow used in Fear, Itself. (13) Xander’s comment about Tara being Tinkerbell recalls Tara’s comment to Willow in Out of my Mind: “TARA: How'd you do that? With the light? WILLOW: Oh, you know. You taught me. TARA: I taught you teeny Tinkerbell light.” (14) NORAD, which Xander mentions, is the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and he means the headquarters. In short, it’s the command central for a nuclear war. “Defcon 1” is the highest level of alert. (15) “Gentlemen, start your engines” – what Razor says when they destroy the Buffybot – is the phrase used to start the Indianapolis 500. (16) Xander referred to the demon bikers as “the wild bunch” after the movie of that title. Some of the events in Bargaining 2 bear a general resemblance to the movie. (17) Xander’s “the better to cut you down to size” plays off the dialogue in the story Little Red Riding Hood. (17) The UPN Standards & Practices department was much more lenient than the WB’s. We see evidence of that here with Willow and Tara kissing in a romantic way (something the WB never allowed) and will see much more later. (18) For those watching on DVD, there was a lot of discussion over the summer between S5 and S6 about whether another Slayer would be called upon Buffy’s death. The answer is that there would not. The reason is that calling the new Slayer works only for one death. The Slayer line runs through Faith now, and has since Kendra died. It’s important to add that while Joss said this, that doesn’t mean the characters within the series realize it.


  1. Actually, "Gentlemen, Start your engines" Is the ceremonial phrase used to start ALL american Indy and Nascar races, and probably all lower level races also. It's actually used to start the parade laps, so it is the official start of the event, but the actual race starts when the green flag drops 3 or 4 laps later.

    Yrs for accuracy,
    Bruce From Missouri

    1. Thanks. Did it originate at Indy?

    2. Google tells me that it originated at Indy, probably in 1948, and has since spread everywhere else. The command is given by Mari Hulman George (matriarch of the family that owns the track) at Indy, and given by someone associated with the race sponsor almost everywhere else.

      Now you know more than you ever wanted to about auto racing starting traditions.... :>

      Bruce from Missouri

  2. Frank Zappa said "great googly moogly" in his song "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" (or perhaps one of the other songs on side 1) on his "Apostrophe'" album, back in 1974. Seems a more likely source for a Xander quotation.

    1. I can't rule that out, and it may be the original source. However, the writers of Buffy seem more familiar with cartoons than the MoI.

    2. Zappa lifted that phrase from at least one old doo-wop/R&B song ("Stranded in the Jungle"), and I believe it was used elsewhere among that whole time and genre. It was most often used as an exclamation of "the natives," and is fairly racist. However, much like the whole song "Witch Doctor," it was usually used by black doo wop groups and for fun. Let the whole sociology of racism in black American pop music discussion commence (or not)...

      Zappa was a HUGE doo wop fan and almost surely got the phrase from there. Whether Xander got it from music or TV seems like a a toss-up to me, based on his character. It seems likelier that the writers got it from the cartoon, though, based on their stated likes/interests.

    3. Interesting background. Thanks.

  3. Excellent article as always Mark.

    (Which probably explains why the only comments are nitpickin your trivia, lol)

  4. I love how this episode makes me feel that things are just about to be resolved, as soon as one more thing happens. I remember thinking "As soon as they finish the spell, Buffy's back," "As soon as they find Buffy, she'll be okay," "As soon as Dawn talks Buffy down, she'll be back to normal." Then at the end all immediate danger/confusion is over, and she's still not okay.

    Mild spoiler:
    It's such a good setup for the season.

    1. Very much so on your spoiler point. See Life Serial.

    2. is it strange I when I read your comment I thought of the line in Spiral, which Spike starts "as soon as Buffy gets here, we'll..." and Giles finishes "feel oddly worse."?


    I'm still on deadline, so just a few (very belated) thoughts—

    First, thanks for another so lovely post—

    Second, I confess that I love this season, despite its significant problems (one plot line in particular): the decision to have Buffy be depressed for the entire season was, I think, incredibly brave—I cannot think of another show that would dare to give depression such an in-depth, realistic representation. And as someone who has suffered from major depression, I very much appreciated it—I never thought I'd see that aspect of my life on television...

    (Moreover, when one thinks of one's early 20s—although my depression lasted past that stage—, well... )

    I think you are right about the problems some people had with Buffy's behavior, and I wonder how much the reaction splits down the line of age, with those who watched the show as adults being much more sympathetic to her choices and her mode of learning (that was when I watched it, and I understood what she was doing, was neither confused nor upset by it—though I was sometimes as frustrated with her as I would get with myself for not getting it sooner, for having to make those kinds of mistakes... )

    And yes, I, too, am no fan of the hellions... At best, they are merely not metaphorical, a distraction; at worst, they waver between the gross and the silly in terribly uninteresting ways...

    But I am looking forward to your analysis of the season—

    1. I really can't tell if there's an age breakdown for those who like S6 versus those who don't. It does seem that those who prefer the high school seasons dislike S6-7 more than most.

      Thanks, and I hope your deadline clears up soon.

    2. I agree with that. My faves list runs 6,7,5,4-3*,2,1. But I started watching it live in 6(watched some of 5 live, my first ep ever was Fool For Love, how lucky is that, though I vaguely recall a season two ep being on in the background and my cousin explaining that Angel was a vampire with a soul) and that may affect my appreciation, as well as the fact that I was 22.

      The later seasons aren't as tightly plotted with regards to the metaphors, but they are much more daring in terms of content.

      *4 & 3 are tied for me, I love 3 because Faith, but I really FEEL Buffy's college trauma, so it's a wash.

  6. Mark -

    Still very interested/entertained/without-time-to-comment-valuably as my least favorite season commences! [VAGUE SPOILER] I will be interested in your readings of it, particularly as it explores Buffy (and the SG) at their most vulnerable, especially her metaphoric spirit, heart, and (regrettably) often absent mind.

    A quibble: not sure that the "wild bunch" reference is accurate. "The Wild Bunch" is the Peckinpah hyper-violent Western. "The Wild Ones" is the Brando motorcycle gang movie. Haven't seen Bargaining in a loooong time, but it seems likelier that the latter movie is being referenced (incorrectly) by Xander. This is REALLY nitpicky, given the similarity of titles (a mistake made often even by film buffs... ahem), but due to your thoroughness and Joss' love of Westerns, I would comment. Hope it adds value, rather than just space.

    1. I appreciate the comments, especially if you're time-constrained.

      The reason I'm confident it was The Wild Bunch -- aside from Xander's comment -- is that one of the demons was originally named Pike, which was the name of the William Holden character in that movie. They changed it later to avoid confusion with Buffy's watcher in the movie. Also, one of the characters in The Wild Bunch is dragged on the ground behind a car before being killed.

  7. I guess while I'm on break from my hiatus (heh) --

    I love what you've written here. So I will just add a quick thing or two.

    1) I think maybe the central bit of "bargaining" is the Buffybot itself. The Buffybot is in a big way a delaying tactic -- if the gang maintain the Buffybot, treat her well, they can escape their loss. And the gang sure needs that Buffybot -- and indeed, I think the primary (plot) purpose of the demon bikers is to show how the whole town will collapse/be destroyed without it. You mention this, but it's interesting that the people who seem most attached to the Buffybot are actually the very people Willow keeps in the dark about the resurrection spell. Giles focuses all his attentions on the Buffybot rather than any of the living, human people he could be training; Dawn cuddles with her at night. I have read people saying that Giles and Dawn seem to be moving on better than the core gang members who are intent on resurrecting Buffy -- but really, they aren't, because they are just using the Buffybot as a way of delaying their grief. And there is a sense in which if they keep the Buffybot close, they won't have to deal with the grief. Really real Buffy is gone, but I don't think they've fully processed it. When Giles finally does process that the Buffybot is not really any substitute for Buffy, he just leaves. As many people have pointed out, the way the gang hangs onto the Buffybot is also a dark mirror for what the gang really wants from Buffy -- they sort of want a fantasy Buffy who doesn't exist. The one who is most disgusted with the Buffybot is Spike, and he's the one (SPOILER) to embrace the decidedly non-chipper Buffy most clearly.

    2) On the demon bikers: Spring Summers writes reviews over at the Soulful Spike Society (unfortunately, their webpage isn't very easy to give links to). Anyway, she suggests that the demon bikers represent, in her view, anarchic late-adolescent rebellion against authority -- the destructive kind, that is. She points out that their arrival into Sunnydale happens the very SCENE after Giles' departure as the patriarch. In that sense, their metaphorical function is to represent the chaos of adulthood where there are no parental figures, and to serve as a dark mirror for the way Willow et al. break a big rule in resurrecting Buffy.

  8. Clearly you need to go on hiatus more often.

    Spring Summers' suggestion for the metaphorical role of the demon bikers is very good. It's interesting because if they do fill that role, the metaphor applies to Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya, not to Buffy (who isn't rebelling, what with being all dead and obedient). The metaphor works very nicely that way, even if it differs from my usual Buffy-centric reading.

    I very much agree on the Buffybot. It's a stalling tactic -- they're all using it to gain more time before they acknowledge Buffy's death. And yes, it became their fantasy just as it served previously as Spike's.

    1. Clearly I do.

      Conversely, (SPOILERS) Buffy does have her own form of rebellion later in the season with her affair with soulless Spike which goes against central tenets of slayerhood, and the Spike affair follows immediately Giles' other departure. In that sense, while the demon bikers right now are more mirroring the gang, the gang's own breaking a rule in bringing Buffy back can also be seen as a mirror of, or be in a relationship with, Buffy's own breaking out of certain structures. I do think, too, that with both the gang defying what Giles would say and with Buffy defying what Giles would think, re: Spike, the dark mirror of the demon bikers doesn't have to be the last word on the subject. Buffy does eventually accept her life, Willow does eventually turn her power for good (in s7), and the Buffy/Spike relationship does have positive fruits.

    2. :)

      Wait until I use my judo to try to defend Wrecked. (I may fail, of course, but hey, trying is important.)