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Monday, November 19, 2012

Hell's Bells

[Updated May 2, 2013]

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.” Hamlet, Act IV, sc. 5.
Metaphorically, Xander couldn’t marry Anya in Hell's Bells. He’s Buffy’s “heart”, and this season her heart is unsure, conflicted. We’ve seen that uncertainty in her half-hearted pursuit of the Trio and in her relationship with Spike. We’ll know Buffy has recovered from her malaise when her heart is sure again. And vice versa.

Xander’s not just a metaphor, of course, he’s fully developed character in his own right, so we need to look at this episode from that angle as well. For me, there are three factors contributing to his decision to walk out. One is his relationship with Buffy. The second is how much he really loves Anya, an issue I’ve raised before in my post on Into the Woods. The third factor is Xander’s own family background. I’ll discuss these in this order.
Xander, as I’ll discuss below, fears his own weaknesses. He’s able to overcome those weaknesses, in part, because he sees himself as valuable to Buffy. His vision suggests that when that's gone, there will nothing worthwhile left in him. He also senses that he’s going to have to put Buffy’s mission aside for Anya. The thing that makes him feel enough of a man to believe that he can get married (his ability to help Buffy) is the same thing he stands to lose if he goes through with it.
I’ve said before that I thought Xander’s speech to Anya in Into the Woods rang false. In my eyes, Xander didn’t behave as if he loved Anya “powerfully, painfully”. Xander rarely defended her, he often criticized her, there was always an air of patronizing about his sarcasm towards her. I collected instances of these in my posts on Into the Woods and Doublemeat Palace. That treatment, we now see, turns out to be consistent with, though not nearly as obnoxious as, the way Xander’s father behaves towards his mother; it’s part of Xander’s fear revealed here in Hell’s Bells.
Xander’s vision also included physical abuse, though he has never been physically abusive towards Anya, nor do I think he ever would be. We didn’t see that with his father, but it doesn’t take much to imagine that physical abuse also was part of the Harris household. It’s not surprising, then, that Xander would fear it even if I don’t think it’s likely. The potential for physical abuse does fit with the season theme, given Xander’s metaphorical role and Buffy’s relationship with Spike.
Xander made the decision to cancel the wedding just like he made the decision to announce it – without letting Anya have any real say. As Tara told Willow in TR, “But you don't get to decide what is better for us, Will. We're in a relationship, we are supposed to decide together.” It’s worse in Xander’s case, because he told Anya just last episode that he very much wanted to be married to her:
ANYA: So our wedding... (Xander nodding) not our marriage. (smiles)
XANDER: Separate things. One fills me with a dread akin to public speaking engagements.
ANYA: And that would be the wedding.
XANDER: Which will be over soon.
ANYA: But our marriage...
XANDER: That lasts forever.

And a year ago he actually promised Anya to give her warning if he decided to leave:
ANYA: If you ever decide to go, I want a warning. You know, big flashing red lights, and-and-and one of those clocks that counts down like a bomb in a movie? And there's a whole bunch of, of colored wires, and I'm not sure which is the right one to cut, but I guess the green one, and then at the last second "No! The red one!" and then click, it stops with three-tenths of a second left, but then you don't leave. (pause) Like that, okay? XANDER: Check. Big bomb clock. (Triangle)

In light of all this, one way to see Xander’s speech to Anya in ItW is that it did for him exactly what I think his speech to Buffy did for her (see my post on that episode): he talked himself into thinking something he didn't completely feel. He rushed into proposing to Anya before considering what marriage meant. He tried to force himself to go through with the wedding even though he didn't want to. I think the fact that he and Anya were not a couple in Tabula Rasa tends to confirm this view (hence my reference to the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze, where the key clue was that the dog didn’t bark).
Xander’s relationship with Anya has also raised issues regarding Xander’s judgmental reactions to Angel (and even Spike, though to a lesser extent). Anya is in a similar situation as Angel was when Buffy met him. Angelus was a vicious, violent demon who committed unspeakable crimes until he got his soul. Anyanka’s career as a vengeance demon was arguably worse if for no other reason than that it was 4 times as long. Both became human by chance and their own “mistakes” in the choice of victim. Unlike Angel, Anya showed occasional nostalgia for her former life (Doppelgangland, Pangs, her continued relationship with Halfrek and D’Hoffryn). Xander’s criticism of Angel looks pretty hypocritical in this light.
The demon’s “poetic justice” revenge drives this point home, but it would be a mistake for us to see Xander’s reaction as motivated solely by doubts about Anya. They aren’t, though the demon leads Anya to think that. Xander’s doubts are mostly about himself – he thought his family was his destiny instead of his origin. He hasn't realized what Spike said to Dawn in Crush, "Doesn't seem to me it matters very much how you start out." It’s not surprising that Xander thinks this way – it’s exactly what he thought about Angel. Metaphorically, we might see this as expressing Buffy’s concern that her Slayer power will eventually corrupt her human side; when Xander walks out of the wedding for fear of what he might become, that’s a form of Buffy’s refusal to accept her adulthood.
By leaving, Xander demonstrated that he isn’t ready for adulthood either. As manwitch put it 10 years ago, “You don't avoid becoming your father by running and hiding from the situation. You avoid becoming your father by being in the same situation and being different.”
In comments, State of Siege offered a much more favorable take on Xander’s relationship with Anya. It’s worth reading as a contrast to mine. I'd put it this way: Xander wants someone he can put on a pedestal. He wants (his idealized) Buffy. Anya's flaws make it impossible for Xander to put her on a pedestal. In order for the relationship to work, he needs to learn to stop doing that (and to stop expressing his disappointment when the woman fails to live up to his ideal). Anya is therefore a test of Xander's maturity.
Xander told Anya that didn’t leave because of her, but he certainly does have doubts about Anya. Those doubts were the focal point of OMWF: “Am I marrying a demon?” Anya may not be a demon, but she’s no fairy princess either. She never has made much effort to realize her humanity; the closest she came was when she finally got her wedding vows right. But not until she confronted the demon she created has she had the opportunity to come face to face with her past wrongdoing.  If remorse is an essential condition for redemption, then Anya hasn’t shown that yet. The ending scene suggests that D’Hoffryn has offered her her powers back. In that case we’ll find out if Anya’s commitment to humanity is real or if it’s still a work in progress (Xander’s words in The Prom).
On a purely structural note, I have substantial criticisms of Hell’s Bells. In particular, it’s hard to explain the absence of Willow, Buffy, Tara, and Dawn from the scene in which Xander tells Anya he’s leaving. All four were standing there next to him just a moment before, but they are completely absent thereafter. That’s a real flaw in the plotting and it’s distracting. So is the absence of Giles without any mention of him.
Trivia notes: (1) Willow wanted to wear a tuxedo and be “Marlene Dietrich-y”, after the 1930s film star. (2) Uncle Rory wanted an Irish coffee: coffee and whiskey. (3) Mr. Harris said that Krelvin came from a long line of “geeks”. The joke is that the word “geek” originated in the circus – they were the “freaks” in circus side-shows. (4) The “Bison Lodge” is a takeoff of Moose Lodges. (5) Uncle Rory is a taxidermist, which we learned in The Dark Age. (6) Clem mentioned the Commedia dell’arte, for which see the link. (7) Xander asked Buffy if she wanted to “get lucky”, which is an American idiom meaning to have sex. (8) Buffy responded with “into the breach with you”, which plays off a line from Henry V (“once more unto the breach”) and tells Xander to brave the crowd. (9) Dawn referred to Spike’s date as a “Manic Panicked freak”. The reference is to a New York-based chain specializing in hair dye and related products. (10) Dawn described Spike as “macking” with his date, a slang term meaning “making out with”. (11) Mr. Harris said that marriage saved him from a dose of the “clap”, a slang term meaning venereal disease. (12) Joss wrote the Buffy/Spike scene. (13) Spike tells Buffy she “glows”, a reminder of William in Fool For Love when he wanted a synonym for “glowing” and ended up with “effulgent”. (14) Willow reminded Xander of their last experience with formal wear, which was when they first kissed in Homecoming. (15) Anya’s reference to herself as a “sex poodle” was a joke about Jane Espenson, who called herself that. (16) Mr. Harris asked the bartender for a “double Jack”, meaning a double shot of Jack Daniels whiskey.


  1. I like much of what you write here, agree with most of it, especially your analysis of Xander’s flight from adulthood, and I very much share your criticisms of the episode as a whole (it has never been one of my favorites), but I have a slightly different view of the Xander-Anya relationship—along with a few new ideas about which I am not at all sure—but perhaps worth floating… I have written parts of this before, but I thought collecting the bits might be useful, might further discussion…

    You seem to have a negative view of the Xander-Anya relationship, but I think it is more complex: Anya was the only person who showed any faith in Xander during S4, when his friends abandoned him to his wandering through minimum-wage obscurity and humiliation, and it was her confession of love for him, her assurance that he was “a good person and a good boyfriend,” that, arguably, enabled him to get out of bed and rejoin the group in Primeval, that roused him from his complete demoralization, enabled him to even take Buffy’s call. Moreover, while Xander was always correcting Anya from the start, I really see a difference between the tone of those corrections, a change from S4&5 to S6: in the former, there is admittedly a certain condescension, but there is also clear, real affection and even, at times, a modicum of respect. This does begin to change in S6, where I see less affection, no respect, and a growing spite and dread as the season progresses and the wedding nears, but that is an effect of the wedding and Xander’s doubts, which I’ll discuss below.

    I agree that Xander’s speech in ItW had a role—much like the role you give it—in his proposal to Anya, but only as part of a longer process that is part of the season’s arc for all its characters. It begins for Xander in The Replacement, when he has a vision of himself as he could be were he to be more confident—were he to escape from the shadow of his father, leave the basement figuratively as well as literally (Restless). That more confident Xander gets the apartment for Anya, and it is at that point that she begins to enumerate her list: the plans she has for their life, from the dog to the boat to… And I see Xander as falling in love less with Anya at that moment than with that vision of himself: he wants to become the confident Xander, the apartment-having-, Anya-pleasing-, Buffy-helping-Xander (as opposed to the being-saved-by-Buffy-Xander). That includes the Buffy&Riley-understanding-and-saving-Xander, as you have so finely explicated him, and the glorified-bricklayer-Xander (picking up a spare) and the proposing-Xander. The Buffy&Riley-Xander is thus another step in his process of becoming his most heroic version of himself (for, as local-max has written, all the characters become the most heroic versions of themselves at the end of S5). And as Restless adumbrates and HB makes clear, the most heroic Xander is the Xander free of the basement—and free of his father in every sense, free his determinations, free to not repeat.

  2. But S6 is all about the fall from high heroism back into life… And Xander falls back from his heroic vision of himself and his life with Anya into its reality. Even worse, as I have written, the spell and the doers’ inability to take responsibility for it have disregulated each character’s relationship to Buffy and him or herself, leaving Xander unable to think through his predicament or speak to either Anya or his friends about it. Finally, Anya herself has regressed: in The Gift, she, too, was at her most heroic, not fleeing this apocalypse out of love for Xander, turning her snarkiness to creative use—but now she is back to obsessing about money and material things like her wedding. This leaves Xander feeling trapped, and the new meanness in the tone of his comments to Anya is the result. Moreover, I think that it stems not simply from fears of Anya but from fears of himself, for I do not think the wedding event is the start of his dread of becoming his father—the very tone of his comments bear witness to a perverse awareness of this danger. Halfrek’s comments and Anya’s plaintive response to them in LAaFA also testify to the abusive edge Xander’s corrections have begun to take on (Halfrek may be a demon, but as a Vengeance Demon, she is sensitive to manifestations of abuse… ) Hence, as you write, Xander’s flight from life and adulthood at the wedding.

    In a strange way, I think that Xander does love Anya—but do not think he is in love with her, do not think he loves her enough… In a way, he loves her too much too marry her—and not enough to marry her: too much to subject her to his worst vision of himself, not enough to conquer that vision of himself…

    I do think that you are correct in pointing out that Xander has never faced Anya’s demon past, that intimations of it are beginning to haunt him as the marriage approaches. But I have suddenly found myself wondering, too, if he has begun to fear the human side of Anya just as much: the way in which she has adapted to the human world, by becoming so perfect a vision of materialist America, is perhaps as disturbing as her former crimes—for at least she will not be repeating the latter. One might argue that these aspects testify to Anya’s unresolved demonism, but given how very human they are, I think that that is the easy way out. The fact is that Anya may not be the nicest of humans—that, as a human-in-progess, she may be progressing in a direction that Xander does not find himself able to love.* And if that is the case, then the marriage is truly doomed—although it would be the last thing that Xander could admit to himself, hence, again, the suppressed hostility.

    But enough on this topic—

    Final thought—I am not surprised that Joss wrote the Buffy-Spike scene, as it is, to me, the most moving passage in the entire episode (although Anya’s vows and her walk down the aisle are strong).

    *In this she would be like Angel: It is not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy, it’s the man… Although we could hardly advocate killing a person for almost Ayn Randian capitalism, I suppose…

    1. I know that I have a tendency to be too hard on Xander, so I really do appreciate a different take on him. As so often, I was nodding in agreement with your take. The point you make jointly with local max about the differences between S5 and S6 is particularly apt.

      I've pointed out Anya's weaknesses before but I'm not sure I've tied them to her relationship with Xander as you suggest. I should have. I'd put it this way: Xander wants someone he can put on a pedestal. He wants (his idealized) Buffy. Anya's flaws make it impossible for Xander to put her on a pedestal. In order for the relationship to work, he needs to learn to stop doing that (and to stop expressing his disappointment when the woman fails to live up to his ideal). Anya is therefore a test of Xander's maturity.

    2. Great analysis Mark. Thanks. I also really enjoyed reading your posts, SoS97. I especially liked the way you and Mark explore Xander's love for Anya, if it is really there. I think he does love her, but he is struggling with the reality of the emotion. As you noted, he wants the fairy tale love, he wants a girl on a pedestal. The mundane real thing seems too terrible to be worth cherishing.

      It ties in with what I see as the overall theme of S6, which is about to be made explicit in "Normal Again" so I'll wait to comment more, except to say that the Xander's inability to find the balance between the mundane and the heroic is very clear in this episode. His inability to see how real love is both mundane and glorious is the problem. It ties in with the mundane evil of the geeks, the mundane, gray world of the DMP, the mundane struggle to survive and pay the bills. It connects powerfully with Buffy's closing statement in The Gift, the same sentence Dawn says again in OMWF. "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it." I'm not arguing that Joss and Co are saying that adulthood is evil, per se, but it certainly represents a time when many become 'soulless' if they live with only the mundane.

    3. Great stuff, Mark.

      I also enjoyed both SoS97's posts and Karen's as well. A few quick notes:

      I think that Giles' absence, and the lack of mention of him, serves a useful purpose -- which is to keep Giles' absence from the story even stronger, and to keep the "kids" even more cut off from even the awareness that there is a quasi-parental safety net out there. Giles was mentioned in the shooting script as pointed out below, but I could actually imagine that Giles simply wouldn't bother contacting them. His reason for leaving was Buffy; while he likes Anya and sort of likes Xander, he's not (IMHO) going to endanger his project of letting Buffy loose in order to come back to attend their wedding.

      Re: Karen's point, I'm not sure if it's so much the heroic vs. the mundane, exactly, but there is a bit of a...supernatural vs. mundane theme this year, in which the entire supernatural framework of the show seems to be collapsing (as pointed out explicitly in Normal Again), and especially post-OMWF. Metaphorically, this is because Buffy feels cut off from purpose to her life -- her purpose being to, well, slay demons, but figuratively/emotionally live an ethical life. With her death and resurrection, she's lost that spiritual purpose, which is why Willow spends the year first using magic for purely personal gain (and eventually hedonism), and then rejecting magic entirely. The wedding, and Xander's failure to go through with it, is indeed an example of the loss of this spiritual dimension to their lives, the loss of heroism; and it's interesting/remarkable that their heroism is defined in opposition to the forces of darkness, which are representations of the parts of their inner selves that they have to conquer, and no longer can because they no longer can see/access them, trapped as they are in the everyday (like being trapped in the house in OAFA).

    4. I do think that Xander loves Anya, but "not enough," and I love SoS97's framework that he loves her enough to leave her, but not enough to stay and marry her.

      Re: Anya's demon past: while I don't think it was necessarily intended (though maybe!), I think that Anya's hypercapitalism actually does relate to her vengeance demon past in an interesting way. (Spoilers for Selfless.) In Selfless, we are offered an interpretation of Anya as someone who, in her words, "clung to whatever came along" -- first Olaf, then vengeance, then marriage with Xander. In the Russian Revolution she was communist, and now she's hypercapitalist, and the point is that Anya latches onto individual ideas -- romantic love, communism, vengeance demonhood, capitalism, marriage -- and then remakes her whole identity using these, to the point where the rest of her morality is completely overwhelmed by it. Anya's kind of predatory capitalism is exactly as amoral and ruthless as her vengeance demon career; in both cases she justifies it by adopting the governing philosophy as a moral guide, but ultimately that's just a feint; she likes to think of herself as advancing society (via capitalism) or helping female victims (via vengeance), but she is basically self-serving and is myopic about her own social role, unquestioning of the values handed down to her provided that they give her a place in society. Her vengeance is *not* favourable to the women whom she exacts it for -- we saw it with Cordelia, and we will see it again with the woman in Selfless. And in a similar sense, as much as we focus on Xander's love/not love for Anya, Anya *is* partly using Xander as a way of giving herself a role, and has adopted the structure of the bride and has fallen in love with that structure as much as she has fallen in love with Xander. The fact that (spoilers again) she turns to kill Xander in two episodes, and would have succeeded had it not been for the "vengeance demons can't exact vengeance themselves" clause, shows that she has a long way to go to actually being able to love in a full-hearted manner.

    5. I do think that this also indicates a subtle explanation for the shift in Xander's perception, which SOS has pointed out. In DMP, Halfrek swoops in and says that half the time she's not even sure if she's eviscerating the right guy, and nearly kills Xander. On some level, perhaps not even consciously, I think that Xander and the others (not Willow) may have bought into, just a tiny bit, that Anya's vengeance past was justified: that men are crappy (Xander's father certainly is) and deserve what they get. It's not that Xander would approve of Anya being currently vengeful, but somehow the idea of Anya(nka) avenging wrongs in the past is an easier-to-swallow narrative than Angel or Spike chowing down on virgins. The problem is that Anya *wasn't* actually that careful, and wasn't really all that devoted, ultimately, to the welfare of the women she was protecting -- Halfrek nearly kills Xander, again, due to a missed connection, and Xander comes face to face with the fact that vengeance demons are a real concept (Anyanka is an abstraction, really) and that, um, not everyone deserved what they got, which is something I don't think he fully processed consciously.

      This is a relatively minor point, though -- as Mark says, Xander's primary fears are about himself, NOT Anya. But they are interrelated, in that his fears about Anya *are* the reason that he has anger at her, and that anger is the thing that makes him unable to fully love her and suspect that he will abuse her in the future. His doubts about Anya are also doubts about himself. And indeed, their relationship is well constructed in that Anya's using Xander as a liferaft after she lost vengeance is a mirror of Xander using Anya as a liferaft after he lost his purpose toward the end of s3 and especially post-Graduation. The two needed to break up because Entropy and Selfless needed to happen for both of them -- i.e. they both have huge unexamined issues w.r.t. demons and men that they can't quite process. Entropy is essential, here, because that's where Anya goes back to being a vengeance demon, attempting to kill Xander (as a man), and Xander returns fully to the douchey anti-demon bigotry and nearly kills Spike (as a demon).

    6. Great thoughts, as usual, local-max. I particularly like the point about the unheroic nature of all their behavior in S6. I've often marveled (heh) at the fact that Joss created such a great hero in S1-5 and then spent S6-7 questioning the whole idea of "hero".

      Your point about Giles is reasonable, though I still think the failure even to mention him was a poor choice.

      Very nice summary of Anya. It's true -- she and Xander are, to some extent, using each other. They also need each other, but in ways they don't fully appreciate.


      In my view, their relationship post-Selfless actually allows them to start talking through their issues. Unfortunately, they never get to the end of that conversation.

  3. The Watcher's Guide 3 reveals cut dialogue which explains Giles' absence:

    Dawn: "I thought Xander and Anya couldn't afford flowers."
    Willow: "Giles sent 'em. Aren't they gorgeous?"
    Dawn: "Yeah. I wish Giles was here."
    Willow: "Me too. And I'm sure he'd much rather be here than fighting that nasty demon-"
    Dawn: "Da-e-mon. In England it's daemon."
    Willow: "Daemon, too right. But Giles's got responsibilities. And so Anya and Xander have flowers. And flowers. And more flowers. Ooh, it's going to be so pretty."

    1. Yes, I've seen that. Sadly, that didn't make it into what we actually saw. I'm not sure why, either, because it's a short scene and some other scenes don't seem all that essential (Buffy juggling, funny as it was, doesn't seem nearly as important).

      Using the shooting scripts raises an interesting point about authorial intent. My basic judgment in these reviews is that we should evaluate only the final version of the show, but there are times when it makes sense to look outside that. In this case, I'm not sure that it helps much to say that the writers recognized the issue and failed to account for it anyway.