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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Normal Again

[Updated May 2, 2013]

Normal Again is another one of the reasons I think S6, at its best, is brilliant. It’s a Top Ten episode for me, one of at least 4 this season (along with OMWF, Smashed, and Dead Things). I think of it as Buffy’s last temptation before her incarnation as an adult who accepts her responsibilities. And yeah, I’m using that vocabulary intentionally.

The asylum looked pretty horrific, so we need to consider why Buffy would find it “tempting”. It wasn’t the asylum itself, it was the promise held out of a “normal” life with her mother and father. Basically, she was being offered the chance to return to her childhood, and to escape from the problems of adulthood which she can’t seem to solve.
The key scene takes place in the basement, i.e., Buffy’s metaphorical subconscious. The demon was chained down there, naturally enough; it’s where we all keep our demons. J Xander, Willow and Dawn aren’t usually there, so Buffy had to force them in order to repress/destroy them as the doctor urged. Why were Tara and Spike not captured and dragged to the basement? My view is that W/X/D were insisting that she stay in their world. Tara refused to judge her, and Spike said it didn't matter which choice she made, as long as she made one. AsylumBuffy didn't need to kill them off to break her ties to SunnydaleBuffy. Therefore they weren't in the basement.
There’s another factor as well, in my view. Buffy’s friends have caused her untold grief this season. Willow and Xander pulled her out of heaven; Xander summoned a demon which nearly killed her; Willow violated her mind; Willow nearly killed Dawn; Dawn shoplifts and is needy despite Buffy’s own troubles. Through it all, Buffy has forgiven them. She hid the nature of her return, she apologized to Willow for not noticing that Willow was “drowning”, she never even mentioned Willow’s “mind wipe”, an event so serious that Tara up and left Willow because of it. All this is bound to create resentments in Buffy’s subconscious, and I think we can see her loosing the demon on her friends as a reflection of that resentment.
Andrew summoned this demon. I’ve said before that I think Life Serial established a template for the season as a whole. In that episode, Andrew summoned the demons who attacked her at the construction site. The construction workers said that the whole incident was all in her imagination: “I don't know what you're talking about. All I know is you were losin' it or something. … You're trippin', sweetie.” Buffy then protests to Xander, “I didn't imagine this, Xander.” Here, the demon’s poison works by creating an imaginary world for Buffy, one where, in Spike’s words, “we're all little figments of Buffy's funny-farm delusion.”
Spike’s behavior was, as usual, controversial. Some viewers saw him as giving Buffy the “tough love” advice she needed. Others thought he manipulated her by giving her an ultimatum which caused her, at least for a while, to become willing to sacrifice her friends.
I personally see his comments mostly as “tough love”, but I think they can be interpreted either way. If we see them as causing her to sacrifice her friends, then we need to understand why she would feel that way in the story line (I mentioned the metaphor above). In my view, it’s fear of exposure, especially to Xander. It’s Buffy's fear of Xander's disapproval that causes her to hide aspects of her behavior, that makes her want to appear more "normal". That desire to be normal was driving her fantasy of the asylum.
I’ve seen two criticisms of Normal Again. One is that Buffy’s statement to Willow about her previous stay in a clinic was a retcon. It’s a close call, but I don’t think so. There’s nothing in the show which says directly that she wasn’t. While it’s a little hard to square a stay in an asylum with some of the dialogue in previous episodes (particularly the teaser to Bad Eggs), I think Joyce’s well-established ability to repress things, emphasized at the end of that very episode, allows us to accept it. Assuming Buffy was in an asylum, that would go far to explain her consistent unwillingness to reveal things about her life, particularly her secrecy about her role as Slayer, and her relationships with the vampires Angel and Spike.
It would also explain her close relationship with Willow and Xander. She said that she was released from the “clinic” when she stopped talking about the things she saw. That’s a harsh lesson – that people who love you will punish you if you don’t conform, but will take you back if you do. But here were Willow and Xander who accepted the truth of vampires and didn’t reject her. The story of the clinic helps explain Buffy’s fierce loyalty to her friends.
Some viewers didn’t like the final scene in the asylum with the camera pan out the door. In their view, as I understand it, this cheapened the whole show by suggesting that the entire show was a lie, that it had all taken place inside Buffy’s head. Here’s what Joss had to say about that:
“If [the viewers] decide that the entire thing is all playing out in some crazy person’s head, well the joke of the thing to us was it is, and that crazy person is me. It was kind of the ultimate postmodern look at the concept of a writer writing a show, which is not the sort of thing we usually do on the show. The show had merit in itself because it did raise the question, "How can you live in this world and be sane?" But at the same time the idea amused me very much and we played on it a little bit, "How come her little sister is taller than her?" "What was Adam’s plan?" We played on the crazy things we came up with time and time again, to make this fantasy show work and called them into question the way any normal person would. But ultimately the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles, if that’s what the viewer wants. Personally, I think it really happened.” (spoilers at link)

I interpret the scene differently. To me, the important fact is that Buffy hasn’t yet taken the antidote. As I interpret it, the camera is Buffy looking back on the asylum as she rejects it in her mind.
In a larger sense, though, I’d say it doesn’t matter which Verse is the “true” one. What matters is Buffy’s choice. That’s really the essence of the show for me. As I saw it, the reason she poured out the antidote initially was that she hadn't yet made the choice to stay in the adult world. She was still being tempted by the false security – a form of childhood – offered by the hallucination. It's the same choice she has faced, in varying degrees, since Bargaining: between childhood and accepting the responsibilities of adulthood.
The lure of the safety and comfort offered by her vision offered her an out from the various metaphorical and story line reasons to hate her life, to be angry with her friends, and to fear their disapproval. She would no longer have to exist in a world where the hardest thing to do is to live in it.

In the end, she chose the cruel world of adulthood rather than the safe one of childhood. I believe that she made that existential choice when faced with the loss of Willow. Willow is Buffy’s metaphorical spirit. If Willow died, Buffy’s life in the AsylumVerse would have been spiritually dead. That’s no better than where she is now, maybe worse.
The most significant point of all, I’ll repeat, is that she made the choice before she took the antidote. There may not be “objectively correct” answers to the various moral challenges Buffy faces – Buffy still hasn’t solved her season dilemma of what she needs to do to actually be an adult -- but it’s critically important that we choose. Making choices is how we construct our own lives. Hm, “constructing our own lives”? That sounds familiar; where have I heard it before? Oh yeah, it was the class discussion in Life Serial.
Trivia notes: (1) Credited writer Diego Gutierrez was an assistant to Joss. Most people suspect Joss of contributing a lot to this episode, since Gutierrez never got writing credit on any other episode despite the brilliance of this one. (2) Jonathan says he’s going “Jack Torrance” in the basement, referring to the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining. In fact it’s Buffy who actually does. (3) Jonathan asked Andrew, “Did you even read Legion of Doom?” (4) Xander called Spike “Willy Wannabite”, which is probably a play on Willy Wonka. (5) Warren described Buffy as “tripping like a Ken Russell film festival.” (6) Warren called Jonathan “Spanky”, presumably referring to the character from the series Our Gang. (7) This dialogue between Andrew and Warren sets up the next episode: “WARREN: Ah, now, there's the vault. ANDREW: I still say we're gonna need eight other guys to pull this off. WARREN: I never should have let you see that movie.” The movie he meant was Ocean’s Eleven. (8) The photo of a young Buffy with her mother and father came from the episode The Weight Of The World. (9) Spike used the phrase “funny farm”, which is slang for an insane asylum. (10) In her delusion, the doctor told Buffy that she had a “momentary awakening last summer” from which her friends “pulled you back in”. He’s referring to the time she was dead. (11) Willow asked Buffy, “No more cuckoo’s nest”, referring to the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Cuckoo’s nest” is also a slang term for an insane asylum. (12) Willow referred to the demon as “tranked out”, meaning tranquilized. (13) Xander entered the house calling “Friends? Romans?”, quoting the famous opening of Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar. (14) The scene where Buffy chokes Xander comes from The Shining. (15)  Cheers resounded throughout the nation when Buffy gagged Dawn. J


  1. "Cheers resounded throughout the nation when Buffy gagged Dawn." Never have you stated a truer thing, sir.

  2. Readinf about quote of Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar you remain me about one interesting article I've read recently:

    1. Counter-factual histories are always interesting. Caesar came to power as a populist supporting the people of Rome against the landed oligarchy of the Senate. You never know how someone like that will actually rule, but I tend to be pretty cynical about it.

      Still, Caesar had a well-deserved reputation for mercy with his oligarchical opponents, and that plus his military talent might very well have allowed him to transition the Republic to the Empire in a favorable way. By the time Augustus took control, the latest round of civil war had destroyed that possibility.

  3. A few thoughts—

    I love this episode, and I like your reading of the final shot. I would point out, however, that in your last comments you are moving away from an existntialist position, toward a postmodern one…

    Buffy’s relationship with her friends is in this episode complex: on the one hand, there is the violence and hostility of the basement scene, but on the other, and before that, there are signs of a thaw… We see her talking to Willow about Tara—having, that is, girl-talk, as they would have of old—and then we see her accepting Xander with open arms, telling him “you don’t have to explain to us,” and even giving him a bit of tough love, “you mean, between the sobs?”—again, speaking to him, and speaking to him with Willow, as she would have of old. And although one might say, and I would to an extent agree, that this might another instance of Buffy making gestures toward her friends without being willing to accept any in return, I do think that there has been something of a change even before the demon’s effects become very noticeable. Xander’s failure at his wedding, along with his failure to talk to either Buffy or Willow, I would argue, shocked both women into facing, on some level, how far they had drifted from each other, had drawn them closer, opened them to each other, at least a little, if not on a conscious level. But at this point, of course, Buffy is still hiding her experience of the evening before, indicating that however much her feelings may have melted a bit, she remains ambivalent, unready to trust her friends completely again.

    She does, however, tell them that night, after they see her collapse—and I find it very significant that she then tells them the truth, that she does not brush it off as a momentary bout of exhaustion, that she does not simply lie about it, as I think she would have done a few months earlier. A number of factors are at work here: 1) Xander’s wedding. 2) Her realization that leaving Spike did not solve her problems. (I do not think she initially saw Spike as her primary problem, but think she may have come to believe him to be that at the end, in part due to Riley’s visit—but then she broke up with him and felt no better… ) 3) The sheer affective force of the experience—and I think we have to call it an experience, not a memory or a feeling or a hallucination—of the asylum. For not only does she tell W/X/D the truth of what is happening to her, but she later confesses her current depression, her inability to “snap out of it” as she characterizes it, and Willow confesses, in turn, her sense that they have all been failing themselves and each other, which is how I read the line “We’ve all been kinda slumming”—and then Buffy, who, as Mark notes, has been given, with good reason, to hiding so many things, particularly this, tells of being in the asylum, to which Willow responds with empathy. A moment of real connection occurs.

    1. All of this is very good, on one level: it indicates that Buffy was beginning to choose life before the basement scene, even if the shock of the poison’s effects were part of the impetus. On the other hand, I think that these very moments increased her ambivalence, for the feeling of engagement of the world, while gratifying in some ways, also produced panic in others: when recovering from depression, the first feelings of life can be frightening, painful—akin to coming back to life, thus returning Buffy to that trauma… (Think of the first four lines of The Waste Land… ) Notice that Buffy returns to the asylum after moments of connection or attempted connection with Dawn or the group (we don’t see it after the moment with Willow, but that is because of the understandable desire for the segue to Xander and Spike hunting the demon).

      Spike’s words function in a related manner: I, too, see him as dishing out tough love, although in part because he gets it right by getting it wrong (per usual)—although he is also right about some things, too. He was right in saying she was drawn to the misery, because at that point, she was—she was never a “creature of the dark”—that was Spike’s dream and delusion. And he was right in his demand that she “let [herself] live,” for that was precisely what she was not able to let herself do—although doing so was far from a simple matter of will, as his demand made it sound… if it were, depression would not be so intractable a disease…. He was even right in saying that he helped her, and right, I think, in thinking that that help came from his love for her, but not fully right in his imagination of how that help worked. For I think that at this point Spike still believes that Buffy is coming to love his, that she has feelings akin to love, feelings that would be love if she would let herself… Rather, he helped her by being a repository for her pain when that was all she could desire: at the point at which they began sleeping together, I would argue, Buffy was in so much pain, felt so alienated from her friends, and was so depressed that her ability to desire was itself contracted to a perversion of her power, and Spike gave that an outlet through their exchange of sexual violence. This fits in with the main themes of the season, but I’ll save fuller elaboration for my comments on the finale.

      Ultimately, I think that Buffy pours out the antidote less out in response to Spike’s threat, important though that is, more in response to his earlier demand that she let herself live: it is life, itself, not Spike’s revelation, that she finds most painful and frightening, and even though she knows that the antidote will not end her depression, she has felt the thawing, the stirring of the dull roots, knows that if she drinks the fluid she will begin to come back to real life…

    2. I do think Buffy became more post-modernist in S6 and S7. It was right around this time, in fact, that manwitch began posting on that topic at AtPO. That said, though, the concept of constructing one's own life is, I think, consistent with existentialism even if the basic idea came later.

      Nice points about the "one step forward, two steps back" nature of Buffy's reactions here. She moves tentatively towards her friends, as you note, but the underlying resentments still hold her back. She makes a confession to them -- very unusual for her -- but note that she doesn't completely explain the asylum or what it might mean to her. Only later does Dawn realize that Buffy might see the asylum as a way out. Dawn personalizes this when she shouldn't, but it's true in a way.

      Good points about Spike's words and the nature of his feelings for her.

  4. Very clever episode with really good 'mise en abyme', subtexts, winks and meta.

    Whether the viewer wants to believe which reality is 'real' or not, in real life, depression usually doesn't cure itself like that and in the previous episodes, I think they showed very well all the different faces of depression and they're kind of stuck really - which I think AYW shows by rubbing stuff we already know in our face again and not very subtly.

    So taking medication, going to see a psychologist and maybe going to the hospital (ok, not the asylum, and its depiction is probably a bit too extreme) are often needed in cases of strong depression. It's after several "sessions" in the alternate reality that Buffy starts to open up, and in that conversation with Willow to accept that she is depressed and it has been a while.

    Contrary to what I wrote in AYW comments, I don't think Riley was a wake-up call (ouf!) and we can see that she is still "lost" in Normal Again - although she might seem to be better in Hell's Bells for instance. But SMG plays very well the chirpy Buffy with a touch of fakeness which reminds me of the Buffybot. Anyway, she is not "cured" and there has been no wake-up calls so far - if ever this is what is needed against depression.

    But going to see a doctor and opening up again are certainly good starts. Of course, the point of the series is not to explain depression and how you fight against it, so lots of questions remain unanswered but I feel NA is the closure of a "mini depression arc".

    Which started when? After The gift? or after The Body? I don't know, not sure if it matters really. After the Body, Buffy said to Giles that she was not sure Joyce knew that Buffy loved her, that she felt like she was loosing the ability to love, and later on she said again to Giles how she wished her mom was here. The same Giles told her in at the beginning of season 6 how Joyce taught Buffy what she needed to know to face 'normal' life but Buffy has been clearly doubting it.

    And so the "wake-up" scene (if there is really one) is really, really good: in a world of surreal fiction, Buffy can, for real, experience being with and talk to her dead mother in an "alternate" reality which wants her to believe her surreal world is not real!! And what her mother tells her is probably what she needed to hear - a message to be strong for sure but also a goodbye she couldn't have:

    Joyce: "Buffy? Buffy! Buffy, fight it. You're too good to give in, you can beat this thing. Be strong, baby, ok? I know you're afraid. I know the world feels like a hard place sometimes, but you've got people who love you. Your dad and I, we have all the faith in the world in you. We'll always be with you."