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Monday, December 17, 2012

Beneath You

[Updated May 3, 2013]

The closing scene of Beneath You is, IMHO, the best dramatic scene in the entire series (Joss wrote it). When S6 first aired, I had a lot of criticisms of Spike’s storyline from Seeing Red through Grave. I gave them all up when I saw this scene. It’s so transcendently beautiful that the set-up is worth it.
Joss said later that one thing he wanted to explore in S7 was the extent of forgiveness – what evil can be done yet still be forgivable. The ending of BY is a key moment for this exploration, but there will be many others throughout the season.

The title resonates not only with the theme of this episode and of the season, but with Fool For Love, where both Cecily and Buffy told Spike “you’re beneath me”. In his soliloquy Spike says that he sought a spark. Sparks glow; they are, one might say, effulgent.
Spike’s behavior follows the recovering alcoholic trope I mentioned in the post on Lessons. He begins the episode still in the DTs, saying repeatedly that “it’s not the time” and that he’s “not ready”. We see him later, however, come into the world with bravado, claiming he’s “changed” (note the change in clothing; it is, as he later admits, a costume) and therefore can handle "it" all on his own. As we’ll see later, there’s a reason for this behavior, but I won’t go into it now in order to avoid spoilers.
It turns out that Spike can’t “handle it”, and he tries to hide his new condition. Stabbing Ronnie was so traumatic, both emotionally and because of the chip (yes, it did fire), that he can’t hold the pretense. He loses his emotional control and confesses to Buffy in the church scene that she’s inspired him to “quit”.
We can see Ronnie as a metaphor for Spike – as a demon, he pursues one woman single-mindedly, but when the spell is reversed he ends up human – naked, vulnerable and wounded like Spike in the church. For once in his life, Spike is not wearing any costume. It’s that stripping off of layers which allows him to confess to Buffy that he got his soul. This is an essential step in his progress – he understood his fatal flaw and confessed his commitment to change.
Spike got his soul for Buffy and, I think we can say, because of Buffy. Does this mean he’s now her responsibility? I’ll let Rufus and Rahael take two sides of this:
Rufus: “Whatever Spike is now, whatever he is to become, I feel that Buffy has the power to shape [him]....will she choose to forgive, or will she reject the newly souled vampire? The choice is hers, and remember a certain guide in Intervention told her....."love give forgive" do anything else would be wrong.”
Rahael: “We cannot look to other people to save us. When we start trying to save ourselves, that's the key. That's what gives us responsibility and respect for ourselves. That's how we save ourselves. Others can give us motivations - but they cannot be held responsible for what we do - if they were, our 'salvation' is meaningless.”

I see it as a little bit of both. Buffy, having died and returned, is Spike’s route to salvation. To put it in Christian terms, his justification comes through Buffy. But unless you’re a strict Calvinist, that doesn’t mean Spike’s own conduct is irrelevant. As I interpret Joss’s view, seen in previous experience with Angel, Spike might lean on Buffy – he clearly wants her forgiveness but knows he has no right to ask for it – but eventually he has to take responsibility for himself. No, he can’t rest. Not yet.
We’ve also seen this pattern with Spike himself. He came to Buffy (“in friendship… well, seething hatred”) and begged for help in Pangs. Against all reason, she extended it to him. That eventually paid off in Intervention. The question for S7 is what responsibility Buffy will feel for the situation now.
I also saw the worm as representing Buffy's fears about Spike -- that he would stalk her and attack her. Spike instead attacked the demon (thereby protecting Buffy), and revealed that the demon was just a man inside it all. Same lesson Buffy learned about Spike himself a few moments later.
Spike’s soliloquy has pretty obvious sexual references, but can also refer to Buffy’s death in The Gift: “And you make me weak, thinking of you, holding myself, and spilling useless buckets of… salt over your... ending.”
The soliloquy also reaffirms that Spike sought his soul voluntarily.
Anya’s situation parallels that of Spike in some ways, as confirmed when they both “demon up” in the fight at the Bronze. There’s also a contrast: Spike got his soul for Buffy; Anya returned to vengeance because of Xander. Both Buffy and Xander took actions in the past which led to this point, and Xander was very wrong when he told Nancy that Anya was “ruining his life” when it was he who ruined hers. But Xander’s right when he tells Anya “sooner or later, Anya, that excuse just stops working.” Yes, the actions of others contribute to our current situation, but that doesn’t relieve us of responsibility from this point forward.
Anya has backed herself into a real corner. OTOH, as Hallie told her in Lessons, she has to worry about D’Hoffryn. If she fails to deliver the vengeance she’s supposed to mete out, then she will personally experience the fact that “it’s a bad time to be a good guy”. Hence her bravado in the confrontation at the Bronze.
But D’Hoffryn isn’t her only problem. If she continues as a vengeance demon she’s on a collision course with Buffy, as we see from the way Buffy put the sword on the table in the Bronze. That’s Buffy’s way of saying she means business.
It’s pretty clear that Anya herself is conflicted about her demon persona because she reverses the spell. She’s confused about what she is, but she’s reaching the point where she’s going to have to take a side.
Trivia notes: (1) The teaser was expressly an homage to Run Lola Run. (2) Buffy mentioned Dawn kissing a vampire, which she did in All The Way. (3) The worm monster derives from the movie Tremors, or perhaps Dune if you’re older. (4) Nancy’s boyfriend was Ronnie, a joke on the names of President Reagan and his wife. (5) Note also the additional joke in the name of the “[Nancy and] Sluggoth” demon. There was also a character in the comic strip named Spike. He was a bully who beat up Sluggo. (h/t Allie) (6) There’s perhaps a third pun too. Spike looks much like Sid Vicious, whose girlfriend was Nancy Spungen. If you see the worm as a metaphor for Spike, then this pun follows naturally. (7) Anya’s grant of Nancy’s wish was a pun. Nancy asked to make her boyfriend a worm. Anya made him the “same phylum” in accordance with her usual “bait and switch”. (8) Spike asked Buffy if she was “up for another round on the balcony”, referring to their sex there in Dead Things. (9) Spike asked Buffy if she was “off to the batpoles”. Buffy then rescues Nancy in a scene very reminiscent of Batman. (10) One of critic Robin Wood’s (see trivia note 8 to Lessons) essays on horror films is called “What Lies Beneath?”, which he wrote in 2001, and the theme of which is Freud’s theory of repression and the return of the repressed, with particular reference to the movie Day of the Dead. Hm.


  1. The part that broke my heart was when he rambles "Service the girl..." And he starts to unbuckle his pants. Buffy yells at him, and he goes "Oh, right, Girl doesn't want to be serviced" and on his face, what he did in Seeing Red and his horror at it, it's right there.

    1. JM is fantastic in the whole scene. So is SMG, who was required to be much more subtle.

  2. Ohmigod! I was reading the Wikipedia article for the Nancy comic strip, and there's a character named Spike, who is "the town bully who frequently knocks out Sluggo. Sluggo occasionally gets one over on Spike, however." Coincidence?

    1. I don't even remember that from the comic. I doubt it's coincidence though -- thanks for pointing it out.

  3. I agree the closing scene in this episode is one of the best of the series, for so many reasons. It also highlights something that isn't always explicitly discussed - James Marsters' ability to bring Spike to life in such a way that he is more than the words on the page of the script...not ever to take something away from the quality of the writing, but to say that he added something more.

    I do think that a great deal of the 'discussion' about Spike and his controversial character, especially in Seeing Red, was because Marsters brought so much humanity to the character that, maybe even without realizing it, he undercut the soullessness with his performance. So even when the text seemed to be saying "soulless vampire here" Marsters' portrayal suggested deeper layers, more to the story, something Else.


  4. Joss IS NOT the writter from Beneath you. The story is from Doug Petrie.
    And James Marsters says from this scene (and seven season):
    James: Well, Joss came up to me in the very beginning of the last season of Buffy, right after we shot the big church scene, where Spike goes on the cross, and I had just poured my heart out. And he said, "James, first of all, your episode sucks. Second of all, we have no idea what to do with you for this year. The only thing we know we want to do with is we want to kill you." Then he said, "But (laughs) I don't want you to remain dead. I want to bring you back." So, the whole year on Buffy was all about experimenting with different ways to continue the storytelling with this universe. There was going to be a spinoff, which didn't work out. I went through the year knowing that something was going to be continuing. When it didn't work with the spinoff, taking me over to Angel was talked about, and it seemed like a good idea. I wasn't really thinking of it as ending, so much as progress. (2-04 L.A. Press Junket)

    1. Yeah, Joss only wrote the final scene. I'll clarify that.

      Good quote from JM. Thanks.

  5. One parallel not mentioned here: Spike has a soul because of Buffy, whereas Angel lost his soul because of Buffy.
    This is the only ep of s7 that I liked (almost) all the way through. I say almost b/c of the scene btwn Spike and Anya at The Bronze. The writers totally cheapened the drunken comfort sex btwn the two from s6 (Entropy). The scene that followed was a mini masterpiece IMO. The way they look at each other says so much. It was nice, it was exactly what they both needed, and it was never gonna happen again. They were both exactly on the same page, and it was a small island of calm in the sea of insanity that was s6.

  6. I'm still trying to catch up, but it looks like I'll make it to the end of S7 a couple weeks behind you . . .

    . . . not much to add to your write-up, but just wanted to offer that Dawn's threat to Spike . . . the way she sets it up with her whole "you sleep, right?" coyness up to the final line, "you'll wake up on fire!" is one of the better moment's of her time on Buffy, I'd say - by "her" I mean both Dawn and MT.

    1. No hurry. I'm happy to keep the discussion going even after I get to Chosen next Monday.

      I think MT does pretty well in the anger/threat scenes. SPOILERS

      Her "welcome" of Faith in Dirty Girls works pretty well too.

    2. True, true. I really liked the way the scene played off Dawn and Spike's previous relationship, which the show had done such a fine job of crafting into one of its nicer friendships. Dawn obviously knows how Spike feels about her, and she uses it so effectively. It was like saying "I hate you right now," in a way that Spike could easily understand and completely believe (and it seemed to work based on his later line to Buffy about it).

      I guess MT/Dawn don't get tons of love, so it's worth pointing out these quality moments . . .

    3. As JEL recently pointed out in a comment on OAFA, MT gets blamed sometimes for her performance when she did exactly what the script (and presumably the direction) called for. Plus, I happen to know someone who knows her personally, and I'm told she's a sweetheart in person.

  7. Yes, the final sequence in this episode is tremendous, tremendous stuff. Not just the scripting and the performances, but the way it's shot and framed, the lighting, the interplay with the music... it is SO well done and tremendously effective that it contrasts sharply with the look and feel of everything else in the episode, which isn't BAD but is standard television. I have a dollar that says Joss directed everything starting with SMG walking towards the church.

    In much the same way that I really want to edit the HOBBIT movies down into a succinct 140 minute movie, I'd really like to re-edit all of season 7 into twelve episodes - a "mirror image" of Season 1. There is a lot of good stuff in S7, but I feel that there's a lot of other dead weight and narrative running-in-place which drags the rest of the season down. Maybe it's just me.

    1. It's probably not just you. S7 gets a lot of criticism; I'm in the minority in liking it as much as I do.

      But yeah, that final scene here in BY....