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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Selfless

[Updated May 3, 2013]

Season 7 has its critics, but I’ve never seen anyone who dislikes Selfless (this being the internet, I’m sure someone will now prove me wrong). It’s in my top 25, and it’s one of many reasons I personally rate S7 so highly. I think it’s a perfect example of what Joss meant when he said that we would understand S6 much better when we saw S7 – Anya’s story here couldn’t be told without the background of Hell’s Bells and succeeding episodes.


Although Spike’s very brief scene seems unrelated to the main story line, I think it’s very much on point. I’ve always seen Anya as a parallel to Spike. Both were long-time cold-blooded killers. Both would have preferred to remain that way. Anya lost her amulet, Spike gained a chip. These events resulted in forced socialization that originated in attraction to one member of the SG. Both struggled with the adaptation to humanity after so many years as a demon.
Spike and Anya are now both struggling with their consciences. Spike’s dialogue with the first Buffy is, as I see it, an internal dialogue in which he’s imagining that she would understand if he went to her for help, though he knows that he has no right to ask. The Buffy he “sees” in that dialogue represents something internal to him, the nature and purpose of which I’ll explain later:
SPIKE
I'm in trouble, Buffy.
BUFFY
I can help you.
SPIKE
I could never ask. Not after...
BUFFY
It's different. You're different.
SPIKE
I could never ask.

The harsher-sounding Buffy, dressed in black, then comes in to tell him to take steps to help himself. That tough love advice comes from the real Buffy, as we see from the fact that she’s wearing black for the remainder of the episode. Similarly, as I’ll discuss below, Anya takes steps to help herself only after Buffy’s intervention.
Anya’s story actually begins in the opening scene, though she’s not in it. Dawn’s advice to Willow in the teaser describes someone who has no self:
DAWN
My advice to you is do exactly what everyone else does all the time.
WILLOW
Got it.
DAWN
Do what everyone else does, wear what everyone else wears, say what everyone else says.
WILLOW
OK.
DAWN
People may say something to you you don't understand. Just don't be afraid to keep your mouth shut and pretend like you know what they're saying.

When Buffy and Xander return to the house and learn that it was Anyanka who summoned the demon, Buffy tells him that she’s been thinking about the problem of Anya since the summer. We can be sure that she also considered her duty with respect to Willow in STSP. It’s pretty clear Willow understood that too, in light of their conversation at the end of STSP:
BUFFY
I have a confession to make. I thought it might be you. With the flaying.
WILLOW
I know.
BUFFY
I wanna be the kind of person that wouldn't think that. Xander never thought it.
WILLOW
He did, a little. Heck, I did a little. Xander has the luxury of not saying it, but you're the slayer. You have to say stuff like that.

This, I think, helps explain Willow’s sympathy for Anya throughout the episode.
Buffy’s sense of responsibility for the dead frat boys must be all the greater because she let Anya’s behavior drop after Anya reversed the spell on Ronnie in BY. We should remember the lessons of Innocence and Passion; Buffy does.
When Buffy mentioned Xander’s Lie in Becoming, I literally jumped up off the couch and shouted at the TV. Finally! This was a hotly debated topic on the internet for years but it seemed the writers would never bring it up again. Not only did Drew Goddard use it at exactly the right moment (93 episodes and 4.5 years later!), but he made it clear that Buffy viewed Xander’s previous betrayal and his current hypocrisy as stemming from precisely the fact that he had cheered her on to kill the man she loved. Think back to the sword fight in Becoming 2. Angelus told Buffy that she had “no weapons…no friends… no hope.” It wasn’t that her friends were not physically present. It was that if those whom she called friends were willing to cheer her on to kill the love of her life, then they weren’t really friends at all.
I had never seen anyone articulate this aspect before, despite reading hundreds of comments on this topic. Among other things, this cast a whole new light on Buffy’s decision to leave Sunnydale at the end of S2 and her reaction to her friends at the start of S3. It also speaks volumes about Buffy’s character that she never said these words until Xander forced her.
Buffy’s use of the phrase “I am the law” should bring to mind Faith’s very similar statement in Consequences: “You know in your gut we don't need the law. We *are* the law.”
There’s a crucial difference between the two, notwithstanding the similarity in the words used. In context, Faith said it in order to avoid responsibility. Buffy said it as a way of accepting her responsibility in the course of her duty. It’s the burden each Slayer has faced from the beginning (word used advisedly):
BUFFY
It is always different! It's always complicated. And at some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the slayer is always cut off. There's no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing council. Human rules don't apply. There's only me. I am the law.

This is another key point of the season, tied in with the seasonal themes, the problem Buffy posed at the end of Help, and the solution Buffy will adopt to her seasonal problem.
Although Xander told Anya that Buffy was not coming as part of an “intervention”, I think that’s exactly what it was. Buffy gave Xander a head start, and she looked to Willow for an alternative.
When she arrived at the frat house, her actions can be seen as shock therapy, perhaps. I believe Buffy knew that something drastic had to be done to get Anya to change (compare the real Buffy’s “tough love” advice to Spike earlier). I interpret Buffy’s action in the fight as letting it go on as long as possible so that Anya would understand the reality of it. Then she told Anya she was sorry and stabbed her. That moment was, thematically, the death of Anyanka. Note that Anya had been in demon face before the sword, but was in human face after. (Drew Godard, DVD commentary.)
Buffy surely remembered the experience in OAFA when a sword through the chest failed to kill Hallie, an incident Anya expressly mentions afterwards. IMO, Buffy suspected that Anya was attempting suicide by cop as a cry for help and pushed it just far enough to force her to change (with some help from Xander and Willow). Anya wanted to die – she lay unmoving on the floor as Buffy raised the sword over her (Drew Godard, DVD commentary).
I personally had underestimated D’Hoffryn and thought of him as less threatening than he was revealed to be in this episode. I guess the pimp can seem sympathetic until one of his “girls” tries to leave, and the dialogue here certainly supports that characterization of D’Hoffryn. He converted Anya’s attempt at selflessness into a horrifying punishment – killing her only friend in the story, killing her vengeance demon side in metaphor – leaving Anya to find her true self on her own.
Trivia notes: (1) Selfless was Drew Goddard’s first ever script. (2) Joss provided the dead frat boys story and wrote the X/A scene at the end. (3) Aud – which gets pronounced “odd” by Anya so we can get the joke – was an actual Norse name of an early settler in Iceland and the wife of Olaf (really). (4) Spike remembered that Dru saw stars even indoors, which she did in Innocence. (5) Spike’s line “scream Montresor all you like” refers to Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Cask of Amontillado. Montresor walled up Fortunato in the basement in order to kill him, and Fortunato screamed Montresor’s name to no effect. (6) There was a revolution in Russia in 1905, but it failed. (7) Halfrek referred to the “Winter Mansion” in connection with that revolution, presumably meaning the Winter Palace. That palace featured in the 1917 Revolution, but not in 1905. (8) Anya’s claim that workers would overthrow absolutism and lead the proletariat to revolution succinctly summarizes the stated goals of the Communists. (9) Buffy says that Anya chose to become a vengeance demon twice. It was actually three times, though Buffy had no way to know that – Anya demanded her powers back at the beginning of Doppelgangland. (10) Willow got the talisman to summon D’Hoffryn in Something Blue. (11) In Anya’s flashback, Xander said that he just wanted a happy ending, which is what he said when everyone discovered that he summoned Sweet in OMWF. (12) Anya’s mention of coconuts also refers back to OMWF. (13) Marti Noxon and David Fury sing the mustard song in the background of the flashback. (14) Joss wrote Anya’s song in the flashback. (15) Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins was the name Anya gave the Council in Checkpoint. (16) Anya’s phrase “I’ll never tell” refers back to the song she and Xander sang in OMWF. (17) All of Kali Rocha’s scenes for the season were shot on 1 day, which shows how far in advance episodes were plotted. (18) Just to complete the point I made in my essays on The Wish and Doppelgangland, I’ll mention here the issue of Anyanka’s pendant. One potential weakness in my interpretation of The Wish as a daydream is the existence of her pendant as a real item. While there’s plenty of evidence in those S3 episodes that Anyanka needs her pendant as her power source, there’s evidence to the contrary in the episodes from Entropy through Selfless. In those episodes no amulet or pendant is ever mentioned, nor is she ever shown relying on one, even when she’s acting as a vengeance demon. More significantly, the whole ending of Selfless makes no sense if there had been one. Nobody would have needed D’Hoffryn to reverse the deaths of the frat boys and to expel Anyanka from the Order – they could have just smashed her pendant as Giles did in The Wish. Thematically, of course, Anya had to ask – to wish, actually – rather than have her pendant smashed involuntarily.

15 comments:

  1. I have no disagreement with any part of this article.

    I like the parallels to be drawn to Becoming, and I think they are completely intentional, even down to the sword fight. It's no mistake, considering that in Becoming she fought her heart's love, and in Selfless, she fought her "heart's" love. There is even a witty little parallel in how their titles refer to self actualization. These parallels are why this episode is perfect for the epic callback(though I felt it was given a little short shrift. I'd trade one of the later eps to have given this one a two-parter too).

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    1. Thanks. I agree with your points. I'd happily trade Him for a two-parter of Selfless.

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    2. Well, I have to disagree with you on that, I wouldn't trade Him for anything, just for THAT scene.

      But the events of Never Leave Me, Bring On The Night, and Showtime could have been condensed to two eps, leaving room for Selfless 1 & 2.

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    3. Fair enough. I don't dislike Him, I just like Selfless a LOT.

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  2. Apologies to everyone for the typeface in this post. Something's weird between Word and Blogger, and I didn't have time to play with it this morning. I'll see if I can fix it later today.

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  3. Your commentary is spot-on. I just love this episode. I love Spike's scene (this hallucination* isn't the first time he's yearned for a Buffy that isn't "the other, not-so-pleasant Buffy," i.e., the Buffybot), I love Anya's backstory, I love the many jokes, references, and minutiae from previous episodes. And I love Willow's role in this episode, how we see in just a couple of scenes that she's simultaneously getting her life back together and still grappling with her powers, how she goes to Anya first because she understands Buffy/the Slayer completely, and how she knows exactly what to do to fix things in the end. They're doing an amazing job redeeming her character.

    Also, the SG conversation. That scene was written and acted so well it made my heart ache. This episode really does "go back to the beginning." I completely agree with you, the writers could not have chosen a more perfect moment to bring back Xander's lie. At first I was frustrated that more didn't come out of the reveal. But the facial expressions and just the implications of the conversation are enough (there's also another reason but I'll discuss that in a moment). Buffy may have needed to push her feelings aside and avoid a personal confrontation in order to be the Slayer in that moment but at least Anya later said what was on my mind: "I have a job to do. And so does Buffy. Xander, you've always seen what you wanted to. But you knew, sooner or later, it would come to this." Xander's hypocritical comments also feel a bit 'back to the beginning' in their callousness: this episode's - "You know, if there's a mass-murdering demon that you're, oh, say, boning, then it's all gray area." - vs. Season 3's Revelations - "For what? For Angel to go psycho again the next time you give him a happy?" However, I don't want to punch him as much as I did when he told off Buffy in previous scenes because in this situation he has an understandable reason not to be thinking straight, considering the (supposed) love of his life is about to be killed by one of his best friends. I'm not saying Buffy's a perfect decision maker, especially when it comes to love, but as Buffy FINALLY told him in Seeing Red: "Xander, what I do with my personal life is none of your business." In high school a lot of the bite behind his comments had to do with him being lovesick over Buffy but here that's not really the case. Well, sort of**.

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    1. Okay, back to the lie. Another reason the timing is perfect is that it highlights the parallels between this situation and Becoming Part II. As Aeryl already mentioned, the stabbing is very similar. But what makes the parallel so tragic is that in Becoming Part II Willow - unbeknownst to Buffy - tries to save the day by re-attempting the ensouling spell. Of course we know she was successful but too late. In Selfless she does something similar - as you mentioned (and I completely agree with you, especially considering that Buffy actually said "Please find it [another way]") Buffy may have been stalling, but there was no way for her to really know if Willow could come up with something in time. But just before Buffy's about to administer what could be the final blow, Willow uses magic to summon D'Hoffryn and save Anya. It's horrible that Buffy and Willow were able to save Anya but couldn't save Angel in Season 2 (is this just the writers being cruel to our hero and her tragic love life or does this just show how far the SG has come if in a parallel situation the character in question is spared? Of course it's more complicated than that, but still, poor Buffy)

      * SPOILERS
      hallucination or The First? I can't remember. I guess it can't be The First since she seemed to touch Spike.

      **The OMWF flashback (terrifying transition to Anya that reminds me of the transitions from The Body) suddenly made me think - and maybe this is a bit of a stretch - that Anya dyed her hair blonde because Buffy's blonde? Also from OMWF: "When things get rough / He just hides behind his Buffy / Now look, he's getting huffy / 'Cause he knows that I know." She started off with dark hair, and now she's back to dark hair since they're not together anymore. I know it's a small detail but I wonder if that was at all a reason for the hair color changes.

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    2. Good point about Spike and his previous desire for a "more pleasant" Buffy.

      Your comment made me realize that there's another point of similarity with Becoming. Here in Selfless, Xander was necessary to the short delay which allowed Willow's solution to work -- he knocked Buffy away as she was about deliver the final blow. If he hadn't hated Angel quite so much, he might have performed a similar role then.

      SPOILERS

      It was the First. There are several cases when the actors didn't quite remember that they weren't supposed to touch anything. It's most obvious with Cassie in CWDP.

      I'm not sure about the hair color change. She dyed it just before Grave, because she tells Giles that she's blonde. I can never be sure if there's a message with that sort of thing or if the actor just wanted a different hair color.

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    3. About Anya's hair color changes over the course of the show- my money's on Emma Caulfield just going through different looks, and she just happened to be on a TV show.
      Buffy's had some crazy hair over the course of the series (I'm watching the show for the first time and I've been watching straight through at a rapid rate) but I'm 99% sure none of her hair choices have thematic underpinnings.

      We can well ask why, after 3 seasons with a hairy chest, Jack Shephard is suddenly smooth as a baby's butt in season 4 of "Lost". But the answer is that Matthew Fox had appeared in "Speed Racer" during the hiatus, and the manscaping was to alleviate discomfort while he wore his all-over leather costume.

      I wish Anya's wig in the OMWF flashback wasn't so dire. Not only did it look incredibly fake, it doesn't look anything like her hair did in that episode.

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    4. There was one detail in the OMWF flashback that I thought was interesting. In the flashback (which I'm assuming takes place the same night Buffy sings "Going Through the Motions") we see Xander passed out in the chair in grubby work clothes. The whole vibe in the apartment felt grubby and realistic, a not-so-blissful domesticity.
      Contrast that to "I'll Never Tell" in OMWF, where they wake up in bed together all snuggly, with Xander in silk pajamas, and Anya in an adorable sleeper set.
      If OMWF was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", the flashback in Selfless was "Rosanne", and gave some insight into what their living together must have really been like.

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    5. They did work SMG's hair styling into the story line in Gone, but otherwise I'm inclined to agree. I just don't know enough about the industry to say if hair gets modified along with clothing for some purposes.

      Good point about the scene in Selfless.

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  4. SPOILERS

    "Spike's conversation with the first Buffy..."

    ...pun intended?

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  5. The thing that kills me about Buffy's "tough love" comments to Spike in this ep is that Spike is/has been helping her, even though he seems unable to help himself. She's reaaly just talking to herself, I think, through him (her Slayerness).
    Spike and Anya's inability to reach out for help mirrors Buffy's own. She's all about the self-reliance, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes the problem is bigger than you.

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