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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Conversations With Dead People

[Updated May 3, 2013]

Conversations With Dead People, the second great episode of S7 – third if you include Beneath You – marks the true beginning (heh) of the season storyline, as Buffy tell us in the opening words: “Here we go.” The season’s Big Bad isn’t officially identified yet, though viewers with a good memory could be pretty sure by now. I’ll hold off until we get confirmation in Never Leave Me.

I’ll begin with a sad farewell to Jonathan, who was a fan favorite notwithstanding his tendency to fantasy and bad decisions. His final words showed real maturity. After all the trauma of Earshot and Superstar and the Trio, he grew up. So, of course, Joss killed him. J
As shadowkat pointed out just after Conversations aired, each of the 3 principals got what she perhaps most wished for, and it turned into a nightmare. Dawn got to talk to Joyce, who told her that Buffy would be against her. Willow got to talk to Tara, whose conduit told her to kill herself. Buffy got to voice her anxieties, only to have them reinforced and a new one added regarding Spike.
One thing comes through loud and clear in Buffy’s conversation with Webs, namely her sense of being isolated, alone. Loneliness is the theme of the episode, just as it is of Angie Hart’s song which opens and closes it. Each vignette, including that of Andrew, Jonathan, and Warren, showed an individual who thought s/he was making a connection (in Andrew’s case with Warren, in Jonathan’s case with Andrew), but each was in fact alone.
Buffy tells Webs that she commits, but that’s debatable. Yes, she certainly committed to Angel, but her failure to commit was why Riley left and she certainly didn’t commit in any meaningful sense to Spike in S6 (she does seem committed to encouraging his new-found soul here in S7, but that’s different). It shouldn’t be surprising if she finds committing difficult – she had to kill Angel, she nearly had to kill Willow and Anya, and she may now have to kill Spike. Her role as Slayer makes it tough to commit to anyone, which reinforces the isolation she confesses to Webs.
Of course, she makes no connection with Webs either. He’s just a way for Buffy to talk to herself, still a conversation with a dead person be it noted: “Whisper in a dead man’s ear/doesn’t make it real.” This isolation goes all the way back to the beginning of the slayer line: “First Slayer: No ... friends! Just the kill… We ... are ... alone!” It could hardly be otherwise when she’s the Slayer:
So, all that time, you were a slayer?
"The", like as in "the only one"?
Pretty much.
Oh. So, when you said not connected, that was kind of a telling statement, wasn't it—?

Giles told Willow in Lessons that “it’s all connected”. Webs feels his own connection to a “powerful all-consuming evil” (and see trivia note 9). The bad guys are connected. How can Buffy achieve her own connection, not to evil but to other people, in light of the dilemma she expressed in Selfless: “You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the slayer is always cut off.”? That’s Buffy’s dilemma for the season. In the words of director Nick Marck, “this episode is the set up for the season finale.” (DVD commentary)
Everyone was unsure who or what Dawn saw. Jane Espenson had to confirm Dawn’s vision, and I’ll discuss that in two more episodes. Joyce’s words to Dawn will be controversial later, so I’ll be discussing them later as well. For now, they’re intended to put a rift between Dawn and Buffy, consistent with the theme of Buffy’s isolation we saw in her conversation with Webs.
For Willow’s conversation, I want to copy here a discussion I had with local-max in comments to Older And Far Away (slight edit to avoid mild spoiler):
Local-max: “I don’t think Tara is 100% wrong. I think Willow is so used to being powerless, and has grown accustomed over the years to both being smarter than her peers and to rules being essentially meaningless (she has to break out of “I can’t make the first move or I’ll be a slut” and “I can’t walk off campus when I’m not a senior!”, after all), that her judgment is fairly terrible; she can’t distinguish good uses of power from bad ones. I think Tara’s attitude is that Willow simply can’t be trusted with power, because she abuses it automatically, and if only Willow stops using power, well, everything will be better. That attitude is wrongheaded, though, because Willow needs to learn how to use power effectively, not just to give up on it. But I don’t think Tara’s position is psychologically incredible: I think that it makes a lot of sense for her, and for someone of her background, to have a knee-jerk feeling that Willow is just one of those people who can’t be trusted with power, and who can only be trusted otherwise.

I think that you can argue that season seven continues Tara’s role as skeptic of Willow’s power, a role Willow has to grow beyond needing/wanting. “Cassie”, representing “Tara,” also functions as a dark mirror for Tara. While Giles tells Willow that giving up magic is harmful to her and that she should use her power for herself and others, “Tara” tells Willow that she can’t be trusted to do even a single spell, because her power itself is so deeply corrupting that she will eventually kill all her friends. And the ne plus ultra of that is, of course, that she should kill herself. What is killing herself but the ultimate way of cutting herself off from her power. The thing is, Tara—the real Tara—may have an element of being anti-power, where Willow is concerned, in a way that I actually do think is wrongheaded. But she would never take it to the extreme of wanting Willow to kill herself.”
My response: “I'm not convinced that Tara's qualms about Willow's abuse of magic lead inexorably to the conclusion "no more magic". That's certainly one possible conclusion, and Willow's "mind wipe" behavior supports it. But there are less drastic reactions too, and Tara seems uniquely well-placed to do some teaching on the proper use of magic. Jumping to the most extreme solution in direct opposition to her original admiration of Willow's power, seems a bit discordant to me. Not "out of character", because I think your explanation is certainly a plausible read, but "off". Obviously, that's a very subjective reaction.”

Willow certainly distrusts her magic, and perhaps she (at least in retrospect) got the same sense from Tara that local-max had. Willow certainly told Giles that she distrusted magic in Lessons and Beneath You. Her “mutual ‘no-see-ems’” spell in STSP can hardly have increased her confidence. Then, in Selfless, the old Willow came back for a minute when she threw the spider demon out the window, and D’Hoffryn called her on it. Her conversation here with “Cassie” was clearly designed to implant further doubts in her regarding her own ability.
What saved Willow was not magic, but her love for Tara. She has no doubts on that score – Tara would never be a party to any effort to get Willow to kill herself. So while the Big Bad can play on Willow’s insecurities, there are parts of humanity it clearly doesn’t understand.
Self-confidence is a key issue for everyone in S7, particularly Buffy. In addition, Willow is Buffy’s spirit, so any lack of self-confidence in Willow will reflect Buffy’s own internal doubts, just as Buffy’s doubts will be made manifest in Willow’s insecurities. But love is a key theme too.
Lots of interesting discussion points in CWDP. Spike (see below) and Andrew both killed someone. Should they be treated differently? Different from Willow? Anya? Stay tuned – these will be major debates for the season.
Actually, there was a great deal of debate after this episode over whether Spike actually killed the girl. Some thought it was the Big Bad. Others thought it a trick of some kind because, well, “he has a soul now”. He also has a chip, which we saw working in Beneath You and Help, but which obviously didn’t fire when he bit the woman here.
Webs played expertly on Buffy’s fears regarding both herself and Spike; the two fears are connected, even if Buffy isn’t, as we’ll see. Consider Buffy’s dilemma if Webs told her the truth. She just made a big issue to Xander about the fact that she killed Angel. For her to have to stake Spike, when she admits to having indeterminate feelings about him, would be another level of pain. At the same time, she steeled herself to kill Anyanka, even if in the last resort, notwithstanding Xander’s accusation of a double standard. Actually pursuing a double standard would cause all kinds of problems, especially increasing her isolation from others.
Trivia notes: (1) AFAIK, the time stamp at the beginning has no meaning except as the air date and time, though it could also set the beginning of the final arc towards Chosen. (2) Angie Hart, whose song opens and closes the episode, is a friend of Joss and performed on the show in two previous episodes. Joss co-wrote the song with her. (3) Joss also wrote the Buffy scenes, while Marti Noxon wrote the Willow scenes, Jane Espenson wrote Dawn’s scenes, and Drew Godard wrote the Trio. (4) This is the only episode in which Xander does not appear. (5) The original plan was for Tara to appear in the scenes opposite Willow. Amber Benson refused the role because of the fallout from Seeing Red; she didn’t want Tara to appear evil. (6) Cassie told Willow, “Remember that time on the bridge when you sang to each other?” This was a clue that Cassie wasn’t actually in communication with Tara: Tara sang on the bridge in OMWF, but Willow didn’t. (7) It’s a little hard to catch, but Dawn was talking on the phone to Kit, from Lessons. It’s a subtle way of reminding viewers that events continue to happen offscreen. (8) Webs wrote an essay on Vaclav Havel, a playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia. (9) Webs tells Buffy that being a vampire feels “Like I'm connected to a powerful all-consuming evil that's gonna suck the world into a fiery oblivion.” Compare what Jesse said in The Harvest: “I feel good, Xander! I feel strong! I'm connected, man, to everything!” (10) The joke about Scott Hope coming out is that Fab Filippo, who played Scott Hope, later played a gay character on the TV show Queer As Folk. (11) Buffy said she didn’t need therapy from “the evil dead”, referring to the movie of that title. (12) In the flash cuts behind Dawn, Joyce’s body is in the same position on the couch as when Buffy found her. (13) Andrew called Jonathan “McFly”, referring to the main character in Back to the Future. (14) Jonathan used the Spanish word “cuesta” to mean “quest”. It actually means “hill” or “slope”. (15) Warren called Jonathan “Short Round”, after the character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (16)  Cassie reminded Willow that she was “strong like an Amazon”. That was the phrase Willow and Tara used in The Body. (17) The pronunciation of “nemeses” refers to Warren’s uncertain pronunciation of that word in Gone. (18) Buffy’s use of the phrase “insane troll logic” refers to Triangle. (19) It may be a stretch, but I read Webs’ phrase asking Buffy if she was ready for “our little death match” as a Shakespearean reference to orgasm. (20) Cassie mentioned the Indigo Girls, who are a lesbian band. (21) Conversations won the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.


  1. That convo with local max you highlighted contains a spoiler for the Big Bad.

    I really wish Amber Benson would have done it, if only to show her range. Everyone else on the show got to play a little evil, she should have too.

    This episode is tops, it is creepy(the entire Dawn sequence gives me the heebie jeebies, more frightening than Hush).

    It's been established that Buffy gets off on slaying, so I don't think that "little death" comment is much of a stretch, especially considering how much it was referred to in Season two using your notes. It definitely gives it more of a "back to the beginning" feel that this season promised.

    1. Fixed the spoiler. Thanks.

      Yeah, I'm sorry Amber didn't do it. It's a shame the fallout from SR had that effect. Still, I think Cassie works pretty well and the episode is great.

  2. The first time I watched this episode I don't remember thinking much of it. Watching it a second time, and knowing how people often rate it as one of the Greats, I even kind of dislike it. It rubs me the wrong way (maybe it's supposed to?) and I'm not going to bash it or anything, but I'm going to try and put my finger on why it doesn't work for me.

    First, though: I love the opening. It's atmospheric, eerie, and very melancholy. The song is a perfect fit. The opening's uniqueness promises something great (Buffy even says "Here we go," as if we're all about to embark on an important journey), and I get that this episode is crucial for the rest of the season, but the different storylines and tones feel somehow incongruous with each other and the opening. I think it all boils down to the fact that I don't feel emotionally connected to what's happening.
    Dawn - I get that this was all an elaborate act to terrify Dawn and convince her that her mom is the Real Deal. I get that even though they were under love spells Joyce's message can be seen as building on that line from Him: "You're not supposed to do this... because you were the one I trusted." However, and maybe I'm being too harsh, MT's acting in these scenes doesn't move, scare, or convince me. Plus - and this is just my own personal taste - I'm not a fan of all the horror movie hijinks. Those knocks felt WAY too menacing to be a mother trying to communicate with her daughter. Though I must admit that the quick flash shot of Joyce's lifeless body on the couch (that first image of her from The Body) was incredibly jarring; I'm glad Dawn had her back turned at that moment.

    Buffy - I so wanted to love these scenes. The premise is cute - a (kind-of) familiar vamp gets to Pysch-101 our heroine. I so wanted these moments to be that classic combination of bittersweet humor and touching, inspired dialogue, but does Buffy or the audience learn anything new by the end of it (aside from Spike)? We all know that being the Slayer is a tragically isolating calling (Selfless and countless previous times prove Buffy definitely knows that), we all know she's had bad luck in relationships for very messy, complicated reasons. Most of Buffy's dialogue doesn't have the personalized, emotionally-gutting impact I expected, and Holden's whole 'inferiority complex about your superiority complex' doesn't feel revelatory in the slightest. Perhaps what bothers me is that I feel like Holden is setting this up as a therapy session that'll end in some clouds-parting-I-understand-why-I-can't-connect-moment, but I don't think we learn anything new. We're just left more confused and disconnected than we were to begin with. Which maybe was the point? It'd be interesting to know what the objective was here. And I don't know why but I keep thinking it would've been interesting if Buffy had stumbled upon her own headstone again in this episode (did they remove it after she came back? Suddenly really curious about that.

    Willow - I know why Amber didn't do this episode, and I like Azura Skye's acting, but I just couldn't get past the randomness of it. Of all people, why would Cassie be speaking for Tara? " That's just how it is" doesn't really cut it. Tara never even met Cassie, and since when in this show did being dead mean you get to sit around watching and listening to your loved ones (unless you're actually a ghost, I suppose)? I dunno, I'm being ridiculously nit-picky I'm sure, but the whole basis of the conversation made it hard for me to buy the emotional moment. Though it does feature a very believable push-and-pull between Willow's serious anxieties and her summer lessons from Giles and the Coven, and of course she's the one who gets that something suspicious is happening in the end.

    1. Spike - Not much to say here. I do wish they had given JM more to do in this episode but I understand why the writers kept us at a distance, in the dark.

      Xander - It does bug me that he is unexplainably absent, and the fact that Nick is in every single other episode only emphasizes how odd it is.

      The Trio scenes bother me the least, which is surprising because I tended to skip their parts during the S6 rewatch. I know plot-wise it never would have worked, but it's such a shame that Jonathan died and we were stuck with Andrew - who tended to less comic relief and more obnoxious burden - the rest of the season. With all his ups and downs, Jonathan was a really fascinating recurring character, I liked where he was going, and I wish he had been the one to "join her gang and possibly hang out at her house."

      I love the concept of this episode, but it didn't feel Great to me, though I'd love to be convinced otherwise.

  3. Add me in with the 'I didn't care much for this ep.' crowd. Blah, blah, woe is me, blah. Buffy, if she could get her head out of her a** for 5 seconds, would realize that she is connected, more than any one, to a tradition of slaying going back centuries (millenia?). The only time she ever shows the slightest interest in the slayers who came before her is in 'Fool For Love' and it's purely self-serving.
    Lonliness is another of Wheedon's pet hobby horses, and he bangs on about on it 'til I want to bang on him with a hammer. Cry me a f*cking river. We all fell that way from time to time, but it isn't quite like that. We are both wave and particle.

    1. The loneliness of the hero seems to be a pretty common modern trope. Think Batman or Spiderman.

      As for the Slayer line, Buffy's experience with the First Slayer in Restless didn't really encourage closeness: "No friends. Just the kill. We are alone."

    2. SPOILERy

      Note that Buffy's realization of the true nature of her connection with other slayers and how it can be leveraged to do good is the point of her journey in season 7. Perhaps we are supposed to think about this connection and how Buffy has failed so far to realize its usefulness. Not to pity Buffy but to see where she is in her journey.


      I agree with you on the point of S7. The way I'd say it is that Buffy's sense of isolation stems, ultimately, from the conditions created by the Shadowmen. We can feel bad for Buffy -- and for all women, because that's the metaphor -- as a result of that.

  4. I heard about this book regarding the psychology of the superhero, but I've never read it. It sounded interesting. The thing is, it's having connections that makes Buffy so great (supposedly). It certainly makes her different. Buffy and the First Slayer might as well be from different planets. As it is, Buffy makes it clear that the First Slayer is not the boss of her.
    IMO, it seems JW has these ideas in his head that can't be shifted. It's like he considers Evil to be some vast conspiracy, while the forces of Good are scattered and weak. I disagree.
    Look at the Civil Rights movement. Yes, MLK Jr. became the face/voice of the movement. Yes, he was killed for his efforts. OTOH, thousands of other people were also involved in the work, and they brought about remarkable changes that still resonate today.
    It's really fighting against the status quo. It's not easy, it takes time, it takes people coming together. It's the 'evil' folks standing in the way who wind up getting trampled, b/c they're standing in the way of progress.

  5. I"m a high school senior and taking British Literature and was going to use this show as an example of romanticism, do you believe this is the right choice? And if show what aspect of this particular episode should I stick to? If not this episode do you have a better episode in mind.

    1. There's a Gothic horror element to the entire show, which fits pretty well with Romanticism. While I think Joss has a somewhat cynical attitude towards Romanticism generally, plenty of episodes use Romantic themes in order to develop the story (which he then subverts).

      I'd look at S2 as your best source. Surprise/Innocence would work, as would Passion. Wild at Heart in S4 would also. The episode Angel seems like a candidate as well.

      Do you have a particular aspect or theme you want to focus on, or are you still at a preliminary stage?

  6. I, too, caught that Dawn was on the phone with Kit. Nice that Dawn has made a friend at Sunnydale High 2.0.

    Of course, Kit was played by Alexandra "Alex" Breckenridge, who went on to make a splash as "Young Moira" in the first season of "American Horror Story".

  7. I have always taken the time stamp to convey in medias res and thus to emphasize the fragmented nature of the vignettes, but who knows, I could be wrong. Great work as always.

    1. That's as good an explanation as any. If I ever got to talk to Joss, that's one of the questions I'd ask him.