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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Showtime

[Updated May 3, 2013]

Showtime is episode 11. In seasons 3 and 5, episode 11 showed us the basic problem Buffy will face in the finale, but with a wrong or incomplete solution (seasons 2 and 6 did that in episode 14). That’s what Showtime does. I won’t give any details because of spoilers, but I can say that the wrong solution here is directly related to every single one of the themes we’ve seen in S7.


The statements of Beljoxa’s Eye (see trivia note 4) are intended to be cryptic. Lots of viewers were confused by them and even got angry that later episodes seemed to ignore them. As I read S7, though, the statements were entirely consistent with the seasonal themes and contain an important clue. I’ll have to explain all this in the finale. If you think carefully about some of the questions the Potentials ask themselves in the basement, you’ll get some clues.
What I can do now is to draw your attention to Giles’s use of the word “balance” when he laid all the responsibility on Buffy in BotN: “If the slayer line is eliminated, then the hellmouth has no guardian. The balance is destroyed.” What he’s saying is that the First intends to change the world in a fundamental way. That’s what the First itself told Willow in CWDP: “Fact is, the whole good-versus-evil, balancing the scales thing—I'm over it. I'm done with the mortal coil. But believe me, I'm going for a big finish.” And that’s what Beljoxa’s Eye is telling Giles and Anya here:
GILES
If The First has been around for all time, then why hasn't it attempted something like this before? Why now?
BELJOXA'S EYE
The opportunity has only recently presented itself.
GILES
Opportunity?
BELJOXA'S EYE
The mystical forces surrounding the Chosen line have become irrevocably altered, become unstable, vulnerable.
ANYA
Something The First did?
BELJOXA'S EYE
The First Evil did not cause the disruption, only seized upon it to extinguish the lives of the Chosen forever.

Beljoxa’s Eye also repeated what “Joyce” told Buffy in BotN: “It cannot be fought, it cannot be killed. The First Evil has been and always will be. Since before the universe was born, long after there is nothing else, it will go on.”
Remember from S3 that Joss is an absurdist (see my post on Amends). In absurdist philosophy, as in existentialism, the world has certain fundamental characteristics that can’t be changed (see my posts on Gingerbread and Graduation Day). Absurdism opposes revolution because it attempts to change these fundamental characteristics, but endorses rebellion because it does not (Id.). The First is trying for fundamental change and it sees the opportunity to make that change. The question is whether Buffy can defeat that change with an act of rebellion rather than revolution. It’s worth considering which one she’s attempting now.
Some people felt that Buffy had no real strategy in confronting the Ubervamp. I disagree. I think that the Ubervamp was under orders not to kill Buffy and that Buffy knew this. From BotN:

BUFFY The First - that's what it wants.
GILES Yes. To erase all the Slayers-in-training and their Watchers, along with their methods...
BUFFY And then Faith. Then me.

IOW, Buffy believed that she was last in line, that the Ubervamp wasn’t supposed to kill her. Now, we know this isn’t quite right – Faith is actually last in line – but it doesn’t make any difference for this episode. Buffy still has to go last of all those in Sunnydale and only after all the other Potentials, even those outside Sunnydale, are gone. She made her plan to fight with this knowledge in mind. It gave her a real advantage, and made her strategy pretty sensible.
Consistent with the comparison I made in the post on BotN to the events of The Harvest, dusting the Ubervamp here compares with dusting Luke in that episode. In both cases Buffy faced a foe who had defeated her previously and appeared too strong. In both cases the scene was quasi-public and took place on a stage. In The Harvest Buffy had to convince herself (and maybe the nascent SG) that she could protect the world. Here her goal was to show the Potentials that she could protect them. She did that; you can see it in the look on Kennedy’s face at the end of the fight.
But in focusing on her heroic defeat of the Ubervamp we may lose sight of an important, if implicit, message her actions also sent. It’s one that got delivered in The Harvest too, and it’s been with us since the beginning. The battleground she constructed deliberately highlighted the fact that she was facing the Ubervamp by herself. She and Willow and Xander expressly discouraged anyone else from helping:
DAWN
Buffy, you can't take that thing on yourself.
KENNEDY
I'll stay.
BUFFY
No! …
BUFFY
Willow, Xander, take everyone to a safe location. Get 'em out of here. Now!
Everyone but Buffy and Dawn follows Willow.
XANDER
(touches Dawn's arm) Have to go, Dawnie.
***
Kennedy aims her crossbow at the Turok-Han, but Willow waves her off.
WILLOW
Just watch. It's showtime.
***
RONA
It's killing her.
MOLLY
We have to do something.
WILLOW
Wait!

Note that discouraging others from helping is exactly what she did with Xander in The Harvest, an episode expressly referenced here and in BotN:
Xander: So, what's the plan? We saddle up, right?
Buffy: There's no 'we', okay? I'm the Slayer, and you're not.

While Xander disobeyed orders and went with her in The Harvest, here in Showtime her friends, the Potentials, Dawn -- they were all just bystanders to a performance, not participants. This is Buffy’s show and she’s showing off. Hence the title.
What this did was to emphasize that Buffy has the power and they – “they” being everyone else, even Willow, whose barrier failed – don’t. The job of the others was to play a supporting role, to applaud the hero at the end. Buffy may be protecting them, but they aren’t in any meaningful way a part of the victory.
After she defeated the Ubervamp, Buffy announced “here endeth the lesson”. That same phrase has been used twice before on the show, once by the Master in Never Kill A Boy On The First Date and once by Spike in Fool for Love. In my view, the repetition of this phrase was deliberate and should be a big honking clue about the way we’re supposed to interpret the events of this episode.
As the group leaves Thunderdome, the First/Eve glares down at them. It’s not just angry that Buffy killed the Ubervamp, it understands what we see next: that Buffy will rescue Spike. Spike’s faith in Buffy has been rewarded and nothing could now shake that faith.
The final scene begs comparison to that in Intervention. There, Buffy kissed Spike to show her appreciation for what he’d done. But at that stage, unsouled Spike still belonged in his crypt so she left him there. This time she takes him with her. It’s a wonderful moment. Buffy told Webs that she felt “not so much” connected, but Spike feels it:
 I think that [Joss] does feel like it's sort of a meaningless void, and what matters is the struggle to find the good. And the relationships you build with people while you struggle. And in some ways you'll never find it, but the quest and the questors, and the people that you find, who are not necessarily your family, are the only thing that lends the journey meaning. I think that is his major theme. Marti Noxon

What makes Buffy especially dangerous to the First is that she doesn’t merely defeat evil, she redeems it.
Trivia notes: (1) Back to the beginning: “Welcome to the hellmouth.” Buffy’s greeting to Rona is, of course, the title of the very first episode. If you recall Buffy’s attitude in that episode, that will help, I think, in understanding the psychology of Potentials like Rona. (2) Andrew is “Episode 1 bored”, referring to The Phantom Menace. (3) Xander’s description of the Ubervamp as “the vampire time forgot” plays on the title of the movie The Land That Time Forgot. (4) Beljoxa seems to be a portmanteau word which means “good (bel) joke (joxa)” (think Joxer [Joker] from Xena).  (5) Willow mentioned bringing a newbie “in from the cold”. That’s a reference to the novel (or movie) The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (6) Andrew realized Buffy had a “license to kill”. That’s the title of a James Bond movie starring Timothy Dalton and produced by the Broccolis. Andrew said in Life Serial that he liked Dalton as Bond. (7) Andrew wanted to play the Kevin Bacon game, for which see the link. (8) Andrew’s references to the Justice League and the Imperium are to comic books. (9) Dawn asked how many Ubervamps were at the Geneva Convention, referring to the international conventions which define the laws of war. (10) Andrew’s plea for “deflector shields” is a Star Wars reference. So is Xander’s description of the Ubervamp as “snaggletooth”. (11) When Buffy tells the Ubervamp that she’s the thing that monsters have nightmares about, that’s a near quote of what she told the Ugly Man in Nightmares. (12) The “Thunderdome” scene is taken from the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, as is Andrew’s quote from that movie, “Two men enter. One man leaves.”

15 comments:

  1. I do love that fight though. While I agree with you that there is some stuff in this episode that is leading the characters down the wrong track, I do think it was important that the Potentials, for morale purposes if nothing else, see what a Slayer is truly capable of, how she can use the environment to her advantage, how she has to keep fighting.

    The lesson line refers back to FFL, and I think this episode draws a distinction here as well. Sure, like you said, Buffy knew the Ubervamp wouldn't kill her, but if it incapacitated her, it would take everyone else out. So she had to demonstrate the opposite of what Spike said in FFL. She couldn't give up, she couldn't give in to her death wish, and with this lesson she showed the Potentials how to overcome their own death wish(more of a death resignation, but somewhat equivalent).

    This episode is a very good example of something Joss did a lot, which was give you a moving and powerful episode, but then later reveal that it was WRONG WRONG WRONGITY WRONG(like the belief that Dominic was bad on Dollhouse, when he was actually the least morally compromised person on the show).

    SPOILERS for S7 & Comics

    Chosen is probably the best(worst) example of this, for while it was a crazy and powerful ending, it went all wrong.

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    1. Oh yeah, it's a great fight and a dramatic moment. That's part of what sucks you in.

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  2. MILD SPOILERS for S7

    Excellent write-up! It's these discussions of S7 of yours that really got me into your posts at the AVClub. These two episodes (this and BOTN) show Buffy in such a powerful light that it's hard not to cheer for her. After the indeterminacy she showed so often in S6 and even early in S7, these two episodes really make it seem like Buffy's got her mojo back for real (she's all out of bubble gum!). And it's VERY easy as a viewer to get caught up in the power of what she says and does and the flair with which she does it.

    That what she's really exhibiting here is something like the last throes of her patriarchal, "general"-driven mindset is something the show does not indicate at all within the given episodes, or at most so subtly masks as to make it nearly imperceptible on first viewing. Thus, reading Buffy's decision making here as flawed on any level is incredibly counterintuitive to the power of the scenes. It's real testament to the narrative power of Whedon et al. that they would trust their viewers so much to pick up on it without ever really pointing a big neon arrow at it. You've done really fine work teasing all this out here.

    (I've recently been having similar thoughts about the way the enjoining spell affects all the seasons that come after it, while the spell itself is almost never mentioned again).

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    1. Thank you! I agree that the message was very subtle, and all the more powerful for that.

      That's a very interesting comment about the spell in Primeval. You should flesh that out.

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    2. Hey there, well it's not something I'm sure I'm totally able to articulate right now without going back and watching a few eps more closely, but I'll give it some thought over the weekend and see if I can't at least get my thoughts down in some semblance of a logical fashion.

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    3. So here are just a few ideas I've had while giving this some thought over the weekend. I should say off the top that the kernel of this idea isn't really mine. I came across a comment on it first a couple years ago - at the AVClub, I think, but not sure. I gave it a fair amount of thought at the time, then sort of shuffled it to the back of my mind. Then in the last couple weeks, I came across another offhand comment - I think at the tor.com rewatch, but I cannot remember for which ep.

      It's also worth saying that this reading is not based on hard and fast textual evidence. It's more a reading between the lines.

      Finally, I think it all ties in fairly well with your own metaphorical readings of the show.

      Basically, the idea is that the enjoining spell worked on the main 4 of the SG in more ways than just what we see in Primeval. This is fairly obvious in Restless. The spirit of the First Slayer is angry at them, haunts them, and tries to punish them. For such a reaction, it would seem that the spell must be somewhat more profound in its implications than that it made Buffy super cool for her fight with Adam (which, I love that fight). They broke some serious rules with that one.

      Now, it's hard to read how it affects them all in S5 because the arrival of Dawn is its own wrench in the works. But basically, the spell seems to have bound up their fates together even more so than they already were. In S5 all 4 of them seem much more confident, self-assured, and powerful than they were before. Buffy is stronger, more focused, more intent on learning Slayer history, and more dedicated than ever. Willow seems to have become a more powerful, less accident-prone witch (yes, Tara has something to do with that). Xander becomes incredibly responsible at work, moves out of the basement and gets the sweet flat. Giles finds himself and takes over the magic shop. In fact, Giles is even determined to leave Sunnydale, but Buffy's own growth as the Slayer ties him to her, ties him to Sunnydale, and leads to his proprietorship of the Magic Shop.

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    4. cont'd

      Another thing about S5 is that Dawn's arrival seems to affect all of them as intensely as it does Buffy. Now it might seem normal that Buffy's friends would take a shine to her kid sister. But we see from early in S5 that the SG doesn't only like Dawn. They are all hyper-protective of her from early on. Granted, the monks' spell altered reality and SG is caught up in that. But it seems that Dawn's presence, their concern for her, their willingness to do anything to help her, is perhaps driven as much by their own mystical binding to her as it is by their dedication to their friend Buffy.

      Furthermore, the enjoining spell seems to have enjoined them in ways tied to their representations in the spell itself. They actually become literal representations (in a way) of their metaphorical selves. This is especially apparent in S6.

      When Buffy dies (the hand) we're led to believe that the SG, while still banding together to police the Hellmouth, are also somewhat aimless or directionless. They can't "do" without her. When Willow, their spirit, makes her bargain for Buffy, they ALL have to pay. It's not only Willow's hubris (as you discuss well in your S6 write-ups), but Xander's spirit suffers, Giles's spirit suffers, and Buffy's spirit obviously suffers. Furthermore, after Giles leaves, their mind is also gone. Giles leaves and Willow and Buffy especially begin making decisions that seem mistaken, out-of-character, mindless. I think it's interesting that when Giles returns, he gives Willow a does of knowledge.

      (on another note, I think this reading might also offer some insight into Wrecked. It's a problematic episode for the obvious reasons, but I think that in one sense, Willow's grief over the loss of Tara ties into or is influence by Buffy's grief over all the loss she's experienced in the previous year - Riley, her mom, heaven. In this light, to me, the "magic as drugs" metaphor seems as much a mistake of the characters as it is of the writers. It also makes me much more sympathetic to Willow's breakdown at the end (which I know you don't really care for)).

      These are just a few thoughts. I was keeping up with you for a while, but with dissertation stuff this autumn I fell behind and am now working my way through S6 (so some of this stuff seems quite obvious to me right now, in the way things can when you "discover" a new take on something). In any case, I'm not sure how it continues to play out in S7 because it's been a while since I made my way through it. Hoping to catch up to you by the end of the season, but might not make it.

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    5. This all makes perfect sense to me. I think the metaphor was there before Primeval -- indeed, it's the existence of that metaphor which makes Primeval possible -- but the spell is expressly described as a "joining spell", so it makes sense that it reinforces what was already there.

      And as you say, I think it fits very well with my overall interpretation.

      Thanks. And I hope you're able to catch up soon.

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  3. Are you sure you meant epiosde 11 is when things happen. its usually around episode 12 in all of the seasons where the turning point occurs

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    1. I wouldn't call it a turning point, per se. I agree that the turning point (or "a" turning point) comes later.

      Usually in episode 11 they show us the seasonal dilemma Buffy will face in thematic form and then a solution which may be wrong or incomplete. Just for example, in Triangle Xander had to make a "Sophie's Choice" between Willow and Anya. He refused to choose and Olaf tells him "then you will die".

      Similarly, in The Gift, Buffy thinks she has to make a "Sophie's Choice" between Dawn and the world. Like Xander, she refuses to make that choice. She went beyond Xander because he couldn't solve the problem with Olaf (he had to depend on Buffy), but Buffy was able to solve it herself in The Gift. She saved both Dawn AND the world.

      I can run through the other examples if you want. I also discuss this in my posts on Gingerbread and Graduation Day.

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  4. "Redeems" evil. Hmmmm. I thought I was with you your entire write up until you used the word redeems. 'Redeems evil' seems like an oxymoron. Are you suggesting she restores evil somehow? I'm just not sure how that is true.

    Can you expand?

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    1. Maybe a better phrasing would be "redeems those who were once evil".

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  5. Hi,

    A very minor point. Here and some other places ("Older And Far Away" is one) you mention season 4 episode 11, "The I in Team" as being critical to understanding that season, but in fact "The I in Team" was episode 13 of season 4.

    JEL

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    1. Oops. Thanks for catching that. I'll go back and fix it.

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