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Monday, February 11, 2013

Dirty Girls

[Updated May 3, 2013]

Dirty Girls re-enacts a standard horror scenario in order to take us back to the original concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seems like a long time ago, but in both my Introduction and in my post on Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest, I quoted Joss on the reason why he created the show. I’ll quote it again here because I think Dirty Girls brings us back to the beginning in a crucial way:
Where did the idea [for BtVS] come from? There’s actually an incredibly specific answer to that question. It came from watching a horror movie and seeing the typical ditzy blonde walk into a dark alley and getting killed. I just thought that I would love to see a scene where the ditzy blonde walks into a dark alley, a monster attacks her and she kicks its ass.”

Joss didn’t mention it in the passage quoted, but the usual rule of horror genre is that the blonde girl had sex. That act made her “dirty”. Joss sets up the basic premise in the teaser to Dirty Girls, which he wrote, by introducing us to Caleb and his view that all women are dirty:
Well, do you ever think that maybe they were chasing you because you're a whore?
(looks at Caleb, stunned) What?
Now, I know what you're thinking. Crazy preacher man spoutin' off at the mouth about the whore of Babylon or some-such. That ain't me. I'm not here to lecture you. I mean, what's the point? (presses in his dashboard cigarette lighter) My words just curdle in your ears. Wouldn't take in a thing. (Shannon looks around nervously, looks out the window) Head's filled with so much filth there ain't no room for words of truth. Well, you know what you are, Shannon? Dirty.
(offended) What? I'm not! What're—
Now, now, now. There's no blame here. You were born dirty, born without a soul. Born with that gaping maw wants to open up, suck out a man's marrow. Makes me puke to think too hard on it.

Because in his view all women are “dirty”, Caleb feels himself justified in luring them into traps and killing them.
Caleb is the stereotype of the crazy preacher of horror films. In fact, a good many viewers saw Caleb as too heavy-handed. While there’s some truth to that, my own view is that Nathan Fillion was excellent in the role, that Caleb’s straight out of the horror genre, and that the evil of the patriarchal subjection of women is part of the season theme (e.g., Get it Done). It’s appropriate that Caleb take this particular form because he’s also a “daddy” figure, and let’s face it – Buffy has some “daddy” issues. She had them with Hank, Angel too, and this season Giles (and Wood also, in some ways). Buffy fears rejection by those she wants to rely upon most, and Caleb is the dark side of that. Caleb’s over the top characterization is essential to drive home the point: that Buffy’s struggle now has and always has had a feminist element deliberately in order to subvert the horror stereotypes.
We’ve watched Buffy follow Joss’s template so often over the last 7 seasons that we’ve forgotten what it’s like for her to fail. This time, though, the standard horror trope plays out. Our hero walks into a blind alley and she loses. Badly. So why would Joss replay this fundamental point here in S7? As I see it, it’s because Buffy needs to go back to the beginning and to reassess her basic principles in order to figure out just what she has been doing wrong. In my view, this is the most important of the several meanings Joss had in mind when he said that the theme of S7 would be “back to the beginning”.
Why does Buffy attack Caleb? Well, he deserves it, of course. But the more direct motivation is because that’s the natural consequence of what Giles and Wood have been telling her to do all along. They’re the ones pushing for her to be the General. This does NOT mean that I think Giles or Wood is evil. They’re flawed, not evil. They’re pushing Buffy to do what they truly believe is the right thing, because an alternative is inconceivable; the limits of the existing paradigm are completely ingrained in them.
Buffy has followed that path ever since BotN. She’s uncertain about it, as we’ve seen in her private moments, and she voices that concern here to Wood: “I don't want to lead them into war. It can't be the right thing.” Wood, however, waves away her doubts and pushes her down that path just as Giles has been doing. Wood fires Counselor Buffy – her compassionate side – and urges her to “test” the Potentials, the very thing she’s doubting. “The Mission is what matters.” This is the first time she actually undertook the role, as opposed to talking about it, and her doubts could hardly have been more strongly vindicated. That’s why she’s walking the dark streets alone at the end.
I’m not going to discuss how Buffy can solve her problem for the obvious reason that doing so would spoil the finale. I’ll just make a couple of points. First, it’s important to remember that Caleb isn’t the ultimate target. He has to be defeated before Buffy can deal with the First, just like the Ubervamp had to be defeated. But Caleb is just a stake in the hand of the First, and the stake is not the power.
Second, most of the internet debate about this episode involved the quality of Buffy’s “Generalship” – meaning in this case her tactics, rather than, as in previous episodes, her harsh treatment of her friends and the Potentials – in the attack on the vineyard. I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should summarize those arguments. I’ve decided not to. They’re interesting in their own way, and I’m on the side which mostly defends Buffy’s tactics, but I now see the whole debate as orthogonal to the main point. I am going to discuss that main point in the next episode, so I’ll leave aside the arguments about whether Buffy is a good or bad tactician. Those debates posed the wrong questions.
Why is Buffy so uncomfortable with Faith? Well, there was that whole “tried to kill me and my mother” thing, but that’s not all. Buffy has subconscious fears about Faith, as shown in metaphor with Faith’s dialogue with Spike in the basement (metaphorically, the locus of Buffy’s subconscious). There we see her unrestrained, sexual, dark half in a very sexual, almost post-coital (note the cigarettes) conversation with the man for whom Buffy’s feelings are very conflicted. It could be jealousy, it could be fear, but it’s making Buffy very uneasy. I think there’s another reason too, but it’s spoilerish so I’ll hold off until the finale.
The horrible wound Caleb inflicts on Xander in Dirty Girls has been prefigured throughout the season. From STSP, an episode involving “mutual no-see-‘ems”:
Buffy and Gnarl are still fighting. Gnarl leaps over Buffy's head and lands behind her. She turns and stabs his foot with her dagger when he lands, pinning him to the ground. He screeches and flails, throwing him off guard. She grabs his head with both hands and plunges her thumbs into his eyes.
XANDER (to Buffy) Ew. Ew. Thumbs? I can't believe you did that.”

In Showtime, Beljoxa’s Eye was both all-seeing and made up of eyes.

From Potential:
DAWN Maybe that's your power.
XANDER (pauses at the door) What?
DAWN Seeing.”
All season long we’ve seen Xander fixing the windows of Buffy’s house – the “eyes” of the house, as it were. Andrew even called special attention to this in Storyteller: “Look at the fine work Xander did on replacing that window sash.” And, of course, the Bringers are notoriously eyeless, a point which is reinforced in Dirty Girls when Xander’s instructing the Potentials.
Xander’s wound is all the more emotionally devastating after that wonderful speech he gave in support of Buffy before the attack. That’s Xander at his best.
Trivia notes: (1) In addition to the teaser, Joss also wrote about 80% of the episode (Drew Godard, DVD commentary). There’s probably some exaggeration in his estimate, because Marti Noxon wrote the Faith/Spike scene in the basement. If she wrote that, and Joss wrote “80%”, then it’s hard to see why Drew would be credited at all. (2) Caleb mentioned the whore of Babylon, for which see the link. (3) Caleb’s phrase “blue eyed boy” is British slang equivalent to the American expression “fair haired boy”. Both mean “favorites”. (4) For Faith’s story since Who Are You, see the AtS episodes Five By Five, Sanctuary, Judgment, Salvage, Release, and Orpheus. (5) Faith told Spike they’d met before, which they did in Who Are You, although Faith was in Buffy’s body at the time. Spike later quotes what she said to him at that time. (6) Faith borrows Buffy’s stake when she first shows up, just as she did in Faith, Hope & Trick. There are also references throughout Dirty Girls to pretty much every episode in which Faith appeared. Most of them are in Andrew’s recital. (7) Caleb got the doctrine of transubstantiation backwards, probably intentionally to emphasize his evil. He said, “The body and blood of Christ becoming rich, red wine.” In Catholic doctrine, it’s the wine which becomes Christ’s blood. (8) Caleb’s phrase “lookin for the Lord in the wrong damn places” plays off the lyrics of the song “Looking For Love”. (9) Caleb refers to the Bringers as the “Ray Charles Brigade”, referring to the blind singer. (10) Caleb told the First/Buffy that he’d “killed all those splits”. That’s a very crude way of saying he’s killed lots of women. (11) Faith killed a volcanologist in Graduation Day 1.  (12) In their conversation in the basement, Faith recognized that “the Big C” isn’t an issue for Spike. That’s a slang term for cancer. (13) Willow warned Buffy that Caleb might kill the girls left behind while Buffy and Faith were scouting Caleb. That’s almost what happened in When She Was Bad. (14) Faith’s attitude seems not to have changed much since Bad Girls: “Drop me in the hornet's nest, what the hell?” (14) The discussion between Andrew, Amanda, and Xander about Matthew Broderick and Godzilla refers to the 1998 movie Godzilla. (16) Xander’s phrase “take the little bus” is American slang. It refers to the small buses which bring mentally disabled kids to school; it’s a crude way to say someone is stupid. (17) Spike described the vineyard as “like Falcon Crest”, for which see the link. (18) Caleb’s description of Faith as “Cain to [Buffy’s] Abel” refers to the Biblical story in which Cain was a murderer. (19) Caleb’s admiration for St. Paul probably stems from verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and Ephesians 5:22. (20) Caleb’s words, “for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever” paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer. (21) Dirty Girls aired about a month after the Iraq War began. Some viewers took the show as commenting on the political events, but the outline for S7 was worked out in the summer of the previous year and had no relation to the War. (Drew Godard, DVD commentary)


  1. If this episodes purpose is to show you all the things Buffy/The Slayer is doing wrong, it fits very thematically that Faith should return, she is the poster child for Slayers doing wrong things(and to emphasize that following the old playbook is not going to work, as it famously failed to work when followed with Faith).

    Caleb's portrayal is scary at first, then gets kinda over the top, but that campiness disarms you, so when things get serious again at the end of the episode, you go right back to being terrified. Is he one dimensional? Yes, but I think this is a deliberate characterization, to demonstrate that evil doesn't have well rounded motives, it just hates and acts on that hate, which is what Caleb does.

    1. Faith's return is also a major clue to Buffy's moment of inspiration in Chosen. There are lots of other clues along the way.

      I missed every single one. Didn't see it coming at all.