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Thursday, February 21, 2013

End of Days

[Updated May 3, 2013

Having reached End of Days, it’s only fitting that we finally discover the (symbol of the) Ultimate Boon. In my post on Grave I said that S7 would cover the stage of the Hero’s Journey known as the Ultimate Boon. Wikipedia describes the Ultimate Boon this way:
“The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.” My emphasis.

Here in End of Days Spike tells us that Buffy’s found it (my emphasis again): “And you did it. Fulfilled your mission. Found the Holy Grail.” The quest for the Holy Grail is, symbolically, a quest for the deeper meaning of life. At different times that might mean Christian salvation or, more generally, spiritual progress. We might see it in more secular terms as seeking wisdom or the meaning of life. Success on the quest involves asking the right questions. Buffy’s conversations with Spike and Faith are leading her in the right direction, but she has one more step to take.


Since I referred to the Scythe as a symbol, that means that it isn’t itself the Boon, just as Excalibur wasn’t the kingship, but a symbol of Arthur’s right to be the true King in one version of that story. There’s a good reason why this particular symbol takes the form of a Scythe. From the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (via Rufus at ATPO): “sickle: Curve weapons generally relate to lunar symbolism and to fertility. They are the mark of female nature. The sickle may thus symbolize the harvest-cycle, self-renewing, and death and the hope of rebirth......... The sickle is also the attribute of Death and Time, which destroys all things (see also SCYTHE)…. In this context the sickle is the symbol of decisive resolve, of determined differentiation on the path of individual or collective evolution. It is the sign 'of temporal progress and of evolutionary necessity itself', the sprouting of the primeval seed.”
The actual Boon, and the relationship of the Scythe to the Boon and to the solution to Buffy’s seasonal challenges, will appear (duh) in Chosen.
Now let’s complete the discussion which began in Dirty Girls and consider Faith’s performance as General. She got that job as a result of the decision to evict Buffy in Empty Places. Now that we’ve seen the full consequences of her actions, we need to understand what Faith did wrong in the context of the debate over generalship in order to understand the point being made.
In my view, the whole point of the attack on the “arsenal” was to refute the belief that the problem was that Buffy was a bad General. Regardless of how you evaluate Buffy’s Generalship, Faith was, if anything, worse: she risked a good many lives to attack an arsenal, which would be a very low-value target compared to the Hellmouth or the vineyard; Faith had every reason to believe the whole setup was a trap, and it was (unlike Buffy); she did no reconnaissance at all (unlike Buffy), instead spending her time having sex with a subordinate; she had no idea who or what might be guarding the weapons; she had no idea what was there; she left the house and the most defenseless Potentials unguarded by Willow (unlike Buffy); she had no backup or reserve force (unlike Buffy); and she took the Potentials to a location with no lights, giving the Bringers a huge advantage (unlike Buffy).
Nor, for the same reasons, did Faith do a good job of protecting the girls. That was the other half of her charge from Buffy at the end of EP: “Protect them, but lead them.”
It’s important to understand that, though it may seem like it, I’m not criticizing Faith here. I particularly am not criticizing her order sending Willow, et al. to look after Buffy. While that’s probably a bad tactical decision, I interpret it as speaking well for Faith’s concerns about Buffy.
Yes, she failed to protect the Potentials. But whether it was this particular risk or some other one, the Potentials are in danger. There’s probably nothing Faith or anyone could do which would guarantee their safety. That’s a lesson the Potentials needed to learn.
Yes, she did a worse job than Buffy at being General, even if she had express approval from Giles and implicitly from everyone else. I’m simply stating that the point of this sequence was not to compare Faith with Buffy, but to rule out the possibility that Buffy’s “poor” Generalship was the real problem, one which could be solved merely by replacing her with another. Think of it this way: It’s theoretically possible that one day there’d be a Slayer who’s another Hannibal or Napoleon. It’s questionable whether this would be a good thing; great generals aren’t necessarily gifted with Buffy’s moral sense and intuition, only great generalship. We can hope that someone, someday, might come along with the whole package. In the meantime, though, the world is stuck with a system in which the Slayer, whoever she might be and whatever her faults, must be the leader, with everyone else bearing the cost.
No, given the context of a season in which the isolation of the Slayer and the inability to “save them all” are the related problems to be solved, the very fact of having a General in the first place reinforces those problems rather than solving them. Faith’s actions remind us of the logical box which traps Slayers and Potentials alike.
Buffy’s conversations back at the house confirm the point I’ve been making all along about Generalship:
AMANDA
I think we got punished.
BUFFY
What?
KENNEDY
(nervously) We, uh...we followed her. And it was—
VI
It didn't work out.
BUFFY
You guys, it was a trap. It's not her fault. That could've just as easily happened to me.
 

Buffy hammers the point home to Faith:
FAITH
Somebody has to lead. Let's vote for Chao-Ahn. It's harder to lead people into a deathtrap if you don't speak English.
BUFFY
It wasn't your fault.
FAITH
(looks away) I'm really not looking for forgiveness.
BUFFY
You're not?
FAITH
What do you want me to say? I blew it.
BUFFY
You didn't blow it.
FAITH
Tell that to—
BUFFY
People die. You lead them into battle, they're gonna die. It doesn't matter how ready you are or how smart you are. War is about death. Needless, stupid death.
 

Yes, Faith made mistakes. But that’s not the source of the problem, any more than Buffy’s mistakes were. Every Slayer – every person – makes mistakes. There’s no solution to that problem. The problem which is our focus is the one Buffy identified: leading people into battle. That’s the problem because it creates the isolation which has been the theme of S7 all along:
FAITH
So, here's the laugh riot. My whole life I've been a loner….
FAITH
No ties, no buddies, no relationships that lasted longer than...
FAITH
OK. The point. Me, by myself all the time. I'm looking at you, everything you have, and, I don't know, jealous. Then there I am. Everybody's looking to me, trusting me to lead them, and I've never felt so alone in my entire life.
BUFFY
Yeah. (swallows, looks down)
FAITH
And that's you every day, isn't it?
BUFFY
I love my friends. I'm very grateful for them. But that's the price of being a Slayer.

Buffy can’t solve all the world’s problems, but perhaps there’s a solution to this one.
I don’t have much to say about the other vignettes which make up the episode. I think the scenes with Buffy and Xander in the kitchen and of Anya and Andrew at the hospital are terrific. I do, however, want to emphasize the importance of catching the ambiguity of the Guardian’s words:
WOMAN …. This [the Scythe] is a powerful weapon. (hands the Scythe back to Buffy)
BUFFY Yeah.
WOMAN But you already have weapons.
BUFFY Oh.
WOMAN Use it wisely and perhaps you can beat back the rising dark.

Does she mean that the Scythe is a weapon in addition to the ones Buffy already has? Or that she already has the necessary weapons and doesn’t need the Scythe as a weapon? Or both?
Trivia notes: (1) For those who haven’t read it, the Scythe – that’s what we’re calling it – is featured in Joss’s graphic novel Fray. (2) Willow’s “scythe matters” joke plays on the advertising campaign for the 1998 movie version of Godzilla. (3) Buffy’s description of the Scythe as “kills strong bodies 3 ways” plays off the old advertising slogan for Wonder Bread (“builds strong bodies 12 ways”). (4) Buffy “King Arthured” the Scythe out of the stone in reference to the stories of King Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur out of a stone. (5) Willow mentioned the Children's Crusade, and there actually was one (see the link). (6) We last saw Miss Kitty Fantastico in the episode Family. Judging by Dawn’s comment, she came to a tragic end. (7) Xander mentioned I, Claudius, for which see the link. (8) Note the contrast between Buffy’s rejection of more power in GiD and Caleb’s embrace of it here. (9) Spike’s reference to the Scythe as the “Holy Grail” supports the possible Fisher King vibes I mentioned in trivia note 11 to Touched. In that movie, finding the “Holy Grail” cures someone of catatonia and results in reconciliation for everyone. It’s not clear that the Scythe itself brings Buffy back to her friends, but it’s fair to say that finding the Scythe did. (10) Spike’s description of the Scythe as the “Holy Hand Grenade” refers to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That movie was directed by Terry Gilliam, who also directed The Fisher King. (11) For Spike’s comparison of Buffy to Carrot Top, see the link. This is possibly the best example in the series of my point in the Introduction that comedic references can become dated very quickly. (12) Spike told Buffy in Fool For Love that killing the Chinese Slayer was “the best night of my life”. Now, simply holding Buffy and giving her emotional support is. (13) Anya did leave town previously, as she tells Andrew, in Graduation Day 1, though that wasn’t an apocalypse. (14) At Comicon 2003, Joss said that Buffy sending Dawn away was the fulfillment of FE/Joyce’s statement in CWDP that “Buffy won’t choose you”. (15) Dawn confused the word “chloroform” with color forms. (16) Buffy’s note reminded Dawn that she’d promised to show Dawn this beautiful world, which was the promise she made in Grave. (17) Caleb compared his new strength to “like being reborn”, for which see the link. As is often the case with evil, it’s a twisted mirror image of what actually happens to the good. It’s Buffy who’s been truly reborn. (18) For Xander’s joke about “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”, recall this passage from Dead Man’s Party:
“Cut to an intersection in the alley. Buffy comes around the corner and looks down the adjoining way. There she sees a man dressed in black, walking suspiciously, as though looking for something. She begins to follow silently, but doesn't notice an empty aluminum can on the pavement, and steps on it. The man reacts instantly to the noise, spins around and swings at her with a stake. Buffy throws up her arms and cross blocks the swing, then deftly takes the stake from the man's hands and raises it to counter attack. He steps back, and the white cross hanging from his neck swings around, standing out in marked contrast to the rest of his attire. Buffy sees that it's Xander, and stays her attack. Xander is taken completely by surprise and just stares back at her.
Buffy:  (lowers the stake) Didn't anyone ever warn you about playing with pointy sticks? (shakes it at him) It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.”

3 comments:

  1. No mention of Angel?

    Since I already know the answer to your question, I won't comment.

    But I will comment on the Buffy RPG rules for magic. In the game mechanics, there is a chart that details spell effects, and rates them on a difficulty scale. To meet the difficulty scale, it tallies your magic levels and attributes. Then, you add spell ingredients. Rare magical artifacts drop the difficulty level of spells by a huge amount.

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    Replies
    1. Didn't know that about the RPG. Cool.

      Heh.

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    2. It was really fun to play, because the game mechanics follow the show mechanics REALLY well.

      For example, in this episode, Buffy makes a dramatic entrance into the arsenal, when she has no foreknowledge of their location, to defeat the Ubervamps. In the game, you could achieve something like that by spending a drama point(DPs are earned by roleplaying well).

      So after playing it was a lot of fun to watch the show to fit the game dynamics.

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