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Monday, February 4, 2013

Storyteller

[Updated May 3, 2013]

Jane Espenson gives us the third (for me, the fourth) great episode of S7 with her masterpiece Storyteller. It’s one of my very favorite episodes, mostly based on the way Buffy closes the Turok-han pez dispenser (h/t Rob).
The most important thing I can say about Storyteller is that it’s shot almost entirely in Andrew’s POV. In that sense it’s similar to earlier episodes like The Zeppo (Xander’s POV), Doppelgangland (Willow’s), and A New Man (Giles’s). Andrew may think he’s telling Buffy’s story, but in fact he’s telling his own.


Some of the seemingly implausible plot points in this episode disappear once we realize that it’s shot in Andrew’s POV and that Andrew is the most unreliable of narrators. For example, the fact that Andrew can somehow read Tuareg is silly, but remember that this is Andrew telling the story – he’s a fantasy hero, able to save the day. What this actually means, though, is that Andrew has abdicated his own role in life. He is “lost in the story”, as he says in the teaser.
We only leave Andrew’s POV when he and Buffy are alone at the Seal, when she forces him to shut off the camera. Buffy forced him out of his own story and made him respond to reality instead. From that point on in the basement, we see events with Buffy as the storyteller – “I’m making it up”, she says, knowing that she’s lying to him about the Seal’s need for blood – rather than events as they are transformed in Andrew’s imagination.
Buffy’s storytelling, like all great art, produces the cathartic moment. She uses the classic Aristotelian duo of pity and fear to effect Andrew’s emotional identification with Jonathan and the purging of Andrew’s own escapist fear. The imagery of the basement scene, with the tears of the repentant sinner halting the spread of evil, is brilliant. That’s the point at which Andrew can begin to have his own story to tell.
If the episode were solely about Andrew, it would be beautiful. What takes it beyond that is what it tells us about Buffy. What I’m about to say in the following 3 paragraphs is influenced by a post written on livejournal by beer_good_foamy. You can find it at http://beer-good-foamy.livejournal.com/186180.html (SPOILERS AT LINK) and I recommend it. I’m going to give both a shortened version and my own interpretation, so b-g-f isn’t to blame.
What Storyteller shows us about Andrew is that he’s trapped by the narrative. He spends all of his time living in a world some geek (namely, himself) invented. That narrative imprisons him. It takes him away from reality, such that he can’t ever move forward.
That’s Buffy’s problem too. She’s trapped by the narrative in two ways: within the show itself she’s limited by the conventions of the Slayer line and the ways in which the Watchers, including Giles, interpreted the Slayer’s role. If we take this another step and break the fourth wall, we can see that Buffy’s trapped by the narrative created by Joss Whedon and developed by the other geeks writers on the show: “Buffy, Slayer of the Vampyres”, as Andrew calls it. Her fate is determined by what they decide she’ll do. Buffy herself has no agency, as they say.
And that’s Buffy’s basic dilemma in S7. She needs to be able to create her own life, her own self, to put it in existential terms. To an existentialist, “creating her own life” doesn’t mean living in one’s fantasy world like Andrew: “Buffy: You make everything into a story so no one's responsible for anything because they're just following a script.” No, it means acting within the world as it truly is, it means taking responsibility for one’s own actions. In order to do that, she needs to be able to break the narrative structure which limits her development, just as she was finally able to break Andrew’s imaginary narrative and put him on a path to adulthood and maybe even redemption.
In her early conversation with Wood, Buffy herself breaks the fourth wall and implies some magical realism in the show: “There’s this thing that happens here, in this school, over the hellmouth. Where the way a thing feels—it kind of starts being that way...for real.” Perhaps this is Jane Espenson’s meta-commentary on the entire series. In an interview on 5 Sept 2001, Joss said:
“I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can't be loved. I wanted her to be a cultural phenomenon. …

I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show. …”

We – all of us – have put Buffy in a narrative box. As a result, she too is “lost in the story” at this point. What we’ll see in the finale is her effort to break those constraints. Precluding Andrew from making her the focus, the star, of the narrative is an important step.
I get the sense that many viewers are ambivalent about Storyteller because they don’t care much for Andrew. Lots of them disliked him, almost everyone would have preferred that Jonathan stick around instead. I don’t mind him. I think he gets used to deconstruct the show right in the middle of it, hating his free will and giving us the metaphor for the Potentials. There’s a perfect example of this here in Storyteller: “The world's gonna want to know about Buffy. It's a story of ultimate triumph tainted with the bitterness for what's been lost in the struggle.”  Yes, exactly.
Andrew also makes a good contrast to Spike, Willow, and Anya in terms of their respective journeys on the road to redemption. Here’s a sympathetic but critical description of Andrew by Random at AtPO after Potential:
“Andrew, morally reprehensible though he may have been most of his life, never seemed too evil...because, as the Scooby Gang has demonstrated, we take evil seriously, and if we can't take something seriously, we're not likely to define it as evil. Andrew's attempts to claim that he's no longer evil are a pathetic cry for validation...not of his reform and worthiness, but of the possibility that he might have, if only for a little while, might have been considered worth taking seriously because he was "evil." I would guess that he's never even had a real friend. Warren used him. Jonathan was stuck with him by necessity and circumstance. Neither seemed to like him in any particular way. He was a body with certain commonalites with certain people around him. A geek? Sure, let's do some geeky things with him. Trust him with a heart-to-heart talk? Yeah, right. Give a damn about what happens to him? Uh, well, sure, I guess, I mean, I hope he doesn't, like, you know, die ugly or something.

It was Jonathan (late, lamented, *sob*) who gave us the final word on Andrew: "You are sadness personified." And even Jonathan may not have grasped the true depth of his insight. Andrew is not pitiable because he's a geek -- a great many people are, and a large percentage of them are people worth talking to. Nor is it a simple matter to dismiss him as inept and ultimately stupid. He's both, of course, but they are symptomatic of a more essential problem. Andrew is the very definition of a lost soul, one of those who exist on the periphery of socialization but never able to cross. He and Xander are exact opposites. The reason I love Xander can be, in many ways, summed up in his talk with Dawn in "Potential." … Xander may have been an unpopular outcast, but he had an identity, a sense of self. He may have had low self-esteem, but at least it was his self-esteem, dammit, and nobody -- not Cordelia, not the bullies, not Angelus -- was going to break him. Andrew, with the same credentials, socially, has no grasp of who he is and, one is tempted to believe, never will because he's too far gone. … He is the classic, and tragic, character: the pratfalling victim, the loser who exists only to lose. And that's what's tragic here. Even within the Buffyverse, that seems to be Andrew's only purpose -- to lose and exist as an example of everything the Scooby Gang doesn't want to become. So, yes, I felt sorry for Andrew. Sure he's a murderer. Sure he set flying demon monkeys on the school play. And sure he could be genuinely sorry for having killed Jonathan...but nobody cares. He, both in practice and in theory, doesn't matter. Whatever happens to him in the remainder of the season, I hope he finds some measure of redemption.”

Two quick concluding thoughts. When Wood tried to dust Spike, was that his vengeance crusade or the influence of the Hellmouth? A neatly ambiguous moment.
Xander’s conflicted attitude towards Anya – loving her yet hesitating even now to tell her that he loves her, and not sure what it means in any case – should be read metaphorically in my view. Xander is Buffy’s heart (Andrew reminds us of that earlier in the episode), and Buffy’s feelings towards Spike are similarly conflicted, as we saw at the end of First Date:
BUFFY That's not why I need you here.
SPIKE Is that right? Why's that then?
BUFFY 'Cause I'm not ready for you to not be here.”
Trivia notes: (1) The opening scene is taken from the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre. (2) When Anya tells Andrew “birds need to fly”, that’s a line from the musical Showboat. (3) The Bronsted-Debeye-Huckel equation, to which Andrew refers in his “supervillain” fantasy scene, really exists. Google “Pitzer equations” if you’re dying to know. (4) Many references to previous episodes in Storyteller: the girl fading away (Out of Mind, Out of Sight); Buffy’s mention of swim team monsters (Go Fish); Buffy’s mention of killer prom dogs (The Prom); Anya’s belief that sex with Xander meant they were over (The Harsh Light of Day); the Cheeseman who appears in Andrew’s dream flashback (Restless). All remind us that we’re following a story. (5) Wood’s “hell’s a bustin’ out all over” plays off the line from the musical Carousel. (6) Andrew was correct that this is the one year anniversary of Hell’s Bells. (7) Andrew’s request for a Zima is an in-joke. Writer Jane Espenson invented the name. (8) When Jonathan went to the bathroom, Andrew was singing la cucaracha, for which see the link. (9) The Tuareg are actual Saharan nomads. (10) Buffy’s use of the phrase “beautiful downtown hellmouth” comes from the ‘60s TV show Laugh-In, which used it to describe Burbank, CA.

6 comments:

  1. While it would have been gratifying for the fans for Jonathan to have found his place in the Scoobies, he could not have served the role that Andrew does, because Jonathan had finally learned the lessons he needed to learn.

    COMIC SPOILERS

    Buffy and Andrew do actually develop a decent friendship. They bond over a shared crush on Daniel Craig. He has shown development over the course of the series. He was given the responsibility of controlling a Slayer cell, did a middling job. He finally stood up to Warren. He finally gave up on the need to be involved in the fight to prove something. He does regress(won't go there, bad Andrew!) like all the characters do. When he finally acknowledges his sexuality, I'll know he's cookies(to paraphrase Buffy).

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    1. Agreed on Jonathan. Bringing him in would have required rewriting CWDP. Plus, a redemption arc wouldn't have worked as well for him because viewers already liked him and didn't think of him as "truly" evil.

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    2. I always felt a little unsatisfied that Jonathon had done some backsliding since Superstar. Then I interpreted his better-developed moral compass (wrt the rest of the Trio) in season 6 as a result of his "lessons learned" in season 4. I agree that if they had dragged this that out into season 7, it would have been repetitive.

      Any urge I had to see Jonathon join the Scoobies wasn't because I wanted him to be further explored. I just wanted to see him happy and hanging out with all the cool people. And that makes for boring television, according to some.

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  2. Thanks for the link - super interesting post. Self-awareness is definitely one of the show's strengths; BtVS couldn't achieve its delicious (delightful? I dunno, I'm all alliterations today) degree of genre-mixing without it. Though I wish I could figure out why I'm okay with the doctor in Normal Again deconstructing our show and our Slayer and not, for example, Holden Webster in CWDP or Andrew in general. I guess it's just a matter of preference, to each his/her own and all that. Oh well.

    This definitely isn't one of my favorite episodes, but it has many great moments, and I agree that the Andrew/Buffy scene at the Seal is pretty powerful. The first time I watched it I didn't think she would kill him, obviously, but I honestly didn't know what was going to happen.

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    1. SPOILERS

      Although, one Andrew moment that sticks out in my mind as particularly evocative for some reason is in Chosen when he simply says, "Why didn't I die?" Everyone around him kept on telling him he's going to die, he says several times (including at the end of Storyteller) that he's probably going to die, and he doesn't, because the world just doesn't work that way. Death doesn't work that way.

      Or maybe he's again just fulfilling his character role by asking the same question many viewers were asking (not that I personally ever felt, even if I didn't love Andrew, that he deserved to die). Even if that's the case, his comment is effective to me in that moment.

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    2. Re your spoiler point, yeah I think it works both ways. It's a little moment in the midst of everything going on, but it's adds to the overall power of the events.

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