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Monday, December 1, 2014

Katniss, Buffy, and the Cost of Heroism


I’ve now had the chance to see Mockingjay 1 twice, and as I mentioned in my last post, I re-read the Hunger Games Trilogy before seeing the movie. I have a number of thoughts about the book, the movie and about more general issues, all of which I’ll try to organize here. I’m going to tie those thoughts to Buffy and make some comparisons to HBO’s Game of Thrones too (no spoilers for GoT).

A number of reviews of Mockingjay 1 expressed disappointment at the “lack of action” in the film. I didn’t find this to be a problem, but I can see how it might appear that way to others, so I need to start by talking about what I think Hunger Games is “about”.

Each reader will emphasize different aspects of the books, of course. As I see it, there are 3 dominant stories playing out in tandem: Katniss’ heroism both in the Arena and outside it; the love triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta; and the cost, physical and mental, paid by Katniss in the course of the Trilogy. When reviewers mention the “lack of action”, they’re clearly talking about the fact that Mockingjay 1 contains little of the gladiatorial-style combat which formed the basis of the first two books, and which many viewers obviously find the most interesting part of the books. Leaving aside whether this is good or bad, it’s faithful to the third book, where the only such “action” occurs in the second half and will be the subject of Mockingjay 2.

I’ll talk about the “action” issue more below, but I want to digress by saying that it may very well be that the Trilogy would have been better suited to an HBO series like Game of Thrones. It would have been pretty easy to set up at least 4 seasons for such a series, possibly 5 (a magic number for series generally because of re-runs, though this affects HBO less than it does network TV). In general, I’m a fan of the way HBO has translated George Martin’s series to television, though I have some specific criticisms of individual scenes and characters.

The big advantage HBO has over movies is time: it can devote 10 hours or more to a book, rather than 2-4 when each book has to be made into a single movie (two for the finale). This extra time allows all of the dominant themes to play out, which is likely to make all the readers happier.

HBO has other advantages too. There’s a good deal of graphic violence in the novels, though it’s stated rather than described in explicit detail. The movies need to downplay this in order to maintain a PG-13 rating, but the cost of that is that this de-emphasizes the horror of the Arena and over-emphasizes the adventure aspects. HBO certainly does not understate graphic violence, and that would inevitably change the impact of the Trilogy on screen.

Similarly, the books actually contain a great deal of nudity and people dressed only in underwear, something I didn’t really notice on first read but did on re-read. The nudity is all stated rather than described; it’s not salacious and it’s not sexual, but it’s there constantly and it can’t be shown in a PG-13 movie. At the risk of the understatement of the year, I think we can safely agree that HBO wouldn’t find this a limitation.

Both graphic violence and nudity are controversial, and I’m generally of the view that they are both overdone in books and on screen. That said, there’s a place for both when essential to the author’s point, and I think that’s the case in both Game of Thrones and Hunger Games. Both authors are (IMO) trying to dispel the romanticism so often associated with war; the violence and nudity in the books are designed to drive home this point.

Nudity in The Hunger Games emphasizes the fact that the Capitol holds the 12 Districts in what amounts to slavery (a point made often throughout the books). Slaves traditionally have no personal privacy – they are stripped of dignity among other rights. In the American South, slaves were often displayed naked at auction and poorly clothed by their masters, who used them for sex the way Finnick was used and, as suggested, Katniss herself might have been. Nudity in preparation for the games demonstrates the tributes’ lack of autonomy. Nudity in the Arena titillates the Capitol audience but doesn’t violate any norms because the tributes aren’t “real people”. The books are making a serious point here, but it gets lost in the movies because of the restrictions and assumptions of the medium.

I’ll give one relatively minor example to make this point. Catching Fire, the second movie, includes the scene of Johanna stripping at the elevator, but it gets the scene completely wrong. It’s played as sexual, with Peeta and Haymitch obviously looking at her and enjoying the sight; Johanna then winks at Haymitch. That’s what we in the US commonly associate with nudity. But in the book there’s no sexual vibe at all. To the contrary, Johanna is using her own choice of nudity to emphasize that the Capitol can’t hurt her, can’t embarrass her, can’t make her vulnerable by stripping her clothing.

I want to emphasize that this is NOT any sort of rejection of Mockingjay or of the previous Hunger Games movies. Generally speaking, I think they’ve done very well in their adaptations, helped by the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is (IMO) so good and can express such a wide range of emotions. I have some criticisms of Mockingjay 1, mostly of the way they handle the rescue of Peeta, where I personally would have preferred that they spend the time on Katniss’ issues. Overall, though, I think the movie is a reasonable compromise for viewers with different tastes and I liked it better than most reviewers.

The fact that I liked the movie better than most reviewers despite the lack of “action” scenes brings me back to where I left off above. For me, the most important theme of the books is the internal cost paid by Katniss, not the “adventure” of gladiator combat or the choice between Gale and Peeta (though all 3 themes are connected). You can see that cost as realistic – think of all the news reports of PTSD and other issues faced by troops returning from combat – or as an anti-war message (my own view), but there’s no doubt that book 3 spends the vast majority of its pages on Katniss’ mental state and not on her ability to shoot an arrow or which boy she’s kissing.

At other times of my life, I was more attracted to the adventure aspects of fantasy and SF. Even in LOTR, for example, while the cost paid by Frodo was explicit, I focused on that far less than on his struggle to destroy the Ring and I could imagine myself in such an adventure without the unpleasant traveling conditions or risk. I think we all find that part of the attraction of these kinds of stories.

At this point in my life, though, I’m more interested in considering the cost paid by our heroes. It was, of course, Buffy which brought me to this point. The fact that there would be a cost was expressly stated in Welcome to the Hellmouth:

BUFFY Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends?For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them?

By cost here, I mean the impact of being the Slayer on Buffy's psyche, not the external injuries she suffers along the way. The show, probably intentionally, diminished the effect of those because "accelerated healing comes with the Slayer package." (FFL) The Trilogy solves this problem with the advanced medicine which restores Katniss physically even as she continues to suffer mentally.

Buffy pays psychic costs all along, but those costs don't become the focal point of the show until late in S5, and they continue in S6-7. Even the loss of Angel in S2 -- which is less a cost of being the Slayer and more simple bad fortune -- gets mitigated with his return in S3. Writing the episode essays for the later seasons forced me to confront the internal costs Buffy paid in a way that I never really had before. Maybe that alone, or maybe that in combination with current events caused me to reassess my assessment of the relative importance of the price of being a hero.

I'll just briefly list the costs Buffy pays so I can compare her to Katniss: flashbacks; nightmares; self-loathing; the deaths of numerous people whom she, in her own mind, failed to save; her episode of catatonia after she failed Dawn in Spiral; her own life, which she sacrifices for Dawn; a long period of depression after she's pulled out of heaven by her friends; isolation from her friends and mentor. As Andrew puts it in Storyteller, Buffy's is "a story of ultimate triumph tainted with the bitterness of what's been lost in the struggle."

So what costs does Katniss pay? All of the above, basically. The Arena gives her flashbacks and nightmares which she never loses. She suffers guilt from her failure to save first Rue and then Peeta. Depression and isolation are constants in the later books.

Another cost is her friendship with Gale. At the start of the books, he's her best -- only? -- friend and an obvious romantic possiblity. At the end, he plays no role in her life, at least in part because he re-creates a mine cave-in very similar to the one in which her father died and which has caused her nightmares ever since. She gains Peeta, but that's partly because she comes to see him as essential to help her deal with the costs in a way that Gale never could. When I first read the books I thought Gale was the obvious choice for her, only to be corrected by my daughter who assured me that Peeta was the right one. I now see that she and Katniss were right.

Another cost is her mother, just as Buffy lost hers, though in neither case was that loss directly related to the actions as the hero. Katniss had a difficult relationship with her mother from the beginning of book 1 because her mother suffered such severe depression after Katniss' father died that she nearly let Katniss and her sister starve to death. Katniss comes to understand that depression intellectually in Catching Fire, but only really recognizes the emotional core of depression when she herself suffers it on two different occasions in Mockingjay. Compare the cathartic effect of Katniss finding Buttercup back in District 12 to Willow's breakdown on the hilltop in Grave.

Speaking of fathers, Katniss lost her father in a mine accident, but began to see Haymitch as a surrogate father at some point because of the way he helped her survive. She lost that affection when she learned that he'd used her as part of the rebel plan (compare Giles in LMPTM).

That brings us to her bitterest loss: unlike Buffy, Katniss loses her sister Prim, the one person she loves most in the world and, like Dawn, a metaphor for innocence. The whole "adventure" of the Games begins with her heroic decision to volunteer as tribute in place of Prim. Katniss didn't set out to save the world, any more than Buffy set out to save the world in Prophecy Girl or The Gift. In both cases Buffy focused only on saving first Willow and then Dawn; saving the world was a by-product of that.

But as a direct result of the Capitol's defeat, Katniss loses Prim. And the reason she loses Prim is that both sides used Katniss as a pawn in a larger struggle -- that's one meaning of the mockingjay, a bird that sings songs given to it by others -- a struggle the Katniss herself always resisted joining. I see this as similar to the way the Watchers used the Slayers over the years. Katniss finds love and hope at the end not because of her roles in the Arena or the revolution, but in spite of them, when she and Peeta find them in themselves rather than in the larger cause. To me, that's a very Buffy message.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Why are we obsessed with Buffy?

My friend shadowkat posted this on her lj today and I got her permission to share it. I edited it slightly and I have a few comments at the end.

"Was discussing [Buffy obsession] with a friend today, who'd told me she'd just blasted through the first five seasons of Supernatural on Hulu. 

Me: For all the television shows that I record and watch, I don't care about 98% of them.
Friend (laughs)
Me: And the last television series I really cared about or was obsessed over was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

I don't know why I haven't been able to emotionally invest in a lot of these series. Oh there are a few I do enjoy and would miss a little bit if they waived by-by tomorrow. A handful. The Good Wife, Justified, Once Upon a Time, and possibly Game of Thrones?

The following shows...I find interesting, but weirdly don't care what happens to anyone in them.

1. How to Get Away with Murder
2. Marvel Agents of Shield
3. Scandal

Not sure why this is exactly.

Revenge? I just want everyone but Nolan and Emily, to die. Which is caring, in a way.

I do care a bit about Grey's Anatomy, Defiance, Gotham, Nashville, Vamp Diaries, the 100, Elementary, Doctor Who, Dowton Abbey, Blacklist, and Sherlock but not really enough to be upset if they got cancelled. 

Arrow, Constantine, Sleepy Hollow and the Flash - am thisclose to giving up on. 

Nor do I know what it was about Buffy that obsessed me and nothing else really does. Not sure anyone on my correspondence list understands this? I don't understand it. Maybe Buffy just had a combination of factors that the others don't quite have?

Buffy - I seemed to love just about everything about it in the latter seasons. The music, the characters, the story arc, the metaphors - I think it just resonated on a deep level? Don't know. Not obsessed with it now. 

I wonder sometimes if there are just too many tv shows...and they all seem a bit alike. Watching State of Affairs right now, and it feels like Madam President meets Homeland by way of Covert Affairs. I've admittedly seen too many of these series.

It hit me watching Marvel: Agents of Shield or rather discussing it - I realized I didn't care who died, who was redeemed or what happened. Vaguely curious...but not emotionally invested at all. Same with How to Get Away with Murder. If I didn't DVR these series I'd forget they were on. And when I think about...I haven't deeply cared about any of the characters in a Whedon series since maybe FireflyDollhouse - I had troubles relating to. It was too all over the place and I found the set-up to be slightly patronizing, and sexist. A personal reaction, clearly. Bewildered me - that others online seemed to prefer it and Firefly to Buffy and Angel, obviously they were in the minority...

I did love the first season of Veronica Mars, and for a while was emotionally invested in that character - but I related more to Buffy, weirdly enough. I don't know why. Was it the music? The actors? The Writing? 

What is it about a story or book or tv show that compels me? Or grabs my heart, sinks its hooks in, and won't let go? Is it a character? A story arc? And is it mood based? Will I love Buffy as much now as I did then? I'm not obsessed now? Rarely read any fanfic on it any more, when between 2002-2010, I read quite a bit. 

The Buffy/Angel comics sort of burned me out on the comic genre. I lost interest in the entire genre and gave away my comic book collection this year. The entire collection except for four books that a next door neighbor talked me into keeping. I remember the next door neighbor commenting on my Buffy/Spike/Angel comic collection and in what pristine condition it was in - I had them in binders, and plastic sleeves. In mint condition. But I gave them away, put them out on the street, without a backward glance. It seemed odd to my neighbor. But I knew they were worth nothing.
And I didn't want them any longer.

When I stop being obsessed, I stop. 

There was something about Buffy...and it wasn't in the first four really wasn't until the fifth and sixth that I became obsessed. Or rather, it was when I re-watched the series on FX, with the current one airing - and realized, wait, all of these episodes build on each other, the characters are evolving, and the the writers seem to comment on previous episodes in future ones - there's a discernible pattern here and it's really cool and I've never seen anyone do that before. I think that was part of it.

The other part - was, on a strictly personal front, my world and what I believed was true was falling down around my ears. I discovered that people I had placed a great deal of trust in - were stabbing me in the proverbial back, no where was safe or secure, and the coping mechanisms I had in place had stopped working. In short, without warning, my world turned upside down on me. This, I think, happened to quite a few people in 2001. It was a major water-shed year for the world.
There was life before 9/11 and life after. 

On screen - there was a character who was metaphorically dealing with that same thing - her world had turned upside down on her. What she believed was true wasn't any longer. All her illusions had been smashed wide open. She was being forced to see the world as it was, not as she imagined it to be.

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

Giles: You mean life?

Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?

Giles: What do you want me to say?

Buffy: Lie to me.

Giles: Yes. It's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and... everybody lives happily ever after.

Buffy: Liar.

- From Lie to Me (BTVS S2).

And later...

Everything here is ... hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch ... this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that ... knowing what I've lost... 

- Afterlife (BTVS S6)


Xander: I know we've been going straight because I've been following the North Star.
Willow: Xander, that's not the North Star, it's an airplane.

- Bargaining Part II (BTVS S6)

and finally...

Life's a song you don't get to rehearse
And every single verse
Can make it that much worse
Still my friends don't know why I ignore
The million things or more
I should be dancing for.
All the joys life sends
Family and friends
All the twists and bends
Knowing that it ends
Well that depends
On if they let you go
On if they know enough to know
That when you've bowed
You leave the crowd
There was no pain;
No fear, no doubt
'Til they pulled me out of Heaven
So that's my refrain
I live in Hell
'Cause I was expelled from Heaven.
I think I was in Heaven.

Spike: Life's not a song;
Life isn't bliss.
Life is just this.
It's living
You'll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
By living
You have to go on living
So one of us is living.
Dawn: The hardest thing in this to live in it.

- from Once More with Feeling (BTVS S6)

I thought, whoa. This is what I'm feeling metaphorically. I feel lost. And I don't know what they are doing in this show or where they are going with this - and I need to analyze it. I need to pick it apart. I need...and I think, I think I felt that somehow if I figured out the characters, their arcs, I'd find a new way of handling what was happening to me - another way of coping, a better way, that through discussing and analyzing the metaphors in this story, through this story - I'd solve the riddle of my own life. I'd find a way out. 

I remember at the time, a friend of mine commenting that the fan boards I was on were operating as a sort of group therapy for pretty much everyone involved. Through the tv series we seemed to be working out our own issues, our own fears, and our own problems. In reality, I think that's what stories do. They are in essence a way of solving a problem. Often one that we can't quite articulate or understand. Jung and Freud stated at various points that stories were gateways to the collective unconscious or the subconscious's way of communicating to us - as were dreams. A safe way of dealing with our own demons.

Fantasy series often work better in this regard than reality based series do, I think, because it's easier to work through metaphor. And metaphors tend to be more relatable and universal. Less painful. Sci-fi and speculative fiction works in a similar manner - I think. It's less painful to look at a problem through the lens of a fictional novel than reality. 

I think, I don't know for certain, that various things on Buffy hit my subconscious hard. The songs, the themes, the character's arcs- I deeply related to on some level. The story was in essence about dealing with your own and others demons. Not just our own, but the one's projected onto us by others. Such topics as financial issues, bullying, unemployment, romantic rejection, failure...were explored and through the lens of monsters and demons. Life is hell the series seemed to state, but we can make it less so if we work together...and pool our resources. 

It started out simply - high school is hell. But over time, the writers expanded on this theme. And this weekend, a friend of mine said to me - the world is an intense place and people are intense. People who are sensitive, should take baby steps. Don't jump in all at once. And see the world as it is, not as you wish or imagine it to be. For what it is - can be wonderful.

Buffy seemed to convey that. It also conveyed how we underestimate our own power. Buffy often underestimated hers. 

Spike: I'm not tryin' to cheer you up.
Buffy: Then what are you trying to say?
Spike: I don't know! I'll know when I'm done sayin' it. Something pissed me off, and I just-- "unattainable," that's it.
Buffy: Fine. I'm attainable. I'm a-- I'm an "attain-a-thon." May I please just go to sleep?
Spike: You listen to me. I've been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I've seen things you couldn't imagine, and done things I prefer you didn't. Don't exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood... which doesn't exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes. A lot of wrong bloody calls. A hundred-plus years, and there's only one thing I've ever been sure of. You... Hey, look at me. I'm not asking you for anything. When I say I love you, it's not because I want you, or because I can't have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are. What you do. How you try. I've seen your kindness, and your strength. I've seen the best and the worst of you, and I understand, with perfect clarity, exactly what you are. You're a hell of a woman. You're the One, Buffy.
Buffy: I don't want to be the One.
Spike: I don't want to be this good-looking and athletic. We all have crosses to bear.

- from Touched, S7 BTVS.

Sometimes, I think, the world causes us to forget who we are. We get lost inside our duties, the pressures, the demands, the desires, what others say about us whether they are our teachers, our friends, our husbands, our wives, our children, our boyfriends, our girlfriends, or our parents - we can lose ourselves in how they define us - whether it is a vampire, a werewolf, a witch, a 100 year old vengeance demon, a slayer...that we forget who we are. And our own power. 

Buffy: [to Spike] You faced the monster inside of you and you fought back. You risked everything to be a better man. And you can be. You are. You may not see it, but I do. I believe in you, Spike.

- From Never Leave Me, S7 BTVs.

Sometimes, all it takes is for someone else to tell us, I believe in you. You are okay. Or to find it in a story - and think, wait, I get it now. This isn't so bad. Or simply...yes, I get that, I felt the same way, I know what you are feeling.

When I was interacting with the fandom on Buffy, some interesting things happened.
The fandom helped provide me with the courage to leave a horrible work situation without a safety net in place, and more importantly to survive that. I remember corresponding with one woman, a navy nurse working in Japan, who sent me flowers the day I left my job. With the following quote:

"When life gives you lemons, make lemon-aid..." - I Was Made to Love You (S5 BTVS).

In the bottom were lemons. Six months later, her husband took me to dinner, to pay me back for being her friend, for helping her survive her own crisis of faith - to get through each day. To have someone who listened. Who got it.

And it wasn't an isolated occurrence. There were many other things that happened similar to that. Without going into gory details? The Buffy Fandom saved my life in 2002-2004. And I saved others lives. That blew my mind.

It was before social media took off. Before we had tumblr, twitter, or facebook. Just livejournal, voy, and yahoo newslists. We were a complicated, sensitive, vulnerable group of people who spanned age ranges, nationalities, ethnicities, class, and gender. Online - no one could tell your race, gender, ethnicity, or age. You were stripped of such definitions in most cases. One poster - refused to be identified by gender. We were forced to deal with the essence of what we wrote. No nifty visuals or GIFs or icons...just text. 

Buffy seemed to have so many things to discuss, to think about. We could pick it apart and we did rather obsessively. I've not really seen it done elsewhere. Granted I'm not really that involved in any other fandom. Doctor Who lacked something - it didn't quite deal with quite the same range of issues, and the writing didn't quite focus on gender - in the same way. Once Upon a Time - also lacking. Lost and BSG - too male, I think, and not quite as broad. None of these shows broke new ground or flipped gender roles. I keep meaning to ask the Doctor Who fandom - how they'd handle a female Doctor Who? Buffy took the concept of the vampire slayer, typically male (see Grimm, Supernatural, etc.) and made it female. Breaking Bad...I just couldn't relate to, and it felt...way too familiar, not conveying anything new. Any more than Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Veronica Mars or various others did. 

Buffy surprised me. Most shows rarely do. But it did more than just did this weird thing. It was not what it appeared. If you just looked on the surface all you saw was a campy show aimed at tween girls. With a funny premise. Who could take a show called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" seriously? Heck when I first watched some of the earlier seasons - I didn't pick up on certain things. And it was far from perfect. Uneven at times. And yes, you could argue that from a purely objective point of view Breaking Bad was far better written, Sopranos certainly was...few television snobs would say that Buffy was stellar. But...that was the surprise. Dig deeper...and you uncovered something special. It did more than just surprise - it delved into some our of deepest fears, pains, and sorrows ...and gave us hope, provided a whimsical solution.

The humor was off the cuff, at times snarky, at others pure slapstick. It made fun of itself, and it commented on itself and our world. The first true meta-narrative. Slyly showing how pop culture defined and limited us. 

AMY: It's crazy, all the things that've happened since I went away.
BUFFY: No kidding.
AMY: Snyder got eaten by a snake ... high school got destroyed...
BUFFY: Oh, Gatorade has a new flavor. Blue.
AMY: See? Head spinning. (shakes head) People getting frozen ... Willow's dating girls ... and did you hear about Tom and Nicole?!

-Smashed (S6 BTVS)

In Buffy, pop culture was a presence. It wasn't ignored. The characters commented on the changes and how they'd get lost amongst them. Giles would rail about the blasted computers, while Willow seemed to adore them. 

And the show didn't stop seemed aware of the fact that what we do, everything we do has a counter-effect. Events may seem random, but we are connected. Everything is. Yet it also questioned all of this. There was nothing definite regarding God. Or anything. 

You made your own way. You loved. You trusted your instincts. You got through it.

Buffy: I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. 

Buffy continually defines herself. She allows no one to define her. Unlike Alicia (The Good Wife) who is defined by her husband, her job, her kids, her roles, or Walt (Breaking Bad) who is defined by his illness and his failures, or even Angel who is defined in some respects by his father and his own failures...Buffy stares back at those around her and says, I'm not what you define. I'm not the slayer as you define a slayer. I don't lie on a bed of bones. Death is not my gift. I am not your hero. I'm my own. I will not do this alone. I will ask for help. I will not sacrifice my sister. I will not sacrifice my soul. I will find another way.

She reminds me a lot of the character Gerda in Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale - the Snow Queen. She's not Persephone or the variations, she doesn't stay in the underworld or make frequent visits. She lets go of her undead lovers...after she frees them much like Gerda in the Snow Queen frees her friend Kai from the cold deathly clutch of bitter hatred. 

It's odd, I've watched this series more than any other. Written more about it than any book, movie, tv show, song or thing I've loved. I've in effect electronically published and shared over 500 pages of essays on it, and at least three fanfics. Through it I discovered fanfic and meta and how to write both. I have the show mostly memorized. The characters, all of them, live in my psyche. I loved, hated, and related to the entire cast, supporting, guest...what have you. I've ripped this series apart, critiqued it, and showered love upon it. I've railed at the writers for disappointing me and not going in the direction I'd have preferred, and lauded them for taking insane risks and surprising me. I've followed the actors. I've followed the writers to new shows.

Something in this series struck a chord deep inside me. And you either get that? Or you don't. It's not quite explainable, or something I can articulate, although I did try above. And have in various other posts. I'm not sure I understand this myself. Perhaps it's as simple as I liked this. I just did. No wait. I didn't just like this. I fell irretrievably in love with it. To the extent, that I remain wary of sharing it with others who may not get it. I make fun of it - like I did to a friend above, although she watched it, but she didn't love it as I did. 

It used to embarrass me that I wrote so much about it. I remember my mother rattling off in a book store once to a stranger that I wrote media essays about Buffy and I wanted to shake her - and kept trying to get her to shut up. And when someone introduced me in public as doing this - I almost kicked them verbally. In part, because when I talked about it to my friends offline, they didn't get it. They did not understand why I loved the show.

CW: You realize that this show is marketed to tween girls right?

Yet, the people I knew who watched online weren't tween girls. They were over the age of 35 mostly. All walks of life. Our paths crossed over our shared love of the show. I remember doing a meme on two different fan boards once - and discovering the ages, nationalities, etc of the viewers. It surprised me. People from the ages of 15-80 were posting. Geneticists, scientists, monks, philosophers, etc. 

It's odd. How life can surprise you? How a tv show, simple tv show about a girl who fights vampires can...change how you see yourself and the world and for the better? At any rate, it taught me not to take things for granted, not to make assumptions, and to look deeper. But mainly to trust my instincts...and trust my heart.

So, while I may not care all that much about what's on now...I'm certain others do and maybe they've found the magic I found with Buffy...even if I don't understand how they did so."

I just want to expand on one point shadowkat mentioned, and that's the on line discussion. I think that had a huge impact for both of us. Before the internet, I expressed my obsession for, say, LOTR by reading it over and over again. But I didn't have anyone to discuss it with.

That changed with Buffy, dramatically so for those of us at ATPO (and presumably elsewhere too). Not only could we discuss the show, the others there would see things we didn't. Then we could go back on re-watch and find not just those things, but still more. For me, every time I went back, I found something new, something I hadn't noticed the first time around. I began to keep track of all that, and that led to the blog and the book. I like to think that doesn't just reflect the obsession, it justifies it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mockingjay and BtVS Season 6


I decided to prepare for the upcoming release of Mockingjay by re-reading the Hunger Games Trilogy. I’d forgotten how much of Mockingjay involves Katniss dealing with PTSD and its collateral symptoms such as depression. I’m wondering how the movie plans to address this.

I think we’re all used to the idea that real world consequences don’t impact our action/fantasy heroes: they don’t get concussions (much less CTE), they survive conditions and injuries which would kill us, and they’re triumphant, not saddened, when they defeat the bad guys. Mockingjay doesn’t follow that script. The “Games” were horrifying, all the more so because they involved children. Those horrors, in turn, push even the nominal “good guys” into adopting equally horrifying tactics. Mockingjay is an extended exploration of much truer consequences, of the terrible impact on Katniss of all she suffers. Only the epilogue holds out hope for the future.

This naturally brought to mind BtVS Season 6 – for me, pretty much everything comes back to BtVS – during which Buffy was depressed for the entire season. I also realized that each hero has a sister who stands as a metaphor for innocence and purity. The difference, and it’s an important one, is that Prim dies at the end of Mockingjay and Dawn survives. Try to imagine how Buffy would have reacted had Dawn died at the end of S6, perhaps from something Willow did (Prim died in Mockingjay because of something Katniss’ own allies did). This wouldn’t merely add to Buffy’s depression, it would have rendered pointless her own sacrifice for Dawn in The Gift, just as Prim’s death canceled out Katniss’ heroic decision to volunteer as tribute in Prim’s place which started the whole sequence in motion.

I don’t think there are many examples of successful movies or TV shows which spend lots of time showing the hero depressed. As I tried to make clear in my episode essays for S6, the decision to keep Buffy depressed for the entire season was extremely controversial at the time and probably still is. Personally, I find both S6 and Mockingjay very realistic, and I like both of them a lot.  Not everyone shares my taste, though, and most viewers found it hard to identify with a depressed hero and lots of them don’t like S6 at all.

I doubt the movie will be as relentlessly bleak in tone as the book, though I’m hoping it will. JMHO, but the first film didn’t do enough to bring home to the audience the true horror of the “Games”. It was too much an adventure, and it sucked us into the idea that Katniss could return triumphant and unscathed except for her uncertain feelings about Gale and Peeta. Catching Fire did a better job, in my view (though book 2 isn’t as good IMO, I actually liked the movie better than the movie version of book 1). The larger question, though, is not whether the two previous movies established the necessary background, it’s whether the filmmakers are willing to challenge the expectations of the genre and of their audience.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

YouTube episode reviews

One of the readers here has created episode reviews for YouTube, which you can find here. I like them and thought others would appreciate them as well. If you haven't seen any yet, take a look.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book update

Yes, this is somewhat embarrassing because I promised that I was done with the updates. But as I said in my last post, Joss Whedon: The Biography contains a number of quotes which I really should include. I've done that, but I also went ahead and made a few edits for clarity and caught a couple more proofreading errors while I was at it.

If you have highlights or bookmarks on your current version, there's no reason to update. Nothing in the new version changes the analysis in any way, it just adds some supporting quotations from Joss or other writers. If your copy is clean now, you might as well have Amazon give you the new one.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Some comments on the new Joss Whedon biography

Amy Pascale has written an engaging and interesting biography of Joss Whedon. It’s an authorized biography, meaning she had access to Joss, his friends, his family, his classmates, his teachers, and lots of his professional associates. There are quite a few revealing quotes throughout the book, a number of which I intend to incorporate in my own book. She also describes every project Joss has been involved in ever since he was in college.

She organizes the book chronologically, so we follow Joss’ path in Hollywood from his early work on Roseanne through Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pascale is obviously a big fan of BtVS, so she devotes more time to that series than most of his projects. That suits me fine, obviously, but if your preferred series is AtS or Firefly or Dollhouse, you won’t find as much detail. Pascale describes herself as an early and avid Buffy fan, and an early poster at The Bronze. Some of her most interesting chapters (to me, anyway) detail the beginnings of The Bronze and the participatory nature of fandom back then.

Pascale has definite opinions about the various shows. For example, she clearly didn’t like AtS 4 and doesn’t hesitate to say so. I’m pretty used to people disagreeing with my own assessment of episodes, so the fact that she didn’t like, say, Dead Things, doesn’t bother me. I know some readers get frustrated when an author doesn’t like one of their personal favorites, but Pascale is a fan and the vast majority of the time she’s very positive about Joss’ work.

I’d characterize her discussion of the shows as generally descriptive rather than analytical. By that I mean that she mostly tells us plot and theme without trying to analyze details as I’ve done on this blog. That’s useful on its own and I don’t mean it as a criticism; I’m just trying to give a sense of the book. Her descriptions do not extend to behind the scenes gossip. If you’re hoping to learn which actors were sleeping with each other, this is not your book. I find that a relief, though I wouldn’t mind reading a “tell-all” some day.

That leads to one final point. Because Joss authorized the biography, it’s nearly inevitable that it’s less critical of Joss than an independent biography might be. The quotes from actors and business associates are uniformly positive, which is what we’d expect for statements on the record. Joss deserves a lot of praise; whether it’s quite so one-sided is harder to say, but I’m sure there are those in the industry who’d be less than favorable towards him. I don’t see this as the kind of problem which qualifies the book as hagiography – every biographer has to face the tradeoffs of access versus criticism. There is, however, a line beyond which praise becomes too – what’s a word means “glowing”? – effulgent, and there were times when I thought the book reached that point. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Joss Whedon: The Biography

I assume many of you have seen it, but there's a biography of Joss out by Amy Pascale. It's available at Amazon. I've read about 30% of it and there's a lot of very interesting material in it about BtVS, naturally. I'll have some more comments on it once I've finished.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Friday, June 27, 2014

Vengeance v. Justice

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately in the context of A Song of Ice and Fire. If you’ve read this blog or the book, it will hardly surprise you to learn that my favorite character from that series is Arya Stark. She gets lots of criticism from other fans, and I wanted to set out my thinking about two issues in particular: when, if ever, vengeance might be justified; and what weapons and/or tactics are “proper” for Arya to use. I’ll talk about both using BtVS as a comparison, and I’ll assume readers are familiar with both series. Major spoilers for BtVS S1-5 and the first 5 books (not the series) of ASOIAF follow.

The issue of vengeance comes up many times in BtVS. The most obvious is in Innocence, where Uncle Enyos tells Jenny, “It is not justice we serve. It is vengeance.” In context, that pretty much establishes Joss’ attitude towards vengeance for the series. BtVS never justifies vengeance, even in pretty sympathetic circumstances: the gypsies cursing Angelus after he killed the gypsy girl; Giles attacking Angelus after Jenny’s murder; Hus seeking to avenge his tribe; Willow attacking Glory. The gypsy curse backfires spectacularly, harming innocents, when Buffy has sex with Angel. Giles nearly gets himself killed, surviving only because Buffy rescues him. Those who wronged Hus are long dead and he ends up trying to kill relative innocents. Willow’s attack on Glory might easily be described as suicidal; again Buffy comes to the rescue, but in consequence Glory discovers that Dawn is the Key. I won’t even mention Anyanka or some other examples from S6-7.

As I’ve pointed out in my episode essays, vengeance can’t be justified, not merely within the confines of the show, but in a civilized society in general. Here’s the way I phrased it in the post on Lies My Parents Told Me (no spoilers for S7):

“Probably the most fundamental principle of our legal system is expressed in an old maxim: ‘No man may be a judge in his own case.’ This maxim not only establishes the most basic principle of due process, it also serves as the foundation for the Lockean political philosophy which supports the entire American system. Here’s James Madison explaining the point in Federalist 10: ‘No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.’

There are both historical and psychological reasons why we adopt this principle. Historically, primitive legal systems operated under a vengeance principle. This was widely seen as a failure, leading to cycles of blood. It was precisely to get away from vengeance cycles that the legal system adopted the maxim I quoted. The avenger takes it upon himself to judge his own case and enforce that judgment. This undercuts the foundation of justice as we recognize it.

I personally doubt that vengeance is ever justified. I can see reasons for punishment. I can't justify vengeance – it’s an endless cycle of hatred and violence. That’s the point of the quote from Melville which heads this chapter [‘for when in anybody was revenge in its exactions ought but an inordinate usurer.’].

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it myself in some case. I might well react like Giles in Passion or Willow in Tough Love, given the right circumstances:

SPIKE: You - so you're saying that a ... powerful and mightily pissed-off witch ... was plannin' on going and spillin' herself a few pints of god blood until you, what, "explained"?
BUFFY: You think she'd ... no. I told Willow it would be like suicide.
SPIKE: I'd do it.
SPIKE: (looks down at the ground) Right person. Person I loved. (looks at Buffy) I'd do it.

So I fully understand the motivation. What I’m saying is that from a societal point of view, vengeance is unacceptable. That’s also been the view of the show since at least Innocence: ‘It is not justice we serve, it is vengeance.’ That’s the contrast, all right.”

While this remains true for most societies today, it’s my view that Westeros should be treated as one of those pre-modern societies in which vengeance is common. In that particular setting, my view is that Arya is justified in her vengeance quest and that she’s also justified in the way she’s going about it. Given the strong way I phrased the contrary view in the post on Lies My Parents Told Me, that leaves me with a lot of explaining to do, so I’d better get to it.

I’ll start with the assumption that Arya has cause to seek justice. I seriously doubt that anyone who’s read ASOIAF would disagree; indeed, I suspect most would agree that she has better cause than anyone else in that series, though it’s possible that her sister, Sansa, has an equal claim. The first hurdle, then, is to show that she has no avenue by which to obtain justice (at least not that we know of in the series to date).

The world of Westeros is not our modern world. At the best of times, just as in Europe in the Middle Ages, justice would be difficult to obtain and Westeros residents recognize private vengeance as both common and accepted. It’s even considered “honorable” in certain circumstances such as duels, a point I’ll discuss more below. This makes Westeros a less-than-ideal society, but I’m discussing it within the rules of that mythos.

But Arya’s in a much worse situation than even the “usual” wronged person in Westeros. One of the “small folk” might appeal to his or her lord for justice. A lord might appeal to the King. A lord might even rebel against the King, as Robert Baratheon did when he felt Rhaegar Targaryen had taken his bride-to-be. That lord could be joined by others, such as Ned Stark, whose father and brother were unjustly killed by the mad King Aerys. All of these are forms of justice, but Arya can avail herself of none.

Arya’s fundamental problem is that the Kingdom is controlled by those guilty of committing, directly or by command, the very wrongs she wants to redress: the execution of her father; the murder, in outrageous circumstances, of her brother Robb and her mother; the murder (everyone believes) of her two other brothers; the destruction of her family home and the elimination of the Stark lordship. She also has more direct grievances from her personal journey which stem from the same basic sources: the murder of at least three friends (Mycah, Syrio, Lommy); the brutal torture of others; her own mistreatment as a pawn for other players; her own brush with death at the Red Wedding.

To put it starkly (sorry), she lives in a society which permits, and sometimes encourages private vengeance, and she’s suffered shocking harms for which she has no lawful recourse. It’s this situation, and maybe this situation alone, which can justify vengeance.

Now let me consider Arya’s options. She suffers from 2 “disabilities”. One is that she’s female and the other is that she’s small and relatively weak. Taking the latter first, she can’t become Brienne or Asha Greyjoy, who nearly alone of all the women in Westeros can reasonably engage in duels or other combat with men. That rules out one “honorable” solution.

That’s not to say she can’t kill people, even men, in quasi-combat situations. She’s done that: the stable boy in King’s Landing; the guard at Harrenhall; the Tickler and the squire at the Inn. It’s just that those required some degree of trickery or surprise, and she wouldn’t last long with that as her only tactic.

It’s possible that she could rally the North to her side, another solution deemed “honorable” within Westeros society. However, because she’s female and younger than her sister, she wouldn’t be recognized as the Lady of Winterfell. Moreover, the Stark lordship is now held by the Boltons, winter is coming (I’ve heard that somewhere), and she can’t get to the North in any case. While I can’t rule out a Joan of Arc role for her, that seems implausible given what we now know.

What she’s doing instead, is training to be an assassin. It’s clear she intends to use that training for her own purposes, not under the command of the House of Black and White. So now the issue is whether becoming an assassin is an “honorable” means to achieve her goals.

Within the books, that’s not clear. Everybody understands that assassination is a weapon; Robert was willing to assassinate Dany, although Ned argued strongly against it on the ground that it was dishonorable. It probably was in her case, but it might not be in every case; that would depend. Poisoning Joffrey may not have been honorable, but I doubt anyone failed to cheer when he died. Questions of “honor” tend to be inseparable from our sense of the justice of the situation.

Let’s suppose Arya were to assassinate Walder Frey. I suspect most readers would cheer that result; if anyone deserves to be assassinated by Arya in particular, Walder Frey does. Thus, I don’t think we can rule out assassination per se, even if it seems dubious in some cases. Remember, too, that Arya has adopted it because it’s her only recourse. Thus, within the customs of Westeros, and given the lack of other options, I conclude that Arya has the right to seek vengeance and that assassination is a proper method for her to use. That says a lot about Westeros as a society, but it’s not a reflection on Arya within the rules of that society.

Then there’s the question of her specific kills to date, not counting any she may have killed in combat (it’s unclear whether she did or not, but no deaths in combat would be deemed dishonorable in Westeros) or as mercy killings. From the Wiki, we have (1) the stable boy in King’s Landing; (2) the two names she gave Jaqen (Chiswyck and Weese); (3) the guard at Harrenhall; (4) the Tickler and the “squire” at the Inn; (5) Daeron, the Night’s Watch deserter; and (6) the insurance cheat to whom she gave the poisoned gold coin.

Morally speaking, I see no problem with 1, 3, or 4. These were situations in which her own life was in danger and possibly the lives of others. That leaves categories 2, 5, and 6.

Categories 2 and 5 both involve people who, both by the laws of Westeros and/or considerations of basic morality, “deserved” to die. That doesn’t mean that Arya herself had any right to kill them, of course. I think that all 3 deaths are questionable, though the truth is that Westeros was certainly a better place without Chiswyck and Weese. If Arya hadn’t caused their deaths, they were precisely the kind of wrongdoers who were most likely to escape justice for multiple crimes committed against others.

Daeron became an outlaw when he abandoned the Night’s Watch. The term “outlaw” originally meant “outside the protection of the law”, thus, someone who could be killed by anyone. We probably need to treat Daeron as Medieval English law would have – it’s not our morality, but it’s consistent with the law of the realm.

That leaves the insurance cheat (I’m assuming that he was; we don’t actually know this). Arya killed him as part of her training. That can’t justify her actions, at least not as far as I’m concerned. It’s pragmatically necessary for her to do that in order to accomplish her ultimate end, but that doesn’t make it moral.

What makes her action more interesting is to compare it against the actions of others which all of Westeros would consider “honorable”. Let’s take her brother Robb as an example. He did what lords do: he raised his banners and attacked those who killed his father. I guarantee that more people, including more innocent people, died as a result of his war than Arya could ever personally kill. It’s as Tywin Lannister said (paraphrasing): why is it more moral to kill a thousand men in a battle than a dozen at a dinner?

While that’s cute, I don’t want to be on Tywin Lannister’s side. I have no problem if Arya uses the weapons and tactics available to those who lack societally-approved forms of power – an excuse Tywin notably lacks – but we still need to consider the choice of victims and the circumstances in which she uses those weapons. That makes the Red Wedding impossible to justify in Tywin’s case and, without knowing a great deal more about the case of the insurance cheat, presumably so in Arya’s too.

One last point about Arya, namely her most notable refusal to kill someone. In both the book and the series, she left the Hound badly wounded despite his plea for her to kill him as an act of mercy. Was that cold-blooded or was it something else?

As I see it, we can interpret her action 2 ways:

1. She's being cold-hearted, wanting the Hound to suffer death in a painful way.

2. She can't bring herself to do it. At the same time, she can't bring herself to tell him that because (a) he did, when all is said and done, kill her friend; and (b) she's suffered so much she very likely can't say that to anyone at this point (except maybe Jon).

The biggest reason I see it as #2 is that he's on her list. She's told him more than once that she's going to kill him. Yet here she had the perfect chance -- presumably the last chance she'll ever have -- and she didn't do it.

I can't explain that in any way other than to say that she couldn't bring herself to do it. We know she has the ability to kill; she's done it several times now. She killed the guard at Harrenhall in a very cold-blooded way, so that wasn't it. I think she just felt too conflicted; she couldn’t meet her own test of justice even if it gained her a measure of vengeance.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Note About Primeval

I just discovered an error in the transcript for Primeval. Normally I'd just correct it (as I've done in the Primeval essay here), but I don't want to update the book for 2 letters. However, the change is important to the argument I make about S4, so I'm going to call attention to it here.


Here's the quote I used from the transcript (Willow doing the spell):

“The power of the Slayer and all who wield it. Last to ancient first, we invoke thee.  Grant us thy domain and primal strength.  Accept us in the power we possess.  Make us mind and heart and spirit joy."

That last word, "joy", is wrong. It should be "join", obviously (you can hear it if you watch). That's kind of the whole point of my essay on Primeval and S4, so I wanted to emphasize it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

EBook update (last one)

I've let my OCD get the better of me for what I hope is the last time. I did one final (yeah, sure) review of the EBook and made some more editorial changes to improve the flow of the argument. As was true for all previous updates, I didn't change the substance at all.

When I made the previous update, I learned for the first time that updating the book will erase your bookmarks and underlining. I probably should have known this before, but I didn't. Be aware of that if you update this time. But as I say, I expect this will be the last one.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Top 25 Dramatic Scenes

I originally posted a list of my top 25 dramatic scenes at ATPO in 2003, shortly after Chosen aired. Those original selections hold up pretty well – he said as he graded his own answers – though I’ve reorganized them to suit my latest views. In a few cases, what qualifies as a single scene is debatable, but I tried to be reasonable about it.
There’s a pretty straightforward logical connection between the scenes I list below and my episode rankings: (1) I rate dramatic episodes highly; therefore (2) episodes with top quality dramatic scenes will be highly rated, and vice versa. This list is bound to be subjective, even though many of these scenes will appear on others’ lists, because they’re the scenes which had the greatest emotional impact on me personally.


1. Beneath You: "Can we rest?"

2. Passion: “Upstairs.”

3. The Body: "Mom? Mommy?"

4. Becoming 2: Buffy fights Angelus (“Me.”) and sends Angel to Hell: "Close your eyes."

5. The Gift: "The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it. Live. For me."

6. Smashed: B/S bring down the house.

7. Dead Things: Crypt scene

8. Becoming 2: "The winter here is cold and bitter..."

9. Wild at Heart: "In my whole life, I've never loved anyone else."

10. Prophecy Girl: "I'm 16 years old. I don't want to die."

11. Passion: “The ecstasy of grief.”

12. Innocence: "That was then. This is now."

13. OMWF: Walk through the fire

14. The Body: “I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this.”

15. Becoming 1: "No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does."

16. Dead Things: "Please don't forgive me."

17. Innocence: “Was I not good?”

18. Graduation Day 1: “You know you're not going to take me alive.” “Not a problem.”

19. Tabula Rasa: "Goodbye to you"

20. The Body: “We're drawing ... the negative space ... around the object.”

21. Afterlife: "Every night I save you."

22. Normal Again: "Thank you. Good-bye." And the camera pans out the door of the asylum.

23. Passion: "I can't do this without you."

24. Storyteller: “I’m making it all up.”

25. Angel: Goodbye to you.

I could do another 10 pretty easily, I think. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Episode Rankings: The Dirty Dozen (Bottom 12)

Every time I mention an episode as “weak”, someone jumps in to say how much s/he likes it. With some trepidation for the comments I might get, this post will contain my list of weakest episodes. Please do remember that even the weakest episodes can have a good scene or two in them.

I have some criteria for what makes an episode weak. The catch-all term would be poor execution, e.g., hitting us over the head with the point, or leaving the point obscure, or making the plot line implausible. That sounds as if the list is objective, but it’s no more so than my “best” list.

I’ll confess that I’ve allowed my personal distaste for Dead Man’s Party to affect its ranking. A more neutral observer might find it not as bad as I do (not much of a bar, I freely admit).

133. Gone
134. Teacher’s Pet
135. Reptile Boy
136. Beer Bad
137. Two to Go
138. Doublemeat Palace
139. Wrecked
140. I Robot, You Jane
141. Where the Wild Things Are
142. Go Fish
143. Dead Man’s Party
144. As You Were

I’ll list my top 25 dramatic scenes next Thursday.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. update

For those following the show, I thought the events of last night made this a good time to review the predictions I made after watching the first episode. Overall, the show is still not great -- it could really use Joss to improve the dialogue -- but it has gotten better after a very slow start.


1. My first prediction was that Chloe = Echo. I feel very good about this. I still think it's dead on, down to something in their blood being special. Of course it's their blood:

XANDER: Why blood? Why Dawn's blood? I mean, why couldn't it be like a, a lymph ritual?
SPIKE: 'Cause it's always got to be blood.
XANDER: We're not actually discussing dinner right now.
SPIKE: Blood is life, lackbrain. Why do you think we eat it? It's what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you other than dead. (quietly) Course it's her blood.

2. I thought other characters might map on to Dollhouse characters, suggesting Fitzsimmons/Topher as an example. I think I got that wrong.

3. S.H.I.E.L.D. would be morally ambiguous. I think I called that. Here it's a case of infiltration rather than something necessarily inherent in the system, but the net result is the same: the institution is corrupt.

4. There would be Foucaltian themes of societal coercion. I'd give myself half a point on this. There has definitely been mind control, deception to force others to act, and the prospect of more subtle forms of coercion from higher up in S.H.I.E.L.D. remains.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Episode Rankings -- Top 25 Favorites

My “favorites” list will have some overlap with my “best” list. Since there’s such overlap, I’ll list more “favorites”.

The top episodes are those which are both of high quality and easy to re-watch. They’re in rough order of the number of times I’ve re-watched them. Like anyone would keep an exact count of such a thing.

I’d call this list totally subjective; I can’t even pretend that it represents anything more than my own personal taste at this point in time.

  1. Once More With Feeling
  2. Becoming 1 & 2
  3. Storyteller
  4. Chosen 
  5. The Gift
  6. Fool For Love
  7. Hush
  8. Primeval
  9. Doppelgangland
  10. Pangs
  11. Touched
  12. Wild at Heart
  13. School Hard
  14. Band Candy
  15. Triangle
  16. Checkpoint
  17. Tabula Rasa
  18. Choices
  19. Phases
  20. Prophecy Girl
  21. Selfless
  22. Lover’s Walk
  23. Life Serial
  24. Lessons
  25. Beneath You
"Weakest" episodes next Thursday.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Episode Rankings -- Top 15

In a comment recently, Allison suggested that I add some posts ranking such things as my best/favorite episodes, etc. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to do this, but her comment kind of pushed me into doing it.

The big reason for my previous reluctance was that my attitudes about these things change over time. Any ranking I give today would probably differ substantially from one I gave 10 years ago. However, I’ve decided that enough time has passed that my evaluation of the episodes is reasonably stable. I might still switch an episode from 8th to 15th, but it’s very unlikely that I’d switch one from 103rd to 15th or even to 41st. Still, don’t take the exact order too seriously. There’s a real risk of being more precise than accurate when making up these lists, and in any case I might change my mind again next week.

I’m going to rank the top episodes in two different posts, one today and one next Thursday. The distinction I’m making between these two lists is between “best” and “favorite”. To illustrate the distinction, consider The Body. As you can see below, I rank it no. 1 on my “best” list (no surprise there). However, I can’t consider it a “favorite” because it’s simply too painful to re-watch. The “favorites” list will be those I enjoy watching the most.

I created today’s list by putting on my critic’s hat and trying to evaluate the “best” episodes. Don’t be fooled into thinking this list will be “objective”; I’m certainly under no such illusion. All it means is that I’m trying to put some constraints on my own subjective views, not that I’ve succeeded in eliminating subjectivity (which is, in my view, impossible).

As you’ll see very quickly, the “best” list contains mostly dramatic episodes rather than comic ones. This is consistent with my comments about the relative longevity of drama and comedy in the Introduction. However, my “favorites” list will be much more heavily weighted towards funnier episodes – or at least those less dark and disturbing – for reasons which are probably obvious.

In two cases below I treated a two-part episode as one for purposes of the rankings. That may seem unfair, but I find it hard to separate the relevant episodes and I don’t know how I’d rank them if I had to split them.

SPOILER WARNING: There’s at least one major spoiler below and any comments will likely include more.

T1. The Body
       Once More With Feeling
3.    Passion
4.    Becoming 1 & 2
5.    Lies My Parents Told Me
6.    Storyteller
7.    Normal Again
8.    Dead Things
9.    Hush
10.  Fool For Love
11.  Surprise/Innocence
12.  The Gift
13.  Smashed
14.  Restless
15.  Chosen

I couldn’t do just 10. It was too hard for me to separate out 11-15 from the top 10. For that matter, it was pretty hard to separate 11-15 from the ones I’d put at 16-20, but I felt a little better about breaking it at 15. Purely arbitrary.

Many of these episodes appear on lots of “best” lists, and their appearance won’t be a surprise, though some will disagree with the ordering. I’ll just comment on three of them, in reverse order of their ranking. Chosen is on the list because I was on line obsessively before it aired and I’m confident that nobody, except those who were spoiled, saw the twist coming. Changing the whole nature of the show like that was daring, in my view, and I loved it.

I know plenty of viewers who hate Smashed. From what I read, a lot of that is associated with the story line: they just don’t like the decision to have Buffy have sex with Spike. That’s ok. I’m not critical of that decision, but even if I were, I’m trying to base my judgment more on the execution than on the plot. Overall, I have to judge the episode as well-executed, and the final 15 minutes or so (the whole fight plus the ending) as brilliant.

Storyteller is the third one which gets, well, less love in fandom. A lot of that comes from dislike of Andrew. Andrew doesn’t bother me, and I think my post on that episode explains why I rank it so high.

Feel free to tear my list apart in comments and/or to post your own.