Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Viewing Notes: SUMMER STOCK (1950)

Summer Stock, 1950, d. Charles Walters
scr. Sy Gromberg, George Welles
with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven

Conventional Wisdom has it that there's little to see in Summer Stock but "Get Happy", which, shout hallelujah, is in itself a hell of a Thing to See anyway, even if it was patched in three months after principle photography and found its famous costume among Minnelli's cast-offs. And yet!... There's also a silent Gene Kelly partnered with a squeaky floorboard and discarded newspaper, gliding and hopping and inventing 100 rhythmic gags to an instrumental reprise of "You, Wonderful You" like he's a permagrinning Buster Keaton. And there's the tour de force fight-n-flirt deconstructed-square-dance between Judy and Gene. And Kelly going at tornado speed through a cramped country kitchen, up on the table and practically pushing the fourth wall out past the edge of the set in "Dig Dig Dig Dig for Your Dinner". And, and, and Eddie Bracken and Marjorie Main out comic-relieving Phil Silvers without breaking a goddamn sweat. Point being that's at least enough to justify looking at something for an hour and forty minutes.

That plot, with Judy (as Jane) trying to run the family farm while her sister's crazy showbiz pals (led by Kelly as Joe) rehearse in the barn, recalls the Mickey & Judy pictures of yore, and maybe Oz, too. Ironically-ish, the Major Theme involves Judy coming to understand that putting on a show is for reals hard work, just like farm chores, and her sister gradually emerges as a sort of villain whose diva behavior (ahem, sleeping too late, disappearing during rehearsals, running up expenses) threatens to ruin the show. However troubled Garland was during production on Summer Stock (i.e.: Troubled), she does the buoyant optimist thing, the tough-talking can-do! thing, and the cute funny nervous motormouth routine and there's not a crack in her armor on screen.

So you've got this slick, bright-hearted, colorful kids-puttin-on-a-show-in-the-barn throwback with a classic roadblocked-courtship plot, at least two truly great numbers and several really really good ones. This being Garland's final film for MGM, perhaps we have a phantom ache for a grander (or more grandiose) send-off — a whole 120 minutes of "Get Happy". The loss in underrating Summer Stock, I think, is that if MGM musicals are a thing with you, then second or third tier is really not so far from the top shelf. This is rather a primo example of that particular dream machine doing what it did in 1950.

Under a pink spotlight on a darkened stage, Joe tries to explain his show to Jane. Nestled in the functional segue dialogue before the romantic confession number "You, Wonderful You", Summer Stock offers possibly the simplest, wisest of explanations for the existence of the musical itself. It's a throwaway moment, sweet and slight, and — in spite of all well-documented effort behind Summer Stock — it is effortless.:
JOE: We're trying to tell a story with music and song and dance, not just with words. For instance, if the boy tells the girl that he loves her, he doesn't just say it. He sings it.
JANE: Why doesn't he just say it?
JOE: Why? Oh, I don't know. But it's kind of nice.

Viewed on: 3/19/14 — DVD (Warner/TCM, Region 1)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Protected By Powerful Forces: Notes on “Never Leave Me”

Notes on “Never Leave Me” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode 7ABB09
Directed by David Solomon
Written by Drew Goddard

[ Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Sleeper” ]

This again.
She pretty much gives him looks like this through the whole episode.

Monsters! Explosions! Torture! Revelation! Topless Spike in bondage! All this and more! And yet “Never Leave Me” is one of the odd Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes that does not have a strong, clear dramatic throughline. The DVD packaging summarizes the plot thusly: “Buffy’s interrogation of Spike is interrupted when the Bringers attack her house, while in England the Watcher’s Council comes under attack from The First.” While those things certainly occur, that really only describes two brief scenes. Where the previous episode, “Sleeper” (7.8), curiously lacked resolution and was fuzzy on the particulars, at least it focused on a central plot about getting to the bottom of whether or not Spike was feeding on Sunnydaleites again. “Never Leave Me”, by comparison, is jam-packed with meaty drama, and advances the Season Seven plot substantially, but as a story in and of itself is all over the map.

If “Never Leave Me” has a unifying dramatic concern, it’s the Seal of Danthazar in the basement of Sunnydale High. You remember the Seal — the one Andrew opened in “Conversations With Dead People” by killing Jonathan. Except it turns out it didn’t open. When we catch up with Andrew Wells, least competent but last surviving member of The Trio, he’s still in the company of The First Evil, still being directed to open the Seal, now in fumbling Keystone Kops fashion, chasing a sacrificial piglet around the demon portal and doing pratfalls. Besides the general lameness of the conceit, this is symptomatic of the repetitive motion syndrome plaguing Season Seven, and reduces Jonathan’s death to a joke when First-Evil-Jonathan apologizes for being anemic. On the upswing, this loophole restores a measure of dignity to the last moments of a beloved character, as if Jonathan’s ernest repentance rendered his blood too fine to open the evil Seal. That very business — whose side you’re truly on and what that means — is rather the subject of “Never Leave Me”.

Dangerous murderers fighting in an alley.

Well, if we’re going back to the beginning as we keep insisting, doesn’t a rebooted Sunnydale High need a live pig running around? Too squeamish to kill the poor animal, Andrew is reduced to buying blood from the butcher’s shop. Here he’s intercepted by Willow, and in an alley the remnants of Season Six’s battling villains face each other for the first time this year. They both end up fronting that they’re still bad to the bone and boasting about their magical
prowess. It’s all a joke, Andrew transparently bluffing “Stand down, She-Witch, your defeat is at hand!” and Will indignantly blustering “I am a she-witch, a very powerful she-witch, or witch, as is more accurate!” Funny, except that in this confrontation Willow is reminded that her own allegiances have been shaky in very recent memory. And here is another recent villain just jabbering “I’m good! I do good things now!…" and changing his mind, "I’m am bad! I’m bad,” and does she sound any different? As she says it, Willow seems to remember the extent to which she really, really is not to be trifled with. Doubt flickers through them both, but at the moment they are on opposite sides and those sides are fairly clear.

So she packs him up and hauls him back to Scooby Central, which is the other major concern of “Never Leave Me”.

A house being put back together.


“Gather them. It’s started,” Robson tells Giles at the end of “Sleeper”. That’s the important message from a dying man in a cliffhanger scene, and it’s the lead-in clip in the Previously On for “Never Leave Me”. Giles won’t appear in this episode, so it’s Robson’s last words to note. Cats are popping out of bags right and left here, so no time to fret over spoilers. Robson is telling Giles to gather the Potential Slayers, and that the war with The First Evil has started. It’s a message arriving too late — the conflict is underway, not about to start. Those cryptic teaser snippets of teenage girls around the world being pursued and murdered, the attempts to open the Seal of Danthazar, Spike’s brainwashing — anything that looked like a preliminary skirmish — was all part of a plan already in execution before the targets know what hit them. The enemy is going to have to improvise right and left through the season, and indeed in “Never Leave Me”, but its battle plan tends toward sneak attack and complex boobytraps. Our heroes are perpetually a step behind The First, chasing an invisible enemy through a plexiglass maze only to find they are being led by the nose.

The gathering has started, too. Certainly The First has summoned its legion of Harbingers (or “Bringers” — ? well, w/e), and lured Andrew and Jonathan (R.I…P?) back up from Mexico. But the goodies are massing as well. Watchers are assembling at Watcher HQ, and Giles has instruction to round up the remaining Potentials. The Sunnydale Scoobies have been reuniting all season, with Willow returning from England, Spike from Africa. Xander and Anya are increasingly compelled to stay at the Summers’ house. “Sleeper” delivered Spike back to 1630 Revello Drive, and “Never Leave Me” pulls Andrew into the house, too. More core cast and fascinating newbies will be arriving shortly. The teams are forming, and this snowballing effect will continue until the very end of the series.

Who are you going to gather, then? “Never Leave Me” concerns the matter of two villains, Spike and Andrew Wells, both of whom have recently murdered people. Spike is officially reformed, and tries to demonstrate heroism in his actions but is constantly forced to talk about it and explain himself. Andrew talks constantly about how he is reformed, but demonstrates this by stabbing Jonathan a couple of days ago. Spike killed in a mind-control trance, Andrew of his own free will. And somehow these two blonde killers dressed in black both end up tied to chairs in Buffy's house. Their situations are nearly identical but with poles reversed.

This “gathering” business isn’t about maternal nesting instincts, or teamwork, or the value of friendship. It’s about which side you pick when it’s time to pick sides. That’s picking sides for a war, certainly; these are bands of warriors being assembled, and the subject of Buffy’s leadership will drive the next act of the season. But gathering is also about who you let into your life, who you have to cut out, and who you choose to stick your neck out for.

So two interrogations, two allegiances under examination. We’re explicitly reminded that Spike still feeds on blood, while Andrew is uncomfortable procuring it from a butcher. And we’re explicitly reminded Spike has a soul, while Andrew sputters to Willow “I’m evil, but protected by powerful forces. Forces you can’t begin to imagine, little girl.” Team Slayer appears to have the upper hand through the bulk of the episode, as they are in possession of The First’s sleeper agent and current right-hand (or corporeal-hand, anyway) man. There is a take-one-leave-one balance to the events of the episode, but in the war itself there is no balance: this is a string of defeats for the Slayer’s side and all they gain is a tiny scrap of information. But Knowledge, etc., etc., something About Power.

Sun shines in the bedroom.


“Suffer love! A good epithet! I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.”
—Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, act V, scene 2

The Buffy/Spike interrogation actually doesn’t get very far in terms of the murders she’s questioning him about. Instead they end up discussing their relationship in a frank manner, and that takes the form of a kind of interrogation. Through the wall and simultaneously, there is another interrogation as Anya and Xander lay into Andrew. But the same thing ends up happening: Andrew is an excuse to look at the current state of Anya/Xander relations.

It’s called "Never Leave Me". That’s a line from "Early One Morning", of course, Spike’s "trigger" song, as in "Oh don’t deceive me / Oh, never leave me." In the song, the maiden is singing this lament to a runaway lover. In the context of the episode title, though we have two fractured couples at the center, the phrase reenforces the gathering motif. Who, after all, might be saying "Never Leave Me"? To whom are they saying it? Or, as in "Tough Love" (5.19) or "Dirty Girls" (7.18), is it ironic?

Apparently Spike is having "withdraws," the craving for human blood described in language that implies it is worse than just a gnawing hunger. This isn’t strictly in line with previous depictions of vamps going cold turkey, but adds an edge of peril and haze of confusion to the scene. "Sleeper" worked a "recovering addict" parallel into its story of Spike confronting his latent vampire bloodlust. Here’s B hand-feeding Spike because he must be restrained; she’s administering methadone. And it’s gross and pathetic, Spike suckling from a bag of butcher shop leavings like it’s some kind of grotesque oral blood transfusion. He’s in enormous discomfort, but Buffy’s there to get him through this (which is, maybe, also a sort of methadone), so hey, hunger hurts, but starving works.

But we’re not in one of Spike’s crazy basements, we’re not in Angel’s Alley where we fight, or The Bronze dance floor where we court. Not the Library, Cemetery, or Hellmouth. Buffy, it seems, has Spike tied up in her bedroom, and in the last line before the theme song, he warns: "If I get free, someone’s gonna die." Now, that means odds are he’s gonna get free. His words ring down the halls of Season Seven, as the overarching story of Spike himself is the tale of a soul striving for freedom. Where Angel struggles to find reasons to exist, grapples with greater existential purpose, Spike simply yearns to be Spike. He’s not just currently tied to the chair, but bowed under the weight of a sundry artificial restraints: vampirism, brain chip, soul, brainwashing. But he moves toward the light, that one. And if he got free — truly free — would someone die?

Well, right now, unfortunately, they might. The Buffy/Spike interrogation is the dramatic centerpiece of "Never Leave Me". It boils down to two scenes, and in both, Buffy only asks a few questions about how Spike might be connected to the mysterious shapeshifting villain before Buffy and Spike are back on the topic of Buffy and Spike. They segue into hashing out personal business with almost comical speed and inevitability, first in her bedroom and then in her basement. And indeed, the sex stuff is up on the surface of things; it needs to be addressed, but something else is down in the deep dark.

When Spike half-jokes that the trials required to earn back his soul are nothing compared with the agony of being in love with Buffy Summers, it’s bound to set her off. She’s hurt, insulted, takes a defensive, closed-off posture, but lets him talk that way. She calls him self-pitying but generally puts the ugliest possible spin on things like tainting his view of the relationship will help him get over it.

The bedroom conversation builds to Spike’s accusation to Buffy that "You used me," and how he finally understands this, and that "you hated yourself and you took it out on me." Buffy stonily agrees, and (snidely?) reminds him that she told him this at the time. But that isn’t quite what he’s getting at. His soul is giving Spike the capacity to understand what Buffy was putting herself through during her fling with him. He can feel her pain now — "I get it. Had to travel 'round the world, but I understand you now." Beautiful, lovely, except what he sees is still red: "I understand the violence inside." Ah. He had to learn to hate himself as much as she did to be with him in the first place and awww, who’s feeling sorry for themselves after all?

Spike thinks he’s being "honest" with himself now, but he’s always generally been an honest guy. Buffy’s acting like it's all self-evident, like she told him over and over that she didn’t care about him, slept with him just to feel something even if it was disgust, used him as a receptacle for her sorrow. So they both realize this now, and that’s painful. It’s also painful because of what they’re not realizing. As a vampire, Spike was convinced B was secretly in love with him, maybe even mythologically bound to him; now with this glowing soul of beautiful light in him, Spike is convinced that she always hated him. Something about these star-whacked romances seems to make people think in extremes, yeah?

There is a fine joke in "Sleeper", when Buffy starts to correct the bouncer at The Bronze — it was actually Billy Idol who ripped off Spike’s personal fashions. Besides the laugh, the lovely thing is that it is a rare moment where Buffy acts like Spike is her boyfriend. A moment where she is excited about him and wants to talk about him with other people. Where she acts like she likes him. And it is sad, too, because it comes now, when they appear to be definitively split up. Because it was always there. At some point, they talked about Billy Idol. And we saw it in flashes, but in occasional postcoital cuddles, in the wacky invisible sex in "Gone" (6.11), and point being: These two do like each other, and if they "used" one another in some way, both got something out of that use. We just saw in "Sleeper" a reminder of how Buffy has been catalytic in Spike's growth over the past four years. And if that is true, then Buffy Summers very literally helped William the Bloody save his soul and so who cares if she miseryfucked him a couple times?

In this scene, she finally asks: "How’d you get your soul back?" Nice of everyone to respect a fellow’s privacy, but given the nature of bartering for souls throughout history, maybe that’s an important question. Spike’s account of reclaiming his soul places Buffy at the center: "Went to see a man about a girl." Aww. But consider that part of his motivation was that he had hit absolute bottom, particularly by this program’s standards. And they’re not talking right now about how she's been a support and inspiration, nor about how his love is so strong and pure that his demon body required an actual-factual Soul to withstand it.

No, they’re talking about how now he understands the kind of degradation Buffy was feeling during their fling in Season Six, and the residue that still clogs up her self-image. There is not a little bit of emotional violence happening here; they’re getting in subtle digs at each other, alluding to major injuries and mutual distrusts and if they’re getting into it this deep, it’s almost certainly time to head down to the basement.

You have slayed me, you have made me
I got to laugh halfways off my heels
I got to know, babe, will you surround me?
So I can know if I am really real

—Bob Dylan, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, 1964

The chip isn’t working and the trigger is, and The First appears as First-Spike and sings to Real-Spike, and sends the vampire crashing through the wall to attack Andrew. The First is using Spike to 86 Andrew before he can spill about the Seal of Danthazar, effectively making this a villain using a villain to go after a villain. Following this? Dividers breaking, bedrooms turning into war zones, and the next thing you know Spike’s manacled in Buffy’s basement. This time Buffy’s wiping the blood off of him. Here he is chained to her, and here she is taking care of him. Up in the bedroom the conversation was intimate but grim, and love ended up debased and broken on the cross; down here things look appalling, and these two spit some serious venom, but something else happens.

This conversation takes some hard zigzags, but the overarching topic is that Spike believes Buffy needs to stake him here and now. Spike’s arguments are honest as always, but he takes the most negative perspective possible to make his point, letting himself be the bad guy as Buffy did upstairs. If she won’t rid herself of him to protect herself and a houseful of loved ones, maybe she’ll stake him for being an asshole.

Now, if it were any other vampire, he’d be dust, but he’s not any other vampire, and it’s always different. She’s giving him extra lives, more leeway, the benefit of the doubt, and furthermore she’s helping him again. She’s going out of her way to find reasons and ways not to eliminate Spike, like she always has. Later, she’s going to have this thrown in her face by trusted advisors, like it’s a character flaw, like Spike’s a blind spot with her. But she doesn’t look away from him. He’s straight in her line of sight, and Gellar barely blinks during the scene.

Two land mines go off. Spike pops the first one, and proposes that she can’t kill him because “You like men who hurt you.” I understand Andrew is doing fine upstairs, but nonetheless I believe someone just hit a vein.

“No,” she counters. But also “Not anymore.” (“I’m not bad anymore,” said Andrew Wells, “I’m good. I do good things now.”)

What is this? A biting insult? a Terrible Truth? He’s trying to goad her into staking him, but he doesn’t sneer it at her; it sounds like it’s hard to say. Does he even believe it? This is the same bomb he dropped on her in “Fool for Love”: All Slayers Have a Death Wish, here considered as it applies to romance. Spike’s way of cutting people down with a couple of excruciatingly perceptive derisive remarks — that quality he shares with Cordelia Chase — is only useful when he hits the mark. Only knocks his target off-balance when he’s walloping them with something they don’t know about themselves or thought they’d hidden. It’s gotta be insightful. And this time he’s not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. Heck, even Holden Webster knew it. They’re talking about Buffy’s inferiority complex creeping up to devour her superiority complex from below.

Even if Spike’s just now playing catchup, she’s been dealing with the question ever since Season Six, and just had a breakthrough in therapy two episodes ago. But let’s not dodge the subject: Does Buffy Summers like men who hurt her? Well, maybe Buffy just liked some men who ended up hurting her. Or maybe, yep, he’s right, she’s already identified this pattern in her life, and she is making efforts to address it, as her real response, “I don’t hate like that. Not you, or myself. Not anymore” indicates.

Or maybe being the Slayer forces Buffy into destructive/impossible relationships because it makes relationships impossible. The "rule" is that the Slayer isn’t supposed to have personal relationships. What’s that even mean though? Whose rule? Who made it? Yeah, nobody tells her what to do and love the earth and woman power, but somehow she’s still stuck in this set of circumstances where her dating life is a fucked-up hell. Because there are the patriarchal "rules" of the Watchers’ Council, but if you ignore those stuffed shirts they’ll blow up on their own. It’s built into the mythos, it’s intrinsic to being the Slayer, it’s the invisible program running inside that leads the One to the Architect. You think you’re free but you’re playing their game. And being the Vampire Slayer, she never asked for that. She might be Chosen, but who chose her? Who wrote her into this story? How the fuck do you get out of that? And where might Buffy find, say, a source of inspiration of her own? Angel? Hm.

Landmine #2 comes from Buffy.

Spike keeps trying to downplay the soul further, calling it "window dressing," and he’s kind of angling the conversation that way the whole time. Knowing he’s a risk, he focuses his Inherently Evil Core; it’s not a delusion or a lie, he’s just emphasizing the awful odds that his trigger can be exploited at any moment. Trouble is, by this point he’s actually demonstrated so much strength of character, and he’s so very chained to her basement walls, that the argument just doesn’t fly. Buffy can’t pretend she doesn’t know him inside and out. And if, as she tells him, “You’re alive because I saw you change. Because I saw your penance,” that means that when she looked at him up close and highly personal, she did not just see a twisted black reflection of blah blah blah. She may be talking about the soul specifically, but she’s seen him change over and over. Spike has talked about how he needs to be killed, offed, etc., but “alive,” that’s Buffy's word.

You can see it in his eyes, once he gets the affirmation he’s needed the whole time. My God, there’s no special effects, but it’s like he’s actually getting his soul right now, again. They’ll always be Cosmic Dancers to this guy, it’ll never leave his system entirely. You can’t cure a romantic, you can only turn them into a cynic. They’re easy to revive: give 'em a little blood. But this isn’t just for Spike, it can’t be. "Be easier, wouldn’t it, if it were all an act, but it’s not." Oh, that’s Buffy talking to Spike, who’s begging to be killed like he's Lon Chaney, Jr., but maybe she can hear herself say it. Because Buffy needs to say it. She needs to say it out loud.

So say it. Say it like you mean it! And she does: "I believe in you, Spike."

Well. Close enough for now. Maybe if she’d gone all-in... but no time, for the enemy breaks up the party. Because this is all very nice, but somehow talking about their feelings isn’t proving a critical tactic in this war. OR IS IT!



There is a pleasing symmetry to the events of “Never Leave Me”. Xander repairs the windows at the beginning, and the Bringers wreck his work again at the end. The Scoobies take Andrew captive at the beginning, and The First's minions take Spike captive at the end. It opens with a discussion of stabbing Spike in the chest and whether he can restrain his vampire nature, and ends with Spike’s pierced breast triggering the release of a "real vampire."

And so during the Spike/Buffy interrogation, another interrogation. Andrew’s not going to give up crucial intel; he’s stuck in with the comic relief, as Xander and Anya work him over. The captive is just a foil for the couple, and in their good cop/ex-demon cop routine we find a brief reminder of how well they work together, even if terrorizing and beating a hostage is not necessarily the healthiest bonding activity. When Xander is left alone to explain Andrew’s Hard Way options, he monologues about Anya’s resume as a vengeance demon. Rather than focus on her actual history of mass murder, Xander tells a transparently autobiographical story about where he stands with his ex-fiancée:

XANDER: Well, there was this one guy — there was this one guy, he, uh, he hurt her real bad, so she paid him back. She killed him, but she did it real slow. See, first she stopped his heart. Then she replaced it with darkness. Then she made him live his life like that. But he still had to go do his job and see his friends and wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, but he had to do it all empty. Without anything to look forward to. Ever.

This account is singularly self-serving, whether it is what Xander is actually feeling or not. If we’ve forgotten, that "hurt her real bad" consisted of leaving Anya at the alter with little provocation and no articulate explanation of how the relationship fell into ruin. He is surely still damaged from the breakup, this we know even if we believe that Xander ultimately broke his own heart. But the monologue shifts blame for his current misery onto Anya, and ties it to the narrative of her vengeance demon career. And how unfair is that, to claim she’s responsible when what he’s feeling is guilt? Because he dumped her, Xander is the eternal heel, right? Maybe it is fair, though. Or at least complicated. It’s always different. Maybe shortly after their still-unresolved split, she got drunk and rebound-fucked Spike. Maybe that wasn’t a technical violation of any terms and bylaws, but maybe it was an insensitive thing to do knowing it might impact someone she still cared about. Maybe she recently went berserk with Jilted Lass Rage and butchered a frat house and had to be put down like a crazy goddamn animal. Got it? Anya had to be killed.

And maybe this extravagant display of exceptionally poor behavior is actually kind of disappointing to Xander. Now it could be all that, or it could be that Xander simply isn’t fully owning up to why he and Anya are not he-and-Anya anymore. Lotta that going around. Whether we find his position defensible or smacking of denial, Xander is sad, and has Unresolved Feelings for Anya.

The monologue’s oblique reference to Heart of Darkness links it to the Apocalypse Now motif in Xander’s dream sequence in "Restless" (4.22). A military presence marches through the shadows of Xander Harris’ psyche, an anxiety nightmare concept that we might say crystalizes his resistance to being forced into a warrior culture. Which is to say: he’s a normal dude who feels compelled to aid in the battle against the Forces of Darkness and that feeds directly into his insecurities. Xander is possessed of an adventurous spirit, but when he sets out to emulate On the Road always finds himself back in his parents' basement. And clearly he’s chosen his side and fights the good fight, but from a certain point of view when things get rough he just hides behind his Buffy.

The callback to "Restless" via Heart of Darkness connects with the overarching battlezone theme, and reinforces the schema laid out in "Primeval" (4.21), where the (imaginary) Tarot-like deck used in Willow’s enjoining spell assigns each Scooby a sort of archetypal function. The cards describe the roles each member plays in the group; in the spell they become synecdoches for the conceptual cores of their characters. A full accounting of the "Primeval" trump cards is surely lofty and byzantine beyond this point. But Xander was once confirmed to be The Heart. And if he’s no longer able to fulfill his function as the Heart, what is to become of him?

Fatemasters & Soulcaptains

Speaking of the outmoded and useless…

Meanwhile in jolly old London (that’s LONDON, ENGLAND), Quentin Travers of the International Council of Watchers refuses to share information with Buffy over the phone, mostly to remind you that he’s a dickhead. Then the whole Watcher headquarters building explodes and they all die. Though this is the shocking death scene of an organization that has figured large in BtVS mythos since the story began, their exit is practically staged as a joke. That’s how irrelevant they are now. The old white man stands up, puffs out his chest and makes a speech about how important he is, backs it up with quotes from “Invictus” and the Bible of all things, and promptly goes kablooey. This isn’t the time to recount the entire tortured history of Buffy Versus the Watchers’ Council, because that time was back in Season Five when she stopped playing their game and told them to go fuck themselves. And now Buffy the Vampire Slayer won’t have to deal with those pricks on the Watchers’ Council anymore. But there’s a funny thing about being apparently trapped in eternal cycles. And, too, about going back to beginnings, which is totally In this season. The Watchers’ Council is dead. Long Live, etc.

To be clear, it’s not the key to the episode or anything, but when Quentin Travers’ quotes Proverbs 24:6 he cites it by name. These constitute the last words of a long-running recurring character, so let us pay Mr. Travers this final respect and look them over. “O, by wise council you will make your war.” Blam-O. He’s actually paraphrasing; the good old NRSV has it as “for by wise guidance you can wage your war.” QT strikes me as a sturdy Church of England type, and the King James puts it “For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety.” “Council” is pretty standard across various versions, let's don’t sweat the small stuff. The “war” metaphor here (in Proverbs and on BtVS) is about the ongoing spiritual conflict of daily life.

The scripture quotation is largely present for its immediate subversion. But aren't councils, planners, and advisors important in waging war, even if the wisdom of this particular council is moot? The next section of Buffy’s arc this season will concern her leadership skills, and pretty specifically whose advice she chooses to take, and when; that is, it’s about Buffy and her Council, in war and through life. Proverbs 24 (it’s a short chapter, might as well check it out) starts with a Proverbs 23-esque warning about envying sinners/associating with known wicked persons, uses a house-building metaphor, and addresses the importance of councils in war, advisors in general. Besides broadly outlining "Never Leave Me", Proverbs 24 is largely about righteousness and judgment; some of its advice Buffy could use, some she will disprove.

As Season Seven looks back to Season One, at how far we’ve come and how we’re circling the same problems, this is our last check-in with the Watchers’ Council on this plane. As it happens, Buffy’s first acts of rebellion way back when were against the petty authority of Watchers. Watchers and their far lowlier civilian equivalent: Principals. How long’s it been since Buffy had conflict with a principal? The Council, she’s done with. The Principal — she’s still feeling that one out.

Things half in shadow and halfway in light.

Principal Wood is creeping around the edges of the episode, doing sketchy-but-ambiguous stuff like cleaning up Jonathan’s corpse from the Seal of Danthazar. But Wood has a far more interesting kind of scene in his office, where he deals with two high school vandals in his official capacity. First he offers the juvenile delinquents a choice between repainting the graffitied wall and suspension. The little devils think he’s opening with Bad-But-Weak Cop, and when they defiantly choose suspension, Wood admits his bluff. Instead, he offers, they can repaint the walls or he’ll call the cops. What he opens with is actually a polite, rational face on the illusion of a choice, and when they choose wrong, he follows up by boxing them in. It’s not quite an interrogation, because Wood isn’t looking for information, but as with the Spike and Andrew interviews above, Wood is in the position of authority but needs the compliance of the transgressors in the chairs. So we see he uses his natural charm strategically, and perhaps demonstrates a sense of tough-love justice. Or something like that.

The squad of Bringers attacks Buffy’s house, tearing apart the work Xander did in the prologue, but the adversary doesn’t obliterate our heroes with surprise explosives. The immediate goal is to retrieve valuable Sleeper Agent Spike, so there are tactical reasons for this, but also a sense that the enemy wants Buffy — and maybe the others — alive for other reasons. They’ve met before. They go way back. And it’s here, dead Bringer at her feet, that Buffy pieces it together, names it as much as it ever had a name. The First. The First Evil. They once faced off in Season Three, episode 10, “Amends”, in which it attempted to manipulate Angel into killing Buffy, and nearly drove him to suicide before he was saved by the power of Christmas. This thing just cannot stay away from these vampires with souls. It wants Buffy dead, but with all these assassins and incendiary devices at its disposal, The First clearly wants to choose the time and place, wants her broken and defeated to its satisfaction. So knowledge is a start, but this is approximately as dire as revelations — or at least Big Bad reveals — come.

As we officially say hello again to The First, and goodbye to the Watchers’ Council, it is becoming apparent that this is a story about manipulating characters into the deaths they deserve.

And all the while as vampires feed, I bleed.


The Seal of Danthazar’s about to open for-real cross-my-heart this time, so stand back. The seal — basically a manhole with modified Sigil of Baphomet and some vaguely Celtic knots — isn’t literally over the Hellmouth. The Hellmouth is a colorful term for the focal point of mystical energies. In other circumstances, that might read as fantasy gobbledy-gook to smear over any number of sins in plotting mechanics. Lately, down at the convergence point in the basement, the floor plan has become unmappable, shifting, nonlinear. Tricky. And the Hellmouth is nowhere, but does seem to end up manifesting as a hole in the dirt which belches forth unclean things. And the Hellmouth is everywhere, but seems to draw all dramatic focus to the sepulchral caverns under a school. This spot seems to want to be a school or need to be a school. If you burn it down, the Hellmouth pushes a new one up through the rubble. If you switch campuses to UC Sunnydale, you’ll find the Hellmouth’s manmade twin malfunctioning downstairs. When you get close to it, it’s dangerous to take things too literally. The Hellmouth is a concept. Watch your motherfuckin step. "School," I believe a wise woman once said, "is where you learn."

The First uses Spike to open the Seal, which is where we started with Andrew up at the top. We’re doing this again, opening this seal that we dramatically opened in "Conversations With Dead People", gathered around a hole in a basement in a school where we’ve been circling the same topics for seven years. The first time we ever went down under this school, it was to visit a particularly old, nasty vampire. The Master and his Order of Aurelias serve as the mythos’ distillation of the enemy, they are the shadow horde and the Vampire King built to scale for a truncated mid-season-replacement-sized story. The Buffyverse is infinite in imagined/implied scope, but very small in on-screen practice. The Master was the first to try to end the world, the one who killed her, who made a prophecy girl of her, and this fixation on preordainment, on things playing out as they are scripted, harkens back to MetaBuffy's own First Vampire King, Rutger Hauer as Lothos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), who believed they were “joined.” All the way back to the beginning.

As above, so below.

On the next leg of Spike’s journey, his reclaimed soul will help him slough off the muck, layer by layer. It’s going to take awhile — most of the season — for there’s a lot of gunk built up. The first thing to go is that Vampire nature. But... but he’s stuck with that, of course. That magical-matter in the shape of a reanimated dead man is his body and form, and therefore it's all surface. Maybe it’s the least important layer to Spike. He ceased to be a proper upstanding vampire a long, long time ago, and he was never any good at serving evil or serving anything but himself, really. We just got a vivid reminder in "Sleeper" that he may still have the fangs and forehead, but Spike no longer has the vampire spirit, if you will. This is all rather conceptual, compared to, say, if one were to physically remove the violence-inhibiting brain chip. As Spike can’t really shuck the physical reality of his vampirism, perhaps it can be purged in on a symbolic level. Which doesn't mean it's not going to hurt.

And so a crucifixion — in a basement, no less! Or is it? Spike is stripped to the waist, bound with his arms out, and he's up there to suffer. But you don’t put this guy on a cross; he'll smolder. The only one who puts Spike on a cross is Spike. Hovering above the mouth of hell, Spike is spread-eagled on the Wheel that is both Catherine Wheel and Rota Fortunae. On The Wheel of Fortune, and bound by ancient logics. But don’t speak too soon, the wheel’s still in spin! Where Baphomet’s goat ears would usually be, the Seal is marked with the symbols for Taurus and Libra, encompassing sacrifice, the seeds of growth, balance of body and spirit; equilibrium and possibility. If Spike is going to stand in the light, the demon's got to go. And if it can’t, literally, we’ll purge it in this slightly messier, more abstract, but highly spectacular way. His decision is made. He’s chosen.

When The First Evil bleeds out this anomalous, most romanticized, pathetic excuse for a demon, something terrible crawls out of the ground, like the humors draining out of Spike are congealing into pure symbol-forms. The First calls this "a real vampire," we only meet it for a moment, a full-body makeup nosferatu-beast clawing it's way from the world-grave. And this is not our sophisticated romantic vampire men, dark mirror of human passions and all that, but a primal blood-eating non-human Thing. The thing that rises is feral beyond even the Van-Tal form vampires take in the Pylean dimension over on Angel. There is no forbidden fantasy lover mixed in there, no bloodsucking stand-in for the patriarchy or aristocracy, no subversive parallel to Christianity. Just the Vampire stripped of all metaphor. What emerges from the hole is a concept. It is the idea of a monster itself. Forces you can’t begin to imagine, little girl. If it gets free, someone’s gonna die.

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