4.20 The Yoko Factor
Read along in Bite Me!, pp. 239-244.
If you’re watching Angel, this week’s eps are
1.19 Sanctuary (Part Two) (the brilliant conclusion to the Faith arc)
1.20 War Zone (Gunn!!)
1.21 Blind Date
Read along in Once Bitten, pp. 142-149.
When you were watching “Primeval” this week, that wasn’t just your imagination making you think it was the finale. It was… and that’s why this week we’ll be talking about it as if it’s the season finale. For all intents and purposes, it was. It’s the only one of seven seasons that Joss wrapped up one episode before the end, which is why next week’s episode – “Restless” – stands alone in the Buffyverse as the most unique episode of all, and is the middle episode of the entire oeuvre (or, it would have been if season 1 had been a full 22-episode one). Joss himself refers to "Primeval" as the S4 finale, and says that "Restless" is the show's "coda."
But for this week, we’ll talk about the conclusion (thank god) of the Initiative arc and sum up the season as a whole. I’m up first, and our guest host for this week will discuss “The Yoko Factor” and “Primeval.”
As I’ve said a few times, what doesn’t work for me in season 4 is the Initiative arc. The military aspect goes against BtVS’s reliance on folklore and fairy tales. However, the arc itself almost feels necessary (Chris will handle this in greater detail below) because there have been hints all along that the real world knows about the baddies outside: Buffy got the Class Protector award from a school that realized she wasn’t a normal girl; the Mayor, police, and principal were all aware of what was happening; and considering the events of “Hush” made it onto the LA News (remember the Scoobs all watching the news discussing the quarantine of Sunnydale?) methinks a giant lizard/snake thing suddenly appearing at the high school graduation and eating the principal before being blown up by the students might have made it into the front section of the LA Times. Maybe.
So this season confirms that Buffy’s secret ain’t so secret anymore. And when we see the way the military botches everything, we realize WHY the Scoobs rely on folklore. The season also furthered the theme of togetherness with everyone scattering to do their own thing: Buffy and the Scoobs are unaware that Willow has found a new love in Tara; Buffy separates herself from Giles and turns to Maggie Walsh as her new mentor; Xander doesn’t go to college with the girls and instead discovers a new world of wild monkey love with the childlike and hilarious Anya; Giles becomes a man of leisure, just a sad man – a bad man – behind blue eyes. And Joyce is practically absent for the entire season.
They’re all in new worlds, discovering new things, and going it alone. Spike for the first time enters the fold, but only to be a shit disturber and cause greater rifts among all of them (quickly becoming the fan favourite of the season). Angel, Cordy, and Wesley are gone, Sunnydale High is gone, the library is gone, and the togetherness is gone. Separate them all, and what have you got? What happens in the Yoko Factor. Only when they come back together again do they become a force that is so unstoppable they can do anything.
But before we get to the final two episodes, let’s look at New Moon Rising. As I’ve also said before, despite the military misstep of the season, there are SO many brilliant episodes in S4. While season 4 has my least favourite arc, I often tell people how much I love it and the reasons why. And one of the biggest of those reasons is “New Moon Rising.” WHAT an episode. Now there’s a lot to say about the entire episode as a treatise on tolerance and prejudice, from Buffy’s stuttering response to discovering her best friend is in love with another woman, to Riley’s method of painting all demons with the same brush. But I’m going to set that aside and talk about the reason why I love this episode so much. (If you want to see more on the other material, check out my book.)
After several episodes that have focused on Adam and Maggie and Riley and the stupid Initiative, we finally come back to one that focuses on the emotions of the most beloved character: Willow. The return of Oz is worth rejoicing over, but if you’d been pulled in by Tara the same way Willow is (and I’ll understand for the new people if you weren’t; the overdone stutter and over-shyness were a little much in the beginning, but trust me when I say Amber Benson gets MUCH better as the show progresses) you can feel the torture Willow feels when Oz suddenly shows up again. As she stands in Giles’ living room and stares at the one thing she wanted more than absolutely anything just a few short months ago, the number of conflicting emotions she’s going through are apparent on Alyson Hannigan’s face – the actress is absolutely amazing in this scene.
From Oz’s point of view, he believed he would go on his world journey because he needed to bury the wolf inside him for Willow. And if he’s going through all of this for her, it’s understandable that he would be picturing her standing there waiting for him in the same place where he left her. Even he admits how silly that was, but we can forgive him for picturing the stalwart Willow waiting for him.
And if Tara hadn’t come along, perhaps she still would have been. They still had a LOT to deal with (remember the whole Veruca incident that happened right before he left) but he wasn’t anticipating a new love – and a female one at that.
The Oz and Willow pairing might be my favourite in the Jossverse. It was so innocent and sweet, with that squee-worthy scene in the beginning where Willow kisses Oz and tells him that she’s not a lot of fun to be around a few days a month, either. Willow slips up, but unlike Cordy and Xander, Oz and Willow find a way to work through it and they come out stronger on the other side. We remember Oz’s original “who IS that girl?” upon first seeing her… the Barry White music playing as Willow tries to be sexy for him… the Pez witch… Oz’s devastation upon thinking Willow had been turned into a vampire, and his joy when she gives him a little wave while dressed up as Vampire Willow… the “Willow kissage”… Oz “panicking” before he and Willow make love for the first time… Willow’s little squeal every time she realizes she’s dating a guitarist in a band… they were just the pinnacle of first love, with all the highs and lows associated with it.
But Tara is something different, something deeper, something that goes beyond Pez witches and deep down into Willow’s psyche. The scene last week of the two of them doing that spell together was so gorgeously done, showing something deeper and more magical (in every way) than the scenes with Willow and Oz, or Xander and Cordy, or Xander and Anya, or Buffy and Riley, or Buffy and Angel… there has simply not been another scene like it on this show, between any other couple.
But that doesn’t change the pain with which we watch the final scene in this episode. Willow decides she wants to be with Tara, but that means saying goodbye to the first great love of her life… and along with her, we feel like we, the audience, are also breaking up with him. It’s a beautiful scene that is written with such heart and depth it’s still one of the series standouts for me:
WILLOW: I missed you, Oz. I wrote you so many letters... but I didn't have any place to send them, you know? I couldn't live like that.
OZ: It was stupid to think that you'd just be... waiting.
WILLOW: I was waiting. I feel like some part of me will always be waiting for you. Like if I'm old and blue-haired, and I turn the corner in Istanbul and there you are, I won't be surprised. Because... you're with me, you know?
OZ: I know. But now is not that time, I guess.
(They look at each other.)
WILLOW: What are you gonna do?
OZ: I think I better take off.
OZ: Pretty much now.
Goodbye, Oz. :::sniffle:::
OK, and now for the final two episodes, I’ll introduce someone who, for the Game of Thrones fans out there, needs no introduction: it’s Christopher Lockett, who recently joined me for weekly discussions on the HBO drama, and we had a lot of fun doing it. Now he’s back to take us to the end of the season. Take it away, Chris!
When I was signing up for the Buffy rewrite schedule, I leapt with both feet on these two episodes for the very selfish reason that I have written about them before, and indeed taught them. Well, not both—in my dissertation and in a class I taught several times at UWO on Conspiracy Culture, I dealt with “Primeval” as the culmination of the conspiratorial story arc of season four. What I love about this episode is the way it resolves the storyline, a storyline that at many points through the season was at best strained and at worst hackneyed and cliché.
But for a variety of reasons, I love season four for all of its flawed and derivative use of familiar military-industrial-espionage-conspiracy tropes. And not just because, as has been noted several times during the Rewatch, the season contains some of the best stand-alone episodes in the entire Buffy and Angel corpus. Rather, I love it because of how it ended. Or rather, how it pre-ended. “Primeval” remains to my mind the best season finale that wasn’t actually a finale; Buffy’s final showdown with Adam in which her strength and skill is bolstered by that of her friends, is (for me) the most deeply satisfying fight scene in all seven seasons.
But let me back up a little. My other reason for loving “Primeval” is that it was a vindication of one of the central premises of my doctoral dissertation. I wrote about conspiracy and paranoia in contemporary American fiction and film and popular culture, and to a certain extent season four was tailor-made for that line of inquiry. At some points, perhaps a little too much: as I alluded above, the season errs a wee bit on the side of cliché (wherein “wee bit” = “a whole lot”) with the whole military-exploiting-monstrosity for the purpose of weaponizing it (Alien and Aliens anyone?), along with the anxiety about cyborg/Frankenstein experimentation and the concomitant paranoia about technology as an insidious check on free will. All season we’ve laughed at Spike’s inability to harm (or even think about harming) humans, but his behavior modification has overtones of A Clockwork Orange. The dystopian manifestation of that technological blight appears at the end of “The Yoko Factor” when Riley appears before Adam. At first we think he has come to offer a fight, but we realize in the first few minutes of “Primeval” that he, too, has been technologically modified. “So it’s chips all around, then,” says Spike ironically, but Riley’s helplessness reflects on Spike’s own Alex DeLarge state of being.
Perhaps it seems odd to offer sympathy to Spike at this point, especially considering he does his best in these two episodes to screw over Buffy et al for his own benefit, and especially considering his impairment is largely played to comic effect; but when season four gets it right, it’s usually when it deals with issues of free will and scientific hubris.
One of the other things I love about season four, for all its flaws, is that it gestures toward answering the question of the real-world implications of demons’ existence. At the outset of Buffy, we’re given the trite dictum that humans’ capacity for willful ignorance and blindness is powerful enough to make them mentally paper over the existence of vampires, werewolves, etc. But as the Buffyverse grew, and grew more populous and complex, that explanation seems less and less tenable. Sooner or later, one has to wonder: does the President know about vampires? Perhaps that strikes some as not being in the spirit of Buffy, but then I’m the guy who reads the Harry Potter novels and imagines a special section of MI6 dedicated to keeping tabs on Voldemort and developed anti-magical countermeasures (or would that be MI5?).
All of which is by way of saying that the overall arc of season four wasn’t necessary per se, but that it did answer a particular question: yes, the government knows about vampires; yes, the military has thought long and hard about it; and yes, they have considered how sub-terrestrials might benefit their own weapons programs.
But of course, military intervention into a Hellmouth wouldn’t be benign, and it is with that assumption that the conspiratorial dimension of season four starts. From the mid-sixties onward, conspiracy narratives had less to do with foreign infiltration (or alien invasion that was really just an elaborate metaphor for foreign infiltration) than with the perfidy of the government, the military, or the various intelligence agencies operating in the nether regions between the two. Timothy Melley coined a useful phrase for this in his excellent study Empire of Conspiracy: “agency panic.” On one hand it refers to the fear we have of such “agencies” as the CIA, the FBI, or the host of fictional acronyms populating popular culture. But the double entendre here is the fear for our personal agency—i.e. our ability to make our own decisions and decide our own fates. The paranoia at the root of conspiracy theory is the fear that we are not our own masters—that our autonomy has been or will be taken away by the nefarious agencies in question.
Hence, Spike’s behavioral chip is dystopian in its implications, and though it has been played for laughs throughout the season, those implications become clear not just with Riley’s technological enslavement but the chimera that used to be Forrest. Are we meant to believe that his embrace of his new patchwork body and his new destiny as Adam’s minion is solely to do with him being enamored of his newfound strength and power? Or has some not-so-subtle tweaking been done to his behavior?
At its baldest, season four is yet another retelling of the Frankenstein story, right down to the inevitable loss of control over the monster. Adam is the Frankenstein’s monster, he is Hal from 2001, Mother from Alien, and of course he is Skynet. But before anyone thinks I’m slagging season four for being derivative, the almost-final two episodes offer their own very interesting—and I would say innovative—contribution to the conspiratorial imagination. Conspiracy narratives are almost invariably about positioning the individual in relation to a collective—usually the paranoid subject, the person being victimized by conspiratorial forces, finds him or herself facing an impossibly pervasive conspiratorial collective.
What season four of Buffy gives us instead is opposing collectives: on one hand, the Scoobies, and on the other the conspiratorial Initiative. Significantly, these two opposing collectives are also defined by their relationship to technology. Buffy and friends (Willow’s computer talents notwithstanding) embody premodern, intuitive, and indeed magical thinking; the Initiative, the fetishization of technology and science. This opposition has been driven home several times this season when we have seen sequences cutting between the Initiative being briefed and the Scoobies discussing a mission. The rather obvious point established, and dramatized in spectacular fashion in “Primeval,” is that intuition and “natural” power are authentic while technology can offer, at best, a pale simulacrum.
But the Scoobies’ power—and, by extension, Buffy’s power—rests in teamwork and their collectivity. “The Yoko Factor” of course makes this quite clear, and we see how they fall apart when the team is fractured. By comparison, Adam’s strength and power derives from his amalgamation of disparate parts assembled by Professor Walsh. He is himself a collective being, produced by the conspiratorial collective of the Initiative, and his nightmare scenario involves the creation of an army of über-soldiers like himself (again, not an uncommon trope in popular film).
The final showdown is a fight between Adam’s amalgamated self—until this point, seemingly one of the most indomitable Big Bads Buffy has faced—and the conflation of Buffy with Giles, Willow, Xander, and the spirit of Slayerness itself. The fight is at once predictable and awesome—as already mentioned, to my mind the most satisfying fight in all of Buffy. But what is crucial to understand is that Buffy’s victory comes not just from the literal realization of her collective identity with her friends, but the reach backwards in time. Conspiracy narratives almost invariably privilege what is older and preferably archaic as authentic. In tapping into primeval powers—though they must deal with the repercussions of that in the actual final episode—they endow themselves with power and ability that the conspiratorial-military-industrial-complex not only cannot match, but cannot comprehend.
Thank you, Chris!
Next week: Restless on Buffy (hosted by Matthew Pateman, the man who’s written an entire book on the episode!), where you’ll finally see why Steve Halfyard – our music gal who randomly pops up to discuss the episodes – calls herself the Cheeseman! And To Shanshu in LA on Angel. For those of you following along on the sister series, hold onto your hats for this one!!