5.21 The Weight of the World
5.22 The Gift
Follow along in Bite Me!, pp. 273-277.
This week’s Angel episodes are:
2.20 Over the Rainbow
2.21 Through the Looking Glass
2.22 There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb
Follow along in Once Bitten, pp. 190-196.
Before I get on to Buffy, I have to say, “Numfar! Do the dance of joy!!” Seriously… best moment in the entire Whedonverse. Ever. As I explain in my book, the writers came up with an idea in the writer’s room about a guy doing a dance that continues on in the background while the dialogue happens in the foreground. Joss Whedon got up and began doing a crazy dance that was along the lines of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, and the other writers were laughing so hard they convinced Joss to play the part himself. So… Numfar is Joss. And he is HILARIOUS. I wish he’d made other cameos in his work.
But over to sadder times.
This week we come to end of my second favourite season after season 2, and once again (as with the end of season 2), I’m bawling my eyes out. I still remember the edge-of-your-seat suspense these episodes created when watching them live (you newcomers have the bonus of watching one right after the other… it took THREE WEEKS for us to see them all!)
This is the week where Buffy’s life finally gets to be too much. Everyone keeps looking at Buffy to come up with the decisions and answers, and Dawn doesn’t do much to help herself (like seriously, Dawn, Glory has just figured out you’re the Key and you run for half a minute and are so out of breath you need Buffy to CARRY you? What are you, three?!) and instead just does her part by screaming, “BUFFFFAAAAAYYYYYY!!!” as often as she possibly can.
Meanwhile the dude from Prison Break is heading up the rejects from the Renaissance Faire, and the Scoobies hit the road to try to escape. We’ve seen Buffy and the Scoobs react to impending doom in many ways, but so far running away hasn’t been one of them. But at this point, she doesn’t know what else to do. In hindsight, knowing what people probably already know about BtVS coming up (even if this is a first watch for them) they probably figured Giles would pull through, but I’ll admit, watching it live, I was convinced Giles was going to die. Buffy thinks so, too.
As I mentioned last week, this time through, season 5 is affecting me in a way it never did before. And I think a lot of that is, as Tanya Cochran outlines below, because I’m identifying with it so much more than I did before. In the last year or so, there have been many times where I’ve felt much like Buffy has – you fix one thing and another one is on top of it, and it just never stops coming. You can’t keep on top of everything and eventually you crumple. In “Spiral,” Buffy comes to that point. She’s tried to save Dawn for most of a year, while dealing with her mother’s sickness and death and Dawn’s impetuousness and friends pulling her in various directions and Giles trying to hone her talents, and it just gets to be too much. And in the end, life becomes too overwhelming and she
“The Weight of the World” is a fascinating episode in that we go into Buffy’s mind and, much like Joss did with “Restless,” he shows the complicated world of the subconscious. We see Dean Butler reprise his role as Hank Summers (showing he was on hand to play him for the funeral scene, but the writers wanted to convey that Hank is an absentee father, which plays into Buffy becoming a mom to Dawn more coherently) and we see that part of Buffy that’s a little girl, wanting to shirk her responsibility and just let other people take care of her. Part of her still needs that.
But Willow does her magic, and Buffy comes back out of it, just in time. Poor Buffy… my heart aches for her in this episode. She NEEDS the world to slow down a bit, she needs to take a breather, but she can’t because the world needs her. A Slayer’s work is never done… unless she dies, of course.
The only thing I don’t get about this episode, however, is why Spike keeps bringing things back around to Ben. Do you think maybe Ben has some connection to Glory?
And this brings us to “The Gift.” I used to watch that beginning and think Buffy was being unfair and not looking at the big picture – Dawn’s death would actually save the world by preventing the big whole from opening. If only Buffy would listen to Giles. But this time watching it, I’m a mother.
BUFFY: She's more than [a sister]. She's me. The monks made her out of me. I hold her ... and I feel closer to her than ... It's not just the memories they built. It's physical. Dawn ... is a part of me. The only part that I-
You tell ’em, Buffy. If the entire universe was going to be sucked into a giant black abyss and that could only be stopped by me tossing my daughter into it, then I guess the world would be sucked into that giant abyss, and I’d be pulled in with it, holding tightly onto my girl. Any mother can attest to the fact that a child is a part of you, and you feel an actual physical pain if something is wrong with them. Buffy feels that, and feels a mother’s love for her sister.
The one moment I want to talk about that isn’t covered below is what Giles does under the tower. I think that scene is absolutely brilliant. Giles is the adult in the group, the one who can step outside of his emotions and do what needs to be done. He knows Buffy is physically strong but can’t kill in cold blood. He, on the other hand, can. And the brilliance of this intense scene is HOW he does it. We’ve seen in the past that when things get rough, when Giles becomes flustered, he whips off his glasses to give someone a what-for. But in this case, he does the opposite. He calmly, coldly, takes his glasses out of his pocket and puts them on, as if to suggest he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing, and will do it with clear eyes. He means to kill another human being to save the world. That he does it with one bare hand shows that just as Angel is always battling a demon inside him, just as Glory hates the shred of humanity in her that keeps her from killing Buffy, just as Willow is trying to control a desire for darker magicks, and just as Spike is trying to bury the Big Bad so people will treat him like a man, The Ripper is lying just below the surface of Giles. We all have something dark within us… and for some people, it comes out more clearly than in others.
One production note: when the episode first aired, the WB aired a screen at the very end that thanked Buffy for its five years (this was where the show made the move to UPN; the story is all outlined in my book) and made it sound like it really WAS the end. It was a strange move, much like ABC running footage of rusted-out fuselage footage at the end of Lost, leading fans to the wrong conclusions about what it meant. Several fans thought the stories of it moving to UPN were wrong, and Buffy wasn’t only merely dead, she was most sincerely dead. They were wrong.
I will let the next two contributors talk about the ending of “The Gift,” but I just want to say I think it’s gorgeous and perfect. Many fans have told me over the years that they wish the series had ended there, and in Joss’s original vision, it did. He had a five-year arc planned out for Buffy, and it ended here. But I think of so many of the upcoming episodes that we would have done without – including the stunning conclusion to season 6 – and I’m glad it didn’t end here. But it’s beautiful and poignant and set to some of Christophe Beck’s best work. (If you’re a newcomer and loved the music as Buffy jumped, it’s included on the “Once More With Feeling” soundtrack.)
And if you can keep a dry eye when the camera closes in on Spike breaking down in tears, YOU HAVE NO SOUL.
OK, our first contributor is, once again, the wonderful Tanya Cochran, who has been covering so much of this Rewatch for me throughout the summer! Take it away, Tanya:
Tanya R. Cochran
In “Spiral,” Buffy uses four words to summarize what her life has been like recently: “It just keeps coming.” I feel the exhaustion in her voice, and I empathize—deeply. A Big Bad who seems all-powerful, a broken intimate relationship, a violated and damaged friend, and a profound familial loss. It just keeps coming.
In these last few episodes of the season, Buffy puts up the best fight anyone could ask her to put up. At moments, she’s got the resolve we all cheer for: she swears that everyone is going to make it; Glory won’t win, even if the Scoobies simply outrun her. They will prevail, together. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Glory snatches Dawn and Buffy slips into a catatonic state, an understandable retreat from all that keeps coming, that just won’t stop.
“I just wanted it over. This is . . . all of this . . . it’s too much for me. If Glory wins, then Dawn dies. And I would grieve. People would feel sorry for me. But it would be over. And I imagined what a relief it would be,” Buffy admits inside her head in “The Weight of the World.” Yet later, fully engaged in the fight again, at the suggestion that the only way to defeat Glory is to kill Dawn, our resolved Buffy reappears: no way! Dawn is innocent; Dawn didn’t ask for this. As exhausted as she is, Buffy will stand in the way of all that keeps coming. In fact, she will give herself over to it.
Watched as a trio, “Spiral,” “The Weight of the World,” and “The Gift” hurl us toward destruction only to make us feel what Buffy herself seems to feel, what Rhonda Wilcox in Why Buffy Matters describes as “both pain and ecstasy” (41). The pain of leaving loved ones behind, the ecstasy of letting the weight of the world go. The pain of confusion about what her life really means, the ecstasy of finally figuring that out. The pain and ecstasy of self-sacrifice, the death of “just a girl” who’s “a hero, you see. Not like us,” as Giles tells Ben.
But she is like us. That’s why we love her. That’s why we feel what she feels.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about narrative and cognition or “the brain on story.” That reading has helped me understand better than ever why Buffy matters to me, moves me, and betters me every time I (re)watch it: Buffy’s (fantasy) world is just as real and complex as mine (see Mar and Oatley). Sometimes, life just keeps coming. Sometimes, I just want it to stop. Sometimes, I just want to stop.
We hate to see Buffy let go of this life. Yet we love her for doing so. How can we not be grateful for her gift? As we watch, we, too, know pain and ecstasy: of losing Buffy yet letting her rest. After all, she saved the world—this world—a lot.
Mar, Raymond A., and Keith Oatley. “The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 3.3 (2008): 173-192. Print.
Wilcox, Rhonda. Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. New York: Tauris, 2005. Print.
Thank you, Tanya! And next up is novelist Robert Wiersema, who joins us a second time after his first outing, covering season 3’s “Amends.”
-- Bruce Springsteen
Buffy Anne Summers
She saved the world
Before I start -- or in lieu of starting, perhaps -- I would just like to point out my absolute folly, as far as this Buffy Re-Watch project goes.
Last fall, when I was invited to participate in the project, I threw my hat into the ring for two episodes, Amends and The Gift. I figured -- perhaps unreasonably -- that those were the two episodes about which I had the most to say (completely aside from the fact that the two episodes are in my personal Top Ten).
The folly is this: one of the reasons I thought I had so much to say about these episodes is the fact that they elicit such a primal emotional response (read: great heaving sobs). That response, though, clouds a completely rational exploration of the episodes, and not just because it's difficult to type while weeping.
The thing is? Rationality is overrated.
When I wrote about Amends, I wrote at length about miracles, with a sub-theme of sacrifice. Not coincidentally, in considering The Gift, I'll be looking at the nature of sacrifice, with a sub-theme of the miraculous.
Funny how that works, isn't it?
But that's why I wanted to write about Amends and The Gift: to my mind, they're opposite sides of the same coin, not only reckoning with the same concerns, but both touching, in a way that the series only rarely did, the Divine (as distinct from the magical).
For me, The Gift is an exploration, an exegesis, of sacrifice; in order to appreciate its depths, though, one has to go back to Amends (and further, to Becoming).
The pivotal moment of Amends comes when Angel, on a hillside overlooking Sunnydale early Christmas morning, waits for the sun to rise and destroy him. His belief is that the world is a better, safer place without him in it (there’s a certain validity to this conclusion). The Powers That Be have other plans for the vampire-with-a-soul, though, and snow begins to fall on Sunnydale for the first and likely only time, blocking out the sun and saving Angel's not-life.
The pivotal moment in The Gift comes late in the episode, when Buffy realizes there's only one way for her to save the world, one last time, and she whispers her last words to Dawn before leaping into the widening portal. Her sacrifice closes the portal and saves the world.
Two sacrifices: one foiled, one successful.
In Amends, Angel's planned sacrifice is ego-driven. In attempting to save the world from himself, he recognizes his humanity as his tragic flaw, and what the world needs to be protected from: "It's not the demon in me that needs killing," he tells Buffy. "It's the man." In accepting his humanity, the peril of his selfishness, his sacrifice is at once an embrace of the self, and a wholly selfless act (or intention, at the very least).
That dichotomy, that tension, between self-full-ness and selflessness is even more significant in Buffy’s sacrifice. The Gift marks the culmination of the one of the series' pivotal themes: the tension between Buffy as human being and her role as the Slayer. (This sense of culmination is one reason why, in darker moments -- ie, fifteen minutes into Doublemeat Palace -- I tell myself that Buffy ended at the close of season five, the following two seasons but a dream. Generally, I get over that feeling pretty quickly.) The role has traditionally subsumed those who bear the Slayer mantle. They lose a fundamental part of their humanity in the process of becoming the Slayer, and this loss, this subsumation by the role, is encouraged by the Watcher's Council, and by millennia of precedent.
Buffy has, from the very beginning, fought this loss. She has friends, family, lovers, a support system and a link to life and relationships which stands opposed to the Slayer's traditional distance. "You're just a girl," says the boy she rescues in the tease. "That's what I keep saying," she replies, sadly. So it has always been.
If we go back to Becoming, the finale of Season Two, one can see just how deeply this tension runs. In the final confrontation between Buffy and Angelus (a scene referenced in this episode), he mocks her with how he has stripped everything away from her. “No weapons... no friends... no hope. Take all that away and what's left?” Angelus taunts. Buffy replies, coldly, certainly, “Me.” She proceeds to kill Angel to prevent the rising of Acathla, despite the last-minute return of his soul. It's a beautiful, heart-rending moment, but it's pure Slayer. Buffy is forced to deny her humanity, her love, her desire in order to save the world.
With her sacrifice in The Gift, though, the two opposing forces reconcile themselves, if only for a moment, and it comes after Buffy has made it very clear that she is willing – nay, eager – to turn her back on her role as a Slayer if harm should come to Dawn. It is as if death is the only way the two worlds, the two opposing forces, can ever reach a balance. In sacrificing herself, Buffy is both Slayer (selfless, giving everything to save the world) and human (self-full, sacrificing herself so Dawn doesn't have to sacrifice herself). Make no mistake, though – the willingness doesn’t come easily.
That moment of balance, though, is only part of why the scene works, both at narrative and emotional levels. The other significant aspect is the willingness of the sacrifice Buffy makes.
That willingness is key to the nature of sacrifice, a fact that is often overlooked. Christ wasn't, after all, dragged kicking and screaming to Calvary; he went willingly to his death (one wonders if the decline of the old gods might have been due to the forced nature of the sacrifices to them). His death, to quote a phrase, was his gift…
One sees a similar example in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry (spoilers for the book ahead, highlight white space ahead to read it): Paul, a young man from our world, is drawn into Fionavar with several friends, each of whom has, it becomes clear, a destiny. Paul sacrifices himself willingly, and with his tears brings the world back to life. It's a sequence that destroys me every time I read it, and the echoes of it I bring to The Gift, lend the episode an additional power for me.
The idea of willing sacrifice was clearly on the minds of the writers of the last few episodes of season five.
One sees the idea in The Weight of the World, when Ben, after initially helping her escape, returns Dawn to Glory, despite knowing that he could save her. In helping her, he would have lost himself; this was a sacrifice he was, ultimately, unwilling to make.
Similarly, many of the other characters make sacrifices of their own in The Gift. Anya, for example, is willing to risk everything in this apocalypse owing to her love for Xander, rather than cutting and running in the face of danger as she has always done before. Spike sacrifices his desire for Buffy and accepts the reality of her not loving him, thanking her for her treatment of him and defending Dawn to the death, simply because he "made a promise to a lady". Giles sacrifices an aspect of his humanity, embracing his own internal darkness for the good of the world in his cold-blooded murder of Ben, to prevent Glory's return.
Most significantly, Buffy has to stop Dawn from sacrificing herself at the top of the tower. Knowing that the end of the world will be stopped only when her blood stops flowing, Dawn accepts her responsibility, and goes willingly to her death, only to be stopped by her sister.
At a narrative level, the emotional power of these sacrifices comes in the willingness with which they are entered into, and the result is a series of beautiful, haunting grace notes against the epic storytelling.
Taking a step back, however, it is in the willingness that the power of sacrifice comes overall. To give all, to volunteer to give all, is the most powerful choice one can make. It is the force of the willingness, not the sacrifice itself, which creates miracles (which brings me, parenthesis-wise, to this: Buffy's sacrifice makes limited sense at a rational level, given what we know of the world she inhabits. Her sacrifice shouldn't stop the breaking down of the walls; only Dawn's death should stop that. Sure, the writers attempt to ret-con the whole idea (the monks made Dawn of Buffy, so it IS her blood, dammit!), but was anyone convinced? No? Me neither. So, as in Amends, we're back to the miraculous. I'm fine with that).
I'm not just talking about large-scale, world-saving miracles. That willingness to sacrifice everything, to give oneself over to something greater, is present in our lives every day. Becoming a parent comes with it a sacrifice of what has come before (birth begetting a rebirth). Love of any sort requires a willing surrender to a force greater than the individual.
We feel the resonances of our smaller sacrifices when we witness acts of greater sacrifice, their force and our weakness. As human beings, we're not hard-wired for acts of unconditional selflessness on a grand scale, and our experience of our personal sacrifices reminds us of this natural smallness when faced with such outsize, heroic acts. Buffy leaping into the portal, and its underlying reasons -- to save the world, to save a loved one -- makes us ache with yearning to be better, to be stronger, to be braver, to be... bigger.
The knowledge that we never will be (and really, thankfully so) cracks something open in us. Our path to the divine, our apotheosis, will be slower, less sure; to be reminded that there is another way is to be reminded of our own search, its value, its significance, its scale.
Buffy tells Angel that she loves him, and asks him to close his eyes.
Angel waits for the sun, and he and Buffy feel the feathery brush of snow on their faces.
Buffy faces the leap into her own destiny, and in her last moments her thoughts are with the world, with her friends, and with her sister.
And at home we gasp, we breathe. We break.
And in being reminded of our smallness, we come away somehow greater.
"The hardest thing in this world...is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me."
Man, I’m tearing up again just reading that. Thank you, Robert!
Next week: We move on to season 6. The REST of us had to wait an entire summer, but you guys? Just a few days. Awesome. If you thought “The Gift” took people to a dark place, wait’ll you see what’s in store for our favourite Scoobies next. Yikes. Our host next week is the wonderful Elizabeth Rambo!
6.01 Bargaining, Part 1
6.02 Bargaining, Part 2
6.03 After Life
On Angel, we move into season 3 (my second favourite season of the series, alongside season 5):
3.2 That Vision-Thing
3.3 That Old Gang of Mine