6.12 Doublemeat Palace
6.13 Dead Things
Follow along in Bite Me!
And if you’re watching Angel, this week’s episodes are:
3.13 Waiting in the Wings
I have to apologize; I’m actually in New Orleans right now putting this together because I didn’t get a chance to do so before I left, and I don’t have a lot of time to put something together right now on it. “Gone” and “Doublemeat Palace” have never been favourite episodes of mine (I thought the “I LOVE your HAIR!” joke got tired in “Gone,” and always felt like it was a way to make sure the fans didn’t split the way they recently had on Felicity when Keri Russell had cut her hair.
“Doublemeat Palace” is the weakest episode of S6, in my opinion, although it does have its funny moments. But you can feel the ennui and angst mingling together as Buffy is forced into this mundane job, finding cold comfort (literally) with Spike behind the place during her breaks.
“Dead Things,” on the other hand, is a fantastic episode. That final scene with Tara is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s finest moment in the series, in my opinion. But I’ll let our guest host say more about that below.
For the Angel fans, I hope you loved “Waiting in the Wings” as much as I did when I first saw it. Summer Glau makes her first appearance in the Whedonverse, and Charisma Carpenter and David Boreanaz do a splendid job in their scenes together. And Alexis Denisof makes me want to cry every time I watch this. (He is unbelievable in season 3…)
This week I have a new guest host, Stacey May Fowles, who first appeared in the Rewatch as one of the defenders of “Beer Bad” back in May. Stacey works at The Walrus, and is the former editor of Shameless magazine, which was a feminist mag for teenage girls. She's the author of several books, most recently She's Shameless: Women Write about Growing Up, Rocking Out, and Fighting Back. I’m thrilled to have her as part of the rewatch, especially having read her beautifully written piece for this week’s contribution.
I used to say that everything I knew about life I learned from season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Maybe it was the fact that the season had no real villain; gone was the monster of the week that punctuated early seasons, and the overarching demonic menace that consumed later plotlines. Instead it was apparent that Whedon was more interested in our internal villains, the ones that fill us with doubt, that provoke us to act out, to do damage, to lie to and betray the ones we love, and inevitably invite folly at every turn.
Perhaps I was hit so hard by the delicate nuances of season six because of my own dire personal circumstances at the time of viewing; close to a decade ago, I had just moved back to Toronto after a lack-luster love affair had so disastrously fallen apart out west, and was watching Buffy’s friends bring her back from the grave through the drunken haze of heartbreak and cigarette smoke. I was living in a rodent infested apartment that promised a reduced rent if I assisted in “cleaning it up” for future tenants, my roommate a self-professed pothead who couldn’t maintain employment for more than a few weeks. That circumstance is about as horrific and depressing as you can imagine, but leant itself well to late night episodic television, of which we consumed a steady supply. Marginally employed and maximally miserable, I found myself identifying strongly with Willow’s disastrous narcotic-style downfall, Buffy’s sex-to-feel-anything exploits, and the fact that tiny, irrelevant men had the power to upend all stability. Read into that what you will.
We tend to fall in love with art, both low brow and high, because we see ourselves in its dramas, whether a Romantic poem about monumental heartbreak or a one hour episode about a broken girl who fucks a vampire to “feel anything.” Our personal, very human love affairs with pop culture tend to be circumstantial, and season six came to me at exactly the time it was most necessary. Just as Buffy was discovering that love and sex was not all the romance and puppy-dog faces that her past paramours had served up, I was grappling with the fact that the intended domestic bliss of my west-coast tryst was an all out failure. I was at a personal and professional rock-bottom, enduring the inevitable numbness that our season six heroine articulates time and time again, a void she fills with Spike’s unconventional devotion, ending up hating herself as a result.
Of all the episodes in season six that I watched, and there are many that I have mini love affairs with, “Dead Things” was the one that hit me the hardest on that hideously floral-printed polyester couch in that rodent-infested hovel. While certainly not anywhere near the most beloved episode in a populist sense, “Dead Things” is an ingenious testament to Whedon’s awareness of how blurred the line between good and evil can actually be. We’d of course seen that fuzziness before with the mere existence of characters like Angel, but now it was more about the endlessly confusing struggle between what is good and bad for us. All of a sudden all bets were off and everything was up for debate; love, sex, friendship, magic, and even violence of the consensual variety.
Prior to the episode Buffy says to Spike “I don’t know why you can hit me, but I’m not a demon,” not quite believing it herself. Our beloved archetype of good proclaims this in her Double Meat Palace uniform, an outfit distinctly representative of the fact that her heroic status, her goodness, along with her life, has unraveled all around her. Loveless, motherless, ripped from heaven, and emotionally estranged from her friends, Buffy faces the recent discovery that Spike can inflict pain upon her despite his implanted chip, leading her to believe that she has come back from the grave somehow “wrong.” The only answer in her mind is that she could have been altered in some way, not only in making her susceptible to Spike’s violence, but also with a new desire for that pain. Evidence that she is broken would also explain all the other unraveling; the distance she feels from her friends, the failures she feels in life, and of course, the fact that she’s now in Spike’s bed.
This is why the episode resonates with the rock-bottom set; who among us has not felt somehow “wrong” because of the damage done to us by the things we love? Things that hurt us, make us ashamed or embarrassed, make us feel like we don’t truly know ourselves? This notion that the heart wants what it wants can be particularly unbearable when our wants are demonized by the status quo, whether it is a friend or self-help book that deems the object of our affections bad for us, or a larger culture who believes our desires sick, dirty or to be ashamed of. Loving something ugly, violent, cruel, or broken can be particularly debilitating, but at times a necessity of process little acknowledged by a world that force feeds us what is “good.”
There is a beautiful subtlety to the episode’s message, a parallelism of plot that speaks multitudes; Buffy engages in consensual sexual violence with Spike and despises herself as a result, while the trio attempts a form of mystical date rape without any real awareness that it is, in fact, rape. Spike expresses a previously unseen selfless loyalty to Buffy in this episode, even as she punishes him for her own feelings. We’ve all lashed out at those who love us post-descent, even if our ejection from heaven is more metaphor than mystical trick on the part of our friends.
After the trio’s botched attempt to convert Warren’s ex-girlfriend Katrina into a sex slave, she is killed in a struggle, they are forced to dispose of the body by convincing Buffy she is responsible. It is Spike that comes to her aid, a gesture that only contributes to Buffy believing her love for him signifies her decent into evil. The false knowledge that she has murdered Katrina becomes bound up in her love for him, so deeply that she punishes him for it in the alley behind the police station when she goes to turn herself in. In one of the most powerful scenes in the Buffyverse, Buffy beats Spike mercilessly and severely, announcing, “I could never be your girl.” At no point does Spike fight back, responding only, “You always hurt the one you love, Pet.” (Her repetition of this later on in the episode is her acknowledgment that she does indeed love him, despite the fact [spoiler: highlight to see words]: that it will take many more episodes for her to say it outright.)
The episode offers no answers, more the message that things are not always as clear as we would like them to be, and that its perfectly okay to be unsure. It asserts that uncertainty is process. Perhaps more surprisingly, it suggests that real love and “goodness” can exist in unconventional ways. That kind of messaging is unheard of on mainstream television, generally reserving its exploration of BDSM for the absurdist torture porn of over-the-top crime shows, and relegating those who engage in it under the banner of loony sicko or criminal. Instead it is our beloved (if lost) heroine who is enjoying being slapped around, and despite her self-doubt and hatred, it is apparent to every viewer, regardless of proclivity, that there is real love, or at the very least a much needed solace, that she herself is refusing to acknowledge.
It’s also no coincidence that during Buffy’s reluctant exploration of consensual pain, the Trio is plotting rape. The result is jarring, as we acutely see Buffy’s shame in loving what she loves, and her desperate fear of that love being exposed to her friends. “What would they think of you if they found out all the things you’ve done? If they knew who you really were?” Spike asks her while she is unable to resist him. What she has “done” is nothing more than what was necessary to get by.
Because Buffy cannot comprehend any other reason why she would want to have sex with Spike beyond something being “wrong” with her, she goes to Tara in search of an answer for the change. In the final scene, Tara lets Buffy know that she’s the “same Buffy,” despite protestations. Tara becomes the first of the others to know that Buffy and Spike are sleeping together, as a weak and sobbing Buffy announces that the only time she feels anything is when she’s with him. She fights to understand why she can’t stop; “I’m wrong. Tell me that I’m wrong. Please don’t forgive me.”
I must have watched that final scene a million times a decade ago, and a million times since, and could produce a healthy argument that it is the finest moment in the entire series. Those few minutes between Buffy and Tara speak multitudes on the very nature of human love. When we let someone hurt us, and when we deeply love the person who does, we assume it can’t be who we genuinely are, that we must be broken in some way to allow things to fall apart the way they do. That our true selves are the ones that never make mistakes or missteps, who always take the righteous path and make the best decisions. We seek out the “why” of the thing, grapple for reasons, want to be proven flawed in some way to allow the suffering into our less than armored hearts.
But of course, as Tara says, it’s not that simple.