6.14 Older and Far Away
6.15 As You Were
6.16 Hell’s Bells
Read along in Bite Me!, pp. 296-301.
This week’s Angel episodes are:
3.16 Sleep Tight
Read along in Once Bitten, pp. 224-229.
I apologize that this week’s post will be shorter; back from New Orleans, I’m facing a huge workload, and I swear every school fundraiser and event is this week and I’ve been swamped with permissions slips and organization every evening. But luckily I have two excellent guest hosts to talk you through this week’s episodes.
But first, ANGEL. Did your heart break? Did you feel it break into a million pieces when Holtz disappeared into that vortex? I’ll never forget how I felt when I saw that scene. It was like a season finale… AMAZING.
And now back over to Dawn’s House of Perpetual Self-Pity. Would you like some cheese with that whine?
“Older and Far Away” is about everyone forgetting Dawn’s birthday and her whining and screaming about it. “As You Were” is about Riley coming back after he left Dawn over a year ago. And “Hell’s Bells” is about Xander and Anya cancelling their wedding just to screw up Dawn’s week.
At least, that’s how Dawn would recap these episodes….
OK, I’m being harsh. But it’s kinda fun.
“Older and Far Away” is a fun episode, although even now, I’m annoyed by the fact that Willow not using magic to help relieve this poor soul writhing in agony on the floor is somehow deemed heroic. But Tara is excellent.
Despite what you might think, “As You Were” is not near the top of my most-hated list, simply because I really saw it as a redemption of Riley. I felt sorry for him in this episode, and he really helps Buffy move forward in a big way, and for that I’m really grateful to him. I find when he left in “Into the Woods,” I was THRILLED to see him go. I’m glad they gave us this episode so I wouldn’t continue to feel that way. (But I’m sure there are as many people who despise this episode as those who don’t.)
“Hell’s Bells” is such a wonderful episode for Emma Caulfield. That scene where she slowly walks down that long, long aisle is heartbreaking. I still remember the queasy feeling I had the first time I saw it; only three years earlier, I’d gotten married, and my parents were together in a room for the first time since their divorce almost a decade before that. I was a basket case leading up to it, my rehearsal was so fraught with tension when one of my parents decided to make a scene in the middle of the service that I ended up exiting the church and bawling my head off outside, and the next day I was more nervous that I’ve probably ever been, before or since. And it wasn’t excited butterflies, it was the dire worry that my family was going to ruin this day for me. And while they certainly seemed to be trying to (and sadly, it wasn't just my parents!), I had so many other people rallying around me — and was marrying someone I loved deeply and still do — that I made it through. So watching Xander having to deal with this same fear, but crumbling in the face of it, my heart just broke for him. So many years later, all those same memories were conjured up once again while watching this.
The events in all three of these episodes are what will spark the actions of the next three… and what a downward spiral we’re about to get caught up in…
First up is Lorna Jowett, returning to us, fittingly, for the first time since she recapped “Into the Woods.”
Last time I contributed to the Rewatch I talked about the characters growing up. That was back in season 5. By season 6, and halfway through, as we are now, it’s getting really grim. I know some people don’t like this season for that very reason but I love it when a show goes to the dark side. In this season we don’t even have a proper Big Bad, and Buffy rarely gets to be a proper Slayer, if proper means all kick-ass fight scenes and witty ripostes. Buffy’s never going to do social realism in the way that shows like The Wire or British fantasy shows like Misfits or Being Human do (the UK version of Being Human, that is, the US version is rather different). Like most other fantasy, horror and science fiction TV series, Buffy never adopts an all-out aesthetic of realism but it excels in emotional realism.
With plots about being trapped in the Summers’ house, Buffy’s ex paying an unexpected visit to Sunnydale, and Xander and Anya’s wedding, these three episodes demonstrate different takes on the domestic and on relationships. Our young adults are learning what it means to be adults, without either Joyce or Giles to watch over them or watch out for them. (Spike and Anya are much older than the others, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily make them grown ups). Buffy’s everyday life demands far more of her than being the Slayer, in these episodes and in the season as a whole. She tries to explain how she feels when Riley returns and seems to be living the life of, well, Riley. He tells her that none of the “incredible patheticness” or “stinky” bits of her life right now mean anything: “It doesn’t touch you.” I’m reminded of the season 2 finale when Buffy faces Angelus and he taunts her, “No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?” One of my favourite ever Buffy moments is her catching his sword thrust between her palms and answering, “Me.” Here she, and several of the other characters, are groping for that sense of self. In the heat of a deadly battle Buffy could tap into who she was and know that she wanted to live. At the end of the last season, and at the end of a recent episode this season, we were reminded, The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. And these episodes, this season, suggest that it’s not just the big crises, the major losses that Halfrek reminds Dawn of in “Older and Far Away” that make life hard. It’s the mundane details that grind us down: putting the garbage out in time, making time for family even when we have other things to do, coping with changes in the relationships that structure our lives. I initially wanted to write about these episodes because of “Hell’s Bells” but watching them over again, I realise that all three negotiate love and relationships in different ways, so I’m taking a rather different direction here than I thought.
Amid the grim realities of season 6, including stinky minimum-wage Buffy, attention-seeking klepto-Dawn, and sleazy Spike, Xander and Anya’s wedding offers hope to the characters. Not just to Buffy, who admits that they are the light at the end of the tunnel, but to all the Scoobies. The depth of feeling between Xander and Anya and its expression through their wedding allows almost every character to express love and affection for each other – as Buffy does when she tries (and fails) to tie Xander’s bow-tie, or when Willow finds him and they recall their shared past. But while this episode has its teary-eyed moments of sentiment, it never allows us to fully believe that love or marriage is only about sparkly dresses or spiffy tuxes. Buffy’s world may not be our world, but it’s still a world where love is far more complicated than writing your own wedding vows and living happily ever after.
These three episodes, taken together, examine the complications of old and new relationships. The discomfort of seeing an ex isn’t just in Riley’s return during “As You Were”: Willow and Tara have various uncomfortable scenes during “Old and Far Away”, which also includes that brilliant throw-away moment when Halfrek and Spike/ William recognise each other. That moment when Willow and Xander express their friendship before the wedding includes a reference to their brief, formal-wear inspired fling. Just as Willow and Tara’s separation has repercussions for the whole group, so too does Xander’s jilting of Anya. The complex web that ties these characters together is family in more ways than one: not Kodak moments but messy, breaking up and forming new relationships, with all the hurt, anxiety, jealousy and uncertainty that comes with it. Anyone part of a long-term group of friends eventually experiences a break up that potentially divides the group and forces established ties to change.
Such changes aren’t necessarily for better or for worse – they’re just changes. But these episodes focus on some of the more negative aspects of dynamic relationships, that is, relationships that grow and change. It’s fairly obvious that love and sex aren’t always the same thing. And being family doesn’t always mean being safe and loved. Part of what makes this season so dark is the way it explores that to the full. Relationships can grow into familiarity and convenience, or grow out of using and abuse. Violence can be sexual or domestic. Loyalty can transcend separation, and neglect override care. Acting so as not to hurt someone in the future can mean hurting them now. When we’re confused by memories of what used to be, hope for the future, loyalty to friends, guilt about neglect, desires that seem selfish, how do we know what’s the right thing to do? The answer from these episodes, and an answer that chimes with our own life experiences, is that we don’t, we just have to go ahead and make it up anyway. Love isn’t simple, nor is life.
If these episodes seem exaggerated and ridiculous at times, they are. Maybe you won’t find an unexpected visit from your ex ends with him and his new wife being winched into a helicopter but odds on you’ve spent at least part of one family gathering enjoying a brief moment of sanity in the bathroom. Since it’s the title of a featurette on my DVD, it’s not exactly original, but it is no less accurate to say of this season that Life is the Big Bad. And because this is Buffy, all that melodrama isn’t handled in the conventional TV manner. I love the way it looks as though things will come right in “Hells Bells” after the demon is defeated – but then they don’t. Xander’s faith in himself and his ability to be a good husband is shaken irrevocably, more by his own parents’ example than by the phony demon vision. Spike asks Buffy when she appears at his crypt in “As You Were” if she’s come for “a bit of cold comfort,” and on the face of it that’s what these episodes offer. The tensions within many of these relationships continue to come to the boil as the season goes on, with some very challenging stuff still to come.
But life isn’t all angst and trauma. Two out of these three episodes feature one of my all-time favourite Buffy minor characters, kitten-wagering Clem, guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. Anya’s wedding vows provide or provoke some of the best lines in “Hell’s Bells,” including Tara’s rather uncertain, “I don’t think you should say sex poodle in your vows.” And even if you’re not a fan of “Older and Far Away,” it’s worth watching for that moment as everyone leaves the house, free at last and – God, look at the stars! The darker it is, the more they shine.
Beautiful. Thank you, Lorna! Next up is the returning Graham F. Scott, fresh from his recent turn here recapping the beginning of season 6 for us.
In most storytelling (with notable exceptions), the implicit message is that the fictional world you’re eavesdropping on is essentially the same world that you—the reader, listener or viewer—live in.
While Roger Moore was busy throwing Christopher Walken out of his own blimp high above San Francisco Bay in the 1985 James Bond adventure A View to a Kill, for instance, maybe you were sitting on your couch watching The Cosby Show. Or, perhaps, while four siblings disappeared into a magical world of talking animals through a portal in the back of a wardrobe in the rural England of 1940, your grandparents were fleeing the Second World War. And maybe an eerie black monolith abruptly appeared somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa about 83,000 years ago and your great-times-5000-or-so grandmother reached out and touched it, kick-starting the human race as we know it.
The point is: the creators of fiction go to great trouble to mesh their imagined worlds with our real one. They scribble their stories in the gaps of documented history, or extrapolate outlandish futures from our actual present. And plenty of them place their stories right now—as in, it’s happening today, in a town just down the road, to people you could conceivably meet, but just haven’t (yet)*.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that latter kind of story: it’s set in a quintessential California suburb, in a clearly recognizable late ’90s/millennial milieu, with all the particular clothing, hairstyle, and music choices that come with it. It’s just like the world you and I live in, except the characters we see once a week happen to be magical vampire-hunters who specialize in narrowly averting apocalypses.
The message is that vampires, demons, robots, and witches already walk among us. We—the clueless public—are simply too wrapped up in our own tedious little lives to notice the supernatural goings-on in our midst, or we blithely accept convenient explanations so that we can get on with our lives. The three episodes this week all, in different ways, puncture that thin veil that separates Scooby from civilian.
(This type of thing is hardly unique to this string of episodes, of course: see such examples as when Buffy is questioned by the cops for the murder of Ted the evil robot stepdad in the second season; or when the graduating class presents Buffy with a “protector” award at the prom in the third season; [spoiler: highlight to read] in season seven, of course the bad vibes produced by the again-active hellmouth will drive everyone out of Sunnydale, even if they’re not entirely sure why they’re going.)
“Older and Far Away” introduces Sophie and Richard, two never-before-seen “friends” of Buffy and Xander, respectively, who show up for Dawn’s doomed birthday party. In “As You Were,” Riley Finn** returns as the Initiative has tracked an egg-laying super-demon from South America. And in “Hell’s Bells,” the ultimate meeting of human- and demonkind takes place in the form of one gong-show of a wedding.
In each case, we witness the way outsiders react to their sudden run-ins with the Buffy Bizarroverse. In “Older and Far Away,” Richard—the audience’s emissary from normality—is just some poor schmo tagging along with Xander to a house party (where friendly demon Clem must be explained as merely suffering a skin condition). Richard promptly gets horribly maimed by a semiliquid demon who can walk through walls. Understandably, he’s probably not going to be popping by for a visit with the gang again any time soon. I always wondered what they told the triage nurse at the emergency room.
The existence of the Initiative always implied that there must be the sizable demon population outside Sunnydale. Buffy and her friends are just a small group defending one very eventful mid-sized college town in Southern California; what about, say, the demons and vampires afflicting people in Orlando? Or Oslo? Or Ottawa? The Initiative, as a secret military branch, must be part a much larger anti-demon campaign being waged across entire hemispheres, with many, many more people clued in to the existence and threat such creatures pose. (What does the UN Security Council, and, for that matter, the World Wildlife Fund, have to say about American intelligence agents carrying out covert ops search-and-destroy missions inside sovereign nations to eradicate local wildlife?) And what is the supremely lame cover story that Riley shouts as a grotesque demon terrorizes Main Street Sunnydale? That they’re chasing an escaped bear. Which the citizens of Sunnydale apparently accept hook, line and sinker.
This week’s set of episodes concludes with the wedding—though not the marriage—of Anya and Xander, with a full contingent of human and demon extended family mingling together. And how to explain the strange appearances of Anya’s side of the aisle? They’re “circus folk.”
I like these little glimpses of the Buffyverse outside the core characters, the way that the writers imagine these events and people fit into our actual mundane world. It’s best to keep them glimpses, of course — exhaustiveness would be terrifically boring, and none of us are tuning in to see what happens to Sophie and Richard next week.
Like painters who can evoke entire landscapes with a few brushstrokes, TV writers have to suggest a richer, deeper world than they can afford to actually put on film. These little hints of the wider world inside and outside Sunnydale — our world, in fact — are part of the reason the show resonates so deeply, and has proved such fertile ground for fandom. There are vampires and demons running around, sure, but the fantastical elements aren’t the things that get under your skin as a viewer. Instead, it’s the day-to-day: friendship, love, loss, awkward parties, escaped bears on the six o’clock news, cold feet on your wedding day.
Buffy will actually address all of this to brilliantly creepy effect in next week’s episode, “Normal Again”: the ways in which fiction can invade and colonize our real lives, the prospect of losing yourself inside an idealized fantasy, doubt about the very nature of reality. It’s a metaphysical horror story that explicitly bridges the gap between our “real world” and the fictional world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a daringly ambiguous ending. But that’s a story for another time.
--- Footnotes ---
* Around the time of this episode, for instance, I would have gone to see Aimee Mann perform a live show at the Palais Royale in Toronto. And then, [spoiler]: early in Season Seven, there she is, playing at The Bronze! And she gets the best cameo line in Buffy history: “I hate playing vampire towns.”
** Poor, poor Riley Finn. I know a few Buffyphiles who detest him to a degree I find utterly mystifying. Their main criticism seems to be that he’s this bland cheeseball, but that’s exactly why he was a reasonable antidote to Angel and Spike, who, I would note, are both murderous scumbags who prey on Buffy’s death-wish tendencies and daddy issues. Sure, that makes them more interesting characters on a TV show, but if we’re keeping track here, count me on Team Riley. Anyone with me?
Well, you know my answer to that one, Graham. ;) Thank you!
Next week: Two of the most controversial episodes in the Buffyverse, with commentators Alyson Buckman and Cynthea Masson. I’m looking forward to the first-time viewer reaction to all of them.
6.17 Normal Again
6.19 Seeing Red
And if you’re watching Angel, the darkness continues in
3.18 Double or Nothing
3.19 The Price