Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Earshot

[Trigger warning: gun massacre theme discussed.]  On 20th April 1999, 12 students and a teacher were murdered at a high school in Columbine, Colorado. One week later, Earshot was due to air, and was postponed until September, eventually airing just two weeks before the Season Four premiere of Buffy. Ironically, Oz says in the episode that high school massacres are “bordering on trendy at this point”. The rest of the world, as always, looks on in bafflement at how the USA responds to tragedies like this by changing the television schedules rather than actually doing something about the guns.

The loss of Earshot from the original run did little to harm the ongoing story arc, because it’s the closest Season Three gets to a stand-alone episode (although there are always some references to prior developments). Buffy gets infected by the blood of a demon and starts hearing people’s thoughts. The things she hears cleverly echo the emotional journey she takes. To start with it’s all a lot of fun, with comedic thoughts such as “someday my pants are going to fall right off”, and Principal Snyder having Walk Like an Egyptian stuck in his head. Even more cleverly, the overheard thoughts immediately start to illustrate how much rubbish goes round in our heads, and we actually think unspeakable things that we would never say out loud or enact in real life. Immediately we have a teacher longing to “get rid of all the students”, but he doesn’t really mean it. It’s an illustration of how we should never feel guilty about whatever rubbish pops into our heads. It’s a mess in there. Later, Xander overhears the dinner lady having similar thoughts, which is a throwaway line and seems to be more of the same. This is a very cleverly written episode.

When Buffy hears the thoughts of her friends it sums up their personalities brilliantly. Oz thinks deep philosophical thoughts. Willow mainly worries. Xander thinks about “naked girls, naked women, naked Buffy”. Cordelia literally speaks out loud every thought that enters her head, with no filter. But the fun is soon over, when we move on to the next phase of Buffy’s accidental eavesdropping and start to hear the negative thoughts everyone is carrying around with them: “I hate my body.”; “Nobody’s ever going to love me.”; “I hate her.” It all becomes a cacophony and then everything is silenced by one thought: “This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all.” It’s a powerful, terrifying moment.

When Jonathan is revealed as the gunman it’s a big surprise and a genius bit of misdirection. To put this into perspective, this is his 10th appearance in the show, not far off Spike’s tally at this stage, and yet his role has been utterly insignificant. His most memorable moment was being compared with Cordelia when she hit rock bottom in terms of what felt to her like loser-ness. Thinking back to The Wish, I described Jonathan as collateral damage in the joke, but his reaction is blank. Being held up as a prime example of loserdom is just another normal day for Jonathan, and we see here the full impact of what that does to a person, day in, day out. He’s ready to end it all. And if there’s one big fault with this episode, it’s the way it deals with a huge and devastating life issue too easily, with a quick speech from Buffy, and then moves on to a bit of comedy business with the real threat and Giles walking into a tree. That’s no good. Jonathan needs help, long-term. He needs a friend. Buffy doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, she thinks she can fix him with a speech and then walk away. The events of this episode desperately need to be revisited and Buffy’s quick fix attempt and Jonathan remaining a lonely figure have to have consequences. Knowing how great the writing is on this show, this isn’t going to be forgotten.   RP

The view from the Sunnydale Press…

When Earshot opens, Buffy is kicking the snot out of some demons when she gets some of their blood on her hand.  This works like an infection and in no time at all, Buffy begins to hear voices.  (Should I be worried that two of the shows I’ve watched this week featured voices in one’s head?)  It’s not going to be cured with meds though; she has become telepathic and this leads to all sorts of trouble.  Even when she’s not trying, she’s hearing what everyone is thinking and its too much for her; in fact, if it’s not stopped, she’ll die!

I like to stay in the fiction of the story in most cases, but this particular story stood out to me for craftsmanship.  Oh, it’s not the “telepathy is a curse” thing that many fantasy series tackle at some point.  It’s a lot of little things that add up to a lot more.  Willow is changing and growing; she’s becoming interested in basketball and supporting her fellow classmates, who in turn are also growing and learning from her.  Meanwhile, Xander still has feelings for Cordelia; he’s not over her yet.  Those might be small fries, easily overlooked but what about the fight Angel has with the demon?  When that demon comes crashing down on the picnic table, the table breaks under its weight.  Would we have noticed if that didn’t happen?  No, but it added a layer of realism that was surprisingly appreciated!  Speaking of the demons, the telepathy-curse wasn’t a random curse either; the demons have no mouths so that’s how they communicate!  I mean, there’s a lot to praise there.  It speaks volumes about the writing of this episode.

Unfortunately, that very craftsmanship also works against the show in some ways.  I had thought that with all the demon killing Buffy has accomplished so far, did no blood ever get on her before?  In fairness, this is easily explained that none of those other demons had “contagious blood”.  But less easy to explain away is Jonathan, the kid who is going to kill himself.  First, did he take “rifle assembly 101” in Sunnydale because he seems to know how to put together a rifle pretty well?  Yeah, yeah, someone in the family is probably a hunter, but what about the school bell tower for the place to kill himself?  It’s in plain sight!  And perhaps most damning of all, he selects a high powered rifle as the tool to commit the deed; a tool that most likely he could not use on himself anyway.  See, you have to have long enough arms to reach the trigger while the barrel is in that deadly position – alas, one of the very problems our diminutive friend has is that he is, in fact, diminutive.  Chances are his arms would never reach the trigger!  Perhaps he really was planning to use it on some of the other students and covered at the end to seem like he was not a complete bad guy and just misguided.  “Yeah, because that never happens in American High Schools!”

Ironically, those complaints end up playing back into the high craftsmanship again anyway, because all of that gunman stuff serves to mislead the audience and defy expectation.  First, we get duped when the newspaper writer, Freddy, is not the real villain even though they went out of the way to make him look like he was.  Ironically, I never thought he was going to be the killer; I was fairly sure we were being sent down a blind alley.  However, when it is revealed to be our little friend Jonathan, I didn’t see that coming either, but at least I felt justified in my belief that it wasn’t Freddy.  So when Xander wanders in to find the café lady poisoning the food, I was stunned.  The look the two gave each other made me laugh out loud, but the story managed to take me for a ride and I didn’t even realize how many twists they could cram into 44 minutes.  Kudos to a great episode, I say!

“We can never really see what’s in someone else’s heart.”  As if that’s not enough, getting inside everyone’s heads was really enjoyable.  Xander’s constant thoughts of sex make him actually run away at one point, again to my delight.  Oz spends time thinking about his own existence and starts to ponder Buffy as a combination of all people now that she can hear all of their thoughts.  And Buffy gets Giles to walk into a tree after she reveals that she knows what went on between her favorite librarian and her mother.  And yet, with all of that, they managed to tell a compelling story about people, “the loneliness, the confusion… it’s deafening”.  It’s not something just for teenagers; everyone experiences those things at some point in their lives.  It’s amazingly well written and an impressive story on so many levels.

I started this series because of a comparison to Babylon 5.  Conceptually, they are utterly dissimilar, but they both have a lot in common including a weak first season, a story arc that gets steadily better over time, and a great cast.  This episode brings the comparison closer too, featuring telepaths and an A/B plot (getting Buffy better and hunting a killer).  And like many a Babylon 5 episode, this might have been one line away from perfection.  I was extremely disappointed to have Buffy scoff at the idea of going to the Prom with Jonathan because he is too short; contradicting the very thing she tells him doesn’t matter (that it’s about what’s inside that counts!)  I just have to shake my head.  I guess, sometimes even the main characters make bad choices…  ML

If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned in these articles, help is only a mouse click away. For readers in the UK, a good place to start is https://www.samaritans.org. In the US, there is a National Suicide Prevention hotline, that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Choices

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Earshot

  1. The Sandman says:

    Without going into spoilers, the aftermath of one of the events in this episode is picked up in the latter half of season 4

    Liked by 1 person

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