Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Fear, Itself

In his article last week, Mike make the point that this season of Buffy so far has been reworking old ideas. It’s a thought that has never really occurred to me during previous viewings, but I think he has a point, and here is our clearest example yet. This is a mash-up of Halloween and Nightmares. However, it’s not the worst crime in the world to rework an old idea, if you’re doing something new with it, and the concept of making fears come true is much more subtly integrated here. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on how these characters have changed over the last few years.

Xander’s and Buffy’s fears are more long-standing than Willow’s, but are influenced by recent events, so Buffy’s failed attempt to start a normal relationship is feeding into her fear of never escaping from her slayer duties or ever becoming anything more than her calling, while Xander is literally rendered invisible, among a group of friends who have all moved on without him. Anya, who has no filter, sums things up for Xander with crushing directness:

“They go to college, you don’t. They no longer live at home, you do.”

But Willow, unsurprisingly, is the most interesting, being as she has had the most thorough shift in her character since the first season. Her friends are concerned about her use of magic, and she responds angrily, telling Buffy, “I’m not your sidekick”, which is actually quite a statement to make. Willow is Buffy’s sidekick, and always has been, but this is the moment she insists on being more than that. It’s actually a surprisingly alarming moment, because it’s an indication of how she views her use of magic: something that could allow her to transcend Buffy in terms of usefulness to the group, or at least put her on an equal footing. But her fear shows her inner doubt that remains: the magic goes wrong, and the reason it goes wrong is that she isn’t focussed. That nervous, self-doubting Willow is still inside, and that’s the version of Willow who is holding her back from truly shedding her sidekick status. We are therefore shown the path forward for her: Willow is going to have to eliminate her self-doubt if she is truly going to become the most powerful member of the group, and that’s actually quite a frightening prospect. It feels like we are on the verge of losing the Willow we used to know, altogether.

Meanwhile, Anya is proving to be a brilliant addition to the regular cast. In a season that has played to its greatest hits so far, she is freshening things up far more than even the new setting for the show. This is the moment where the writers must have realised what a hilarious double-act she makes with Giles, but her relationship with Xander is refreshingly uncomplicated, full of promise, and hugely entertaining. It’s nice to see the ever-downtrodden Xander having a shot at happiness. This odd couple are also teaching us a lot about teenage relationship dynamics, by showing us an exaggerated but unusually honest version of a new relationship. At the risk of stereotyping, if there were ever an exchange of dialogue that summed up the difference between the way a teenage boy and a teenage girl see the world, it’s this:

“I tend to hear the actual words people say and accept them at face value.”
“That’s stupid.”

This is far from perfect, though. The plot hinges on a hugely unlikely development, when Oz just happens to drip his blood on the magical symbol, but the episode is playing by horror rules, and if something can go wrong then it will. It does manage to be a reasonably effective horror, though, especially the moment a fake skeleton turns into a real one. It’s just that it doesn’t seem quite enough at this stage of the game. We reached new heights of excellence by the end of the previous season, and now it feels like we are coasting a bit, perhaps because the new season arc has been nothing more than a few little hints. The writers needed to heed the same advice Riley gave to Buffy in this episode. Starting university is a difficult adjustment, but it’s time to knuckle down and do better now.   RP

The view from the Sunnydale Press…

I made a mistake taking a break from this series for a while, especially doing it at the most inopportune time, three episodes into Season 4.  What was I thinking?  Coming back to it is wonderful.  Considering how I started this show, I feel I’ve already come a long way and I think I have room to grow and look forward to seeing that happen with the rest of this series and its counterpart, Angel.  I mean, remember my complaint about how cheesy this series was right from the start.  It still is, in many ways, but what I’ve come to realize is that, with the fantasy format, it can work brilliantly.  See, for instance, how Giles carries a bag of tools that is far too small to carry the chainsaw he rips out of it.  Total cheese, I’m sad to say, but totally acceptable and funny at the same time because this series deals with the absurd.  Believe me, I mean that in a good way.  While I’ve read that this is not a favorite, I thought it was wonderful, with creepy skeletons, eyeballs in the punch and Oz turning into a half-wolf.  (Oddly, I had a dream about a wolf the night I watched this, so color me surprised!)

So among the things I’ve come to appreciate about this show, we have the idea hidden behind the story… ok, let’s be honest, it’s about as hidden as the sun on a bright day at the beach.  It’s broadcast loud and clear.  This is about (brace for it) fear itself.  Fear is used to summon a demon and terrorize the kids of Sunnydale.  Been there, done that, but it’s more than that because it’s what I’ve been told about spiders all my life: when you face your fears, you realize they aren’t that big after all.  Gachnar is only a few inches tall and has one of those squeaky voices that is about as intimidating as the average chipmunk.  And that leads to the next compliment: the humor.

This show is full of witty lines that make me chuckle like Willow’s retort to Buffy, “Oh yeah?  Well, so’s your face!”   These are not always deep, belly-laughs but many offer a solid chuckle.  However, this episode made me roar with laughter on two counts.  While Giles is reading his book of infinite wisdom on how to defeat Gachnar, he starts with: “Destroying the mark of Gachnar…” To this, Buffy confidently walks over and destroys the mark.  Giles continues, “…is NOT one of [the ways to defeat him]”.  I laughed uproariously.  Like, press pause for a minute, laughter!  Then to wrap the episode, Giles is chastising himself for missing the translation under the picture of Gachnar and mumbles, “actual size” before walking off camera to the end of the episode.  Silly, sure, but such an enjoyable romp.  If you’re looking for deep realism, you’re in the wrong place, but if you’re looking for something fun and lighthearted, this is a balm for a weary soul.

Not to mention, the Scooby gang is just so much fun to spend time with!  The wit behind the writing is great, but so are the real feelings.  Buffy still hurting from her recent breakup, Oz showing genuine concern for Willow who continues to experiment with magic, and Xander’s attraction to Anya is all very believable stuff even masked in the world of fantasy that the series exists in.  All deeply enjoyable stuff.  And as a guy who enjoys his world-building, I love Xander’s choice of dressing like 007 in case he’s possessed by his costume again as well as Joyce acknowledgement that her ex was a homicidal robot (Ted).  This series felt shallow in the beginning but I was looking for world-building before there was time to show me the world.  I hope it continues to expand!

This series has been so much more than I expected and even the episodes considered bad by others have been immensely entertaining to me.  It really is nice to be back with our friends in Sunnydale again.    ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Beer Bad

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: Fear, Itself

  1. scifimike70 says:

    It’s a good thing this series has lasted as long as it did for the opportunities to explore such growth in the characters. Certainly Buffy. As a reminder of how different most SF or supernatural shows use such opportunities in specific contrasts to Dr. Who and Star Trek, Buffy’s best magic is how its supernatural elements, in a rights-of-passage sort of way, bring out the most normally identifiable drama. It’s an especially good mix which Stranger Things had built on for this generation. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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