Monday, September 10, 2012

Yet Another, Perhaps (Slightly) Different, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Top Ten List, Part 2




 To continue my additional raindrop in the maelstrom that comprises Buffy: The Vampire Slayer top ten lists:
(Note: See part one here)

5. Season 2, Episode 10: What’s My Line, Part II


When I was making up this list it surprised me, looking back on it, how underwhelming the first half of Season 2 is, especially when I had consistently disregarded people who said as such. Oh, they’re just so focused on the Angelus arc that they’re missing out on all the gems! I said, with the casual dismissive wave that a deposed pontiff gives to his jailer in denial of his incarceration. For whatever reason I remember the first half of season 2 being much better than it actually is, perhaps due to blowback from the earth-shattering awesomeness beginning with episode 13; not to mention that the first half of the season does contain Angel and Buffy in the happy-go-lucky all-is-rainbows portion of their relationship—the only time that’s so in the whole series—and we’ve already mentioned how I feel about sappy romances. There’s also the specter of newness—when you watch something the first time you are caught up in what seems like an interesting story and the Buffyspeak and Spike and Sarah Michelle Gellar prettily bouncing around. It’s only after you look back over it that you realize there are few episodes you have any desire to see again, and reviewing the episodes from the first half of season two—even just a few weeks after I watched it completely through the first time—the survey says “lackluster.”

To wit, of the twelve episodes comprising the ‘pre-Angelus’ arc of season two, only “Halloween” and “School Hard” are regarded with any monumental praise (maybe you can throw “The Dark Age” in there as well, if only that it gives us backstory on much-beloved Giles), and another, “When She was Bad,” is at most divisive and fits the mold for some hack's “Out-of-the-way” top ten list. Otherwise, we have such stalwarts as  “Inca Mummy Girl” and “Reptile Boy,” both entrenched firmly in the “Ugh” category; “Ted,” which even John Ritter could not save; the Invasion of the Body Snatchers/ Alien ripoff “Bad Eggs,” and the confirmedly “meh” “Some Assembly Required.” There’s also “Lie to Me,” an episode a lot of people find noteworthy but I find pretty well tedious, excepting the last five or so minutes and the introduction of the character that becomes known as Anne.

But even if you include “Lie to Me,” at most we have four well-regarded episodes out of the first twelve, which is not exactly a stellar track record. And two episodes that are either ignored or guilty pleasures or simply personal favorites. One being “When She Was Bad,” the other being “What’s My Line, Part II.”

“What’s My Line, Part II” (or part one, for that matter) are by no means great or singularly compelling episodes (they wouldn’t really be making this list if they were), but I find the second part specifically favorable for two reasons: one, it’s the introduction of Kendra, the Vampire Slayer who was called during Buffy’s (technical) death at the end of season one, a fan favorite black Irish woman who for some reason keeps insisting that she’s from the Caribbean.

The second, of course—see continued emphasis on sappy romance—is Xander and Cordelia’s wonderfully farcical romantic get-together, which is perfectly fitting in tone and presentation, and the expression of pent up angst and aggression the two feel not only towards their situation, but towards each other, a cycle that cements Xander and Cordelia’s relationship as my second favorite in the series after OMGBangel!.

Add to that an eventual curb-stomping for Spike that leads to his wheelchair-bound arc that, in turn, leads to the season finale, and you have a recipe for a—well, for a decent episode with enough good moments to make a list like this.

I think “What’s My Line, Part II” also accomplishes the overlooked function of digging deeper into what being the Slayer means—or rather, is supposed to mean. For Kendra, it means isolation and lifelong training and study, straight by the book; there’s an insidious implication that that’s how it’s supposed to be, and that what Buffy’s doing is not only inappropriate but outright revolutionary. As Giles says (paraphrasing), the handbook didn’t work so well for her. I don’t recall an episode before this one that really digs into this dynamic, save for a few times Giles becomes exasperated with Buffy’s obstinacy. But Kendra, for all her Caribbean-Irish brogue and character change, personifies the less-savory aspects of the whole Slayer bent.

There’s a decent percentage of people who very-much dislike the reveal in Season 7 that the creation of the Slayer was in effect a product of demon-raping a helpless young girl and removing all free will and volition in order to make her solitarily combat the demon menace. And while I agree that it’s not exactly the most inspiring of origin stories, I have to ask: what else was it going to be? There was always this shadow of suspicion over the Slayer mythos, something that you look at with cocked-eyebrow: a young girl—and only a young girl, mind you—gets “chosen” to be railroaded into a destiny that ideally (according to the authorities) removes her from all meaningful contact with the human race and ends for the most part with her demise before the age of 20 or so, all the while lorded over by the evolved form of those creepy old men (though there are some women now. Some.) who still want to control her and ask her to sacrifice all hope of living in pursuit of an impossible goal that they themselves refuse to get actively involved in (as Giles says sometime in season three, Buffy’s fighting a war while the Council’s just waging one).

That more than anything is what makes this episode more than what it appears on the surface. It’s the first true, extended (and wonderfully subtle) look at what a Slayer’s expected to be, do, and give up, something that’s expanded upon and brought to fruition five years later.

PICTURED: Come on, people, you know they belong together.

 

  4. Season 6, Episode 5: Life Serial


A lot of season six is regarded with a slight tinge of nausea, and that’s understandable. I finished reading the Joss Whedon critical companion a few days ago (1), and one of the essays brought up a good point, that though the apathy and distance Buffy has in six makes complete sense, it’s hard to relate to such a protagonist, and that is explanation for the sharply divided opinions on the UPN boot up.

I can't argue with that. I still contend that not having seen the previous five seasons before I saw (most of) six helped me be much more lenient on it than I otherwise would have—but at the same time, it is hard to cheer for a protagonist whose just so damned depressed.

Which is why I found “Life Serial” to be so wonderfully hilarious while simultaneously being so heartbreakingly sad. It’s one of the few times in entertainment I can remember laughing and wanting to give someone a hug at the same time.

The episode boils down to Buffy trying to be all upbeat! in her attempt to get back on track—efforts that will be consistently foiled by the Trio in their laughable Bond-villain best. Fittingly, an argument about who, exactly, is the best Bond provides a significant  piece of dialogue among the three.

I never did hate the Trio as much as many others—although I think their early season appearances were actually better, before everything turned so GRIM AND GRITTY. Right now they’re just a bunch of adulthood-resisting doofuses that spray paint Death Stars on their child molester van and make jokes about magic bones.

PICTURED: Although...that is pretty nice.
Still, there’s nothing beating the completely true-to-life parody of the retail industry in the latter part of this episode. Jonathon’s time-loop torture provides a stunning metaphorical reality on the doldrums of minimum wage customer service, and as with “Doublemeat Palace,” my own true-life retail experience endears me to this episode, because who in the retail industry hasn’t had that moment where you are entirely sure you’ve gone through this same play of customer interaction before, and all the shoppers faces are melding together, and you’re bending over backwards just so they don’t yell at you because getting yelled at for $7.25 an hour’s just not worth it; while every hour seems to take on distinct similarities until you’re not really sure that time is moving at all anymore and nothing you do matters.

So when Buffy, during one loop, does nothing but burst into tears while Anya and Giles look on, perplexed, I simultaneously howl with laughter and want to run up and tell her everything’s going to be okay.

Ironically, “Life Serial’s” time loop ends with one of the happiest finales in the Buffy series, with a minimum wage associate actually satisfying a customer. Truly a fairy tale for the ages.

3. Season 3, Episode 2: Dead Man’s Party


If there’s one rogue bit of licorice in the chocolate froth bonanza that is season three, most people would peg it as this one. It’s probably the most underwhelming episode in Buffy’s best season, chock full of melodrama, angst, conflicting characterizations, and a clich├ęd, dull zombie story.

And man oh man, do I dig it.

I like the angst. I like the melodrama. I think it makes total sense.

It’s safe to say that none of the Scoobies are completely right in this situation. Xander et. al don’t, despite what they say, grasp exactly how traumatizing it was for Buffy to run a sword through someone she loved to save the world. And Buffy never quite gets the emotional torment that she put her friends, and most saliently, her mother through. And you know what? That’s perfectly acceptable to me. It’s how a lot of heady arguments end up, and most of the time they don’t get resolved by the convenient attacks of a zombie horde that kills half the people in your house…well.

“Dead Man’s Party” also has the distinction of containing another of my favorite bits of dialogue in the whole series:

GILES: Unbelievable. "Do you like my mask? Isn't it pretty? It raises the dead!" Americans!

The episode does a respectable enough job exploring the distance between people who not only have not seen each other for months, but are harboring unspoken resentment towards one another. Xander et al are doing what they think is best and Buffy’s trying to do the same, but neither of them, in reality, feel comfortable enough with each other to really talk to one another, and when it finally does boil over in the (in?) famous argument in Buffy’s living room, I don’t know, it just feels sort of natural to me. The volanco’s been building, it explodes, and everything cools down again—with the help of Zombies, in any case.

“Dead Man’s Party” remains perhaps the worst episode of highly-praised season three. But unlike a lot of people, I don’t mind friends airing out their grievances against one another. There’s always the chance that it might ruin the relationship, but at the same time, if the relationship survives, it’s all the stronger for it.

PICTURED: Angst. And is it just me, or was SMG absolutely smokin' this season?

2. Season 4, Episode 1: “The Freshman”


I’ve already pretty well covered my unashamed love for Season four in my jot about “Pangs,” but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate here just how good of a season I think it is, and how well of a transition I think it works for the series as a whole. Season four is the literal mid-point of the series—three seasons before, three seasons after—and as such not only serves as the epilogue to the adventurous days of yore—or maybe just high school—but the prologue to the darker story lines to come—I mean, a lot of the point of “Restless” is the foreshadow to entire rest of the series.

Now that I write that, I could argue the juxtaposition comprises a lot of the problems Season 4 has. In a way, it's season 1 again with a larger budget: a show that is no longer sure where it’s going. It tries to capture the fun and hijinks of the previous, adolescent seasons while also moving forward into the darker, grimmer version of the adult seasons (Note: And on that parcel, has anyone ever thought about just how dark and oppressive season 5 actually is? I mean, even before “The Body,” with Joyce getting her tumor and all the drama surrounding that—it’s really very heavy stuff. –E), and in doing so it spreads itself thin, which is where I believe most of the reaction towards season 4 comes from, said reaction comprising a really violent form of shrug. It’s funny to me, because an average fan can rattle off about ten or so episodes from the season that they really really love, and still say it’s their least favorite, which either says something about willful denial or about how important a good season-long arc is.
Episode 1 of the season, while being nothing to write home about, resonated with a person less than a year out of college. Remember what I said about timing? College aged Buffy virgins, I think, would be a lot more invested in what happens on screen this season than younger fans, because as usual the writers capture enough about the rigors of college to make it “feel real,” including those feelings of displacement and loneliness that comes with such a life change and having to cope with someone you’re forced to live with but don’t click with. There are some obvious unrealities involved, not the least of which is that Buffy and what’s-her-face’s dorm is about the size of a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria, but on the other hand I just love the part where we’re in the vampires' lair and they’re hanging up a poster they took off a student they've killed, and said poster is one of about three all new students seem to buy, in one fell swoop revealing just how much of a shallow tool the average college freshman is (yours truly included). Considering my college had a poster sale every first week back, and considering how many of the same ones tended to pop up in every “deep” proto-Heidegger's dorm, this is an aspect of the college experience that the writers nailed on the head—as is the snoring roommate.

A lot of people have a problem with Buffy’s fighting techniques in this episode—how she’s basically manhandled by a queen bee and a bunch of loser vampires, but Buffy’s powers have always been at the mercy of metaphor and confidence—just look at the season 1 finale “Prophecy Girl.” Throughout the series she’s portrayed as being at her best when she’s focus, confident, and sure of herself, qualities of which she possesses none in this episode until the end, where she (gratifyingly) comes through and kicks butt.

Plus, it includes the famous .gif-worthy “stake twirl”:
PICTURED: The Spin. And is it just me, or was SMG absolutely smokin' this season?
And by the end Buffy’s once again reassured of her place as a slayer and as a human being.

Come to think of it, “The Freshman” fits my thesis of season 4 being caught between two worlds. Everything before season four had a season opening episode where Buffy’s concerned about being the Slayer and coming to terms with its attributes, most blatantly in season 3’s opening “Anne,” but true as well in “When She Was Bad” and even in the very first (two-parter) “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest.” Everything after four is much more complicated. “Buffy vs. Dracula” (Season 5), had a bit of the “what a Slayer is” theme, but Buffy was never really down or complacent about what she was doing and the goings-on with Dracula mainly serve to make Buffy take the calling more seriously. Season six (“The Bargaining” Part 1 & 2) is mostly concerned with the Scooby gang and everyone figuring out Buffy’s alive. And season 7 has her completely okay and even passing on some of her knowledge to Dawn. The whole series, of course, deals with Buffy’s questions about destiny and life and what being a Slayer entails, but the season openers before 4 have a very clear, defined arc:
  • Buffy tries to forget about her duty; (starting over, repressing, running away)
  • Buffy comes under some trial of fire; (vampires appear, the Master’s getting resurrected, slaver demons come-a-calling)
  • Buffy reaffirms her place and identity.
The first three seasons do this, the latter three do not, and therefore it’s all the more indicative that season 4 is trapped between two worlds: adult 5-7, adolescent 1-3. Four opens up with the usual arc elucidated above, and ends with a highly experimental and foreboding episode hinting towards what is to come.

So maybe that's why I love this episode; it's the last time we see the old formula, before the break.

1. Season 5, Episode 17: “Forever”


How do you end a list like this? Seriously asking. Conventional wisdom says you’re supposed to end these “top ten” things with a “bang,” right? But how do you end with a bang when said list is comprised of episodes that you’ve said right from the beginning carry very little bang at all? Quite a conundrum.

I gave some serious though to the issue—maybe up to three minutes; my solution? To conclude with what many consider to be a “very good” episode, but one that most don’t put in their top ten or twenty. “Forever” might be someone’s #21, and you won’t find many people who don’t like it--but it’s not part of the elite either (well, not usually. I sure someone has it as one of their top-ten favorites somewhere).

Yes, it’s cheating, but sue me; “Forever” is not “Out-of-the-way”—but really people, what choice do I have? Am I supposed to end this list with “Gone” (which, by the way, I also really like)? I could, but let’s face it, no matter how much I like “Gone” (and it barely missed this list), it is, at the end of the day, a one off episode with huge weaknesses that most people would like to forget, and that even I wouldn’t really miss if its negative got lost in some great conflagration.

So we’re going to end on a high note, and make no mistake “Forever” is the highest of the high for a list like this. I’m talking Olympus Mons-to-Mariana Trench high. Still, despite it being well received, I’d posit that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. A lot of that has to do with it being in the unfortunate position of coming subsequently after “The Body,” one of the highest (and deservedly so) rated episodes not only in the Buffy canon, but in television period. Whatever follows such an episode, no matter how good, is going to, even minutely, undergo a type of erasure, like a brilliant yet small star being shadowed by the well of a quasar.

Everyone raves about how well “The Body” interprets death and what its immediate emotional response feels like (which they should). But few(er) people dwell on how well “Forever” manages to take it one step further, and truthfully express how the aftermath of death feels, when a few days have been put between the initial trauma. How do people deal, what are their reactions, where do they turn? If “The Body” is a quintessential exercise in the suddenness of death, then “Forever” is a quintessential exercise in how we move on.  Dawn wallows in her grief, Buffy tries to keep everything inside and act the adult. This culminates in one of my top ten favorite moments in the series, when it is Buffy—not the impulsive, emotionally devastated Dawn—who almost answers the door, ready to welcomes a half-dead zombie substitute Joyce into their home. This few seconds is so effortless heartrending, creepy and moving, and I might just appreciate it more than I did any comparable single moment in “The Body.”

And as if to put icing on the cake, Angel shows up! Now isn’t that just jolly? After a funeral? For a beloved character?

PICTURED: :sob: Those two had only each other.
I’m sad again.

“Forever” is one of those fly-under-the-radar episodes that does little great, but everything right. Its tone and feel, its subject matter and the way it treats the characters are all the perfect follow up to one of the greatest episodes of television of all time; and while it certainly is doomed to live in “The Body’s” shadow, it deserves its own recognition, because it does what Buffy does best: treat the themes and characters with respect and truth. And that’s all anyone can ask for.

In Summation:
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little—tiny—almost nonexistent—experiment in the realm of top ten lists. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was and is a remarkable show. This goes without saying; what can never be overstated is the courage and conviction with which it was created: the incorrigible desire to try new things, many of which didn’t work, but plowing on ahead anyway to foster an environment where anything could happen: where all the characters could lose their speech for 2/3s of an episode, or burst into song, or inadvertently turn their boyfriend evil in a succinct, touching and terrifying metaphor—all these are hallmarks of a piece of entertainment that somehow is able to go beyond, to move higher. When even the truly flaccid and picayune episodes of a television show still have some merit: a line here, a look there, an action scene that takes the cake—you know something special is taking place, and the culture seems to agree. Many great television series become sort of “lost to time,” subsumed in the popular culture, and even those that escape that fate all-to-often are reduced to parodies (Bewitched) or That One Thing they did (Newhart, St. Elsewhere). But with Buffy, there are too many moments too list. Too many “one things” and too many unique ideas. Too many great characters and stories. It’s too touching, too true to life, too conversation-worthy to be forgotten. At least, I sincerely hope so. Because any world where something as great as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer can be relegated to a one-off on Family Guy is a sad world indeed.

Until next time,

Mr. E









(1) I encourage everyone to check out this companion, chock full of most of Whedon's career, including what was (at the time) some pre-release ruminations on what The Avengers might look like. A lot of the essays are short and very basic, but there's plenty of good stuff in there.

And that's to say nothing of the cover:


It's like someone combined an Obama poster with Oh Brother, Where Art Thou's color scheme. And I just love how they have him looking off to the left all deep and philosophical. Still, there's no denying it's a good buy. Everything from Buffy to his comic work is in there.


11 comments:

  1. Mr. E,
    Whoops! Just realized you already posted the top 5. I love the ones you chose. You're making me want to come up with a similar list of my own! But I just have to add.... how can you love season four so much? ;)
    -C

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    1. Ha! Yes, I know, the season four thing is a connection not many people share. Well, comparatively anyway. But I simply can't not enjoy. It has too many good episodes and moments, and I've always loved "college" themed entertainment anyway.

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  2. Excellent. Glad you mentioned the Klimt posters. Because that particular hilarious conceit exists in Australia too.

    Also thanks for the heads up on the Companion. I didn't even freakin' know it existed.

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  3. Absolutely fabulous. I have always been annoyed by the limited number of episodes people choose as their favorites, and this list is stunning. Well done!

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  4. Ooh, Whedonesque noticed you. That's a thing, right?

    http://whedonesque.com/comments/29655

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  5. Thank you all for the comments! And for the shout out by Whedonesque, of course, which is probably how everyone got here.

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  6. just read your top ten now and really enjoyed it :) (yes I'm a whedonesque junkie)

    - I agree with you on season 4, it's one of my favorite Buffy seasons (behind the epic awesomeness of 3 of course) and Pangs is one that we watch over and over....'but I like mushy peas' *happy face time all round*

    Lisette x

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    1. Can't tell anyone how happy I am that this list is still getting redirects. Thanks for the comment!

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  7. Great list. I would be hard-pressed to do my own, but now I'm feeling a bit inspired. I actually really liked Season 6, unlike many. I also think that Season 4 was really good, but was really set apart by its episodic nature. Some of my favorite episodes were in Season 4, but it is tempered by the fact that the overall story arc was unsatisfying (and I'm solidly in the "not liking Riley" camp). A few noteworthy, but not usually super popular, Buffy episodes, which may make my own list, are Tabula Rasa, Halloween, Band Candy, Something Blue, and Superstar off the top of my head.

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  8. Good day! Were you able to make all the options of this domain by yourself or you needed some extra help?

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  9. Great post. Those are some great picks for under appreciated episodes, and great write ups of them. I look forward to a full post on season 7! I have to say though, you missed the most obvious reason for peoples lukewarm(at best) feelings towards season 4: no Cordelia/Anya. So much of the humor from BTVS comes from those two characters who are completely different in all respects except for the role they play in the scoobys. they both say the rational thing no one else will say.

    TLM

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