Buffy comes home one evening to find her mother in the kitchen kissing a man Buffy has never met before. Buffy immediately turns on the gloom; she's still getting used to her parents' separation and divorce, so having her mother be really-super-serious about another man is a bit of a blow to the system. Having that man be someone Buffy has never met before compounds the problem. It turns out that Ted is a jovial computer salesman, and everyone except Buffy immediately begins to rave over how wonderful he is.
Buffy is unsure of how to deal with her trepidations about Ted, but she tries to bring herself around for her mother's sake. She is rebuffed, however, when Ted physically threatens her and Joyce later refuses to believe her about the incident. When Ted attacks Buffy in her room at night, Buffy pounds the stuffing out of him only to find that she's used her Slayer powers to kill a regular human being. She struggles with the guilt and real world consequences that this immediately drops on her, but fortunately for her, it turns out that Ted was an evil android from the 50's and there's ample evidence that he's also a serial killer on top of that. Transcript here.
IS EVERYONE UP TO SPEED NOW? ALRIGHT, HERE WE GO.
Here are the random thoughts that flew up in the face of this episode.
Xander and Willow seem kind of young to be arguing passionately about The Captain and Tennille. This is a small thing, but the Buffy-kids keep persistently dropping gently anachronistic interests into their conversations as though this is just a Thing that teenagers did in the 90s. If Xander-the-character was 17 when the show aired in 1997, that means he was born in 1980, right? (Double check my math; the coffee hasn't kicked in yet.) That means that the year Xander was born was the last year The Captain and Tennille -- who were, I note with interest, born in the 40s -- were really relevant in a gold album kind of way, no?
That doesn't mean that kids can't listen to golden oldies (I certainly did) and it doesn't mean that The Captain and Tennille weren't still touring and being all medialicious in the 90s (because they apparently were), but this is one of those things where I keep looking at Husband and saying these are not the things I talked about in high school, did you? I guess the writers thought that having the kids talk about Weezer or whatever would have dated the show, but still. (And yes, I recognize that it's also probably an attempt at Geek Cred, but not all geeky things are oldie things. I've yet to hear Xander mention D&D or Magic: The Gathering or even video games, probably because that stuff is being saved for a Very Special Episode where it turns out it really DOES steal your soul. Or something.)
Previous example of same: Cordelia apparently not being interested in knowing how to drive a car and this disinterest apparently being considered Not Unusual by her peers. I have heard of this attitude as an example of classism -- it rated a shout-out in The Westing Game ("Why bother with driving lessons, her mother said, anyone as pretty as you can always find a handsome young man to chauffeur you.") -- but honestly never widely among those who were teenagers in the 90s. This would have made more sense to me if the school were set about 2-3 decades before it actually is set. That's just my personal experience, though.
If Jenny the Awesome Computer Teacher and Technopagan is going to continue to be used like she is, I'm going to stop liking her character. I am really conflicted about the scene in this episode where she establishes boundaries with Giles. The boundaries themselves seem reasonable:
Giles: (steps closer) Oh, of course. Um... you, you, you need time.
Jenny: Or possibly space. Rupert, I know you're concerned. But having you constantly poking around, making little puppy dog eyes at me, wondering if I'm okay... (exhales) You make me feel bad that I don't feel better. I don't want that responsibility.
THAT SEEMS LIKE A REASONABLE POSITION, JENNY.
But here is the thing. Giles is cute, and stuttery, and vulnerable, and we love him in spite of ourselves. (Royal "we" here, not applicable to all peoples everywhere.) And we have not seen all this lurking and puppy dog eying, so there's a very abrupt feel to this revelation. So this whole thing -- because it is abrupt and because it is directed at someone who is SO NICE AND VULNERABLE -- sounds very harsh. And that harshness is not mitigated by Jenny obviously regretting her words immediately after, then hunting down Giles to apologize, and then making out with him in the library at the end of the episode.
And look, here's the thing. Watsonianly, I do not care even a little what Giles and Jenny do. I like both their characters. I think they are complex and well-written. I support their decisions as adults and they can work out all this mess however they see fit. But Doyly, I am so very very very very very adverse to more Nice Guys in my fictional media. Particularly Nice Guys who are SO NICE simply because they are awkward and nervous as opposed to genuinely doing good things like not summoning demons and/or not helping to cover up sexual assault and/or not giving women space to heal after they were possessed by the demon you helped to summon. Because repeatedly testing boundaries because you ARE WORRIED and WANT TO APOLOGIZE and it is clearly ALL ABOUT YOU is aggressive Nice Guy behavior. And boundaries don't mean much to me as a YAY FEMINIST MOMENT if those boundaries are completely revoked at the end of the episode because everything is all better now.
If Buffy were ever to suddenly gain, say, a younger sibling, it would be REALLY jarring to the viewers. I'm just saying, you'd think Ted -- who has major issues with controlling anything and everything that goes on in Joyce's life -- would have mentioned it. (Yes, I know it's a triple-axle retcon or whatever -- WHAT IF WE LATER RETCONNED OUR APPARENT RETCON! -- but I do not care at the moment because it is much more funny to be snarky.)
I like the Buffy/Angel relationship being about more than good sex. I really like the scene where Buffy is telling Angel all about Ted, and Angel is reacting with ambivalence. I like it because it's a perfectly normal reaction given his circumstances, yet he's not arguing with her or trying to change her mind or telling her what to do or how to think and feel and act. Nor is he trying to pull out more information from her. For once, unlike with Giles or Xander or her mother Joyce, someone is just letting Buffy BE. He's dialoguing with her, and engaging with thoughtful questions, yes, but more fundamentally in my mind: he is treating her with respect.
(Later, Willow echoes this respect when she asks Buffy how she feels and then immediately edits, "Unless you don't want to talk about it." People who care about Buffy's wants and boundaries? More, please. Looking at you, Giles-Xander-Joyce.)
I do not know how I feel about the Magic Reset Button. So here is a fun conversation we had 15 minutes into the show:
Ana: The food is magic.
Husband: Huh? Why is the food magic?
Ana: They're all eating it except Buffy. It's been mentioned, like, four times now.
Husband: ...okay, but why is the food magic?
Ana: I don't know why, but it is, okay? It just is.
The food was magic, or rather it was laced with something that is somehow both a tranquilizer and ecstasy and which Willow can identify through a school microscope. What was less clear was why the food was magic: it's not really necessary in terms of making Joyce and the Buffy-kids fall for Ted, and it's not really used as evidence against him once the actual dead bodies start piling up. But by the end of the episode, I had formed a tentative theory: I think the food is magic so that "abusive parent" doesn't have to go on Joyce's permanent record.
Because Joyce's behavior in this episode is really pretty upsetting for the viewer. When Buffy works up the nerve to tell her mother that Ted physically threatened her, Joyce laughs and says "He said no such thing! Honey, Ted told me what happened." Joyce is communicating that what Buffy, her daughter, says about the man she is dating is less important than the man's version of things. The man she has known only a few weeks. The man who shows a very intense interest in her daughter. (I've done the step-parent thing, and the dating-a-parent thing. You're interested in the kids, yes. You're not usually breaking out the "what are her grades" and "I want to know everything about her" and -- actual quote -- "what we teach her is what she takes out into the world when we're not there, whether it's at school or an unchaperoned party." You don't usually say all that stuff a month into dating a single parent because that shit is creepy.)
And here is the thing, okay? The magical reset button has its uses. This episode sort of let us explore what it would be like if Buffy used her Slayer powers against a human instead of a demon. (Although even then I have some Issues, because really? It's okay to kill A Demon, unless it's a Good Demon like Angel, but it's not okay to use lethal force to protect yourself against A Human, even if it's an Evil Human who is giving all kinds of creepy abusive-rapist-serial-killer vibes and seriously no-kidding attacks Buffy and slams her face into a wall as hard as possible? Because why now? Because demons ash and humans don't? That strikes me as VERY ARBITRARY. But okay, it's complex and explored and that's a nice thing I guess.) And this episode sort of let us explore some abusive parenting issues without having to no-kidding commit to the fact that Joyce is an abusive parent. I get that. I do.
I was interested to see that when I googled "Buffy + Ted", I got back this image from a Buffy Confessions tumblr:
Caption: The early seasons of Buffy made me hate Joyce. The episodes where she kicked Buffy out, asked her to opt out of her slayer duties, almost got the town to kill her and Willow, didn't take her concerns seriously about boyfriend Ted, grounded her for little to no reasons, etc. I never saw her as a good mom. No matter how many times she smiled or gave food to guests, that wasn't enough. She screwed up too many times to be called a good mom.
<Pedantry> If we are listing Joyce's failings, I will add to the above that I was not enamored of Joyce in "The Witch" when she was too distracted to know that Buffy was trying out for cheerleading -- which is FINE and UNDERSTANDABLE -- but then when she does decide to take Buffy's extracurriculars seriously, she gets incredibly pushy about Buffy joining the yearbook staff, and after Buffy politely-but-firmly expresses disinterest three times -- one-two-three times, that is 1 + 2 + 3 times, that is a whole fucking lot of times -- and finally points out that her interests are not Joyce's interests, no doy, and that she's into her "own thing", Joyce snaps at her that "Your own thing, whatever it is, got you kicked out of school, and we had to move here to find a decent school that would take you!"
Yes, that is a very stellar way to build a healthy relationship: ignore someone because you are legitimately too busy and then in an argument use the fact that you haven't paid attention to them as a failing against them. Here is your winning Pokemon Card, Joyce: You Never Tell Me About Your Interests Except When I'm Too Busy To Listen. Special Attacks are GUILT (Flip a coin. If heads, the opponent feels CRUSHING GUILT. If tails, the opponent feels DISILLUSIONED AND ALONE.) and WITHDRAWAL (Send all opponent's played cards to their room because they need to "think about what they've done". If opponent had more than 8 cards in play, withhold dinner from them as well.)
Also-also, we have "Inca Mummy Girl" where Joyce invites a male exchange student to live with them without even talking to Buffy first (OMGWTFBBQ what if Buffy's behavioral problems stemmed from, I dunno, being raped or assaulted at her last school, have you NO CONCEPT WHATSOEVER of trigger warnings or personal space or boundaries, way to make your daughter feel like a tourist in her OWN HOME) and then when a female exchange student shows up instead, Joyce consoles herself at the loss of an opportunity to make Buffy feel uncomfortable by installing a strange 17-year-old man in the house against her wishes by taking the opportunity to criticize Buffy by comparing her unfavorably with the new teenager in the house:
Joyce: Ampata, don't you look wonderful! Oh, I wish you could talk my daughter into going with you.
Ampata: I tried, but she is very stubborn.
Joyce: Well, I'm glad someone else sees that.
That is also another very good relationship tactic: using conversations with complete strangers to passive-aggress against someone else in the room for their failure to conform to your wishes! Maybe after you finish criticizing Buffy about the dance, you can talk to Ampata about the yearbook club! Because that is a really awesome way to treat people!
And, huh, I guess I had more to say about Joyce than I'd originally set out to. </Pedantry>
But here is the thing that actually interested me about the tumblr picture above. If you trace through the reblogs of that picture (or, I guess if you've seen the actual show further than I have), you'll note that at least two and possibly three of the crimes listed against Joyce are Not Her Fault! because she was under magical spells or mind control or drugs.
And now we're going to break out another Watson/Doyle conversation. Because from an in-universe perspective, it's not Joyce's fault if she behaves badly whilst her judgment has been compromised. (Just like it's not Xander's fault if he's been possessed by hyena spirits!) OK? I want to be very clear on that, because sometimes people seem to miss me saying this stuff. Here: IT IS NOT JOYCE'S FAULT FOR ANYTHING SHE DOES WHILE HER JUDGMENT HAS BEEN COMPROMISED BY MAGIC OR DRUGS OR MAGIC DRUGS. OK. Got that out of the way. Now! But! However! From an out-of-universe perspective where we are allowed to side-eye the writers and say things like really? You're going to invoke the magical reset button again?, I feel like it's perfectly valid to point out that characters who only seem to get real screen time in order to stir up shit for the protagonist are characters who may not be liked very well by the audience. Funny how that works.
If Joyce were a real person, she would genuinely be holding a really shitty hand (cards, not anatomy). She's not a single working mom to a troublesome teenager, she's a single working mom to a teenager who is not a but the Vampire Slayer. Her daughter is going to be in violent altercation after violent altercation until the day she dies a probably violent early death and there is nothing that anyone can do to stop or reverse or change that. Joyce is probably going to be repeatedly targeted and menaced and threatened in an attempt to emotionally harm her daughter or lure her into a trap. And Joyce is helpless to effectively aid her daughter; it's not like a crash course in martial arts is going to bring Joyce up to Slayer-level with her daughter so that they can hunt together. I WOULD NOT WANT JOYCE'S LIFE, IS WHAT I AM SAYING.
But Joyce is not a real person with real mistakes and real flaws and reality. She's a character. She's a character who is persistently hauled out to be an Interfering Parent who adds a dollop of angst and distress to the life of the Sympathetic Teenage Protagonist. And (it would seem) that any time the writers wanted to push that over into genuine abuse in order to really heighten the tension, they didn't want to actually commit to the concept and in the process lose the 'hilarious' sitcom hijinks of Joyce sniping over Buffy's extracurricular activities and personality and so they reached for the Magical Reset button. Ta-da!
And I'm ... not sure how I feel about this. Buffy-the-character would very probably have genuinely conflicting feelings about all this. Just like, you know, she might have about being sexually assaulted before a Magical Reset occured. Magical Reset Buttons rarely affect everyone, and there are going to be victims left behind who have to grapple with the aftermath in whatever way they can. Joyce is not responsible for any abusive behavior she exhibits under mind control, yes. But Buffy still has to live with the memories and pain of those abusive behaviors.
In some ways, I think something like this could be a really good premise for a TV show. The Buffy-verse could be almost akin to the Cthulhu-verse, where everyone is just barely managing to keep themselves together in the wake of unrelenting emotional trauma. Buffy-Cthulhu-verse could embrace the horror of a malevolent universe that is constantly saying oh yeah? Well what if your best friend tried to rape you and then you had to pretend it didn't happen? And what if your mother dated a guy who threatened to slap you and lurked in your bedroom in the dark and read your diary and threatened to have you committed and violated multiple personal boundaries and beat your head into the wall and when you tried to tell your mother, she wouldn't listen? And then you had to pretend that didn't happen either? What about that, then?
WELL, YES, THAT WOULD BE VERY CREEPY, BUFFY-CTHULHU-VERSE.
And maybe that's what the Buffy writers are doing, maybe it's what they plan to do in the future. I don't know. I'm not sure I want to know. But ... I don't get that vibe. There's a lot of "and everything was all better now" that keeps popping up in these episodes. Buffy is never shown to be hurt or damaged by the incident with Xander. Buffy and Joyce eat ice cream on the porch and make movie plans with one another. Jenny and Giles play tongue hockey in the library despite the fact that there's an angry principal on the prowl with an axe to grind. Etc. Emotional traumas fade away -- the Technically-Not-Really-Abusers forget (or pretend to forget) what actually happened and the Genuinely-Victimized smile and forgive and all is well forever.
I don't know that this wouldn't be realistic in a Buffy-verse, at least for some people, for some personalities. But the deeper I look at this thing, the more I can't help but notice who the Genuinely-Victimized are. Buffy. Willow. Jenny. The young, the thin, the attractive, the sexual, the Nice (here differentiated from Cordelia, who we will talk about later). When you look at the Technically-Not-Really-Abusers, we have Giles (who whoops summoned a demon who whoops possessed his girlfriend), Xander (who whoops was possessed by hyena spirits who whoops made him try to rape Buffy), and Joyce (who whoops dated an evil android who whoops drugged Joyce into not believing Buffy's tales of abuse). What do these people look like? Well, they're the socially powerful: the mother, the teacher, the man.
Buffy as a series is, I think, supposed to be about reversal of gender roles and giving power to the traditionally powerless. Buffy is a superhuman slayer; Willow with her super-smarts is the most consistently valuable member of the support cast; Jenny is a technopagan who plays catch-up (rather than being initiated into the cause from an early age) but plays it with verve and determination. These women are powerful. The traditionally socially powerful are, by contrast, not. Joyce may have the power to ground Buffy, but whether Buffy stays in her room is really entirely up to Buffy. Giles may serve in the role of mentor and teacher, but Buffy sets the pace of the teaching and Jenny calls him out on his shit when his prejudices against computers put Buffy in unnecessary danger. Xander may have the best potential to climb socially (he can talk the cool talk, unlike Willow, and he's not the outcast that Buffy is, by virtue of not burning down gyms, etc., plus semi-dating Cordelia) but all that is meaningless to the greater outside world, and Xander is consistently the weakest member of the team in terms of contributions.
So ... this is a win, right? The weak become strong and the strong are made weak.
I don't know. At the end of the day, the traditionally powerful people do still end up in positions where their actions hurt the traditionally weaker ones. And yet through the magic of writing, the traditionally weaker people are in a position where they aren't really allowed to complain or effectively deal in a powerful way that is, say, denied to the Real People that the Fictional People supposedly represent. The harm dished out to them wasn't really the fault of the traditionally powerful people. It just kind of happened. The hyena episode becomes an attempted rape without an attempted rapist, as though a disembodied penis had chased Buffy around the room instead of Xander doing the chasing. The evil android episode becomes a situation of abusive parenting without an actual abusive parent, as though Joyce hadn't bothered to show up that day.
We're not supposed -- or, rather, the characters refuse -- to view these magical reset actions as an established pattern (the trend, not the papery things you use to make clothing). We don't get to point out that Hyena!Xander expresses sexual aggression that is in keeping with his regular sexual aggression, only dialed up to eleven. We don't get to point out that Drugged!Joyce ignores and belittles and passive-aggresses against Buffy in ways that are consistent with previous actions on her part. We don't get to point out that bringing a Man Buffy Does Not Know into the house without warning Buffy is not substantially different from bringing a Male Student Buffy Does Not Know into the house without warning her. We don't get to point out that using a boyfriend to shame Buffy at mini-golf is not substantially different from using a female exchange student to shame Buffy into going to a dance. We do not get to point those things out because then the Watsonian red flag goes out on the play: BUT IT WASN'T THEIR FAULT!
No, it wasn't their fault. I agree. But it's not their fault because there's a magical reset button that makes it not their fault. And I'm not sure how I feel about writers who want to take persistently abusive traits up to 11 without having to actually commit to the character changes. Nor am I sure how I feel about a show that takes on relatively obvious shit (VIOLENT RAPE IS WRONG, YA'LL) while quietly obscuring the non-obvious shit like constantly policing your friend's romantic partner ("Pretend I care [about Angel].") because you're still pissed you didn't get into her pants. Or like tackling parental abuse (DON'T INVITE SERIAL KILLERS INTO YOUR HOUSE WITHOUT GIVING YOUR DAUGHTER A HEADS-UP, MMKAY) without, you know, tackling parental abuse (UNLESS THEY'RE EXCHANGE STUDENTS). I see a lot of "holy shit they called it 'sexual assault' how feminist is that?!" (re: The Pack), but I see almost nothing that goes "holy shit they buried it like it was nothing, what the fuck is this supposed to say about group interactions and the persistent silencing of women??". I would like to see more of that. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places.
Tentative "yay" for depicting institutionalized sexism? I guess? I did kind of like that the police are portrayed as being assholes when Buffy is clearly in shock after the incident with Ted. They interview her without her mother present and without an advocate, they use aggressive techniques to try to confuse her like asking a question and then interrupting to ask an unrelated question when she tries to answer, and they completely dismiss the fact that she was hit first because she 'looks' alright. Hey, look at that: institutionalized sexism at its finest.
On the other hand, it wasn't really called out or explained why it was a very bad thing, so... there's that. Juxtaposed as it is with Buffy feeling super guilty about killing (even in self-defense) a Real Human, and then juxtaposed again with oh, never mind, it's just an android, whatevs I felt like the message was a little mixed. But I presume we weren't supposed to agree with the police and so I'm counting that as a win.
I love Cordelia so much. A week ago, I couldn't have told you why. I mean, she brings some much needed snark to the show, especially since I'm not big on the Xander humor. But she's kind of a bully, she has definite classism issues like whoa, and she's not the sort of person I usually warm to. Was it just her actress' natural charisma? (There's your pun for the day.)
Now I know why I like Cordelia.
Giles: Whatever the authorities have planned for her, it can't be much worse than what she's doing to herself. She's taken a human life. The guilt, it-it's, it's pretty hard to bear, and it won't go away soon.
Cordelia: I guess you should know, since you helped raise that demon that killed that guy that time?
Giles: Yes. Do let's bring that up as often as possible.
I like Cordelia because she is the one young woman on this show -- in a show about "powerful" Buffy and Willow and Jenny -- who genuinely does not roll over and play nice and eat shit because it's the Nice thing to do. She calls the other characters out, and doesn't allow them to pretend their demons don't exist in order to criticize others for their own.
Giles made a mistake in that Hollywood TOTALLY NOT HIS FAULT kind of way where he experimented with something dangerous and kept experimenting and repeatedly experimented some more and then finally Something Bad Happened. WHO COULD HAVE FORESEEN IT? And you know what? Fine. Really, everyone makes mistakes. Most of us have played with fire (or demons, or whatever) and been burned. We grow older, we get better, we atone. Giles appears to be doing just that. Yay for character growth. Go, Giles. Here's a damn cookie.
But we don't get to cozily pretend that stuff didn't happen. Certainly not in order to make things about you, or to lurk around your ex-girlfriend's classroom reminding her of her trauma, or to obliquely criticize your protege for doing something far less worse (i.e., protecting herself after an immediate, physical attack) than playing with a demon for weeks-months-years on end.
Maybe that's not what Giles was doing. Maybe he wasn't testing Jenny's boundaries or criticizing Buffy in even the slightest possible way. Maybe he was genuinely grief-stricken for both women. (I like to think he was.) Maybe he's genuinely the NICEST GUY IN THE WORLD. But you know what? I don't care. Cordelia doesn't care. Cordelia doesn't give him the benefit of the doubt for maybe being the nicest guy in the world. She puts it right out there that, hey, remember when you basically did this exact same thing, only worse. Huh, how 'bout that? Cordelia doesn't live and work under the assumption that being (possibly mistakenly) called out for your potential shit is the worst thing that could happen to a nice guy.
In a show that has been persistently about hitting the Magic Reset button, in a show that has been continually about Nice (but Powerful!) Girls sucking up their victimization like good girls and not making waves, in a show that doesn't seem to want us to analyze patterns of micro-aggression and how those patterns are taken up to eleven when the pressure is on because NOT THEIR FAULT, Cordelia is the character who doesn't forgive and never forgets.
Cordelia, who is as bad at school as she possibly can be, is ironically the Memory of this group. She is classist and privileged and problematic, and yet acts as the Conscience. Not for doing the right thing, but for remembering that every one of them has failed and that they don't get to forget that just because it's convenient. I like to think that if she'd been around for the hyena episode, she'd be saying oh, like that time you tried to rape Buffy? in the same disaffected tone. Oh, you didn't want us to remember that? Well, I do.
There's a time and a place for healing and forgiveness. But Buffy (so far) isn't about healing and forgiveness given over time after discussion and heartache and grief. Buffy (so far) has been about healing and forgiveness because the episode is over and nice girls don't get to hold grudges because grudges are harsh. It's probably that way because of the constraints of television, and not because of sexism on the part of the writers -- television is tricky like that. But it's there nonetheless, a recurring and unfortunate pattern that niggles at the back of my brain. Cordelia is the antidote to that, the one who plainly and openly says: You don't get forgiveness just because the episode is up.
And I love her for it, because she's the only one saying that so far.
One last thought:
People in the 50s were always building technology that is better than what we have right now. I hate them for that. Screw you, 50's Renaissance People with your software engineering and your hardware engineering and your computer programming that is vastly better than what we have now. You can keep your evil androids; I like ELIZA.