Sunday, 17 March 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Fool for Love

“The only reason you’ve lasted as long as you have is you’ve got ties to the world.”

This is, of course, one of the most acclaimed Buffy episodes out there, rightly renowned for its development of Buffy and Spike as characters and for some extremely clever use of structure and recurring motifs. And I can see why there is very real brilliance here, brilliance which I’m going to spend the next few paragraphs outlining. But here’s the thing: I don’t like this episode. However well-executed it is, I don’t agree with what it’s trying to do.

I have to admit, though, the treatment of Spike is genius, and adds depth and dimension to a character who, when he first appeared in School Hard, was little more than a punk-style reaction to all of the ritual-obsessed, identikit dullard vampire characters that had been appearing up to that point. His individuality and flair was a refreshing alternative and a deliberate contrast, as well as something of a metatextual commentary on the tropes. Beyond this, though, the character had little depth, beyond certain broad brush character traits such as being a good judge of character, something which has always been consistent; Spike’s summaries of people’s behaviour and psychologies are often cruel but always accurate.

Beyond that, though, he’s not had much depth as a fairly flat character. But, now that James Marsters is in the credits, that has to change. And this is the episode that completes the metamorphosis.

The episode doesn’t just give William a backstory, it injects a note of tragedy into the character’s past and establishes parallel in the present day; his rejection by Cecily as a shy, Victorian poet is paralleled by Buffy’s rejection of him as a bad-ass, but emasculated (by the chip in his head) vampire. It’s a big, big retcon which rewrites the character significantly and gives him a vulnerability which he never had before. This is dangerous: it threatens all the things which made Spike so cool and well-liked. But let’s reserve judgement until we see how the character gets developed from now on.

The Victorian scenes are cool, of course, mainly because of Drusilla’s delightful wackiness, as always. I never had Spike pegged as a Yorkshireman, mind: both his accent and his being a Man U supporter sort of imply that he’s a southerner. But there’s a nice contrast between Spike as unreliable narrator and the fixed, immutable voice of the narrator that we see in the flashbacks.

However much he may be in denial about his own past, though, Spike is dead right in his analysis of the Slayers he’s known (and killed!), including Buffy: all of them have a death wish, including Buffy. She’s just a little insulated from it because she has family and friends. And, incidentally, I love the way that Spike, while killing the 1977 slayer in New York, speaks to Buffy in the present.

There are several flashbacks: Yorkshire in 1880, China in 1900 (although why a bunch of vampires would go to China at that particular point in time is beyond me) and New York in 1977 are the main ones. It’s strange, and fantastic, to see David Boreanaz in Buffy again (although, as we’ll see in our next episode of Angel, there’s a rather clever little crossover thing going on with the flashbacks), and bizarre to see Darla for the first time since Season One. It’s great to see the interaction between Drusilla, Spike, Darla and Angelus during various times in history (one of which, of course, is post- Gypsy curse, as the next episode of Angel will explore!) and, yes, bizarre to see the break-up between Spike and Drusilla in 1998.

Thing is, though… this is what we Doctor Who fans call fanwank: an excessive and solipsistic obsession with a given show’s own mythology. The character development here is superb, but it doesn’t relate to anything beyond that. Buffy is a show which, at its best, comments on society (especially adolescence and young adulthood) through the use of magic and monsters as metaphor: the last episode before this one, Family, is a prime example. This episode, however well-written, well-made and genuinely beautiful, has nothing to say about the wider world beyond itself. It is, ultimately, just a very good example of navel-gazing.

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