Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas TV Episode #5: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

5.) "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" 3.10 Amends (Watch it now.)

Amends is one of "Buffy"'s more important episodes, because "Buffy" is, in a lot of ways, a show about amends more than anything else--making amends, repenting, and the search for redemption. By this point in season three, so much has happened, our characters have hurt each other in such terrible ways, and all any of them really have left is the possibility of making amends, righting the wrongs of their pasts. By season three, "Buffy," while still dealing with the tribulations of characters in high school, has evolved into a very adult show, handling themes of sex, sacrifice, divorce, mental illness, death, forgiveness, redemption, and quite a few more, all while pioneering the accelerated, self-aware, culturally conscious, and structurally innovative brand of television we then saw in shows like "Dawson's Creek,"and "Gilmore Girls," and now see in shows like "Chuck" and "Supernatural." "Buffy" also spends a lot of time excavating its characters and their understandings of their own self-worth, as well as their purposes in life and in love, an accomplishment that I think has gone completely missing from teen-centric television today. That is, if there were such thing as teen-centric television today. Now, instead of nuanced, complicated teenagers like Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg, we're given lessons in stereotype and generic crybabies like Serena Van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf. "Buffy" is one of the most important shows of the last decade, definitely of the nineties, and probably, well, ever, and with four seconds of research you'll come to understand that this is not just me invoking my blogger right to hyperbole. It's pretty much unanimous. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is fabulous and culturally significant television. Now, Amends...

Angel: Am I a thing worth saving? Am I a righteous man? The world wants me gone.
Buffy: What about me? I love you so much.

Here is one of those exchanges that has the power to encapsulate three season's worth of a television show into one striking moment, one powerful altercation of central theme and character dynamics. Moments like this don't come along often. Not in "Buffy," not in anything.

The first three seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" are a study in forgiveness, in self-forgiveness, redemption, and sacrifice. Amends is a milestone episode, in that it manages to gather all of these things and to manifest them in one explosive, unparalleled scene--that last scene (before the ending montage) in which Angel is waiting for the sunrise, for suicide, on a cliff, and Buffy tries to talk him out of it. Angel is a vampire with a soul, which makes him an enigma, a strapping hunk of moral ambivalence, of guilt and uncertainty, and when he falls in love with Buffy, he's forced to look at himself as, not a monster worthy of punishment for his barbarous past, but as a man worthy of forgiveness, of love and redemption.

If you've seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," then you know that its most explosive episodes are those written and directed by Joss himself. Here is one of them. Joss's episodes are shiny gems of magnificently tight storytelling and powerful, agenda-driven performances (see: Innocence, Hush, Once More with Feeling, Restless, Becoming: Pt. II, there are more). They're also, in many ways, driven by, not necessarily hope or Romanticism (re: The Body), but the show's incredibly delicate, volatile interpersonal relationships. Amends, for example, is rooted very deeply in the histories that these characters share, resonance of certain scenes, moments, and small exchanges that exist solely because of some previous moment, or some slowly accumulating dynamic between the characters involved. This is a difficult episode to watch if you've never seen an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," because it is basically a series of culminating moments, moments where tensions and bouts of characterization that have been swimming under the surface for seasons finally rear their terrifying heads. When Angel asks Buffy if he's a righteous man, if he's worth saving--these are not empty words. These words are wrought and packed with past and emotional significance that can only be truly understood by first watching the forty-three episodes that build up to this point.

That's not to say that Amends and its final confrontation are not worth watching if you haven't seen the show, especially if you're thinking of watching the show (which you should). The history of this scene is incredibly complicated, but some of it, I think, can be gleaned from the dialogue, a few expository sentences from me, and the sheer physicality of the players. In season two, Angel loses his soul after sleeping with Buffy (2.14 Innocence), and then, after he either kills, tortures, or threatens each and every one of Buffy's friends, she is forced to kill him in order to save the world (2.22 Becoming: Pt. II). In 3.3 Faith, Hope, and Trick, Angel is resurrected from Hell (with soul) by an anonymous force, and now, the First Evil (an incorporeal, primeval ish that comes back full force in season seven) is haunting Angel, trying to convince him that he was put back on Earth to lose his soul and resume his past as a killer. This is why the First wants him to sleep with Buffy again (re: sexy dream). There's a quick history for you. 

Also, the physicality of this scene does quite a bit of work all by itself in characterizing the volatility, the ferocity of this relationship. Angel faces away from her, she attacks him, he throws her to the ground. He grabs her shoulders, screams in her face. They cry. The Buffy/Angel relationship is hallmarked by its extremes, by its passion. Their love has been polarized due to its unremitting nature of life-or-death--either they're in mad, undying, pathological love, making out and dialoguing on the fate of their forever-bound souls, or they're mortal goddam enemies, slashing at each others' throats with giant swords and sending each other to hell dimensions. This is part of the sadness, the tragic rift that has formed between them and, again, that theme of, not just forgiveness, but of worth. Of weight, of relativity, of sacrifice. What is this love worth? Buffy and Angel can never be together, because when they are, the earth beneath them crumbles and the world literally ends, and when you're a hero, like they are, you just don't have a choice. The world has to come first. That's just sad.

One last thing: The ending here (it snows in Southern California, and everything seems to get better right away) is so firmly Whedonesque, because Joss Whedon, while he likes to toy with his characters and their relationships in terrible, destructive ways, is not afraid to allow these same characters some small, occasional pieces of relief, or consistency, in return for their constant sacrifice. Granted, these pieces are never whole, always bittersweet, and usually thwarted by tragedy or transience, but they are nuanced pieces of real world consistency. In Hush, Buffy and Riley are allowed to share a kiss in that silent, post-apocalyptic downtown scene before rushing off to their respective hero-work. Even in The Body, there's a small piece of amusement when Xander puts his fist through that wall, or when he gets a parking ticket outside of Willow's dorm. In Seeing Red, Willow and Tara get to lie in their pajamas in the sunlight before Tara is killed by a stray bullet in the end. In Amends, there's snow in Southern California, and everything seems okay for now, but really, we know it's not. Like I said, these pieces are not whole, but they're rooted in real, human consciousness, the firm, simple truths in life (a kiss, bloody knuckles, pajamas, sunlight, snow) that may not always offer happiness in its purest form, but that offer some consistency in an otherwise unpredictable existence. Terrible things happen, but in the end, it's the little things we cling to--Christmas dinner, the memory of laughter, coffee in the morning, dipping your toes in the swimming pool, clean bedsheets, rain. In the end, it's not the emptiness that defines us, or the voids or the things we've lost, but the small truths, the lily pads that keep us afloat, the things and the moments and the smells and sounds and actions and memories that get us from one day to the next.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a show about these little things, and so is Christmas (Raindrops on roses, anyone? Whiskers on kittens?), so it makes sense that the only Christmas episode in the history of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" would succeed. Watch the show. Think about it. None if these characters are ever really happy, but that's not the point. Happiness is not the point. When is it ever really the point? Or when is it ever really attainable? The point is getting from today to tomorrow and to be surrounded by the only things we have left--the simple truths of everyday and the people that love us. 

UP NEXT: My truest loves, the Winchester boys.


marco woods said...

The best best bets and best show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Totally amazing series and I like it very much.

jeff said...

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an Emmy Award-winning and Golden Globe-nominated American cult television series that aired from March 10, 1997 until May 20, 2003. The series was created in 1997 by writer-director Joss Whedon under his production tag, Mutant Enemy Productions with later co-executive producers being Jane Espenson, David Fury, and Marti Noxon.