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Buffy The Vampire SlayerSpin and Speechifying, from Eyeballs to EntrailsThe role of discourse and communication in Season 7 of BtVS
Sunday 1 June 2003, by Webmaster
(who is hoping that a pretentious yet catchy title will help her get away with uneven, unedited, stream-of-consciousness writing and out-of-left-field ideas in the not-really-an-essay below—oh, and in PDF, too)
Our souls sit close and silently within, And their own web from their own entrails spin. John Dryden, Mariage à la Mode. Act ii. Sc. 1, 1672
As we approach the end of days in the Buffyverse, and possibly the Jossverse in its entirety, the themes of religion and faith on both Buffy and AtS are inescapable. "The subtext is rapidly becoming text," as Giles tells Buffy in Ted back in Season 2. But that’s not really what I want to talk about here, it just helps explain why I’m starting in a place I normally wouldn’t: the Bible.
Let me say right up front that I have no particular religion, but I have great respect for both religion and faith. I may be irreverent, but I don’t intend to offend anyone or any set of beliefs. Religion is not the focus of this not-really-an-essay, but I do use a few biblical citations and references to Christian imagery in making my arguments, so I want to make that clear. For the record, all of the biblical quotes I use are from the King James edition, not because I have any particular preference, it just happens to be what I’ve got. I’m not exactly a scholar of theology. What I am, sort of, is a scholar of words, or at least of how they’re wielded. As a storyteller, Joss Whedon is also interested in words, and this is another subtext that is rapidly becoming text of late. That’s what I want to write about here.
To get the rest of the disclaimers and formalities out of the way: all of the episode quotations are from Psyche except those from the latest aired episode as of this writing, Dirty Girls (7.18), which are from my own notes. There are spoilers here through that episode but not beyond, ’cause I don’t know any and don’t wanna. I’ve also tossed in a few references to Angel, which may contain spoilers through episode 4.19 The Magic Bullet, so be forewarned if you’re not current. I would hate to inadvertently spoil anyone for either series.
It’s about power Buffy—both the real Buffy and the First Evil wearing her guise—tells us in the very first episode of Season 7, Lessons, that "it’s about power." But power is a slippery concept, and everyone has a different take on it. Here, as I’ve mentioned, I want to look at what we’ve been shown over the last few months about the power of words, and stories, truth and fiction. It’s said we’re going "back to the beginning" this season, so let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Even heathens like me know that everything starts with Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night: and the evening and the morning were the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5) So first there was only darkness, and by merely speaking the words, God created light. Right there, we can see that God’s a pretty powerful deity. But wait-let me ask what may seem to be a blasphemous question: does the power come from God, or is it in the words he uses? There’s another account of the beginning that seems to clear this right up:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5) God is the Word, and the Word is God. Words are the most potent mojo of all, because they can bring light to the darkness (even if darkness doesn’t always get the message), and light is life. Words have the capacity for creation, and by implication destruction. Stand in awe of the power of words.
The source of power of the source of all Evil: truth vs. lies, power vs. action The creepiest villains are those that represent a perversion of things we normally recognize as "good": love, affection, loyalty, etc. One example from the Buffyverse is the Mayor, considered by many to be one of the most effective Big Bads ever. Season 2 Spike was scary because he was more than just a one-dimensional badass vampire: it was his utter devotion to Drusilla that gave him an extra layer of scary.
Now, in Dirty Girls, we’re introduced to Caleb. He’s a man (or man-shaped entity, anyway) who understands about the power of words. He’s also a nostalgic kind of guy, and likes to re-enact his victories of the past, with the help of his buddy the First:
I heard you speakin’ tonight. Preachin’. I felt your words go straight to me.
Well, the truth is like a sword, isn’t it, girl? It cuts deep.
The words I use got a power to ’em. Power, now. They’re not just words. They’re truth.
They brought me here.
They called you. Know why? Because you’re human. You got your urges. A woman’s got hers, a man’s got his… Our whole race can be so damnably weak. And that’s why we seek the strength. The power.
It’s not wrong to be drawn to the power, is it, preacher? She follows him into the shadows.
Oh no, it’s not. It’s not wrong. We hear a cry of pain, and the girl falls to the floor, gutted. Just human.
(Dirty Girls, 7.18)
Caleb claims that his words have power, because they are the truth. Generally, of course, truth is portrayed as something positive, the province of the White Hats, a force for Good. Interesting to see such a clearly evil character sing the praises of truth, yet another example of a virtue perverted by the creepy bad guys. (As an aside, note that he refers to the girl as having been "called," perhaps foreshadowing his current mission to destroy all of the young women who have been "called" as potential or actual Slayers?) This isn’t the first time this season it’s been pointed to us that truth can be a tool of evil as well as good, though. Back in Sleeper (7.08), the Scoobies touched on this very concept in discussing their initial encounters with the First:
You only think Spike is turning people ’cause that vampire told you so, right? But that night we were all told things that weren’t true.
What? What maybe?
Well, just because those weren’t the spirits of, you know, our people... just because it was some evil thing, doesn’t mean what they said can’t be true.
I used to tell the truth all the time when I was evil.
Early on, then, we’re warned not to take words at face value, but also not to automatically discount them based on the speaker. This is no comic book black-and-white universe we’re dealing with, here, but a messy world of shades of grey in which meanings have layers and layers have meaning. To further emphasize this point, we have the intriguingly titled episode Lies My Parents Told Me (LMPTM, 7.17), in which people at least ostensibly on the side of the good guys resort to deceit. Giles deceives Buffy for the "greater good," Wood deceives both Buffy and Spike to further his own agenda of vengeance. Both in the end are shown to have damaged their cause and gone against the mission they purported to support. If it’s true, as Buffy claims in First Date (7.14), that "we can’t beat evil by doing evil," then lying and deceit would appear to be definitely the wrong ways to use the power of language, ways the Good Guys should avoid at all costs. But the Good Guys are focused on action rather than words, to their detriment.
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech, or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. […] And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power. That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (I Corinthians 2:1,3-5)
I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of training.
Buffy has always been presented as someone better with action than with words. This has been further emphasized this season, for example through her "speechifying" that doesn’t quite manage to accomplish its goal of rallying the troops. She is also unable to articulate her feelings to those close to her, from Spike to Dawn. Contrast with Xander, who makes a very moving speech to the potentials in Dirty Girls that says what Buffy has never been able to: that she cares very much about everyone’s welfare. She has only been making speeches because she feels it’s her duty, and now she’s tired of waiting around and wants to get out there and fight. This doesn’t end well, to say the least.
Caleb here is an agent of the First Evil, and they’ve clearly been working together for a while. The FE is, literally, all talk. Since it has no corporeal presence, it has to cajole and convince to get others to do its dirty work. The FE isn’t God, or even a god in the usual understanding of the word. It’s "the source of all evil" that "predates any written history" and "only works through those it manipulates," as Giles tells Buffy in Bring on the Night (BOTN, 7.10). Contrary to the Good Guys, the First is definitely an entity that appreciates the power of words. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Jasmine on AtS doesn’t seem to rely much on words; it’s her mere presence that brings people to their needs in worshipful admiration. She doesn’t bother with trying to persuade, she just is. It will be interesting to see where that storyline goes.)
Some viewers have complained that the FE isn’t very frightening as a villain because it is dependent on words alone. Yet we’ve been shown repeatedly that it is far from helpless or innocuous, even without the Bringers and Ubervamps it uses to do its wetwork. We’ve seen it convince Andrew to murder his best friend and Chloe to kill herself. A vulnerable, newly-souled Spike was kept insane in the school basement, and implanted with a post-hypnotic trigger that effectively turned him into a killing machine to do the FE’s bidding. All without lifting a finger… since Evil, in this case, doesn’t really have any fingers to lift.
It’s not surprising that such an entity would pick as its right hand man a preacher (or possibly priest; regardless of his origins, Caleb has certainly created his own denomination by the time we meet him). He is someone for whom words are the key weapon in his professional arsenal, and he has spent his life honing his skill at wielding them. Caleb is, of course, no ordinary man of the cloth: even before he threw in with the Ultimate Big Bad, he had used his verbal skills to lure the weak who were drawn to his power. A knife deals the final killing blow, but the hard work is done by the words. Words that, he claims, are truthful. He believes them, anyway. Therein lies the rub, though: truth can be in the eye of the beholder.
Perception and storytelling: the spin cycle
"Perception is reality," the saying goes. For professional communicators, this is akin to gospel: the objective truth (assuming that such a thing exists, which is a matter up for philosophical debate) doesn’t matter, what matters is what people believe. If the emperor can convince everyone in the kingdom that he’s not really starkers, then they will behave accordingly and he can save on his dry cleaning bill. On the flip side, if the whole town believes Abigail is a witch, she’ll be burned at the stake regardless of whether she is guilty or innocent of any actual crime. People’s behavior is guided by what they perceive, what they accept as truth. No point bothering with the so-called "facts."
I could write pages and pages about Storyteller (7.16), one of my favorite Buffy episodes ever (obviously, since it pushes every single one of my buttons, from subjectivity to the role of narrative to metanarrative goodness), but I’ll try to restrain myself and stick to the topic at hand. Here’s what’s fascinating to me about the tales Andrew spins in making his "documentary" about Buffy, Slayer of Vampyres: most of what he says in his narration that is not about himself is factually true. Sure, he uses hyperbole and the romanticized language of comics to dramatize his message, but the text itself corresponds with what we as viewers know to be reality. A few examples:
his "Big Board" explanation of the Hellmouth, the First, and the "surprisingly mobile" Bringers, is accurate; Buffy’s job is indeed to slay vampires, while the vampires’ job is to try to kill her (a characterization later echoed in Spike’s assertion in LMPTM that "[Nikki] was the Slayer, I was a vampire. That’s the way the game is played"). Buffy’s speeches are long and dull; and my personal favorite: "Buffy and Spike have some kind of history. You can feel the heat between them-although technically, as a vampire, he’s room-temperature," accompanied by images of the pair straight from the cover of the tawdriest of bodice-ripper novels.
Andrew sees his role as one of "entertaining and educating" (ends the ever-practical Anya feels could be achieved more efficiently through masturbation), painting himself as a sort of field reporter, a war correspondent on the front lines, documenting history as it happens. Andrew has no conscious intent to deceive anyone-except about himself and his own role in events past and present, and there the deception is directed inward at least as much as outward. Yet he still manages to paint a misleading picture of the pre-Apocalypse situation, due to the juxtaposition of language and images he uses to convey his message. It’s a brilliant case study in spin.
As every good PR professional knows, spin isn’t about making up lies, it’s about taking the literal truth and presenting it in such a way as to skew it in your favor, influence the public to accept your version of events over a competing point of view. If you have to resort to outright fabrication, even carefully interwoven with mostly true threads, you leave yourself vulnerable to attack. A lie can generally be disproved, but spin can be explained away as "just an alternate interpretation of the facts." Spin is how a communicator tries to create acceptance of a given perception of reality that helps further some end. It’s up to the public to question its perceptions and test them against known and knowable facts whenever possible, to root out any falsehoods. Many times the public doesn’t bother.
Questioning perceptions is a recurring theme this season, especially in regard to the question of Good and Evil. Being such slippery concepts, it can be hard to pin down on which side a person, or even a given act, belongs. There was a moment of panic at the thought that Giles could be a manifestation of the First, back in The Killer in Me (TKIM, 7.13). The Scoobies are conflicted and divided over the issue of whether Spike is good or evil, even with the soul. Willow tried to destroy the world less than a season ago, and lives with the knowledge that Evil still dwells within her, and it is up to her to keep it under control. Jasmine and Caleb are both effective villains because they make it harder for us to show where the "good" part ends and the "evil" begins. Many viewers are still trying to rationalize Jasmine as a force for Good. It’s impossible to apply meaningful labels to a murky world.
Name that alignment
In Buffy’s dream in Restless (4.22), Riley tells her, "Buffy, we’ve got important work here. A lot of filing, giving things names." We use labels all the time to classify objects, people, concepts. They can be an important form of shorthand, like in the case of professional jargon, but only if they are used within groups who attribute them with mutually agreed meanings. Labels can also be used to sow prejudice and divisiveness, to arbitrarily separate groups, to oversimplify complex concepts. There is a lot of meaning loaded into a name, or there can be.
In an epic world like the Buffyverse, the two most important labels that get bandied about are of course Good and Evil. You might even say that one of the main points of the show is to explore just what these two labels mean. This season, as the series draws to a close, this is yet more subtext that is becoming text.
But Fred, Gunn, Wesley, even Lorne-I thought they were... good.
What does that mean, really? (walks away) Being good? Doing the right thing? By whose judgment? Good, evil-they’re just words, Connor. Concepts of morality they forced around your neck to yank you wherever they please.
(AtS Inside Out, 4.17)
Are "good" and "evil" just words? Well, yeah, actually. As Cordelia notes, it’s a matter of perspective. Both shows have given examples of evil done (or advocated) in the name of Good-which is generally referred to as "pragmatism" because it sounds nicer than "evil"-such as Giles’ murder of Ben in The Gift (5.22). Connor is convinced that his murder of an innocent is for a positive purpose. We’ve also seen good deeds performed in the name of, if not outright Evil, not-goodness: from Spike joining up with Buffy to save the world in Becoming Part 2 to the Mayor’s genuine affection for Faith in Season 3.
The exploration of the ambiguity residing in overarching labels can be traced in the Buffyverse back to at least early in Season 2, to a now-classic conversation between Buffy and Giles, which takes place while she is waiting for an old friend to rise from his grave so that she can stake him:
Nothing’s ever simple anymore. I’m constantly trying to work it out. Who to love or hate. Who to trust. It’s just, like, the more I know, the more confused I get.
I believe that’s called growing up.
I’d like to stop then, okay?
I know the feeling.
Does it ever get easy? (casually stakes Ford who rises from a grave behind her)
You mean life?
Yeah. Does it get easy?
What do you want me to say?
Lie to me.
Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
(Lie To Me, 2.07)
As this conversation illustrates, making choices in the middle of the greyscale is hard and never-ending work. It is much simpler to divide everything neatly up front, do lots of "filing and giving things names," as Riley says, then just use those labels forever. The difficult choices fall to those who see themselves as mostly Good, because Evil doesn’t really have a lot of patience or tolerance for uncertainty. Take Caleb, for example: he prefers to classify everything neatly as "dirty" (female, corporeal, human) or "clean" (male, spiritual). As he explains to Faith about why he’s left behind the Good Book:
I find it a tad complicated. I like to keep things simple: good folk, bad folk; clean folk, dirty folk.
The First has been shown as being preoccupied with getting people (and demons) to pick a team: from its seemingly endless torture of Spike over the winter, to what the Ashanti demon tells Xander in First Date about the demon world being busy choosing sides, to Jonathan-slash-The-First’s frustration with Andrew’s betrayal in the same episode: ("You started down a road [by killing your friend]. You have to keep going."). Labels and clearly drawn battle lines are very important to Evil, while Good is willing to allow a lot more latitude on the value scale ("Confidentially," Andrew tells the FE, "a lot of her people are murderers."). Incidentally, I would argue that this is further evidence that Jasmine is not indeed a force for Good, because she takes a righteous attitude and punishes any dissent or ambiguity. "The enemy of my friend is my enemy" is a policy that goes beyond pragmatism and becomes vengeance, never portrayed as a positive thing in the ’verse.
This distinction of attitudes between Good and Evil is hardly an invention of the creators of Buffy and AtS. In a season brimming with references to Christian imagery, with a priest of Evil and a figure reminiscent of both Messiah and Antichrist, with an Apocalypse rapidly approaching and an episode of AtS not so subtly titled Slouching Toward Bethlehem (4.04), the authors seem to have drawn still further inspiration from the Yeats poem The Second Coming, as events unfold to reveal a world where, indeed, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Conclusion, complete with gratuitous and wildly biased speculation
Finally, we come to the point where I put my own preferred spin on all of the above. To summarize, we have the themes that words are powerful in and of themselves, that their power can be used by both Good and Evil, that truth is not necessarily Good but lies are always Bad, if not outright Evil, that meanings cannot be separated from context and point of view and the intention behind them. It’s all connected, and Good finds room to tolerate shades of grey, whereas Evil prefers to stick to basic black and white (except when Evil is trying to lure Good into its fold, in which case it will shrewdly appeal to the latter’s more malleably muddled worldview). Oh, and that Buffy doesn’t fully grasp the power of words and thus is unable to wield them as weapons in her battle, as she’s busy concentrating on the physical. What does it all mean?
Well, I don’t presume at this point to know where the story is going in terms of plot. I don’t even want to know, really, because I’m in it for the ride and trust that it will be a good one. Nonetheless, I feel pretty confident in saying that Buffy is going to have to learn to appreciate the importance of words very soon. Not that I think she’ll suddenly decide to study rhetoric or learn French, but words-along with gestures and actions-are part of the connective tissue that binds us to others. They are the means by which the internal becomes external, how we express our thoughts and feelings and create shared meanings. They are how we make sense of the world around us. That’s the essence of communication, right there: we don’t just blurt out thoughts that emerge fully formed from our heads, like Athena, but we negotiate meanings with others (or with texts, or, you know, TV shows) through an ongoing exchange of verbal and nonverbal signals. We relate.
Buffy has not been doing a whole lot of effective communicating, or relating. With very few exceptions this season (and arguably much longer), she’s kept herself tightly wound and tried to be all business. All about the mission. At this point, though, it seems fairly clear that her approach isn’t really furthering the cause of the mission, so she needs to rethink it, ASAP. Instead of isolating herself, shutting down and trying to turn herself into a slaying machine, she needs to open up, release the feelings she’s been keeping hidden by letting the words out. Xander explained to the others that Buffy cares, but Buffy is going to need to speak for herself. I think that once she is able to do so, she’ll find herself better able to integrate Buffy-the-girl and Buffy-the-Slayer, making her better centered overall and thus more effective in the mission. By speaking from her heart, she’ll be able to really motivate her "troops"- of course, this means not really treating them like troops, but like family and friends and allies-instead of engaging in endlessly dull and ultimately counterproductive "speechifying."
Both Buffy and AtS seem to be focusing a lot on balance, and on how even normally positive concepts can have negative consequences when taken to an extreme. Self-reliance has often been shown as a key virtue on BtVS (think of the Buffy/Angelus battle scene in Becoming Part 2), but when taken too far it becomes isolation and disconnectedness. That’s what we seem to be witnessing right now, as Buffy has lost faith in herself and the support of many of her "troops." On the other hand, being connected is good, but if exaggerated it becomes groupthink, a dangerous kind of mob mentality. Jasmine’s ability to "have eyes everywhere" (AtS Shiny Happy People, 4.18) and use them to seek out and attempt to destroy those who dare to separate themselves from the group (AtS The Magic Bullet, 4.19) illustrates that even getting along can be taken too far.
Lest one think this is limited to AtS and irrelevant to Buffy, Willow had a related vision back in Lessons that left her upset and trembling: "I felt the Earth. It’s all connected. It is, but it’s not all good and pure and rootsy. There’s deep, deep black. There’s... I saw, I saw the earth, Giles. I saw its teeth." It’s all connected—Good and Evil, all part of the planet Earth package. Perhaps the exchange that best sets up this dichotomy is a conversation with Holden Webster, the vampire in Conversations With Dead People (CWDP, 7.07) who offered Buffy a complimentary session of psychoanalysis before she finally slayed him, as he explained what it’s like to be a newly risen fledgling vampire:
Feels great. Strong. Like I’m connected to a powerful all-consuming evil that’s going to suck the world into a fiery oblivion. How about you?
Not so much connected.
So being isolated and alone weakens both the individual and the group, and being too connected can not simply weaken but destroy the individual. There’s little point concentrating on labels like Good and Evil, since even those who fight on the side of Good have some Evil inside, and vice-versa. Where does that leave us? Seeking balance, which is precisely what the First Evil claims to want to destroy:
Fact is, the whole good-versus-evil, balancing the scales thing-I’m over it. I’m done with the mortal coil. But believe me, I’m going for a big finish. (CWDP)
Aside from the balance between Good and Evil, I think we’re going to see a balance between action and words as well. The power of physical strength, and the power of communication. I mean, if it’s true (as some fans claim) that Joss is God, since Joss is a storyteller, then it’s just gotta be all about the words. Because then the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Joss, and we’re going back to the beginning for a big, wordy finish to the Jossverse. Um, I think.