Wednesday, October 19, 2011


SPOOKTOBERFEST 2011 UPDATE: I finished reading Frankenstein, and the thing I keep returning to again and again is how far away the original novel is from the popular conception of “the Frankenstein story”, by which I mean that most people think of the misunderstood, almost childlike, man-monster who only wants to understand the world and find his way in it but keeps getting rejected and/or attacked by a fearful world. I’m guessing by now most people know the bit of trick-trivia that Frankenstein is the name of the scientist and not his creation, but before the metonymy set in the book was called Frankenstein because it’s actually about the scientist, and specifically it’s a first-person account of his own psychological agony as he becomes obsessed with creating life, succeeds, is appalled by what he’s done, and has to live with the grim consequences as his rejected hideous progeny straight-up murders his little brother, his best friend, and his wife (all more or less “off-screen”). Interesting stuff.

I’ve moved on to reading The Fall, which is the second novel in a trilogy about biologically (semi-)plausible vampires destroying humanity in an epidemic parasitic plague, written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. After volume one, The Strain, I would have said it’s a pretty shallow action-adventure-horror jaunt with cardboard characters who are either Noble Tragic Heroes or Elementally Evil Demons, but in the second book there begins to be more focus on some tweener characters (like a former gangbanger, and a retired luchadore) who end up fighting in the war against the vampires (really in the service of other, less aggressive vampires who have their own agenda that runs contrary to wiping out all human life on Earth). What I can still confirm is that it’s a nice, zippy brain-candy read after the Victorian formalities of Mary Shelley.

I haven’t watched any more movies since Drag Me To Hell, but I did get an unexpected infusion into the Spooktoberfest smorgasbord over the weekend when my wife announced that she really wanted to get back to our old Buffy the Vampire Slayer Re-Watch Project. The coinciding birth of our daughter and beginning of baseball season had put Buffy way on the backmost burner since there’s almost always a ballgame on in the evenings and those are much easier to watch half-distractedly while dealing with frequent diaper changes and spitting up and walking/rocking/lullabying and so on. But the little girl is sleeping through much of the evening and night these days and the AL East is entirely in off-season mode now, so a return to Sunnydale was in fact well in order.

We had left off previously with four episodes left to go in Season 2, which is really the first full proper season of the series and the bar-setting example of building to a big finish. Or so I thought after having seen the shows once. On second viewing, it’s a slightly strange quartet to bring things to a close. Spoilers follow, arguably some of the biggest spoilers one can possibly give for BTVS as a whole.

First is “I Only Have Eyes For You” which I remembered absolutely loving the first time through and I had been looking forward to enjoying again. It did not disappoint! At heart it’s a ghost story in which malevolent spirits keep possessing people at the high school and re-enacting a murder-suicide, the result of a 1950’s era forbidden affair between a male student and a female teacher. The boy did the shootings, and Buffy’s outraged on behalf of the teacher, because Buffy’s in a very bad place with regards to her former lover, now evil arch-enemy Angel. Arguably, though, Buffy’s sympathies should have been with the boy, because he was the younger and more inexperienced one (just as Buffy was compared to Angel) and he was the one suffering his first real heartbreak with more pain than his adolescent mind could handle. All of which gets brilliantly underscored when Angel shows up at the high school just to torment Buffy while Buffy is trying to exorcise the ghosts, and the two restless spirits possess Angel and Buffy in the age-appropriate but gender-reversed roles, and the dialogue that’s been repeated over and over again takes on new meaning in how perfectly it mirrors what Buffy and Angel have been going through all season. And then it turns out that particular possession arrangement is the only way the ghosts could ever have found peace because Buffy shoots Angel but Angel doesn’t die (or was already dead, you know, same diff) and the teacher spirit in Angel is able to reach out to the student spirit in Buffy post-murder and achieve some closure. A neat trick, which not coincidentally foreshadows the fact that in three more episodes Buffy is going to have to really, truly kill Angel. But I get ahead of myself.

Also, the episode proves a point which I have long believed, which is this: if you take any song which is about deep, soul-stirring, all-consuming love, and use it to soundtrack the actions of someone who is unhealthily obsessed, the song immediately becomes HELLA-CREEPY. Seriously, it’s a great 42 minutes of television which has essentially ruined the song “I Only Have eyes For You” for me forever.

But anyway, “I Only Have Eyes For You” also ends, almost as an afterthought, with Spike getting out of his wheelchair! Pieces are moving into place for the endgame in what is very clearly a not-at-all made up as it goes along manner. Angel feels burned by the possession and decides it’s time to make a big move and stop toying with Buffy. But before we get to the final showdown …

We get a weird episode which is 99% padding between the epicness of “I Only Have Eyes For You” and the two-part finale “Becoming”. I don’t even remember the title of that intervening episode and I’m not going to Wikipedia it either (so there). It’s the one about how the members of the Sunnydale swim team are dropping like flies and at first it seems they are being targeted by fish-man monsters but then it turns out they are molting into fish-man monsters, and it’s all very silly and would not have been out of place in the early going of season one. There’s an almost superfluous scene where Angel shows up and is going to eat one of the swimmers, but gags on the mutated blood and buggers off – just to remind us, hey, Angel’s still around and up to no good. In the end the coach is the bad guy who was mutating his players by adding experimental Russian chemicals to the steam room intake pipes, and I believe there is a strong implication that he gets raped to death by the fish-man monsters at the end. Very bizarre.

And as I said, really it’s just delaying the big no-holds-barred match to close the season. “I Only Have Eyes For You” was even better the second time around for me because I knew how the episode ended and I was able to pick up and appreciate the (fairly blatant, in hindsight) clues throughout the episode which give the climax its power. By the same token, “Becoming” was even better now that I know where exactly the entire series is headed. So many seeds get planted in these episodes which bear fruit later on! Principle Snyder expels Buffy and then makes a phone call to the Mayor (hello, Season 3 Big Bad); Willow insists on trying a dark magic spell which may be too powerful for her (ditto, Season 6 Big Bad). Kendra the Vampire Slayer shows up, and gets killed by Dru, which makes way for Faith to arrive next season as well. Angel gets his soul back, dies and goes to hell! (He gets better on the latter two counts, and thus his own spin-off series becomes possible.) Buffy’s mom finds out she’s a slayer! (which, ok, doesn’t set major plots in motion, but changes the dynamic going forward a bit) And they do all this in less than an hour and a half total, while they re-tell/retcon Buffy’s origin, and also fill in a lot of Angel’s origin, too.

Spike was supposed to be a Southern good ol' boy in the original concept.  Life is funny.
And then there’s Spike. He approaches Buffy and offers to make a deal with her: he’ll backstab Angel, increasing Buffy’s odds of survival, as long as Buffy lets him and Dru leave town never to bother her again. Spike’s been wanting to give Angel his comeuppance for a while anyway and has the element of surprise because everyone thinks he’s an invalid, Buffy needs all the help she can get and is really more concerned about forestalling the End of the World, and they make a tentative truce. (To be fair, it’s not a done deal until after Spike convinces her that he wants Angel to fail at Ending the World because “I like this world. It’s got … dog racing.”) In one scene they basically lay the groundwork for Spike working more and more with Buffy than against her in the future, and set up the relationship dynamic between Spike and Buffy that basically blossoms into one of the best things about the entire run of the show. All of which went over my head the first time I watched it but was downright impressive in how organically it works as an opening salvo when considering the big picture.

So Buffy saves the world, but loses Angel, and has already been expelled from school and kicked out of her house, so she runs away, fade to credits with a Sarah McLachlan song to play us out. (Oh, ‘90’s, don’t ever change. Not that you can, at this point, I guess.) Good times! I’m hoping we can keep the momentum going with the project and dive into Season 3 sooner than later. I’ve already warned my wife that when we do make it to about the 3 / 4 point of the next season, I will have no choice but to go ahead and buy the complete series box set of Angel, because that was either the primary or secondary reason for embarking on the project in the first place (it trades places with “because Buffy is good enough to warrant a complete re-watch” depending on how I’m feeling, and right now, all punchdrunk on foreshadowing and long-game storytelling, that might be in the lead): we’ve barely seen any of Angel, and I want to watch it the first time interwoven with the concurrent seasons of Buffy the way broadcast tv intended, so Angel Season 1 alongside Buffy Season 4, Angel S2 and Buffy S5, etc. But clearly we won’t get there by the end of October. Perhaps a snowday marathon will be in order this winter …

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