Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next five installments focus on “scary episodes.”
In which in Sunnydale no one can hear you scream…
Erik Adams: No sound is more emblematic of horror filmmaking than the scream. It’s the ultimate verbal expression of terror, an involuntary signal that anyone working in the genre hopes to inspire in their viewers as well as their actors. We’ve come to expect frightened wailing from the poor, unfortunate souls being preyed upon by monsters, ghouls, and other assorted killers, but that hasn’t always been the case. F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene didn’t have synchronized sound at their disposal, but films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari are no less eerie for their lack of it. In fact, those silent films might be more eerie for all the bloodcurdling noises the imagination has to fill in between the musical cues.
There are untold scares to be found in total silence, a notion Buffy The Vampire Slayer puts to great use in “Hush.” Conceived by series creator Joss Whedon (who both wrote and directed this episode) to answer criticisms that Buffy was no more than the sum of its quippy dialogue, “Hush” is one of a handful of episodes from the series’ run that transcends its central gimmick to turn genre storytelling on its head. The silent portions of “Hush” convey events that will have lasting impact on the show’s narrative, a crowning achievement for one of the talkiest shows of the last two decades. But we’re not here to discuss (har har) those pauses between budding sweethearts Buffy Summers and Riley Finn and what they mean to the overall arc of the series. We’re here to discuss (har har again—the irony of talking about an episode in which no one can talk is rich, no?) the complete and utter terror of losing one’s voice to a cabal of creepy villains.
In a uniformly dapper wardrobe that goes well with their uniformly horrifying grins, the hovering ghouls known as The Gentlemen are both cause and supplier of the episode’s biggest frights. They’re terrifically inventive adversaries, bogeymen with no known motivation and only one weakness: They’re invulnerable to all weapons but a piercing shriek. And they have a preemptive strategy to ensure that invulnerability, which involves stealing the voices of their future victims.
“Hush” succeeds as an effective piece of TV horror thanks to a similarly two-pronged approach. The Gentlemen, with their malevolent sophistication and toothy smiles that prove the old Lon Chaney saw about clowns and moonlight, provide the otherworldly atmosphere. Their speech-swiping tactic, meanwhile, introduces its own chilling suggestion: With its citizens robbed of the ability to verbally communicate, Sunnydale devolves into a pit of despair in mere hours. Sure, this is a town forever on the precipice of Armageddon (Hellmouth and whatnot), but there’s a uniquely terrifying edge to the desolation that settles in after The Gentlemen open the lid on their tiny wooden box.
This makes sense, seeing as the ability to verbalize thought and emotion is one of the only things separating man from the animals—or, perhaps more accurately, from monsters like The Gentlemen. Then again, The Gentlemen do a decent job of transmitting their intentions to one another while keeping their jaws clenched. The greater truth of “Hush” is in the way words can get in the way of actual communication. In its opening scenes, “Hush” does a lot of work to establish the differences between “talking” and “communicating”: There’s the shortcut of Dr. Walsh giving a lecture that contains the word “communication,” but there’s also Riley telling his Initiative buddy Forrest that he’s “inclined to talk too much.” Only when the conversation dies down do the characters realize they’re in danger.
But I’m naturally inclined to find too much to fear in long stretches of silence. I know there are some superfans of “Hush” among our ranks—does your devotion to the episode soften its scares? And which do you find more frightening: The Gentlemen themselves, or a Joss Whedon show in which no one’s talking?
Ryan McGee: I’ll confess to being a “Hush” superfan, although “confession” is probably the wrong word. After all, it’s generally considered a top-five episode by most fans of the show, with many vaulting it over other Whedon-penned episodes—such as “The Body” and “Once More With Feeling”—that also played with the show’s narrative conventions. So I’m not really saying anything here that I’m ashamed to admit in a public forum. Many episodes of this series provide intense jolts, but “Hush” is suffused with such dread that it really stands out among the pack.
The absence of dialogue helps maintain the tension, as Whedon’s dialogue tends to function as a balm to warn off intensity. (He gives antidotes via anecdotes, one might say.) It’s a staple of his writing style, and it’s one now embraced by those that don’t realize he existed before The Avengers. Removing that doesn’t detract from “Hush,” but rather emboldens it at every step: Everything suddenly counts in a way it didn’t before, and everyone is forced to boil things down to bare essences to have any semblance of order. It also makes action (and not just the slayer kind) more meaningful, since it forms a new vocabulary among the characters. (Or not, as evidenced by everyone’s confused reaction to Buffy’s plan during the slideshow sequence.)
One of my favorite outcomes of this episode is the formation of the Willow/Tara bond, something that might never have happened without The Gentlemen. Tara is too shy at this point to verbalize her attraction to Willow, and Willow isn’t prepared to articulate an attraction for another woman. But when the two hold hands and combine efforts to keep The Gentlemen at bay, they learn more about their mutual connection than if they had spent a fortnight asymptomatically revealing their feelings for one another.
But I’ve already gone on too long: Molly, I cede the floor to you. Does this episode leave you speechless in good or bad ways?
Molly Eichel: Ryan, I totally agree about the new vocabulary for the main characters, but it also forced Whedon along with Buffy’s design team to step up their game when it came to the visualization of evil. What I always found so terrifying about “Hush” was the attention of detail paid to The Gentlemen. With a comparatively low budget to create baddies (we’re not talking Guillermo Del Toro-levels of cash here), what springs from the Hellmouth never left me with a great feeling of dread on a visual level. The demons on Buffy, to me, were always more effective when played for laughs (for instance, take Spike turning from normal to vamp after a cold mug o’ blood). It was what they could do that was often scarier than how they looked. But since we can’t hear about what they’re capable of, other measures needed to be take. The Gentlemen are scary not only because of their penchant for non-elective surgery, but because of their perma-grins, their attire, their theatrical hands, and their straitjacketed henchman. The actors playing The Gentleman are so lithe and light, almost mime-like in their motions—nefarious plans shouldn’t come from those so elegant. These guys don’t just do scary things, they look the part, as well.
Erik, it’s interesting you bring up lack of sound making things scarier, because “Hush” always reminded me of the opening scene of one of my favorite movies, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. John Travolta is a sound tech working on a movie called Coed Frenzy that is derailed when a busty victim lets out a shriek that the director correctly decries as shit. The co-ed wails like a slowly dying cat. As the main title sequence rolls, a bloodcurdling scream pierces the score’s more ambient tones. It’s the contrast here that heightens the quality of the second scream. In a show where screaming is a normal occurrence, it’s the lack, the contrast of what normally happens or what should happen, in “Hush” that makes Buffy’s weapon against The Gentlemen so effective. When Buffy screams, she really means it. But it also makes the inability to scream—as the characters open their mouths only to hear nothing—seem like that much more of a threat. Take The Gentlemen’s first victim, a student at UC Sunnydale. He tries to no avail to get the attention of someone, anyone, to save him as the henchman hold him down. That nothingness, the contrast of ear-piercing noise replaced with an open mouth and nothing more, adds to the thrill of knowing that this kid probably isn’t going to make it to class tomorrow.
While “Hush” is known for its silence, one of the episode’s stronger aspects is the Foley sound. Even before I re-watched “Hush” for this Roundtable, I vividly remember the scene of that initial death. We don’t see The Gentlemen cut out the kid’s heart, but we hear the scalpel as it cuts through his chest cavity. When speech is deprived, other sounds become more important, adding to “Hush’s” overall sense of terror.
What about you, Phil? Do tailored suits freak you out, too?
Phil Dyess-Nugent: Pauline Kael once suggested that scary and funny made for “the greatest combination in popular entertainment,” and that’s the combo that got me hooked on Buffy right from the start. (It’s also the reason that, no matter how long I live and how long my X-Files DVDs hold out, I’m pretty sure that I’ll always have re-watched the Darin Morgan episodes 10 times more than any of the others.) Yet as much as the horror fan in me “appreciates” Buffy for the way it plugs images and themes from old horror movies and nightmare fiction into its central metaphor about adolescence, I can scarcely remember ever really being frightened by the series. This episode is the exception to that rule, because of the way it taps into primitive fears of something ghastly happening to you when you’re restrained and helpless. The thought of having some skeletal Dark City cosplayers float into your bedroom and start in with the amateur vivisection is horrible enough; the thought of not being able to protest, cry for help, or even tell these assholes that Mister Ed wants his teeth back makes it many times worse. “Hush” is to the power of speech what the opening of Un Chien Andalou is to the power of sight.
Amazingly effective as this episode is as nightmare fuel, it may be even more impressive for demonstrating how funny this show could be when the actors didn’t have access to the series’ crackling, semi-invented teen slang and wild tempest of pop-culture references. I don’t know of a single scene in the whole series that I love more than Giles’ silent tutorial on The Gentlemen, with its pockets of character comedy—Buffy demanding to know if she really looks that fat, Anya contentedly munching popcorn while the gore level of Giles’ homemade illustrations rises to NC-17 levels—and one of the slyest cheap-laugh masturbation references in the history of network TV. It’s a peerless example of how to turn an exposition sequence into a fireworks display. There may even be an understated joke in the fact that some of the characters make so much romantic headway in this episode. Buffy is a show that unapologetically recognized and celebrated the pleasure of good talk, but it’s also about being an age when, sometimes, you just have to shut up and let your body tell you where it wants to go.
EA: And that’s part of the fascinating alchemy of “Hush”: It’s uncannily in tune with the bodies of the people watching it. In spite of being a stylish experiment in nuanced storytelling, this is an episode of Buffy that lives and dies on its ability to pull the biggest, broadest physical reactions from the viewer: the belly laughs at Buffy’s stabbing motion, the gasp when a Gentleman floats past Olivia, the rush of blood to the cheeks caused by the romantic sweep of Buffy’s lecture-hall dream. If part of Whedon’s motivation for making “Hush” was a concern that he was losing his visual flair, the way that slumberland kiss took me back to teenage feelings re: Sarah Michelle Gellar demonstrates he needn’t have worried.
Let’s loop back to Molly’s comments on the audio side of the episode, which somehow failed to net the show any Emmy nominations for sound editing or sound mixing in 2000. (“Hush” did get nods for outstanding writing and outstanding cinematography, both of which were lost to The West Wing—which the TV academy thought was really quite something at the time.) Not to give too much credit to the jump scare—a device the horror industry often treats as the only kind of scare—but the most visceral reaction I had during this viewing of “Hush” was prompted by the kid who breaks the silence of Sunnydale’s first quiet morning by accidentally dropping a glass bottle. It’s impressive how swiftly the episode establishes this new norm, and how shocking it is when it’s abruptly and unexpectedly challenged. “Hush” is a multifaceted gem, and in addition to its writer, director, and actors, the episode leaned especially hard on the people responsible for its musical score and sound design. Ryan, what do you think that score brings to the episode? I think it tends to lay things on a bit too thick at times—is that a drawback, or is it simply an example of the episode broadening out by necessity?
RM: I’m glad you bring up the score, Erik, since its utter absence is what makes “The Body” unique. (Scenes that normally have orchestration get 10 times eerier due to silence, something that shows like Breaking Bad took to heart later on.) “Hush” removes dialogue, but augments its score, starting right away with the children’s song ushering in The Gentlemen. Whedon denies the power of speech, but still needs something to convey intent. So strings and woodwinds (or at least a really expensive synthesizer capable of replicating both) assume primacy, whether in establishing the ethereal terror of this episode’s baddies or the silliness at the core of Giles’ overhead projections.
So we’ve come full circle in a way to your original invocations of silent films, Erik, making the orchestration both a necessity but also an homage. Without vocal performances, films such as Nosferatu had no mechanism for conveying mood. In “The Body,” the absence of orchestral accompaniment is part and parcel of that episode’s examination of existential despair. But with “Hush,” we get to hear things that the characters might desperately need to fill the deafening void. That gives some comfort to us, even if such comfort is denied them. But now that its (omni-)presence has been identified and dissected, perhaps putting the audience slightly closer in the shoes of the protagonists might have lent this episode an even more sinister, scary air.
Is that off base, Molly, or is expecting something that visceral from an episode of Buffy misinterpreting the show’s agenda?
ME: I don’t agree that the chills throughout “Hush” aren’t visceral, even though I don’t think that was ever really the point of Buffy’s thrills. The show was more about the universality of the teenage (and later, early-20s) experience, even if those experiences involved vampires standing in for bad boys. The visceral reactions throughout the rest of the season, for me as a viewer, were always more in the vein of the “rush of blood to the cheeks,” as Erik puts it, but that may be because I watched the show as a teenage lady, just as excited about the romantic subplots as the rest of the show’s depth. But The Gentlemen always really got to me, especially through that aforementioned Foley sound design. Even though I don’t agree with Ryan, I understand where he’s coming from, especially with his point about the score. Rather than bolster the mood, the score, which I think is a little much, tells the viewer how to feel in “Hush,” but without the heft of say, John Williams’ work in any given Steven Spielberg project. But not every WB show had the cash to hire Williams, did they?
Because the viscera that I associate with Buffy generally surrounded the romantic subplots, and because “Hush” moved forward two major romantic relationships (Willow and Tara, Buffy and Riley) in the show, I wonder how the scares of “Hush” affected how we viewed those relationships, especially when it comes to Willow and Tara. Their relationship is born out of this terrifying near-death experience, which is only thwarted when they band together, and in the end, their relationship will end [spoiler alert] with death.
Phil, especially knowing how things end for Tara and Willow, do you find the romantic relationships are deepened by the scares in this episode, or do you find terror and love to be separate issues?
PDN: I think they’re pretty inseparable. The fact is, the kind of love that Buffy specializes in—passionate, all consuming, intensely physical—has terror built right into it. Early in the life of the show, it kept coming back to Willow’s unrequited, kittenish attraction to Xander, which was the attraction of one vulnerable, easily hurt misfit for another, someone whom she’d known for most of her life, who she felt would never hurt her. On a different kind of show, Xander might have wised up and realized that the fact that they were such good friends and so comfortable together meant that they should be lovers, and that he shouldn’t be making an ass of himself chasing after a Cordelia or a Faith. But the idea of Willow and Xander becoming a couple was always going to be a non-starter on Buffy, precisely because the combination didn’t have any danger to it. (When Xander and Cordelia were together, it at least had the terror of a relationship that, when it became common knowledge, would cost her some social capital.) That’s why Buffy and Riley didn’t work out in the end; the show tried its best to shroud him in mystery and moral ambiguity, but the actor was finally just too thick a slice of white bread to not seem like a fundamentally good guy, the textbook definition of rebound/transition boyfriend. “Hush” catches them at the early high point in their relationship, where they’re still at that “Wow, isn’t it amazing that we both like Chinese food and killing monsters!?” stage. Interestingly enough, it was when Riley was out of the picture that the show and its heroine could take the plunge and explore the possibilities of pursuing sex without love, with Spike—a character who was dangerous enough to be sexy but not good enough for a sane, non-neurotic heroine to see as romantic material. (And after he had his soul restored to him and became prone to guilt-stricken weeping jags, he wasn’t even sexy anymore.)
We can talk a lot about Whedon’s dialogue and the stylishness of the show, but what really set the series apart was that, as smart and self-aware as it was, it went for big, honest emotions, and it did right by them. It made you feel for the characters, to the point that watching their relationships develop and change and become imperiled did a lot more to generate suspense than wondering who might be about to get his head ripped off, or what might be doing the ripping this week. (I remember seeing the episode where Jenny Calendar is killed and my first thought was, “Oh, man, poor Giles!”) Part of Buffy’s effectiveness was the way it built up to those big moments by getting all the little things incredibly, precisely right. That slideshow scene is just one perfect little moment after another, and so is the sequence in which Willow and Tara come together. I love the courtly, elegant precision of The Gentlemen’s hand movements as they break into polite applause upon being presented with their trophies, and their head man mimes, “Oh, you flatter me!”
After that: The Roundtable swings back around to the first group, which tackles the first “scary” readers’ choice. Look for the poll to vote in later today!