I’d like to thank all of you who suggested I pay special attention to the opening credits of this episode. I never skip the credits, but I don’t always watch closely either, and if I hadn’t kept my eyes peeled I would’ve missed all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that our old pal Jonathan worked his way into the show. Credited writer Jane Espenson and the rest of the Buffy staff really went all the way with this gag, rewriting series history so that the eternal dweeb Jonathan has been one of the heroes all along. He leads the Scoobies. Buffy gave him the class protector award. What’s especially clever about this joke is that Jonathan’s previous big showcase episode—Season Three’s “Earshot”—made good use of the way the writers had snuck him into the background of so many episodes. This time, the situation’s semi-reversed; we’re in an alternate reality where Buffy and Willow and Xander have been in Jonathan’s background, waiting for their turn in the spotlight.
Of course this is all a spell—“He did a spell to make us think he was cool? That is so cool,” Xander says when the jig is up—and one that Jonathan takes too far when he makes himself, essentially, the most awesome person in the history of ever. (I’ll enumerate the ways down in the stray observations.) Similarly “Superstar,” like all three of the episodes this week, falls back just a notch from the terrific hour of TV it should be because it takes on more than it can easily hold. I’ll be getting to this more in the other episodes and in the overall thoughts, but as we approach the endgame of Season Four, the writers are having a really hard time integrating the master-plot into the weekly stories. I wouldn’t say they have a total wreck on their hands—because I still like the essence of the master-plot, and the essence of the stories-of-the-week—but there’s an awkwardness to the combination that’s hard to ignore.
In “Superstar,” it’s especially weird that within the alternate reality that Jonathan created, the gang is still hunting for Adam. (Interestingly, Adam is aware that something’s not right.) In fact there’s a lot that’s weird about Jonathan’s spell, like the fact that he makes a world where Willow’s attracted to men again—at least judging by her reactions to Jonathan beefcake photos—while Buffy’s still mad at Riley for sleeping with Faith-Buffy. So many big and small details are different in Jonathan’s version of reality, and yet the significant elements of the season-long story arc are still in play. In my head, I can make sense of all this, but I still can’t help thinking that “Superstar” would’ve been better if it had been a true standalone episode, with no link to the main storyline. It’s odd to have things happen in an alternate reality that have a long-term impact on the real reality.
That aside though, “Superstar” is a lot of fun, both for the imaginative ways Jonathan remakes the world to his liking and for the way Buffy and company fit into that new world. Buffy in particular becomes an unconfident bumbler, so disrespected by Sunnydalers that Spike can’t get her name right (“It’s Buffy, you big bad stupid guy!”) and her friends don’t trust her to stand alone against the demon that Jonathan’s spell has loosed.
There’s a great moment late in the episode where Buffy has pieced together what Jonathan has done and has convinced her friends that she’s right (to their great shock and dismay), yet everyone hesitates to act on what they know, because they realize that countering Jonathan’s spell means that everything will change, and they won’t live in this amazing world that Jonathan has created any more. Even though “Superstar” is primarily a flat-out comedy, that moment struck me as pretty poignant. And it led me to think: What if Jonathan had made a world in which Buffy wasn’t discontent? Might this still be The Jonathan Show?
“Where The Wild Things Are”
“You get Fang, I’ll get Horny.”
That blunt double-entendre at the start of “Where The Wild Things Are” pretty much sets the tone for the episode, which is all about the varying ways that sexuality messes with people’s heads. And while that’s a good topic for a Buffy episode, I did not find “Where The Wild Things Are” all that good, despite some funny moments and some surprisingly sharp filmmaking.
Let’s deal with the filmmaking first. This episode was directed by David Solomon, who has a spotty record on the show to this point (on the plus side, he helmed “The Prom” and the first half of “What’s My Line?,” on the negative, he was behind the camera for “Beer Bad,” and in a neutral corner, he handled “Goodbye Iowa”). Solomon does some things with camera angles and tone here that are unusual for Buffy, and quite effective. For example, in the scene where we see Xander manning a truck selling ice cream, snacks and novelties (in between arguing with Anya about his diminished sex drive), the creepy music coming from the truck’s loudspeaker and the low-angle shot of Xander being observed by disgruntled kids and parents gives the whole scene a sense of menace that belies its humor. There’s also a rare moment in this episode of dialogue beginning before a scene does, as Giles’ voice serves as a transition from one location to another; and there’s a stunning shot of Riley and Buffy’s bed receding into blackness as their passion disconnects them from the world outside. All vivid stuff.
But the script for this episode—credited to Tracey Forbes, who’s also written the wonderful “Something Blue” and the not-so-wonderful “Beer Bad”—is tonally out of whack. The business between Anya and Xander is hilarious, as they break up on a whim and then make steely eyes at each other at an Initiative kegger. (Anya realizes that all she and Xander have in common is that “both of us are in love with your penis.”) And there’s a killer moment late in “Where The Wild Things Are” when the gang goes looking for Giles and finds him in a coffeehouse, doing an acoustic cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” (“No one knows what it’s liiiiike…”)
But once the premise takes hold, and the force of Buffy and Riley’s sexual passion begins driving everyone at the Initiative party mad with desire (or disgust), all the double-entendre jokes and uninhibited groping and moaning goes more than a little over-the-top. (An orgasm wall? Really?) And tying the mass possession to an old incident of child abuse in that house really turned me off. It just seemed so ham-fisted, exploitative and distasteful.
Ultimately though, I was disappointed with this episode because I tend to agree with Xander’s oh-not-this-again assessment of the situation: “Is every frat on this campus haunted? And if so, why do people keep coming to these parties? ‘Cause it’s not the snacks.”
“New Moon Rising”
I really liked the opening scenes of “New Moon Rising,” which showed the gang a lot more fragmented than usual. Giles is getting pissy with Anya, because he’s had it with her flip attitude about their regular meetings. Buffy is getting pissy with Riley, because she’s had it with him questioning her methods and her underworld associations. The only two people who really seem to be getting along at the start of the episode are Tara and Willow, who are walking together and discussing getting a cat. Instead, a different animal shows up at their doorstep, and threatens to rip apart the last remaining functional relationship in Scoobydom.
“New Moon Rising” is an episode that does a lot of heavy lifting for the season as a whole, and I’m afraid the strain is obvious. The headline news here is the return of Oz, who comes back to UC Sunnydale intending to pick up where he left off, with classes and with Willow. With the help of Tibetan monks, he’s learned to control his lycanthropy, such that he can be out at night during a full moon and not change. The downside? When he realizes that Willow and Tara are more than friends, his rage causes him to spontaneously werewolf-ize.
The scenes between Oz and Willow in this episode are really on-point, as he tries to reclaim his place in her heart and in her bed, while she’s got Tara on the brain and really just wants Oz to give her a hug, tell her he’s sorry, and then howl on out of town. She wants instant closure; no collateral damage. But Oz’s inappropriate fur-sprouting complicates matters significantly. Oz gets captured by The Initiative, and when Buffy starts making plans to spring him, it brings the issues she’s been having with Riley to a head. Meanwhile, Willow’s loyalty to Buffy and Oz proves threatening to Tara, who has fragile self-esteem to begin with. Everyone’s at odds and uncertain: a perfect state of being for a classic Buffy episode.
Yet “New Moon Rising” is no classic, for reasons that took some time for me to suss out. For one, I found a lot of the dialogue to be on a sort of faux-Buffy level, including our heroine’s long, tortured reference to William Burroughs, and Willow telling Tara that the candle she brought over is “extra flamey.” Maybe I was just in a bad mood, but lines like that sound like the work of someone who watched the show once and is trying to replicate an episode from memory.
Mainly though, I felt like the way the Oz storyline was woven into the master-plot ended up shortchanging Oz’s guest appearance and revealing how schematically the whole Initiative storyline has been developed. Consider: The other big event in “New Moon Rising” is the forging of an alliance between Adam and Spike, who’s been promised by the monster that he’ll get the inhibitor chip out of his head. Between Spike turning full-on bad again and Riley siding with Buffy against his old mates, this episode really seems to be about putting the pieces in place for the grand finale. We’ve got Adam vs. Buffy vs. The Initiative vs. Riley, and the stakes are…
Well, what are they exactly? We’re so close to the end of the season, and yet we still don’t have much of a sense of what everyone is fighting for. I get Riley’s investment in what happens next, and Spike’s for that matter, but as for all the rest? They’re just kind of there, going through the motions. And while that kind of institutional momentum might’ve been an interesting theme for Whedon and company to explore with this season, if they’re going to dig into it—or into anything of thematic substance in the season arc—they’re going to need to get to it quick. Time’s running out.
As noted multiple times above, the Season Four master-plot really isn’t cohering. There are just too many ideas afoot, and the writers are losing track of them all. Case in point: Adam killed Professor Walsh weeks ago, and yet The Initiative is still fully operational, and no one seems overly bothered by the fact that one of their leaders was building a monster. Unless I missed it, no one’s taken a moment to ask why Adam is in the world. They’ve been too busy with the where. And even though Buffy isn’t a show grounded in realism, it’s always had a lot more emphasis on plausible motivation. I still love the idea of Adam and the idea of The Initiative. But for the most part I’ve been putting together a version of the show in my head where these ideas make more sense.
-If “Superstar” was the first Buffy episode you ever watched, you’d be very, very confused
-So what all did Jonathan do to transform the world? He graduated med school while still in his teens. He starred in The Matrix, and in an indie film called Being Jonathan Levinson (though no one ever remembers him leaving town). He modeled for a popular swimsuit calendar. He has a line of Dark Horse Comics about him. And hey, remember the swing revival? This Buffy episode from April 4, 2000 sure does. Jonathan fronted a swing band. What a cool guy!
-I could probably fill these Stray Observations just with Anya highlights from these episodes. She’s especially amusing in “Superstar,” particularly in the scene where Buffy comes over to Xander’s basement to talk with him and has to settle for Anya instead. (“You’re not going away. Why aren’t you going away?”) Anya tries to help her overcome her self-confidence problem with a muted, “Buck up, you. You kill the best.” And later, Anya’s expertise with alternate realities comes in handy when she explains that it’s possible to make a world where a woman’s ex-boyfriend was “a dog, or ugly, or in love with President McKinley.” Or one could make a world without shrimp, or a world with nothing but shrimp.
-“Quick draw’s not just about speed… it’s about pointing the stake in the right direction.”
-Willow and Tara see Adam as bridging the gap between the races, “like Martin Luther King… but probably a lot less eloquent, and with the evil.”
-Before Buffy and Riley get it on, she reaches for a condom. Very thoughtful.
-What does Riley make of the slaying crew? We’ve seen how easily they accept him, but what does he think of Xander? Or Anya? For that matter, what does Tara make of them all?
-Xander impresses a woman at the frat party with his ability to read the plaques on the wall. “You should see me add short columns of small numbers,” he boasts.
-Is it significant that Tara is one of the people at the party who’s repelled by sex rather than turned on? Last week we learned that she’s not wild about violence either. Was her reaction to the supernatural events of “Where The Wild Things Are” just random, or was she predisposed to be one of those who freaks out rather than getting her freak on?
-A lot more Anya goodness in her “Where The Wild Things Are” conversations with Spike. When he jumps out at her, she complains, “You made me yell really high,” then when he continues to try and terrorize her she scoffs and says of his non-vampire visage, “You’re not even bumpy anymore”
-Can Spike hurt Anya? She’s a demon, right? Or does her being reformed make his chip kick in? (How does that chip work, anyway?)
-As uneven as “Where The Wild Things Are,” um, are, I really dug the scene where Spike starts to give a rallying speech and ends up talking himself out of fighting. (“I know I’m not the first choice for heroics, and Buffy’s tried to kill me more than once, and I don’t fancy a single one of you… actually, that all sounds pretty convining.”)
-A dated reference: “People are going all Felicity with their hair.”
-I’ll ignore the cliché of lesbians being cat-lovers, because I love the names Tara comes up with for a cat she and Willow can share: “Trixie” or “Miss Kitty Fantastico.”
-Buffy is one of the few shows in TV history that could get away with this line: “I was cursing your name. Not literally.”
-After Adam quotes the Boy Scout motto, one of his vampire minions asks, “You were a Boy Scout?” Adam matter-of-factly replies: “Parts of me.”
-Okay, I’m learning to deal with the gang referring to themselves as “Scoobies,” but when they gather at Giles’ place for “a Scooby Meeting,” I’m afraid that’s a little too cutesy for me.
-You know you could flip the titles of Episodes 18 and 19 and it would still work.
-“Xander, don’t speak Latin in front of the books.”
I’m starting to think about revisiting some key Season One Angel episodes later in this project—like in a year or two—and giving them the full write-ups they deserve. No, I’m not talking about “The Ring,” the silly Demon Fight Club episode that does expand the Los Angeles supernatural universe (something of which I always approve) but does so in a way that makes it all seem so petty. And I’m not talking about “Eternity,” in which Angel plays bodyguard to a no-longer-hot starlet, only to discover that she wants him to immortalize her, vampire-style. I like the way “Eternity” plays out, with the starlet accidentally raising Angelus (and the audience learning that it’s not just sex, but bliss, that can bring out the beast), but until the last act this episode is too much in the Kate Loves A Mystery mode, and that's a mode this show doesn’t do so well.
But “Five By Five” and “Sanctuary?” Oh, how I wish I had the time to unpack them as much as they deserve. I wouldn’t argue that they’re perfect episodes, but they’re awfully good—funny and tense, packed with great action sequences and a smart weaving-together of the full mythology of the series to date. And themes! My lands. In addition to the notion that visiting psychopath Faith might be addicted to evil—and thus need some kind of Angel-sponsored recovery program—we get a lot of contemplation here of what it means to forgive, and what it means to be redeemed, as filtered though another piece of Angel’s origin story. And here’s why I want to dig more into these episodes: There’s a scene, early in “Five By Five,” where Darla presents Angelus with the gypsy that will change his life, and while watching that scene, I asked myself what I wanted Angelus to do. Here’s a woman who doesn’t deserve to die; and yet her dying will lead to Angelus’ getting his soul. In this case, what is “right?” Someday I’d like to give that question some more ink. Right now, I’m afraid I don’t have the time.
I would like to take a moment though to celebrate how good the Angel editors are getting at using the shrieky flash-cuts as transitions between scenes. Suitably unnerving, those.