Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Whedonverse Classic #9: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer's "Gingerbread"

Buffy, the Vampire Slayer's third season is awesome. There is no bad episode. Sure, some episodes are weaker, but the weaker ones still have insanely good dialogue, terrific character interaction, inspired B and C stories, and an effective A story. Season 3 has many of my favorite Buffy episodes. My parents bought me this season eight or nine years ago in a Center City Borders, which was my first Buffy DVD. I purchased season three after hearing about the quality and watching "Lover's Walk" on an early Sunday morning, like 4AM, while my dad and brother hung out.

The one episode I don't think about often is "Gingerbread," which is why I chose to write about the episode today. Nearly every season three episode is great-to-classic. "Gingerbread" hangs out alone on the playground, though, kicking at random rocks, with its hands dug deep in its pocket, while the cool kids play together. The presence of Willow's mother is enough for me to write at least four paragraphs, because she's never seen again. The first two acts touch on interesting ideas about people's reaction to violence, the misunderstanding of youth culture, etc. The formation of MOO seems like a commentary on folk like the PTC, who attempt to govern what people watch and how parents should police what their children watch. "Gingerbread" is a Buffy episode, first and foremost, so one knows the demon will appear eventually and the good guys will win. The writers were a bit ambitious because the differing tones don't reconcile, and the parts are greater than the whole.

Initially, "Gingerbread" seems focused on portraying mother-daughter relationships; however, Joss Whedon ran Buffy, and he never settled for simple storytelling. Whedon, according to his former employees, pushed and pushed and pushed, in the room, until they wrung every last bit of potential from a story. So, mother-daughter relationship dynamics are introduced in the teaser. Joyce finds the murdered children on the playground and alerts her friends. Soon, the whole town knows. The weirdness of Sunnydale suddenly becomes the hot topic at a local government meeting. Witches become suspects in the murder because a witch’s symbol was found on the corpses. Willow, Amy and Michael are singled out by the town. Other teenagers turn on their peers. A hysteria of misunderstanding and prejudice takes over the town. Joyce judges Buffy's slayer duties; Mrs. Rosenberg judges Willow's witchcraft. Neither understands their daughter's "hobby." The misunderstanding and rush to judgment has nearly fatal consequences.

The witches are the persecuted group in "Gingerbread," but any number of groups could stand in for the witches. This episode portrays a group of parents who react to them and react badly. None think about their actions, they just act because someone needs to act for the sake of the children. The witches represent an Other. The idea of the Other is frightening to other people, and history's most tragic events happened because of reaction to the Other. Shakespeare's The Tempest is a terrific play about post-colonial Otherness. Prospero is banished to an island where he turns the native Caliban into a slave and kills his mother Sycorax. Shakespeare could've been writing about post-colonialism or anticipating it, but I won't reiterate my senior seminar final in a post about "Gingerbread." The point is Joyce and Mrs. Rosenberg and the rest of the town want to burn that which isn't understood, that which is dangerous. The Catholic church used to burn books deemed harmful to the population. MOO resides in the same neighborhood.

The disconnect and divide between parent and child is another component of the episode. One wonders how crisis could've been averted if the mothers sat down with Buffy and Willow in an attempt to understand their lives. The argument against this idea is the presence of a demon who's able to brainwash parents through the image of innocent children. The image of the innocent child evokes the most primal parental instinct: to protect his or her child at all costs. Whedon, St. John and Espensen basically turned parental love on its head: to protect the innocent children, the parents are willing to kill their own. Of course, Joyce is the only one who's being brainwashed, so her insults towards Buffy's supernatural calling isn't really her; however, Mrs. Rosenberg is never brainwashed and barely devotes time to understanding the daughter she barely knows.

Mrs. Rosenberg is an analytical woman, an academic who co-authors papers on mysticism and youth culture. Willow's examined like a book of text. The theories of great academic minds run through Mrs. Rosenberg's heads when she sits down to discuss witchcraft with her daughter. She argues a point about why Willow's involved in witchcraft and supports her argument with textual evidence. Unfortunately, Willow isn't a book of text, which is critical theory has its rightful place in the underbelly of English programs across the globe. Willow's barely worth a two page double-spaced paper in her mother's eyes. Joyce tells her that Willow is a witch. Well, then, Willow is a witch and must be burned! Amy and Willow are tied to stakes. Buffy, too, after an unfortunate run-in with her mom in the homestead.

The betrayal Willow experiences doesn't affect her. The next scene is a cute one between Buffy and Willow in which they try to reverse the rat spell Amy cast on herself. Buffy says something about her mother's behavior post-demon influence, but both are content helping Amy. Aside from Joyce, parents don't shape their children in Buffy. The family is the Scoobies. In season five, Buffy makes a stand for Tara against her family by telling them Tara's with her real family. The Whedonverse embraces the idea that people don't need to be blood-related to be family. Willow's got her friends, her boyfriend, and Giles, and they are the only people she needs.

Angel and Buffy have the best conversation in the episode. The conversation highlights one of the most important statements Whedon wanted to leave with the audience. I mean, ANGEL concludes on the same idea Angel tells Buffy in this conversation. Buffy feels lousy because her mother wondered what point slaying has when townspeople continue to die. Essentially, Buffy questions the purpose of slaying, of trying to beat evil, when evil keeps coming. Buffy's question translate to the real world when one thinks about going on despite the disappointments and rejections of life, loss and sadness, hardships and all. Angel explains why she needs to fight regardless of whether she wins or not: "We never will [win]. That's not why we fight. We do it 'cause there's things worth fighting for."

Whedonverse Classic is about highlighting ignored or forgotten episodes of Buffy and ANGEL. My thoughts invariably turn towards why I continue re-watching these shows after numerous re-watches. Angel's scene in "Gingerbread" is another reason why I'm attached to this world. One of the greatest scenes in ANGEL is when Angel describes his epiphany to Kate, which touches on what he tells Buffy. Never giving up, doing the right things even if people ignore you or hurt you or tell you it's not worth it or you're not worth anything, is a profoundly powerful message. The idea has existential roots (Joss was influenced by Sartre's Nausea, so of course I also read it). It's sort of like Sisyphus and the rock. One might see incredible meaningless in Sisyphus' task or one might see profound meaning, a hero even. Joss Whedon saw the hero and created a world full of them, and that's why I'll always keep watching the show, and why I'll always urge people to watch Buffy and ANGEL if they haven't. These shows could profoundly affect your life.

So, let me conclude on Angel's epiphany from "Epiphany." I sort of wandered away from "Gingerbread.” Oh well.
"Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it...not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world."

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.