Happy 50th birthday Joss Whedon

The 50th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, it just so happens, written and directed by Joss Whedon.  ‘Doppelgangland’ showcases many of the key strengths of Whedon and of his most fully-realised, successful story-world: a tightly-plotted, fantastical scenario, revolving around an established ensemble of eloquent and witty characters who are manoeuvred into a series of dramatically effective constellations, is used to create situations in which characters feel deeply, respond emotionally, and are placed in life-or-death situations, as a way of tracing out some of the contours of personal identity via interpersonal interactions.  This makes it a good episode to discuss as a way of marking its maker’s 50th birthday.

The existing facts of the Buffyverse that are brought to the foreground and made salient in this episode are Willow’s conscientiousness, diffidence, readiness to help others, and tendency to follow the rules.  More particularly, what Willow is repeatedly confronted with in the early stages of this episode is others’ attributions of these qualities to her.  It is the image of herself that she sees reflected in their expectations of her that she finds hard to take, an image that she finds hard to find a place for erotic desirability within.  ‘You think I’m boring’, she tells Oz, and then, in response to being called ‘Old Reliable’ by Buffy, dejectedly notes that ‘there’s a sexy nickname’.

The therapeutic mechanism of the episode comes in the unlikely form of a vampire Willow from an alternative dimension (to whom viewers have been introduced in ‘The Wish’, an earlier episode from the same season), who is dropped into the Sunnydale we know by a spell gone awry.  Vampire Willow is the opposite of the human Willow with respect to those qualities that Willow feels burdened by on the one hand, and lacking on the other: she cares naught for others nor for rules, and carries herself with an eroticism laced with sadism.

Whedon knows how to use his camera to acknowledge the differences between the two Willows.  As Vampire Willow stalks down the middle of Sunnydale’s main street, and then performs her survey of the Bronze, meeting and holding the gaze of anyone who looks in her direction, the camera accommodates her movements with its own fluid motion, matching and thus accentuating this Willow’s assurance.  Close-ups of her boots similarly emphasise her way of of asserting her presence and taking control as she plants her feet wide apart before addressing or confronting others.

The main source of meaning-making in ‘Doppelgangland’ is Hannigan’s double performance, under Whedon’s direction.  We know that Vampire Willow does not care about others by the way she engages with them.  She is not of this world, and nor is she quite in it.  Her scowls, and the way she lowers her head slightly whilst peering outward and pacing around, suggest a detached onlooker with an anthropologist’s (or a sociopath’s) gaze, rather than a full participant.  When Buffy arrives at the Bronze and mistakes Vampire Willow for her friend, Vampire Willow does not converse with Buffy, but simply waits for her to stop talking so that she can deliver her verdicts: ‘I don’t like you’, and ‘Bored now.’

When human Willow imitates Vampire Willow (who has been temporarily neutralised) in an attempt to avoid potential slaughter at the Bronze, what is shown principally (and played for laughs) is this Willow’s inability to inhabit the still persona (and the binding clothes) of her doppelganger. She shifts uneasily in her outfit, pauses in her pacing to give a little wave and a grin to her boyfriend (in a worthy credits montage moment), a bit like a child waving to her parents in a school play, and in the single funniest moment, tries to replicate Vampire Willow’s imposing hauteur by running her fingers through a young woman’s hair, only to get them stuck. However, Willow also uses this assumed identity as a therapeutic resource, and as a way of shedding, at least in part, her former identity. Willow undergoes a little death, une petite mort, as part of a process of becoming. The human Willow was ‘so weak and accommodating’, she tells Anya. ‘I just couldn’t let her live.’

Stanley Cavell has suggested that one thing that film – a category we might expand to include other screen fiction like television – reveals is the restlessness, the fidgetiness even, of human bodies, and the relationship of such a state to thinking (Cavell is in part attempting by such an observation to reverse, or note film’s reversal of, the Cartesian formula ‘I think therefore I am’.)  One way of describing the fundamental distinction between Hannigan’s performance as human Willow and Vampire Willow would be to say that human Willow (here and for much of the series) is responsive, to the point of excess and fidgetiness, to the world around her.  Vampire Willow’s self-possessed stillness shows that the most important thing in the world to her, is her.  Human Willow is acutely aware of and always gauging the surrounding world, including its human inhabitants.  This expresses itself through Hannigan’s beautiful nervous hesitations in her line deliveries (removed when she embodies Vampire Willow), her anxious readings of the reactions of her interlocutors, and the way her body language goes into overdrive during moments of agitation.  It is also part of her exquisite ability to be, and to appear, wounded.  The events of ‘Doppelgangland’ show Willow that one of the surest ways to shake off those qualities she has been experiencing as undesirable is to cease to be human.  Whedon’s camera shows us something about what it is to be human, and that Willow Rosenberg is a particularly wonderful instance of this category.

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