Context: ‘Who Are You’ is the the sixteenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the episode where Buffy and Faith switch bodies (well, the switch happens at the end of the previous episode, but this is the episode where we see how it plays out). Faith is a wanted criminal, so Buffy-in-Faith’s-body is first arrested by the police, and then intercepted by muscle working for the Watcher’s Council. In the time it takes her to escape from her incarceration and return to Sunnydale to reclaim her body, Buffy has received a taste of how those who know Faith feel justified in treating her: she has been called trash, and her/Faith’s face has been spat at. Meanwhile, Faith-in-Buffy’s-body has received her own novel taste of what it is to be treated with love (both maternal and romantic), gratitude and respect. The two Slayers come face to face with each other/themselves once more when both independently learn that vampires are holding a congregation hostage in a church, and go there on a rescue mission. Once the vampires have been dispatched, Buffy and Faith fight it out on the church’s altar. Faith-in-Buffy’s-body gains the upper hand, and straddles Buffy-in-Faith’s-body while she directs blow after self-loathing blow and insult after self-loathing insult at her own face. What she does not know is that Willow and Tara have conjured Buffy a doohickey that will reverse the body swap. Buffy interrupts Faith’s onslaught by clasping her hand (in a gesture with the appearance – appropriately, given the location and aspects of the pair’s relationship – of communion). There is a glow, a shudder, and a rushing sound effect to confirm that the reversal has worked.
Faith (in Faith’s body) looks around, in moments of performance we recognise from times we have seen characters wake from vivid, troubling dreams. The rushing on the soundtrack, combined with Faith’s breathing and her reaching at one moment for her chest, makes taking one’s own identity back into one’s body seem something like inhaling, granting the transformation a tangible, physical quality that the viewer can imagine.
The really nice thing about the shot, though, is the way that action, framing and setting combine to convey, quietly and completely without stress, the sense that Faith experiences the moment of return to her own body as a moment of imprisonment. As Faith’s mind gets used to the position of the limbs of the body it has just returned to, we can tell from the way her upper body moves that she is trying to gain purchase (offscreen) on the ground with her heels, at first without much success. More prominently, she raises her arms, and pushes them outwards, her right hand meeting the wooden rail that separates the altar from the rest of the church. Both forearms reach out and come to a stop near the edges of the frame, further aiding the impression that Faith is pushing claustrophobically outwards in reaction to the new position she finds herself in.
Here, as is often the case with Whedon, I find myself wanting to praise him in a way similar to that in which V F Perkins praises filmmakers in Film as Film: there is a combination here of eloquence and subtlety which could easily pass unnoticed because the expressive properties of a chosen image are not obtrusive, because they appear to arise so fully from the demands of the dramatic situation. Of course it makes sense to show Faith from that angle, at that moment, doing those things, because that is what the story, at that moment, demands. To which the answer is that of all the ways in which Whedon could have chosen to stage the body re-swap (with both characters standing up, in a different location, with a different magical device), he chose these ones, and then found ways to make these choices work effectively as a series of images. That we are not pulled out of the flow of the drama by being presented with an image that proclaims its status and purpose as artistic commentary (a legitimate effect of its own kind, of course) should not lead us to overlook the image’s eloquence.
There are few artists in any medium who have received more attention or been more extravagantly praised than Whedon. But there are some of his achievements, hiding, as it were, in plain sight, that still need to be noticed and articulated more thoroughly.