Tomorrow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 (having first aired on US television on 10 March 1997 – yikes!). To mark the occasion, I am presenting an annotated list of 20 of my personal favourite Buffy episodes, in rough order of preference (least to most favourite).
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.
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.
As the title suggests, this blog contains spoilers. It is dedicated to my good friend James MacDowell, king of endings.
Last night I watched ‘Felina’, the final episode of Breaking Bad. I also watched the preceding three on the same night; as usual, I am late to the television party, but also as usual, what I lack in punctuality I try to make up for in speed! However, even though the episode aired nearly four months ago (29 September last year), when I did my first spoiler-immune Breaking Bad internet search this morning, I didn’t find the volume of critical commentary about it that I was expecting. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places (and all suggestions are welcome), but in the absence of much criticism to engage with, it made me want to write down my own thoughts. What follows will not try to cover all the bases, but will mainly focus on the characters present in the programme’s final scenes: Walter, Jesse, Todd, ‘Uncle’ Jack Belker, and Jack’s gang.
In his very interesting discussion of Walter’s character transformation, which was written after the end of the show’s fourth season, Jason Mittell suggests that Walter’s moral trajectory can be ‘benchmarked by those who die or are injured at his hands.’ Walter’s first act of violence is one of self-defence committed on the spur of the moment and under duress, and directed towards a dangerous criminal. By the end of the fourth season, Walter has poisoned a young boy whose only connection to the trade in crystal meth is that he is loved by Jesse, Walter’s partner, whom Walter is trying to manipulate. In the (first half of) the fifth season, Walter orders a Michael Corleone-esque simultaneous hit of ten prisoners who pose a threat to his interests.
The turn that events take in ‘the final season’ (or the second half of season five, depending on how one chooses to divide up the last sixteen episodes) might come as a surprise then. Walt ceases to outdo those around him in terms of brutality, ruthlessness and remorselessness, and becomes a victim once more. The turning point comes in ‘Ozymandias’, the series’ pre-penultimate episode. Walt has been lured to his millions, buried out in the desert, by Jesse, and is arrested there by Hank and Steve. Before the cuffs go on, Walt summons Jack and his crew, giving them coordinates for the location. He tells them not to come at the end of the phone call, but they come anyway. The result: Hank and Steve are killed, and Jack takes most of Walt’s money and, because Walt tells them where he is hiding, Jesse too. Todd tortures Jesse and then keeps him in a hole in the ground by night, and by day forces him to cook crystal meth.
If Heisenberg’s ‘unique selling point’ is the blue colour of his meth (and, of course, its high purity), the thing that is often suggested as a near-USP for Breaking Bad is the scope of the transformation that the main character undergoes – from Mr Chips to Scarface, as creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan would have it. ‘I like the idea’, Gilligan has said, ‘of approaching a bad guy character from a starting point of zero, from never having jaywalked or littered to doing some of the crazy shit Walter White does’ (I read this quote in Mittell’s chapter, cited above).
Gilligan (unsurprisingly, given that he is the show’s mastermind) identifies here something that gives the programme much of its cumulative power. It turns out to be a double-edged sword, however, because it can also help us to put our finger on some problems with ending the series with a group of villains like Todd, Jack, and Jack’s crew (hereafter ‘the crew’).
Like many of Walt’s former antagonists, the crew appear to have known nothing but a criminal existence for most of their adult lives, at least. However, unlike those other antagonists – I am thinking mainly of Tuco, Hector and Gus – we are given no backstories to invest the characters with a sense of history. This is not just a point about devoting time to developing fleshed-out characters. It is fitting that such development does not occur, given what the crew represent, and how they function. They are given no redeeming characteristics, and what makes them, and Todd especially, peculiarly terrifying, is that criminality and violence seem to be for them not means to other ends, but ends in themselves. Breaking Bad shows us men committing horrible acts in the name of avenging family members and other loved ones, in the pursuit of recognition and self-actualisation, and in the name of trying to protect or provide for one’s family, but never in the sustainedly brutal and dead-eyed way that the crew do. To be sure, all of the crew’s members will have been ‘made the way they are’ by events in their past, but they are neither connected (chained?) to the past nor oriented to the future in the way that most of the series’ other characters are. Money in Breaking Bad is often tantalisingly held out as the opportunity to start a whole new life (even if it does not occur in practice). But it is hard to imagine the crew transforming (that word again) their lives in any significant respect. They are sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, but it does not appear to have affected their lifestyles at all. (It might be worth noting that near the beginning of the final episode we see a pair of people who certainly do know how to make their money work: Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz.) These are a purely death-dealing bunch of men, a monstrous perversion of a family. (This may be one of Breaking Bad‘s more interesting debts to the Western. There is a clear precedent for the crew in, for example, the Clanton family in Ford’s My Darling Clementine.)
Gus was such a perfect foil to Walt because like Walt, as Gus himself observes, he ‘hide[s] in plain sight’. In the character of Gus, Breaking Bad dramatises the thin line between legal and illegal enterprise. The way in which Walt goes about trying to amass a private fortune is not endorsed by the culture he lives in, but the aim itself most certainly is.
In season 5 especially, one can also detect similarities between Walt and his non-criminal antagonist, Hank. Both are not only supremely driven men, but they are also prepared to sacrifice others to their aims. Steve worries about the risks of sending Jesse to Walt in case Walt plans to kill him; Hank dismisses the worry by disregarding the value of the life of a drug-addicted murderer. Hank is also one of a series of men who meets his end as a result of his overwhelming drive to best another man, and do it personally. Hank ends up in the desert with Walt and only minimal back-up because his dogged pursuit of Heisenberg has left him at some distance from the procedures and support of the DEA. If Jesse had gone to Walt wearing a wire and not come up with his own ‘better idea’ for revenge and conviction, he would not have been tortured and enslaved by Todd and the rest of the crew; if Gus had not felt it necessary to go to Hector and gloat, he would not have left himself open to Walt’s attack. This strand continues right until the end. Jack’s pride – his honour code, we might say – dictates that Walt, even though he is about to die, must see and know that Jesse is not his (Jack’s) partner but his slave, thus giving Walt the chance to retrieve the trigger for the weapon that kills the crew.
It would be impertinent to construct one’s own hypothetical ending, and I will not attempt to do so here, but I do think, nevertheless, that we see some dissipation of the show’s central concept in its final three episodes especially. For me, Breaking Bad works best when, along the lines I sketch (inadequately) above, it places Walt’s actions uncomfortably close in some respects to drives that are not only tolerated but endorsed and celebrated: the pursuit of money and recognition, enterprise, prudent economic thinking, rationalised production, giving the consumer the highest-quality version possible of the product that they want… The crew take us to another (ideological) place. For me, this is less satisfying, but I am prepared to acknowledge that perhaps I am imposing my own pattern of coherence upon the series as a whole, a pattern which cannot quite accommodate its final movements. Both Jason Mittell and Jason Jacobs have highlighted the show’s commitment to the creation of a world where bad actions have dire consequences. Taking this step back, it does become easier to see the crew as a capstone to the series.
For the first time in a long time, we are (I would say) unequivocally on Walt’s side once more when he enters the compound to murder the crew. Clearly, this is ‘relative morality’ at work (see, once again, Mittell’s chapter). But should we submit unquestioningly to being given an ending where a man who has committed despicable acts gets to go out in a blaze of glory (and to act as Jesse’s avenging angel to boot), simply because he is (probably) less morally reprehensible than those he kills? Should we count this as sleight of hand? Likewise: it is, on one level, deeply satisfying to see all the loose ends of the story tied up, and for all characters to be left in a place where most viewers would (I would venture) want, or at least expect, to leave them. But again, it is Walt doing the tying up. The mechanics of well-wrought storytelling and the final acts and desires of a villain dovetail here to satisfy our desire for neatness and certainty. Of course, this is nothing that film and television has not done countless times before. But if the ecstatic reception of Breaking Bad is to be taken seriously, then we should hold the programme to the highest standards possible. Should we be satisfied with the invitations to satisfaction we are offered?
I like to end on a grateful note wherever possible, so I will end by talking about Jesse. Aaron Paul is a beautiful gift, who is better at conveying thought and feeling by just looking at other characters than any other actor I can think of. It was not far into the series that I became much more interested in charting Jesse’s development than Walt’s. I have no complaints about Jesse’s trajectory, or his actions in the closing minutes of the programme. In his final exchange with Walt especially, Jesse is shown to negotiate perfectly the possibilities presented to him, making exactly the right choices, and saying exactly the right things. Painful though it is to watch, Jesse’s time spent as the gang’s slave can be seen as a form of purgatory and atonement. When Jesse breaks free from them and from Walt, and breaks through the chain link fence of the compound, there is a genuine sense of exhilaration and freedom. One feels that Jesse has not only escaped his captors and his manipulative would-be father, but that his ordeal may have finally allowed him to come to terms with his guilt. Gilligan chose well by making Jesse the character whose fate appears least-sealed, allowing him to act for the viewer as a much-needed repository of hope.
(Next day update. The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time. Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little. My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening. I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot. Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below. ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right. However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)
What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme). In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed. I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years). On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.
What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack. It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.
I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late. My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon. 2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress). 3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television. 4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons. So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!
Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading. The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met. I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum. I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.
The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire. Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research. He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963! This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time. Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound. Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space. This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!). And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop! When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses). The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.
It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities. Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’. I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts. If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted). Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place. However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective. Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more. That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.
When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode. Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done. I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed. That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt. The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.
To the drawing board…!
…at the end of the ‘in-between’ scene that separates the numbers ‘I’ll Never Tell’ and ‘Rest in Peace’. There are no cuts in the scene. The camera tracks laterally, following Anya, Giles and Xander as they walk along a Sunnydale street, sharing information (and frustration) regarding the musical spell that the town and its residents are under. Whedon artfully modulates our attention: at first the main characters are the main thing we have to look at and listen to, but then, as well as tracking, the camera moves back to allow us to take in some amusing surrounding sights. We see a woman (producer Martin Noxon) protesting her parking ticket, in verse, and three street cleaners in matching boiler suits doing some choreographed broom work. (So much, in fact, is going on around the main characters that we might even miss some of their killer lines, like Giles’s ‘I managed to examine the body while the police were taking witness arias.’)
The characters come to a halt, and the conversation turns to Buffy, who has recently been brought back from the dead, and is behaving despondently and disconnectedly. ‘I’m helping her as much as I can, but uh…’ Giles says, trailing off. Then comes the moment I want to talk about.
In an attempt to comfort the downhearted Giles, Anya pats his shoulder. By this point in the series a regular viewer will have become used to the difficulties that Anya, ex-vengeance demon, has in understanding and participating in some of the more subtle and unspoken human social rituals. Sometimes, as in ‘The Body’, this is used to create pathos; usually, as here, it is used to create comedy. One can see that Anya knows that in situations such as these, one of the things to do is to offer reassurance and comfort to someone by patting their shoulder. The thing is, she is not yet particularly well-practiced in the delivery of the gesture, so its execution is comically mechanical. Emma Caulfield is excellent at delivering such moments. In this instance, Whedon’s framing lends a nice helping hand.
The broom dancers have just exited behind Giles and Xander, leaving the frame, for the first time in the scene (and just as it is about to come to its end) almost still. In the closing moments of the scene, the main motion is provided by Anya’s patting of Giles’s shoulder. This, as well as the fact that we cannot see the face of the person performing it, helps us to focus our attention on the gesture. The communication of the particular quality of the gesture is also supported nicely by the staging and framing. Anya is slightly too far from Giles for the gesture to be comfortable (even if she were more comfortable with it); she is forced to perform it with a straight arm. From our vantage point, we see the arm jutting out slightly awkwardly from behind Anya’s hair and across the frame. Our angle of view also means that the up-and-down motion registers well, and we notice the slightly too-rhythmic quality of the patting, and the way Anya lifts her hand slightly too high above Giles’s shoulder between pats.
It is a delightful grace note to a delightful scene.