liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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DVD Commentary: Cuckoo In the Nest (5/5)

Continued from DVD Commentary: Cuckoo in the Nest, Part 4.

Amazingly, bad luck doesn’t stick around after the kid leaves and life goes on pretty much as it had before. If anything, his luck holds since no one seems to have noticed the kid was around, or rather, no one mentions it. Tony feels he can finally relax. The shadow caught up with him and even touched him on the shoulder, but in the end couldn’t hurt him. He is finally free.

Now that Tony thinks he’s won a final victory against Xander, he can rest easy believing that his past will never catch up to him. It’s a false calm because I wanted that last Xander-shaped trauma to be a real doozy.

It lasts for a year and a day.

I specifically place this part “a year and a day” after Xander’s departure for good from his parents’ lives because that very specific amount of time has numerous mystical and real-world implications.

The real world implication I wanted to allude to in this case was that in medieval times, if a serf ran away and managed to stay free for ‘a year and a day,’ he was considered a free man.

The mystical implication I went with was that in pagan handfastings, a man and a woman can “marry” for “a year and a day” before deciding on a permanent course of action by either walking away from each other with no penalty or recommitting in a permanent marriage.

The timing is very specific. It’s a signal that Xander is now “free” of his parents for good and is no longer under their emotional power. It also signals Xander’s decision to walk away or "divorce" himself from his parents, although unlike Tony and Jessica who had done the same thing to Xander long before now, he’s willing to acknowledge that they’re part of his past. In Xander’s case, his parents’ shadows may be still with him, but he’s not looking over his shoulder to see if they’re going to catch up with him because he’s now accepted the reality of who they are as people and his relationship with them going forward.

I can almost imagine Willow talking both Giles and Xander into waiting a year and a day to deliver Xander’s devastating information to Tony and Jessica because of the implications tied up with that precise amount of time.

Tony is in the kitchen reading the paper when he hears a knock on the front door. Something in him freezes. He doesn’t know why, but he has a feeling there’s bad news on the other side.

“I’ll get it!” Jessica shouts.

Tony wants to tell her to stop. He wants to tell her they should pretend they’re not home and hope that the other person gives up and goes away.

This is fucking stupid, he thinks. It’s just someone at the door. Probably a Jehovah’s Witness or some other loser trying to get them to buy whatever bullshit they’re selling.

There’s a murmur of a male voice exchanging pleasantries with Jessica. Tony heaves a sigh and goes into the living room to see whom Jessica let in.

There’s a distinguished-looking man with glasses just getting seated in a chair. He’s got a file folder in one hand and he seems a little bit at a loss on what to do with it. He finally settles for putting it on his lap as he agrees in a hoity-toity English accent to an offer of a glass of water from Jessica.

“Can I help you Mr…” Tony begins.

The man studies Tony a moment with a frown. “Giles,” he finally answers. “Rupert Giles.”

“Mr. Giles. What can I do for you?” Tony acknowledges with a nod as he tries to place where he’s heard the name before. He decides that he’s probably heard it on one of those PBS things Jessica’s taken to watching.

Mr. Giles leans back and accepts the water glass from Jessica. “I happened to be in the neighborhood. Actually, I was a few towns over on business and I thought I’d drop this off to you.” He indicates the folder in his lap.

I leave it up to the reader to decide whether Giles is telling the truth about how he “just happened to be in the neighborhood” on business, or if he’s there specifically to deliver Xander’s “divorce papers” contained in the file.

“Oh?” Jessica asks as she settles on the couch.

“I’m here on behalf of Xander,” Mr. Giles says.

Xander’s name at long last finally makes an appearance in a statement so short and simple that it’s impossible to miss. He’s no longer just “the kid” in this story, he’s an individual with a name. As I said before, this was originally the second mention of Xander’s name (Anya originally did it first). Now that I’ve dropped the original mention, this is now the first time his name is mentioned.

Also as I said before, waiting until now for the first mention does pack more a wallop, especially given the circumstances and timing of its mention.

Tony drops into a chair. He should’ve known that he wasn’t safe as long as the kid was still alive. He has a sneaking suspicion that the kid is about to bless him with a new run of bad luck. He chances a look at Jessica and he sees that his wife is sitting very still with smile frozen on her face.

Tony very quickly falls back into the mindset that Xander’s his personal adversary with the sole goal of destroying his life.

“How is he?” Jessica asks. “He’s not hurt, or—”

“He’s doing quite well,” Mr. Giles interrupts. He takes a sip from his glass before adding, “In fact, he’s getting married.”

I have no idea who Xander’s getting married to. None. I didn’t pick anyone. You guys can choose whoever you want.

Tony stifles the urge to laugh because he’s already been down this road. Not a chance. The kid’ll run out the second he sees the altar.

“We had no idea. We haven’t heard from him since last year.” Jessica gives Tony a look. “Is…is that why you’re here?”

“Hmmm? What? Oh. No. No not at all,” Mr. Giles says.

“Good,” Tony says. “I ain’t paying for another wedding that’s not going to happen.”

A storm cloud seems to pass in front of Mr. Giles’s glasses. “You aren’t invited.”

Jessica fidgets. Tony feels like he’s been slapped.

Mr. Giles has the decency to sound apologetic when he adds, “Xander simply felt you would have no interest in coming. I was rather under the impression you were estranged.” He waves an elegant hand. “No matter. The date is set for five months from now in London.”

“So…so…the plans may change?” Christ, Jessica sounds so goddamn needy, even though she told the kid to stay away the hell away from them.

Tony is more stung by the insult of not even getting an invitation, not that he particularly wants to get one. Chances are he would’ve found a way to get out of it because, one, he’s got nothing more to say to the kid now that everything’s out in the open and, two, he has no interest in witnessing another fucked-up affair.

Mr. Giles doesn’t answer Jessica’s question, a sure sign that the kid has about much interest in seeing them as Tony does in seeing him. “I am sorry, but I must make this quick. I am rather pressed for time. Business, you understand. I must get to the airport so I can catch my flight to back to London.”

“So why are you here?” Tony asks.

“As I said, I am here on behalf of Xander to deliver this. He felt it best to entrust this delicate matter to someone else rather than deliver the news in person, given how you and he parted company last time you spoke. Since I was going to be in the area, I agreed to fulfill his obligation.” Mr. Giles puts the file folder on the coffee table. For some odd reason, he rests the palm of his hand on its surface, like he doesn’t want to divulge what it says.

In reading this paragraph over, it’s pretty apparent to me that Xander’s motivations for sending this file to his parents through an intermediary is not exactly pure.

To begin with, sending the file is part “fuck both of you” and part letting them know they were wrong. Sending the file to them through an intermediary that neither of his parents know, instead of delivering the news himself, is maybe the clearest message that Xander can send — even more clear than not inviting them to his wedding — that he wants nothing more to do with them. It’s a message and method of delivery that neither Tony nor Jessica can really ignore or gloss over.

So, in short, Xander sends the file through Giles for primarily selfish reasons. I highly doubt that setting his parents’ minds at rest about the identity of his “real father” was really at the top of Xander’s list of objectives.

Of course, even if Xander did try to deliver the news himself, there’s no way for him to know if his parents would even open the door to him, let alone believe anything he said. Giles gives Xander’s findings a force of authority and authenticity with Tony and Jessica that Xander could never achieve on his own, and Xander knows it.

You might say that Xander knows that it’s only in delivering his message through Giles that he’ll finally get the last word. It shows that Xander’s figured out how to break the cycle with his parents. The only way he can finally be heard on any issue is to show contempt for anything they have to say in their defense and literally turn a deaf ear to them. As far as he’s concerned, they have no defense. They had plenty of opportunity to meet him halfway and they blew it multiple times by slapping him away when he tried reaching out to them.

As for Giles’s reluctance to deliver the news, I’m torn between two reasons. One, he knows that delivering it is a somewhat malicious move on Xander’s part; or two, he doesn’t believe that Tony and Jessica deserve that much consideration.

Either way, Giles’s presence says something important about the state of Giles’s and Xander’s relationship. Giles trusts Xander’s judgment, especially on this matter, and thinks that Xander actions and his reasons for taking them are justifiable.

“So what am I looking at?” Tony asks.

“Reports from a DNA test as well as other tests,” Mr. Giles answers shortly. “I do believe you gave him some rather stunning news last year? He wanted to confirm your story. Actually, we ran quite a few tests both scientific and…well, I won’t bore you with the details. To sum up, genetically speaking, Xander is related by blood to both yourself and your wife.”

Giles chooses his words very carefully here. He specifically avoids calling Xander their son.

Jessica’s mouth drops open.

Tony needs to confirm what he just heard. “Are you telling me that he’s my son?”

“He is the fruit of your loins, yes.” Mr. Giles’s voice has just a hint of ice in it.

Giles just basically called Tony “the sperm donor.” Hee!

As Mr. Giles stands, Tony pounces on the file folder and starts riffling through the paperwork. A quick glance tells him that he’s not going to understand half of what he’s looking at, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the conclusions are written in clear English.

Let’s not kid ourselves. What matters to Tony is that he didn’t shoot all blanks. Yes, Tony, you’re really a man. Happy now?

“It appears my duty is discharged, so I’ll bid you good day,” Mr. Giles says in his oh-so-proper accent.

Jessica stands. “I don’t know what to…I’m surprised he didn’t want to tell us in person.”

Mr. Giles gives her a stern look, like he knows exactly what Jessica said to the kid.

Jessica cringes and meekly says, “Thank you for delivering the news.”

“Not at all.” Mr. Giles waves it off, as if he were dismissing Jessica’s thanks. “Xander is an extraordinary man. On more than one occasion I’ve felt blessed that our organization has him on our side. So when he asked me to do this singular favor for him, I was more than happy to oblige since he does so rarely ask for favors.”

Giles is enjoying twisting the knife just a little too much. Yup. Giles knows every single gory detail.

“But black hair…hazel eyes,” Tony stammers.

“Is there no one in your family with dark hair and hazel eyes?” Mr. Giles sounds like he’s just heard the stupidest shit he’s ever heard.

Tony opens his mouth and thinks the better of that answer. He finally allows, “Well, yeah, but he doesn’t actually look like anyone in my family or Jessica’s.”

“So you reached the conclusion you did because he’s not a perfect photocopy of either yourself or your wife or your respective families.” Mr. Giles’s voice sounds diamond hard.

For “diamond hard,” read disbelief. The fact that Tony’s defending himself and his actions based on the fact that Xander’s physical and very human appearance isn’t a carbon copy of himself probably is one of the stupidest things Giles has ever heard.

“I don’t believe it. I’m really the kid’s father,” Tony says with wonder.

There’s a distinct electrical crackle in the room as Mr. Giles stiffens with his hands behind his back. “I said he was your son. I never said that you were his father.”

A couple of people speculated that Giles cast a spell here and that this spell is what allowed Willow to get to Tony. In actuality, I was trying to paint a picture of Giles’s spike of fury at Tony’s statement and underline the harshness Giles’s correction.

Tony steps back from Mr. Giles’s barely concealed rage and wonders what tall tales the kid has been whispering about his old man. “It’s the same thing,” Tony defiantly points out.

Mr. Giles slumps slightly at that. “Yes, I suppose in your mind that it is.”

Tony’s missed Giles’s point by a mile, and Giles finally gets a real-life glimpse at what Xander’s put up with for years.


This section had what I call “a three bears” reaction. Some people completely missed that “adult Xander” was really Willow. Some people thought I was too in-your-face in revealing that it was Willow and thought I should’ve let the dialogue carry it. Some people thought the balance was just right. Because of this “three bears” reaction, I ended up leaving this section as-is.

This closing part is where Tony gets his Hawthornian snapshot, although unlike Xander and Jessica, he ultimately brought it on himself after a lifetime of bad faith and behavior. While Xander’s and Jessica’s Hawthornian moments read as something that would fit very tightly in with Buffy canon because their experiences were so random, Tony’s moment (I’d like to believe) is drawn more directly from Hawthrone. It’s not a random moment of a normal man brushing up against the supernatural, this is a moment that’s a deliberate punishment that perfectly fits his individual personality and crimes.  

The week since Mr. Giles dumped the folder on him life has been hell. He’s been fighting some flu-like bug and hasn’t been able to get out of bed. Jessica and him have been fighting non-stop. Oh, she won’t go anywhere, because of that “’til death” promise, but that doesn’t mean she won’t make his life a living hell.

Tony’s life falls to shit again, thanks to his Xander-shaped defeat. This is a case of self-sabotage, pure and simple.

Plus, there’ve been dreams. Wait. No. Dreams are the wrong word. He keeps seeing snapshots whenever he closes his eyes and every image is a picture of the kid at various ages.

I came very close to letting Tony “say” Xander’s name for this last part, or at least think of Xander as “Xander” instead of “the kid.” I even initially wrote it that way. I decided as close to the last minute as I could get to change it back. It would be out of character for the Cuckoo version of Tony to change his way of thinking after a lifetime of thinking about Xander in a very specific way.

Besides, there’s something sad about the fact that no matter what Xander does, he’ll always be “the kid” in Tony’s mind.

He thinks he might be going a little crazy.

This is an echo of the spell Amy hit Willow with in S7’s ‘The Killer in Me.’ The mental state of the target — provided they feel a semblance of guilt about their actions — deteriorates to the point where they actually do go crazy. In that spell, the “punishment” for the targeted individual is tailor-made. Willow took on the personality of fellow-murderer and her victim Warren. Tony gets to see his life in snapshots, but only through the prism of Xander’s childhood.

Today was the first day he made it to his dry cleaners since the folder came into his life, but he could barely put in a full day. He left early and found himself wandering around town until landing in front of a cash register at a liquor store with a bottle of Wild Turkey clutched in his sweating hand.

Tony knows he shouldn’t have taken it home. He knows that. But he needs to prove he’s got control over something in his life and not taking a drink while the bottle’s on the table in front of him is the ultimate test.

This is a common thing for people to do after they break free from an addition. Sometimes when life gets just a little too much, they’ll get a “sample” of the thing they were addicted to and dare themselves not to use it. It happens with everything from cigarettes to alcohol to illegal drugs. Think of it as playing chicken with yourself.

It should be stressed here: once again Tony’s dancing perilously to sabotaging himself on a massive level by buying a bottle of his favorite poison (Wild Turkey). As Willow points out in the middle of this part, she (and the spell) aren’t compelling him to buy the bottle or play chicken with it. He’s doing it all on his own.

At the same time, you can say that Xander’s file and Willow’s spell combined have triggered Tony to do this. Xander just yanked the rug out from under his feet by shattering Tony’s life-long belief that Xander wasn’t his son. Willow’s magically enhanced guilt-tripping is rubbing the salt in the wound.

It’s kind of an interesting question to consider: Tony buys the bottle of his own free will without any prompting from Xander or Willow. Yet, Xander’s and Willow’s separate actions have the unintended consequence of pushing Tony in that direction. Just how culpable are they if Tony takes that first drink and slides right back down a familiar road? And if they are, is Willow more culpable than Xander because she uses the situation to her own advantage? Or is Xander more culpable for inadvertently giving Willow the opening to punish Tony?

I just find it an interesting ethical question, that’s all.

Jessica took one look at him sitting in the kitchen with the unopened Wild Turkey, let out a squeak, and ran out of the house. The phone started ringing nonstop after that. It got to the point that the constant shrillness was giving him a headache, so he went through the house and shut off all the ringers on all the phones.

I’m not entirely sure if the ringing telephones are a side-effect of Willow’s spell, or if Jessica ran to Tony’s AA sponsor and they’re trying to reach him over the phone. I tend to fall on the side of it being a side-effect of Willow’s spell, since Tony doesn’t hear anyone knocking on the door to get him to leave the house.

Now it’s just him and the kids. That’s right. Kids. Plural.

He was alone when he left to shut off the phones, but when he gets back into the kitchen there is a fucking crowd in there and every face looks like different versions of the kid through the years. As he takes his seat at the table right in front of the bottle, he can feel his headache settle behind his eyes.

There’s the kid at eight with his cheap and easy smile. There’s the fidgety 12-year-old as he fumbles with his bat and uncomfortably picks at his uniform. There’s the sullen son of a bitch at 16. There’s another version with a cast on his arm standing next to a version with bruises around his neck. There’s the defeated 18-year-old who finally figured out that life was not a free ride. There’s the drunk, bloated fatso of 21. There’s the kid wearing his pirate’s eye patch at 22. They’re not the only versions, but they’re the ones who stand out.

All of the versions of Xander specifically mentioned in the above paragraph are the same versions of Xander that appear in the story. I also stressed that these aren’t the only versions that appear, but only that they’re the versions that Tony really notices on an individual basis.

And then there’s the kid as he looked a year ago sitting across the table. Of all the versions in the room, this one is the only one who seems actually real. All the others flit through the kitchen like ghosts as they wander and circle from one side of the room to the other. Sometimes they walk through a door; sometimes they walk through a wall as if it’s a door. One of them, Tony swears to god, walks right into the refrigerator and never comes back out.

I wanted to stress that Tony may be surrounded by Xanders, but only one of them has a physical presence.

The one sitting across the table doesn’t move, though. He just sits there looking much more solid than the others. He’s surrounded by dark shadows, like he’s bringing the bad luck back with him, like he’s just itching to dump it at Tony’s feet and make him live with it until it destroys him once and for all.

This paragraph sets “adult Xander” up as an adversary in the Hawthornian sense. The adversary isn’t necessarily evil, but he/she does pose a threat to the protagonist and for that reason is a figure of dread. The adversary’s job is test the protagonist as well as call the protagonist to account for his crimes.

As I pointed out earlier, in order to get Tony to believe in “adult Xander’s” adversarial role, by the time this incident happens he has to actually believe that Xander’s capable of not just hurting him, but also of utterly defeating him. Tony begins to believe that Xander could score a victory over him in the hotel room scene that takes place immediately after ‘Chosen.’ It isn’t until Tony actually has something he believes is worth losing — as in the “peaceful interlude” scene just prior to the last Xander-Tony confrontation — that Xander becomes “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

Tony’s and Jessica’s combined success in driving Xander away once and for all by rejecting him outright as their son earned them only a temporary reprieve, one that was good enough to give them both a false sense of security. When Giles delivers Xander’s message to them, Tony is forced to confront just exactly what he’s done over the years to the man that he now knows to be his son.

Under these conditions, it’s not hard for Tony to revert back to the idea that Xander is his personal adversary who wants to destroy him for good. 

“What do you want?” Tony finally asks. “Can’t you just leave me in peace?”

The kid doesn’t say anything. Tony’s a little thrown off because the eyes aren’t hazel, but coal black, so black that he can’t even see the whites around the iris. She doesn’t even fucking blink. Wait…no…not she. Him. While he sometimes thought the kid just might be a fag when he was hanging with that bleached blonde leather guy, he always looked solidly male.

There’s a common folkloric belief that the insane can only see and only speak the truth. It’s something that’s commonly used in supernatural and genre fiction. It isn’t that Willow’s spell is wavering, it’s Tony teetering on the edge of sanity. He’s not completely over the edge, but he’s close enough that sometimes he sees “Xander” as “Xander” and sometimes he sees “Xander” as “Willow.”

“I’m not scared of you, you know,” Tony says.

She…no he…raises his eyebrows at that and there’s even a slight snicker. This one can talk, apparently. All the other ghosts are silent.

The other ghosts are completely silent because they have been silenced by Tony’s bullying over the years. Think of them as the evidence of Tony’s past bad acts. It isn’t until Xander reaches adulthood that he’s finally able to be heard by his parents. It’s only fitting that “adult Xander” (or Willow, if you prefer) is the only person who’s capable of speaking for them.

The 8-year-old tumbles out of his corner to the real-looking version of the kid and smiles up at him. The real-looking kid looks down and a smile explodes across his face. The smile dosen’t look right, Tony thinks. It’s got the full on happy in it, but it seems like it doesn’t quite match up with the bright, bright, bright smile on the younger version of the kid. The 8-year-old version glances at Tony and the smile disappears so quickly that Tony can feel the stab in his gut. The kid snuggles a little closer to the older version, as if seeking comfort.

The older version’s gaze moves from the younger version of himself and the black eyes hone right in on Tony with the silent menace. There’s a storm building on the older kid’s face and Tony figures that when it explodes, he might not survive the experience.

The 8-year-old flits away, walks through the stove, and disappears god knows where.

The above three paragraphys what I call the “full circle” paragraphs. The story opens with 8-year-old Xander and his “bright, bright, bright” smile. A ghostly version re-appears with that same smile. In both instances, Tony feels “a stab in his gut” when the smile is lost.

The difference between the beginning of the story and the end is this: in the first section, Tony can’t help himself. He acts by saying cruel things to 8-year-old Xander to wipe the smile off his face, even though he can feel its loss. In this last part, Tony’s mere presence is enough to remove the smile from the ghostly 8-year-old Xander’s face.

Tony thinks he should walk away from this. He should get up and leave the kitchen right now. Except he’s not so sure that the oldest edition of the kid won’t follow him from room to room, won’t follow him to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to see him dead.

“Leave me alone,” Tony pleads. “Just leave me alone. What do you want from me? I didn’t know.”

The kid leans back in his chair as younger versions flit around him, but still says nothing. All he gets in response is a cold smile, like the kid’s waiting for something.

“You have no right to judge me,” Tony says. “No right at all. I’d like to see what you’d do if you were in my place. I guarantee you’d be no better. No. Wait. You’d be worse because you got a track record. That’s right. If you were in my shoes, you would’ve dumped your mother’s ass because loyalty means shit to you. That wedding of yours? Isn’t going to last. You have no idea what ’til death means.”

For a moment there’s a slight ripple and Tony swears the kid looks like a red-haired woman for a brief moment. When reality re-asserts itself, the kid looks more solid than he did before.

One or two people called me on the rippling effect in Willow’s Xander-shaped glamour that allows Tony to temporarily see her true self. Their reasoning was that because Willow is a very powerful witch, it shouldn’t happen at all.

The reason why Willow’s spell ripples is because of Tony’s primary charge that Xander is not only “no better” than he is, “but worse,” as well as the secondary charge that “loyalty means shit” to Xander. It pisses her off so much that it momentarily affects her concentration.

“You’re nothing but trouble, always was,” Tony says. “The day you were born you brought me bad luck. Well, I’m not letting you get away with it this time.”

“Seems to me you made your own bad luck.”

Tony jumps because he didn’t expect the kid to speak.

“Yeah, well, you seem to impose your shitty luck on me,” Tony argues back. He’s not going to let the kid get the better of him. Tony waves at the bottle and says, “This is all your fault. If you were anything resembling what my son should be, this never would’ve happened.”

“Did I? I made you buy that bottle? Is that what you’re saying?” The kid’s voice is odd. It sounds like him, yet it has some higher-pitched echo behind it that Tony can’t quite catch.

This is the paragraph where Willow/“Adult Xander” tells Tony that no one is forcing him to do a damn thing. Just as all of his decisions leading up to this point were taken of his own free will, everything that Tony does during this moment, and everything that Tony does after this moment will also be done of his own free will.

Think of it as telling Tony the rules of “the game.”

The first and most important rule is simple: Tony has the absolute right to walk away at any time.

“Oh, no. No. I’m not giving you that much power,” Tony says as leans back with a grin.

“But you just said I made you buy the bottle.”

Tony grimaces.

“I never made you do anything. I never made you buy any bottle. Never made you drink. Never made you fight or hold a grudge. You did that all by yourself. I was just your personal scapegoat-type person because better to blame someone than blame the person who deserved it.”

Willow again reminds Tony that he’s got complete free will. Then, like the Hawthornian adversary she is, she reads out the primary charge against Tony: he has never accepted the blame for anything he’s done wrong.

“And I deserved it?” Tony asks with a derisive snort. “Tell you what. Live my life for one fucking day, just one day when I had to put up with your teenage bullshit, and then we’ll talk about who deserves what around here.”

The kid leans forward and rests a chin in his hand. “I’ll make you a deal, dad. We’re going to sit here all night with that bottle just right there. If you don’t do anything with it, if you don’t open it and take that drink you want, I’ll leave you alone for good. What do you say to that?”

“That’s it?” Tony asks. He’s not sure whether he believes the kid.

The kid spreads his hands, those coal-black eyes shining with angry amusement. “That’s it. You and me will sit here until dawn and then it’s over.” The kid leans back in his chair. The dim kitchen light over the sink seems to bring out hidden red highlights in his black hair. “Think you can do it?”

Now the adversary proposes the “test” of the protagonist’s character. The test, as it always is in any Hawthornian scenario, heavily stacks the deck in the adversary’s favor. The test is designed to ensure that the protagonist loses because it so perfectly exploits the protagonist’s primary weakness, such as vanity, pride, or greed.

Because the protagonist has such a slim chance of success in Hawthorne’s short stories, Hawthorne generally proposes three possible outcomes to any test. At least two of those outcomes will let the protagonist escape from his predicament.  

In the first outcome, the protagonist can exercise his free will, admit defeat without even trying, and walk away with no penalty. If the protagonist does this, it’s a sign that he’s starting to change and is taking a step understanding himself and his own weaknesses. However, Hawthorne’s protagonists rarely exercise this option, even when the adversary actively encourages them, sometimes even going so far as to beg them, to take this option and just Walk. Away.

In the second outcome, the protagonist undergoes the test and meets the requirements for victory. Success means that protagonist truly has changed and has already accepted his guilt. Rare is the Hawthornian protagonist who manages this feat because, again, the test is always designed to set the protagonist up for crashing failure.

In the third outcome, the protagonist undergoes the test and fails. This indicates that not only has the protagonist not truly changed, he has refused to accept that he’s done anything wrong to merit punishment. The punishment for failure is both life-long and draws out the absolutely worst characteristics of protagonist.

Even though Willow is merely taking advantage of the fact that Tony had the bad luck to buy a bottle of his favorite poison (Wild Turkey) just before her arrival, her test is not only clever, it’s beautiful in its simplicity and the perfect fit for Tony.

Willow’s rules for the test:

1. You’ve got free will.

2. You’re a recovering alcoholic who’s just bought a bottle of his favorite booze.

3.  The bottle is sitting on the table right in front of us anyway.

4.  If you can go through the whole night without drinking from it, I go away for good, you never see Willow/Xander again, and you’re a free ma

Tony defiantly stares back. It’s 10 now, so yeah, he can do this until six. Not a problem.

The kid sits still in his chair and waits like he’s got all the time in the world; like he’s already won the battle of the bottle.

Remember, according to Hawthorne’s rules, the test is stacked against Tony. It’s designed to encourage his failure.

The silence gets to Tony and he says, “You never said why you were doing this to me.”

“I’m not doing anything to you. It’s actually funny, not funny ha-ha, but funny hunh. See? I wouldn’t be able to get near you if on some level you didn’t think you deserved this. It’s a karma thing. You do everything to you and I get to watch. Best of all, I don’t have to live with it coming back on me three times because I’m not actually doing anything to you. I really need to thank Amy if I ever see her again. It’s a neat-o idea.”  

This is my way of stating outright that Willow based her dastardly plan on what Amy did to her during ‘The Killer in Me.’ Amy specifically says in ‘The Killer in Me’ that the spell only works if the target believes they’ve done wrong and allows the target’s subconscious to chose the method of punishment. As a result, the blowback on the spell-caster is minimal, if there’s any blowback at all. In short, aside from the initial mystical “nudge,” Willow hasn’t done a damn thing. Tony is doing it all by himself.  

Willow may want Tony to pay, but at the same time she wants to limit the potential fall-out for not just herself, but Xander as well. Aside from the use of this particular spell, she reminds Tony several times that he’s got free will and proposes a test — albeit a test that is horrendously difficult to pass — where two of the three possible outcomes will end the spell and set Tony free.

Tony doesn’t understand half of what she…no, he…has said, but it doesn’t stop him from accusing the kid with, “You little bastard.”

“Except I’m not, which now you know.” The kid gives him a careless shrug. “Hey, don’t get mad at me. It’s your brain. Besides, are you even sure this is real?”

Tony glances around the room at all the intangible versions of the kid wandering through. Some of them stop and look at him, but Tony’s not sure if they see him as he is now, or if they’re looking at a Tony who once was. He can’t even answer the kid’s question. Of course it’s not real, that much is obvious, but it feels more real than anything he’s felt in his life.

The kid says, “It’s a wedding present. Although I’m pretty sure Xa— I mean certain people might be really, really upset with me if they found out I was here because they don’t think you’re worth the effort.”

I needed to get across that Willow is doing this completely on her own and without Xander’s knowledge. This is another step Willow took to make sure that Xander doesn’t suffer the fallout from her night’s work with Tony.

I also needed to get across the message that Xander really has washed his hands of his parents.  What happens to them, and whatever they choose to do, is no longer his concern.

The only reason why Xander would be upset with Willow for doing what she’s doing is because he’d be worried that Willow would have to mystically pay for the spell she put on Tony. In Xander’s world, Willow is part of his “real family” and his real family should not have to suffer even a moment’s discomfort over Tony

“Not worth the effort?” Tony chokes. “Why you little—”

“But me? I think this is very much worth the effort,” the kid interrupts him with nasty smile. “When you fail, and I know you will, it’s proof that you were just making excuses for every bottle, for every drunk temper tantrum, for every nasty thing you did. Because your life didn’t go exactly according to your big plans, you had to blame someone and who better than someone who at first couldn’t fight back and then wouldn’t fight back? So, dad, surprise me. For once in your life, try not to be Mr. Disappoint-y. For once in your life, don’t pick up the bottle because things aren’t going your way.”

A few people thought this paragraph was a little over the top in driving the point home. But, if you’re going to go with 19th century New England literary conceits, go all the way, says I. That means you’ve gotta state the moral lesson.

Under the rules of Hawthorne’s adversary, Willow has to give Tony a complete list of his crimes so he clearly understands how he got into this predicament and can actually answer for his actions.

Also notice in the above paragraph, Willow restates the rules of the test (don’t drink the alcohol). Furthermore, she warns Tony that she thinks he’s going to fail because she believes, no matter what Tony thinks, that “Tony Harris in Arizona” is no different than “Tony Harris in California.” If “Tony Harris in California” is the man taking this test, he’s going to fail and fail badly. If “Tony Harris in Arizona” is truly a different man — or at least different enough from Tony Harris in California — he’ll pass. 

Tony glares back and refuses to say anything more to the kid. He could walk away from the challenge and he knows it. There’s nothing holding him in place and no one’s forcing him to do this, but he’s not going to give the kid the satisfaction.

This is important to note: Tony knows that he can walk away at any time. He refuses to do so not just because he doesn’t want to admit defeat, but also because he doesn’t want “Xander” to “win.”

So the two of them stare at each other across the table as the ghosts flit around them. The kid’s strange black eyes don’t blink, don’t waver once from Tony’s face, even when the younger versions walk through the table between them.

Tony can feel his eyes drying out with the effort to stare back. Sometimes he has to look at the bottle if only to get some relief from those black eyes. Sometimes he looks at the bottle because he swears that he sees a red-haired woman instead of the kid. His hands are itchy and he can feel a bead of sweat rolling down between his shoulder blades. His throat feels like it wants to close he’s so thirsty and he desperately needs to take a piss.

But he’s not going to let the kid win. Not this time. Not again.

Tony’s fingers tap nervously on the table.

He’s not going to let him win.

Tony picks up the bottle and puts it down, still unopened, and checks the clock.

He’s got six hours to go.

He can do this. He can.

The kid’s not going to get to him.

He means it this time.

He does.

So does Tony pass the test? Does he concede defeat and walk away? Does he fail miserably? I honestly don’t know the answer. I didn’t know it at the time I wrote it, and I still don’t know the answer almost a year-and-a-half later. All I can tell you for sure is that answering those questions really doesn’t matter.

Tony’s not going to escape his “Hawthornian snapshot” unchanged. Even if Tony passes the test or walks away from it — both signs that he’s truly changed or is starting to change — Tony still loses.

Tony has already lost his only child through his own selfish actions. Since passing or walking away means that he’s either accepted or is starting to accept his guilt, he’ll finally eventually realize just exactly what it is he has done, not just to Jessica and Xander, but also to himself.

Then he’ll have to live the rest of his life with that knowledge. Is there really any worse punishment than that?


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