And sunnyd_lite wrote a drabble for me. Awwwwww. Thank you!
Anyway, mad props to ponderslife for lending me the S6 BtVS set. I know I could always go to the Buffy Dialogue Database to get what I needed, but I tend to think things through visually to a certain extent, so I had to see how actors played the lines.
So, I plopped myself on the couch and watched through Hell's Bells, Normal Again, Entropy, and Seeing Red because I needed to get some points exactly right for the next part.
I think I remember why I was throwing things at my television set through most of S6.
And I tend to write post-Chosen BtVS. What am I? Nuts?
Don't answer that.
The sad thing is, I think this run of episodes in S6 was among the best in an otherwise really crappy season. Certainly, Normal Again is probably one of the best episodes in both S6 and S7.
Intellectually, I can see where ME was trying to go, I just don't think they pulled it off well at all. I've always maintained that the major problem with S6 and S7 wasn't so much the general themes and ideas, but came down to bad storytelling, pure and simple.
Now, I get that they wanted to challenge storytelling conventions in S6. If you're doing it for one episode, it can work very well and be interesting. For example, in The Wish, your protagonist (Cordelia) literally dies half-way into the episode and it ends with none of the people involved ever-the-wiser or having learned a lesson because none of them (with the exception of Anya) remembers what happened. I think it works very well in the case of Normal Again. I think it works very well in Conversations With Dead People.
However, challenging story conventions for an entire season, IMHO, doesn't work, especially when ME tried to have it both ways.
The entire season tossed out all the elements that make a darker storyline acceptable. For example, someone among your cast of main characters needs to be sane and happy for contrast against all that darkness. Someone in your cast of characters needs to be actually likeable so your audience has someone to root for. Your title character can suffer, but dragging her through the mud and leaving her there to the point where people think bad things should happen to the hero so she can "learn her lesson" is a huge no-no.
Yet after tossing storytelling conventions out the window, ME gives us a "traditional" ending to a "non-traditional" storyline. Happy endings: Giles and Buffy reconnect, Xander saves the day, apocalypse avoided, Willow returns to the side of the light, Anya seems to be willing to help fight the good fight, Buffy reconnects with her sister and life. We even get the traditional cliffhanger with Spike. The only sour note is Dead St. Tara of the Roses, who (like Xander in S7) was used as nothing more than a plot point to push other characters' storylines foreward.
There is a reason why storytelling conventions have held for thousands of years. Whether you're looking at comedies or tragedies, certain elements need to be in place if you're going to hold your audience (and BtVS did not do that: witness the ratings sink like a rock). Don't give me that bullshit about traditionalism and narrow-minded thinking. A good story has structure in it that makes use of all the traditional elements in various ways. Just because a story on the surface might look different or appear to be challenging those basic conventions, dig beneath the surface and reconstruct the basic plot elements, you'd be shocked how many well-loved stories and classics, the ones that are remembered for centuries, adhere to the bones despite unconventional presentation.
I know Joss Whedon has said that he wanted S6 and the ending of S7 to "ape" real life. Okay. Great. One problem: people do not get involved with stories because they want that close a reflection of "real life." There's something in the human psyche that wants, no demands, that stories have at minum a beginning, a middle, and an end.
JMS, oh great man of Babylon 5 fame, had the right idea. Babylon 5 did end with the "life goes on" element, but at the same time the major storylines and the characters involved also had an "endpoint." An open-ended endpoint where you knew they would go on with their lives and do other things, but the storylines that we invested five years in were resolved. JMS himself pointed out that if he didn't do it, the audience would have every right to feel cheated.
Certainly other shows have done the same, such as Deep Space Nine, which had an incredibly open-ended ending while still resolving all the storylines. Even "lesser" shows have pulled it off. Yet the ending of BtVS left a bad taste in my mouth because there was no coda, no actual end. It just hung there and left me going, "Yeah? And?"
If there was a tomorrow for these characters, you could live with that ending. Since there wasn't a tomorrow for these characters, the utter failure to resolve the mysteries of S7, which we were somewhat led to believe were rooted in S6, felt like a cheat.
[Side note: S7 was just incompetently put together, so I don't think anyone on the ME staff was looking logically at story elements within single episodes, let alone along a season-long story arc, so we'll not discuss S7 any further here.]
So, what does this overall rant about good storytelling have to do with the run of episodes between Hell's Bells through Seeing Red?
In my mind, this run of episodes (which to an extent was Xander's mini-arc in S6) perfectly encapsulates the problems with S6. Hell's Bells in particular manages to highlight all of S6's weaknesses.
Anyone who was aware of Xander's background prior to S6 could see the marriage to Anya was going to pose problems whether he went through with it or not. He comes from an alcoholic household, his parents are prone to fits of violence as evidenced by sounds of fighting and breaking things in previous episodes, and he literally has no mental blueprint for what makes a healthy relationship, let alone a good one. Yet, there were an awful lot of people who seemed utterly unaware of this family background. Granted, it was never in-your-face (with several exceptions) and it was certainly almost never directly addressed (except in Restless), but it was present.
What was needed was some in-your-face reminder that Xander wasn't just battling his own cold feet, but his family background. All that was needed was maybe two five-minute scenes: one where you see Anya and Xander interacting with his parents while they were drunk and fighting; maybe a second scene where a sober Xander repeats a nasty comment from that earlier fight and a look of concern on his face as he realizes he said it. Boom. Suddenly that nightmare vision has context, rather than seemingly coming from out of the blue like it did for some fans. The fact is that nightmare scenario was grounded in that character's subjective reality and from his point-of-view it was a frighteningly real possibility, yet S6 did nothing to remind the viewers of that fact.
The other thing that truly bothered me is that ME literally laid the blame at Xander's feet for the wedding not happening, a blame that got carried over into S7 to the point where all the other characters viewed Xander as the asshat on this matter. It's no wonder why fans followed ME's lead on this.
However: Xander was attacked by one of Anya's victims. Now, granted, Stuart Burns was a jerk and a playa. But getting turned into a demon and sent to a hell dimension because he dicked around? Really, that's a little over-the-top for revenge. No wonder why Stuart was pissed. Xander literally got caught in the crossfire.
Here's the thing: There is no indication anywhere in S6 that anyone other than Anya new the truth about the demon that planted the visions in Xander's head and then attacked her. I can't find anyone saying anything about the fact that Stuart was a victim of Anya.
Which means: Everyone (except Anya) thought it was a random demon attack. All Buffy sees is a demon laying the smack-down on Anya. All Xander knows is that a demon planted visions in his head. They kill the demon, who does not bother to tell them why he was there. Anya, it appears, kept her mouth shut.
Now, don't get me wrong. Going by the episodes reviewed, Xander wasn't exactly sharing his pain either.
Willow, Dawn, and Buffy seem utterly unaware that Xander was attacked. They don't make any mention of false visions. As far as they know, Xander took off just before the ceremony, returned just in time to see Buffy fighting the demon, he stepped in and killed it, and then he takes off again. Xander doesn't tell them why he ran. All he says is that he wasn't ready to get married.
Once again, who's the only one (other than Xander) that seems to know he had nightmare visions planted in his head? That's right. Anya. And she knows only because Stuart Burns told her that he did it. What's even more interesting is that Stuart plays it down (probably to twist the knife) by saying, "That's all it took," implying that Xander was a straight-up coward jumping at shadows rather than someone who may have fears that are too grounded in reality. Now it could be that Stuart didn't know the nature of the visions, but the dismissive tone in which this news is delivered to Anya is designed to lead her (and to an extent, the audience) into painting Xander yellow.
Now, I'm not saying that Xander was an example of bravery and maturity here, but I think his reaction was understandable. After all, he just lived (not watched, lived) through himself turn into his father, his marriage becoming a sham, his daughter clearly the product of an affair, capped by him beating Anya (and possibly killing her) with a frying pan.
The first thing he asked when he snapped out of it? "Is she all right?"
So at the very least the reasons for him running may have something to do with protecting Anya from himself.
The real kicker here is this: Anya knows that Stuart was one of her victims looking for revenge. Anya knows that Xander got caught in the crossfire. Anya knows he was subjected to nightmare visions. Anya can see he's freaking out (she keeps telling him to calm down).
And she wants to march down the aisle right that second.
True, she had no idea what Xander saw, only that Stuart told her they were false. And Xander didn't even try to explain.
Yet, Xander is the bad guy, 100% completely at fault. All the sympathy is reserved for Anya, not just among the characters, but (going by the way this run of episodes is presented) among the writers as well. The truly annoying thing is that even when Xander and Anya finally broach the subject in S7, Xander insists he ran because he didn't think they were ready and doesn't spill about the visions (in character), but Anya never acknowledges that she bore a significant portion of the blame for the wedding not happening.
It's no wonder that fans followed right along that path. Xander kept getting blamed by writers and viewers, even though he was just about the only character in S6 who took responsibility (or at least tried) for his personal bad acts. He attempted to apologize in Entropy. He took the blame all on himself by simply stating that he wasn't ready to get married without explaining that there might be extenuating circumstances. He didn't once try to excuse his bad behavior.
Okay, can someone again tell me why Xander's 100% at fault and the bad guy here?
So, here we have it: all the beady eyes are pointed at Xander as the asshat.
What's the first thing Anya does? Goes back to vengence and tries to get him killed.
Yes, he left you at the altar, Anya. Key his car. Run up his credit card bills. Sue him for breach of contract. Make his life miserable.
But murder? And trying to get his friends to wish it on him?
If the sexes were reversed and Anya was the guy and Xander was the girl, I can almost guarantee you that this segment would not have been played for laughs. If Anya left Xander at the altar and Xander attempted a spell to get even, there would've been howls from here to the hills. Yet, the writers make their excuses for Anya by playing the attempts to get him killed up for laughs rather than as a potentially serious threat to Xander that it actually was.
In short: we're literally told to sympathize with Anya even though it seems to me that Xander got the brunt of the abuse.
If this were fanfic, this would be called "character bashing."
Now, to be fair, Xander wasn't the only one getting bashed. Buffy suffered repeated beatings to the head through S6 (and S7...grrrrrrr). Dawn was beaten up pretty severely (as MT pointed out in an interview, every year Dawn seemed to regress to a younger age and it drove her nuts). Willow was made to look bad (I don't think the writing was nearly as bash-y as in the case of Buffy and Xander).
It's no wonder Spike looked good by comparison, even though I thought his character was positively horrendous and a perfect example of what was wrong with S6 and S7. Because all the other characters were behaving so badly, Spike's multitude of sins were not only unremarkable, but made too look like no big deal. End result? ME decided to "remind" us that Spike was evil by handing us that lovely attempted rape in Seeing Red (a whole other rant for another day).
[Note: Up until Crush, Spike was my second favorite character after Xander. My love dropped with the stalker storyline, but I was willing to give Spike a chance in S6. Let's just say I had full-bore Spike-hate by the end of the Wrecked that remained unabated through the end of Chosen. S5 AtS redeemed him somewhat in my eyes since he was acting like Spike again, but he still remains third on my list of characters I'd like to shoot into the sun, right after Dawn and Andrew.]
Another thing that bothered me: Xander's mum, Jessica. In previous episodes, we are led to believe that Jessica was an alcoholic who gave as good as she got. We're told over and over again (by Xander himself) that both his parents are monsters. He dislikes them to such an extent, that he'd rather give Willow's mother a hug after Joyce dies.
Yet, in Hell's Bells, Jessica is a poor widdle wamb whose victimized constantly by her husband. She doesn't take so much as a sip of alcohol. The last view we have of them is Tony looming over Jessica and yelling at her while she sits in her chair and attempts to defend herself.
I can only blame the "all men are jerks" attitudes about S6 for this little travesty in canon-breaking. A minor one, all things considered, but still grating. All the male characters got nailed by this wonderful thing: Xander, Spike, and Giles (sob!) were literally written out of character to drive this point home. The Tony-Jessica dynamic is just a microcosm of what happened to all of the major male characters in the BtVS cast in S6.
The killer is this: the women go along with it.
*hits characters with a cluestick*
Hey! Guys! How long have you known Xander? Has he ever physically run away from anything, no matter how bad? Emotional avoidance, oh yeah. He's big on that, people. Not admitting to problems? You can bet your life on that. But running the fuck away, leaving town, and not keeping in touch?
Hello, McFly! Hellooooooooooo! That should've been your first clue that there was something seriously fucked up going on.
Essentially, all of the (non-Xander) characters were written deliberately obtuse or just out-and-out dishonest.
Okay, I can see Buffy. Suffering from PTSD, depressed, brain's not really here. Plus, she was a little too invested in the wedding. When her lovelife goes to shit, she tended to live vicariously through Xander's and Anya's "perfect" relationship. Happened in Triangle where she declares that Xander and Anya have a "perfect, undying love," so Buffy's attitude about the wedding had some basis in the past. As someone who got whiplashed by the sudden implosion of "perfect relationships" among her friends, I can actually see where Buffy might be on the clueless side.
Can also see Willow, because she was incredibly self-centered during this time period between "magic addiction" (another rant for another time) and her obsessing over Tara.
Spike...well...Spike doesn't give a flying fuck about Xander, so that was in character as well. Plus, him taunting Xander about it just get Xander upset was also perfectly in character.
But, helloooooooo! Dawn? Dawnie? You'd think as the only character not going through major trauma that you might, just might, spare a little sympathy for Xander over this (which, by the way, you never did)? Maybe even point out, "Hey, guys! I'm thinking something more is going on here?" You're a smart girl. Hell, ME kept telling us you were a smart girl since one of the key problems flagged in your school was falling grades. Think you might use that brainpower to think about your friends and family? Just saying, chica.
Maybe St. Tara of the Roses might've said something, because, hey! She was in the wedding party! Nice of you to pay back Xander for threatening to feed your brother his teeth if he laid a hand on you back in Family.
And Anya...well, Anya had loads of reasons not to talk. And let's face it, all that sympathy for her might've dimmed if she came clean about the mess. Rather than take responsibility for her part (which she never once did in S6 and S7), she marches right back into vengence, the very thing that resulted in her messed up life in the first place.
Way to go Anya! You perfect example of victimized womanhood you!
*pant, pant, pant*
That said, I actually did notice something kind of interesting in the episode, one that has gone completely unremarked in any summary I can see and it all almost comes down to how certain scenes were played.
I remember at the time it aired that people were decrying Xander for being an idiot for falling for Stuart's ruse since the blue-eyed actor didn't even look anything like hazel-eyed NB who practically towered over the guy. Those of us who were defending the guy were blaming the writers for bad writing and bad casting. I seem to recall my paticular whine that they should've either fitted NB or his twin brother with prosthetic make up to make them look old if they wanted us to believe that Xander had reason to fall for for the con.
Then again, none of Xander's family looked related to him--hell, Jessica looked like she might be Willow's mother--nor did Tony look like he did in Restless, so the bad casting accusation had some grounding in fact. This disparity, by the way, has left us with a legacy of "Xander's real father" stories, so thanks a whole fucking lot ME. (That's not to say I don't find some of them clever. I'm getting a chuckle over two stories at Twisting the Hellmouth by lisaroquin where Xander's real father is Snape. Heh.)
Anyway, on rewatching the scene, I realied that NB was playing it as if he were hypnotized.
Prior to seeing the "magic ball of nightmares," Xander does not belive the guy's story. First, he thinks Stuart's a relative. Stuart declares that he is Xander Harris and Xander's all, "You are crazy. Go away. You bother me. I've got other things to do and I don't need this shit."
For a brief moment, he's distracted because his drunk father is making a toast. He looks away and remarks that he left orders with the bartender not to serve drinks before the ceremony.
When he looks back at Stuart, Stuart pulls out his "magic ball." It flashes while Xander's looking right at it. When NB looks up at this point, there's a very definite blank look on his face. Stuart is able to pull him away from the crowd without Xander so much as raising a peep, although he does again get slightly distracted by Tony's horrible toast. NB still has the blank look as he follows Stuart into a private room and it remains there when he stares back into the magic ball and gets sucked in.
I can't see any stage directions for this in the Dialogue Database, nor can I find it on any script site. I almost wonder if it was done by direction or if that was the way NB decided to play it. Either way, subtly done and *well* done. Something that can only be picked up by rewatching that scene (and it's only the third time I've done so). At first, I was so unsure that I actually saw the blankness, that I had to rewatch several times. Insert, "Son of a bitch! I can't believe I missed that" for the full effect the scene had on me.
Given that S6 and Hell's Bells in particular was full of histronics, it's no wonder something that subtle got missed.
Either way, the hypnotism argument makes sense. It explains Xander's sudden acceptance of Stuart as himself (when just seconds before he's telling Stuart to get lost), despite the physical differences. It explains why Xander does not so much as peep in protest as he gets led away. It would also make him more receptive to the false visions to the point where he feels like he's living through it as opposed to seeing it.
Given the possible "hypnotism" angle plus the fact that Xander didn't realize that he was targeted by one of Anya's victims, this exchange from Water Hold Me Down Part 3 reads entirely differently to me now:
"That’s…that’s a very interesting story,” he finally said.
“It’s not every man who’s willing to face down a demon for his soon-to-be wife,” Anya beamed across the kitchen table at him. She had sat down at some point during her story, which meant that Xander had to resist reacting as she reached the not-so-thrilling conclusion.
“Unh, said demon being one of your former victims if I remember what you said right,” Xander said.
Anya looked down like she’d be slapped and Xander immediately felt like a shitheel. He noticed other Xander wasn’t exactly leaping to his wife’s defense.
“Look, I just…I wasn’t accusing it’s just…” he took a breath that was deep enough to hurt and looked to other him who was standing nearby with the meat cleaver still in a death grip. “It’s just incredible. Nasty visions. Living out an unhappy life before it happens. And you marched down the aisle anyway.” He was back to looking at his gummy cold oatmeal. “Not sure I’d be that brave,” he added quietly.
Suddenly, it doesn't read to me as if Xander's stuck his foot in it or is trying to cover up what he knows.
That sentence: "“Unh, said demon being one of your former victims if I remember what you said right.” Now sounds a little angry and accusatory in my head.
I must've subconsciously realized all of the above because certainly that detail wasn't planned on my part. I doubt that the realization of above will have an overall impact on the story other than color (the plot points are already set). However, it does throw a new light on Anya's character and makes her future actions in the story make more sense to me.
Unh, thanks for sticking around to the end of this rant. Heh.