Monday, April 2, 2012

Buffy: Seeing Red (6.19)

Season six is usually regarded as Buffy's 'dark' season, the year in which everyone's miserable and seem to do stupid things that go against the characters as we know them. For me, the biggest problem with season six is that the writers never had the conviction to actually make things real dark. I bring this up because Seeing Red and, to an extent, Dead Things are two of the most daring and fascinating episodes this year. But both are rendered awkward and gratuitous because the events captured in both episodes feel too self-contained to be truly genuine. Buffy and Spike's actions during each hour at odds with their respective characterization in the episodes surrounding the two I just mentioned, which make all the rape dreck here seem so ridiculous.

I have numerous problems with that bathroom scene. Yes, Spike and Buffy's 'thing' this season has been marred by physical abuse and the crumbling of their mutual self-worth. It's been a quasi-relationship formed on self-hatred and dissatisfaction -- we can all pretty much agree with that. But Spike's actions here cross into a horrible area that feels entirely unrelated to what we know about him as a character. They smacked each other around back in Smashed, but it's always been a mutual deal. Buffy's horrific attack on him in Dead Things wasn't at all about sex, but about disgust. Here we have Spike literally forcing himself on Buffy, pinning her down as if this was their foreplay. No, show, that was never their foreplay. Maybe if Smashed and Dead Things were the only episodes to feature their coupling, but their various sexual encounters away from those two stories featured nothing like that.

Similarly, I hated that the show went out of its way to make Buffy injured and therefore vulnerable to a sexual assault. It's another example of the show stumbling into ridiculous contrivance to ensure a 'metaphor' occurs. The Willow arc at the start of the year was so fascinating, but the writers decided to make it, mid-story, some horrible drug metaphor, sacrificing any internal logic along the way. The same thing occurs here. For some reason the writers wanted Buffy to experience that assault. Was it for us to think how awful Spike is? Was it to make Buffy seem like an innocent victim in this doomed love affair? Was it to make us sympathize with Xander? Or was it merely a clumsy motive for Spike to bail on Sunnydale for the next couple of episodes? Whatever their reasoning, it's a horribly written scene that makes little sense on a character level and brings the whole show down. Ugh.

There's also a weird misogynist streak that radiates through the rest of the episode. Warren, now the most hideous caricature of cowardly male brutality in the history of the world, gets his hands on some 'magic orbs' and proceeds to beat the crap out of Buffy, yelling at her "you never fight a real man before?" Before this, he comes on to random women and calls himself 'daddy' to them, in the process implying some hideous issues with females and forced submission. When Buffy destroys the orbs and Warren's pitiful existence comes to the fore once again, he ends up getting hold of an automatic weapon, the one thing he can think of that can actually do some damage to her.

In general, this is an episode that seems to be making some kind of grand statement on gender and sexuality. But everything is so muddled that you lose track of any kind of moral. Warren has always been a creep, but his actions here turn him into this absurd monster of epic proportions, while Spike's behavior is similarly gross, taking him so far away from any of his prior 'incarnations' that he becomes completely muddled as a character. Maybe if the writing were particularly strong this could have all worked in some way, but by contriving to make Buffy physically weak after a vampire attack, the whole thing falls into a weird area that is difficult to understand. It's a total misfire and one of the lowest points of the series.

Of course, I haven't even started with Tara. I actually haven't got a problem with the show killing her, since it's a remarkably effective scene of abject shock and horror -- one of the most arresting game-changers I've ever seen on television. And while it provoked intense controvery among fans of Willow and Tara, it would have been just as much a problem if the show didn't inflict Joss Whedon's trademark 'relationship misery' on the two of them simply because they were a gay couple. It's unfortunate and tacky that Tara ends up shot to death in the same episode that opened with her half-naked in bed with her girlfriend, but it's foolish to consider her death a homophobic gesture of any sort.

My problem with her demise is actually the story that it's part of. More discussion of that will come in later weeks, but it stinks of the needless dismissal of one of the show's strongest characters -- Tara being reduced to 'annoying plot device' in order to justify events that prove to be ultimately ridiculous and trite. That is the real injustice of Tara's death. You can also argue that her murder is hideously grotesque as a plot point. Coming so soon after Xander and Anya's break-up, Buffy's depression, Willow's addiction and only minutes after the bathroom assault, it's just more abject misery dumped on us. Remembering that audiences had to originally see all of this unspool over several months instead of the short-term vacuum of a DVD collection furthers that feeling that this was just too much depression. With that in mind, you can understand why feelings of hatred still linger in the minds of certain fans when season six is brought up in discussion.

Seeing Red is like something out of an alternate dimension, an episode that tries desperately to fold in with the overarching themes and story arcs this season but ends up backfiring in the most hideous form. Along with Willow's 'crack addiction cold turkey' thing, it's the lowpoint of the season and one of the few times that Buffy got it embarrassingly wrong. D

Guest stars Danny Strong (Jonathan Levinson); Adam Busch (Warren Meers); Tom Lenk (Andrew Wells); Amy Hathaway (Christine); Nichole Hiltz (Diana)
Writer Steven S. DeKnight Director Michael Gershman


  1. Wow, what a review. Maybe your longest to date?!

    I don't think I necessarily agree with all that you've said here, but the Buffy rape thing I can get behind, and I loved all of your dissection of it. It doesn't fit with the relationship we've seen them endure before, it's just dirty an disgusting, and like you've said before, a fart of an effort to bring this season to even lower depths.

    As for Tara, I do think her death worked, just because I liked the Willow arc a whole lot. Just for the flash really, but I did love it. But after reading what you've written, I actually agree that it doesn't really have any long lasting significance. Just more depressing shit.

    Fantastic review though, and actually quite eye opening. I'm planning a re-watch in the next couple of months, so I'm going to keep an eye out of everything you've mentioned.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Panda. Yeah, the attempted rape is troubling. While Spike is soulless, it's a real stretch from where he was at other points in the season, and I hated that they made Buffy a literal victim even before the assault started. Ugh.

    Looking forward to your re-watch (if you decide to review), and I agree that this is probably one of my longest. Along with Hush, OMWF and Who Are You, which I remember were all pretty huge.

  3. Ok, the thing about the rape, as I see it, is to shock the audience back into- Spike is NOT a good guy. I mean, so far, Spike has been evil, but kind of loveable evil, with his love for Dru, and his devotion to Buffy, we, and Buffy, kind of forgot what Spike is. He is a vampire- he is simply evil, so it's not actually that suprising that he tries to rape her. Except it is, because it's Spike. And because he's different from other vampires, he's actually horrified by his actions. It is a bit weird that Buffy was vulnerable, but maybe that was kind of the point? Like this season was all about beating Buffy down, until she was ultimately defenceless.

  4. Somebody actually mentioned that back on my Dead Things review, how we almost expect too much of him because he acts like one of the good guys -- even though he's still a vampire without a soul. So it's jarring to see it suddenly rear its head again.

    I still have issues with how it was depicted, but I understand what you mean and how Spike at heart isn't a truly good person.

  5. In regards to the reaction of Tara's death, I agree that the writers clearly weren't homophobic and weren't trying to send out an anti-gay message at all. However, intentions are one thing and parallels to a real-world social climate another. Willow & Tara were the ONLY lesbian couple on TV at the time, so for the show to do away with that was a huge blow to the LGBT community. I think that deserves to be acknowledged. That Tara was killed right next to her & Willow's bed, where they had just made love, is more than unfortunate. To the many fans of the show who WERE anti-gay, and they were definitely out there, it seemed as if the writers were siding with them. They didn't INTEND it, no, but that's what got churned out regardless.

    It's also worth noting that all other BtVS relationships except for them ended with a simple breakup and then the exes lived on. Riley, Angel, Cordelia, Oz, Anya. Jenny was killed but was not even with Giles at the time. So in that regard Tara & Willow's relationship WAS treated very differently.

    And that's all without me bothering to address the Dead/Evil Lesbian cliche Buffy completely fell into.

    Love this review, BTW, I just had to get this out of my system. Again, I agree the Buffy writers were NOT homophobic - it's just that a typical homophobic ending and cliche happened under their watch anyway. They really should have thought it through more IMO.

  6. First of all, thanks for reading and commenting.

    On Tara, I still struggle to see the indirect homophobia. She was an innocent who was horribly killed, in a season where she was essentially the one true voice of reason while everybody around her were taken over by pod people, and the murder, in my eyes, was more of a plot device than something directly character-related.

    I think all the break-ups and past deaths were products of the stories at that particular time, and without trying to be obnoxious, I think it's a stretch to paint Tara's death as somehow different to the various other break-ups or cast departures. Angel left for his own show, Oz left of Seth Green's own accord and not because the writers wanted it to happen, Cordelia and Xander fell apart so early on in the show that grand death scenes were still pretty alien and rare (at least compared to the the last three seasons), and I would argue that Jenny's murder was just as tragic and relationship-based, despite she and Giles not officially being a couple at that point. I'd also argue that Riley's departure was pretty depressing and volatile, even if he wasn't exactly murdered or anything.

    I still think the story itself was pretty terrible and awkwardly written, but I think the controversy was more a product of people's projection rather than anything actually concrete -- Willow/Tara shippers thinking this particular couple were somehow worthy of special treatment, and fans who disliked them (based on their sexuality or not) straining that it was somehow motivated by hate.

    It's absolutely apparent that Willow and Tara were a huge deal, groundbreaking and mature and completely lacking in ratings-baiting trashiness, but, to this day, I can't help but feel there was an element of naivety to those who rallied so hard against the storyline. No couple on Buffy actually went away happy. There was always misery and break-ups and unrequited longing, from the beginning right to the end. Sure, Tara was one of only (I think) three couples that ended with permanent death, but I don't think that makes it differ at all. Unless you really want to see that way, you know?

    I still think it's hilarious that this episode inspires so much debate, though, so many years after it aired. Really enjoying the conversation, too. Thanks for reading.

  7. Same anon here.

    It is funny that the intense debate still lives on, but I guess that's a statement to how lasting BtVS is and how much of an impact it made. I'm sure it's also because the topic itself - homosexuality - is still controversial today in the real world. It's not something that we've moved on from yet, and thus people haven't moved on from this episode yet.

    While I stand by my perspective of it being tragically unfortunate that BtVS eventually folded to the cliche that pops up whenever a gay couple does(that one or more will die and/or go crazy) - especially given that Buffy was founded on turning cliches on their head, I appreciate your POV and can see where you're coming from. I honestly believe both sides to this have legitimate points, and that really backs up the fact that, like you've said, this whole deal really could have been written better. Same goes for the rape. One-half "they shouldn't have gone there", One-half "but it was necessary to advance X".

    As an aside, I'm really glad to have found a site that's still talking about all these classic genre shows. With Buffy & Angel, I love the deep analysis, and with Charmed - well - I dig the snark and the articulation of just what went wrong and where.

  8. Thanks a lot. While I have no issues with the death, the rape scene is something that to me remains to this day a complete disaster. I don't get it, I don't get what they were trying to say, and it just leaves you with a horrible taste in the mouth. Ugh. But I love that people can come at the exact same stories from such vastly different perspectives. It's a lot more fun than everybody agreeing. Heh.

    And thanks for the compliments, too. Buffy and Angel are made for deeper analysis, it's crazy fun to really get wrapped up in it and wonder. I just can't do the same with Charmed, though. The material just isn't there. So I snark and whine, but that in itself is pretty fun, too.

    Thanks for reading.