Misleading Metaphors, False Themes and Other Comic Devices in the Buffyverse
O happy dagger!
This is thy sheath.
Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (V, iii, 169-170)
WILLOW: Maybe you're trying too hard. Doesn't this happen to every vampire?
SPIKE: Not to me, it doesn't!
I recently wrote an essay about weapons in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and their metaphorical origins, during the course of which I coined the term "highbrow fart joke" (or, at least I think I coined it; I've never heard anyone else use it before, and it sounds like the sort of dumb thing I would suddenly dream up). I didn't dwell on it too much; I was mainly using it to illustrate a point about the actual thematic relevance of Spike's chip versus its momentary gag treatment in "The Initiative" and "Pangs."
Now - at the risk of Ruining All Comedy Forever by explaining a bunch of jokes - I am going to dwell on it. I am going to dwell on the farts.
Come dwell with me, gentle reader!
First thing's first: I don't think that Joss Whedon, or any of the other creators of Buffy, invented the highbrow fart joke. That's sort of why I included Juliet's famous line above. Juliet wasn't joking (indeed, this was a tragic scene; one of the purest and most shockingly tragic moments The Bard ever wrote), but the point I was trying to make was about text-versus-subtext, and the role that the awareness of the character plays in whether something is a metaphor designed by the author for thematic significance or a metaphor that the character herself uses for her own poetic purpose.
Juliet's "happy dagger" is a phallic and violently sexual image, but both Shakespeare and Juliet likely recognize this, given the context of everything that transpired in the play before she said it. She seems to be conscious of the allusion she is making; these are her last words, after all. Therefore the purpose is not to make an artistic comment about sex and violence, but rather to signify a sense of profound and dramatic irony within her despair; Juliet knows she cannot have Romeo's "happy dagger" now, so she will embrace the cold comfort of this harsh world's version instead, and the sweet release of death.
To put it another way: Juliet knows she can't have "the little death", so she will settle for the Big One.
See? That was my own version of the Highbrow Fart Joke. Did you like it? Anyway, the point is consciousness. We can't know that Juliet knows the implication of what she's saying, but given all her previous poetry it's a safe bet that she does. In the comparative scene with Spike and Willow, we can't be sure they don't know what they're saying, or how it might sound to a savvy third party, but they probably don't. It sure doesn't sound like they are in on their own joke, in that moment. But take a look at what happens in the next episode ("Pangs"):
|SPIKE : Oh, damn it! Look, I'm safe. I can't bite anyone. Willow, tell' em what I did.|
WILLOW : You said you were gonna kill me, then Buffy.
SPIKE : Yes, bad, but let's skip that part and get to the part where I couldn't bite you.
WILLOW : It's true. He had trouble performing.
SPIKE : Yeah, well, it looks like they've done me for good.
BUFFY : What are you saying?
SPIKE : I'm saying that Spike had a little trip to the vet and now he doesn't chase the other puppies anymore.
Oh! They did know it. Or, at the very least they realized it upon reflection. So what we have here isn't a true metaphor embedded by the author to help sculpt a theme, but rather a Highbrow Fart Joke (or "HFJ" from here on out).
But wait, it gets even more complicated than that, because now we are stuck with defining who the "author" of the joke is. For instance, the former gag (the seemingly unconscious one in the dorm room) was written by James Contner. The latter gag, where Willow and Spike are seemingly in on the joke, was written by Jane Espenson.
So here we have two writers involved in drawing the same, somewhat crass analogy between the chip and male impotence. Both versions are jokes, and neither give us any useful information about the chip's true thematic purpose, but they are different on a fundamental level. Contner's joke is an all-or-nothing proposition; it's either a serious, deeply embedded metaphorical device about vampires and sexuality that fails because it is too obvious, or it's a standard dick-joke. We suspect it's probably the latter since we all LOL'd and have gotten used to LOL'ing at past parts of the show. Similar to Romeo and Juliet's tragic dagger, BTVS' own history suggests that the allusion is comedy, not failed drama. But it's only a suspicion right now; we can't know.
With Espensen's version of the joke, however, the characters themselves are at least somewhat in on the gag. They are telling the joke to us and to each other simultaneously, thereby smothering the chip-as-castration metaphor in its crib. It's not even important whether or not the characters find their joke particularly funny. If the characters are saying it out loud, it's not a metaphor; it's an inside joke intended for people who are sophisticated enough to search for and understand metaphors in art. It's a joke about metaphors.
There are examples in other media, but the Buffyverse in particular is rife with HFJ's and a certain kind of contextual humor that mocks and sometimes completely defeats false reads of the more serious material. "Pangs" itself has many, many more such jokes, probably because Espensen is the reigning empress of the cunning and hilarious HFJ and also of something else I like to think of as False Flag humor. In a False Flag scenario, the jokes are geared towards assembling a false theme to eventually destroy. The process is usually gradual, and often it takes the entire episode to weave the whole Flag before it is unceremoniously ripped to shreds - usually at the very end of the episode. The way I see it, False Flag humor is the writer's version of "the long con," except it is designed to enrich you rather than to trick you. For instance:
|WILLOW : Buffy, earlier you agreed with me about Thanksgiving. It's a sham. It's all about death.|
BUFFY: It is a sham, but it's a sham with yams. It's a yam sham.
"Pangs" is a very subversive episode, taking place in what I think is the most subversive and misunderstood season of all. It is an episode that is very much not about what it appears to be about, or what it explicitly claims to be about (I'll get to what I think it's actually about later on). In the above example, we have the uber-smart Willow, who is so caught in the grip of her political beliefs that she couldn't tell that Buffy was placating her earlier. Buffy feels vaguely bad about the natives, and thinks the way they were treated was wrong, but all she really wants to think about right now is having a nice, normal, festive meal with her proxy family.
For now, it seems like the episode might wind up being about historical revisionism or anti-imperialism or some such political topic, perhaps with Willow eventually radicalizing Buffy out of her cozy yam-sham stupor, or Buffy convincing Willow to appreciate 'the little things in life'. The hilarity of this basic conflict ratchets up as more players are added to the False Flag game. Next, Giles is slyly added with this HFJ:
|BUFFY: Giles, if you would like to get by in American society, then you are going to have to follow our traditions. You're the patriarch. You have to host the festivities, or it's all meaningless.|
GILES : And this is in no way an elaborate scheme to stick me with the cleanup?
Here, Jane is slyly giving us another clue to what the episode isn't about, while still adding threads to her False Flag. Buffy is very aware of what she's saying, and how it sounds, and she's aware that Giles is aware of it too, and we the audience are aware of all of it. In fact, it sort of rips the "yam sham" mask off; Buffy isn't taking sides in the political debate, but it's not because she is apathetic or ignorant of the arguments, or thinks they are completely unimportant. She's aware of them, but she just doesn't care about them as much as she does about making this Thanksgiving dinner successful. She teases and placates both Giles and Willow (and us, a little), but it's all in service of what she really desires: to recreate what she describes as her "sense-memory" of roasting turkey and togetherness and simpler times.
When the Chumash enter the picture, the stakes of the argument change; it stops being a theoretical, academic debate between Willow and Professor Gerhardt (or later, between Willow and Giles/Spike), and instead becomes a survival scenario. It's important and thematically significant that Willow will lose this debate; ultimately, it no longer matters whether Willow's politics or her version of history or ethics are "right" or not, because the tribe arrives to wipe them all out. In many ways, this episode begins the arc of the larger conflict between Willow and Giles to come, culminating in their season six showdown ("Grave"). It also continues the larger arc between Buffy and the uber-pragmatist Giles that culminates in their season seven showdown ("Lies My Parents Told Me").
Back to the jokes, though. Here comes Spike; getting kicked out of his own home... like some common, unwanted pilgrim getting booted out of England!
|HARMONY : Get out.|
SPIKE : (Leaning against a wall.) But, baby, this is where I belong.
HARMONY : (Pointing.) Out. I mean it. I've been doing a lot of reading, and I'm in control of my own power now, so we're through.
SPIKE: You don't mean that.
Ha! Thanks for that, Jane! This is not technically an HBJ or a False Flag, but rather another kind of comedy that I think both Espensen and David Fury excel at, where you'll only catch the gag if you have some knowledge of the subject they're playing with (in this case, Brownists and the Church of England). Superficially, this seems more like Contner's dick joke, since Spike and Harmony aren't remotely in on it, but it lacks that joke's extreme obviousness. This one is esoteric, contextual humor. It's also a brilliant way to introduce the "refugee" Spike into this now very explicit, sprawling and completely irrelevant conversation about Thanksgiving, multiculturalism, imperialism, religion, feminism, ethics and all the other fake, misleading stuff that the episode isn't actually about. (And being such a rabid fan of Espensen's work, part of me suspects that even Spike's "You don't mean that" might have been an intentional signal of this subversion in general, a sort of spiraling, Escher-esque rabbit hole of sly contextual humor and joky, farty, highbrowy goodness.)
Espensen sneaks in a quintessential and hilarious HFJ in the very same scene:
|HARMONY : No. (She pushes him away.) I'm powerful, and I'm beautiful, and I don't need you to complete me. (She goes around the bed and lifts the mattress revealing a stake which she grabs.) And you're mean. (She stands up holding the stake up.)|
SPIKE : (Backpedeling, then falling off the bed.) You had that in our bed? Do you know how dangerous that is?
Oh, my heart! I feel woozy, Jane. This is another instance of what I was trying to explore in my "weapons" meta. It can't be a serious metaphor for "penis" or "male power" if the characters are all but shouting, "It's a penis, symbolic of male power" in an attempt to make you laugh. This is just more mockery of Freud, in the service of the season's rather stridently anti-Academic theme. The vapid Harmony/Church of England has found her new philosophy/religion; and, whenever there is doubt, here comes the seemingly immortal zombie Sigmund Freud to pave in the gaps with his symbolic wangs.
(Off-topic: Can you imagine being stuck in an elevator with the coke-binging, neurotic, whack-job Freud? How horrifying would that be?)
Happily, Espensen continues to skewer and ruthlessly roast snooty academics throughout the episode. It is delightfully gratuitous violence, from an artist's perspective; she hoists the maniacal deconstructionists on their own petards, and still manages to carry forth the interior theme of the episode and tug out a bit more of the larger character arcs that forge the main theme of the series (the battle against nihilism). It is wickedly brilliant stuff.
Speaking of which, along comes poor Xander, chock full of penis diseases:
|WILLOW: He's just doing what was done to him.|
XANDER: I didn't give him syphilis.
GILES: No, but you freed his spirit, and after a century of unrest, he saw you as one of his oppressors.
XANDER: What, so he rises up and infects the first guy he sees? That's no fair.
Of course, Xander isn't exactly "in" on his own joke here, because, to him, his own syphillis is not remotely funny - but Spike didn't exactly find his own joke about puppies funny, either. Xander realizes he is going to die a painful death for something he didn't do, and that it's "no fair." Willow, of course, is still wilfully blinding herself, in order to help her propose her false dilemma. She is one of the two resident geniuses of the Buffyverse (the other being her dark mirror, Warren), and like most true geniuses she is even capable of outsmarting and deluding herself. This will later turn out to be her Tragic Flaw, but for now this talent manifests itself as a theoretically defensible premise with totally indefensible consequences in reality.
This exchange adds more players to the game, and more threads to the False Flag, but it's also baldly hilarious and farty. The fart joke here is that Xander isn't very bright or educated at all, but even he can see the flawed ethical math at hand. The fact that Xander swiftly and soundly defeats both the clever Giles and the truly brilliant Willow with his off-hand "That's no fair" might be the greatest joke in the episode. Xander wonderfully stakes out his position in the Chumash debate with his scholarly philosophy of no-fair-ism, but since that is not what the episode is about either, it adds another victim to the growing pile of slain metaphors and fake themes.
Next, Spike shows up, farts out a joke about snipped puppies, and then wades into the academic fray:
|BUFFY : Will, you know how bad I feel about this. It's eating me up-- (To Anya.) 1/4 Cup of brandy and let it simmer-- (To Willow.) But even though it's hard, we have to end this. Yes, he's been wronged, And I personally would be ready to apologize--|
SPIKE : Oh, someone put a stake in me.
XANDER: You got a lot of volunteers in here.
SPIKE : I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody indians.
BUFFY : Uh, the preferred term--
SPIKE: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not going around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world isn't people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Here we have a few blatant misdirection jokes in a row. Buffy continues her tactics of placating and pretending to care about Willow's ultra-PC, self-deluding sensibilities and Giles' increasingly blunt, neo-con-ish adventurism, all while she is simultaneously engaged in her real mission: to replicate that warm memory of youth and simplicity that Thanksgiving and other ritual feasts supposedly offer us (bear in mind the "supposedly").
Meanwhile Spike, giving us a preview of what his new place within the group will be, cuts directly to the chase. He thinks Willow's ethical dilemma (and the powerful Buffy's placation of it) ignores the entire thrust of human history. As far as he's concerned, power doesn't apologize for itself. That's what makes it "power." In his Manichean world you are either powerful or you are stamped underfoot, and it's obviously better to be powerful. After all, look at where being stripped of his powers got him: tied up in a room full of his worst enemies, having to listen to them carry on a pointless and fallacious debate.
Of course, Spike has an ethical blind spot a mile wide. Grappling with ethics shouldn't even be possible for him, but the fact that he bothers to engage his hosts at all is another clue to the real theme that's slowly but surely being knitted together here. Whether it's Willow's relativism or Rupert's pragmatism or Spike's militarism or Xander's no-fair-ism or Buffy's vaguely confessed but strategically defused sense of guilt-ism, the content of their political arguments is all textual, surface stuff. We have on our hands a set of very funny and explicit non-metaphors that don't (and can't) convey theme, because theme is what is implied, rather than what is said.
Here is where the genius of Espensen's writing comes into play.
In "Pangs" the problem isn't really "Indians" or political correctness or white guilt or history or ethics or "sense-memories" of youth. The problem, and the real theme of the episode, is this: families fight and argue and bicker a lot, but when a crisis threatens them, the best families join forces and resolve it.
The topics of these familial arguments hardly matter. Whether the argument is about philosophy, politics, religion, TV shows, Chumash genocides or what to have for dinner, it is probably not as important as the hidden motivations and personal history of the people having it. In fact, the arguments we have with family members are usually window dressing for our private resentments and tensions, built up over years of close, fraught contact, forced cohabitation, secrets, jealousies, regrets, lies, etc.
Willow doesn't really believe that Xander should die, she's just relaying her impressive command of the facts to show off her intellect, and siding with the Chumash because she feels a bullied underdog's kinship with them. And Giles doesn't really believe that Willow believes that Xander should die; he's just being argumentative to reassert his waning authority as head of the clan (rather than, for instance, simply placating her like Buffy does). And Spike doesn't really care about the substance of the debate, he just hates them all, hates having to be there and wants to piss on their parade (and perhaps to eat Xander). And poor Xander just doesn't want to die (and be eaten).
Buffy is caught in the middle, as usual. She has sympathy for the Chumash, but she also doesn't care much about the debate. If she can stop the Chumash without killing them, so much the better, but otherwise it's a non-issue; she'll slay the heck out of them. This displays both the streak of pragmatism she shares with Giles and the instinct to placate a brilliant but self-deluding Willow that will be summarized a season later with the whispered line, "Aim for the horsies" ("Spiral").
But the main point is that Buffy largely doesn't even want to have the debate. She just wants to sit down and have a nice dinner with her family, to remind herself of simpler and more carefree times. The political angles of the Chumash debate are the result of sublimated tensions between the characters, used to develop those characters further and service this episode's true theme: good families (and maybe even good neighbors, cultures, nations, or civilizations) set aside their petty differences and close ranks when they are in danger. And, in order to help foster and nourish these familial self-defense mechanisms, we will often oversimplify history and pepper it with useful illusions - such as Buffy's "sense-memory" of fight-free holidays or Professor Gerhardt's mostly mythological vision of the "melting pot" of settlers and natives.
That's not all there is to "Pangs". For instance, the explicit arguments waged with the characters' False Flag threads and Highbrow Fart Jokes also service the overall anti-Academic mood of the season, by implying that much of modern academia is itself a projection of petty grievances disguised as scholarship. As in other episodes, the author spends much of her time ruthlessly and cheerfully eviscerating the various syllogistic arguments at hand, without ever holding one aloft as the correct one. Willow may be right, but her solutions are suicidal. Spike may be right, but he isn't going to make any friends with that attitude.
Also at play is the further spooling out of larger character themes that will help describe the overall arc of the show. This is why, for instance, Giles and Willow are put at odds, even though they mostly agree with each other about the past crimes against the Chumash. The difference between them is that Willow is smart enough to effectively lie to herself about what the result of her actions (or inactions) will be. This motif will repeat itself in various ways on the path to her fall from grace, as she goes on to brainwash Tara, resurrect Buffy, trade her soul for power, recklessly manipulate the world with magic, etc. The serious character arc that is illuminated and enriched by "Pangs" ultimately ends in the murder of her Dark Nerd Twin (Warren) and her attempt to destroy the world. She is the Anti-Spike at the beginning of this arc, arguing the case for the Chumash, and the personification of Spike's "might-makes-right" power manifesto (and the nihilism that such a creed inspires) at the end of it.
I think one reason there is a lot of confusion (and, also, a lot of healthy debate) about the themes of "Buffy" is that the show is so reference-rich, it's easy to mistake a false theme used for parody or satire from the intentional themes and the meaningful subtext in service of those themes. "Pangs" is a great example of this, because it's at once so funny and so devious. An LJ friend once told me that she considered BTVS to be highbrow art, and while I mentioned that I think the threshold for enjoying it begins quite low (e.g. High School as Horror Show), I do agree with her, because part of what makes Great Art "Great" is its elusiveness without being completely opaque. Great Art has a slipperiness about it, but it's not the slipperiness of liars; that's called con-art, by con-artists. Rather, it's complex enough to tease you about its nature without actually confessing anything, and I think these sorts of inside jokes are a way of leading the viewer into the meaning without dragging them there.
Great Art is also not totally subjective and amorphous, and sometimes tips its hand just a bit. Consider the last scene in the episode, which is not an example of an HFJ or False Flag. It's not even very funny, except for the final image from Buffy's point-of-view. When the banter isn't very funny in the Buffyverse, that probably means it's a signifier; a way to evoke the true theme without smacking you over the head with it.
|BUFFY: Wasn't exactly a perfect Thanksgiving.|
XANDER: I don't know. Seemed kinda right to me. A bunch of anticipation, a big fight, and now we're all sleepy.
GILES: And we did all survive.
BUFFY: I guess that much is true. First Thanksgiving on my own, and we all got through it.
XANDER: (Patting Anya on the shoulder.) And you know what? I think my syphilis is clearing right up.
BUFFY: And they say romance is dead. Or maybe they just wish it.
WILLOW: Well, maybe we started a new tradition this year. (She gets a look from everyone.) Maybe not. But at least we all worked together. It was like old times.
XANDER: Yeah, especially with Angel being here and everything.