Last night’s make-dishes-tolerable randomly-selected entertainment was season
three Buffy episode "The Wish." It remains one of my favorites. It
has a solid story, fascinating alt-world building, fabulous new characters,
a devastating emotional punch, and is one of very few Buffy episodes
to actually be, mostly, a horror story.
Maybe I should explain. Obviously Buffy is built out of horror tropes
— vampires, werewolves, zombies, and demons and monsters of every conceivable
variety. The stories tend to have a high body count, and a surprising amount
of blood, guts and goo for network television.
Buffy is horror genre, no question. But genre is as much about milieu as it
is about story. (Which is an argument I pull out whenever people try to claim
that Star Trek isn’t really science fiction.) And genre is about approach
and desired emotional affect as much as about story.
Which, this came up as a rant about the Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror
X", part of our newly purchased season 11, when I couldn’t stop throwing a tantrum
about how segment two, where Bart and Lisa get superpowers, isn’t horror.
It was more than just "superheroes aren’t horror." Superheroes can be horror.
Anything can be scary. But, you have to commit. You have to be horror.
(Which, if I can nest these tangents even deeper, was my primary objection
to Twilight. Insufficient horror.)
I think this is mostly done with things like music cues and camera angles and lighting, but there’s also setting and premise. For example, stretchy and strong superpowers (the ones Bart and Lisa get) are not conducive to horrificness. But a superpower that involved turning to goo, or into a living skeleton, or bringing people back from the dead? That might work.
Supervillains can be scary, obviously, but in this story his lair and his schemes are not gothic or grisly enough to be horror. If he were more like the viewpoint character of "Skullcrusher Mountain," that would help.
So, I suppose part of why my inner ten year old felt so betrayed, is that I
noticed that nobody was trying to be scary at all not even
a little bit.
Horror is largely defined through effort. If you paint everything black and drop a spider from the ceiling at a crucial moment, you get credit for being horror, even if what you’re doing is shockingly bad by every other conceivable measure.
I respect that attempt. In fact, I have a great fondness for it, which is why I call myself a horror fan. I have a high tolerance for otherwise inept art that is trying to scare me and fails, in a way I have no tolerance for art that tries to make me laugh and fails, or art that tries to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside and fails, or art that fails to make me — uh, I don’t know, feel all excited and macho the way action movies are supposed to make you feel?
Anyway, I believe it’s Paul’s theory that tolerating average-to-inept examples is part of what makes you a fan of a particular genre. And I don’t usually watch serious touching family dramas unless I expected them to be mind-blowingly fabulous, but I will watch horror movies that I expect to be mostly crap.
(Note: I am largely talking about movies and television with this because, while my literary tastes run strongly to the fantastical, and I have this thing for vampire fiction, I don’t usually enjoy written fiction at the same crap-o-meter level that I’m willing to put up with in movies. Fortunately, written fiction tends to be better than movies, so that all works out okay.)
(Okay, for example: I cheerfully watched Twilight the movie even though
I thought it was kind of dull, but I have not read the books. And I complained
bitterly about the horribleness of Queen of the Damned the book, but
snickered delightedly at the campy awfulness of Queen of the Damned
So, where was I?
Oh yeah, Buffy. "The Wish."
So, Buffy has a horror theme, premise, setting, etc., and most episodes
have at least one or two scary scenes. But most of the stories aren’t focused
on the scary bits — they’re focused on the kicking the monster’s ass bits.
Generally, once you have the power to effectively fight against the threat,
the story stops being horror and starts being action/adventure.
(Keep in mind that I’m not talking about the genre of the work as a whole, I’m talking about the genre of the story. I am not going to digress long enough to establish the distinction between story and things like premise and setting, so, trust me on this one. Story and premise are not the same thing. And this is why writers laugh when people say "I have all these great ideas! I just need someone to write them!")
"The Wish" is horror because it focuses on the scary bits.
Like another of my favorite Buffy episodes, "Tabula Rasa,"
the crucial action takes place in alterna-world, a variation on the usual Buffy
setting and characters that has more impact for regular viewers of the show.
Still, I think even a first time viewer wouldn’t be totally lost, as the episode
establishes all the necessary backstory within its own confines.
We learn that Buffy, Willow, and Xander are best buddies and slay demons together. This is established in the opening scene. This scene also establishes the way they rely on each other, and particularly the way Buffy, the Slayer, relies on her non-slayer support group. We learn that Cordelia and Xander have been dating, and Willow and Oz have been dating. We learn that Cordelia and Oz recently caught Willow and Xander having illicit smoochies in a moment of duress, and that both Willow and Xander are now begging forgiveness. We learn that, while Oz just might come around given sufficient time, Cordelia has absolutely no intention of ever supplying forgiveness ever under any circumstances, and in fact wants Xander’s head on a pike.
This seems to be in part because Xander is perceived by her evil high school "friends" as a "loser." Even though it’s clear that Cordelia is the dumper and Xander the dumpee (he’s begging forgiveness, remember), Cordelia’s sadistic classmates keep referring to her as having been "dumped" or being Xander’s "castoff." I think we can assume this is partly subjective reality, and partly their built-up resentment over her dominant social status and many thoughtless cruelties over the years. She is being destroyed by game rules that she herself established.
It could be played as a hilarious comeuppance, but here it’s played for sympathy. Cordelia is shown feeling lost and emotionally vulnerable in the face of her classmate’s attempts to humiliate her.
Into this comes a new student, Anya, who lends a sympathetic ear and a magic wishing pendant to Cordelia. Cordelia wishes, not for Xander’s head on a pike, but that Buffy — who she sees as the catalyst for all her misfortunes including Xander — had never come to Sunnydale.
This happens a fair way into the story, maybe twenty minutes? Which I think was a good choice. It took that long to really put the pieces in place, it builds suspense, and it keeps the alternate world from falling apart, which it might if we spent too long there.
When some people talk about the merits of short stories vs. novels, one thing that comes up is that short stories allow the creation of little soap bubble worlds that are too fragile or weird or implausible to really hold together for an entire novel, but they work beautifully for the length of a short story. In novels, if your city has no plausible economic base, people might start to notice. But a short story doesn’t have that kind of problem.
In the Buffy-free Sunnydale of "The Wish," Cordelia is briefly cheered by the return of her queen bee social status — all the girls envy her, all the boys want to date her. It takes a while for it to sink in that she has actually entered a grim post-vampocalypse landscape, where the existence of vampires is taken for granted, everyone in town scurries home before sunset, and the conspicuously empty high school has such a high death rate that they have *monthly* memorials for lost students.
Cordelia runs into Xander and Willow, now sexy badass vampires who lick each other and stuff, and then is rescued by the "white hats" : Giles, Larry the football star (!), some girl we’ve never seen before, and Oz (werewolf or not? No conclusive evidence.) I love this detail, and the implied backstory of how this particular arrangement came to be — is there untapped heroism in the normal universe’s Larry? And who is that girl anyway? Where is she in the normal universe?
The girl expresses scorn for Cordelia’s powder blue outfit, not because of
the innate awfulness of powder blue, but because "vampires are attracted to
bright colors." This is another detail that I love. The first time I saw it,
this was when I first consciously noticed that all the humans we had seen were
wearing shades of brown and gray and navy blue, and just how different that
was from the usual Buffy world costuming. I still don’t know if this
little tidbit is supposed to be 1. True in the normal universe, but not seen
as important, 2. True in their shifted universe, but not the normal universe,
or 3. Not true at all, but the sort of superstition that arises naturally under
very stressful situations.
Cordelia babbles about the slayer to both Giles and vampire Xander/Willow, about how she’s "supposed to be here" and they recognize the name — Buffy still exists in this world, and is still a slayer, she just lives in Cleveland. Giles is impressed by the fact that Cordelia knows he’s a watcher, and takes her babbling seriously. He calls Buffy’s watcher in Cleveland and tries to summon the slayer. Meanwhile, vampire Xander and Willow kill Cordelia on the orders of The Master, the first season big bad making a delightful return appearance. Because, of course, in this reality The Master wasn’t killed at the end of season one. Instead he escaped his magical prison, and now rules Sunnydale with an iron, crypto-fascist, undead hand. (Say, what about the mayor in this reality, is he still planning an ascension?)
Buffy makes a great entrance into this world — Giles is on the ground surrounded by vampires, and then suddenly they start disappearing. We don’t see what’s killing them, they just disappear from the shot, there’s some oofing and grunting and smacking, and then we hear the characteristic vamp-dusting sound effect off screen. After the vamps are all dead, there’s a big reveal on alt-world Buffy: grim, cranky, and scarred.
Buffy’s personality in this reality is fascinating — she seems made up of only the dark and cynical aspects of the Buffy personality we know, and she already has depression and combat fatigue of the kind it takes her several more seasons to develop in the normal reality. She makes reference to "not playing well with others" and has deliberately surly, uncouth body language. Was this Buffy raised in Cleveland? What about her mother? What has her life been like?
We never find out much. She and Giles talk — Giles has been researching Cordelia’s pendant and claims that things were supposed to be different, and believes that he can fix reality by summoning Anyanka and destroying her power center. Buffy doesn’t believe the world can be fixed, and decides to try to take out The Master. Only, unlike our Buffy, she isn’t interested in strategy or combining forces or trying to make sure that she wins. She’s just going to go kill him. Or not. And we’re already starting to suspect not.
Buffy hooks up with Angel (who, because Marti Noxon wrote this script, has been shirtlessly tortured a lot by the other vampires). They go to where The Master is revealing his master plan for the master race (okay, not so crypto on the fascist) — automated factory bloodletting. Because, of course, drinking from a wound in the neck is so inefficient and old-fashioned. So, we will let creepy hideous machines do it! Buffy tries to crossbow The Master and fails. Pandemonium ensues.
Giles summons Anyanka.
The climax of the story cuts back and forth between the fight in the factory and Giles and Anyanka. I like her dialogue here — she gets to say high-symbolism things like "Brave new world. I hope she likes it" and "this is the world we made" and make them seem natural.
Meanwhile, in the factory, all the series regulars kill each other in slow motion. Buffy kills Xander. Oz kills Willow. Angel gets dusted. This is a case where the slow motion really helps, because it gives us time to really make note of who’s doing what. It’s heartbreaking when Oz kills Willow, mostly because of the look on his face — he doesn’t even recognize her, she’s just another vampire to him.
And then The Master snaps Buffy’s neck. She falls dramatically just as Giles succeeds in destroying Anyanka’s power center and we start to fade back into normal Sunnydale reality. Which, now, in contrast, seems like a happy fairyland of happiness.
This is also the world we made.