I almost lost hope I'd ever finish this rewatch... but I never give up on my projects, I just postpone them. It was just a matter of something making me get off my butt... or rather, making me get on my butt in front of my computer and forcing me to write. And finally, that something happened several months ago, when my dear friends and fellow Buffy fans on the Buffyforums.net forum started a collective Buffy rewatch, which I have been participating in, with each of us picking an episode, two or three each season to review, as a starting point for discussion.
If you want to join in, register, if you don't, you can lurk and read our reviews and discussions:
Buffy rewatch season 1: http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
Buffy rewatch season 2: http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
Buffy rewatch season 3: http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
This has given me the boost to get back to Buffy, rewatch it from the beginning, and try to continue where I've left.
There's no need to write new reviews for the episodes I've already covered - for most of them, the new rewatch did not change my opinion significantly. You can find the review of the Buffy movie, "The Origin" comic, all season 1 and 2 episodes as well as season overviews, as well as the first 10 episodes of season 3, on my Livejournal under the "Buffy rewatch" tag, and most of them are also on Dreamwidth under the "Buffy rewatch" tag. You can also find them on TrekBBS forum on my rewatch thread: http://www.trekbbs.com/
I've also written several new and improved reviews for some of the season 2 and 3 episodes I've already reviewed here:
2.10 What's My Line, part 2 http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
2.19 I Only Have Eyes For You http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
2.22 Becoming, part 2 http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
3.04 Beauty and the Beasts http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
3.09 The Wish http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/
3.10 Amends http://www.buffyforums.net/
Now that I've caught up with where I was when I made this embarrassingly, shockingly long break, I intend to continue with my reviews. I've rewatched almost to the end of season 3, and I will be posting the reviews for the second part of Buffy (episodes 3.11 - 3.22) of season 3 over the next week or two. After that, I hope to settle into posting an episode review each week - a reasonably realistic schedule, and parallel with the Buffyforums group rewatch, which is also one episode a week. (Though I must say in advance that this may mean no episode for two weeks and then a couple in a row, for instance - since my job is such that I can have free time at times and then be terribly busy once I get the new translation task and a tight deadline - it's all unpredictable.)
Right - so, let's start, or rather continue, with episode 3.11.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Gingerbread. There are lots of things I really like about this episode, but there also some aspects of it that severely bug me. I think my opinion of the episode is still mostly positive, but I can see why it has quite a few haters.
Jane Espenson’s first episode of Buffy is a pretty effective and biting satire. Granted, its satirizing of the conservative elements of society, such as the associations of “concerned parents” intent on censorship, about mass hysteria and witch hunts (and in this case, it’s even literally a witch hunt), complete with bullying of the outcasts by some students, and violations of privacy through the raids of pupils’ lockers by the police in search of drugs (in this case, “witch” stuff), organized by the student-hating, disciplinarian principal Snyder, is not terribly original… but I’d be lying if I said it’s not still enjoyable to watch. (And you have to laugh when you hear that Joyce’s concerned parents’ organization is called MOO – Mothers Opposing the Occult – worst acronym ever?)
But this episode also brings up an issue that I don’t think I’ve seen often dealt with (and this is what I like best about the episode) – the phenomenon that nowadays the best way to manipulate the public through feelings of outrage and to cause irrational witch hunts is to use images of children –specifically, cute, angelic-looking, white, and, preferably, blonde children – which maximizes the outrage the public can feel about those who are alleged to have harmed them. (Recently, the excellent Danish film The Hunt also dealt with the irrational and terrifying behavior of a contemporary community when one of its members is falsely accused of sexually molesting children – on really flimsy evidence, which doesn’t prevent everyone from jumping to the conclusion that he’s guilty.) Buffy herself is, at first, as outraged as her mother and everyone else by the murder of the “children”, but later, seeing the community’s behavior, starts wondering why everyone is this outraged this one time, even though people are being killed every day, and delivers my favorite line in the episode when Angel tries to explain the reasons behind people’s behavior (referencing another recent victim):
Angel: They were children. Innocent. It makes a difference.
Buffy: And Mr. Sanderson from the bank had it coming?
Espenson drives the point home through her fun reinterpretation of the “Hansel and Gretel” fairy tale as a real life story which was really an example of an evil demon using an illusion to present himself as a couple of cute children, in order to cause mass hysteria in various communities, and make people turn on each other.
There’s also some harsh satire in the portrayal of Willow’s mother Sheila (who appears in the show for the first and the last time, though she will be mentioned later), a caricature of a “liberal” intellectual (probably a psychologist) whose abstract talk about adolescent behavior (apparently her area of expertise) is in sharp contrast to her complete neglect and lack of interest in her own daughter. (She takes several months to notice Willow’s change of hairstyle, and can’t get the name of Willow’s best friend right, constantly calling her “Bunny”.) Willow’s lack of self-esteem certainly becomes easier to understand once we’ve met Sheila.
But while Sheila is portrayed as straight-up bad mother, Joyce is a more complicated case. She really cares about Buffy, wants to be a part of her life, and feels frustrated because she’s excluded from a big part of Buffy’s life – slaying. It’s also understandable that Joyce doesn’t like the fact that her teenage daughter is risking her life every night. And in this episode, she makes an effort – a very brave, if also very ill-advised and clumsy effort – to get closer to Buffy and understand her better, by visiting her while Buffy is doing her Slayer duty. However, after Joyce reacts very strongly to finding what seem to be dead bodies of the two unknown children, and feels compelled to do something about it, her behavior starts becoming more and more disturbing. The first moment where Joyce crosses the line is already at the meeting of her new organization, presided by the Mayor (who has a very small role in the episode, but once more proves to be a skillful and charming populist), when she warns the other citizens that the town is not a good place and what “we have lost it” (who is “we”? Normal people?), and that “it belongs to the monsters and witches and Slayers.” She lumps her daughter, who’s fighting against evil, with the forces of evil. We later find out that she has probably been under the influence of the demon all along – and the influence was probably growing and making her act more and more irrationally; but the influence didn’t create those feelings in her, it seems to have only augmented them. It’s unclear how strong the demon’s influence is at this point; it’s evidently really strong a bit later, when we see that Joyce doesn’t blink twice at the fact that the two “dead kids” are talking to her and telling her what to do (and this seems to have been going on for a while). Despite the comedic tone of much of the episode, it becomes really dark by the time that Joyce, Sheila and a bunch of other parents are calmly and self-righteously preparing to burn Buffy, Willow and another witch (magic practitioner), Amy, at the stake – behaving as if they’re just grounding them or delivering some other regular form of punishment. The most disturbing moment is when Joyce tells Buffy, who’s tied up at the stake and begging her to stop doing it: “I wanted a normal, happy daughter. Instead I got a Slayer.” And you know that this is exactly how Joyce always feels, deep inside, even though she normally would not say it. (It becomes even more disturbing when you remember the “Have you tried not being a Slayer?” scene from the season 2 finale, which drew heavy parallels between Buffy revealing to her mother that she’s a Slayer, and a teenager coming out of the closet to their parent.)
The way Gingerbread portrays the dark side of parenting is quite ballsy. It’s suggesting that, for many, the care and protectiveness of abstract, dead, “perfect” children (who represent the ideal of the sweet and innocent Child – which is helped by the lack of any information about them) is a compensation for the failures to accept their real, flesh and blood, living, “imperfect”, “disobedient”, “abnormal” children, who get labelled as “bad”.
Now, onto the problems I have with this episode. For one thing, I find the premise – that there hasn’t been a child murder in Sunnydale for a long time, despite the extremely high mortality rates and the abundance of supernatural monsters (in addition to the human ones – there’s no reason to think that there’s less of them in Sunnydale compared to everywhere else) rather unrealistic. Buffy’s initial reaction is pretty naive – she asks Giles, with outrage, “Someone WITH A SOUL did this?!” Come on, Buffy – you’ve never heard of human serial killers, child molesters, child murderers?
Another, even bigger problem just how extreme the behavior of the parents gets – specifically Joyce, and the way it’s eventually brushed aside as just a result of the demon’s influence. I don’t know how to feel about Joyce’s characterization in this episode. On one hand, it’s good that the show was willing to reveal the dark side of Joyce’s middle class mom who wants a “normal” daughter and has trouble accepting her as she is… but I feel that they may have gone too far with it. Burning your daughter on a stake and talking about it as an acceptable and desirable parental punishment, while chatting casually about dinner plans… that’s going a little bit too far. Watching this makes me think - this is why it was often so hard to like Joyce, before the show did its best to make her more likable in season 5. I think it should have been made clearer to what extent she was responsible or not responsible for her actions, and, most importantly, there should have been a follow-up scene of Buffy and Joyce talking about it. Even The Pack in season 1 had more follow-up to the Hyena!Xander storyline. Here, Willow just says that Sheila will do the “selective memory thing” that Joyce used to when ignoring all the supernatural things that have happened. But what about Joyce and her actions? (Sheila’s actions would require more comments if it wasn’t obvious that we’re supposed to dislike her.) We get no comment on that whatsoever, in this or any subsequent episode.
Though it doesn’t have much to do with the overall plot of season 3 (Faith is not in it, the Mayor has just a cameo), the episode fits in this season since it’s another one that deals with the theme of Sunnydale community, which season 3 focuses on much more than the previous two.
There’s another continuity nod to Band Candy, with the continued awkwardness and embarrassment between Giles and Joyce; and some follow-up on the revelation about Willow/Xander, although Xander’s awkwardness is a little OTT in the episode (something that often happens in Espenson episodes in order to heighten the comedic effect). However, Xander and Oz teaming up to try and save Willow and Buffy probably means that they have made up and put the “clothes fluke” behind. Cordelia is on the fringes of the group, but starts slowly coming back to the fold when she teams up with Giles.
Cordelia asking Giles how many times he’s been knocked unconscious is a meta moment of the show acknowledging the silliness of this happening repeatedly. As Cordelia correctly points out, it wouldn't be surprising if he had brain damage by this point.
We find out that Willow has been doing a lot of magic lately – together with her new friends, Amy and Michael – a boy who is introduced in this episode, and will never be seen again in the show. Amy has now dyed her hair black and has a Gothic look, just like Michael. This is the first, and I believe the last time in the show that practicing magic is connected to the Goth subculture – which is used in the scene in the school where Michael is bullied and suspected of murder by a group of boys; a clear case of attacking someone just for being different. It’s not completely clear if the reason is just Michael’s practice of magic, or even his Goth look – or if it’s also because of his androgynous look. After all, Amy also practices magic and wears Goth clothes and makeup, but they are not attacking her.
Poor Amy – unlike Willow, she’s repeatedly portrayed as something of a screw-up when it comes to magic. In Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, her spell backfired; something even worse happens here, when she turns herself into a rat in order to escape the mob (it’s unclear if that was her intention, or if she wanted to turn the mob into rats) – and then there’s no one to turn her back into a human. (This is a call-back to her turning Buffy into a rat in BBB.) She will remain a rat for three years – until season 6 episode Smashed (with a brief change back and forth during season 4 Something Blue) – which is quite tragic, but will be treated as a running joke on the show.
Xander: Look, everyone expects me to mess up again. Like Oz. I see how he is around me. You know, that steely gaze... that pointed silence.
Buffy: 'Cause he's usually such a chatterbox.
Xander: No, but it's different now. It's more a verbal nonverbal. He speaks volumes with his eyes.
Xander: Wait, Hansel and Gretel? Breadcrumbs, ovens, gingerbread house?
Giles: Of course. It makes perfect sense.
Buffy: Yeah, it's all falling into place. Of course that place is nowhere near this place.
Buffy: Is she? Is Sunnydale any better than when I first came here? Okay, so I battle evil. But I don't really win. The bad keeps coming back and getting stronger. Like that kid in the story, the boy that stuck his finger in the duck.
Angel: Dike. (Buffy looks at him, shocked.) It's another word for dam.
Buffy: Oh. Okay, that story makes a lot more sense now.
Giles: We need to save Buffy from Hansel and Gretel.
Cordelia: Now, let's be clear. The brain damage happened *before* I hit you.
Cordelia (after seeing the demon in the form of the two cute little children morph into one huge, scary 7 foot demon) : Okay, I think I liked the two little ones more than the one big one.
Pop culture references: Apart from fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk, there’s also a reference to Apocalypse Now – by Snyder, who says “I love the smell of desperate librarian in the morning” (which is interesting, since Xander will have a dream about Snyder-as-Kurtz in season 4 finale Restless), as well as the 1960s TV show Mister Rogers: apparently, Sheila Rosenberg likes to discuss “the patriarchal bias” of that show with Willow, “with King Friday lording it over all the lesser puppets”. O-kay.
Destroying the English language: or, as I like to think, deconstructing it – Buffy says: “"My mom had said some things to me about being the slayer. That it's fruitless. No fruit for Buffy."
Foreshadowing: Angel (who has a one scene cameo in the episode) and Buffy have a nice conversation where he paraphrases what she told him in Amends: “There's a lot I don't understand. But I do know it's important to keep fighting. I learned that from you. (…) We never win. (…) Not completely. But that’s not why we fight. We do it because there are things worth fighting for. Those kids… their parents…” It resonates with the themes of AtS and Angel’s famous speech from season 2 of AtS: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do”, as well as the series finale of AtS.
Cordelia’s funny line to Giles: “One of these times, you’re gonna wake up in a coma!” becomes (unintentional) foreshadowing in hindsight, knowing what eventually happens to Cordelia on AtS.