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BtVS top 10: #4-- Conversations with Dead People

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  • BtVS top 10: #4-- Conversations with Dead People

    “Conversations with Dead People” follows five different storylines, all of which trace back to the First Evil. Not having been to film school, I can’t say that much about the technical aspects of drawing the plots together, except that people are interacting with the dead across Sunnydale and, in all five cases, it’s even weirder than usual. The music helps create thematic bridges across the plots, as does a similar progression: Everything starts off normal enough by Sunnydale standards, then keeps getting weirder and weirder until Hell breaks loose.

    The degree to which the storylines fit together and move the season arc forward is even more impressive when you consider how well “Conversations” doubles as a character study. I didn’t watch BtVS until 2005, but I’d bet the early fandom produced a lot of bad jokes about the characters needing therapists. Here, the joke (which I’m sure Holden and Buffy would describe as “ironic”) is not so much that Buffy needs a therapist as that she needs a vampire to be her therapist, and to listen to the reasons why she can’t stand her interest in vampires.

    Despite its reliance on just-need-killing monsters of the week, BtVS delivered a couple of great rarely-seen or one-off characters. The First Slayer is one; Holden Webster is the other. Even though he never shares a scene with Spike, he demonstrates the kind of depth and contradictions that make it impossible for Buffy to pretend that relationship didn’t matter. They also parallel Spike’s development: Like Spike, Holden has gained a lot of aggression and a desire to “defy God and all his works,” yet hasn’t forgotten all his past relationships and interests. Spike held onto his belief in true love; Holden still values self-knowledge.

    “There are some things you can only tell a stranger,” Holden tells Buffy; but who qualifies as a stranger? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there are some things you can only tell someone who lack the expectations of your peers. It’s reminiscent of her relationship with Spike in early season 6: Buffy, called to defend humanity, can only voice her inner doubts to a nonhuman. She can be alone with him here.

    I don’t think every theory she dredges up to explain her neuroses to Holden is accurate, and that’s okay: She’s resisted self-examination before, so you’d expect a lot of guesses to sift through. In particular, I think it’s inaccurate to blame her attraction to “impossible” men on daddy issues, since Hank was still a significant figure in her life when she fell for Angel. (Recall that she lived with him for three months between seasons one and two, and was surprised when he didn’t take her to the Icecapades for her birthday in season 3.) I do think that Hank’s eventual abandonment of her and Dawn left a mark on her approach to father figures and makes Giles’s late-season choices much worse for her. If she’d had a reliable father for emotional support, would she have ever leaned so heavily on Giles? On a practical level, she might not have died at Glory’s tower if hiding Dawn with their father had been a viable plan. This would lead almost anyone to feel bitter, and it’s proof of Buffy’s repression that she hasn’t directly addressed her resentment before.

    Surprise: The most action-filled plot of the evening goes to Dawn. In some ways, it’s great: Dawn is determined and gutsy, but she also knows her limits and can accept that she needs help, and her kryptonite is a vision of Joyce. She’s come a long way since Willow made fun of the concept of “little Miss Summers” learning magic– and so have her protectors. Kudos to Michelle Trachtenberg for giving such a convincing performance of terror and courage that the ultra-cheesy possessed electronics feel like real threats. On the other hand, the powers that the First shows here don’t show up nearly enough during the rest of the season. Where does its telekinesis go? Its ability to induce visions of anything (like the blood on the wall) other than dead people?

    Willow doesn’t get suspicious anywhere near as soon as would be sensible, IMO, but I think it makes sense for Willow. I mean, I saw that “Cassie” was trying to lead Willow into a despair as soon as she declared that her crimes kept her from keeping Tara. However, having cut herself off from her dark powers, Willow has reverted to the insecurities of her adolescence, with the added guilt of knowing she tried to destroy the world. In that context, it makes sense that she would expect to be considered unworthy to see ghost!Tara.

    The fourth plot of the evening is Spike’s reversion to killing. It would’ve been easy for the show to go “FANGS AND TERROR!” from the moment he walked into the bar, or just to give him the air of a sleazy PUA. Instead, he comes across as genuinely changed while luring and interacting with his future victim: He’s huddled in a little on himself, laughs and smiles amiably, and ambles rather than struts by her side. I don’t love the song-trigger subplot, or how much time it takes this season, but I do appreciate how this episode both makes his final actions a complete shock and drops hints that Spike isn’t following his old M.O. in his new kills.

    My least favorite plot by far follows Andrew and Jonathan as they return to Sunnydale. Jonathan wants to find redemption; Andrew instead sacrifices Jonathan on the goat-tongue seal on behalf of “Warren.” Sure, the actors are good, and Jonathan’s isolation from his now-former classmates still feels poignant after four years… but we’ve seen it before, and it’s not like I was going around thinking, “Hey, what’s up with Andrew Wells?” It feels like a distraction from the main characters, one that doesn’t have much of a payoff, since Jonathan’s anemia means that Andrew fails to open the Hellmouth anyway. Between the Potentials, Robin Wood, and Andrew, I wonder if the writers were trying to distract us from the shattered ensemble of main characters: There’s little reason for the Scoobies to even like one another anymore.

    Perhaps that’s why this is the best episode of the season, as it’s one of the few to acknowledge their increasing distance from one another while tying them together with motifs and music. Buffy gets to say things she’d never say around the Scoobies. “Tara” comforts Willow in ways that the surviving Scoobies wouldn’t be able to reach her. Left on her own, Dawn shows us her scrappy, stubborn side. Spike, broken and adrift, reveals the weaknesses of a lone wolf who was never very capable of handling loneliness: No one else has asked him the hard questions about how his re-ensoulment was working, and he hasn’t gotten up the nerve to ask them of himself. We’re left to wonder how about the accuracy of Holden’s advice:
    “But, Buffy, you are alone. Everyone is. Until you die.”