Saturday, April 23, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Homecoming"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of those TV shows in which so much going on in each episode, during each season, and during the series as a whole that it is hard to know where to begin when analysing it. There are the mysteries of the week, the monsters of the week, character developments, seasonal arcs, seasonal big bads, character arcs, and series arcs that need to be explored.

Buffy’s creator Joss Whedon said somewhere that one of the themes of Buffy is that high school (and life after high school as we will see) is hell (for one of Whedon’s statements to this effect see Linda Yovanovich , "Young Blood", OnSat (July 14, 1997); also at Buffy’s writers and craftspeople have repeatedly used high school and the rituals associated with American high schools to emphasise the pain, sorrow, drama, tragedy, melodrama, defeats, and small victories of high school life. In “The Wish” (1/3) we saw that ritual of American schools, cheerleader tryouts, and the pain they can cause in the lives of students and the lives of parents of students. In “Some Assembly Required” (2/2) we saw that American ritual of attending high school football games and the pain being a once upon a time football hero can bring once you are no longer a high school football hero. In “Nightmares” (1/10) and “Faith, Hope, and Trick” (3/3) we saw Buffy taking, well kind of taking in the former, those American high school rituals, tests and the pain they can cause students. In “I Only Have Eyes for You” (2/10) we saw that ritual of American high schools the annual (or once annual) Sadie Hawkins dance and the pain it can cause students and teachers. Wow lots of pain. In “Homecoming” the high school ritual of the moment is all in the title, homecoming.

“Homecoming”, written and directed by David Greenwalt, works, as most Buffy episodes do, on several levels. On the most fundamental and literal level homecoming, that American high school ritual usually centred these days around a football game, is coming to Sunnydale High School and Cordy is one of the students running for homecoming queen. Buffy who has just been dumped by Scott Hope (hope destroyed?), who has missed getting her picture taken for another ritual of high school, the high school yearbook thanks in part to training and in part to Cordy not telling her because she is busy running for homecoming queen, is feeling the pain of what her life used to be. “At Hemery”, she says, “I was Prom Queen, Fiesta Queen, I was on the cheerleading squad—the yearbook was, like, a story of me”. At Sunnydale High, however, Buffy was not prom queen, fiesta queen, cheerleader, and she won’t even have her tiny picture in the yearbook. Buffy is feeling, as she says, like a “nobody”. Angry at Cordy for not telling her that yearbook pictures were being taken Buffy decides to challenge Cordelia for homecoming queen. There is, by the way, a wonderful camera shot that encapsulates Buffy’s current state of loneliness. Just after Scott breaks up with the Buffster the camera, which was focused on Buffy, tracks back further and further providing a visual expression of Buffy’s sense of inner loneliness. This elegant camera shot and movement also links the Buffy the nobody thread to another thread that runs through “Homecoming”, the contest to kill the two Slayers, Buffy and Faith.

Unbeknownst to Buffy and the other Scoobies another contest is taking place in Sunnydale as well simultaneously with the one for homecoming queen. Mr. Trick is back and he is mounting Slayerfest 1998. Trick, as I mentioned in my musings on “Faith, Hope, and Trick” has a bit of the Spike in him. Unlike Spike, however, Mr. Trick is an innovative entrepreneur. In a riff on the humans being hunted motif one finds in short stories and films like “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924 and 1932) Trick is chief entrepreneur of and master of ceremonies for a contest to see who can kill the two Slayers, for a price, of course. Among those paying and vying for the honour of killing the two Slayers is a “Daniel Boone” like figure, a demon, two Germans and their eye in the technological sky, and Lyle Gorch, who we last saw in Bad Eggs (2/12), and his wife, Candy.

The Scoobies have rented a limo for the homecoming dance. They decide to absent themselves from riding in it, however, in order to try to get Buffy and Cordy back together after their combative contest to become homecoming queen. The limo is not taking them to school, however. Instead the limo has been requisitioned by Mr. Trick for Slayerfest 98. So when it stops Mr. Trick, via a TV and video player, introduces the two Slayers, Buffy and a Cordy mistaken for Faith, to the rules of the Slayerfest game. With a shot fired at them Buffy and Cordy begin to run for their lives. After escaping “Daniel Boone” and the demon Buffy and Cordy hole up in a cabin in the woods. Cordy goes into whinging mode but Buffy, thanks to anger management, manages to turn Cordy’s self pity into anger and they eventually make their way back to Sunnydale High and Giles where Buffy dispatches Candy with a spatula and the Germans, thanks to wet toilet paper. Cordy, playing the role of a Slayer quite well, manages to put Slayer fear into Lyle Gorch who once again flees into the night just as he did at the end of “Bad Eggs”. Following their triumph Buffy and Cordy walk into the homecoming dance looking, as Oz so aptly puts it (Oz’s descriptions are generally concise, precise, and apt), like they have just been mud wrestling, to discover that they have lost the homecoming queen contest to Holly Charleston and Michelle Blake.

Like so many Buffy episodes “Homecoming” is tremendously humourous and tremendously tragic all at the same time. An example of the humour first: Faith rallies behind Buffy when Scott dumps her and tells Scott at the homecoming dance, and in front of his date, “Scott, there you are, Honey. Good news—doctor says the itching and the swelling and the burning should clear up, but we gotta keep using the ointment (to his date, nice)”. Another example of humour: the fight scene in the cabin between Buffy and the demon, Kulak, of the Miquot clan, who, when a “grenade” is shot into the cabin by two Germans, tries to jump out of a shuttered window.

I have already talked about the tragedy in “Homecoming” but I want to quote in full Buffy’s wonderful response to Cordy while the two are hiding in a cabin in the woods while fleeing those who want to kill them who has asked her why she wants to be prom queen. “Because”, says Buffy, “this [Slaying] is all I do. This is what my life is, fighting monsters no one even knows about while everyone else gets to... I thought Homecoming Queen, I could open a yearbook someday and say "I was there. I went to high school and had friends and for one minute, I got to live in the world." And there'd be proof. Proof that I was chosen for something other than this. (holds up gun)... besides (pumps shell in gun)... I look cute in a tiara”. Immense tragedy in the midst of superb comedy.

As Buffy so often does “Homecoming” has several surprises in store for us, surprises that we retrospectively recognise were being laid down for us in season two. It becomes clear why those comments about the mayor in season two’s “I Only Have Eyes for You” (2/19), “Becoming” (2/21 and 2/22), and season three’s “Dead Man’s Party” (3/2) were so important. In “Homecoming” we finally get to meet this mayor Principal Snyder and the Police Chief have been talking about, Mayor Richard Wilkens III. Wilkens is keeping an eye of the German “terrorists” Frederick and Hans Gruenshtahler. Initially this seems like what any good mayor would do but there is something odd about the cleanliness is next to godliness (“let me see your hands”, “moist towelette”) Mayor Richard Wilkens III. This sense that something is askew with the Mayor becomes clear at the end of “Homecoming”. At the end of the episode Wilkens has a couple of his officers pick up and bring Mr. Trick in to his office for an interview. Instead of asking Mr. Trick, who Wilkens knows is a vampire to leave town (Buffy uses vampirism as a metaphor for racial intolerance here) Wilkens asks the “enterprising” Wilkens to go to work for him helping him control the “rebellious” youth element in town (the Scoobies) in this important year of his life. The introduction of the mayor really, as we will soon see, kicks the third season arc into gear.

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