Saturday, June 18, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Gingerbread"

If season two’s “Killed by Death” was the first of the great fairy tale episodes of Buffy season three’s “Gingerbread” is the second. “Hush” from season four will, as we will see, be the third.

Buffy, as I have said many times before, works on a number of levels—narrative (including the visual narrative), metaphorical, comedic, referential or intertextual, to name a few—and it is almost impossible to analyse any episode of Buffy with anything approaching the thoroughness and completeness it deserves particulary in a short essay like this. So as is generally the case in these brief musings I will focus on certain aspects of “Gingerbread”.

“Gingerbread”, written by Jane Espenson (from a story by Espenson and Thania St. John) and directed by James Whitmore, Jr., like so many episodes of Buffy, centres upon a mystery. In “Gingerbread” the mystery is who killed the little children Joyce finds on and near the merry-go-round in one of Sunnydale’s parks while she is doing Parent-Slayer night with Buffy in the teaser of the episode?

Like so many episodes of Buffy there is a monster of the week in “Gingerbread”. At first it appears that the monster of the “Gingerbread” week is a group of humans, a group of human’s practicising occult magicks. It is these humans who appear at first to have killed the kids leaving their witchy mark on the palms of their prey in the process.

As Buffy and Giles began to peel off the layers to this mystery it appears that Amy (she’s back), Michael (what is the male of witches, asks Cordy), and our Willow may be these human monsters of the week Buffy is looking for particularly after we see Amy, Michael, and Willow dressed in witch/warlock garb engaged in a spell that utilizes the mark that we saw on the palms of the dead children in the teaser.

But as is so often the case in mysteries and in Buffy’s, in particular, appearances can sometimes be deceiving. And this is where a second level of “Gingerbread kicks into gear. The “Gingerbread” of the title—Buffy’s titles almost always have an important meaning in the context of the episodes—refers to the gingerbread of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, early nineteenth century collectors both of German language fairy tales. As we learn at the end of act two the real monster of the week in “Gingerbread” is Hansel and Gretel, the subjects of a fairy tale collected by the Grimm's and published in 1812.

While the Hansel and Gretel of the Grimm’s tale wondered into the woods and were imprisoned by an evil witch when they happened upon a gingerbread house the witch used to entice her young victims, the Hansel and Gretel, “Little Boy” and “Little Girl”, of “Gingerbread” are really a demon who thrives on fostering hatred and persecution and watching a community tear itself apart. They have been bringing hatred and persecution to villages and towns around the world every fifty years since 1649.

The community that the Little Boy and Little Girl are fostering hatred and persecution in this time is, of course, our Sunnydale, California. As we learn at the end of act two the Little Boy and Little Girl of “Gingerbread” are appearing to the adults of Sunnydale, Joyce Summers and Sheila Rosenberg (the first time we see Willow’s mum) included, turning them, in the course of the episode, into a vigilante mob who have the lockers of Sunnydale High students searched, have offending students at Sunnydale High disciplined when their lockers contain the stuff of the occult, have Giles’s “occult” books burned, and have the practitioners of the “occult” including Willow, Amy, and Michael, attacked

When the Scoobies discover that the Little Boy and Little Girl without parents are a demon the Scoobies morph into action mode. Xander and Oz not surprisingly head off to save Willow and discovering that she has been taken to City Hall by the mob for vigilante justice. Buffy and Giles go to the Summers hose to tell Joyce what is going on. Buffy is rendered unconscious while Giles is knocked unconscious yet again, something Cordela notes when after she repeatedly slaps Giles before he awakes (“Now let's be clear, the brain damage happened before I hit you” she remarks after Giles tells her they have to save Buffy from Hansel and Gretel). A awakened Giles and Cordelia head to City Hall in Giles’s Citroen while Cordy prepares the mixture that will reveal the Little Boy and Little Girl for the demon they are.

In the meantime the mob has tied Buffy, Willow, and Amy to the stake and set them alight to exact justice from the “bad girls” (this is not the last time we will see bad girls in season three). Amy does her “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (the season two episode) spell turning herself into a rat this time thereby escaping the fires of the vigilante mob. Buffy and Willow are not so lucky. But they have Giles and Cordy on their side who arrive and pour water on the burning pyres and break the spell cast by Hansel and Gretel revealing the Little Boy and Little Girl for the misogyny monster they are returning things to normal, well not quite. When the demon attacks Buffy the Buffster manages to break the stake she was tied to and kill the demon by using the giant stake as a weapon.

“Gingerbread” ends with Mrs. Rosenberg inflicted with the same selective memory that inflicted Joyce and many other Sunnydale residents in the past returning Willow’s home life back to normal. Well almost. Once again Willow’s mum is not taking much of an interest in her daughter though she has told Willow to invite her musician boyfriend to dinner. In the final scene Willow and Buffy are performing a spell in Willow’s house to try to “de-rat” Amy. But the spell doesn’t work and so the Buffster suggests they get Rat-Amy one of those wheel thingies.

As is so often the case with Buffy and genre—Buffy’s writers generally put a spin on the genre tales they use as clay—this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer puts a nice little spin on fairy tales. “Gingerbread” turns the Hansel and Gretel tale upside down turning Hansel and Gretel, who were the victims of an evil witch in the folk tale, into a misogyny demon that persecutes innocent witches. Buffy as feminist.

Turning the fairy tale upside down isn't the thing going on in “Gingerbread”. There is also the evil spirit of McCarthite witch-hunts and religious book burning and conspiracy theories about occult ritual killings hovering over “Gingerbread”, both things from America’s recent past and Buffy present. A similar spirit will show up in the Angel episode “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been” written by Tim Minear.

There is another aspect of “Gingerbread” that ties into a major theme of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in general that I want to talk about briefly before I end this brief musing. Since the beginning of Buffy Buffy has had an internal monologue about whether she wants to give up her “normal” life for the life of a Slayer and the responsibilities that Slayerhood entails. “Gingerbread” puts a spin on this issue and adds another layer to Buffy’s debate within herself about Slayerhood and Slayerness. In act two Joyce tells Buffy that all that she does in fighting the things that go bump in the Sunnydale night the vampires just keep on coming. Buffy, she says, does not have a plan. She simply reacts. She, in other words, can’t win.

Buffy takes what Joyce says to heart and begins to question whether what she does every night is having any effect in war against evil in Sunnydale. It is Angel who, when they run into each in the park in which the Little Boy and Little Girl have died, who gives an answer that seems to satisfy Buffy, at least for the moment (and points forward to the last several episodes of Angel). Angel tells Buffy that they can never win, that they are simply like Hans Brinker putting their finger in the leaking dyke of evil, but that fighting the good fight is inherently worth it. Angel also gives Buffy the answer to the mystery that dominates “Gingerbread”, who the monster of the week is when he mentions Little Boy’s and Little Girl’s parents.

I want to close with a brief discussion of the relationship issues that have been prominent in season three up to this point. Despite the fact that there appeared to be some Hollywood like closure to some of the relationship problems that have wound their way through series three of Buffy in “Amends” not every relationship has come to a happy or not so happy conclusion yet. Xander is oh so sensitive to accusations that he always knows where Willow is and what she is up to. Joyce and Giles continue to be uncomfortable with one another. Is there something we missed in “Band Candy”? Well, at the risk of alienating you dear unreaders, we will find out.

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