Saturday, July 2, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Earshot"

“Earshot” was written by Jane Espenson and directed by Regis B. Kimble. As I think I have mentioned before Espenson, who is often singled out for praise for her comedy writing in Buffy alone is one one of my favourite Buffy writers. While Espenson does deserve praise for her wonderful and intelligent comedy in Buffy she also, as “Earshot” shows, deserves praise for her superb dramatic and tragic writing. "Earshot", in my not so humble opinion, is one of the finest moments of television I have ever seen.

On the most obvious level “Earshot” is about how Buffy takes on an “aspect” of a Scabby Demon she kills—another escapes—in the teaser of the episode when the blood of this demon is absorbed into our Slayers hand. The “aspect” of the demon Buffy takes on, as we soon learn, is the ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around her.

At first Buffy and Giles are excited by Buffy’s new telepathic abilities. “It would”, says Giles, “be useful. You can anticipate an opponent's moves, turn their plans against them...” But Buffy has other ideas about the uses to which she can put her new found telepathic abilities: “Oh, way better than that”, she responds to Giles. So what is “better” than the ability to know your enemy’s moves and his plans? Well for Buffy it’s being able to astutely engage in a discussion of Shakepeare’s Othello in English class thanks to her ability to hear what others, including her teacher Ms. Murray, are thinking and her ability to hear, or so Buffy thinks (she actually can’t hear Angel’s thoughts because, while Angel’s thoughts are, as he says, there, they give off no “reflection”), what Angel is really thinking. Buffy is particularly interested in hearing Angel’s mind after last weeks charade in “Enemies” during which which Angel masqueraded as Angelus and feigned a sexual interest in Faith, a charade with enough ambiguity to make Buffy go into jealousy mode. The fact that “Earshot” cuts from a Shakespeare play about jealousy (Iago manipulating the jealousies of Othello) and about doubles (Iago as the dark double of Othello) to a Buffy and Angel scene that centres, in part, on jealousy—Buffy’s jealousy of the Angel and Faith relationship—and doppelgangers—Faith is the dark double of Buffy—should not be lost on thoughtful viewers.

The darkness of Shakespeare’s Othello prefigures where “Earshot”, which has been largely a comedy up to this point, is about to go. What Buffy and Giles initially thought was going to be a plus—the ability to hear what others are thinking and planning—now becomes a disability for Buffy as “Earshot” moves increasingly into dramatic and tragic territory. The voices Buffy hears are full of loneliness, self-doubt, cynicism, obsession, and pain. Individual Sunnydale High School students, including our Scoobies, are obsessed with their and others bodies, depressed because no one notices them (Jonathan), obsessed with dating (Cordy), obsessed with sex (Xander), philosophical (Oz), and rent through with expectations and the psychological discontents such expectations bring (Nancy). Faculty members think one thing and say another and are deeply cynical about students. Watcher Wesley is obsessed with “jail bait”, as Faith puts it in “Bad Girls”/”Consequences”, Cordelia. And someone, as Buffy discovers in the cafeteria during lunchtime, is planning to kill the students at Sunnydale High School.

Who that someone is who intends to kill the students of Sunnydale High is not clear to our Slayer because Buffy is no longer able to distinguish one voice from another. Giles is worried that if a cure for Buffy’s telepathy overload isn’t found soon our Slayer will go crazy. Learning that what has happened to Buffy recently happened to a man in Ecuador whose only salvation is total isolation, Giles and Wesley take Buffy home. But they are unable to isolate her even there. The bedridden Buffy hears the thoughts of her mom—“You had sex with Giles!...On the hood of a police car? Twice?!” (“Band Candy” comes back to haunt)—and the pained voices of her neighbours as they think about their marital infidelities, their crappy jobs, and their alcohol abuse. Learning that Buffy’s cure requires the heart of the Scabby Demon Buffy did not kill Giles and Wesley send Buffy’s knight in shining army, Angel, off in search of the demon. Angel succeeds in killing the demon, brings the demon heart to Giles and Wesley who use it to create a glowing liquid which Angel helps Buffy drink. It works. Just in the nick of time our Slayer is cured.

While Giles, Wes, and Angel attempt to find a cure for a mentally suffering Buffy Willow (now the leader), Oz, Cordelia, and Xander go into full interrogation mode to try to find out who is planning to kill the students of Sunnydale. Xander interrogates Larry who is now out of the closet. Cordy forthrightly asks teacher Mr. Beach if he is planning on killing students “tomorrow”. Oz uses Willow’s “murder questionnaires” to interrogate Sunnydale High basketball star Hogan Martin. When he tries to interrogate the cynical editor of the Sunnydale High School newspaper, the Sentinel, Freddy Iverson, however, Freddy studiously avoids him (eventually we find out that Freddy has written a negative review of a performance by Oz’s band, Dingoes Ate My Baby). Is Freddy the killer to be? Willow interrogates Nancy (Nancy, by the way, was one of the White Hats in “The Wish) and Jonathan just as she interrogated him in “Go Fish”. This time she asks him if he has been using magicks to “make it so people don't ignore you. Make them pay attention.” He hasn’t been this time but wait until season fours “Superstar”, another Jane Espenson penned script (Espenson, by the way, has said in interviews how Jonathan is one of her favourite Buffyverse characters). It is not until the Scoobies, including Buffy, corner Freddy Iverson in the newspaper office that they learn that the person they are looking for, or think they are looking for, is Jonathan.

It is Buffy who finds Jonathan in the Sunnydale High School tower holding a rifle. The resulting scene is one of my favourites in the seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, in my opinion, one of the greatest scenes in television and film history):
Jonathan is putting the rifle together. The muzzle protrudes over the edge of the tower.
Buffy runs on the roof. She reaches the edge of the tower and JUMPS...
...CRASHING through into the tower. Buffy LANDS, ROLLS right into the line of fire of the rifle.
Get away from me!
She comes up slow, eyes on him.
Okay, Jonathan, you wanna point
that somewhere else?
You better not try and stop me.
No. No stopping. I'm just here for the
view. Hey look, city hall.
Go away.
Never gonna happen.
You think I won't use this?
I don't know, Jonathan, I'm just --
Stop doing that!
Doing what?
Stop saying my name like we're friends.
We're not friends. You all think I'm an
idiot. A short idiot.
I don't.
His hands tighten on the gun. He's getting angry.
I don't think about you much at all.
Most people here don't. Bugs you,
doesn't it? You've got all this pain,
all these feelings and nobody's
paying attention.
You think I just want attention?
No, I think you're in the bell tower
with a high powered rifle because you
want to blend in. Believe it or not, Jonathan,
I understand. About the pain.
Oh, right. 'Cause the burden of being
beautiful and athletic, that's a crippler.
I'm sorry, I was wrong. You are an idiot.
This stops him.
My life happens very occasionally to
suck beyond the telling of it. More than
I can stand sometimes. And not just me.
Every single person down there is
ignoring your pain because they're way
too busy with their own. The beautiful
ones, the popular ones, the guys that
pick on you... everyone.
She comes around to look down at the courtyard. He looks as well, his grip on the gun loosening.
If you could hear what they're feeling -
the confusion, the loneliness... It looks
quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening.
They stand side by side for a moment, looking down.
You know I could have taken the
gun by now.
I know.
(holds out her hand)
Rather do it this way.
Slowly, he hands her the gun. Her hand is shaking a little as she takes it and unloads it.
I just wanted it to stop.
Well, mass murder is not actually
doctor recommended for this kind
of pain. And by the way, prison? A
lot like high school, only instead
of noogies --
What are you talking about?
Actions having consequences, stuff
like that --
I wouldn't ever hurt anybody. I came up here to kill myself.

This scene with its pain, its drama, its tragedy, its little bit of humour, its superb acting, its superb writing, and its existentialism and humanism, is, in miniature, everything I love about Buffy.

It is also a bit of misdirection. Jonathan intends not to kill Sunnydale High School students but himself. It is Xander who, thanks to his taste for jello, discovers that it is the lunch lady who plans to kill Sunnydale’s “vermin” students, as she calls them, with rat poison. Xander seeing this runs into the lunchroom spilling the plates of students so they don’t eat anything with the poison in it. Lunch Lady follows him with cleaver in hand. Just as the lunch lady is about to take a cleaver to Xander its Buffy to the rescue. Another “monster” of the week dealt with. Sunnydale High School saved by Buffy and the Scoobies once again.

“Earshot” ends with another scene I adore: Giles and Buffy walk across the grounds of Sunnydale High School talking.
How are you?
Lovin' the quiet. Nobody in here but me.
And Jonathan? How is he doing?
Pretty crappy. His parents are freaking,
he's suspended, and toting a piece to
school not exactly earning him a place
with the 'in' crowd. But I think he's dealing.
It's good of you to check up on him.
It's nice to be able to help someone in
a non-slaying capacity. But he's starting
to get that look, like he's gonna ask me
to the prom.
Well, you know, it would probably help
his self esteem if –
What am I, Saint Buffy? He's like three
feet tall.
Good to see you've emerged from
your psychic adventure more or less
intact. Feel up to some training?
Sure. We can work out after school.
You know, if you're not too busy

So what do I love about this scene? I love its humour. I love Buffy’s memory—this is as you careful nonreaders know a flashback to a moment in “Band Candy that was somewhat ambiguous. I love it that Buffy doesn't become Saint Buffy.

While “Earshot” is largely a monster (Scabby Demon, Lunch Lady) and mystery of the week (who is plotting to kill the students of Sunnydale High) episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer it does also move several series, seasonal, and character arcs along: the Buffy/Angel on/off romance is back on, the Cordy/Wes romance that may be may yet be, Xander continues to be obsessed with sex, Cordy, we learn, says what she thinks, Oz, in addition to being stoical loves to riff philosophical on Descartes, and despite what the Scoobies learned from Faith last week about the mayor and his ascension plans our Slayer and slayerettes are still in the dark about exactly what the ascension is.

I want to end on a historical note. The broadcast of “Earshot’s” was delayed by the WB until the fourth season (21 September 1999; it was originally supposed to have been 27 April) because of the shootings at Columbine High School near Denver, Colorado occurred just before the episode was supposed to have been broadcast in late April (20 April 1999). Many commentators have noted the irony in the cancellation of an episode which so profoundly and humanely explores the mental anguish of high school loneliness, pain, and outsiderness. But on the other hand Xander does rather flippantly ask “who hasn't just idly thought about taking out the whole place (Sunnydale High School) with a semi-automatic?” And who hasn't?

1 comment:

  1. Whatever happened to the man in Ecuador? They just forgot all about him.