Saturday, August 18, 2012

Buffy Blog: "Family"

Last week in "No Place Like Home" we saw how important the theme of the family of blood is in season five of Buffy. This week it is the beloved family of friends that is at the heart of the aptly named and Joss Whedon penned and directed “Family”.

Buffy, of course, has relied on her family of friends, Willow, Xander, Giles, and others including Angel, Oz, Anya, and Riley, since the beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she came to Sunnydale and as she has moved from high school and into college for everything from research to friendship to survival. Season five of Buffy, thus far, has also placed a great deal of emphasis on several themes that have been at the heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since it began including growing up and the obligations that come with growing up (a theme channeled through Buffy’s Slayer obligations in the earlier seasons of the show) to family, to the family of friends, and to the community of Sunnydale and beyond.

Last week in “No Place Like Home” Buffy asked her sister Dawn who she was after the Buffster discovered that she really wasn’t her sister in a drawback the curtains spell. In “The I in Team/Goodbye Iowa” we saw Tara sabotage a spell she and Willow were doing to find demon evil in Sunnydale after Adam, the Big Bad of season four, escapes from the Initiative, a spell Willow refers to in “Family”. In “Restless” we learned that Willow thought she knew Tara because she knew Tara’s name. In “Family” we learn that though Willow knew Tara’s name, she, the Scoobies, and we viewers really did not fully know Tara.

“Family” is the Tara episode that devoted viewers have been waiting for since Tara first appeared in the Buffyverse in season four's "Hush". “Family” begins where “No Place Like Home” ends and gives us a glimpse into a day and a half in the life of the Scooby Gang.

“Family” begins with a relatively happy moment, something that seems increasingly rare in Buffy the Vampire Slayer since season three. Ah the trails and travails of leaving high school and being forced to grow up. Willow and Tara are lying in bed while Miss Kitty Fantastico, who we first met in “The Yoko Factor/Primeval" in season four, plays on the floor. Tara tells Willow a bed time story about a kitty saved from a pound full of dogs, ferrets, dolphins, and half-camel’s by some nice people, Willow and Tara one presumes, a tale that ends happily with Willow and Tara adopting Kitty Fantastico and snuggling in bed.

The happy tale of Willow and Tara that begins “Family”, however, is a short one. Soon in act one Tara tells Willow, again, that she doesn’t feel that she really fits into the Scooby Gang, feelings that become even more intense when no one laughs at Tara’s joke when the gang is moving Buffy out of her dorm room back to 1630 Revello. As for the Scoobies, they just don’t get Tara except perhaps Giles who understands that a witch who has a birthday coming up might be interested in something that can be purchased in his Magic Box.

When Tara and Willow arrive at the Magic Box at the end of act one things go from bad to worse. Tara’s brother Donny is at the Magic Box looking for her and he doesn't seem particularly taken with the magic for sale in the Magic Box. As act two begins Tara’s father, Tara calls him “sir”, arrives shortly after she does. We know there is something off about the relationship between Tara and her family of blood almost as soon as Tara opens her mouth. When she sees her brother Donny and later he father the stutter she had at the Wicca group meeting in “Hush”, a stutter that we know from ”Hush” and “New Moon Rising” is linked to self-doubts, a stutter that has been absent largely since she and Willow have been an item, suddenly reappears. Nor does Tara introduce her father, who is decidedly icy toward Tara and toward her “friends”, to Willow. Is she afraid of what he might think of her “lifestyle”? "Family" continues to link witchcraft and lesbianism at least in part.

Over the course of act one and act two we learn that Tara’s father, Tara’s brother Donny, and Tara’s cousin Beth have come to take Tara home because Tara, like her mother before her, is, or so they claim, a demon. It was, according to Tara’s family, on her mother’s twentieth birthday that the witch and magic demon came out in her mother and they expect the demon to appear in Tara since it is now her twentieth birthday. When Tara’s “family” threatens to tell her friends about the demon she is and she is about to become Tara does a spell on the Scoobies at the Magic Box. The Scoobies are at there doing research on the new dyed hair Cordelia demon chick on steroids in town, the abomination.

It is with Tara’s spell that the Tara storyline intersects with the other major narrative thread in “Family”, the Buffy, Dawn, and the abomination story line. “Family”, as I mentioned earlier, begins on the same night that Buffy first encounters the abomination and learns that Dawn is not her sister but is instead a key. In the teaser Buffy tells Giles that she has learned that Dawn is not her sister and both agree to keep the secret from the other Scoobies in order to keep Dawn, who has been sent to Buffy to protect, safe.

It is also in the teaser that the abomination resurrects out of the pile of rubble we saw fall on her last week in “No Place Like Home”. The abomination is upset and soon she begins to plot against the blonde, short, and rude strong for a human who broke her shoe who she blames for what happened to her the night before in "No Place Like Home". The abomination captures a demon, a kind of monster of this week, in the same hospital locker room that Ben comes into in the hospital after he learns from an intern that yet another “crazy” has been admitted to the hospital. Did the abomination take the crazy’s life consciousness in the hospital or near by? The abomination forces, so to speak, the gross, diseased, predatory demon with a black tongue between its teeth, to get together a gang of other Lei-Ach demons and go after the person who she learns from the demon is the Slayer.

It is just before the gang of Lei-Ach demons arrive at the Magic Box to kill the Slayer and her friends that Tara does her spell to keep the Scoobies from seeing the demon who she thinks she is. As so often is the case in Buffy, however, the spell Tara does has unintended and dangerous consequences. The Scoobies, once the Lei-Ach demons attack are unable to see the demons who have come to kill them.

When the Lei-Ach demons attack the Scoobies do the best that they can in the face of an enemy they can’t see. Giles tells Dawn to hide under a table. Xander and Giles fight what they can’t see. Willow hits what she cannot see with a chair before she is thrown into a bookcase. Anya tries to hit the one who is attacking Xander over the head with an item she has grabbed from the Magic Box collection to use as a weapon but Willow gets there with her chair ahead of her. Buffy puts the listening skills she has been practicing into action but with limited success. Spike, who has heard from Harmony that Lei-Ach’s have been sent to kill the Slayer, ever the voyeur, comes to watch the most recent Slayerfest but can’t help but get in on a little fight the Lei-Ach action for the sake of Buffy though Buffy doesn’t notice because she can’t see Spike's demon self. Despite this, of course, Spike wants to be thanked. Eventually Tara’s arrives and saves the day by reversing her spell.

With the battle over and the Scoobies surprised and concerned about the spell that Tara has done that almost got them killed, the Maclay’s demand that Tara come home with them because like her mother she has become a demon. Willow goes to Tara who is sitting on the floor near the sales counter of the Magic Box and asks her if that is what she wants, to go home. Teary-eyed Tara says no. Buffy, then Dawn, then Giles, then Xander, and then the other Scoobies—but not Spike (note how initially Spike is physically separated from the Scoobies and then walks away from them)—refuse to let the Maclay’s take Tara because, as Buffy says, “we’re family”.

It is sensitive Spike, who realises what is really going on beneath the we have come to take Tara home for your own good and the good of the world rhetoric that underlies the words of Tara’s father, brother, and cousin. It is that good old time religious patriarchalism. Spike recognizes that what Tara’s father, Tara’s brother Donny, and Tara’s cousin Beth, really want is someone to take care of the house and to take care of them, well "sir" and Donny anyway, things Tara’s cousin Beth told Tara she was a selfish bitch for not wanting to do toward the end of act three. Spike ever the one to enjoy making very public points hits Tara and is gripped with a wrenching pain in his head proving that Tara is no demon. Cousin Beth seems to have a eureka moment wondering if she too is the victim of a patriarchal family myth that the women in the Maclay family are evil women witch demons just before the Maclay’s leave without Tara in misogynistic tow.

“Family” ends as it began, with a happy moment. In the final scene of the episode the Scoobies gather at the Bronze for Tara’s birthday. All of them, including Tara and Dawn seem to be having a good time. Tara now seems to be full fledged part of the Scooby Gang as Anya talks to her about her jokes trying to understand her in the process, Giles gives her a crystal ball, Dawn gives her a broom, and Willow and Tara dance into the air to a tune with a chorus in which the singer, Melanie Doane, sings, “I can’t take my eyes off of you”, over and over again. Love very much in bloom in the Buffyverse. Yeah. End credits run.

There are a number of important character developments in “Family”. Tara is practicing spells so she can keep up with Willow. Buffy moves out of her dorm room at UC, Sunnydale to return home to 1630 Revello Drive so she can take care of mom and Dawn. Buffy has, thanks to learning that Dawn needs protection, become, as Riley points out to her, far too overprotective of her sister. She doesn’t allow Dawn to visit Melinda across the street because she is too short. Buffy lets off a bit on the keep Dawn close rein at the end of the episode allowing Dawn to come to the Bronze with the Gang to celebrate Tara’s birthday. Anya is reveling in the joys of Magic Box profits and she and Xander are sugar-kissing lovey doveys. Riley is walking on the darkside visiting, as he is, Willie’s, which has a new bartender, on a regular basis. Dawn has a friend named Melinda and thinks only losers drink alcohol. Ironically the Giles, Xander, Buffy, and Riley are drinking alcohol as she says this oblivious to the fact that they are drinking. Spike is still dreaming about Buffy, this time while he is having sex with Harmony, still has his Buffy like mannequin head, and still has that hate her, love her attitude toward our Slayer. There are those themes of responsibility and family obligations again.

“When he bailed on us”. When Buffy and Joyce are discussing Dawn and how to protect her from the abomination in the teaser Giles suggests sending Dawn to her father. Buffy says that won’t work because he is in Spain with his secretary living the cliché. Buffy remembers that when her father bailed on Dawn and her little sis cried for weeks but now knows that her memories of Dawn crying when their father left are false. So much for fatherly family obligations.

“My name is a holy name”. We learn more about the abomination in “Family”. This Cordelia on steroids thinks she is great and beautiful and that all eyes turn towards her when she enters a room. The abomination tells the Lei-Ach demon she captures that her name is holy. The abomination hopes no one of her status finds out that she fought a “common” vampire Slayer. The lady, methinks, thinks she has class.

“Good Birthday?” Birthdays, as we know from “Surprise/Innocence”, “Helpless”, and “A New Man”, all Buffy birthday episodes, have a tendency to turn out bad in the Buffyverse. Tara’s birthday almost, almost, does too but not quite. When Willow asks Tara at the end of “Family” whether she had a “Good Birthday” she replies “Best Birthday”. Since Buffy is a Joss Whedon show and Whedon shows tend to bring the pain after far too brief momentary moments of happiness, it will be interesting to see what will is going to happen next week.

“We’re family”. Buffy tells Giles when he wonders if they should send Dawn away for protection, note that they talk about Dawn and not the key, that she believes the monks sent Dawn to her so she could protect her and that she wants to protect her. Just as Buffy refuses to let Dawn be sent away Willow and the Scoobies refuse to allow Tara, once she has decided that she doesn’t want to return home and that she wants to remain in Sunnydale in school and with Willow and the Scoobies, to be taken forcibly by her blood family. Families of blood and families of the beloved community and responsibility toward both continue to be at the heart of season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and of Buffy in general.

“I don't go out with vampires”. Sandy, the vampire who sits down next to Riley in Willie’s and who invites him to someplace more private, is the vampire Vamp Willow sired in “Doppelgangland”, another Whedon penned and directed episode.

The Chorus. Some commentators and fans have found “Family” too preachy and too metaphor too close to the surface for its own good. It is ranked as the 50th favourite Buffy episode on the Buffy Phenomenon website. In its attack on conservative evangelical Christianity “Family” is, of course, a companion piece to that other Buffy episode which attacked conservative Christianity, in that instance conservative Catholic Christianity, in “Where the Wild Things Are”. “Where the Wild Things” too doesn’t get a lot of love from fan scholars perhaps because of its metaphor too close to the surface quality. Such readings, by the way, call out for more analysis of why readers respond in this way to particular films or television shows. Perhaps if academics, particularly those with tenured positions, got off their crystal ball textualist pot and did some empirical surveys and interviews perhaps we might find out someday.

But enough whinging and back to “Family”, it is true that in “Family” the metaphor is pretty close to the surface. But then it often is in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Joss Whedon has said. It is true that “Family” does quite clearly attack the misogyny and homophobic attitudes of conservative Christianity. But then conservative Christianity is generally patriarchal and homophobic and I am not a big fan of either patriarchalism or homophobia so I don’t see this as a bad thing. And it is true that “Family” celebrates not only the the family of friends who have your back when you need them, the beloved community of friends that Tara finally becomes a part of at the end of “Family”, the Scooby Gang, but it celebrates Willow’s and Tara’s relationship at its end as Willow and Tara happily dance themselves into the air of the Bronze. But again I don’t see that as a bad thing and I am certainly not averse to an occasional happy ending. I love “Family” and I was deeply moved by its message of gender equality, true love, and the beloved community of friends. Viva Joss. Hey, bet this says something about me doesn’t it?

Music. I like the song “Cemented Shoes” by My Vitriol, a British band whose song plays in the Bronze at the beginning of Tara’s birthday party.

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