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(Meta) Power and Moral Certainty - Buffy in late Season 8

17th January 2012 (14:52)

In the light of the latest revelations about Buffy in Season 9, I've been re-visiting my thoughts about the end of Season 8, and specifically the Retreat arc and when Buffy was Chosen by the Twilight prophecy to be the creatrix of a new universe. This led me to thoughts about power, parenthood, and Buffy's moral certainty - specifically that contrary to received opinion in fandom, this was strengthened rather than stripped from her by her experiences.

Oh, and I've also come up with a coherent explanation for the plot of that season's arc which I think makes sense.\o/  :)


Post contains spoilers for Buffy season 9 issue 5, although I'm pretty sure everybody knows by now, surely?




The 'Retreat' arc is presented as a stratagem. Willow has discovered that the bad guys are hunting down Slayers by detecting their supernatural powers. Buffy decides the thing to do is find a way to temporarily suppress or remove their power, to give them a breathing-space from being pursued. She remembers that Oz found a way to suppress the werewolf inside him, and wonders if the same techniques would work on Slayers.

Fan reaction to this move has been almost universally critical. The main objection seems to be that if you're fighting a war, it's ridiculous to deliberately disarm yourself. In defence of Buffy's idea, though, I can offer three arguments: one psychological, one personal and one practical.

The practical one is that if your weapons are being actively counter-productive, disarming yourself isn't stupid, it's common sense. To give a real-life example, take radar. It's incredibly useful: you can detect enemy aircraft miles away, giving you time to prepare your defences and launch your own fighters. Except... modern aircraft can detect radar as soon as it detects them, and some of them carry special anti-radar missiles, that actually home in on radar stations and blow them up. So suddenly radar isn't as useful; in fact, if you're fighting an opponent who you know has such missiles, the sensible move is to keep your radar switched off. Disarm yourself.

(Of course, since radar is so useful in other ways, armies try to find a way around this problem. Switching the radar on and off for short pulses, hopefully too short for a missile to lock on. Putting the radar in a truck that can move around to dodge incoming missiles, or deploying it deep inside a concrete bunker with only the aerial exposed. Or more high-tech solutions to confuse the homing missile and send it off in the wrong direction. Still, the underlying point remains: if your weapons let the enemy detect you and you don't want to be detected, then you can't use those weapons.)

Bear in mind that Buffy doesn't see this as anything more than a temporary stratagem. She doesn't intend the Slayers to remove their power permanently; she only wants to suppress it until the danger is past.

Then there's the psychological reasons. Disarming yourself in the middle of a war may be an unwise move; but Buffy isn't fighting a war. At least, not by choice. She doesn't particularly want to hurt her human opponents; she thinks they're misled, not evil. Public opinion has come to see Slayers as the enemy; fighting them would only serve to confirm that view. So putting down her weapons and not fighting could help her regain the moral high ground: it worked for Gandhi, after all.

Finally, there's the personal issue. In the future, Buffy killed Willow with her own hands. The experience traumatised her, and we know it's still preying on her mind in the 'Retreat' arc because she talk about it twice. Buffy believes that in at last one potential future Willow will turn back to black magic and go dark, and that's why she will have to kill her. Back in the present day, she's deeply worried as Willow seems to be going down that route again. So by coming up with her plan for everybody to renounce their supernatural powers, Buffy is, I believe, at least in part targeting Willow specifically - without making it obvious that's what she's doing.

So, Buffy, Willow and the Slayers give up their powers "to the Earth". It does seem that the mechanics of this procedure, as explained by Bay and Oz, are not what they were expecting. Willow certainly didn't realise that she wouldn't be able to reclaim her powers again immediately if she needed them back, and so it's a fair assumption that Buffy didn't know that either. When the bad guys reappear they're caught in a trap of their own making - but it's one which Buffy responds to with determination and resourcefulness.

This brings me to the next major point: how Buffy became powered-up with her godlike Twilight abilities. We know the basics: she had to be "brought low" and "feel powerless" in order to be Chosen by the new universe to receive its power and become its co-creator. However, something that I think it missed is that most of the people talking about this are unreliable sources - and Buffy's own actions in the 'Retreat' arc match up with some but by no means all of the supposed conditions for the prophecy.

Twilight itself tells Angel that the power is a "reward". He must focus Buffy's anger so that it is pure, and she isn't distracted by, for example, her feelings for him.

Then there's Whistler. He's an agent of the Powers That Be, but we know from 'Angel and Faith' that he supported the Twilight agenda. He thought that letting the universe evolve into a new, reborn form was the right thing to do. (Whether the PtB agreed with this, or he was working on his own, is not known.) So Whistler is a biased source. He tells Angel that "Buffy must feel powerless", that he must "torture" her. He repeats Twilight's point that Angel can't tell Buffy what's going on too soon or it will ruin everything.

Next, Angel's own words. He tells his minions that he aims to "strip Buffy of her moral certainty". It seems to me that most of fandom takes this at face value as being Angel's real objective. I disagree: the context is that he's trying to convince his reluctant and sceptical allies why they can't just kill Buffy right now and get it over with. It's a delaying tactic: as he says later, he had to convince the anti-Slayer coalition that he was the Man with a Plan, so they would agree to follow him instead of just nuking Buffy's base from orbit as General Voll originally suggested.

So let's compare this to what actually happens in 'Retreat'. Buffy gives up her Slayer power. By doing so, for the first time in months if not years she finds a sense of peace and connection to other people. She's no longer having to stand over them and look down on them; she's at the same level. She has a moment of sharing and bonding with Faith; she unburdens her worries to Willow and rekindles their friendship; she realises she has feelings about Xander (which sadly aren't reciprocated).

Then she discovers that Twilight's army is going to attack after all, and they're helpless. But she doesn't give up: she organises the defence as best she can. She comes up with clever ideas to fool the enemy that they still have powers. When Bay talks about the wrathful Earth goddesses, she intuitively realises that this is something that could help them, and pushes Willow and Bay herself to assist. This isn't Buffy crushed by despair: it's Buffy at her best and most inspired.

It's interesting to note how exactly Buffy and Willow summon the wrathful Earth goddesses. Bay is badly injured, but Buffy is demanding that she has to help or they'll all die. Bay says, "You don't need me. If you have any anger in you, use it. See if you can call them". Buffy's reply - against the background of soldiers attacking and killing her depowered Slayers - is, "Oh, I have some anger".

Remember what Twilight told Angel? "Focus her anger. Be the target of her power and it will come to her. What she feels must be pure." And here is Buffy focussing her anger to summon the three wrathful Earth goddesses. Her anger isn't personal resentment against Angel, though: it's righteous anger against all the people victimising and killing innocent Slayers.

The goddesses defeat the Twilight army - but then they also start attacking the Slayers as well, indiscriminately. Buffy realises her plan has failed: they're staring defeat in the face. Her reaction?

"We don't have a choice. We're not getting our powers back. We're not going to win. But we have too many of our injured here to run away. Besides, they can follow faster than we can move. We can defend the temple, but do nothing else to draw their attention. And first, we should go out and collect our injured and bring them back here".

And then she adds this:

"You know what? Let's collect their wounded too. The soldiers. Protect everything that bleeds, okay? I'll lead the way."

A side-note about those soldiers. The consensus in fandom seems to be that they're innocent victims: there's a lot of anger against Angel for deliberately sending them to their deaths. I'm less convinced. For a start, they weren't just regular soldiers following orders: as we saw in 'Commitment Through Distance…' the American soldiers following Angel and General Voll have chosen to be part of a secret cult-like organisation which conducts blood-stained initiation rites. This cult conducts military operations against people who, in many cases, are US citizens who have committed no crimes; it invades foreign countries with force of arms. I'm pretty sure that's got to be illegal, a breach of their oaths as soldiers, and quite possibly treasonous. So that's the first strike against them.

Second is what they're actually doing. They're committed to hunting down and killing a group of teenage girls. They're doing so voluntarily. And the imagery we're given is horrific: massacres of Slayers that call up memories of the Killing Fields or the Holocaust. These aren't innocent soldiers: they're the Khmer Rouge or the SS.

But, you may protest, they think they're right in what they do. They've been convinced by their leaders that Slayers and witches are evil and want to kill them. That's fine. The SS were given similar stories by their own leaders about the evil of Jews: does that excuse them?

Then there's the argument that the wounded soldier we see talking to Buffy seems like a nice guy. He has a girlfriend back home waiting for him. Many of the Khmer Rouge probably had girlfriends back home waiting for them too. Evil, as Hannah Arendt famously said, is often banal: the people who carried out the Holocaus t seemed for the most part like ordinary folk, not monsters.

So in other words, I don't see those soldiers as innocent victims. Does that mean Angel should be cheered on for getting them killed, then? Well no. His action was still a betrayal of people who trusted him, even if it was for a worthy cause. Winning wars through lies and trickery is not normally seen as honourable and noble… although there's a whole separate argument there about whether that’s really such a good thing. Nevertheless, Buffy's actions in offering to save those soldiers as well as her own people stands out even more in contrast as a noble action. She was able to recognise the essential humanity even of people who had chosen to commit inhuman acts.

And so she goes out, facing certain death, to try and save the lives of the people who minutes earlier were trying to kill her. It's at that very moment that one of the goddesses picks her up, stares into her eyes, then drops her back on the ground - and when Buffy recovers consciousness, she has godlike power.

That's the moment at which Buffy was empowered: when she was carrying out a supererogatory act of grace. Far from losing her moral certainty, she had just embraced it more strongly than ever. She was going out there to try and save the lives of her deadliest enemies, knowing that she was unlikely to survive herself.

On the other hand, she was, technically, powerless at that moment. She didn't have her Slayer powers, and she was apparently in a no-win situation. She was just "powerless" in the sense that all normal humans are: she had only her own natural strength of character and determination. And as Twilight promised Angel, it qualified her for its "reward".

Giles calls it a reward too: the universe's reward for Buffy's action in sharing her power with so many other Slayers. Another act of selflessness.

This has huge implications if it's true. The Twilight universe chose Buffy for its 'mother' because she was capable of such utterly unselfish behaviour, and devoted to helping others even at the possible cost of her own life.  It's difficult to reconcile that with the supposed evil of Twilight itself.

I think the best explanation is that Twilight isn't actually evil as such. It's a baby - a baby sentient universe that can embody itself as a winged lion, but still a baby. As such, it's jealous and demanding and utterly focussed on its own needs. If removing the Seed from our own Earth will lead to its destruction, so what? The baby *needs* that Seed like a normal baby needs its mother's milk.

In this light, look at Angel's actions in the 'Twilight' arc. He and Buffy have created this perfect, wonderful new life. Angel has been told time and again for over a year that this will be a reward, that it'll be a paradise they can create together. Something that they can guide and help shape as it grows. Is it any wonder that he's reluctant to give it up, that for a few minutes he deliberately blinds himself to the suffering that his supposed 'offspring' is causing to others?

Buffy, on the other hand, instinctively rejects this fantasy offspring for her own flesh and blood family back on earth. Does this mean she's just not cut out for motherhood? Or wants it only on her own terms? Or did she recognise that Twilight was unreal, a fantasy that promised paradise but ignored the real world? Twilight itself seemed to be hurt by Buffy turning away from her, then angered.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this line of thought, given the recent Season 9 plot revelation. :) Buffy rejected her mystical offspring, but an actual flesh and blood baby will be something different - or will it? How will Buffy, who is willing to sacrifice her life for humanity and to help others, cope with one single helpless individual demanding all her attention and all her time?

It's going to be interesting.


Comments

Posted by: ceciliaj (ceciliaj)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 15:56 (UTC)

Lovely! This is just gorgeous, and it really makes me excited for the pregnancy arc. The Retreat arc was so, well, on the one hand totally awesome, on the other hand, ickily culturally appropriative, so...I think the best response is probably to do what you do here, and try to take the text at its word where we can, focusing on the good ideas.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 17:29 (UTC)

Thank you! It was interesting that the conclusion I reached at the end weren't necessarily the ones I started out with, either. :)

Although I tend to think that cultural appropriation is a good thing, not a bad thing; so I had no problem with 'Retreat' on that score...

Posted by: ceciliaj (ceciliaj)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 17:34 (UTC)

Although I tend to think that cultural appropriation is a good thing, not a bad thing; so I had no problem with 'Retreat' on that score...

Do you mean that like it sounds? I think that it is great to draw from many sources in order to create a complex storyworld, but I also think that cultural appropriation has a really ugly history that has more often than not prevented the best stories from being told by those who are most knowledgeable, so...just curious :).

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 17:59 (UTC)

It seems to me that "cultural appropriation" is usually touted as a bad thing when it's a small oppressed group lamenting that it has nothing to call its own, not even its stories or artefacts. Which is bad, yes; but surely it's the oppression that's the bad thing? The appropriation is merely a symptom. Or when cultural elements are used in a mocking or inappropriate or disrespectful fashion; but again, the problem there isn't cultural appropriation, it's racism.

And set against that, I do believe strongly that ideas and stories are the common heritage of all humanity. They shouldn't be restricted to people who have a particular skin colour or speak a particular language or give their children a certain set of names. That only serves to stifle creativity and progress.

I mean, can you imagine a world where the only people allowed to write stories about vampires were Irish people living in London? :)

I'm also in favour of fanfiction and vidding, even though they could be criticised on exactly the same grounds as cultural appropriation. You're taking "other people's ideas" that you "don't have a right to", after all.

Posted by: ceciliaj (ceciliaj)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 18:07 (UTC)

Okay, I hear what you're saying. I was just making sure I was not missing sarcasm, which sometimes I do, being Harmony-like :).

Anyway! I would say that cultural appropriation can be more than a symptom, and can be an enactment of oppression, but I don't think that it always is. For example, blackface denies creative opportunities, and thus the money and credit that go with them, to black actors.

Fanfiction and vidding are entirely different, because they are performed by people with little power who make no money and receive only symbolic credit for their labor. There are borderline examples of course, but I think that appropriation from the dominant culture by people subjected to it is always just fine :).

But you know, in the U.S. especially, I have met many people who absolutely romanticize Tibetan Buddhism (here subtly fictionalized to the "Bon" ur-religion) without actually realizing that there is a serious, ongoing political struggle based on its very existence and people's right to practice it. So, it's not Jane Espenson's job to teach us all a lesson about global politics, and I have hope that if people read the arc, and become genuinely interested, they will do research and rethink their place in the world. Ignorance not being a crime, you know, but being a shame in a world full of such interesting ideas :).

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 18:33 (UTC)

For example, blackface denies creative opportunities, and thus the money and credit that go with them, to black actors.

Do you mean actors 'blacking up' to appear as a different race? I agree about the problem, but to me blackface is a result of racism ("We have no black actors so one of the white ones will have to paint their face"), not a cause of it ("We have blackfaced white actors, so we don't need actual black people"). Though granted, once the idea is established as possible it can be a self-reinforcing spiral.

Fanfiction and vidding are entirely different, because they are performed by people with little power who make no money and receive only symbolic credit for their labor.

Although unless your name is J K Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, authors and screenwriters aren't exactly paid lavishly for their creative works either. Nor do they have much power.

And my preferred solution to privilege is always going to be "empower the unprivileged" rather than "disempower the privileged" where that's possible. :p


I thought Bon was the actual pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet (with syncretic Buddhist additions over the years), not fictional? It has its own Wikipedia page and everything. But certainly, I for one would never have researched that if I hadn't read Jane's story drawing on ideas from Bon andTibetan culture. I wouldn't even have known that Tibet has rainforests if not for Georges Jeanty's art...



Posted by: ceciliaj (ceciliaj)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 20:39 (UTC)

I guess I interpreted Bon in the story more as referring to the abstract set of pre-Buddhist practices than the more specific reference, because it takes its own direction so strongly/contains inventions. But it's worth reexamining how that is set up and works :).

I like your idea of empowering the unprivileged rather than disempowering the privileged, although it's an area where I'm a bit ambivalent as a general principle. So, right now, in the U.S., the corporation needs to be disempowered, because the economic inequality can't otherwise even be addressed, let alone resolved. But that's an egregious example.

Anyway, of course you're right that the non-Rowlings and Meyers among professional authors do not typically belong to the 1%, it's still worth looking at the mid-range authors who do make a living writing and, say, teaching the occasional creative writing course, as having more power to dictate the dominant stories we tell ourselves than those who are audience members through and through. But you know, blah blah blah, not what your post is about :).

Posted by: helios_knight (helios_knight)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 16:19 (UTC)

Very good theory, it paints the whole Twilight saga in a new light for me.

You also made me think of the episode "Normal Again". In both stories Buffy is in this wonderful new world (Twilight and with both of her parents respectively) but she gives up her own happiness to do what is right. In both she leaves the ideal world behind to save her friends reaffirming them as her true family.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 17:33 (UTC)

Thanks! I do think that Season 8 painted Buffy in a much less negative light than a lot of people claim. And 'normal Again' is a good comparison: thinking about it, they even both had the same "unusually bright, plain white" feeling to the two unreal worlds.

Posted by: mikeda (mikeda)
Posted at: 17th January 2012 23:23 (UTC)

I tend to see the Twilight-verse as being more the equivalent of Buffy's mindscape in "The Weight of the World".

Of course my one sentence summary of S8 IS "Season 5 writ large".

Posted by: singer_shaper (singer_shaper)
Posted at: 18th January 2012 05:21 (UTC)
slayers

Whenever I read your meta, I'm pleasantly surprised by the unity you find in the Buffyverse. I have no idea whether this can be attributed to intentional planning on the writers' part, but I'm definitely impressed by what you've teased out from it. Keep up the great work!

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 18th January 2012 11:25 (UTC)

Thnks!

My general theory about things like that - based on my own writing experience - is that often a writer will know that certain things just *feel* right or seem to go together, without necessarily being able to articulate why. Literary analysis can then lay out the themes and trace the connections, and make explicit what was only implicit in the author's imagination.

Or something like that. :)

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