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(Meta) Identity, choice and heroism (with a digression on Existentialism)

9th August 2007 (17:55)

My last season 8 meta talked about the concepts of power and consent in 'The Long Way Home' and the show as a whole. While these are still important in 'The Chain', I think the dominant themes this time are identity, choice and the nature of heroism. The story also, like the Firefly episode 'Objects In Space', strongly expresses Joss's Existentialist beliefs - perhaps too much so: unless you're comfortable entertaining the notions that nothing has inherent meaning and all morality is relative, then you're likely to have problems with this story.

On which note, it's probably best to start with a brief discursion to explain how Existentialism works - especially if, like me before I started writing this, you've only the vaguest idea what it involves. If there are any trained philosophers out there who spot any mistakes in the following, please comment!

In the director's commentary to 'Objects In Space', Joss explains that much of his personal philosophy is based on Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialist theories. At the core of these is the idea that Existence precedes Essence. That is, the universe and the objects and people within it all have a real, concrete and independent existence. However, those objects' identity - their meaning and their purpose - are not inherent to them; we as observers assign our own meanings to them.

To give a classic example from 'Objects In Space', let me ask the question: what is that thing the girl is holding in this picture?

"It's a gun."
"It's a handgun."
"It's a Blue Sun Industries 11mm calibre semi-automatic pistol converted to accept caseless ammunition."
"It's a weapon."
"It's a tool."
"It's a stage prop provided by the Mutant Enemy set designer."
"It's a device for killing people."
"It's a device for self-protection."
"It's a device to intimidate other people and make its owner appear tough and macho."
"It's a valuable antique."
"It's a recipe for unpleasantness if it gets into the hands of a mentally disturbed teenager."
"It's a frightening and unpleasant symbol of humanity's barbarous nature."
"It's a guarantee of individual liberty and freedom from State control."
"It's a marvellous work of efficient design and craftsmanship."
"It's a clumsy and inelegant tool for winning fights that a wiser person would never get into."
"It's some sort of weird-looking metal club."
"It's a group of pixels on a computer screen arranged in a particular pattern of colours."

So many different definitions... but which of them is the real one? The Existentialist answer is that none of them are.

"Just an object. It doesn't mean what you think..."

Or to put it another way: they're all its real identity - but only from the point of view of each person observing the object. We all give our own individual meanings to existence.

For mundane objects like a chair, or a shoe, or a carrot, that's not really a problem. Just about everybody assigns the same meaning to such things, so a consensus definition of reality emerges. But for more controversial concepts like 'love', or 'evil', or 'hero', or for that matter 'woman', there's far less agreement. When one person assumes that the category 'woman' implies a certain fixed list of characteristics, and they meet somebody else who assigns completely different attributes to that same concept, problems can arise...

The realisation that the world and other people's ideas about it are fundamentally beyond our control - are Other to our own existence - can be a profoundly disturbing one. A common reaction is to deny the revelation: to insist that our own concept of reality is the only true one, and that other people must therefore either agree with us or be wrong. Some people go the other way and begin to doubt their own beliefs, accepting those of other people as more correct instead. A few, confronted by this idea that values and beliefs have no inherent and absolute truth, slip into a state of existential angst - where they despair that nothing has meaning and everything is pointless. (It may not be a coincidence that Existentialism is a popular philosophy among teenagers).

However, there is another alternative, which for Sartre was seen as the ideal: entering a state of self-actualisation. This is where you accept that your own beliefs may not be any more 'true' than those of anybody else - but they are also no less true and worthwhile. Or, to quote Angel:

"If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."

You therefore make the decision to live your life according to your own principles and beliefs, not just by default but out of a conscious choice. You shape your own identity and destiny.

So how does this work for the unnamed protagonist of 'The Chain'? The very fact that she is unnamed is suggestive: she is a blank canvas on which we are invited to project our own definition of her identity.

For some readers, she is a victim. A nameless footsoldier in Buffy's army; Chosen without being given any choice about it, manipulated and moulded, sent half-trained and alone into a battle she failed to survive. To other readers, she is a hero: playing the hand fate dealt her with grace and skill, accepting her responsibilities, and ultimately sacrificing her life willingly for a cause she believed was important.

Which is the true picture? If you've read the section above about Existentialism I'm sure you can guess my answer, but Rona spells it out for us in the comic:

"There is no truth. There's just what you believe."

How we explain the events of the story is, in the end, our own choice. The facts are there, and they can support several interpretations.

The protagonist of the story says twice that she had no choice about becoming a Slayer. The first time appears to be literally true - one minute she's sitting chatting with her friends, the next she's flying through the air having visions of Slayers past and becoming strong enough to survive being hit by an 18-wheeler. No sign of Willow popping up to ask her telepathically if she wants to become a Slayer and getting her to sign a consent form and waiver. On the other hand, there's also nothing to say that she wasn't subconsciously willing and ready to become a Slayer, and Willow's spell picked up on that when it Chose her. It's all in how you choose to interpret things.

The second time, the protagonist says she had no choice except to listen to the Watcher's explanation of what's happening to her. Here, though, it seems to me that what she's really saying is that of the alternatives offered to her, only one of them seemed worth taking. That still counts as a choice, even if rhetorically or morally she feels like she had none. Or, to quote Firefly again:

"But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well then he has a choice."
"I don't believe he does."

If we accept that the protagonist of this story was put in a situation where she felt she had no choice, does that make her a victim? Perhaps not. After all, a key point of Existentialist theory is that the universe has its own existence, quite independent of you and your wishes. You can't always affect what happens to you, no matter how hard you hope and pray. All you can do is deal with the consequences. I've already quoted Whistler's words in 'Becoming Part 1' in my review of this issue, but I'll repeat them here because they sum this up perfectly:

"Even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what, are we helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come, can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are."

So was our protagonist a victim of Willow's Slayer empowerment spell, or did she benefit from it? Or both? There is no truth. There's just what you believe. She chose to believe that she wasn't a victim. We, as readers, are free to make up our own minds.

The other questions posed by the episode can be answered in similar fashion. The protagonist appears to have been a competent and effective fighter, based on the alley fight scene we are shown - less flashy and obvious than Simone, the only named Slayer (other than Buffy herself) in the entire episode, but she alone has taken to heart the message Buffy was trying so hard to impart in the previous story arc: "Fight with me, not next to me." Even so, she's clearly had, at most, 18 months of training before being sent on her mission - far less than Buffy's 9+ years (or, for that matter, Kennedy's 13+ years). So she's good, but she's not the best.

Again, Rona lays this out for us explicitly. Her words leave both us and the protagonist herself to decide whether she's being sent because she's strong and good, or weak and expendable. Would Buffy's new organisation treat its Slayers as expendable? The episode doesn't tell us directly, but leaves us to decide for ourselves based on the events shown, and our knowledge of previous story arcs and Buffy's character. (I know which answer I believe, but I've seen plenty of people reading this comic and coming to the opposite conclusion too).

Then there's the final battle. Once again, the protagonist faces a choice that she chooses to regard as no choice at all. Urged to flee and save herself, she decides instead that duty requires her to stay behind and fight the demon army, blocking it from invading the surface world until reinforcements can arrive. Arrive they do, but too late for her. Noble sacrifice or futile waste of time? There is no truth. There's just what you believe...

So what does our protagonist believe? What motivates her to accept this dangerous mission, at the cost of her life?

It's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame.

She explicitly rejects the idea that she's doing it for her own glory. She doesn't want her name on everyone's lips; she's quite happy to go to her death with it unknown. Again, the contrast to Simone, the One Named Slayer, is pointed. The comic also addresses the idea that single Great Individuals are responsible for all the deeds commonly attributed to them. Popular history often puts the whole blame for World War Two and the Holocaust onto Hitler, glossing over the fact that millions of people made their own decisions and choices that ultimately contributed to those events. Gandhi may have been an inspirational leader, but his followers still chose to accept his beliefs and participate in his political campaigns. For that matter, Joss Whedon may be a brilliant writer, but the success of 'Buffy' depended equally on all the other writers, the actors, crew, technicians and the humble unsung administrators and assistants, who all worked together on the show. And in the universe of this comic, the legend of Buffy is also contributed to by all the other people who fight the same fight as her. Is that bad? Is Buffy being selfish to allow it to happen, assuming she's even aware of the phenomenon and could do anything about it if she were? There is no truth...

In the end, the protagonist of this story did what she did because she thought it was the right thing for her to do. She's suitably cynical and subversive about talk of sisterhood and heroism, as befits a Jossian hero, but finds herself accepting its basic tenets all the same.

"You know what? You've probably heard this. It's pretty standard stuff: how were're all 'connected to one another' all over the world and through history and make a difference and we're all equal and do for each other and it isn't bullshit; he was actually really articulate, but... well, it's one thing to hear it."

She made her choice; she tried to feel the chain connecting her to humanity, and to face the darkness. Did she make the right decision? Was she a hero or a victim? The decision is ours to make.


Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 10th August 2007 22:40 (UTC)

I'm just uncomfortable with the line of reasoning "we should attack them before they attack us".

You seem to be comfortable with Yamanh using that reasoning if you're blaming the war on *Buffy's "provocation" rather than his aggression. My reading of the order of events was that meeting the minion was the first thing that happened to *Buffy underground and the fairy overhearing her name in thier exchange was how she came ino contact with the other underworld residents but even if it did happen after she'd convinced the less toothy ones to combine against the oppressors who were eating them alive her message to Yamanh isn't that Buffy Summers 'and her army' are coming after him. True scepticism isn't about taking the opposite of the 'government' line as gospel just because its not what the government says but about reading every case on its own merits. There's plenty of evidence here that the demon hordes really are planning to invade Poland.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 10th August 2007 23:02 (UTC)

There's plenty of evidence here that the demon hordes really are planning to invade Poland.

But once this matter is resolved, Yamanh has no further territorial demands in Europe!

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 11th August 2007 09:05 (UTC)

Peace in our time. Yay!

Posted by: Elena (moscow_watcher)
Posted at: 10th August 2007 23:34 (UTC)

You seem to be comfortable with Yamanh using that reasoning if you're blaming the war on *Buffy's "provocation" rather than his aggression.
It's not the same reasoning. It's not like Yamanh's agent penetrated into Council-controlled zone and declared that he came for Buffy Summers.
There's plenty of evidence here that the demon hordes really are planning to invade Poland.
I've got education in Soviet school; we were taught that "demon hordes really are planning to invade Poland" - and that was why brave Soviet troops invaded Poland too. My experience of living in Soviet Union taught me that if "they" are bad guys, it doesn't automatically mean that "we" are good. Sometimes both sides are evil and choosing the lesser of two evils is a hard task.

And - I like your interpretation of chronology of underground events. It's the most logical assumption - that her confrontation with the demon led to contact with other species.

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 11th August 2007 10:15 (UTC)

It's not the same reasoning. It's not like Yamanh's agent penetrated into Council-controlled zone and declared that he came for Buffy Summers.
But he still sent his army on the path up to the surface, trampling over all the people in that way. They fight back, *Buffy goes in to defend them, he kills her and only then do the other Slayers arrive. Unless you think the slimefolk/fairies/leafblower thing attacked him (which is possible) he's still starting a war pre-emptively. It's the same *reasoning,* just the precise *circumstances* are different.

Also what Council and what Council-controlled zone? it's fun to make comparisons with RL politics but this is Buffy not Angel, it's more psychological than political . Attempting to draw the analogy between demons and demonised groups/nations too literally always hits the problem that on this show demons actually do kill people for fun, are cruel and glory in their victims pain, that's not propaganda. I think the most interesting thing raised in this issue is not about judging degrees of evil but how idealism/fanaticism, protection/aggression, connection/constraints are revealed as flip sides of the same coin. It reminds me of the treatment of aggression in Serenity and passion in, well, Passion, the can't live with can't live without aspects of them. In one of his recent interview about S8 Joss described the Twilight's aim as to rid the world of the magic that powers both demons and Slayers, which sounds very like the Alliance's doomed attempt to eliminate all aggression.

Posted by: Elena (moscow_watcher)
Posted at: 11th August 2007 15:17 (UTC)

The only thing we know for sure is that the final fight happens in the underworld and Slayers invade Yamanh's territory.

Please, don't get me wrong. I understand that RL analogies are hardly working when we talk about world of magic. But I'm trying to understand why Joss hasn't told us more explicitly that underworld demons must be exteminated.

Maybe in two or three years we'll find out that Council's actions were wrong, but more probably Joss has completely forgotten about it by now.

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 11th August 2007 20:20 (UTC)

If we're being that strict about the definition of 'know' I think invade is way too strong a term for what we actually see. We know that the Slayers enter the underworld, we don't know whether the particular region they're heli-dropping into is Yamanh's territory or the leafblower thing's and we don't see them harm so much as a single scale on a demon's head. Also as I've said before there's no explicit evidence that a central Council exists. The old one was blown up the new Slayers are organised in squads, which could be as autonomous as Trotskyist cells or branches of Equality Now. You're assuming a hierarchy before we've been shown one.

Posted by: Elena (moscow_watcher)
Posted at: 12th August 2007 14:05 (UTC)

You've got a point about the Council; I used the term automatically, assuming (maybe wrongly) that new slayer organization is called The Council. I'd edit my replies but LJ doesn't have such function. But I'll do it in my review, here.


And I want to thank you for interesting and insightful arguments which helped me to write my review.

Posted by: Elena (moscow_watcher)
Posted at: 15th August 2007 09:22 (UTC)

In one of his recent interview about S8 Joss described the Twilight's aim as to rid the world of the magic that powers both demons and Slayers, which sounds very like the Alliance's doomed attempt to eliminate all aggression.

That's a very interesting idea and your parallel to Firefly/Serenity philosophy is fascinating.

Could you specify in which interview Joss has said it? I read some of his recent interviews, but, obviously, missed this one. For several days I tried unsuccessfully to find it but couldn't, so you're my last hope. Thanks in advance!

Posted by: aycheb (aycheb)
Posted at: 15th August 2007 19:31 (UTC)

With EW


Where is the story going to go?
It's been indicated that there are people who are trying to get rid of the slayers because they represent the same kind of magic as the demons. So I'm putting the slayers in the global spotlight for a little bit — really getting to talk about shifts in power and trying to put an end to magic. That's what Buffy's fighting against. It's an epic story.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 15th August 2007 21:50 (UTC)

What's really interesting about that is the link to 'Fray', where the backstory did say that at some point in the 21st Century they managed to put an end to magic, and banish all the demons.

Except in 'Fray', it was implied that a Slayer did the banishing, and it was presented as a victory. Hmmm.

(ETA, having just read it: the Slayer fought a battle, and after it the magic was gone. It doesn't say she actually made it so. Even more hmmms.)

Posted by: Elena (moscow_watcher)
Posted at: 15th August 2007 22:37 (UTC)

Thanks for the link! Obviously the idea of "the other side" of demonhood plagues Joss for a long time. Interestingly, all the demons of Buffyverse who were regulars on the show, have a creative streak: Angel is an artist, Spike is a poet, Oz is a musician.

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