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(Review) BtVS 8.21 'Harmonic Divergence'

8th January 2009 (20:23)

The thing about changing the world: once you do it, the world's all different. Appropriately enough for a 'Buffy' episode that brings such a crucial plot twist, it was written by Jane Espenson, who once said "It's the newer writers who generally write the stand-alone episodes, so they need to pitch ideas. And it's more like as you feel more secure in your job, you start being trusted with the arc episodes." Like this one.

As a side issue, this issue has also finally settled one of the questions that people have been puzzling over for years. Yes, new Slayers are still being called even two years after Willow cast the spell in 'Chosen' - but only once they reach the right age. And since that was how I always thought it would be happening, I'd like to thank Ms Espenson for justifying my belief. :-)


Issue 8.21 also continues the trend of naming episodes that feature Harmony after her ('Disharmony', 'Harm's Way'). Harmonic Divergence is obviously the opposite of a harmonic convergence; things are flying apart rather than coming together, and it's all thanks to Harm.

I'm not entirely sure how the opening scene is structured; are the comments in square boxes Harmony's thoughts (as opposed to her spoken words), or her narration after the event, or her blog, or is this actually an episode of her reality TV show (with her voice-over) and the next part where she gets an agent and pitches it to MTV a flashback?

Anyway, Harmony (or rather Jane) proves that she's the mistress of the single entendre with her 'perky pair' comment. Not sure if the urine running down her leg is supposed to be the dog's, her own, or metaphorical, though... And the guy she picks up and then bites was completely unrecognised by me, although apparently Andy Dick is a real-life minor TV celebrity in America with a controversial history of being involved with drink and drugs and sexual assault. I wonder if he had to give permission for his likeness to be used in the comic?

On the subject of celebrities I know nothing about, I also have no clue if there's anything significant, funny or in-jokey about the reference to Lindsay Lohan's mother. Unless the joke is supposed to be that it's actually Samantha Ronson in the picture, or something? I don't know. I do know that Harmony goes on to compare herself to Paris Hilton and refer to real-life gossip sites TMZ (Thirty Mile Zone) and Entertainment Today.

In the frame showing her apartment, see the photograph half-hidden behind the computer screen? Is that a picture of Spike? I'm also wondering if the My Little Pony picture has been modified to turn it into a unicorn...

CAA actually stands for Creative Artists Agency. I have to admit, I first assumed it was some sort of secret government organisation and the people there were 'agents' in the FBI or James Bond sense... but apparently they're talent agents. The building shown - 2000 Avenue of the Stars in Century City, LA - is their real-life address.

Which of course brings up the question of continuity with 'Angel:After The Fall', since Harmony's version of Los Angeles is clearly not in Hell. I can see three possible answers to this:

1. 'After The Fall' is already over and done with by this time in Season 8. After all, 'Not Fade Away' was broadcast 12 months after 'Chosen', and 'The Long Way Home' begins at least 18 months after 'Chosen', so there's a minimum of six months to fit AtF into.

2. The Los Angeles which Angel and his friends were teleported into is not the real one; it's a copy built (or discovered) in a hell-dimension by the Senior Partners.

3. The final chapter of 'After The Fall' will involve some sort of time manipulation or parallel universe reset button that takes Los Angeles and its people right back to 'Not Fade Away' with no time having passed in the outside world.

I rather like the depiction of Harmony here - she's actually quite capable when she wants to be, casually ruthless, but note the little touch of pathos when she says that MTV can "cast people" as her friends, because she obviously doesn't have any of her own... And nice little cameo by Buffy - who's utterly shocked and horrified, presumably equally by the idea of a vampire going so public and the fact that it's Harmony - and Willow who gives us a callback to her Tina Fey fantasy in 'Anywhere But Here'. She's definitely a Tina fangirl.

Does Harmony actually say "L.O.L", or is this proof that she's writing this in a blog? (And who pronounces it ell-oh-ell rather than lol"?)

And after the fun, now suddenly the story gets serious. We cut to our nameless Latina 16-year old Slayer... and it's probably worth giving a shout-out to the fact that a 'Buffy' story set in southern California actually features a Hispanic character for once. Actually, Jeanty and Madsen draw and colour her in a quite similar fashion to the way Renee was depicted, making me wonder if this is posthumous clarification of Renee's own ethnicity.

(ETA: Acording to Scott Allie the Slayer's name is actually Soledad; that was in the script but didn't make it into the written dialogue.)

As I said in my introduction, notice how the new Slayer mentions that today is her sixteenth birthday... and right in the middle of the fight she gets surrounded by a shimmery white glow, grins broadly, and proceeds to knock down all six other members of her girl gang. She might even have killed them, although there's no blood shown on the ground. In other words, almost two years after Buffy and Willow cast the spell turning all Potentials into Slayers, another Potential has just been activated as soon as she turned sixteen - thus establishing at the same time that new Slayers are still being called, and that Potentials have to reach a certain age before they become Slayers.

Nice to see Andrew and Vi's TV commercial (from 'The Chain') being repeated again... and that our Slayer's response to it is suspicion and a desire to avoid getting involved. Even so, Andrew manages to track her down in less than a week - that can only have been through magical detection spells. It seems that Harmony's TV show is already starting to persuade people that vampires aren't really a threat... and it's only when Andrew's words about vampires preying on the weak, offering them power but then victimising them strike a nerve that she agrees to listen.

And then it all goes wrong. While some of the blame must go on the bad connection, I think there's also a nod here to Buffy's speech-making skills not having improved much since Season 7. Or rather - when Buffy is really determined and emotionally involved she can make excellent speeches, but when she's just going through the motions she tends to go on way too long, and lecture rather than connect. I did like the 'evil candy' reference, a cute little nod to Jane Espenson's own first episode for the show... and "sometimes there are snakes" sounds like the caption to an icon if ever I've heard one. When Buffy talks about protecting and training and family, she actually comes across as genuine and sincere; but I really don't know what prompted her sloganising at the end. To the new Slayer, it clearly sounds like the kind of rhetoric criminal girl gangs (or demagogue politicians) use to suck in impressionable young recruits... and isn't that an interesting comparison to make about Buffy's Slayer Army?

As Buffy talks on the phone, there's a little slapstick comedy routine going on in the background with Dawn, Willow, Xander and a stallion. When this was first hinted at in a spoiler comment, everybody was up in arms about how dreadful and crude and tacky it would be. Seeing it on paper I actually think it's pretty cute and funny, especially the expressions on their faces and the fact that Buffy doesn't even notice what's happening.

It's nice to see Clem again, even if how he ended up as part of Harmony's entourage never gets explained. Still, Clem's a mellow kind of guy who gets on well with everybody, and he had to go somewhere after Sunnydale fell into the Hellmouth. As Jeanty mentioned in an interview, notice that the tattoos available in the shop include Angel's griffin, the 'B' of 'Buffy', Faith's barbed-wire tattoo and the Dark Horse logo. There's also the logo from the 'Watchmen' comic in there, which is appropriate since "who watches the watchmen?" is pretty much the theme of the entire season arc.

It may just be a coincidence, but the guy talking to Harmony at the party and asking her to turn him looks very much like Pike, Buffy's original boyfriend from the movie (or at least the comicbook adaptation of it).

The action sequence seems a little confusing to me. Harmony sees the Slayer coming towards her with a stake, she drops her dog who falls down the stairs and lands on Clem, and then she and the Slayer trip over each other? But then the fight starts for real, and the cameras keep rolling. And purely by accident, as she cowers away in terror, Harmony joins the ranks of Spike and Drusilla as a vampire who's killed a Slayer.

It's doubtless extremely cynical of Jane to suggest that a vampire killing and draining a victim on live TV would become an instant ratings sensation and break records for online views, but I suspect it's also sadly accurate. As is the fact that where Twilight and the US Army (not to mention legions of demons, vampires and hellgods) have failed to do serious harm to Buffy and her Slayers, MTV and the rest of the media might be the biggest threat they've ever faced. After all, Harmony is cute and cuddly and sexy, and she was only acting in self-defence, and Slayers must be violent and dangerous and therefore evil.

The shots of the Slayers watching the show in utter horror were pretty powerful stuff, although there were a couple of cute touches in there too. The MTV staff all have little bandages on their necks - clearly they've been letting Harmony suck on them - and Xander and Willow were braiding Dawn's tail as they watched TV.

Anderson Cooper is apparently a real-life well-known journalist on CNN; again, if you're American you probably knew that already.

The questions he asks are similar to those General Voll asked right back at the beginning. Who decides what is evil? Who protects humanity from Slayers? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And Buffy and Willow's bewilderment over why people don't realise they're the good guys - remember their conversation about this in 'No Future For You'? - is pushed home in a way that's both funny and also subtley biting... that final picture of Harmony's Pommeranian wearing a white hat.

In episode 21, everything changes...

Comments

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 22:36 (UTC)

Thanks!

Has it ever been confirmed that Buffy was actually 15 when she was called, as opposed to just turned 16?

Personally, like deird1 I've always assumed that puberty is the crucial factor in turning a potential into a capital-P Potential, but not necessarily that they will become Slayers immediately afterwards. I don't think it's a coincidence that Jane had Soledad saying it's her 16th birthday just before she became a Slayer, but nor do I hink that every single new Potential will be called exactly on that day.

Buffy not noticing Dawn? Can't be.

I did think of that interpretation too. :-)

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 22:39 (UTC)

Has it ever been confirmed that Buffy was actually 15 when she was called, as opposed to just turned 16?

In A New Man. Buffy and Riley were comparing histories, and Buffy said "Well, if you'd been fighting monsters since you were 15..."

Plus, in Witch, she said she'd been fighting vampires for "a little over a year". Given that she's 16 when she says it, we're talking early 15, not almost-16.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 23:12 (UTC)

Fair enough. :-)

I actually think becoming the Slayer is a combination of "being ready" (which means being a post-menarche woman), and the Slayer Spirit itself choosing to activate you for its own reasons. It is called becoming "Chosen", after all; and who chooses?

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 22:47 (UTC)

Has it ever been confirmed that Buffy was actually 15 when she was called, as opposed to just turned 16?

Only in TV canon. ;-)

BUFFY: Look. If you'd been fighting since you were fifteen you'd have a hefty resumé too.
RILEY: Fifteen!?
BUFFY: I know, "wow." The point is, that, that we have different amounts of experience.

But yeah, it's obviously intentional on Espenson's part.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 23:50 (UTC)

Only in TV canon

TV canon is just canon, no need to distinguish. Buffy:The Origin and all eight seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all equally canonical. :-)

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 12th January 2009 18:22 (UTC)

Given this comment by Allie

girls continue to be activated as they come of age. I'm trying to remember what issue that baseball girl was in; but was she definitely a little kid?

and the above canonicity of Buffy's calling age... hmmm. ;-)

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