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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...


Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 22:46 (UTC)

As someone who's currently in the middle of writing a fic set right during this timeframe, and involving the activation of new Slayers, I'd just like to thank Jane and Joss for throwing a million new question marks into the mix. :-)

Some points:
1. Are all new Slayers now activated on their 16th birthdays, or was that just a coincidence in Soledad's case? Do all potentials become Slayers automatically? Is there any connection anymore at all between the death of a Slayer and the activation of a new one?

This all means, of course, that you can't end the Slayers just by killing them all (or even all the Potentials). You have to destroy the magic that creates them itself. Which is just what Twilight is trying to do, and why he was so indifferent to Warren's missile attack.

2. When did the world at large become universally aware of the existence of vampires? What happened to the "biker gangs on PCP?" And wouldn't it be hard to know vamps exist without also coming to know very quickly that 99.99% of them are mad dog killers? There's only so much reality TV can hide... where is Homeland Security? What do the non-Harmony vamps think about being outed like this?

3. Why did Soledad's story shift from 1st person to 3rd person when she arrived at Harmony's party? Why did the cross around her neck vanish just before Harm bit her right in that spot? Did Harmony kill her all-the-way dead? Did she vamp her?

4. Where are all of Buffy's other Slayers right now?

5. I think it's obvious that MTV is infiltrated by Twilight's people. They arranged Harmony's show as a way of discrediting the Slayers and depriving them of their public support. It also explains how MTV was able to find out so much about the Slayers.

6. Dawn must be in heat. Poor Dawnie.

7. And just a curious note on the preview copy for next issue..."Kennedy goes to Tokyo to check up on Satsu. Do you see the conflict...?"

Ummm, no? Unless Satsu has been hitting on Willow or Kennedy has been hitting on Buffy, why should there be conflict between these two? Hopefully this isn't a signal of "they're both lesbians so they have to wind up in bed together...angst ensues." Because that would be... disappointing.

I liked this issue, but it was odd. Odder even than #20 IMO.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 8th January 2009 23:37 (UTC)

Well, I don't know the answers but speculation is always fun:

1) I think it was more than a coincidence, or Jane wouldn't have made such a big thing about the date, but that doesn't necessarily mean that every new Slayer will be called on her birthday. There could be something mystical involved about "the date on which the Potential believes that she has become a woman", perhaps?

I think the spell in 'Chosen' broke the link between a Slayer's death and the calling of the next one. Now, all Potentials automatically become Slayers as soon as they're old enough. ("Every girl who could be a Slayer, will be a Slayer.")

It's possible, I suppose, that the total number of Potentials plus Slayers in the world always equals the same number, so as one dies another is born. Personally, I prefer the idea that there's a combination of heredity, garbled magical rituals disguised as "meaningless superstitions" or "religious prayers", and plain old destiny involved in creating Potentials, and the number is therefore not fixed.

2) I think the answer to your question here is "when Harmony's show became a hit" and for most people, Harmony is the only vampire they know about. And she's fluffy and cute, so nobody is scared of her. Mind you, there's always been an undercurrent that more people know about the supernatural than actually let on: remember Joyce's speech in 'Gingerbread.' People know; they just keep quiet because they don't want other people to think they're crazy.

3. Soledad's own narration was still in first person, but the two panels starting "Seems funny to me" were the last ones she spoke. Either Harmony ripped off the cross, or it's just not visible in that final panel. I think she actually died from the stake through her heart, and I doubt she's been vamped but it's not impossible.

4. I think the hundred-odd Slayers from the castle in Scotland are now crammed into alternative accommodation somewhere else in Scotland, maybe not all in the same place.

5. Interesting speculation.

6. Ew. Although wouldn't that affect her behaviour too? All those hormones? Alternatively, maybe the unicorn (I spotted the horn on a closer look) is intelligent and just being over-friendly? :-)

7. No, I didn't see the conflict either. If anything, I think they could bond in shared jealousy over all the time Buffy and Willow have been spending together...

They're doing something different with this arc, I think; it seems like it's lots of stand-alone stories about minor characters that will all feed into a wider story arc. Hence the oddness. There's very much a vibe of 'The Chain' in this, I think.

Thanks for the comments!

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: 22nd January 2009 21:03 (UTC)
Becoming a Slayer

Remember in Chosen, Buffy said "So here's the part where you mak a choice...every girl who COULD be a slayer, WILL be a Slayer...COULD stand up Will stand up..."

It could just mean that Willow's spell just doensn't make every potetnial in the world a slayer it makes those who are ready, who have chosen to have the power, who can handle the power, into slayers.

The Potentials that fought in the hellmouth, chose to be Slayers, right? I mean they were in hell, about to fight ancient vampires, I think if given the choice they all chose to be stronger, etc...

All the other slayers shown in Chosen also CHOSE...the girl at the baseball she wanted to win the game, wante do tbe better etc...the abused girl watned to stop the abuse, if only she had the POWER...the girl kneeling down proboaly didn't want to be there, she CHOSE to be free...soledad was being beat up, she CHOSE to overcome them!! It's a just a theory......

Maybe 16 was just mentioned as a red herring...

Posted by: harsens_rob (harsens_rob)
Posted at: 18th June 2009 16:46 (UTC)
The Slayer Line

Ever since 'Chosen', I've actually been wondering what will happen after the current generations of Slayers has been called. Are there 'Slayer-babies' still being born, or could the fact that Buffy activated all current Slayers (even if they're too young yet for their powers to be active) means that the entire Slayer line was disrupted to such an extent that no 'NEW' Slayers can be born.

And, by extension, could that be why the Slayer line was down to one in all the world in Fray's time (I don't know enough about her timeline). Does the world go through a generation between babies born at the time of 'Chosen' and babies after that where there is no Slayer and then it "reboots"?

Perhaps, of the babies conceived 'Post Chosen', only one is a Slayer again as the Slayer-line defaults back to its original "shape".

Of course, I don't know how this would fit into the possible future with 200-year old Dark Willow and how she got that way. Could be that will entirely negate my idea on how 'Chosen' affected the Slayer-line, but at the time of the episode I was wondering these things.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 19th June 2009 16:44 (UTC)
Re: The Slayer Line

Well, we now know for certain (we only suspected it before) that new girls are still being activated as Slayers once they reach the right age.

It's possible, I suppose, that only those girls who were already Potentials in May 2003, but below puberty, will become Slayers, and no more are being born - but we'll only know that by 2015 or so, which means Season 18. I'm not sure Joss will still be writing comics by then... but I don't like this solution because I don'r see anything in Willow's spell that would have affected the mechanism for people being born as Potentials.

The real problem with the Fray timeline is that Joss wrote that comic before he thought of the idea for the end of 'Chosen'... but the idea behind Fray was "Magic and demons were banished from the world, and so the Slayer line continued but none of the girls were ever actually Called as Slayers. Then magic started to return - nobody knows why - and a Potential called Melaka Fray became the first actual Slayer for 200 years.

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