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(Review) BtVS 8.22 'Swell'

5th February 2009 (20:39)

'Swell' is in many ways a classic monster of the week episode of 'Buffy'. There's an 'A' plot and a 'B' plot: a threat that needs to be first researched and then defeated, while the characters resolve their personal issues. There's also plenty of symbolism and thematic elements which relate to the overall season arc and move it forward. Not bad for an issue of the comic which concentrates, for once, on two of the minor characters of the Buffyverse and shows us what life's like from their point of view instead of always focussing on the main heroes.


If I have a complaint, it's that this was very much Satsu's issue; Kennedy wasn't precisely a nonentity, but she was pretty much there solely to act as a foil for Satsu's character development. None of her own issues - such as the status of her relationship with Willow and the Saga Vasuki question - got addressed. Which could, of course, mean that actually there is no problem and her relationship with Willow is perfectly fine. :-) But we don't learn much more about her than we did before, and I think that's a shame.

The opening teaser confirms one thing to us - Satsu does speak Japanese. (This was, you may recall, a subject of some debate earlier in the season). However, her translation of the man's words isn't exact. According to swanjun on Whedonesque, he does indeed say "Wah! A monster!" but there's no swearing - Satsu adds that herself. And she doesn't translate his last sentence: "Dareka tasukete!' means "Somebody help!". Of course, it could be that we're only seeing the last part of his speech. The woman she's talking to is, I assume, Malita - the same wavy-haired Slayer who's later shown twice looking things up on computers. She evidently is not Japanese herself as she doesn't speak the language, so the Tokyo squad is clearly multi-national just like the Scotland one.

Satsu is shown here as a decisive leader who can think on her feet and come up with effective tactics - steering the monster towards the river and away from the crowds. She's also clearly enthusiastic about fighting. I've seen her being criticised for not stopping to help the man trapped in the armoured car, and you could argue that this is another example of Slayers not caring about ordinary folk. On the other hand, stopping the monster rampaging through downtown Tokyo is probably slightly more urgent, the man is in no immediate danger, and it's not as if there isn't a crowd of people gathered around who could help him. People who, incidentally, show no sign of panic at the idea of a monster on the loose. The citizens of downtown Tokyo are presumably used to that sort of thing.

Satsu's sword has a very reflective blade, doesn't it? This is the second time we've seen someone's expression reflected in it. (8.04 before.)

It puzzled me at first, but the pink voice-over boxes ("Oh crap...") are presumably the demon itself talking. As we later learn, it was paid to steal the prototype Vampy Cat from the armoured car we saw in the first scene, with the intention of luring the Slayers into chasing it to recapture the cat - but it didn't anticipate getting one of its arms chopped off in the process.

Kennedy "just dropping in" by parasail is a little over the top and campy, but it's the kind of humour I appreciate - though I'm sure the feeling isn't universal. It's not the only such moment this episode, either. Presumably there's an aircraft or helicopter that dropped her off. Incidentally, in a nice touch of continuity, the gun she's holding is drawn identically to the one Buffy used to zap the forcefield in 8.01. It clearly also works as a taser, stunning demons with a blast of electricity (not unlike the Initiative's weaponry). Satsu and Kennedy simultaneously kicking the demon once it revives, and its puzzled "...Grrrrr...Grr?" was amusing too.

Now we get to the 'B' plot, and things get interesting. The reference to the 'Korean incident' is left vague here, although it will pay off pretty well at the end of the episode. Satsu's line about Buffy "reviewing her ass" was funny: it shows that she's sarcastic and quick-thinking but also, perhaps, trading on her sexual relationship with the big boss rather more than she should be. The affair is clearly common knowledge among all the Slayers; as Kennedy says, "Yeah, yeah, everybody knows the story." There's clearly an active gossip hotline where Buffy is concerned.

Then there's Satsu's angry remark about Buffy sending "the other lesbian Slayer" to check up on her. From a practical perspective, I doubt that only two out of those 500 women are gay... although this comment does at least put to rest the tongue-in-cheek suggestion some people have made that the Slayer Empowerment Spell turned all the Potentials into lesbians as well as into Slayers. :-)

More to the point, however, Satsu's comment hangs a lantern on a rather significant issue. To be frank, I'm pretty sure that Joss and Steven S de Knight did choose Kennedy as the other character for this issue because she's the other prominent lesbian who is also a Slayer. However, the very fact that they were able to do that says something about the show itself. Generally, if there's a gay character in a story and another gay character appears, it's taken for granted that they'll pair up... that that's the only reason why Gay Character #2 was written into the show at all. But 'Buffy' has clearly now achieved a Sapphic critical mass, where the writers have enough lesbian characters with their own roles and backstories as unique individuals, that they can put two of them together for an entire episode without the expectation that they'll end the story in bed together (or arguing jealously, or dead).

Of course, there certainly was plenty of speculation even so when 'Swell' was announced that either Kennedy or Satsu or both would wind up dead, or they'd pair off together. I'm very pleased that nothing of the sort happened. And Willow/Kennedy are still an item. :-)

Anyway, on with the plot. If you've not seen it, there's a short story about the Vampy Cats on Dark Horse's website; they're being marketed as cute and cuddly vampires for children that will protect their owners by, um, disembowelling anyone who's mean to them. The 'Santorio Corporation' that makes them is a parody of the Sanrio Corporation that makes Hello Kitty dolls.  Meanwhile, our poor demon Gunyarr from the opening scene is being betrayed and killed by a shadowy form which we'll see more clearly later. You have to feel sorry for the guy. After all, he's 'armless.

At night, Vampy Cat comes to life. Given the red eyes and fangs I thought he was going to kill Satsu, and when she appeared in the next scene I was confused - thinking perhaps she'd been turned into a vampire herself... although the sunlight pouring in through the open walls would, with hindsight, make that unlikely. Is that Kennedy talking to Ayumi while Satsu is asleep, incidentally? Or just one of the other Slayers?  Also, note that Satsu now has an Easter Island moai to hang her jewellery on. I'm not positive, but I think that's probably a newspaper clipping with a picture of Buffy she's got stuck on the wall next to it.

Satsu in her kimono (or furisode, I suppose, if you want to be accurate) was quite puzzling until I worked out what was going on. Incidentally, she says here that her parents bought it for her, but later on once she recovers she asks "What the hell am I wearing?" I'm going to assume she's shocked that she unpacked it and put it on, since she wouldn't normally be seen dead in it, rather than that she literally has never seen it before. She must have got it from somewhere, after all. Also, if we assume she's telling the truth, we can also assume that she's not lying when she says her parents reacted really badly to discovering she was gay. That also implies that she was still living with her parents at the time, rather than with a Watcher, so she was probably one of the Undiscovered Potentials.

She's holding a map of Scotland, and we soon learn she's used it to point out where Buffy's new base is. The map shows dots at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee (slightly off-position) and Aberdeen, but also four other dots - two in the Cairngorms, one near the Isle of Skye and one in Caithness - and presumably one of these is Slayer HQ. (And another might be the Big Ruined Ex-Castle).

Now we have Stepford Satsu going into her misogynistic and homophobic rant about Slayers. I assume this is actually the Vampy Cat inspiring her words; though we have to wonder if this is their own thoughts - or if Twilight programmed them this way, and we're learning his true opinions. Or possibly, he was hoping for a few possessed Slayers to go on TV and make similar speeches to Satsu's, but in public, to discredit them?

What is really interesting is that many of Possessed!Satsu's criticisms of the Slayers are, in fact, things that many of the fans have been raising as problems about them:

"I mean, why are Slayers so aggro? With the hacking and the chopping and the staking! We should be ashamed of ourselves, bringing so much misery into the world! We're nothing but a bunch of self-righteous little ovaries! We march around playing soldier, deciding who's evil and who's not. We're the evil ones! And we're going to get what we deserve!"

Well, the argument is now out there on the page; but given the context, I think the messenger was specifically chosen to discredit it in our eyes. After all, Satsu is basically saying that it's not up to a bunch of women to make important decisions about good and evil or to take action to change the world, when they ought to be staying at home and making babies. I've never heard 'ovaries' used as an insult for women before, but given the context I suspect deKnight used it because he knew he wouldn't be able to get away with writing 'cunts', which is what he probably meant Satsu to be saying here.

Sadly, there were probably a few people in the readership who cheered when Kennedy got punched across the room - though probably not as many as would have done if it happened in Season 7. But she gets her revenge on Satsu; we get yet another scene of a Slayer throwing up on the floor (Satsu and Buffy have something else in common now) and the true nature of the Vampy Cat is revealed in all its really, really gross glory.

Oh, and Satsu's Slayer instincts have absolutely nothing wrong with them if she managed to grab that sword from somewhere or other and cut the kitty attacking Kennedy in half before even noticing her clothing.

Back in my review of 8.01 I wondered if the Slayers flew their helicopters themselves or if they hired pilots. Looks like the answer is (a) - or if they have hired pilots, they're by pure coincidence all young women in the same age-group as the Slayers. :-) Given their supernatural hand-eye coordination and lightning-fast reflexes I'm sure Slayers make excellent pilots, although I'm not sure I'd trust Buffy specifically behind the control stick...  

It wasn't clear at first, but when Satsu groans "Oh, my stomach" it must be because the pilot just put the helicopter through some aerobatics that made her nauseous again... because it's the pilot who apologises. Minor point - Kennedy is in normal clothing, but the other Slayers are all in their combat armour. And Satsu's armour appears standard; none of the teddy bear heads or other extreme customisation of old (though her bright pink fingerless gloves aren't regulation). I'm thinking that post-Buffy and as a squad leader now, she has less need to assert her unique snowflake status quite so much?

The dead sarariman in the Santorio offices looks like the one who arranged for the death of Gunyarr the demon, so presumably he was simply possessed then rather than being in on the plot - and once drained dry he was abandoned. Notice that Kennedy's reaction to the news of the ship heading for Scotland is "They're going after home base!" and Satsu's is "They're going after Buffy!" Still her #1 priority...

The name of the ship - Daikaijū - means "Great Big Monster" in Japanese. This is clearly foreshadowing...  This time Kennedy has changed into proper armour - and "What's Plan B?" "Same as Plan A. You die." is some classic Buffyverse bad guy dialogue.

We get a second mention of ovaries, showing that the first wasn't accidental; these Vampy Cats are clearly obsessed with the things. And there's a disturbing rape metaphor in the attack, as the monster tries to climb into Kennedy's mouth with its friends shouting "Get in her--" (last word cut off, twice.) The idea that the people opposed to the Slayers - or at least these particular people - are motivated by misogyny seems to be laid on with a trowel by deKnight.

The multiple small monsters combining into one huge one is a classic staple of Japanese anime. The really cheesy dialogue may also be, although it's also a Buffyverse standard as well.

And my laugh out loud moment of the episode was when Satsu tosses the flare into the sky, and we discover the Slayers not only have an Army, but a Navy too. A Navy with attack submarines. :-) It's ridiculous in its way, but it's actually explained pretty well as Satsu gives us the pay-off on the 'Korean incident' line from the start of the episode. Incidentally, I assume it's North Korea she's talking about, since the international repercussions of stealing one of their subs would be rather less than taking one from a US ally. For the record, a Sang-O class diesel/electric submarine is armed with two torpedo tubes and has a crew of 15. How Satsu trained her Slayers to use it and where they keep it is left as an exercise for the reader. (Though I do wonder if the Japanese government is complicit - the squad run by Aiko and now Satsu does seem to operate more openly than the ones elsewhere in the world, and of course Japan has a long history of having to fight huge monsters...)

The idea that Kennedy puts smiley faces on favourable evaluations is a cute touch - striking a nice balance between the Slayer Army as a hierarchical organisation and a loose, informal activist network. :-)

And back to the season arc. I laughed again at Xander's "Big buts come with the Slayer territory" and his immediate back-tracking when he realised what he just said. Harmony is now a national TV celebrity and 'vampire rights spokeswoman', apparently, and Satsu asks the question quite a few fans have also asked; why hasn't she been staked yet? Buffy's answer seems reasonable enough, and shows that she has been thinking carefully about a response to the new situation. However, her inspirational speech at the end does strike rather a discordant note:

"We need to stop being whatever we've been and focus. Be more than human, or the less-than is going to win."

From one angle, a fairly standard bit of motivational rhetoric: don't be content with mediocrity, strive to excel, you can be better than you are. But on the other hand, Buffy is quite literally preaching the superman, and dismissing her opponents as Untermenschen. (Or she would be if she spoke German). She's spelling out more explicitly than ever before that she believes her Slayers are better than normal people.

Season Three Faith would be saying "Preach it, sister!" right about now. I suspect Season 8 Faith would be appalled. I wonder if we're supposed to be too?

Oh, and Satsu finally decides to move on with her life and put Buffy behind her, symbolised by throwing her cinnamon lip gloss in the bin. Good for her.


Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 13:01 (UTC)

I think this is where we differ, since I don't think that at all. I think Buffy is heterosexual, emotionally close to Satsu as a friend (the same way she's close to Willow and Xander), and after five years of being BFFs with Willow, finds the idea of lesbian sex completely unthreatening and non-freaky. It's not something she especially wants herself, but when Satsu is right there and really, really keen on the idea, Buffy decides to see what it's like.

This is most definitely where we do differ. I firmly believe what you're describing above is bisexuality. The words "heterosexual" and "straight" were coined specifically to refer to people who don't behave and feel the way Buffy did/does. Just as I don't believe you can say "I enjoy having sex, but I still consider myself a virgin," a woman can't say "I enjoy having sex with a woman, but I still consider myself straight."

But that's all a matter of labels that Joss doesn't care about anyway, and it's an argument I don't have the energy to have again. :-(

In any case, if Buffy finds sex with a woman completely non-threatening, it should be no barrier at all to a relationship with Satsu. She could continue to call herself straight, if that's what makes her happy.

I really did love the idea of them as a couple, and writing about them. But the inspiration is well and truly gone now. I guess that's what I'm mourning the most. I will miss them.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 13:30 (UTC)

Well, I distinguish between "finds sex non-threatening" and "is passionately enthusiastic about sex". ;-) ("I didn't do enough things! You did more things than me!" "And you let me.")

I could imagine Buffy and Satsu having a long-term relationship, but I think for Buffy there'd always be an element of "Well, I don't mind the sex. Orgasms are nice however you get them. And Satsu loves it, and she makes me happy in other ways, so I guess I'm happy too."

I mentioned Willow/Oz before, and that's pretty much how I imagine Willow felt at the time. (Although she was younger and less self-aware and probably trying to convince herself that this really was what she wanted). But looking back and comparing what she felt then with how she feels with Tara and Kennedy, Willow concludes that she's gay not bi. I don't see why the same argument can't be made in reverse for Buffy. It's a matter of general preferences and identification.

Buffy's a 1 on the Kinsey scale, not a 0; and Willow is a 4 or 5, not a 6 - but not a 3 either.

I'm not trying to draw you into an argument, by the way. :-) Just explaining my point of view. I enjoyed your Buffy/Satsu fics a lot, and I hope you'll keep writing them.

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 14:32 (UTC)

Well, I distinguish between "finds sex non-threatening" and "is passionately enthusiastic about sex". ;-) ("I didn't do enough things! You did more things than me!" "And you let me.")

I could imagine Buffy and Satsu having a long-term relationship, but I think for Buffy there'd always be an element of "Well, I don't mind the sex. Orgasms are nice however you get them. And Satsu loves it, and she makes me happy in other ways, so I guess I'm happy too."

Well, she did describe it as one of the best nights of her life. Untruthfully, it seems.

I thought she "didn't do enough things" not because she didn't want to, but because she was inexperienced at girl sex. And she was feeling anxious that she hasn't done enough to please Satsu.

Honestly, in ABS and WatG I didn't see any element of "love" that was missing in Buffy's interactions with Satsu, except the fear of both getting hurt as a result.

The labels don't really matter here. Buffy did what she did, gay or straight or whatever, and she'll do what she'll do in the future.

So Willow was right. Buffy used a girl for sex, knowing said girl was in love with her, and then pushed her away after the orgasm was over. And that will have consequences. I assume that's why the whole incident was written into the story in the first place.

I enjoyed your Buffy/Satsu fics a lot, and I hope you'll keep writing them.

Thanks, but honestly... it's getting to be too lonely a road to travel. I think maybe I'll put them in with Satsu's lip gloss and move on.

I just don't know. This story is affecting me way, way more than it should. They're just colored squiggles on a piece of paper. I wish I didn't care so much about them. And I hate that nobody else sees them, and what happened between them, the way I do.

Nice userpic up there, by the way. Mind if I borrow it?

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 14:53 (UTC)
buffy-all alone

Honestly (and with all sympathy), I think you're letting grief push you too far to the other side of the question.

I don't think Buffy was being the least bit untruthful when she said that night was "one of the best of her life." I just think she meant "because of the connection and the love and the feeling of making someone I care about so very happy" rather than "because the sex was mindblowing."

You know, I think the most mindblowing sex Buffy has had, to date, was in Season 6 with Spike - and she hated and despised herself for wanting it. Mindblowing sex, in Buffy's eyes, is overrated compared to emotional connection.

But I'd still rather see both her and Satsu in relationships where they can get both.

Help yourself to the icon. :-)

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 15:01 (UTC)

I don't think Buffy was being the least bit untruthful when she said that night was "one of the best of her life." I just think she meant "because of the connection and the love and the feeling of making someone I care about so very happy" rather than "because the sex was mindblowing."

Exactly! Because she didn't just have sex with Satsu. She made love to her. Something she very well may not have done since Angel.

And that's why I find their disconnect so tragic.

Posted by: mikeda (mikeda)
Posted at: 7th February 2009 11:45 (UTC)

I think though, at least from Buffy's standpoint, it's more "making like" than "making love".

Posted the following comment about the Buffy-Satsu relationship to the buffy usenet newsgroup way back in March 2008 (after Issue 12 appeared)...

I think one of the main things that's happening is that Buffy is
simply feeling somewhat alone right now. Burden of leadership
combined with partial estrangement from several of the Scoobies.
And there's Satsu right there who's in love with her, and who
basically saved her life. So Buffy sort of defaults into a
relationship with her.

There is some similarity here to Season 6--Buffy having a
relationship with someone she wouldn't usually consider. With
someone who feels more strongly about her than she does in return.

There are some very important differences, though. For one thing,
Buffy likes and respects Satsu. And is trying her best to be
honest with both herself and Satsu about what is and isn't
happening. And what she's unsure of. She doesn't want to end up
hurting Satsu, and is trying to make sure that anything Satsu
decides is based on the real situation. Even if Buffy isn't
entirely sure what the real situation is.

Perhaps even more important is that in Season 6 there was an
subtext (and sometimes main text) of self-hatred that is not there
in Season 8. Buffy is a bit lonely, but she mostly feels
reasonably good about herself.

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 7th February 2009 14:00 (UTC)

I agree with most of your post, but I think what you're referring to here as "like" is something I was including under my definition of "love."

There are different kinds of love. I am sure that Buffy loves Satsu, but not in the same way Satsu loves (loved?) her. My main point of contention is that Buffy felt more than simple sexual relief or the purely selfish accomplishment of "making me feel better." Only love could make it "one of the best nights of her life" rather than simply "that felt good."

All the things B said to S in "A Beautiful Sunset" before Twilight arrived... the way she comforted Satsu after the attack when S was crying over having "let Buffy down"... holding her hand and saying "we'll heal" in the hospital... being so concerned after their first night together whether she'd done enough to make it good for S... being over-protective of her before the vamp battle in Tokyo... being so concerned on their last night together whether she was hurting S, and the look in her eyes when S initiated another sexual encounter.

There was way more there than just a fling, or an experiment, or relief.

But Buffy hasn't been communicating her feelings well to Satsu since Tokyo, so Satsu now assumes Buffy feels nothing at all for her.

Posted by: chianazhaan (chianazhaan)
Posted at: 10th July 2011 13:07 (UTC)
RE: Buffy-Satsu

There was way more there than just a fling, or an experiment, or relief.

This was my thought too. It made me so sad to see the way it ended like that. And I like your metaphor about the lipgloss being tossed in the trash. (Even though I wish it wasn't.)

I just blame the whole thing on Buffy not being allowed to be with a women because of the readers/audience. I see a correlation with the hints that keep getting tossed around about Buffy-Angel and Buffy-Spike. I thought that in season 4 when Angel chose Faith over Buffy (not in the romantic sense, but still) the Buffy-Angel thing was done with. And I also thought that Spike was right: she didn't love him. That's not to say that Buffy doesn't still care about them...she just doesn't love them. Having Buffy start a relationship with a woman would anger both the BAngel and Spuffy (Bike?) parts of the audience.

So...maybe that *plot* got tossed in the trash and not so much the relationship! Sort of an acknowledgement that the writers didn't dare to continue the plot for financial reasons. *grins*


Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 12th July 2011 17:51 (UTC)
Re: Buffy-Satsu

I don't think the writers ever intended Buffy/Satsu to be anything more than a brief interlude. Remember Joss already knew from the start who was under Twlight's mask, and roughly how things would end. For that matter, it was Drew Goddard who asked Joss if he could just show Buffy and Satsu in bed in the issue he wrote rather than forever hinting and playing with subtext.

In a way they trapped themselves by making Satsu such a compelling and sympathetic character when she was only supposed to be a bit player. :)

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 15:23 (UTC)

I just want to clarify... I've always known Buffy and Satsu wouldn't be hooking up as a couple. Joss was quite clear that he wasn't going to turn his franchise character gay. (That's only for supporting characters).

I just wanted people... and in particular, the comic's writers... to acknowledge the full extent of what was on the page: what happened between the characters in the panels when they weren't in bed together. I've seen it described too many times as a "fling" or as Buffy "experimenting."

And that just bothers the hell out of me.

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