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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.

Comments

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 13:09 (UTC)

What I don't see is how the sorts of concerns reasonable people should have about Buffy are capable of being twisted into misogyny.

Remember how all this started - with Buffy and Willow empowering all those Slayers in 'Chosen'. I know it's hugely controversial and a lot of people still question it, but that's how Joss sees it and therefore that's the basis that Season 8 builds on.

"Once upon a time... I did something good. I didn't do it alone, of course - but that's the point. I found a way to share my power. Girls all over the world were given power - not just strength, though that does come in handy - but purpose. Meaning. Connection."

Saying that Buffy's actions were a mistake, that they have made matters worse, that she should never have done it because of the harmful consequences - sounds an awful lot like saying women can't be trusted with power because they lack the sense to handle it properly.


they were the enlightened sort of men who would never be the boorish misogynists that Warren or Swell are

Sure, there's a risk that people will say "Well, I'm not like them, so there must be nothing wrong with me." And accusing them of being bigots is counterproductive. But I think it can be a motivating factor if you take the approach "I know you're not a bigot, but you need to be careful when you say such-and-such in case people might mistake you for one." :-)

Posted by: 2maggie2 (2maggie2)
Posted at: 6th February 2009 16:47 (UTC)

Well, you are probably right. Though the opening of #11 suggests that we're allowed to look at the dark side of the spell. "yay me" while looking at Simone. I wouldn't expect a repudiation of the empowerment theme. But if we don't get a qualification of it, then I'd conclude that Joss's feminism got in the way of his ability to tell a good story. Or better I'd say he's an exemplar of a really crappy kind of feminism. Cause if women can't be criticized for robbing banks and commandeering submarines (where we presumably would criticize men for doing the same), then just ugh. (As I said to Aycheb, he's already got this problem hanging over him by allowing Buffy to do to Spike what Biff could never ever have done to Spiketta. Or by allowing Willow to do the equivalent of date rate drugs on Tara without having that played out in the same tone it would have played if Ralph had done the same thing to Tara. etc. etc.)

And reading down I see you replied on that. I do agree that we can blend together the two themes. Though I still think Joss would do himself some favors by finding metaphors for the way backlash really does happen, and that he's not doing a very effective job (thus far) of selling the message that Twilight is at least in part an agent of backlash.

Once you've demonized the word "sexist" you really make it hard for people to get better attitudes. Just my experience. Also there's this funny irony. If we're all about getting men to behave better then men are still the agents whose choices and behavior matters. My own experience is that I got a whole lot more succcessful in a very short period of time when I stopped worrying about what my colleagues were or weren't doing because I was a woman, and started just doing my thing. That was my experience of empowerment.

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