In the second episode of the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, we learn where Buffy went to after the end of season two, and the Scoobies are forced to cope with a Sunnydale existence that doesn’t include her. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
I love that Joss Whedon doesn’t give us the answer to the one question we are desperate to have answered until the last minute or so of the cold open. It’s an intentional act, one we’ll see stretched out over the course of “Anne,” a constant comparison of the action in Sunnydale with the vacant loneliness of Buffy’s life in downtown Los Angeles. We watch as the Scoobies try to kill a vampire and fail miserably. (To be fair, the vampire was previously a gymnast, so I’ll cut them some slack.) It’s almost silly when contrasted with Buffy, even though killing vampires isn’t a joke.
The entire story with Buffy is just depressing to me, and this may surprise you, too: I found it to be painfully realistic.
Before I get into that, I wanted to separate the two story lines to first discuss everything Sunnydale before I delve into the events of Los Angeles. I’m going to state that my prediction about this first episode is pretty much correct, as the bulk of “Anne” focuses on what Buffy’s up to in Los Angeles. But Sunnydale without Buffy is just not the same. It’s not that the Scoobies are inadequate by themselves. Now Oz is a full-time member (OMG AND HE WAS IN THE NEW CREDITS WITH THE NEW THEME SONG OMG EVERYTHING IS SO PRETTY AND MODERN), and more than every before, they’re sticking together to get the job of vampire slaying done in Buffy’s absence. But Buffy is the glue that keeps them together. I know the entire bit about Buffy and her puns is meant as a joke, but to me, that was a really serious moment. The spark is gone. Her joy is gone. Her finesse is missing, and the group really lacks what she brings to them all.
They miss her.
So do Giles and Joyce, and the two of them are much more emotive about the sadness they feel over Buffy’s disappearance. Giles, desperate to get his friend back, will take off at the slightest rumor of Buffy, hop on a plane, and try to find her. (OMG GILES WENT TO OAKLAND OH MY GOD PLEASE COME HANG OUT WITH ME) Joyce, on the other hand, is destroyed. When Giles came to update her about his attempt to find Buffy, I was excited that it meant that Giles and Joyce had been hanging out all summer. Yeah, nope. Instead, I was brought to tears when Joyce starts blaming Giles for what happened to Buffy. It’s such a horrific situation for both of these characters to be in, and I get why Joyce feels betrayed that this man didn’t tell her the truth about Buffy. But how could he? How could Buffy tell her mother SHE SLAYED VAMPIRES IN HER FREE TIME?
This show is just so difficult to watch sometimes.
The only real comic relief that exists in “Anne” comes from Xander and Cordelia’s attempts to pretend that they both don’t care about each other. OH, STOP IT! OF COURSE YOU DO. It’s not the most fascinating plot of all time, but they’re cute together so I don’t care?
Really, though, I want to talk about Buffy. It’s sort of all I want to talk about. Let me start off this way: I used to live just a few blocks from the bulk of where Buffy’s story is set, and I can verify that downtown Los Angeles is pretty much what you see there. I’m always worried about depictions of the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden, and those who are less fortunate, especially since I’ve been all of them at one time or another. Is this depiction perfect? No, of course not. It’s not the focal point of the episode, and a lot of Skid Row is used to develop an atmosphere to show us Buffy’s growth.
But I lived right next to Skid Row, and I can verify that even ten years ago, a lot of what you see here is kind of frightfully accurate. Los Angeles is a place where people go to seek out new narratives for their life, and I can’t tell you how many girls like Lily I met when I lived there. They’re always a day or two away from some big break, from living their dream, from finding the true love they’ve always wanted. It’s a city of dreams, but so many people talk about it. Honestly, it’s one of the reasons I had to escape Los Angeles. It’s certainly a diverse city; in terms of my own ethnicity, I certainly more at home in Los Angeles than in San Francisco, where I had to be reminded that RACISTS ARE EVERYWHERE. But working in the entertainment industry for so many years, you come to discover how many people flock to L.A. and then just fail.
So yes, a lot of the images that plague “Anne” are meant specifically to make it seem like Buffy is living some hard, depressing life. I get that, and I wouldn’t argue against anyone who found that problematic. I’d agree. Then I’d also offer that I lived in that neighborhood and there’s a terrifying truth to the sense of vacancy in downtown Los Angeles, especially before the redevelopment companies rolled in and began to gentrify everything. I never thought of it as a scary place. To me, it was just depressing, a reminder that there was a place in that giant, sprawling metropolis where it was acceptable to forget people. Did you know hospitals used to dump mentally ill patients just blocks from my house after discharging them from the ER and this was a thing for years? So the images I saw in “Anne” just made me think, “WELL, HOLY SHIT. That’s downtown Los Angeles.”
But the most realistic aspect is Ken. There are Kens every day in Los Angeles. I saw them every morning when I left my apartment. I saw them when I came home. I saw them on the weekends when I got up to eat at the Nickel Dinner early in the morning, trying to beat the crowds that inevitably came later. Clean cut white men in suits, their hair gently combed to one side, pamphlets in one hand, the other ready to reach out and grasp another, a thinly-veiled Bible verses spilling out of their mouths, the promise of a roof and food waiting for the next vulnerable soul.
They are my least favorite people in Los Angeles.
What’s so terrifying about them – and what Joss Whedon nails so perfectly that it makes Ken one of the creepiest villains in Buffy history – is how they prey on those who need real help, and use them as fodder for their own religious crusade. The promise of food or a shower comes with a catch: you have to listen to someone tell you that you’re a sinner and this is the reason you don’t have a home, or you’re down on your luck, or you were abused or beaten. You are full of sin, and you are disadvantaged because you have not accepted the Lord as your personal savior. These people disgust me because good intentions don’t provide significant, meaningful help. A personal quest for salvation doesn’t give someone a home, and it doesn’t do shit to root out the problems of the the institutions we have in this country that contribute to a person being homeless.
Fuck you, Ken.
Okay, well NOW I HAVE GOTTEN VERY SERIOUS ABOUT A BUFFY EPISODE. Oh god, I kind of adore this? Like, look, I love the chance to talk about these things because of a single episode of a television show, and it makes me love what I’m watching even more. How these characters fit into this narrative of loss, identity, and hopelessness is just so fascinating to me, and out of every city in California, Los Angeles was the perfect place to set this episode. The city is used to explore Buffy’s loneliness after losing Angel, and it’s done so brilliantly.
The truth is that this story would not have worked had it not been about people who were viewed as disposable. Ken and his demon buddies specifically targeted people who could be forgotten, who could disappear. It’s got such a powerful subtext about how our society treats those who are poor and homeless, and it’s the little things like that that make me appreciate “Anne.” But there’s actually a “big” thing, too: Whedon invents AN ENTIRE WORLD IN ANOTHER DIMENSION, SHOWS US IT FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES, AND THEN WE NEVER RETURN BACK TO IT EVER AGAIN. I am a sucker for unexplained, immersive sci-fi worlds, and this fucking TAKES THE GODDAMN CAKE. An alternate dimension where “forgotten” people are kidnapped to work as slaves on some project we never discover, then returned to Earth a day later BUT OH MY GOD THEY JUST AGED A YEAR?!?!?!! I love this. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.
Over the course of “Anne,” though, we’re shown how desperate Buffy is to escape her life. For the first time in a long time, she has abandoned her “fate” as the Slayer, and until Lily walks into her life, she actually manages to pull it off. No demons, no vampires, no fights. But she’s also given up her mother, her friends, her Watcher, and hope. She drifts from her job to her barren, plain apartment, and her life has no real point anymore. This is what she wanted, but it doesn’t make her happy. It just makes her numb.
It’s why the moment where she affirms her identity to the demon is so victorious to me. In that instance, she realizes that she’s been denying herself so much, that even in the worst of times in Sunnydale, she still had things to be happy about. Perhaps she even remembers that she was once happy without Angel. Either way, when a demon asks her who she is, she refuses to be no one. AHHHHH IT IS SO COOL TO SEE HER ANNIHILATING DEMONS AGAIN. God, the production quality of this show just skyrocketed, didn’t it?’
There are still questions that need to be answered. I don’t think we’ll ever see Lily again, though I admit that it was awesome they they brought her back in this context. Buffy was expelled by Principal Snyder, so it’s not like she can just walk back into school the next day, so I’m interested to see how the show will deal with it. For now, though, I found myself unbelievably pleased to see Joyce and Buffy reunited with another. I’m glad that neither of them spoke. That needs its own episode. In that moment, they missed one another so much, and no words would suffice. I love it.
God, what a gorgeous open to season three. I CAN’T WAIT TO WATCH MORE.
DEAD PEOPLE COUNT: 3 Ricky, Ken, and the gymnast vampire. Did that guy die who got hit by the demon when he said his name?