In the eighteenth episode of the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy acquires the power to read minds after killing a demon, and then everything is weird? If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
So let me first state that I did like “Earshot” a lot before it seems that I’m ragging on this episode in a way that might make it appear that I didn’t like it. Truthfully, there’s a lot to like about it, but it’s just…weird? I am having difficulty trying to parse my own feelings for this story, but something just felt off about it.
I think that it feels like there are two competing tones that exist in “Earshot.” There’s a story about the pain and terror of growing up as a teenager and how we all never really know what other people are truly going through. This is done extremely well and with a lot of respect for the idea. At the same time, this episode is about how immensely funny it is that Buffy can read the thoughts of her friends. I don’t think these are necessarily mutually exclusive plots and, largely, I think “Earshot” works. But at times I felt the humor was slightly misplaced, or that the serious nature of some of the themes felt alien in the story. These were brief sensations, and I fully admit that this is probably just me. This is a good episode! I’m just weird about these things sometimes.
There’s a great set-up to the reveal that Buffy can read minds, and I think this episode utilized that tension well. We are inundated with the fear that exposure to the demon’s blood will transform Buffy physically, so it’s kind of a pleasant surprise when we see that the transformation is mental. Well, I mean it’s not ultimately pleasant! But I had no way of knowing that. For a good portion of the introduction of Buffy’s new power, this episode is pretty damn funny. I fully expected that the story would explore the darker sides of such an ability, so I just enjoyed all the moments before that. That’s what is so realistic about this. Who wouldn’t use mind-reading powers like Buffy? Seriously, I would initially be excited about it myself, too. Buffy’s powers aren’t that strong during the beginning, so it’s easier to block out thoughts and only focus on the ones she wants. It’s an advantage in these early stages, and Buffy uses it as one to get attention in class and learn a great deal of gossip in the process.
I do keep telling myself it’ll never happen again, but I’m sorry, I have to do it: HOW DID STEPHENIE MEYER NOT GET THE MIND-READING IDEA FROM THIS EPISODE. The entire scene with Angel just made me think of Edward’s ridiculous and creepy mind-reading ability and the fact that he couldn’t read Bella’s mind. ONLY THIS IS EXECUTED A BILLION TIMES BETTER. I mean, the whole scene is an impetus for Angel to be honest with Buffy about his feelings for her. It’s romantic and sweet and not UNBEARABLY CREEPY like that wretched Twilight series. Oh god, am I going to start shipping Angel/Buffy? I CAN’T TAKE ON ANY MORE SHIPS IN MY HEAD.
At this point in “Earshot,” the story begins to expand on the theme of personal privacy, as well as explore the negative ramifications of Buffy’s powers, which are getting much stronger. Here, I think that the mixture between humor and drama is done quite effectively, and it’s only later in the story that I started feeling weird about how this was pulled off. It’s clear that Buffy’s powers can easily be a detriment to everyone else. While Cordelia, Oz, and Wesley’s thoughts are played for humor, Willow and Xander are far more concerned about how mind-reading affects them. Xander, unsurprisingly, is frightened that his frequent dirty thoughts and fantasies will no longer be a secret anymore. And seriously, dude has every right to worry about that. Willow, on the other hand, is less concerned about Buffy reading her mind, and more upset that Buffy can read Oz’s mind. It’s actually a perspective I never would have considered had the show not brought it up. I know that I certainly have wanted to know the thoughts of someone I like or am dating, especially when that person is kind of shy or closed-off. Nearly everyone I’ve ever dated has been like this, strangely. So Willow experiences jealousy towards Buffy, and I kind of completely understand why she would feel that way.
When her meeting with the Scoobies turns into a bit of a disaster, Buffy then starts to experience the full onslaught of her mind-reading ability. Damn, that scene in the lunchroom is done so well. I like that as her powers increase, she’s able to access much deeper, subconscious thoughts instead of the immediate things people are thinking. What this exposes is the current of negativity that runs through Sunnydale. People doubt themselves. They hate others. They hate their lives. They worry about every social pressure imaginable. And I think that’s the brilliance of the way this scene is executed: no one truly knows just how much other people are suffering. This very realization overwhelms and destroys Buffy, not just on a physical level. She’s so shocked to be exposed to all of this that when she hears the voice, the one that threatens to kill the whole school, it’s just too much for her.
This is also the point that I started to wonder when this episode aired. I knew it had to be before 2000, but the fact that Buffy was tackling the issue of school shootings meant that it had to come at a specific time. That’s when I learned that all of you who watched this in real time didn’t actually get to see the episode for two months after the finale. WELL WHAT. Yeah, so it turns out this was scheduled to air just a week after Columbine happened? Well, that’s really unfortunate timing, isn’t it? Obviously, the writers and actors and crew had no goddamn clue that this was going to happen, so I’m not blaming them at all. But it brings about an interesting issue of what’s too soon to talk about. I imagine that while the images of a student with a gun certainly might have seemed insensitive, the show wasn’t really commenting on Columbine at all.
I remembered how after 9/11, there was that radio blacklist handed out (allegedly) by Clear Channel to all their stations, ordering them not to play songs in the wake of that terrorist attack. It was one of those things that truly just offended me, that made me feel like my delicate sensibilities were shattered. See, I understand being respectful and courteous after such a horrific tragedy. I get that. I get not wanting to trigger people. I do not get banning Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal,” but not the original version. I do not understand how “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas would upset ANYONE EVER. Half the list seemed to focus on title alone. If it had some visual or diction-specific reference to 9/11, it was banned. THEY BANNED “KILLER QUEEN.” WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?
I don’t think postponing “Earshot” is the same, for the record. This was a single case. I get it. But these sort of things always felt so presumptive to me. On the day before my father died at the end of August in 2006, I saw Little Miss Sunshine. If you’ve seen that movie, you can imagine why I now have a very emotional attachment to that film. It helped me cope. When these sort of bannings or delays happen, it always makes me feel like someone else is telling me that I don’t know how to deal with life. It feels like a decision has been made for me without consulting me at all. Wouldn’t it have been better to air a message before the episode to warn of its content and explain that the whole thing was made long before Columbine happened? Networks don’t usually work like that, though.
You know, this might also be the reason I felt some of the tones clashed. The show does do a good job of mixing humor and fear, and a great example of that is when Buffy gets taken home to deal with her ever increasing powers and discovers that her mother had sex with Giles. Twice. ON THE HOOD OF A POLICE CAR. Oh my god OH MY GOD. I knew something was weird between the two. And it’s just after this that we get the BEAUTIFUL interrogation montage, which includes Willow grilling Jonathan again. This is good! It’s witty and hilarious and just everything I love about this show.
But then it’s about someone at school who’s going to murder anyone? So I sort of feel like the jokes should have stopped somewhere after this, perhaps when they discover that Freddy isn’t the killer. (Bless Oz, by the way, for his calm reaction to Freddy’s review. I mean, Oz did admit in “Dopplegängland” that his band barely uses three chords. Though I wish that meant they sounded like the Ramones.) I think that the reveal that Jonathan is the one planning to do something drastic makes his interrogation scene seem really strange in hindsight. Like, it was clearly played as a joke, but then we find out it’s not? At the same time, that could have also been a very direct commentary on the fact that Jonathan was so ignored by people that even Willow couldn’t see how much pain he was in.
And I really do love what Buffy tells the guy up in the clock tower. She doesn’t disagree with him or invalidate how awful he feels; she explains that everyone else is also caught up in a lot of the same sense of invalidation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not that everyone is the same as Jonathan. It’s that each of these people feels they are coping with something bigger and more terrible than everyone around them. And that sort of perspective is really rare to come to know! I know that I had a really hard time in public school, and I came to find out after I graduated that people I thought were well-adjusted and happy were far from it.
So I think that my love for that scene was just distracted by the last minute twist of having the lunch lady be the actual killer. I don’t that it’s played seriously at all, so it felt weird? I also enjoyed the joke at the very end of the episode when Buffy scolds Giles for having sex with her mother, but it still felt odd to end such a seriously-themed story with a joke.
I know this is just my taste. It’s not an objective analysis of “Earshot.” I sort of had a similar experience with both parts of the Deathly Hallows movie. I wanted a dark and HIGHLY SERIOUS FILM, and I felt the humor was distracting. But I know plenty of people who welcomed the jokes because it broke up the tension for them. And that’s a completely valid reading of the movie! So this isn’t a complaint about something done wrong. It’s just my subjective taste, and it’s certainly not enough to make me dislike “Earshot.” This continues a line of FANTASTIC episodes in season three. God, how is this season even real???