In the twenty-second and final episode of the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Scoobies cope with their identity issues in the most unsettling way imaginable. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
There truly is absolutely no way I could have ever prepared myself for “Restless.” You could have spoiled me for the framing device of the season four finale, and it would not have helped me in the slightest. I’m struck by what a brilliant choice this is; Whedon has devoted the most significant emotional point of a season (the finale) to resolving absolutely nothing. There’s no point of shock and awe; there’s no emotional resolution of the plot, and there’s no mind-melting cliffhanger. Instead, we’re given a creepy and upsetting glimpse into the character growth all four Scoobies have gone through in the last four years, and we find out that all four of them are still plagued by issues surrounding their identity and self-worth. This is achieved through Whedon basically allowing David Lynch to write the screenplay for the episode, stringing together a highly-involved set of episodic references to the past, mixing them with foreshadowing and absurd, non-sensical images and lines, and then refusing to make it easy for us to figure out which is which.
And holy foreshadowing. I haven’t even begun to piece together all the clues I’ve gotten to the final three seasons of this show, but I basically feel like Joss Whedon just told me, “Good fucking luck making it through the next three years.”
Even if all the Scoobies now know that Willow and Tara are together, I felt a good portion of her dream revolved around the idea that she still felt she was carrying some awful secret with her. And that’s something I can relate to so much. I suppose that might be strange to some of you, but despite that I live in the Bay Area and I’ve surrounded myself with friends who don’t care that I’m gay, it’s always in the back of my head. I have to stay aware of where I am, who I’m with, and what the dynamic of the situation is. Unfortunately, it’s 2012 and there’s still places where I don’t feel safe as a queer dude. And depending on where I’m at, I can’t pass as a straight man at all. People in gay-friendly cities tend to read me as straight, but if I’m in a conservative part of Southern California, or in the Midwest or the South, I’m read as gay almost 100% of the time.
Either way, your identity can feel like a secret if you’re in the minority or if it comes with a lot of social baggage and pressure. I think Willow knows that her friends are still her friends, but I can relate to the idea that you still never know if you’re truly accepted. It’s something I’ve always had to deal with, and I don’t know that there will be a day that I don’t.
At the same time, Willow’s fear of becoming who she was when the series started is also featured in her dream. You know, I never really thought about how far Willow had come in four years, and I certainly forgot that she used to dress like that. Okay, I know it’s painfully obvious that Willow is my favorite character and, like Hermione, I constantly project myself on to her, but I can’t help it she is written so perfectly. In junior high and high school, I was the dork who dressed terribly because I was poor and because I had goddamn clue what I was doing. I’m still in the process of making my own body mine, to change it in ways to make myself feel good in my own skin, but I looked so different back then. So, seriously, I understand Willow’s fear, too. I don’t mind that people perceive me as being nerdy and super smart. I embrace that. But I grew up listening to punk and hardcore, and I went through this really awful period in high school where people didn’t believe my taste in music was sincere. There was no way all the hardcore kids could believe that someone who was in all these AP classes could also like Judge or Gorilla Biscuits or Black Flag, so that led to a lot of bullying, too.
It’s a reason I pursued body modifications. I wanted to finally choose how to portray myself instead of drifting through life and having others do that. I got piercings. I got tattooed, and I chose all the visible spots first. I wanted to look that way because I was perfectly fine with the association that I listened to a specific kind of music. I’m still fine with it. And I think there’s a power in being able to choose that sort of thing. On that same note, I get the fear of feeling like others don’t believe you, that you’re putting on some show and hiding the real you inside.
Basically, Willow’s dream is my nightmare? Pretty much.
Oh my god there were like forty billion layers to Xander’s dream. How am I ever going to figure them all out? More than anyone else, I think Xander’s dream will make the most sense once I see the entire series. The combination of possible foreshadowing and referential lines to his past is so dense that I’m having trouble sorting them out. It’s clear that Xander still has a whole host of issues concerning his masculinity, especially how that relates to his sexuality. In fact, I think a lot of the images we see in his dream are exaggerated expressions of how he sexualizes the people in his life, even if he doesn’t want to. That’s why we see Joyce sexualized in the way she is, and it’s why Xander views Willow and Tara in the most stereotypical, hyper-sexualized lesbian pairing imaginable. This is what his head is like, and seeing it manifested like this is a way to show us how distant from reality he is.
But that’s just one of so many things brought up in his dream. Then there’s the whole thing of Buffy seeing him as a brother, of Giles choosing Spike to mentor instead of Xander, of the performance issues he might have (or will have??? I DON’T KNOW), of not knowing where he’s going in the future and whether Anya will be there with him, and then the entire brilliance of using Apocalypse Now to summarize Xander’s issues with being a guy and referencing his “military” past and bringing back Principal Snyder in the weirdest role ever, and what the fuck is going on.Â
And then I see Xander’s father for the first time, and everything hurts. To watch him be berated and belittled by his father, and then get his heart ripped out literally was just so overwhelming to me. Not only that, but the multitude of behavioral issues he’s had suddenly make so much sense to me. If that’s the father figure in his life, it’s not at all surprising to me that he lashes out in the way he does. His father is so aggressive and hyper-masculine, and I imagine Xander feels quite inadequate next to him.
OH GOD ALL OF MY XANDER FEELS.
Oh my god oh my god. Giles’s entire story in season four was leading to this point. He feels like he’s raising a child when it comes to Buffy, and that all of this is preventing him from living his own life. I noticed that Giles’s dream is so much shorter than the others, but I think that’s intentional. Giles’s issues isn’t necessarily simpler, but it’s certain not as complex and layered as what the other Scoobies are going through. Plus, there’s a common theme running throughout the dreams: each of the characters becomes aware that something is after them. Giles is the quickest of all to get a more complete grasp on what’s going on, and it’s during his song onstage at the Bronze (OH MY GOD OH MY GOD GILES SINGING IS SO AMAZING PLEASE LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN CAN HE JUST SING FOR A WHOLE EPISODE AND NARRATE THE ACTION THANK YOU VERY MUCH) that he has an epiphany: the enjoining ceremony must have conjured up something evil that’s now coming for them.
Oh god, Giles, please never stop singing.
When it came time for Buffy to have her dream, I thought I’d figured things out. That thing following all the characters was some kind of demon, summoned by a powerful spell with horrifying consequences. While I was right about the latter, I wasn’t prepared for just how fucking bizarre her sequence would be. More so than any other characters’ dream, Buffy’s had so many confusing images and themes. I just didn’t understand so much of what I was seeing. Why is Tara there? Why is it so important she come back before dawn? Is she telling her to wake up? Why is Joyce living in the walls of the school??? WHY IS RILEY THE SURGEON GENERAL AND WHAT THE FUCK WILL THINKING COFFEEMAKERS DO?
Strangely, then, it’s Buffy’s dream that provides the most clarity, though. As weird as the first half is, when she finally confronts the thing that’s been stalking them in that desert sequence, it all suddenly made sense to me. It wasn’t just that I learned that they conjured up THE FIRST SLAYER EVER with the enjoining spell, though. Buffy’s dream made sense: she was concerned more than ever about working alone. Should she have a boyfriend and an entire set of friends who help her out? Is it doing her more harm than good? Should she really take the First Slayer’s advice and work alone? (A note about the First Slayer: the entire episode, I was kind of side-eyeing the idea that this evil villain was portrayed as a primitive black woman because that trope is SO BORING, and then when it was revealed that she was the First Slayer, I was kind of relieved? Because of they had said the first vampire Slayer ever was some pasty white girl I would have rolled my eyes so hard that California would have separated itself from the rest of North America because of the sheer physical power of my irritation.)
It’s Buffy’s rejection of the First Slayer as her “source” of power that causes them all to wake up, but there’s nothing rewarding or fulfilling about this season finale. Instead, Whedon and company have taken plots spread across all four seasons of this show, and they’ve brought us to this incredibly uncomfortable place. The ramifications of their actions can’t be ignored anymore, and whatever the future holds is not pleasant at all. Whedon is literally telling his characters they aren’t prepared, which means I should be horrified.
I didn’t think season three would be topped, but I just adore this season, y’all. I think it rather brilliantly replicates the chaos and confusion of the first year of college, of the constant struggle with identity, and the difficultly of keeping any normality in your life. The Scoobies have grown apart whether they want to admit it or not. I don’t think they’re far enough apart that they can’t still be great friends, but all four of these characters have taken turns in their life none of them could have anticipated, and they’re going to have to deal with them soon.
My god, I am terrified by the prospect of season five. I don’t want to know what’s coming. HELP ME.
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