In the seventeenth episode of the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s continued struggle to find happiness is complicated when a demon’s poison causes her to believe her life is not what it seems. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
So, something I often try to bring up in my reviews is the idea that we should critically approach the media we consume, but that this doesn’t mean we must hate things that are problematic. If that was the case, then it would be impossible to like anything. The world of fiction does not exist in a vacuum. The choices that writers make will almost always reflect their view of society, the stereotypes that were conditioned into them, or any number of beliefs about humankind. It’s just the way things are. And we certainly have seen how great it is when fiction has real-world implications that empower us and make us feel less alone. I have no problem saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has done that for me. This show’s depiction of death, depression, friendship, betrayal, and family has affected me on a very intimate level. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve grown to love it so much! (Seriously, how was I not watching this show while I was growing up? I totally missed out.)
Ultimately, I liked “Normal Again,” and I was satisfied to see the show not only address its absurd nature, but to give Buffy a chance to reflect on the painful year she’s been through. I thought the metaphor was brilliant in one respect, but I recognize that this episode’s treatment of mental illness isn’t all that spectacular. And that is the basis of my whole point: we can still like problematic things as long as we’re not erasing that aspect. While I understand the message at the heart of “Normal Again,” I thought that using mental illness so negatively did a disservice to those of us who do have mental illness.
Which is not to suggest that we are all part of some huge monolith of mental ability advocates who agree on all things ever. We’re not, and to even imply that would be silly and gross. Mostly gross. But something made me feel weird about “Normal Again,” and it wasn’t until I thought about it for a few hours that I was able to figure out what it was. I didn’t like the idea that having a mental illness is this horrific, life-ruining thing, that because Buffy suffered from schizophrenia, it meant that her life was terrible and a burden on her parents. Can it be the case that this is true? Perhaps, and I wouldn’t want to ignore that. But this episode made mental illness feel incredibly reductive, despite that it was clearly not the intent of the writers to do so. They were telling a story about how Buffy’s life felt like it was falling apart, and they used a real mental illness to do so. They used very specific visual tropes concerning mental illness to do so, and that allowed them to create an alternate world with almost no attention to detail. We see white rooms with white gowns and cleanliness and straps on a bed and an authoritative doctor, and our minds don’t have to do any of the work. There’s no nuance or subtlety to the scenes in the institution. We rely on such threadbare images because they’re stereotypes. It’s easy.
And I think there are plenty of folks in this community who can attest to the fact that mental illness isn’t like this for some of us. Or hell, maybe even most of us. I have suffered from PTSD, extreme anxiety, and clinical depression since my early teens. (It’s part of the reason I’m particularly sensitive to ableist slurs, especially those concerning mental illness, since I was routinely called “crazy” or “insane” when there were legitimate things wrong in my head.)
Does that mean that the writers were trying to hurt people? Of course not. And I actually thought that Buffy’s entire monologue about having been to a clinic prior to coming to Sunnydale was a fantastic moment that conveyed how scary it can be to be committed to an institution at a young age. Plus, the real horrifying thing about that experience for Buffy is that she wasn’t losing her sanity. Vampires were real, but because her experience was so unlike others, she wasn’t believed.
And in that sense, there’s an element to Buffy’s hallucinations that I loved: she wants normalcy. This is not an unfamiliar theme in this show, and we’ve certainly seen her desire and pursue this before. The episode’s title is a direct reference to what Buffy she wants. She has lived such an absurd and painful life, and now she’s being teased with the possibility of having a normal family. I also want to acknowledge that this episode is very meta, a sort of deconstruction of what the writers have done on Buffy since it started. It’s like the writers are poking fun at themselves and the fantastical world they’ve created.
So I don’t think it’s wrong of anyone to like this episode. It’s powerful, emotive, and whenever Joyce was on screen, I wanted to pass out from joy and terror. Ugh, THEY HAD TO BRING JOYCE BACK IN THIS WAY. I guess all I want out of folks who come to my site is to realize that it’s okay to take a deeper look at the things we’re watching and reading, and it’s okay to say, “Hey, you know what? This isn’t for me. This makes me feel weird because of x reasons.” And even if we can’t empathize with a reading like that, even if we can’t understand how a person might be offended or hurt by a certain portrayal, I want us to be able to support people coming to that sort of conclusion. I’ve loved how the comments on Buffy have shown me just how detailed and layered this show is, and I think this episode certainly deserves that attention. But I don’t want to lose sight of the real-world implications (intended or not) of the images, stereotypes, tropes, or themes we are given in a fictional universe. These things matter because they ultimately reflect our own society.
blah blah blah blah lots of words OH MY FUCKING GOD JOYCE CAME BACK FOR ONE EPISODE I NEARLY CRIED LIKE THREE BAJILLION TIMES. It’s just evil to tease me with that. EVIL, I SAY. Also, I am kind of done liking the Trio or thinking they’re funny? After the events in “Dead Things,” they’re all just kind of gross to me, especially Warren. UGH. I do get the feeling that Jonathan might turn on them. I WOULD SUPPORT THIS. And this episodeÂ also features Xander coming back, and everything is sad and confusing, and I miss Anya, and you know, I FUCKING MISS GILES. Ugh, come back, Giles. 🙁
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