Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Normal Again

Summary

Buffy is going through a list of rentals, searching for the stooges. She finds them and we see they have cameras set up to monitor the doors. Only Jonathan is asleep instead of watching out. Warren wakes him with a water gun. They all start arguing until Andrew sees Buffy on the monitor. Warren tells him to summon a demon. Outside, a demon which looks like a waxwork attacks Buffy. It extrudes a spike from its hand and stabs her with it in the shoulder. Cut to Buffy being restrained in a psychiatric word. Cut to Buffy, now alone, coming to after the fight.

Willow is at school rehearsing for a 'chance' meeting with Tara. But when she sees Tara another woman is with her. Tara and the other woman kiss, in a friendly manner, and Willow leaves without talking to her. Tara sees Willow go off. Buffy is daydreaming at work while making fries. Her boss talks to her and Buffy hallucinates she is in the hospital and her boss is a nurse giving her drugs. She returns to reality where she has burnt the fries. Later at home she comes downstairs to find Willow on line looking to see if Xander has emailed. He hasn't. Buffy asks why she isn't with Tara and Willow explains what she saw and that she isn't sure whether the other woman was just a friend or something more. Xander arrives. Buffy and Willow run to hug him. He asks if Anya is there and tells them her suitcase and some of her things are gone from their home and the Magic Box is closed. They tell him she has left. He says it all got complicated, but when he was without her he felt empty. He says he screwed up.

Buffy is walking through the cemetery. Spike is coming back to his crypt with groceries and asked if she cried at the wedding. She tells him what happened and he's surprised. Xander and Willow arrive and Spike goes to leave but Xander starts ragging on him. Spike starts criticizing Xander, talking about his walking out on Anya. They almost fight and Willow tries to calm them down. Xander says he realizes Spike can't hurt him and it was dumb of him to pick a fight. Spike says it would be worth the pain. Xander punches him and knocks him down. Meanwhile, Buffy has another hallucination. She's talking to a doctor in the mental institution. He tells her she has been there for 6 years and Sunnydale isn't real. Willow and Xander go to Buffy's aid. In the hospital, Buffy's parents are there to see her. They tell her that they miss her. Xander and Willow are hovering over Buffy. Spike suggests they go back to his crypt, but Xander rejects this. They take Buffy away and Spike calls to them to put ice on the back of her neck. To himself he says she likes that and walks off.

Buffy explains about the hallucinations and the fight with the demon to Xander, Willow, and Dawn. Willow heads off to do research and tells Xander to hit the demon bars. The doctor tells Buffy's parents that she might make a full recovery. He says she's created a multilayered delusion with an assortment of other people. He says every time they think they are getting to her, she creates another demon to battle. Buffy starts talking about the stooges, then mentions Dawn. The doctor says she inserted Dawn into her delusion to create a familial bond, but that it created inconsistencies. He says the delusion is falling apart. He says she used to create incredible opponents, gods and monsters, but now she's battling the stooges.

Warren and Andrew return to the lair with some boxes and Jonathan is upset they went out without him. They say they just picked up some stuff and checked out Buffy on the van's sensors. They won't tell him what the stuff is and start looking at the plans to a vault. Jonathan goes to leave, but Warren brings him back. He says they have to be careful and stick together.

Buffy is looking at a family photograph. Willow comes down to say she found the demon and it carries the antidote to its own poison. Buffy says she feels lost. That she has been detached for some time and can't seem to snap out of it. She confesses that she was institutionalized once, when she first began to see vampires. It was only for a short time. When she stopped talking about them, she was released. Her parents seemingly forgot about the incident. Now she wonders whether she isn't still there. Willow tries to reassure her. She says Xander is hunting the demon for the antidote. Buffy is afraid for him alone but Willow says he got help.

Cut to Xander and Spike hunting the demon. Spike is talking to himself, although Xander hears him, about what is happening to Buffy which he calls self centered. They start arguing again when the demon appears. They fight, Xander shoots it with a tranquilizer gun, and after a considerable battle they capture it.

Dawn brings Buffy some tea. She realizes Buffy has a fever. Buffy thinks she should be taller than Dawn. She starts talking about things falling apart. She starts complaining about Dawn's grades and the stealing. She suggests Willow is doing Dawn's chores. She grabs Dawn and says they have to deal with it. In the hospital, Buffy's parents try to convince her she doesn't have a sister and make her say it. Dawn hears this and is upset. She realizes she doesn't exist in Buffy's hallucination. She's upset that in Buffy's ideal reality, she doesn't exist. She goes to finish her chores.

Spike and Xander have the demon in the basement. Willow breaks off it's spike. She says she will try to create an antidote. Spike says he'll stay and keep an eye on the demon. Next morning, Willow comes to Buffy with the antidote. She gives it to her to drink. Spike enters and she leaves him to watch Buffy take the antidote and goes. Buffy says Spike needs to leave her alone. He says the antidote won't rid her of her martyrdom. He says she's addicted to the misery and that's why she won't tell her friends about them. If she did, they would either understand and help her or drive her out into the dark where she could be happy with him. He tells her she should let herself live. He says if she doesn't tell them, he will. He leaves, she spills out the antidote. Buffy tells the doctor she doesn't want to go back, that she wants to be healthy again. She asks him what she has to do.

The doctor tells her she has to rid herself of the things which keep pulling her back into her hallucination, her friends. The doctor tells her she has to do whatever it takes. Back in the Buffyverse, Willow asks Buffy how she's doing and she says better. Willow offers to make her something to eat. Later, Xander returns. He finds Buffy alone in the kitchen. He wants to go kill the demon now that she is better. He says he doesn't want to see Spike, but he almost feels sorry for him. He starts talking about the things Spike was saying, but Buffy smashes him with a pan. She beats him helpless, then drags him down to the basement where we see a bound and gagged Willow. Buffy goes back upstairs and seeks out Dawn. She finds her upstairs, packing to go to Janice's where she says she feels wanted. Buffy says no, she's going downstairs with the others. She grabs her and Dawn flees. She chases her around the house. Dawn tries to get her to see that her hallucination isn't real. Buffy says what's more real, a sick girl in a hospital or a superhero. She subdues Dawn and takes her downstairs and binds and gags her.

The doctor and her parents tell Buffy to make it as easy on herself as possible. Xander comes to. Buffy releases the demon. Xander tries fending off the demon by kicking it, his hands are tied. Tara enters the house and calls out. The demon grabs at Xander and actually frees his hands. Buffy's mother encourages her. Tara comes downstairs (perhaps because she heard the noise of the fighting) and uses magic to free Dawn and Willow. She starts using magic against the demon, but Buffy grabs her foot and causes her to fall down the stairs. Dawn and Willow run to her aid. Joyce continues comforting Buffy, who is freaking out. She says she believes in her and she is a survivor. The demon gets the better of Xander, attacks Dawn, and then Willow. Joyce tells Buffy she is strong, that she has people who love her, that she has to believe in herself. Buffy says she is right and then says good-bye. Buffy fights and destroys the demon. She apologizes. Xander says it's ok. Buffy says she can't relax until she has the antidote. Willow says she'll get some more. She says everything will be ok. The doctor is looking at a catatonic Buffy, saying they lost her.

Analysis

When I first heard about this episode, my expectations were low. When I started watching, I was expecting something along the lines of St. Elsewhere or Dallas or Newhart. What I got was something far, far better. I got a show which played with the audience's perception and moved the characters a big step forward in their growth.

I'm going to start by saying the most calming thing I can thing of: Buffy is not really in an institution. She is not catatonic. The Buffyverse, not the hospital, is the real world. And I have a pretty good argument to justify this. The doctor says Buffy has retreated into a dream world. That she went there because it made her feel better. In that world she was a super hero saving the world and in this world she was just a teenage girl facing problems. He argues that the dream world is falling apart. That her foes are no longer hell gods, but kids she knew from high school who still collect Star Trek action figures. That her imaginary friends no longer are her strong supporters - they've fallen apart. Willow has an addiction problem, Giles has left, and Xander abandoned his bride at the altar.

But the doctor misses a critical point, one Buffy seems to realize at the end. The comforting world, the easy world, the world anyone would prefer is the world of the hospital. The delusion is not a sweet dream, it's a nightmare. Not because of vampires and demons and thieving sisters. It's a nightmare because that's the world in which her parents divorced. That's the world where her mother died. That's the world where she has a soul destroying job at a fast food restaurant. That's the world where she was forced to drop out of university. Who, in or out of her right mind, would choose that world over the hospital? When Joyce tells Buffy to be strong, to reject the illusion, Buffy realizes that it requires strength to live in the Buffyverse because that's where she's hurting. And pain is one of the signs of reality. So she says goodbye to the dream.

One interesting point of ambiguity occurs just before Buffy opts for the hallucination, spilling out the antidote. Spike tells her to live and we might think this is what inspires her to retreat into the hallucination (which this interpretation suggests is reality). However, why would the words of a non real Spike be effective when the demands of the real parents fail? It doesn't make sense that Buffy's hallucination is driving her to reality. But that isn't the last thing Spike says. He goes on to make a threat. He says he'll tell her friends about them. And that threat drives her to retreat, to move into the friendly confines of her madness.

For those who point to the last scene, of the catatonic Buffy being examined by the doctor, as a counter argument - I can't agree. Buffy has still not received the antidote. She is still trapped by her delusions. But she has successfully contained them. She's removed herself from them even though they continue to plague her until she gets the antidote. That's what the final scene shows. It shows her victory over the life of ease which she might have allowed herself to sink into.

Xander is in a really interesting situation. He can't live without Anya, he's mortified at what he did, but he can't bring himself to get married. He's trying to sit on a very high and very pointy fence. He realizes he's in the wrong and this is probably what leads him to pick on Spike. Spike is amazingly nice and restrained in the cemetery scene. He's shocked at what happened at the wedding. He tries to be helpful and he tries to walk away without causing trouble. It's Xander who provokes him. Xander, realizing how very in the wrong he is, how indefensible his actions, tries to get Spike to act badly. He thinks that by making Spike look bad (and he does provoke him to threats of violence) he can look better in comparison. But none of that changes anything real. When Buffy has her hallucination, Spike focuses on her. He offers to take them to his crypt and when he's rebuffed, he doesn't get angry or threaten to fight (the things Xander has been doing). Instead, he offers a suggestion for making her feel better and leaves quietly. His focus is on Buffy while Xander is still focusing on himself, not Anya.

Throughout this episode, I kept waiting for Buffy to announce herself - "I'm Buffy the vampire slayer". That self recognition happened way back in Anne, but we haven't seen it in a long time. Buffy began questioning her identity in Buffy Vs. Dracula and her death and resurrection didn't help matters. She needs to rediscover herself and her purpose in life. The fantasy of the hospital makes that even harder. Her fear that she never got out of the hospital during her institutionalization makes her question her entire reality. Her hallucinations are built on that central fear. A fear everyone feels at some time. How do I know that this world is real and not a dream? How do I know I'm not just somebody else's dream? We never do know. We're stuck with cogito ergo sum and nothing better. We have to start with the axiom of reality and move outward from there. Buffy, who has discovered even death isn't an absolute for her, has to find a way to restore her faith in reality.

Joyce says a number of important things to Buffy near the end. She tells her she is strong, that there are people who love her, and to believe in herself. That last point is the most important. It's the lesson Buffy learnt in Anne. Ultimately, it's not a question of whether Buffy believes in the reality of Joyce or the doctor vs the reality of Willow and Dawn. It's a question of believing in herself. In having faith that she is living in the real world and that her perceptions are based in reality.

It's interesting that Spike calls Buffy's delusions self centered. He's right, in that they are an attempt to create a better, happier world for herself while excluding the others. But it's self centered of him to have such thoughts while she is suffering.

It occurs to me that this episode can be seen as a rebuttal to fans, like myself, who have complained about the stooges and what weak villains they are. They have, after all, committed some very serious crimes: theft, assault, kidnapping, attempted rape, and murder. And, since they are human, Buffy can't simply kill them. Worse, they are people she knows who were, at one time, not evil or at least not without the possibility of redemption. Maybe we've made a big mistake. Maybe fighting the stooges is harder than fighting Glory. With Glory, you just had to figure out her vulnerability. With the stooges, you have to deal with a horde of additional issues. The doctor demeans them, but they get closer to destroying Buffy than anyone - even Glory who only accidently put Buffy into a fugue state.

Some quick final thoughts. Why does the demon, after knocking Buffy out, leave her? Why doesn't it kill her? Shouldn't Buffy have been wearing her hat while making those fries? So last week we got a different actor playing Xander's father, but this week we got the same actor as always playing Buffy's father. So we're batting 500. So clearly the stooges are planning a heist - will it be a casino or is that too slavish a devotion to movies even for them? I had never noticed before how much Dawn has grown. She will soon dwarf the slayer. I love the way Buffy's death and resurrection are worked into her hallucination by the doctor referring to a momentary awakening and being pulled back into her delusion by her friends. For those arguing that the hospital, the doctor, and the diagnosis were not realistic - remember this is Buffy's delusion. She doesn't know much about these things and her perception would be one formed by her brief institutionalization and tv and film. Xander's reference to the things Spike was saying indicate he was listening more carefully than we thought. I have to assume this will come back to haunt Buffy later as Xander finally realizes what is really happening between Spike and Buffy. Plus, she let slip the secret to Dawn when she was chasing her. You have to wonder whether she really wants to keep this a secret. We saw Buffy locking the door to the basement, but clearly she didn't lock the front door. Or does Tara still have a key? I'll leave it to others to work out the symbolism of Buffy being driven mad by the monster's spike while breaking off a love affair with the monster Spike.

Lines of the week:

"There's a closed sign on the Magic Box. Which, like, chills me to the bone." - Xander terrified Anya has left.

"I blew it." - Xander correctly analyzing the situation.

"I screwed up real bad." - Xander with a second correct analysis of the situation.

"Didn't see that coming." - Spike with a rare moment of modesty.

"You're addicted to the misery." - Spike's probably flawed analysis of Buffy.

"Let yourself live." - Spike offering Buffy some really good advice.

"You have to do whatever it takes." - The doctor exhorting Buffy to murder.

"A girl who sleeps with the vampire she hates." - Buffy letting slip the big secret.

"Believe in yourself." - Joyce telling Buffy what she needs to know.

"You're right. Thank you. Good-bye." - Buffy being strong when it counts.

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