Thursday, 3 September 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Restless

My thesis on dreams in ancient literature is slowly getting nearer to being finished, so in honour of this impending momentous occasion, I’m going to take a short break from blogging about Classics and blog about my two favourite appearances of dreams in TV drama – more specifically, science-fiction and fantasy. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Voyager, two of my favourite shows, both did episodes devoted to dreams, so the next two blog posts will cover these: ‘Restless’ from Buffy, and ‘Waking Moments’ from Voyager. Normal Classics-centred service will resume after these two.

(Actually, there is some Classics stuff in this episode. The Voyager episode... not so much).

‘Restless’ was one of three gimmick episodes in the vastly underrated fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I didn’t get into Buffy until season 4 was on BBC 2, so I have a fondness for it anyway, and I really like its lighter tone. I think long-running shows need a balance of dark and light and, if they’re going to tip a bit far one way or the other, I’d rather they favoured the light side, on the whole. I also think it does a pretty good job of looking at the scaryness that is going to uni for the first time, and I was sad that the university was so completely dropped from the later seasons (I think its good to have a mix of characters, so Buffy dropping out to join Xander and Anya in the real world was OK, but Willow and Tara seemed to almost give up on it as well).

When SFX ranked every episode of Buffy from best to worst, both the best and the worst were in season 4 – ‘Hush’ (best) and ‘Beer Bad’ (worst). I disagree with them on both counts (for best I’d have gone for ‘Becoming Part 2, with ‘The Gift’ in second place, and for worst, a tie between ‘Hell’s Bells’ and ‘Seeing Red’, both of which I refuse to watch) but it shows the mixed reactions season 4 tends to provoke. Unusually, it’s the gimmicky episodes that tend to draw the highest praise – ‘Hush’, with much reduced dialogue, ‘Superstar’ is an alternate universe episode which is quite well thought of, and ‘Restless’, an episode almost entirely made up of dream sequences with which Whedon chose to round out the season, in place of the usual massive climactic fight (shifted here to the penultimate episode). And it’s brilliant, because it’s unusual, intriguing and, most importantly, very funny as well.

‘Restless’ opens with our heroes coming back to Buffy’s mother’s house for some R&R following their latest victory over evil (I always wondered just what they do after these things). Xander’s idea of a relaxing movie is Apocalypse Now, and they all fall asleep in front of it.

The first dream we see is Willow’s. And – yay! – it opens with an actual Classics reference! Willow and Tara are in Tara’s room, and Willow is painting Tara’s naked back with Greek poetry. The poetry she is writing is Sappho’s 'Hymn to Aphrodite' (Fragment 1 of Sappho’s works – Willow is soon going to run out of space if she wants to copy the whole works). Sappho is one of the absolutely miniscule number of pre-Christian female writers whose work has survived (in fragments; the other reasonably well known woman, also a poet, is Sulpicia) and is the most famous, known for her love poetry addressed to women (hence ‘Sapphic’, and ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). Aphrodite is the goddess of love, so this is a particularly appropriate poem for Willow and Tara, beautifully rendered in capital letters, the way ancient Greek is preserved on papyrus fragments (before it is edited into something much easier to read!). Willow explains how safe she feels with Tara, but she is soon on the move, taking part in a bizarre production of Death of a Salesmen. Whedon has gone on record as saying that everything in ‘Restless’ is symbolic of something, except for the fabulous Cheese Man (‘I wear the cheese. It does not wear me’). On the DVD commentary, he explains the significance of the red theatre curtains, which are very Freudian. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed that before, and now that I know, it just looks crude and a bit icky – less subtle than Austin Powers eating a sausage. I prefer the Sappho.

You can actually read the Greek - it's very cool

If anyone can tell me what Harmony’s milkmaid outfit symbolises, I’d be very grateful!

Everyone keeps telling Willow to take her costume off, and she is confused, until Buffy rips off her season 4 hippy chick bright clothes and reveals her season 1 ‘softer side of Sears’ outfit (what is Sears? What is it’s softer side? Why do American’s find this so funny??!!) complete with season 1 longer, darker hair (which Anya refers to as 'a Greek tragedy'), in a classroom from the dearly departed Sunnydale High School. The symbolism here is pretty darned obvious (Willow is afraid everyone, especially Tara, will see through her cool new costume to the geek within). It does contain Xander’s classic allusion to the magic=sex metaphor that’s been running through the whole season though – ‘Sometimes I think about two woman doing a spell, and then I go do a spell by myself’.

Xander’s own dream has more of this delightful male obsession, as the camera swoops away from Willow and Tara’s first implied kiss to focus on Xander’s stunned face. I’m glad their first onscreen kiss wasn’t here though – much as I dislike ‘The Body’ (too depressing), their kiss there is much more touching and natural.

Xander’s dream follows Willow’s as Willow is attacked by a mysterious, savage figure. Sex is pretty prominent feature in Xander’s dream (surprise surprise) as it opens with Joyce trying to seduce him before moving to a playground where Giles and Spike are playing on the swings and Buffy is in the sandpit. Giles says Spike, rather amusingly dressed in tweed, is like a son to him and that he is training him to be a Watcher. Xander says he was into that for a while, but has moved on to other things, and he goes to join Anya in the ice cream van he has been working in – which is where Willow and Tara show up. The best bits of Xander’s dream are yet to come though, as first he finds Giles and Anya, on the UC Sunnydale campus, speaking French which he can’t understand (but which gives me an opportunity to practise, excellent) and then wanders into his own personal Apocalypse Now, with Snyder as Colonel Kurtz (which all made a lot more sense once I had seen Apocalypse Now). Xander’s dream is mostly about questioning where he’s going, since he (along with Anya) is not in college, as the girls are, and ending up back in the basement, where he is attacked by the savage figure.

Whedon explains in the commentary that the dreams are supposed to get creepier as they get along. I’m not sure if this is what he was referring to, but the beginning of Giles’ dream, with Buffy, and a watch, and Giles saying something very odd about women and men, is definitely creepy. Luckily Spike turns up pretty quickly, doing some hilarious poses for a group of photographers and admirers. Then it get even better – the undoubted highlight of the episode (apart from the Cheese Man) is ‘The Exposition Song’, in which Giles explains that their spell in the previous episode has angered a primal force, and adds a final line asking Xander to please not bleed on his couch, as he’s just had it steam-cleaned. As the savage figure scalps him (in a shot that looks just like Sylar’s MO from the much later Heroes), he realises who it is – the First Slayer, who ‘never had a Watcher’.

The First Slayer, complete with spooky skull-effect make-up

Finally, we get to Buffy’s dream, much of which foreshadows the arrival of Dawn at the beginning of the next season (not that we all knew that at the time). As Buffy wanders though the dream (they all wander from set to set, taking advantage of the layout of the main Buffy sets at the studio), she sees her mother living in the walls (which is definitely creepy) and Riley and Adam planning world domination via the medium of coffee makers that think (which is hilarious). Eventually Buffy ends up in the desert, where she fights the First Slayer, first with weird prose poetry (‘I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There's trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don't sleep on a bed of bones’) and then with, you know, fists. Eventually, Buffy just gets fed up and decides to wake up, and somehow, everyone is safe.

(Pedantic whinge of the day: the spell in question names the four of them as four parts: Spiritus=Spirit, Animus=Heart, Sophus=Mind, Manus=Hand. Oh. Dear. For starters, ‘sophus’ is Latinised Greek, while the rest are Latin, and Buffy apparently incants a spell in Sumerian. ‘Sophos’ is Greek for wisdom, not mind. ‘Animus’ is a Latin word referring to the logical, rational part of the soul (as opposed to ‘anima’, the emotional part of the soul) and it can also mean ‘heart’. ‘Spiritus’ is closer, meaning breath of life or spirit, and ‘manus’ as hand is fine.)

I love ‘Restless’ I think its weird and wonderful. It was also a lot of fun, the first time round, watching it again after seeing season 5 and seeing what elements foreshadowed elements of that season.

The dreams in ‘Restless’ are all, of course, symbolic – no message dreams here. Although Whedon goes to a lot of effort to make them really bizarre, like real dreams, and includes the Cheese Man to ensure there is at least one random element, the level of symbolism in these dreams marks them out as being purely literary. They’re like puzzles for the viewer to figure out (some of which, I confess, I have yet to figure out myself – others are more obvious). ‘Restless’ is a very self-conscious piece of writing. Even leaving aside the fact that these are all dreams, and the science-fiction aspect of the concept, these are still not the sort of dreams a person might really have, even if they look more like them than a lot of fictional dreams do. They are also, since the show is technically in the horror genre, relatively creepy. This all contrasts strongly with the use of dreams in the more ‘science’-oriented Voyager – of which, more later...

19 comments:

  1. Sears is a major retail chain in America. They started off as a mail order house in the 19th cetnury and were highly popular, not least because when the new catalog came, you could move the old one to the outhouse. In the 20th century, they added department stores and sold pretty much everything. These days they are probably best known for their tools (the Craftsman brand). They've been hanging on by their fingertips since the 80s and "Come see the softer side of Sears" was an ad slogan in the 90s to get people to buy something from them other than tools. Their clothing lines had sagged woefully since the 70s and as far as I know, they still mostly sell clothes only to suburban mothers, if even that. But I'm not sure anyone really finds it all that funny, maybe just a slightly amusing cultural reference.

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  2. Dear oh dear indeed. Wisdom is not translated as 'sophos' in either Greek or Latin; it's an adjective, 'wise'. If you were looking for the noun, 'wisdom', then in both Latin and Greek it would be 'sophia'.

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  3. I was using it in a substantive way (as in 'wise sayings', which Liddell and Scott list as a possible meaning under 'II'). I think it's more familiar to English speakers as a noun, as in 'philosophy' ('lover of wisdom'). Anyway, point is, it doesn't mean mind! :)

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  4. I see someone beat me to explaining Sears! I have vague memories of shopping there with my mom as a kid...

    I've never been too convinced by this episode, although I did enjoy it more on later viewings after understanding all the Dawn references! PLus it is fun taking the trip down memory lane with Willow! :o)

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  5. Yes, I'm very grateful for the Sears explanations - that's been bugging me for years! (I knew it must be an unfashionable clothes store, but didn't get the softer side thing)

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  6. This is, of course, a purely pedantic point. Liddell and Scott, in their Greek lexicon, do list 'panta ... sopha' as 'all wise sayings', but that still doesn't mean that sophos means wisdom. It's still an adjective, not a noun as you suggested. And if some English-speakers do think sophos is a noun, as in philosophy, it doesn't make it right! Plus, the list of terms listed (animus, manus etc) are all Latin terms, so I think that it's in Latin dictionaries we should look, not Greek ones.

    Anyway, the point is that sophos means neither wisdom nor mind, and so the writers of Buffy got it wrong on two fronts!

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  7. How dare they! ;).

    I'm rather looking forward to the Voyager article, as I'm a huge ST fan.

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  8. I loved this episode. I think it was one of my favorites. Spike posing, Dawn references, French it had everything, even Oz. The "homework" on Tara's back was cool too. My all time favorite part was the cheese man.

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  9. hi

    can anyone help, i have just recently started to watch Season 4 again, can anyone tell me the name of the band playing in the episode Bad Beers when xander is the bartender and buffy is speaking to riley and spots parker in the bar, the lyrics include " gotta find cover again"

    Cheers 4 any help

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  10. I don't think that you can compare the VOYAGER episode, "Waking Moments" to "Restless". However, there is one VOYAGER episode from its Season Seven that is a major favorite of mine about alternate timelines called "Shattered".

    By the way, here are some photos from "Restless".

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  11. Maybe it's just me, but I do have dreams like the ones in Restless. So to me at least, they ARE the sort of dreams a person might really have. :)

    Great review, thanks for posting.

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  12. Thanks for this. I found it trying to locate the 'real' meaning/origin of the term Sophus. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't pin it down. Your 'pedantic' explanation helped greatly. Thanks again.. I miss the hell out of Buffy. :)

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  13. No problem! I miss Buffy too - there really hasn't been anything to match it since!

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    1. Angel actually

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    2. Angel's not as good as Buffy. Still good, but S3, 4 and the start of 5 are all over the place in terms of quality, and the mishandling of Cordelia is difficult to overcome.

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  14. Neat. I always enjoy reading this sort of stuff, especially if it's about a show I like.

    Restless seems to be one of the most highly... translated episodes by fans. Always interesting, especially when one begins to delve into THE CHEESE MAN

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  15. I agree with pretty much everything you say in the article except for your opinions on the best and worst episodes. I have no problem with 'Becoming Pt.2' at the top but 'The Gift' is ridiculously overrated given that the plot doesn't make any sense. Also, what's wrong with ''Hell's Bells' and 'Seeing Red?' The former is a little cliched and sad, but it's an interesting culmination to Xander's issues all season and it's certainly not worse than 'Beer Bad.' And the latter ... does it hurt your feminist sensibilities? I admit the episode is hard to stomach because of Warren's misogyny and all the violence towards women but it's meant to be that way, and it's very effective. I'd probably rank it in my top 50 episodes.
    I don't agree with the SFX list either - 'Hush' is excellent but not top-five, let alone no.1 material, and there are lots of episodes worse than 'Beer Bad.' Most notably 'Teachers Pet' 'I Robot, You Jane' 'The Puppet Show' 'Where the Wild Things Are' 'Doublemeat Palace' and 'Empty Places,' the last being my least favourite episode.
    Also, S4's 'Who Are You?' is also a highly-regarded gimmick episode, more so than Superstar as far as I know.

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    Replies
    1. I like Spike and prefer not to see him try to rape Buffy, and both episodes just seem like exercises in misery to me. It's a personal preference really. I don't like The Body either, which many people rank as the best.

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  16. I've noticed that what some people hate about certain episodes seems to be the moments of, sometimes , brutal reality which is interesting considering peoples usual complaints are that things aren't portrayed realistically enough.

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