Today is Thanksgiving in the US, a festival I have celebrated several times over the last few years with American friends (we had a delicious dinner last year, my friend is an excellent cook!). I can't be with them this year, so I'm missing out on Thanksgiving, but I thought I'd at least do a celebratory post. As you can probably tell, I've been watching through a lot of old Buffy DVDs lately, so of course this, the only Thanksgiving episode of Buffy, seemed the natural choice.
'Pangs' is another classic comedy episode of Buffy, though it also features the first return of Angel since going over to his own show and a fascinating discussion about the problem of how we remember the past, something very close to my current research. Best of all, this is where Spike starts to become integrated into the main cast, albeit bound in a chair at this point (what on earth do Giles' neighbours think?!).
Early on in the episode, Anya calmly informs Buffy and Willow, who are aghast, that,
'To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice, with pie.'
She's more or less right. To really be a ritual scarifice, the animal ought to be killed on an altar and its bones dedicated to the gods, and ancient rituals varied in ther reasoning behind them, but Thanksgiving roughly fits the bill. Some ancient rituals did commemorate past events, but many were explained by myth and were more related to the natural cycle of the year than commemoration; the events they commemorated, being mythological, are closer to stories people chose to pass on and celebrate than to modern commemorations of much more recent events. At first glance, this might seem to separate them from Thanksgiving, but actually, Anya is not quite accurate in her summation. Although Thanksgiving does commemorate a past event, that's not its main purpose as a festival. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, something we still celebrate in churches and schools over here in the UK (usually at the end of September or beginning of October) and this function, of marking the point in the year where the harvest is brought in and giving thanks for having food for the winter, is probably more significant for the development of the festival than the commemorative aspect, though the latter has become more significant in recent times.
Much of the episode is taken up by an argument between Willow and Giles over whether Buffy should slay the vengeful Native American spirit who is going around killing people and chopping off their ears. Leaving aside the specific argument about the vengeful spirit (I tend to take Xander's side there, who has been given syphilis by the spirit and is not happy about it) the question of how to remember controversial past events is always a delicate one. When the past event is still having an effect on the present, the cultural memory of it is much more than memory, and any attempt to remember the past will be completely dominated by present issues - Voyager's 'Living Witness' is an excellent fictional example of this.
The last word in Willow and Giles' argument, in the end, comes from Spike, whose argument has a number of advantages over Giles' attempt to, as he bitterly points out, make many of the same points. Spike is evil, so he can say potentially offensive or controversial things without causing offence, because we expect evil characters to say offensive things. Like Giles, he's British, which gives him a certain distance from the particular issue (not a lot of distance, granted, since many pilgrims came to America to escape persecution in Britain, but he still has slightly more distance than the American characters). But most importantly, Spike uses an analogy with ancient Rome to make his point, which allows him to highlight brutal truth without sounding too heartless.
Ancient Greece and Rome (along with Persia, Babylon and other Near Eastern places) hold an unusual position in our cultural memory, because we don't connect them particularly strongly with a modern political situation. We make a mental break at the end of the Roman Empire and you don't hear too many people in North Africa complaining about these pesky camels those Italians brought over, or people from the various Roman provinces complaining about how the Italians occupied our country - in fact, we tend to be rather proud of it. The Romans conquered and subjugated half the known world, but whereas more recent examples of this behaviour are condemned, we praise the Romans for it (probably because of all the roads and irrigation and stuff).
So when Spike needs to make a fairly brutal, but true, point about how history works, the Romans are the perfect example. Their conquering is usually considered in a fairly positive light, so by pointing out that more recent situations are no different (though I suspect the Romans were quite a bit more violent than the Pilgrim Fathers) he is able to demonstrate the problem without getting too wrapped up in past wrongs at the expense of the present. Also, they way he puts it is brilliant:
'You won, all right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. That's what Caesar did, and he isn't going around saying "I came, I conquered, I feel really bad about it". The history of the world isn't people making friends.'
(James Marsters' delivery of 'I feel really bad about it' is hilarious).
It's a harsh point, but also a true one, and using the Romans allows him - or rather, the show, since Spike is evil and doesn't care - to make it without directly offending anyone still feeling the cultural pain of historical wrongdoing (the Romans invaded my country, but I think I'm OK with it). Most importantly, though, it's really, really funny.