Marti Noxon corrects last week’s misstep with Killed by Death by returning us to the barely suppressed regret and layers of guilt left in the wake of Passion. I’m stuck considering exactly how strong I Only Have Eyes for You is because as a stand-alone, there’s not that much here besides a common ghost trope, but in the scope of the season, the story transcends genre as the characters struggle through loss and forgiveness, not finding resolution, but rather tentative steps toward acceptance.
In that context, it’s a motherfucking masterpiece.
I Only Have Eyes for You takes a standard ghost/possession story and uses it as a paring knife to peel back Buffy’s self-consuming self-recrimination over inadvertently being the instrument to rob Angel of his soul – and then consciously not killing Angelus when she could have (in Innocence).
Giles, who scarcely acknowledged Miss Carpenter last week, passes through another of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief here. He leapt into Anger at the conclusion of Passion, then entered Denial in Killed by Death, and now he’s treading through Bargaining, attempting desperately to convince himself that the poltergeist in the school is his murdered lover. In one of my favorite exchanges in the series so far, a frightened Willow says, “Giles, Jenny could never be this mean,” to which he replies in a profound moment of sadness, “I know,” as his face sinks into the next stage, Depression – paving the way for Acceptance. I’ll be watching for that.
Cordelia’s pronouncement, “Over-identify much?” at Buffy’s seething anger at the 1955 James is correct, but not in the object of said identification. Even Buffy doesn’t know until her possession for the tragedy re-enactment that James, not the regretful teacher, Grace, is her match in the pairing. Buffy has to walk in his shoes – almost literally – in order to comprehend that both he and she have to find forgiveness before they can move forward, he into the next world (or oblivion) and she into another stage of grief.
The identification/gender flip came as a surprise to me even though the Sadie Hawkins dances of 1955 and 1998 floated around the edges of the episode as hints that Buffy’s anger and our attention are misdirected by the surface violence and gender roles therein
.I’ve read that Buffy’s pronouncement of the line, “Don’t walk away from me, bitch!” managed to be funny but also revealing, yet I didn’t find it humorous in the least. The ghost of James funnels all of Buffy’s anger and frustration into the moment, making it real and tragic in two timelines, the collision of which is the only escape from an endless miring and repetition of remorse.
What’s more, Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz don’t offer even a remote wink to the audience. They play the possession scene for all its worth, and for Boreanaz, that worth may have been his own series.
There is a strange torment in compulsively re-living trauma. It’s something that we sometimes do in order to process whatever horrible event happened. These moments can be so intense that they burn into all five senses on their way into feeling and memory, occupying a space in the self that is ever accessible but seldom welcomed. I think of myself and my experiences with death and dying, and though my recollections of so many things seem to grow hazier by the day, these instances, witnessing life pass into death, exist in my mind (or my soul?) as load-bearing beams of my being, almost transcending memory in their vividness and immediacy. I am afraid of their intensity, and sometimes the scenarios arise unexpectedly in my mind and persist like a flip-cartoon that I can’t take my thumb off of. These aren’t phantoms of the departed; they’re ghosts of feelings and moments that demand to be experienced periodically. Without them, for better or for worse, part of my being would be altered.
The repetition serves only as torment unless there is a means for acknowledgement and acceptance. What has happened is fact and cannot be reversed. How it affects us right now, regardless of the last repetition or even the next, is mutable, but undergoing that change in perception or emotion within the same event may require going deeper within the initial experience in order to move to a new space. Buffy can’t do this on her own. The ghost of James takes on the role of therapist, leading her toward her own revelation: that she cannot change the past, that she has made terrible mistakes, and that she has to forgive herself.
If there is one character that I’m most appreciating during my second viewing of the series, it’s Buffy, which is no faint praise, since over the first two seasons, I’ve found more to love in Giles, Willow, Cordelia, and Xander. (I think my love for the quartet of vampires – Angel, Spike, Dru, and Darla – has simply solidified.) But it’s Buffy, who never quite enthralled me on my initial run, who has me sitting up (or lying down contemplatively) to take notice of her continual, often painful, evolution.
- The shooting of the possessed Angelus also draws us toward the season finale, foreshadowing the moment when Buffy must face a different reality: not making a horrible mistake that she’ll regret forever, but making a conscious sacrifice that she knows beforehand she’ll regret forever but cannot spare herself from.
- What was with all the snakes and grabby hands popping out of lockers and rising from stairway landings? Are there two poltergeists with different agendas? Why does James warn Buffy to get out? Is this the teacher trying to re-enact without regard to cost of human life? I think Noxon could have given us a bit of explanation as to why such malevolence intersected with the romantic ghostery. That said, I confess to immensely enjoying the plagues set upon Sunnydale High – first snakes in the cafeteria and then insects (locusts? wasps?) by night.
- The re-enactment does cost one life here, that of Mrs. Frank, who’s gunned down and flips off the balcony in a repetition of the fate of the 1955 teacher. Another faculty member down. Next week’s Go Fish will really up the staff’s mortality rate.
- Our second Tin Pan Alley titled episode after Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. This one gets the 1959 doo-wop version by The Flamingos, which is gorgeous and oddly mournful but anachronistic, having been recorded in 1959, four years after the 1955 storyline. Excused on account of extreme sonic beauty and fitting atmosphere, but I would have just nudged the date of the flashback to 1959 because I’m that picky.
- Oh, the short scene with Willow and Giles after he rescues her from being swallowed up by the hole and hungry hands on the landing. Heartbreaking. We should have more quiet scenes with Giles and Willow; they are two of a kind in the sense of scholarship and responsibility, as well as their raw vulnerability.
- Spike is back in the game. Angelus still has a few cruel wheelchair jokes in reserve, but they won’t have the same bite since we know that Spike is faking as he forges a fantastic new allegiance.
- The mayor is on the horizon, and we know that Principal Snyder doesn’t want to cross him. Mayor Wilkins, I can hardly wait.