Standard spoiler warning: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtS. I'll be spoiling through the comics as well. Basically -- if you are a spoiler-phobe and haven't seen or read it all, read further at your own risk.
Standard Credits: I've written the material in black; Strudel (aka my Bro) writes in blue; local_max writes in purple. Or at least, that's what they've done when I finish editing and formatting.
Buffy 3.14: Bad Girls, in Which Faith and Buffy Do Bad Things
We finally come to the big final arc. Bad Girls launches Faith on her downward spiral, and marks the Mayor’s first big move towards his ascension. It’s the first of a two-parter but the issues divide up neatly. In this episode we need to ask about what led to the staking of the deputy mayor and Faith’s opening salvo about not caring. Next episode we will take on the question of Faith’s big choice to go to the Mayor as an ally.
Preamble. The dynamic I want to describe is complex, and in unpacking it I can sometimes seem to be saying something I do not believe -- namely that Faith is an innocent in all of this or that Buffy is somehow guilty. So let’s be clear. First, Faith knocked on the mayor’s door. There was no gun to her head. The reason one can unabashedly admire Faith now is because she walked into the police department and said “I want to make a confession.” Second, Buffy did a lot to reach out to Faith and pull her back from the brink. Buffy wanted to save Faith if at all possible. Third, Buffy is the better slayer. She has quicker reflexes. She takes the job more seriously. As Faith observes in #40 of season 8, Buffy is The Slayer. She always has been.
The Problem. The reason I need to do a lot of unpacking, though, is that the surface of the story invites a reading that is altogether too simple. Faith is the slayer gone bad. Buffy is the golden girl slayer. Faith shows the dark side of being a slayer and is there as a contrast case for Buffy. If Faith’s story had ended at the end of season 3, that would seem like the easiest way to read what was going on. But her story didn’t end in season 3. Instead, the next chapter has her revealing her deep hatred of herself as the evil thing she’s become, and ultimately attempting suicide by Angel because she couldn’t live with herself. A woman with such an extreme reaction to being evil is not essentially evil. Somewhere in season 3, Faith zags when she should have zigged and ends up far from her true self as a result. So that’s my question. Why? How does she go so dark when that’s not her deepest truth?
Buffy as a Bad Girl. The first stop to answering the question is to visit Buffy’s own flirtation with being a ‘bad girl’. As Strudel will observe at length, the episode begins by establishing a basic set of contrasts. Faith used Xander for sex; Buffy just sees him as a friend; Faith slays and moves on; Buffy pays attention and follows up on clues; Faith is dangerously rash; Buffy wants to stop and count to three. So if we begin by hammering home these differences, what are we to make of Buffy’s temptation to become more like Faith? Why would the better slayer follow the lead of the lesser slayer?
There are two things at work. We’ve had Buffy muttering about being the “good slayer” over the last few episodes on occasions when she was doing what she was supposed to while Faith was out doing whatever it is that she was doing. Yet how was Buffy repaid for being the good slayer? Her mother tried to burn her at the stake. Giles incapacitated her and nearly got her killed. Why be the responsible one if everyone is going to turn on you anyway? We don’t get direct text in this -- but it explains why we stopped and went through Gingerbread and Helpless before turning to the main arc. Both Joyce and Giles, by the way, seem humbled enough by the damage they almost did to Buffy to have backed off: Giles mostly spends his time undermining Wesley (more below) and so implicitly supporting Buffy’s rejection of the Council. Joyce states outright, admittedly after much of Buffy’s police break-out, that she is not going to interfere at all in Buffy’s slayer life, and even states that she’s starting a mini-rebellion of her own (from her restrictive diet). Having erred on the side of control, Buffy’s ‘parents’ err a bit on the side of noninterference for her brief rebellion.
The second thing is amply set out in the text, and that’s that Buffy has suppressed a lot of her slayer drives, mostly in the interest of being as ‘normal’ as possible. One of the first things we learn from Faith is that slaying makes her hungry and horny. Buffy implicitly lies when her friends ask her if that’s true, conceding that sometimes she craves some low-fat yogurt. But at the end of that very episode she agrees with Faith that she’s famished after slaying, and at the start of Helpless she plainly wants to get out to do some slaying as a way of releasing her pent up sexual energy. Faith routinely comes back to the topic of Buffy’s drives, asking her if she’s getting sexually charged by Scott Hope, or why she hasn’t just hopped on Xander. We get a reminder of the connection when Buffy straddles Angel in the Bronze after a hot slaying date with Faith.
As she opens up to the idea of inhabiting her slayer powers more fully, Buffy withdraws enough from Willow to trigger a jealous/insecure response from her. Her brief time of being powerless probably just underscored how important her slayer powers are to her. If she’s been repressing them in the interest of fitting in, Buffy hasn’t had room to be her real self, which is part of why she can be shut down and remote.
So all that is in the mix, ready to fuel a flirtation with the dark side. Bad Girls gives us an obvious trigger for Buffy’s sudden willingness to rob hardware stores. Her near-death experience launches her into an exuberant embrace of the full slayer package. If death is always on your heels, why wouldn’t you want to live large? If the reason you are going to die young is to save the world, doesn’t the world owe you some special latitude? And finally the rush of coming back from the dead to kick some ass, plainly rocks Buffy’s world. So when Faith invites her to cut class in the middle of an exam, off she goes. It is important, though, that in first feeling out this side of herself, Buffy is letting Faith be her guide. When it all goes wrong, it’s going to be a long while before Buffy again attempts to integrate with this part of herself.
This isn’t the first time a near-death experience has marked a sudden (and temporary) major transformation in Buffy: her death in Prophecy Girl led her to awake feeling stronger than ever before and to take some real enjoyment in ridding herself of the Master. Once this cooled down, Buffy became bitter and angry and, in the similarly-titled When She Was Bad ,tapped into the same parts of herself she keeps hidden. She danced provocatively with Xander, using him somewhat the way Faith did, came onto Angel in her somewhat sexy voice when she asked to fight him, minimized her friends’ potential contribution to the team, and, in her recklessness, nearly got her friends killed. In that episode, those behaviours were clearly associated with Buffy being ‘bad’ and spinning out of control, and further being angry. Here, Faith and a second near-death experience give Buffy a chance to access those parts of herself without the doses of rage and self-loathing that made her so completely shut the door on that part of herself, back in season two.
But let’s note how exaggerated the consequences are to Buffy’s Faithian bargain this week. Buffy has connected with Faith before, but this episode marks Buffy, like Faith, plunging in feet-first into a Faith-style of living, rather than letting Faith be her guide one step at a time. The whole thing reads superficially as a thin parable about the dangers of living large and following your ‘bad’ friends around, not all that different from the surface message of Reptile Boy that telling one lie and having one drink will get you eaten by a snake (or, if you want, the surface message of Wrecked that it takes two visits to a magic crack house to render you powerless to combat your addiction): blow off one test, dance provocatively with your friend and some guys, and soon you’ll be breaking into hardware stores, resisting arrest, and killing innocent people on the street. Buffy so fully submits to Faith’s direction that she actually seems like she’s in a dream state, from which she awakes the next day, sobered by the passage of time. It plays as Tell Your Children/Reefer Madness without the marijuana. Going back to the theme of POV, I’d say this is how Buffy tells the story to herself. A big theme with Buffy in later seasons will be her inability to distinguish between the power and drive of being a slayer from the evil use of that power and drive. In the file marked “lessons learned from Faith”, she’s got this story sitting there to tell her that giving into her slayer powers necessarily leads to law-breaking and other evil acts.
Faith and the Deputy Mayor. Faith accidentally kills a human, and this accident becomes a pivotal moment in how Faith and the rest of the world come to view her. But before we get to that moment, it’s interesting to me how strongly the writers set the stage in a way that allows the audience to see that it’s no coincidence that it was Faith, and not Buffy, who kills Allen. In an alternate telling of the story, we could be left with the ambiguity that Buffy, but for the grace of God, would have done the same thing herself, and the moral equations would have been even more complex than they already are. But in this telling, the writers relentlessly telegraph the message: Faith is fundamentally reckless in a way Buffy is not. This theme gets as heavy-handed a treatment as Xander being the powerless fifth wheel in The Zeppo.
A quick listing: In the prologue, Faith wants to talk about sex with Xander while they’re fighting demons; Faith then doesn’t notice the footprints of a third vampire, then glibly jumps the gun when they do attack the third, putting Buffy in some danger. Later, while Buffy suffers to listen to Westley pontificate that a cautious slayer is a good slayer (it’s a nice irony that all the cues are for us to dismiss Westley as a prating fool, but he’s right on the fundamentals for what happens in this episode), Faith doesn’t even pause a moment before walking out on the guy. Later, she’ll show up to help Buffy on her mission (showing she can act with some responsibility), but then promptly forces Buffy into a dangerous situation by jumping blindly into a manhole. (In the spirit of The Zeppo, this comes across as an absurd exaggeration of the recklessness we are supposed to see in her character -- jut in case we were getting snacks from the fridge earlier in the show). And having landed Buffy in a fight where the odds are stacked against them, Buffy gets drowned. They couldn’t have picked a more clear way to communicate just how unwise a fight that was for Buffy to get forced into than to have her relive her own death. Once Buffy adopts Faith’s lead, we see more examples of Faith’s recklessness: breaking into the sporting good store as a short cut to going to the library for weapons (some shortcut, they end up handcuffed in a police car). Then, even more tellingly, she engineers their escape from the police car in a way that seriously endangers the police officers, and she is not in the least concerned. In short, in every scene leading to Allen’s death, we are hammered with the repeated message that Faith is on a veritable rampage of recklessness.
With that foregrounding so firmly in place, we get to the sequence of events leading to Allen’s staking. It’s chaotic. Vampires keep ambushing them, one after the next. Without the foregrounding, it would be easy to say that anyone stepping from the shadows was likely to get staked by either Buffy or Faith. But with the foregrounding, the distinction is crystal clear. Allen steps out of the shadows. Buffy throws him back against a wall. We get a good look and see he is not a vampire. He is stunned and not moving. Faith lifts the stake. Buffy calls out -- clearly before the stake plunges home -- that he’s not a vampire. Faith doesn’t stop, and she kills him. Lest we think that this is natural, in Doppelgangland we’ll see Buffy stop herself mid-stroke when someone calls out to her. It is reckless.
While there are many complex questions that arise about how Faith and Buffy react to this event, the question I have is, why did the writers choose to portray this as a fault unique to Faith? Like I said above, in a different telling we could be left to wonder if Buffy was lucky she wasn’t the one with human blood on her conscience. That would make any subsequent claim of moral superiority by Buffy highly self-serving and opportunistic. In this telling though, it is inevitable that it would be Faith, not Buffy, who accidentally kills a human, and the audience is spared seeing the heroine cast in a very unfavorable light. Maggie will discuss a couple of key factors influencing Faith’s reaction. I think the foregrounding here emphasizes a third point. Faith is well on the road to nihilism that all Slayers seem to get to. She isn’t where Wish!Buffy was, yet. She likes the thrill still, she can get high on it. But she just doesn’t care about where she is going, and that flows from the other two factors Maggie will discuss.
While Faith is reckless in the extreme, and perhaps already on the road to nihilism, her staking of Finch is not malicious. She thought the guy was a vampire when she staked him. Thus far, Faith is pretty much an out-of-control teenager that just got involved in a fatal car accident. That’s not typically a precursor to going to 10 on the scale of being evil. So do we just assume that her defiant bit about not caring is because she really doesn’t care? That the accident reveals something dark about Faith?
Perhaps. But before going there, let’s notice that Faith did care. She returned to the corpse, and is plainly distraught. When Buffy comes in to talk to her at the end of the episode, she’s frantically trying to get out the damned spot. But she shuts down that concern almost immediately and goes into defiant mode. Why?
Two factors. The first we’ve talked about a lot. Faith is poor -- on a lot of dimensions. She’s lower class. We like to think in America that class doesn’t matter -- but because we think it’s not an issue, prejudice against the lower classes continues to be acceptable (in contrast to prejudice according to race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation). She’s a high school drop out living in a seedy motel and her middle class ‘friends’ have systematically excluded her. Or at least, that’s her POV. (Further to her POV, it seems every time Buffy comes to visit her in the motel, she is decked in haute couteur, as if she were a well-kept daughter of the upper crust. From the vantage of Faith’s poverty, Buffy’s middle class security is barely distinguishable from the aristocracy.) Recall her reaction to the news of clandestine Scooby meetings in Revelations. She failed her first watcher, and was a sucker/patsy for the second.
The scene of Buffy and Faith being arrested spells this all out. Faith, the lower class girl who’s had lots of run ins with the law, swaggers and smirks. She’s been here before. Buffy, the middle class girl, is dismayed and shamed. Buffy has something to lose here -- social standing, connections. She may (justly) feel that slaying is a huge burden. But she’s still got a lot going for her -- a lot she could lose. Faith doesn’t. It’s a big chasm between them. Because while Buffy assumes that there will be support for Faith if she’s just honest, Faith has no reason to believe that. She never has had that sort of support. Nobody has tried to take her in (mark this for when we get to the mayor’s treatment of Faith). She was betrayed in Revelations. For Faith, nothing good can come of taking responsibility. She expects a raw deal from the world, and so her idea is to take care of herself as best she can.
Underlying that is her own sense of inadequacy. The reason her lack of status weighs on her is that Faith feels it’s likely deserved. She arrived into town in flight after having failed to protect her watcher. Revelations was another major screw-up. Killing the deputy mayor is a third. Buffy has everything and Faith has nothing AND Buffy is the better slayer to boot. As we’ll see in Enemies, Faith knows this. So taking responsibility means risking being shafted by the system AND acknowledging she’s no good anyway. The insecurity and the tough background combine to produce a slayer who is really disconnected, both from herself and for others. She’s used to wearing a protective mask. And so she leaps to it here.
In some ways, the most troubling aspect of Faith’s attitude is her avowed belief that Slayers are better than everyone else and don’t have to live by the rules of us mere Muggles. But that claim of superiority likely grows directly out of these factors that put her so low. Being at the bottom of society, she has a quick route to the very top: her slayer powers. For one so materially and spiritually deprived, it’s too big an opportunity to forego. The claim of superiority also works as a defense. It’s a thought that comes up strongly when Faith thinks she’d be put in jail for killing the deputy mayor, which was an accident that happened while she was out making the world safe for soccer moms. (And how galling is that? Some of the people she’s working for are also likely to be the sort who think of her as poor white trash).
Killer. Faith already has ample reason to run when she accidentally kills the deputy mayor. In Consequences a series of attempts to reach Faith will be made and they all will fail. It’s not clear that anyone could have made a difference. But it will be interesting to trace out just exactly how and why they all fail. We get just a small start of it in this episode. In the pivotal final conversation, Faith begins by volunteering a defense -- she was just doing her job. Buffy returns with an unfortunate choice in words: “Being a slayer is not the same thing as being a killer.” In using the word “killer” and contrasting it with the word “slayer”, Buffy is twisting the problem of an accidental death caused by recklessness to something that sounds more intentional. She’s heard Faith’s defense that it was accidental, in the line of duty, as instead being a defense that slayers can do what they want. The conversation between Faith and Buffy has flirted with this topic before. It’s not an unnatural thought to cross Buffy’s mind and is filtered through her previous experience with the law as we’ll discuss in the next set of notes. But it serves to cut out the very small bit of territory that would have allowed Faith room to make another choice. It’s one thing to take responsibility for an accident. It’s another to admit to being a killer. One of the great things about the coming breakdown between Faith and Buffy (and everyone else) is that nobody is clear about what’s at stake here. And somehow in the process that begins with the word “killer” Faith moves from seeing herself as a reckless, careless no-good, to being something much, much worse. That’s the subject of the next episode.
Giles/Wesley. Wesley arrives in this episode, and the interaction between him and Giles works as a mirror for what’s going on with Faith and Buffy. We go on to learn that Wesley has serious self-esteem issues stemming from his own upbringing, and a conviction that he’s a perpetual screw-up. None of that background is presented here. What we see is the result, an insecure man hiding behind vein bravado and worrying that he’s really not as good a watcher as Giles. We are meant to compare the two and find Wesley wanting on every count. But at one point they simultaneously take off their glasses and clean them in the same gesture. The difference between them is not entirely about actual ability and so on. It’s that Giles has an established place, most notably with Buffy making it clear to Wesley at every turn that Giles is still her watcher. Indeed, nobody makes the slightest effort to reach out to Wesley, who promptly betrays them in a moment of panic. (Meanwhile, Giles is so freaking badass with that sword and shows off his tremendous courage in asking to submit himself to Balthazar’s torture to save Wesley. -- further to the goal of establishing Wesley’s inferiority) It’s one of those places where you can see all POVs. Wesley comes across as an arrogant prig. Heck, he *is* an arrogant prig. It makes sense that he’d be written off on sight. But we know that there’s much more to him than that, and we can guess that the fact that he is treated with contempt at every turn only underscores the need to him to keep on the same mask that is driving everyone away. He sees it as protective. They see it as his truth, and that’s that. There will be no movement in his story in Sunnydale.
Indeed, about the first real thing we find out about Wesley is that he actually is, in some respects, extremely capable. Buffy says the word “sword” and Wesley within seconds produces voluminous information about Balthazar’s cult. What’s further interesting is that Giles/Wesley is in some sense the reverse of Buffy/Faith: Giles is the devil-may-care bad Watcher rebel who seems willing to jump into death at the episode’s end, and Wesley the cautious type who follows orders (to repeat myself from above, he is the one who, in the framework of this episode, rightly preached that a cautious slayer is a good slayer). In a sense it confirms that the difference between Buffy and Faith is not all about their different attitudes, since rebel-Giles is the Watcher we’re supposed to root for, the way cautious-Buffy is the slayer we’re supposed to root for. We could, if we were just going by this episode, argue that there is an intrinsic difference that just makes Buffy and Giles the better ones. But in the grand scheme of the two series, it seems to be much more about experience and wisdom that give Buffy and Giles the edge.
Xander. It’s immediately established that The Zeppo was just a pseudo-epiphany. Xander is setting up for life as a loser. Cordy again is happy to rub it in. One wonders if it isn’t some kind of penance, Xander letting Cordelia define him like that. In any case, as we’ll learn in The Replacement, this is yet another instance of someone wandering and nearly becoming lost because he can’t find the truth of his story. He thus serves as a third minor mirror for Faith. Note that no one is particularly eager to reassure Xander about his chances at having a good career. Nor will they ever be -- this will be a big theme in season 4.
Willow. Willow plays the ‘good girl that Buffy has to reject in order to go play bad girl with Faith. Buffy stands Willow up for their study date regarding the chemistry test to go slay with Faith (not a bad reason), and then the next day jumps out the window rather than write the test. Willow takes this hard for a few reasons. Buffy’s increased academic interest has given the two somewhat more common ground (see, for example, Willow’s glee at Buffy’s high SAT score in Lovers Walk). And one of the first things Buffy said to her, back in Welcome to the Hellmouth, was that Willow could help Buffy not fail at tests. And we’re reminded that academics are one of the few areas Willow is (relatively) secure in, as she compares the wooing she’s getting from other colleges to the rejection she’s used to in other areas in life. And so from Willow’s POV, Buffy’s apparently not valuing academics implies that she doesn’t value Willow. Incidentally, Buffy’s standing up Willow for the study date is a bit of a reversal of Willow’s shoddy treatment of Buffy at the beginning of the season, when she was angry at Buffy for leaving for the summer: Willow stood Buffy up (Dead Man’s Party) and neglected to help Buffy studying to lavish attention on Faith (Faith, Hope & Trick).
As well as jumping out of Willow’s daytime life, Buffy shuts Willow out of her nighttime life, rather like the way Xander was shut out last week. (It’s another sign of diminished status that the two, who slayed over the summer in Buffy’s absence, are precluded from fighting by Buffy’s instructions.) When Buffy talks about being part of an overpowering force, she dismisses Willow’s suggestion that she might know what it’s like. (“A force” is pretty much how Willow will see herself, by the time we get to season eight.) Later on Willow shows tremendous pride in her work in giving Buffy her pine-fresh protection spell, and seems to expect that she can come with Buffy to slay. But Buffy tells her to stay out of danger, and as Buffy leaves Willow looks down at her protection totem and mutters, “stupid,” showing how tenuous her pride in her magic is. Since Buffy has, by this point in the episode, cooled a little on her walk on the wild side with Faith, I think Buffy really is (in part) concerned about protecting Willow from the dangerous antics she and Faith will be getting up to, as well as wanting to hide her own dark side from Willow. But with Willow’s ‘good girl’ (academic) side already devalued, she wants very badly to show herself useful as a demon fighter. Further, we know from later in the series that Willow has a desire to be bad that eclipses even Buffy’s, so a big part of her anger and jealousy toward Faith is that Faith gets to have fun and explore her dark side with Buffy, which is part of what Willow wishes she could do.
Angel. This is his first full-on, I’m the hero sort of role. Angel lurks about keeping tabs on what’s going on and shows up at the right moment to save the day. He and Buffy fighting shoulder to shoulder -- it’s a phrase one hears a lot, but it’s only really starting to be true now. We can guess he’s trying to figure out a role for himself post-Amends, and he’s off to a good start. Aside from her intervention on the hill in Amends, Buffy isn’t a part of any of this, and, indeed, Angel’s need to find his own way will propel him to Los Angeles at the end of this season.
Angel withstands Buffy’s provocative behavior in the Bronze, which is to his credit. We see again how easily Buffy can forget the need to not cross that line again. One suspects that this is in the mix when Angel decides to break up with her. She hasn’t made her peace with the limitations their relationship requires, no matter how much she might chastely say it’s so. They share their first kiss since Revelations, when Angel somewhat chastely gives her a peck on the lips before wandering off.
The Mayor. He’s very evil and we have reason to believe he doesn’t particularly care about Alan or Mr. Trick. But despite his plan to leave all human society behind, he genuinely seems to enjoy gabbing with Alan and Trick about comic strips. It’s a reminder that even the worst among us needs people to share their true selves with. Faith ends up killing the only two people in the Mayor’s life, which is why she becomes the sole focus of his attentions, and eventually real affection for her develops.
Visual Motifs. In the teaser, after fighting side-by-side with Faith (and they’ll be side by side for much of the episode), Buffy is nearly killed by a vampire. Faith saves her by dusting the vampire from behind, and, from Buffy’s POV, then appears behind a cloud of dust where the vampire was. As Strudel pointed out to me, visually it’s Faith becoming her enemy, in the same shot that she saves Buffy from her enemy. The shot is important enough to be repeated not once but twice in the series. It appears at the end of Consequences when Faith opts to stay to slay Mr. Trick and thus becomes both Buffy’s saviour and the Mayor’s new assassin. And Faith’s body appears behind dust saving Buffy’s body, in the church at the end of Who Are You, after the bodies have reversed.
In a more subtle way, the image is reflected at this episode’s end. Faith has a dummy in her motel room that she presumably practices fighting against. During much of their confrontation, Buffy very conspicuously shares most of the frame with the dummy. When she presses on the final point, “Faith, you don’t understand, you killed a man,” she steps in front of the dummy, blocking it out. It seems clearly to communicate that up until now Faith has seen the impersonal world as her enemy, but, now, she will focus all of her anger on a new target.
The other character bits remind us that while the story is primarily about Faith’s inability to find her true self, it plays into the long-term problem Buffy will have finding her own truth. She’s deceiving herself about the possibility about a long-term chaste romance with someone. Partly it’s for the romance. Partly it’s because she doesn’t want to admit that she loves slaying, gets hungry afterwards and likes sex a lot. When Faith plunged her stake into Allen Finch’s heart, she also arrested Buffy’s tentative move to explore that side of herself. Buffy’s lesson from season 3: in that way lies badness. In Consequences we get the great polarization between Buffy and Faith that ultimately divides Buffy from herself.