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Episode Analysis -- Normal Again
The Doctor, The Demon and Buffy's Twisted Mind: Comments on Normal Again
The last time I was actually moved to write a detailed analysis of an episode was with Dead Things, but nothing since then has moved me to do the same until last nights Normal Again. What a wonderful episode. Kudos to the new writer, Diego Gutierrez.
As with Dead Things, there were wheels within wheels in Normal Again. The two episodes are related thematically. And they both feature Spike in a central, pivotal role. Much of Normal Again is about Buffys relationship with Spike, her friends, and what these relationships say about Buffy, superhero and would-be grown-up, responsible adult. Buffy takes a dark journey into her own psyche to confront the deep-seated conflicts that are threatening to rip her and her family apart.
Normal Again is full of little ironies: e.g., the title itself. The fact that Buffys darkest journey takes place in an overly bright, sunny world. Jonathan, one of the three little men who is responsible for her delusions is also mentally ill, trapped in the basement, paralyzed with guilt, no longer trusted by his comrades in crime. Its Jonathan who compares himself to Jack Torrence, the hero of Stephen Kings The Shining, the good husband and father who goes crazy and stalks his own family. But its Buffy who turns into an eerie clone of murderous Jack.
In the course of her demonic poisoning, Buffy nearly kills the people she loves most in the world Willow and Xander, her two oldest friends, and Dawn, for whom she gave her life last season. Why does this horror happen? All Warren and Co. knew was that the venom of this demon would drive her nuts; what happened while she was under its influence was orchestrated by Buffy herself and her own twisted (as Spike put it) mind.
To me theres no question which world is real Sunnydale (although Spikes comment about alternate realities is fascinating, especially since its a theme thats been raised over and over this season). The final scene, in the mental hospital, was the only thing I didnt like about the episode. Since Buffy hadnt had the antidote yet, it was just another hallucination. Still, it was kind of a cheap trick.
Otherwise, the delusional world that Buffy constructed in her mind after being poisoned by the demon is brilliantly twisted. It mirrors her own reality, but shifts that reality in disturbing ways.
The Cemetery/Buffys cell in the mental hospital
The mental asylum delusion represents a psychological regression to an ideal childhood, where Buffy has no responsibilities, no noble calling, and is burdened with no power. She is an only child, with no little sister to divide her parents attention. Her delusional world, as Dawn realizes to her sorrow, shuts Dawn out altogether. Buffys last episode of catatonia (Weight of the World) was induced by her guilty belief that she had already killed Dawn in her head as soon as she realized she couldnt defeat Glory. In her Normal Again delusion Buffy goes one better she shuts Dawn out altogether.
She lives in a cell, dominated by a bed with arm and leg restraints. What a great way to contain all the rage she is feeling at Spike for arousing feelings in her that she cant deal with, with her friends for pulling her back into this bright, harsh world. The Slayer cant hurt anyone when shes bound in straitjackets, restraints, behind a locked doors. For dark-side-denial Buffy, this is a seductive vision, just as giving up power sexually to Spike in his crypt when he handcuffed her was incredibly seductive. It allows her to give him all the responsibility for her feelings, for what he was doing to helpless Buffy.
In Buffys hallucinations, she is the author of what she sees, and each scene in the delusional world is tightly linked with whats happening to her at the time in Sunnydale. More importantly, she populates her delusional world with the people she interacts with in her real life. But she disguises them from herself, and quite cleverly.
Thus, when first overpowered and stabbed by the demon, Buffy hallucinates a nurse or orderly injecting her. Next, one of her Doublemeat Palace co-workers briefly morphs into another nurse. But the delusional world doesnt really take shape until Buffy meets Spike in the cemetery, the site of many of their erotic trysts.
Buffy has just been talking to Spike, who is strolling through the cemetery carrying a bag of groceries, like an ordinary human. Not the sort of thing vamps usually do in cemeteries. They manage to have a civil conversation until Xander and Willow show up. It is the confrontation between her best friends, Willow and Xander, and her erstwhile demon lover, Spike, which shapes Buffys hallucinatory world into a solid and coherent structure. Why? Because that confrontation mirrors Buffys worst fear that she is really a creature of darkness, incapable of love (Intervention), a dead thing who must be denied, sent away, and rejected.
And, for the first time in this episode, we learn why Buffy has been tormented (for six years) with this terrible fear of rejected. She was, in fact, rejected by her parents. "Back when I saw my first vampires--" Buffy confesses to Willow, "I got so scared. I told my parents, and they completely freaked out. They thought there was something seriously wrong with me. So they sent me to a clinic."
Mara Schiffen has pointed out how vital this scene is to understanding whats wrong with Buffy. (Theres been a lot of commentary on this episode, most of which I havent had time to read, but I have read Maras great analyses)
Instead of soothing their daughters fears, believing her and trusting her, Joyce and Hank sent Buffy away, turning her over to be probed by the doctors. They abandoned her. Only when she pretended to give up her delusion of vampires, did they accept her back. Buffy: "I was only there a couple of weeks. I stopped talking about it, and they let me go. Eventually, my parents just forgot."
Buffy had to feign being something she wasnt the normal girl who didnt have to fight vampires in order to be taken home and loved again by her parents. Or so it must have seemed to her at the time.
Seeing vampires is bad. Seeing vampires must be even worse. (Willow uses the word about Tara and the girl she sees Tara kissing: "it's--when I was seeing her, she was seeing someone else--a girl." Buffy: "You mean-?" "I mean...not seeing-seeing. Well, maybe. I don't know.)
Buffy has been seeing Spike. Now, in the cemetery, as they talk about Anya and Xanders disaster, Spikes own pain comes out as he says, Yeah, well, some people can't see a good thing when they've got it."
Hes cutting very close to Buffys central conflict the problem thats been dogging her for several months her unrelenting sexual attraction to this unsouled vampire. Buffys still suffering from the conviction that loving Spike is wrong. That she is wrong. This cant be me, she said to Tara when Tara insisted nothing had gone wrong with the resurrection spell. She shouldnt want him, shes trying to stay away from him, but hes in her life and she cant seem to get him out. If her friends, who are now her family, find out that she is seeing a vampire, they, like her parents six years ago, will reject her.
Afraid that her secret may be revealed, Buffy lies to Xander and Willow about Spike: "Hey, guys. I, uh, I found Spike and was, uh, trying to figure out what kind of dangerous contraband he had."
Here shes calling on her idea of the mysterious Doctor, as Riley called him, who dealt in lethal demon eggs. This, she believes, was Spike. As Xander and Spike start to go at each other, Spike gets a good dig in about Xanders abandoning Anya, calling him "The king of the big exit. Willow tries to smooth things over, make everything all right, the way Joyce used to do.
All these events are feeding Buffys delusion. She begins to hallucinate. This time the mental hospital is more than just a flash. Willow, who always solved the tricky problems, is cast as Mom. Xander, who's not very powerful but is a comfortador, is cast as the absent, exit-king Dad. It makes a certain amount of sense: Willow and Xander have, in a sense, given birth to Buffy this season (along with Anya and Tara, who arent present in the cemetery or in the delusion). They raised her from her grave. In a way, Buffy is a vampire dead, buried, and magically alive again. Its another reason why shes so terrified of her attraction to Spike. She has become a variation of what he is, like him; shes a dead thing.
So who is the third major player in Buffys hallucination --the psychiatrist the doctor? Who else but Spike.
Buffys delusional world is like a reverse photographic negative of the cemetery. Its light where the cemetery is dark. A big bed, with arm and leg restraints clearly visible, dominates the room where Buffy is essentially a prisoner. Its a stark, orderly room thats not at all like her real life home, where dishes are piled in the sink, theres always laundry to do, and stains on her coat that won't come out. Is the bed a reminder of Spikes bed, Spikes bondage gear? The doctor has her imprisoned there, dead to the world for six years in what might as well be a crypt. But shes seeing it as a benign imprisonment, with a doctor who wants to help her, a doctor who is trying to fix her life, which is exactly what Buffy expected Spike to do for her in Life Serial when he took her to the demon bar.
As her hallucination begins, the doctor is leaning over her. Buffy, can you hear me? (Note: this sounds like a reference to Ken Russells version of The Whos Tommy, the psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind boy, who creates an messianic world for himself. Warren says the demon poison has got her tripping like a Ken Russell film festival.)
The doctor a reverse photographic image of Spike hes a black male in a white coat, where Spike is a white man in a black coat. Spike, in the cemetery scene holds a lit cigarette in his fingers. The doctor, in the last scene in particular, holds a similarly shaped penlight, burning as he shines it into Buffys eyes.
But the Spike/Doctor parallels are more than reverse visual images. It's the psychiatrist who seems to know all the details about her, just as Spike is the one who really knows Buffy. He's her guide, as Spike has been Buffy's guide/watcher/shrink all season as she's struggled to adjust to living in her body again. The psychiatrist is the one who supposedly tells her the truth about what she has to do to get well (just as Spike does in the real world).
"Do you know where you are, Buffy?" The doctor asks.
Spike has told Buffy many times that Sunnydale isnt her real world (especially the Sunny part!). That's not your world," he tells her in Dead Things. Spike has also told her shes crazy. In Older and Far Away, he declared that she was insane.
Delusion and reality continue to play into one another. Briefly, we flip back to the cemetery in Sunnydale, where Willow and Xander rush to Buffy's side. Then we return to the mental hospital. The doctor gives instructions to Joyce and Hank. Back in the cemetery, Spike gives instructions. Mom and Dad talk to Buffy. Willow and Xander take charge. We'll take care of her," Xander says to Spike. Come on, Xander, says Willow. Help me get her home.
Compare the above dialogue with the lines later attributed to Joyce in the delusional world: "You're our little girl, Buffy," Joyce says, "Mom and Dad just want to take you home and take care of you."
"Put a little ice on the back of her neck," says Dr. Spike as they leave, offering first aid suggestions.
The Spike/doctor identification isnt a perfect match;
theres also a touch of Giles in the psychiatrist. In a later scene, the doctor
has analyzed his charges supposed illness, describing it to her parents
in Giles-like terms. But there continue to be echoes: "She believes she's some
type of hero," the Doctor says. "Stop with the bloody hero trip,"
Spike is once again the catalyst for the crucial scene that takes place in Buffys bedroom after the demon has been captured and the antidote brewed. Again, Buffys poisoned mind takes the material from her confrontation with Spike and inserts it into her delusional world. But as her delusions have advanced, her re-writing of Sunnydale has become more twisted. She doesnt like what shes hearing in the real world, so she changes it in her delusional world to something more palatable.
Spike at her bedroom door, looking gorgeous, sexy as hell oh the pain and temptation of it for Buffy. When was he last there? This was the one place she has never allowed him to enter as her lover.
You need to leave me alone. Youre not part of my life, Buffy tells him as he hovers on the threshold to her bedroom. And, sure enough, he is unable to enter because sunshine from the window blocks his way and drives him back. The barrier between them the closed door to his tomb in Dead Things still remains.
But its all such crap! Hes just fought and captured a demon for her with Xander, who doesnt approve of him, but sympathizes with his Buffy-obsession. Mom-Willow, bringing sick Buffy the hot mug of antidote, trust Spike enough to leave him alone with her, in Buffys bedroom; Willow treats him like a trusted member of the family. Its ridiculous that Buffy cant tell them about her relationship with Spike, and hes beginning to get very pissed off about it.
Spike knows the importance to Buffy of her friends its something hes known since he first met her in School Hard. They have always come between him and Buffy first when he was trying to kill her; now when hes trying to love her. Its one of the few areas where he has been in denial this year (Spike isnt usually a denial-type guy). He has crystallized it all for Buffy in Dead Things: You try to be with them, but you always end up in the dark with me. What would they think of you if they found out all the things youve done? If they knew who you really were? Look at them. Thats not your world. You belong in the shadows with me.
Those words of his terrified her and fed into her core fear not just that shes seeing a vampire, but that if her friends look too closely at her, they may see a vampire too. The Slayer was always a killer. Now shes a dead and climbed out of her grave killer, too.
Spike, though, is coming out of his denial. Maybe he was wrong about where Buffy belongs. "You were right, he tells her. Then Dr. William goes on to diagnose her problem and tell her what she needs to do to solve it. Hes pretty accurate, too, except that he still doesnt fathom the sheer terror Buffy feels at the possibility of being cast out by her friends.
What Buffy hears in this scene from Spike is repeated shortly thereafter by the doctor, but in a very twisted fashion. The basic ideas are similar, but her mind alters and shapes them into something frighteningly different:
Spike: "I hope you don't think this antidote's gonna rid you of that nasty martyrdom. You're addicted to the misery. (Spike realizes that the problem goes deeper than the demons poison).
The doctor: "You have to start ridding your mind of those things that support your hallucinations. (The doctor suggests a simpler solution).
Spike: You can't help yourself.
The doctor: "It's not gonna be easy, Buffy.
Spike: It's why you won't tell your pals about us. Might actually have to be happy if you did. They'd either understand and help you- God forbid- or drive you out where you can finally be at peace in the dark. With me. Either way, you'd be better off for it, but you're too twisted for that."
And hes right; right now she is too twisted. Spike is offering Buffy a choice be honest, tell your friends and take the risk of what will happen either you end up with them or you end up with me. Just bloody decide! But Buffy cant take the risk of making that choice. All she allows herself to remember is that Spike, like the doctor, has in the past tried to separate her from her friends.
The doctor: You understand? There are things in that world that you cling to. For your delusion, they're safe holds, but for your mind they're traps. We have to break those down. Last summer, when you had a momentary awakening, it was (your friends) that pulled you back in."
And there it is -- her rage over being jerked her out of whatever peaceful, happy dimension she was in. She hasnt forgiven her friends for that. And, as Spike declared in Afterlife, there are always consequences. Always.
"They're not really your friends, Buffy." Mom-delusion puts in. They're just tricks keeping you from getting healthy."
What Spike, impatient, but still being reasonable, said in the real world was this: "Let yourself live already, and stop with the bloody hero trip for a sec. We'd all be the better for it.
In the delusional world, the doctor is also telling her to stop with the hero trip, but the consequences of that will totally different in the real world, and no one will be the better for it.
In Buffys bedroom, Spike takes things one step farther. He delivers his ultimatum: You either tell your friends about us, or I will."
No, no. If they know what she really is, as Spike convinced her in Dead Things, her friends will turn on her. And she needs their love and acceptance SO much.
She cant tell them. She cant allow him to tell them. Buffys been abandoned too often. Her father. Angel. Parker. Riley. Her mother. Giles. She is terrified that her relationship with Spike will mean she loses Willow and Xander, too. Maybe even Dawn, for whom she gave her life.
Buffy cant live in a world where her best friends all she has left reject her. So she dumps the antidote and returns to her delusional world, running back inside to the apparently loving, accepting parents. But, ironically, they pull the same stunt all over again: The parents judge her just as they did six years ago. They make her meet a condition before she can be free, before they will, as they promised, always be there for her. She must change. I--I wanna go home with you and Dad."
Joyce: "I know, Buffy. But first you've gotta get better."
Delusional mom and dad threaten to reject her too, unless she does something to prove herself healthy. Unless she kills her friends.
No wonder she goes off the deep end (into the basement). Her poisoned brain is telling her that in order to avoid being rejected by her friends, she must kill them.
The Demon in the Basement
The last few scenes of Normal Again are truly chilling. Buffy using all her Slayer strength to stalk and overpower the people she loves is a perversion of everything weve always believed about Buffy. She has sunk to some low points this year (beating Spike, for example), but this is the worst.
It is positive, though, that even without the antidote, Buffy manages to snap out of her delusional world in time to save her friends, after all. I think its significant that its the arrival of the one person who knows the truth about Buffy and Spike Tara that pushes Buffy to her realization that her delusions are false. Tara did not reject her. Tara has reassured her that she is not wrong. Tara, the mature, alternate mother figure is the one person Buffy has been able to confess to.
The terrified Buffy under the stairs attacks Tara by grabbing her foot and sending her tumbling down into the basement, but Tara has already acted to free the Scoobies. As her spell releases their bonds, Buffys delusional world begins to break up, too.
The point where she finally breaks through is when mom-delusion tells her "Your Dad and I, we have all the faith in the world in you. We'll always be with you. We'll always be here for you." Only in a regressed, infantile world are mom and dad always there to take care of you; grown ups have to deal with loss and learn to live independent lives. But, in another sense, Buffy carries her parents (Joyce in particular) inside her, and she sees to realize this. Joyces speech here, and Buffys increasing clarity as she takes it in, represent her integration of the internal voice of her parents with her real, adult self.
Joyce: I know the world feels like a hard place sometimes, but you've got people who love you. Thats not just her mother speaking Buffy herself has spoken very similar words to Dawn. Joyce: You've got a world of strength in your heart. I know you do. You just have to find it again. Believe in yourself." This is true, and Buffy knows it. She is, after all, speaking to herself. As she finally begins to believe in herself again, she no longer needs her mother, or her delusions. She gives up the heaven of being safe in her parents arms and returns to the harsh but real world of Sunnydale, where demons exist and she is needed to battle them.
Speaking of demons, Spike isnt in the climactic basement scene. Or is he? The second time I watched the moment when Buffy snaps out of it and fights the demon I had an eerie feeling of deja vu. It almost looked as if she was fighting Spike. If you ignored the disgustingly ugly head, the demon was dressed like Spike in this episode. Black shirt, black jeans, boots, and a long, floppy, black leathery garment.
Earlier in the episode, Buffy says, I was checking houses on that list you gave me and looking for Warren and his pals, and then, bam! Some kind of gross, waxy demon-thing poked me."
Xander, with his subconscious knowledge and sex always on the
brain, chimes in: And when you say poke-"
Hmm, Buffys crazy because shes seeing a vampire. And, what a coincidence -- its because Buffy has been, er, poked by a demons, uh, spike, that she becomes crazy in the first place.
Spike remains a very confusing figure for Buffy. On the one hand, he's an authority figure ("you were going to fix my life!"). He loves her with all the tolerance of a very patient parent, yet he's also her sex slave. Hes the Vampire Slayers natural enemy and yet hes her ally in the fight against demons, her best defender, and the loyal lieutenant who always has her back.
Hes everywhere. Just as Buffy was for him in Out of
my Mind right before he realized he loved her (and right after hed tried
unsuccessfully to kill her): You dont understand. Shes
everywhere. Shes haunting me, Harmony. This has got to
Spike: "So, she's having the wiggings, is she? Thinks none of us are real. Bloody self-centered, if you ask me. On the other hand, it might explain some things-- this all being in that twisted brain of hers. Yeah. Thinks up some chip in my head. Make me soft, fall in love with her, then turn me into her soddin' sex slave."
Hes running his own fantasy here. What if there were no chip in his head? What if he were the Big Bad again? And the ultimate: What if he didnt love her? (Dont you think Ive tried not to? he demanded in the alley in Dead Things). What if he were free of his sexual obsession with her?
Spike is thinking the previously unthinkable.
The demon in the basement has been chained there by Spike himself. And Spike has chained himself up where Buffy is concerned. His chip does not fire when hes with her. What if he were unchained? He could hurt her. He could bite her. He could rape her. He could kill her. Buffy is quick and strong, but Spike is very nearly a physical a match for her. Hes bested her in several previous battles, only to have someone or something save her neck at the last minute (School Hard, Out of My Mind, Halloween). And now that shes dumped him, hes been rejected again. Spike hates rejection almost as much as Buffy does.
When the demon who dresses like Spike is chained up and poked with a barbecue fork by Willow, its spike comes out and is broken off and put in a bottle. Emasculated much?
While still deep in her delusion, Buffy herself, crazy Buffy, unchains the demon. Has she also symbolically unchained the real Spike? Or is she the demon herself? Like Spike, she has clawed her way out of her grave and now, with her Slayer/Destroyer impulses unchained, she is attacking her friends. The demons power is in its hand, and Buffy is the hand, the manus, the physical manifestation of the Slayer energy.
In one sense, Spike has become her shadow self.
When Buffy finally decides to save her friends and take on the demon, she kills it the way shed kill a vampire she thrusts her arm into its chest in the region of the heart. Her hand that deadly hand again does the killing. I cant help finding this an ominous development for the Buffy/Spike relationship. She tears out his heart? She tears out her own heart? The death of love? She kills Spike? She kills the vampire part of Spike? She kills her own inner demon, the vampire part of herself? How will it all shake down?
There is a bright spot. We learned from Willow that the demons pokey stinger carries an antidote to its own poison. The very thing that made Buffy crazy, that poisoned her, is also the thing that can heal her. That darn spikey thing that Willow broke off and put in a bottle also represents the cure. What this may say about where Joss is going with the Buffy/Spike relationship remains rather murky.
In the end, Buffy deals with Mom and Dad in her delusional world, but she still doesn't deal with Spike. In the final scene in the hospital, we're in her head, seeing the doctor and his flashlight poking at her (to which she does not react). The Doctor: I'm sorry. There's no reaction at all. I'm afraid we've lost her." Has Spike lost Buffy for good now? Has she lost him? Will he lose himself?
Buffy has integrated her parents, but integrating her lover/mentor/watcher/friend/enemy is going to be a helluva lot more difficult, not only from her point of view, but also from his.
Analysis of Dead Things