Standard disclaimer: I'll often speak of foreshadowing, but that doesn't mean I'm at all committing to the idea that there was some fixed design from the word go -- it's a short hand for talking about the resonances that end up in the text as it unspools.
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 1.11 Out of Mind, Out of Sight, in Which an Invisible Girl Helps Us See Many Things
The third big theme: social status with a large side order of meta.
Social Status. Buffy’s first heroic act was to choose the losers Willow and Xander over Queen Cordelia. Here we learn that it’s too easy to think that the losers are the good guys and the winners are the bad guys. Cordelia finally gets some depth, and in Marcy we learn that losers are every bit as prone to self-absorption as the winners. We get to look at all of this from a bunch of different angles.
1. Buffy’s low social standing comes up in the teaser, where she is clearly wounded by Cordelia’s dismissive snark. That sets up a basic contrast between Buffy and Marcy. Both are social outcasts, but one chooses to be a hero anyway, while the other chooses to be a villain. We get some nice foreshadowing of season 6 where the nerds are the big bads… and as I said, it’s a nice inversion since our first reason for sympathizing with the Scoobies is that they are often unfairly treated due to their low social standing. Here we learn that being downtrodden is no guarantor at all of being a sympathetic good guy.
2. Cordelia gets a lot of nice commentary on this, most notably the moment she gets real with Buffy and tells her that she’s every bit as subject to the loneliness of the human condition as anyone else. All the status stuff has little to do with what matters. Cordy’s going to keep pursuing the status, but here we learn she does this on the grounds that given that there’s no real cure for existential loneliness, we might as well pursue the external goods that aren’t real but are better than nothing. Cordy also gets to call out any idea we might have that the socially wounded are less self-absorbed that the socially privileged. It’s selfish of Shylock to demand his pound of flesh no matter what his damage is. In yet another layer, it’s a nice move to have spent ten episodes cementing Cordy’s status as a character we despise, only to reveal here that she too can bleed. On a meta level, we’ve been treating the character of Cordy as a one-note self-absorbed bitch who we in the audience can look down on. Here we find we have been as blind to her humanity as she is generally blind to the humanity of others. It’s gently done, though, this calling out the audience on its own proclivity to dehumanize the low-status other. Joss’s patience is worth noting here since he spent ten episodes setting Cordy up as the stereotypically shallow self-absorbed prom queen only to remind us that we ought not to judge by appearances and that most people have more depth than we’d imagine. Cordelia turns out to be remarkably self-aware, and possessed of surprising insight into the human condition. (A revelation accompanied by numerous reminders of all the surface signals we’d falsely taken as indicative of the whole).
3. We get our first glimpse of the quiet status game going on within the Scoobie circle. Xander and Willow have a special bond and Buffy is an outsider relative to them. In a scene where Xander and Willow find some recollection they share hysterically funny, Buffy’s stance as an outsider is underscored when Xander comforts Buffy on the loss of the popularity she once had in LA by saying she’s still got Xander and Willow, only to turn immediately back to Willow and resume laughing at their private joke. Later Buffy sits and watches Xander and Willow walk off talking about having dinner together, again underscoring her position as a relative outsider here. We’ll get lots more of this dynamic in the next couple of seasons. Buffy isn’t quite one of the scoobies.
Strudel jumping in: This is a HUGE issue that has just started percolating up in the last few episodes. While the big division is going to cleave Buffy from the rest of the Scoobs, we are seeing other sources of alienation at work in the group that are worth mentioning as well. The Willow-Xander chummy dinner plan talk echoes the scene in I, Robot when Xander followed Buffy out of the library, leaving Willow behind. It's the basic precariousness of any group of three, with one always being in danger of being left out. We also get a nice line in this episode from Giles and his difficulty connecting with his charges: "once again I teeter on the precipice of the generation gap."
4. Max adds: We also get a good look at the viciousness of the social game this week, as we did in previous episodes (especially "The Pack"). Cordelia and her gang are cruel to Buffy, Xander and Willow (and Marcie, in flashbacks). We see too that Xander and Willow mock Cordelia mercilessly, and even Buffy more or less tells Cordelia to shut up in the middle of their bonding moment. The need to criticize and set apart those outside one's social group is fairly universal, and we even see a pre-crazy Marcie trying desperately to join in the Cordettes' mockery of the alumnus with the cabbage toupee. Conversely, many types of kindness are repeatedly shown up as being self-serving. Mitch implies in guy-talk that he's close to Cordy because he's aiming to have sex with her. The Cordettes don't really know Cordy. And we see that, to avoid awkward confrontations, the entire class of Sunnydale High write "have a nice summer" in Marcie's yearbook, even though they don't really care about her at all. (Willow: "Have a great summer. See, I cared!") The show is calling out the idea that only bad people have the instinct to be cruel--and, relatedly, that kindness is automatically a sign of goodness and caring.
Meta. We also get some commentary on the show itself in the scenes in the English lit. class. The first discussion about Shylock obviously mirrors the theme of the episode. As already discussed there’s a nice meta commentary on the audience’s own tendency to distinguish between characters who matter and characters who are jokes. More intriguingly the second discussion has Cordelia suggesting that the fact that someone is a protagonist of a story doesn’t mean they are necessarily a hero. Xander throws in that a person character can be both if they do heroic things, but this apparently is open to contention. The class discussion gets cut off here. But I think we’ve just been introduced to the possibility that Buffy’s status as a protagonist who does heroic things does not necessarily mean we should look at her as a standard-issue hero. When we get to Angel as the protagonist of his own show, the question of whether the protagonist who does some heroic things is necessarily a hero becomes even more acute.
The second bit of meta is Giles’ commentary on how what we see is what makes things real or not real. Up until this episode we haven’t seen Cordelia and she hasn’t been real to us. She’s had no standing with us at all. We only get the reality of Cordelia when the narrator turns our attention towards her, which is dramatically done here in the penultimate episode of the season. Narrative focus mirrors our own tendency to not look and to not listen. We frame the world smaller than it is.
The increased understanding the audience gets is reflected in-story by Buffy's arc. Her natural inclination is to sympathize with Marcie, of course. But while Marcie may deserve her (and our) sympathy, she is incredibly dangerous, and writing her off as a victim as opposed to a villain is almost another way of ignoring her. Buffy sees the real Cordelia (not a villain just because she's a bitch) and the real Marcie (not blameless just because she's a victim) by taking Marcie's advice--look, listen, learn--and it's by close listening (active listening, to tie into last week?) that she knocks Marcie out. Marcie, by contrast, spies on Buffy et al. for weeks, but seems only to pick up the surface. "I see right through you," she says to Cordelia, but that doesn't mean she sees her.
More Willow foreshadowing. With that in mind, it’s interesting that Willow gets a throwaway line about witches and the possibility of fighting them. Joss spent ten episodes setting up Cordelia as someone who can be dismissed only to be revealed as someone worth paying attention to. Retrospectively we know that Joss is playing a much longer game with respect to Willow. One really has to admire how much care went into crafting Willow as the sweet geek, while setting in motion themes that are going to be amply cashed out in Willow’s development. Marcy becomes a murderer. Sweet nerdy picked upon Willow is going to go for genocide – and this one line points to that.
The in-episode similarities between Willow and Marcie--e.g. the red hair, and the way Willow, like Marcie, stews internally about Cordelia, as opposed to Xander's open (and mutual) Cordelia-mockery--are underscored by the fact that Marcie (Ross) is right next to Willow (Rosenberg) in the Sunnydale Yearbook. Plus, the discussion of Shylock (and Willow's being the one to point out in the class discussion that everyone looked down on him) reminds me that the Jewish Willow will later take her pound of flesh from Warren in revenge. As Cordy says, "It's not justice--it's icky!"
The May Queen and the Slayer. We see this week that the disconnect between Cordelia and her "friends" is not just a function of Cordelia's choice of company, but the social hierarchy they all buy into. Cordelia is elected May Queen in this episode, and she is treated throughout as royalty: for two examples, Harmony (who, in the opening, seems to be wearing cyan pants to match Cordy's outfit) and the Cordettes are expected to talk only about Cordelia and her life, and there's a scene of several girls surrounding Cordelia on high, tending to her dress as servants. Cordelia is expected to do the talking and no one is allowed to speak ill of her in her company. Everyone wants to be her friend, including Marcie in a flashback. But as with any ruler (and I'm anticipating Cordelia's "Lie to Me" identification with Marie Antoinette here!), her relationship with her subjects is precarious, and founded on certain expectations of her behaviour. Early on she states the reciprocal nature of her campaign cookies. Mitch mocks her at the mere thought that she might be hanging out with Buffy and the Scoobies. When Xander suggests that the invisible person could be using a cloak of invisibility usually reserved for the gods, Buffy points out that the girl seems "petty for a god." It makes me laugh because it prefigures Glory, but I think it points out that idols (gods, royalty, May Queens) aren't expected to have human failings. (Of course, pettiness is one of the failings that are allowed Cordelia by her social group.) Note that Cordelia buys into this system, and for her depths that we are exposed to this week, Cordelia does, I think, assume that she is better and more deserving than other people. ("She just wanted to talk about her leg, as if my pain meant nothing!")
This sheds an interesting light on Buffy's relationship with Xander and Willow. Even though her social standing took a considerable hit by becoming their friend, she is still seen as their superior. Cordelia doesn't think much of Buffy but still differentiates between Buffy's weirdness and her friends' being "total losers." Both Buffy and the Scoobies, on some level, do see Buffy as superior to them, both socially and supernaturally (she's the slayer, and they're the slayerettes!), and this is part of what bonds them and creates the tension. I don't think Buffy & the Scoobs are as devoid of real connection as Cordy & the Cordettes, but there is a similar self-serving dynamic at work: Buffy is the centre of attention and Xander & Willow help her out, and in exchange Buffy gives them her company and saves their lives. Buffy's the leader and the hero and the cool one, but Xander & Willow are the ones who get to be themselves without fear of recrimination. Merging points 2 and 3 then, Cordelia's speech about feeling alone when surrounded by friends resonates with Buffy because she, like Cordelia, is an idol and icon all of her own. The fact that Buffy's a Slayer who saves lives, and Cordelia is a May Queen who...looks beautiful, changes the fundamental emotional difficulties involved only in degree.
And Marcie tries to hurt them both. The punishment Marcie offers to mete out (carving up Cordelia's face so that everyone will remember her) is the ultimate in noticeable Otherness, which all leaders and idols and beautiful people already have to some extent. In fact, her atempt to turn Cordelia's gift (great beauty) into a curse (great ugliness) is reminiscent of Buffy's nightmare last week, where she is transformed from slayer to vampire. It's also reminiscent of the divide between Jasmine's glamorous, shiny human face and her rotting, diseased one. Jasmine, like Queen C here, was worshipped by all, and those few who spoke ill of her were brutally cast out. I have gathered that the original plans for AtS season four, before real world exigencies (rotating showrunners, Charisma Carpenter's pregnancy) interfered, would have had Cordelia in the same role. How Buffy and Cordelia deal with their perception of their own specialness continues to be important in both their stories all the way down the line; and indeed the two continue to reflect and parallel each other even on different series.
Maggie adds: The parallel between Buffy and Cordy is important and worth remembering when we consider that Xander crushes on Buffy and then when she rejects him bypasses Willow to get to Cordelia. Back in The Pack, Hyena!Xander clearly points to Willow's low-status as the reason he's not sexually attracted to her. And for all her sweetness now, this gets added to Willow's cache of resentments towards Buffy. The Scoobies are friends first and foremost, but status issues are almost always in play with them.
Strudel: John Hodgeman (the guy who plays the PC in the Mac commercials) has a piece on This American Life with some relevant insights to this theme. He describes a dinner conversation gambit he often used: what superpower would you rather have, flight or invisibility? This seemingly pleasant diversion actually opens up some interesting psychological questions as you start to entertain the notion of what you can do with invisibility. It's a power inextricably shrouded in shameful dishonesty. The only way to make use of it is to deceive others, and the opportunities to use the power for ignoble purposes likely outnumber opportunities to use the power for good. (Xander: "I'd use my powers to protect the girls' locker room!" See also, Chapter Eleven in the Sinister Government Agency book: "Assassination and Infiltration")
By comparison, choosing the power of flight shows a kind of open-ness, a willing to let others see you for what you are. To some degree, Buffy's superpower is in a similar vein (Max chuckles about relevant season eight developments, noting that Strudel hasn't read them) -- though, interestingly enough, Buffy avoids using her power in a highly visible, show-offy way (unlike Johnathan in Superstar) for social status, which is another plus in the Buffy hero column. The clearer contrast is Cordelia. As Maggie observes, Cordelia is the polar opposite of the invisible girl. She is completely, overwhelmingly conspicuous in this episode (I especially love the Cordelia poster in the cafeteria). In a way, what we are seeing is an indication of Cordelia's version of a superpower, which is to be the opposite of invisible. She is what she is, and that is an enormous source of strength. Of course, she delightfully has more of this than anybody. (I love when she asks in When She Was Bad, "Well, I already have a lot of character. Is it possible to have too much character.") I'll add quickly that we do later see Willow flying when she goes dark ("Tough Love," "Two to Go"), which is not a moral positive but does reflect Willow's desire, at these moments of great emotional pain and "thundering looniness", to be seen and heard.
From this contrast, we can see (ha ha) that the invisible girl's power isn't just a literal metaphor for her social status, but it also is a reflection of her moral weakness. And so, we have in this episode a wonderful inversion. Cordelia the throw-away vacuous bitch turns out to have the source material for a hero. So, with that insight in mind, who gets skewered?
Angel. Angel's back after an extended holiday. And, even as we see him starting, at last, to put together his heroic resume, this episode explicitly draws attention to the fact that he often acts as if he has the power of invisibility, lurking, spying and disappearing with impunity. Here, Angel materializes standing just behind Giles in the library. They both reflect (ha ha) on the absence of Angel's reflection in the glass, with Angel mordantly saying it's an "overrated pleasure." In any event, the Invisible Girl/Angel parallel is drawn pretty clearly here, and given how poorly she comes off in this episode (Buffy, heretofore Patron Saint of Losers: "You're a thundering loony!") this doesn't reflect (ha ha again) well on Angel.
I'll add that Giles, when talking about Marcie, says "The loneliness, the constant exile...she's gone quite mad." Another reference that's particularly resonant for Angel, who has spent the last few decades primarily living in alleys eating rats.
More on Angel. Giles delivers the line about the maudlin poetry of a vampire in love with a slayer. Angel’s trying to help Buffy behind Buffy’s back, and Giles and the Scoobies keep Angel’s proximity from Buffy. In Lie to Me the Scoobies will again collude with Angel in this rather paternalistic pattern with Buffy.
Strudel: 'Scuse me, Maggie, but let's pause for a second here: why did Giles decide to lie to Buffy about how Angel saved the Scoobies? Why did Willow and Xander immediately follow suit and support the lie? The fact that they owe their lives to Angel becomes a highly significant issue in Season Two when they -- especially Xander -- decide that Angel is entirely dustable. I don't have an immediate sense what the motivation is here. Candidate theories: Giles doesn't want Buffy to know that he is researching the Slayer lore to help her fight the Master (Buffy's lack of preparation for that confrontation becomes clear next episode)? Giles doesn't want Buffy to know that Angel is helping him? Giles doesn't want Buffy to be attached to Angel, so the less mention of Angel the better? I really don't know, this is not Angel's idea, but Giles', and Willow and Xander intuitively follow his lead, leaving Buffy in the dark. This is a highly peculiar moment that deserves some discussion.
Max: My guess is that Giles is responding to Angel's earlier statement that he can't be around Buffy. Angel sneaked off to visit Giles to warn him that something, he doesn't know what, is going on (thanks, Angel!) when Buffy wasn't present; his avoidance of her is very calculated. I think all three points you make could be in play, but it seems to me that the most obvious motivation is honouring Angel's wish to be allowed to stay away from Buffy, with the understanding that the less Buffy knows about him, the easier it will be to keep the two apart. Xander and Willow's reasons for going along with it are a little more obscure; Xander probably doesn't mind covering up details that make Angel look good, but Willow, probably, is just following Giles' lead. Maggie: I tend to think it's mostly the last. In Angel the big decision was made that Buffy and Angel can't hang out. The move of keeping his proximity a secret would suggest that everyone is aware it's a big deal for Buffy -- which is odd given that the writers have been stone cold silent about Buffy's feelings about giving' up Angel. Whether that's weak serialization at this point, or a conscious decision to divorce the surface epic romance that Bangel will become from the reality. As I will make much of in the notes to the opening episodes of season 2, Bangel is almost all tell and no show. What do you guys think?
Max: And in this past run of episodes, there's been very little tell, either. Between "Angel" and this episode Angel has been mentioned only once, by Buffy in IRYJ, and there given about the same weight as Xander's mention of Praying Mantis Lady. I can see two arguments. One is that Buffy isn't all that attached to Angel in this run of episodes, and it's in "Prophecy Girl" that Angel is there when her life changes, and that's what leads to the change in Bangel in season two. The other is that her attraction to Angel is something Buffy doesn't consciously understand, and so it's played out entirely unconsciously, and so no mentions. I lean toward the former, but not with complete conviction. As far as keeping it a secret, it could just be that Giles knows it's a big deal for Angel, not Buffy. Why Giles doesn't question how Angel can be in love with Buffy after such a short time is its own mystery, and I'm not sure I have an answer. I know that we have a privileged position, having seen "Becoming" where the beginning of Angel's love/fixation is shown to us, but first time viewers didn't, so I think they were just expected to go along with the surface epic romance story.
Angel as a hero watch. Meanwhile, let us record that Angel does save the Scoobies from the gas leak. It’s not so much heroic, since he was wandering by and it didn’t take much for him to open the door, but it’s not the big nothing we got from him for the first half of the season, so let’s give the guy some partial credit here on the big hero score card. Of course, the Scoobies were at risk because they’d been off playing the heroes themselves, so Xander is still way ahead of Angel in the who’s the bigger hero competition as we turn into the final act of the season. Strudel: competition? What competition? Xander wins in a, uh, heartbeat. Maggie: Poor Angel. We'll have to keep a watch in seasons 2 and 3 for his move into actual hero territory -- with special attention to whatever role Buffy plays in forming him. That said, the latest page in the comics devoted to Angel portrays him as Captain Hammer, and I'm pretty sure that even way back in season one, Joss was more than happy for there to be a distance between Angel's heroic apperance and the actuality. When he gets to his own series, that gap becomes a vein of rich dramatic material and Angel becomes a much more compelling character than he is here in season one.
Lameness. Evil losers go to work for the government as assassins. Yes, Joss. Military-types bad.