Thursday, August 21, 2008

More Joss Whedon Fanboy Ranting: Buffy Episode "Family"

(above: a still from the "Buffy" episode entitled "Family")

I will apologize up front for going off in a very fanboy direction in this post, focusing on specific details of a specific episode of a specific television show. I just happened to really like the "Buffy" episode I saw tonight. It's called "Family," and it gets right what a lot of teen dramas get wrong.

Let me first do a short, spoiler-free post, and then I will move on to the bigger stuff. Basically, now-regular cast member Tara is celebrating her birthday when her family shows up and reminds her of some troubling things in her family history. The way that Tara and the gang of other regular Buffy supporters, known affectionately as the Scooby Gang, deal with Tara's uncertainties and her family reveals a lot about what makes the show work: the genuineness of the interaction between characters. The episode contrasts Tara's real, backwards family with her much more accepting and loving "family" in Sunnydale. "Buffy" excels as a "Doctor Who" style mythology-driven show as well as a high school drama, but when those two elements combine to bring out fully-developed characters and their interactions, as in this episode, that is when the show is at its best.

Ok. There is the spoiler-cleansed version. Now below, spoilers follow, so do not read this unless you have seen the episode. I mean it. It's some MAJOR spoilerage for people that have not seen the episode or the ones leading up to it. It will ruin your experience of the episodes leading up to this one as well as this one itself. Please return after watching.

In the previous few episodes, the recent arrival of Dawn in the regular cast and in Buffy's life have challenged the notion of family in the series. Buffy's recent discovery that Dawn isn't actually family shook up Buffy's perception of what family is supposed to be. In the previous episode, however, Buffy expresses her feelings to Dawn that she will always see her as a sister, even if her actual status as family isn't entirely legit.

So when Tara's witchcraft-hating family shows up in Sunnydale, Tara has to deal with the same kinds of issues. Her father tries to oppress her into leaving her now-close friends so as not to expose them to her dark side or her more insidious practices of witchcraft. Of course Tara feels pressured by her family, thus setting off the more conventional Buffyesque plot, including spells to hide this demonic side, development of the season's major plot, and some stuff with Spike and Harmony, etcetera.

The heart of the episode, however, is not in the witchcraft and slaying plot, but in the story of Tara slowly realizing that an oppressive family is no family at all in the end. The Scooby gang, through a touching and pitch-perfect confrontation with Tara's father, show that Tara has found a new, more supportive family with her friends and the love of her life, Willow.

I'm sort of glossing over the obvious parallels between a family that is unsupportive of a witch daughter and a family that is unsupportive of a lesbian daughter. Cousin Beth (deftly played by clearly brilliant actress Amy Adams) even accuses Tara of living "G-d knows what kind of lifestyle." But the fluidity of romantic relationships crops up a lot in Buffy (and Doctor Who and Torchwood), so I'll deal with that, possibly, in another post.

Besides, this fluidity of romantic love is outshined in this episode by the fluidity of the concept of family. The capstone on the episode comes when Tara has chosen her supportive Sunnydale family over her paranoid and somewhat abusive actual family. In the final scene, Willow acknowledges that she is proud of Tara for becoming a fully formed individual, a woman of power and individuality, despite coming from a pretty messed up family. Tara seems to attribute this new found inner strength to her Sunnydale family, specifically Willow, in the final dialogue of the episode.

Whedon has stated that a lot of "Buffy" is about self-actualization, specifically with his female leads. He has acknowledged that he developed the concept as a response to the horror movie cliche of the helpless girl who screams a lot and is run down and killed. As a result of this impetus for the series, some of the strongest moments in "Buffy" consist not of big boss fights or killing, but of characters finding comfort with themselves and with the important people in their lives. "Family" is no exception; seeing Tara come into her own and find a new "family" is a very rewarding experience.

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