Written by: Joss Whedon
Directed by: Joss Whedon
As we have seen, in “No Place Like
Home” the emphasis was squarely on the responsibilities that family members
have for one another. For Buffy, in
particular, the implications are clear. She
feels that Dawn is her sister and as such she must protect her.
As she says at the beginning of “Family”:
“We have to
keep her safe.”
Indeed she wants to do so.
Thus the importance of family relationships is carried over into this
episode. So, for example,
Buffy decides to move back to her mother’s house:
Xander: “Still can't believe you're giving up this cherry corner suite.”
Anya: “Just a few days after we moved you in.”
“It's no big. You know, with Mom not being well, I'm hardly ever here.
Just figured I'd ... save a little cash for this semester, that's all.”
But this patently untrue.
As Anya kept reminding Buffy she had only moved her things in a few days
before. The fact that she moved
back home immediately after finding out about Dawn speaks for itself.
Indeed there is a very eloquent commentary about the depth of her concern
in the following exchange:
Dawn: “See ya later.”
Buffy: “Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, where do you think you're going?”
Dawn: “I'm going to Melinda's for dinner.”
Buffy: “Since when?”
Buffy: “You can't. It…t's not safe for you to walk there.”
Dawn: “It's just across the street. What is the big deal? I'm just gonna go...”
It's family night. And besides, Melinda's a bad influence. I don't like you
hanging out with someone that ... short.”
This is, of course, carrying protectiveness to extremes. But Buffy’s conduct here is entirely consistent with the writers’ concept of family responsibilities. And in this context especially the excuse that Buffy gave for stopping Dawn going out was very interesting. “Family night” implies just the sort of dividing line between real family (mom and two daughters) on the one hand and mere friends on the other that I discussed at the beginning of my review of “No Place Like Home”.
Who is Family?
But that is not a concept of family that
this episode endorses. Quite the
opposite. The whole thrust here is
to widen the concept of family to embrace not only friends but others only very
loosely connected with us. And this
idea is developed through the tension that runs right through this episode over
Tara. And it is this choice of
protagonist that is so interesting. In
a rather mawkish scene we are reminded of just how close she and Willow are.
Willow even tells her she is essential.
But there is a very clear contrast between the easy way Willow and Tara
act together and react to one another and the way the rest of the Scoobies
behave to her. As they are helping
Buffy move from the dorm she seems to stand apart from everyone else, very much
in her own space and her one substantive intervention, on the subject of Glory,
falls completely flat:
Giles: “Yes, uh, we'll, we'll, uh, find her weaknesses, and then, uh…”
You learn her source, and, uh,
we'll introduce her to her insect reflection.”
This is met only with puzzled looks, even
from Giles. Later though Willow
understands and appreciates the nature of the joke.
the real difficulty in the relationship between Tara and the Scoobies is
examined through the inability of any of them to choose a really suitable
present. Giles chooses a generic
present based solely on her interest in magic.
But the others don’t have a clue:
Giles: “Come up with anything yet?”
Xander: “Well, candles, maybe, or bath oils of some kind.”
Buffy: “I saw
a really cute sweater at Bloomy's ... but, I think I want me to have it.”
This is a very nice way of showing just
how little any of the Scoobies know or understand Tara:
Buffy: “Tara. You said you got a present already.”
Xander: “Yeah, that was a tangled web of lies, sweetie. I'm not really sure what kind of thing she'd ... I mean, I don't really know her that well.”
Buffy: “I know.”
Xander: “I mean, she's nice.”
Buffy: “Yeah! Yeah, nice ... nice. It…it's just, I…I sort of...”
Xander: “I don't necessarily get her ... but she's really nice.”
Buffy: “Yeah. There's ... just that thing.”
Xander: “That thing.”
Buffy: “That ... thing of not understanding…”
Xander: “Half of what she says?”
Buffy: “As for example. But she's super nice.”
And unsurprisingly, because they don’t
understand her they don’t feel very much of a connection with her at all. In fact for them Tara’s
birthday is only of any moment because of Willow:
Buffy: “Well, sure I forgot about the party. I mean, there's kind of a lot going on. And it's not ... you know ... the most thrilling social event of the season.”
... it's a big deal for Willow, though. I mean, you are gonna be there?”
But what changes all that is the
intervention of Tara’s real family, a particularly unsavoury group of people. We start with the brother Donny.
The best that could be said about him is that he is stupid.
Indeed as we later discover he is both a bully and a coward:
Donny: “Tara, if you don't get in that car, I swear by god I will beat you down.”
I swear by your full and manly beard, you're gonna break something trying.”
Here there is more than a hint of abuse.
For his part Mr Maclay is bigoted:
wasn't locked. I was a little early. I suppose you ... wanted me to see all
these ... toys. You don't even try to hide it any more. I'd hoped maybe you'd
gotten over the whole witchcraft thing. That if we let you go, you'd ... get it
out of your system. Then they told me to look for you in ...
The way in which witchcraft is used as a
metaphor for lesbianism is even more unsubtle here than usual. What is more, as we are to discover he lies about Tara being
a half demon. His only interest in
her is revealed by Cousin Beth:
care the slightest bitty bit about your family, do you? Your dad's been worried
sick about you every day since you've been gone. There's a, a house that needs
taking care of ... Donny and your dad having to do for themselves while you're
down here living god knows what kind of lifestyle.”
Tara’s father wants her as unpaid
housekeeper, nothing more. As Spike
“ There's no
demon in there. That's just a family legend, am I right? Just a bit of spin to
keep the ladies in line. Oh, you're a piece of work. I like you.”
Tara of course could not possibly be
expected to return to a life of slavery and domestic violence.
She must remain with the Scooby gang.
Here we see the significance of the “bedtime story” told by her at
the beginning of the episode: the one about the cat, the pound and the nice
people who came along to rescue her. It’s
that simple. The defining moment
(when little kitty Tara was rescued) is
when Mr Maclay makes a claim to her based on the blood relationship:
Mr. Maclay: “You're going to do what's right, Tara. Now, I'm taking you out of here before somebody *does* get killed. The girl belongs with her family. I hope that's clear to the rest of you.
is. You want her, Mr. Maclay? You can go ahead and take her. You just gotta go
And in this confrontation Mr. Maclay’s
claim to be “blood kin” is countered by Buffy’s assertion that “We’re
family”. In other words this is
not just about Tara or saying that Tara is better off in Sunnydale with the
Scoobies because her own family would ill-treat her.
It is an explicit repudiation of the idea that blood has some sort of
superior claim to loyalty. Tara
belongs not with her own family but with the Scoobies because they think she’s
nice and her own family would treat her as a slave.
And this idea is reinforced by Buffy’s
own experience of the downside of family life:
Giles: “This ... woman, this, uh, whatever she was... she knows you now. Should we be thinking about ... sending Dawn away?”
Buffy: “Away where?”
Giles: “I don't know, uh ... your father?”
he's, um ... in Spain, with his secretary. Living the cliche. I called him when
Mom got sick, he hasn't even...”
The clear implication here is that
families don’t always stick together; that members of a family can be selfish
and that in the final analysis loyalty and support must be based upon something
else. And the Scooby gang with its
ethos of everyone rallying round to help and support when needed is presented as
the clear alternative family to the “blood ties” both between Buffy and her
absent and apparently uncaring father and also between Tara and her abusive
If I were to choose one adjective to
describe the scenario we have here it would be “crude”.
For some family life can indeed be brutal.
But you cannot say that the sort of family we have in the Maclays are
typical. Indeed the Maclays are so
obviously stupid, bigoted, ignorant, lazy, cowardly and violent that they amount
to nothing more than caricatures. This
episode gives us no idea of the sort of complexities that can exist within real
families. And certainly you cannot
base any comparison between blood relationships and other wider “family”
relationships on this sort of example. The counterpoint to “blood-kin” is
equally unsatisfactory. The writers
spent a good deal of time and trouble establishing the proposition that the
Scoobies didn’t really know or understand Tara. This fact represented a barrier between them.
And one of the few aspects f the episode that worked was this central
idea. It worked because it is
demonstrably true. But that fact
didn’t change in the course of the episode.
The one thing that Buffy and the others did find out about Tara was that
she was so anxious to gain their acceptance that she would do anything to
prevent them from finding out something that might be unpalatable about her.
Who could blame her for that? Especially
since the alternative was a life of domestic drudgery.
But the mere fact that Tara wanted the Scoobies’ acceptance for
entirely selfish reasons doesn’t make for any sort of connection between them.
And here the parallel between Tara and the cat becomes far more apt than
the writers ever intended. Some
kind hearted stranger picking up a cute little kitty from a barren and hopeless
life is a piece of sentimentalism. Rescuing
Tara means the same. This episode
says nothing about real families. Equally
it says nothing about what ties might exist between non-blood relatives that
could lead them to establish ties that could be described as family.
We could also describe the episode as
“confused”. You would think
that someone might have realized there was an inherent contradiction in the idea
that ultimately loyalty and responsibility for one another cannot be based
simply upon whom we are given as blood relations and what the writers want us to
accept about the relationship between Buffy and Dawn.
For Buffy it is the blood tie that counts above all else.
After all she herself puts her desire to protect Dawn ahead of her
loyalties to Riley or the other Scoobies. By
sheltering Dawn she has knowingly placed them all in the path of a powerful
opponent who is a danger to her and anyone she associates with.
Yet she can’t bring herself to tell anyone about that fact and in the
process further alienates Riley.
Riley and Spike
For both Riley and Spike this episode
represents something significant. Let
us start with Riley. As I indicated
in my review of “Out of My Mind” I was never impressed by the writers
attempts to suggest that Riley believe the Buffy would only find someone with
“superpowers” attractive. Indeed
his sudden declaration at the end of “the Replacement” that Buffy didn’t
love him rang a bit hollow simply because the writers had never even tried to
establish a basis for such a realization. But
here really for the first time they start to show how and why – realistically
– Buffy and Riley could grow apart. And
here we come back to Graham’s parting shot in “Out of My Mind”:
“You used to
have a mission, and now you're what? The mission's boyfriend? Mission's true
Riley is by nature a doer.
He was a former soldier, chosen as a leader on an especially dangerous
and important mission. He isn’t
the sort of person that can simply stand back and watch others.
It’s no wonder that he wants to help.
But Buffy, in a very typically Buffy way, has to be the one in control.
And her favorite way of remaining in control is to ration information to
suit her. She decides what it is
good for everyone else to know and there are no exceptions.
So, for example, she decides not to tell Riley or anyone else about Dawn
“They…they'd act weird around her, and it's, it's safer for everyone if they don't know.”
The she herself proceeds to act weirdly
around Dawn and when Riley wants to know why still wont tell him.
Then when he offers help she rebuffs him:
The really interesting thing about this
dynamic is that this is Buffy really only being Buffy.
She isn’t so much pushing Riley away as assuming that she is in control
of everything and making sure that he like everyone else dances to her tune.
She isn’t actually treating him any different to the way she treats any
other member of the Scoobies. But
that is really the point. Riley
assumes that if she really loved him she wouldn’t treat him that way.
She would share her innermost fears and uncertainties with him.
She would look to him for advice. And
can anyone say he would be wrong in this? Not
to bring up a ghost from the past but would she have lied to Angel like that?
Riley’s reaction to his disappointment,
on the other hand, was very odd. Solitary
drinking in a dive with vampires and other demons?
This is the reaction of someone who has no self-respect.
Even his remark to Sandy about vampires not respecting him for his
intellect hinted at a feeling of worthlessness.
It is entirely understandable that he would get angry with Buffy for not
showing him the respect and consideration he feels he deserves; but why does he
then show even less respect for himself? We
can only wait and see how the writers deal with this in future episodes and
until we do see more I will suspend judgment.
But there was one very obvious piece of symbolism here.
At the decisive moment in this episode, when Buffy makes her declaration
about family and symbolically divides the room into the Maclays and the Scoobies,
Riley was entirely absent. Where
does this leave him?
On the other hand Spike is there. Of course he does expressly distance himself from the
Xander: “You're dealing with all of us.”
Spike: “'Cept me.”
But then it is Spike’s intervention that
settles the question of whether Tara is part demon.
So, in this regard he does stand with the Scoobies.
And there is no doubt about it Spike has crossed a line here.
In its way this was a far more significant moment that his earlier saving
of Buffy. The writers had already
established that he was obsessed with her.
An obsession like that can take many forms but a desire to keep the
object of your obsession alive is certainly a predictable response.
On the other hand why help Tara? Especially
when to do so would have caused him pain. For
that is what he was doing. Before
his intervention Anya in particular was attempting to press the Maclay’s to
identify the type of demon Tara was. Hitting
her wouldn’t have given anyone that information.
And he certainly didn’t seem at all surprised by the discovery that she
wasn’t demon. The assumption
must, therefore, be that Spike knew or guessed that she was human when he hit
her. The way therefore that Spike
is being subtly identified with the Scoobies and drawn into helping them seems
to me to mark a quite clear and deliberate move on the part of the writers.
He is now no longer an adversary. He
isn’t even a hostile neutral. He
is on his way to becoming an ally.
There have been many comparisons between
Angel and Spike bandied about. But
for Angel you have a coherent concept. The
writers have established a credible premise for a vampire to repudiate his
instinct to kill. You can see how
past affects the present and how it in turn affects the direction he is
traveling in. Even the confusion in
his own mind about what that direction should be made sense.
Because of this the writers have created a storyline which is
I attach considerable importance to the
last. A vampire has a completely
different moral orientation to a human being.
It has an instinct for evil just as a human has an instinct for good. Both
can act against their natural instincts but when a vampire does so those actions
must be set in the context of his “evil orientation”.
We must understand that there is a difference between the vampire and a
human being who has given up a life of crime and reformed.
These are the criteria I will apply to the Spike storyline as it unfolds over succeeding episodes. I am certainly not going to judge it on the strength of developments thus far. But on the basis of the storyline to date I will make the following general observations. First of all what we have seen does not necessarily mark any intention on the part of the writers to “redeem” Spike. Quite the opposite. Redemption in this context necessarily involves coming to terms with his past as a mass murderer. And the one thing that the writers seem intent on is to suppress any memories of that. Secondly there is a heavy concentration on Spike’s emotional attachment to Buffy as the foundation for any changed behavior. As all vampires seem to have inherited emotions from the humans whose bodies they now occupy it is a little difficult to see how that makes Spike different from other vampires and alone explains his very different actions. In this context I pose a question. If Spike had never had the chip inserted he would presumably still have developed the same attraction to Buffy. Is it credible than he would then have felt motivated to help her or her friends? And finally there is the fact that the writers’ anxiety to put Spike on the “right” side of the fence extends to showing him help the Scoobies in circumstances where their own rationale for his changed behavior cannot in any event apply. I find none of this encouraging.
The interesting thing about the plot is
that it involves three different storylines which are intertwined with one
another. The first is a mystery.
We already guessed that Tara had something to hide from the way that she
sabotaged Willow’s spell to find demonic energies.
Then there was the troubled look she gave in “Real Me” when Willow
described her as one of the “good guys”
The question was, just what was her secret?
The answer to this unsurprisingly was revealed by the visit of the
Maclays. And here we had the second
element on the plot – the question of what would be Tara’s fate. That fate would ultimately turn upon the resolution of the
uncertainty over Tara’s secret. And
finally in Tara’s efforts to keep her secret from Willow and the others we see
the scenario set for the catharsis of the episode in which the secret was
revealed and Tara’s fate decided. In
terms of structure all of this was very neat.
The three different elements interlock so well that they give the feeling
of a single unified plot while at the same time giving us the audience several
different things to think about at the same time.
Moreover, at the start of the episode the
concentration was still on the repercussions of “No Place Like Home”. The center of attention was keeping Dawn safe and meeting any
threat from Glory. Tara was at this
stage in the background but we were reminded of her only by the discussions
about her birthday. Then with the
arrival of the Maclays the episode changed direction quite abruptly– against
both our expectation and the intentions of the Scoobies.
This was a very clever twist in that with the focus now squarely on Tara
that we could now properly understand the
importance of these earlier discussions. And
from that point onwards what we had thought of as the A plot (Glory’s attempt
to find and kill the Slayer) was relegated to a supporting role.
Unfortunately none of the three individual
plot elements quite work so the effect of this neat structure is somewhat lost.
Let us start with Tara’s secret. The
credible part about this is that Tara has remained something of an enigma.
We know very little about
her, her family, how she became a witch etc.
The surprise therefore is not so much that she has secrets but that the
Scoobies have had such little curiosity about Willow’s friend that
they haven’t tried to find out more about her before.
And certainly the revelation that she was half demon (or at least thought
she was) made sense of her earlier attempt to sabotage Willow’s spell. Moreover, those of us who watched Doyle in the first few
episodes ANGEL can readily appreciate why someone might want to keep their demon
parentage secret, especially if she had been brainwashed from childhood about
it. There is, however, one big
difficulty with this. Why should we
the audience are whether Tara is half demon or not? It has already been established that not all demons are evil.
As Anya pointed out:
lot of different kinds. Some are very, very evil. And some have been considered
to be useful members of society.”
Tara had been through too much with the
Scooby gang and there was just too little evidence against her. No-one was about to believe that she was suddenly going to
turn evil. That is why the scene
when Tara cursed the other Scoobies fell flat.
We were I think supposed to suspect that this was evidence of the evil Mr
Maclay had warned her about. But I
certainly found it impossible to believe that she was actually trying to do
It therefore made much more sense when it
was revealed that she wasn’t part demon at all.
But what that produced was simply a huge sense of anticlimax. We suspected there was a simple explanation all along and it
turned out we were right. Tara was
normal. Truly the Mountain labored
and brought forth a mouse and no amount of Willow and Tara cuteness at the end
could disguise that fact.
And once the true nature of the Maclays
was revealed (and let’s face it there was little enough effort to disguise it)
it became inconceivable that Tara would return with them. And if you cannot believe that this was a real possibility
you have to ask yourself what then was the episode about?
The strength of the Lei-Arch demon attack
lay in its timing. Immediately
after Tara revealed the nature of her spell, it revealed the true nature of the
spell by demonstration. And in
doing so provided the action and excitement, as well as the sense of threat and
danger, that the episode otherwise sorely lacked.
And, as I have already said, it provided the catharsis for the episode.
Tara’s foolishness which had so nearly killed her friends gave Mr
Maclay the obvious opportunity to accuse her of being evil and to warn her of
the consequences of not coming home – thus leading directly to the final
confrontation with Buffy. But there
was one major problem with all of this – why did Glory send the Lei-Arch
demons after Buffy in the first place? She had after all done a splendid job herself in the
warehouse. As far as I can make out
she felt that Buffy was beneath her and unworthy as an opponent.
But that, as an explanation, simply lacks any credibility.
D: (5/10) While the head was almost entirely missing from this episode I think we were supposed to accept that at least it’s heart was in the right place. I am not even prepared to make that concession. Do writers who are happy to portray fellow human beings as such utterly worthless creatures as the Maclays just to make others look good by comparison really have their hearts in the right place? I don’t know. But certainly I will say this. There is a great big black hole at the center of this episode. It articulates no coherent idea. Instead it relies for its impact on sentimentality; a general feelgood factor that operates at about the same level as saying “on the whole we are against sin”. It gets some credit for advancing what look to be two significant mini-arcs concerning Riley and Spike and for a tight and well structured plot. Even here though the individual plot elements just don’t mean anything very much. The episode was really intended to make us ask whether Tara really was evil and should she return to a life of slavery. But the answers given by the episode were so obviously skewed in one direction on both counts that you had to wonder what was the point in asking in the first place.