[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Drew Goddard | Director: David Solomon | Aired: 10/22/2002]
Season 7, in general, does an admirable job using six years of back-story and character development to define the positions and actions that are taken in the critical situations that arise in it. There is no better example of this than the textured perfection of “Selfless.” All of my frequent readers will know very well how critical I am about nuanced and constant character connection. So it probably won’t come as a huge surprise to any of you that this episode is a blissful experience for me. It’s a brilliant late-series character piece that proves, despite what you’ll hear elsewhere, this series still has some steam left in it.
I’m one to rarely get on a soap box and stake my claim, but after many years participating in the Buffy community, I have to formally stand up and defend Season 7 from the relentlessly excessive hate and criticism it garners — much of it directed at the entire season, not just the last half of it. It feels like hardly anyone has anything nice to say, and I’m frankly tired of it. “Selfless,” one of many quality episodes this season, is here to prove that this is a respectable season in this series. Is it flawless? Of course not. Is it even one of the best seasons? No, I don’t think so. But it’s also distanced from the worst seasons and I’m making it my mission to make a case for all the wonderful things it has to offer, while also not shying away from valid criticism, as I hope I’ve always done with this show. My goal has never been to evangelize the series and ignore criticism of it, but rather to simply share why this humble reviewer feels — to this day — that this is a flawed yet uniquely brilliant show, right to the end, and remains my favorite television series.
Now with that off my chest, let’s move on to discussing this wonderful episode. The opening scene sets the stage with Xander’s lingering concern for Anya. He knows there’s no real hope of getting back together, but he still obviously cares for her. He says, “I just worry about her. She seems so sad.” Buffy points out that she doesn’t see “the sad” in Anya, just “a vengeance vibe.” Xander pushes aside her concern far too easily: “That? Nah. She just turned back to what she knows. I really think she’s coming around.” This opening conversation between Buffy and Xander sets up their confrontation later in the episode. Buffy’s looking through slayer-eyes, only seeing the vengeance part of Anya, while Xander is looking through, well, Xander-eyes, or as D’Hoffyrn will call it, “the eyeballs of love.” Anya is somewhere in the middle — definitely getting ramping up her vengeance, but also, deep down, still very regretful and shaken by what she did.
Spike gets an interesting scene thrown in here, as we see him with newfound appreciation for Drusilla’s “insanity.” He goes on, to an imaginary Buffy (the First) that has a white shirt on and a softer look, saying “I don’t trust what I see anymore. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly. It’s like I’ve been seeing things. Dru used to see things, you know? She’d always be staring up at the sky watching cherubs burn or the heavens bleed or some nonsense. I used to stare at her and think she’d gone completely sack of hammers. But she’d see the sky when we were inside and it’d make her so happy. She’d see showers. She’d see stars. Now I see her.” This is nice reflective moment.
Then the real Buffy comes in, in a black shirt, and more harshly tells Spike that the basement is killing him. She says, “This is the hellmouth. There is something bad down here, possibly everything bad … get up, and get out of this basement.” Spike, sadly, just tells her, “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” It’s interesting that the First is giving Spike what he wants while Buffy is giving Spike what he needs. Hmm, I wonder if Drew Goddard is channeling his inner Whedon here. I think the First’s goal is to completely control and use him which, most importantly, prevents him from being the wild card it knows he can be in the coming months.
I really appreciate that Goddard, using the excellent build-up of Willow’s concern about herself and her powers, bothered to show us the validity of everyone’s concerns. When Willow tries to find out what happened from the girl who made the wish in the frat house, the creature Anya summoned attacks her. Naturally, she quickly uses a reflex spell to protect herself, but in the process gets frustrated by the girl’s fright and lashes out at her — obviously backed by the black magic she’s tapped into. Clearly showing the audience what Willow’s been talking about excellently cements the set up to her dilemma this season. Good stuff!
This was hinted at since the end of last season, but Anya has finally initiated a disastrous vengeance event (“What have I done?”). On the way to the inevitable confrontation this will cause, we get to step into the past to see the building blocks of what made Anya into the person she is today. In a nutshell, this is very much Anya’s “Fool for Love” [5×07].
Anya is, at first, clearly quite distressed over what she did. Hallie’s all excited that “Anyanka’s back” and is totally confused as to why Anya isn’t feeling happy about it. Anya thinks she’s just “rusty” and Hallie calls it “a reflex,” and goes on to say, “you’ll get over it in no time. Trust me.” It’s clear that Anya gets some comfort from this conversation, at least until the first wave of consequences comes crashing through the door. Yup, that would be a pissed off Willow, who Anya knows to be very scared of — Willow kicked her ### last season.
Anya’s correct in so far as the frat boys were complete dumb-##### (as they often are) for what they did to that poor girl, but their crime did in no way warrant having their hearts ripped out of their chests. Willow’s genuinely trying to help Anya with the situation, but I can also sympathize with Anya’s response: “You’re here to help? Well that’s great, Willow. Flayed anyone lately, have you? How quickly they forget.” I really like that the characters are not letting Willow off easy for flaying Warren, and they shouldn’t. The problem for Anya is that it’s obvious she’s trying, and failing, to convince Willow, and herself, that these boys “deserved” what they got.
All I’ve discussed so far is the framework around the episode. It’s in the flashbacks, which are used to entertain and help illuminate some of the major moments of Anya’s existence to date, where we really get to the center of what’s going on here. I’m going to spend some time taking a look at each one of these flashbacks in an attempt to point out why I think they are useful. It all begins in the rabbit-filled time of 880, where a very human Anya is in love with her big Olaf.
The scene with Olaf back in 880 is not only totally hilarious and inventive, but also very revealing of Anya’s nature. We see that, back then, she loved rabbits and would “give the excess out to the townspeople, exchanging them not for goods or services, but for goodwill and the sense of accomplishment that stems from selflessly giving of yourself to others.” It’s extremely compelling that, back then, Anya had it right! It was her human flaws that instigated the need to enact vengeance on Olaf and then make a new life based around her pain and insecurities. It’s important to note that Anya’s S7 arc is to find the selflessness inside herself again, while completely releasing herself of the need for vengeance.
Also interesting is that, at Olaf’s first mention of the “bar matrons,” Anya puts on an angry face and questions Olaf’s devotion to her. Even back then, she seems to have had an inherent distrust of men — although with men like Olaf around, it’s not hard to imagine why. Olaf tells Anya, “It’s not hard to imagine why they talk about you. You speak your mind, and are annoying. It’s one of the things I love most about you.” Olaf’s sweet talk clearly works on her, so it seems her distrust is mostly an extension of her worry of being hurt. She tells him, “I simply love you so much.”
The next flashback is a follow-up to the previous one. Anya turned Olaf into a troll — the very thing he was complaining about in the previous flashback. It turns out Olaf did, in fact, sleep with a bar matron. Aside from more excellent comedy, this time coming from the townspeople, the conversation Anya has with an apparently ancient D’Hoffryn is especially note-worthy. It’s fitting that Anya, at that time, is named Aud — pronounced “Odd.” D’Hoffryn, by telling her “Anyanka” is her true self and that her “talents are not fully appreciated here,” is basically offering her what no one else will: a chance to not be odd, but to become vengeance incarnate. Although not the healthiest career choice, at least I can understand her motive behind it.
The 1905 flashback continues to dig into the core of who Anya is, and we can see what the last thousand years have done to her. This seems to be the time period where her vengeance is the most refined. She is a workaholic and takes joy in her job and of seeing the wreckage around her, with not the slightest thought of the lives she is affecting and the damage she is doing. In several of the flashbacks we see instances of destruction happening all around Anya, such as with the falling tree in 880 and the flaming man here in 1905, and she doesn’t seem to notice or care. Although these moments work as pure comedy, I can’t help but feel that they also reflect the very nature of a vengeance demon: to set destruction and death into motion, and then go about your business as the chaos plays out behind you. Hallie tells Anya, “But there’s a whole world out there.” Anya responds, “Yes, filled with wronged women that need my help. Vengeance is what I do, Halfrek. Vengeance is what I am.”
The “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] flashback goes back to Season 6 to further illuminate what was probably one of the happiest moments of Anya existence. Obviously, at this point, she is now human and has fallen in love again, but this time with Xander. As we know, when Xander leaves her at the altar, the cycle begins to repeat itself. Xander even mutters in his sleep, “Just… want… happy… ending.” But even in this idealistically beautiful song, Whedon (who wrote the song) manages to still slip in that sneaky little hint of the failure that was ahead of them: “Although he can be/I’ll never tell.”
When I say the song is “idealistic,” what I mean is that Anya is feeling what is the opposite of what the demon in “Hell’s Bells” [6×16] showed Xander as his nightmare version of their to-be marriage. Instead of a nightmare, though, she’s seeing the overly joyous opposite. Although, as most of my readers will know, I am nowhere near married, I do have several role models in my life that appear to represent what an excellent marriage looks like. It’s not about being blissfully happy at all moments of the day; it’s about hard work and a mix of joy and strife. There’s always going to be struggles, so approaching a marriage with the awareness of that reality, but with the confidence that you’re with the right person to handle it all with, is what makes the union have the potential for so much lasting power and satisfaction.
More than just all the above, though, this song is also very much about Anya’s identity. This is summed up in one of the first lines: “I’m just lately Anya/Not very much to the world, I know/All these years with nothing to show.” Anya’s been around a long time, and is pretty accurate when she says she’s got nothing to show for it, except for a lot of carnage. She then sings a list of specific things she’s good at, but ends with the important question of “who am I?” This is a fundamental theme of all the characters on Buffy, but Anya — once you strip away all the humor and everything she molded, or imprinted, herself into — is the most doll-like among them (yes, that’s a Dollhouse parallel).
Back in early Season 6, she is simply going to “be his Missis.” Aside from the identity theme, the song’s just plain emotionally compelling, as Anya sings about the point of love and marriage, and how “Maybe if you’re lucky/Being a pair makes you twice as tall/Maybe you’re not losing at all/No need to cover up my heart/So maybe love is pretty smart.” I’m, once again, amazed by how continuity-laden and character-rich everything in this episode is, all the way down to the little details. This is a really catchy song that has some substance, a lot of humor, and also pulls at the heart. It’s all very lovely until Whedon does what he does best — pulls your guts out so fast that he leaves you wondering what happened. To accomplish this here, he uses a tool called ‘juxtaposition.’
This episode makes a couple excellent uses of quick-cuts and juxtaposition. The first instance of this is at the end of the scene in 880 with Olaf. He tells Anya, “You are my perfect Aud. I could never want for another … Fear not, sweet Aud, you will always be my beautiful girl.” The scene then abruptly cuts to Anya, in the present, washing the blood off of her hands from the massacre she wrought at the frat house. The best use of this technique, though, comes after the “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] flashback. After hearing Anya sing about the excitement she has for her future with Xander and how happy she is to be alive, the abrupt scene change to seeing her impaled against the wall is just gut-vacating — it just sucked the air right out of me, mouth open in shock. It’s just such a heart-breaking picture to see Anya singing about her future and her love, and then abruptly cut to where she finds herself now — lost and alone inside. These quick-cuts make for some extremely impressive “moments.”
All of these flashbacks are wonderfully used to help inform us of the present. While the episode mostly focuses on Anya, it also spends some quality time looking at what’s being affected around Anya. This leads me to the brilliantly written argument between Buffy and Xander over what to do with Anya.
Xander’s initially exasperated when he finds out from Willow, well after she learned about it, who’s behind the spider demon. Buffy stops Xander because she knows why Willow was hesitant to tell him: Willow knew what Buffy would do, so she tried to intercept and talk Anya down first. Everyone approaches this conversation from their own perspective, which leads to extremely explosive results. Buffy knows it’s time to put Anya down. As the Slayer, with everything that she’s learned over the years, she knows that Anya’s a demon again and has crossed a very important line. Since Buffy has the power to stop her, she will try to. Xander’s coming from the obvious perspective of wanting to protect and help Anya, because he still loves her. Willow acts as the moderator here, as she understands Buffy’s duty — as she articulated to Buffy in “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03] — but she also can relate to Anya now due to the events of last season. It’s extremely compelling, then, to watch this conversation “go” with all these perspectives clashing into each other. I found the results electrifying.
Everyone quickly makes their initial arguments, but things get more interesting when their respective defense mechanisms start kicking in. Buffy makes the case, “she’s the not Anya that you knew, Xander.” Xander desperately tries to convince Buffy not to go as far as killing her. Buffy tells him, “Don’t act like this is easy for me. You know it’s not.” When Buffy tells him that “the thought it might come to this has occurred to me before,” she’s not lying — the evidence is subtly written all over her face during moments in several previous episodes since “Hell’s Bells” [6×16]. Xander, being scrappy and smart, brings up the whole mystical deaths loop-hole and looks to Willow for a potential “out.” It makes sense that Willow doesn’t have that kind of power if we remember how resurrecting just Buffy nearly killed her a year ago. While she’s definitely a lot more powerful now, it’s doubtful she could do it, not that she’d even want to go there again.
Xander doesn’t agree with Buffy’s logic, sarcastically claiming “you’re the Slayer. I see now how it’s all very simple.” Buffy truthfully says, “It is never simple.” This is when Xander, understandably not willing to just lie down and let the person he loves be killed, starts to really pull out all the cards he has to play. He brings up Spike, and how Buffy responded to him, bluntly saying, “You know, if there’s a mass-murdering demon that you’re, oh, say, boning, then it’s all gray area.” I have to admit that Xander has a real point here. Although Buffy throws back that the chip in Spike prevented him from hurting anyone, the fact that Buffy did not dispose of Spike a long time ago is still something that doesn’t sit right with me (as much as I love Spike as a character).
Xander asks if she even thinks about what Anya is going through, to which Buffy says, “I don’t care what she’s going through.” Clearly getting exasperated, Xander doesn’t stop there and really pulls out his personal knowledge of who Buffy is against her, saying “No, of course not. You think we haven’t seen all this before? The part where you just cut us all out. Just step away from everything human and act like you’re the law. If you knew what I felt-” This is when Buffy cuts him off, and responds with hard evidence that she’s not simply selectively putting her own interests above her friends. Xander’s got a convincing argument, but Buffy’s defense, based on years of pain and experience, simply trumps his case. She belts out, “I killed Angel! Do you even remember that? I would have given up everything I had to be with? I loved him more than I will ever love anything in this life. And I put a sword through his heart because I had to. … Do you remember cheering me on? Both of you. Do you remember giving me Willow’s message: ‘Kick his ###.'” This is when Xander gets into serious trouble. Willow appropriately jumps in, “I never said that!”
It’s at this moment — seeing the other shoe drop on that lie back in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] — that Xander’s just lost all high ground and has officially lost the argument. Ouch. But Buffy doesn’t stop there, she goes on to explain further that “It is always different! It’s always complicated. And at some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the Slayer is always cut off. There’s no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing council. Human rules don’t apply. There’s only me. I am the law.” Xander, realizing his argument is dead, can only desperately plea, “there has to be another way.” To Buffy’s credit, she gives him the opportunity to find it, but isn’t going to wait for him.
This entire scene is one that I can only see work on Buffy. No other show that I’ve ever seen before has characters that are this inherently likeable, well-drawn, developed, and defined, let alone having six years of solid character work as foundation and back-story. This scene is pure television bliss for me, where the fact that I’m watching film just isn’t apparent anymore; I’m watching real people having a potentially life-altering argument over an extremely important issue, with all the past uglies, character flaws, and nuanced history being thrown back and forth at each other. It’s a very character-based scene, is continuity-laden, and is one that simply couldn’t work at any other point in the series. For me, this scene represents television writing at its best. Soak it up, snuggle with it, and enjoy it. This is a rare sight to see. Also: a big round of applause to both Nicholas Brendan and Sarah Michelle Gellar for their performances in this scene.
Willow, the third party in this argument, realizes that there’s maybe something she can do about the situation. So, the wonderful Drew Goddard decided to tap into even more continuity by having Willow pull out the talisman that D’Hoffryn gave her back in “Something Blue” [4×09] — ironically as an offer for Willow to become a vengeance demon, which seems thematically relevant to a lot of what’s going on in this episode. Willow summons D’Hoffryn under false pretenses and convinces him to consider the situation a little more. Also, D’Hoffryn is utterly hilarious with his entire introduction: “The flaying of Warren Mears. Truly inspired. That was water cooler vengeance. Lloyd has a sketch of it on his wall.”
All Xander can do at this point is to try to talk to Anya about the situation, and apologize for his part in whatever led her to it. Although we know she isn’t happy about the situation, Anya’s flippant-y responses reflect her desire to not feel the pain that’s inside her. Anya’s right when she tells Xander that “you’ve always seen what you wanted to. But you knew sooner or later it would come to this.”
I appreciate how the fight between Buffy and Anya is particularly blunt and straight-forward. It’s interesting to note that Anya is the only one making quips during the fight — Buffy’s not in the mood to respond. Anya is still overly flippant about her entire situation, while Buffy is dead serious and obviously not getting any satisfaction over what she has to do. At one point after stabbing her, Buffy gets Anya knocked to the ground and is going in for another stab when, although only a on screen for a couple frames, we see Anya completely letting it happen. In this one moment, Anya’s done. She is really hurting inside and is willing to die for what she did. And this is before D’Hoffryn blows in and offers her the deal. This is why she’s so quick to accept D’Hoffryn’s terms, because she believes it will mean sacrificing herself.
When D’Hoffryn teleports into the action, thereby tossing aside everyone in the room like they’re nothing and following it up by hilariously saying “Oh, don’t mind me. Please continue with whatever it is that you were doing,” he quickly makes some keen observations. He tells everyone, “Look, Miss Rosenberg seems to think Anyanka would be better suited outside the vengeance fold. I think we already know what Lady ‘Hacks Away’ wants. And the young man, he sees with the eyeballs of love. But I’m not sure if anyone’s bothered to find out what Anyanka herself really wants.”
To Anya’s credit, she immediately jumps in and tells him, “I wanna take it back. I wanna undo what I did.” As with everything relating to magic in the Buffyverse, there’s always a price. D’Hoffryn explains, “Hmm. You want to take it back. Must be twelve bodies in there. Such a thing, not easily done. But not impossible. You’re a big girl, Anyanka. You understand how this works. The proverbial scales must balance. In order to restore the lives of the victims, the fates require a sacrifice: the life and soul of a vengeance demon.” Anya, having already made up her mind when she was going to let Buffy kill her, immediately says “do it.”
Anya doesn’t die, though. Halfrek — her best friend through the years — does instead. Hallie’s death is actually far more difficult and painful, character-wise, for Anya to deal with. This is because now she actually has to face herself, as a human and alone, with nothing to fall back on or “cling on to.” D’Hoffryn turns nasty on her, saying “Who did you think you were dealing with? Did you think it would be that easy to get away? … Haven’t I taught you anything, ‘Anya‘? Never go for the kill when you can go for the pain … I’ve got plenty of girls. There will always be vengeance demons. But now you, Anya, you’re out. Congratulations. Your wish is granted.” Anya, crying, says “You should’ve killed me.” And that’s precisely the reason why he didn’t — because that’s what she wanted. Yet, in a clever piece of foreshadowing, D’Hoffryn says, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. From beneath you, it devours. Be patient. All good things in time.”
The final scene of the episode provides us with the perfect epilogue to this big moment in Anya’s life. Xander, trying to provide her some amount of comfort, tells her “Whatever’s between us, it doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t be alone in this.” Anya, finally understanding her major character flaw, sets the record straight: “Yes, I should. My whole life, I’ve just clung to whatever came along.” Still, she worries, “Xander? What if I’m really nobody?” He simply replies, “Don’t be a dope.” Anya asks, “I’m a dope?” Xander says, “Sometimes.” Then Anya, really getting it now, responds with not only the final line of the episode, but with the first building block of her new, own, identity: “That’s a start.” Yes, Anya, indeed it is. If I were forced to pick one word to describe what I thought of this episode, it’d be “bliss.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Xander telling us that he hasn’t seen Anya “since the night with the Gnarl demon.” Getting a frame of reference in nearly every episode never gets old.
+ All the flashback scenes are just delicious and hilarious.
+ Anya used to love bunnies!
+ Buffy spinning around in her chair with a mug of pencils balanced on her forehead. Wow, she looks like me at work!
+ The flaming man in the background of the St. Petersburg flashback. 🙂
+ Anya being pro-communist back in 1905.
+ The Mustard Man and the Parking Ticket Lady are singing outside of Anya and Xander’s place in the “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] flashback! Wonderful!
+ Anya references the same maiden name she gave herself in “Checkpoint” [5×12] to decieve the Watchers Council about her demon heritage. She then later, in the same song, refers to it as the “Lame-###-Made-Up-Maiden-Name.” *grin*
+ How genuinely painful it looks when Anya pulls the sword out of her chest. It may not kill Anya, but Emma Caulfield sure sells it well that it really hurt.
+ Although D’Hoffryn is consistently pure comedy gold, we finally get a sample of Anya’s earlier warning about not getting him angry. The guy goes from laughs all around to disquieting fright in an instant. What an impressively dynamic character, especially considering the limited amount of screen time he gets.
– The close-up of the spider demon was acceptable cgi, but it really failed to make me buy it simply because the drops coming out of its mouth didn’t actually land on Buffy. It’s a shame that that little detail took me out of the moment.
* D’Hoffryn tells Anya, in response to her saying he should have killed her, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. From beneath you, it devours. Be patient. All good things in time.” We all know, of course, that Anya dies in “Chosen” [7×22].