[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Jane Espenson and Drew Goddard | Director: Nick Marck | Aired: 11/12/2002]
When the writers want to pull out all the stops on Buffy, they almost always succeed. “Conversations with Dead People” is a quintessential example of an extremely tight episode of television — it’s got plenty of action, brilliant and penetrating dialogue, tons of creepiness, a unique structure, and serves up a thrilling setup to the season’s plot. The episode has me sold from the moment it begins, with the introduction sequence blowing me away. This is pulled off by a great mixture of music, tone, and cinematography. One thing that’s not really apparent until you think about it is that none of the main characters interact with each other at all in this entire episode. This fact doesn’t seem odd until you really think about it. How many shows have you seen that have done this before? I sure can’t think of any. It’s actually a fairly risky move, but one that really pays off due to the tone-setting nature of the episode.
I’ll begin with the opening song, which turns out to be incredibly insightful. For an organizational overview of the song, click here. The lyrics speak directly to the core of what Buffy’s life has been like, focusing specifically on all of her relationships to date. It’s so penetrating and mournful that I feel the need to talk about it. It begins with, “Night falls/I fall/And where were you?/And where were you?” I interpret this as speaking to how Buffy’s slayerhood has taken its toll on her. Speaking for Buffy in the first person, when the night falls, I am called to fight the fight and, in time, fall. Where is the person that can understand me? I’ve tried to connect (“warm skin”), even with the darkness (“wolf grin”), but I’ve always ended up alone (“And where were you?”). This section is likely recounting her experience with Angel.
I think the next section represents Buffy’s relationship with Riley. As in, she tried to have a relationship with the “normal” guy, but her relationship with the night (“I fell into the moon”) had an adverse effect on him (“And it covered you in blue”). So, “Can I make it right? Can I spend the night?” The next part dives into the sexual, therefore representing Buffy’s experience with Spike in Season 6. “High tide/Inside” means exactly what you think it means (and is a neat similarity in wording to Tara’s song to Willow in “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] [6×07, “The moon to the tide/I can feel you inside”]). “The air is dew” I take as representing the sweat on Buffy’s skin while in passion. Even with all that lust, “where were you?” Once again Buffy asks, where is my companion; where is my lover; why can’t I truly connect?
The next section then moves into death and recalls “The Gift” [5×22]: “Wild eyed/I died/And where were you?” The song goes on, building, and penetrating deeper, “I crawled out of the world/When you said I shouldn’t stay.” This is clearly a comment on Willow’s resurrection spell and how it forced Buffy to come back from the grave, giving her no choice in the matter. “I crawed out of the world/Can I make it right?,” recounts “Grave” [6×22], getting us caught up to the time period of this episode. Now that Buffy’s recovered from her resurrection and is reflecting on her life and how to make it right, we hone in on the sad question and final statement on Buffy’s connections, which also happens to be the end of the episode: “I fell into the world/And it covered you in blue/I fell into the moon/Can I make it right?/Can I spent the night?/Alone.” I’m almost in tears just thinking about the meaning of this song, which is played over a montage of images of her allies being covered in blue because of their relationship with Buffy. The last image of the episode is Buffy, covered in blue… alone. Completely. Amazing.
Everything chronicled in that song, appropiately titled “Blue” (representing moonlight), co-written by Joss Whedon and performed by Angie Hart, is used as the backdrop for Buffy’s conversation with Holden. This starts to really get interesting the moment Buffy responds to Holden’s question about how she’s doing. Buffy says, “[I’m] not so much connected.” Holden then picks up on this, “Now, when you said you weren’t connected, that was a telling statement.” He goes on to say, “So you meet someone, form a bond,” and Buffy adds, “and it never lasts.” We now see that Buffy’s “fight” with Holden has really turned to the psychological, with Holden in the position of the psychiatrist and Buffy lying down on a concrete coffin like a patient — this is a truly humorous, but metaphorically powerful, image that very much speaks to the core of Buffy’s life and troubles with the living and the dead.
Holden suggests that maybe Buffy targets “the impossible ones” on purpose, as a means of protecting herself from commiting. Buffy reacts very defensively to the thought of this, which means there might be a nugget of truth to it. Then Holden flips it around, asking if she thinks it’s the guys’ faults for all leaving her. To her credit, Buffy doesn’t really accept that either. Holden then reaches an important point: “You should just ease up on yourself. It’s not like you hold the patent on bad relationships. … What, are you supposed to be settling down at 21?” This very insight will be reiterated to Angel during the famous (or infamous, depending on your take) cookie dough speech in “Chosen” [7×22].
The nutshell of this whole conversation boils down to Buffy’s relationship issues and how her slayerness has caused additional problems. Holden can tell that Buffy’s not as thrilled about talking to Holden as he is to her. He asks, “Is it because we’re gonna fight?” She smugly yet somberly replies, “‘S ’cause I’m gonna win.” Once again, someone tries to make a connection with her, but she knows she’ll end the night alone. But Holden doesn’t stop here, he keeps digging and brings up her parents’ divorce: a potential root source of many of these problems. Buffy thinks her parents split because her dad cheated on her mom. Holden uses this to make a very interesting point: “So, of all these relationships of yours, that you knew subconciously were totally doomed, whose fault is that? … was just wondering, is it possible, even a little bit, that the reason you have trouble connecting to guys is because you think maybe they’re not worth it? Maybe you think you’re better than them.” Wow, insightful.
Digging out Buffy’s superiority complex turns out to be the “gift” that keeps on giving. Holden gives Buffy a bone when he says, “All chosen. All destiny. Who could live with that for seven years and not feel superior?” Another good point. Buffy honestly exclaims that she doesn’t feel superior to anyone and has made a ton of mistakes. This sparks the discussion of her relationship with Spike in S6. Buffy says about him, “And the joke is… he loved me. I mean, in his own sick, soulless way, he really did care for me. But I didn’t want to be loved.” That very honest and important admission ends up pushing the rest of Buffy’s thoughts out: “I have all this power. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t deserve it. It’s like… I wanted to be punished. I wanted to hurt like I thought I deserved. … I feel like I’m worse than anyone. Honestly, I’m beneath them. My friends, my boyfriends. I feel like I’m not worthy of their love. ‘Cause even though they love me, it doesn’t mean anything ’cause their opinions don’t matter. They don’t know. They haven’t been through what I’ve been through. They’re not the Slayer. I am. Sometimes I feel… this is awful. I feel like I’m better than them. Superior.” Bingo. This is a self-realization worthy of six seasons of back-story! Wonderful!
Holden then sums it all up for us, “And I thought I was diabolical. Or, at least I plan to be. You do have a superiority complex. And you’ve got an inferiority complex about it. Kudos.” Buffy, confused, just says “It doesn’t make any sense.” Holden replies, “Oh, it makes every kind of sense. And it all adds up to you feeling alone. But, Buffy, everybody feels alone. Everybody is, until you die.” And there it is. There really is a certain truth to what came out of this conversation, isn’t there? I mean, no matter how many people you surround yourself with: lovers, family, friends… in the end no one will ever know what’s going on inside your head. No one will ever truly know you. I think that this just goes to show how important human connection really is, because even though you’ll always be alone in your own mind (at least until nano-technology connects our brains to each other — hey, they could make a cross-over cable for human brains! Har har… okay, I’m done geeking out), sharing your life with others is one of the only remedies for complete dispair — spirituality being another, for some. I don’t even want to think about what my life would be like if I had no friends and no family; I’d likely be a much more self-destructive individual.
So, with Buffy alone in the graveyard, once again, the song restates the lingering question, “Can I spend the night?/Alone.” Sad, yet extremely beautiful! I can’t help but feel a strong connection to what Spike told Buffy back in “Fool for Love” [5×07]: “The only reason you’ve lasted as long as you have is you’ve got ties to the world… your mum, your brat kid sister, the Scoobies.” Losing her mom in “The Body” [5×16], and Riley before that, are what made the stakes in “The Gift” [5×22] so high. She died to protect her family and friends, because without them she wouldn’t be able to survive at all in this world. To sum this up, I’ll just say that I’m quite impressed by how layered and continuity-laden this aspect of the episode is. This is character work at the highest level, and oh how rare it is to see.
Although a part of me wants to just keep thinking about Buffy’s troubles, Jonathan’s back in town and needs some attention of his own! He wanted to come back to Sunnydale “to make things right.” Apparently Andrew and him know something about “The Seal” and Jonathan aims to tell Buffy everything. Andrew, on the other hand, is being manipulated by what he thinks is Warren but, of course, is actually the First. We’ll find out later that Andrew, on some level, knows this isn’t really Warren, but denial has a hold of him. Jonathan, having finally learned from his failures, is genuinely wanting to do it right this time, and not take the easy way out. Clearly, Andrew hasn’t learned yet. The First’s use of Warren’s personality, though, is dead on, even playing on the Star Wars references.
Jonathan has never been a significant character in this series, but I felt the writers — probably Jane Espenson the most — did an excellent job of fleshing this little guy out and giving what was really just an extra a little arc of his own. This episode is the bittersweet end to that arc. When Andrew and him get to the Seal, he begins reminiscing about high school — something that Andrew could care less about, but Jonathan is looking back at with some more perspective.
The sum of Jonathan’s journey is summed up perfectly when he tells Andrew, “No, I’m serious. I really miss it. Time goes by, and everything drops away. All the cruelty, all the pain, all that humiliation. It all washes away. I miss my friends. I miss my enemies. I miss the people I talked to every day. I miss the people who never knew I existed. I miss ’em all. I want to talk to them, you know. I want to find out how they’re doing. I want to know what’s going on in their lives.” Andrew snaps back with what is probably closer to reality: “You know what? They don’t wanna talk to you; all those people you just mentioned. Not one of them is sitting around going, ‘I wonder what Jonathan’s up to right now.’ Not one of them cares about you.” And then Jonathan, in his last act on this earth, redeems himself for his past mistakes by saying “Well, I still care about them. That’s why I’m here.” Then he gets stabbed to death, activating the Seal of Danzalthar. Damn you Andrew! Let this moment be a tribute to the funny and sympathetic Jonathan, played touchingly by Danny Strong. I’ll miss you, little guy!
Moving onto Dawn, the First puts an awful lot of effort into getting her to believe phantom Joyce’s warning about Buffy. This is wickedly intelligent psychological warfare here. The First makes Dawn earn getting to talk to her mother by defeating an evil presence that is simply vicious to her. In reality, that presence is just a clever ruse to make Dawn believe she’s really talking to her mom. Yikes! Michelle does an excellent job with these extremely creepy sequences with the “demon” — from the fright to the screaming to the courage to cast it out, bloody face and all. That’s what makes Joyce’s message all the more believeable. The First, as Joyce, tells her that “Things are coming, Dawn. Listen, things are on their way. I love you, and I love Buffy, but she won’t be there for you. … When it’s bad, Buffy won’t choose you. She’ll be against you.” How’s that for a message of doubt?
Although Dawn gets beat up physically, Willow goes through a major psychological shock, being lead to believe Tara is talking to her through a dead girl (Cassie from “Help” [7×04] ). The First’s manipulation of Willow in their conversation is, like with Dawn, incredibly believeable and cruel. In both of these situations, the First works by getting inside the characters’ heads. With Willow, it tries to get her to commit suicide — something it knows is a long-shot but is worth the attempt. With Dawn, it simply plants a seed of distrust in her about Buffy, which I think plays a role in what happens in “Empty Places” [7×19]. While it’s busy with those two, we see that it’s been using Spike for a while now. Quite the plan that’s been set into motion.
The First also hits Willow where it can get to her the best: Tara. By evoking the memory of Tara (and yes, this would have been truly disturbing had they actually gotten Amber Benson to do this), the First is able to tap directly into Willow’s emotional core. Once there, it hopes to have a smidgen of a shot of using what happened to Tara, and the subsequent loss of magical control, as evidence that Willow’s power is too dangerous and that she shouldn’t use it anymore.
This attacks the core of Willow’s internal doubt this season, telling her “The power is bigger than you are. … Things are more clear where Tara is, where we are. We can see your path, and you have to stop. You can’t use magic again, not ever. .. It’s too dangerous. You can’t take the chance that you’ll lose control.” When Willow courageously sticks to her teachings, the First ups the concern even further by telling her “You’re not gonna be okay. You’re gonna kill everybody.” It’s at this point when the First really should have disappeared, leaving Willow with that to mull over, but it gets greedy and tries to not simply stop Willow from using magic — obviously because it’s scared of what Willow is capable of — but tries to simply get rid of her right here. The problem is that it’s obvious Tara wouldn’t ever actually want Willow to kill herself.
The First’s exit speech and disappearing act left me with a very creeped-out feeling in my bones. I’m totally behind Willow in now being in all-out concerned mode. What an amazing setup for the rest of the season! If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s actually that the rest of the season did not even come close to living up to what was started here. Sadly, the First is rarely if ever this scary again, which is truly a shame. This episode opened up the kind of potential that, if it had been realized, could have made this the best Buffy season of them all. Instead we’re left with a flawed, unrealized season; a season that still has a lot of merit, but simply isn’t all it could be.
With that said, I can’t hold what comes next against “Conversations,” because this episode hits all the right chords and ends up being an incredibly unique and satisfying experience. Although not quite a Top 10 episode, it definitely comes close. Kudos to everyone involved. I’d also like to make special mention of guest star Jonathan Woodward, who plays Holden and does a phenomenal job with the role.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Dawn dropping pizza sauce on one of Buffy’s shirts. Dawn’s response? “She’ll think it’s blood.”
+ Dawn messing around with Buffy’s weapons, pretending she’s fighting evil monsters. I love how she hides the hole in the wall with the plant — good strategy!
+ The fun irony of Dawn watching an old-school horror movie where the dumb blond runs and screams in panic — exactly what Buffy subverts.
+ Dawn talking to Kit on the phone. Although we don’t get to see her again, at least we know that they kept in touch after what happened in “Lessons” [7×01].
+ Buffy’s fight with Holden abruptly changing from ‘I am going to kill you’ to ‘oh, hey, we went to high school together!’
+ Dead Joyce on the couch subtly appearing behind Dawn is creeeeepy.
+ Also very creepy is the lights going out, the chairs being all stacked up on top of each other, and then going back to normal. The blood on the wall saying “Mother’s milk is red today” isn’t exactly comforting either.
+ Jonathan and Andrew checking their communication devides. “Check, check, check, check….” Haha.
+ Phantom Warren creepily appearing next to the door where the Seal is.
+ Spike killing humans again is definitely quite the shock.
* Andrew suggests than him and Jonathan will eventually join Buffy’s gang and hang out at her house. Well, that definitely happens for him, only tied to a chair most of the time.