It was my privilege to have been asked to appear on a recently released instalment of the Projections podcast, a production that mostly discusses film from various psychological perspectives. The edition in question was released under the banner of “Boxsets on the Couch”, and comprised a discussion on representations of mental illness on television—coinciding with the very raison d’être for this blog. As a companion piece to that guest appearance, I wanted to share my thoughts in more detail on one of the shows I cited during the discussion—no less than a favourite episode from a favourite series of mine. For me, this is a prime example of how a series that didn’t necessarily put mental illness front and centre could tell a powerful and meaningful story when it incorporated such concerns into its universe.
Across seven seasons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) told the story of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the Chosen One of her generation, a young woman nominated as the Slayer and thus gifted with powers to fight vampires, demons, and various such supernatural forces. Helped by a group of friends and guided by a Watcher, the various Big Bads that were set against them were typically metaphors for the pains and tribulations of adolescence and early adulthood. As stated in the DVD featurette Buffy 101: Studying the Slayer, “the genius of the central concept [is] that we are all beset by monsters, all around us. And that we all see our problems as monstrous and the people who are doing it to us as monsters.”
By the middle of its sixth season, the series found Buffy in the depths of a nihilistic depression. This is an understandable response to her extraordinary circumstances, having sacrificed her life only to be resurrected and wrenched back from heaven to the ongoing trials of living in her hometown of Sunnydale, horrors emerging from the Hellmouth underneath its high school on a weekly basis! She has entered into an abusive relationship with the vampire and former foe Spike (James Marsters), whilst her entire group of friends find themselves in one or other form of despair or addiction. The entire so-called “Scooby Gang” is at its nadir.
The teaser for “Normal Again” sees a demon summoned and unleashed upon Buffy, setting up one of its trademark action scenes. During the fight, the demon injects the Slayer with what turns out to be a hallucinogenic venom. At that moment, in a match cut, we suddenly encounter a distressed Buffy in an altogether different environment: a psychiatric hospital where two orderlies are injecting her, against her will, with medication. The episode then plays out between these dual narratives as Buffy faces her demons—both real and allegorical—and battles a debilitating mental illness.
This was the first commissioned script from writer Guttierez, which makes it all the more remarkable for its accomplishment as a stand-out instalment from the series’ entire run. On his commentary accompanying the DVD release, he shares his thoughts about coming up with the idea for the episode:
The best Buffy episodes always get to the heart of the matter fast, and really put you into something that is very essential to the metaphor and what the characters go through, and Buffy’s whole story… They’e all very much at the bottom of the well at this point, and all very insecure about who they are and what they’re going through. It fits to put a concept in which all that—everything that you are, your entire world—gets questioned to the point that you might be in an insane asylum. That’s how bad things are, that Buffy would believe that, and want to believe that, to an extent.
The idea of a series protagonist having imagined the entire story in which they feature, for one reason or another, is a familiar one. (For another example featured on this blog, look no further than the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind”.) But what marks out “Normal Again” is just how plausible and even desirable it is for a mentally ill Buffy to be the “real” narrative. Through a number of stylistic choices, coupled with Gellar’s entirely believable performance, the episode treads a careful and emotionally involving balance.
One of those stylistic choices, as shared by director Rosenthal in the self-same DVD commentary, was to ensure that each “reality” looked just as real as the other. As such, there was no visual distinction made between the two perspectives that might indicate one was imagined. The same type of film was used, and the starkness of the psychiatric hospital was designed to look as authentic as possible. It might sound odd to suggest a realm of vampires and demons was just as plausible but, after six years of having been immersed in this world and invested in its characters, I can vouch as a regular audience member that Sunnydale felt entirely real to me, too. Which only made it all the more gut-wrenching to be presented with an alternative version of Buffy’s reality that, whilst still painful, offered a more hopeful prospect. As the British Film Institute’s critical reading of the series describes it:
She’s going through such a rough time in her real world that she’s tempted to surrender to an alternate, more mundane reality in which her mother is still alive, her parents are still together and she no longer has to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders, a reality in which she is, in fact, just an ordinary girl. It’s an indication of how well the writers have done their work that we now find ourselves rooting for her not to relinquish six seasons’ worth of preposterous events in favour of the easier, non-heroic but more realistic option.
As to the nature of Buffy’s apparent mental illness, it is described as a type of schizophrenia. The level of her accompanying dissociation approaches something of a fugue state—a condition that, in keeping with the dual narratives and ambiguity of the episode, could be applied just as readily to Sunnydale’s Buffy imagining herself under care in the hospital as a response to the traumas of her life. But, back in the world of the psychiatric hospital, her doctor (Michael Warren) is a compassionate and benevolent character that further inclines the conflicted audience to want to believe in that world:
Back in Sunnydale, a revelation by Buffy plays further with the narrative history of the character, as she opens up to best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) that she had spent time in a clinic after first telling her parents she had encountered vampires. This would place the character’s treatment between the events of the original 1992 movie and the ensuing run of the television series. Buffy voices the central question ultimately posed by the episode about the series in its entirety: “What if I’m still there? What if I never left that clinic?”
Having attempted to silence her friends’ protestations about her condition by subduing and gagging them and offering them up to the demon, ultimately Buffy chooses to rescue them and defeat the creature. There is a sense that her two realities have started to merge, as she chooses which one to embrace. And, heartbreakingly, it is her late mother Joyce‘s (Kristine Sutherland) kind words to her daughter that ultimately herald her decision to overcome her grief and leave behind an imagined version of her past so as to face her destiny:
Boldest of all, though, is the creative choice of how to end the episode. Bidding her mother goodbye, Buffy drifts into a catatonic state in the hospital before a triumphant return to her usual self in Sunnydale as, naturally, she defeats the demon and saves the day. Yet the final shot focuses not on this victory, but rather on her unresponsive figure slumped against a wall back in the hospital. In one sense, it’s a somewhat disempowering idea to suggest a series that champions female empowerment is all a figment of a disturbed young woman’s mind, but it also makes for an intriguing creative statement in terms of the core nature of fiction.
In that regard, perhaps I should leave the final comment on this episode to the series’ creator, Joss Whedon. In conversation with the New York Times in 2003, he had this to say of the episode:
How important it is in the scheme of the Buffy narrative is really up to the person watching. If they decide that the entire thing is all playing out in some crazy person’s head, well the joke of the thing to us was it is, and that crazy person is me! It was kind of the ultimate postmodern look at the concept of a writer writing a show, which is not the sort of thing we usually do on the show. The show had merit in itself because it did raise the question, “How can you live in this world and be sane?” But, at the same time, the idea amused me very much and we played on it a little bit… We played on the crazy things we came up with time and time again, to make this fantasy show work, and called them into question the way any normal person would. But, ultimately, the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles, if that’s what the viewer wants. Personally, I think it really happened.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still widely available, although viewers should beware that the high definition version currently available on Amazon Prime in the UK has been thoroughly derided. Nonetheless, it remains a rich and genre-defining body of work—as is, for that matter, its spin-off Angel—and as such I thoroughly recommend (re)visiting the very real world of Sunnydale.