Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fuck everything, let's write about Buffy.

Writing is going passably well this year, if only in terms of ambition. I'm hoping to have a few more Gratuitous Link Posts, as I poke myself into various other, more widely read sites. At the moment, I'm completely blanking on something I need to have written in a week or so.

My brain, naturally, is keen on thinking about absolutely anything other than the topic at hand. Fortunately, the internet is a thing that exists. Also, alcohol.
Today is the 17th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer--the latter, real Buffy, mind you--and our acknowledgment thereof inspired this exchange:
I'm sure eventually I'll write up the whole "Catholics are from Mars, Calvinists are from Venus" riff about the ways Angel and Spike embody differing concepts of redemption and holiness, but I wasn't planning on giving it a lot of thought tonight, until some sort of floating cube posted this. Quotation of note:
Suicidal feelings are not the same as giving up on life. Suicidal feelings can often express a powerful and overwhelming need for a different life. Suicidal feelings can mean, in a desperate and unyielding way, a demand for something new.
Which brings us to Spike. (Spoilers for two shows that went off the air a decade ago.)

Vampires, in the Buffyverse, are established as a demonic entity animating a human corpse. The extent to which a given human's identity survives the transition is a matter of some debate. The soul, whatever the fuck that is, goes away, that much is agreed upon. It seems to boil down to free will and conscience; a vampire is the cruelest, most selfish parts of yourself brought from deepest repression to the surface.

Free will is trickier. Spike, the subject of an experiment by a researcher specializing in operant conditioning, is prevented from acting on the anti-social urges we care about. He can't be evil, and he can even manage a very specific type of good, by default, since his love of power and violence allow him to hunt and kill other supernatural entities. He even learns to "love" Buffy when his obsessive desire to kill is converted, through positive and negative reinforcement, into a desire to make slashy slashy sex with her. Still, he can't quite maintain the illusion, and he betrays his allies at every opportunity. If he sees an angle for personal gain, he simply isn't able to not play it. He sells demon eggs because there's money in it, even though Buffy might kill him for it; he tries to rape Buffy because he wants to and feels he has the ability to do so. (Lest anyone bring up that it's offensive that this hearkens back to rape culture narratives about men being slaves to their sexual desires, I'll remind us all that Spike, not being human, isn't a man. Do try to keep up.)

The trouble is, Spike's darkest evil, at the point where we meet him, isn't terribly evil. His first act, upon becoming an immortal, bloodthirsty killing machine, is to see to the care of his aged and infirm mother. When he joins the gang for a century or so of torturing, killing, and eating their way across Europe, he gets bored with killing, and is delighted to hear that there's something out there that will put up a decent fight. When he decides to go after one of the relatively few humans who could actually kill him, is Spike seeking out valor--something his extended sires seem quite wary of--or is he engaging in suicidal ideation?

It's worth considering, not only because seasons 5 and 6 are thick with suicide imagery, but because the ultimate claim to Spike's morality is that he seeks out the restoration of his soul. The demon knows that the return of the soul will go very badly for it; when Angelus returns in S2, killing the only person he believes capable of restoring his soul is one of his first priorities. From the demon's perspective, seeking out one's soul would be akin to suicide.

Angel is so rapacious and cruel that his evil redounds upon itself and makes him heroic; Spike is so inherently white-hat that even the blackest evil can't quite drive the heroism out of him. (Egad, that does not sound right. Leaving it there anyway. I've got shit to do, can't spend all night editing.) So one possibility is that there's just something off about Spike's conversion to begin with. The trusty Dr. Girlfriend (ABD) offers a viable fanwank: a vampire is a demon setting up shop in a human, and Drusilla--a prophetess--didn't really fit that description to begin with, let alone after Angelus' tortures had driven her out of her mind, leaving an empty, supernaturally elect shell. This would explain why the line seems to get a bit wonky after Dru: not just Spike, but the nerd-vamp who's "human" enough to be incinerated by the Judge, and possibly Harmony as well, but seriously, fuck Harmony.

At any rate, Spike does some stuff it seems he ought not be able. In the S6 finale, after driving his motorcycle to--Africa? Is that where he goes? On a motorcycle? In one night? What the fuck?--he meets up with some sort of demony...thing. We're led to believe he was going to get the chip removed; that's how Joss reputedly told Marsters to play it, supposedly, although Marsters later said he'd always played Spike as if he'd had a soul. Hence, the most common way to interpret that event, the seemingly canonical interpretation, is that Spike asked for the soul, and used vague enough language that we, the audience, misread it. But how is it that he's able to intentionally bind his own will in the first place?

The suicide analogy is the simplest answer: that annihilation is as close as a vampire can get to authentic moral choice. A closer reading of Spike's interaction with the demon that restores his soul offers some alternative explanations.

We see Spike's arrival on the scene, and the camera doesn't cut away except during fight scenes; it doesn't seem likely that there's conversation we don't see. The demon seems to be expecting his guest, and they've presumably had some contact before, but it's never established. In fact, the encounter is never spoken of again for the remainder of the series. If we expand the possibility that the demon knows Spike is coming because of some precognitive or telepathic ability, a new interpretation becomes possible. Perhaps the demon gives Spike what he wants, but not what he asked for; perhaps the vampire can only seek its own annihilation at an unconscious level. (Alternatively, perhaps the demon just ignored what Spike asked for and gave him a soul because why the fuck not?)

It's an interesting case study in metaphysical fanwanking, but my favorite is a simpler causality, and why discussions of ambivalence and suicide always make me think of this scene. Spike stands at a crossroads, not quite one thing or another. He can experience neither the joy of authentic love nor the thrill of recreational murder, and it's killing him. The difference between the two is, from his perspective, entirely irrelevant. I suspect he doesn't particularly know what the demon's going to do to him, and he doesn't much care. It's not about making life better. It's worth dying just to make it different.