“Storyteller,” by Jane Espenson
Previously on BtVS, we have tended to start our episodes in one of Sunnydale’s abundant graveyards, at the Bronze, or, until they blew it the heck up, Sunnydale High Mark One. But today we get one of the most unconventional opens, possibly the most unconventional in a tie with “Once More with Feeling,” when the start of “Storyteller” unfolds more like an episode of Masterpiece.
We find ourselves watching Andrew, of all people, as he reads an (imaginary) book by an (imaginary) fire whilst rhapsodizing about how awesome it is to get lost in a good narrative. He invites us, his gentle (imaginary… wait! are we real?) viewers, to come hear a Buffy story.
Okay, now we get a shot of Buffy on the Slay… in a local cemetary. All’s right with our world again. She shoots a vamp with a crossbow as Andrew narrates—referring to them as VampEERs—and then gets into a round of martial arts with a second. The action’s getting intense when a rapping at the door reveals Andrew in his true surroundings. He’s in the bathroom at the Summers house, weaseling into a camcorder. When he tells Anya he’s “entertaining and informing,” she demands: “Why can’t you just masturbate like the rest of us?
Which is why, dear Anyanka, we heart you!
Meanwhile, back at the graveyard, Buffy has dusted the second vamp and it turns out Andrew is along, videotaping this particular patrol. He’s essentially trying to document the Slay struggle for any fortunate survivors of Sunnydale’s upcoming apocalypse. In discussing this later with Anya, he gets her off his back about this plan by asking to interview her.
In the next scene, he explains about the school, the Hellmouth, the First, the Bringers and the Seal of Danzalthar. He edges toward explaining how the seal got opened, that first time, but doesn’t come right out and admit he gutted poor Jonathan. Instead, he skates past that and explains that Noseless the Ubervamp got out and caused some trouble.
Then he films breakfast: all the Scoobies and Slayettes eating cereal, until Spike and Buffy show up. The scene shifts (not at all subtly) into a heightened but thoroughly imagined version of the meal. Heroic music plays: Buffy’s hair is flying in the breeze, Spike is shirtless and Anya eats grapes in slow motion.
We’d all watch this version of the show for a fair while, wouldn’t we?
Buffy’s not keen on the videotaping, and when the others suggest that maybe a record of their battle wouldn’t be a bad thing to have, she starts to tell them about her latest vision, the one featuring a ginormous army of ubervamps waiting beyond the Seal. Andrew bails on the lecture, taking the opportunity to tell the audience about how he used to be a rocking supervillain. Jonathan and Warren are in this vision, playing his sidekicks.
Andrew also tells us all about how he fended off Dark Willow’s attempts to kill him. What a heroic villain he used to be!
It’s all reasonably funny, but those of us with limited tolerance for sniveling need a little break at least, and so Buffy heads to work, where she sees a shy girl starting to vanish, and saves her from complete invisibility by walking up and slapping her. Kids are melting down all over the place. One of them beaned Robin Wood with a rock. Mmm, watching Buffy bandage him provides us all with a calming visual experience.
She tells Robin that there’s a riot brewing, complete with monsters. By way of punctuating this point, one of the kids literally explodes. All the things that happened in her three years at Sunnydale High—and more besides—are threatening to happen simultaneously.
Back at the Masterpiece set, XandAnya are indeed being interviewed. Andrew leads with questions about Xander having ditched Anya at the altar one short year ago. The two of them end up arguing over whether it was the right thing to do, and discussing, heatedly, how they feel about each other.
Robin and Buffy head downstairs to check the seal while she tells him about the army of Turok-Hans waiting within. He’s examining the thing and gets himself possessed, offering unattractive judgments about how Buffy is a whore for doing Spike.
It’s clear the First just plain resents it when one of its agents changes teams.
Then Pigly runs by—this’d be the piglet Andrew failed to kill a few weeks ago. What is he living on? Robin just hopes he’s not seeing a transformed student.
Andrew, by the way, has moved on to filming Spike, who is being menacing on demand in a way that echoes his black and white posing in “Restless.” Andrew also has all of XandAnya’s reconciliation on tape. It’s beautiful, and he watches it over and over and over until Buffy and Robin show up and demand that he do something about the seal.
Him? you’re thinking. I know, right? But Buffy figures he’s the one who started tinkering with it, so he must know something.
It may already be too late. A bunch of possessed students are attempting to open the thing. Again. Just as Dawn served as a bottleneck in S5, keeping Glory from getting what she wanted too early, the repeated opening and closing of the seal is a big barrier to the First achieving its goals.
So how did Andrew get into the bloodletting business? We flash back to Mexico in 2002, where he and Jonathan were hiding out after Willow’s attempt to murder them. The two of them were having nightmares about the seal.
The flashback is a magical attempt to retrieve Andrew’s memories. He doesn’t particularly want to tell the gang about the events that led to his murder of Jonathan, but after the others have threatened him a little, he continues with the what-happens-next. Which is: Warren shows up.
Warren wants to see a knife that he had Andrew buy. They’ve already talked about stabbing Jonathan, and though Andrew is a little reluctant, he buys into Warren’s pitch that they’ll all three live as gods once he does the deed.
Clue! Willow realizes the knife—the physical artifact, in other words—is something they can use. They go retrieve it from the kitchen, discovering writing on the blade, and Andrew helps with the text. Since they’re on a roll, Buffy decides to haul Andrew off to the seal. Robin and Spike are invited on this field trip, too. Which is good, because like XandAnya, they have issues to work through. Also, the school is the site of a riot in progress, one that needs to be checked on.
They head out, Spike and Robin snarking all the way. The student body attacks and the group fights them off in an appropriately non-lethal fashion. Buffy then leaves the men behind at the top of the staircase and hauls Andrew downstairs. They argue over his continued desire to film. She confiscates the camera, saying she doess’t need a biographer who’s also a murderer.
Ouch! Guess who doesn’t like that? Andrew tries to say the stabbing isn’t his fault, and tells her a gently-edited version of events that casts him in a better light. She’s unimpressed, so he tries again, with more revision.
Instead of forgiving him, she hauls him into the Seal room, where they find teenagers who’ve carved up their eyes, Bringer style. It’s more hip than piercing, kids, and far more likely to upset your parents.
By now, XandAnya have had sex, and are fumblingly agreeing that maybe it’s over between them. Robin and Spike are too busy fighting off maddened high school students together to resolve their differences. In fact, Robin tries to stake Spike, but gets interrupted.
Buffy fights off the baby bringers, and Andrew takes the chance to film and narrate. Once the room is clear, she tells him the seal needs his blood if it’s going to shut.
Andrew tries to wrap this unpleasant news in a sweet candy wrapper of heroism: Ooh, my redemption come at last! But Buffy confronts him with his guilt, and dangles him over the seal until he cries. It’s his tears that close the thing. (I’d say for good, but of course that’s not how it’s going to go.)
Upstairs, the rioting kids immediately calm down and go away.
What Andrew learns in “Storyteller” is that his tendency to flee into fantasy, whether it’s a tale of his own making, an embroidery of the truth, or a reference to his many beloved fandoms, doesn’t in any way alter the fact that he’s really quite a crummy person. He’s weak, he’s lonely, he craves acceptance. The best that can be said about him is that left to his own devices he might prefer to be liked or at least tolerated by good people rather than bad. He has gotten a pretty sweet deal, in a way, out of becoming Team Slay’s so called hostage.
This, obviously, doesn’t entitle him to a pass on the homicide.
I think it’s fair to argue that “Storyteller” is the last truly funny episode of BtVS, and I also think it’s fair to say it doesn’t hold up on rewatch in the way that my old favorite “The Zeppo” (or your choice here) does. Andrew is too far removed from the core characters to engage us as thoroughly as those earlier comic episodes do. What’s more, he’s not getting over shyness or awkwardness or even fear of bullies. He stabbed a nice and pretty much harmless guy, and the resulting chuckles are, necessarily, a harder sell.
This isn’t to say it’s bad: Jane Espenson always delivers witty repartee, surprising laughs and some interesting plot twists. And “Storyteller” is an especially welcome breath of fresh air because it breaks up this section of the season, when Buffy is gathering—and, without realizing it, alienating—an army. That it also mocks the very things that make the season a little tedious, like her “inspirational” lectures to the troops, only makes it more delicious.
The episode does also highlight Andrew’s better qualities: he is imaginative, clever, good-tempered, possessed of a remarkable memory even if he does squander it on trivia and, we discover, capable of feeling genuine remorse for his actions. It’s easier to like him after he takes responsibility for his crimes.
He’s got a romantic streak that may be a little naive but that also speaks to all of us—we want heroes and villains and big love stories, after all. It’s why we watch shows just like this one.
Next: The Mission is Spike Must Die
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second of The Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)