Apr 26 2010 12:09pm

Buffy, “Intervention,” and King Lear

I haven’t forgotten my promise to give Buffy Season 8 another go, I’ve just had trouble laying my hands on the latest issues. And speaking of having trouble laying hands on something, how about a consideration of Buffy S5’s episode “Intervention,” in which Spike’s fascination with the Slayer leads to the making of a Buffy he can touch: the Buffybot.

In this episode, Buffy’s worried that being the Slayer makes it difficult for her to love, so she goes on a spiritual quest in the desert to sort her inner self out. Meanwhile, back in Sunnydale, very unspiritual things are afoot. Spike’s playing sexy role playing games with his new, incredibly lifelike and adoring Buffy robot, and hilarity ensues—until Spike is kidnapped by Big Bad Glory’s minions, who think that, since “Buffy” treats him as “precious,” he must be the Key in human form. One sniff of the vampire tells Glory what he is, and that he can’t be the human Key. But she can torture who IS out of him.

Buffy—the real Buffy (“the other, not so pleasant Buffy,” as Spike puts it)—comes home and is confronted by her friends, who say they’ve seen her having sex with Spike.

The Scoobies head off to rescue Spike—if only to stop him from telling Glory that the Key is Dawn, and so that Buffy can personally kill him for building a robot version of her. Though the Buffybot is broken in the ensuing fracas, Spike is saved and allowed to slink home. In order to suss out whether Spike told Glory who the Key is, Buffy pretends to be the bot (fixed by Willow) and sashays into his crypt. She cheerily suggests they go tell Glory who the Key is, so she’ll leave Spike alone. He stops her, saying that Glory can’t know, can never know, because if anything happened to Dawn, it would destroy Buffy, and he couldn’t stand to see her in so much pain. The “robot” gently kisses Spike, who pulls away in the sudden realization that she is not the bot, but the real Buffy.

“And my robot?” he asks.

Buffy: The robot is gone. The robot was gross and obscene.

Spike: It wasn’t supposed to—

Buffy: Don’t. wasn’t even real. What you did, for me, and for Dawn, that was real. I won’t forget it. 

“Intervention” is one of my favorite episodes. It’s written by Jane Espenson, whom I adore as a writer for Buffy and BSG (then why, why did S8’s “The Retreat” arc turn me off?). It’s hilarious—I love the bewilderment Buffy’s friends go through as they try to figure out what would make Buffy sleep with Spike, and the Buffybot gets some great lines (to herself, marching off to patrol: “Vampires of the world, beware!” To Willow: “You’re my best friend. You’re recently gay.” To Buffy: “Say, look at you. You look just like me! We’re very pretty.”). And, like the best Buffy episodes, “Intervention” has a metaphor: it’s about what happens when your friend does something so crazy you can’t believe she’s the same person you’ve known for years (why would SHE sleep with HIM? Is she INSANE?).

But “Intervention” is also about Spike. He’s despicable. He’s a cad. Ridiculous. Vulnerable. And, when it comes down to it, fiercely loyal, self-sacrificing, and heroic. But let’s set aside the “real,” good thing he does to protect Dawn (and, ultimately, Buffy) and look straight at his “gross and obscene” creation of the Buffybot. Let’s do this because his choice at the end redeems him, but it also clouds the question of whether what he did with the Buffybot was, really, so irredeemable, so not “real,” as Buffy puts it.

Ok, yes, he was essentially playing with a fancy version of a blow-up doll. Unsavory indeed. And, yes, his interludes with the Buffybot were cliché—deliberately so on the writers’ part, because it’s funny, but also because clichés are clichés because people do them all the time—they are real.

Wait, you say, people don’t always make blow-up dolls of their beloveds!

Of course not. But we do tell ourselves stories.

This is what Spike does. When Buffybot runs through some cheesy pillow talk with him, and then asks if she should do the program again, his response is “Shh, no programs. Don’t use that word. Just be Buffy.” He knows he’s created a fiction, and wants the added fiction of pretending it is NOT a fiction.

This is where King Lear comes in. Oh, believe me, I know that play has NOTHING to do with Buffy. But I taught it today, so it’s been on my mind. The play and the episode just happen to be sharing the same mental space, like bread and an orange in a bowl. The bread is not the orange. Lear is not Buffy.

But today I came to a new (to me) understanding of the scene where Edgar is leading his blind father, Gloucester. Edgar pretends to be someone else, and pretends to lead the old man up a cliff so that he can commit suicide. Gloucester “jumps” and falls on what has always been flat ground. Edgar rushes up to him, pretending to be yet again another person, and claims Gloucester had been led up a cliff by a devil, and had fallen miles, yet floated down like a feather and is miraculously unhurt. “Why,” I asked my class, “does Gloucester do this? Apparently he wants to stop his father from thinking sinful thoughts of suicide, but wouldn’t it have been easier to say, ‘It’s me, your son, and I love and forgive you’? What’s wrong with the simple truth?”

I’d spent years annoyed with Edgar’s theatrics, his storytelling. And yet the entire play is about how we humans need more than the bare truth. When Lear’s daughters ask him why he needs to have one hundred knights following him, he replies “Oh, reason not the need!” and goes on to say that if all his daughter needed from clothes was for them to keep her warm, they wouldn’t be so gorgeous—and they’d cover more skin. We need trappings, we need ceremony, we need symbols. We need, in the language of the play, to be “accommodated,” because “unaccommodated man,” the man who does not have all these things, is just an animal. So is Edgar wrong to think that a story about escaping the devil might soothe his father’s soul?

Is Spike so despicable in indulging in a fantasy?

Of course not. We might not all go to such lengths as Edgar and Spike, but we’ll spin ourselves the craziest tales, even if we wouldn’t admit it. That’s one of the things that makes us human. If we can’t have the real thing, we can always make it up. 

After all, stories are real, too. 

Marie Rutkoski is the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Cabinet of Wonders and its sequel, The Celestial Globe (published on April 12, 2010). Both books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, which described the first novel as a “heady mix of history and enchantment.” Her novels have been or will be published in eight languages. Marie holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University, and currently teaches as a professor of Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in New York City with her husband and son. You can visit her at

Girl Detective
1. Girl Detective
I recently read and disliked Retreat,

so I'm done with Buffy "Season 8". I thought season 5 was the last really solid season of Buffy, thought it ended with intergrity, and while I had initial hope for the comic series, I don't anymore.
Girl Detective
2. Brian2
An excellent article, and that episode was a favorite of mine as well. I do interpret it a bit differently, but not drastically so.

In "Buffy" the metaphors tended to hinge directly and concretely on the supernatural element. In this case it's the robot, and I think that it's about Spike's situation, not Buffy's. He loves Buffy, she tells him she despises him, and that makes it awkward for him that his hormones are continuing to work anyway. He fantasizes about her, and he feels shameful and mechanical for doing so, knowing that she'd hate it if she knew. It's in part a conflict between the reality of being an animal and the surfaces we construct in order to live in society. In part, of course, it's also about taking things much too far. The episode resolves all this beautifully, and in an oblique way it moves Spike from object to subject, which has all kinds of interesting consequences.

I hadn't thought of Lear in this context, though I do tend to think of "The Winter's Tale," given the nature of the resolution, and its mechanism, Buffy's impersonating the robot. (I think this might have been intended, and, given just how tacky Spike is being, and how tart Buffy is, there's something wry in the comparison.) But the association with Lear is highly interesting, now that you point it out.

In some situations you really can't just say things like "It’s me, your son, and I love and forgive you." That's a conventional response, and it might or might not be a felt one. How, then, can you communicate this and be believed? Well, in just the way Edgar does it. If he didn't really love and forgive Gloucester, his imagination would not have found a way to save Gloucester despite himself. Imagination is not something that can be willed, and if Edgar hadn't actually wanted to save him, he could have recited the proper social formulas and let things happen. As for Gloucester, wouldn't it have been a bit strange if he didn't recognize Edgar's voice, whatever his state of mind? You don't substitute a message for a ritual.

It reminds me as well of your article elsewhere on Shakespeare's referring to the seacoast of Bohemia. Shakespeare had a very solid sense of what's real and functionally essential and what's conventional and inessential. That's what Edgar shows that he understands, on the same artistic level as Shakespeate. That's also what comes out in this episode of "Buffy."
Marie Rutkoski
3. Marierutkoski
Girl Detective: You know what I used to really love in Buffy? Those episodes where a spell went all screwy and people behaved in ways they wouldn't have "Something Blue," "Band Candy," "Tabula Rasa," or-- greatest of greats-- "Once More with Feeling."

Interesting thoughts, Brian2! As it happens, I'm teaching Winter's Tale THIS week, and Act 5 (with the "statue") today. You're absolutely on to something that that last scene in "Intervention" toys with our understanding of the reality of the show-- we believe (or I did) that the Buffybot is the bot, and then she becomes real. A classic kind of move in the Renaissance theatre, and exactly what happens in Act 5. We think the statue of Hermione is a statue, and suddenly-- miracle-- it's Hermione herself.
Girl Detective
4. Mndrew
This episode went down the rabbit hole as far as I'm concerned, and I refused to follow. In my personal view it violated one of the main premises of the show; that vampires have no souls. The whole attempt to romanticize Spike, before he actually went and accidentally got re-ensouled is wrong, and more than a little gross. This is where I place the shark-jumping, you don't break your own main rules for the sake of fan-wanking.
Michael Ikeda
5. mikeda

Nothing that Spike does in this episode (or at any time before he gets his soul) is inconsistent with him lacking a soul. We've known since Season 2 that he is capable of being devotedly in love. He's simply shifted the target of his affection from Drusilla to Buffy.

(Also he didn't accidentally get reensouled. Getting his soul back was what he intended when he left on that journey to Africa.)
Girl Detective
6. Brian2
I hadn't thought of it until this discussion came up, but the scene with Edgar and Gloucester is absolutely logical in the play as a whole. We've seen very clearly that you can't take people at their word; Edgar can't say "It’s me, your son, and I love and forgive you" and be believed. He has to prove it in a concrete way, and that means letting go of surfaces and letting his mind work freely and authentically.

This is a point of view that a Taoist would see as common sense. Someone with the highest virtue, like Cordelia or Edgar, is spontaneously benevolent, and it doesn't occur to them to think of virtue at all. Their feelings and behavior are all of one piece. When family or state harmony is broken, however, you begin to see people who are self-consciously loyal and righteous, at the same time they are actually self-interested. The more broken the situation, the more artifial people's behavior comes, and the more remote from authentic virtue. There is a disconnection between the internal and the external. As the Tao Te Ching puts it:

A man of the highest virtue does not keep to virtue and that is why he has virtue.
A man of the lowest virtue never strays from virtue and that is why he is without virtue.
The former never acts yet leaves nothing undone.
The latter acts but there are things left undone.
A man of the highest benevolence acts, but from no ulterior motive.
A man of the highest rectitude acts, but from ulterior motive.
A man most conversant in the rites acts, but when no one responds rolls up his sleeves and resorts to persuasion by force.

Hence when the way was lost there was virtue;
When virtue was lost there was benevolence;
When benevolence was lost there was rectitude;
When rectitude was lost there were the rites.

The rites are the wearing thin of loyalty and good faith
And the beginning of disorder;
Foreknowledge is the flowery embellishment of the way
And the beginning of folly.

Hence the man of large mind abides in the thick not in the thin, in the fruit not in the flower.

Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.

And again:

When the great way falls into disuse
There are benevolence and rectitude;
When cleverness emerges
There is great hypocrisy;
When the six relations are at variance
There are filial children;
When the state is benighted
There are loyal ministers.

King Lear expresses the same insights, and on much the same terms. As the play begins the "great way" has been lost. Lear can't recognize higher virtue when he sees it; he actually believes that people are loyal just because they say they are, while Cordelia refuses to play up to Lear precisely because she is loyal. Likewise, Lear fastens on the surfaces of being a king, the rituals and the knights, and that is what needs to be "accomodated." The state is broken, and things can only get worse from there.
Marie Rutkoski
7. Marierutkoski
Hi Mndrew@4,

I respect your opinion, but personally I have to go with Mikeda @5 on this point. I think it's shown over the entire series that although vampires have no souls, they are capable of deep human emotions (even if in a twisted way).

At one point, Dawn tells Buffy, "Angel has a soul. Spike has a chip. Same diff." And of course this is insouciant teenager attitude at work, and Buffy knows better than to agree with Dawn. Spike's as capable of love as he always was-- but it's often a warped love, as he comes to recognize.
Girl Detective
8. Jim Henry III
It seems fairly obvious that Joss Whedon doesn't know enough theology or philosophy to use the word "soul" in any standard sense. It seemed to me that what he meant by "vampires have no souls" is more or less that they have no conscience. They have all the other things that distinguish humans from animals -- reason, imagination, love, -- probably even free will, though that's less certain. But they don't have a built-in sense of right and wrong. I think what happens in seasons 4-6 is that Spike, because of his love for Buffy, builds up a sort of makeshift conscience, with deliberate reasoning substituting for the natural conscience that tells most humans what's right and wrong in most cases without so much reasoning being necessary (though it is necessary in less obvious cases where all the possible options are partly right and partly wrong, to figure out which is best or least wrong). This might be analogized to the way that some autistics develop ways of figuring out people's emotions from their facial expressions, etc., by deliberate reasoning to substitute for their lack of a hard-wired, intuitive sense for such things. Then, after the crisis near the end of season 6, he decides this isn't enough and sets out on his quest to get a real conscience ("soul" in Whedon-speak).

Re: Mndrew's "accidentally" -- I interpreted it that way too, the first time I saw the last couple of episodes of season 6 -- that what he wanted from his quest and what he got were not the same thing. Even on rewatching them after seeing season 7, I thought it was ambiguous, and only disambiguated by things Spike said in season 7.
Ellie Angel
9. Ellie_Angel
I think this episode would have been more effective for me if it hadn't made the Scoobies utter morons. I didn't buy that they wouldn't recognize the difference between shockingly literal robot-Buffy and the real person. I mean, they live in Sunnydale, right? Weird shit happens there.

I do like what they did with Spike in this episode. One of the sad things to me about Season 6 was the way it eroded Spike's emerging decency and loyalty through his degradation of Buffy, culminating in the bathroom scene where he attacks her. She became his robot in a way the real one never did and while I could see thematically why they did it, it always felt like a wrong turn to me.

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