Mon
Aug 6 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: I can heeeearrrr you!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

It’s actually rather amazing, in the grand scheme of things, that Buffy gets infectious demon yecch on her person, in her hair, and all over her clothes so very rarely. If her life were a life, and not a fictional existence, she would have serious laundry problems. And imagine a slayer who’s allergic to vampire dust!

All of which is my way of saying that in “Earshot,” our Slayer gets glowy blood on her hand while taking on two mouthless demons. It seeps in and she moves on, unawares.

Next day, though, the fact that the hand is itching is background noise to a scene where we learn that Giles and Wesley have come up with goose-egg on the Ascension. Buffy is unimpressed with their non-progress, not so much because the Mayor’s the baddie and dangerous and all, as because it means Angel has alienated her for nothing. This time.

Furthermore, the Hellmouth has spewed up a peculiar vibe whereby everyone in town, even our lovable nerds, are suddenly into basketball. Willow is still teaching Percy some history stuff, so supportiveness is her excuse, but the rest of the gang—all except for Buffy, who’s on duty—are going to a big game and strangely glad about it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

Eventually, Buffy’s itchy hand distracts her from her mounting feelings of jealousy and social leperdom, and she turns to Giles. He finds out that Buffy is going to be infected with an “aspect of the demon” whom she wasted. Horns? Mouthlessness? Icky skin? A tendency to show up early in an episode and then get killed off quickly? Once again, Giles doesn’t know.

Buffy freaks, which gives Willow a chance to try to cheer her up. Later, Angel attempts to do the same. Neither of them makes her feel any better. But next day, the Scoobies are all still pretending to be sports fans when Buffy reads Xander’s mind, perceiving his otherwise impossible-to-see unhappiness about the whole Wesdelia thing. She reads some other peeps’ minds, too, and soon enough she’s at Casa Angel, trying to figure out if her star-crossed honey actually enjoyed macking on Faith.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

Unfortunately, Angel rumbles her scheme immediately. He tells Buffy he can’t be read, due to some obscure fine-print clause involving the thing about how vampires don’t cast reflections. I will come out right here and say I feel this is a cheat. Angel’s thoughts may be tiny, but I’m not sure that gives them the right to be invisible. 

By this point, it’s becoming obvious that with great power comes even more social pariah-hood. Buffy entirely screws up a Scooby meeting by reading the gang. Xander can’t think about anything but sex and Insecure Willow is Ever More Insecure as the scene unfolds. (Cordy’s just fine, Oz is enigmatic and deep—shocker!—and Giles apparently has self-control.) It’s all upsetting enough to send Buffy fleeing to the cafeteria, where she gets a heaping dose of all the brain activity in the high school, including a “For my birthday, I’m going to kill you all tomorrow, yayyyyy!” vibe.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

Buffy faints, the gang revives her and Giles drives her home. He makes reassuring noises, but she perceives, all too easily, the fear beneath. Since the Slayer can’t go close to the school to look for the wannabe killer, the gang has to profile everyone who was in the cafeteria when Buffy keeled.

“Earshot” has a delicate balance of the comedic and the deeply grim, and the Scooby profiling scenes are pretty terrific. We get Willow’s first on-screen interrogation of Jonathan since “Go Fish.” (I like to think she does this every week and we just don’t see it.) There’s a nice little callback to Xander’s homosexual panic in “Phases,” when he goes go check out Larry, and discovers he’s so very out. And there are new kids in the mix, to widen the suspect pool: the basketball star, the persnickety smart girl, and Freddy the cynical student journalist. The latter is dressed like an outcast and hiding from Oz, so as to seem extra suspicious.

Also fun: we get to see Buffy finding out that Teen Joyce had Sex! With Ripper! On a police car! Twice!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

The pace gets frenetic. Angel feeds Buffy a horrible looking heart cocktail, hiding Freddy turns out to be worried about Oz’s great and terrible musician revenge, and then they find Jonathan’s note. We see Jonathan assembling a sniper rifle out of more pieces than you find in your average car. And that’s where they’re at: still confronting Freddy while Jonathan puts together the gun (I’m not knocking him for slowness—it’d take me six weeks even if I had those handy cartoon Ikea instructions!) when Buffy shows up, all cured. They find the “I had to do it, death is the only answer” note from Jonathan and make a tiny leap to a logical-enough conclusion.

So Buffy finds Jonathan. The scene between them is raw and honest and builds to a pretty rare (and thoroughly awesome) Captain Kirk style speech from Buffy. Everyone’s in pain, she tells him, everyone’s wrapped up in their own drama. But, oops, Jonathan’s not actually the one who’s out to commit homicide.

I’m glad, aren’t you?

Downside: he was going to sniper-shoot himself.

Fortunately for the school, Xander has actually become a Scooby character. And by this I mean he’s Shaggy and Scooby, the cartoon guys. How else do you explain the fact that he goofily follows a trail of Jello, guys, and stumbles over the killer? Say it with me: Lunch Lady would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

Finally, we wind down. Buffy and Willow get a bit of a wrap up, Giles wanders on-scene, and then we get the episode’s delightful punch line: “... if you’re not too busy having sex with my MOTHER!” Thunk.

It’s impossible to look back at “Earshot” without remembering the coincidence of timing that had its original air date fall a week after the Columbine massacre. In Canada, YTV declined to air the episode until just before S4 began. (That’s how it played out in the States, too, am I right?) Even though Jonathan’s intentions were self-destructive, the image of him apparently setting up sniper shop at a school was judged to be, as I recall, both potentially upsetting and in poor taste. I don’t think it was a bad decision, necessarily (especially as I’m writing this the day after another mass shooting in Colorado has hit the news) to delay the episode, but it did dull the impact of the story. As a viewer, having this occur as an out-of-sequence blip, when I had already seen how the whole season ended—we did get Graduation 1&2 in Canada—was just a little odd.

(It was also a bit of a voyage to the land of the past. We used to have to do that all the time! Remember the olden days, when Starsky’s car grew back every single week after being exploded and you could suddenly die of bubonic plague and people didn’t laugh when the radio played a song like Love Story and the lack of VCRs meant you couldn’t realistically expect to watch every episode of a TV season in order?)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Earshot

Taken in context, what’s most important about “Earshot” as a piece of the overall Buffy plot, of course, is what happens with Danny Strong’s character. Up until now, Jonathan’s been falling on and off stage as a sort of foil to the disposable demon of the week... he’s a combination of the student to be saved before the third commercial, Willow’s whipping boy, and, sometimes, a kid who’s demonstrably more losery and unpopular than the Scoobies. This is the episode that makes more of him, that leads to his appearance in “The Prom,” to the heroically fantastic episode “Superstar,” and to Jonathan’s growth into one third of Buffy’s S6 nemesis. It’s a major step off comedy road, in other words, and onto the tragic path that will lead to this character’s eventual demise.


A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes up here on Tor.com. First up: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd.” In October, watch for a novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

24 comments
Gardner Dozois
1. Gardner Dozois
Frankly, after Columbine, I'm surprised that they ever aired this episode at all. Yes, it was delayed in the States.

Not a particularly great episode, and another real wheel-spinner in terms of the overall season arc, although it does contain some fine comic moments, including the "You had sex with my mother? Twice? On top of a police car?" line and the spittake Giles does walking into a tree at the end when Buffy suddenly snaps "If you're not too busy having sex with my MOTHER!" Willow's interrogation of Jonathan is also funny.

The basic idea, of a telepath driven mad by hearing the thoughts of others that they can't shut out, is a fairly old one. Poul Anderson wrote a story with that premise decades before BUFFY was a gleam in Josh Whedon's eye, and I've subsequently seen it used on other shows.

The silliest thing about this episode is that Jonathan was going to commit suicide by shooting himself with a sniper rifle, something that I'm not even sure would be possible without some elaborate Rube Goldberg arrangement involving sticks and strings.

Jonathan's arc on the show always makes me sad, and I continue to think that the character was ultimately wasted. Jonathan so pathetically wanted to be one of the Evil-fighting Good Guys, as was made clear by his fantasy in "Superstar," and would gladly have been one of the Scoobies if they'd let him be one. Jonathan had real potential for redemption, especially as he was the only one of the Three Nerds to express remorse at their actions and feel moral qualms about what they were doing. He should have been the one who survived and reformed and became a member of the Watcher's Council (in ANGEL) instead of Whatshisname, from whom I never got a flicker of remorse, and who remained creepy right into that ANGEL episode.

At the end of last week's thread, I asked who Buffy would pick for One Night of Consequence-Free Passion (Angel doesn't turn into Angelus) among her old lovers, Angel, Spike, or Riley. My guess was Angel. What's yours?
Gardner Dozois
3. wiredog
@Gardner.
It is possible to shoot yourself with a shotgun, by firing it with your toe. I assume you could do the same with a rifle.

I don't know if I ever saw this episode. I remember it being held back.
Gardner Dozois
4. Lsana
@1,

The ridiculousness of Jonathan trying to kill himself with a sniper rifle always got to me to, but of course the story wouldn't have worked if we'd seen him up there playing with a pistol, or just preparing to jump. I've justified it to myself by saying that Jonathan probably knew exactly nothing about guns, and therefore convinced himself this would work.

I agree with you about it being totally unfair that Jonathan died while Andrew lived and went on to become part of the gang. However, in a fair Buffyverse, Joyce wouldn't have died of an aneurysm, that bullet would have gone just slightly to the left and missed Tara,Fred's soul wouldn't have been eaten, and Wesley wouldn't have died a meaningless death. When has Whedon ever played fair?
Ilan Lerman
5. Ilan
In the UK we didn't have the delay you guys had as the series was generally shown well after the whole thing aired on US TV. This was always one of my favourite episodes of the season, purely for the comedic gold mined out of the 'hearing people's thoughts' premise. I love the scene in the library where they all know she can hear their thoughts and are trying desperately to supress them. And despite its goofiness, I love the lunch lady ending - it's simultaneously Buffy taking the piss out of itself and being rather clever.
Although, the set up with Jonathan's suicide attempt does seem hokey and scripted specifically to lead to the twist. A sniper rifle to kill himself? In the tower?
Gardner Dozois
6. Gardner Dozois
Unfair I could live with, but Andrew's reform is Not Believeable. They set up Jonathan's potential reform with many small bits througout several seasons, which would have made it believeable, but none of that groundwork existed with Andrew at all. They threw away all the groundwork and foreshadowing they did with Jonathan over the years, and, as a result, I didn't buy it when they swapped Andrew in instead. Especially as he seemed just as much of a creepy little shit later as he did beforehand.

As for Wesley, he died taking out one of the Senior Partners, which he probably wouldn't have thought of as a meaningless death.
Gardner Dozois
7. wiredog
I think that the Watcher's Council is either incompetent, or corrupt, so Andrew ending up there is not that much of a surprise to me. Thought that since they forced Giles to betray Buffy.
Alyx Dellamonica
8. AMDellamonica
Yes to everyone who says Andrew is Creepy. Jonathan deserved better. But yes too to Creepy Andrew being the likeliest pick for the Watcher's Council, based on their track record.

I'm with those who voted Angel, Gardner. She never really gets over him.
Gardner Dozois
9. Lsana
@6,

Can't disagree with you about Andrew. His murder of Jonathan was every bit as awful as Warren's murder of Tara. Arguably worse: Warren was trying to kill a declared enemy, while Andrew stabbed a friend in the back. In a world with any justice at all, he'd be rotting in a jail cell. But the Buffyverse is not a world that has ever seemed big on justice.

Didn't Wes die fighting a demon he had no chance against, and got killed without doing any real damage to it? I guess you could argue he inspired Ilyria, but it still seems pretty meaningless.
Keith DeCandido
10. krad
My favorite gag in the whole episode is that Cordelia's thoughts and words always perfectly matched. That summed up Cordy in a big ol' nutshell.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Mouette
11. Mouette
I enjoyed this episode, but then, I'm a diehard Buffy/Angel shipper (@Gardner, of *course* it's Angel). To me, Angel shows his age and maturity and caretaking in the scene when Buffy tries to read his mind. An immature love interest might well have freaked out at that, because it is an invasion for her to go to him, knowing she can read minds, and try to lead his thoughts to Faith - she's trying to get inside his head without him knowing.

Instead of being displeased at her subterfuge, Angel deals with the situation quietly and calmly by telling her that she can't get into his head, and that if she was worried about him and Faith, she should have just *asked*. Point to the vampire; at least in this scene, he encourages her to be communicative and have adult conversation and mature relationships. Buffy had a very insecure and understandble, typical teenage reaction, and Angel handles it with calm, steady caring.

Oz's internal monologue is perfect and awesome. So is, as others have said, the point about Cordy always saying and doing exactly as she thinks. Jonathen's sniper rifle... maybe it doesn't make much sense, no, but Jonathen is a kid who seems to fail at just about everything he does - I don't necessarily put it past him to be this incredibly incompetent about guns, too.

And Giles running into the tree is pure gold :D
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
I enjoyed this episode for a few reasons. Buffy reading minds was pretty funny. Giles face when Buffy teased him was great. And I thought it was really perfect that Cordy was exactly as she appeared.

On the Jonathan front...I have to say when he was on I always thought he was good. In this episode he fit the bill to a tee, nerdy guy with depression issues, and not really one of the crowd.

My understanding is that Joss thought he Andrew was funny and thats why he was kept and Jonathan killed off. Frankly, I agree that Andrew was just really annoying and he was almost enough to drive me away from the show in season 7.
Gardner Dozois
13. S.M. Stirling
I've always thought it was a bit of a cheat to have him assembling the rifle. A pistol would have done just as well -- you can go on a rampage with one, after all. At close range in a crowd, it's actually more dangerous.

It's relatively hard to -get- a rifle, too, compared to handguns, of which there are literally -scores of millions- floating around.

I agree with Gardner on Jonathan and Andrew. People rarely do a real heel-face turn.

If someone has always acted like an unreptentant schmuck, there's virtually no chance they'll ever be anything -but- an unrepentant schmuck.

And Andrew had an enormous fund of bottled hate, anger and desire for generalized revenge on the world. That doesn't change, either.
Gardner Dozois
14. Doctor Thanatos
Not particularly bothered by Jonathan and the rifle; his shtick was always incompentance and not thinking things through first.

Loved the humor, and the ending with Zeppo accidentally finding the real killer who really should have muttered something with subtitles about meddling kids.

BTW if I were to pick Buffy's one freebie I would say that given her father issues and her tendency to fall for the bad boys, it could only be:


The Master!
(yeah, I know, eeewwwwww but it fits...)
Gardner Dozois
15. Gardner Dozois
Eeewwwwwwww.

One of the core premises in TRUE BLOOD, the one that sets up many of the others, in a way, is that the telepathic heroine can't telepathically read vampires (which she finds so restful after the constant mental din she puts up with from everybody else that she starts boinking one), and it occurs to me now to wonder if they didn't get that bit from Buffy being unable to telepathically read Angel in this episode.
Alyx Dellamonica
16. AMDellamonica
Mmm, interesting. Would BtVS have preceded the first Sookie Stackhouse novel? I bet you are so so right, Gardner.

The rifle bothered me also. And where did he learn to assemble it?
Emma Rosloff
17. emmarosloff
This episode is memorable to me for just how HARD I laughed when Buffy learns that her mother slept with Giles -- on a police car -- twice... and then the follow up with Giles. Just. Priceless. Seriously, that was one of the biggest laughs I had in the entire series.

Agreed that Jonathan deserved to be a Scoobie redeemed, but I'm with Lsana: Joss loves to twist the knife! And how tragic that the one person who perhaps wanted it the least (Andrew) ended up in the Scoobie gang by coincidence. Honestly that didn't feel out of place to me, as unfair as it was. If I learned anything in the Buffy/Angel verse, it's that when it comes to relationships Joss almost religiously tried to make certain they never ended up the way you'd expect them to. He sets expectations and then twists and toys with them until you're either riveted or entirely bent out of shape. It's a fine line to walk, but a bold one. I admired him for it, even though it infuriated me sometimes.

I actually thought Andrew's arch was kind of interesting... you all make good points that there was no groundwork there (and there most certainly was with Jonathan), but I've always been a fan of characters who just sort of develop organically when exposed to circumstance. I feel like this happened with Andrew... I thought it was telling of just how bad things were getting that after awhile they couldn't expend any energy keeping him tied up. And then without any of them intending it he sort of became one of them due to sheer proximity.

What I liked about Andrew were all of his blatant comic book references -- that he could see Buffy's life playing out so clearly like a comic and how he idolized everyone around him, because, c'mon -- total nerd's fantasy, to be in the company of superheroes. I thought that was great -- a bit of that self-awareness that I love so much about Joss. In particular the episode where he documents life at the Summers house during the final stages of their assault against the First, and we see just how larger than life everyone is to him.

Yes, he was annoying at first... and now that I take the time to think about it, Jonathan in his place would've been a much better storytelling choice, but I can still appreciate Andrew's small amount of growth and personally I found him to be something of a 'comic' relief (wow, no pun intended) as events got steadily more heavy. He does have a good moment with Buffy where she holds him over the symbol in Sunnydale High's basement and forces him to own up to the fact that he did kill someone; that nothing will change that or ever make it better. Sure, he admits it whimpering, but he admits it, whereas he'd been denying or justifying it before.

On the subject of this episode, it was one of those where you'd end up wondering why Buffy didn't end up in more predicaments just like this one. They sprung us with this notion that you could catch a demon aspect from killing a demon, but never really revisted it (to my knowledge, correct me if I'm wrong). That felt inconsistent, but I can forgive Joss knowing that a new episode had to come out each week, and that overall he did a pretty good job with establishing internal consistency.
Gardner Dozois
18. Gardner Dozois
"Earshot" aired in 1999. The first Sookie Stackhouse novel appeared in 2001.

The constant mental babble that freaks Sookie out in the first episode of TRUE BLOOD is played very much like the mental babble that Buffy hears in the cafeteria, too.
Jason Parker
19. tarbis
The rifle never bothered me. Lots of people that don't own handguns own longarms. So aside from the carrying case it made sense to me. (That and the fact that assembling it took time which allowed for tension and cross cutting.)

The basketball thing seemed normal. In season two everybody was hyped for the swim team because they were winning and usually the only thing Sunnydale High wins is the crosstown death count. This episode the basketball team was doing well (set up in a previous episode) and students were happy about it. This time there were no gill-man steroids involved so good for them.

In hindsight the only thing that bothers me about this episode is the audience is never given any clue as to what made the mouthless demons bad. Granted that wouldn't usually be an issue, but the episode before had two friendly (or at least non-hostile) demons. It would have been nice to have a throwaway line about the mouthless ones chasing someone or something.

I never liked Andrew, but Jonathan's arc ended when he came back to Sunnydale and it ended well. It was him being heroic in a small way (uncovering what is happening to show others, including people that might want him dead) and demonstrating a level of caring that was uncommon even among the Scoobies by that point (the speech about how High School doesn't bug him anymore and wishing his former tormentors well). It showed a lot of character growth for a recurring joke character. Character growth that would have had to be removed to keep him as a viable Scoobie.

Overall "Earshot" was a solid standalone with good comedy that reinforced the "High School is Hell" mission statement in a way that could hook new viewers.
Andrew Love
20. Andy Love
I remember being very miffed that the network delayed this episode which treated teen suicide in a serious and moving way, while showing the Prom episode, which included a fairly flippant reference to mass murder at a school event.
Gardner Dozois
21. executrix
For guiltless night of passion, Riley is a complete non-starter--to quote Wesley on AtS, she wasn't thinking about him when he was THERE. It would have been a kick in the teeth if Buffy made the suggestion only to be told that Angel had moved on to Cordelia.

...who, by the way, would also have been spectacularly unrewarding for River to read in Objects in Space.
Alyx Dellamonica
22. AMDellamonica
Tarbis, as far as we know the mouthless demons were just out chasing apparently helpless blond girls, but I do talk about this more when I get to Graduation.

Andy - good point!
Gardner Dozois
23. General Vagueness
He didn't say it was because of or involved with how vampires don't have reflections, he just said it was similar, and something about how the thoughts are there but they don't reflect into her mind or something. Yeah, it does seem like a cheat, and maybe it is, but it leads to a good (and significant?) conversation, it keeps with the theme and structure of their relationship in a way, and it means they don't use a crutch to have us trust Angel-- if you didn't trust him by then, you probably weren't going to, but still, telepathy is kind an easy way out (alternatively it means some of that doubt can never completely go away, which might be interesting, but it doesn't go anywhere).
Alyx Dellamonica
24. AMDellamonica
You're right, Vagueness, of course. Somehow his explanation was structured in a way that felt, to me, like the universe serving the convenient emotional beat rather than the other way around, but it is a good beat.

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