Mon
Feb 17 2014 1:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Home Movies hit Sunnydale

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Andrew

“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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Anya, Spike

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!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Andrew, Warren, Jonathan

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Robin

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. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Robin

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Andrew, Warren, Jonathan

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller

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. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Anya, Xander

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Spike, Robin

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.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Storyteller, Andrew

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”!)

Or if you like, check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
24 comments
Chris Nelly
1. Aeryl
referring to them as VampEERs

No, he's saying, VampYRES, just like the front of Buffy's book that was in the opening credits for AGES.
Constance Sublette
2. Zorra
Though it was the vamYRE, not vampEER -- Andrew -- Bah.

Though the fantasy sequences, as you say, are appealing.

Love, C.
Jenny Thrash
4. Sihaya
" when the start of "Storyteller unfolds more like an episode of Masterpiece." Or of Mystery, back in the Vincent Price days when he would sometimes sit by the fire in Gorey Mansion. The red robe and book point more to Peter Cook, though.

"We'd all watch this version of the show for a fair while, wouldn't we?" You mean the famous (in my head) telenovela Buffita: Las Estacas en mi Corazon? Sure!
Dianthus
5. Dianthus
Crazy ol' me, I used to think GiD was pretty straightforward. Buffy tells Spike she needs him to be the Spike who tried to kill her when they first met (i.e., The Slayer of Slayers). So he goes to get his coat, takes out a demon, and Yay! He's got his mojo back.
Funny, but I don't remember anything suggesting that Spike would hit some purely hypothetical tipping point and spontaneously go evil. WTF?!?

Anyway...
Two things about this ep. The bit with Spike playing along is cute, and oh, that romance novel cover worthy Spuffy scene. That actually reminded me of a scene btwn Buffy and Angel in The Zeppo (IIRC). They're having an angsty, soap opera moment, impassioned music playing in the background, when Xander interrupts. The music stops, only to rise up again as soon as Xander leaves.

Speaking of Xander, his jilting of Anya could be considered 'selfish but well-meaning,' which describes most of what we saw in s6. The Scoobies wanted their friend back. Who wouldn't? Also, Willow really wanted to do that spell. Giles leaving Buffy. Buffy using Spike until she's strong enough to stand on her own, then dumping him (AYW). We'll see it again in LMPTM, when William turns his mum. He wants her to be strong, so she can enjoy the things she used to love. Who wouldn't?
Am I the only one bothered by Xanya having sex in Spike's bed? Seems kinda crappy to me, having sex in the bed of a guy with a super sensitive nose who's not getting any himself.

BTW, it's Masterpiece Theater, I think.
Dianthus
6. Alex C.
Funnily enough, "Storyteller" is one of the episodes of BtVS for which I have a distinct memory of my first watch. I had rather mixed feelings about it most of the way through - on the one hand, it's a delightfully witty episode (as one expects from Jane Espenson) with many interesting things to pick over, but on the other hand... Andrew (enough said).

Then it got to the closing scene, where he stops himself in the middle of filming his confession, and just turns off the camera. And I was sold. It's a moment of very eloquent television, and probably ranks among my favorite dozen or so from the show.

I'm going to commit a minor heresy by the fandom, and assert that "Storyteller" is actually a much better episode than the similar but more widely acclaimed "The Zeppo". If the two are compared, then the latter probably comes out on top as a funnier comedy, but the former is much richer in character terms, and in how it fits into the wider arc of the season. Despite its load of humor, "The Zeppo" was actually fairly barren in terms of meaningful character development, and was more or less purely a standalone. "Storyteller" arguably suffers from being an episode devoted to the viewpoint (literally) of a very minor character, and a thoroughly despised one at that (both in-universe and by much of the fandom). Still, I would cite it as evidence for another bold contention that I would make: that one of the virtues of BtVS as a show is that from season to season it was cleverer at handling its minor characters than almost any other tv series that I can think of, and is one of the best for this quality among fictional series period.

I also love how well, and economically, the episode was able to nudge the arcs of the main characters forward even as it dealt primarily with Andrew. Buffy's continued slide into a state of anti-herodom, the steady heating up of her relationship with Spike, Xander/Anya's reconciliation, and of course the steady boil of the impending Spike/Wood confrontation were all encapsulated very well.

If there is one negative note that ought to be sounded, it concerns the Seal of Danzalthar, and how nakedly it functions as a plot device that does (or doesn't do) whatever the writers need it to in any given episode. It's one of several things about the latter part of S7 that stick out like a sore thumb on re-watch, and show just how lazy the plotting was in the second half of the final season.

Still, I wouldn't hestiate to class this as one of the great episodes of the show - one of the Top 30, in my book.
Dianthus
7. Alex C.
Am I the only one bothered by Xanya having sex in Spike's bed? Seems kinda crappy to me, having sex in the bed of a guy with a super sensitive nose who's not getting any himself.
Well that's the thing, isn't it. This episode goes out of its way in a couple of places to strongly suggest that even if Buffy and Spike aren't sleeping with each other right now, the rest of group is convinced that they are. Note Possessed!Wood's use of the present tense when he's going off at Buffy, for example.

And there's no shortage of reasons for them to think that way. Take that scene in the kitchen. Even discounting the distorting gloss of Andrew's POV, think about what we're seeing: Spike's lighting up a cigarette, in the house, and Buffy's not objecting at all. Suggestive much?
Alyx Dellamonica
8. AMDellamonica
Hmm. I'm trying to figure out if it matters that the group thinks the Spuffing has resumed, and if so how.
Dianthus
9. Alex C.
@8. Oh I'd say that it definitely matters, strongly.

Buffy's relationship with Spike essentially precipitates the trust gap that opens up between her and the rest of the group. It causes Giles and Wood to doubt her judgement, the Potentials to doubt her commitment to protecting them (once they learn Spike might still be dangerous), Anya to resent her for giving him a Get Out of Jail Free card that is extended to no one else, and perhaps most importantly, it feeds Dawn's anxieties about "She's not gonna choose you". This all forms a vital pretext for the ending of "Empty Places", when they kick her out.

It's important here that the group completely misunderstands the nature of the relationship Buffy and Spike have developed by this point. They think that she's just addled by lust, when in fact she relies on him for emotional, even spiritual support, and earnestly believes in his capacity to redeem himself by playing a crucial role in the fight against the First. Their failure to appreciate that is emblematic of the group's larger failure to appreciate the nature of what's confronting them, which eventually leads them to the edge of catastrophe (before Buffy comes back to pull their chestnuts out of the fire).
Chris Nelly
10. Aeryl
@5, You still haven't explained why it is you think Spike is a special snowflake who did no wrong in that episode, when everyone else did.

At the end of the day, it's not Spike's demon that saves the world.
Dianthus
11. Alex C.
@10. The key question is whether his decision to reembrace aspects of his old violent persona in "Get It Done" potentially endangers his soul, since that is what ultimately proves the key to his sacrifice in "Chosen".

I actually lean toward saying that it doesn't. The key to Spike's self-actualization doesn't lie in him making a full reversion to his old William persona, it lies in him internalizing and accepting the truth of his past experiences, much as Andrew does in this episode (there's actually some crucial thematic relevance to "Storyteller"). We'll get to dig into that in much more detail in discussing the next episode.

I think that the key thing about "Get It Done" is that it's not so much a case of "doing wrong", but rather of doing the right the wrong way. Buffy wasn't wrong to assert that they needed something more to make progress in the fight, Willow wasn't wrong to start doing heavy-duty magic again, and Spike wasn't wrong to be a badass again. They all just need to re-jigger their approaches.
Chris Nelly
12. Aeryl
rather of doing the right the wrong way

That's pretty much the point I'm making, is that it's imperiling him, but he still has time to come back from it. But to me, it is key that TFE hasn't possessed him since Buffy rescued him, whereas now that he's let loose a bit of his demon side, he's vulnerable again. Once he confronts his own past, coming up in LMPTM, he won't be so exposed.

Willow, OTOH, has confronted her past but still hasn't considered that the way she's been doing things isn't the only way to do it.

Their struggles are different, but their actions in GiD are indicators that they aren't on the right path yet, and that's putting them and the Scoobies at risk.
Constance Sublette
13. Zorra
I must be the only watcher then who never got the idea that Buffy and Spike were continuing their sexual relationship. From first watch it seemed to me their relationship was in the process of transforming into one that was mutually sustaining and positive, rather than the dark erotic passion of season 6. Further, this transformation of their relationship was key to the final solution of Sunnydale's Hell Mouth.

As well this kind of transformation is easily understood by so many of us, who once had a passionate sexual relationship with someone and no longer have that relationship, yet we are now deeply affectionate friends, the affection which is infused with an understanding of each other that is partly due to that previous sexual relationship. This is true even if both people are no longer attracted sexually in any way to each other. I'm not about to say this is true about Spike -- even the First Evil makes it clear how much Spike still wants Buffy in that way, though he understands Buffy doesn't want him in that way.

Which is why I am so moved by Spike's unwavering faith that Buffy will save him. And she does. This transformation has moved the Buffy and Spike connection from what is mundane into the realm of legend, myth and heroism.

Love, C.
Dianthus
14. Alex C.
@13. Wow. Brilliant comment.

If there was any question for the viewers about whether Buffy and Spike's relationship for most of the season really was platontic, I think that it was more or less settled in "Touched". It's shaken up a bit by "Chosen", though, which we'll get to later.
Dianthus
15. Dianthus
@10. Spike didn't do anything wrong in GiD! He killed a demon. So what? There's a metaphorical aspect to demon killing you seem to be overlooking here (i.e., Inner Demons). Hell, Buffy kills demons all the time.
Killing demons is what led to Spike fighting for the Good Guys in the first place, before he even realized his feelings for Buffy. Remember how happy he was in Doomed, when he learned he could fight them?
Still, it came at a price. It put him on the other side as them, so he became more and more reliant on the Scoobies for company, which led to him being socialized, which led to him changing, etc.

Look, I'll allow that fear of losing control played a part in both his and Willow's reluctence to use their power. That's pretty obvious, especially in Willow's case. However, there's also the guilt and shame associated with their darker impulses. They both needed to overcome those negative associations to be empowered.
Spike kills a demon. It's the right thing to do and he does it for the right reason.

Andrew's scene in which he imagines himself the leader of The Trio reminds me of Spike telling Buffy he had to get himself a gang in FFL. There's a parallel between them in that regard. Both were motivated by love (ironically) to go along with some really bad behavior. Plus, they're both, in a sense, the 'baby' of the group. At least Dru loves Spike in return (to the best of her limited ability). Ultimately, Warren only cared about himself.
Chris Nelly
16. Aeryl
@15, He killed a demon wearing the trophy of a dead woman. I get you see the symbology of the basement, but to me, the symbology of the coat, which has been integral to Spike's persona for 5 years at this point, gets more weight.

Good point about Andrew, in many ways he's like William, and like just turned Spike. It helps explain Buffy's affinity for him, why she doesn't kill him here, why she can forgive him for all the fucked up shit he does(that and a shared crush on Daniel Craig). Despite Buffy's repeated declarations that humans ALWAYS know right from wrong, there are humans with illnesses that actually keep them from knowing that, and Andrew is one of those people, IMO. He knows because people tell him so, but he doesn't feel it, so he can be led astray by those he believes care about him. Buffy has recognized this to some extent, and knows he woul do the right thing, and do a lot of other good, if he was surrounded by good people.

In many ways she's doing what Angel did in the earlier seasons of his show.
Jason Parker
17. tarbis
Much as I don't like Andrew I feel like the series lost its last chance to have a format breaking episode by not going entirely found footage and imagination. Keeping Andrew behind the camera until Buffy pulls him out from the behind it would have been a nice bit and let the writing team vent a little since Andrew is the fandom surrogate the same way Xander is the intended audience surrogate.

Also I think Alex's comments up thread about the seal for me crystallize one of the reasons season seven gets graded so harshly. We've seen this show do better. Season five was building toward a finale, but the plot devices were consistent in what they did, the plot coupons for the big showdown were sprinkled throughout the season instead of being tossed in at the end, and there were fewer ignored subplots. Seven had the seal that did whatever it needed to do that week (release monsters, radiate bad vibes, radiate even more bad vibes after being closed, etc.), the sleeper agent Spike subplot (that is ignored for six episodes before the writers realized it needed to be resolved), and cramming a mystical weapon, mysterious elf woman, and amulet sponsored by the other evil into the last three episodes. That's the problem with doing something well once, the viewers expect you to keep turning in work at a similar level.
Dianthus
18. Alex C.
@17. Yeah, pretty much. In addition to the ones that you mention, I'd also add the return of the Trio to Sunnydale - no good reason is ever provided for why the First wanted to use them of all people to work its will, and thus went to the trouble of summoning them from Mexico.

In terms of plotting, BtVS achieved its pinnacle with the second and third seasons. The fifth season wasn't quite up to that level, but made up for it with superior theming and character work. The fourth season had the makings of excellence, but got shot in the foot by having to re-jigger the story mid-way through production. The sixth season was two very strong thirds sandwiching a weak middle.
Jason Parker
19. tarbis
@18 I enjoy season two a lot, but I can't praise its season long plotting. The big rock full of demon, sword, Whistler, and Angel's special destiny number one were all introduced in the second to last episode with no set up. The only plot device that paid off in the end, and had previously been revealed, was the ensouling spell. Two was however a lot better at dealing with subplots or jamming them into standalone episodes.

I'll allow that seven had a some handicaps when it came to plotting the season out. Whedon put a lot of energy into getting Firefly going at the start of the season. Which also meant writers who had been working on two series were now turning in scripts for three. Then there was the fighting with WB to get a fifth season for Angel. But even the handicap doesn't make up for the overall problems that the main showrunner should have been keeping an eye on.
Dianthus
20. Dianthus
@16. To Spike's way of thinking, his Slayer kills were different than the rest. That was Honorable Combat against a Worthy Opponent capable of fighting back. Remember, both Slayers had the advantage over him before circumstances changed in his favor.
The coat is part of his Warrior mindset, and he needed it to be an effective warrior. Wasn't it you who pointed me towards 'Fragments of My Imagination' in the first place? He gets it. Yes, seeing Spike in his mother's coat is painful for wood, but there are bigger problems needing to be addressed.
BTW, I don't think Buffy did anything wrong either.
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
Well, I don't agree with everything Sophist says. I myself was never happier than when that coat was destroyed in The Girl In Question.

But to me, this episode is an exemplar of people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
Dianthus
22. Sophist
"Well, I don't agree with everything Sophist says."

That puts you in good company with everyone I've ever met.
Alyx Dellamonica
23. AMDellamonica
@9 Well argued, Alex--I see your point. (I'm on the verge of rewatching "Empty Places," as it happens.)

@17 Tarbis, what you say about the seal, the trigger subplot and the rest--I'm so in agreement with this. Too many plot devices, not enough sense!
Constance Sublette
24. Zorra
@18 --
... no good reason is ever provided for why the First wanted to use them of all people to work its will, and thus went to the trouble of summoning them from Mexico.
Well, obvs -- they work CHEAP!

Sorry.

Love, c.

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