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. That…thing…it 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 marierutkoski.com.


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