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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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?)
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.