Wednesday, June 13, 2012
TV Makes You Stupid: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - "Hush" (1999)
New feature! In which we take a deeper look at favored episodes from classic television series...
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never a particularly scary show. For all its monsters, demons and many excursions into the macabre, nothing terribly horrific ever really took place. It was always more of an action/adventure series, owing more to superhero sagas like Spider-Man and the X-Men than any true horror series. But Buffy was nothing if not surprising, and every once in a while the show would pull out all the stops and deliver a truly terrifying hour of television - all with its trademark wit and intelligence. “Hush” is one such episode, possibly the most terrifying of the entire series.
Starting out as a rather simple “high school is hell” analogy, Buffy evolved at an astonishing pace into something with far more substance, taking its allegories and symbolism to new levels of quality as it chronicled a young girl’s journey from adolescence to adulthood. By the time season four rolled around, the character of Buffy Summers had graduated high school, lost her virginity and saved the world (multiple times) - all not necessarily in that order. With high school behind her, the show (and main character) was having a bit of an identity crisis, as it tried to figure out what direction it would next take.
At the start of the episode, all the characters are having trouble communicating. Buffy and her new love interest Riley seem to be moving into an actual relationship, but their nervous banter keeps them at arm’s distance. Her best friend Xander is also having relationship troubles, as the former demon Anya (who already has serious communication issues) starts doubting his sincerity to her. The recently estranged witch-in-training Willow becomes disheartened to find the campus Wicca group to be considerably less interesting than she originally thought (“They’re talk, all talk. Blah blah Gaia. Blah blah moon, menstrual lifeforce power thingy…”), and former Watcher Giles is sick and tired of having to listen to it all. Their patter back and forth is endless, aimless. So much so that it prevents them from seeing the newest enemy at their doorstep - The Gentlemen, seven ghoulish figures who’ve arrived in Sunnydale in search of fresh human hearts. The only thing that can stop them is the power of the human voice - which is exactly why they steal the voices of the townspeople, rendering their victims without the power to scream as they take their hearts…
From its inception, the most distinctive element of the show was always the snappy dialogue. Many of Buffy’s most memorable moments revolve around the legendary exchanges the characters threw back and forth to each other, and by the fourth season the show’s writers had the art of banter down to a tee. So much so that creator Joss Whedon (who also wrote and directed this episode) felt it was becoming a crutch. Never one to rest on the laurels of success, Whedon decided that if the show were to truly redefine itself, the first order of business should be the removal of the show’s greatest strength: the dialogue. Here in “Hush,” as little as seventeen minutes out of the forty-four of its run-time features the characters actually speaking - the rest is entirely dialogue-free.
It’s quite a revolutionary concept for TV. Consider for a second the amount of time you’ve spent channel surfing: how many programs do you come across that feature no speaking at all? Television producers load dialogue into their shows *, always worried about losing potential audience members due to boredom. But “Hush” is anything but boring - equal parts tense, thrilling and hilarious, and all without the benefit of the talky-talk.
It all comes down to the character interactions - the roles of Buffy, Willow, Xander and the rest have been so well-cast they don’t need to speak; it comes through entirely from their mannerisms and expressive faces. The standout scene is halfway through the episode, where the gang is all gathered together to learn more about The Gentlemen and how they can be defeated. A rather typical scene for the show, but having the characters deprived of their voice gives it a fresh new spin. Giles presents the lore and facts of The Gentlemen through an illustrated slideshow (Buffy is particularly offended by the wide hips Giles crudely draws on her), and there are several hilarious miscommunications that ensue as a result.
The most successful element of the episode are the villains themselves - The Gentlemen are by far the creepiest creatures Buffy’s ever encountered, with their frozen metallic grins and the way they float inches above the ground. Even creepier are their mannerisms: they’re not called “The Gentlemen” for nothing, as they all bow and nod and generally treat each other with a pristine grace - they would not be out of place in a Victorian British drama, if it wasn’t for the whole heart-stealing thing. The main Gentleman is played by creature legend Doug Jones, and it’s easy to see why the actor would go on to greater levels of fame, watching him here: he doesn’t have a word of dialogue, and his face is frozen in a single constant expression, but Jones conveys a complete character simply in the way he moves. Seriously, Doug Jones can control his hand movements like nobody’s business. But the creepiest part of the characters is their ability to take their victim’s voices. We’ve all had dreams were we try to scream and nothing comes out; “Hush” captures that nightmarish scenario perfectly.
It’s easy just to get lost in the surface elements of the episode, since they’re so immaculately constructed. I could talk for hours about Cristophe Beck’s score, which becomes more prominent than ever before due to it having to fill up so much of the soundtrack. I could also discuss the final showdown between Buffy, Riley and The Gentlemen, which beats out most horror action set-pieces released in theaters in any given year. But the true power of “Hush” lies in its deeper meanings. Much like the rest of the Buffy cannon, “Hush” operates on multiple levels, primarily the need and importance of communication in our everyday lives.
The episode starts rather ordinarily, as Buffy drifts to sleep during one of her professor’s lectures. The subject of the lecture is the difference between language and communication - two different things, according to Professor Walsh. Language often serves as the vessel for communication, but like anything else its true meaning can be lost in all the noise. When the voices of Sunnydale are stolen, society falls apart. Unable to use language as the primary form of communication, everyone immediately panics. But as we learn as the episode goes on, language can only get you so far, and - removed of that crutch - Buffy and her friends find how to truly communicate with each other all over again.
Throughout the episode’s start our main cast repeatedly uses language and fails to get their true meanings across. The heartbroken Willow attends the Wicca group to find a like-minded individual she can identify with, which she fails to do - except for perhaps new character Tara, but she’s so quiet and shy Willow barely even notices her. Tara is so quiet that she in fact doesn’t even learn that the whole town’s missing their voice until much later in the day. We learn that Tara’s had her eye on Willow for a while now, but her shy nature has kept her from properly introducing herself. It’s only when The Gentlemen attack that she finds the courage to seek Willow out, and the two of them work together wordlessly, saving each others’ lives as a result, and establishing a bond that lasts for the remainder of the series.
Much of Buffy’s problem with Riley is her being the Slayer, which she has to keep a secret. Riley too has a secret, what with being an undercover government agent assigned to keep an eye on Sunnydale’s supernatural element. The inability to tell the other about their real lives keeps their interactions cute, but awkward. If they told each other their secret, they would probably wind up developing a rather strong bond due to their similar lifestyles - but extenuating circumstances (i.e., language) keep them from revealing too much to each other. But when running across the other later in the episode, now missing their voices, the two of them wind up kissing. Removed of the barrier of language, Riley and Buffy finally make a connection, communicating their true feelings for one another for the first time. They also wind up inadvertently revealing their secret lives when they come across each other again while fighting The Gentlemen, which causes a problem at the end when everyone gets back their ability to speak. You can almost feel that they wished they hadn’t got their voices back, as Riley and Buffy now have to come clean and explain their secret lives.
There’s also a sexual element ** to Buffy’s trials throughout “Hush.” The Gentlemen seem plucked straight out of a Grimm’s fairytale, which themselves where loaded with all sorts of sexual iconography. The episode begins with Buffy dreaming of her and Riley sharing a kiss, clearly showing us where her desires lie. Her problem communicating to Riley doesn’t just extend to her having to keep her life as a Slayer a secret - all of Buffy’s sexual encounters in the past have ended badly, so the Slayer’s gotten a touch of cold feet when it comes to jumping back into a relationship. She’s scared to get too close to Riley, because she doesn’t want to get hurt again - or, shall we say, get her heart stolen? You could even argue that The Gentlemen arrive in Sunnydale precisely for this reason, being drawn by Buffy’s anxiety.
Whether interpreted as a treatise on the importance of communication or a study in sexual anxiety, “Hush” remains a landmark episode of television, all due to its measured balance of entertainment and insight - at once thrilling, thought-provoking… And just plain fun.
* Not really surprising, considering the precedent for television shows was set years before on the radio. Also, most TV shows were designed to be dialogue-heavy so that house-wives (the number one demographic advertisers targeted early on) would be able to have the TV on in the background while they prepared dinner. Or something.
** There’s a sexual-empowerment element to the whole series, which routinely features a young girl stabbing phallic objects through males' chests… But that’s a whole other essay.