Alright, I get it. Go Fish isn’t one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s better episodes. Arguably, it’s one of the worst. Certainly it’s on the low end of the curve in Season Two, which boasts some of the series’ high water marks. But as I’m watching through Season Two yet again another time already, it strikes me that it’s a lot better than its reputation, and is generally misunderstood. Yes, it’s campy. Yes, there are some embarassing plotholes. Yes, the main message is heavy-handed (boy howdy is it ever). And yet, there’s a delicious, subtle subversive streak that runs through this one – one that, in the finest tradition of this show, alternates deftly between brazen and sly.
Let’s start with the premise, which is so ridiculous you forgot to notice. We open at a beach party for the swim team, which is apparently on its way to the state championship. So, Sunnydale has a beach, you ask yourself … forgetting to ask yourself "wait, the swim team?" And just like that, it’s pulled the wool over your eyes. Typically, it’s the football team, or maybe the basketball team – or even, at a stretch, baseball or soccer – that spawns the celebrity-popular meatheads. What high school throws a well-attended beach party for its swim team? And in what parallel dimension does the cheerleading squad actually turn out for meets? Yet we hear it straight from the horse’s mouth: Cordelia is pleased that her cheerleaders finally have something to celebrate! And that’s the fun of this. In every other way, this beach party is by the book. There’s the music and the dancing, the underage drinking, the fact that everyone is there treating the swim team (THE SWIM TEAM!!!) like celebrities. There’s picking on the nerd (Jonathan getting dunked in the cooler) and the one jock in the bunch who pretends not to be in to it to impress a girl. The only thing that’s out of place here is that it’s Buffy, a girl, who sticks up for Jonathan, but of course that’s just the show’s original conceit. No, what makes this cool is that it’s the swim team, fer cryin’ out loud. The only reason that didn’t clue you in that the writers are winking at you is because it’s played so straight.
Buffy manages to attract the deep thinker of the bunch – Cameron – by not hanging out with the rest of the crowd – just sitting on her own staring at the ocean. So far, we’re right on script. Cameron is one of the swimteam meatheads, but is the apparently "good" one (and we all remember from Reptile Boy (S2x05) to watch out for the "good" one, right?), the one who – supposedly – doesn’t enjoy picking on Jonathan. He insists there’s no pressure, he just wants to get to know her. And so he woos her with a silly monologue about his deep thoughts about the sea. Buffy tells us she was going to go with "it’s big and wet." And so the romantic comedy script comes to a screeching halt: the girl isn’t playing along. Confirmed: the next day in the car on the way to school she’s nodding off as he keeps rambling on about the vastness of the sea and the eternity of water. The movies this is parodying typically follow the pattern of the deep and deserving girl who’s just looking for someone to relate to on a personal level and ends up falling in love when the initially somewhat childish man matures and sees her as a woman. None of that for us today, though. Here the girl could care less about looking into the guy’s soul, and the guy, for his part, really is telling her about who he is inside. Of course, "who he is inside" turns out to be a Soviet drug-created fishmonster, and his deep and abiding love for the sea is entirely biological. But it does sort of beg the question – if Buffy thinks this guy is so boring, why’s she hanging out with him all the time – letting him drive her to school? And, just like that, we’re back in familiar territory – Cameron suddenly puts the moves on her, mere moments after assuring her he wouldn’t and, presumably, all of about 5 minutes before the bell rings. When she resists, he locks the car doors! It’s so brazen it can only be parody – and the masterstroke is the way it teases you. Last night on the beach, we knew the script – until it hinted that we didn’t. Now, in the morning, we don’t know the script at all – until we do again. The episode is getting our feet wet. Toes in the water, no diving in. It proposes something unorthodox, then does a 180 and says "OK, sorry, didn’t mean to rattle you, jocks really are all about sex and it really is only ever the guy who’s using the girl, you can go back to your stereotypes and preconceived notions now." But in the moment before we went back to our preconceived notions, we couldn’t help but notice that Buffy actually is implicated here. No, not in the sense that she was "asking for it," as Cameron will later claim (after Buffy smashes his nose and they’re in the school nurse’s office with the coach), but in the sense that she was enjoying his offered consequence-free sexual attention. Because, let’s keep this real, his speech about the vastness of the sea – and, by implication, every such speech that a guy makes like that to pretend to be connecting with a girl on an emotional level when his goals are elsewhere – isn’t ever impressive for its content. The girl likes it more for the effort, and for the fantasies it lets her indulge in about who he is. Guys don’t randomly walk up to girls they barely know because they want to get to know them better, and girls know that. Buffy IS in the car under false pretenses. She doesn’t wanna make out, but she is using Cameron for self-validation on the cheap. She’s not actually interested in him personally – knows he never has a chance of impressing her enough to get what he’s after – but she’s happy to take some of what he has to offer all the same.
This continues with Willow teaching the computer science class. Again, the premise is so ridiculous you forgot to notice. Willow, high school junior, is teaching the computer science class in the wake of Miss Calendar’s death. We play along because Willow’s one of the heroes, but it’s patently absurd. She walks around the class congratulating everyone on their pie charts (hey, 1998, OK?) until she gets to the computer at the back. Here’s Gage Petronzi, third-best (we will soon learn) member of the vaunted swim team (the swim team!) just playing naked lady solitaire. Willow tries to scold him, but he blows her off – and why not? She’a a high school junior, below him on the student social hierarchy on so many counts, pretending to be a teacher. Class ends, and Principal Snyder drops by to tell Willow that since there’s not much time till the end of the school year anyway they won’t be able to find a substitute teacher, so she’ll continue to be a high school junior teaching Computer Science. She tries to tell him how excited she is, that she loves teaching, but he blows it off, wanting to talk about Gage Petronzi’s poor performance. Willow’s initially relieved that Snyder already knows about her problems with him, but of course Snyder’s real agenda here is to make sure a valuable member of the swim team doesn’t get slapped with a disqualifying failing grade. And here again, if we’re not playing the wilful suspension of disbelief game too hard, we have to marvel at the brazenness of an episode that can pass off the swim team as an entity for this kind of setup. Schools don’t gain enough reputation from their swim teams, typically, for this to matter enough to the principal to step in like this. Nor do members of the swim team typically blow off their grades, because unlike, say, the football team, they don’t have lucrative careers in an advertising-wealthy sports entertainment complex to look forward to. Again, the only reason none of this clued you in that the writers are winking at you is that it’s played so straight. And yet, the bait and switch is still here. Willow stands up for the integrity of grading fairness – in her meek way – apparently having failed to notice that there’s nothing particularly fair about her teaching the class in the first place. We’re already well outside the rules here, and the point is underscored by Snyder’s appeal to her "school spirit" – a thing certified adult teachers neither have nor are really expected to have. It’s a pressure point that only works with a student, but students are not supposed to teach classes. And indeed, back in Passion (S2x17), Willow was worried about exactly that: that people would question her authority as teacher, what with her being a high school junior and all. She was right to worry, because her authority isn’t legitimate, meaning that at some level she knows she’s breaking the rules. She just doesn’t think about it as unfair because, hey, she’s Willow! What Snyder’s asking for – "maybe something in a D" – is also really not that unreasonable. That’s not to defend it, of course, but it’s interesting nonetheless to think about how Snyder is constrained. Clearly, the grading system isn’t entirely fair. What he’s asking for is an entirely fictional grade – given that Gage has never even completed a test in this class, let alone a homework assignment. But the grade can’t look fictional, because that would shatter the illusion that the grading system is fair. Snyder’s authority, and the entire institution of school in fact, depend on the illusion that grading is fair. Which means it has to be mostly fair in actuality. It certainly can’t be nakedly unfair. Giving Gage a D isn’t going to break anything, since Gage’s future doesn’t (seem to – but again – the swim team!) depend on his grades in any sense other than some arbitrary guidelines imposed by the school board. Gage isn’t here to learn, and the school isn’t interested in teaching him, and so the idea that he has to pass at all is more than a bit hypocritical on the part of the institution that’s imposing these "standards." It isn’t really Gage, nor even Principal Snyder, who is threatening the integrity of the grading system here, because that was already damaged when the school system decided to pretend like full-time athletes are students in the normal sense. They’re not. Gage is just being honest – albeit in a needlessly rude and entitled way. And Snyder isn’t asking Willow to break any rules that actually matter – or, more accurately, that haven’t already been damaged by the absurdity of insisting that professional athletes pretend to be students for a couple of years so that powerful people can take advantage of them in what amounts to an exploitative apprenticeship. Which, when you think about it, is rather what they’re doing to Willow too. They’re paying her with flattery, and by granting her false authority, and they’re expecting a lot in return. Willow is, of course, right to insist that the grades be fair, but the episode is savvy enough to observe that Willow bought into some systemic hypocrisy when she took the job in the first place.
It continues with Xander’s outrage when he hears about this. He’s shocked – shocked! – to hear that members of the swim team get these kinds of perks, but has also admitted that he’s jealous (at the party the previous night – and he signal some awareness of this with his joke about "earning" his Ds). Cordelia reveals her inner Trump voter:
XANDER That is wrong. Big, fat, spanking wrong. It’s a slap in the face to every one of us that worked hard and studied long hours to earn our Ds.
CORDELIA Xander, I know you take pride in being the voice of the common wuss, but the truth is certain people are entitled to special privileges. They’re called winners. That’s the way the world works.
XANDER And about that nutty "all men are created equal" thing?
CORDELIA (rolling her eyes) Propaganda spouted by the ugly and less deserving.
XANDER I think it was Lincoln.
CORDELIA Disgusting mole and a stupid hat.
WILLOW Actually it was Jefferson.
CORDELIA Kept slaves. Got any more?
And here we are again, folks. Once more, we think we know the script, and so we don’t necessarily notice that what happens on the screen doesn’t exactly fit the mould. The episode is playing so true to stereotype on the surface that you blink and you might not notice that Xander lost this argument. But lose it he did, and not just by a bit – he got walloped. His only offered defense is an appeal to authority – a fallacy to begin with – and he can’t even get his authority right. It doesn’t help that the actual authority he meant to appeal to just plays into Cordelia’s point: people may talk a good game about equality, but often they don’t mean it. Of course, if Xander were quicker on his feet, the comeback he should have offered is clear. He and Cordelia are actually talking past each other – they’re each right in their way. "All men are created equal" isn’t so much a claim that there are no differences in ability between men, nor even a claim that those of higher ability shouldn’t prosper – rather, it’s a claim that all men should be equal before the law, that the same rules should apply. Which, on the surface, is all Xander is arguing for. Furthermore, Cordelia’s retort that Jefferson owned slaves doesn’t really establish her opening argument. She was arguing that the only reason anyone would push equality was that they were inferior in some way, which might work with Lincoln (at a stretch), but Jefferson was clearly one of the "winners" she’s defending. All she proves is that he was a hypocrite, not that he was one of her "undeserving." And arguably, it’s the fact that he fought for equality before the law that makes him a "winner," since under the established patrician system he was of a lower station than he felt he should have been. In his way and in his day (and even today, for those of us who believe in Classical Liberalism), "equality before the law" was an argument that the deserving should get their due. Jefferson’s gripe was that the system was stacked against men like him who deserved to prosper, and would be allowed to prosper if the law were blind. His refusal to be kept down ought to meet Cordelia’s standards. The reason Xander can’t point this out, and the reason she fails to notice the contradiction, is that while Jefferson may not be a fitting example for her point, Xander actually is. That’s not to say he’s not outraged by the double standard, because he is, and legitimately. But it’s also true that what’s going on here has more to do with his class resentment than his moral outrage. He would like to be one of the jocks who gets the perks (or at least part of him would), and he isn’t. And so once again this scene is subversive while appearing conventional. "The rules should apply equally to everyone" is the American party line, and we like to think of that as high-minded and noble. And it is, in the abstract. So it makes us uncomfortable when Cordelia reminds us that a lot of support for it isn’t so noble and high-minded, that indeed a lot of people misinterpret it for personal reasons. A lot of it is based on resentment. What’s actually going on here is that Xander is appealing to Cordelia’s – technically irrelevant – patriotism rather than directly refuting her argument – a neat parallel to the way Snyder tried to use Willow’s technically irrelevant "school spirit" to manipulate her into changing Gage’s grade. Bottom line? It’s actually a bit hard to say. The episode isn’t defending Cordelia’s view; it’s not subversive in that way. But it is in reminding us of the uncomfortable truth that when we examine our own motives, or even those of our heroes, the lines aren’t as clear as advertised. The good guys sometimes kid themselves about how good they are.
Perhaps the best example of this comes later when Xander joins the swim team to "go undercover." It’s ironic that his "cover" manifests in lack of same – we find out he’s made the team only when he strolls out in speedos. And he looks pretty confident in them too, right up until he notices that some of the girls who are oogling him include his friends. It’s telling that it takes Cordelia a moment to notice that it’s Xander, her nominal boyfriend. "I’m up here," is the cliched girl line when a boy is focused on her boobs, but here it’s Cordelia, the girl, whose gaze is walking up Xander’s – rather surprisingly toned for such a low-status student – body, not all that interested in the face. So much, once again, for stereotypes. And again, it would be one thing if this were a one-and-done point, but it’s not. On the surface, the episode has spent all its time talking about the sexual entitlement of the jocks. Here’s where it reminds us that parading athletes in front of the school as heroes has more than a tinge of sexual exploitation as well, just that the shoe is on the other foot. The girls don’t watch the swim team because they’re interested in swimming as an activity. They watch them because of their hot bods and social status; it’s no less shallow than Cameron’s interest in Buffy. Along the same lines, it’s probably relevant to mention that scene where Buffy saves Gage from Angel and Gage, who’d been a total dick to her and everyone up to that point, doesn’t skip a heartbeat adapting to this new reality.
GAGE Walk me home?
In other words, Gage’s entitlement is situation-dependent. He’s entitled because everyone told him he was – and then when he’s not, he’s not. On the one hand, this is just more of the episode being crazy heavy-handed in its condemnation of patriarchal entitlement in general and the privileges of star athetes in particular. But on the other hand, you have to kind of appreciate the recognition that while entitlement may manifest in the entitled individual, that isn’t actually its source. So often this episode seems, on the surface, like a straightforward morality tale with clear good guys and bad guys, but it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that.
The final bit of subversion so brazen it’s subtle is the way Xander never gets any real credit for saving the day. But save the day he does – at least twice. It’s his undercover stint – the one no one even asked him to do – that solves the mystery of why the members of the swim team are turning into sea monsters one by one (and in order of ability), and, more importantly, it’s Xander who pulls Buffy out of the rape pit. She’s not having any luck jumping up on her own. And yet the only person who notices any of this, or bothers to thank him, is Cordelia, and probably for the wrong reasons. Give the girl credit, her machiavellian worldview is nothing if not consistent. She’s been suffering from cognitive dissonance for a while now for having ditched her clique to stay with Xander, so it’s only fair she gets to enjoy having been proven "right" by their standards. Xander’s on the swim team, and therefore cool. But Xander didn’t do it for status, and he’s really owed a bit more of a thank you from the rest of the group, especially Buffy. Why doesn’t he get it? One possibility is that this the show’s anarchist core asserting itself. All work among the Scoobies is volunteer, and everyone pitches in and helps freely when they can. But another possibility is that this is more of the episode’s sly commentary. Xander doesn’t get credit for being the actual hero in this one just because he doesn’t fit the profile. It’s a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its central conceit is the subversive notion that a high school girl can be an action hero. But Xander’s the one who actually saved the day here: he discovered what was actually going on, he discovered how it was going on, he was there when they killed the bad guy (technically an accident), and he saved Buffy’s life (or possibly saved her from a fate worse than death). Buffy … mostly just ineffectively stalked Gage and saved him from Angel. It’s not that she’s not pulling her weight, it’s that Xander actually pulled a lot more. Unfortunately for him, this episode isn’t called The Zeppo (S3x13) or Grave(S6X22), and so he gets credit for saving the day neither from the audience (in The Zeppo) nor from the main characters (Giles, at least, in Grave). I’ll go out on a limb and say the episode knows what it’s doing here. You’re a hero when the framing says you are; it’s no less arbitrary than the school just deciding that the swim team (ahhh, and now we see where that was going – the SWIM TEAM!!!) was composed of gods because they make it across the pool faster than their counterparts at other schools. What brings status isn’t always status-worthy.
Speaking of status, it’s worth pointing out to all those people who think of this as a thematic standalone that social status, and how arbitrary, unfair and misaligned it is, is actually a minor theme in this season. Unfortunately, the episodes that feature it most prominently are also the season’s worst: Some Assembly Required (S2x02), Reptile Boy (S2x05) – but it’s there in the background throughout. Perhaps wrapping it up in an episode this campy right before the heart-wrenching Becoming (S2x21, S2x22) and after the stellar I Only Have Eyes for You (S2x19) wasn’t the smoothest move, but good critics stay focused in spite of that and give it what it’s worth. It’s worth a lot more than MikeJer’s D at Critically Touched or the AV Club’s flat dismissal. If nothing else, the reason you can’t completely hate it is that it bothers to remember that the athletes are being exploited. They’re complicit in their exploitation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real – any more than Willow accepting a clearly inappropriate teaching position means she’s obligated to change Gage’s grade, to reiterate the parallel. Granted, having them literally be turned into fish monsters in the pursuit of Principal Snyder’s and Coach Marin’s State Championship Title is more than a little heavy-handed as stretching metaphors go, so let me reiterate that this episode really isn’t Buffy’s finest moment. It’s still a lot more sensitive and observant than it’s given credit for, and you gotta hand it to an episode that can be so heavy-handed on the surface and yet so comparatively well-rounded when you actually try to pin it down.
Overall Rating C+