I don’t want to defend Dead Man’s Party, necessarily. It’s not one of the good ones. But it is one of the misunderstood ones, so I guess it does need a little defending.
I’ve been reading Mark Field’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Myth, Metaphor & Morality as I go through the series for maybe the 12th time, and I’m finding it really enjoyable. But I frequently disagree with his analyses, and Dead Man’s Party is a case in point.
Here’s Field’s take on it:
When something bothers me, people tell me I "must" talk about it or things will get worse. I find this untrue. I find that talking about it is, in fact, what makes things worse. It works much better for me to resolve things internally; that’s the way I’m able to put them behind me and move forward. When Buffy ran away after Becoming 2, I completely identified with her and was (and still am) furious at Xander, Joyce, and Willow for their mistreatment of Buffy upon her return. I’d be fine if the episode just presented 2 sides to the issue, with viewers free to take one or the other, but the whole episode, including its aftermath in later episodes, reinforces the message that Buffy was the only one in the wrong. I really can’t watch without getting mad about this.
Here’s what I agree with:
The episode takes sides and shouldn’t – Yes, unfortunately it does. Buffy’s decision to split the scene at the end of Becomming (Season Two finale) was complex, and there isn’t a clear right or wrong to the issue. A more accurate perspective would be that it’s something she felt she needed to do, and while there’s room to debate the rightness of the particulars of how she handled it, there’s no way for her not to do it. This episode would’ve been a lot better if it had found more of a way to be sensitive to that.
The episode comes down against Buffy – Yes, unfortunately it does. Buffy’s mom and the assorted scoobies get the better of the argument, and that doesn’t feel right. Buffy’s behavior is far from above reproach. You don’t just bail on your friends who put their lives on the line for you – as Xander, Willow and especially Giles surely did in Becomming. She owes them at least as much of an explanation as she gave her mother in that note – but in truth she owes them all, her mother (presumably – we don’t get to see the contents of the note) included, a better explanation or even some point of contact. Buffy deserves absolutely all of the blame they dish on her. But she doesn’t deserve to lose the argument – because honestly, she’s right too: they didn’t know what she was going through, and they weren’t trying very hard to understand it.
What I disagree with is the idea that this episode is coming down on the side of needing to dredge up and discuss things that bother people. It’s actually fairly ambiguous on that point, but to the extent it takes sides, it’s on Field’s. It’s exactly on this issue that people misunderstand the central metaphor of this episode, and I’m a bit at a loss to explain why. Full disclosure, though: I misunderstood it too the first couple of times I saw it.
Alright, the surface plot is that Joyce (Buffy’s mom) has hung a primitive african mask in her bedroom that – it turns out – has the power to raise the dead. It goes into full swing at a needlessly elaborate party that Buffy’s friends throw for her – mostly, we find out, as a way of avoiding confrontation with her. The party is attacked by zombies. Eventually, one of the zombies, in the form of Joyce’s recently-killed (by zombies) friend Pat, puts on the mask, becoming the god it represents, and Buffy slays it with a shovel through the eyes, sending all the zombies back to being dead.
See what happens when you type it out like that?
Watching the episode, it more or less does seem like the point is that you "shouldn’t keep stuff buried." But read that summary again and tell me honestly that it isn’t making the opposite point? See, evil here is when the dead don’t stay buried. Furthermore, the power of the mask is in its eyes. Sorry, but it really doesn’t get much clearer than that: this episode is clearly on the side of NOT seeing and NOT raising the dead and buried. "Exhuming things that’s better left alone* (to quote a poet) is how you get into trouble. And yes, if you’re wondering, the mask is evil. Buffy and Giles, the ones who more than the others want to leave stuff buried, are the only two who seem to get that.
JOYCE It’s from Nigeria. We got a very exciting shipment at the gallery. I thought I’d hang a few pieces in here. It cheers up the room.
BUFFY It’s angry at the room. It wants the room to suffer.
JOYCE You have no appreciation of primitive art
Ah, sweet irony. Buffy understands the piece better than her art-trained mother does.
And Giles (who had previously seemed a bit unnerved by the mask):
GILES Unbelievable… (as Joyce) "Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead!" (himself) Americans…
This gets slightly more interesting than just inverting a cliche if you read it in conjunction with its immediate predecessor Anne.
Anne shows us what happened to Buffy over the summer in LA, where she ran away. She’s a waitress at a shitty diner called "Helen’s Kitchen" – and no, the name is not accidental. Buffy is living in a hell of her own making. As frequently happens on this show, the metaphorical becomes the literal: a local street preacher who’s offering homeless teenagers solace in his mission house turns out to be a demon sending them to a hell dimension to work as slaves in a nightmare factory. Buffy gets trapped here with the others, but by affirming her identity:
DEMON GUARD Who are you?
LILY No one.
DEMON GUARD Who are you?
THIRD PRISONER No one.
DEMON GUARD Who are you?
FOURTH PRISONER No one. DEMON GUARD Who are you?
BUFFY I’m Buffy. The vampire slayer. And you are . . . ?
she is able to recapture her power and lead everyone to an escape. So, Anne is very much an episode about the necessity of affirming and embracing one’s self – affirming the self is literally a matter of life and death.
But there’s an interesting subtheme going on at the same time – a theme about blame. There seems to be a lot of blame going around, but it’s all either (a) misplaced or (b) ineffective.
Well, the first thing Lily does when Buffy tells her that Ricky is dead from what looks like supernatural aging is want to blame Buffy.
LILY But he didn’t do anything wrong, why would –
BUFFY That’s not the point. These things happen,you can’t close your eyes and hope they’ll go away.
LILY Is it ’cause of you?
LILY You know about . . . monsters and stuff, you could have brought this with you . . .
BUFFY (snapping) I didn’t bring anything with me! And I didn’t ask for you to come to me with your problems. I just wanted to be left alone. If you can’t deal with what’s happening, don’t lay it off on me –
Of course it’s nowhere near Buffy’s fault – and yet it’s not completely crazy for Lily to leap to that conclusion. Buffy does "know about monsters and stuff," and it’s not irrational to think she could’ve brought something with her. And yet Lily, of all people, should know better – Lily knew about "monsters and stuff" before she even met Buffy (we first meet Lily – then called Chanterelle – in the previous seaon’s Lie to Me (S2x07) where she worships vampires in a kind of hipster goth cult). The thing to notice is that Lily’s first thought is about where to put the blame. She apparently needs to put it somewhere. Having absolved Ricky of blame for his own condition, she picks the next available target: Buffy.
Buffy’s mom takes a similar approach to Giles.
GILES Joyce, you mustn’t blame yourself for Buffy’s leaving.
JOYCE I don’t . . . (looking him in the eye) I blame you. You’ve been this huge influence in her life, guiding her – you’ve had this whole relationship behind my back that I . . . I feel like you’ve taken her away from me.
GILES I . . . I didn’t make Buffy who she is.
JOYCE And who exactly is she?
Again, the blame is badly misplaced, but the misplacement isn’t completely irrational. Joyce isn’t wrong that Giles has been a huge influence in Buffy’s life and has a whole relationship with Buffy that’s much deeper than the one she has with her mother. And yet Giles is also right: he didn’t make Buffy who she is, and in any case, it’s more Joyce’s fault than anyone’s that Giles is a stronger parent figure to Buffy than she herself is. The parallel with Lily is strong: something terrible has happened that feels undeserved. Joyce feels a need to put blame somewhere, but it isn’t clear where it should go, so she simply picks the first available target.
And just in case you missed it, Anne lays it on very thick during the montage of all the homeless children. We feel a disparity between the way the episode portrays them in the montage and the reality of their situation. The episode is showing them all as victims, and yet that seems a bit manipulative to us the audience. We know, for example, that Buffy isn’t a victim. She’s confused, she needs to work things out, but she actually does have a good home to go to if she only would. The same seems true of Lily: Lily herself admits that she’s not very good at taking care of herself (in that scene where she asks for Buffy’s name). When Buffy asks about her homelife, she appears very uncomfortable and won’t talk – and we get it. Something terrible happened to her – probably she was sexually abused. So it’s not her fault that she can’t go home. And yet, when we saw her last season she seemed to be doing compartively well. She had friends, and a (misguided) purpose, and shelter and seemed to be eating well. Lily is where she is in part because of her bad home life, but also in part because of who she is, how gullible and dependent she is. Simply finding her a good home won’t completely solve the problem. And we the audience feel like that about all the homeless people we’re shown: they all, each of them, are partly to blame for their situation, despite what the episode is selling us. That’s the initial feeling.
But when you think about it again you realize that that actually is the point. They’re partly to blame, and partly not. The truth is more along the lines of what Buffy says:
BUFFY That’s not the point. These things happen,you can’t close your eyes and hope they’ll go away.
"The point" is that placing the blame "correctly" – whatever that actually means – isn’t the solution – placing the blame is actually beside the point. At some point you have to ask yourself whether you’re more interested in pointing the finger or solving the problem – and if it’s the latter, that means largely letting go of blame. Because in reality, blame is usually fairly complicated. Perhaps people are at fault, but the consequences are too dire, or else they’re at fault but can’t choose differently, or else they’re at fault to some degree but others are to a greater degree.
And that’s more or less the realization Buffy comes to as well. In addition to finding herself and reasserting her identity, what she comes to realize is that she can’t move forward if she keeps blaming herself for Angel’s death. It doesn’t actually matter to what extent it’s her fault – the point is that it was both unavoidable and in the past. Buffy is trying to deny the slayer part of herself because she feels guilty for Angel’s death – because she doesn’t like the hard choices the calling forces on her. Reasserting her identity to "Ken" (rather, Ken’s minion) is her accepting those choices and the consequences that come with them – accepting, to wit, that there are no perfect choices, no winning solutions. "These things happen."
The problem with the big confrontation in Dead Man’s Party is that it isn’t actually heading to any resolution. Everyone makes good points all around. There’s plenty of blame to go around. So much that it frankly feels like a game of musical chairs. At some point, the music stops, and someone’s left without a chair, and who that is is completely arbitrary. It’s clear that this argument can go on forever, and it’s never going to come to any non-arbitrary resolution becuase everyone’s (a) partly right and (b) partly wrong and (c) already dug their heels in. To the extent that Buffy’s losing, it really is only becuse there’s one of her and four (Xander, Willow, Joyce, and, to a lesser extent, Giles) of "them." It’s more about the numbers than about righteousness. To me personally, this is most obvious during Joyce’s speech:
BUFFY But you told me! You’re the one who said I should go. You said – "if you leave this house, don’t come back." You found out who I really am and you couldn’t deal – remember?
JOYCE (aghast) Buffy! You didn’t give me any time. You just dumped this… this thing on me and expected me to get it. Well – guess what? Mom’s not perfect. I handled it badly. But that doesn’t give you the right to punish me by running away-
BUFFY Punish you? I didn’t do this to punish you-
The salient point here is that Joyce admits "Mom’s not perfect" – begging the question why Daughter should be? This is winning an argument by positioning the crushing phrase – by order of admissions – not by actually having the right point. An objective observer would call "timeout!" at this point and point out to Joyce that if she’s allowed to be less than perfect then so is Buffy. But there’s no objective observer. And this is why dragging the waters isn’t always a great idea. It really is sometimes better to handle it the way Field suggested in the quoted bit above -
I find that talking about it is, in fact, what makes things worse. It works much better for me to resolve things internally; that’s the way I’m able to put them behind me and move forward.
Correct. The irony is that Field seems to think the episode is coming down against that. It actually looks to me like it’s very much in favor of it. "Talking about it" is what gives the evil mask what it wants – a malestrom of endlessly escalating negative energy – unresolvable emotional tension. And that works precisely because each side is playing a kind of game where it spins the truth as best it can to put as much of the blame on the other side as possible. If you’re in that kind of dynamic, then "talking through the problem" is actually a terrible idea. Sometimes everyone needs to bury an issue in his own way and let it lie.
In light of that, the resolution the heroes get is the only one possible: an external threat reminds them what’s really important and allows them to focus their attention elsewhere. Once it’s over, everyone feels – rightly – that he had his say. The critical point is that it’s only when letting go of blame that resolution is possible.
At the end of the Season Two opener When She Was Bad, Xander and Willow had to forgive Buffy. And they do, but the unduly after-school-specialy music makes it seem almost fake, or at least unearned. Dead Man’s Party takes a more realistic – but for that much more exasperating – approach. The tack taken in When She Was Bad is the right one – forgive, and in forgiving give everyone a chance to move on and rebuilt. The tack taken in Dead Man’s Party is perhaps less productive, but also more human.
I need to reiterate here that Dead Man’s Party is not a good episode. I’m not defending its overall merits, because it’s really one of the lesser ones. But if we’re going to complain about it, it’s important to complain about the episode that really was. It simply isn’t true that this episode is advocating endless dredging up and going over of the past. It’s actually something like the opposite of that.