With Thanksgiving upon us, I decided it was an appropriate time to revisit one of my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fourth-season episode called "Pangs." Written by Jane Espenson (whose blog you can find here), it not only boasts a host of great lines, but it's a fine example in character interaction and in tweaking the nose of political correctness.
The action kicks off soon before Thanksgiving, as U.C. Sunnydale hosts a groudbreaking ceremony for a Cultural Partnership Center. The Curator says the timing is appropriate because "that's what the Melting Pot is about, contributions from all cultures making our culture stronger."
In the audience, Buffy's best friend Willow scoffs.
Thanksgiving isn't about blending cultures, it's about one culture wiping out another. Then they make animated specials about the parts with the maize and the big big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene where all the bison die and Squanto takes a musket ball in the stomach.
Thus, Willow's role as the spokesperson for political sensitivity (or over-sensitivity) is kicked off. I'm always impressed that Willow's attitude is played a much for laughs as it is treated like a legitimate point of view. She sounds preachy if you take her speeches totally at face value and assume she's the writer's mouthpiece, but there are plenty of points in the episode where her hypersensitivity is the butt of the joke.
I think this actually gives the episode more complexity. Having Willow voice disgust at what she calls revisionist history is effective at making the audience examine their own views on the subject, but Espenson makes it clear that her perspective is just one among many. To wit, when Buffy and Willow suggest not having a Thanksgiving dinner, reformed vengeance demon Anya has an interesting reaction.
Well I think that's a shame. I love a ritual sacrifice.
It's not really a one of those.
To commemorate a past event you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.
It wouldn't be a Buffy episode without a mystical opponent, and as luck would have it, the groundbreaking ceremony has freed a vengeance spirit representing the Chumash tribe native to the area. Buffy runs across the spirit just after he's killed an innocent, and when she has the upper hand, the spirit shakes her faith, saying, "You slaughtered my people. Now you kill their spirit. This is a great day for you."
Her hesitation allows the demon to escape, and it almost seems that she too is on Willow's side. But even though the hero of the story has some moral problems with what she's tasked with doing doesn't mean that it's necessary the RIGHT thing to do. She reports back to her Watcher Giles, who asks her to recount the attack with the Indian. Striking a blow for PC sensitivity, Buffy dresses him down for his choice of words.
We don't say Indian.
Yes! Right. Always behind on the terms. Still trying not to refer to you lot as 'bloody colonials'.
As Giles' line comes with a dose of sarcasm, it's likely that we're meant to side with him over Buffy, thinking Buffy's being too PC. However, that's not even the point - both characters are taking viewpoints perfectly in line with their personalities. That's why this dilemma works - because no one is wrenched out of character just so the writer can make a political point. It makes sense that a college girl like Buffy would take a more touchy-feely view of the situation than the British Giles.
The thing is, I like my evil like my men: evil. You know, straight up, black hat, tie you to the railroad tracks, soon my electro ray will destroy Metropolis BAD. Not all mixed up with guilt and the destruction of an indigenous culture.
This spirit warrior -- Hus, you called him? -- has killed innocent people.
Normally, Buffy wouldn't bat an eye at killing a vengeance demon no matter the cause. That's her job - she kills vampires and demons and it's always been black-and-white for her. The particulars of these circumstances open her up to shades of grey. Notably, Giles doesn't see it the same way and he takes a similar position in an argument with Willow.
The Chumash were peaceful.
Oh, they were peaceful, all right. They were fluffy indigenous kittens! 'Til we came along... How about imprisonment? Forced labor? Herded like animals into a mission full of bad European diseases?... You sure we shouldn't be helping him?
No, I think perhaps we WON'T be helping the angry spirit with his rape and pillage and murder.
Well, okay, no, but we should be helping him redress his wrongs. Bringing the atrocities to light!
Well, if the history books are filled with them, I'd say they already are --
Giving his land back!
Preachy? I've heard some Buffy viewers over the years complain that it is. I've never taken that view. As I said earlier, everyone is pretty firmly in character. Also, I don't think Giles point is undercut in order to make Willow's. If anything Giles is the voice of reason in this scene, and the PC viewpoint is the one being undercut.
A similar argument later would seem to support that thing. A round of bickering among Buffy's gang prompts an outburst from captured vampire Spike (who's currently tied to a chair in Giles' living room.)
Oh, someone put a stake in me!
You got a lot of volunteers in here...
I just can't take this mamby-pamby boo-hooing over the bloody Indians!
The preferred term is --
You won! All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do! That's what Caesar did, he's not going around saying "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it"! The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, you massacred them, end of story!
Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of... not that I don't like Spaniards...
Listen to you! How are you gonna fight anybody with that attitude?
We don't want to fight anybody.
I just want to have Thanksgiving.
Yeah, good luck.
If we could talk to him --
You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Maybe it's the syphilis talking, [Xander is infected with "magic syphilis" at this point] but some of that made sense.
(under his breath)
I made several of those points earlier, but that's fine, no one listens...
You might say that Spike is the villain and that his endorsement of a particular viewpoint is intended as an indictment of said viewpoint. However, Spike was also quite frequently used as a "truth-teller," the guy who said things that weren't sugar-coated, but were true.
So is "Pangs" just an hour of PC-preachiness, as some fans claim? I don't think so. I think it uses a divisive issue to promote conflict among the main characters and present Buffy with an interesting moral dilemma.
Is every viewer going to come away from this episode with the same reaction? Hopefully not. Even if Jane Espenson had a point she wanted to make, she seems to be smart enough to know that simply preaching an idea that goes unchallenged isn't the way to win converts to your side. Instead, she presents several sides in a way that doesn't significantly undercut one belief in order to make the other belief look good.
In the end, Buffy does end up slaying the Indian warrior, though it's pretty much in a self-defense situation where if she doesn't kill him, she and her friends will be killed to. Would she have killed him had she not been directly threatened? There's no way to know. Maybe she would have tried to reason with him, or tried to pay him back for the atrocities committed on his people.
Though Buffy does her job out of self-preservation, does that mean she's embraced Giles and Spike's point-of-view, or does it just mean she had no choice? It's something to ponder, along with all the other issues the episode dredges up.
I've always admired Espenson for this episode. It's not easy to take such a divisive topic and make it work as fuel for a strong episode. It's got to be even hard to do that while keeping everyone in character and not only using that conflict for drama, but also finely honed comedy.
So if you find yourself writing something in large part because you want to make a political or social point, make sure the message isn't overpowering the story. For my money "Pangs" is successful because it works as an episode of Buffy first, and an exploration of the Native American plight second.