Season Seven, Episode Five

"Know thyself"—inscription at the Delphic Oracle.

Selfless: The Review

Who are you?

Selfless grasps the nettle of Anya's reversion to demonic form at long last, at the same time using flashbacks to tell the story of her original conversion to Anyanka. The premise of the character turns out to be very simple: the injured idealist who became the woman scorned had then, as now, problems of self-esteem. As an attempt to explain the origin of the character's odd agglomeration of traits, insight, plain-speaking, acquisitiveness and possessiveness, immaturity, endurance, dependence, energy, sympathy, power hunger, lust, bravery, self-preservation—very human but with unusual emphasis on the negative, the episode merely provides some history to illustrate that she is as she always was. Indeed, that Anya's peculiar personality has certain dominant features has long been evident, but why it does is still a mystery. What shaped her is still unknown. The child is missing.

It has been easy to predict, and not for some little while, that Anya must someday make a final choice between her delight in destruction and her more humane delight in charity. Yes, despite her greed and pleasure in ruin, Anya has evinced signal works of charity, most recently in her treatment of Willow. Her first moment of selflessness came in Graduation Day, Part 1, when she noted with chagrin that when an apocalypse was at hand, she usually skedaddled, yet she was staying in Sunnydale for the Mayor's ascension, because Xander would not leave with her. Since then, she has risked life, limb, and property for the sake of Xander and his friends, although they have shown her little affection or respect, and Xander left her stranded at the altar. Her half-hearted return to D'Hoffryn's vengeance agency, in direct response to that betrayal, left her neither with human relationships to satisfy the revived humanity in her nor with conviction in her resumed demonic profession. Obviously, she could not continue in this state of uncertainty, granting wishes for vengeance and revoking them when confronted by her erstwhile friends. In Same Time, Same Place, she told Willow that inflicting pain was not as much fun as once it had been; it was, in fact, rather upsetting. She affirmed Willow's feelings of unease with the power and the potential for losing herself in it.

The magnitude of the latest massacre wrought by Anya, the killing of a dozen fraternity members who had humiliated a coed, impresses everyone, most of all Anya herself, who cannot cope with the carnage. Like Lady Macbeth, she cannot wash out the blood on her hands, which gives her away to Willow. Unconsciously, one supposes, she gave herself away. The point of the episode, indeed, is that she cannot give herself away, for she has no self to give, no sense of herself. Willow saves the last intended victim, the coed whose wish resulted in the hearts being torn out of the brothers by the Eight-Leggedy Freaky demonic spidery thingy called forth by Anya. (Vengeance always rebounds on the revenger, as The Wish made clear with Cordelia's death. Taking it back isn't an option for the clients of Vengeance demons.) Willow has a brief eructation of temper during the rescue, as though the young woman's self-pity is hard to swallow, considering the slaughter for which she was responsible. Willow is not quite in control when her power is evoked, but she can regain control, marking an advance in her rehabilitation.

Willow's experience prompts her to repay Anya for her kindness and to reach out to one whom she knows to be suffering. Anya masks her own sense of guilt by trying to change the subject to Willow's flaying of Warren. Willow can't be put off, but she can't reach Anya either. Failing to pull Anya away from her demonic family, Willow is compelled to put the matter to Buffy. Willow was, it seems, as much concerned about Buffy as about Anya, for once the author of the massacre has been named, Buffy has no choice but to kill Anya, an act that, Willow knows, will cause Buffy both physical and emotional injury.

Laying down the law.

Buffy's reaction is blunt. She is unequivocal in her determination: Anya must die. Xander's reaction is understandably less monochromatic. He thinks that they can fix it. Willow, after all, was salvageable, despite her vendetta against the Trio. ("Sitting right here," she reminds Xander in her old manner.) Willow, however, disabuses him of the hope that she can raise twelve dead men, Anya's metaphorical jury. When Xander attempts to make Buffy's tolerance of Spike the issue by analogy, she will have none of that either. Spike is, after all, harmless, she points out, without a choice when she was sharing his crypt. Anya made the decision to be a killer, twice. She does give him the chance to warn off Anya, however, by telling him to find another way. Buffy's strongest argument comes out in an unexpectedly brutal summation of her position: she is the law when demons are concerned. She is the one who has to draw the line and to make the hard choices. She is the one who is ultimately responsible. One cannot detect any hubris in this assessment of her of position. Her judgment may not be perfect, but there is none else to make it. Anya is clearly beyond the reach of human law, and she has refused all overtures of help. Buffy reminds Xander that she had to make an even more terrible choice when she sent Angel to Hell in order to save the world. Angel's soul, at that moment, had been restored by Willow's incantation. (Xander's perfidy in that crisis is brought to Willow's attention in passing, when Buffy says that both Willow and Xander had encouraged her to kick Angel's ass, a message that Willow had not sent: she was intent on retrieving Angel's soul.) Buffy's statement bespeaks resignation rather than pride. The choice, she insists, is never simple. Complexity and difficulty cannot excuse shirking the duty to act when the choice is clear.

Willow, being the smart one of the bunch, as the episode reaffirms rather clumsily by way of her college reentry, can't argue with a conclusion that she had already reached herself, but she can think of that other way out of the predicament which Buffy had urged Xander to find. Having caught D'Hoffryn's attention previously, she digs out his business card and summons him for a conference on Anya's future. D'Hoffryn's interest in recruiting Willow has only increased, but Willow would prefer to talk about Anya, a subject that obviously has been causing him vexation. His exasperation with Anya is manifest. Willow doesn't have to be exceptionally persuasive.

So, after a rather pointy but pointless battle between Buffy and Anya, D'Hoffryn asks Anya what she wants. Without any hesitation, she repeats the magic phrase that the coed had been hopelessly chanting, "I want to take it back." Anya is ready to die in exchange. Partly, she is acknowledging her guilt and the need for punishment, but she is partly looking for an escape from the life that would await her as a normal person, with no defining purpose and memories of misdeeds to haunt her. What if she is nobody? D'Hoffryn, being the patron demon of Vengeance, has his own view of the matter. If Anya is so eager to escape that self-examination, then it is the most exquisite pain that he can inflict. Thus, passes Anyanka, leaving the dope Anya, who doesn't love herself even a tiny bit. This episode's Dr. Phil analysis of the character is simplistic, to say the least.

All flash, no bang.

The flashbacks vacillate between amusing and annoying. The story of how Anya attracted D'Hoffryn's admiration when she smote faithless Olaf with trollhood was told in Triangle. The flashback to Sjornjost, A.D. 880, adds nothing to the existing backstory. As a parody within a play, it is mildly funny. It calls to mind a multitude of foreign language films with stilted and comically inaccurate subtitles. The fact that some of the characters are speaking modern English, and others modern Swedish for which the subtitles continue, in an historical period and place when the language would have been Old Norse, is also amusing, but not amusing enough to justify the effort and time expended. The only new information provided is that Aud, the incipient Anyanka, was something of an altruist, whose desire to do good for the sake of doing good was crushed by disappointment in her oafish boyfriend. The presence of bunnies as the coin of her altruism seems inadequate to explain her later unnatural terror of them. (Aversion by associaton, perhaps.) Seemingly, bunnies can seek vengeance, too. (It's implied that some of them became furs.) The flashback to St. Petersburg, 1905, and the Winter Palace rebellion has less justification, for it is humorless. Anya's Marxist ideals of social justice lead her to foresee a rosy future for the Bolsheviks, a prospect that could only have provided yet another disillusionment in human nature with the decadence of Sovietism. Her motives for being a Vengeance demon were, the viewers are encouraged to think, pure, as earnestly pure as those of the revolutionaries. She had a genuine desire to right the world's wrongs, which turned into a tyranny of its own. The moral of the story, thus so cleverly concealed, is that as power tends to corrupt, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Well, that was worth the trouble of a flashback, wasn't it? Her adoption in Sunnydale of the laissez-faire Capitalist credo is supposed to be ironical in this light. The latest flashback, this one to Sunnydale of the previous year, during Sweet's memorable sojourn, emphasizes Anya's lack of self-esteem and negates the earlier vignettes. The musical number is pedestrian, belying the singing and dancing. Emma Caulfield's singing is not to be faulted, but the song lacks the flamboyance and effervescence of those given her in Once More with Feeling (The solo "It Must Be Bunnies", and the duet "I'll Never Tell."). Anya's innocence has always been the secret of her charm, but this song makes her look simply stupid. There is a difference. She blithely sings about her own sense of inadequacy and dependence, and yet she spends the intervening year with never a glimmer of self-perception. The explanation for this incongruity is that the Anya of this episode does not mesh with the character who had been seen previously.

The flashbacks are, in fact, contradictory, both of one another and of Anya's development as a character since the third season. The first two represent a young woman of "strange ideas and literal interpretations" who has a degree of idealistic fervor and self-assurance, while the third makes her look helpless and rather dense. And none of them serve to illuminate the Anya who has been shown on the screen previously. Even when she was a Norse maiden, she was not "clinging", as she avers of herself after the renunciation of her demonic career. She had the inner resources to defend herself, to speak her mind, and express her individuality. As the dedicated working demon, she applied herself with imagination and vigor to her job, which she conceived as useful to the world. Anyanka was a young woman so centered upon simple vengeance, based upon her own unhappy love affair, that she knew absolutely nothing of the world. She had witnessed history but never had understood its movements, had interacted with men and women but never had understood their psychological impulses. When she became Anya, the mortal, she was a newly born American girl with no understanding of sexual relations and desires, no knowledge of the practicalities of daily life, no sense of human pain or pleasure, no appreciation of good and evil, a completely innocent Eve. It was her gradual accumulation of human feeling and the bitter taste of fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that made Anya such a captivating and hilarious creation. The flashbacks are wholly inadequate as demonograhpy. Anya may have had a more protracted adolescence than the normal girl, and she may have been on the rebound for a millennium, but two bad relationships in 1200 years doesn't establish a pattern of clinging. In both cases, she didn't continue to define herself by the men in her life, but found expression in her work. In other words, having spent more than three years building a character from nothing, the flashbacks postulate a completely formed character in the past, one that in many respects, could not have produced the present character, but which in others possessed a preformed set of traits that, for some unknown reason, anticipated those of the finished character but did not emerge until the end of the process. Anya's problems of insecurity and her attachment to Xander have been explained in the past as the product of her unfamiliarity with the fundamentals of human existence and her new vulnerability to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not of sexual stereotyping and male oppression. Anya's sense of not belonging was her greatest vulnerability, not her sense of vacuity. She wanted to conform, and couldn't. Selfless deals poorly with this charcater, and invents another to replace her.

In Sum.

Selfless follows in the mode of Same Time, Same Place as well-intentioned and craftily wrought, but lacking in the dramatic necessities. It misrepresents Anya sorely. The glimpses of her past are unconvincing. One entire section of the fourth act, the battle scene between Buffy and Anya mentioned above, makes no sense at all. What, exactly, are Buffy's intentions when she attacks Anya? If she intends to kill her, does she expect to accomplish this feat with a sword, a weapon that she knows by demonstration (Older and Faraway) to be useless? And, having impaled her against the wall, why does she not destroy Anya's amulet, thereby achieving the objective of the battle, Anya's destruction? (And the resuscitation of the dead fraternity members as well.) There is no indication that she expects either Anya to surrender or another power to intervene. D'Hoffryn's solution to the problem, while characteristically double-edged, cannot have been foreseen by Buffy. What does Buffy want? The biggest problem is that reversal of the wish, though. The blood of the twelve dead can't be laved away so easily as the episode would wish. The price that D'Hoffryn exacts, the death of Halfrek, has no dramatic value, nor any moral value. Who is Halfrek to the viewers that they should weep for her? It is a blatant evasion, not a twist of plot. In the end, Anya cannot be evil, which necessitates that the status quo ante be restored; Anya cannot be killed, at least not yet, which necessitates that the books be cooked to make up the deficit: thus Halfrek is sacrificed. But it is no sacrifice. She doesn't matter. Halfrek is a ruthless, bloodthirsty demon, with no redeeming qualities. If D'Hoffryn wants to make Anya suffer, and if the writer wants to make the viewers care, something more important needs to be required in payment. As it is, the episode cleans up the mess without any dramatic effort, merely a gesture.

Still, whatever the episode's demerits, it does have its merits. The argument between Buffy and Xander is fraught with dangerous emotional revelations and moral traps. Willow's momentary grasp of the fact that Buffy did not know of her attempt to save Angel puts her on a path to confront Xander about his lie in Becoming, Part 2. Buffy's estrangement from Xander looms. And there is the poor schmuck Spike, who imagines Buffy alternately as pitying and as commanding: the black clad Buffy who challenges him to leave the basement seems to be different from the Buffy who passes her time by balancing a pencil holder on her forehead. Spike and Buffy are always interesting together, even in his fantasies. The episode was striving to explain Anya's personality and to conclude her struggle of conscience, perhaps too much to achieve in the brief time allotted, achieving only a roughly outlined effect. Perhaps some more effort and time would have put a more polished finish on those outlines.

Horace LaBadie

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