Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x08 - "I, Robot... You, Jane"

Hey, Miss Calendar!
Tease Giles and be awesome?
All in a day's work.


Last time, on Buffy, I didn't have have much to say, about the introduction of Buffy's major love interest and the reveal that he is, in fact, a vampire.  This time on Buffy, Willow unwittingly cyber-dates an ancient demon that's been uploaded into a computer and chats with teenagers so they'll do his evil bidding - and somehow, I have a lot to talk about.  File under: things I did not expect.

Of course, what's great about "I, Robot... You, Jane" is not the plot.  The entire premise is pretty laughable from start to finish, especially with all the 1997 computer technology on display.  Willow couldn't be online, her phone wasn't busy!  The computer demon could reach anywhere connected to a modem!  That webcam!  That laptop!  But it's not really about the technology, or the premise, or the plot.  It's about what all of those things mean.  The execution on these concepts finds an interesting debate about technology, an allegory about unhealthy love, and still keeps its characters at the foundation of the heightened plot they're enacting.

Obviously, the debate about books vs. computers is meant to be at the forefront of the episode's discussion.  It shakes out in the interactions between Giles, who is firmly in Camp Printed Word, and the computer programming teacher Jenny Calendar, who embraces the benefit of the inevitable digital revolution.  This friction between traditional and progressive houses the main theme of the episode, and creates a timely debate not so much about books and computers but about knowledge, information, and change - which makes it actually quite timeless.  It's easy to forget, after all, that books - and the widespread production of them - were once considered technology.  No coincidence, then, that the flashback showing Moloch the Love Demon's original entrapment was set in 1418 Italy, thirty-two years before the invention of the printing press in the western world.  (China was well on this shit about four hundred years earlier.)

When Johann Gutenberg invented the European-access movable type printing press in 1450, he also gave way to a revolution in communication.  The ability to print material en masse brought information to a wider spread of people, simply because the production of a book took less time, and could therefore ensure a larger effect.  Before this bit of technology, the communication of knowledge was restricted, as the production of books was tedious and time-consuming.  Hand-copied illuminated manuscripts were a painstakingly slow endeavor, usually completed by monks, and therefore written in High Latin.  This was also a barrier to knowledge at the time - if you didn't speak church Latin, you didn't have access to that information.  It's why Dante's The Divine Comedy (ca. 1320) was such a big deal; he used an amalgamation of colloquial Italian dialects to reach more people.  In making his work more accessible to the masses, he helped bring information to the larger culture, instead of making knowledge contingent on the reader making education gains beyond their opportunity and means.

So, with this history lesson in mind, it's beyond delightful that Jenny Calendar sasses Giles for his library-centric view of knowledge, and advocates for digital information in that it's much more easily spread to those less privileged than well-off white dudes.  After all, isn't the advent of the internet breaking down the same barriers in communication and knowledge that the printing press did in 1450?  The limitations of information spread are less of an issue, as are the geographic barriers separating social and cultural lines.  Obviously, the machine that facilitates this access is not free, but computers are more and more commonplace, and places like libraries are offering use of them for free, to those who may not be able to afford one in their home.

In delineating Miss Calendar's and Giles' idealogical differences this way, "I, Robot... You, Jane" doesn't really take a side in the debate.  When taking the premise at face value - Willow cyber dates a dude who turns out to be bad for her - it'd be awfully easy to jump to a conclusion along the lines of "the internet is evil."  But the episode doesn't even come close to putting forth this basic reaction, simply because books and computers are treated as more or less the same, when it all comes down to it.  Giles gets in his romantic view of book smells, sure, but Moloch came from a book before he went on the internet, so in terms of villainy, we're 1-1 on technology-gone-evil.  Plus, Jenny Calendar's role as a modern techno-pagan is just so cool that the audience can't really help but immediately fall in love with her.  Follow suit, Giles!  She's just like you, except digital.  It's the books-vs-computers debate manifested in human form: they're made of the same stuff, they just use different means.

No, "I, Robot... You, Jane" never condemns the pervasiveness of the internet, but it does warn against something much less newfangled, and much more threatening: the dangers of unhealthy love.  Willow's interactions with Malcolm are not icky because she doesn't know what he looks like, or because he could be lying to her - they're icky because they bear all the hallmarks of emotional manipulation and unhealthy investment.  They're slyly infused with a level of absolutism, and designed to prey on the unempowered.  The promise of Moloch is repeated three times: I can give you everything.  All I want is your love.  The idea that love is a trade and not a benediction speaks volumes.  Not only that, but it's pancaked into vague absolutes - if you love me, you can have everything.  Whatever you want, you can have - only if you love me. 

What's unsettling is that this interpretation of love isn't all that unfamiliar in popular love narratives - especially with teenagers.  Willow's initial description of Malcolm is an insidious giveaway of this sweeping, flat love: "He's romantic, and we agree on everything."  Are these the only necessarily qualifiers for a partner?  We agree on everything runs a neat parallel to I can give you everything if you love me.  Agreeing on everything is hardly a reasonable standard for long-lasting relationships, and implies some level of self-sacrifice to make the partner happy, which can therefore be twisted as a sign of romantic devotion.  I love you so much, I have all the same opinions as you.  Then, the recipient of that gesture owes you big, because you've erased your own identity to replace it with the "love" that benefits them.  That's the payment that Moloch requires, as he turns on both Dave and Willow when they rethink their devotion.  "But I love you.  You are mine."  In other words, you are owed to me because I gave myself to you.

It's creepy, right?  Absolutes and payment and possession wrapped up in generous words that make the recipient feel special.  "You know me better than anyone.  I can't believe how comfortable you make me feel."  It's hard especially for Willow not to respond to that.  "I, Robot... You, Jane" is very smart about keeping their characters' insecurities at the surface, so the audience can both understand why they might get wrapped up in a bad situation, and still feel empathetic to them.  How heartbreaking is Willow's admission that boys don't really chase her, and she's probably not Malcolm's ideal?  (Again with the expectation that love hinges on being perceived as perfect to your partner!)  It makes so much sense that Willow, with her low sense of romantic self-worth, would engage with blind and strings-attached promises of love and connection.  

Xander too demonstrates an interesting (albeit sidecar) display of low-self worth in "I, Robot... You, Jane," as he claims wanting to go to the Bronze to make fun of people who don't talk to him.  Xander's manifests a bit differently than Willow's, though.  Willow's low self-worth makes her vulnerable, gullible even, as she often embodies the "damsel in distress" role in the Buffyverse.  Her disempowerment puts her at risk, and eventually drives her towards witchcraft - which alleviates the issue, since she's damseled far less frequently after that point.  Xander, however, wields his disenfranchised status as both a shield and a weapon.  Self-deprecating to the point of self-loathing, Xander uses humor to keep people from preying on his vulnerabilities, and has no problem dropping a mean comment against others to balance the perceived injustice.  This point of view also hints at Xander being incredibly self-centric, as he's focused mostly on his own suffering at the hands of others.  After all, he reacts to Willow's love interest by saying: "Everyone deserts me."

Anyways, this episode isn't about Xander's insecurities - it's about Willow's.  And naturally, when it comes time for Moloch to be fought off, Willow is allowed an empowered chance to swing a punch at him - or a fire extinguisher, as it were.  What's notable about the moment, though, is that Willow only gets a hit at Moloch when he's a threat to Buffy.  This is also true for the greater episode narrative; Willow only becomes suspicious of Malcolm when he tries to turn Willow on Buffy.  On the one hand, it's great that the general message is that Willow doesn't allow for unhealthy love to isolate her from her loved ones; she still puts Buffy before Malcolm.  But on the flip side of this is the sad realization: Willow also puts Buffy above herself.  She's instigated to fight back only when it's protection over Buffy, which is both endearing and slightly tragic.  Any way you interpret it, though, whether good or bad, it's very telling about Willow's level of self-worth, and the value she places on her association with Buffy, who she sees as a pillar of strength, coolness, and looks.

So, you didn't expect to get all that out of an episode about a lovelorn Windows '97 cyber demon, did you?  Me neither.  But Buffy has a way of mining human interest out of stories about the supernatural, and that point of strength is what keeps it enshrined as one of my favorite TV shows.  "I, Robot... You, Jane" may be laughable in its premise and plot, but the execution of character, theme, and social commentary is pretty stellar.

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