Text and Subtext

One of the tensions which exists in television is between the episodic story and continuity of story. Shows on mass-market TV in the USA are often structured in such a way that they can be shown in any arbitrary order without a loss of sense. Various terms can be employed to describe this, but essentially the point is that everything you need to know to understand any given episode must be inherent in the premise of the show. I’ve posted before about why Detective Fictions are especially suitable in this mode, because the resolution of any specific crime is naturally episodic.

A few different shows attempted to break this structural stricture, from Twin Peaks to Babylon 5 to Murder One. Naturally however, a hybrid emerged, possibly starting with The X-Files. In the hybrid, some episodes relate to a global story, and some to a local and self-contained story. I want to talk about two hybrids with similar story topologies: The Monster Of The Week.

Buffy: The Wampire Slayer is based around the adventures of Buffy Summers, one girl in all the world chosen to stand against the demons. The deeper mythology of The Slayer is explored and interrogated and eventually altered by the end of the show’s run. The show is broken into 7 different story arcs, one per season, with only a loose trajectory over the show as a whole. It was not conceived as a unified story in the way that Babylon 5 was, and nor with a unifying theme like The Wire was. Episodes thus alternate between a Monster of the Week, and the Big Bad. As the creative team got more and more adept at exploring these concepts, the lines between them blurred and shifted a little.

Within this milieu the show retained an interest in ordinary human concerns. Buffy was a Teenage Girl as much as The Slayer, and exploring that tension was a significant and substantial source of drama. These human concerns were often sublimated into the fabric of the story. For example, in Ted, Buffy’s new potential step father turns out to be an evil robot. The broad creative strategy is to take the subtext from an ordinary teen drama and then render an associated metaphor literally.

The favourite text to be used as the basis for metaphor was certainly Magic. You could write a quite long, erudite and compelling thesis tracing the treatment of magic in the show. The most fully considered and sustained use of Magic-as-metaphor is Magic-as-sex, with Willow’s sexual awakening as a lesbian in Season 4, until the death of her lover Amber helps segue the metaphor to Magic-as-drugs. This metaphor interacts with the text directly, helping to frame our response to the burgeoning relationship as literally magical and hence transformative.

In both of these examples, the metaphor explains the text. Your mother dating is a monstrous experience, hence her date is a monster. Falling in love is a magical experience, hence it literally involves magic. It also intensifies it – the creation of a literal entity from the metaphor reinforces the text.

At first, this would seem to render the show less sophisticated than its non-fantastical counterparts. For example, you could compare Buffy’s literal demons with the fears of Veronica Mars, which lurk below the surface and must be inferred by the audience. You need to do a little work, engage a little bit more actively, with Veronica Mars near the start of the show, to see the effect her mother’s abandonment has had, to recognise the defence mechanisms. You also need to understand something about the wider cultural context of the hard-boiled detective – something I meant to expand upon a while ago in my tentative “Pedonoir” post. With Buffy, her demons are literal and simply present on the screen in a straightforward way, and so naturally we could read this as an inferior artistic representation.

To get beyond this perspective, you need to be willing to go through the looking glass, as it were, and engage with the mythology on its own terms. When Angel loses his soul after sleeping with Buffy, this is a powerful metaphor rendered literal, about how relationships can change people for the worse. It is also, conjointly, an inquiry into the nature of love and the human soul. Through the embodied metaphor, you get more direct access to the metaphysical questions that are the real heart of human artwork. Veronica Mars experiences many of the same situations as Buffy, but I think that when we try and look deeper in her context we elide philosophical concerns to really intensely look at the personal. Buffy’s literalized metaphors widen that scope of inquiry, placing the characters more explicitly as explorations of the human condition.

Supernatural can really only be seen as a successor to Buffy. It is impossible for me to imagine Supernatural existing at all, let alone in the very specific way that it does, without the tropes and themes that Joss Whedon explored earlier.

Buffy was conceived as a reaction against the helpless female, dragged into alleys by monsters, endlessly victimised in horror films for decades. When Buffy is dragged into an alley by something planning to eat her, she instead kills it – the roles are reversed. Buffy is therefore at its heart a story about empowerment, about how an individual can make a difference. The brothers Winchester live in a quite different world. They are alone and unsupported. It is obvious from the start of the show that what survival skills they have come with a terrible price – they can never be a part of the society they protect, which was one of Buffy’s main recurring ideas. In every way, from their mobility, to the bleakness of their world, to their gender, the Winchesters are a counter-argument to Buffy.

Their treatment of the supernatural elements, the “Monster of the Week”, is similarly challenging to the type established by Whedon. Buffy’s literalized metaphors co-exist with their ordinary representations. We have magic-as-sex existing alongside sex-as-sex, saturating any probable interpretation of sex in the show with evidence which does not always work towards a single unified theory of sex. Perhaps that’s proper, because most of the topics which float in the metaphor space are complex and contradictory, but as an artistic construction, it can become difficult to interpret. How can we interpret the emergence of Angelus on the one hand with the speechless combination of powers which save Amber and Willow in “Hush”? All we can be sure about is that sex means something – it is never casual or consequence-free in the world of Buffy.

Supernatural on the other hand, operates on a much more streamlined and cogent narrative agenda. It uses its Monsters not as metaphors so much as a way of rendered subtext into text, of forcing the characters to confront their metaphorical demons directly. When Buffy destroys Ted, the audience understands the metaphor given life, but Buffy herself cannot or does not draw the parallels and make the inferences being implied by the symbols in the text. She interprets Angel turning into Angelus on its own terms, she cannot understand this as a metaphor for love made literal. There is thus a gulf between the characters as they understand themselves, and as we understand them and their situation.

This is the gulf which the writers of Supernatural consistently push their monsters to close for the Winchesters. The neuroses and issues which seethe below the surface are relentlessly pulled to the surface for examination by the monsters.

The brothers have been training their entire lives for a chance to enact revenge upon the demon that killed their mother. Their father has shaped their entire existences around this objective. It is a pact made with himself – a metaphorical demonic pact, dooming their family to an itinerant existence, perpetually in danger. When Dean is fatally injured, their father makes a literal demonic deal: his life for his son’s. The brothers are conflicted about this decision, and the effect it has on their relationship to their father. This tension lies beneath the surface for a handful of episodes, until they encounter a group of people who have all made similar pacts which are expiring. For this recurrence of the demonic pact they are on the outside, which gives them a chance to approach the situation from a clearer perspective. Ultimately they use this experience to reconcile themselves to their father’s decision, allowing them to learn from the experiences and make different choices in the future from those they would make in the past – character growth, in essence.

If this sounds conceptually and logistically simpler than Buffy’s deeper symbolic approach, that’s because it is. But because the mechanism here is to force the characters to explicitly deal with these issues, it helps to make the characters feel more self-aware than Whedon’s. It more directly and explicitly forces the characters to experience the results of their decisions, so that despite their itinerancy, in some ways they live in a more consequential world than Buffy does. I think this helps give the show a more realistic and a more grown-up feel to it, in line with adult rather than adolescent characters. Helpfully, it also allows Supernatural to more easily comply with the demand for episodic television while still offering large-scale story arcs.

I think the days are probably past where shows like Buffy the Wampire Slayer and Supernatural are stigmatised for containing fantastical and horrific elements; there isn’t any longer an assumption that such elements are automatically the providence of adolescent shows, or that these elements imply a simpler or less interesting world than the real one. Unfortunately, I also think that the presence of these elements is not fully appreciated. Science Fiction used to be the home of Big Ideas television, but I think that in some ways the mantel for that has passed into these urban fantasies. The questions that Science Fiction TV asked were big ones, but as it all begins to seem a little less fictional, the more interesting questions are becoming the little philosophical ones which are dealt with superbly each week by a different Monster.

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8 Responses to Text and Subtext

  1. Awesome post BTW. Buffy and Supernatural are two of my favourite shows.

  2. mundens says:

    Hi ! Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading this (and your other critiques and discussions of genres & film) I haven’t been commenting because I either agree, or if I disagree I can see why you feel the why you do, so the comments would be superfluous from a discussion point of view. In some areas of course I haven’t read enough or seen the film to form an educated opinion, but I still enjoy reading what you say about them. Keep it up! You;ll be able to collect them into a book or thesis before long!

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