FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Earshot
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel and Buffy are undergoing a bit of a rough patch after Angel pretends to lose his soul to get Faith to confess and ends up getting a bit too close in the process. Faith is now working full time for the Mayor and everyone knows the Ascension is on the way, but not what that is.
Even in a run as strong as the latter half of the third season, Earshot stands out for a number of reasons; for a start, it's an excellent standalone episode. On re-watching it, it struck me that this is the most Buffyish of Buffy episodes, packing in everything that makes it so astute and subversive. After tangling with two demons, Buffy gets bled on, giving her a nasty little rash on her hand and telepathy. Obviously. Initially useful, revealing that someone in the school is going to kill everyone, the new gift soon turns against Buffy and starts driving her mad. Whilst Angel goes about putting together a cure with Giles, the gang try to work out who is about to go on a murder spree.
For most of the early seasons' run, the monster as metaphors forms the background for the majority of episodes. Earshot subverts that slightly by making it a bit more literal; the monsters are the high school residents themselves and their thoughts and actions. The lack of empathy amongst the students for those around them is something apparent right from the moment Buffy begins hearing things, even amongst her friends. Jonathan wants to kill himself because no one notices him and he feels invisible. Buffy acquires her powers just in time to hear his cry for help and find him in time to save him and that insight also allows her to feel everyone's pain as acutely as she feels her own.
That scene in the clock tower, one of two written by Joss Whedon for Earshot, is one of the most powerful scenes that Buffy has ever produced, playing on those feelings of isolation to allow for the audience to empathise with Jonathan, even though at first we suspect him of being the wanna mass murderer. High school shootings in America are still a tricky topic to approach and Earshot aired only a few months after the Columbine massacre (it had been delayed from its original broadcast due to those events), meaning the potential subject matter was particularly sensitive. Even though it transpired to be a suicide attempt, something else that Buffy has tackled before, the episode handles both very carefully to produce something that isn't at all exploitative. Buffy once again saves someone from the monster, but here, it's simply by listening to someone who feels invisible.
Of course, the person actually planning the school attacks is a part of the institution itself in the crazy lunch lady attempting to poison everyone. And you can kind of understand where she's coming from about high schoolers being awful, even if everyone who thinks that doesn't resort to rat poison to make a point. It's also another way in which Earshot subverts the usual Buffy formula. It is a human perpetrating the crime with the demon acting more as a catalyst for the episode's events rather than its root cause. Human suffering is at the heart of Buffy; it's what makes it so relatable despite it coming with all the genre trappings of vampires, werewolves and other things with sharp, pointy teeth.
As I started with the end, it's only fitting that I go back to the beginning because the cold open forms the final piece of the ultimate Buffy episode. It recalls the very first scene of Welcome to the Hellmouth when Darla goes from being the scared blonde to the monster in a simple turn of the head, kicking off Buffy's horror subversions. The opening scenes finds Buffy on the run from two mouthless demons, pulling a classic horror film run and stumble in order to lure them into a trap. It's one of the episode's many comedic moments (something I've not gone into too much detail about it here) and just reminds us that Buffy's anything but conventional a lot of the time.
Ultimately though, Earshot is a plea for better communication, through which the majority of the episode's problems would have been solved. This is shown in Buffy's scene with Angel when she realises that she can't hear what he's thinking and is forced to say out loud how she feels, prompting him to return in kind. By the end of the episode, their relationship is back on track because she gets the answer she was looking for (and he fed a demon heart too her. Romance, people). If someone had noticed Jonathan feeling the way he did before he wanted to kill himself and took the time to find out what the matter was, it would never have got to that stage.
Although Earshot may not be in my top ten of episodes of all time (that's a tough list to crack), it's probably the episode I would show to someone to convince them of Buffy's merits and calling cards. Everything about it is meticulously constructed and pretty much perfect, not to mention heartwrenchingly relatable.
Quote of the Week:
Buffy - [to Jonathan]: My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.
Let's Get Trivial:
Anthony Head added in the bit where he walks into the tree at the end of the episode to make the scene funnier. It worked.
Buffy worrying about having a tail is an in-joke because Joss Whedon hated tails on demons, thinking they always looked unrealistic.
You can read Becky's review of Enemies
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