FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Harsh Light of Day
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy and Willow are now roommates after Buffy's former roommate, Kathy, turned out to be a transdimensional demon. Giles remains unemployed and Xander is back living in his parents' basement. Angel is now in LA and Buffy has caught the eye of Parker Abrams, another student of UC Sunnydale.
After his drunken shenanigans in Lover's Walk, Spike returns to Sunnydale with the newly-vamped Harmony. She promptly attacks Willow and reveals herself to the gang. Spike is searching for something underneath Sunnydale and is trying to keep a low profile, but Harmony's demanding ways soon give him away. Meanwhile, Buffy's relationship with Parker develops and sadly, she doesn't realise he's a complete sleazeball before she sleeps with him. Anya also returns to renew her relationship with Xander and takes a little further than he was expecting.
The Harsh Light of Day is where the fourth season starts to move forward, re-introducing fan favourite Spike to the proceedings as he'll go on to become increasingly important. His arrival back in Sunnydale is not quite as beer happy as his previous one, but he has once again dispensed with Dru and is on the search for the Gem of Amarra, a ring which would render him impervious to any kind of harm. His relationship with Harmony is easily the funniest part of the episode as she regularly foils her Blondie Bear's plans. That is until he starts verbally abusing her and it gets a nasty streak fast.
Likewise, Anya's relationship with Xander takes on a similar twist as the pair have sex, instigated by Anya, allowing for a premature juice carton spurt joke. It's not on quite the same intensity level as the treatment that both Harmony and Buffy receive, but it's certainly on the same spectrum. She offers herself freely to Xander emotionally and he takes her words at face value. Xander's always been a bit of a pig when it comes to women anyway, so it's hardly surprising that he doesn't realise rejecting Anya in such a fashion is actually pretty hurtful to her.
Now, if you will allow me to get up on my soapbox for a minute, I've often seen this episode cited as an example of how Buffy is usually punished after she has sex/all sex is bad in Buffy. It has cropped up again in the recent post-Black Widow Joss Whedon backlash that claims, in a very brief summary, that the man can't write women and has been eviscerated once again for his feminism. It would be remiss of me not to engage in these topics during this rewatch and I think I'd have treated this episode differently had I watched it before the Black Widow criticisms dragged this all up again.
First of all, everyone using this episode conveniently forgets it was written by Jane Espenson, amazing woman and a personal hero of mine. Secondly, I think the one sole detail of Parker rejecting Buffy after they have had sex is the only thing that ever gets remembered about the episode, which is cherrypicking of the highest order. The entire episode revolves around women being mistreated and abused in some way.
It does not punish Buffy for having sex. Nor does it punish Anya or Harmony. What it does do is show how these women are mistreated and objectified by the men around them in a world where female sexuality is still treated as something to be mocked and shunned. And men like Parker sadly exist and exist in great numbers, especially on a university campus. The show depicting sexism is not the same as the show being sexist itself and this is something that needs to be remembered. Buffy, Anya and Harmony are used and put down again, their loneliness and neuroses taken advantage of in service of a man's needs. To paraphrase Willow in this episode, men are poopheads.
This episode is entirely a criticism of how men treat women (just as it was with sleeping with Angel) and depicts how women internalise this; the Willow and Buffy scene at the end is entirely crucial to that and again, is often gets forgotten amidst the criticisms. It is not Buffy in the wrong here and it's amazing that she can be so emotionally vulnerable as well as being physically strong. She's always been a character that wears her emotions on her sleeve and doing so here is entirely in keeping with that. It also results in a heartrending little scene as the three women wander across campus, entirely alone in their pain. It's one of the show's most relatable moments and for that, it should be remembered.
Of course, a lot of its good work with Buffy is undone again in Beer Bad, but we shall get to that shortly. This is also the first episode to lead into a crossover proper as The Harsh Light of Day feeds into the Angel episode, Into the Dark, as Oz prepares to take the Gem of Amarra to Angel to decide what to do with at Buffy's request. Even the synergy of the names show how well planned out these crossovers are and it's going to be fun to watch the Angel episode in light of this one straight before (pun intended).
Having grown up watching Buffy and eagerly anticipated Angel's arrival in the UK, it all went a bit wrong when Channel 4 got the rights to it, didn't show the episodes at the right times to work with the crossovers with Buffy on BBC2 and then moved it to a late night slot so I couldn't watch it anymore (I was still very much under parental rule at this point). All of this means that these rewatches are the first time I'm actually watching these episodes in the order intended and I'm hoping it's going to be a much more fruitful experience than scrabbling between channels or watching DVDs many years later.
Quote of the Week:
Xander: I don't get your crazy system.
Giles: System? It's called the alphabet.
Let's Get Trivial: Sarah Michelle Gellar disagreed with Buffy sleeping with Parker, arguing that it was too soon after Angel. This has been mentioned by Joss Whedon in several interviews, but he replied to her with "you go to college, you do stupid things."
You can read Becky's look at Living Conditions here.