Why Seeing Red Is The Worst Episode of Buffy: Defending Spike Part 1

Objection #4: The episode plays fast and loose with the circumstances and Spike’s understanding of them.

A number of different commentators have pointed out that the immediate circumstances surrounding the attempted rape feel forced.  Early in the episode, Buffy suffers a back injury when she is slammed against a gravestone.  Personally, I found it rather hard to believe that the injury could have affected her that much.  Buffy’s abilities as Slayer are supposed to make her much tougher than the average person and even stronger than vampires themselves.  She gets injuries that would be serious for any ordinary human with great frequency.  In fact, her surreptitious tumbles with Spike seem just as rough as the fight in which she is injured.  And let’s not forget that this was the same girl who walked away from being impaled with her own stake, a little worse for wear but still capable of manhandling Spike the following night.  Why is this injury suddenly enough to counteract her Slayer strength and make her too weak to push off an attack? If the injury really is serious enough to weaken her that much, why does it not seem a problem when she fights the Trio later on?  The whole thing is very inconsistent, but I guess that is what one has to expect from mishandled plot devices.

Secondly, there is the issue of Spike’s understanding of the situation.  Now, I have heard some people say that Spike’s intentions do not matter because in the real world rapists have often claimed to have misunderstood what was really going on.  I understand this objection but I do not think that the fact that perverts sometimes manipulate the murkiness of a situation dismisses the reality that legitimate miscommunications never happen.  If there is one thing Season Six “Spuffy” demonstrates, it is that consent can be a tricky business.  Spike knows that Buffy is ordinarily more than capable of manhandling him, and has no way of knowing that she has been injured.  Even if he had realized that she was hurt, he might still have had the same problem as many of the viewers in understanding how this injury is serious enough to change the dynamics of their struggle.

It should also be taken into consideration what the word “no” has meant so far in their relationship.  Buffy typically throws it around while demonstrating through her actions that she actually means “yes,” such as in the (in my opinion, pretty uncomfortable) balcony scene in Dead Things.  She also proves more than willing to ignore his “no” in Gone when he tries to assert himself as something more than just her sex toy, opting instead to use her invisibility to reinitiate sex.  That this scene is played for laughs while the bathroom scene is played for drama will be explored in my next objection, but I think it is also important to point out that this earlier sexual encounter began with Buffy assaulting Spike before he knew who was there.  The implications of her actions were then quickly elided because he did figure it out and a possible rape turned into consensual sex.  But it does raise the question: would Buffy have stopped right then if Spike had proven less willing?

Objection #5: The scene is shot in a manipulative way.

Several commentators, most notably Kristen Smirnov in her open letter to Mutant Enemy, have observed the difference in the way consent is treated in Gone and Seeing Red, even at the visual and auditory level.[1]  She notes that the bathroom scene in the latter “is emphasized by a complete lack of background music,” while Spike’s rejection of Buffy’s advances in the former “was accompanied by a wacky score.”[2]  In the world of film and television, background silence is often an auditory cue that the onscreen moment is a significant one. (A much better example of this cue is the background silence in The Body).  Thus, while Buffy’s treatment of Spike is intended to be viewed as petulant but funny, the actions suddenly become very serious when the roles are reversed.  Smirnov anticipates that some of her readers will reject her position because treating Gone as an example of rape imbues the scene with more heaviness than the writers intended and needlessly clouds the issue for Seeing Red.[3]  Yet this is exactly the point.  The only reason we consider one incident more serious than the other is that the writers have used external cues to allow us to laugh away Spike’s “no” while highlighting the drama of Buffy’s resistance in the later episode.

Incidentally, the Gone scene is an example of one of my least favorite tropes in cinema.  Comedies have a nasty habit of taking situations that would be completely objectionable if the genders were reversed and using them for laughs or otherwise dismissing them.  Women are allowed to pounce aggressively upon male characters, stalk them, and even restrain them against their will without the inappropriateness of their behavior being called out by the plotline.  It is one thing to show a man willingly enjoying rough treatment by a powerful woman.  It is another thing entirely to show him rejecting a sexual situation, only to have his will overridden by the woman in question.  Scenes like these pander to our cultural assumption that while women may or may not desire a sexual situation, men will always want it.  They are all, as Faith claims, beasts on the inside.  I think this tendency reflects an unhealthy and disturbingly low regard for male sexuality.

Another external cue that affects our interpretation of the bathroom scene is the decision by the writers to have Spike attempt to rape Buffy while in his human face.  He also leaves his duster—the symbol of his violence as a vampire with Slayer kills to his name—on the banister before coming up to the bathroom.  These details represent a significant departure from the decision the writers made in Season Two, when Angelus killed Jenny Carpenter.  That scene deliberately showed Angelus in vamp-face in order to emphasize that it was the soulless demon and not the souled Angel who killed Giles’ lover.  If we assume the reverse to be true, then the decision to leave Spike in his human face while attempting to rape Buffy must emphasize that it is his human nature that is guilty of this crime, a suggestion that would be in perfect keeping with the all-too-human villains of Season Six.  Except Spike is not supposed to be human at all, at least not according to what the show has established.  To have Spike-as-human be responsible for the attempted rape means that the writers must acknowledge, at least implicitly, that there is some real part of William the Bloody Awful Poet (not just the memory of him) that remains in soulless Spike.  What does that say about the true nature of the vampire?

Moreover, the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it too.  If Spike’s humanity drives him to the attempted rape, then that fact emphasizes his full responsibility for his actions.  Fair enough.  But if he is fully responsible, then he is a free moral agent, not just a demon without a moral compass.  His very responsibility undercuts the notion that the attempted rape is somehow proof of his unredeemable evil.  Ironically, keeping Spike in human face throughout the scene also opens up the rather uncomfortable possibility of expanding our sympathies.  His human face serves as a stark reminder that whatever Buffy claims, Spike is not a “dead thing” she has been toying with for half a season.  Rather, he is a very real, vulnerable, and broken man who has just chosen a truly tragic way to reassert his personhood.

Finally, we have the marvelously-executed yet manipulative use of color, lighting, and wardrobe in the scene.  The whole affair takes place in a stark white bathroom, the blinding whiteness emphasized through harsh lighting.  The shots include both intense close-ups of the two figures and wide pans from high above them.  The camera work and whiteness of the bathroom give the scene an air of clinical detachment that belies the passionate struggle between the two, making the whole affair seem almost cold in spite of the rolling emotions.  Thus, on one level, the visual cues are intended to force the viewers to take in the enormous monstrosity of what they are seeing.

On another level, however, the show is simply indulging in one of its long-standing visual motifs in which the characters’ interior states are mirrored in their clothing style and reinforced by the external lighting.  This motif is especially noticeable in Season Six as a whole.  Willow is an obvious example.  Not only does her hair and eye color change when she actively goes evil, but all throughout the season her inner darkness can be measured by the cut of her clothes—sleek and tailored when she is close to the brink, romantic and feminine when she is at her most peaceful.  Spike’s normal black attire is also indicative of his interior state, and when he tries to switch to a blue shirt in Season Seven, he ultimately rips it off because his “costume” is not working.

Nowhere are these sartorial and lighting choices more significant than in scenes of emotional intimacy between Spike and Buffy.  In her most virtuous moments, Buffy’s outfits are usually white (or at least light-toned), providing visual contrast to Spike’s dark clothing.  She is often either raised visually above him or framed by light.  A good example of this motif is in After Life, when Buffy meets Spike in the alley behind The Magic Box.  Newly ripped from heaven, Buffy herself seems almost ethereal in her white top and skirt.  Spike in his customary black sits beside her in the shadows and listens to her spill her secret.  He had tried to give her room to be alone earlier in the scene, but was stopped by his inability to step into the sunlight.  After their conversation, Buffy reluctantly does what he cannot and steps out of the shadows, into the light where she wants to belong.  Her final command to Spike to keep her secret from her friends is given with her back turned to him as she leaves him alone in the darkness.  It is a sad, beautiful, and poignant scene, demonstrating the show’s ability to use light and color imagery to great effect.

But what does this motif mean for the bathroom scene?  For the bulk of Season Six, Buffy has been flirting with the darkness inside her.  In many of her nastier moments with Spike (the alley beating, the post-Anya confrontation), her clothing also takes a turn for the earthy.  After so many morally ambiguous decisions, it is unsurprising that her attire in the bathroom scene is a gray robe.  But Seeing Red is not about moral ambiguity.  The wide shots from above underscore this point:  Spike’s form obscures Buffy, her grayness hidden beneath his blackness as they both struggle on the white floor.  The show seems to be saying that no matter what we may have seen in their relationship so far, this scene is truly black-and-white.  And the writers are correct.  Rape is a morally clear-cut issue, with no possible justifications for Spike’s actions.  But they are also wrong.  Buffy’s moral “grayness” does matter, not because what he does is okay or because victims somehow deserve to be blamed but because Buffy is more than just a victim.  For the past half season, she has been the aggressor, which leads to my last objection.

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