Last time, we heard what Joss Whedon had to say about the conception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season four episode ‘Hush’, widely regarded as the best episode of the season and one of the ten best episodes of the whole series. He also has a lot to say about the execution of those ideas, so let’s get to it.
Whedon’s work on Buffy is often admired for the way he revamped horror conventions (sorry, couldn’t resist), such as creating strong female characters and fully-developed villains. Still, one reason those developments were such a success is that Whedon integrated them with the genre tropes that fans love. Whedon alludes to one such example when he says “nothing’s creepier than a little girl singing a little nursery rhyme about the bad guys” (00:01:50), which is exactly what occurs in the few couple minutes of ‘Hush’. The roots of such conventions can often be traced back to seminal works that continue to influence the genre, and Whedon is happy to give credit where credit is due. In this case, he says, “Needless to say, A Nightmare on Elm Street did this better than anybody” (00:01:50).
The roots of The Gentlemen, the villains of this episode and probably one of Whedon’s creepiest creations overall, can be traced back even further. Far from the hulking, raging baddies that torment the characters of so many modern works of horror, these guys are not only quite dapper in their matching suits, but unfailingly polite. Their sharp metal-toothed smiles never falter, and it’s clear that they’d partake in tea and crumpets with the same deferential manners they use while slicing out a teen’s heart. They leave the dirty work to the ape-ish footmen who constantly accompany them, because Whedon felt The Gentlemen “would not sully themselves with such things as struggling with the victim” (00:24:55). If The Gentlemen are so restrained and proper that they make the characters of Downton Abbey seem rough-and-tumble in comparison, Whedon explains it’s because they belong to an even earlier era.
What I was going for with The Gentlemen was very specifically a Victorian kind of feel, because that to me is very creepy and fairy-tale-like. The politeness, the suits, the crazies who are like the crazies in the asylum in Dracula, the metal teeth as sort of representing ‘science defeats cavities’ – everything is very sort of Victorian era. To me that just bespeaks total creepiness, and it’s very classical. (00:26:40)
Another common genre convention that’s used in this episode, and at times throughout the series as a whole, is the damsel in distress. Whedon notes that in previous seasons this role was often filled by Willow (00:09:25), but here they decided to have another female character take her place. For a moment I was a bit surprised to hear him say this, especially in the context of a show that had the empowerment of women in its DNA, but when I thought it through it made a lot of sense. For starters, female characters were not the only ones put in jeopardy throughout the series; Xander and Angel needed their fair share of rescuing too. On top of that, it’s not as if the same female characters were repeatedly put in danger for making the same stupid decisions. As you’ll see in a minute, Whedon himself says that the reason they needed to fill this role with someone other than Willow is that Willow had learned so much from her experiences that she had become too strong to be easily put in danger. Finally, Whedon and his team did not decide to put another female character in this position just for the hell of it. In fact, it was just a believable introduction to Tara, who was new to the demon-infested underbelly of Sunnydale and would go on to play a significant role in the whole series. (spoiler alert) Besides, rescuing a damsel in distress was as good a way as any to kick Willow’s mojo into gear after being dumped by Oz. Whedon breaks it down as follows:
Seth Green, who played Oz and was Willow’s love interest and is a great actor, left rather abruptly, and we weren’t sure where to go…. [Then] Amber Benson appeared and sort of made up our minds for us. We had the idea of introducing the character of Tara, the very shy girl who falls for Willow. Fairly early on we thought college is the sort of place where people sort of expand or explore their sexuality and the idea of somebody who thought Willow was great was interesting to us, and the idea that basically we had a new Willow because Willow had become so self-confident and at ease with herself. She wasn’t as helpless as she used to be, and so we wanted somebody…who could act as a kind of Willow character, somebody we’d be invested in who could be put into danger, who would not necessarily know exactly how to take care of herself off the bat…. (00:09:25)
When approached in the context of a person being exposed to Buffy’s demon-filled world for the first time, it’s a decision that makes a lot of sense.
Finally, Whedon offers some insight regarding his technical decisions in the world of Buffy, which help to explain how he gives the show its distinct look. Most shows rely on short takes put together in the editing room because it offers a greater ability to trim scenes to fit the show’s running time. As Whedon explains, “Most TV directors can’t [use long takes] because they don’t know what an executive producer is gonna want to cut. If a show comes in long, something’s gotta be cut out. So if they do everything as a ‘oner,’ as we call it – one long shot – and then the…producer wants to cut out part of it, [they’re] in huge trouble” (00:12:20). Being Buffy’s creator, executive producer, and occasional writer and/or director gives Whedon some unique opportunities. “Because it’s my story, it’s my show, it’s my world to such a large extent, I know and I can afford to do that…,” he says. “I can do stuff in one shot if I know I have the room to keep it and I’m not gonna cut into it, which gives the frame a kind of confidence, which is a great thing because the more you can accomplish in one shot, the better. It keeps you in the reality” (00:12:20).
And with a show of Buffy‘s caliber, there’s no doubt viewers want to keep that reality intact.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4, Episode 10, ‘Hush’ | Directed by Joss Whedon | Written by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head
Want to know more?
– Here’s a detailed episode summary by Katrina Tulloch, a contributor at the EW Community.
– Wonder why Seth Green quit Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Here’s the answer from the man himself on his official website.
– Four mini-reviews of the episode from BBC.
What do you think? How did you react to Tara and her role in the show? Have you noticed the influence of other works of horror in this or other episodes? How did you react to Seth Green’s departure from the show? Leave some comments below and let us know!