You know what? I was wrong. You are an idiot. My life happens to, on occasion, 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.
It is impossible to talk about this episode without talking about Columbine, too.
I suppose there’s a whole generation of BTVS fans who are unaware of the controversy over this episode. The show is on Netflix, on Hulu, on reruns and DVDs. You can watch them all in one go or in whatever order you want without anyone telling you when it’s going to air and in what order. But in 1999, Buffy was in its initial run. “Earshot” was set to run in April. The week before it was suppose to air, Columbine occurred.
“Earshot” didn’t run that week. It didn’t run at all until the week before season 4 started that fall. “Graduation Day part 2″ was also yanked from the schedule – after pressure from the fans, Fox finally showed that almost a month after the third season ended. I can’t exactly fault Fox for this even after all these years have passed. If you’re old enough, maybe you remember how out of sorts and frightened the nation was post-Columbine. It was horror on an almost unthinkable level. The US certainly had had school shootings in previous years – the fall before was the Jonesboro shooting, where two middle school boys pulled a fire alarm and then shot at their schoolmates as they streamed out of the building. But there had been nothing on the scale of what happened in Colorado before.
Of course, the irony, if that’s the right word, is that the deep emotional message of “Earshot,” the quote from Buffy in the opening, wasn’t about nihilism and violence, but about the need for empathy, about recognizing the pain that people carry around inside of them. It’s a deeply poignant scene and it had a lot of resonance to the discussion of school violence that was flooding the media. But no one in that time and place would have recognized it. They would have just seen Jonathan in the bell tower with a rifle.
I love Jonathan. Even with everything that happens in season 6, I just like the guy. I recognized him – knew the kind of person he was in high school – and I liked seeing him repeatedly turn up in this superhero universe. A lot of these little characters who you might see only now and again serve to do a lot of grounding for the Buffyverse – there’s people in this world who are affected by what Buffy and the gang are doing, even if it isn’t always acknowledged. It certainly gives heft, shows that there are other lives and stories going on where the gang isn’t concerned. Take Larry, who is the school bully and also a closeted gay; he appears in the Wishverse as a White Hat, and then gets revisited here in “Earshot,” out, gay and proud. Sandy, the girl whom EvilWillow kills in “Dopplegangland” shows up again in season 5 as the strung out vampire with whom Riley has his feeding-affair. There’s a whole plot there, the girl who just went out to see a band at the Bronze and ends up a vampire hooker, all because she met the wrong Willow. Harmony gets this treatment, too, showing up in the background as one of Cordy’s nameless henchwomen and gradually developing into someone we (sorta) care about. She’s even made it all the way into the comics.
And then there’s Jonathan. This is his first major role in the show and first dramatic part for the character, who is usually the punching bag in some terrible joke made in passing. I always think of him sitting on the stairs as Harmony insults Cordy in the “The Wish,” picking him out as the next loser for Cordelia to date. He doesn’t say anything in the scene, but the hurt expression on his face speaks loudly enough. He’s interrogated by the Scoobies, pushed aside in the hallways, shows up at parties that get attacked by zombies. It’s a world of insults. So I ask you all, was anyone surprised when Jonathan admits he wanted to kill himself? The development of the episode is clever – the red-herring that turns out to be not-so-red – but it isn’t a cheat. By the time we meet up with Jonathan in the bell tower and he lashes out at Buffy, it’s relateable. It doesn’t feel faked.
I’ve given a lot of the plot away already, but let’s flesh out the skeleton. In “Earshot,” Buffy is infected with an “aspect of the demon” – contaminated during a patrol fight. There’s a lot of worry about what form this infection might take – Willow, rather insensitively, wonders if it was a boy demon. Buffy doesn’t want horns or scales or a tail, but she might be able to handle it if the aspect was something below the surface. (Which is funny ha-ha, since she’s been infected by a demon all a long! Late season revelation!)
Instead of horns or a tail, she gets telepathy.
This is fun. For a second or two. Spying on people’s thoughts has its advantages, like being able to impress her English teacher with her (stolen) insights on Othello. Or shaming Wesley for lusting after Cordelia. But like any demon-given gift, this one turns to bite her in the proverbial ass as she’s unable to filter out anyone’s thoughts. Overwhelmed in the school, Buffy hears one distinct thought “This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all.’
Which is when she passes out. As Giles discovers, the telepathy will drive her insane and he drags her home, away from the crowd at the high school. My girl Buffy, barely standing, still is general enough to issue orders to the Scoobies, sending them out to track down the potential killer. The Scoobies “help” to the best of their various abilities (Cordy: “Hi, Mr. Beech. I was just wondering, were you planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? Oh, it’s for the yearbook.”) while Angel tracks down another demon to make the antidote to Buffy’s infection. She, of course, recovers in time to rush to the high school and find Jonathan putting together a high-powered rifle in the bell tower. The real killer turns out to be the lunch lady, who was poisoning the Mulligan Stew. For once, Xander’s joke in the first part of the show ends up actually being the answer to “who did it” question. So, yay Xander.
“Earshot” manages to be one of the darkest episodes of the series – we don’t often deal with human-on-human violence that isn’t supernaturally influenced – while also the funniest. The voice-overs alone are practically gold. Cordelia, who thinks exactly what she says. Xander, who spends about as much time thinking about sex as we all suspected he did. Wesley crushing on Cordelia and then asking Buffy if he was “thinking too loudly” at her. And the absolute best thing ever, practically, Joyce panicking around her telepathic daughter so much we find out that Joyce and Giles had sex. On top of a police car. Twice.
Next week: “Choices”