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Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Episode 3.18, “Earshot”

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.

Buffy looking smug

 

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”

By [E] Slay Belle

Slay Belle is an editor and the new writer mentor here at Persephone Magazine, where she writes about pop culture, Buffy, and her extreme love of Lifetime movies. She is also the editor of powderroom.jezebel.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @SlayBelle or email her at slay@persephonemagazine.com.

She is awfully fond of unicorns and zombies, and will usually respond to any conversational volley that includes those topics.

7 replies on “Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Episode 3.18, “Earshot””

This is a rough and dark episode, for sure. Usually, the Bad Guys are supernatural; there’s so rarely a “human” bad guy, so it’s a lot easier to dismiss or laugh at the situations. “Earshot” is hard to deal with because of the dual “bad guys” — the angry, unstable cafeteria cook, and angry, hurting Jonathan. They’re both very human, behaving irrationally, and so caught up in anger that they don’t really think about what they’re doing (well, cafeteria cook probably planned her stew-poisoning).

And, yeah, this is one of those episodes that shows just how much happens in Sunnydale that Buffy and the Scoobies don’t notice. They’re very caught up in the “Big Picture”, and miss the details; stop the Mayor from becoming a big ugly demon, save the world, miss how often Jonathan is pushed around and kicked when he’s down. I’ve always had the sense that Jonathan would have made a pretty good Scooby, if he’d been in the right place at the right time; he’s not stupid, and clearly seems to prefer the Scoobies over most other cliquey groups at Sunnydale. But, you know, it’s not like Giles or Buffy can make a “Saving the World Club” recruitment poster, so new “members” really had to be in the right place at the right time (or dating someone).

This was also the episode that really got me liking Cordy. She’s self-centered, yeah, and has a bitchy streak…But she’s honest and knows real friends when she sees them. She’s had several opportunities to ditch the Scoobies, but she still goes back to help, kept Buffy’s slayer nature a secret, and *thanked* Buffy (at least once) for saving her life. She was nice to the Scoobies in the ways she knew how, even if she’s more straight-forward and blunt and very focused on her own needs and wants. I think her “balance” between smart, capable, and brave with pretty and popular was more difficult than Buffy’s, because Cordy managed to maintain that facade even after losing everything. And I’m pretty sure that Cordelia is one of very few who was mistaken for a slayer and kicked as much ass as Buffy.

My favourite voice overs were probably Cordelia and Oz. Just hilarious how very direct and honest Cordelia is and how very deep Oz’s thoughts go (well. philosophical. or whatever). I love this episode and I never got a chance to see it until I bought the season about 4 or 5 years ago. I do remember all the reactions and discussions of Columbine, though I was living in Canada and only 9 or so at the time so it didn’t affect me in quite the same way. I didn’t realise that it happened a week before this was meant to be aired. Woah.

For years I wanted to have telepathy because I was sure it would solve all my problems. Than I watched this episode and it freaked me out so much that the first time round I didn’t even finish it (I think I was 13/14 or something? The possibility of getting what you wish for was still around).

Wasn’t Willow considerably freaked out about this as well? I can remember an alienation between her and Buff, but of course that could have happened another time.

Willow was definitely freaked out. One of her thoughts was something along the lines of ‘It’s like she’s not even human anymore’. And there’s some jealousy that  Buffy could hear what Oz was thinking. But the two of them work it out. I really love their relationship. They just honestly seem to care for each other, even though they fight some times.

I remember this very well since I was in High School when Columbine happened and I remember that the episode was delayed because of it. Every time I watch it, I think about Columbine. I think for people my age, it’s a given that the two are linked. And I agree with you — this episode is actually about being kind to everyone around you because everyone is in pain, so it was actually fitting for it to fall after Columbine because so much of what happened there happened because kids are cruel.

But that moment when Buffy realizes Giles and her mom slept together: priceless.

I was in my early twenties, so I don’t have the direct high school link, but I seriously find it impossible to not think about Columbine when this episode comes up. Obviously the actual episode brings up the issue of school schootings, but for me, the name is just intrinsically linked to the shootings.

I’d like to point out that for everyone’s enjoyment I googled ‘Buffy Sex Gifs’ last night to get those two in the article and now my brain will never be the same.

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