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October 24 2010

Buffy vs. her very mind itself! A look at the season 6 episode 'Normal Again'.

I'm not sure what my thoughts are about this article, but Normal Again has always been one of my very favorite episodes. From a story perspective, the ambiguity of the ending leaves me feeling punched in the gut every time. From a technical perspective, the writing and editing are just perfect. From an acting perspective, Sarah Michelle proved that she is one of the best, and most underrated, actresses in the business. I think this episode is some of her best work.

For me, Normal Again is the Out of Gas of BtVS.

(edited for misspelling "Sarah")

[ edited by Amrita on 2010-10-24 17:51 ]
Normal Again is usually the episode I skip when I re-watch. Mostly because I can't really handle the fact that there's the slightest chance that the slayer monster world isn't real. Denial is fun.
Well I always found 'Normal Again' to be a very difficult episode, it took me far too far away from the suspension of disbelief I enjoyed in the series, and it brought me face to face with realities... I just didn't want to face (my older sister had spent some time in an insane asylum, I don't think that county hospital could be considered anything else). I do agree w/Amrita that it is beautifully constructed, and deserves to be compared to 'Out of Gas'. And this 'Watcher Junior' blog is really evocative and deserves serious consideration and discussion. But I'll have to think about it for a bit....
I find it helpful, whenever the chance that the Slayer/monster world isn't real threatens, to remember that hallucinations don't have spin-off series. Maybe the events of BtVS could be all in Buffy's head if BtVS was all there was, but there's also Angel, which includes many places and people Buffy never encountered. So "Normal Again" has never succeeded in making me doubt whether the Buffyverse is the true reality within the shows.
We reject the "Normal Again" reality because we come to Buffy for escapism. Normal again is drearily plausible and realistic. Were I to start slaying evil creatures, I know in my heart of hearts that there's a far greater likelihood that I would have acquired some late onset psychosis than that I was actually a hero and vanquisher of fell monsters.
Maybe the events of BtVS could be all in Buffy's head if BtVS was all there was, but there's also Angel, which includes many places and people Buffy never encountered.


Playing devil's advocated here, but a spinoff series doesn't negate the Normal Again-verse. There's plenty of places and people in Sunndydale who Buffy would've never encountered if she was in that psychiatric hospital. In the Normalverse, everything in Sunnydale is a figment of Buffy's imagination--she's never met these imaginary people nor been to a town called Sunnydale. So there's no reason to think Buffy couldn't have dreamed up Angel's series also.

What was that show that ended with the character having dreamed the entire series which by default made all the shows he appeared on in-character products of his hallucinations?

[ edited by Emmie on 2010-10-24 16:42 ]
Tommy Westphall from St. Elsewhere. I find that one hilarious because of that John Munch guy who has appeared on everything from "The X-Files" to "The Wire". I guess, it does make sense. :p

[ edited by Jaymii on 2010-10-24 17:01 ]
This is a great article, but what I find most unnerving is the last paragraph. People dismiss Buffy because of the title and because of Sarah's "prettiness"?

I hate everyone.
It was a very bold, risky episode. For me personally, I find it difficult to watch. I find I enter the BTVS world when I watch, where monsters are real and evil can be fought and subdued, and I don't want the every day realities to infringe.
I admire Joss and M.E. for doing it. It's wonderfully written and beautifully acted but don't be messing with my sense of wonder smacking me with a dose of insanity. I was really shaken when I first saw it but now I just skip it. I've seen it more than once but it's definitely on my let's not go there again list.
A few nights ago I was watching Nightmares from Season 1 and was struck by the conversation between Buffy and Willow, when Buffy was talking about her parents' divorce:

"I'm sure I was a really big help, though, with all the slaying and everything. I was in so much trouble. I was a big mess."

It just seemed so prescient for the events of Normal Again, and I found myself toying with the idea that even from the beginning, she was actually still in that hospital.
BEST EPISODE EVER.

They really don't make television like they used too, Buffy was, and always will be, unbeatable.
hallucinations don't have spin-off series


This is the funniest thing I've heard all week. =D
hallucinations don't have spin-off series.


Gene Hunt would disagree.
I would (will) actually argue that 'Angel' getting a spin off series is in fact proof of the hallucination: we all experienced break ups, but in the real world you either just loose touch or (worst case scenario) he marries your college roommate. He isn't a cursed and soulful vampire who continues to long for you forever and has to move to another town to fight evil. Angel's own over-the-top experiences just reinforce the hallucination, they don't refute it. IMO

However I had to admit that the 'Angel' series never figured one way or another in my discomfort with 'Normal Again'. I would never avoid rewatching 'Normal Again', but it is always like picking at a scab when I do: I'm trying to see if it is still as painful as it was before or if I have in some way healed.
I like to think of Normal Again as just a very brilliant one-off that explores what could, what might be, rather than what is. The is, being our interpretation of the show up to that point. What we're comfortable in knowing. All the analysis is great, but I vehemently reject that the world where Buffy is mad, is the "dominant reality". High school being Hell is bad enough, but it shouldn't be so tough it sends you over the edge.

Another famous character said it best (and he should know): We all go a little mad sometimes. Thus the sense of relief when Buffy's choice is to come back to us, and not stay in the weird, dark place.
This is a great article, but what I find most unnerving is the last paragraph. People dismiss Buffy because of the title and because of Sarah's "prettiness"?

I hate everyone.


That's the line that jumped out at me, too, but partially because I'm a guilty party. It took me years to get past the title and give it a go. I'm not sure if Sarah's looks were a factor, but probably; I definitely remember thinking that David Boreanaz looked like the standard TV pretty boy and I didn't want a piece of that.

The problem of course is that everyone on TV is pretty, so until you get to know the characters, everyone on TV looks the same. From the title and Sarah's face alone, you have no hint that this is anything more than a sexy woman in a campy fantasy setting.

Regarding the spin-off as evidence against the series being a hallucination, I haven't seen St. Elsewhere, but this does bring another kinda special TV moment to mind. Hurley in Lost spends an episode believing that the island and everything in it is a figment of his imagination. His pseudo-girlfriend talks him out of it by recounting an event that happened in another episode and quizzing him on the details. When he can't remember, she says "That's because it happened to me," and goes on to tell him that she's insulted by the idea that she can't have a life outside of Hurley's hallucinations.

Naturally, he could have been imagining all that too, but we know he made the better choice by accepting the validity of someone else's experience. Likewise, Angel and everything that happened to the other characters in Buffy doesn't provide proof that Buffy isn't insane, but it does provide a better option.

...Hurley's a guy on TV who isn't pretty. I think it was easier for me to get into Lost than Buffy. Huh.
Kairos, but I think Lost is another example of one of those shows were the men can get away with not being pretty, but, interestingly, the women can't. Sometimes that bothers me even more.
I always thought of the Normal Again reality as another dimension, since there is supposedly a dimension for everything (one with nothing but shrimp, etc). The demon's poison or whatever just gave her a window into that other dimension, in which Buffy had been catatonic for years because her conciousness was stuck in the Buffyverse for whatever reason. Both realities are "real", but Buffy chooses to remain in the one where she is needed most.
I stand by my opinion that had the Angel series never existed, Normal Again would have been a beautiful finale. Especially if it had taken place at the end of season seven, as while I don't care too much for the last season, any fewer episode of Buffy would in fact be tragic to me.

It actually would have made me appreciate the finale season that much more by invalidating it in a sense. Which is kinda weird to say, I s'pose.

But no more weird than loving how Roseanne ended, which turned the whole series in a book. (I still get annoyed when people don't seem to understand it wasn't just a few seasons - it was the entire series.)

Of course, St. Elsewhere has ruined television single-handedly by incorporating most of it into Tommy's fragile little mind.

Then again, Dallas ruined Knots Landing too. The mindscape is a dangerous territory for television it seems.

;)
Hmmm. For no particular reason, I watched Normal Again this morning before coming online. Weird.

I don't know if I buy RaisedBy Mongrels idea that both realities are real, but I do like that idea better than a total rejection of the reality of schizophrenic Buffy. I've always loved that final scene for that reason. By making it hard, but not impossible, for the viewer to go back to Heroic Buffy, it felt like another layer was added to the already considerable layering of the show. Unlike St Elsewhere or Rosanne, which alienated a lot of viewers by coming out firmly for one interpretation, this was tv for those who can hold more than one way of looking at things in mind simultaneously.

Besides, I was into the show for its ever-deepening characterization, wit and emotional power, more than for the depiction of feminist role-modeling and female agency, which are admittedly weakened here. The addition of a possible tragic reading of both Buffy and Angel outweighs for me the hit to the ideology, even though I support it.
embers: I would never avoid rewatching 'Normal Again', but it is always like picking at a scab when I do: I'm trying to see if it is still as painful as it was before or if I have in some way healed.

That is exactly how I feel about "The Body" instead - I don't skip it, but each time I go to watch it I think, "Oh, well, it can't possibly hurt as much as the first time - I probably won't even tear up." And then I am wrong.

Re: "Normal Again" - like RaisedbyMongrels, I always thought of it as an alternate universe or timeline to which the Glarghk Guhl Kashma'nik demony juice - and her own alienation from her life in her Slayer timeline - opened the doorway and pushed her into. Her challenge was to not get sucked up into the comforting-but-wrong timeline, and to accept/get back to her own.

(That said, I never quite believed in Crazy Buffyland, because the shrink was sorta unbelievably elaborate about Buffy's diagnosis and delusions both right in front of her and to her face. Not likely, I thought. Still, I love this episode...)

About the article... the author kinda had me with some of the insanity-as-hopeless-disbelief-in-one's-power-and-agency stuff, but lost me when he discussed his belief that this episode had some kind of "supercharged" impact on a post-Tara's-death "fan revolt" - and that the analogy of Willow's magick "addiction" to actual drug addiction was also somehow pertinent to fandom really seemed like a stretch.

"The final episodes of season six, dealing as they do with hitting bottom, draw a link between the temporary madness of addiction, fandom, and theater."

Didn't really see all of that in there. Nor did I at all buy the comparison of a psychotic break to the mild difficulty of having to defend the worth and meaning of one's attachment to BtVS to disbelieving friends or colleagues.

"The battle for your understanding of the series in the face of light entertainment like ER and Friends was pretty much a constant pressure that Buffy's psychotic break provided an apt metaphor for."

Yeah. Not sure it was apt, exactly, more like a s-t-r-e-t-c-h... but nonetheless, his examination overall of "Normal Again" provided some good food for thought.

ETF: typos, natch

[ edited by QuoterGal on 2010-10-25 17:55 ]
Oh toooo many thoughts!! I love/hate this episode and like Jaxn i often skip it because i cant handle the possibility of her existance and her world and not existing for real. I'm sure everyone wonders everynow and then if everyone around them is really just a figment of our own imaginations. Love some of the lines in the article and am intreged by the implications of the St elsewhere link. very cool work by the buffy writers. Horrified at the prospect that this episode could have been a season final and distroyed my buffy verse forever.
"I'm sure everyone wonders everynow and then if everyone around them is really just a figment of our own imaginations."

I used to wonder that. Now I know we are all figments of our imagination. A realisation that is simultaneously trivial,
and deeply powerful.
I always found this episode powerful and dangerous...

What this article may have missed is that Joyce tells Buffy to be strong--and Buffy does. She chooses to go back to the world where she has to stand up for herself, without help from mom. It may not be real, but it's the mature, powerful, and responsible choice... which gives it deep significance even if it's delusional.

I've always found it quite striking, however, that Buffy pulls herself together about the same time as Tara arrives. Tara has been a surrogate mom to Dawn, of course, but she's also served Buffy in that capacity in S6--she's the emotional core in a lot of ways, filling the gap left by Joyce's death and Giles' departure. There's a reason Tara's death kicks things over into the final arc of S6; she's been holding things together.
That's a very interesting point about Tara, ManEnoughToAdmitIt (and good as well to remind that Buffy does choose to be strong here).

Edit to also compliment Simon on the thread title; the exclamation point is a nice touch.

[ edited by LKW on 2010-10-25 17:50 ]
I liked "Normal Again" and like RaisedbyMongrels and QuoterGal, I always thought of it as an alternate universe that Buffy's mind tapped into when she was poisoned.

But I did find this in the article very interesting:


Buffy is a powerful young woman and the story of her life is her own and she is its author. She rejects the patriarchy of the Watcher's Council and her second death in "The Gift" comes at her own choice. They then note that Buffy "loses the pen" in season six. After her return from heaven, Buffy is less and less sure of herself. Willow and the other Scoobies essentially revoke Buffy’s authority over her own life by bringing her back into the world – into her story, which she felt she had definitively finished – without her consent. ... in choosing the antidote Buffy regains authority over her own story.


I had never thought of that; it's a neat spin on the episode.

Also, I have to totally disagree with this:

I feel that this episode played a role in supercharging the fan revolt surrounding Tara's death.


Because, in my opinion, the fan revolt surrounding Tara's death was caused by Tara's death. If Tara hadn't died, the fans wouldn't have revolted.
What this article may have missed is that Joyce tells Buffy to be strong--and Buffy does. She chooses to go back to the world where she has to stand up for herself, without help from mom. It may not be real, but it's the mature, powerful, and responsible choice... which gives it deep significance even if it's delusional.

Agreed. I think it's the hardest thing she does in Seasons 5-6, which have no shortage of hardship. It's a tough episode for me to watch. That moment where she chooses to leave Joyce's support behind is both painful and very powerful.

I like the idea that Buffy regains authority over her story and life at this point in S6 very much. You could look at it as the beginning of the end for her depressed period. It starts here and she completes it when she fights with Dawn in the season finale.
I have to say, I'm not sure Buffy ever totally recovers from her depression--and if there's a moment that's closest to that, I think it's probably the absolute last moment of the show (that smile). But she certainly starts to deal with it a bit better.
I agree with ManEnoughToAdmitIt, I think that Buffy went from depressed in Season 6 to resigned/frustrated/over-burdened and really fatalistic in Season 7, and it wasn't until that last moment when she sees a glimmer of hope for having a future.
So how would we view Buffy in Season Eight, in lieu of that perspective? (Not an excuse for people to start whinging about space sex and the like, I'm interested in some genuine insight)
I feel much the same about Tara; and her absence explains a portion of the basket-case-ishness of BXW thru S-7-8.

Once, just to be annoying, I suggested whenever a SLayer is called in the Buyffyvserse it sucks the sdanity out of a girl in teh Asylumverse; which would vioalte Joss's girl-power themes, of coruse
Emmie said:
What was that show that ended with the character having dreamed the entire series which by default made all the shows he appeared on in-character products of his hallucinations?


Do you mean Newhart? I wonder if this was part of the inspiration for the Buffy episode 'Normal Again'?



Newhart was canceled in 1990 after eight seasons and 182 episodes. The last episode ended with a scene in which Newhart wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who had played Emily, his wife from The Bob Newhart Show. He realizes (in a satire of a famous plot element in the TV series Dallas a few years earlier) that the entire eight-year Newhart series had been a single nightmare of Dr. Bob Hartley's, provoked by "eating too much Japanese food before going to bed." Recalling Mary Frann's buxom figure, Bob closes the segment and the series by telling Emily, "You should really wear more sweaters" before the typical closing notes of the old Bob Newhart Show theme playe over the fadeout. The twist ending was later chosen by TV Guide as the best finale in television history.


[ edited by Sunder on 2010-10-26 07:02 ]

[ edited by Sunder on 2010-10-26 07:02 ]
"That moment where she chooses to leave Joyce's support behind is both painful and very powerful."

Powerful, yes. Because Joyce is the enemy. Buffy should have killed her a long time ago.

Henious thing to say, n'est-ce pas? That's because your brain knows more about that than you do.
I don't think our readings on that scene agree, hence.

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