Buffyversed #19: “Lie to Me” — A Thorough, Brutal Take on Coming of Age

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Buffyversed is a week by week, episode by episode, re-exploration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Look for it every Friday on Goomba Stomp. 

Look, I won’t lie to you–Buffy the Vampire Slayer is far from a perfect show. There are times when it soars, and there are times when it dives. A quick Google search of the question “When does Buffy get good?” provides a cursory glance of how difficult modern audiences can find it to connect to the show in its earlier days.

While we’ve recently struggled with the likes of “Inca Mummy Girl”, we’ve also had the killer fun and high stakes of “School Hard” just a few weeks back. This is the moment in time when Buffy begins to change from a pretty good show, with fun writing, to a genre-defying, once in a lifetime, piece of pop culture. Like its forebears, Twin Peaks and The X-FilesBuffy is never a pitch perfect show, but when Whedon and co. nail it, they nail it. This weeks episode, “Lie to Me”, is the start of the kind of TV that The Wire creator, David Simon, was jealous of, even while he was penning one of the greatest prestige television shows of all time.

Written and directed by Whedon himself, “Lie to Me”, unsurprisingly, centers on the idea of lies and mis-truths, positing that as its theme for the episode. It starts with Angel and Dru having an encounter on a playground, the former having just halted the latter from feeding on a young boy. As Buffy looks on, she observes what appears to be a tender meeting between lovers. Troubled and concerned, she offers Angel the chance, twice, to fess up on what he was up to, but both times he attempts to lie his way out of the situation.

Hi, I’m Ford, and I’m a complicated douchebag, but a douchebag all the same.

This leads naturally into the introduction of Ford, a former 5th grade crush of Buffy’s from LA. Ford is the perfect distraction, and Buffy leans into him as such, even as her friends grow increasingly suspicious of Ford, and his motives. It turns out that their suspicions are absolutely well-founded, however, as Ford is a member of a wannabe vampire underground, who dress up and pretend to be vampires by night.

One of their ilk, Chanterelle, is particularly pathetic, calling vampires “The Lonely Ones” and opining for them as though they were intellectual romantics straight out of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. As we know, and as Buffy later states in the episode itself, that’s not how things work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here, vampires are demons wearing human suits. They have your memories, they have your personality, but they’re not you, not really.

Like the rest of these sad specimens, Chanterelle gets a brutal awakening when she sees what has come to visit at the end of the episode. Ford, having lead Buffy there as a trade to Spike for immortality, has also promised Spike’s gang the rest of the aspiring undead as a bonus snack. Chanterelle’s crumpled sorrow and terror show what happens when you put all of your faith into a bedtime story with no place in reality.

Under normal circumstances it would be easy to empathize with someone like Chanterelle, especially being that she’s the most likable member of this Gothic fringe group. However, we more easily side with Angel when he outright calls her a moron, even as she’s politely introducing herself, while welcoming the outsiders to their club. As Angel eventually makes clear to Buffy later in the episode, when he explains how he tormented, corrupted, and destroyed Drusilla, just for the fun of it, he knows what vampires are, and what they’re capable of.

Like Chanterelle, we all wish the world were a better, simpler place. That doesn’t, however, make her ignorance endearing.

Still the lies compound, one on top of the other throughout the run of “Lie to Me”. This, of course, leads to the eventual turnaround, where the truths must come to play. Angel tells Buffy about the monster he once was, and explains the guilt that weighs him down as a result. Willow and Xander come clean about colluding with Angel behind her back but the hurt feelings remain, good intentions or not. And finally, Ford’s lie turns out to be a much easier pill to swallow than the truth: that, as he puts it: “a nest of tumors are slowly liquefying my brain.” That’s a description of brain cancer that will keep you up at night, and an early indicator that some time soon, just day-to-day life will be the real “big bad” of the show.

Interestingly, when things are at their most dire, only Buffy and Spike are as good as their word. Buffy takes Dru as a hostage in order to secure the lives of the Sunset Club, but lets her live, even when she has the upper hand, because she promised she would. Similarly, when Spike finds himself in the basement with just Ford to take his aggression out on, Whedon fades out of the scene to leave Ford’s fate ambiguous. Buffy lets the gang know that they’ll have to come back for the body, but she doesn’t know what kind of body they’re coming back for, if you catch my meaning.

Later, as Ford emerges from his grave, only to be instantly staked by a waiting Buffy, we see that Spike too has kept his word. Even as enemies, Spike and Buffy have this much in common: when it counts, each is as good as their word.

In an episode where everyone lies, only Buffy and Spike are as good as their word. These will be enduring characteristics for both characters.

Finally, as the episode closes out, Buffy is exasperated and emotionally spent. She lets it all spill to Giles in a heart-breaking exchange that sums up the experience of growing up with troubling articulation. She doesn’t know who the good guys are anymore, and the bad guys aren’t as clear-cut as she thought they were. The scales have fallen from her eyes, and things are no longer simple. She asks Giles bluntly: “Is it always like this? Does it get better?”

As someone who has faced this sort of sad realization with my step-daughter recently, “Lie to Me” hits particularly hard in this scene. Giles, a no-bullshit sort of chap simply asks with exasperation: “What do you want me to say?”

And Buffy responds: “Lie to me.”

Obediently, Giles paints a world for Buffy where everything is simple, where the good are brave and just, and evil-doers are easily distinguished by their black hats or pointy horns.

As the episode fades out, we hear the last word in the script mockingly spoken by Buffy: “…Liar.”

This is important because “Lie to Me” is a turning point for this series. Buffy has come of age and faced the reality of the adult world for the first time. When she was fighting The Master, things were easy, and the morality of the situation was never complex. From this point on Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be wading into increasingly gray waters in terms of morality, and we’ll have to follow it to its troubling depths, whether we like it or not.

Xander’s non-commital outbursts of “You’re not wrong!” to Ford, as he comments on Angel’s standout features, like cold hands, are a comic relief island in this country of grief.

Cristina Says:

“Cristina Says,” is based on observations my fiance makes. This is my 4th time through the series, but Cristina is a first-time watcher with modern TV sensibilities. 

“Uh-oh! Buffy’s getting jello!” (Cristina is taking something of a sinister joy in watching this particular coupling when they struggle. It’s almost sadistic!)

“So how do they know each other?” (My gal is wondering how Angel and Dru have such a quick and easy shorthand in the episode opening. It’s something she, and the rest of us, will find out very shortly.)

“Don’t you miss writing notes?” (As usual, Buffy serves as a fine time capsule for some of our more nostalgic moments, like passing notes in class, for instance.)

“Easier? Like easier because he’s a human!? Hahah, I love it, Angel’s getting all pissy because his territory is getting crossed!” (See above. Cristina is absolutely rooting for Buffy and Ford. She is not a fan of this particular coupling… or Angel in general, it seems. Will I be able to talk her into watching that spin-off of his? Only time will tell!)

This is your regular reminder to fucking pay attention when you see this production caption.

Notable Whedonisms:

Whedonisms are a sort of term for (Buffy creator) Joss Whedon’s style of dialogue, and something we’re using as a catch-all for particularly fun or witty lines.

“Hey, it’s me: if Angel’s doing something bad, I wanna know about it.” (Xander, still carrying that torch, but at least he does it in a witty way.)

“Geez, doesn’t she know any fat guys?” (Xander opines the fact that every guy who comes to see Buffy makes for a conventionally attractive specimen.)

“See! You made him do that thing where he’s gone!” (Willow scolds Xander for bringing out Angel’s Batman side.)

“You need help? With what? Homework? No, wait, because you’re old you already know stuff.” (A nightshirt clad Willow stutters her way through a bedroom conversation with Angel.)

“Oh! Did we finally find a restaurant that delivers?” (Spike looks on the bright side when Ford walks into his warehouse lair… lair-house? Yeah! Lair-house!)

Next week we’ve got something special planned but it’s a bit of a surprise. What kind of surprise? To find out, pop back to Goomba Stomp in 7. 

(Featured image credit: Basement Rejects)

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about games. Through some miracle he’s still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there’s hope for him, there’s hope for everyone. He’s the managing Games editor for Goomba Stomp, creator of the weekly Buffyversed column, and can be found bi-weekly on the Random Encounters podcast.