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“Doppelgangland”—Buffy the Vampire Slayer—1999

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Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the show’s peak in terms of both theme and narrative. Other seasons—2, 5, and even 6—all reached greater emotional heights, and seasons 4 and 7 were visual stunners that strove for cinematic aesthetics and actually got them. Season 3, however—with the introductions of Faith and Anya, the  deep fleshing-out of Willow and Xander’s characters, and a first look at politics in Sunnydale—made the series’s most sophisticated philosophical and ethical inquiries, and no episode more so than number 16, “Doppelgangland”.

"Just remember, a vampire's personality has nothing to do with the person it was."—Buffy

Exploring the idea of Doubles, “Doppelgangland” confronts some of the most basic questions about the nature of consciousness and personality. Specifically, regarding the classic debate between Freud and Jung on the role of our repressed impulses, “Doppelgangland” comes down firmly on the side of Jung—showing that our darkest, most destructive impulses are creative forces that can give our lives strength and purpose.

Coming in the midst of massive Soap Opera plot upheavals, this episode really demonstrates how far Buffy had strayed from the simple X-Files binary of Mytharc vs. Monster-of-Week by 1999. Each teleplay now featured thorough character development and mythological explorations in the context of a self-contained storyline. Episode 16 is a perfect example; the titular doppelgänger provides a perfectly obligatory Monster-of-the-Week, but it’s culled from the epic arc of a storyline started several weeks earlier.

The story seems to uniquely focus on Cordelia’s perspective—one-shot style, but it actually revolves around established tensions between primary Scoobies; on the one hand it’s a hilarious romp, but on the other its a depressing rumination on guilt—doubling itself, perchance? In fact, in many ways “Doppelgangland” is the penultimate episode of Season 3—a year that obsessively revolved around variations on the “Double-goer”.

“I know Faith’s not going to be on the cover of Sanity Fair, but she’s had it rough. Different circumstances, that could be me.”—Buffy, in “Doppelgangland”

In Romantic literature a person’s dark half would often be represented as a vampire, and over the years the Double has been as central to Buffy‘s mythology as the blood-sucker. From episode 1 (“Anne”) to the double-feature finale (“Graduate Day”), season 3’s focus on Doubles is even more conspicuous than others:

  • 01: “Anne”—Buffy runs away, creates a wholesome new persona, and ultimately realizes that her darkness is her strength.
  •  03: “Faith, Hope, and Trick”—Faith, Buffy’s recurring doppelgänger in season 3, is introduced. Buffy repeatedly confronts Faith and the unconstrained freedom she represents. This is really the heart of season 3, and it culminates in a battle in which Buffy must “kill” Faith, who lives—but through no fault of Buffy’s. In the end Buffy does what she has to and embraces her own dark side.
  • 04: “Beauty and the Beasts”—Oz and Angel are both suspected of murder. Oz is a human that occasionally becomes beast; Angel is also human that occasionally becomes a beast. Doubles of Doubles.
  • 05: “Homecoming”—Buffy runs against Cordelia in a violently competitive Homecoming Queen election. Buffy once said that if she wasn’t the Slayer she would “be” Cordelia.
  • 06: “Band Candy”—Buffy’s mom and Giles eat candy that revert them to teenage versions of themselves. A classic Id vs. Superego split.
  • 09: “The Wish”—the episode that initiates the events of “Doppelgangland”. This one features an entire alternate universe of Doubles!

Doubles are, to a greater or lesser extent, featured in other episdoes as well, and the Faith arc gives the theme a central position—second only to the series’s day-one High-School-is-Hell project that gets wrapped up in the triumphant finale.

In Freudian terms, the arrival of the double represents the “return of the repressed.” The protagonist must acknowledge what the double represents, and at the same time struggle against it.—Hitchcock & Psychoanalysis

The figure of the doppelgänger emerged at the same time as the vampire, “originating in the German Schauerroman and the British Gothic Novel”. It would usually be either a portent of impending death or a version of the protagonist with a mutated morality. As time went on it became more and more of an ‘Evil Twin’ figure, and “in recent examples influenced by Freudianism, the doppelgänger represents hidden or repressed aspects of the protagonist’s personality.

The doppelgänger is an uncanny motif comprising two distinct types: (1) the alter ego or identical double of a protagonist …(2) the split personality or dark half of the protagonist, an unleashed monster that acts as a physical manifestation of a dissociated part of the self.—Gry Faurholt

Carl Gustav Jung

All of this boils down to, in Jungian terms—the Shadow. Identifying doppelgängers as an expression of the Jungian Shadow fits in with much Doppel-lore. In fact, character’s actual, physical shadows are often used as doppelgängers, and the most famous literary Doubles—Jekyll & Hyde—are also the most famous literary examples of Jung’s concept of the Shadow. All of this is crucial to the conclusion of “Doppelgangland”—which vindicates Jungian pragmatism in the face of Freudian guilt and cynicism.

Jung and Freud’s lengthy relationship ended partly because of their differing opinions on the significance of repressed material.

The unconscious to Freud was the storage facility for all repressed sexual desires, thus resulting in pathological or mental illness. Only through laying bare the unconscious could a person discover how to live happily…Jung, conversely, felt that the unconscious often strove on its own for wholeness, and that mental illness was not pathology, but an unconscious regulation of emotions and stored experience tending toward individuation.

The goal of the therapist, according to Jung, was to help the person recognize the work of the unconscious, and thus to assist the patient in understanding how better to strive for individuation which would produce a “whole” person.—WiseGeek

In other words—Freud thought repressed material drove you mad. The analyst’s job was to help you investigate the repressed material in order to discover the motivation behind its repression. In this way you could treat the motivation and elimate entirely the unacceptable impulses. This was very different from Jung, who believed that the analyst was to help you discover the repressed material in order to intergrate it into your conscious personality. This difference was manifest most explicitly in Jung’s concept of the Shadow—which is the personification of all repressed impulses and emotions. Accepting and assimilating your Shadow was the most important aspect of therapy for Jung, but for Freud the dangerous sexual or violent impulses were simply too destructive for the conscious mind to use. The hilarious ending of “Doppelgangland” puts an exclamation point on Jung’s argument, and it does so with style and grace.

VampWill don't take too kindly to the likes of Percy 'round here.

“What could we talk about? Hey, how about the ethics of boyfriend-stealing?”—Cordelia to VampWill, in “Doppelgangland”

During Season 3 a Love-Square developed between Xander/Cordy and Willow/Oz. Xander and Willow’s longstanding unresolved-sexual-tension erupted into High School adultery—smoochies—that devastates Cordy and Oz. It’s Xander and Willow’s illicit smooch in episode 8 (“Lovers Walk”)—and its subsequent fallout—that is the narrative motive behind both “The Wish” and “Doppelgangland”.

In “The Wish” Cordelia wishes into existence an alternate universe—we’ll call it Sunnydale II—wherein “Buffy Summers never came to Sunnydale.” In this new dimension Xander and Willow are:

  • Dead
  • Vampires (really evil, second-in-command to The Master vamps, too)
  • Romantically linked
  • Sexually deviant
  • Cordelia’s eventual murderers

So, Cordelia’s post-adultery-victim wish fulfillment is pretty transparent, but there’s another interpretive angle on her seemingly self-serving wish because Sunnydale II is about much more than just Cordelia Chase and her perceptions. This is made explicitly clear when she’s killed off just a few minutes into her time in the alternate universe.

Wish-fulfillment, much?

It’s more like Sunnydale II is a psychic plane on which all of the various emotional and moral events of the season are played out in metaphor. Notably, not everyone in Sunnydale II is an evil twin. Giles, Oz, Harmony, and even Angel all seem, more or less, like identical copies of themselves. Willow and Xander are the obviously evil twins, and there’s one more character in the new universe that Cordelia creates that helps give “Doppelgangland” its title—Buffy. She dresses, acts, talks, and even thinks just like Faith—her recurring season 3 Double.

Some characters get alter-egos; some get evil twins. The characters that have lengthy, season-spanning neurotic guilt are the characters that manifest as their Shadows in Sunnydale II. Characters that are guilt-less (Oz) or that have moved past their guilt (Giles, Larry) are presented as being wholly individuated—even in the Shadow-world of Sunnydale II.

During “The Wish” Willow and Xander both repeatedly express their intense guilt over their recent romantic transgressions. Unable to control their inherently biological, sexual urges, both succumb to aspects of their personality that they normally don’t even admit exist. Buffy also still has latent guilt over the end of season 2, when she had to use the pure darkness at the core of her being to send a re-ensouled Angel to a Hell dimension for a couple hundred years.

…although the doppelgänger motif apparently subverts our notion of identity, it in effect operates in a conservative manner reinforcing the necessity of socialisation.—Gry Faurholt

The conclusion of the “The Wish” is classically Freudian. Each of the Shadows is killed, and order is restored to the original Sunnydale. Luckily “Doppelgangland” comes along to recontextualize the events into a Jungian framework.

“It’s all about emotional control. Plus, obviously, magic.”—Willow, “Doppelgangland”

“Doppelgangland” is about Willow discovering, confronting, and intergrating her Shadow-self into her larger personality when VampWill from Sunnydale II comes to town.

Act One opens with a scene of Principal Snyder ordering Willow to take the school’s resident blockhead jock—Percy—under her tutoring wing. Later he blatantly orders her to write his paper for him. Act Two opens with the newly arrived VampWill violently accosting Percy at the Bronze. Act Three opens with VampWill meeting Good Willow, and finally Act Four opens with VampWill taking reverse vengeance on Cordelia for lambasting her with Good Willow’s past romantic sins. The entire episode is structered to put the emphasis on Willow’s dark side doing what her light side can’t. In fact, in one revealing scene Oz invites Willow to his concert, but she declines—she has to write Percy’s paper. “You’ll be there in spirit,” he says. Later, VampWill gets to The Bronze right as Oz is setting up. “You’ll be there in spirit,” indeed.

"The Wish" ends with Willow and Xander both dying—Willow at the hands of Oz, no less. "Doppelgangland" references that world's imminent demise, but has VampWill live on ethereally through her effect on Percy and Willow's acceptance of it—like a Femme Fatale.

“Strangely, I feel like staying home. And doing homework. And flossing. And dying a virgin.”—Willow

In the end, after the magic is over and the thrill is gone, it all comes back to Percy. Buffy and Willow are having a conversation; Willow says she can’t go out because she has seen “where the path of vice leads.” This is the traditional function of doppelgängers—and Freudian psychoanalysis.  The protagonist confronts their Shadow, is terrified, and vanquishes it; the restoration of the status quo is always the primary goal.

However, as they’re talking Percy approaches—who we haven’t seen since VampWill almost killed him at The Bronze. Not only has he completed the essay he had demanded Willow write for him, he’s done it in duplicate! His voice is diminutive and his attitude supplicant. As he’s leaving he runs back and gives her an apple—the ultimate symbol of a pupil’s respect for a teacher—and a perverse reverse Fall. Willow’s Shadow is not evil; it is her strength. The dirty, Cthtonic, biological aspects of her personality are crucial to a fulfilling life, and she rewards herself in kind.

BUFFY: You wanna go out tonight?

WILLOW: Nine sound good?

Willow's preclusion for the Dark Arts and lesbian tendencies are also foreshadowed by her dark double.

One Response to "“Doppelgangland”—Buffy the Vampire Slayer—1999"
  1. Red Planet says:

    Glad you chose to write about the most compelling, and most enjoyable, television series ever written.

    Yes, it was also directed, acted, costumed, staged, lighted, recorded, produced, edited, distributed and active-verbed in all of other ways a television series requires. But first it was written.

    This is the series I actively avoided (is avoid an active verb?) until forced to watch it by my grand-daughters, to whom I will be eternally grateful. My daughter had a hand in that, too. Now, I’ve watched it through and through. Twice.

    Re-reading books, re-watching films (videos), something I rarely do. (Funny, one can listen to music and look at paintings over and over again — why’s that?) But I’m looking forward to watching Buffy a third time, a few years from now.

    Buffy is rich in story, character, heartbreak, archetypal myth, suspense, action, surprise. Essential tragedy or divine comedy, always savory, left me wishing for an eighth season, not in comic form.

    Fertile ground for your exploration on many levels.

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