TW: long discussion of death and insanity.
Spoiler warning for BtVS season five.
Notes: Somewhat inspired by an exchange with lostboy_lj yesterday.
However, some of this is somewhat emotional, RL-y stuff which I found out about today. None of it is specific enough that I feel like I’m sharing anything too personal. OTOH, it is emotional enough that I am really not guaranteeing I reply to all comments. It is what it is. For the record, it’s my grandmother and it’s a long story that I don’t want to get into, thanks (I am mostly saying this so people don't think it's about me or my mother or my non-existent siblings -- there are two generations removed; I'm okay).
Since this is partly actually not about the show, it is very possible that I am wrong. I’m almost tempted not to allow comments on the entry, but, well, yeah, comments are fine, but keep in mind what I said.
I also didn't edit this or anything, so keep that in mind as well.
Here’s the thing about season five.
We are all going to die. Period. End of story. There is no if. There is no if only. There is no stopping it
There is delaying it.
There are ways to cope with death, and the (a) primary way is to delay it with medicine. Doctors go through incredible amount of schooling, take oaths to do no harm, are authorities that we place our lives in.
We all recognize on some level that the world is not right. That there are things that can hurt us. Medicine, in the age of antidepressants, can comfort us by suggesting that our anxiety and depression and fears can be alleviated. That’s good, for most of us. No, really. But some of our anxiety and depression is not something that can be treated pharmaceutically, because some are related to the fact that we are going to die. It is really hard to live with this fact every day, every minute. Our puny brains can’t handle it. Or, maybe: my puny brain can’t handle it. But not just death: there’s pain, there’s suffering, there’s the recognition that somehow or another, “everything gets stripped away.”
But there’s medicine. The doctor comes out of surgery, beaming, proudly announces that Joyce is out of the woods. The authority figure said she survived. He’s wrong. Doctors don’t know everything. They can’t. Though in real life, too, the medical system is not always worthy of the trust we place in it. Or at least pockets of the system. (There may be personal family experience talking, here. This is not about me. It may be about my family.) There’s no reason to disbelieve that the doctor did anything wrong, that there was anything that could have been done. But it’s outside of Buffy’s knowledge, outside of ours. The Scoobies immediately recognize this is outside their capabilities—but unlike every other subject, they assume that they are powerless and that whoever has the power, the doctor, should be trusted. In season six, Willow breaks out the chemistry kit again, but for now, it’s the job of the Scoobies to Scooby and it’s the job of the doctor to apply medicine. But the doctor is wrong. He said Joyce was out of the woods, and she wasn’t
It’s not anti-medicine. It’s not anti-doctor. What it is anti-, is the idea that medical authorities are offering guarantees. That doctors can do something better than reduce the chance of death. That doctors have their own Book of Thoth that can protect and warn against the inevitable. That in a show that regularly subverts authority, medical professionals are somehow beyond criticism or have unlimited power. That there are professionals who can take care of our health, prevent death, and when we are very, very old, give us fair warning so that we can make peace with the inevitable on our own time is a lie.
The man who holds the key (no pun intended, I think) to resurrecting Joyce from her natural death is Doc. His knife is used to stab Spike and open dimensional portals, not to heal. We have the Initiative doctor who pretended to fix Spike to save his bacon, and in the way OOMM revisits Spike and Riley’s season four arcs a reminder of the way medicine can be used to “enhance” the body and mind in a way that ultimately does more damage than good and can (in Riley’s case) eventually kill you.
So here we go. Ben is Glory. Remember Weight of the World? As is emphasized there, the things that Ben are not, are:
- With Glory
- Working together with Glory
- Connected with Glory in some way
- Subletting from Glory.
He is Glory. He’s the doctor, she’s the beast. Two entirely different creatures, inhabiting the same body. It’s like a bloody sitcom, though it’s probably only the undead guy who (he thinks) is never gonna die who can laugh about it
Glory is the Beast. She’s the Old Gods, death, destruction, carnage, selfishness, need, want. And all her actions spring from her boundless vanity, yes, yes, but most of all, she wants to go home, to the immortal place. She will suck any brain, kill any Knight of Byz, take down the slayer, destroy anything in her path to get to a place where she doesn’t have to fear the stink of mortality (and morality) rubbing off on her. She is ruthless and she is ruled, completely, by her self-involvement and recognition of the horrors of human life. The one-eyed Chiclet in the kingdom of the blind, and all that (or so she thinks).
And Ben is Glory. He’s ruthless, too, though we don’t see it at first—though we see it, in Listening to Fear, long before the gang does. Mostly, though, he is a cover for the old fears that Glory represents, her presence gradually cracking up Doctor Ben’s façade until there’s nothing left. In season five, Glory is the cause of all Buffy’s problems, and however briefly Ben seems like the solution: doctor, attractive guy, charming. He’s “Ben” as in “benevolent,” probably. But he doesn’t actually do all that much practicing medicine this season. He’s “almost” a doctor, we learn in Out of My Mind. But he’s not really there to heal, though that is what he wants, or thinks he wants. He never really gets around to it, until he does help save Giles in Spiral. What he does do is help dispense friendly advice throughout. And what friendly advice! His first scene is reassuring Buffy that things are probably fine with Joyce. His next scene is restraining a patient and talking about how surprising it is that the security guard who wasn’t crazy yesterday is crazy now, as if he didn’t know why. But the main early scene, in Shadow, that really hits hard in retrospect is this one (quoting whole passage):
DR. ISAACS: I know this is very difficult, and, uh, because of the nature of your mother's illness ... unfortunately, things may progress very quickly.
BUFFY: Things? What things?
DR. ISAACS: Symptoms. There's a fair variety that might present. Loss of vision or appetite, lack of muscle control, uh, mood swings...
BUFFY: But what can we do?
DR. ISAACS: Well, not much, until we determine if the tumor's operable. Which we are working on. (Leads Buffy over to some chairs and they sit)
BUFFY: Is there something that I ... I mean ... can I help?
DR. ISAACS: Well, there's some literature you might want to look at. If we aren't able to go in surgically, there are a number of new treatments that are very promising. Your mother's prognosis is a lot better today than it would have been only a year ago. Even if the tumor's not operable, she has a real chance.
BUFFY: What's a real chance?
DR. ISAACS: Nearly one out of three patients with this condition does just fine. (Buffy sits back looking shocked. Camera stays on her face as the doctor continues.) Now, let me ask. Does your mother's insurance company require copies of the MRI and pathology reports?
BUFFY: I'm not sure.
DR. ISAACS: (OS) Well, just let me know as soon as possible. And I could use some information regarding your mom's lifestyle and home environment. For instance, does she use a cell phone?
BUFFY: (frowns) Uh, I think so. Uh, yeah, she um, she-she has one of those ear things.
DR. ISAACS: OK, is your house near any power lines, chemical plants, waste disposal facilities?
BUFFY: Uh ... I-I don't know. Maybe.
DR. ISAACS: Well, the more we know...
BUFFY: I'm sorry.
The doctor scowls and writes on his clipboard. Ben approaches and puts his hand on the doctor's shoulder.
BEN: Excuse me Doc, but they told me you're needed in ICU.
DR. ISAACS: Excuse me, Miss Summers. (Gets up)
BUFFY: (distracted) Uh, it's okay.
Isaacs leaves and Ben sits down next to Buffy.
BEN: Thought you looked like you needed a break. Guy's great, but he doesn't have the bone in his head that tells him when to back off.
BUFFY: You mean ... they, they didn't need him?
BEN: Well, I'm sure someone does somewhere, they always do. He really is a good doctor. Your mom's in good hands.
BUFFY: (smiles) Thank you. It's Ben, right?
BUFFY: He, um, he was just telling me that there's nothing I can do.
BEN: Yeah, I'm gonna tell you the same thing. Give yourself a break. Listen, your mom's gonna be unconscious for at least another six, seven hours.
BUFFY: A break?
BEN: Well, I just mean go out, get some air. Come back later on this evening, talk to the doc then if you want. My unsolicited advice of the day.
He leaves. Buffy leans her head back and sighs deeply.
How good of Ben to intervene! He saved Buffy from that load of questions. And yet! And yet. His purpose in this scene is to comfort Buffy by assuring her that she is powerless and that Dr. Isaacs has the power; and, implicitly, that it’s okay if Buffy doesn’t worry herself about it. It’s not so much that I think Buffy had any information Dr. Isaacs could use, or that Buffy didn’t need a break. But it’s consistent with a pattern of Ben: he uses deception to placate Buffy (and others) into believing that a real problem, whether it be Glory, the string of crazy people in her wake, or Joyce’s upcoming death (though Ben is not actually aware of the last one), is not a real problem. Don’t sweat it, no need to prepare (though, it’s not as if preparation is possible): your problem is in good hands
In Listening to Fear we learn that Ben has summoned a Queller (from spaaaaace!) to kill the crazy people, in an effort to erase the evidence of Glory’s handiwork. No one misses the crazy people. Who knows what caused their dementia, but they are a lost cause anyway, and the earlier the pattern that the crazy people just die is established, the sooner it’ll be normalized and become an accepted part of society: it’s just one of those things that happened. No need to worry about it. And it’s clear here that Ben is working in Glory’s interest, ultimately, though he doesn’t want to be and is even trying to undermine her: removing the evidence that Glory exists reduces the chance that people will become aware of her and start to arm themselves for her attack
And let’s be absolutely clear here. In order to maintain the illusion that the medical system is on top of this problem, Ben is killing patients; and then the high mortality rate can become a justification not to be concerned when an individual one dies. In order to protect himself and protect the aesthetics of the medical community, Ben is literally killing patients in order to normalize their deaths, in order to make their deaths seem reassuring rather than terrifying. Reassuring, that is, to everyone except the people who are going crazy and dying and those who still manage to care about them. But caring about them is discouraged—because Ben, as we’ve seen, places medicine as the sole authority and attempts to shift non-professional caretakers such as Buffy outside the realm of having any power over their fates. It’s not just the idea that there is a risk of an unquestioning belief in medicine as a preventative measure to stave off real death (and existential terror) leaves one unprepared for death (and terror), it can hasten it.
Glory’s sucking minds, then, is probably a representation of the total fear. Insanity as metaphor—that is probably gross and problematic, right? Well…. Only if insanity is purely a matter of brain chemistry. What Glory describes to Tara is the experience of being afraid, anxiety ramped up even higher than usual, of being in an existential void devoid of meaning with nothing but the certainty of suffering and no comfort, no out. No pharmaceuticals can cure being “crazy” for this reason, though maybe (if this were not metaphor land with magic and stuff) they could help. The only way to solve this is to go confront the source—the way Willow does by restoring Tara from Glory, which she only gets the power to do after she’s found her own (mystical/existential) healing in The Weight of the World with Buffy.
And so Ben is the modern face on Glory; he is the space occupied by Glory when she is not active. And that identity is designed to use medicine to placate fears. In the context of death, it’s the suggestion that you don’t have to worry yourself—you or your parents are in good hands. In the context of insanity, it’s the suggestion that the right combination of drugs can cure painful psychological ills that may result from aspects of the human condition we have to deny in order to survive. (“Gods don’t pay,” says Glory in WotW. But they do. We do.) Ben is a cover for Glory; Ben is the illusion that there is an escape from death and pain in medicine. There may be a reprieve. I’m not anti-medicine or anti-drugs, because that’d be…I’m tempted to say “crazy,” but that’s obviously the wrong word (or the right one), but Ben’s role is not to represent actual medicine: that’s Dr. Isaacs, who is an authority figure that I said earlier we could question, but despite being wrong I don’t think there’s evidence that he failed at his job. Ben is the illusion of medicine as a balm to soothe existential issues. And those existential issues are Glory, ready at any moment to rip us to shreds and drive us totally out of our minds.
Ben is not just a metaphor, but a person. And as a person, Ben does, I think, really want to help people. But he’s doomed by his own patterns. The reason Ben’s whole relationship to the external world is to enable Glory, enable death, enable everything one is afraid of, by hiding its existence is because Ben’s whole life is dedicated to suppressing Glory. That’s too much burden to put on a person, and there’s no real way to expect that Ben would be able to do so. He says that he went into medicine to help people, but I think it’s pretty likely that he went into medicine the better to suppress Glory with. He was looking for “the right combination of drugs” to push her down, erase her, deny her existence. It didn’t take, of course. There is no right combination of drugs to push Glory down: you have to fight her on her turn, morally, philosophically, existentially. You know—with Troll Hammers and Dagon Spheres. (And robots!) But while it turns out that Ben has basically been a negative force all season long, it all stems from the fundamental failure of “physician, heal thyself”; emotionally and physically, Glory was stronger than him, and a whole life devoted just to keep Glory at bay, with nothing else animating it, is doomed to fail.
As the season goes on, the illusion that Ben is doing anything to counter Glory gradually becomes more and more punctured. By calmly talking to Dawn about his "sister," he's exposing her to the threat of Glory to come and attack her. By attempting to hoard the information about the Key but not contacting Buffy to warn her about the knowledge he possesses about Glory, he helps doom Buffy. By going to treat Giles, he exposes the gang to Glory's wrath. He is constantly hedging his bets from the moment he discovers Dawn's Keyness onward—trying to leave his options open to be the genuine force for good he wants to be and to operate, basically, in Glory's interests, which are ultimately his own. I focus less on Ben later in the season because the later-season things are less medically focused, until of course the treatment of Giles, where he does cure the proximate ill but exposes Giles and everyone around him to a much greater danger because he's unwilling to tell anyone, or admit to himself, what dangers he is hiding, what dangers he has set up a life in order to hide.
Back to The Weight of the World. When Spike first asks, at the very beginning, what they should do if they encounter Ben, Willow is more right than she knows in her first response, that “a doctor” is not what Buffy needs right now. Buffy’s crisis is existential, not medical, though it manifests in a medically-familiar form (being comatose). It’s at the end, then, after Joyce’s death, after Giles’ near-death, when Dawn is finally taken away, the walls between Ben and Glory start to fall down, just as Willow enters Buffy’s mind and counsels her (emotionally, spiritually) through Buffy’s certainty that she has already killed Dawn. The walls don't really collapse until Ben finally chooses a side definitively in TWOTW, and that side is himself (which is Glory), not Dawn. Both textually and thematically, it is the imminence of the ritual that breaks down the Ben/Glory barriers; Dawn’s death cannot be ignored, cannot but be contemplated, and suddenly Glory can’t be hidden behind gentle Ben. It’s after the death of Ben (the symbol of false hopes that medicine can cheat death) and Glory (the selfish, grasping longing for immortality) that Buffy can look into the void below and run toward her death, unafraid, and unafraid of living her life fully trapped by her fear of death. Of course, she still has some living to do—and how to reembrace life after having embraced death presents its own set of challenges (and with its own insanity metaphors).