Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Lie to Me”

At some point in the last 20 years, I forgot that “Lie to Me” was written and directed by Joss Whedon—just the third such episode, and the last one before “Innocence.”

Back in the Day (by which I mean the ‘90s), we didn’t have 10,472 media outlets telling us, each week, who’d directed an episode, what to expect, how many heart-punches we’d have to endure. We just had previews (“Scenes!” someone would yell, and everyone would rush back to their spot on the futon or the floor, wine glass refilled) and then, at the episode’s start, credits. “Oh god, it’s a Joss episode,” was heard more than once. You roll up your emotional sleeves and you get your tissues.

“Lie to Me” is an odd one. Is Ford’s story sad, or is he a creep? Does Buffy essentially murder him when she leaves him in the club, or does she give him what she wants? Is that the same thing? And, on the nitpicky level, did Spike turn Ford on purpose, to torture Buffy? Or did that little bit of vampire mythology—the whole big sucking thing—get a little handwaved, this time around?

Season 2, Episode 7, “Lie to Me
Written and directed by: Joss Whedon
Original airdate: November 3, 1997
Rewatch date: November 9, 2017
Reason for late rewatch: 11/3 is my wedding anniversary and Thor: Ragnarok came out. I was busy.

“Go. Experience fun. I’ll try not to have a crisis.”

Questions aside, there’s a particular thread that runs through this episode, and one I’d not thought about before: Buffy, for all her skills and instincts, can be kind of dumb about people—in a way that I find totally consistent with being a teenage girl. She believes the best of Ford, her childhood friend, for as long as she can, yet the minute she sees Angel talking to a creepy lass in a nightie in a playground, she leaps to the worst conclusions.

Many of the scenes that give Buffy and Angel’s relationship weight, in these early episodes, aren’t even between the two of them—it’s in how people react to them. Drusilla saying “Our dear boy’s gone all the way, hasn’t he? To her.” Spike’s disgust. Giles’s wary acceptance. Xander’s dickwaving teen boy ragelust. To the outside, something is happening, but for Buffy, everything is in doubt. She’s drawn to Angel, but she won’t let herself believe in him, so she doubts the kind of person he is, without even meaning to. Why would she think he’d fall for Cordy, or purposefully meet a goth chick in the middle of the night? Why would she worry so constantly when he’s given her no reason to?

One reason, arguably, is that all of these fears are Buffy not believing she’s worthy of love, which is a whole bucket of unexamined Whedon-ness I’m not sure I want to open just yet. I choose instead to think of it as how Buffy’s fears manifest: fear that being the Slayer will take everyone away from her, or take her away from the people she loves, or make her too other, too damaged, for normal things like relationships.

Either way, it’s heavy stuff, and so of course she’s delighted when her childhood friend (and former crush) Ford shows up: he’s a reminder of her pre-Slayer life. The life of just a girl. A girl who didn’t fully understand that Divinyls song.

He’s also yet another threat to poor Xander’s fragile masculinity, which, come to think of it, gets too much screen time in just about every episode. There are better ways to complicate Buffy and Angel’s relationship than with a manchild who seems to believe he has a right to Buffy’s time. Buffy does a good job of it all on her own, with her frustrating mistrust and inability to just ask Angel a question. The dickwaving is just frosting on the miscommunication sandwich.

Let’s not dwell too much on that image.

When “Lie to Me” isn’t getting heavy about Ford’s lack of a future or Buffy’s lack of relationship skills, it’s … well, it’s basically making fun of itself, and everything the ’90s put forth in terms of vampiric pop culture. When we first go to Ford’s club, someone in the background is welding. His buddy Marvin, aka Diego, is wearing a sparkly blue cape long before sparkly vampires were a thing. It’s all movie quote-a-longs and dark rooms and faux-industrial spaces and a black-and-red palette and an unexamined romanticism about the creatures of the night—all the things that indicate the modernized pop culture vampire.

It’s an easy target, the Lestatified vamp of the post-Anne Rice era, but Whedon pushes it past simple parody and into tragedy, because of course he does. Of course Ford is hiding something. Of course it is more than what Angel and Willow find out via Willow’s mad hacker skillz (this is how you know what a good kid Willow is: she has a door to the outside, even though she’s not supposed to have boys in her room).

(Pause to appreciate the way that Willow says important things to Angel, like that he does get jealous, and that Angel says important things right back, like that he never used to. This is a friendship, if an odd one: they’re honest with each other, even if it gets dicey, and this makes Angel’s eventual betrayal all the worse.)

“I know people, and my gut tells me this is a wrong guy,” Angel says, and even though it looks like simple jealousy, he’s right, and his gut is right, and Buffy’s instincts just don’t work the same way. It’s neither the first nor the last time she’ll want to believe someone is better than they are. Does she always believe this of men? Does she ever have faith in women the same way, when she shouldn’t? (That’s something I’ll be watching for, as the seasons roll on.)

Angel is so right about Ford that the next time we see Ford, he lies. He lets a vampire go and he lies to Buffy, who just keeps trying to believe in him. She believes through learning who Drusilla was, through watching Giles and Jenny have a minor spat (communicating, as modestly functional adults often do, about their miscommunication), up until the moment she sees the vampire Ford claimed to have killed. The evidence is finally clear. (She never needs this much evidence to believe the worst of Angel.)

Meanwhile, Spike is jealous that Dru went out and talked to Angel, because of course he is: he’s just as neurotic and insincere and unconvinced of his own worth as Buffy, in his own way.

But while Buffy can be insecure and frustrating, she also knows herself. When Angel shows up (politely asking if he may come in; points to you, sir) and tells her that everyone’s been working on the Ford question without her, she’s rightly angry, but she also, rightly, steps back from that anger when it’s no longer helpful. She redirects it at Angel—”Who’s Drusilla?”—because she thinks she has a right to, and he carefully, painfully clarifies the situation as he sees it.

I love this scene. It’s awkward and difficult and unfair and true, all of it, the way the things that hurt the most and mean the most always are. Angel’s right when he says some lies are necessary; Buffy is entirely right when she says she’s the one who should decide whether she loves and trusts him. He keeps trying to make the wrong decisions for her, trying to protect her; she keeps jumping to the wrong conclusions about why.

And so, for once, they talk. He tells her about Drusilla. She has no response, because how do you respond to that? But after that truth, the truth about Ford is … lesser. It’s not good, but Ford isn’t the person Buffy loves right now. She has to put Angel’s truth in a box and save it for later so she can handle Ford’s bullshit first.

And she handles it so well. Buffy’s ability to turn anger into action is one of her greatest strengths, and this instance of it is such a bit of foreshadowing for what’s to come this year. Here’s a boy she thought she knew, a person she thought she trusted, and he’s just using her for her Slayer self. It’s practice fury for Angelus. She doesn’t know that yet. But we do. Her anger fuels her through confronting her friends—they were right, but she’s not quite over the secret-keeping—and on to the confrontation with Ford.

This looks like exhibit A in the difference between lying to someone for a “good” reason and lying to them for a bad reason—a bad, self-serving, gonna-get-people-killed reason. It is, and it isn’t, and this is where “Lie to Me” really shines. Nothing is easy, and the only way for Buffy to deal with the hard things is the same way we all have to deal with the hard things: by doing the best we can with what we have.

Ford will never get this. “Did I mess up your righteous anger riff?” he sneers, but Buffy doesn’t care about that, because even vampires, in her world, have shown her that nothing is black and white, good and evil. You can feel sorry for someone and think they’re a monster at the same time. Well, Buffy can. Ford has a story in his head about how all of this goes—just how he wants it—and he has lost the ability to understand that stories don’t always go the way we want them to.

“You don’t have a good choice … but you have a choice. You’re opting for mass murder and nothing you say is gonna make that ok.”

“It’d be simpler if I could just hate him,” Buffy says, when all is said and done. (I can’t get over how much of this is foreshadowing for “Innocence.”) But for all her anger, righteous or no, and all the moments when her intuition about people is wrong, Buffy always learns. And learning makes you understand people, which makes everything more complicated.

Buffy: I’m always trying to work it out. Who to hate, or love … who to trust… it’s like the more I know, the more confused I get.
Giles: I believe that’s called growing up.

Why doesn’t Buffy kill Dru, when she has her moment? You could think she did the math—realized that Dru’s death would send Spike on a rampage—but you could also think back to the story Angel told her. Dru isn’t just another vampire; she’s a girl who went crazy because of the man Buffy loves. Killing her would mean something different, now. It’s too late for Ford—the minute he wanted to become a vampire, and set this plan in motion, he was basically dead. But not everyone has to die.

It won’t ever be easy. But sometimes it’ll be true.

Buffy: Does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. … The good guys are stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats and we always defeat them and save the day. Nobody ever dies…and everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

(If everything was about to go terribly sideways in my life, it might be less awful were Giles to appear and give me this little speech.)

MISCELLANY

  • Does the Slayer have her own weather system? Otherwise why is Buffy wearing a flimsy skirt and tank top while Miss Calendar is wearing a long dress and leather jacket?
  • ’90s good: Miss Calendar’s long dress. ’90s bad: those zig zag parts!
  • Cordelia’s woe-is-her speech about Marie Antoinette is a grade-A Cordy delight.
  • “Doesn’t she know any fat guys?” Xander, grow the fuck up.
  • “I really honed my brooding skills.” Amid all the vamp-jokes, Angel is still self-aware.
  • “You have too many thoughts.”
  • “She’s an unbeliever! She taints us.”

HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR ‘Sup, pre-Roswell Jason Behr?
DOES BUFFY GET INJURED? I’m truly skeptical that Ford could’ve knocked her out, even for a second.
WORST FASHION CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY Ford appears wearing a salmon sweater vest over an enormous gray T-shirt.
IMPORTANT THING THAT NEVER COMES UP AGAIN You know what does come up again? Willow inviting Angel in.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION These instances are many, but the worst might be his fit when he learns that Angel was in her room. Willow’s, however, response is the actual best: “Ours is a forbidden love.” Every time he gets pissy and she brushes it off, she’s taking one more step toward getting over her crush on that jerk. She’s choosing.

Previously: “Halloween” | Next: “What’s My Line Part I”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Lie to Me”

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