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The Joyce Summers Project: A Promise to A Lady (Listening to Fear)

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Screencap and script quotations courtesy of Buffyworld.com

The last few weeks I've been reading a lot of LJ metas about BtVS and playing "catch up" on some fascinating conversations and insights.  One of the most talked-about points in fandom is the meaning and motivation behind Buffy's decision to jump from the tower in Dawn's place in The Gift, and it generally comes down to the notion that it was both a heroic sacrifice AND a symbolic suicide, the Slayer death wish that Spike spoke of in Fool For Love writ large.


[My theory after the cut....]This seems to be reinforced by what Buffy says to Giles at the Magic Box before they go to rescue Dawn from Glory (from the shooting script)


I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much... but I knew. What was right. I don't have that any more. I don't understand.I don't know how to live in this world, if these are the choices, if everything's just stripped away then I don't see the point.


But her monologue ends with this:


I just wish... I wish my mom was here.


Joyce's death earlier in the season was of course a turning point for Buffy, and therefore the entire series: the death of her beloved mother, a genuine, mundane, irreversible death that no Slayer powers could have prevented. The event would have left Buffy bereft in any case, but it also leaves her entirely responsible for her sister Dawn, and informs all of her choices for the remainder of the season.


I think this point is overlooked in the discussions about Buffy's sacrifice, or at least I haven't seen it explicitedly stated in the discussions I've read. (Granted that I'm new to Buffy fandom and make no claim of having made an exhaustive search.)  The theme of "family" in season 5 is certainly well-recognized, but I've noticed that after Joyce's death she disappears from the conversations by fans as discussion focuses on Buffy and Dawn for the obvious reasons that that's the focus of the story.  But Buffy's mention of her mother in her speech to Giles is a reminder, IMO, that Joyce is "gone but not forgotten".


How this plays into Buffy's motivation in The Gift, I believe, can be explicitly tied back to the episode "Listening to Fear"  (5.09) and it's final scene, pictured above: Joyce confirms with Buffy the knowlege she received, a sort of a vision, that Dawn was not really her daughter, which Buffy reluctantly confirms. Joyce then asks Buffy to promise to protect Dawn: (from shooting script)


And she's important. To the world. Precious...Promise me, Buffy - if anything happens to me, if I don't come through this...No matter what she is, she still feels like my daughter, and I have to know you'll keep her safe. You'll love her like I love you.


Joyce's death does not occur for another seven episodes (technically, six) but this scene serves the function of "Joyce's dying wish", the deathbed conversation that she and Buffy never have otherwise; Buffy finds her mother's body unexpectedly at the end of I Was Made to Love You (5.15).


Throughout the series Buffy has proven herself to be someone who takes on responsibility, or has it thrown onto her, oftentimes unfairly - she's the Slayer, after all; she's responsible for saving the world (a lot) - and that is something that increasingly marks her character through the entire series as the burdens pile on one another.  With each burden, she takes up a larger amount of responsibility even when she shouldn't until it nearly breaks her in S6 and she makes the opposite, but equally unhealthy choice to behave in ways that can be considered irresponsible. It's part of her arc, and something that the series works towards in it's finale (Chosen).


In S5 this theme is emphasized not only by the need to care for Joyce in her illness and then care for Dawn, both in RL terms and from Glory, in the wake of their mother's death, but earlier on in Into The Woods (5.10), when she and Riley broke off their relationship after Riley blamed her for being "emotionally closed off" and therefore making it necessary for him to seek out vampire suck jobs (to cheat on her) in order to feel "needed"; a reading that Xander agrees with. Unfortunately, the show's writers seem to as well; in any case, Buffy's attitude goes very quickly from "who's fault is that [that you can't feel what I feel for you]?" to "I'm closed off so it's all my fault, I drove him away" (Intervention, 5.18).


I don't want to get into a detailed discussion of the events of ITW here because my point is only that the fallout from her breakup with Riley, her reaction to it, feeds into Buffy's sense of personal responsibility for everyone around her.  (Besides which, discussing ITW any further would lead to a gushy, frothy rant and bring forth many "feminists words of rage", to borrow a phrase from gabrielleabelle.)


The important thing here is that Buffy's promise to Joyce tends to be overlooked in any conversations about The Gift, and I think that's a mistake.  After Joyce's death, Buffy fulfills her promise to the best of her ability, and not just in saving her from Glory, but literally attempting to become "Mom":


"Who's going to take of us if I don't, Dawn? Have you thought of that?" (Forever, 5.17).


She comes to see Dawn not just as her sister but "part of me" in a way that would not have been necessary had Joyce lived. The show's writers then try to literalize this, unfortunately, with the nonsensical development that Buffy's blood will do just as well as Dawn's to close the portal.  (Then again, BtVS has never been really big on the sense-making; and as we all know, Joss will throw logic out the window for the big emotional effect. But the entire premise of the show "one girl in all the world etc etc" is illogical to start with, so there we are.)


I won't argue that her promise to Joyce was Buffy's primary motivation; one of the delights of the characters on BtVS is that their motivations, as in real life, are deliciously and terribly complicated. Rather I would argue that it needs to be added into the pile, so to speak, whenever Buffy's sacrifice is considered by fans.
The important thing here is that Buffy's promise to Joyce tends to be overlooked in any conversations about The Gift, and I think that's a mistake.

I think this is a great point, and I agree it's one that seems to often get overlooked in discussions of Buffy's motivation. From "Forever" on, Buffy seems to often act more as mother than as sister to Dawn, and I've always thought that her final words to Dawn on the tower, "be brave, live for me" had a tone very much of one generation passing the torch to the next.
I've always thought that her final words to Dawn on the tower, "be brave, live for me" had a tone very much of one generation passing the torch to the next

Excellent point. I rewatched the entire ep just now and there's another key scene I had forgotten about: the one where Joyce wants to go home instead of waiting in the hospital two days for the operation, and instead of speaking to the doctor directly turns to Buffy and says "You tell him." That can be related to the tumor (and the demon affecting her brain?); and in real life, I don't think it's uncommon to regress a bit, to allow someone else to take over. Feeling frail and childlike, being "taken care of" is a luxury Joyce is temporarily allowing herself, but it's a luxury slipping from Buffy's grasp at the same time.
I like your thoughts, as ever. Don't have much to add, but definitely agreed that her promise to Joyce was something that drove much of Buffy's protectiveness towards Dawn. Actually, I'm surprised that's not talked about much.

\o/ for you writing meta.
Thank you! This reminds me however - never post a first draft of a meta. (At some point I'll probably revise this; I was rambling quite a bit, I think.)

I'm surprised that's not talked about much.

I am too. (there seems to be an unwritten list of "things we agree not to discuss anymore"? Or perhaps it's just that certain things get the emphasis over everything else *cough*Spike*cough*. And I love the Spuffy relationship btw.) The only thing about Joyce that I've seen discussed in any detail is when she gives Buffy that ultimatum in "Becoming". Which is Joyce's most uncharacteristic (if understandable under the circumstances) moment, and the only really substantial arguement they have onscreen that I recall.

I really want to write more about Joyce because how the show portrays her, how she fits in (or doesn't) into Buffy's life definitely changes over the seasons; not as dramatically as Spike, perhaps, but her character is not "static" by any means.

And she never disappears from the show - she returns physically for key moments in 6 & 7, but there's also her photo in the living room next to the couch which we see in the camera frame frequently. Joyce's "ghost" is always there.

Yeah, I have a lot to talk about when it comes to Joyce.
Joyce does tend to get overlooked in these fandom discussions, so it's neat that you're writing meta about her. You can never completely separate relationships between siblings from their relationships to their parents.
Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. I have lots more to say about Joyce, so the encouragement is most welcome.

You can never completely separate relationships between siblings from their relationships to their parents.

Exactly, and it's a point S5 seems to be making, when Buffy says later that Dawn is a "part of me". this works a lot better metaphorically than logically, but that's true of pretty much the entire show, isn't it?

I love your icon - that flashback scene of Buffy when she was just being called (in Becoming) has always been a favorite of mine... if I ignore the icky connotations of Angel stalking her in the shadows...and the fact that the flashback from his POV turns the episode into his story rather than her's (which I didn't understand). But how in the world did SMG manage to look even younger than she already did?

And it sets up a lot that I think also gets overlooked - that her inability to communicate emotions effectively has very deep roots; in dysfunctional families a lot is unsaid, bottled up and hidden from the world, then bursts out at inappropriate moments; so there's a lot about Buffy's personality that can be sussed out by looking at Joyce and Hank.
Something occurs to me here -- I think fans carry around a resentment toward Joyce for her missteps regarding Buffy -- in Becoming and Gingerbread, most notably -- that Buffy simply doesn't. So I think sometimes fans miss how important Joyce really is to Buffy, even though the show makes it obvious. Their own emotions get in the way.

with the nonsensical development that Buffy's blood will do just as well as Dawn's to close the portal

I always read the success of Buffy's sacrifice to close the portal as being partly driven by Buffy's sudden and absolute conviction that it will work. Magic has always been shown as having an emotional and metaphorical component as well as a technological one. And we've seen enough evidence of spells not working quite as the casters intended for me to be okay with that.
I think fans carry around a resentment toward Joyce for her missteps regarding Buffy -- in Becoming and Gingerbread, most notably -- that Buffy simply doesn't.

Their own emotions get in the way.

EXCELLENT points, and very true. Of course we could say that about any point in the series that fans argue or attach themselves to. I know my reactions to the show were primarily emotional, then intellectual (reading great metas and even fanvids help shape my thinking about the show.) But it can cause some distortion or cognitive dissonance between what we think we see and what's actually onscreen. And there are times when the writers leave room for ambiguity (pretty much the entire Spuffy relationship, for instance): but then there are those who see something SO entirely different than what we're shown that I can't wrap my head around it. Different strokes...

I always read the success of Buffy's sacrifice to close the portal as being partly driven by Buffy's sudden and absolute conviction that it will work. Magic has always been shown as having an emotional and metaphorical component as well as a technological one. And we've seen enough evidence of spells not working quite as the casters intended for me to be okay with that.

I haven't seen anybody else suggest that - and the show itself hammers home the point about "the blood" repeatedly (including a flashback on the tower of when Buffy literally mixes their blood earlier in the season), but I think I like your explanation MUCH better than the one the writers intended. I would be very happy to add that to my headcanon. (Have you done a meta on that? I'd love to read that.)
This is a really good point! There's a lot of maternal and matriarchal symbolism throughout the final arc of S7, as well - the guardians, and the idea of Willow, Buffy, and Faith as mother-figures to the Slayers who are all called at the end. And I hadn't thought to contextualize that with this aspect of The Gift, but I love the idea that Joyce's motherhood should be such an important part of this very personal precursor Chosen.
There's a lot of maternal and matriarchal symbolism throughout the final arc of S7, as well - the guardians, and the idea of Willow, Buffy, and Faith as mother-figures to the Slayers who are all called at the end.

Yes. And in S6, it's Tara who is the placeholder of the mother figure, esp to Dawn, but to Buffy as well; she's the one Buffy confides in about her relationship with Spike; and I love that Tara looks out for both Buffy and Willow in OAFA.

One thing I regret about S7 is that we only see the First Slayer once, very VERY briefly in one of Buffy's dreams, where she attacks Buffy; the First Slayer is really the Original Mother of the Slayer line; when a Slayer dies another is born (I really hadn't thought about the maternal implications until now. Hmm. So each Slayer gives birth to the one who replaces her. I think I sense a meta coming on...)

Still, I would have liked to have seen more of the First Slayer (putting aside the horrendous racial issues of a "Magical Black"character); it seemed wrong IMO that we never see her even in Get It Done as she was the one who suffered the violation.

It also bothered me that the "light" side of Slayer powers were suddenly represented by the Scythe and the woman at the crypt who tells Buffy what it is; and who looks like a parody of a pseudo-Celtic neopagan Wiccan. Esp after the Shadowmen and the demon presumably represented the "dark" side of the Slayer powers, giving the "good" powers a European origin feels like something that was not very well thought out if that makes any sense?

It also bothered me that the "light" side of Slayer powers were suddenly represented by the Scythe and the woman at the crypt who tells Buffy what it is; and who looks like a parody of a pseudo-Celtic neopagan Wiccan. Esp after the Shadowmen and the demon presumably represented the "dark" side of the Slayer powers, giving the "good" powers a European origin feels like something that was not very well thought out if that makes any sense?


Yeah. Really, really poorly thought out. I'll go to bat for pretty much everything else in the wrap-up of the show, but this aspect of it is Not Good.
I'm glad I'm not just imaging things on that front! I have some metas in my head (or at least a lot of thoughts) about the treatment of race (and class) on the show but particularly S7.

BTW - your icon is my single favorite image of Faith, I think.
I agree with you, but I don't really have anything to add. I love that you're doing meta about Joyce, though. I really like the Buffy/Joyce relationship, and you're right that she gets overlooked.
Thanks for coming by! I've got several meta in "my head" about her, and motherhood on the show in general, I just need to focus and actually write them down. (Oh, ADD, you are my nemesis.)
I feel same way. Reading interesting Buffy meta is easy, but actually commenting is hard. I have a lot of thoughts in my head, but writing them down takes effort.
I've always had this strong feeling about Buffy being "the mother", since I watched Season Five for the first time. It would be more evident if Dawn would be portrayed by a baby actress (Michelle is perfect for the role, but she was already an adolescent) but still, in the ways Buffy provides for Dawn and cares for her ... that's a mother caring for a child. And I'm not talking only about the final dialogue with Giles and the gang (When Buffy actually states that Dawn "is a part of her") but also about the fact that Buffy, for example, explains her breakup with Riley to Dawn. I wonder if Joyce ever explained her divorce to her daughters. It seems that Buffy's role is not only to protect, but also to explain, to share, to make things more easy for the youngest. To show the world (which is a very maternal statement) Maybe that's why I write so much about Buffy having a child! XD


Dawn was originally meant to be 10 years old but SMG convinced everyone to cast MT (I'm not sure if they were already friends at the time), but the writers, for some reason, had a hard time making the switch, so some of her characterization early on is a little child-like. MT had to convince them to make Dawn's characterization more age-appropriate, so in S7 she's much more mature and even elegant (I love Dawn in S7, except for the one episode *ahem*).

I can see your point about a baby but I wouldn't have liked that. Dawn at that age provides such an excellent mirror of who Buffy was or might have been if she hadn't been the Chosen One, and their sisterly vibe together, the way they bicker and sass and protect each other is oftentimes damn near perfect IMO. I have read a fanfic - will have to find a link - which was an AU version of S5: Joyce doesn't die (so she's on the run with everyone else in the Winnabago, for instance); but most importantly, the monks mess up their spell:

[SPOILER] so when the Monk says to Buffy "your sister" she says "I don't have a sister" - and becomes pregnant. The rest is dealing with being on the run and fighting off Glory etc [/END SPOILER]

If I find a link I'll send it, I'm sure you'd like it very much.

I wonder if Joyce ever explained her divorce to her daughters. It seems that Buffy's role is not only to protect, but also to explain, to share, to make things more easy for the youngest.

There's the scene in - is it Fool For Love? Buffy walks into Joyce's bedroom to find Joyce packing her suitcase, asks what's up, and Joyce says, "Oh dear, I'd hoped to save this for later". And then tells Buffy that she's going into the hospital the next day, I believe, for diagnostic exams. In other words, Joyce was trying to "protect" her daughters by keeping the truth from them as long as possible. Which is really I think a way of protecting herself as well from the unpleasantness of the situation, as well meaning as she may be. So I'm sure that's been a pattern for a long time - and lies and secrecy are certainly very much a part of dysfunctional family dynamics. I think it's why lying to her mom about being a Slayer comes so easily to Buffy in S1-2: it's something she's already used to doing because that's part of the dysfunction - not communicating, not facing hard truths, and trying to protect oneself and each other in ways that are ultimately more damaging than not.

Dawn was originally meant to be 10 years old but SMG convinced everyone to cast MT (I'm not sure if they were already friends at the time), but the writers, for some reason, had a hard time making the switch, so some of her characterization early on is a little child-like.

In some ways I think it would worked better - or I wonder how it could possibly worked, because in S5 Dawn was very childish, so I guess a baby actress would made her the character more believable. But I defenetly agree about S7 and I like Michelle T's performance. She's really good.


I think it's why lying to her mom about being a Slayer comes so easily to Buffy in S1-2: it's something she's already used to doing because that's part of the dysfunction - not communicating, not facing hard truths, and trying to protect oneself and each other in ways that are ultimately more damaging than not.

True, true, true.
Summers' family dynamic was pretty disfunctional.
True, true, true.
Summers' family dynamic was pretty disfunctional.


I'll probably write a meta on that sometime - where the heck was Buffy supposed to learn all the wonderful and perfect communication and relationships skills that people seem to expect her to have?
(pt 2)

It seems that Buffy's role is not only to protect, but also to explain, to share, to make things more easy for the youngest.

I rewatched Him the other day (not a popular episode in fandom but very funny, and it has a lot of callbacks to all the previous seasons), and Buffy is EXTREMELY protective of Dawn - as of course she was in all the other seasons - but watching Buffy pull Dawn off the dance floor, I wondered if perhaps Buffy didn't wish that her mother had been stricter?

When Buffy wanted to go to the Bronze her mom would say "Have a good time"; when she found Angel and Buffy together in the house she left Buffy alone to walk him to the door; there are a few instances where she tried to ground Buffy (which failed) and in School Hard she protects Buffy from Spike, but for the most part Joyce seems a very hands-off mother, someone who wanted to be a friend rather than a disciplinarian on MOST occasions. (the characterization of Joyce was not consistent during the early seasons, but I think she was mostly there as a foil for Buffy, or as a joke, at least until Becoming she wasn't taken seriously in her own right.)

Of course Buffy knows more than her mom did about the dangers in the world - but I still think that in some respects Buffy would have wanted someone she could have opened up to and someone who could have protected her more.

Maybe that's why I write so much about Buffy having a child!

I'm not particularly interested in Buffy as a literal mother (although the fic I mentioned was very good), as Buffy as metaphorical mother, including mother or sire of all the Slayers (including Kendra and Faith). It's interesting that they explore the issues of single motherhood through Buffy in S6, although I wish they had bothered to deal with some of those realities in earlier seasons with Joyce. So they had a lot of ground to cover in S6 and didn't quite cover it all realistically (did Hank pay child support for Dawn, for instance? Or was he a deadbeat dad by that point? I'd rather doubt it - I think he'd pay the checks and satisfy himself that he was doing his duty.) And also as a daughter of a divorced mom who had to help raise my three younger siblings (including my sister) I can identify with Buffy on that level.

I rewatched Him the other day (not a popular episode in fandom but very funny, and it has a lot of callbacks to all the previous seasons), and Buffy is EXTREMELY protective of Dawn - as of course she was in all the other seasons - but watching Buffy pull Dawn off the dance floor, I wondered if perhaps Buffy didn't wish that her mother had been stricter?


I don't think stricter, but I believed that Buffy wanted to be protected and cuddled. Her mother's attentions were all about Dawn, while Buffy was the "grown up", the brave one, the indipendent. But Buffy was just a girl and she also needed to be protected and cheerished by her mother.



I'm not particularly interested in Buffy as a literal mother (although the fic I mentioned was very good), as Buffy as metaphorical mother, including mother or sire of all the Slayers (including Kendra and Faith). It's interesting that they explore the issues of single motherhood through Buffy in S6, although I wish they had bothered to deal with some of those realities in earlier seasons with Joyce. So they had a lot of ground to cover in S6 and didn't quite cover it all realistically (did Hank pay child support for Dawn, for instance? Or was he a deadbeat dad by that point? I'd rather doubt it - I think he'd pay the checks and satisfy himself that he was doing his duty.) And also as a daughter of a divorced mom who had to help raise my three younger siblings (including my sister) I can identify with Buffy on that level.


I'm a very maternal person, very Tara-like, that's maybe the reason I'm so focused on the topic. Anyway, in my fic which I had already posted on LJ, *infamous self-spam* Buffy's daughter is born in a peculiar way? Let's just say that, and she's crucial to the story development. And Buffy's also the leader of the Slayers, so.
I have really no clue about Hank.
Is that fic "The Queen"? I'm not sure if I finished chapter 2 - she already had a daughter at that point? (I wonder if the backstory will be revealed a bit more in the story, but I should just read it, shouldn't I? I remember the epilogue with Buffy and Spike in a hotel room...)

I have seen some wonderful fanfics that deal with Hank, usually AU of S6 or the summer after the Gift. It's weird that he went from distant but seemingly loving (When she was bad) to a really bad dad, which may have overplayed the "bad parent" theme of the show although there ARE parents who do that. My sister's father did that to BOTH of his daughters from both of his wives (he divorced twice.) Abandonment happens, although my sisters father was an alcoholic and very messed up. So I don't know. Maybe the writers didn't want to deal with Hank.

rahirah deals with Hank and has him come into her S6 AU rewrite, part of the "Barbverse", you might like her fic as well if you haven't read it?

And I LOVE Tara in S6 - she's awesome then.
Is that fic "The Queen"? I'm not sure if I finished chapter 2 - she already had a daughter at that point? (I wonder if the backstory will be revealed a bit more in the story, but I should just read it, shouldn't I? I remember the epilogue with Buffy and Spike in a hotel room...)
Yes, it's The Queen. And Buffy already got her daughter. As the story develops you will know her background, but also why she's so important in the general plot-line.

I've read the Barbverse, translated in Italian. It's really an amazing saga. Incredibly well-written.
I really don't know how to deal with Hank, because in the first two season he appears a bit and then total blackout. So my guess is basically: mh?

Funfact: I don't love Tara as I love Buffy or Anya, but I think I'm very similar to her, especially for her maternal side. I don't know! XD