Abstract: This paper explores the rejection of an important dominant discourse in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush” (S4 E10). Primarily, the author discusses how the episode depicts organized institutions in a negative light, showing them to be failures when it comes to solving problems of importance. In order to carry out this type of analysis, the method of deep reading and the related theory of post-structuralism are utilized, especially by focusing on the importance of dominant discourses and the structured absences in a given text that inform such narratives. The inclusion of these features in “Hush” is analyzed by looking specifically at the elements of image, dialogue, and narrative throughout the episode.
In popular culture, it is typical that the concept of authority and centralized power is associated with the expectation of an increased amount of organization, expertise, and professionalism. The assumption is that power and organization are features which inevitably translate into capability, something which the weaker and less-organized simply do not possess. This is only one dominant discourse among many. In every social situation and context, in fact, there are always particular “ways of making sense of the world—some discourses—[that] will be dominant” (McKee, 2003, p.101). Through analyzing the 1999 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush” (S4 E10), however, it is apparent that the story and its various elements suggest a replacement of this dominant discourse with an alternative one. Within the episode, a centralized authority known as the Initative is shown to be far less effective at handling a crisis situation than the more independent, loosely-organized individuals who make up Buffy’s team. Considering elements of image, dialogue, and narrative is useful in recognizing this overarching metanarrative of the episode.
The contrast made between power and the absence of such is also at play throughout the episode. For instance, the character Riley is shown using a bow-type weapon that functions much like an electrocuting taser device. Buffy, on the other hand, uses a far more traditional crossbow that requires manual operation to function (“Hush,” 1999, 0:35:22-35:25). Such differences, while seemingly irrelevant on the surface, are actually vital in advancing a metanarrative concerning the role of centralized authorities and amateurish outsiders in dealing with a pressing issue. The outsiders, rather than the experts who might ordinarily be expected, are actually the ones who come out ahead in this particular text.
For the purposes of this paper, the author relies upon a deep reading approach that is described by Alan McKee (2003) in his book Textual Analysis. Drawing heavily from post-structuralist theory, McKee holds that there are several manners in which texts are able to be considered that frequently depart from the most obvious and expected narratives that are discerned by the average viewer. Investigating the dominant discourses that pervade a given text, for example, can reveal much about how popular artifacts are either reinforcing or rejecting important social and cultural notions. As McKee explains, these discourses are ideas which “come from particular places” and are created and advanced by those who “have some authority to introduce concepts into culture” (p.100). The concept of structuring absence is equally important for McKee, something which many texts that contain counter-narratives can be shown to possess. The very fact that a show does not include characters of a certain gender, race, and so forth, can actually be quite telling; it hints at a system of representation and non-representation that may suggest just as much as explicit features when it comes to prevailing discourses (pp.110-11). With deep reading, as McKee explains, the critic is able to apply the concept that “every area of experience has multiple sense-making practices associated with it” to any text (p.23); a cultural artifact like the Buffy episode “Hush” is certainly no exception.
By relying on deep reading analysis in particular, “Hush” can be shown to both advance some dominant discourses and dispel others. One maintained discourse, for instance, is the idea that patriarchal systems are inevitably successful and matriarchal ones are subject to failure. In addition, we see a patriarchal system in play throughout much of the episode, as female characters are shown to be reliant on male ones for emotional and intellectual support. This is not, however, the focus of this paper. Rather, it is the episode’s dispelling of a dominant discourse that can be seen in its emphasis on centralized organizations’ ineffectiveness in addressing crisis situations. The image portrayed of the Initiative as being made up of perplexed and inefficient individuals is continually contrasted with Buffy and the other members of her group, a loosely-organized team that is focused and capable enough to eventually solve the problems at hand. Dialogue, in addition, is used throughout the episode to show a contradiction between statements asserting an order-keeping ability and a track record of failures in doing that very thing. The profound irony in the narrative of “Hush” is that a powerful paramilitary organization like the Initiative is incapable of solving the issue of the Gentlemen and their menacing threat. Instead, it is an individual researcher who finds the solution in a fairy tale book and the amateur fighter Buffy who decisively triumphs over the Gentlemen. A larger issue in the episode is that it reveals an over-reliance on technology and flashiness, as the Initiative exhibits, to be absolutely detrimental when it comes to addressing important issues.
In order to understand the way in which “Hush” dispels the aforementioned dominant discourse, it is important to recognize the various distinctions made throughout the episode between the members of the Initiative and those of Buffy’s group. First and foremost, we know that the facility where the Initiative is based exhibits all the expected features of an advanced research center, one that is replete with professional men and women in laboratory coats who are surrounded by digital machinery and ultra-advanced technology. Whenever we see Riley Finn and his partner Forrest Gates entering the facility, it occurs by way of a high-security, secret elevator in which a voice recognition system acts as the method for gaining access (“Hush,” 1999, 0:11:40-11:57). In contrast, the team led by Buffy is one which is largely informal and not reliant on such an extravagant organizational apparatus. Their home base is merely a smaller-scale apartment where Giles resides. There is no security system present, a feature which is obvious because of the number of instances in which someone nonchalantly enters the apartment without even knocking (0:07:37-07:40). In addition, the research space that Giles regularly utilizes is nothing more than a wooden desk surrounded by a personal library and even unkempt at various times with strewn-about papers and books that have been left open. Narratively speaking, the message being continually communicated is centered upon the idea of seeming unprofessionalism and its actual insignificance when it comes to solving pressing issues. Contrary to what might be expected, it is actually the more unprofessional environment of Giles’ apartment—as well as the loosely-organized group meeting there—which end up being the most successful in addressing the Gentlemen.
Later on, another distinction is revealed between the approaches of each team in carrying out communication and conveying information that is vital in addressing the rampage of the Gentlemen. Maggie, one of the leaders of the Initiative, is shown using a computer that speaks aloud as she types the words. Riley and Forrest, who are seated with Maggie in the command center, are surrounded by a number of other stacked computer monitors. Their methods of communication are arguably more sophisticated than those of Buffy and her team. Even in the presence of such an advanced network, however, the Initiative’s answers are nonexistent. Maggie can only say that her organization is “looking into it” and offers the empty promise that they eventually “will find an answer” as to what is causing a widespread loss of voices (0:20:42-21:06). Buffy’s group is quite different, however, not having any of this sort of technology at their disposal. At first, just after their voices have been stolen, the group members are shown relying exclusively on lip reading and whiteboards to communicate with one another (0:19:31). When Giles does use technology to relate his findings concerning the Gentlemen and their sinister goals, he still only employs an aged-looking overhead projector, a device which is outmoded in comparison with the Initiative’s expensive computers. His presentation, too, is notably clumsy and amateurish—a fact which is made even more evident when we see him turning a tape player on to introduce instrumental music and artificially create a dramatic atmosphere. The imagery of Giles’ flubbing of the presentation by first placing a transparency sheet upside-down is emblematic of the group’s amateurish nature. In addition, rather than seeing any attempt to carry out a professional-like explanation of the problem, we see Giles relying on crudely-drawn illustrations that are displayed with straightforward, simplistic words in the fashion of a children’s storybook (0:28:00-30:34). This is another key distinction between the Initiative and Buffy’s group as it relates to the effective uncovering of vital information. For all its significant technological advancement and professional organization, the Initiative is shown to be wholly incapable of uncovering answers as to how the Gentlemen ought to be handled. It is instead Giles, finding his answer in a simple book from his shelf entitled Fairy Tales, who learns the solution and is able to share it with his team in a far more expedient manner. The episode’s structuring absence in this case has to do with the methods that are available to one party and unavailable to another. Access to advanced technology or a centralized collective of intelligence-gathering individuals simply do not exist for Giles, Buffy, and the rest of their team.
The dialogue present throughout “Hush” is obviously scanter than might be encountered in other texts, simply because of the plot element regarding stolen voices. This is why it is important that spoken lines occur early on. One of the most important of these is Maggie’s remark in Buffy’s dream that she is a “typical college girl, one assumes” (0:00:36-00:37). Even here, the narrative being communicated is centered on the idea of roles that are taken upon by characters even though they would defy initial expectations. It should not be an average young person—especially a woman—who is capable of solving problems like an epidemic of lost voices. Rather, the expectation is that this sort of issue would best be left to established experts or authorities to address. The fact that this happens, then, further lends support to the presence of a counter-discourse in the episode.
Dialogue throughout the rest of the episode serves to advance this same idea. Even during the later parts of “Hush,” where spoken dialogue is mostly absent, there are still minor instances of audible dialogue like the televised news report. In this, we hear about the government response to what is widely considered to be a “laryngitis” outbreak. The newscaster explains in his brief segment that “Local authorities have issued a statement … blaming recent flu vaccinations.” The organized, institutional response of the local government is thus similar to what we see in the Initiative. That there is a similar shortage of answers plainly demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge on the authorities’ part as to the actual origin or nature of the problem. “The Centers for Disease Control,” the newsperson continues, “have ordered the entire town quarantined—no one can go in or out until the syndrome is identified or the symptoms disappear.” As Buffy and her group watch the brief report, Giles can be seen rolling his eyes in annoyance at the notion of a quarantine, perhaps as a non-verbal way for him to communicate that such a measure will be useless. Xander, by mouthing “That’s it?,” further captures the sentiment that his city’s authorities are sluggish and unproductive in providing tangible answers (0:19:53-20:30). Both reactions are certainly vindicated as the episode progresses. The Gentlemen, we soon find out, are more than capable of carrying out their devious plans regardless of such a restriction on citizens’ movements. It also becomes quite apparent that all of the experts and authorities depicted throughout the episode—both governmental and military—are unable to come up with anything else in the way of useful information.
There is another important scene where dialogue serves to advance the narrative that the more powerful and organized entity in the episode is actually the least effective. A computerized voice is heard reading aloud what Maggie types, insisting that Riley will be the one among them all that will “help keep order.” We then see Riley holding up a sign which asks Maggie to explain what is occurring. Her response, similarly to the CDC in the aforementioned news report, is one rooted in uncertainty. “We are looking into it,” she says, insisting that the organization “will find an answer” at some point in time (0:20:42-21:06). The viewer learns, of course, that it is only Buffy and her team who end up arriving at the answer to that question and its ultimate solution. Even before this resolution occurs, there is an obvious contrast made between Buffy’s effectiveness in maintaining order and that of Riley. While walking through the city of Sunnydale at nighttime, Riley is seemingly the first of the two to break up a street fight. In reality, it is Buffy who ends up following through and curbing one of the fighters in his attempt to strike Riley from behind. Riley also continually serves to disrupt Buffy’s attempts at addressing the problem of the Gentlemen. His constant tendency to be lovestruck and embrace her is one example of this. In addition, there is the final task encouraged by Buffy which he ends up blundering. Instead of quickly opening the Gentlemen’s box which contains people’s voices, Riley hesitates and comes dangerously close to jeopardizing Buffy’s opportunity to defeat the villains.
Although the thrust of the metanarrative in “Hush” can be shown to be centered on issues of authority and effectiveness, there is still the question of other possible interpretations. It is understandable that the storyline of the episode, which involves nearly 27 minutes of no spoken dialogue whatsoever, might elicit critical analyses related to issues of communication. Some may suggest that the episode is simply an artifact demonstrating the idea that non-verbal forms of communication are inevitably heightened in the face of a restriction on oral forms. One question to consider, then, is whether the aforementioned ideas have enough substantive support to warrant attention. Interestingly enough, it is actually the characters of Tara and Willow who end up providing the strongest affirmation that a distinction ought to be made between the strongly-organized groups and rogue outsiders who appear throughout the episode. “You’re different than them,” Tara suggests. She then explains that “they didn’t seem to know” what—as Willow chimes in and finishes the last half of the sentence—“they were talking about” (0:41:06-41:11). Although she is speaking about the Wicca group that meets regularly at the university, her comment is still quite instructive in deepening the metanarrative concerning centralized authorities and their ineffectiveness. Just as the self-proclaimed group of Wiccans at UC Sunnydale are not genuine in the way that these two outsiders are, it is demonstrable that all the established authorities present throughout “Hush” never appear to know what they are talking about. We see quite the opposite, in fact. These authorities continually demonstrate a deficiency in terms of knowledge and actual ability through their observable actions. Buffy and her team, however, show a far greater amount of effectiveness in responding to the things which need to be dealt with.
“Hush” (1999) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4, episode 10. 20th Century Fox Television. Directed by Joss Whedon [TV Program]. Originally broadcast 14 December.
MCKEE, A. (2003) Textual Analysis. London: Sage Publications.