Saturday, 12 March 2016

Retro Review: Buffy The Vampire Slayer 'Hush'

'Can't even shout, can't even cry, the Gentlemen are coming by.  Looking in windows, knocking on doors, they need seven and they might take yours.  Can't call to mom, can't say a word, you're gonna die screaming but you won't be heard.'

Plot Summary:  The episode begins with Buffy asleep in her college lecture.  In her dream she and Riley kiss, before the two of them are interrupted by a young girl, holding a distinctive wooden box and singing a creepy nursery rhyme about 'The Gentlemen.'  Buffy is broken from her dream by a frightening white faced man with an evil grin and metal teeth.  After class Buffy and Riley speak and are close to kissing, but neither are able to stop their awkward talking.

Buffy calls Giles to tell him of her dream, worried that it might be one of her prophetic dreams.  Xander and Anya argue about their relationship as Anya tries to get Xander to tell her what she means to him, with him unable to put his feelings into words.  At college Willow attends a Wicca group, hoping to meet other witches, but is instead disappointed to find that she is the only witch, and gets chastised for the stereotype of witches performing magic.  A shy woman in the group, Tara, begins to speak up for Willow, but falls silent when attention turns to her.

That night white wisps of smoke like substance leaves the mouths of every resident of Sunnydale as they sleep, making their way through the town to an old belfry where they are collected into the box seen in Buffy's dream by skeletal white men with grins and metal teeth, the Gentlemen.

The next day the residents of Sunnydale discover that none of them can speak, leading to large scale panic and depression.  That night both Buffy and Riley are patrolling the streets, trying to keep residents calm.  The two of them meet, not knowing that the other is doing the same, and share their first kiss.

Elsewhere in town the Gentlemen leave their belfry, accompanied by their Footmen, and float their way through the streets, searching.  The gentlemen eventually find what they are looking for and knock on the door of one of the college students.  When he opens the door he is grabbed by a pair of Footmen and held down, unable to scream as the Gentlemen cut out his heart with a scalpel.

The next morning, with the aid of the local newspaper reports and a drawing made by his girlfriend Olivia, who saw one of the Gentlemen, Giles is able to piece together the mystery and uncover the creatures identities.  Using an overhead projector Giles is able to brief Buffy and the gang, telling them that the Gentlemen steal all the voices in a town so that no one can scream whilst they gather the seven hearts that they need, as only a real human scream can kill them.

That night, whilst at Giles' home Spike is drinking from a mug of blood whilst Anya is asleep on the sofa.  When he bends down to pick up a dropped book Xander enters and thinks that Spike is drinking from Anya and attacks him.  Anya stops him and the two kiss passionately, before Anya indicates that they should go home and have sex.

At the college Tara has found a spell to get the own their voices back and goes to show Willow.  On the way to Willow's dorm she finds the Gentlemen, and they begin to chase after her.  Tara manages to find Willow and the two of them flee from the Gentlemen, locking themselves in a laundry room.  They try to barricade the door with a vending machine, but it is too heavy for them.  Willow tries to use her magic to move the machine but it fails, having seen what Willow was trying, Tara clasps her hand, their eyes meet for a moment, then the two of them send the machine hurtling across the room to block the door.

On patrol, Riley sees something suspicious in the belfry and enters to investigate.  Outside, Buffy finds two of the Footmen and fights them, she manages to kill one, but chases the other into the belfry.  Inside the belfry Riley is fighting against the Footmen when Buffy crashes through the window.  The two are shocked to find the other in the belfry, but fight side-by-side against the Gentlemen and the Footmen.  Buffy sees the box from her dream and gets Riley to destroy it, returning her voice and allowing her to scream, blowing up the Gentlemen's heads.

The next day Tara tells Willow that she is special and has more power than she realises.  Riley and Buffy meet to discuss the events of the previous night, but find themselves unable to say anything.

Analysis:  'Hush' is without a doubt the best stand alone monster of the week episode of  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a simple story, frightening monster and amazingly executed gimmick that make it a truly stand out piece of television.

The central idea of this episode, of no one being able to speak, came from series creator Joss Whedon being told on multiple occasions that the primary reason for the show's success was due to the dialogue.  Whilst most writers and directors would take that as a compliment, Whedon saw it as a bit of an insult.  He stated in interviews that he felt he was becoming stagnant as a director and wanted to avoid falling into the trap of creating only formulaic episodes.  Thus 'Hush' was born.

The episode stripped away all of the dialogue that the series was being praised for, and aimed to not only tell a compelling and well crafted episode well, but also drive the characters forward and allow them to develop.

Whilst most shows would have done a straightforward episode without dialogue where the heroes overcome the foe and that's it, Buffy allows its characters to grow without dialogue.  Before the Gentlemen even arrive on screen there is conflict in this episode, a foe to beat, and it's language.  It might sound crazy, but it's people using language that are causing so many of the characters problems at the start of the episode.

Buffy and Riley can't admit that to each other that they are attracted to each other because they can't stop talking long enough for something to happen.  Xander and Anya are having problems in their relationship because Xander can't speak out his feelings and Anya, who is still getting used to human interaction, often says the wrong thing and comes across as blunt or rude.

Without language to get in their way Buffy and Riley are able to act on their feelings and kiss for the first time, Xander is able to show how he feels for Anya, confirming that despite her fears their relationship is clearly based on more than just sex.  It even allows growth in the same episode that introduces Tara.  Whilst she is incredibly shy and quiet when first introduced, being unable to speak allows her to find the courage to reach out and touch Willow, an act that not only gives them both the strength to survive, but goes on to be the start of the shows most important same sex relationship (sorry Kennedy, but the fans just don't love you as much as Tara).

It says a lot for a show that had thus far been praised so highly for its dialogue is able to deliver real character development and lasting changes that would carry on for seasons without relying on dialogue for 27 minutes of the episode.

It feels impossible to talk about 'Hush' without mentioning the Gentlemen, possibly the most frightening villain to ever feature on Buffy.  Whedon references Pinhead, Nosferatu and even Mr Burns as the inspiration for the visual design, and it's clear to see where each other these played a part in the creation of the monsters.

Whilst many of the creatures in both Buffy and Angel are large, monstrous foes that have a real physical threat to them, the Gentlemen are one of the rare exceptions to this rule, skeletal and corpselike, with slow and elegant movement that takes away from physical intimidation, but adds so much to the fear factor.

Even after fifteen years the scene where Olivia is looking out of Giles' window and one of the Gentlemen suddenly comes floating past, smiling at her, gives me the creeps in a way that no other Buffy creature ever has.  It's appropriate that Whedon received the inspiration for the creatures from a childhood nightmare, as many of the scenes with them feels like a nightmare scenario.

The scenes with the Gentlemen are beautifully added to by the direction and use of haunting musical score.  The almost fairytale like music, mixed with haunting vocals makes every moment with them scarier and heightens the tension as they glide through Sunnydale, searching for their next victims.

The fact that the Gentlemen glide rather than walk is a great choice for them as characters, increasing the creep factor and the nightmare like feel, but also means that they have to be shot a certain way as to hide either the wires holding them up or the dollies that move them around.  Certain angles and shots we're used to seeing are changed ever so slightly to hide these technical pieces, and makes things feel ever so slightly wrong and out of the norm.

Despite being one of the creepiest episodes in the history of Buffy 'Hush' is not without its light moments, providing some laugh out loud jokes, once again without the need for dialogue.  The episode uses the lack of dialogue for some great visual gags, the way Xander and Buffy's faces simultaneously fall when they try to talk to each other on the phone, or the way Forrest waves a pad with 'come on come one' written on it as Riley tries to override The Initiative's voiceprint security (it's the second come on that really makes it funny).

The most brilliantly funny part of the episode has to go to the scene where Giles is using an overhead projector to brief the scooby gang.  Yes, his childish (and at one point disturbing) drawings give the scene a visual comedy, but there's so much comedy in the scene that comes down to characterisation and misunderstanding.  Anya's blatant indifference to the whole thing as she eats popcorn.  Xander being stuck thinking about sex, thinking that the Gentlemen want 'boobies'.  Everyone's reaction to Buffy making a staking gesture whilst sitting down that makes it looks like she's suggesting masturbation.  Buffy's protest of Giles' drawing of her.  It's all stuff that feels real to all of the characters and works to create one of the best laugh out loud scenes of the show.

With fantastic visual storytelling, great comedy, wonderful dialogue (for as little as the episode has it) and the creepiest Buffy villains that will stick in your nightmares, 'Hush' is a near perfect example of what makes Buffy The Vampire Slayer an enduring classic piece of television and a must watch.


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