Let me make clear from the outset that I am not one of those who subscribe to the idea that “Normal Again” presents “the truth” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The simple fact that there are events in this world that occur outside the awareness of main character is sufficient proof that it isn’t all a product of her delusional mind. That said, this episode is still a fascinating exploration of the boundaries of fictional reality, presenting two alternative worlds without any definitive evidence as to which one is “real.” Despite this, Buffy still makes a definitive choice between them, and her reasons for doing so underscore just how much truth’s to be found in the world of vampires, magic, and heroes.
This episode doesn’t just posit a plausible alternate reality for Buffy, it actively seeks to undermine the one we know. It starts off with the psychologist dismissing the show’s fantastic elements (demons, monsters, magic, who believes in that nonsense) but before long he’s calling out the show’s larger narrative inconsistencies (a sister from out of nowhere?) and echoing the criticisms of many fans in pointing out that things just aren’t as much fun as they used to be. It’s about as meta as it gets on a thoroughly meta series.
But Dr. Whomever doesn’t stop at calling the reality of Sunnydale into question, he also denies that it has any value. We already knew that Sunnydale wasn’t real and while calling that into question within the show’s own fabric is certainly interesting, I find it far more fascinating that this non-reality is cited as evidence of non-relevance. The doctor and Summers parents keep referring to Buffy’s friends as “tricks” and “traps,” illusions whose sole purpose is to keep her from getting healthy. There’s never any argument made as to why Buffy should stop returning to them, it’s merely taken for granted that however they might make her feel, they are false and therefore not preferable to real life.
This lack of any real argument doesn’t actually help decide the case as the residents of Sunnydale also take the value of their own “reality” for granted. The Asylum is false, therefore Buffy shouldn’t go back there. Without any definitive evidence either way, Buffy’s faced with an equal choice between two fictional worlds and the basis of that choice really comes down to what she wants. Spike frames this choice as being about pain, Buffy can’t allow herself to be happy and so chooses to be miserable. He has a point, and it’s compelling enough to get Buffy to ditch the antidote and return to the asylum to “get healthy.” It is not, however, enough to make her stay there.
Great as it is for Spike to be the one to make Buffy decide to go, it’s even better for Joyce to be the one to make her stay. Buffy flees to the asylum because she’s tired of the pain, she goes back to Sunnydale because the alternative means being weak. She can accept the world in which she’s helpless, where people encourage her make things “as easy on yourself as possible” or she can accept a world where she’s strong. Yes, life is hard for her, perhaps even terrible, but having the strength to face that pain is what makes it worthwhile. “Believe in yourself” may be a cliche, but it’s more than enough to trump the realism of her life in a padded cell.
I considered the doctor’s argument to be a reflection of the typical critique that many people level against genre fiction; it’s just an escape, time to get back to the real world. Escape or not, the value of fiction is independent of how realistic it is. Value inheres in what the story has to say.
Nice to give Tara a hand in saving the day. Surely her star on this show is on the rise.
Also nice to see Spike calling Buffy on the way she’s treated him. Yes, he kinda asked for it, but it’s still gotta hurt.