“Hush,” the tenth episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 4, opens with Psych 101. Buffy’s professor is lecturing on the difference between language and communication. By now we know that the no-nonsense Professor Maggie Walsh is the director of a secret supernatural division of the military whose facilities crinkle aluminumly under UC-Sunnydale’s burnt brick campus — but Buffy doesn’t yet. She’s too busy thirsting after her TA, Riley, a 20-fl.-oz. bottle of Sprite Zero who moonlights as Walsh’s number-one agent. Things get weird when Walsh invites Buffy to lie down on her desk so that Riley can kiss her, Snow White-style. The sun suddenly sets. A little girl sings a creepy song. Buffy startles awake. It was a dream. Heterosexuality always is.
After class, Willow attends Wicca club. Expecting witches, she finds only feminists. An easy mistake, in retrospect. “I think we should have a bake sale,” says a redhead with freckles. “I do an empowering lemon bun.” Willow weighs in, tentatively, like a kitten testing a blanket: “There’s also other stuff we might have an interest in, as a…” (the tiniest bloom of a pause) “…Wicca group.” But the girls mock her for suggesting they try out some spells. “You know, certain stereotypes are not very empowering,” chides the freckled girl, a regular Betty Friedan. Willow is confused, but not the way she thinks she is.
There is a girl kneeling on the floor, long highlights shyly framing face, her lips in a worried pout. “Maybe we could…” she stutters. The group glowers at her. “Yes, Tara?” Tara glances around, nervously half-smiling, weighing the risks. In the end she wilts. Tara’s not very good at talking. Willow eyes her from across the circle. Tara notices.
It’s no accident that one of the first major lesbian relationships in television history began in an episode where no one was able to talk. That night, while the town sleeps, people’s voices will wisp out of their mouths and fly to the clocktower, where they are locked in a small box. The next morning, Buffy and Willow wake up speechless. The next twenty-seven minutes are a wordless ballet, matched in recent memory only by BoJack Horseman‘s devastatingly beautiful underwater episode from two years ago. In an interview, Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Gellar describes how she was looking forward to not having to learn lines before she realized just how technically precise series creator Joss Whedon’s direction would become.
The demons responsible for pressing mute on Sunnydale are called the Gentlemen. They are some of the best, most genuinely terrifying monsters the Buffy writers ever came up with, ranking with the drooling, lamprey-like Queller from season five and season seven’s Gnarl, who eats his victims’ skin in little squares, like raw puff pastry. But unlike those monsters, the Gentlemen have class. They wear identical black suits with white pocket squares. In a beautifully executed practical effect, the Gentlemen sail smoothly through the air, a foot above the ground, knees locked, loafers together. (True evil wears shoes.) Their gestures are slow, legato, underwater-like. Dark veins show through their clammy grey skin. Their chins and noses jut out witchily; in profile, their heads are crescent moons, with teeth like tarnished silver glinting out of their enormous frozen rictuses.
What they want is hearts — seven, to be exact. But there’s no rush. What makes the Gentlemen truly exquisite is their fawning collegiality. At the first unhearting, one Gentleman retrieves a slim scalpel from his black leather apothecary bag and hands it, unctuously, to another. They nod deeply at each other, as if to say: “Doctor.” When the head Gentlemen (Doug Jones, famous fucked fish) brings back a heart in a jar, the others silently applaud, like fatuous hangers-on at a morticians’ conference. Oh, it’s too much, Jones protests with his hands, falsely modest.
Music plays an outsize role in “Hush.” When Giles’s transatlantic booty call Olivia wanders out of bed in the middle of the night— nothing makes me happier than the implication that lesbian icon Rupert Giles, the only man I have ever loved, fucks — a solo violin walks her down the stairs at intervals, slow and deliberate, something out of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel.” When a Gentleman floats by the window, the strings scream in Olivia’s place, like the opening of Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” As we cut away, the Gentlemen’s theme breaks out in full orchestral form — fairy-tale bells, shimmering chimes, dark amber horns and underneath a quick, crab-like string. The ghost of a female soloist takes the melody, a listing chromatic sigh. There’s something almost Disney about it (the Renaissance, not the Channel), sweeping and grand but eminently singable.
The Gentlemen come upon Tara, who is looking for Willow. She has been researching spells to counteract the silence. She cries for help, but nothing comes out. She runs. When Willow hears someone knocking on dorm room doors, she steps out, and Tara collides with her, their bodies tangling on the floor. They run together, Tara holding onto Willow’s shirt, until they find a deserted laundry room. They try to block the door with a vending machine, but it is too heavy. Willow tries to do a spell. Tara notices. Delicately, she threads her fingers through Willow’s, then gives a slow nod. The vending machine skids across the room like an empty recycling bin during a thunderstorm. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, witchcraft will be a metaphor for lesbianism even after it has stopped being metaphorical.
In terms of the season arc, the technical purpose of “Hush” is for Buffy and Riley to finally discover each other’s secret identities as slayer and commando respectively. It pulls this off perfectly: The two karate-chop their way through the Gentlemen’s straitjacketed minions until they arrive, all of a sudden, face to face, crossbow to shock gun. But they won’t get to discuss it until the end of the episode, after Buffy literally screams the Gentlemen’s heads off. “Well,” says Riley, sitting down on a bed in Buffy’s dorm room, “I guess we have to talk.” “I guess we do,” Buffy replies. For a long beat, they sit across from each other, unable to make eye contact. The credits roll.
This is the purpose of the episode, as I’ve said. But it is not what “Hush” is about.
In the shower, I think about what I’ll write in this essay. When I’m drying off, my body quivers. I place my forehead against the sink and let six or seven jagged sobs carve their way out of me. I am naked and alone in my apartment, crying about television. The cat wanders in to check on me.
When their voices die, the college kids and townies react with sadness, gloom, depression. There are no riots, few fights. It’s smooth, ballooning loss. Even the street preacher is reduced to leading a silent devotional group, bent in prayer. People stand still, or shuffle slowly, hanging their heads, crying into shoulders. The only sound is sibilance: taut breaths, thin sniffs. The feeling is of vacancy. People are grieving, but not the way they think they are.
They do not know it, but they are mourning for Tara. I am too.
I knew two things for certain before I had watched a single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: (1) When Willow Rosenberg got to college, she was going to be gay; and (2) Tara McClay, her first girlfriend, was going to die. That death, cruel, random and terrible, would not come until the final episodes of season 6. It would be the show’s darkest hour.
I do not care about most things in real life the way I care about Willow and Tara. Neither I nor my therapist can quite figure out why. They are in me, somehow, like stomach lining, or the quick under my fingernails. When they appear, I tremble. When they kiss, I writhe. “I’m definitely nothing special,” says Willow. “No,” says Tara, her eyes searing into Willow’s face. “You are.” I make my girlfriend rewind. I have to see it again: that gesture, that look, that bit lip. I must burn them all into my brain. I have to do something. I have to save her.
My girlfriend does not know yet that Tara will die. She just thinks I am cutely obsessed, to the point of being annoying about it. She doesn’t know that all I can see is a winding sheet, a pall. As the episodes count down — fifty-three left, forty-two, twenty — I am increasingly likely to cry during the credits, soft moans rolling, combining, like waves, until I am screaming. It is the summer of my suicidality; this my girlfriend does know. I want to tell her why I am so sad, but I don’t want to ruin it for her. She loves Willow and Tara too. I hold this knowledge close to myself, build it a cage from my ribs. It cannot be spoken. One day, a smiling man will float into my bedroom, cut me open and pull it out.
“What’s wrong?” my girlfriend asks.
I want to tell her. The words don’t come.
This essay is an exclusive look at Andrea Long Chu’s weekly TV newsletter, Paper View. You can subscribe to Paper View here.