Reading Like a Writer: “Tabula Rasa,” Amnesia, and Emotion

Posted on Tue, Sep 27 2016 9:00 am by Allison Wyss and Erin Kate Ryan


Why can't there be a "Reading Like a Writer" column about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? A television series starts with words on a page, and the study of storytelling can absolutely include the study of TV.

Why can't "Reading Like a Writer" bring in a guest co-columnist? Erin Kate Ryan writes periodically for The Writers' Block, and she's got opinions—oh, she’s got opinions!—about the show and its narrative strategy.

Together, we're going to look at "Tabula Rasa," the eighth-season episode right after the musical one. It's when they all get magical amnesia.

It's always been one of Erin Kate's favorite episodes. There’s a sense of discovery in it, a reminder that anything can happen. But isn’t the amnesia plot a bit tired? Allison (the boss of this column) is skeptical of it. After all, Whedon does a similar thing in “Spin the Bottle” of Angel. And haven’t we seen the technique repeatedly in other, non-Whedon stories?

Well, it must be up to something, right?

“Tabula Rasa” starts by introducing the week’s opponent, a bookie in the form of an anthropomorphized shark. He’s not much of a threat, a gnat of a villain really, but he reminds us that, in Buffy’s world, magic can’t be ignored.

Then a spell backfires and the characters are saddled with magical amnesia—they find themselves in the magic shop, stunned, with no memory of themselves or each other. And vampires? Slayers? They’ve forgotten their existence. They wake up with the rules of the conventional world intact, though—assumptions about familial relationships, heteronormative romantic pairings, and the make-believe-ness of magic.

Pretty soon the talking shark and some vampires appear at the door. These guys are a joke. But everybody screams. Buffy says, “Monsters are real. Did we know this?”

And this, we think, is the point of that "blank slate" indicated in the title. Because the viewer does know that monsters exist in this world. We know it too well. The magic has become normalized for us.

(In a fairy tale, magic is normalized; everyone knows it exists. But Sunnydale is not a fairy tale world. This world is like our own and magic happens.)

In early episodes of the series, we're reminded of the “real” world—and magic is de-normalized—by the reaction of outsiders. Early Joyce (Buffy’s mother), for example, doesn’t know about vampires. When she is shocked by one, the viewer is reminded of the strangeness of magic.

But eventually, as characters are developed and the narrative arc reaches its stride, outsiders like Joyce are assimilated into the world and the fact of magic becomes normalized for them. As the stakes grow (fighting gods, saving the world again and again, paying the mortgage), the characters close ranks. Their missions and relationships fill our vision; nothing outside them exists.

As viewers, we suspend our disbelief along with those outsiders. We’re meant to do so. It allows us to become emotionally invested in plots that might seem ridiculous to non-watchers (“so, Buffy sacrificed herself to save this ball of energy disguised as her sister and Xander is marrying a thousand-year-old ex-demon...”). But that suspension, that investment, can mean that we forget how strange it is that magic is real in Sunnydale. We lose the wonder.

And so this episode, with its "tired" amnesia plot, makes us re-discover the world’s magic. As the characters notice their surroundings, we see the magic shop with new eyes. As they read Latin from spell books, we’re reminded of how weird it is that incantation can make rabbits appear (or memories disappear). We can be scared not just of these particular monsters, but that monsters exist at all.

And that’s delightful!

But the de-normalization of magic has a greater purpose—even greater, that is, than making the show fun to watch. As we’re reminded to wonder about the magic, we’re also made to reconsider the non-magical aspects of the characters’ lives and how the two interact. How could a person stand these things? How could a person adapt? When it’s suddenly not commonplace, we wonder how it could ever be.

The characters’ growth is placed into greater relief, which means that when we remember (and when they remember) the complexity of their human lives, we more deeply feel the tension they struggle with every day. They’re doing the incredibly hard work of being human and navigating the extraordinary task of surviving magical attackers-slash-saving the world. If Buffy were just a superhero, maybe her feelings (and the feelings of her intimates) wouldn’t matter so much, but she’s not, and they do. Therefore, reminding us of the characters’ humanity helps us see their susceptibility to true, ungovernable emotion.

Furthermore, the amnesia strips them of the barriers they’ve built—magical or not—to their feelings, pushing us to that sweet spot of fiction in which characters must grapple with actual emotion.

The previous episode (“Once More With Feeling”) has established some strong emotional tensions. In it, the Scoobies discover that bringing Buffy back from the dead also ripped her from heaven. Tara learns that Willow magically wiped her memories to end a fight. Xander and Anya unintentionally admit to fear and resentment about their upcoming wedding. Giles realizes he must leave Buffy to be the boss of her own damn self. And Spike and Buffy kiss. The episode has yanked subtext into text and left the characters wrung out and tender.

But no big deal. They have superpowers. They’ll just keep singing. Right?

What better moment for Willow to twitch her nose and erase their memories like Etch-a-Sketches? Willow casts the spell to escape a fight with Tara, to quell Tara's hurt and anger, and to avoid her own responsibility for it. But then it backfires, and, well, there they are. When the memories return, so do the feelings, bigger than ever. This episode is light on the Big Bad, but it’s a double gut punch to human frailty and vulnerability.

It’s important that Sunnydale is a world both human and supernatural because it’s the interplay of magic and humanity that drives the story. If we had just the one, it could be simple. But, like the stories most worthy of our time and effort, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is after complexity, the couldn’t-imagine-living-with-it version of life. “Tabula Rasa” reminds us that the magic exists—and that it's strange!—and it's there not to aid in avoiding “real” life but to problematize it.

Allison Wyss' stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.

Erin Kate Ryan has published fiction in many literary reviews. Her fellowships and grants include a 2016 Minnesota Artist's Initiative grant, as well as a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship. She holds an MFA in Fiction, and a JD. She is teaching Queering Story: A Primer on Breaking the Rules and The Structures of Story this fall at the Loft!