First, a quick note. Lately you’ve probably noticed that I’m writing about Buffy to an extent that is obsessive, perhaps nauseating. You may wonder if I have acquired a second mental illness, or if I am receiving money from Joss Whedon. As far as I know, neither is the case; and unfortunately for you, Hypothetical Reader, the obsession shows no sign of slowing down. If you like, you can turn my blog into a drinking game, or use it as a cautionary tale for children.
One of the best and most iconic scenes in Buffy comes in the Season 2 episode “Innocence.” A powerful demon threatens the town, and nobody knows how to stop it. The usual weapons – swords, stakes, crossbows – are useless. Buffy and friends consider all kinds of strategies, magic spells, and possible weaknesses, but they come up empty.
Then they get an idea.
The demon enters a crowded shopping mall, ready to inflict all kinds of carnage. And Buffy comes up – in broad daylight, in full view of everyone – and pulls out a friggin’ rocket launcher, and blows the creature away.
It probably sounds dumb when I explain it like that, but in the context of the show, the scene is awesome. I don’t just mean it’s really cool. I mean that it literally inspires awe (for me, anyway).
It isn’t just that the rocket launcher is big or powerful. Lots of shows feature far more destructive weapons that do nothing for me. So what is it? I couldn’t put my finger on the reason, and it bothered me. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. And I believe I’ve finally figured it out.
See, despite being set in modern times, Buffy is basically a sword-and-sorcery show. The weapons are either medieval or magical. The enemies are monsters or demons. Fights involve hand-to-hand combat as often as not. This is just how Buffy is – it’s such a basic element of the story that you don’t even think much about it. Implicitly, it’s one of the rules of the game.
Buffy and her friends can’t figure out how to beat the demon because they’re stuck in the mindset of those invisible, unspoken rules. They conclude, correctly, that they can’t win the game.
By using a rocket launcher, they’re breaking the rules. They’re not doing sword and sorcery anymore.
They don’t win by playing the game better. They play an entirely different game. The confrontation in the mall isn’t a fight. It’s an execution.
I think this idea of transcending the game is behind a lot of the most awe-inspiring moments in fiction.
The climactic scene of The Matrix shows this even more clearly. Neo has fully realized his role as The One. He sees the Matrix for what it is. He bends it to his will. Agent Smith – a devastating nemesis for most of the film – is reduced to a mere curiosity, a trial run for Neo’s unspeakable power. Smith fires one bullet after another, and Neo plucks them out of the air. As with Buffy and the demon, this isn’t actually a fight. Smith is still bound by the old rules, while Neo is playing a different game.
Transcending the game often means “upgrading” to a higher class of weapon or power, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes a strategy or tactic is so brilliant, so unexpected, that it can work in the same way.
At one point in Ender’s Game, Ender’s troops are forced into a war game that’s completely unfair. Their opponents, well-rested and prepared, have twice as many soldiers, while Ender’s soldiers are exhausted and surprised. Everyone is either laughing at Ender or pitying him; it’s simply a no-win scenario.
And then Ender deploys a strategy so subtle, so perfect, that his enemies don’t even realize they’ve lost until after the battle is over. (If you’re wondering what the strategy is, you’ll have to read the book.)
Game-transcendence is typically a surprise to the reader (or viewer), but it doesn’t have to be. Lord of the Rings is an amazing example of this. The reader knows all along that the good guys plan to destroy the Ring; it’s the whole premise of the story. It’s easy to forget, then, that Sauron doesn’t know, that he can’t even imagine a strategy of deliberately giving up power. The moment when his light bulb finally clicks on is one of the best scenes in the book. I’m quoting it here – I know it’s a long passage, but I just love it so much:
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.
Please, Professor Tolkien. You had me at “Hello.”