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Can’t even shout, can’t even cry
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors,
They need to take 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.
I remember exactly where I was when I first saw “Hush”. For many, Buffy was the TV show equivalent of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough; comforting and delicious and with extra tasty little chunks that really gave you a thrill. I’d watch it after I got home from college. It was an escape from the pressures of teenagehood: cheating boyfriends, exams, and fretting about all the pounds I’d put on after eating too much cookie dough ice cream.
So there I was, happily settling down to an early evening of terrestrial TV. Buffy and Riley were flirting ridiculously but it was going nowhere…except in Buffy’s dream, that is. She fell asleep in class, because well you would, being a Vampire Slayer that has to stay up all night, every single night and still go to school (they never did touch on the amphetamine habit Buffy must have had by the end). During her slumber, she dreamt that her teacher made Riley kiss her on a table in front of the whole class. Hmm, that’s kind of a weird nightmare, really. Though the kissing part was pretty hot. Yes, I am reliving all my teenage emotions here.
The dreamscape goes black, and Buffy hears the sound of a little girl singing. She finds her standing in the hallway with a small wooden box, then…argh! Good grief Anya, why in God’s name are you wearing a backless sweater? That’s not even part of the nightmare, that was all real. Praise be to the ’90s fashion gods.
Anya and Xander argue about why he won’t tell her how he really feels. I suspect that’s because he wants to tell her to take that goddamn sweater off, but she literally would and they’re in public so probably not the best idea. They carry on their argument—which turns out to be about whether Xander really loves her or just wants her for sex—at Giles’ house, where he’s vampire-sitting Spike. That is until he reveals that a girlfriend from England is coming to stay for the weekend. Ooh, Giles! you dark horse. So Spike has to stay at Xander’s place, which neither of them are happy about at all.
So the first 15 minutes are pretty regular Buffy. Willow joins a Wicca club at school but is disappointed to find that they’re more interested in cakes than actual magic. That is except for one, shy girl with very cool pastel coloured hair—20 years ahead of her time style-wise, go Tara! This is the first time Willow and Tara meet. I don’t suppose for a second back then I could have imagined what was to come for these two—so much love, and so much pain. Sigh. Buffy confides to Willow that she’s frustrated that her relationship with Riley is moving so slowly, and knows that this is because she can’t reveal her true identity to him.
Communication is the theme across every one of the gang’s stories in “Hush”. Buffy and Riley keep talking instead of kissing. Xander and Anya keep kissing instead of talking. Of course, the most adorable thing about Anya is that she has no understanding of what should or shouldn’t be said in private, and neither does she care. On the flipside, Xander can’t express himself vocally at all in fear of embarrassment.
Night falls across Sunnydale, Xander ties Spike to a chair in his apartment as he doesn’t trust him not to bite him in the night, and as everyone falls asleep…Jesus muthaf**king Christ, what are those things at the Clocktower?!
The Gentlemen are pretty much my worst nightmare. They float silently, they appear at windows grinning inanely, and they’re dressed like politicians. In fact, if they weren’t silent, I imagine they’d sound like The House of Commons—five half-asleep Tories patting themselves on the back with a ‘here, here’ and raucous, pompous laughter whenever one called another a pleb. The absolute worst. I remember at the time feeling genuinely scared, at like 5pm in the afternoon, and thinking, “well, it’s a bit before the watershed, probably a bit too scary for kids this”. That was my first day of being old.
The Gentlemen—a bit like The Cenobites, but more Bank Manager than S&M Funsters—take their magic little box, open it, and steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale. Taking away their voices means that no-one will hear the screams as they remove the hearts of seven victims while they are still alive. The sound of a human voice standing up to them would destroy them. Yep, definitely politicians.
Now, for the next 30 minutes, Joss Whedon and the cast and crew pulled off something really quite remarkable. Buffy is known for its witty dialogue, but all spoken communication was removed, which meant they had to come up with the goods in other ways. And they absolutely nailed it. It’s easy to forget because The Gentlemen are so creepy, that “Hush” is a truly funny episode. The gang’s silent reactions, gestures, and misunderstandings are what make this one of the most popular episodes of Buffy ever, and Emmy Award nominated too.
Sunnydale is in an apocalyptic state. Everyone is in silent panic. The news says that the town is under quarantine due to a mass laryngitis outbreak. Buffy and Willow walk through the town, armed with dry-erase boards to write down their words (purchased from a street vendor at an inflated price). Only bars and liquor stores remain open. A doomsayer silently preaches that it’s the end of the world.
Despite their difficulties, the gang find it in some ways easier to communicate than they could when they were speaking without listening at the beginning of the episode. Notably, Buffy and Riley find the wherewithal to share their first kiss. It’s not as hot as the dream.
Xander returns to Giles’s to find Anya lying on the sofa, and Spike with blood around his mouth. Assuming he’d bitten her, Xander flies at Spike, beating him to a pulp. Anya is perfectly fine, she was just sleeping, and Spike was just having a nice cold cup of butcher’s blood. But Xander knew now that he did love Anya, the thought of losing her enough to make him realise his true feelings. The pair make up, and she shows him in a less than subtle manner, what she’d like them to do. Anya was always my favourite girl.
Though “Hush” didn’t have much dialogue, it was far from silent. The episode includes one of the series’ most sinister soundtracks. Whedon and composer Christopher Beck used the episode’s score to pay homage to the music of silent films and add another layer of dread. Another one of the episode’s strong aspects is the Foley sound. I vividly remember the scene of that initial death. We don’t see The Gentlemen cut out the kid’s heart, but we hear the scalpel as it cuts through his chest cavity. When speech is deprived, other sounds become more important, adding to “Hush’s” overall sense of terror.
Tara walks through town at night, and accidentally drops her books, alerting The Gentlemen to her presence. They float towards her with their demon assistants, The Footmen, who could have been snatched straight from Silent Hill (though this came first), are donned in straight jackets and their heads bound in bandages. They chase Tara all the way to the dorms, where she can only bang on doors for help. She eventually bumps into Willow. Hiding in a laundry room, Willow and Tara try to push a vending machine against the door to block it, but they’re not strong enough. Willow then tries to move it using magic, but she can only shake it a bit. Tara understands what she’s trying to do, and clasps Willow’s hand so they can combine their power. As soon as they hold hands, the vending machine slams against the door. Metaphorically, of course, this moment shows how powerful it feels to connect with someone. For Willow, it is the beginning of her self-discovery, not only of how powerful a witch she is, but also that she is gay. There’s something extra-special about it being this episode that the spark was lit. Words were not needed, it was all in the way they looked at each other. God, I love them.
“Hush” also revealed a bit more of that dark side of our kindly British Librarian gang leader, Giles. When explaining to the Scoobies what The Gentlemen are (they are from a fairy tale), and what they want, his drawings are somewhat sinister. Buffy, Willow and Anya definitely took note.Clearly Giles still had some of that nasty streak in him from his ‘Ripper’ days while he was dabbling in the occult during his rebellious youth.
For Buffy, actions speak louder than words, and when both she and Riley end up fighting The Gentlemen and The Footmen, their other, secret lives are revealed. Together they find the magic voice box and Riley smashes it to pieces. Buffy lets out a blood-curdling scream, which causes the Gentlemen’s heads to explode in a shower of green slime. Yay!
Something that strikes me about this is how we never hear Buffy scream elsewhere really. In fact, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is defined by subverting the trope of the screaming-victim-girl, so when Buffy screams at the end of “Hush”, to destroy the Gentlemen, it’s a scream of empowerment, rather than out of fear.
What really makes “Hush” so scary is that in a show where screaming is a normal occurrence, it’s the lack, the contrast of what normally happens or what should happen here that makes Buffy’s weapon against The Gentlemen so effective. When Buffy screams, she really means it. But it also makes the inability to scream—as the characters open their mouths only to hear nothing—seem like that much more of a threat. Take The Gentlemen’s first victim, a student at UC Sunnydale. He tries to no avail to get the attention of someone, anyone, to save him as the Footmen hold him down. That nothingness, the contrast of ear-piercing noise replaced with an open mouth and nothing more, adds to the horror of knowing that this kid probably isn’t going to make it to class tomorrow.
But with the Gentlemen defeated, there’s a lot of explaining to do. Riley has to admit that he’s an agent of The Initiative; a covert operative for the United States government, and Buffy has to tell him that she is The Slayer. But somehow, with their voices back it’s not so easy to talk. Whedon quite plainly lays out the ways in which words can often get in the way with Riley and Buffy’s first kiss, or Tara getting the nerve to connect with Willow, or Xander showing Anya how he’d avenge her death. At the same time, though, Whedon emphasizes the ways in which words are indispensable, with Riley unable to operate the voice-activated elevator, or Spike unable to contextualize his bloodied mouth, or Riley and Buffy being unable to properly communicate during the climactic battle in the belfry.
The two sides come together in that final scene, as Riley and Buffy are physically able to talk about what they’ve just experienced with The Gentlemen having been defeated, but neither of them can find the words, creating an open-ended notion of speech and its role in our lives rather than a vilification of The Gentlemen for stealing a precious gift.
Honestly, I didn’t care if Buffy and Riley never spoke again. He was as dull as dishwater. Buffy, girl, you need to find yourself a good vampire. Wouldn’t that be sweet?