The Gordian Joss

Since writing a draft of this piece, I have done a thorough search and found that a poster on the Whedonesque board seems to have come up with the same basic idea before I did.  He/she even talked about it using “Chosen” as a reference.  While this makes me green with envy, at least I can still discuss the trope I thought I found…


Once upon a time, Alexander the Great traveled to Phrygia.  While there, he solved the problem of the Gordian knot, a legendary tangle of bark that supposedly resisted all efforts to untie it.  The way I originally heard the legend (since confirmed, sadly, to be propaganda), it was claimed by prophecy that he who could untie the knot would be ruler of all Asia.  Alexander found the solution – he cut the Gordian knot in half.

This playing with semantics is probably why he never reached the Ganges.

I bring up the legend in order to name and discuss a trope.    A Gordian Joss is a very special form of deus ex machina that springs in its purest from from the pen of Joss Whedon, creator of such series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly.  It is similar to its parent trope in that its purpose is to resolve a seemingly insoluble problem happily.  Yet unlike a traditional deus ex machina, which consists of an unjustified intervention in the plot by an entity with supreme powers, the Gordian Joss cuts through its dilemma by demolishing a previously unquestioned assumption that, if it were true, would indeed make the problem insoluble – but, since it’s not, only appears to do so.

Perhaps the first great example comes in the climax of the second-season episode “Innocence.”  The previous episode, and much of the current one, had been devoted to building up a devastating villain called The Judge.  According to legend, “no weapon forged can stop him, it took an army to take him down,” and he has as his mission the annihilation of mankind (or, as he would put it, the cleansing of the earth).  If Buffy and crew don’t stop him in Sunnydale, they never will.  Yet it seems like there’s no way they can.

Suddenly, Buffy comes up with a plan, to which we are not made privy.  All we know is that it apparently involves a piece of equipment liberated from a nearby army base.  She and her friends head to meet The Judge at the mall.  The Judge openly taunts her.

THE JUDGE:  You are a fool.  No weapon forged can stop me.

In reply, Buffy reaches offscreen…

…and comes back up with a rocket launcher!

BUFFY:  That was then.

And in short order, The Judge is so many pieces scattered all over the mall floor.

The assumption that we have been working from, that the characters themselves were working from until very recently in the story, was that when the prophecy said “No weapon forged,” it really meant “no weapon, at all, that has ever been or ever will be made.”  Buffy’s great mental leap was to recognize that the assumption was incorrect.  The prophecy was historically situated.  There was no way that the people who wrote it could possibly have realized the revolutionary turns warfare would take.  They lived in an age where swords and crossbows were the best weapons a man could wield, and the catapult was still considered the most devastating ranged weapon.  The concept of explosives that could pierce metal would have been quite beyond them.  So of course, they wouldn’t take it into account when they said The Judge couldn’t be stopped.

I give you the Gordian Joss.

Over and over again, this trope appears in the Buffyverse, usually in Whedon’s episodes.  Other notable examples include the Buffy episodes “Prophecy Girl” (just because you have to die doesn’t mean you have to stay that way), “Family” (a piece of Tara’s family lore simply turns out to be a lie), and “The Gift” (Dawn’s blood may be the only blood that can close the portal, but since Buffy has the exact same blood…).  It was also put to great use in the Angel finale “Not Fade Away,” the successful resolution to which absolutely depends on the most basic, and yet in a sense most forgettable, fact about its titular hero (“Can you pick out the one word there you probably shouldn’t have said?”).

But for my money, the best example may just come in the Buffy series finale, “Chosen,” where Buffy demolishes the most foundational assumption of the series – that being a Slayer was something that happened to only one girl at any given time.  (Admittedly, this had already been pretty heavily trod on by the show for a number of years.)  But what Buffy and Faith couldn’t do alone, an army of Slayers could…

Buffy fans, can you think of other examples?  Which one of these was your favorite?  And for everyone else, are there other examples of this trope out there?

Published in: on December 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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