|Buffy the Vampire Slayer|
written and illustrated by Robert Delaney
|"Things have really
sucked lately. That's all gonna change."|
|Buffy Summers, Grave|
Well, this season's certainly been a bumpy ride, but it did eventually manage to pull itself out of the pit in the second half. I have this theory that nobody in Hollywood has any talent whatsoever and that, whenever something good does manage to get made, it's by accident - just dumb luck. Yet Buffy the Vampire Slayer has consistently confounded this theory. Episode by episode, season by season, it just kept getting better and better, forcing me to consider the possibility that one of my opinions might actually be wrong <shudder>. Then came the sixth season, and it was with a mixture of smugness and sadness that I saw the theory reasserting itself.
However, I think the problems I had with this season differed from those of many other fans, judging from the internet criticisms, because, once I felt the season had turned the corner and was getting good again, a lot of fans were still unhappy and writing the season off as a total loss. Many disliked the darkness, but I like darkness - the darker the better, so long as there's eventually a light beyond the darkness. The biggest problem I had is that I've decided that I don't like television series that rely too heavily on story arcs, and this season of Buffy has been more arc driven than any previous season.
In the long run, it's probably a bad idea for a television series to rely too heavily on arcs over standalone episodes. Babylon 5 was probably the first American series to have a prominent arc, and, like many of its fans, while I enjoyed the standalone episodes, I wished that they'd concentrate on the arc episodes instead. When the series ended and went into daily reruns, it was great to watch it from beginning to end without the long waits between episodes. After watching the whole thing through a couple of times, I stopped watching it daily because its timeslot had been requiring me to tape it while I was at work but continued to watch it when I was home on my day off, holidays, vacations, etc. That was when something odd happened. I found that I no longer enjoyed the arc episodes because, by watching them out of the context of their surrounding episodes, I had no emotional investment in the situation. It was the standalone episodes that I still enjoyed as much as when they were first broadcast. I found myself watching it less and less until I finally stopped because the odds were against a standalone coinciding with my days off. Other people must have been stopping too because the SciFi Channel started giving it less and less prominent timeslots. I'm not even sure if they're even still running it.
What happened? I'm reminded of something that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in Biographia Literaria (1817):
"The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself" (chapter XIV, and yes, I had to look it up; my memory isn't that good)
In other words, when we reach the bottom of a page, why do we turn to the next page? The wrong reason to turn the page is curiosity to see what happens next. The wrong reason to turn the page is a desire to reach the end. The only valid reason to turn the page is that we have been so delighted by the experience of reading this page that we want to be delighted some more. Applying this to a television series that relies on arcs: is each episode a fully satisfying meal that we'll want to relish over and over again, or is each episode merely whetting our appetite for the next episode? Do we actually enjoy the show, or have we just been hooked by the cliffhangers (the "soap opera" effect)? If it's the former, we'll continue to enjoy the show through many years of syndicated reruns (and DVD purchases), possibly finding new things to enjoy about it as life-experience alters our perspectives. If it's the latter, once we know how the story ends, once all the questions have been answered and surprises have been revealed, why should we ever bother to watch it again? Compare standalone series like the original Star Trek and I Love Lucy that have been running in syndication longer than most of us have been alive with heavily arc-driven series like Dallas and Dynasty that were huge hits during their original network runs but never found a home in syndication because their original fans didn't feel the need to see them over and over again while the casual channel-surfers weren't captivated by the one episode they happened to catch. From a purely financial point of view, a production company can generate short-term ratings success and profits by hooking the audience with arcs, cliffhangers, mysteries, and surprises, but the long-term money seems to be in producing standalone episodes that each provide a fully satisfying experience. This isn't to say that arcs should be forbidden. I suppose that, in the ideal television series, each episode would have a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. Then, in addition to this, there can be arc elements inserted as a "B" story or subplot - kind of like what Babylon 5 did with the best of its standalone episodes: A Late Delivery from Avalon, Passing through Gethsemane, Comes the Inquisitor, and Day of the Dead.
Not to mention that I miss the opportunity to be able to admire the architecture of a beautifully crafted plot where all of the elements come together by the end. A plot is a very difficult thing to construct, and making one come in at a mere forty-five minutes is much more difficult still. This might be the real appeal of the arc from the writer's point of view. It's a lot easier to come up with one big season-long plot than twenty-two short plots. Pascal once wrote a very long letter to a friend and, in it, included an apology that went something like, "Please excuse the length of this letter, but I don't have time to write a short one".
There are other problems with a series being arc-driven. The first is that it can drive away viewers. If a series does one episode that I don't like, I can ignore it and look forward to the new episode next week. If a series begins a four year arc that I don't like, then the whole series is write-off. This is what did in Deep Space Nine for me. Right from the beginning, I thought it was the best of the new Star Treks, but, when they started the "Dominion War" arc, which never clicked with me, I was left with no options. Today, consistent with my theory, Deep Space Nine is the only Trek series not currently rerunning in syndication or a cable network, at least here in the New York Metropolitan market. Arcs can also drive away viewers who just aren't in the mood to invest their energy in following the details of many episodes in the hope of getting some payoff somewhere down the line. I gave up on Odyssey 5 pretty quickly and never bothered with 24 (my prediction is that this show won't become a rerun perennial either). Finally, if the producers of a series put us in the position of having to speculate about what might happen next, they run the risk that we might speculate something better than what they have planned, guaranteeing that we'll be disappointed (boy, did George Lucas ever get bitten in the @$$ by this point). Of course, all this is not to say that a series should not pay attention to its own continuity and build a big picture over a period of time; observing that happen is part of the fun of being a regular viewer.
Getting back to Buffy, the fourth season had just the right balance. Each episode stood on its own as the "Initiative" arc gently grew in the background, not taking center stage until the final few. I was curious about what was going on with it but not desperate because the main stories of the episodes were fully satisfying. Seasons five and six were both too arc-centered but with significant differences. In the "Glory" arc, it was clear that the season was building up to a big confrontation between Glory and Buffy with each episode taking us a definite step closer to that confrontation. In the sixth season arc, a lot of disturbing things happened (discussed below), arc elements were introduced that didn't go anywhere (Buffy came back wrong! No, she didn't. Dawn's a kleptomaniac! But it's okay), and characters seemed to behave out of character. During the fifth season, at the end of each episode, I was desperate to see what would happen next because I was completely hooked and enjoying it so much, while, with the sixth season, I was desperate because I was not enjoying it and clinging to the hope that the next episode might make sense of everything we were seeing and reveal that the producers hadn't gone insane after all. Season five may still have the longevity issues I've raised, but it will certainly be great for the first few viewings. I particularly enjoyed how many events that seemed to be unrelated to the arc, like Xander's job, the troll hammer, the robot girlfriend, and the Buffybot, all came together in the finale. (And was everybody else as annoyed as I was when the FX Network left off the last two episodes of the season the first time they reran it? So long as I'm in a parenthetical digression, I'd like to go a little farther off topic to take this opportunity to praise season five's I Was Made to Love You. It was broadcast a couple of months before A.I. was released, produced with a fraction of the amount of time and money, and is about a thousand times better and more focused on the themes it wants to convey - proving that the Buffy crew is much more talented than Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick put together.)
The other big problem with the sixth season of Buffy is that it also relied too heavily on gimmicky and humorous episodes - often a certain sign that the creators are running out of ideas. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from the last few seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess, a series that went from really good to offensively awful with episodes that would consistently piss all over its characters, continuity, and fans (and the less said about the Hercules episodes with Iolus in drag and the giant chicken, the better), so I became really frightened that Buffy was starting down this same path. It's okay for a series to go wild once per season if the episode is well done, and, up to now, Buffy had been following this rule. Season two gave us the delightful Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered that had me on the floor laughing the first time I saw it. It wasn't quite as funny on subsequent viewings because the comedy in it was based on surprises which can only their have full impact once. (Also, apropos of my anti-arc rant, when I got the second season DVD, I watched this episode first, and all the out-of-context Buffy/Angel arc stuff at the beginning was a little tedious while I was waiting for the "real" story about the love spell to start). The third season gave us the funniest episode of the entire series, Dopplegangland, that absolutely delights every single time I see it and is, unbelievably, a followup to one of the darkest episodes of the entire series, The Wish. Season four didn't give us an all out comedy episode - although it did flirt with the concept in Beer Bad, Something Blue, and Superstar - but it did give us the gimmicky Hush that manages to be terrifying, funny, and one of the best episodes of the series (I know some people are down on Beer Bad, but I think the two "Parker bad!" scenes make it more than worthwhile, and it does have an "important moral lesson" for the young people <g>). The fifth season gave us Buffy vs. Dracula which was a lot of fun once I put aside my preconceived notions of what I thought Dracula should be like (when Riley rescued Giles from the three beautiful vampires, the Python fan in me couldn't help but call out, "Can't I have just a little bit of peril?"). Season six, unfortunately, went to the well a little too often and gave us Life Serial, Once More, With Feeling, Tabula Rasa, Gone, and Doublemeat Palace. Of these, Tabula Rasa is the one that I'd choose as being worth keeping. (I'll discuss all of them below.)
A big part of the sixth season focused on the relationship between Buffy and Spike. First off, I have no problem with their getting together. Spike's proven himself capable of being a pretty decent guy since getting chipped - showing considerable loyalty and courage in defense of Dawn and Buffy - and, now that I think about it, he's probably the least evil vampire that the series has ever portrayed - Angel included. Rather than being motivated by a desire to do evil like Angelus and all other vampires, Spike's primary motivation has always been his own self interest, and he didn't hesitate to fight evil if he felt that was in his best interest as we saw in the second season when Angelus tried to steal Drusilla from him. In Surprise, the Judge even condemned him for "stinking of humanity" because of his capacity to love. In fact, while watching the second season DVD, I kept a body count, and there was only one episode, School Hard, where we actually saw Spike kill a human. Since that episode was his first appearance, we might choose to take into account that the producers had not yet fully defined his character. I don't think he was in the third season, and I'm racking my brain to remember if he killed anyone in the fourth season before he got chipped. It's almost tempting to wonder how much of Spike's reputation is based on fact and how much is based on attitude and tough talk. I suspect that there must be some degree of fact there, but, in this season's Smashed, he didn't seem to be in any hurry to actually hurt that woman when he believed he could. It seemed that Spike's only consistently "evil" trait was an unfortunate tendency to say the worst possible thing every time Buffy was just starting to soften her feelings toward him.
Actually, it was Buffy's behavior in the relationship that bugged me a lot more than Spike's. If she wanted to enter into a relationship with him, that would be fine. If she slept with him in a moment of weakness and deeply regretted it, swearing never to do it again, that would be fine. If she enjoyed having no-strings-attached meaningless sex with him, that would be fine too. But her "bipolar" behavior toward him - spewing venom and hatred one moment, with rather brutal physical and verbal abuse, and then passionately throwing herself at him the next, only to repeat this pattern over and over again - was just plain bizarre. When the audience starts feeling sorry for a vampire over the way the slayer is mistreating him, something must be terribly wrong. Then again, Spike seemed to enjoy being abused by women even before he became a vampire: Cecily treated him like garbage and Drusilla was certainly into some deeply sadomasochistic stuff. The only girlfriend who was ever nice to him was Harmony, and he treated her with nothing but contempt for it. So I suppose that one could make an argument that it was not too surprising that he would fall in love with the one woman in the world who hated him more than any other. It was Buffy's behavior that didn't seem to make any sense. Why was she acting like that? The producers teased us with the "Buffy came back wrong" storyline - Buffy being part demon would have explained a lot - but it didn't go anywhere. Finally, in Normal Again, Spike came up with the brilliant insight that Buffy was "addicted to the misery" which made perfect sense, not only of her repeatedly having sex with Spike (the most degrading activity she could think of) and hating herself for it, but also of her giving up on college to embrace a minimum wage job when she still had other options. But I found it to be really annoying that an entire season of bizarre behavior was explained away in one line of dialog with no followup in subsequent episodes. (For more an Buffy and Spike, see the discussion under Smashed and Seeing Red.)
Another big issue of the season was Willow. She had been my favorite character right from the start (followed by Giles), and I'd been worried about her turning evil for a long time - ever since the fourth season episode, Hush, when we saw Willow with the Wicca group. She grew frustrated with them as they talked about bake sales and hugging trees instead of how to do spells. But, flaky as the girls were portrayed, they were doing what they should have been. Wicca is a religion, and the purpose of a religion is provide people with spiritual guidance as to what they should do with their lives - such as raising money for charities. Willow's frustration was essentially saying, "I don't care about this spirituality crap; I WANT POWER!!!" If that wasn't a sign of pure evil, I don't know what is. Watching the reruns with this in mind, I realized that she had actually crossed over to the Dark Side much earlier: when Oz cheated on her, her first reaction was the attempt to cast a spell to destroy the woman, and she later recklessly cast the "my will be done" spell that wrought havoc with the Scoobies. In fact, all the way back in the pilot episode we learned that Willow already had a few ethical blind spots: she was cracking into computer systems before she met Buffy - actions that could not be rationalized as serving a greater good. As we progressed through the fifth season, Willow continued to abuse magic - using it for frivolous things like starting campfires - and continued to show no interest in spiritual guidelines. There's a line in Tennyson's poem, Locksley Hall, that goes, "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers," which seems to sum up Willow's problem: her knowledge of how to use magic was increasing exponentially, but her wisdom of how to use magic properly was not. The rest of the passage is:
Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers, and he
[Wisdom] bears a laden breast,
Full of sad experience, moving toward the stillness of his rest.
I was growing more and more worried about her, yet all of these things that I was worrying about were so subtle and subtextual that I was also worrying that the producers were not actually aware that they'd introduced them. But my faith in the existence of a master plan was restored in Tough Love when Tara finally expressed these very concerns to Willow. In that episode, Willow also took her first blatant step onto the Dark Side when she used magic to inflict harm on Glory (even though Glory was the Big Bad and deserved it). The Wiccan code states that anything you put out comes back threefold, so magic must never be used to harm another. Willow was beginning to accumulate a karmic debt which must eventually be paid.
Let the nitpicking begin!
When Buffy died at the end of the last season, I spent the summer dreading that they would come up with some lame way of double talking her back to life (as was done in Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock) and then just continue on as if it had never happened. I kept thinking, "They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it!" Well, they didn't. (Whew!) They put a lot of emphasis on how difficult the spell was, how dangerous it was, and how traumatic the whole thing was for Buffy - producing a really good episode rather than the big reset button that I feared it would be.
The only problem with an episode this good is that it's hard to come up with much to say (it's a lot easier to criticize), so here are just a few things: When they started the spell, my first thought was, "Shouldn't they dig up the body first?" Duh, guys. The female characters' new hair styles gave them all similar looking silhouettes which made it kind of hard to tell who was who in the darkly lit night scenes. The demon's sexual threat was overly discreet in its phrasing. I realize that network standards and practices limit what you can say or show (although later episodes would reveal that UPN's seem to be much more relaxed than the WB's or any other broadcast network), but the demon's gentility weakened the intended impact. Sometimes you really need those Anglo Saxon words to get the proper effect.
It was good that UPN broadcast the two parts together because part one was all buildup, and part two was all payoff. Neither episode might be as effective without its other half. But, good as these episodes were, they just made the pessimist in me worry about the future even more. Would the next episode return to business as usual for Buffy as if she had never died? Willow seemed to be continuing down the dark path (killing Bambi!). What about the consequences of her invoking such dark and powerful forces? They're gonna ignore these issues, aren't they? They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it!
Consequences! The "Willow's going out of control" story arc is definitely not something I was imagining. Spike and Anya finally brought the issue out into the open, and when these two are the voices of reason, you know that trouble is coming. Even Xander showed signs of starting to worry. Willow was developing an arrogant, I-can-do-no-wrong attitude and had even started lying to the others to cover it up.
Nor is Buffy going to be bouncing back to normal anytime soon. I didn't understand why Willow was so certain that Buffy had been in hell. If anyone had earned a place in heaven, it would have been Buffy. Then, when Buffy agreed with Willow about the hell thing, I was even more confused (They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it!). However, Buffy's "heaven" revelation to Spike made sense of everything. There's an old Muslim story in which Allah wanted to punish a very wicked man, so He took the man up to heaven and then sent him back. The punishment was that the man had to spend the rest of his life living on earth after having experienced heaven. Poor Buffy.
This episode should really be called Bargaining, Part Three because these three episodes form a trilogy that opens the season and sets its general tone; not to mention that, once we've seen this episode, the rerun of Bargaining, Part Two feels incomplete without it.
The scene with Anya cutting her face disturbed me a little. Skin cutting is a growing issue among girls, and Buffy took some flack for showing Dawn doing it last season. But Dawn did it for legitimate plot reasons and faced the consequences of being ridiculed for it by some other kids. Here, it seemed to be used just for the shock value. With a little thought, they could have come up with something just as shocking for her to do that couldn't be accused of making light of a serious issue. Perhaps Anya could have peeled off her entire face to reveal a demon face underneath it and then accuse Xander of causing it. This would have been scary, symbolize Xander's fear a marrying Anya, and foreshadow events that would actually happen later in the season.
I was delighted when Giles called Willow on the carpet for her actions, using almost the exact words that I'd been grumbling all summer, but then the episode exceeded all of my expectations by having Willow turn around and threaten Giles! Threaten Giles! Wow! There are two ways that the show can go with this: Willow turns completely evil and becomes a major villain that Buffy will have to fight to the death, or Willow pulls back at the last minute and gains the proper wisdom. Either way, it's gonna be good.
Buffy went to see Angel in a scene that we didn't get to see because of network differences. The Buffy: Reunion comic book, written by series writer Jane Espenson, was promoted as going to contain that story but, instead, showed each of the Scoobies speculating about what might have happened between them. It was a good story, but save your money if you were planning to buy it to find out what really happened.
This episode introduced a running issue of the season: Buffy's financial problems. I couldn't help but wonder if Willow and Tara were contributing anything to the upkeep of Buffy's house or whether they were using Joyce's life insurance money to support themselves as well as Dawn (maybe that was part of why it ran out so fast). Willow might have arranged something with her parents so that the money they would have paid for her campus housing and meal plan would go to her room and board at Buffy's house instead. Tara had been abandoned by her family and doesn't seem to have any source of income, but she strikes me as much too responsible and compassionate to freeload on an orphan. In contrast, it was likely that Buffy had not been responsible enough to get her own life insurance policy when she became Dawn's guardian. Why didn't Joyce's medical insurance pay the medical expenses instead of forcing them to dip into the life insurance? The truly catastrophic medical costs usually accrue when a person is hospitalized for many months; Joyce seemed to be out of the hospital pretty quickly. However, since Joyce was self-employed (I got the impression that she owned the gallery), she might not have been able to afford extensive medical coverage for herself and her daughters so chose to have them fully covered instead of herself. Did anyone consider a malpractice lawsuit? Anya was right about how much owning a house costs. In addition to mortgage payments, there are also taxes, electricity, water, heating, insurance, garbage collection, telephone, cable porn, and more. This is why most twenty-year-olds, like Buffy, are unable to own or even rent a house. Buffy's attempt to get a loan from a bank, was a common misconception about the way banks really function. Bankruptcy or welfare would have been the most appropriate courses of action for someone in Buffy's circumstances, but these would also trigger a red flag at Child Protective Services and get Buffy's dad involved. The Scoobies' efforts to subvert the system in order to keep custody of Dawn, prevented Buffy from being able to make use of the social programs that were created to help people in her circumstances. When Buffy was talking to Giles about her financial situation, it would have been fun if she had asked him how the other slayers had been able to manage. Giles could have paused for a moment and then admit that all the other slayers had been killed before they had grown old enough to develop financial problems. Anya's idea to charge for slaying has a variation that might work. Perhaps the Watcher's Council would provide her with a salary on the condition that she play by their rules. This could set up some interesting conflicts between her and them as they "blackmail" her into behaving herself.
This episode also introduced the first questionable element of the season, the Trio: Jonathan, Warren, and Andrew. I was spoiled about their appearance by the TV Guide (grrrrr) and, even before seeing them, wasn't so sure how good an idea they would be. This was to be a prophetic concern. I thought that they might be fun so long as they were used only for comedy relief and never as a legitimate threat to Buffy. Any serious danger they might cause could be an accidental result of their own incompetence, maybe even requiring Buffy to save them as well (and ultimately, perhaps, they decide to help Buffy when the real Big Bad shows up). Anyway, the Trio's first mistake was in thinking that Buffy was their nemesis who needed to be destroyed. In reality, Buffy had never shown any interest in stopping criminals - vampires, demons, hellgods, and apocalypses (apocalypi?) had always kept her to busy to worry about anything so "common" - and probably would have completely ignored them if they hadn't started attacking her. Use of the Trio also raises the issue of "biting the hand that feeds them" on the producer's part since a lot of us could probably recognize at least a little of the Trio in ourselves. Finally, South Park came up with the same idea this season when Butters, the nerdy kid, decided to become the supervillain, Professor Chaos.
Uh oh. The first of the disappointing, gimmicky episodes that sacrificed plot logic and character consistency in exchange for humor. There are two things wrong with the scene where Buffy sat in on Willow's class. All of the students were way too enthusiastic about answering questions (the Sunnydale High students also participated too eagerly in the early seasons). Have the producers ever been in a real classroom? My experiences were always much more like Ben Stein's class in Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("Anybody? Anybody?"). And it never occurred to Willow or Buffy that she was not supposed to be able to understand anything that was being discussed because she hadn't attended any of the earlier lectures.
The Trio's first "test", that sped up the world around Buffy, would also have caused the world to perceive Buffy as slowing down. Why did Tara abandon the "frozen" Buffy in the hall rather than worry that something was wrong with her? When Buffy was trying to walk across the campus, why were people bumping into her? From their point of view, she was standing still and should have been easy to walk around. And why didn't the "statue girl" start attracting attention? The second test, at the construction site, might have worked if they had made the demons invisible to everyone except Buffy. Then, the other workers would have legitimately believed that Buffy had gone psycho. As it stood, they should have been too freaked out by the demons to so quickly coordinate their lies and show no gratitude for being saved. Then came the "Groundhog Day" (or perhaps more correctly called, the "12:01") portion of the episode. Since the mummy hand was alive, why did Giles let it run around in the basement? Shouldn't it have been kept locked in a box or cage in order to avoid this exact situation? The loop where Buffy was reduced to sobbing uncontrollably was funny, but Buffy doesn't deal with high stress situations by crying; she deals with them by running away or going catatonic (also, I was able to anticipate the Monty Python reference a few minutes before they actually made it). And, as if all of this weren't inconsistent enough, Buffy then proceeded to drink alcohol without bringing any dire consequences down on herself! Okay, so I'm just kidding about that last one, but the Trio have already started to pull the season in a bad direction. (They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it!)
As for Buffy's financial problems, they all got solved when Giles wrote her a check. Just how big was that check anyway? In a later episode, we'll learn that it wasn't as big as we're led to believe here, but, at this point, they seemed to be abandoning the issue. So what job should Buffy pursue? Back in season two's What's My Line, an aptitude test suggested law enforcement. This would actually be a pretty good idea. As a police officer, her job would be to patrol around, looking for trouble. All she would have to do is request the night shift, and she'd get paid for doing what she's doing now, not have to work a day job to support herself, have access to police reports of weird happenings, and be able to call for backup in an emergency (assuming that the police aren't working for the demons as they seemed to be with the Mayor). In the meantime, she can get a clerical, custodial, or cafeteria job at U.C. Sunnydale. This would provide her with an income, free tuition to earn her degree in criminal justice (or whatever), and the flexibility to schedule her work hours around her classes. It would be hard and take her longer than four years, but there are a lot of people who do it this way. Now, about my plan for world peace....
Willow continued to abuse magic, and Tara was going from beyond worried to angry. Giles got one of the best lines of the season: "Mist ... cemetery ... Halloween ... should end well." I was saddened to see Dawn participating in the Halloween vandalism (I'm still bitter about never being able to get the dried egg stains completely cleaned off my car), but I guess that's what teenagers do. Of course, Dawn developed an extreme obnoxiousness throughout this season, but I guess that's what teenagers do too. There was a nice misdirection in letting us think that the old man was the monster and then hitting us with the vampire boys, but they should have cast younger actors to play them. Hollywood in general and Buffy in particular have a long history of casting twenty-something actors to play teenagers, but, in this case, since Michelle Trachtenberg is a real teenager, the image of her "parking" with a twenty-something boy kind of looked like a felony in progress even without the vampire angle. I always had a little problem with the Buffy-Angel relationship during the early seasons for this same reason. While Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz made a cute couple, Buffy was supposed to be sixteen and Angel appeared to be in his mid-to-upper twenties (not counting his 200+ years as a vampire). Think back to when Dawn had a crush on Xander; technically, that was the same age spread as Buffy and Angel. It was sweet only because Xander didn't romantically reciprocate. Anyway, with a first kiss that ends up with having to kill the boy, Dawn's going to need several years of therapy before she can have a normal relationship.
Actually, I haven't seen this one all the way through yet. Since I work evenings, I have to tape prime time and didn't know that this episode ran an extra ten minutes, so the vcr shut off just as Buffy started singing the "Heaven" revelation. Aarrgghh!! I didn't learn about THE KISS until I read about it on the internet later on. When UPN reran it, they cut it down for a normal timeslot, and, even though I didn't notice what specific scenes were missing (other than "Ballet for Dawn and Demons"), the whole thing felt a bit too rushed to be as effective. Sergio Leone said that if you take a long film and cut stuff out, you don't get a short film; you get a long film with stuff missing. I hope the DVD has the full version.
Generally, it's a tricky thing to adapt a stage musical to the screen. Often scenes end up feeling theatrical rather than cinematic with characters singing to the camera instead of the other characters, dancers all facing the same direction as if that were where the audience was sitting, or simply failing to get the stylized reality of the stage to work in the more realistic (yet equally stylized in different way) reality of a film. Probably the only stage musicals to fully translate to the screen would be The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, and Little Shop of Horrors, with an honorable mention to Hello Dolly for the shear spectacle of the whole thing. As for the others, many are enjoyable but also come across as being the illegitimate children of film and theatre that don't really fit comfortably in either world. Once More with Feeling tended to fall into several of the traps inherent in this latter category even though there was no stage version being adapted - although I would absolutely love to see it performed on stage. I bet it would work much better, and it doesn't require extensive special effects that would present staging problems.
I'd be curious to know which actors did their own singing and which, if any, were dubbed. We already know that Anthony Head sings well, but the big surprises were Amber Benson and Michelle Trachtenberg. Michelle has a particularly sweet voice and seems to have a dance background as well. A couple of the actors were weaker singers - I won't be mean enough to say who since they weren't cast for their singing abilities six years ago, and it was very brave of them to give it a try anyway. However, I've seen an impressive demonstration of computer technology that can "fix" a voice that is off key and lacking in power (you don't think that Britney Spears can really sing, do you?), and they could have used it here. A CD of this episode, along with other Buffy music, will be finally be released at the end of September (2002). Hopefully, the nearly year-long delay was because they wanted the time to digitally clean up the vocal tracks.
Anya misused the word "pastiche" when she described her song. Instead, the word actually describes the entire episode. "Pastiche" literally means "pasted", and, in this context, refers to a musical that has many different music styles pasted together. The most famous pastiche musical would probably be Andrew Lloyd Weber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Unfortunately, I didn't like the effect of it in that show, and I didn't like it here either. "Going through the Motions" "I've Got a Theory", and "I'll Never Tell" have a nice Sondheimesque quality. Melodies of most songs in every style of popular music consist of phrases that are four measures long with the number of measures in the entire melody being some multiple of four (try counting with your favorites, and you'll see); Stephen Sondheim likes to stick in a fifth measure by repeating a line (notably in Into the Woods) as does Joss in these songs. Other songs are written in a more rock or pop ballad style that don't really fit with the others. However, I liked "Walk through the Fire" so much that, every time I watch this episode, I've thrown away my mental list of criticisms by the time it ends (and I rewind the tape a couple of times). What can I say? I'm a sucker for the contrapuntal. The song is actually only a duet (which very briefly becomes a trio for about one line), but it creates the illusion of being much more complicated.
Lots of other people have offered their guesses as to which famous musicals are referenced in this one, so here are mine:
Overall, I would have appreciated the episode more if it hadn't been sandwiched along side so many other comic, gimmicky, or just plain disappointing episodes. There were several scenes of characters behaving out of character for the sake of a joke or a song. Would Willow and Tara really shirk their responsibilities during a potential crisis to go off and enjoy themselves? Why did Xander immediately accuse witches of causing the trouble when he clearly knew better and had never shown any hostility to witches before? Actually, this might be seen as a guilty conscience talking, which brings us to the next point: Xander cast the spell that summoned Sweet. Xander? We've never seen Xander show any interest in using magic before (well, maybe Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered counts, but he did seek out Amy to do it for him, and, after that all went so bad, he seemed to learn his lesson). In fact, he'd always been more grounded in normality than any of the others. Sweet seemed to know the characters better than the producers by assuming that Dawn was responsible. Willow and Anya would be the next most likely suspects. But the Xander revelation was way too out of left field unless they had shown him developing a curiosity and tinkering a little in an earlier episode. Finally, it seemed that the primary reason Giles made Buffy go to face Sweet alone and forbade the Scoobies from helping her was to set up the dramatic moment in "Into the Fire" where they all decided to help her anyway.
This episode did raise several points that will be important later in the season: it foreshadowed what a disaster Anya's and Xander's marriage might be, officially began what will be the twisted romance between Buffy and Spike, and verbalized Giles' reasons for leaving that had been hinted at in earlier episodes. Giles actually left the series for "real world" reasons that were perfectly valid, but his "on screen" reasons left something to be desired. His basic point was that Buffy had become too dependent on him and that the only way she could ever learn to deal with things on her own would be for him to remove himself from her life immediately - the classic "throw her in the water to see if she can swim" approach or, perhaps more accurately in Buffy's case, "throw her off a cliff to see if she can fly". In either case, the rest of the season clearly showed that she couldn't. Worse, as Buffy's life started falling apart so badly, she was unable to be her usual strong, centering influence on the others, and their lives fell apart too, almost resulting the whole world being destroyed. It wasn't until Giles returned that things felt that they were back under control.
So what would have been so wrong with Buffy relying on Giles for advice, help, and emotional support, at least for a few more years? She had been saddled with responsibilities far beyond those of other young women her age: being the slayer, losing her mother, having to raise Dawn, having to earn a living - not to mention the trauma of dying and being resurrected. While it was true that Giles was not Buffy's father and therefore had no moral or legal obligation to look after her and Dawn, there was also no reason why he could not choose to "play the father" in her life. It almost seemed as if Giles was the one who was afraid of dealing with this situation. He was a middle aged man who had never bothered to have a wife and child of his own and who was starting to get mired in that exact kind of family commitment (just like Uncle Bill in Family Affair who also got "stuck" looking after a girl named Buffy).
Rather than choosing to accept that responsibility, he chose to run away and rationalized the decision as being for Buffy's own good. This is actually a consistent character flaw shown by almost everyone on the series. When a situation became emotionally difficult, they often chose to run away from each other rather than deal with each other: Buffy ran away when Angel died; Riley ran away from Buffy; Xander ran away from Anya; Tara ran away from Willow; over on Angel, Wesley ran away from Angel with Colin; and Buffy spent this entire season emotionally running away from everyone. One of the themes of the fourth season was that, unlike other slayers before her, Buffy's strength came from her friends and the love that they had for each other.
Interestingly though, if we look at this on an archetypal level, Giles' leaving is the proper thing. All heroes, from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker, have some traits in common: their biological father is missing; they gain a father figure in an older male mentor; and the father figure is taken away from them when he's needed the most. Of course, if we follow this too literally, Willow should kill Giles and take his place as Buffy's protector.
Okay, I now officially hate Willow. She made the promise to Tara and then immediately blew it off. If there had been even a single moment of hesitation as she mentally debated whether or not she should have done this and then rationalized it as serving a greater good, there might still have been some hope for her. But no. Her use of magic to change clothes beforehand showed an even greater contempt for Tara than the "Tabula Rasa" spell did because there was no way to rationalize that. It demonstrated that she never had any intention of keeping her promise, and the outcome of this episode didn't even serve her as a wake up call. From this moment onward, I have absolutely no sympathy for anything that happens to her.
All that aside, this is the right way to do a gimmicky episode. A magic spell that robbed the characters of their memories would have given the producers a legitimate excuse for having them behave out of character, just as the love spell had in Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, but instead, the story derived much of its humor by having the them behave largely in character: Buffy and Dawn argued like sisters; Giles and Spike spoke to each other the way they would have spoken to each other if their mutual dislike didn't prevent them from speaking at all; and Spike was able to interact with Buffy without their history getting in the way, showing that he was capable of being one of the good guys. It was also cool how his "vampire with a soul" realization actually foreshadowed the season-ending cliffhanger. (And was that the same suit we saw him wearing back when he was human?) I loved the visual pun with the loanshark; it took me a few moments to figure why they gave the demon a shark head. Is there any significance in Buffy choosing the name Joan? Since Buffy martyred herself and sang about "walk[ing] through the fire", I'm tempted to think of Joan of Arc.
Amy's back! Suddenly, her cameo last season makes more sense. I had always wondered how they had managed to convince the actress to make a meaningless three second appearance, especially when those three seconds contained no lines and no clothing. Have you ever noticed that the news media in Sunnydale is able to get stories on the air pretty fast - in fact, before they've actually finished happening?
Buffy seriously messed with Spike's head, hurling verbal abuse and getting violent with him before it was really called for, but, now that I think about it, Buffy seriously messes up every guy she gets involved with. Angel turned evil, ending up in a hell dimension, and Riley developed serious issues that went away as soon as he got away from her. Even Owen, whom she dated just once in Never Kill a boy on the First Date immediately started to develop an addiction to danger. It makes you kind of think that Parker might have done the right thing after all. This episode also introduced the "Buffy came back wrong" idea (maybe because Willow had been unable to complete the resurrection spell or was doing it wrong in the first place) as a possible explanation for her inexplicable behavior. Is she part demon? Is she possessed? Is she not really Buffy, but an imposter? This might be good (then again, it might not). Finally, this episode threw away all credibility when it showed the Trio keeping the Boba Fett figure on a display stand instead of in the original package - unopened, of course. Do the producers think that we're complete idiots who would believe that? <G> They could have made it even funnier by having Spike threaten to tear open the package, thus reducing its collector's value.
So, ... did anything else significant happen in this episode? ... Hmmm, ... let me try to remember ... No, ... I don't think so ... Oh, ... wait a minute. There was one little thing. HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!!! When Buffy first reached her hand down, out of the bottom of the frame, I said, "Did she just do what I think she did?" Back when Buffy was on the WB, they aired it with a parental warning, but I'm ultra-liberal about what I would let kids watch and never would have had any problems with the first five seasons. The sex was always in the context of a loving relationship or else had bad consequences (sometimes both), and the violence always served the story. This season, UPN airs Buffy without a disclaimer, seems to have much looser "standards and practices", and the producers seem eager to push the limits. It's not so much the explicitness in this and later episodes but that the whole Buffy/Spike relationship is just so sick and twisted in its sex and violence that it's probably the only show on broadcast television that I would have problems showing to children. All across America, there were probably parents walking into the room and saying, "What are you watching? Change the channel now!" It was a little unfair for the producers to cultivate a certain audience for so long and then suddenly retarget the series toward an older audience. Now a lot the kids will have to sneak over to their friends' houses to watch it or pass around videotapes. Just recently, some ultra-right-wing, fascist, family-values group issued a report declaring Buffy the worst show on television, and I absolutely hate being forced into the position of having to concede those nutcases any points whatsoever.
This one provoked a powerful response. On a technical level, it was the best written and executed episode since Bargaining, with a very exciting climax. On a conceptual level, however, in terms of what it meant for Willow's character development, it was the biggest disappointment of the entire series. After almost two years of making us worry about Willow, this one episode completely redefined and resolved her situation. The drug addiction metaphor was a good one, but Willow was clearly addicted to the power and seductive ease of using magic. We had never seen her using magic to get "stoned" or gotten any indication that this was her primary motivation for using it. But the really big shock came at the end of the episode when Willow broke down into tears as she told Buffy how hard she'd been trying to quit and was unable to. Huh? What? Huh? After nearly half a season of her total, arrogant denial of having any problem whatsoever - including her casually blowing off of her promise to Tara in Tabula Rasa - had caused us to develop a real hate-on for our once-beloved Willow, we're supposed to believe that she'd been trying to fight the addiction all along? Are they insane?
Wait a minute - don't panic yet - there might still be a reasonable explanation. Maybe Willow was lying. Maybe she knew that Buffy was angry enough to inflict some serious damage, so she pretended to be a helpless addict to make Buffy feel sorry for her instead. This could be good: we'll be seeing Willow sneaking around, hiding her magic use from everyone as her condition worsens until she finally hits rock bottom. It's either this, or the producers are complete idiots. Unfortunately, we'll have to sit through five weeks of reruns before we learn which. (They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it! They're gonna ruin it!)
Uh oh, it looks like they're complete idiots. We're supposed to accept that Willow was telling the truth after all and is now officially "on the wagon". That they show her feeling the temptation to use magic would have been good except that the rest of the season would reveal that they won't be following through on the addiction metaphor anymore. Instead, they'll wait for the extreme events of Seeing Red to get her using magic again. Thus beginnith the "Wimpy Willow" portion of the season.
As for the main story, in which Buffy became invisible, they once again went for the sit-com obvious laughs rather than thinking about what they were really doing to the characters. We got to see Buffy harass innocent people, steal a car, nibble Spike's ear in front of Xander, and gaslight a social worker who had some legitimate concerns about Buffy's fitness to look after Dawn. (It's a shame that they can't give Tara custody. I bet that she was the one giving Dawn the real maternal attention during Buffy's death.) As an aside, how come whenever people turn invisible they always start talking out loud to themselves so that anyone could easily tell where they are and what they're doing? Kinda defeats the point of invisibility. And, okay, the new hair is cute.
And the season hits its nadir. Where to begin? As Buffy was being shown around her new workplace, the other employees seemed to have been lobotomized. When Manny was so insistent that she eat the burger, I thought that there must be something in the food that turned the workers into zombie slaves who would work long hours for low wages. When Buffy found the finger, she (and we) decided that the Doublemeat Palace must have been pulling a "Sweeney Todd" to provide themselves with an endless supply of free meat. Then we got the surprise twist that the old lady was the killer.
During Buffy's first season, the series built part of its reputation on misdirecting the audience just like this. From the opening scene with Darla to episodes like The Witch and The Puppet Show (and even somewhat in this season's All the Way), we were absolutely certain that we had figured out what was going on and then got hit with a surprise twist that was way cooler. Here, however, I think the "Zombie Slaves / Sweeney Todd" stories would have been much more interesting than what we were eventually given. More importantly, once we knew what was really going on in those early episodes, we could rewatch them and see all the clues falling into place. Here, we were left with a lot of questions. If the workers weren't lobotomized zombie slaves, why were they so lethargic, nonverbal, and lacking in higher brain functions? In all the fast food places I've been to, the employees were working hard and fast to the point of being frazzled, and the counter people were successfully faking that cheerful politeness. If the service was horribly slow, it was because the owner was too cheap to hire enough people to handle the crowds (there's a Pizza Hut near me that I avoid for this reason and feel so sorry for the way the workers are forced to run around when I do go there). And what about Manny's reaction to the finger? There are two ways that an innocent person would react: the first would be to totally freak out, and the second would be to worry about how the inevitable bad publicity would hurt business. Only someone who knew all about the sinister conspiracy and had encountered body parts before would react that calmly. The clues do not fit the resolution.
Earlier in the episode, Manny's orientation, his "You don't need to go in there" comments, and humorlessness had a sense of reality to them, although some managers do try to project more energy in an effort to motivate the employees. Everywhere else, there was less realism. I've already discussed the employees' behavior. The Doublemeat Palace wouldn't grind its own meat unless it was as part of a "Freshly Ground Meat!" advertising gimmick (that wasn't indicated). Normally, the patties would be prepared in a central plant and delivered ready to cook. The dirty little secret that Buffy ultimately did discover - that the burgers weren't real meat - didn't quite ring true either. The "Burger Wars" are extremely competitive, and you can be certain that McDonalds and Burger King have chemically analyzed every one of each other's products. Doublemeat's secret wouldn't stay secret very long.
Buffy's comment that she selected this job in order to avoid a "lengthy interview process" is a bit puzzling. What kind of job that Buffy would be qualified for would require a lengthy interview process? Also, the minimum wage salary she'll be making won't be anywhere near enough to support the house expenses discussed above. But Buffy's financial future is not as bleak as Dawn thinks. The new manager at the end had been with the company for only five years, and she might have been promoted even earlier than that. The high employee turnover in a place like that can work in favor of someone who chooses to stay for the long haul - assuming that the Doublemeat Corporation has a promote-from-within policy. There's a considerable cultural prejudice in this country that only jobs requiring a college education are worthy of respect and capable of earning a living wage. The portrayal of life at the Doublemeat Palace as well as Buffy's whole financial situation kind of makes me wonder if anyone on the production team has ever had a "real" job or if they all went straight from college into showbiz with its oodles of money.
And Buffy and Spike's relationship is getting even more twisted in a 9 1/2 Weeks kind of way. The good news is that there's no place left for the season to go but up.
The most solid episode in a long time - or at least what seems like a long time when you're waiting through reruns for the new episode. The season's working better in the summer without the long breaks between them. If UPN weren't rerunning them in random order, it might work better still. It represents a point of no return for the Trio. As soon as we saw Katrina in the maid outfit, my first thought was, "Uh ... guys ... line ... you ... wrong side." Although Katrina woke up before that particular line was completely crossed, her subsequent murder ended the Trio's status as comic relief. I was disappointed by Jonathan. I had always liked him, and, throughout the season, I was hoping that he'd come to his senses before it was too late. Even after Katrina was dead, there was still time for him to do the right thing, but, in going along with Warren to frame Buffy, he became as guilty as the others.
As for the scene where Buffy was pounding on Spike, it wasn't until the second time I saw it that I realized what was really going on: Buffy wasn't angry at Spike; she was angry at herself. All of those horrible accusations she was hurling at him were really what she believed about herself since being resurrected: "You don't have a soul! There is nothing good or clean in you! You are dead inside! You can't feel anything real!" Tara's "cellular sunburn" resolution to the "Buffy came back wrong" story arc was the only thing about the episode that I was a bit unhappy with. On the one hand, it forced Buffy to take responsibility for her own actions and feelings rather than letting her take the easy way out by blaming them on demonic influences. On the other hand, I felt cheated about not getting to watch the "Buffy is now part demon" storyline play itself out after such a long build up. But, back to the first hand, Buffy's "Please don't forgive me" breakdown was absolutely heartwrenching. She has a lot of self hatred that she has to deal with.
Entering geek mode for a moment: my personal theory about how Spike's chip works is that it detects the presence of supernatural energy. Humans would emit little or none of it, while demons and vampires would emit a great deal. In order to bring Buffy back to life, Willow's spell exposed her to a tremendous amount of it - like a huge dose of radiation that lingered in her body. Spike's chip detected it and misinterpreted Buffy as nonhuman. In this scenario, Spike should also be able to attack Willow and other powerful witches since they would also possess unnatural amounts supernatural energy. Back in the fourth season, Willow and Tara were just dabbling with magic and would thus still be below the chip's detection threshold.
Another good episode. Apparently Buffy has never read any fantasy novels or she would have known better than to take possession of a stranger's sword - sort of like Dawn's not knowing any better than to make a wish in front of a stranger (although Buffy and Anya were able to put two and two together a little too fast on that point). The twist ending with Halfrek's failed attempt at a dramatic exit was a wonderful misfire in the tradition of the Fear Demon in the fourth season's Fear, Itself.
The gang finally discovered that Dawn had been stealing. Coincidentally, I just read an article about Winona Ryder. In it, a kleptomania and shoplifting expert says that
"shoplifting is a classic way to nonviolently show anger when something's unfair, something's been taken away from them. People who feel anxiety calm themselves by shoplifting. They learn over time that pocketing something creates an adrenaline rush that counteracts the anxiety." (Kennedy, Dana. "The very strange case of Winona Ryder." TV Guide, 50(32):16, August 10, 2002)
I don't know if this explains Winona's behavior, but it fits Dawn perfectly, although in clinical kleptomania the person is not motivated by anger. However, I think the producers got lucky with this one because I suspect that they hadn't researched any of this. If they had, these issues would have been better defined throughout the season rather than requiring that we accidentally stumble across an unrelated magazine article to make sense of a character's bizarre behavior. They were probably treating the stealing as typical teenaged "acting out".
Tara was more assertive in this episode than we've ever seen her - even being sarcastic to Spike - and she stood up for Willow the same way Willow stood up for her in Family, but I agree more with Anya's take on the situation (there's a first!). While it was nice to see some continuity with the addiction metaphor, they're being a bit too literal with the comparison; nothing good can ever come from drug use, but much good can come from wisely used magic - sort of like illegal drugs versus prescription drugs. Willow should have been willing to risk herself to help the others even if we later found out that it wouldn't have worked anyway.
I have only one real criticism of the episode: did Buffy's friend, Sophie, have to be portrayed as such an absolute loser? In the first season, Buffy celebrated the nerdy outcasts over the cool people. In the current season, between Sophie and the Trio, the series has been going out of its way to ridicule them, and Willow and Xander have been spending a lot of time calling the kettle black.
I liked this episode, but, for some reason, I can't think of much to say about it. I'd been secretly rooting for Buffy and Riley to eventually end up back together, but he seemed so happy without her. After all, she (and a little nudging from Spike) had been the source of all the weird behavior he had sunk into, and his ability to find happiness without her drove home the reality of how low her own life had sunk. I'm soooooo disappointed in Spike. Should I be mad at him or myself or the producers?
It was a meaningful moment when Buffy called Spike "William" during her breakup speech - the first sign of respect that she had shown him all season - and then, when she stepped out of the shadow into the light, it recalled the scene in After Life when Spike was trapped at the edge of the shadow, unable to leave it. That scene was the unofficial beginning of the Buffy/Spike relationship, and this scene bookended it nicely as its official ending.
I loved Willow's "What a bitch" comment at the end. The episode also suggested another possible career option for Buffy. Once Dawn goes away to college, Buffy could join one of those military squads. I assume there are others besides the one that Riley is in.
I'm glad that the wedding didn't go through. What Anya and Xander had was never a real relationship. It started out as a joke: Anya had just become a human teenager, needed a date for the prom, and asked Xander because he was the only boy she knew. Then she gave him unlimited access to uninhibited sex because she didn't know that she wasn't supposed to. We can't blame Xander for going along with it, but, somewhere along the line, everyone had forgotten that there was no basis for a relationship there, such as compatibility, common interests, or even mutual respect - just desperation and sex. Halfrek made a lot of good points in Doublemeat Palace when she acted like Anya's therapist, neither judging nor offering advice, as she got Anya to explore how she really felt about all the red flags that she hadn't been noticing, but Anya ultimately chose to remain in denial. As for Xander, he spent the entire season being really uncertain about the whole marriage thing. My grandmother used to say that if you have to think about it, you don't really want it, and Xander had been spending way too much time thinking about it. Deciding not to go through with it was the right thing, but waiting until the actual wedding day to come to that decision made Xander a total scumbag. Of course, there was also an element of karma in Anya's being hurt that badly. She had spent over a thousand years inflicting harm on others who may or may not have actually deserved it during her career as a vengeance demon (think of all the Sunnydalers she nearly killed in The Wish) and never showed any remorse or made any efforts at atonement. That her misery here was engineered by one of her former victims was the first time she actually had to face some consequences for her actions (although I wish he hadn't used the "Xander from the future" method; I was hoping that the series would do an "evil Willow from the future" story instead that could warn Willow about the path she was taking).
The episode does raise a couple of questions that I've been wondering about for a while now. How openly do demons move in human society? How many people know about them, and what does the public think about them? Events this season on Buffy and Angel tend to imply that the two societies are starting to become integrated and that demons can't automatically be assumed to be evil. There are even enough people involved in magic for Spellcasters Anonymous groups to be formed. It would be tempting to assume that this situation is unique to Sunnydale, but Angel takes place in Los Angeles, Xander's relatives are from out of town, and there have been suggestions about stuff like this going on all over the world. I was just wondering. Anyway, my only criticism of this episode is that it gives us yet another agonizing cliffhanger that forces us to worry about whether or not Anya will become a demon again.
No word about Anya, but a great episode with a great performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar in a season full of great performances by her. It's shame that the Emmys have a policy against giving major awards to genre productions. Spike figured out the real reason for Buffy's behavior all season, and his threat to "out" her to her friends actually would have been in her best interest for exactly the reasons he gave, although he could have picked a better time to make the threat. He even realized that there would be an element of self sacrifice in it on his part if he told them because it might result in his losing her for good. He proved that he understood her better than anyone else has this season (or was even trying to do) and was willing to put her well being ahead of his own happiness. I still have hope for him (which will be horribly dashed in two episodes).
But, much as I liked the episode, <FANBOY> I'm reminded of a story called Tarn's World (or something similar) that was published in Epic Magazine about twenty years ago (am I dating myself?): in a sword and sorcery world, a monster invades a kingdom, destroying everything in its path. The hero-king, Tarn, goes to fight it, and the monster reveals that he is actually a member of the "Reality Police" who has been sent to rescue him from this delusion he has created so that he can go back to a normal life. As the fantasy world around him starts to reshape itself back into the real world, Tarn musters his strength and slays the police officer, whose body turns back into a monster, and the fantasy kingdom is restored. </FANBOY>
It might have been fun if Maggie Walsh (Buffy's psychology professor in season four) had been Buffy's doctor in the Hospital reality. When she was explaining the contents of Buffy's delusions to her parents, she could have included a line about Buffy having cast her as a mad scientist who was trying to destroy her (and we could have seen a sign showing that the mental institution's name was Sunnydale). Then again, this might have weakened the stark reality of the Hospital scenes. It was a bit weird when the doctor commented that Buffy's current adversaries in her Slayer reality were pretty pathetic, almost as if he were voicing the same criticisms that the fans have been about this season. Suddenly, I had this horrible flashback to that Hercules episode, late in the series, where the writers were having a story conference and admitted that every episode they had done that season had completely sucked (see the Xena rant above). Fortunately, Buffy hadn't managed to sink anywhere near that low this year, but the comparison still gave me the shudders.
Tara saved the day; it's a good thing that she doesn't believe in knocking (but why is Latin always the language of magic? What was so special about the Romans that makes any words translated into their language have special power?). Dawn once again went all "me me me" when she should have been more worried about Buffy. Willow once again put her addiction recovery ahead of her friends' safety. Xander once again was way too antagonistic toward Spike - after having the nerve to show his face in the first place. And there still seems to be hope that Jonathan might eventually do the right thing. A nitpick: Buffy's revelation that she had been institutionalized seems to be more retcon than continuity: Joyce didn't mention it when she finally found out about Buffy's activities, and Buffy didn't seem all that freaked out when we saw the flashback to her first vampire fight.
The Brazil-like ending that showed Buffy back in the hospital after the episode had reached its happy ending was a bit disturbing (it also had an element of the St. Elsewhere finale in it). In Brazil (SPOILER!!), the happy ending was a delusion, and the hero really spent the rest of his life institutionalized in a catatonic state. But, in Buffy, we all know that the Slayer reality is really the real reality. It is the real reality, isn't it? Isn't it? ISN'T IT?????
A good episode, but it felt more like a chapter in the arc rather than something that can stand on its own. Anya has chosen to be a vengeance demon again, Willow and Tara got back together, Buffy has been outed (so has Andrew), the Trio is up to something, and syrups do indeed have kinds (but I like pancakes with just butter). The "Anya tries to extract a wish" montage was a lot of fun. By the end of the episode she was starting to become a much more three dimensional character than we had ever seen her as before.
Buffy and Xander (the dumpers) had absolutely no right to be angry at Spike and Anya (the dumpees) for moving on rather than staying miserable and alone for the rest of their lives, especially after Xander increased his scumbagitude by refusing the chance Anya gave him to undump her. Of course, if Spike or Anya still want Buffy or Xander to take them back, the latter are welcome to bring up the fact that these two hadn't waited very long to find someone else after being dumped.
I'm coming up with a theory regarding Xander's seemingly uncharacteristic hostility. When Angel showed up in the first season, Xander disliked him, not so much because he was a vampire, but because Xander perceived him as a rival for Buffy's potential affections. In the fifth season, Xander was flattered by the crush Dawn had on him, but then Spike showed up, and Dawn shifted her attention to the vampire. He later found out that Spike was pursuing Buffy too. Here, Xander saw Spike successfully "getting" Anya, whom his deluded mind still considered to be his, and learned that Spike's pursuit of Buffy had been successful as well. Xander has vampire issues that go way beyond the "bloodsucking killer" thing.
A shocking, disturbing, cruel, sadistic episode, and I mean that in a good as well as bad way. When Warren shot Buffy, apparently killing her, my first thought was, "But ... but ... that was so ... easy." I could picture Glory seeing this, slapping herself on the forehead, and saying, "D'oh! A gun! Why didn't I think of that?" Jonathan finally started to do the right thing although Buffy was pretty quick to figure out what to do with the little information he gave her. I also thought that it would have been more appropriate for Andrew's insult to compare Jonathan to Barclay rather than Troi, but that's a nitpick.
As for Tara's death, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm upset that the only character I was still able to like was killed off (what with Giles being gone, Willow being evil, Buffy being a psycho, Spike being a rapist, Dawn being obnoxious, Xander being a scumbag, and Anya being, well, Anya); on the other, I think we had all figured out a long time ago that Tara's days were numbered when Amber Benson's name continued to be listed as a guest star even after she became a regular character. My speculation last season was that Willow's abuse of magic would result in Tara's death and Willow's realization that she had a problem (it was interesting that this scenario did get used but with Dawn instead). The morning bedroom talk between Willow and Tara echoed Romeo and Juliet's morning talk the last time they were ever together alive (Act III, scene v), perhaps to foreshadow the impending tragedy. Also my patented "right-wing political subtext detector" sounded an alarm when Tara was killed immediately after spending the night with Willow, as if she were being punished for engaging in a "deviant sexual act". But maybe I'm just being paranoid about that.
Anyway, I think the thing we were most disturbed by was the rape scene. However, after watching the reruns, I'm a little less disturbed. While I hope that all of us believe that "no means no", it seems that every earlier sexual encounter between Spike and Buffy began with Buffy saying no, fighting him off, and then abruptly changing her mind and becoming the aggressor. She was clearly - intentionally or not - training him to follow a "no means yes" message. However, the real guilty parties here are the producers. Just to manipulate the dramatic effect, they "let" Spike rough Buffy up for an agonizingly long period of time before she finally "remembered" that she had super strength and could throw him across the room. They did establish that she was injured earlier, but we've seen her injured much worse and still manage to fight off monsters (perhaps if they had portrayed a more serious injury). Their other manipulation was in their inconsistent portrayal of Spike. Last season, when he first fell in love with Buffy who had shown nothing but hatred for him, my first reaction was to think that it was rather unbelievable until I thought about his romantic past (discussed above). Eventually, I accepted it out of sheer "willing suspension of disbelief" and started to sympathize with his plight of unrequited love. Then, when he kidnapped Buffy and threatened to kill her if she didn't return his love, I was upset, but the fault was mine for allowing him to fool me into thinking that a vampire could be anything other than an evil bastard. This was a skilled manipulation on the producers' part, but, almost immediately, they went back to portraying him sympathetically again, even having Buffy forgive him and, ultimately, go to bed with him. Then they hit us with the demon eggs and the rape scene.
Um ..., no. (Well, maybe the egg thing). They cannot portray a character as switching back and forth between being a nice guy and an evil bastard depending on the needs of a particular episode unless they also portray him as either having dissociative identity disorder (i.e. multiple personalities, which they haven't) or being a psychopath - someone who (in the nineteenth century usage of the term) has no concept of right and wrong and is thus not responsible for his actions. Drusilla is the psychopath (or more likely a disorganized schizophrenic in modern clinical terms, although vampire personalities might qualify for a whole new category of diagnoses). Spike is certainly amoral, but he clearly understands the concepts of right and wrong and that one's actions can have consequences. After all, he was the only character to recognize how wrong Willow's actions were at the beginning of the season which actually made him the primary voice of reason. This and his ability to empathize with others (under the right circumstances) and engage in acts of self-sacrifice for them prevent us from even being able to classify him under antisocial personality disorder. James Marsters did play the scene with a frighteningly insane look on his face that would have been perfect if only we had seen him in that kind of mental state in an earlier episode. So the attempted rape of Buffy felt inappropriate to us, not merely because we disapprove of rape, but also because it was not consistent with the character as they have portrayed him. The producers might try to argue with me by stating that Spike is their character and that they know him better than I do, but there are rules of character exposition that operate independently of both their intentions and my opinions.
On the positive side however, it looks like Willow has finally returned to the playing field. (By the way, I wasn't a psych major; I pulled a Giles and researched the psychological terms in the DSM-IV).
She's baaaaa-aaaack! (And so's the full greatness that we've come to expect from Buffy.) Finally, after a nine episode absence, the "Evil Willow" storyline has been reopened. We had more than two years of buildup before Wrecked abruptly shut the whole thing down ("It is a foolish thing to make a long prologue, and to be short in the story itself." 2 Maccabees, 2:32), and now it's been turned back on full force. I would have preferred to see her corruption be more evolutionary: showing her pushing the boundaries just a little bit at a time, growing comfortable in her new place on the wrong side of the line, and then pushing them a little more until the killing of Warren would seem like the most natural thing in the world for her to do. Having an instant transformation to murderous psychopath triggered by a traumatic event was a bit too easy, not to mention a replay of what happened in Tough Love when Glory hurt Tara. The Star Trek: TOS episode Where No Man Has Gone Before handled a similar "power corrupts" theme a bit better even though they had to cram it all into one episode.
Also, at first I was a little confused about the geography of the events. Why didn't Xander see Willow and Tara when he went inside to call for help? It took a while for me to realize that the women were upstairs, out of view (of course this also calls into question the angle of Warren's bullet being able to hit Tara, but, upon watching the rerun, I saw Warren's last shot being fired upward). The director could have made the locations a little clearer here and at the end of the previous episode.
Osiris refused to resurrect Tara by drawing a distinction between the way she died and the way Buffy died, saying that Buffy died of magical causes. I thought that Buffy died from jumping off a tall tower and hitting the ground. (Incidentally, I'm still not entirely clear why that worked. We were told that, once Dawn started bleeding, the portals wouldn't close until the blood stopped. I understood that Dawn and Buffy shared the same blood, but, even with Buffy dead, Dawn's blood was still flowing.)
When we saw the words flow out of the books and into Willow, was she absorbing the knowledge of how to do all the spells contained in them, or was she actually drawing magical energy directly from them as if she were charging up her batteries? Also, does this mean that all the information that had been in those books is now lost forever? I've always been a little bothered that the nature of magic has been very vaguely defined throughout this series. Sure, magic like that doesn't really exist in our universe, but they could have taken the time to establish a mechanics for how it works in the Buffyverse anyway. A lot of the Buffy cosmology seems to have a "making it up as we go along" sensibility to it.
The Sunnydale news media continued to impress me with how fast they can get a story on the air. The more I see of Clem, the more I like him. Now that we know what's going to happen to Spike in the season cliffhanger, it's clear here that he should have been paying closer attention to the exact phrasing of everything he and that demon were saying. Xander showed the same nastiness to Anya, once he found out that she was a demon again, that he also showed Spike and Angel. He seems to be the least interested in shades of gray of all the characters. I loved Willow's "bored now" declaration at the end that invoked VampWillow from The Wish and Dopplegangland. She was enjoying that way too much.
As I said earlier, the more I like an episode, the harder it is to think of things to write about it. I guess it's just more fun to rip it to shreds than it is to praise. Cool double meaning in the title: two more people Willow wants to kill and two more episodes left in the season. Jonathan finally did the right thing at the end. I was proud of him, and Buffy should have been sensible enough to accept his earlier offer to help.
Probably the most significant moment in the episode - in terms of a turning point for Willow - was when Willow threatened Dawn. Up until that point, one could argue that she was motivated by anger and vengeance. Warren got what he deserved; Jonathan and Andrew kind of deserved it too; Rack was one of the Dark Things that haunted the Buffyverse. But in threatening a little girl, and in such a cruel manner, Willow was no longer seeking revenge. She had become one of the Dark Things herself (although she did have a point about the constant whining <g>). She was no longer even thinking of Tara. She was destroying for its own sake, enjoying the fear and harm that she was causing. Speaking of Rack: I think the producers discarded him a little too quickly. He was a colorful character, abruptly introduced for plot purposes in Wrecked, and then killed off here in his second appearance without being developed beyond "creepy guy". There was still story potential in him (I'd like to see Doc again, for the same reason).
Back at the end of Hell's Bells, I was worried that Anya would become a demon again, but these last few episodes have shown that she was a better person as a demon than she ever was as a human being. She was no longer as self-absorbed and didn't run away when danger was coming like she did in the third season's Graduation. It seems that what I didn't want to happen turned out to be the better thing. Of course, if I were completely cynical, I might suggest that the reason that she didn't run away this time was because she was no longer as vulnerable to harm as she was as a human.
I can't express how delighted I was that Giles showed up! In fact, throughout the episode I kept thinking that they really needed to call him for help. Somehow I had managed to avoid any spoilers about it, so I was completely surprised. I'm also so glad that, during the episode's first run, I didn't have to wait a whole week for the followup episode. During the summer reruns, I noticed that Grave was less effective with a week-long cool down period after this great buildup.
Much as I loved this episode, now that I've gotten a some emotional distance, there are a couple of things that I would have liked them to have handled better. Willow's transition from wanting to kill the Trio to wanting to destroy the entire world because of all the misery in it happened pretty fast. And shouldn't an Evil Willow want everyone in the world to be suffering? Her actions could almost be interpreted as misguided compassion - completely out of character with everything she had done up to that point. I would have liked to have seen a couple more episodes of Evil Willow so that this transition could have evolved more naturally. There were certainly several episodes this season that I'd have been willing to sacrifice to make room. Or they could have spent some time in the post-Wrecked episodes showing Willow sinking into a depression as she fought her addiction and gradually developing a cynical "life stinks" attitude that would motivate her to "end the world's pain" once she had acquired the power to do so. (It actually would have made more sense if Buffy were the one who decided to destroy the world). Also, the Temple of Proserpexa was pulled out of nowhere (literally) at the last minute. Perhaps we could have seen Willow find it earlier in the season and be intrigued by the power it represented. Finally (and as suggested by my anti-arc rant above), these three concluding episodes - while still good - were not quite as spectacularly mind blowing during the reruns as they were during the first viewing. A lot of their appeal was based on surprises and the fact the we had no idea what was going to happen from moment to moment and could therefore be kept in suspense.
The dialog in Willow's confrontation with Giles recalled both the scene I liked so much in Flooded as well as Darth Vader's line in Star Wars: "So Obi Wan, we meet again. The circle is now complete. When last we met, I was but the learner. Now I am the master." That didn't end well for Obi Wan, and, for a while, things didn't look too good for Giles either. Jonathan fumbled his shot at redemption on the one yard line; oh well. But Xander earned a lot of points for the way he managed to talk Willow down. Maybe he isn't a total scumbag after all.
And what a cliffhanger! This was the first time a Buffy season finale has left us hanging like that. Even though Buffy died at the end of the fifth season, I think that we all assumed that they would bring her back and were just curious as to how they'd do it. One of the many things I had always liked about Buffy is that they always gave the season a big finish, unlike most other shows, particularly the new Star Treks, that choose to emotionally blackmail us with a cliffhanger to "force" us to watch the next season's premier, as if we wouldn't have anyway, yet the premier episodes were never as good as the buildup after a summer of stress and speculation.
Conclusions and Speculations
So what should we make of the sixth season? After a rough patch in the middle, it paid off spectacularly by the end. But was the rough patch just a bump in the road or the beginning of a downward trend? To quote a song in the musical episode: where do we go from here?
But it worries me that, throughout the final three episodes, the Scoobies kept referring to Willow as if she had been possessed and was being controlled by the "Dark Magicks" rather than the other way around and acting of her own volition. Buffy specifically stated that the magic was changing Willow, and Evil Willow referred to her old self in the third person, ultimately saying "Willow doesn't live here any more". I'm concerned that they might be planning to use this as a cop out to absolve Willow of responsibility for her actions. (It might actually have been more interesting if Grave had ended with Buffy and the others preventing Willow from destroying the world but not being able to "cure" her, thus allowing Willow to take her place as a recurring villain for the remainder of the series. She showed signs of being much more competent than the previous Big Bads.)
There should be some serious fallout from the season finale, not to mention her three years of abusing magic, in which she has to pay back the karmic debt that she's accumulated. It just occurred to me that Tara's death might have been the first installment - and wouldn't it be great to see Willow have to deal with that? I think that I might be able to start liking Willow again if they show her really suffering and going through hell, figuratively and literally, for what she's done - without whining and self-pity, of course. Certainly, a pretty pissed off Osiris should show up (and maybe the police too; they couldn't be so jaded to Sunnydale weirdness that they'd shrug off an assault on the police station). I don't think that I'd like to see her on-the-wagon magically again. It would be going backwards, not to mention yet another example of running away from an emotionally difficult situation that all the characters seem to be so fond of. In Checkpoint, Travers implied that there was a formal witch's training program of which Willow was ignorant. Perhaps she could get a mentor and proper training that includes the spirituality and lingering wisdom that she lacks.
I just noticed how long this is. Boy, do I need to get a life.
More of Robert's Reviews
Internet Movie Database Entry
The Sunnydale Slayers : Detailed summaries and lively discussions
Buffy Guide : A Buffy encyclopedia with annotations, plots, cast, quotes, reviews, etc.
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