Wednesday, January 21, 2009
**warning-- contains spoilers**
Here we are at last: my favorite season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I first went through the series I loved pretty much all of it (save Season 4), but S6 immediately placed itself at the top of the heap; so much so that I was stunned to learn of its controversial status amongst fans. In retrospect I shouldn't have been surprised: its darker tone and radical shift in direction surely put off fans who wanted things to remain the same, and they expressed their confusion and frustration by decrying the season as a whole. With all this is mind, I went back into this season with a touch of apprehension; now looking for flaws, what would I take away from this much-contested season?
Really, my opinion barely changed at all. I firmly believe this to be the emotional high point of the show, above even the arcs of S2 and S5. Whereas those two seasons relegated their emotional punches towards the end, S6 overflows with trauma. Buffy and her friends left high school at the end of the third season, but it is here that they must truly and finally face adulthood.
At the end of the preceding season, Buffy gave her life to save Dawn's (and, once again, the world), and left the Scoobies devastated. We resume, as always, after a summer off to contemplate events and find the gang doing their best to fill the hole Buffy left. Willow and Tara watch Dawnie (and Spike often babysits), while the whole gang patrols the graveyards at night. But we can't got long without Buddy and Willow, growing ever stronger with her magics, concludes that the stars are in alignment and prepares a resurrection spell.
Understandably assuming Buffy is trapped in a hell dimension after sealing off the portal in "The Git," the gang agrees to help Willow and soon our blond heroine digs her way out of her grave. But the Buffy who emerges seems...off somehow.
Thus begins a deep, dark arc for a character who, by normal standards, had reached her apex. Cynical fans cite numerous moments where the show "jumped the shark," but here's one place where it really could have applied had the writers not brought their A-game. But they come out swinging in the two-part premiere "Bargaining" and especially "After Life," in which Buffy drops a bombshell when she admits to Spike that her friends did not rescue her from Hell but tore her from Heaven.
The opening nine episodes comprise undoubtedly the strongest opening of any season of Buffy. Apart from the excellent premiere and "After Life," "Flooded" and "Life Serial" display Buffy's maladjustment not only to regaining her life but entering adulthood itself. Meanwhile, "Tabula Rasa" moves forward Willow's arc by showing how dangerously her reliance on magic has become.
But even among these superb offerings, one episode rises above them. "Once More With Feeling," the best "gimmick" episode of the series and second perhaps only to "Smile Time" in the course of both shows of the Buffyerse, eclipses even "Hush" in its ability to mix a wild and fun standalone with vital character and story development. After a demon turns Sunnydale into a giant musical, the Scoobies must figure out how to stop it before people dance and sing until they burst into flame.
The songs range between achingly hysterical and solemn and contemplating at the drop of a hat. Not only do we get a tune of Anya rocking out and the immortal line "I have a theory/It could be bunnies," but the Scoobies finally learn, through song of course, just what they did when they resurrected Buffy. It may be the only episode of television you'll ever want to memorize the words to.
Unfortunately the season hits a big snag in the middle. After the underrated "Smashed," in which Buffy turns to Spike in order to feel something, we must contend with "Wrecked." For seasons the writers have been laying down Willow's increasing reliance on magic and how it gave her a sense of confidence, but now that's all out the window because magic is now almost literally a drug. In order to fit her arc within the context of the season, which is a focus on life itself, the writers abandoned her subtle, complex arc and turned her into an addict. It's facile, ill-fitting and would have totally derailed the character had they not gotten Willow back to her roots near the end.
Combined with "Gone" and "Doublemeat Palace," which play like first season MOTW storylines, they kill a lot of the momentum set up by the superb first section. However, things pick up magnificently with the subsequent "Dead Things."
The Trio form the ersatz Big Bad for most of the season and, though they remain hotly contested by fans, I maintain that they were perfect. In a season all about having to grow up and face adulthood, what better foes than some kids who seem thoroughly incapable of doing so? Andrew, Jonathan and Warren obsess over making the Slayer's life hell, for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of her. At first the Trio just sits around marveling at their "genius" while making endless comic book and Star Wars references. They conjure time repeating spells, demons, and all sorts of irking items to drive Buffy crazy, which in any other season would have been insignificant but at this point in Buffy's life sends an unstable woman to the brink.
But, as time goes on, the Trio's actions get more and more sinister under the leadership of the overtly sadistic Warren. In "Dead Things," the boys must face the consequences of their actions in an instant when Warren attempts to place a mind-control device on his ex-girlfriend to use her as a sex toy. When she snaps out of it, she calls them on what the boys just committed --attempted rape--and tries to flee, only for Warren to kill her in a rage. Suddenly, they've crossed a line from childish antics into serious crimes.
Meanwhile, Buffy herself has to do some growing up when she finally admits to someone (Tara) that she's sleeping with Spike and that she realizes she's using him. It's one of the rawest and most insightful moments of the entire series, and gets the season back on the right track. She breaks off her relationship with Spike, as much for his benefit as hers, though Spike doesn't see it that way. This eventually leads to surely the most contested moment of the season (and maybe the entire series), in which Spike, utterly confused and angered by his conflicting emotions, attempts to rape Buffy. It's a very tough scene to watch because there's no...I don't want to say "romanticizing," because that implies that other people make rape "appealing," but I do think that many soften rape so as not to permanently lose an audience. Not this show; the scene lacks music and leaves you gripping your seat in terror. This horror sends Spike to his emotional nadir and sets up his eventual redemption in Season 7.
Another stand-out episode of the season is the terrifying yet darkly funny "Normal Again," in which the Trio conjures a demon that causes Buffy to hallucinate that Sunnydale is simply a figment of her imagination and that she's locked up in an institution in Los Angeles. In this vision, the doctor in charge tries to convince Buffy that Sunnydale cannot be real by systematically listing every major plot hole you can think of. Even in this, the most daring season of the show, that took some balls on the writers' part. The episode ends on an element of ambiguity that leaves you wondering if it really is all in Buffy's head a la St. Elsewhere, although I don't believe it for a second.
Eventually the Trio gets too serious and Warren ends up shooting Buffy and killing Tara, opening up a terrifying new arc in which Willow, mad with grief, uses magic again and becomes the most powerful witch on the planet. Instead of that stifling addict nonsense, the writers go back to Willow's original reasons for magic use: power and insecurity. She cuts a swath through Sunnydale looking for the Trio and, in a horrifying scene, captures and tortures Warren before flaying him alive.
The finale, though a bit too mawkish in Whedon's absence, perfectly encapsulates the season's themes. Willow, wanting to end the pain, decides to destroy the world (which is a bit ridiculous, to be honest) and traps Buffy in a pit with Dawn to prevent her from intervening. In a surprising yet brilliant move, Xander must save the day. Xander, whose path to maturity was the most understated of the season, finally understands his relationship with his friends, and "defeats" Willow purely through his love for her. Whatever flaws the finale may have --and it is easily the weakest of the series-- it scores high for that.
The writers claim that the Big Bad of the season of life, and that's spot on. Giles leaves near the end of that excellent first chunk of episodes in order to force Buffy and, to a lesser extent, everyone else to grow up, to show them that they cannot always rely on him to fix things. Xander, who proposed to Anya at the end of the last season, discovers he may have rushed into things. He certainly loves Anya--deeply so-- but he knows how many in his own family turned out and is terrified of turning into such a person. The episode "Hells Bells" broke my heart the first time through, because I love Anya so much and to see her crushed like that was terrible. However, now I see that Xander made the right choice, albeit with lousy timing. He's the same age as Buffy and Willow, who are also slowly entering adulthood, yet he was considering marriage.
Apart from that three episode dip in the middle, things remain rather consistently brilliant. The lone exception is "As You Were," a decidedly awful entry that must surely rank amongst the series' worst. What went wrong? Well for starters, Riley comes back and, as much a subjective bias as it may be, I hate Riley. When he left the show, I danced. For you to understand how this reappearance hurt me, imagine if, two months from now, Obama gives a press conference, only to rip off his face and reveal himself to be Dick Cheney. Now Riley is married to a woman named Sam, who somehow manages to be even more infuriatingly boring than her husband. Together they make a couple so wooden and uninteresting they'll one day give birth to either Hayden Christensen or (assuming talent skips a generation) Marlon Brando. The episode is chock-full of retreads and atrocious dialogue, and marks the low-point of the season.
I cannot objectively call this the best season of Buffy; its mid-season dip in quality derails things a bit and the sudden gear-shift into the subject of addiction is neither insightful nor even entertaining. Yet pound for pound, this contains more emotional development and more relevant commentary than any other season, all of which is even more amazing when you consider how late in the game we are. Really, the reason I love this more than any other season is that it comes the closest to the feel of Angel; Buffy is always great, but it does lock itself into more adolescent issues to deal with its younger characters. Yet this season rose above and showed its characters moving into the real world, and even if S7 was a bit too eager to run back to its roots in the wake of this season's mixed response, it stands out from an already excellent series.