Thursday, May 14, 2009
At last, after months of diverting my attention elsewhere, I finally return to finish my retrospective on Buffy. I'm sure the six people who infrequently stumble across this blog in their search of real criticism have been on pins and needles (though, strangely, one of my Angel posts was placed on Whedonesque, assuredly earning it the title of Most Poorly-Written Article on Whedonesque. So, there's that). Anyway, I got back on the horse, ready to see what the final season would hold for me on a closer inspection.
When I first sat down and finished this season (strangely almost exactly a year ago), my impressions were somewhat mixed: after so much character development in the previous two seasons, Buffy's send-off struck me as the sort of action-packed finale befitting a franchise, the Return of the Jedi to the initial wonderment and camp of A New Hope and the hopeless depths of The Empire Strikes Back. Yeah, I didn't like the Potentials, and some continuity seemed to fall by the wayside, but overall I found it to be an exciting way to say goodbye to the characters I'd truly come to regard as real people.
At the end of the last season, our characters were thrown into deep personal turmoil. Willow's rampage not only left her frail and wracked with guilt, it greatly shifted what had been deeply established character ties. Buffy, who spent an entire season distancing herself from the friends who resurrected her, suddenly had to deal with her best friend becoming the enemy. Having already dealt with killing or considering such to both her boyfriend and her sister, it pushed her over the edge, but also helped her reconnect. Dawn lost her idol, while Xander managed to save the day by going back to roots established before any events in the show and appealing to his fundamental friendship with Willow. The last few episodes tore up the chart of character relationships and reformed it into a new, weaker one that could potentially become stronger than ever.
"Lessons," the season premiere, reflects this seismic shift by going back to the show's roots: Sunnydale High. We saw it being rebuilt in the last season (by Xander's crew, no less), but here it is ready to accept students to learn and be eaten by whatever comes out of the Hellmouth this week. Buffy's worrying in this episode is great, to the point that she bursts in on Dawn in class to preemptively warn her of danger. While there, she meets the new principal, Robin Wood (DB Woodside), a younger, much more attractive foil for the crabby goblin that was Snyder. Wood knows Buffy's extensive file of high school misdemeanors, but surprisingly offers Buffy a job as a sort of counselor for "other" troublesome students.
Meanwhile, Willow accompanies Giles to England, where she enters a sort of magical rehab -- forgive me for furthering the "magic as drug" theme that was the main flaw of the sixth season. Eventually she returns to Sunnydale, but is so afraid of facing what she fears will be judgmental friends that she subconsciously casts a spell that renders her friends invisible to her and her invisible to her friends. In a wonderful twist, Anya, whom Willow never liked, can see her, forcing Willow to rely on Anya and also setting up a great deal of tension between the two that plays out in the early part of the season.
Anya, actually, becomes the focus of the first defining episode of the season, "Selfless." Structured as a sort of Anya-centric "Fool For Love," "Selfless" finds Anya, who returned to the vengeance business after Xander broke up with her, standing in a frat house surrounded by boys she killed for humiliating a young lady. As Buffy debates whether or not to kill Anya, Willow confronts the vengeance demon, only for Anya to throw everything Willow did last season in her face while noting the fact that everyone was so quick to forgive and forget when it came to her rampage. But the most interesting aspects are the various flashbacks through Anya's life. We start with Anya as Aud, a young, headstrong housewife in 880 Scandinavia. Compared to her current capitalist greed, she expresses textbook notions of communism, wishing to give the excess produce of her home to the needy. When she tires of her husband, Olaf, cheating on her, she casts a spell that turns him into a troll, attracting the attention of D'Hoffryn. Then we move forward through her days as a demon, leading up to the present.
Unlike Spike's background episode, where we learned what kind of man he was and how his current persona formed, "Selfless" -- as its title suggests -- reveals Anya as someone without a concrete identity, who only ever latched onto her title, be it demon or the future Mrs. Xander Harris. Anya was never a character who had a real raison d'être: she fell in love with Xander for no discernible reason and stuck around essentially because she was hilarious. But this acknowledgment of that lack of purpose, and not in the sly, winking way that the writers on the show often employ, is genuinely affecting and finally gives a great character a chance to come into her own.
Another big highlight of this first half is "Conversations with Dead People," the finest piece of pure introspection since "Restless." Opening with a custom-made song that brilliantly sums up where Buffy is at emotionally (an excellent analysis of which can be found at this wonderful Buffy review site), "CWDP" examines Buffy's relationship traumas via a discussion with a former classmate turned vampire who was majoring in psychology; Willow talks with the ghost of Cassie, a young girl who died earlier in the season of a heart defect and who claims to be in contact with Tara's spirit; and, most disturbingly of all, Dawn receives a visit from "Joyce," who attempts to create strife between the sisters. We learn later that this was all the work of the First Evil (first introduced back in Season 3), but even with that information this is one hell of a creepy, yet insightful, episode.
Don't let yourself think that it's all doom and gloom, however. First up, there's "Him," the first time since S4 that we get a completely zany, campy episode. At first, I thought that the writers shoved Dawn, who really progresses into a great character this season, over the deep end. She falls for a boy so hard that, when Buffy attempts to calm her sister down with reason and logic ("You didn't even know who this boy was yesterday"), Dawn cranks the whine up to 11 and I at last agreed with all those who hated her. Then we learn that she's under a spell (which Xander picks up on immediately in an excellent callback), and soon every woman in the Scoobies is fighting for the lad's affections. There are simply too many golden lines to quote, but the highlight has to be Anya debasing Willow for loving R.J. the least because she's a lesbian. Later, "First Date" shows just how immaturely the Scoobies and the Potentials are treating the around them, even if the actual date between Xander and a girl he wins over is extremely flawed and calls to mind the terrible "Teacher's Pet" from the first season.
Sadly, like the previous season, the show hits a serious roadblock for a few episodes and, like the previous season, it comes right in the middle. Unsurprisingly, this downturn coincides with the introduction of the Potential Slayers. Apparently, destiny doesn't have enough time on its hand to single out one girl from the millions of young teenagers around the world each time the current Slayer bites it, so instead fate has a pre-determined pool of talent from which to choose. Then, when a Slayer dies, these select few have their names put in a metaphorical hat and one (un)lucky contestant gets the grand prize. The First, seeking to eliminate the Slayer line once and for all, wisely sends minions out to destroy the Potentials before finally turning on the real Slayer, thus ensuring that, when Buffy dies, the power dies with her.
Angel playing out at the same time, so she doesn't come in until the final third of the season.
Faith's return to Sunnydale coincides with another great late-comer, the psychotic, misogynist preacher Caleb. Played by Firefly's very own Nathan Fillion, Caleb not only gives the Scoobies and Potentials a corporeal villain to rally against but is downright terrifying. "Dirty Girls" continues the swing back to high quality television started by its two predecessors, the alternately funny/serious "Storyteller" and the superb "Lies My Parents Told Me," which juxtaposes Spike and Wood's relationships with their mothers. Wood, the son of the slayer Spike killed in the 70s (also where he got his nifty coat), figures out that the First triggers Spike's recent killing sprees by playing the vampire a song that his mum used to sing to him and uses it to seek revenge. Spike already got an entire episode to himself to define his character, but LMPTM offers up a piece of backstory we never got while also getting us into Robin's head.
As the season draws to a close, the action ramps up to an all-out war with evil itself, and you can cut the tension with a knife. Buffy's constant speechifying and her unyielding attempts to exact revenge on the First and Caleb put her at odds with the Potentials. Annoying and self-centered from the start, the girls do at last have a point when they object to being led constantly to the slaughterhouse, and they and the Scoobies throw her from the house and elect Faith as the new leader. It forces Buffy her status as a leader of a potentially powerful army while proving to the girls just how necessary she really is.
It all culminates with the epic finale "Chosen," a non-stop thrill ride that gives Caleb a fitting end, hatches a so-crazy-it's-brilliant plan that reaffirms the show's feminist slant, and lets us bid a fond farewell to the characters that, over the course of only a few months of DVD binging a year ago, seemed as real and tangible as my actual friends -- I can't imagine how painful this was for the people who'd been there from the beginning. The final moments feature a shocking death, a noble sacrifice, and a brief moment of release before the credits roll for the final time. Though it does not match the emotional level of Angel's cataclysmic end, it stands as one of the most fitting send-offs I've ever seen.
The continuity issues and every single Potential (except Vi, played by Felicia Day[!]) aside, S7 offers up a great deal more character advancement than I'd previous noticed. Spike's post-ensoulment arc is one of the most rewarding of the show's run, and Xander's penchant for observing the best and worst in his friends is finally addressed as something no less important than Buffy's strength or Willow's magic. Dawn, too, grows out the immaturity that defined her in the previous two seasons (though I never thought her to be obnoxious like most), and the way she deals with being the only unexceptional girl in a house full of warriors shows just how far she's come.
A strange thing happened to me as I reached the end of the series. Having already finished my recap of Angel, I knew that, once I left Sunnydale, my time with this world was over. Not in the literal sense, of course; I can and will return to these two series for the rest of my life. But the Buffyverse has such a weight to it, such a rich web of character drama and action, that even a repeat viewing affected me at the end. The final shot, in which Buffy allows herself a small smile at what she's accomplished, is a release as much for the audience as it is for her. Buffy had its up and its downs, but the fact remains that it connected more than it missed, and I can't think of five series that affected me more. Five bucks says I can't go 'til the end of the year without watching it all again.