And now, season six of Buffy, in which the characters I’ve come to know and love begin to morph into weird, unpleasant versions of themselves, or else disappear altogether. This unsettling trend was somewhat remedied by the end of the season, but once that end had come, enough bad things had happened that the Buffyverse appeals to me less than it did when the season began. Still, even if the season was a net loss, there were still plenty of wonderful moments to be had. In particular, there was one shining episode which joins the all-time hall of fame.
1) First of all, I’d like to issue a big hearty thumbs-down to Fox for spoiling, on the FRONT OF THE BOX, something that doesn’t occur until the 20th freaking episode of the season. Thanks to that picture, I spent the entire season ready for Scary Veiny Willow to show up, just wondering how it would happen. Also, can I just mention that on the back of the box, they have this quote from Buffy: “I think I was in Heaven.” Kinda deflates the drama at the end of After Life, you know? Just a bit. Spoily jerks.
2) As I said above, this season was all about taking beloved characters and stripping them of the qualities that made them appealing in the first place. Lovable characters who escaped this fate were instead removed completely, leaving untouched only the characters who were never that appealing in the first place. This negative transformation also occurs with the Scoobies as a whole. As Normal Again made sure to point out, “those people… aren’t as comforting as they once were. They’re coming apart.” Given the experiences that this group has gone through, they ought to be as bonded by trust as just about any group of friends on earth. Instead, they hoard their secrets in ways that they’ve seen over and over again are destructive. When Willow is in the grip of her full-blown addiction, she’s a mass of secret-keeping, but she begins even in the first episode, gutting a deer and telling no one, not even Tara. In fact, nobody ever finds out about this. Then there’s Buffy, who can’t trust her loved ones enough to tell them that they pulled her out of a heavenly dimension. Okay, addiction and resurrection are pretty fair excuses, but what about Xander? He confides his fears in no one, even though (according to me) all he’s suffering from is insecurity. All this secrecy undercuts the trust that should be between these people. The only ones in the whole bunch who act at all like adults are Giles and Tara, but guess what happens to them?
Let’s take the group character-by-character, breaking them down into their categories:
Lovable characters made unpleasant
- Willow – At the beginning of this season, Willow has taken charge of the Scoobies. She is, quite literally, floating above them and telling them what to do. This makes perfect sense coming out of season 5. When Buffy was comatose and Giles incapacitated after Spiral, it was Willow who took charge, making a plan and seeing it through. I loved seeing this side of Willow come out, and I was happy to see it continued in this season. What I wish had been explored more is the fact that, despite her determination, Willow clearly could not hack it as the boss. Her first project as leader is to bring back Buffy, so that Willow doesn’t have to be the leader anymore. She invents, out of whole cloth (well, maybe with a tiny bit of justification from knowing what happened to Angel) a story about Buffy being in hell, and uses that as her rationalization for resurrecting Buffy, despite Tara’s (and everybody’s) objections, and despite the fact that she herself has seen that this sort of thing is always deeply fraught. Why does she do this? I believe it is a combination of arrogance and fear — the belief that she is somehow exempt from the Buffyverse’s exacting machinery of consequences, and the belief that she is incapable of replacing Buffy. I wish she, or somebody, had acknowledged this fear as a motive, but it’s never mentioned.
Then these traits lead her into an addiction which turns her into a pathetic shell of herself before blotting her out altogether. Having had a crush on Willow since the first episode, I found these developments quite upsetting. It’s not that I thought the changes were unrealistic — I’ve seen what addiction does to people, and this story didn’t take any undue liberties with the sort of things that can happen — but over the course of these events, the Willow I loved slowly eroded, replaced by somebody I didn’t even like. All that being said, Alyson Hannigan is wonderful the entire way through, especially as Dark Willow.
- Xander – Plenty of points have been scored off Xander over the years from people telling him that he’s the weakest link in the team — you know, the Zeppo. The counterweight to this, near as I can determine, is that he’s supposed to be the most emotionally centered member of the team, the heart. In fact, that’s explicitly who he was in the GilesXanderWillow amalgam from Primeval in season 4. He plays this role brilliantly in season 5’s Into The Woods. So he’s the high-EQ guy, good at loving people, good at empathizing, good at getting people to deal with their emotions. He displays this quality throughout most of season 6, up to and including As You Were, where he does a wonderful job at reassuring Anya and grounding them both in reality. Then comes the very next episode, Hell’s Bells. Xander even seems to have it together at the beginning of this episode. So for him to suddenly wig out for, really, no good reason, feels horribly out of character. Plus, his rationale is so flimsy that it might as well not exist — the whole thing felt completely rootless, manufactured solely for drama and plot advancement.
Yes, I know the show laid the groundwork for his fears and insecurities about getting married, and I know he’s very young. Here’s the thing, though: everybody has fears and insecurities going into marriage (and if they don’t, they certainly should). Xander’s are nothing special. Going all Jennifer Wilbanks on your bride-to-be while she is literally waiting at the altar is not the act of a loving, emotionally centered person. It is the act of a narcissistic flake. By the time Grave rolls around, he’s back to being loving Xander again, but this does not undo the damage to his character. The change to Willow is disturbing and depressing, but it’s at least portrayed very believably. Xander, on the other hand, just inexplicably loses his mind. I nurture a tiny hope that this incredible lapse will be revealed in season 7 to have a supernatural root, but I don’t expect it.
- Anya – Now, I never loved Anya in the same way I loved Xander, Willow, and Buffy, but she certainly grew on me over the years. I find her grating (I think I’m supposed to), but she clearly loved Xander and treated him well. I felt very indignant on her behalf after Hell’s Bells. I found her transformation back into a vengeance demon, and her subsequent behavior (trying to murder Xander), to be plausible enough. D’Hoffryn initially refused to restore her powers in order to punish her carelessness, so it’s sensible to me that after seeing her suffer at Xander’s hands, he’d feel she’d been punished enough, and would expect her to be in enough of a vengeful mood to make for a great demon again. And although she loves Xander, I can believe that Anya would fall back on her old tried-and-true method of problem-solving.
However, what is true, at least for me, is that a vengeance demon is substantially less interesting than an ex-vengeance demon trapped in a human body. Anya with her powers back, at least if she’s on the job in the way I imagine D’Hoffryn expects her to be, doesn’t really belong as a major character, let alone one of the Scoobies. In fact, I think she’d be a villain — again, assuming she was doing her job.
- Buffy – And then there’s Buffy. Though it’s her show, Buffy was never my favorite character. (That honor squirms around between Willow, Giles, Oz, and Tara.) I never really related to her that much, though I certainly sympathized with her. However, I always appreciated her, and believed in her, at least up until she offed herself at the end of season 5. As I’ve mentioned, I found that climax deflating and unconvincing, but it happened, so if there’s going to be another season of the Buffy show, Buffy has to come back somehow. I love that the Buffyverse is serious about its consequences, and that Buffy’s death can’t be overturned without major repercussions to all involved. However, in this case those repercussions hollowed out both Buffy and Willow, and removed Giles. Since I didn’t really think Buffy should have died in the first place, I had a hard time getting on board with the sacrifices necessary to retrieve her. Sure, her resurrection continued the show, but at the cost of making it less enjoyable to watch. Kind of a Pyrrhic victory.
So yeah, it’s quite understandable that Buffy is all fucked up after being resurrected. It makes all the sense in the world. However, the fact that her craziness is justified does not make it enjoyable. Though her cycles of attraction/repulsion with Spike were explicable from a character standpoint, I did not find them relatable at all, and was just more annoyed every time she jumped back into bed with him. Watching Buffy do self-destructive things, cold things, and sometimes downright mean things (in the case of Gone) distanced me from her, so that by the end of the season, I cared a lot less about what she was going to do. I just can’t invest emotionally in somebody who is such a constant disappointment. I hope the turnaround she evinces by the end of the season translates into making her a likeable character again in season 7. I want to like her. For one thing, it makes the show a lot more fun to watch.
Lovable characters who are eliminated
- Tara – I never had anything against Tara, but this season I really came to love her. She and Giles are the only ones who act like anything approaching mature adults for the lion’s share of the season, and more than that, she really came into her own, at least where she had the space to. Of course, I related strongly to her heartbreak at seeing Willow’s disintegration, and I deeply appreciated the way she handled that.
I also loved her relationship with Buffy this season — she seemed to take over some of the nurturing role formerly occupied by Giles and Joyce. She got stronger, and funnier too; both were particularly evident in Older And Far Away. At the beginning of the season, I was disappointed to see that Amber Benson didn’t appear in the opening credits. After all, if Emma Caulfield and James Marsters are in there, she really ought to be as well — she’s at least as important a character as either of those two. I was so pleased when they FINALLY put her in the opening credits for Seeing Red, and I cannot believe that Tara was killed off in the same freaking episode! I think that’s the only thing this show has ever done that actually made me angry.
- Giles – Just a few minutes into the first episode of the season, I knew something was wrong. No Anthony Stewart Head in the credit sequence? “Special Guest Star Anthony Stewart Head”? This does not bode well. And indeed, off he went, though we got a brief reprieve in his return after Buffy’s resurrection. kansasjenny tells me that Head needed to quit the show in order to spend more time in England with his family. I can certainly understand this, but boy is it unfortunate for the show.
There’s not much more to say about this — I love Giles, and he was gone for most of the season. Even in the context of the storyline, I’m not sure his departure is justified. There are plenty of ways to stop being an enabler without moving to another damn country. I was thrilled by his return at the end of the season, and I hope that somehow he sticks around for season 7.
Characters who were always annoying and remained so
- Spike – Sorry, Spike fans, but I find him way too irritating. He’s the Frank Burns of the Buffyverse. Sure, he serves a useful role story-wise, but I just want to smack him all the time, and I don’t enjoy much of the time he’s onscreen, unless he’s getting some kind of comeuppance. Even that gets tiresome after a while. So having Buffy jump on the Spike train to Dysfunctionville was not a lot of fun for me to watch.
Watching her leave him was satisfying, but then he tries to rape her, for god’s sake. This on top of being an all-around prick for pretty much the entire run of the show. Yeah yeah yeah, he gets his soul back at the end of the season. We’ll see what happens. I still wish she’d just staked him in the middle of Seeing Red. There’s probably a handy brush and dustpan right there in the bathroom to clean up the little pile of dust.
- Dawn – Dawn. Is. Insufferable. Good god almighty, what an annoying character she is. I know I’m supposed to be repulsed when Dark Willow suggests that Dawn’s reversion to energy-state would save us all from her incessant whining, but instead I found myself quietly thinking, “Yeah.” Okay, taking the compassionate view for a moment, I recognize that she’s just a young kid, that she’s basically orphaned, that she has led a very weird and difficult life up to this point. Still, you know what other teenagers led weird and difficult lives? Buffy. Xander. Willow. None of them ever reached the heights (or maybe the depths) of neediness, narcissism, and petulance that Dawn achieves on a regular basis. Even early Cordelia was more appealing than Dawn is, as bitchy is slightly more entertaining to watch than whiny.
She is especially annoying in Gone and Dead Things, when she seems to be completely clueless, casting inappropriate blame, and lashing out at Buffy like it’s a bodily function. This trend reaches its natural culmination in Older And Far Away, but what does she learn from the experience? Not to make wishes. Where’s the lesson that teaches her to get a freaking life, cut the drama, and stop blaming her sister, who she damn well ought to know is trying her best in an extremely weird set of circumstances?
3) I kept waiting for somebody to mention that a new Slayer must have been called while Buffy was dead. And I kept waiting. The entire season, I waited. It never happened. Now, come on. I know these people have a lot on their minds and all, but hello? Has everybody forgotten the bulk of seasons 2 and 3? Given the Faith thing (hey, for that matter, the Kendra thing), doesn’t it seem like this is something they’d want to be on top of? Giles even goes to England and chats with the Council, whose entire purpose in life (near as I can tell) is to keep track of the Slayer. Somehow, oddly enough, the subject never comes up. This felt like a glaring lapse that just got more and more noticeable the longer it went on.
4) I’m sure I’m not the first person to make this observation, but Scoobies, here’s a hint. If somebody, say like a Vampire Slayer, dies, but you want to keep up an elaborate ruse to convince the world she’s still alive, there are some things you probably ought to take care of. And number one on that list should be the big-ass gravestone reading “Buffy Anne Summers 1981-2001”.
5) Let’s talk about Once More With Feeling. Here’s what I think: IT RULES. It rules rules rules rules RULES! Oh my goodness gracious, what an incredible episode this was. I cannot believe that Joss actually wrote all the music as well! I have a developing theory on Joss Whedon. Tell me what you think about it. Here’s my theory: Joss Whedon is some kind of mutant super genius. Is he the product of a government experiment? Is he from an extraterrestrial civilization? Was he bitten by a radioactive polymath? I’m still working on the details, but there has to be some explanation for how one person can be so astoundingly good at so many things. Whatever the reason, I am so grateful for it. Everything about this episode is good, from top to bottom. The concept is wonderful — I just love the idea that the cast of a musical knows they’re in a musical, can’t help singing because they’re being directed by supernatural force, and that in fact they reveal in their songs just exactly what’s on their minds, even if they don’t want to. The songs themselves are phenomenal. Not only are they catchy and fun, they are ridiculously inventive on both the musical and lyrical level. They are often deeply moving, and often hilarious, sometimes within seconds of each other. The little skip-break in the chorus of “Something To Sing About”? The weird minor key slide on “heaven” in that same song? The intercutting in “Walk Through The Fire”? The meaning switch in “Under Your Spell” and its reprise? “She’s not even half the girl she — ow!”? “I think this line’s mostly filler”? SUPER GENIUS! SUPER GENIUS, I say! I could go on and on.
The plot of the episode works beautifully, moving a number of the characters through critical junctures, maintaining absolute emotional authenticity even while bursting into song every few minutes. Oh, and the singing! Wow! In particular, Benson, Gellar, and Head were terrifically impressive. (Well, so is Hinton Battle, but then, he’s a ringer.) Sarah Michelle Gellar continues to astonish me with her talent. Oh, and how about the dialogue? Picking one at random — Giles: “Well, if we hear any inspirational power chords, we’ll just lie down until they go away.” In fact, Giles is great throughout the entire episode, even more so than usual. (Goodness, Wikipedia just told me that Tony Head played Frank-N-Furter in a stage version of Rocky Horror! What fun that would be to see!) Some of the choreography was just exquisite — the racing fire engines come to mind — and most of the rest of it was purely entertaining. The cinematography, too, was quite noteworthy, especially for TV. I particuarly loved the long tracking shot across “The Parking Ticket” with the dancing broom guys in the background while Xander, Anya, and Giles are talking.
In short, this episode is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
6) The Trio. Buffy’s Big Bads have been playing a game of one-upsmanship over the seasons, but how do you top a god? Turns out: you don’t. Instead, this season’s Big Bad is in fact on to flat-out parody of Big Badness. There were elements of this in season 5, with Glory’s silly minions and her comical ineptitude at reaching her objective, but this season, comedy is in the driver’s seat. The Mayor, the Master, and even Adam were creepy and menacing, but the Trio inspires amusement rather than fear. The only one who ever seems like anything like a credible threat is Warren, and even he only manages to do any damage through a rather implausible sort of luck. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Taking the concept of Big Badness into a different territory is the right move for the show to make, especially since there’s enough unpleasantness to contend with from the main characters themselves. It’s as if this season stands the regular Buffy concept on its head: the characters provide all the darkness, and the villains are the comic relief. They really are quite funny (some of the nerd jokes are priceless for someone like me, squarely in the target audience), and I dug how they were drawn from previous continuity. Also, Andrew makes a good addition. The tie to The Prom is a fun treat for insiders, and Tom Lenk does a great job creating the most childish supervillian this side of The Toad. The gay subtext with Andrew gets louder and louder as the season goes on, especially in Seeing Red. I mean, the Klingon love poems at least required us to figure out who was writing them and for whom, but “I can’t wait to get my hands on his orbs”?
7) Besides Once More With Feeling, the most striking episode of this season was Normal Again. There’s a lot about this episode that is fun, albeit in an unsettling way. I always enjoy a little reality-questioning, and the story pulls skillfully at the threads of what’s happening in season six. However, its strength is in pointing out the weakness of the season, and it has a lot to work with in this department, so that’s not so good. It’s one of those instances where a story starts to criticize its own flaws — the doctor makes the same points I do about The Trio and the unraveling of the major characters. Usually the advice when something like that starts to happen is to go back and fix the problems so that they won’t be there to point out, but in a situation like a TV series, revision is not an option. The fact that those issues were there made this episode more powerful, but I still wish things could have been different.
8) One really fascinating effect that came out of this season was the development of the relationship between Buffy and Willow. When I look at their relationship over the seasons, I’m increasingly convinced that things had to come to a head between these two at some point. At first, Willow was Buffy’s damsel in distress; Buffy the hero charged off to save her at various times in the first few seasons. When Willow wasn’t in jeopardy, she was chugging away behind the scenes with handwavy computer hacking skills, but usually well away from the action. As time goes on, Willow comes into her own in several ways. Her relationship with Oz eliminates her previously pitiable romantic state, and her increasing magical powers make her a force to be reckoned with for the Hellmouth’s various dangers. With these changes, she becomes Buffy’s primary sidekick, both plucky and timid in the face of danger, but always ready to help overthrow the monster of the week, or the year. By season five, she is quite formidable indeed, and clearly more powerful than Buffy. I mean, sure, Buffy has some mild super-strength, but it begins to seem like Willow can do anything, and if provoked, will. This escalation in Willow’s power sets up a couple of problems for the show. One, she threatens to eclipse the main character, and two, the more powerful Willow becomes, the less credible are any threats to the Scoobies.
Season six deals with these problems in a way that is both logical and a powerful story-generator. The season starts out with the serious encumbrance of needing to revive the hero, and Willow is obviously the logical person to do this. In having her approach the task full of denial and fear, the season lays the groundwork for her undoing, and I believed it every step of the way. It helped a lot that Willow returned to her lovable self during the middle part of the season. What remains true is that although Willow’s magic may make her more powerful than Buffy’s strength, Buffy still retains the more forceful personality. However, with Buffy in the state she’s in this season, they’re much more comparable than they’ve ever been, and the show makes the most of it by placing them on parallel tracks with their addictions. It is thanks to Buffy’s fragility that she is able to both ignore Willow’s problems for so long and empathize so deeply with them once she realizes what’s happening. By this time, the concept of Willow as sidekick, and maybe even the sidekick concept as a whole, has been thoroughly complicated. Rather than simply the less-powerful but cuter accompaniment to the hero, Willow is both more powerful and less, both cuter and uglier than Buffy.
By the time we reach Two To Go, it becomes quite clear that the show has turned the sidekick trope on its head. Willow herself makes this clear in her climactic battle with Buffy: “This is a huge deal for me! Six years as a side man, and now I get to be the Slayer.” In some part of Willow’s mind, she is Buffy’s heir — she has eclipsed Buffy in power as the student sometimes overtakes the teacher. This is what we sometimes think of a sidekick doing, taking over for the hero when the time comes. Only, as Buffy tries to explain, Willow has in fact become the opposite of a hero. In fact, she has become Warren — a ruthless, unhesitating killer. The show makes this point in a subtle way: in Two To Go, Willow shouts out “Get off, superbitch!”, the very same epithet Warren used to refer to Buffy in Seeing Red.
Because of the structure of Grave, we don’t get a denoument to see where Buffy and Willow’s relationship stands after the craziness is over. I hope season 7 provides such a thing, because the theme is a fruitful one.
9) I quite enjoy Clem. I hope to see more of him next season.
10) In Two To Go, how did Anya suddenly figure out how to read page after page of the ancient Babylonian book out loud? I like to pretend that she allowed Jonathan to cast a little charm or something that did auto-translation, but I’m truly just making that up. As it is, it’s a plot hole.
- Flooded – I LOVED LOVED LOVED Giles laying into Willow.
- Flooded – Buffy worrying about the cost of all the things getting broken in her fight with the demon. Great gag.
- Life Serial – I enjoyed the looping section because it was so reminiscent of looping IF like Aisle, All Things Devours, Lock & Key, Varicella, etc. I also dug Warren and Andrew riffing on Monty Python.
- All The Way – Tara: “I’m not really much for the timber.”
- Tabula Rasa – Anya: “What? I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking, right baby?” Xander: “You are attractive and have many good qualities.”
- Smashed – Willow: “One, Larry’s gay. Two, Larry’s dead. And three, high school’s… kinda over.”
- Smashed – Xander: “Not judgey, Buff. Just… observey.”
- Doublemeat Palace – I love that the secret behind Doublemeat is that it’s vegetables.
- Doublemeat Palace – Willow: “If you’re really my friend, you’d better stay away from me. And if you’re really not my friend… you’d better stay away from me.”
- Dead Things – Tara and Buffy at the end.
- Gone – The whole invisible fight was very funny
- Older And Far Away – I adore the Tara/Spike interaction in this episode. She’s great throughout the episode, but especially the Spike stuff.
- As You Were – Xander: “Why did we ever agree to have your friends, who are demons, and my family, who are monsters, stay at our place?”
- As You Were – Buffy: “I wish I’d said something else.” This is so useful that I have incorporated it into my repertoire.
- As You Were – And the “Best Pop Culture Reference” award goes to Xander calling Riley and Sam “Nick & Nora Fury.” That is beautiful reference perfection, is what that is.
- As You Were – Willow at the end. “What a bitch.” Hilarious.
- As You Were – Buffy breaking up with Spike and walking out into the sunlight. A beautifully shot, beautifully written moment. I think, moment-wise, As You Were is the winner.
- Entropy – The final scene between Willow and Tara.
- Seeing Red – Buffy’s badass dodging of the buzz-saws felt very reminiscent of Spidey dodging the Goblin’s blades in the first Spider-Man movie. What a strange coincidence that the movie came out 4 days before this episode aired.
- Two To Go – Andrew with my other favorite Marvel ref: “She’s like Dark Phoenix up there!”
- Two To Go – I literally cheered when Giles showed up in the last 5 seconds.
- Grave – Giles: “You cut your hair!”
Least favorite moments. Actually, these don’t tend to be moments, but rather places where the flaws of the season seemed most glaring:
- Wrecked – As I said above, the way Willow explained her addictions felt like a real missed opportunity to me. There’s way more than she said. Another theme that could have been touched on here is her feeling of being in competition with Buffy, which eventually came out at the end of the season.
- Gone – Buffy’s behavior while invisible felt really wrong to me, and the story seemed to endorse it. Especially since, really, everything the social worker says is completely true. Yeah, she lacks some context, but I think she’s basically right on in believing that Buffy is not capable (at that time, anyway) of providing a safe, stable home environment for Dawn. There are ways to explore this kind of story — J. Michael Straczynski did it in Fantastic Four #528-535 (as a subplot) and handled it rather cleverly. I know Buffy is supposed to be more brawn than brains, but her “resolution” to the social services problem seems downright mean. Plus, she’s harassing strangers and scaring people, for no good reason. I get that it’s her first taste of joy, probably because it’s the most removed she’s been from the world since she returned to it, but still — the stuff she does is wrong, and she never makes up for it.
- As You Were – Buffy and Riley take a huge long drive and he mentions neither 1) “I’m married now” nor 2) “Don’t kill the demon.”?? WTF??
- Hell’s Bells – As you may have gleaned from my complaints in the character section, I thought Xander’s walkout was just ridiculous, especially coming on the heels of his confidence in As You Were. Also, George Wallace is incredibly unconvincing as Future Xander — he doesn’t even sound like he’s from the right coast.
- Once More With Feeling
Least favorite episodes:
- Hell’s Bells