The Best and Worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

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In a previous post, I discussed my best and worst episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 7. Here I take on Season 6, an interesting season to say the least.

The Best:

Villains, Two To Go, and Grave

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The final episodes of Season 6 are by the best of the season in my opinion. It was also a relief to see such an experiment come to a close. I have always been a fan of Willow Rosenberg as a character I could really relate to within the show (being both gay and Jewish, certainly). According to Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com:

Willow, far from being a cut-out angry lesbian, is more fleshed out, and more terrifyingly alive, than she has ever been before. More than any other character, she has driven the momentum of the past few episodes; she very nearly drove it off a cliff.

Willow watched as Tara, the person she loved best in the world, was struck by a bullet fired by the nerdy but unconscionably evil Warren. The bullet had been intended for Buffy. Buffy lived, but Tara died in Willow’s arms, inciting a propulsive grief in her that couldn’t be contained even by obsession: It couldn’t flower into anything less tropically blood-red than rage. Over the years Willow had become a powerful Wicca, but she gave up magic after realizing she had been seduced into a dangerous dependency on it. With Tara’s death, it becomes her only ally — her grief is so great that she can’t bear the company of humans.

Willow’s tirade begins with a plea to the great god Osiris to restore Tara to life (a plea that’s refused) and ends with nothing less than the orchestration of the end of the world (which is aborted, but just barely). In between, she avenges Tara’s death by torturing and flaying her killer — but not before summoning, to taunt him, the woman he’d earlier nearly raped and then murdered. And, in her ever mounting wrath, she practically destroys every one of her remaining friends.

What’s wrenching about Willow’s behavior — and Whedon knows it as well as anybody else — is that it cuts against everything Tara ever stood for. She was one of the show’s gentlest and most sensible characters; when Buffy confided to Tara, in shame, that she was ensnarled in an obsessive sexual relationship with Spike, Tara’s response was astonishingly sympathetic. Ultimately, she would be the only character who didn’t pass judgment on Buffy for that behavior.

You could argue that of all the characters on “Buffy,” Tara was the one who stood most clearly for the right of human beings to live and love as they choose without having to explain themselves, and to make their own mistakes if need be. Her soft, pearlescent voice and shy, doelike eyes didn’t contrast with her resolve; they were a huge part of it, and a most effective way of telling anyone who would dare to make rash pronouncements on her or her friends, “Get your hands off our business.”

It’s easy to understand why Willow would miss Tara so much. But anyone who has watched the show even semi-faithfully knows that Willow’s rage, grounded partly in self-hatred, has been cooking all along. The show’s followers know that Whedon has a penchant for dropping hints about what’s going to happen, often two or more seasons in advance. In an episode several years ago, Willow temporarily became very, very evil, taking the form of a bisexual vampire seductress in leather pants and a bustier.

When she finally returned to her normal, understated, lovable nerd-girl self, she wondered aloud to Buffy and Buffy’s then-boyfriend Angel (a tortured vampire with a soul) if maybe there wasn’t some part of her that harbored those latent traits. Buffy hastened to reassure her, “That’s your demon self. It doesn’t have anything to do with who you really are.” Angel blurted out, “Well, actually?” and bit his tongue.

According to the A.V. Club review of “Villains”:

The dark turns of events toward the end of season six of Buffy and season three of Angel have got me thinking about what we look for from serialized adventures. These kinds of stories require a certain amount of tension and strife to be effective, and if we care about the characters at all, we’re bound to get anxious whenever they’re backed into a corner. That’s what makes a show thrilling and emotionally involving; we have to see what’s going to happen next. But because we care so much, we also don’t want to see the characters in so much trouble that they’re never going to get back to any kind of normal.

That’s the gamble that Buffy’s been taking with this season. Spike and Willow have both crossed lines that are hard to retreat from, while Buffy has been a fitfully functioning human being since she was dragged back into the land of the living. It makes for exciting television at times—especially in the first half of this week’s episode, “Villains”—but the further the writers go into the darkness, the harder it’s going to be emerge unstained.

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But let me start by focusing on the “exciting television” part of the previous sentence. “Villains” opens where “Seeing Red” left off and races forward, white-knuckle-style, for about the first 20 minutes. It even starts off with a little pulse-pounding, ER-style music on the soundtrack, as the paramedics race to the Summers’ house to rescue a hemorrhaging Buffy. And while Buffy heads to the hospital with Xander, Willow begins to take decisive action in the wake of Tara’s death. She starts by invoking Osiris and asking that Tara be brought back to life, but the spirit refuses, because Tara died by mortal means, not magical. So Willow stomps down to The Magic Box and commands Anya to show her the black arts books. Then she plunges her hands into the texts, absorbing the words and turning her hair black (which is a cool effect, by the way). Finally, she heads to the hospital, bursts into the OR, dismisses the doctors, and telekinetically pulls Warren’s bullet out of Buffy. “So small,” Willow says, in a soft, heartbreaking moment.

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Meanwhile, The Trio is in trouble. Andrew and Jonathan are stewing in jail—the former certain that Warren is coming up with a plan to free them, while the latter knows they’re cooked. In fact, Warren’s not thinking about them at all; he’s buying booze for vampires, boasting that he’s killed The Slayer. When he finds out that Buffy’s still alive, he heads to see Rack, the warlock/magic-dealer, offering money in exchange for mystical protection. Warren thinks he’s in danger from Buffy, but Rack warns him, “If I were you, I’d worry about the witch.” Indeed, after Willow retrieves Buffy and Xander, she leads them into the desert in pursuit of a passenger bus. When they catch up to the bus, Willow orders Warren out and squeezes his neck until his eye pops out. Turns out it’s not Warren at all, just a Warren-bot that’s been magicked-up to trick the Scoobies.

Up to this point, “Villains” is a terrific episode: gut-wrenching and relentless. But the moment Xander and Buffy start questioning Willow about what she’s going to do when they catch the real Warren, “Villains” starts to flounder. It’s not that the philosophical musings on what the Scoobies can and can’t control isn’t relevant—it absolutely is—but compared to the similar musings the gang has engaged in before in previous seasons, these conversations aren’t as bracing or provocative. Any momentum that the episode has built up just fizzles.

The momentum picks back up once Willow turns Tara’s blood into a map to find Warren in the woods and the two of them tussle: he with an ax to her back and a series of force-bubbles; she with the ghost of his ex and a binding spell. But the none-too-subtle way that Willow’s revenge against Warren is cast as a feminist issue—he being the evil chauvinist usurped by the women he’s wronged—was badly mishandled, in my opinion. It’s not that I disagree with the sentiment, but it comes out of nowhere in this episode. Warren’s comeuppance as a chauvinist creep was a story from last season. This season, his misogyny hasn’t been as big of an issue. He’s still been a raging misogynist, yes, but that hasn’t been the story the show’s been telling lately. Bringing it up at this late date diminishes the tragedy of Tara’s death a little. It takes away from the real poignancy of the situation and the idea that, “One tiny piece of metal destroys everything.” Instead, it turns Tara into symbol.

“Villains” gets back on track at the end, at least in terms of its intensity. Willow sews Warren’s lips shut, telekinetically presses one of his spent bullets against his body, then mutters her old catchphrase, “Bored now,” and rips his skin off. As Buffy and Xander look on, horrified, Willow absently says, “One down.” The name of the next episode? “Two To Go.” Bad news for Andrew and Jonathan. (Or perhaps Buffy and Xander, if they try to stop Dark Willow.)

Still, I feel like “Villains” squanders an opportunity to get deeper into what, to me, has been the real takeaway from the recent, painful plot twists. When Warren walks around Sunnydale saying, “The Trio! You’ve heard of us!” and finds out that no one knows who he is, it emphasizes how much these characters have been living in their own dramas and assuming that what’s happening to them is more important than what’s happening to anyone else. See also the way that everyone assumes that Willow’s enraged about Buffy, not realizing that Tara’s dead. Or see the way that Tara’s body is left unattended on the floor while Willow goes on her rampage—the corpse left for an out-of-the-loop Dawn to find. Or see the way that Tara’s death itself is accidental, caused by a stray bullet through a window that nobody thinks to look into. It’s one of the major themes of this season: carelessness and thoughtlessness. If our heroes are going to make it out of this mess, they’re going to have to start paying more attention to each other.

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According to the A.V. Club review of “Two To Go” and “Grave”:

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I started out this sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer complaining that the two-part opener really only had enough story for an episode and a half. The two-part season finale has the opposite problem. It’s rushed and overstuffed—about four episodes worth of story crammed into two. “Two To Go” and “Grave” also suffer from many of the persistent woes that have plagued season six. A number of the big action sequences and confrontations don’t play as well when enacted by actual people than they probably did in the writers’ heads. The tone is way out-of-balance for Buffy, favoring moping over wit. (The absence of Joss Whedon’s name from the directing and writing credits of these episodes might have something to do with that.) And the episodes hammer home many of the same oft-made points about the characters’ growing isolation from each other, over and over and over.

So why did I find so many scenes in these two episodes to be among the most moving of the entire series?

Maybe it’s that I’ve got a weakness for a good Dark Phoenix story. The rise and fall of Evil Willow is so beholden to the basic arc of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men comics that it moves beyond homage and into the realm of… Well, I don’t want to say “rip-off,” because it’s not exactly that. How about “meditation?” “Riff?” “Cover version?”

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The power of a Dark Phoenix story is the way it tests the loyalties of the characters and the audience. Like Jean Grey, Willow showed early flashes of unimaginable power, and then tried to limit herself once she saw the fear in her friends’ eyes. Then the power comes surging back, and as “Two To Go” begins, Willow seems unstoppable. She’s just committed a horrible atrocity—flaying Warren alive—and Buffy and Xander are faced with the prospect of squaring off against their best friend, in a state where she’s both dangerous and detached. Even when she seems to be waning, Willow is able to restore herself by draining the magic from the local warlock/pusher Rack. And even when sweet-faced Dawn—who was as close to Tara as anyone besides Willow—tries to appeal to her friend’s human side, she’s treated to an earful of scorn.

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There’s a sense of real danger in “Two To Go” and “Grave.” Say what you will about the fervor with which Joss Whedon-created shows kill characters and wreck relationships, but the result of that wanton destruction is that we have to believe that anything can happen during Willow’s berserker rage. (Wait, am I mixing my X-Men metaphors there?)

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When Willow goes after Andrew and Jonathan, for example, pulling down the walls of their jail cell with her mind, there’s no reason to be reassured that either remaining member of The Trio is safe, or that anyone who tries to stop Willow from killing them is safe. As weaselly as Andrew and Jonathan are, it’s poignant to watch Jonathan’s growing revelation of what he’s wrought. “We signed on,” he says when Andrew tries to duck responsibility. The he remembers the Willow he’s known since they were kids together in Sunnydale. (“She packed her own lunches…,” Jonathan muses, as she’s riding on top of a semi-truck, bearing down on him.) Given what we’ve seen of Jonathan in the past, it’s also sad to see him in the Magic Box, watching the Scoobies at work and pining to be part of a real team. Andrew doesn’t understand why Jonathan wants to help their “enemies.” But if Jonathan had been let into their circle years ago, maybe this current drama could’ve been avoided.

Jonathan doesn’t get to pine for long. While Buffy and Dawn are confronting Willow at Rack’s, Willow teleports all three of them to the Magic Box, where she immediately turns to The Duo and says, “You boys like magic, don’t you? Abracadabra.” The she blasts them with dark energy, but her bolts are blocked  by Anya, who is hiding around a corner repeating a protection spell over in a low voice. (“Didn’t see that coming,” Willow mutters.) So Willow turns her attention back to Buffy, saying, “You really need to have every square inch of your ass kicked.” She tosses buffy about the shop, cackling about the intoxicating feel of raw power, and how no one can stop her. Then “Two To Go” ends, awesomely, with the surprise arrival of Giles, saying, “I’d like to test that theory.”

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Bringing back Giles at this point in the story is both a masterstroke and a risk. It’s a risk because Giles’ presence is a reminder of how much he’s been missed this season. He immediately puts Willow into “a kind of stasis” and catches up with Buffy. (“You cut your hair,” he says tenderly. “I’m blond,” Anya interjects.) Then he laughs at the stories of what’s happened while he’s gone, and mentions that there’s more to being a grown-up than just making crazy mistakes—it’s also a sign of maturity to ask for help. Damn right, Giles. Now will you promise to stick around longer next season?

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Meanwhile, Willow telepathically commands Anya to free her and then resumes her attack posture against Buffy and Giles. The episode then jumps ahead to the aftermath of their fight—a smart piece of storytelling expediency, since I for one had seen enough of bodies being hurled about by special effects—and while Buffy rushes out to protect her friends from one of Willow’s long-distance spells, Giles allows Willow to absorb the magic that he’d loaded up on before leaving England. (A concerned coven lent him their power.) But it turns out that this was all part of Giles’ gambit. When Willow takes his power, it overloads her, while also re-instilling some compassion. The only problem? Willow gets so compassionate that she decides to bring a satanic temple back out of the ground on Kingman’s Bluff, and destroy the world to save everyone from their shared misery.

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After that, “Grave” starts to exhibit some of that “rushed” and “overstuffed” qualities I referred to earlier. The episode tries to wrap up The Trio’s story (with Jonathan and Andrew escaping to Mexico), and to revive the season-long thread about the strained relationship between Buffy and Dawn. The sisters fight alongside each other, and Dawn proves that she has some natural combat skills. But she also berates Buffy for not telling her about Spike’s attempted rape, and for trying to protect her more than is necessary. And in one of the most moving moments of the finale, Dawn tells Buffy that she genuinely didn’t know whether or not Buffy would’ve been fine with the world ending. The two embrace warmly, as Buffy realizes that her journey into her own head all year has been hard on Dawn. Granted, this is about the tenth time this season that Buffy has had this revelation, but still… I was choked up.

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I was also really choked up by the big climax, which allows Xander to be a hero again. As Willow is preparing for armageddon, her oldest friend stands in her way, joking that, “This carpenter can drywall you into the next century,” and daring Willow to kill him. “You think I won’t?” Willow hisses, and Xander replies, heartbreakingly, “It doesn’t matter.” Then he holds her as her dark power drains away (playing the Scott Summers to her Jean Grey in X-Men #136, with Giles in the Professor X role). This wasn’t just a strong scene between two core characters; it was satisfying on many, many levels. We haven’t seen much of Xander and Willow together in a while, but there’s history there. It’s heartening to see how a friendship endures.

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Like I said up top, I don’t think that everything worked in these two episodes. There were more than a few contrivances to hold Willow at bay before Giles could spring his trap, and some of the scenes of her rampage were surely more awesome in the abstract than in the way they were actually shot. But I appreciated the effort by all concerned to make this finale cathartic, paying off what they started back at the beginning of the season. Even the action is bookended smartly. In “Bargaining,” Willow tries to raise the dead. In “Grave,” she tries to raise death.

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So what’s my take on season six on the whole? I wish I could be more definitive. I wish I could join the tribe who believes that Buffy’s sixth season is its most mature, sophisticated and compelling, or the tribe who believes that the show should’ve ended after season five. But alas, I tend not to be so staunch. I liked a lot of season six. I liked what the show was trying to do, and nothing that happened this season has soured me on Buffy in any major way. It’s true that I enjoyed season three of Angel more, but I never felt like Buffy’s sixth season was a chore. If nothing else, watching these episodes was always engaging intellectually, and skimming through the conversation in the comments here even moreso.

But all season long I’ve noted that the material was working better in theory than in practice for me, and the finale didn’t change my perspective. When I think back on all that I just watched, my immediate memory is of a lot of pain, and tragedy, and separation, and woe-is-me-ing. It’s only after that quick impression that I contemplate why it all went down the way it did. And I doubt that was writers’ intention: to serve a nourishing meal with a taste so bitter that it lingers on the palate.

So I guess I’m copping out here, and saying that Buffy’s sixth season is everything its defenders and its detractors say it is. It was some of the most daring and intricate storytelling that the Buffy writers had attempted to that point. And it was a self-indulgent wallow. I respect it. At times I was thrilled, amused and touched by it. But I didn’t love it.

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The Worst:

Doublemeat Palace

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According to the A.V. Club review:

Once again I find that after being peppered with dire warnings about a Buffy episode, the actual experiencing of watching said episode is nowhere near as rough as I’d been led to expect.

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Don’t get me wrong: “Doublemeat Palace” is problematic. Director Nick Marck and credited writer Jane Espenson go for a broad, satirical tone that’s never been a Buffy specialty, and though the story holds a surprise or two, none of them are quite as surprising that I’d hoped they’d be. That said, there’s a seed of a good idea in “Doublemeat Palace”—the idea of Buffy joining the minimum wage work force and finding it even more horrific than vampire-slaying—and that seed does sprout occasionally. I laughed at the training video that Buffy is forced to watch when she joins the Doublemeat team: a video that asks, “What happens when a cow and chicken come together?” followed by the hideous sound of grinding implements and faint animal cries. I enjoyed the weird alien vibe of “Manny the manager” and his fierce defense of the dehydrated pickles. I liked Buffy’s co-workers explaining the way the restaurant works in a cultish drone, as though they’d long-since stopped thinking it was strange to have so many automated processes in food-prep. And I loved the way Buffy gets mesmerized by the chicken-slicing and meat-grinding, finding the rendering of flesh, muscle and fat eerily beautiful. (I could go even further and suggest that there’s a connection between Buffy’s bloody mission and her attraction to industrialized chopping, but I doubt that connection was intentional.)

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Still, there’s a moment in “Doublemeat Palace” when Xander suggests to Buffy that her suspicions that something odd is going on at her job is just her projecting her misery. “I think you’re seeing demons where there’s just life,” he says. And I wish that had been the case, honestly. True, Buffy does find out that the weird behavior of Manny and his crew has nothing to do with demon-possession, but instead is just due to service-economy ennui; and she also finds out that the Palace’s secret “meat process” involves vegetables, not (as Buffy had suspected) humans.  But there is some evil afoot at the restaurant. One of the regular customers has some kind of demonic snake attached to her head (under her wig), and the beast has been eating the employees because their increased consumption of Doublemeat Palace products means they “slide down smooth.”

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I know there’s always some kind of baddie on Buffy—even in “The Body,” which was about as non-traditional a Buffy episode as ever there was. But I feel like Espenson and company missed an opportunity here to sell the idea of real life itself as a kind of horror, by introducing an actual horror. In a way, the point of “Doublemeat Palace” is made more strongly by its subplot, which sees Willow still dealing with her magic withdrawal—exacerbated by the recent takedown of The Trio HQ, which was full of sweet magic contraband—when Amy decides to “gift” her with an unwanted spell. The uncontrollable magic spilling out Willow impedes her efforts to investigate Doublemeat Palace for Buffy, but investigating without magic isn’t much better. Later, when she’s surrounded by bubbling beakers and colorful fluids, Xander cocks an eyebrow at her, but Willow sets him straight. “It’s not magic, it’s chemistry. You can tell by how damn slow it is.”

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Next is the best and worst of Season 5.

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14 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

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