Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Six

When reviewing the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I said that: "the pattern for season openers is rather clear, now: Buffy is in a bad place psychologically, and, by the episode's end, she's pretty much reverted to normal." To be fair, season five had nothing to do with that, but we're back to it in force in season six, even if the bad place she's returning from psychologically is quite literally death. Most of these openers don't work so well for me, because, while Whedon and Co are generally masters of metaphor, these starting episodes are often played too sentimentally, too focused and without enough depth and complexity yet built up to support the emotions they try and get from you right at the gate. The two part Bargaining is, I'm sorry to report, the worst yet in that respect, though the return from the bad place here is stretched over episode after episode. That dragged out feeling is one that comes to characterize a lot of season six, and it's made so much worse by the fact that, like in Bargaining, the villains simply don't have the power to keep the plot moving enough to contrast and explore the characters' emotions. There are strong episodes in this season, but I'm sorry to say that they're few and far between, and the rest of the show's weak, messy, sometimes maudlin, and oftentimes simply silly.

Yep, these look like good villains.
Of course, one of the pressing questions going in was just how the writers were going to top having had a literal god as the prior season's villain. The answer? Three douchebags in a van. No, really. Previously, Tom Lenk's Andrew, Adam Busch's Warren, and Danny Strong's Jonathan were one off characters or, in Andrew's case, simple failures. Now they're back, and they've got the big billing, the writers having evidently gotten their comic relief and antagonist flash cards mixed up. The results are stupid. Not flashingly so, not daringly so, not even humorously so. Just fucking stupid, and stupid villains make for a stupid plot. The fact that, come the halfway point, the Trio all turn out to be masters of magic, technology, and manipulation to an extent that the Mayor and even the just-shown God would sell their souls to be doesn't redeem them but just cheapens everything that came before. And when, in Dead Things, the Trio kidnaps, attempts to rape, and murders a woman, it doesn't make them any less ridiculous, just makes the joke disgusting.

The main thrust of season six is Buffy's coming into adulthood (I specify Buffy's, mind you, because every other character made this transition into maturity some time ago). Admittedly, the writers had no real choice but to go here. After Dawn's entrance into the picture, Buffy's becoming Dawn's guardian, and Buffy's simple rise in age, this was an inevitable shift, and I suppose I should give the show some credit for not simply oozing along in a time freeze. But the arc oscillates between being boring and being a disaster.

The chief early episode of all this is Life Serial, where Buffy attempts to grow up and either work or go to college and fails, handily due to magic. At the end, her early season rise to adulthood is completed by Giles simply writing her a check to handle all of her money problems. Wow, what maturity! What self sufficiency, independence, and general competence! Later in the season, once Giles' left (he spends the entire season dramatically departing for England, coming back, sitting about a bit, and then dramatically departing again (before, once again, coming back)), Buffy decides to pay for her expansive California house with a job flipping burgers at the Doublemeat Palace. Yep, that sounds workable.

Besides her so-gripping monetary woes, the other half of Buffy's coming adulthood is her parenting of Dawn. Let's not shy back here: Buffy is a terrible parent. She basically leaves Dawn to do what she will, with no idea what's going, and occasionally stops in to apologize profusely for how bad at the whole thing she is. To be clear, though, I don't want her to become a good parent. The few times she tries are incredibly boring. The problem is that motherhood is not the most dramatic thing in a show about vampires, dark gods, and Three Douchebags in a Van (alright, it's better than the last of those), and, though the show's writers badly worked themselves into this corner, it doesn't make it any better a place to be in. Admittedly, however, this arc does lead to one (and only one!) good thing, the episode Older and Far Away, where Dawn's accidental wish leaves Buffy and all her guests trapped in the house.

Just so you know, I don't need you,
and we're going to break up after this.
By far the most interesting thing that Buffy gets up to this time around is Spike. In the course of the season, the relationship between the two grows and grows twisted, and its fundamental dynamics – her need for him and disgust with him, his love and dedication to her and his cruelty – are definitely the highlights of the season. Unfortunately, there's no  variance to be found in this plot. The same few elements are hit over and over, and they're hit in the same way, as when – for episode after torturous episode – the two fight, kiss (or fuck), and then Buffy says that she doesn't need him, that they're done, and that she's never going to talk to him again until they do it all over again in the next forty-plus minute segment. Change only comes towards the end, when, after one of Buffy's many, many break offs of their relationship, Spike attempts to rape her. The scene is horrifying, clumsy, and painful in marked contrast to the majority of the show's fight scenes, and it's likely to leave the viewer feeling more than a little sickened. Afterwards, horrified at what he's done, Spike flees Sunnydale, heading to try and, in the final episodes, succeed, at getting a soul.

Is it too late to break up?
Then there's Xander. After a relationship with almost no shown problems, and after an ungodly long buildup before Xander finally reveals to the group that he and Anya are engaged, the two are set to be married. And then he leaves her at the altar. Really, I wish I could be kidding as I type that. It's not a grand, I-am-evil-incarnate kind of betrayal. It's just him being an asshole, and, no matter how much he tries to play it off and act charming, and then later act like he's the moral high ground here, he's completely at fault for it all.

Willow's plotline is arguably more important to the season's overall course than Buffy's, and it's the plotline that contains the lion's share of the season's best aspects, even if it, too, has its manifold faults. Through the first third or so, we see Willow gradually using, and abusing, more and more of her magical abilities, culminating in what is essentially the mind-altering of her lover, Tara, and also the absolutely hilarious episode Tabula Rasa, in which she accidentally wipes the mind of the entire cast.

Her arc's middle, however, breaks up the building tension of this. Magic becomes a metaphor for drug addiction, and she tries to break free from it. The emotions on display here are quite effective, but the comparison itself falls apart at the most cursory glance. A drug like cocaine makes you feel invincible, yet it actually weakens you. Magic, on the other hand, actually gives you all the powers it feels like it does, leaving the simple addiction language that's used to describe it, and the scenes of magic-caused weakness that come out of nowhere, feeling simply false.

Not what drugs do to you...
But so totally badass.
The climax of Willow's arc and the season, though, is fantastic. After two of the three Van Douchebags are arrested, the final one, Warren, goes after Buffy with a gun. This, contrary to expectations, works just fine (why has no other villain ever tried this?), and, though he doesn't do more than wound Buffy, he does hit and kill Tara. That's when things get rather more than interesting: Willow goes full on badass, becoming – to use the fan base's nomenclature – "Dark Willow." She sets off, fully utilizing her magical powers, consumed with hate, and bent on slaughtering the Trio.

And so we come to what is the thematic heart of this season, as it is of so many others: the weight of consequence and the possibility of redemption. Willow, needless to say, comes down on the side of vengeance, of punishing and slaughtering the killers and monsters of the world at all cost. Buffy, meanwhile, believes that the human authorities should be left to deal with this human villain and his human means. She claims that, much as he is deserving of all flavors of hell, it's not up to them to administer it, saying that she "can't control the universe." The consistency of that position, though, is just a tad questionable, in light of a whole slew of past events, not the least of which her certainly outside the law methods of dealing with Faith's murder in season three (and, even though Faith did eventually go to jail at the close of the Angel episode Sanctuary, Buffy actively opposed the idea), not to mention her defense of multiple murderers that were, even if innocent in intent, responsible for countless deaths (Angel not the least among them). The argument seems to be the natural nature of Warren's final crime, but I'm not sure how much of a moral difference is made by his use of a gun or a spell. Then there's the fact that the idea of jailing a supernatural threat, essentially a prison stay enforced only by the consent of the theoretically imprisoned, is just a tad absurd, and, though Warren may not possess any literal powers, his season's run of quasi-magical and quasi-technological trickery certainly seem to put him into that category.

But, despite my reservations, there is something to be said for the question, something that does cut close to the heart of the character of Buffy and the entirety of the show's thematic. Which is why it's so infuriating when Willow's debatably justifiable drive for a magical (and fatal) solution to magical problems is shot right over as Willow, seemingly without cause but grief, reaches the heights of every previous end-the-world aiming Big Bad. I suppose that her progression to such destructive nihilism isn't completely farfetched in terms of her actual development, but it does remove any and all complexity from the season's climax. Still, the action is enjoyable, and Willow does remain darkly magnificent. The end of it all, with Xander only just managing to draw her back from the brink by showing his love, is hardly surprising, but is quite hard hitting and effective. But the world's continued existence – something never in doubt more than two episodes back – is only the most superficial of resolutions, one that quite literally lets the moral complexities of the arc, embodied in the Trio's two surviving members (both, let me remind you, guilty of kidnapping, attempted rape, and murder), slink off stage unpunished.

Vampires, Slayers, Demons, Gods...
and SONG!
Still, the main plot, here, is a stop and go thing, with everyone's (least) favorite nerds often dropping out for episodes at a time with little reason, and as in seasons one and four, many of the season's strongest episodes are stand alones. But, even if Warren and Co aren't present, the damage they and their arc did and does to the characters and the show's atmosphere remains, crippling a fair few of the side stories that they're nowhere near. I've already mentioned Tabula Rasa (excellent) and Older and Far Away (quite good), but there's Once More With Feeling and Normal Again to consider. The former is the show's famous musical episode, an idea that, like the silent Hush, should have failed spectacularly but doesn't. It's not deep, but it is incredibly fun. The latter, meanwhile, shows a Buffy tormented by visions of herself in a mental hospital, told by the doctors to confront her inner delusions, the vampires she battles and the friends that keep her in the fictional Sunnydale of her psychosis. The idea that it's all been a dream's rather unacceptable after six seasons, but it's an effective episode nonetheless.

I've seen a fair few internet apologists try and claim that some of this season's bad reputation just comes about because it's dark, but that's bullshit from episode one to episode twenty-two. The problem here is not that the events are dark but that they're all too often poorly written and poorly executed, and don't try to tell me that I don't know dark fiction. There are some great episodes in season six, but they're not nearly enough to save it. I hope that Buffy's seventh season can redeem the show, but, after this, I have to wonder if it might not've been better if Buffy had, at season five's close, stayed dead…

Standout Episodes: Villains, Tabula Rasa, Once More With Feeling


  1. Wow, you didn't like Bargaining? I just don't know if there is much to say to that.

    Well, to start, there are failures to season six, don't get me wrong, the addiction storyline is played completely wrong.

    Willow isn't addicted magic, she's addicted to power. The gang's decision to treat magic as a drug was a huge failure, which led to her relapse. Season 7 will address this somewhat, but the show very specifically drew parallels with magic and drugs(the episode titles for this arc even reflected, Smashed, Wrecked, and Gone, all euphemisms for being under the influence) with the references to cold turkey and the symbolic cleaning out and Willow's withdrawal symptoms. But her instant reversion to using magic upon Tara's death demonstrates that she never truly got over her addiction to power, which also demonstrates that the gang was wrong to treat it as a drug addiction. So while many people saw that storyline as a "Magic=Drugs metaphor" it's obvious by the end of the season that that is incorrect.

    A lot of your objections to the story seems to be that the characters aren't behaving in the way you'd like(or at least not behaving smartly), and my question is, where's the story in that? If Buffy emerged from Heaven, with all the answers, where's the tension? If she knew how to raise Dawn, if she knew what to do with her life, if she knew how to cope with depression, what story is there to tell? Sure Giles knew better than to bail Buffy out financially, that it wasn't helping her to stand on her own, but his emotions clouded his judgement, like they have been for 5 years.

    And yes, Xander is an asshole for leaving Anya at the alter, and his righteous act for the remainder of the season is irritating and annoying. But, the flaws in Xander that led him to that point, are the same flaws he always had, just like Willow's flaws(drive for power and inability to cope) led to her downfall this season. Which is why it is wierd to me that you feel these characters reached an adult maturity previous to this season, because the whole point to this season is to show that NONE of these people have grown up yet.

    Normal Again is one of my favorites, and there is no question, the episode is not trying to frame the story of Buffy as "just a dream". The final flashback to the mental institution was while Buffy was still under the influence of the demon's poison, not a break in the fourth wall.

    See, the flaws you see in the season, are its beauty to me. Yes, the Trio is laughable and ineffectual, which continues to erode Buffy's confidence, the one thing she still had when she came back, as she struggles to overcome her depression.

    Xander behavior toward Anya all season demonstrated that her call in "The Gift" when Xander proposed was right, he was only doing it because he thought he wouldn't have to follow through with it.

    And Willow's descent into darkness has been foreshadowed since season 3, and was brought into culmination in one of the series most heart wrenching scenes, behind the scene at the beginning of The Body.

    And I have nothing to say about Spike, because his story was absolute perfection this season, and I am glad that you discerned that he did go to win his soul. Many fans bought the head fake he played up in the previous scenes, and thought he had been cursed instead.

  2. My problem with Bargaining was similar to my problem with much of the season, so I'll go more into that. First of all, and quite importantly, the villains. While the demonic biker gang wasn't nearly as terrible as Warren and his pals, they were still rather obnoxious, overconfident, and not all that much compared to so much of what Buffy had faced before (I'll freely admit that my problems with much of this come from her having proven herself so many times previously; if we've already seen at great length that she can defeat foes of this caliber, why should I be enthralled in her doing so?). As such, they didn't provide any real tension, and the length of time it took to finally get about to defeating them didn't so much add to their image as grate. Meanwhile, the emotional aspect here and elsewhere in the season is far darker than almost any time in Buffy's run… but is also far less dynamic, perhaps because the questions it asks are so massive that they may not be answerable. Whatever the reason, the characters don't seem to do much to actually confront their problems but rather stare at them and walk on eggshells all around them, something exacerbated by the episode's and seasons' villains being totally unable to play any meaningful role in the storyline and so add contrast/tension/or whatever else. (On a totally different note, though, I will say that Buffy having been in heaven was a great choice.)

    As for the characters in general, you're right that I don't think they made the right decisions, but my problems with their actions go far deeper than that. Regardless of how good their decisions were for them, I don't think that there decisions were interesting or made for enjoyable television. The problem isn't that Buffy's bad at raising Dawn (though she is); it's the fact that Buffy being a good mother and raising her charge would not be enjoyable to watch. At all. Besides which, it's not only that she doesn't have the answers but that she takes no actual steps to get them, just bemoans and apologizes for her lack of them. Similarly, I'll agree that the Trio did play a significant role in the show and had great impact on Buffy. But they didn't only undermine her confidence, they undermined mine in the entire show; they weren't a credible threat, and their patheticness (and success despite it) just made everything that had come before feel like more of a joke.

    I'd agree that Willow is addicted to power... but I'd disagree that the show showed Buffy and co's treatment of her magic addiction as wrong. While I think the parallel is a poor and an unfortunate one, I think it's pretty clear that they were, indeed, treating magic like a drug that one could get addicted to. The episode titles, Willow's withdrawal (which wouldn't make much sense in terms of an addicted to power arc), her physical weakness in that period, and Rex and his storyline all fit right into a fairly transparent drug addiction plot, even with the drugs themselves smuggled off stage and inexpertly replaced with world-altering power that says exactly what it does on the tin. That being said, outside of that middle section of her arc, I do agree that Willow's arc was fantastic.

    I can't quite agree that Spike's story was "absolute perfection," but I'll agree that it was very powerful.

  3. The attempts to create a parallel with a magic and drugs was there, I just think that by the end of the season they realized it was wrong and tried to pull it back on track.

    This is addressed again in Season 7, early I might add, that attempts to put the whole mess to bed.

    A lot of people were put off by the attempted rape in Seeing Red, especially because Spike should have been easy for Buffy to defeat, but even more so because a certain section of fandom had grown VERY attached to the idea of Spike & Buffy after Something Blue in Season 4. But the fact of the matter, is that those fans forgot that Spike IS/was a monster, and evil creature with no remorse or conscience, and honestly we all needed to reminded of that.

    And it also demonstrated that there is no such thing as a perfect victim, that any person(even a superhero) is vulnerable to the predations of another, which is a very feminist message put out by a very feminist show(the current comics are doing this again addressing issues of bodily autonomy just as basic reproductive rights like contraception come under attack).

    So it was sickening and disturbing, and it was intended to be.

    To me Season 6 is a lot like Season 4, not as tightly plotted but with a lot of powerful and moving things to say. I was left kinda cold about it on my first watch, but upon rewatches it has grown to be my favorite season of Buffy, because there is truly so much going on beneath the surface of these characters, all of which foreshadows what is to come, Xander's increasing nervousness about marriage, Willow's easy reliance on magic, Buffy's inability to accept her return, Dawn's neglect and self-centeredness, I just love the way it all culminates into one of the most painful finales ever.

    Season 7 will suffer thru some of the same problems(Whedon's loss as showrunner does show, but I love the darker nature of the story, so I let it pass) and it does suffer from a new problem, but I can't elaborate without spoiling. The season long plot is more coherent but badly paced, IMO, but it does bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion.

  4. I just realized you only reviewed the first season of Angel. Angel surpasses Buffy in quality after its first season. Plus I've been watching and then reading your reviews, very disappointed you seemed to have left Angel in the vampire dust after season one :/

  5. Hello Anonymous,

    It is true that I have rather left Angel behind, isn't it? I'm sorry about that. Basically, the group I had gotten together for Buffy collectively decided that, after the first season of Angel, we'd go through Buffy straight rather than keep switching up. Fair enough. But, by the time we'd finished Buffy, we were all rather in need of a break... and then the group never got back together. I should, certainly, continue on my own at some point, though I have some other stuff I'm watching now that I'll probably go through first.

    By way of apology, can I say that I'm glad you are enjoying the reviews that are up?