Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Seven

If only Buffy had stayed dead. When she fell at the fifth season's close, the show had three absolutely excellent seasons (the aforementioned five as well as its second and third) under its belt and had established itself as a master of humor, drama, and horror. Then came season six, a mixture of poorly executed trauma and failed farce. Looking back, even that utter wasting of great characters and potential – an exploding outward in a thousand unfocused and irrelevant directions instead of a cohesive arc – would have been a preferable ending place. That's not to say that season seven imitates its predecessors faults, mind you. No, this show does get back on what might, from a distance, look like the right track. It's Buffy against the forces of darkness again, everything tied into one character-trying and plot-twisting arc. Only, when we weren't looking, the once-right track eroded, fell to pieces, and – much as this metaphor's starting to go off the rails – lost just about everything that once made it worthy. What's left is po-faced, embarrassingly grandiose, undercutting of everything that has gone before, and jam packed with enough new characters to staff an entire network's worth of awful spinoffs.

Let's start with the characters. Not the main characters, mind you. Oh no. Remember when the show was actually about the people on the box art? When they had focused arcs that interacted with each other, that grew and changed? When we could watch their growth and know them with all the clarity we'd have had if they'd existed? We've left all of that far behind. Of course, this isn't the first batch of new characters we've had. By this point, Buffy'd been going on for a damn fair while, and new blood was always a part of keeping things fresh. But it's not that new people are introduced here, and it's not that they don't work. Some do. D.B. Woodside, for instance, is quite enjoyable as the school's principal, and freelance vampire hunter, Robin Wood. The problem is that there's nothing but new faces here. An onslaught of them. Literally dozens of the bastards, flooding the set in utterly uncharacterized hordes until Buffy's living room is so packed the camera needs to pan for whole seconds to show all of the nameless faces. Before long, it starts to seem that the writers have wholly forgotten how to make us care about characters and are just hoping to hide that fact with sheer numbers. It doesn't work. By the end, I was looking on Andrew (the season's surviving member of the Trio/Three Douchebags in a Van that so marred the sixth) as an old friend in comparison to everyone around him.

Seriously.
So who are all these people? Potential Slayers, of course. It turns out that the slayers are all part of one bloodline, and we learn that the Watchers' were the ones that kept track of them and trained them so that they would be ready, if they were called up. (Of course, Buffy received no such pre-Slayerhood training, but we've bigger fish to fry at the moment than one little retcon.) Now, the First Evil is hunting them, and it's up to Buffy to collect, protect, and train them. So that's what she does. Before long, her house starts to resemble – and then just outright become – less generic slice of suburbia and more a refugee shelter. As for the potentials themselves, there are so many that there's no time at all for the writers to distinguish them, let alone make us care about them. As a result, they range from faceless to obnoxious, and they never amount to anything until the final (regrettable) episode. In the meantime, though, we are shown them striving to better themselves (they fail) and, occasionally, succumbing to their foes and dying. Surprisingly, the perishing of unnamed, uncharacterized clutter fails to provoke tears.

Only two characters in all of this actually manage arcs, and the main one is, obviously, Buffy's. Arc, though, might be the wrong word. It implies continuous change, moving towards a climax and a new being. That's not quite accurate. Buffy has one jarring shift near the beginning, and then she trudges along, constantly pointing at the aforementioned change in case we missed it, until the show's end. Here, Buffy must go from fighter to leader. She does this by making speeches. Endless, endless, fucking endless speeches. For entire stretches, she'll make one an episode. They're awful, so self consciously inspirational that you want to cover your ears from the embarrassment. To give just one glimpse of them:

I'm beyond tired. I'm beyond scared. I'm standing on the mouth of hell, and it is gonna swallow me whole. And it'll choke on me. We're not ready? They're not ready. They think we're gonna wait for the end to come, like we always do. I'm done waiting. They want an apocalypse? Oh, we'll give 'em one. Anyone else who wants to run, do it now. 'Cause we just became an army. We just declared war. From now on, we won't just face our worst fears, we will seek them out. We will find them, and cut out their hearts one by one, until The First shows itself for what it really is. And I'll kill it myself. There is only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil, and that's us. Any questions?

That's from Bring on the Night. Lest you think it a climactic moment, it's the first of the just-discussed many, the season's veritable hordes of speeches, and it's far from the last time that Buffy will decide to take the fight to the enemy and then promptly not do anything until the next speech.

Spike... is actually still awesome.
Then there's Spike. His arc here works. Amazing, I know. It is, I think, the only complete storyline to do so. Spike, soul in hand, is tormented by what he's done. In his vulnerable state, the First Evil comes to him and vies for control of his soul and purpose. It comes to a head in Lies My Parents Told Me, where Giles and Wood decide that Spike is too dangerous to their team and attempt to slay him and where Spike, as he's beaten by Wood, comes to terms with his vampirism and what he's done. The only blemish on the whole thing is that it's such a small part of the season's overall time and that its buildup, execution, and aftermath are all but lost amidst every(regrettable)thing else. Anya's return to humanity might have managed to reach some of Spike's heights, but suffers far more from its lack of screen time and is wholly submerged by dreck before long.

The pacing of season seven is the worst pacing Buffy's ever had. The levity's almost wholly gone now, replaced with a failed sense of impending doom that just translates into endless brooding. Characters mope, motivate themselves, head out on some ill defined venture with no clear goal, fail, and proceed to mope once more. There's no sense of progress at all, not from Buffy's side and not from her foe's. There's no relief from this at all, because the side stories vanish as we progress. Then again, considering how poor efforts like Him are early in the season, that may be for the best.

Well doesn't this look like an interesting villain.
The enemy causing all of this, our final big bad, is the First Evil, the being of evil incarnate that we first met in season three. Now, the First Evil is incorporeal. That might, you may be thinking, pose a problem. It does. The writers get around this in two ways. First, through the introduction of avatar type characters. In the first half, we get the ubervamp (no, seriously). It's a vampire with far more strength and almost none of the vampire's traditional weaknesses. It also can't speak and, so, has no personality to speak of; it moves about the screen with roughly the same force of character that a scurrying raccoon, inadvertently given super strength, might have. Then, after a brief stint with Spike, it settles on Caleb, played by Nathan Fillion. Now, I love Nathan Fillion. Firefly's Mal Reynolds is likely my favorite character in television. But Caleb is a failure, just another villain who trudges about, doesn't properly react to punches, and hits really, really hard. He also spouts nonsensical pseudo-religious mush. Fascinating. Sadly, things are even less interesting when the First Evil chooses to act with its own untouchable charms. As we see in Conversations with Dead People, it talks to people. Before long, they're all aware that it's evil incarnate they're speaking with. They still listen. Apparently, knowing that it's the embodiment of everything you've ever strove against isn't reason enough to disregard its advice. Needless to say, mayhem ensues. Needless to say, it's stupid.

To show how utterly worthless this season is as a conclusion, though, we must really look closer at the finale. The last two episodes – End of Days and Chosen – are pitch perfect examples of irredeemable, inexcusable failure. As one of my friends and fellow viewers noted, the climaxes in these two episodes somehow manage to combine being contrived and being totally flat. No matter how much the writers cheat in the set up, and no matter how much we might grit our teeth and go along with it, they still can't bring off a good finish.

Apparently, Joss Whedon looked
at this design and thought,
"Yes, that looks suitably ancient."
We begin with Buffy's acquisition of the Scythe, a mythical battle axe that, we later learn, she wrests from Caleb in a bitter struggle. I say "later learn," even though we see the scene in real time, because there's no struggle at all. She just picks it up. It seems, judging by conversations to come, that it was supposed to be a sword in the stone moment, but that's just about exactly the thing that could use some prior set up. Anyway. Buffy gets the Scythe, which looks, at best, like it was from some faux-Medieval video game and, at worst, like it's from Rock Band.

Buffy goes off to research her new toy. Luckily, it's the fifth result on the first website that is tried. She tracks down a mysterious woman to learn more about it. This woman is a pagan, in an Egyptian style tomb, in California. Not a Native American, though, we're told. Alright then. Get out of the way, history, and let's proceed.  The woman gives a long speech. Once she's done, Caleb (who was, evidently, standing directly behind her without her commenting and, maybe, hiding in her dress to stay out of frame) snaps her neck. He and Buffy fight and, as Buffy almost dies, Angel steps in to save her. He then stands off to the side while she almost dies. When Caleb finally falls, Buffy and Angel embrace and kiss. Spike, who was evidently watching from the corner and decided to not intervene as Buffy fought for her life, grimaces. Angel then goes home, but not before dispensing a magical amulet. Fatuus ex machina.

Most of that, mind you, is about five minutes, and I'll spare you a blow by blow of the scene's rest. After all, we've a climax to cover! Once the final episode's first half (consisting entirely of brooding and a planning scene we're so artfully kept away from) is over, we get to the big finish. Buffy, the rest of the cast, and the horde of faceless, obnoxious potential Slayers enter the Hellmouth to have a throw down with the First Evil and defeat its army of ubervamps before they can invade Helm's Deep. Their victory comes from two avenues. First, Willow uses the power of the Scythe to make every woman who might become a slayer a slayer right then and there. This may have been a very good idea. It might have been a powerful closer, a last statement about the empowerment of women in a show that dealt so heavily with such scenes. Completely lacking set up as it is, it doesn't quite make it, to say the very least.

Hey, the amulet that random stranger
gave me with no explanation twenty minutes ago
turned out to save the day!
Well isn't that just dandy!
That's nothing at all, though, compared to the source of their ultimate victory. That amulet that Angel brought, less than an hour ago? It saves the day. When Spike wears it into the Hellmouth, it fills with light, destroys the ubervamps, and saves the world. I'm not leaving out a step, mind you. None of this is set up. At all. In any way. We get no inclination of what the amulet does before it does it. It plays no role in the character's plans. It seems like it would have done the same thing if worn by an invading gerbil. It is a deus ex machina of monolithic proportions, an embodiment of the ultimate failure of every writer that so much as added a comma to the show's script. It is the apotheosis of pathetic writing.

The plot's resolution is ridiculous, and don't be fooled into thinking that the characters save it. They don't even try. In terms of their physicality, there's the slight question of why Buffy, mortally stabbed moments before, not only proceeds to soldier on but totally forgets about her injury. Really, though, that's small beans compared to what happens inside the characters' heads. One can only assume that a side effect of entering the Hellmouth was a complete lobotomy, an end to all personality and emotion. It's the only possible assumption for Xander's only comment upon Anya's death to be, "That's my girl," said with a smile on his face. Lucky we get to avoid an actual display of emotion at the closing, right?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer started rocky, grew great, crashed and bombed with season six, and then seems to have fallen far enough to tunnel through the earth's core with this last miserable offering. The characters are gone, drowned in a faceless tide. The plot is tired and overwrought. The world is saved by an unforeshadowed magical amulet. The season is rubbish. If only Buffy had stayed dead.

2 comments:

  1. That's how I remember it, though I watched the very last episode drunk, so I hardly remember that one at all.

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    1. You watched the last episode correctly.

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