Friday, 20 March 2009
Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Seasons 4 to 7
Seasons 4 to 7 of Buffy mark a shift in style and tone from the high school years of seasons 1 to 3. There's the obvious factor of the characters becoming adults and some significant changes in the cast too. But more than that seasons 4 to 7 see the show becoming far more serialised than before. Of course seasons 2 and 3 had strong arcs, but the show generally ensured that the arc episodes could also stand on their own. Each story being self contained and building the arc in a modular way. From season 4 onwards the arc episodes become much less discrete and far more interdependent. This made the show harder to dip into, but equally enabled more complex arcs and character development. Seasons 4 to 7 also see the show experimenting with experimental, format bending episodes.
Season 4 is a strange beast. There are a lot of good things in it, but there is also a lot of stuff that doesn't work. What is strange is that you often find both factors in an episode. An a-plot that doesn't work with a brilliant b-plot or vice versa is a common feature of the season. The biggest problem is the arc itself. Although the main baddy, Adam, is a pretty cool idea; The Initiative simply doesn't work. The writers have claimed that this was a budgetary problem. I personally think that the problem is more fundamental. Buffy has the sensibility of a British show in so far as the characters are essentially enthusiastic amateurs. As with the Doctor or Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood or Poirot, the characters in Buffy are not undertaking a profession. As a potential ally the Initiative turns the Scoobies into glorified employees. The strange and fantastical simply becomes a part of their job. This is the sensibility of an American show (eg. Star Trek, CSI). Similarly as baddies they are far too mundane in their non-supernatural nature. It is telling that most of the best episodes of this season are those that rely on the shows previously established backstory or those that set up future stories.
1) Living Conditions. After the heights of season 3 the early episodes of season 4 tend to feel a little flat and lacking in intensity. However, on later reflection without the weight of earlier seasons, this episode is a little gem. Marti Noxon once again shows that when she is given the chance she can do comedy very well indeed. This one is a take on The Odd Couple with Buffy being driver made by hear Cher playing room-mate who she is convinced is a demon. The interplay between Buffy and the room-mate is a delight, but even better are the reactions of the rest of the Scoobies to Buffy's apparent overreactions. There's nothing earth-shattering about this episode, but you'll be hard pressed to find a more fun episode in this season.
2) Something Blue. On the face of it this one is a simple standalone comedy/farce episode with a pretty generic “magic causes the regulars to behave in an odd way” storyline that the show frankly did better before and after this episode. However, there is more too it than that. In terms of the episode itself, there is a certain ennui underneath all of the hi jinx which drives the episode. More than that though, this show is almost a pilot for season 6 with several ideas and storylines being seeded in this episodes. So we have Willow's first dalliance with vengeance, Buffy and Spike pairing up, Giles becoming ineffectual and surplus to requirements and so on.
3) Hush. An absolute classic of the first order. This one works as both a concentrated distillation of the show and what the show does and also as an experimental format breaking episode. To take the latter point first. This show is the one commonly referred to as “The Silent episode” with most of the show being without dialogue of any kind. The reason for this is that the baddies (The Gentleman) have stolen the voices of Sunnydale and are cutting out the hearts of the residents. Thus we have a really creepy set of bad guys from a fairytale being re-worked in classic Buffy fashion. Indeed if the episode wasn't silent, it would be a very typical standalone. On the other hand check out the pic and video below to get an idea of the true creepiness of this episode. Just to re-iterate an utter classic.
4 and 5) This Year's Girl & Who Are You. FAITH RETURNS! This is the only story in season 4 which has the emotional intensity of the key episodes of seasons 2 and 3. Eliza Dushku does a priceless SMG in the body swap scenes and SMG does a pretty good Dushku too. More than that this story sets Faith along the road to the Angel Franchise and her struggle for redemption.
6) Primeval. Whilst The Initiative arc was disappointing, the concluding episode is superb. An explosive, action packed, battle royal with the Scoobies coming back together (quiet literally) to defeat Adam. Triumphant stuff.
7) Restless. Primeval, whilst the arc finale, was not the season finale. In some ways this evidences that the Initiative Arc really wasn't up to scratch, there simply wasn't enough story in it to sustain an entire season. However, Restless provides the first and only season epilogue for Buffy. It is a wonderful experimental episode based around the linked dreams of the four core Scoobies. Full of surreal hints and revelations, this is an entire episode in the style of the moments of prophecy and revelations that Babylon 5 used to do so well. Think Buffy: The Vampire Slayer as told by Kosh!
Season 5 is an emphatic return to the form and intensity of season 2 and 3. The overall quality of the show was probably never higher than here. That being said there are obviously fewer moments of surprise and revelation than was the case with seasons 2 and 3. The arc here is much stronger than season 4 and features a much better big bad too.
1) Buffy v Dracula. The season premier and the first to be written by someone other than Joss Whedon (Marti Noxon wrote this). I was really worried about this one before it aired because I thought it would be nothing more than a gimmick. Whilst the episode is a gimmick, it is also very clever and very witty. In some senses it is a throwback to the first season in the way it reworks a bunch of tired clichés into something fresh and modern. Its also the best season opener since the pilot episode eschewing the angst of seasons 2 to 4 in favour of the fun subversion of the pilot. Spike's attitude to Dracula is also a complete hoot. There's also an intriguing sort of cliffhanger.
2) Real Me. Audacious stuff. This is the episode that introduces Buffy's kid sister, Dawn. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but it is. The reason for this is that the show had already established that Buffy was an only child both in terms of it being explicitly stated and also in terms of Buffy not living with or mentioning a sister. Thus is was downright peculiar for Buffy to have a sister. Even more peculiar was the fact that Buffy acts as though she ALWAYS had a sister and that they had ALWAYS lived together and the fact that all the other characters act that way too. This therefore contradicts everything the viewer knows about the show and indeed every previous episode of the show. You expect that this is all going to be revealed to be a spell and that Dawn is the episode's baddy. But at the end of the episode this isn't the case. She is still Buffy's Kid sister and always has been. This would remain the case for several episodes before the mystery and the apparent contradiction in continuity is resolved.
3) The Replacement. A doppelgänger episode and not the first that Buffy has done. But this is also important to the character of Xander, effectively ending the journey that he began in Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered. By the end of this show Xander has the girl, the house and the job, Today he is a Man! Also we finally get to see him do the Snoopy Dance.
No Place Like Home. In which we finally learn the truth about Dawn and in which the seasons big bad is introduced. I particularly like the ritual sequence in this one with the sense of heightened reality that the direction conveys.
4) Fool for Love. Buffy gets to hear the story of how Spike killed two slayers and we learn why Slayers tend to die young. It may not sound like much. But its a great story.
5) Triangle. A great little standalone dealing with the relationship between Xander, Anya and Willow. As with a lot of Buffy stories, it is the funny ones where you often learn the most about the characters and this is the one that deals with and largely resolves the tension between Anya and Willow. It also has Olaf the Troll being awesome in it too.
6) Blood Ties. In which Dawn learns the truth about herself and the scene is set for the season finale.
7) The Body. In which a major character dies. Another format breaker; this episode deals with the characters coping with death and their grief. Not quiet as good as the mainstream critics would have it be, but still an excellent episode.
8) Tough Love. An intense and busy episode setting up the season finale and laying some groundwork for season 6 too. Willow starts her journey to the dark side, The big bad finds what she has been looking for and Buffy gives up her education. Willow and the Big Bad have an awesome confrontation too.
9) The Gift. The season finale, possible the best one the show ever did. The Buffy equivalent of Doctor Who's Logopolis. A faultless episode full of moments of quiet sadness and epic excitement. This might have been the last episode of the show ever and if it had been the show would've ended on a beautiful high. Buffy defeats the big bad in a BRUTAL fight before sacrificing herself to save the world. Giles commits a murder, Xander and Anya get engaged. Spike gets some validation from Buffy. Tara is restored and Willow's power continues to grow. The opening montage of all the previous stories is great, the finale montage and voice-over is even better. An episode to treasure.
Ah Season six! The very mention of which is enough to start flame wars across the internet. Easily the most controversial season of Buffy. The main criticisms being that it lacks a proper big bad, that it is depressing and soapy, that it lacks direction, that too many of the stories revolve around the mundane problems of day to day life, that it doesn't have enough fantasy elements and that those elements it does have do not work, finally that the characters are not true to themselves. There's also the little matter of Tara's death and the reaction that provoked.
Season six defenders will in turn claim that the season doesn't need a big bad, that Joss Whedon's stance that “life is the big bad” is valid. They will claim that the depressing stories and lack of fantasy elements are realistic and necessary to adequately deal with the events of season five. They claim that the character development is truthful in the context of the events of season five and six. They tend not to address the issue of whether it was right to kill off Tara!
In truth both sides are correct up to a point and this is why the battle over season 6 will always rage. For my part I enjoyed season 6 but it was a very different beast to the early shows. Indeed it is much more like a season of Angel than of Buffy. There are a lot of good ideas in terms of the overall arc and individual episodes which aren't executed as well as they could be. There isn't enough comedy, but much of the darkness is warranted. In particular Buffy's handling of her death is much more preferable to the Thai Chi sweeping under the carpet resolution that Season 3 offers for Angel. Many of the character developments are reasonable and can be justified, but by the same token the writers often fail to make the motivations behind those developments clear enough.
Similarly the arc of life and our own mistakes and insecurities being the big bad is a valid choice (particularly since there was no way to further up the ante from season 5s big bad). The Angel franchise has proved this and is effectively built on the same premise. But the execution didn't work as well as it should have done thereby leaving the arc feeling inconsequential and insubstantial. This problem was further exacerbated by the lack of standalone episodes.
As with season 4 there are many cases of the good being intertwined with the bad in the same episode. But whereas in season 4 the good overshadowed the bad, in season 6 the bad tended to overshadow the good. If the exact same bad stuff had been concentrated into 3 or 4 episodes (as with seasons 2 and 3) then season 6 would almost certainly have been much stronger and more popular.
My opinion is that this probably does rank as the shows worst season. But this is like saying With The Beatles is the worst Beatles album. Fundamentally, the worst season of Buffy is still head and shoulders over most other TV shows. I also find that it is a valid and interesting experiment in pushing the boundaries of the show; even if it is ultimately a flawed experiment.
1 & 2) Bargaining (Part 1 and 2). In which Buffy is resurrected. This was a great season opener to be fair. Lots of nice little moments and more action packed that your standard Buffy premier. Willow continues to pave her way to the dark side with her own good intentions. Giles takes his first steps towards his estrangement from the Scoobies and Xander begins to get cold feet.
3) Once More With Feeling. Generally known as the Musical episode. I was dreading this one. With the exception of The Jungle Book I generally loathe musicals as I struggle to get past the basic conceit of the genre. Once More With Feeling became the second honourable exception. It is just as brilliant as everyone says. The songs are all great, the jokes are excellent, there is a good reason why everyone is singing and the conceit is taken to logical and ludicrous extremes (It Got The Mustard Out, the Parking ticket song, the “backup” and so on). It is also the only episode to be genuinely widescreen (as opposed to the secondary widescreen versions of all the other post season 3 episodes). The songs also work in isolation on the Buffy soundtrack album, but they work even better on the show in the context of over 5 years of history between the characters.
4) Tabula Rasa. Another example of Buffy taking a clichéd idea (amnesia) and reviving it. The jokes in this one come thick and fast and are glorious. Unlike other episodes we end proceedings on a distinct downer as Giles leaves and Tara and Willow separate. This is the point where the show started to wobble. Giles leaving doesn't work in the way that it should, at this point in the show there is more reason for him to stay than to go. This is arguable in illustration of the seasons theme (life can suck and people make stupid mistakes) but when everyone and the world knew that Giles was leaving because Tony Head wanted to spend more time in the UK as a condition for staying on, this argument was not convincing. Again the idea would probably have worked if carried out in Bargaining (ie Giles leaves and for some plot mcguffin reason is unable to go back to the USA after Buffy is resurrected). Alternatively if a few more episodes had gone into establishing his reasons for going, then the storyline would've worked out better.
5) Entropy. A big gap here in which not a huge amount happens in terms of plot, arc or character development. The main thing is the preceding episode in which Xander gilts Anya. It is however one of the weakest Buffy episodes and as a result is probably the most important episode not to make the list. Anyway, this one deals with Anya having gone back to being a vengeance demon and her attempts to get back at Xander. This she eventually does in an unexpected way. Willow and Tara get back together too and it looks like things might be starting to look up.
6) Seeing Red. Almost certainly the most controversial episode the show ever did (at least amongst the fanbase. Season 3's Earshot may be the most controversial in terms of the mainstream). Starting with the light stuff, a fun caper story. On the other hand its massively overshadowed by the Spike/Buffy attempted rape and the murder of Tara. I'm not gonna address the Spike/Buffy thing here. Its worthy of a post to itself, all I will say is that I think there is a crucial point that has been largely overlooked in debates and which does not put Spike in a good light. I do want to comment on the death of Tara though. This was probably one bit of angst too far for the show. I can see why the writers did it. Tara was not the most interesting character and she was unlikely to develop any further. They had been planning to kill her off and the original intention was actually to do it earlier in the season. I don't personally think there was any intention to make or invalidate homophobia. However, I still think it was a mistake. As already stated it was too much darkness for one season. More to the point I think the writers forgot the lesson of their own show (specifically season 5's Family) in that it didn't matter that Tara wasn't the most interesting character. We liked her, she was a character who brought out the best in the other characters and added warmth to the show in the same way that Xander adds glib humour. It wasn't necessary for her to be interesting or to develop because she was fine the way she was.
7) Villains. In which Willow gives new meaning to the Dark Side of the force. Nasty, Nasty, episode. Willow goes out for vengeance in a MAJOR way and becomes the end of season big bad in the process of getting it. Features probably the most gruesome death scene that the series ever did.
8) Grave. The only season finale not written by Joss Whedon and clearly the weakest season finale. Again there is a problem with motivation here. Its simply not made clear enough how much of Willow's actions are her controlling black magic, or black magic controlling her. As such Willows decision to destroy the world and her ultimate decision not to do so are both somewhat unconvincing. Whilst I have my own personal way of reconciling both decisions so that they are consistent and reasonable in light of the events of the season; there is nothing to confirm (or contradict) this theory on screen. As such the resolution of the storyline and Willows return from the dark side is inevitably muddled.
Not so much a return to form as a lap of honour for the series. There's little out and out experimentation here as the show goes back to the style and tone of season 2 and 3 for the most part. This is very much like a greatest hits package. No more accurately it is like when a long running band returns to the sounds and approach of the first albums after a some experimental ones. As such it can be said that much of season 7 is derivative. On the other hand this hardly matters when the episodes are this good. There's nothing flashy about a chip butty, but who can resist a good one!
The other criticisms of this season are that the events of season 6 are swept under the carpet, that there is too much mucking about with the potential slayers and that the characters still sometimes act according to the necessities of the story arc rather than in a way that is truthful. As regards season 6, there is some truth in this. It is arguable that Willow is let of really lightly for her actions. On the other hand this is consistent with the approach taken to Faith. Similarly Willows eventual ability to return to using magic could've been clarified (although I don't find it particularly inconsistent). It is also worth pointing out that a large chunk of the fanbase was crying out for season 6 to be disregarded as far as possible anyway. Similarly there was a lot of the fanbase wanting stories about the potentials ever since Kendra was introduced, I was not one of those voices and consequently feel that there was too much stuff with the potentials.
These quibbles aside, this season is a heck of a lot of fun which was needed after the general angst of seasons 5 and 6. Whilst the nature of a final series is such that there tend to be fewer essential episodes, there are a very large number of very good episodes which don't get a mention below.
1) Lessons. The season premier and a return to the setting of Sunnydale High. Oodles of fun to be had here and a really cool scene at the end featuring all the previous seasons big bads.
2) Selfless. The definitive word on Anya as we learn huge amounts about her pre-Buffy life. This includes such matters as Olaf the troll, her fear of bunnies, her capitalism, her friendship with Halfreck, her propensity towards vengeance. Oh and we what amounts to a bonus track/deleted scene from Once More With Feeling. Lots of fun, but a lot of poignancy too.
3) Him. An example of season seven's derivative nature as this is almost exactly the same idea as bewitched bothered and bewildered (to the point where Xander says as much). But its done really well and is very funny. It also does have a new take on the idea because its done from the perspective of those under the love spell, rather than the person who is the object of the spell.
4) Conversations With Dead People. The only real format breaker in the season. A show comprising of four vignettes with characters talking to dead characters (and sponsored by Ronseal!). A still point of reflection of what has happened and what is yet to occurred and a chance for the big bad to play some head games. Its a shame that the vamp in the Buffy vignette was dusted, because he could have easily been an anti-Giles of sorts.
5) Get It Done. An important arc episode as Buffy gets a vision of what the big bad has in store for her and learns about the creation of the first slayer (thus tying up a thread set loose in Restless).
6) Lies My Parents Told Me. This episode does for Spike what Selfless does for Anya. It finally joins the dots between then William the fey “bloody awful poet and the Punky Sid Vicious persona of Spike. These figures would ultimately dovetail together in the final episode of Angel (Not Fade Away).
7) Dirty Girls. Faith returns. Caleb is introduced and Xander looses and eye in a bloody big fight.
8) Chosen. Here endeth the series. One of the shows best episodes and a fitting finale for one of the best shows ever made. Some live, some die, but ultimately the whole thing is extraordinarily uplifting and epic. Spike gets a grand send off, Angel returns, Sunnydale is destroyed (but in a Hooray “Schools out for ever” kind of way) and Buffy has a new army to lead. I saw this within 2 days of the final Lord of the Rings film and I preferred and still prefer this.