Buffy Reflections: Season 7

All journeys come to an end, now don’t they? Well there are still comics to get to and all that, but this journey, the actual series, and chiefly my experience of watching it over seven beautiful months is through.

So what have we learned? That I like Buffy, mostly.

And that I do not understand how so many people say the show loses it’s way in the final two seasons; I considered them both entertaining as hell.

True, the setup for this last year had me apprehensive, what with the premiere’s chief concern being the reopening of Sunnydale High. I felt we’d moved past that, and while the fourth season was the weakest, since then the series had found a clear identity outside of its secondary school origins.

My concerns were soon put to rest, as the season’s overall theme of going back to the beginning tied in nicely with the new and improved annex of learning and its notoriously high body count. It helped that—save for the hilarious “Him”—not many episodes actually utilized the setting in the same way as the first couple years of the show might have.

Instead it was all about the Hellmouth, and the incorporeal big bad trying to open it. The First Evil was a risky move, and there were many ways the idea of an antagonist who took on the intangible form of the deceased might have failed, but instead it made for some great viewing. Buffy as its default form (she’s died twice, after all) was a perfect conceit that made sense and no doubt lessened the burden on the guest star budget.

More than any other, it seemed like the seventh season was driven entirely by its central conflict, yet it still managed to have fun and do all of the characters justice.

Willow had to adjust to her life after nearly ending the world, and did so with the adorable charm I’d come to expect (not to mention her incredibly attractive new love interest). Xander never had too much of the spotlight, but anchored the group like always. Giles might as well never have left the show at all, since he was the special guest for something like half these episodes. Spike was far more damaged than I thought he might be after getting his soul back, and the final progression of his relationship with Buffy was absolute beauty. Andrew endearingly and awkwardly earned a place for himself amongst the scoobies after he reached his darkest point earlier in the season (RIP Jonathan). Anya had a sad final few months as she became human for good, but managed to admit her genuine love for our species before the end. Faith returned to take part in the climactic episodes in a manner that felt completely natural and fitting, even if she hadn’t been on the show in three years.

Oh, and Dawn didn’t get in the way too much.

The new characters were able to find places for themselves as well. Principal Wood was a great addition following his wonderfully over-the-top mystique before we learned his history. And though he only had a few episodes, Nathan Fillion’s Caleb was an incredible villain.

Naturally, Buffy herself was the focal point as she became general of a slayer army in order to defeat the forces of evil once and for all (for now). I’m not sure I bought everyone rejecting her leadership at the eleventh hour, but the inevitable reconciliation meant it didn’t matter too much.

This was a fun, thrilling final season to a show that I loved almost from the start. It’s grown to become one of my favorite TV series, and something I now regard as near-essential viewing. Watching it was long overdue, and I’m not sad at all to have finished. Merely grateful I got to go along for the ride.

Buffy Reflections: Season 6

I think I expected a lighter tone. A decline in quality. Some fun, some tragedy.

I was wrong about everything, especially the tragedy. There wasn’t some; Buffy’s sixth season is dripping with it.

I knew we were in for some real darkness from the two-part premiere alone. It was bleak stuff, with Buffy resurrected amidst an assault on Sunnydale by a group of demon rapist bikers. They were not playful, but even the gut-churning threats one made about “incompatible anatomy” couldn’t compare to the shock of seeing Buffy’s decaying corpse right before Willow’s spell took effect. I knew she would be ok, but actually witnessing our beloved heroine’s rotted face? Not pulling any punches, there.

Coupled with the ending reveal—that Buffy was at peace in heaven (or something like it) and her friends pulled her away to suffer on Earth—made for a pretty tragic set-up. I was worried Buffy coming back to life would feel like a cop out, but no, it took her the entire season and a lot of pain to come to grips with her renewed mortality.

The overall arc was less cohesive than last year, but that was for the best. After fighting off a god for twenty-two episodes it would have felt a bit forced to try and top the threat level right away, so they went in the opposite direction with the Trio. The nerdy losers teaming up to take over Sunnydale? Hilarious, and because it was Buffy I knew it was only a matter of time until things got real.

But before that, the goddamn musical episode. I knew it was coming, and somehow resisted listening to any of the songs until my first viewing. Since then I’ve played the soundtrack every day, and don’t anticipate stopping anytime soon. “Once More with Feeling” was a wonderful gift from Joss that celebrated everything great about the world he created.

Luckily such a high came right before Giles departed, something that could have easily upset me considering he’s been my favorite character since season two. But even I admit it was the right decision—they didn’t really know what to do with him any more. And we even got some last laughs with “Tabula Rasa.”

Then Spike and Buffy got together, and oh my god it was hot. Sorry, visceral reaction. Their relationship this season was destructive, abusive, and awful for the both of them, culminating in a near rape that I still don’t know whether or not they should have depicted. It was believable without ruining either character, but still a very extreme place to go. And as to the “hot” thing, yeah, I can’t think of a TV relationship with more sexual chemistry, which was crucial. As bad as it was for them to be together, I completely understood why they kept going back to each other.

There was a short lull after the fantastic “Dead Things”, with perhaps the worst episode of the series “Older and Far Away” and the unfortunate return of Riley in “As You Were.”

But things picked up from there, with the heartbreaking collapse of Xander and Anya’s relationship as well as “Normal Again,” the episode that suggests the entire show is Buffy’s elaborate, schizophrenic delusion.

Then the season’s endgame was sublime. Tara’s brutal and sudden death unleashed Dark Willow, who proved a phenomenal big bad to wrap everything up. The whole “magic is a drug” thing grated at times, but to actually see the danger realized in such a powerful way was worth it. I don’t think a single moment of violence on the show has shocked me like Warren’s flaying, and the fact that sweet, lovable Willow of all people was the one to do it just made everything more horrible.

Oh, and Giles’ big damn heroes moment? Beautiful. Almost surprising that he lived through the finale, but I suppose they never could have had Willow forgive herself if she’d murdered him.

Only one season left now, and of course it’s a bittersweet feeling. I don’t want it to end yet, but I need to continue on my journey with these wonderful characters. Hey, at least there are still comics to read afterwards.

Buffy Reflections: Season 4

After adoring the second and third seasons, I was more than ready for Buffy to continue dazzling me as the slayer embarked on her freshman year at UC Sunnydale. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as graceful a transition as I’d hoped for.

I’d gotten so used to the strength of the central storyline—from everything with Spike and Angel to Faith and the Mayor—that it was hard not to be somewhat let down by the new developments centering around Riley, Adam, and the Initiative. There was simply a lot less momentum to everything. At first there was the mystery over what exactly the Initiative was, then once we discover that Riley and Professor Walsh are part of it (a great reveal, actually) it takes longer for Buffy and the others to catch on. Walsh’s inevitable betrayal followed that, no surprise to anyone familiar with Joss’s mistrust of shadowy government conspiracies. Then finally Adam murders Walsh and becomes the season’s Big Bad…only he barely does anything until the finale and in the mean time he has a stupid green face.

It likely would have been a more compelling backbone for the season if Riley had more going on, but as a love interest for Buffy he can’t really hope to compare to the drama Angel stirred up, and at his worst he came off like an irritating farm boy.

Aside from the main plot, the rest of the season was wildly uneven in terms of quality. All of the “getting used to college” episodes at the beginning felt like a waste of time. The show didn’t seem to know what to do with Giles or Xander anymore, though at least the latter got to keep dating Anya, who’s quickly become one of my favorite characters. Spike is now a main cast member, and of course he’s a very welcome addition, but he spent far too much of this season whining and moping around. Let’s hope he gets a bit more proactive, because right now the once terrifying threat has been reduced to comic relief. He’s effective comic relief, sure, but I like him with teeth.

It also felt like their were fewer standout episodes compared to last season. “Hush,” “Who Are You,” and “Superstar” ranked up their with the best of the series, but they were the exceptions in a season that—despite having no shortage of enjoyable moments, with characters as consistently well-written and acted as always—felt like a step down whether assessed as a whole or in terms of its individual installments. “Doomed,” in particular, might have been my least favorite episode of Buffy ever. I couldn’t even enjoy it on a camp level like I do so many of the sillier episodes (“Beer Bad” and “Where the Wild Things Are” being this season’s brilliantly heavy handed misfires).

There was, however, one major bright spot in Willow. Everything about her was fantastic; her relationships with Oz and Tara broke and warmed my heart, respectively, and she truly felt like the character the writers best knew how they wanted to grow over the season. Her arc was wonderful.

I also watched a few episodes of Angel, which certainly has some growing to do, and by God its flashy scene transitions are idiotic, but there’s obvious potential there.

Though I was a little disappointed with this season, it was still enjoyable and, most importantly, still Buffy in all the ways I’ve come to love. I might be wary for the immediate future were it not for season five’s sterling reputation.

Onwards we go.

Buffy Reflections: Season 3

Throughout the third season the one thought I had again and again was how relentlessly enjoyable a show Buffy is to watch. It’s pure fun (except when it’s heartbreaking) and once again that all comes from a feeling that only a few very special series are able to create: Watching it is like being friends with the characters.

We know them—what makes them great, their flaws, their fears, all their little inside jokes. Seeing them interact isn’t just watching the story unfold, it’s as if we’re hanging out with them too. And the connection only gets stronger as the series goes on, so please Joss, stop hurting them.

Season 3 actually has a pretty rocky start with everyone treating Buffy horribly after she comes back to Sunnydale, but once it gets past that and introduces Faith things pick up. Her arc wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but as the emotional core for much of the season, her journey and relationship with Buffy worked really well.

What didn’t work was watching Xander and Willow cheat on their respective others with each other. It got to be infuriating, actually, because I already borderline disliked Xander as a character and seeing Willow jeopardize her relationship with the much cooler Oz over someone who already had his chance with her was not fun.

But luckily that ended pretty much the way it should have, though Cordelia’s subsequent removal from the Scooby Gang (as I understand they’re called) was unfortunate. Luckily Xander redeemed himself with “The Zeppo,” perhaps the funniest episode thus far.

That was the best of several great episodes (“Band Candy,” “The Wish,” “Earshot,” “Dopplegangland”) that used a clever central premise to play with character dynamics, all to stellar effect. More of that, please.

Then there was the central villain of the piece, the overly-amiable Mayor of Sunnydale who founded the town expressly so that he could turn into a massive demon a century down the line. Not sure he was ever more terrifyingly effective than last season’s all-bad Angelus, but he was damn fun to have around. Hopefully the show can continue the trend of unique and compelling evildoers.

With the characters all graduating from high school and some of the cast splitting off to star in Angel (a spinoff series that I will not be watching at the moment, regretfully. While I do think it would be great to experience them side-by-side as they first aired, it’s just a lot to commit to right now) this definitely marks a big moment of transition for Buffy. Somehow, I’m confident it’ll still be worth watching.

Buffy Reflections: Season 2

I certainly didn’t expect to be writing the next one of these so soon, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Buffy it’s that the show is watchable as anything. We finished up the season in a five episode marathon a couple of days ago, and not for one second did I want to take a breather.

Becoming a Buffy fan is every stereotype of the Whedon experience distilled to its purest. The dialogue is playful. The characters are lovable. The stories are earnest. Things are, occasionally, silly. But most importantly it hurts. Whedon’s reputation for ripping out the hearts of his viewers wasn’t earned for nothing, after all. Two of his greatest strengths as a storyteller are his ability to deeply endear audiences with his characters coupled with a willingness to use that attachment to create pain.

He won’t just kill Giles’ love interest Jenny Calendar, he’ll put her corpse in his bed. And why stop at turning Angel evil the moment he and Buffy consummate their relationship? In their first post-coital scene, the newly soulless vampire mocks Buffy’s inexperience while she—at her most vulnerable—gradually breaks down in tears, unable to understand why the person she loves most in the world is suddenly acting like their relationship is meaningless, and that she’s to blame.

The only reason it works so well is because 90% of the series is more or less lighthearted. Sure, students at Sunnydale have a higher mortality rate than deep sea fishermen, but that’s almost part of the fun. It’s all banter and fighting and friendship until the darkness hits, which is why it hits so fucking hard.

The trajectory of this season was fantastic, and a great sign of things to come. The vampire leadership shifting from the Anointed One to the scene-stealing Spike and Drusilla to Angel felt natural, as did the relationships that continued to develop amongst the core cast. Everything progressed naturally, with even the episodes that appeared to stand alone including scenes that built the overall narrative.

There were still some unintentionally dumb stories, but watched with a roomful of funny people, those are wonderful. The highlight this time around was “Go Fish,” featuring an idiotic message about steroids and a swim team coach with some of the least believable motivations ever devised. Great stuff.

But for the vast majority of episodes this season, I didn’t need any sense of irony to deem them great. Bring on Season 3.

Buffy Reflections: Season 1

This has been a long time coming. Of all the shows I’ve known I needed to watch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always near the top of the list. From the subject matter to the clearly rabid devotion it inspired in its fanbase to the fact that it’s the longest running thing that Joss Whedon ever created, there was never a doubt that it would fit in perfectly with the rest of the media I take such delight in geeking out over every day. The only thing that’s been holding me back is that, once again, it’s the longest running thing Joss Whedon ever created. 144 episodes over seven seasons, to be precise—Not something to dive into lightly.

But it just so happens that I have friends who like Buffy. A lot. One has seen every episode something like four times. Last year they spent several months going through the whole series and, luckily for me, they have every intention of repeating the feat, only this time I’m along for the ride. We began around a couple of weeks ago, and have managed at least an episode on most days. It’s pretty addictive. As we make our way through the show, I’m going to post reflections on each season chronicling my long overdue indoctrination into Whedon’s first phenomenon.

I’d heard very few encouraging things about the first season (which is probably part of the reason I never took the initiative to start it on my own). By most accounts it was a rocky start that barely reflected what the show would eventually become, and at only twelve episodes there were some who advised just skipping it all together and starting with season two. Not an approach I ever really like to take. Even if it wasn’t great stuff, I was willing to do a bit of slogging if it would earn me a more complete perspective on the series and even a slightly greater appreciation for what would follow.

Imagine how great it felt, then, to find that I genuinely liked nearly every episode. Even the one about the evil hyenas (oh who am I kidding? Especially the one about the evil hyenas). Sure, it’s obvious that the show is finding its footing, testing the waters, working out what it wants to be. And of course the production values aren’t anything to write home about, but they’ve got that endearing, low-budget earnestness that can be plenty effective if you’re willing to meet it halfway.

But what really matters are the characters, and they’re wonderful. Buffy is Whedon’s prototypical badass, pretty, clever action-girl. Willow is so adorable it hurts. Giles is probably my favorite—so gloriously British. Xander…well a lot of the time he’s not annoying.

I’m sure they’ll all gain new dimensions as the show goes on, and the already really solid writing will just get sharper.

Happy to say I’m already a Buffy fan, with the knowledge that the best, of course, is still yet to come.