“End Of Days”/“Chosen”
After I finished watching the last two episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer—after I saw Angel return, and Buffy cleave Caleb from crotch to crown, and Willow use her magic to imbue every Potential with Slayer-power, and Anya get struck down, and Spike channel an ancient energy to destroy the Sunnydale Hellmouth—I watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Y’know, the movie.
I hadn’t seen the “original” Buffy since it played the multiplex I worked at back in 1992. As you may recall from my very first Buffy post, I didn’t like the movie much back then. I thought it made the heroine too much of a ditz, and basically repeated the same joke—vapid Valley Girl fights monsters—over and over. Watching it again this week though, I found it far less objectionable. Obviously, it’s not a film that Joss Whedon can claim as his own. It has no sense of scope, the demons aren’t demonic enough, and Buffy doesn’t have enough heft as a heroine. But it’s fun to see so many recognizable actors in small roles (Hillary Swank! Stephen Root! Ben Affleck!), and to hear the occasional Whedon-esque line sneak out (as when Paul Reubens’ oily vampire Amilyn hisses, “Kill him a lot!”). I also realize now that I haven’t really been fair to the Kristy Swanson Buffy over the years. She’s not fully developed as a character, but she does have an arc, as she comes to accept being The Chosen. The lightbulb moment for me in re-watching the Buffy movie happened when Donald Sutherland as Buffy’s semi-immortal watcher Merrick complains to his protégée that, “None of the other girls ever gave me this much trouble.” In the end, he tells Buffy that she does everything wrong, and that she should keep on doing just that. Sound familiar? That message, to me, is recognizably Buffy.
Say what you will about the later years of the TV Buffy—and the much-maligned seventh season especially—but I’d argue that the show has always recognizably been Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as Joss Whedon conceived it. Sometimes the characters lost their way a little, sometimes the tone was off, and sometimes the plotting wandered into areas that probably seemed like a good idea in the writers’ room until somebody had to figure out how to render them as episodic television. But throughout, Buffy remained a show about heroes confronting ancient evils—sometimes nurtured within themselves—and finding unconventional ways to defeat them, often by combining their strengths. I’ve had some problems with the seventh season, but I never dreaded watching it from week to week, because I’ve never stopped enjoying the company of these people.
So let’s say goodbye to them, one at a time.
Okay, I’m not really saying goodbye to Angel, since there are still 22 episodes of his own show to get through. Still, when Angel showed up at the “End Of Days” to help keep Buffy from being clobbered by Caleb yet again, I cheered. And even though the passionate Buffy/Angel kiss that follows is partly a plot device to make Spike jealous—and make us think that Spike could be influenced by The First—watching Buffy and Angel together again, however briefly, reminded me that he always was the best of her romantic partners. They even look right together, with his bulk next to her petite-ness. I completely bought it when Angel watched Buffy fight Caleb and said, “God, I missed watching this.” But I also bought it when Buffy finished Caleb off—ickily—and then told Angel that he had to go back to L.A. to prepare a second front in case she failed to stop The First in Sunnydale. As enjoyable as it was to see Angel moping about Buffy’s feelings for Spike—“I started it… the whole havin’ a soul…”—it also wouldn’t have been right for him to swoop in and play a truly major role in the finale. Besides, Angel gets to go out on such a cool closing line: “I ain’t gettin’ any older.” And then he disappears into the shadows, as he should.
When I was watching the Buffy movie, I kept getting confused because Luke Perry’s character is named “Pike,” and I kept hearing it as “Spike.” I guess I was just missing that bottle-blonde bastard too much. As I mentioned last week, I feel like the Spike/Buffy relationship was badly handled, and that it did serious damage to someone who’d been one of my favorite characters on the show since his first appearance. But one thing that “End Of Days” and “Chosen” do very well is bring several characters back to their core, reminding us of how they used to be. Spike has a very strong mini-arc in these last two episodes. He gets to toss some British-isms around (“shirty!”), and tell Buffy what their night of non-sex together meant to him. Then he gets to be hurt when he uses “my advanced vampire eyeballs” to see Buffy and Angel kissing. But Spike quickly forgives her and accepts the amulet that Angel brought with him from Wolfram & Hart, officially taking on the role of “champion.” And in the big final battle, it’s that amulet, working in conjunction with Spike’s soul—which “kinda stings”—that cleanses the Hellmouth and reduces Sunnydale to rubble. Spike too gets a worthy exit, as Buffy says goodbye and tells him she loves him, to which Spike smiles and says, “No you don’t. But thanks for sayin’ it.”
Anya doesn’t have a death as noble and powerful as Spike’s; she just gets killed in battle, slashed by a Bringer, same as any other grunt. And she doesn’t even get to share any special final moments with Xander in these episodes before she dies. (Their moment was in “Touched;” in “Chosen,” she sleeps.) But she does have some delightfully Anya-esque turns before we bid her farewell, as she comforts a wounded Potential by saying, “Trying to talk will just make you die sooner,” and as she stakes out a position in Sunnydale High with Andrew and pledges, “We will defend it with his very life.” She also has a wheelchair-fight while raiding medical supplies with Andrew, and psychs herself up for battle by picturing the enemy as bunnies. To me though, one of the high points of these two episodes—for any of the characters—is Anya’s speech to Andrew about how she finds humans pathetic, yet can’t help but admire them. It’s not up to the level of Anya’s weepy speech in “The Gift”—which is a series high point for me—but it’s simple and poignant, giving us an outsider’s perspective on what makes our heroes so special. Nicely done, Anya. Rest in peace.
I’m an unapologetic Andrew fan as you all know, though I’ve felt he hasn’t been used as well as I would’ve liked down the stretch of this season. Some of Andrew’s comic relief moments in the tense episodes just before these final two seemed at times to be too tone-deaf, revealing the character as dumber than I think he was meant to be. But Andrew gets his due in “End Of Days” and “Chosen,” both in his amusing banter with Anya and in his angst when he wonders why he didn’t die in the final battle with The First and its minions. Plus, we see Andrew in his element in “Chosen,” twice: first when he leads some of the gang on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (and calls Giles a “silly, silly British man”), and then later when he tells Xander that Anya died saving his life, thereby creating a story that makes a sudden death seem more mythic.
I can’t say that I ever developed any special attachment to Principal Robin Wood, though I like the character and wish he’d gotten to be more involved. Pairing Wood up with Faith over the last three episodes is kind of a belated move, but an inspired one, since it gives both of those characters more personal investment in the outcome of this fight. They share a nice moment of banter the night before the big battle—with Wood insisting “I’m prettier than you,” and teasing her that she’s not as great in the sack as she thinks she is—and they share an even nicer moment after it’s over, as Faith thinks the wounded Wood is dead and reaches to close his eyes just before he coughs and lurches back to life. Very sweet.
Faith, frankly, is underused in these two episodes, though that’s understandable to some degree, since she really had her big sp already, when she seized control of The Potentials, and learned what it’s like to be the big Slayer in charge. Answer: It feels lonely. (Also explode-y.) “Thank god we’re hot chicks with superpowers,” she tells Buffy. “Takes the edge off,” Buffy agrees.
Dawn too is underused here—and really in this whole season—which disappointed me, given that she’d been one of the most annoying characters in Buffydom and had become so much more likable (and better-acted) after the fifth season. Witness Dawn in “End Of Days” saying that she doesn’t leave crossbows around, “Not since that time with Miss Kitty Fantastico,” and you get a sense of how Michelle Trachtenberg learned how to play the show’s comic beats well. In these episodes, the big Dawn action is dispatched early, as Buffy orders Xander to knock her out and take her someplace safe, only to have Dawn zap Xander with a stun-gun and come right back to Sunnydale, where she gives Buffy a little kick in the shin and mutters, “Dumb-ass.”
“When a cow gets old, and loses an eye….” That’s Xander explaining the meaning of “put out to pasture,” which is what he worries is happening to him when Buffy sends him on his failed Dawn-securing mission. Xander had something of a comeback season in my opinion, and though he didn’t play as big a part in “Chosen” as I would’ve liked, it was good to see him being the Xander of old, demanding his rightful spot on the front-lines even though, as Buffy says, “Every time you pick up a sword I worry you’re gonna break one of our good lamps.” Xander is a bumbler, and Xander is a hero. He was my absolute favorite character in the early seasons of Buffy, and though he fell on some rough times (perhaps necessitated by Nicholas Brendon’s own personal problems), I appreciated that the writers found more for him to do in season seven, letting him be the angst-ridden, loyal quipster yet again.
Willow’s arc in these episodes is much simpler, and to some extent more predictable. Giles and Buffy want her to tap into some serious magic—Giles to get a better understanding of Buffy’s new super-axe, and Buffy to draw on the power of that axe to empower the Potentials—but Willow worries that doing this will cause her to lose control, “and not in a nice my-girlfriend-has-a-pierced-tongue kind of way.” Kennedy tries to reassure Willow that Buffy’s faith in her is justified, but Willow notes that while Buffy’s a sweet girl, she’s “not that bright,” and that, “I can hardly do a locator spell without getting dark roots.” But of course, Willow does step up when called upon, and her hair even turns white while she’s passing on the axe’s power. “That was nifty,” she whispers before passing out. It sure was, Miss Rosenberg. Glad you made it safely through your broody phase. (And sorry again about Tara. That sucked.)
Of all the characters who get to be more of “themselves” in “End Of Days” and “Chosen,” I think I was most happy to see Giles be Giles. It was moving to witness Buffy making her amends to Giles in her own way, first by noting that “good guys are not traditionally known for their communication skills” when Giles wonders why there’s no information about her new axe in his books, and then later saying “I really do” when he says, “If you want my opinion.” But it was also great to see him lunge for a packet of Jaffa Cakes, and grumble during the D&D game that “now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily,” and note that even though the Sunnydale Hellmouth is sealed, “there’s another one in Cleveland,” and—most of all—to hear Giles respond to the Scoobies’ plan to go shopping after the apocalypse by muttering, “The Earth is definitely doomed.” Good ol’ Giles.
Ah, Buffy. Not to get too meta at this late a date, but when Buffy and Faith are having their conversation about how hard it is to be the leader, I heard a little bit of a writer’s apologia in there. I’ve heard it said sometimes that Buffy is one of the least appealing characters on her own show, because she’s headstrong and bossy and selfish and nagging, and the writers haven’t always known whether to celebrate all that or hold her accountable for it. It’s more fun to cut to Anya or Xander or Andrew or Willow or Giles or Spike or Oz, and let them be funny about Buffy, than to deal with Buffy herself. All of that said, only Buffy can have moments like the one at the beginning of “End Of Days” where Caleb taunts her about whether she can pry the axe she needs out of solid rock, only to find that she’s already done it, before he can even complete his sentence. It was satisfying in these episodes to see her save the Potentials and regain control of them without making a big deal about it. (“Time’s up. Get ready.” That’s the gist of her new plan.) And Buffy gets to funny, joking to Angel that she doesn’t have anything to wear with his amulet, and cute when she descries herself as “cookie dough,” not yet “cookies.” She gets to give a big speech about making a choice, not a wish, and she gets to look The First—pointedly appearing as Buffy herself—right in the eye and say, “I want you to get out of my face.” At various points during the run of this show, I’ve read one of its major themes as being, “Can people stop causing problems for themselves?” I’d say that Buffy telling “herself” to go to hell answers that one, for this series at least.
Okay, I won’t miss The Potentials much. The writers wrote themselves into a corner with this bunch, in that if they’d only introduced a few, then those characters would’ve taken too much screen-time away from the show’s main stars, but by introducing so many, they became background noise, not people. But there’s a reason I end with them, and not with Buffy. It’s Buffy’s decision to empower them all—“Are you ready to be strong?”—that gives “Chosen” its meaning and its power. I’ve also written before about how I love the “democratization” theme of Buffy: that we don’t have to stick with what the old documents say about who we all are, and that we can make our own paths and write new stories about the way things should be. All of which is a way of saying that when Vi looks down on a Hellmouth full of Turok-Han and says, “Those guys are dust,” it was tingle-time for me.
Way back when I was writing about season two, I praised the two-parter “What’s My Line” for being as well constructed and action-packed as a feature-length movie. I could almost say the same about “End Of Days” and “Chosen,” which obviously have way too much backstory for a newcomer to enjoy, but still are more full of humor and excitement and pathos than, say, the actual movie version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. (Hey, did you know that the movie Buffy is only 86 minutes long? That’s about the length of two TV episodes. And yet the movie’s nowhere near as rich as two episodes of the TV Buffy.)
But the key word in that paragraph above is “almost.” It’s hard not to watch “End Of Days” and “Chosen” and think how much better they would’ve been if the season as a whole had been planned out more carefully. Even though I liked season seven by and large, I feel like the having if follow the usual Buffy arc—where the heroine falls out with her closest companions and then has to win them back—was a mistake, given that the ultimate aim of this season seemed to be to show how Buffy is a Chosen among Chosen, destined to change the rules of the game. When a representative of The Guardians shows up and starts getting into the history of The Watchers and of her own group, I found myself thinking about how much cooler it would’ve been if all this had come up several episodes ago. These last two episodes strain a little too hard to tie up loose ends and reveal a bigger picture, wrapping with Willow weakly insisting, “We changed the world.” Don’t get me wrong: these are still terrific episodes. But in part because they are so good, I wish they could’ve been about twice as long. (I also could’ve done without the horrible CGI when Buffy flees the crumbling Sunnydale High, but what’re you gonna do?)
Look, everybody has his or her own Buffy. That’s one thing I realized early on while writing these reviews. Some of us dig that the Scoobies are a kind of super-team, like the X-Men; others find the superheroics silly and prefer the more scholarly “ancient clash of good and evil” side of the show. Some get swept up in the various romances; others earnestly believe that Buffy falling for Spike is a betrayal of what the character stands for. Some want more humor; others think that the “anything for a joke” nature of characters like Andrew clashes with the overall tone and reality of Buffy. Some like to analyze the grander themes in play; others think that thoughtfulness can’t excuse tediousness, and wish there had been more straightforward monster-fighting. Most of us—I hope—feel a little bit of all the above, appreciating multiple aspects of Buffy while also acknowledging that Whedon and company whiffed badly sometimes.
But y’know, we wouldn’t care so much about he misses if the hits weren’t so damned rewarding. So let me raise a glass of warm pig’s blood in gratitude for this whole cockeyed enterprise, and to the merry band of geeks who put this show together with such obvious love and unexpected ambition. Buffy The Vampire Slayer could’ve been a goofy show about a pretty little cheerleader who fights monsters and goes shopping. Instead it was about growing up, and learning to know who you really are, and accepting that even though the world is lousy and stacked against you, with the right attitude and the right companions, you can do something great.
- And that’s it, gang. I’ll start up the last season of Angel in 2012, sometime after I get back from Sundance. (I hear it’s a good season, so I want to give it my full attention.) For those of you are fans of both shows, I’ll see you then. And for those who are Buffy-watchers exclusively, thanks for taking the ride with me to this point. Trust me, I know—and appreciate—that you commenters provide the bulk of the content on this column on any given week. From the start, we’ve had an unusually civil and intelligent conversation, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I know there have been weeks when I haven’t been as engaged as you all would’ve liked, but you guys and gals always brought it. So take a bow.