I started out this sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer complaining that the two-part opener really only had enough story for an episode and a half. The two-part season finale has the opposite problem. It’s rushed and overstuffed—about four episodes worth of story crammed into two. “Two To Go” and “Grave” also suffer from many of the persistent woes that have plagued season six. A number of the big action sequences and confrontations don’t play as well when enacted by actual people than they probably did in the writers’ heads. The tone is way out-of-balance for Buffy, favoring moping over wit. (The absence of Joss Whedon’s name from the directing and writing credits of these episodes might have something to do with that.) And the episodes hammer home many of the same oft-made points about the characters’ growing isolation from each other, over and over and over.
So why did I find so many scenes in these two episodes to be among the most moving of the entire series?
Maybe it’s that I’ve got a weakness for a good Dark Phoenix story. The rise and fall of Evil Willow is so beholden to the basic arc of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men comics that it moves beyond homage and into the realm of… Well, I don’t want to say “rip-off,” because it’s not exactly that. How about “meditation?” “Riff?” “Cover version?”
The power of a Dark Phoenix story is the way it tests the loyalties of the characters and the audience. Like Jean Grey, Willow showed early flashes of unimaginable power, and then tried to limit herself once she saw the fear in her friends’ eyes. Then the power comes surging back, and as “Two To Go” begins, Willow seems unstoppable. She’s just committed a horrible atrocity—flaying Warren alive—and Buffy and Xander are faced with the prospect of squaring off against their best friend, in a state where she’s both dangerous and detached. Even when she seems to be waning, Willow is able to restore herself by draining the magic from the local warlock/pusher Rack. And even when sweet-faced Dawn—who was as close to Tara as anyone besides Willow—tries to appeal to her friend’s human side, she’s treated to an earful of scorn.
There’s a sense of real danger in “Two To Go” and “Grave.” Say what you will about the fervor with which Joss Whedon-created shows kill characters and wreck relationships, but the result of that wanton destruction is that we have to believe that anything can happen during Willow’s berserker rage. (Wait, am I mixing my X-Men metaphors there?)
When Willow goes after Andrew and Jonathan, for example, pulling down the walls of their jail cell with her mind, there’s no reason to be reassured that either remaining member of The Trio is safe, or that anyone who tries to stop Willow from killing them is safe. As weaselly as Andrew and Jonathan are, it’s poignant to watch Jonathan’s growing revelation of what he’s wrought. “We signed on,” he says when Andrew tries to duck responsibility. The he remembers the Willow he’s known since they were kids together in Sunnydale. (“She packed her own lunches…,” Jonathan muses, as she’s riding on top of a semi-truck, bearing down on him.) Given what we’ve seen of Jonathan in the past, it’s also sad to see him in the Magic Box, watching the Scoobies at work and pining to be part of a real team. Andrew doesn’t understand why Jonathan wants to help their “enemies.” But if Jonathan had been let into their circle years ago, maybe this current drama could’ve been avoided.
Jonathan doesn’t get to pine for long. While Buffy and Dawn are confronting Willow at Rack’s, Willow teleports all three of them to the Magic Box, where she immediately turns to The Duo and says, “You boys like magic, don’t you? Abracadabra.” The she blasts them with dark energy, but her bolts are blocked by Anya, who is hiding around a corner repeating a protection spell over in a low voice. (“Didn’t see that coming,” Willow mutters.) So Willow turns her attention back to Buffy, saying, “You really need to have every square inch of your ass kicked.” She tosses buffy about the shop, cackling about the intoxicating feel of raw power, and how no one can stop her. Then “Two To Go” ends, awesomely, with the surprise arrival of Giles, saying, “I’d like to test that theory.”
Bringing back Giles at this point in the story is both a masterstroke and a risk. It’s a risk because Giles’ presence is a reminder of how much he’s been missed this season. He immediately puts Willow into “a kind of stasis” and catches up with Buffy. (“You cut your hair,” he says tenderly. “I’m blond,” Anya interjects.) Then he laughs at the stories of what’s happened while he’s gone, and mentions that there’s more to being a grown-up than just making crazy mistakes—it’s also a sign of maturity to ask for help. Damn right, Giles. Now will you promise to stick around longer next season?
Meanwhile, Willow telepathically commands Anya to free her and then resumes her attack posture against Buffy and Giles. The episode then jumps ahead to the aftermath of their fight—a smart piece of storytelling expediency, since I for one had seen enough of bodies being hurled about by special effects—and while Buffy rushes out to protect her friends from one of Willow’s long-distance spells, Giles allows Willow to absorb the magic that he’d loaded up on before leaving England. (A concerned coven lent him their power.) But it turns out that this was all part of Giles’ gambit. When Willow takes his power, it overloads her, while also re-instilling some compassion. The only problem? Willow gets so compassionate that she decides to bring a satanic temple back out of the ground on Kingman’s Bluff, and destroy the world to save everyone from their shared misery.
After that, “Grave” starts to exhibit some of that “rushed” and “overstuffed” qualities I referred to earlier. The episode tries to wrap up The Trio’s story (with Jonathan and Andrew escaping to Mexico), and to revive the season-long thread about the strained relationship between Buffy and Dawn. The sisters fight alongside each other, and Dawn proves that she has some natural combat skills. But she also berates Buffy for not telling her about Spike’s attempted rape, and for trying to protect her more than is necessary. And in one of the most moving moments of the finale, Dawn tells Buffy that she genuinely didn’t know whether or not Buffy would’ve been fine with the world ending. The two embrace warmly, as Buffy realizes that her journey into her own head all year has been hard on Dawn. Granted, this is about the tenth time this season that Buffy has had this revelation, but still… I was choked up.
I was also really choked up by the big climax, which allows Xander to be a hero again. As Willow is preparing for armageddon, her oldest friend stands in her way, joking that, “This carpenter can drywall you into the next century,” and daring Willow to kill him. “You think I won’t?” Willow hisses, and Xander replies, heartbreakingly, “It doesn’t matter.” Then he holds her as her dark power drains away (playing the Scott Summers to her Jean Grey in X-Men #136, with Giles in the Professor X role). This wasn’t just a strong scene between two core characters; it was satisfying on many, many levels. We haven’t seen much of Xander and Willow together in a while, but there’s history there. It’s heartening to see how a friendship endures.
Like I said up top, I don’t think that everything worked in these two episodes. There were more than a few contrivances to hold Willow at bay before Giles could spring his trap, and some of the scenes of her rampage were surely more awesome in the abstract than in the way they were actually shot. But I appreciated the effort by all concerned to make this finale cathartic, paying off what they started back at the beginning of the season. Even the action is bookended smartly. In “Bargaining,” Willow tries to raise the dead. In “Grave,” she tries to raise death.
So what’s my take on season six on the whole? I wish I could be more definitive. I wish I could join the tribe who believes that Buffy’s sixth season is its most mature, sophisticated and compelling, or the tribe who believes that the show should’ve ended after season five. But alas, I tend not to be so staunch. I liked a lot of season six. I liked what the show was trying to do, and nothing that happened this season has soured me on Buffy in any major way. It’s true that I enjoyed season three of Angel more, but I never felt like Buffy’s sixth season was a chore. If nothing else, watching these episodes was always engaging intellectually, and skimming through the conversation in the comments here even moreso.
But all season long I’ve noted that the material was working better in theory than in practice for me, and the finale didn’t change my perspective. When I think back on all that I just watched, my immediate memory is of a lot of pain, and tragedy, and separation, and woe-is-me-ing. It’s only after that quick impression that I contemplate why it all went down the way it did. And I doubt that was writers’ intention: to serve a nourishing meal with a taste so bitter that it lingers on the palate.
So I guess I’m copping out here, and saying that Buffy’s sixth season is everything its defenders and its detractors say it is. It was some of the most daring and intricate storytelling that the Buffy writers had attempted to that point. And it was a self-indulgent wallow. I respect it. At times I was thrilled, amused and touched by it. But I didn’t love it.
- Not much to say about the Spike In Africa interludes, except that I chuckled at him quoting Nirvana before battling his first demon, and I was distracted by how much the demon-in-charge looked like Skip, from Angel. (I mean, he was in the shadows the whole time, but his outline was kind of Skip-y.) Anyway, Spike has a soul now. I’m curious to find out whether that makes him like Angel, or if something else will become of him.
- While stuck in jail, Andrew is convinced that Warren is trying to communicate with him, and that if he can figure out where the signals might be coming from, Warren will rescue him.
- Clem doesn’t care for the texture of nacho cheese chips.
- Rack’s not partial to the floppy-eared, according to Clem.
- I liked the dynamic between Anya and Xander during their few scenes together. It was sweet to hear her say, “I care if you live or die, Xander. I’m just not sure which one I want.” And then it was amusing to hear her ask him whether he’s planning to propose again when things get tough.
- “Fly, my pretty, fly… see what I did there?”
- I was genuinely concerned that Buffy had brought back Giles just so he could sacrifice his life to stop Willow. If that had happened… well, I would’ve gone back and time and written a strongly worded message-board post.
- And now, a brief hiatus. I need to recharge a little and drive through the end of the regular TV season before I resume my journeys in the Buffyverse. I’ll be back on May 13th, with the first two Buffys of season seven.