Television

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Six

Buffy was originally, supposed to end with its fifth season. The show’s television contract with WB was up and Whedon wrote ‘The Gift’ as the program’s final episode. But the demand remained, with fans desperate to spend more time with the Scoobies, and against all odds, the show was picked up by UPN and continued for another two years. There was the small matter of the lead character dying at the end of season five, but that wasn’t going to stop the writers returning to Sunnydale, for an interesting, if problematic, sixth year. When six aired, it was universally criticised by audiences and the fans hated it – and the season does have its share of issues and certainly, this is Buffy on the way out. However, six has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, with some fans calling it the best the show had to offer. And whilst it isn’t anywhere near as bad as some make out – there’s some very brave, creative and imaginative ideas here – it isn’t the best of the series either, and six stands as the point when the show began to come apart. It remains however, a fascinating season to watch, though it’s certainly quite conflicting.b63Buffy’s death is dealt with fairly quickly, in the grim two-part opener, ‘Bargaining.’ Already, there’s a that season six is going to be darker than what’s come before. Buffy has become increasingly more mature from its second season onwards, and has never been afraid to put its characters through absolute hell; but Buffy’s flawed resurrection – the Scoobies revive her within realising, leaving our slayer to claw her way out of the grave – serves as one of the series’ darker moments. When Buffy asks Dawn, ‘is this hell?’ the audience know they’re in for a bleak time. And in true Buffy style, the show refuses to take the easy way out; Buffy does not return to her sprightly self right away. Reflective of season two’s ‘When She was Bad,’ Buffy suffers extreme trauma in regards to her death, and the audience face further shock when they learn that she was in heaven, and that she was happy. This is a bold move, and one which makes season six worth watching; many other shows would have treated Buffy’s return lightly, given her an episode or two to recover, and carried on as usual. Buffy does not get over her forced return and the contrast of heaven with the bleak, crushing reality of life, sends her into an apathetic and lonely depression. It takes Buffy the entire season to get over this, and it could be argued that she never really does – it’s brave for the show to treat its main character with such respect, allowing her time to reassemble, though this makes for grim viewing.b610The season starts strong – ‘After Life’ is an underrated, creepy episode, containing the fantastic moment where Buffy reveals where she’s been to Spike. The slayer has been increasingly moving away from her friends for some time now, but in six, the distance is ten-fold; Buffy, back from the dead and horribly depressed, can no longer connect to the world. It’s a sad but realistic development and one fitting with Buffy’s character; if as five suggests, the slayer’s ultimate dream is to die, then what happens when she’s forced to live? The tremendous sacrifice of ‘The Gift’ and the reward of peace is snatched away and replaced by the horrors of the world, more mundane here than usual – early in the season, Buffy deals with bills, with burst water pipes, with social services. This is the real world finally catching up on the slayer, and it’s painful to watch. In season six, the Big Bad is life itself, and the season serves as a brilliant look into depression; anyone who has ever experienced the bleakness associated with that mental state will relate to Buffy here. Gellar is fantastic, though far more detached than she’s ever been – we never quite get Buffy back and instead we get a girl simply going through the motions. In some ways, the human elements of her personality are gone now; she’s just the slayer. The issue with this idea, is that whilst Buffy’s development and depression is interesting and fitting, it really isn’t fun to watch, a running theme throughout season six. There’s an argument to be made that six works on a intellectual or theoretical level but doesn’t make for great television; the show has always had dark moments, but been peppered with comedy and life; here the life has gone, and for fans, six is almost upsetting to watch. b69This idea continues with the actual villains, and overall tone of the season. Logically, there was nowhere for Buffy to go after a god, so the writers pull back and go in the complete opposite direction, with the Trio – Andrew, Warren and Jonathan (Tom Lenk, Adam Busch and long-time series special guest Danny Strong) a group of geeks with the vague notion of taking down the slayer. Again, this highlights the idea that the demons of this season come from life itself – with all its mundane, crushing realities – and from Buffy’s own internal struggle, which without a true Big Bad, is given the room it needs to be explored. Again, in theory, this works, and the show is self-aware about the lameness of the Trio – however, the fact remains, Buffy fighting her psychotic ex vampire boyfriend, or a rogue slayer, or a god, is always going to be more interesting to watch than Buffy battling depression. Six suffers from this throughout – the ideas are fantastic, and logically, take the characters where they needed to go – but the ideas simply don’t make for truly exciting television. The Trio however do become considerably darker as the season progresses, noticeably after ‘Dead Things,’ a bold episode and spiritual successor to ‘Ted,’ and ultimately, are replaced by a stronger villain.b67And that stronger villain is both surprisingly and completely fitting. Willow turns to the dark side and takes over the final few episodes of the season after Tara’s random demise. Tara herself becomes one of the more mature characters of the show during season six, and her death – the third main character to die after Jenny and Joyce – is truly shocking. No-one dies from a gunshot on Buffy and the clash of reality is brutal; the scene also comes out of nowhere and is one of the most powerful of the entire series. Tara’s death is something of a plot-catalyst and frankly, brushed past by the writers, but it serves as a nice follow-up to five’s ‘Tough Love,’ pushing Willow completely over the edge. Willow is at her boldest, cockiest and more out of control throughout season six; there’s a real darkness to her character by this point, and it’s amazing to think how far she has come in six years. Willow’s increasing battle with power has been building since season two and it’s nice to see things finally pay off, with Willow becoming one of the most powerful villains of the entire show, working as a kind of wiccan Terminator, especially in the excellently paced ‘Villains.’ b613The character of Dark Willow does run out of steam however – the fight scene between her and Buffy is cringe-worthy – but generally leads the season to an exciting final run with some great cliff-hangers. The solution to the problem – Xander saving the world again – is a touching and extremely well acted scene on the part of Brendon and Hannigan, with both actors knocking it out of the park in a moment which really sells their years of childhood friendship. Willow’s rampage is also the catalyst to push Buffy, finally, out of her stupor and back into the world. The season does end on a more positive note after a year of darkness.b611And generally, this is a very bleak year indeed for all the characters. Buffy is only able to talk to Spike, and the two begin a frankly poisonous and bitter, sexually driven relationship. This relationship works within the bleak tone of season six – Buffy can only feel by self-destruction and throws herself at Spike to garner some vague connection with life; Spike, on the other hand, is obsessed with Buffy though she doesn’t care at all about him. The fans who ship these two characters can’t have been watching the same show; this relationship is not healthy and serves to almost destroy Buffy; though the way she reacts to Spike is a strong indicator of her mental state throughout the season – when she is drawn to him she’s at her worst, strongest when she pushes him away. The attempted rape in ‘Seeing Red’ is a concern; it’s primarily done for shock value but does confirm the fact that Spike is truly a monster and not to be trusted; its an uncomfortable scene and perhaps gratuitous, but it saves Buffy by pushing her to the brink, and saves Spike by making him self-aware, which in turn pushes him to seek his salvation at the season’s end. b612Giles leaves for the most part in a fitting character move – Buffy is unable to develop with him there and he needs to leave for her to grow up. Tragically, once Giles leaves it becomes clear how important he was within the Scooby Gang, as with no grown-ups the group completely fall apart. His return in ‘Two to Go’ however is one of the greatest audience pleasing moments of the show, and his subsequent catch up with Buffy is touching, essentially making a mockery of how much the character’s have screwed up within him. Xander and Anya’s break up is a little cold, grim for the sake of it, and unfortunately Xander in particular never truly recovers – this is his biggest mistake since ‘Becoming’ and highlights all of his worst qualities – primarily, his fear and lack of confidence. His relationship towards Buffy – and general denial of her depression, as well as judgement of her lovers – is fittingly within character, but cold and unpleasant at the same time. He loses a lot of his likeability in season six. Dawn suffers mainly from the writers not knowing what to do with her – in five, she’s the key, and brings out important elements within Buffy’s character. In six, Buffy has too many problems to notice Dawn (an interesting idea which the show does address) and unfortunately, with her key plot closed, there’s not a great deal for the character to do. Considering she’s technically, been a lead from the start, its unfair how little screentime she’s given too – Trachtenberg is a remarkable young actress however and can certainly sell the scenes she does appear in. b64It could be argued that it wasn’t worth bringing back these characters to utterly torture them, but six was necessary – darkness has been creeping in since ‘Innocence’ and it’s fitting we got to this point eventually. The highlight of the whole season is the amazing musical episode, ‘Once More with Feeling’ which is one of the greatest television moments ever. It’s one of the big four episodes (along with Hush, The Body and Restless) – the episodes which push the boundaries of what can be done on television. ‘Feeling’ is a rare self-aware musical, parodying Disney – Buffy’s ‘Going Through the Motions’ a twisted take on Ariel’s ‘Part of Your World,’ old Hollywood films and Broadway productions too – ‘Walk Through the Fire’ is a big, ‘Les Mis’ inspired number. It’s a remarkable feat, with some excellent catchy songs. b67Like ‘Hush,’ the episode is noticeable for how it continues character development and growth – this isn’t just a gimmick, and the writing here is outstanding – Buffy sings her true emotions – mainly regarding depression and living in hell, and this is episode with her ‘I think I was in Heaven’ revelation. That’s a brilliant move, to push that kind of character growth through what could, in lesser hands, have been a silly, throw-away episode. ‘Feeling’ reminds audiences why Buffy stands as one of television’s greatest achievements. It’s also incredibly funny, but becomes laced with pathos as it continues, and it’s the show at its most cinematic and bold. The cast are fantastic throughout, with special mention to Anthony Stewart Head, Amber Benson and James Marsters, who have excellent voices and steal the show. It’s the last truly amazing episode of the show and in a sense, it was worth bringing Buffy back for this alone.b65But there partly lies the problem with season six – outside of the musical, there seems to be a distant lack of Whedon here, and creatively, things become muddled. Marti Noxon moved to take over more producing power and whilst it would be silly to say her influence hurt the show – a view shared by many fans – its definitely clear that the lack of Whedon’s input caused problems. Whedon by this time was busy with Angel and Firefly and put Buffy on the back-burner; it’s not hard to blame him either – creatively, he was done with Buffy when she swan-dived off the tower in season five; there’s a sense he came back for the musical and then left the show in other hands. The problem with this however is that cracks begin to appear in the show – we get the first genuinely bad episodes of Buffy – ‘Gone’ and ‘Hell’s Bells’ – and an awful metaphor involving Willow, magic and drugs. Buffy has always prided itself on its subtly and all of that is lost here; Willow’s addiction is so blatantly a drugs metaphor that honestly, they may as well have had her actually taking drugs. There’s also the problem that six utterly destroys all of its characters by pushing them into dark, bleak corners – this would be fine, but they never really come back, though this is much more of an issue with the seventh season of the show. b66Thematically, six is about life. Life is the villain here and life is cruel, sad and unpleasant. In theory, this is a wonderful idea, but it makes for grim, if necessary viewing, hence the conflicting attitudes towards the sixth season of the show. It’s a season which had to happen, and it’s a brave, bold one, but the fun is gone by this point – Buffy is never truly herself again and Sunnydale is never quite the same. b64Looking back in retrospective, season six is extremely conflicting. It’s an excellent season thematically and the character work is amazing – Buffy’s depression is bleak and fascinating, Willow’s power play pays off, and everyone reaches essentially, their logical conclusions. But it isn’t a fun season to watch at all. Six remains brave television but a dividing point amongst fans, but there are some amazing moments and the season definitely has merits. But the cracks appear here – you can trace the faults of season seven back to season six – and unfortunately, the seventh season is the weakest yet.

Check out Buffy Season Seven Retrospective for the final post!

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3 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Six

  1. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Five | Some Films and Stuff

  2. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Seven | Some Films and Stuff

  3. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season One | Some Films and Stuff

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