The final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is unfortunately the worst one yet. Season six certainly had its problems, but retained for the most part the strength of its core characters and their development, and even though it made mistakes, the season wasn’t afraid to try and break new ground, to push the series into darker corners. Six did a tremendous amount of damage to Buffy‘s characters and left them in pieces by the finale – and unlike season three, which did a fantastic job of rebuilding the characters after ‘Becoming,’ season seven really doesn’t know what to do with them and so the show falters. Seven is where the writers lost it; Whedon had by this time moved on to different things and it’s clear that creatively, he was done with the show when Buffy died – and without his direction Buffy becomes a muddled mess. Season seven however isn’t a disaster. Compared to what was on television at the time, seven is a rather good season – unfortunately however, when compared to previous seasons of the show, seven is rather weak and lifeless. This shouldn’t be too surprising – most shows, no matter how great, don’t remain strong after seven seasons, but it is somewhat sad to see such an innovative show stumble at its close. Despite the flaws, however, there’s still some great moments here however, and a nice sense of closure as we bid farewell to the Buffy, Sunnydale, and the Scoobies. Season seven actually has one of the strongest opening runs in the entire series. There’s a clear focus from the writers to move away from the darkness of season six and bring a sense of fun back into the show. ‘Lessons’ is a nice introduction episode which reintroduces Sunnydale High and the idea of going back to the start; the opening run serves as a throwback to Buffy‘s first year – the high school returns, and with it, the monster-of-the-week episodes. Some would argue that this nostalgia is tired; that the show had moved on beyond this early-styled episodes, and that is partly true, but after the bleak tone of the season six, the casual, old-school nature of these first few episodes really helps to ease the audience back into Buffy‘s world. It’s a nice breather – when Buffy frets about having mom hair, or Anya possess a comically paralysed Dawn, it’s fun, a reminder of the show’s more carefree days. ‘Same Time, Same Place’ has a wonderfully icky monster, ‘Help,’ is a fitting pastiche of the past, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with ‘Him,’ which is basically a rip-off of ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,’ but hey, even the show admits this, and the split screen shot is one of the funniest visual gags in the series. ‘Selfless’ is a brilliant episode – focusing for the first time really, on Anya, this is a mythology episode similar to ‘Fool for Love,’ with great pathos and a wonderful musical number/jump cut. ‘Conversations with Dead People,’ the last truly great episode of the show, born from scheduling conflicts suggesting the idea of ‘what if they never see each other?’ The episode, featuring a haunting opening song, the best use of music in the show – follows Buffy, Spike, Willow and Dawn in separate scenarios on the same night. Each story is very different, with Dawn’s standing out as especially creepy – this is a real powerhouse episode and promises amazing things for the rest of the year. Watching ‘Conversations’ as a newcomer, you’d be forgiven to think that season seven was going to be the strongest year yet. Sadly, the show falls apart after this episode. The promise simply doesn’t pay off and it’s clear, looking back, that the writers had no idea what to do from this point onwards. You can almost feel the break in the show after ‘Conversations,’ with ‘Sleeper’ the real beginning of the decline. There’s a sense of lost potential with season seven (ironic given its themes) – and the end of ‘Lessons’ is a great example of this, as a shape-shifting villain discusses power and works back through the show’s main villains (Warren, Glory, Adam, The Mayor, Drusilla, the Master) before finally landing on Buffy herself – this is a huge fan-pleasing moment promising great things to come which doesn’t deliver. The ominous, ‘from beneath you, it devours’ is also dropped, and Dawn’s warning from a heavenly Joyce is also ignored. It’s clear the writers didn’t have a plan post ‘Conversations.’ This is where the plot begins and character development stops. The problems with seven stem from the fact that its the most plot-heavy season yet, but the plot is a terrible mess of holes and feels very contrived throughout. Previous seasons have always focused on the characters first; the drama came from them and the plot was always less of a focus. The exception to the rule is season five, which managed to balance both character and plot perfectly. Seven, understandably, wants to create a big, epic, all-out war plot to end on and the intentions are pure, it’s just that the execution is terrible. The writers clearly don’t know where they’re going and so the pacing in seven becomes awful; there’s a great sense of treading water throughout and a sinking feeling that the writers were basically making up the plot as they went along. Nothing really makes sense here and the plot is further undermined by random MacGuffins – the scythe, the Seal, the Temple – and a few clumsy Deus Ex Machinas – the Amulet – which are chucked into the story without any real thought, chipping away at what little integrity was left in the show. The Seal of Danzalthar in particular is extremely inconsistent and basically does whatever the writers need it to at any given time. Things just seem to happen. Villains go into ‘recession’ for no reason. There are numerous plot-holes throughout. When watched over a period of weeks, season seven is easier to take – watching it in one-bulk just highlights how inconsistent it is, and how much is dropped from one episode to the next. For a show which was always built on its rules and continuity season seven is a little bit sad. The plot is rendered worse by the fact that we spend very little time with the established core characters, focusing instead on a bunch of irritating new ones. Xander is basically ignored for the entire season, replaced for the most part by the annoying Andrew, who even gets his own episode. ‘Storyteller’ isn’t bad and it’s funny, but it comes so late in the game and focuses on such a random character that you have to wonder what the writers were thinking. Principle Wood (D. B. Woodside) is charming and smooth but a redundant and uninteresting character who gets far too much screentime. The Potential Slayers are by far the worst though – there are literally dozens of these girls and all are interchangeable, dull, and annoying. Most are unnamed. It’s hard not to want to see them all get killed. None of the actresses playing the Potentials can act either and they all get so much attention, stealing focus from the Scoobies in their final year. The worst offenders are Rona (intensely annoying and crassly written) and of course Kennedy, Willow’s love-interest. Not only is the concept of Kennedy a major misstep – seeing as Willow almost destroyed the world for Tara, it seems a bit soon for her to have a new girlfriend – the character is badly written, cocky, whiny and unpleasant. She gets more attention however than established characters like Dawn, Giles or even Xander. The Potentials really clog up the show and spread the Scoobies so thinly throughout the episodes, and although they do allow Buffy to have an army and play into the season’s power themes, they’re a terrible idea to be introduced this late in the show and really hurt the series. Seven isn’t helped by its villain either – The First is one of Buffy’s most incompetent foes. Back in ‘Amends,’ the First was a genuinely scary, eerie creation – Buffy‘s version of the Devil, more of a theoretical concept really. The First isn’t a demon but is simply evil – the embodiment of it, and so can never be defeated. It only exists in any kind of form because its bringers channel it into life. It’s threatening and promising at the start of season seven – the shape-shifting villain speech at the end of ‘Lessons’ for example, and its haunting appearances in ‘Conversations,’ but it quickly becomes a dull, lifeless villain without any motivation or drive. That wouldn’t be so bad if it was portrayed as the embodiment of evil and actually presented as scary, but it isn’t, and just comes across as a creature without any real focus or plan. It’s concept – that it can only appear as dead people – is fantastic on paper but difficult to portray practically on television. Ideally, the First would take the shape of dead characters important to the Scoobies and taunt them. It would appear to Willow as Tara, to Buffy as Joyce, Giles as Jenny, etc. Unfortunately the show’s budget and the limitations of casting rendered this impossible and the First is never portrayed to its full potential; generally Gellar plays the part and whilst she’s fun in the role (and perversely sexy when evil) it would have been nice to see the First come back in more forms; it could potentially have been a devastating psychological foe instead of a weak, limp taunter. Towards the end of season, the writers realize that Buffy needs something to hit and so Caleb (Nathan Fillion) is introduced. He’s not bad, but appears so late in the show, and thematically is a little on-the-nose. The woman-hating Southern preacher is a little poor, almost too easy really. The established Scoobies are mixed bag. Buffy herself is at her coldest here – the introduction of the Potentials turns her essentially into a brutal military leader and she loses all of her humanity and reliability. It’s fitting really, when watching Buffy grow throughout the show, that she would reach this point eventually, but still a little sad to see. ‘Conversations’ also raises the idea that Buffy feels superior to her friends which in term makes her feel inferior to them, and interesting final comment on the nature of the slayer and Buffy’s need to balance her darker life with her human one. Gellar plays the role distant – more the writing than her acting really – and its very clear by this point in the show that she’s going through the motions and wanted out. Spike doesn’t change dramatically once receiving his soul – he generally just mellows out – but the character gets far too much focus. Everything revolves around him and the over-exposure weakens the character, as there’s a sense that Spike only gets so much screentime because he’s a fan favourite, not because he needs it. He does get some strong closure with his Buffy relationship and a fitting end in the final episode. His final moments are redemptive and powerful.As for the other Scoobies, Xander never recovers from jilting Anya and the writers don’t know what to do with him and so do nothing with him. Willow becomes a rather bland caricature of herself (her sexuality is handled terribly in this season) but there is still a great sense of power to her, and she’s clearly suffering after season six. It’s fitting that she’s integral in saving the day however and is probably the most powerful character in the entire series by the closing credits. Willow leaves Sunnydale a god, and that’s a welcome end for her. Anya retains her fun humour and her death in the final is shocking and sudden, though it comes too late in the show to have a real impact. Giles is written badly throughout – extremely distant, with more in common with season one Giles – the writers decide to try and fool the audience into thinking he’s the First by having him act out of character for several episodes. Many of the main characters do random things this season and seem to act in ways which contradict their history – the scene in which the Scoobies reject Buffy in ‘Empty Places’ is the worst offender and from a character point of view makes no sense. It’s a fault of the writing however, not the cast. Dawn is given more to do in season seven and gets some great moments in ‘Potential.’ Faith appears briefly but again, isn’t especially well-written this time around and frankly, the character is far less interesting when she’s not tormented. Angel makes a fan-pleasing cameo at the end of the series allowing Buffy to make her ‘cookie dough’ speech, which is a nice, non-committal look into growing up and future choices. It’s a casual yet optimistic and mature note for the two to end on.‘Chosen’ is a strong final episode – epic in scale, but it suffers from pacing issues and really should have been a double-parter, it does get a little too on the nose with its feminism symbolism, but generally is a powerful ending. The destruction of Sunnydale and the Hellmouth provides a nice sense of closure for the show and the big climatic fight is brilliant, with a rousing, heroic score. The series does end on a positive note and with a suggestion of a better future, or more adventures to come. It’s hard for fans not to get choked up when Buffy smiles into the camera for the final time. Thematically, seven is strong too – working towards the past and ghosts, potential, and crucially, power. This is the season where power really matters and the whole year plays out as a battle for who has the most of it. It’s a grand statement to end on.Season seven is the weakest season of the show. By this point, Buffy was on its way out and the problems had well and truly set in. There are some great moments – small pieces of character interaction and a few killer episodes, and ultimately the show ends on a soaring note – it’s just for the most part, seven treads water and is a poor year in comparison to everything that’s gone before. It’s the hardest season to watch on repeat. But ultimately, despite the flaws, its still sad to see these characters go, and the problems of season seven do not take away from the genius of the earlier years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains one of the most influential and exciting projects ever put on television, and the current television Renaissance owes a lot to Joss Whedon and his team.