Fans of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the cult hit that celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, disagree about a lot of things regarding what, for many of them, is the Best Show Ever Made. (Full disclosure: I am part of that camp.) Ask about their favorite episodes and some will say "The Body" while others argue for "Hush" or "Tabula Rasa" and more will sing the praises of "Once More With Feeling" or other episodes in the seven season canon of the series. Ask about their favorite Buffy boyfriend and you'll have a huge fight on your hands between Angel and Spike. (No one is likely to expend much breath over Riley.) Ask about their favorite villains or monsters, and you'll get all sorts of answers.
But there is one thing on which “Buffy” fans have, for fourteen years, agreed on as if with a single voice: Season 6 of the show was a low point for the series. Heck, in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, star Sarah Michelle Gellar herself discussed her distaste for that season: “I’ve always said that season 6 was not my favorite. I felt it betrayed who she was.” For a long time, I shared that opinion. It was, after all, Buffy’s own: she spends much of Season 6 loathing her own behavior. She keeps secrets from her friends. She isn’t present emotionally for her little sister Dawn. She can’t sense the deep needs her friends Xander and Willow have until it is far too late. She can’t seem to find a way to “adult” in any variation of the term. She finds herself in a torrid sexual affair with Spike, an erstwhile nemesis who is still, according to both of them, “evil.” And she simply can’t shake her feelings: even after he attempts to rape her, she still trusts him to care for Dawn. Her decision-making in Season 6 is, in a word, miserable.
Fans find a lot miserable about Season 6, starting with its Big Bad. While other seasons gave us The Master, Angelus, Adam, the Mayor, and Glory, all worthy supernatural opponents, Season 6 has Buffy face off against a “Trio” of nerds who failed at everything they tried to do in high school and now have joined together in all of their elaborate nerdness (nerdity?) to try to get some revenge. Even Buffy, in one episode, describes their efforts as “lame.” Interestingly, many fans have even more trouble with the one supernatural Big Bad of the season, Dark Willow. Her power is as great as the Hell-god Glory’s the previous season—perhaps greater—but many fans simply can’t get past adorable Allyson Hannigan as the bringer of doom. And some don’t feel the threat is great enough until the very end, since she is hunting the Trio, who sort of deserve it. Other fans point to the overall depressing tone of the season, noting that creator Joss Whedon was busy with two other programs (”Angel” and the new “Firefly”) and was not involved in direct oversight of “Buffy” that year and thus was not around to insert his trademark wit. (For the record, Whedon disagrees with Gellar about the effectiveness of Season 6 as well as his own involvement.)
However, a two-day binge watch of Season 6 now, a decade and a half after it first aired, reveals something that was not readily apparent the first time through, when we were reeling along with the characters from what was happening in Sunnydale. Watching it now, it’s easy to see that there are several major themes working through this season, and ultimately every one of them ties together. Beyond that, something else becomes obvious: far from lacking wit and cleverness, this season, above all others, is a total deconstruction and self-examination of the entire series that, in the end, blows it all up and puts it back together to set up a grand finale.
Among the themes that weave their way through the episodes of Season 6:
The hell of being alive
At the end of Season 5, Buffy, who had learned cryptically that her “gift is death,” finally understands that, in order to save the little sister who doesn’t even exist when the season began but, due to memory manipulation, seems to her to have been present all of her life, she needs to sacrifice herself. It is the second death with which the Slayer gifts the world, the first occurring near the end of Season 1 at the hands of The Master. Season 6 begins, appropriately enough, three months later, and Buffy’s friends have taken over the slaying with the help of a robot who looks like Buffy, an effort to fool the demons and vampires into believing that she is still around. But Willow, now a powerful witch, can’t get past the pain of believing her friend must be residing in some unknown hell dimension, suffering because of the sacrifice she made for them. Thus she casts a spell that pulls Buffy back from the grave. From the start, it goes wrong: demons scatter the friends as they work the spell and Buffy is left to claw her way from her own coffin, an image we’ve seen so many times in the series: the dead rising.
As we learn, Buffy was not in a demon dimension at all, but in heaven. Returning to earth, she asks a single question in the first episode in which she appears: “Is this hell?” It’s a question that plagues her throughout the season. In the musical episode “Once More With Feeling,” she sings about it directly: “There was no pain. No fear, no doubt, till they pulled me out of Heaven. So that's my refrain. I live in Hell 'cause I've been expelled from Heaven.” It’s a hell without emotion: Buffy can no longer feel.
Now, through the smoke she calls to me To make my way across the flame To save the day or maybe melt away I guess it's all the same
It is in this state, desperate to feel anything, that she turns to Spike, who is everything she hates, for physical solace. Their initial liaison is nothing like the tender love-making she had with Angel or Riley: it is a tornado, a boxing match, an unleashing of emotions so primal that, when they finish, the abandoned building in which it happens literally falls down around them. And she says it is “the most perverse, degrading experience of my life,” but she does it again...and again because she needs to feel. She is addicted. Which brings me to the next theme.
The power of addiction
Buffy learns it through her escapades with Spike: there are times when the need for something is so great that it overwhelms common sense. Dawn also discovers the power addiction has during the season, as she continues the shoplifting that she began in Season 5, bragging to a friend about how much she has stolen and eventually getting to the point where, in “Entropy,” she and Buffy literally can’t shop in downtown Sunnydale because she’s been banned from so many shops. Indirectly, her shoplifting helps bring about the dancing demon Sweet in “Once More With Feeling”: Xander actually calls him for a lark, but it is Dawn who may determine the moment by wearing the charm she lifted from the Magic Box.
Another character dealing with a form of addiction is Spike, who simply cannot get past his emotional need for Buffy.
I know I should go But I follow you like a man possessed There's a traitor here beneath my breast And it hurts me more than you've ever guessed If my heart could beat, it would break my chest But I can see you're unimpressed
Eventually, his obsessive pain is so great that he risks death to return his soul in order to be with her properly.
The single greatest example of addiction, of course, is Willow, whose addiction to magic is front and center for much of the season. She finds herself in so deep that she ends up visiting a warlock to get herself hooked up with serious dark magic, the scene so like an addict seeing her fixer that it is impossible to miss the metaphor. She’s in so far that she nearly gets Dawn killed. Eventually Tara gets her to stop cold turkey by leaving her, and that proves to be her wake-up call. Late in the season, the two lovers finally reunite and all seems joyful and happy until a stray bullet meant for Buffy hits and kills Tara, and Willow’s intense rage and pain send her completely over the deep end, turning her into the witch monster Dark Willow, whose addiction to power is so great that she can no longer distinguish her friends or even herself, and she can’t see the value in human life at all.
The critical importance of friends
Like Dark Willow, every time anyone goes it alone in this season, things go completely awry. Willow with her magic, Buffy with her secrets, Giles with his returns to England, Dawn with her shoplifting, Xander with his wedding fiasco: going off on your own never leads to anything good. Anya, too, makes a poor decision when left to her own devices, getting back into the demon business (though her ability to teleport does indeed come in handy in the season’s climax). Even within the Trio, Warren (clearly the one making all of the decisions) makes many bad calls when he is not tempered by his cohorts, up to and including the bullets that trigger his own destruction. Though people continue throughout the season to undervalue their friendships, it is clear again and again how important they are.
The first images we have in the season are of the Scooby Gang banding together to fight the vampires none of them could fight alone. The only moments of calm during the season come in those rare moments when two or more people are allowed just to sit and talk (though Buffy’s birthday party, as usual, turns into a near-disaster). Very little, really, is joyful in this season. Sex, as we’ve noted, certainly isn’t. Xander and Anya’s wedding devolves into a riot before the groom walks off (alone). Pretty much all social gatherings involve at least one character who is depressed and needing comfort or terribly angry at someone else. Working together, as the Scoobies do in the first episode of the season and as they’ve done all along, just seems to vanish. It isn’t until everyone comes together to stop Dark Willow that they seem to remember that they are a team. Anya holds Willow off with a spell. Giles fights her with powerful good magic. Xander and Dawn work together to move what remains of the Trio away from her.
In the end, Dawn actually joins in with Buffy to hold off the supernatural monsters Willow has called into creation to keep the Slayer busy while she destroys the world, and it’s left to another friend, the usually feckless Xander, to save the day by placing himself in harm’s way and desperately (and successfully) seeking whatever small grain of humanity might remain with Willow’s darkness.
The meta-cognition of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
Season 6 is, without a doubt, the most meta season ever put together by a show that was not self-consciously meta in the first place. (”Community” fans, you don’t count.) From the beginning, this season is a complete and complex deconstruction of the entire series that has preceded it.
Let’s begin with the Trio. Positioned at first to be the season’s Big Bad (and they would have been without a doubt the lamest such villain of all seven seasons), what they are, in truth, is a “trio” of high school losers who think that, by joining forces, they can become winners. Call it “Revenge of the Geeks.” My husband, watching Season 6 for the first time, made this observation: “They are the show’s fans.” (Now I took some umbrage with that, pointing out that I am a fan, but he just said that was a proof, not a refutation.) But he’s essentially correct: in previous seasons, “Buffy” aimed high and higher, eventually finding the level of god for its Big Bad. It’s a bit difficult to continue a steady rise at that point. Further, Buffy had, at the end of Season 5, as already noted, died, a fact that had to be dealt with. All of which made Season 6 a very interesting year. Instead of simply trying to continue the unimpeded growth in power and evil of the Big Bads, the show turns its figurative cameras inward, dissecting itself, exploring exactly what made it work, and rewiring some of the narrative threads almost as blatantly as it did a year earlier with the introduction of Dawn.
The Trio works because they are relatable. We all have known (or are) people like that. And as the season wears on and they reveal that, yes, they do have some talents, but their clear ineptitude will never allow them to succeed, we start feeling sorry for Jonathan and weak-willed Andrew, who falls under Warren’s spell. Warren, though, is another matter: he is a malevolent geek. It was clear when he was introduced (in the Season 5 episode “I Was Made to Love You”) that he has a misogynistic and sociopathic streak. Season 6 allows him to play more fully with both, and eventually leads him to murder. But until Warren’s darkness takes over, the Trio are basically everyman. And it is, in fact, as if Whedon and his partner in crime Marti Noxon have unleashed a group of fans into the Buffyverse just to see what kind of havoc they might cause. And the answer, apparently, is a lot. It is the annoying kid of havoc, as Buffy observes, rather than the apocalyptical kind: “You three have, what, banded together to be pains in my ass?” But in its varying odd types, it is also revelatory.
In one signature episode, “Gone,” the Trio accidentally turns Buffy invisible. Far from being irritated by this development, though, the Slayer discovers a newfound freedom in her lack of reflective matter. It’s as if for the first time all season she can breathe. Unobserved, she glides from place to place like a ghost—which in fact is what she feels like anyway—to make little things work better in her life and to have a bit of fun with her newfound status. But what she doesn’t see is what her sister sees easily: her own desire to slip away from a life she never asked for in the first place.
The Trio expand the meta element in other ways as well. One example is quite literal: they plant cameras everywhere the Scoobies hang out to watch them. Thus, within the show, we have characters (the aforementioned fanboys) watching the show.
Beyond the Trio, though, this season is full of meta riffs on what this series has been and continues to be. “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode that serves as a mini-climax to the first third of the season, uses the motif of a demon who forces everyone to reveal truth in songs to create commentary about characters, secrets, the show itself, and even the very songs they are singing. In one lyric, for example, Willow notes, “I think this line’s mostly filler.” Anya, after the duet she and Xander sing, complains, “Clearly our number is a retro-pastiche that's never going to be a break-away pop hit.” And Buffy, at one point, critiques everything from her wardrobe to the show’s basic demon-hunting tropes:
Well, I'm not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots, but there's definitely something unnatural going on here. And that doesn't usually lead to hugs and puppies.
The entire episode, a bit of a meta joke in itself, is one revealing comment or busted secret after another. By the time it’s finished, the demon Sweet observes, “there’s not a one who can say this ended well.”
The ultimate expression of this theme lies in the episode “Normal Again,” in which Buffy imagines that her entire universe is actually the insane dream of a lunatic in an asylum. Several times during this episode she questions her own reality, wondering which is more likely: a teenager in an asylum unable to cope and living in a fantasy, or a superhero “chosen one” fighting vampires and demons. The episode is structured so that it is just barely possible to believe that the alternative reality is, in fact, the truth. In this exchange, the asylum version of Buffy listens to her doctor and her mother, who is now dead in her Sunnydale life, deconstructing her “fantasy”:
Doctor: A magical key. Buffy inserted Dawn into her delusion, actually rewriting the entire history of it to accommodate a need for a familial bond. [to Buffy] Buffy, but that created inconsistencies, didn't it? Your sister, your friends - all of those people you created in Sunnydale - they aren't as comforting as they once were, are they? They're coming apart.
Joyce Summers: Buffy, listen to what the doctor's saying. It's important.
Doctor: Buffy, you used to create these grand villains to battle against, and now what is it? Just ordinary students you went to high school with. No gods or monsters, just three pathetic little men... who like playing with toys.
The comment about Dawn’s sudden intrusion upon the landscape of the series and how her presence seemed to have shifted the “comfort” factor of the “fantasy” is a direct reference to a fanbase controversy about that character that was still raging at the time. And the comment about the villains is about as self-aware as any comment can possibly be.
A final area in which Season 6 is turning its cameras inward is in the characters’ individual and collective relationships with life. For the first three seasons, the main characters are in high school, which creates both a comfortable boundary and a fundamental theme (high school is hell). In season 4, Willow and Buffy move on to college, leaving Xander behind. The focus becomes the college campus, especially with The Initiative. Season 5 moves back home with Buffy, once more spreading things out and moving the focal point to the Magic Box. It is in this season, too, that the Scoobies begin to fragment. Xander proposes to Anya. Willow and Tara are deeply in love and nesting. Dawn is in the picture and they are fighting a god to keep her alive. Joyce dies. Buffy dies. It is a painful, sad year despite some emotional highlights.
For five years, with Buffy to lead the group, there was always some kind of cohesion. Now, though, first without Buffy and then with a “broken” Buffy, the whole group seems lost, and entire episodes and parts of episodes are dedicated to the mundane and important realities of living life: getting a job, getting a loan, trying to hold on to your family against society’s odds, getting a haircut, making meals, fixing leaky pipes, cleaning dishes...in a word, adulting. Buffy, for one, is lousy at it. Willow isn’t much better, seduced as she is by the Dark Side Magicks. Anya is almost good at it, but she’s emotionally immature and easily sent over the edge by Xander, who isn’t good at it. Basically, Tara is the only one who’s any good at it, and she doesn’t last the season. She does, though, seem to understand that life isn’t a game you play all the time.
“Buffy’s” penultimate season breaks down its previous rules and situations and sets its fans up for one final ride. Buffy dies without another slayer being called, opening the door for the 7th seasons’s concept of Potentials. The two couples created in Season 5 are decoupled, reuniting the Scoobies as the central force of the show. Dawn’s whiny, self-centered shoplifting days appear to be behind her. Giles seems to have returned for good. Spike regains his soul. It’s a new day in Sunnydale.
Ultimately, Season 6 might come down to something that is said, again, in “Once More With Feeling.” Spike stops Buffy from dancing herself to death and sings to her:
Life's not a song. Life isn't bliss, life is just this. It's living. You'll get along. The pain that you feel can only heal by living. You have to go on living. So one of us is living.
It’s a reflection of a line Buffy herself had told her sister before she sacrificed herself so Dawn could live, a line that Dawn echoes, a line that can serve, if any one line can, for the fundamental theme of this pivotal season: “Dawn, the hardest thing in this world...is to live in it.”
This is why “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is such an important program and Joss Whedon such a brilliant writer and producer. In a show about a “chosen one” who slays monsters and demons and vampires he managed to create something completely universal, something that speaks to anyone if they let themselves immerse in it. I’m of the opinion that there are only two types of people in the world: those who love “Buffy” and those who haven’t watched it yet.