Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sacrificing Double Entendre For Cold, Hard, Reality: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Six Becomes Something Incredible!

The Good: Good themes, Interesting effects, Decent character work, Daring nonstandard television
The Bad: Some acting, Sacrificing some allegory
The Basics: Possibly the peak of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, season six finds Buffy alive, disenchanted and lonely until tragedy strikes one of her friends and she is forced to accept her place.

The first three to five seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the show has a tendency to be watchable on two levels. One is the literal level, where Buffy and her often-absurd friends run around Sunnydale fighting often absurd demons in a strange twist on the classic good versus evil thing. At the same time, one may look at the episodes as an allegory for growing up. So, for instance, in the second season episode wherein Buffy makes love to Angel and he turns into his evil, soulless alter-ego, one may watch the episode(s) that follow as a story about the fears a young woman might have about how sex will change their relationship and the person they love. Season six ends that tradition. In the twenty-two episodes that comprise the sixth season, almost all of the allegory is gone. There's a distinct change in tone here as Buffy's world becomes almost entirely what it is as opposed to being a symbol for something more.

Following the death of Buffy at the climax of season five (why are you even reading this if you haven't seen season 5?!), the gang finds themselves slowly losing the war against evil in Sunnydale. Thus, using Willow's magic, they resurrect Buffy to find that she's not grateful for being brought back. Buffy finds herself disenchanted with life, pitted against a lame trio of nerds who are bent on taking over the world (or at least Sunnydale) and without any real hope. As the season progresses, Buffy finds herself in a relationship with Spike (the not-so-evil-anymore vampire) and neglecting her friends, which allows Willow to fall into some bad patterns and threaten the world.

The shift in the tone of Buffy The Vampire Slayer makes a great deal of sense. After all, what more can you fight when you've taken on a Goddess? The change from an external villain to one of the group turning makes perfect sense and is enough to keep us watching. However, this is not the most accessible season for those who have not watched prior seasons (i.e. if you watch seasons one and two, skipping ahead to season six would leave the viewer mighty confused). Conversely, this is an excellent place for people who did not like the early seasons to step in. Allow me to explain: Seasons 1 - 5 work best when they are viewed as an allegory for the problems we experience(d) growing up. Buffy runs for homecoming queen against Cordelia (a symbol of beauty) while being preyed upon by killer demons in a chase scenario (fear of rape). So the episode explores the simple Cordelia/Buffy competition while revealing the woman's fear of exposing her beauty to predators. The thing is, if you're older (than a teen) and been through all of that and survived it, the allegory isn't so relevant. And there's only so many times you can watch coming of age shows for the nostalgia. So, when season six of Buffy The Vampire Slayer enters the more adult world of bills and abusive relationships, it becomes more accessible to an older audience and more enduring.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, like all good serialized television, revolves around intriguing characters and here we see those characters all growing and expanding in ways that make this a season worth watching over and over again. Here is how the characters grow in season six:

Buffy - Feeling lost, alone and like her sacrifice was made in vain, she drifts through the motions of protecting Sunnydale until she falls into a relationship with Spike, wherein she attempts to feel again,

Willow - Magic becomes an addiction for her, opening her up to new levels of power by exposure to the darkest forces. This puts a strain on her love for Tara and when tragedy strikes, she is pushed further than anyone would have guessed,

Spike - Completely in love with Buffy, he finds his dreams fulfilled by her, then dashed when she rejects their unhealthy, violent, relationship. This leads him to his most horrible act and to his attempt to seek clarity,

Xander - Moves towards his wedding day with Anya, while not expressing his insecurities about the future. Xander's fear overcomes him and he leaves town,

Anya - Looks forward to her marriage with Xander and becomes furious when he rejects her,

Dawn - Evolves - throughout the season - from the Key into a young woman who wants to fight the good fight, with a little stint as a shoplifter thrown in for good measure,

Tara - Becomes the guardian of Willow's humanity, especially when she sees that Willow is becoming too involved with magic and the wrong kinds of magic,

The Trio - Jonathan, Warren and Andrew attempt to thwart the slayer and find themselves on the run from something even more powerful,

Giles - Leaves Sunnydale when he comes to realize that Buffy no longer needs him.

Buffy's character takes a turn for the intriguingly real as she is forced to deal with issues like paying bills and making ends meet, while at the same time trying to live up to the responsibilities of parenting Dawn. Her relationship with Spike then, violent as it is, seems very real. With her daily life becoming increasingly unfulfilling and having no earthshaking enemies to fight, Spike forces her to actually feel and sometimes, feeling pain is better than feeling nothing at all.

This is a season where the characters suffer, but rather than suffering in melodrama or having their conflicts be clouded by allegory, here the characters are easily accessible and quite real. Buffy's sense of loss is quite clear and easy to relate to. Xander's insecurities are quite compelling and Spike's desire to be loved and his sense of loss comes across in a way that makes him more than just a monolithic vampire. Similarly, Willow's sense of confusion over her new levels of power comes across as a compelling internal conflict that was foreshadowed in the fifth season. She wants to do right, but her magic and her love come into conflict.

Indeed, perhaps the most wrenchingly human moments of the entire series comes at the end of the episode "Tabula Rasa." Willow's magic caused everyone to lose their memories and when their identities are restored, the montage (set to Michelle Branch's "Good-bye To You") is shockingly emotive.

What's more, this series does more than simply torment its characters week after week. It takes chances with the television medium. If anyone were to loathe the musical episode ("Once More With Feeling"), it would be me; I've seen and heard it played at least a hundred times at conventions. But it fits quite well with the series and on the DVD, it's nice to see and hear and the commentary is intriguing.

The acting in season six is a bit of a mixed bag. Michelle Trachtenberg isn't given a chance to expand beyond being whiny and annoying for the bulk of the season and Emma Caulfield's Anya isn't given any range, save in "Once More With Feeling," until the very end of the season. Sarah Michelle Gellar, especially around midseason, seems bored with the role of Buffy.

The winners, in terms of acting, in this season are James Marsters, as Spike and Nicholas Brendon, as Xander. Marsters infuses a depth of emotion into Spike that was only hinted at in previous seasons, especially season five. Here, Marsters is given the chance to be loving, forlorn, caring and delusionally creepy. He takes his chance to shine and explodes into the role. Similarly, Nicholas Brendon has a chance to be more than the bearer of sarcasm and he rises to the role. Emotive, insecure and loving, Brendon gets the opportunity to explore Xander with more depth and his range is finally realized and illustrated in this season.

The real winner on the acting front is Alyson Hannigan. After five years of playing Willow as withdrawn, nerdy, and shy, Hannigan is given a chance to open the character up. Hannigan explores love, jealousy, loss, anger, fury and indifference with such amazing body language and tone control that the evolution of Willow into a villainous figure seems incredibly natural. Moreover, Hannigan plays the worst aspects of Willow without any trace of the performance of her third season evil doppelganger (a real feat considering one of her lines is actually taken from that character). Hannigan illustrates why her acting may be viewed as a force.

Far from a perfect season of television, the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, is a worthy addition to any fan of real drama, especially as it pertains to young adults. The DVD set is geared towards fans of the series with six commentaries. They are good commentaries and the panel discussion from the Academy is interesting as are some of the behind-the-scenes featurettes. The music videos are "eh." The real gem here is in the programming itself and it continues the Buffy story while fleshing out all of the supporting characters. An intriguing story of a woman who feels lost who drifts into finding herself at the expense of her attention to her friends.

For other worthwhile penultimate seasons, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Six
Friends - Season Nine
Heroes - Season Three


For other television series reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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