Congratulations to Marguerite, by the way, who yesterday provided this blog with its 2000th comment!
(blows horn and throws confetti over Marguerite's head)
Next milestone: my 1000th post (which, at current speeds, I will achieve in January 2005)
Our national sci-fi network, Space is showing :Buffy: in syndication. Their run is now up to the seventh season and we've just watched the wonderful Conversations with Dead People.
This episode is one of the best the series has to offer. All at once, at precisely 8:01 p.m. on November 12, 2002 (the exact date and time the episode first aired), three main characters are visited with spirits, two of them literal. Dawn, alone at home, receives a visitation from her mother, but something else is blocking mom from coming through. Meanwhile, Willow meets the recently dead Cassie who brings a message from the longer dead Tara. Finally, Buffy encounters a psychology-spounting, Tae Kwon Do performing vampire who used to go to Sunnydale High with her. In the background, Jonathan and Andrew (two of the three main villains from last season) return from Mexico with word of something extra big and evil going down, and Spike drowns his sorrows in a nearby bar, while a creepy musical interlude sets the whole episode on an off-kilter tone that sets it apart from the rest of :Buffy:.
While Jonathan and Andrew provide a small amount of comic relief, Conversations With Dead People is scary. More than that, it's psychologically scary. And more than that, it's not just the images that you're bombarded with, like Dawn's mother's fleeting appearances in the same couch and in the same position we first saw her dead body back in season five, or season six's supervillain (Warren) reappearing as a ghost ten times more frightening than when he was alive. Rather, it's about the fact that all of these events happen at once. The Big Bad of the season has just made the biggest move on our heroes so far this season (the biggest move it would ever make on our heroes -- more on this later), attacking our heroes while they are are vulnerable and alone. The lineup of revelations which follow in the final five minutes conspire to pull the seventh season forward in a rush that risks sweeping our heroes away before they even throw a punch.
As such, Conversations With Dead People ranks both as one of :Buffy:'s best episodes and also one of its most disappointing, although the reasons for this are not its fault. Season seven does not live up to the promise of this episode, and while it can be argued that very little could, I'm still surprised the :Buffy: writing staff weren't able to do a better job. I say this while comparing the early episodes of season seven on television with the late episodes of season six on DVD.
The sixth season of :Buffy: has a bad rap -- actually, seasons five through seven don't fare well among fans who have been around since season one, but the sixth season has been called by some a disaster, while season seven has been called an improvement. I have to disagree. Other than Once More With Feeling, the sixth season might not have been able to achieve the highs of the seventh (Conversations and Storyteller to name but two), but as a story in twenty-two parts, season six still manages to deliver a consistent and effective plotline.
Let me elaborate: Cameron argues -- and I agree with him -- that the second and third seasons of :Buffy: are the best in terms of overall storytelling. Each season has an overriding arc that takes so many turns that you can not tell how things are going to end until you get there but, once you get there, you know the ride has been worthwhile. In season two, for example, we start with the remnants of the Master story from season one. In episode three, Spike comes to town, ailing Drusilla in tow, promptly dispatching "the annoying one" and setting himself up as Buffy's new main threat. Things fester until episode ten when Spike cures Drusilla, and Buffy drops a church on his head, leaving Spike wheelchair-bound and Drusilla is totally on form, neatly flipping their roles and setting Drusilla up as the new big bad.
Things fester some more until episode sixteen when Angel and Buffy have sex, which gives Angel his perfect moment of happiness which unwittingly ends his gypsy curse and removes Angel's soul (still with me so far?). Surprise! Angel is now the new big bad! Drusilla is now fawning over him, forcing Spike to turns against Angel in a jealous rage and go to help Buffy in the final episode.
This is not what you would call a linear plotline. But it's rich and its complicated and it keeps the audience gasping and interested in tuning in next week to see what unexpected things befall our heroes.
Compare this to the sixth season and you can see why some people say that the show had become a shadow of its former self. At the beginning of the season, a number of situations are set up. Willow is starting to become a very powerful witch and she is being progressively corrupted by her powers. She raises Buffy from the dead, who was quite happy where she was and now has to confront a mundane adult life of bills, menial employment and raising her teenage sister. You have Xander and Anya, who have committed themselves to marriage but are afraid that they've stepped too far. And you have Warren, Jonathan and Andrew, three talented but socially inept former students of Sunnydale High, hanging out in Warren's basement and deciding that they may as well become this season's supervillains.
These are the ingredients the show's producers dump into the mix early in season six and they're pretty much left to simmer. There is no twist; Buffy struggles with a normal life, Xander and Anya's wedding goes spectacularly off the rails, Willow gets addicted to her magic. It all plods along until Warren, Andrew and Jonathan slip in way over their heads and commit an atrocity that pushes Willow over the edge, forcing Buffy to fight her best friend to the death in a pretty spectacular climax to an otherwise linear season.
Just because the sixth season of :Buffy: is linear doesn't mean it's boring. It may not have the spark of unpredictability the second and third seasons thrived on, but it has a very strong story. Whereas the first three seasons of :Buffy: are basically the allegory of high school as Hell, the sixth season sets up and delivers in workmanlike fashion its storyline of a mundane life as its own version of hell.
It's ironic that in a season where Buffy's biggest enemy is not a master vampire, a 100 year old mayor, a superrobot or a god but a trio of geeks, the sixth season is easily the darkest that :Buffy: gets as a series, and I think this is deliberate to the theme of the show. While some teenagers may find the high school experience to be hellish, there is still that ray of hope in graduation; the first three seasons of :Buffy: reflect this bright-eyed enthusiasm of youth. However, if a mundane adult life is hellish, it's hellish forever, a fact which resonates in the doom-laden, no-escape sense of the season. Characters second-guess themselves and start to do some self-destructive things; witness Buffy's needy and lustful relationship with Spike that blossoms this season, just so she doesn't feel dead inside.
So while the sixth season is grim and, frankly, hard to watch (a sense reflected in the episode where Buffy hallucinates that she's actually a normal girl in an insane asylum and her vampire slayer life just a delusion -- Buffy, like any average individual in her situation, might grasp at any straw for escape), it is wholly on message. While there are no twists nor shocks; it delivers everything it set out to deliver, and its message packs a punch. More than that, its message is wholly consistent with the show's theme that life can be hell sometimes, but we cope. All of the characters emerge from the sixth season Double-Meat Palace meat grinder in ragged condition, but firm in their resolve to cope, to live, and to hope. Spike himself becomes so committed to coping and hoping that he goes out and gets himself a soul! So, while few episodes really stand out in season six, I am unwilling to call this season a disaster.
Which brings me back to season seven and why Conversations With Dead People is, at once, so good and so disappointing.
Writing all of this, I think :Buffy: as a show might have been better off ending either with season five or season six, despite the gems that season seven was able to deliver. At the end of season five, Buffy sacrifices herself to save the world, committing herself to her calling as the Slayer. It's as effective an end of any character arc that you could possibly hope for and if :Buffy: were a novel rather than a television series, it would have ended there. But we get season six, and its theme of "Life" as the "Big Bad". In the end we are shown that life goes on, fulfilling the thematic reason for the series' existence. Again, if :Buffy: were a novel, it would have ended there.
But instead Paramount commissions a seventh season, and sends signals that this season would be Buffy's last. So suddenly the writing staff realizes that they have to make this season count. The Big Bad has to be the biggest bad of all and things have to line up for an extra apocalyptic finish. But the show has already played its thematic trump cards with seasons five and six; how do they top themselves?
They try their best. They resurrect the First, the root of all evil first shown in the third season episode Amends. Buffy and company tool around in the aftermath of the events of season six for a while, until Conversations With Dead People, and the rest of the season entails the First throwing everything and the kitchen sink at our battered heroes. We have Ubervamps and Bringers and a campaign to kill off all the potential slayers in the world. We have an evil preacher named Caleb (a sop to Nathan Filion for Firefly's premature demise) as an mysogenist punching machine. The First just batters Buffy with real and metaphorical clubs until the final episode, when Buffy finds the trump club, beats back the First, and flees a destroyed Sunnydale to claim victory.
All very nice and action oriented, but with the linearity of season six and, worse still, none of the earlier season's thematic resonance. More than this, the show's writers start to get a little sloppy. I don't know if this was the result of difficulties behind the scenes (a round of resignations and reassignments at Mutant Enemy that contributed to the rather manic feel of :Angel: season four), or possibly laziness, but you see this sloppiness in the seventh season of :Buffy: in the number of major plotlines that get dropped.
Consider: straight from Conversations With Dead People, Dawn receives a message from her mother that bad things will be coming and that, when things get bad, Buffy "won't choose" Dawn, but will instead "be against" her. This never happened. The closest we got to the fulfillment of this prophecy was Buffy's attempt to have Xandar kidnap Dawn and drive her out of harm's way, an attempt she thwarted with a taser and some underage driving.
Then there is the appearance of Buffy mom herself. Some might argue that Buffy's mom here was a false agent of the First, as Cassie was for Willow, but the episode's events do not suggest this. The First's influence can be seen in the beastly spirit that tries to keep Buffy's mom from talking to Dawn, which makes the message mom was supposed to give that much more important, and that much more frustrating when it gets dropped.
Buffy's mom also appeared to Buffy later on, giving hope to Buffy while she was being run ragged by the first of the First's creatures, the vicious Ubervamp. The fact that the First, which supposedly can appear as any deceased individual a person knows (including Buffy herself), never appears as Buffy's Mom, is never properly explained. Similarly, why appear to Willow as Cassie and not as Willow's lover and soulmate Tara? Again, no explanation... especially disappointing when such an explanation could well have fed into the storyline in interesting ways.
And while I'm still on the story, why is Xander absent from Conversations With Dead People? Why, throughout the season, does the First not address him? The writers touch upon this by having Caleb focus on Xander, call him "the one who sees things", and gouge out his eye in a gratuitously violent sequence. These two elements both suggest that Xander has a part to play, just like Buffy's Mom and Tara, but he doesn't play it.
Finally, outside of Conversations With Dead People there is Giles who, on the night that the First's minions blow up the Watchers' Council a few episodes later, is left frozen in a cliffhanger freeze-frame with a swinging axe about a hair's breadth from his temple. Miraculously he reappears later, bringing the remaining potential slayers to relative sanctuary in Buffy's house in Sunnydale. How did he survive being nearly decapitated? No explanation. Worse, the writers hint at something more; when sharp-eyed viewers noticed that Giles himself never actually touched anything, they played this up, and then dispensed with it in a moment of comedy. No, Giles was very much alive and not something interesting like a ghost or some other dead thing (like Tara and Buffy's mom) that was somehow outside the influence of the First and committed to helping Buffy win.
Season seven could have been a season about ghosts, and getting over them, real and metaphorical. Conversations With Dead People sets this up, but season seven never delivers this thematic resonance, perhaps partly through the same sloppiness that allowed the plot threads above to be dropped. As a result, the First never comes across as anything more than an aloof supervillain with hordes of minions at its beck and call. If you remember season three's Amends, the First was able to take Angel apart with memories of the people he had killed. Except for the moment of Cassie's revelation in Conversations With Dead People, or Lisa Inman's fan fiction story Dust and Ashes (wherein the First takes Giles apart), the First was never that scary again. While the final episode's destruction of Sunnydale provides a nice amount of closure for the series, one still comes away with a sense that the last twenty-two episodes of the series were somewhat pointless.
Like all great shows, :Buffy: succeeds on numerous levels. It is a comedy that can achieve credible horror and pathos. Its characters are superheroes living the lives of normal human beings and their enemies are the allegories of life itself. The seventh season managed to keep most of what made :Buffy: great -- actors who were wholly comfortable with their roles, enthusiastic directors, sharp and quick-witted writers -- but in that season, one element was lost altogether, and that was the show's thematic resonance. And while :Buffy: remained one of the best new shows on television, it had been taken down a notch. I'll treasure all of the seasons of :Buffy:, but it's clear to me that it's the seventh season, and not the sixth, where :Buffy: started to show her age.