Thursday, 25 April 2013

Buffy Season Six

Bargaining Parts I & II written by Marti Noxon & David Fury and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Buffy’s alive! Well after doing a deal with some dark forces anyway…

The Chosen One: Amusingly Willow has tried to programme the Buffybot with Buffy-style puns but it has all gone terribly wrong and she ends up dusting and then serving up a convoluted word salad. I understand the reasoning behind the attempt to fool the world that Buffy is still alive (to keep Dawn out of custody) but it is playing something of a dangerous game with the authorities (not to mention Dawn’s father) and a constant reminder of what they have all lost. Buffybot is like an uber-Anya, hyper logical, straight to the point and unable to tell if what she has said is appropriate or not. I can’t imagine an extended run with this character around but for a couple of episodes she is fun diversion from all the very dark material going on elsewhere. Naturally (although there is anything natural about it) the first thing that Buffy sees when she crawls out of her grave is her headstone and the full impact of what has happened dawns on her. I love scenes where she explores the demolished streets of Sunnydale because it looks as though she has woken up in some twisted hellish version of her home. Clawing her way out of the ground, having misty visions of a battered and broken neighbourhood and then watching herself being torn to pieces, it’s no wonder she thinks that the world has gone mad. Buffy is dirty, bloody and almost feral, a far cry from the kick ass blonde we usually hang with.

The Key: Dawn cuddling up to the charging Buffybot is understandable, but still really rather creepy.

Ripper: Even Xander is marvelling at the immaturity of Giles and Anya’s bitch fight over the possessions in the magic shop. I wish he hadn’t interrupted because I was laughing my head off.

Sexy Blond: I don’t want to say that the rest of the Scoobies hold Spike back when he is out patrolling (Willow is certainly a powerful presence) but there could be an argument made for the hilarious way he lights up a cigarette as one vampire chokes Giles to death since his companions have been little but a hindrance. Strange what a fight to the death with a demi-God can do to a team of heroes, now everybody accepts Spike’s presence in their lives to the point that he is left looking after Dawn when the shit hits the fan. When Spike arranged for the Buffybot to be built it was to stand in for the person he thought would never look at him in the way he desired in a million years. What was supposed to soothe that pain has turned into something of a curse, especially since Willow can’t quite programme out the lusty thoughts that she has for him. He can’t help but smile at the carnage the demons are wrecking on Sunnydale whilst constantly keeping an eye on Dawn and ensuring her safety. Not completely neutered then.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: The first shot of Willow in season six is an impressive zoom that highlights her standing atop a crypt scooping out the graveyard to report on the actions of the vampire they are attempting to dust. It’s a powerful introduction to a character that forebodes the incredible development this season. With Buffy out of the way, Willow is on top and as the year progresses she fights more and more for that role. I love the idea of Willow and Tara setting up home in Buffy’s house and putting themselves forward as surrogate parents to Dawn (with help from Giles, Xander and Anya too, of course). They would have made spectacular parents had things turned out differently and Dawn really seems to respond to their presence in contrast to the way that she always fought against Buffy. Willow has completely established herself as the dominant voice amongst the Scoobies and when people start having cold feet about their plan to resurrect Buffy she is the one who insists that it is too late to back out now. You can feel even in these early stages of season six that Willow has changed pretty much out of all recognition from the shy, awkward geek from season one into somebody altogether more authoritative and frightening. Her reasoning – that Buffy didn’t die a natural death – is sound but I guess you have to distance yourself from the hurt of losing your friend to see that yanking a dead friend from the grave is very wrong. I was just warming to the scene where a cute-as-hell baby deer approaches Willow when the last thing I ever expected to see soured my stomach. She pulls a knife, guts the creature and bleeds it dry. She’s bloody scary, this one. Willow states that she was hoping Giles would figure out what they were planning to do before he left but that is clearly a blatant lie otherwise she would have been upfront with him from the start. After the urn has been destroyed and Willow thinks that their last chance to save Buffy is exhausted she finally gets a moment to grieve as the thought of never being able to save her friend again finally hits her. ‘Nobody messes with my girl’ states Tara as she shoves an axe into the head demons back, proving she has what it takes to be as kick ass as all the others.

Gorgeous Geek: ‘You’re her sweet cookie face’ ‘I go by many names…’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Did your life flash before your eyes? Cup of tea, cup of tea, almost got a shag, cup of tea?’
‘And how long have you known your girlfriend is Tinkerbell?’
‘Plus we have a Slayer here who might actually be looking to eat some brains…’

Dreadful Dialogue: Buffy: ‘Is this Hell?’ Dawn: ‘No. You’re here. With me’ – this isn’t bad dialogue per se, but it is unintentionally hilarious.

The Good: To give those in charge of editing these things together the ‘previously on’ sequence at the beginning of this two parter does comprehensively catch up any new viewers to Buffy most of the important events of the previous five years. It doesn’t dwell on the excellent sense of humour, the gorgeous characterisation, etc but it does effectively give any newbies the low down on what the series is about. All in about two minutes. Bravo. Two of the shows greatest weapons are instantly deployed in an amusing set piece chartering the dusting of the world’s fattest vampire – the impressive regular cast and the likable humour that they deploy under pressure. Anya makes a very good point about not dwelling on Buffy’s death. Whilst it looks like everybody has moved on with their lives and adjusted to the hole she has left in their lives, it is made abundantly clear that everybody is just waiting and preparing for the moment that Buffy is dragged from the grave. The prosthetics for the biker demons is excellent. They might not be the most subtly written of characters but boy do they look nasty. I certainly wouldn’t want gang of them coming to play in my town. Their path of destruction through Sunnydale is viciously conveyed, especially the shot of the flaming bottle being hurtled directly at the audience. And it’s nice to see that Stand By Me’s mailbox baseball is still being enjoyed by a certain sort. I enjoyed Giles’ goodbye because it wasn’t laboured or mawkish but a nice, gentle goodbye with the Scoobies assuring him that they will be okay (way to make a guy feel special). I can’t imagine the show without Giles but I guess this is a little dry run for his permanent departure midway through the season. Weirdly it was the handling of the character who has been around the least that I had the strongest reaction to (Dawn). Anybody who doesn’t like the idea of the Buffybot can revel in the sequence where she is torn to pieces by the biker scum but for all of us out there who bought into the good nature of the device might actually feel a moment of regret as she is torn to pieces by chains. The sight of Buffy being dismembered in such a violent way is another sign that this season means business. Spike not breaking a sweat as a motorbike comes screaming towards him and relieving the machine of its occupant is way cool. As is the snapshot of him and Dawn riding through the streets together (I can see why that made it into the title sequence). Kudos for the effects shot of the crumpling tower.

The Bad: Buffy’s name means a great deal in Sunnydale and the demons have learnt to behave in her presence. So I understand that them finding out that she is dead and has been replaced by a robot is bad business for the Scoobies. It’s an invitation for the evil hordes to flock to the Hellmouth. I just wish the sequence where the cocky vampire discovers that Buffy is artifical had been handled with a little more complexity. She goes phut and walks into a bunch of barrels over and over. It’s such an obvious way to do things and that is not a criticism I usually have to direct at Buffy. In amongst all the effective chills there are plenty of awkward moments that don’t quite come off the way that they should – Anya’s continued insistence that they announce their engagement, the general facelessness of the biker demons and even moments of direction which should be much tighter than they are (the demons interrupting the ceremony is realised in a very confusing way – it’s the most vital moment of the two episodes and perhaps should have been told with a little more clarity). Plus the way that the Scoobies simply bump into Buffy is overly simplistic too. Buffy’s demons either fall into the category of ‘should return’ or not and this bunch of thugs were definitely a one shot wonder. Even at 50 minutes of material their usefulness is pushed to the limit, and the tasteless rape references see this show pushing into areas it would do better to avoid. Like all bad horror movie villains, the lead demon even rises from the grave for one last fight.

Moment to Watch Out For: The graveside resurrection spell is one of the most haunting set pieces this show ever attempted. The concept of what they are doing chills the blood from the outset but by the time Willow’s face is smeared with blood, her arms are hacked open, insects writhe under her skin and she vomits a snake over the graveside I was ready to cuddle up to my other half. It’s nasty. Even more spine tingling is the awesome effect of Buffy’s skeleton being reanimated and the sudden realisation that she is going to have to claw her way out of her grave. If you wanted to make an impact with Buffy’s return to the show I cannot imagine a more horrific way to go about it. I was literally holding my breath as Buffy attempted to claw her way out of her grave, the scene is unrelentingly claustrophobic.

There are two episodes here so two scenes deserve to be highlighted and the second comes at the close of the story as Dawn and Buffy are reunited at the place of her death. I love that it so successfully recaptures the powerful relationship between the two sisters that was prevalent in the previous year, Buffy is practically catatonic until she realises that Dawn’s life is in danger and snaps right out of it. Her love for her family (and by extension, her friends) has always been the most powerful element of her character.

Orchestra: Naughty Thomas Wanker. He’s using all of the same musical themes as last year. It was very distracting at times, I kept expecting Glory to pop out of the woodwork. It’s his heavy metal, industrial soundtrack for the biker demons where he scores his most original and exciting moments. It’s no compliment to Wanker to say that the best scene musically is atop the tower where he apes Christophe Beck’s music from The Gift. Whenever Trachtenberg gets the chance, she proves herself to be fine little actress and she is a dominating presence in the conclusion, clawing Buffy back to reality.

Foreboding: Oh boy is there a lot to deal with in the aftermath of this two part blockbuster…

Result: The first half of this episode is mostly light filler material but it serves a purpose. It is the there to convince both the viewer and the characters who aren’t in the know (Giles, Spike, Dawn) that everything is normal so the sudden news that Willow and chums are going to attempt to resurrect Buffy really strikes home. It’s one of the most macabre ideas that the show has ever presented and they seem to blind to the fact that there are going to be some very serious consequences to such a dark act. Whilst much of the material is far slower paced than we are used to, the feeling of loss expressed by the characters at the absence of Buffy is touchingly handled with Giles, Spike and Willow all reacting in subtle but powerfully different ways. There is something very deceptive about the gang waiting for Giles to get out of town before they attempt the resurrection spell, tarnishing their goodbye to him with something altogether more sinister. Marti Noxon’s script is just a tease, holding back from the sequence that everybody has jumped on board to watch (it is no surprise to me that this was Buffy’s second highest rated show ever considering how much her resurrection from the grave was advertised) and when it comes it certainly does not disappoint. The first half of Bargaining strikes me as season six in a microcosm; for the most part light, amiable and rather relaxed but capable of evolving into something terrifyingly black and frightening at the 11th hour. The second half is an altogether more tense and action packed affair, an episode long trail of destruction and violence that leads to a heartbreakingly emotional conclusion between Buffy and Dawn. It’s not weak action adventure fare but its missing the sharp wit that the best of Buffy flaunts and the biker demons make very little impression beyond the destruction they cause. Like much of season six this is awkward and flawed but at the same time it manages to be brave, twisted and unique. There’s some less successful elements but the better parts of Bargaining are very good indeed. About par for the course for a Buffy opener then: 6/10

After Life written by Jane Espenson and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Did Buffy return from the dead with something on her back? 

The Chosen One: There are so many questions to be answered about where Buffy has been, what she has seen and what her feelings are about being back. After Life slowly addresses all three of them but not before convincing the viewer (and Willow) that she has been suffering in some kind of hell dimension and that she has been returned to life in a dangerous state of mind. Buffy is numb with shock and can barely react to anything and really cannot face a barrage of questions from her friends for the time being. It’s really disquieting to see the usually smart and peppy (and not to mention overly emotional) Buffy so detached from her surroundings. Although there have been changes, Buffy walks around her own house like a complete stranger who doesn’t recognise a thing. She looks at photographs of her friends and sees spectres of death staring back at her. By the end of the episode Buffy is putting on a mask of normality, making lunch for Dawn and giving her friends the thanks that they need to hear. Her conversation with Spike in the alley proves the fallacy of her gratitude and that she has long way to go before she comes to terms with what she has lost out on. 

Sexy Blond: The look on Spike’s face when he realises that Buffy is the real deal and not the robot is all the reward I needed for bringing her back to life, without saying a word Marsters gave me goosebumps all over. This is thanks to season five, mostly, which so successfully built up a special bond between the two characters that is so expertly picked up here. He’s the only one who has no questions, who makes no judgements, who simply enjoys the silence of the fact that she is back. It is very easy to see why she is so drawn to him upon her return. Espenson is far too strong a writer to fall into cliché and she turns the scene where Xander mocks Spike outside the Summers residence on its head, with the vampire hot with anger about being cut out of the plan to resurrect Buffy. He can see the dangerous games that Willow is playing even if those nearest and dearest are completely blind to it. Xander’s reaction proves that he at least recognises how much Spike feels for Buffy.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Willow knew there was a chance that Buffy might come back wrong (like Joyce in Forever) and that she might have to do something to get rid of the twisted remnants. There’s a gorgeous moment between Willow and Tara that reminded me very much of me and Simon in Afterlife, when Tara gently tries to ease Willow’s worries out of her without any recriminations. It’s one of the biggest strengths of being in a relationship, that you have somebody you can share your most intimate (and sometimes ugliest) thoughts with and they wont judge you. In this case Willow simply does not understand why Buffy isn’t happy that her friends have brought her back, grateful even. It’s a quiet moment of hubris.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The thing about magic is there’s always consequences. Always.’
‘And I think I actually heard him clean his glasses.’
‘I could drive faster than you and I can’t drive!’
‘Did they even give you a choice?’
‘Wherever I was I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was alright. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything. Nothing had form, but I was still me, you know? And I was warm. And I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand theology and dimensions, any of it really but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. I was torn out of there, pulled out by my friends.’

The Good: Picking up exactly where Bargaining left off, Buffy feels more like a serial than ever and the dialogue is immediately sharper and the direction more urgent. Had this picked up the story a week later with everybody adjusted back to normal it would have made Buffy’s dramatic return to life disappointingly glib. This is show with consequences and it intends to explore them, no matter how painful. The direction as Buffy’s friends surround her is excellent, the camera stays high looking down at her, evaluating her from their POV and remains low looking up, surrounded, from Buffy’s POV. Buffy now has a back garden. Has she ever had a back garden before? For all its attempts to horrify, Buffy rarely puts the willies up me (oh behave) because it always thinks too big. After Life genuinely chills because it takes a simple idea (a hitchhiker from hell piggybacking on Buffy as she returns to life) and has it menace the Scoobies in a very intimate way. The heart stopping moment when Buffy stands at the end of Willow’s bed in near darkness and calls her out on stabbing the deer to perform the resurrection spell shows how this thing can invade their most personal moments. Gellar has never been more terrifying and Tara’s reaction is one of complete fear. For a moment you have to wonder what Willow has really dragged from the earth. Anya slicing at her face and laughing is visceral horror at its most disturbing.

The Bad: The show is far less interested in branching out the series with original storytelling ideas these days and far more obsessed with the internal workings of its characters. I’m lucky that I have come to care about as strongly about this cast as I have and that their traumas perpetuate interesting narratives that I can invest in. Less effective is the solid visualisation of the creature which looks a little like an actor draped in muslin.

Moment to Watch Out For: Why is Buffy so devoid of life? That is the question that lingers in every frame of this episode. The final scene is one of the most penetrating and honest moments this show ever served up as Buffy confides in Spike that after she sacrificed herself she found herself in heaven and she is has been wrenched free of that reward by the people that love her the most. It’s a sophisticated notion, and shocking, and one that will play out over the next season as Buffy tries to connect with the world that can’t live up to the paradise that has slipped through her fingers. This really isn’t a year that wants to play it safe.

Orchestra: A quiet, creepy, discordant score this week, perfectly in keeping with the disquieting atmosphere.

Foreboding: Buffy’s friends will discover her secret in spectacular fashion in Once More With Feeling.

Result: ‘There’s something in the house…’ That was creepy. Like Bargaining, this is reaching for a mature tone with a chilling central idea (Buffy has returned from the dead with a price) but the execution is much more confident, the script is sharper and the character development sets up the rest of the season quite vividly. I can understand why some people resisted this direction because it is about as far from the colourful and exciting show we have grown to love as you can get. Buffy returns from the grave and it isn’t back to business but with a complete absence of emotion, an extended pause of numbness of which nobody knows how to react. It’s a challenging state of affairs for the audience as well as the characters but disquieting played by all concerned and with some spectacular pay off in the final scene when we come to understand why Buffy rejects her old life so much. Buffy has taken us through the ups and downs of High School, the excitement of college, the joys of having your family around you…this year is all about plunging the characters into a very dark, adult world, the one most of us experience when you realise that growing up isn’t much fun. It’s a cold, depressing place where you look back at your childhood and realise how much simpler things were back then and when you make some really stupid mistakes to try and feel anything. That’s what season six is about, it isn’t interested in giving you what you’ve had before, and whilst it can be unwelcoming, it also has some very profound things to say about the characters. After Life is indicative of the year to come; slow, brooding, introspective and quite chilling. It wont always be handled this well but when it is there is something stark, vulnerable and penetrating about it and that just about sums up this episode very well. It might not be Buffy at it’s most populist but it represents the show at its bravest. It’s bloody scary in parts too: 8/10

Flooded written by Jane Espenson & Doug Petrie and directed by Doug Petrie

What’s it about: Buffy has to pay bills. No seriously.

The Chosen One: I said in my last review that season six of Buffy is the point in life when dreams are squandered and the reality of life as an adult hits you. You’re no longer being cared for but the one who is doing the caring and paying the bills. It might not be the most pleasant of subject matter (who wants to see their favourite TV stars struggling to pay the bills? That’s what we watch TV to avoid thinking about!) but it does continue Buffy’s honest obsession with showing life how it actually is rather than how we would like it to be (albeit with a little supernatural twist on occasion). With the Glory issue dealt with Buffy now has to face up to the fact that she is Dawn’s guardian, the bread winner and her academic hopes have to put on hold while real life issues such as keeping a roof over their heads becomes a priority. I can really empathise with Buffy in this situation, especially when she is made to feel about the size of a bug when she has no clue how to apply for a loan. I would be exactly the same in her situation as I also have somebody who takes care of all that business. Saying all that, it is a relief to see Gellar playing the part with some humour again because I couldn’t imagine an entire season with the vacuous Buffy we have tolerated since she clawed her way out of her grave.

Ripper: The return of Giles is undoubtedly something to be celebrated which is odd because he’s only been gone for two episodes but that says something about how convincingly final his farewell felt. For Buffy he is a shoulder to cry and a parental figure to step in fill the job that she doesn’t want.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: There’s a very awkward moment between Willow, Buffy and a punch bag which telling shows the two characters trying to assert themselves.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander has truly run out of excuses not to tell the gang about his engagement to Anya. Where I thought her whiny rants were inappropriate in the first three episodes, things have settle down now and everybody could do with some good news.

Vengeance Demon: ‘This tone of my voice. I hate it more than you and I’m closer to it!’ Whilst Anya’s suggestion to cash in on slaying vampires is an amusing one, it isn’t one that should ever be taken seriously. Unlike when Cordelia makes the suggestion on Angel and they become a money spinning exercise in saving lives. Buffy’s caustic reply of ‘that’s an idea…you would have’ skips over that idea. Still when Buffy is pissing and moaning about another shift at the Doublemeat Palace Anya can smugly point out that she did think of a financial way out of this rut.

The Trio: ‘We could do anything! We could stay up all night if we wanted to!’ You’re either going to find this bunch of incompetant wannabe super villains amusing or you aren’t and there really isn’t much leeway in between. Taken as separate characters they each have much to offer; Jonathan has always been a worthwhile contributor to the show, Warren ultimately proves to be a misogynistic sleaze bag well worth keeping your eye on and Andrew would go on to become one of my all time favourite Buffy characters. I understand why people might find them irritating because that is their purpose, to be nothing but a thorn in Buffy’s side. What I like about them is that they are touted as this years ‘Big Bad’ when they are actually nothing of the sort, they are simply helping to disguise the real Big Bad of season six and before the year is out they will be desperate men on the run and facing a horrible flaying at the hands of a powerful witch. These are the kinds of villains that sit on beanbags playing computer games, swimming in dollar bills and writing up their evil schemes on a white board. They bitch and squabble at each other despite each commanding some powerful forces. Andrew is the most pathetic of the bunch and thus the most interesting (and the funniest) and I can see why he was the one chosen to take a pivotal role in the final year.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It was just a little post post mortem comedy.’
‘Tell me about the spell you performed’ ‘First of all – so scary! Like, the Blair Witch would have had to have watched like this…’
‘I trashed this house so many times. How did mom pay for all this?’

The Good: Finally some authentic visual comedy of the sort that Buffy usually excels at. It might be the simplest of ideas but the burst pipe that turns into a torrent in the basement and sends Dawn screaming for the hills is really chucklesome. Trust the hospitals to suck up all the insurance money and leave Buffy with a house which is  haemorrhaging in value that she may lose. You would think that saving his life from a spiny headed demon and slashing her skirt right in his face would be enough to convince the bank clerk that she deserves some kind of temporary loan. You can’t say she hasn’t thrown all of her assets at him. Buffy’s house gets torn to pieces once again. This happens at least once a year but over the next two season it goes beyond a joke. I don’t why they even bother to fix it up again it happens with such startling frequency.

The Bad: What the hell is Buffy looking as the swirling water heads down the sink? Am I missing something there? I’ve noticed frightening amounts of hanging about in the past couple of episodes, especially where the Scoobies are concerned. Give these characters something to do other than research dammit!

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘You were lucky!’ ‘I wasn’t lucky, I was amazing, and how would you know you weren’t even there!’ ‘If I had been I’d have bloody well stopped you. The magic you channelled are more ferocious and primal than anything you could hope to understand and you are lucky to be alive you rank, arrogant amateur!’ ‘You’re right. The magicks I used are very powerful. I’m very powerful and maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to piss me off…’ Oh wow, that really made me sit up and pay attention. Lines are well and truly being crossed and Willow is slowly emerging as one of the most frightening characters this show has ever produced. More like this please.

Result: A little comedy, the ‘villains’ of the season revealed and a couple of astonishingly raw moments but mostly Flooded is pretty average fare coming from two of the strongest writers of this show. There’s a disturbing amount of inactivity in the early stages of season six that suggests the show might have run out of steam a little. Giles’ return is given appropriate celebration and he shares an unforgettable moment with Willow that stands head and shoulders above the rest of what this episode has to offer. The Trio are introduced but they can only be considered a partial success at this point because they really don’t do anything worthwhile beyond remind us what spectacular geeks they are. I’m pleased to see Sarah Michelle Gellar lightening up a little but there is only surface characterisation on offer this week, especially compared to last weeks revelations. I just don’t know what to say about Flooded – it’s okay but at the this stage of the game I expect much more than that. The epitome of average: 5/10

Life Serial written by David Fury & Jane Espenson and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: Buffy has some life choices to make…

The Chosen One: ‘Look at me! Look at stupid Buffy, too dumb for college! And freak Buffy, too strong for construction work! And my job at the Magic Shop…I was bored to tears even before the hour that wouldn’t end!’ Buffy’s head is so full of money problems that she hasn’t even considered what she is going to do with her life. A choice which this episode examines in some depth. With her moms funeral handled, the threat to Dawn’s life defeated and even her own death overcome she now has to look to the future and forge a path ahead. It goes to show how furiously paced and packed full of incident this show usually is that we haven’t had the time to consider these questions until now. The look on Buffy’s face when she attends a university discussion group suggests that they are speaking in another language to the one that she understands. I guess she has been out of the educational loop for too long. Her next stop is looking for work and she calls in a favour from Xander to secure a gig at his current building sight. Few things in life are cuter than Buffy donning a hard hat and effortlessly picking up heavyweight girders like one of the Seven Dwarfs off to work. The trouble is here that she is too good at the job (thus proving that construction workers always over estimate because they get paid by the hour) and gives her fellow workers a bad name, and that’s before Andrew sends a gang of horrible swamp demons down to tear up the site. Completely desperate, she turns to retail and a job at the Magic Shop with Giles and Anya. I remember when I was working in retail and pretty much every single day that I was there was exactly like I was stuck inside a Groundhog Day style loop and Buffy’s experiences with the mummy hand sale that goes on forever brought back the repetitive banality of it all with painful sharpness. The Trio are observing Buffy throughout her many attempts at securing a life path and declare that she is completely without purpose. When all else fails, Buffy turns to a night of drunken gambling with Spike. Well I suppose it’s a life choice of sorts. There is a sense that these two are kindred spirits now, both having died and returned to life in a world that no longer feels right for them. Gellar and Marsters share a very easy chemistry that feels real, very different from the daytime soap operatics that Buffy and Angel often practised. Spike can see precisely what Buffy is all about – not a schoolgirl or a shop girl but a creature of the darkness like him. I get why Giles waited until this point to give Buffy the money she so desperately needs because he can see that she has at least tried to do it on her own.

The Trio: As much as it pains me to say so, listening to the Trio is an authentic representation of three science fiction geeks. Squabbling about tiny details of obscure shows that have long been forgotten by the masses, discussing the repeated narrative motifs across several genre series, examining the designs of fictional technology for technical flaws…I know hardcore geeks who object to the characterisation of such characters (one of my mates in particular despises Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory) which makes me laugh because they are practically carbon copies of the same people. I long ago learnt to embrace my geekiness and as a result I can see the delicious humour inherent in the many genre references that the Trio allude to. They haven’t quite got the hang of remaining incognito, their van has a picture of the Death Star spray painted on its side, a giant radar comes shooting out of the roof and their horn could nothing less than the theme to Star Wars. I love their over dramatic designs, the giant red self destruct button which looks as though it could destroy the entire world is purely for the purpose of making a piece of lint go pouf. Andrew objects to holding hands with Warren and the suggestion that he might be gay is aired. It’s something that is confirmed and his feelings for his best friend are referenced time and again in the next season before they are transferred to Xander.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Maybe I should ease back in with some non-taxing classes like Introduction to Pies or Advance Walking.’
‘Retail? I’d rather be dead. Again.’
‘I like Timothy Dalton’ ‘Don’t make me pull over’ and ‘Timothy Dalton should win an Oscar and beat Sean Connery over the head with it!’

The Good: Nick Marck is one of the more imaginative directors to come on board the show in the final two years and he has great fun putting together the various tests that Buffy faces in Life Serial. There’s a wonderful shot of Buffy standing confused amongst the milling throng of the university campus which has sped up to dangerous levels around her. There’s also plenty to love about the fight at the construction site from Buffy’s bar swinging high kicks, the unusual effect of the demons turning to slime as they perish and grotesque sight of one of them being crushed inside a mechanical ladder. Buffy gets given a name badge with the tag line ‘Ask Me About Curses!’ Gambling for kitties is stupid currency…but they’re just so damn cute! Plus this story introduces Clem who is a joy to be around and I wish had taken on a much greater role than the series offered him.

The Bad: If crossovers between Angel and Buffy are all going to take place in reference form only from now I would rather that they didn’t bother. Both shows have come a long way from the point where they relied on one another and the inclusion of a ‘hidden’ scene where they meet up somewhere between Sunnydale and LA seems to be included just to give the fans of their relationship a quick thrill. It doesn’t seem to serve any kind of storytelling purpose and that is what I object to. The infantile humour between the Trio can be a little much at times (‘Stop touching my magic bone!’). One glaring absence is any kind of resolution to Buffy’s life choice quandary. It feels a little pointless to raise all this options and to have her as baffled at the end as she was at the beginning. But hey, that’s life.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘I just hope she solves it faster than Data in that ep of TNG where the Enterprise kept blowing up’ ‘Or Mulder in that X-Files where the bank kept exploding…’ One of the more amusing set pieces to spring from the dour season six is Buffy’s time loop sequence during her brief time of employ at The Magic Shop. Everything from Buffy stabbing the hand in order to stop it from strangling her, tackling the most hideous looking woman ever to visit the store, stamping on Giles glasses and insulting the shy customer that wants to romance his way into bed with a scented candle had me chuckling away. ‘Fingers sold separately…’

Result: Witty, sunny and packed full of pop culture references, Life Serial is one of the few season six episodes of Buffy that resembles something that could have taken place in previous seasons. In the way that it uses comedic villains to provides some amusing obstacles for Buffy to overcome it harkens back to the early days of seasons one and two but by seaguing these tests into Buffy’s limitless life choices it earns its place squarely in season six. Gellar is on top form throughout, whether Buffy is baffled by university speak, wrestling demons at Xander’s building site, trapped in the time loop from hell or off out on a pub crawl with Spike I was perfectly convinced that Gellar was having the time of her life. It’s so nice to see Buffy smiling this much, even when her life is at a crossroads and she doesn’t know which path to take. We haven’t seen the character this loose (down boys) since way back in season four. If the Trio were nothing but an awkward diversion in the last episode, they more than make up for that here as they attempt to trash Buffy’s life with a series of daft but very amusing tests. I can’t see how these three social outcasts could hold up an entire season but as a way of holding up a mirror to the worst excesses of genre fandom they do make me laugh a lot. It doesn’t all work; there is an element of juvenile humour that would have been rejected even in the first season and occasionally the direction is a little stilted (a common problem in the first half of season six) but taken as a whole Life Serial taps into a frothy amiability that makes this ideal comfort viewing and might just be one of the most outright entertaining episodes of the year: 8/10

All the Way written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: It’s Halloween which can only mean bad business for Dawn…

The Chosen One: At the point where she has to make decision about Dawn, Buffy asks Giles for his opinion rather than laying down the law herself. She’s watching everybody enjoying their lives but can’t seem t engage with people in the same way. At the climax she walks away from punishing Dawn and leaves Giles to carry out the deed.

The Key: Let’s see, what great insights do we learn about Dawn in this episode? She’s stealing (but we knew that already) and she’s attracted to bad boys (just like her sister). That was sure worth wasting an entire episode on. Michelle Trachtenberg is a fine little actress but she has to be given something to do beyond this kind of indulgent Saved by the Bell style teen soap opera. She’s trying her best to invest the material with some kind of meaning (she succeeds most during the car scene with Justin as she enjoys her first kiss) but it’s all mostly all surface characterisation. If I’m honest there hasn’t been the strength of material this season for Dawn that has clarified the reason for continuing her character beyond her storyline last year. Compared to the genuine drama that was built around her character in season five, this is small scale stuff.

Ripper: The reason why Giles is always cleaning is glasses is so he doesn’t have to be exposed to the lusty activities of his friends.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Willow’s first reaction to the mess that the customers have left behind in the Magic Shop is to whisk up a cleaning spell. She’s becoming far too reliant on her powers when anything takes a little effort. Tara is starting to notice too and when she tries to confront her about it her stutter returns in the way it does whenever she enters an uncomfortable conversation.

Gorgeous Geek: Like Xander with Anya here, I get those moments all the time when I look at Simon and remember precisely why I fell in love with him in the first place. It feels like the perfect time to reveal that they are planning on getting married.

Vengeance Demon: It’s Anya who is really on form this week, comparing her accumulation of money to night in the sack with Xander and revelling in the dance of capitalist superiority. She’s basking in being the centre of attention now Xander has finally told his friends that they are going to get married.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How about you, ever played shiver me timbers?’ ‘Not really much for the timber.’
‘Mist…cemetery…Halloween…should end well’ – All the Way is so desperate it resorts to a pratfall from Giles for a laugh but it did make me laugh so let’s consider that a success.
‘Didn’t anyone come here just to make out?’ (Hands raise) Oh that’s sweet. You run.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Don’t make me go all kung-fu on you man!’

The Good: The early scenes in the Magic Shop with everybody helping out during the Halloween sale is full of energy and laughs (I especially like Willow’s consternation in the face of witchy stereotypes which melt away when she sees a cutie wittle girl dressed up like the Wicked Witch of the West). The twist that Justin turns out to be a vampire (it must be a Summers thing) comes out the blue despite some nice foreshadowing (‘are you going to go all the way?’).

The Bad: It astonishes me that we are six episodes into the new season and the main cast have done very little so far but stand around talking. Whilst there are some character arcs bubbling under the surface (ready to emerge next week) the amount of  inactivity amongst the Scoobies is shocking. It takes season six about two thirds of its running to time to get into full swing (but when it does, it does so with a vengeance) and until then nobody seems to be doing much of anything. I’m so glad that Giles turned off the music to inform everybody of Dawn’s subterfuge because this was turning out to be the party that wasn’t. Tara is sitting on the sidelines depressed and Willow, Anya and Xander are indulging in some really static parent dancing (apparently getting their groove on). I have no idea what the misdirection with the old geezer and the carving knife was all about…it could have lead to a genuinely creepy sequence but instead he’s just a kindly old man that the world seems to have forgotten about.

Moment to Watch Out For: For the first time ever I don’t think I can think of a particularly memorable moment, for good or for ill. Naughty Willow performs has started to manipulate Tara, making her forget arguments that they are having. I suppose that is as shocking as it gets.

Result: Just because it is about Dawn that doesn’t automatically make it bad. Unfortunately in this case, it does. There’s no nice way of putting this but All the Way is barely tolerable filler to pass the time whilst the majority of the regulars work on the musical extravaganza next week. Dawn’s misadventures with her friends are passable enough but there is nothing here that screams of a story that needed to be told. Indeed it is the background scenes of Xander and Anya’s engagement that impact the most but that is only because they have finally come out of the woodwork and told the rest of the gang after much fannying around. Giving Dawn a Scooby gang of her own is not a bad at idea (its certainly preferable to having her mope about at home) and perhaps would have provided some much needed levity in season six but this bunch are pretty forgettable, so much so that I didn’t notice that we never see them again.  Beyond Dawn enjoying her first kiss and dusting (of the same boy appropriately) this is an exercise in running on the spot. For a much, much better example of how this should have been done check out season seven’s Potential.  I struggled to find much to say about this because there is very little of substance to examine. Tara and Willow fight over her overuse of magic and Buffy leans too much on Giles but both of these elements are handled with far more aplomb in Once More, with Feeling. Like Flooded before it and Smashed ahead, this is the middle of three season six episodes that don’t seem to be about much of anything: 4/10

Once More, With Feeling written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: ‘I just wanted to see if we’d get a happy ending…’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ll never guess what happened today at school’ ‘You all started singing and dancing?’ ‘I gave birth to pterodactyl’ ‘Oh my God did it sing?’

Overture/Going Through the Motions: Pure Disney, this is a superb opening number that sets the scene perfectly. Everybody is doing exactly what the title says, going through the motions of their lives at this point – Willow and Tara are researching, Buffy is training and patrolling and Xander and Anya are looking at wedding magazines and planning their big day. As far as anybody can see everybody is happy and relaxed. The first sign that this was really going to be something unique was when the three demons started jigging across the screen and providing a hilarious chorus even whilst they were being slaughtered. There’s a superb crane shot that is pure theatre, Buffy belting out her final note through a cloud of vampire dust. Sarah Michelle Gellar perhaps doesn’t have the strongest voice in the world but she’s more than adequate for the sort of songs that this episode requires of her. Buffy admits that she is putting a brave face on things but nothing in her life feels right anymore. She’s training, patrolling, forcing a smile on her face but she doesn’t feel anything anymore. She just wants to feel alive again but whilst she regrets what she has lost in death and keeps her secret from her friends she cannot move beyond this moment in her life.

I’ve Got a Theory-Bunnies-If We’re Together: ‘It’s do or die’ ‘Hey I’ve died twice.’ Lots of witty observations about what the nature of this musical curse could be (including a neat reference to Nightmares in season one). Anya finally gets to express her hatred for bunnies in as hysterical a fashion as she feels it deserves, kicking into rock music, spot lit and losing herself completely in the moment. ‘And what’s with all the carrots? What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?’ I don’t think she has ever looked hotter. The harmonies between the regulars are rather lovely and there is a great feeling in this song that there is literally nothing this group of friends couldn’t tackle as long they rely on each other (which, as this season progresses, they do less and less with disastrous consequences). Anthony Head, Amber Benson and Emma Caulfield all reveal that they have wonderful voices, Alyson Hannigan on the other hand finally discloses the one flaw in her repertoire (there is a very good reason that she doesn’t go solo).

The Mustard: Not just wonderful songs, but the choreography is marvellous too. If you can turn a ten second interlude about a shirt free of stains into a delight on the eye featuring coloured shirts whipping through the air…well you’re doing something very right indeed.

Under Your Spell: ‘The moon to the tide/I can feel you inside…’ Exquisitely romantic and gorgeously shot in a beautiful location, this ballad makes my heart quicken and slaps a permanent smile on my face. Anybody who watches this and doesn’t think that Willow and Tara are made for each other is insane. Amber Benson comes alive like never before, unleashing a very attractive singing voice that I could listen to all day long. The chemistry between these two has never been more apparent and it says something about the strength of the material that at no point did I ever consider that this was a love song being broadcast on American television between two women where they end up in a compromising position before the end. In Willow’s presence Tara feels like she is floating on air and the confidence she has gained since they met is extraordinary. I don’t want to know what Willow is doing out of shot but the lyrics certainly give me a few pointers.

I’ll Never Tell: ‘He snores/She wheezes/Say housework and he freezes/She eats these skeezy cheeses that I can’t describe. I talk, he breezes/She doesn’t know what please is/His penis got diseases from a Shamash tribe…’ This comes close to being my favourite song of the episode and it’s easily the most catchy. I could be heard singing this at the top of my voice in the kitchen when this episode first aired much to the irritation of my neighbours at the time. Nicky Brendon’s singing is much like his acting, not fantastic but somehow he managing to coast through on his charm and charisma. However pair him up with Emma Caulfield and the chemistry between them sparkles, especially when they are asked to perform a gorgeous 1950s style Fred and Ginger style comedic waltz around their apartment. If this is the result of all that annoying ‘tell everybody we’re getting married’ nonsense earlier in the season then it was worth it because this song reveals that they both have serious doubts about their future together. And yet they both care deeply for each other at the same time. It foreshadows the events of Hells Bells superbly. On a more important note the pair of them have never looked so damned cute, Xander in his silky jim-jams and Anya smoking hot in her red underwear. Anya interrupting Xander’s verse with her crazy dancing is punch-the-air cool. She’s scared of growing old and becoming unattractive and he’s scared that he wont be able to provide for her…and they’re both scared that the other will leave them at some point.

The Parking Ticket: Not just a decent writer, Marti Noxon has got a marvellous set of lungs on her too.

Rest in Peace: ‘You know you’ve got a willing slave/And you just love to play the though that you might misbehave..’ This is the number that most closely resembles the sort of music that I usually listen to and perhaps it isn’t much of a surprise that James Marsters manages to pull this off so well considering he sings as a sideline to his acting career. It’s very funny that Spike looks pained when he realises that he is as much under the thrall of this singing curse as the others. The direction here is all dramatic angles, energy and aggression. A portent of the violent relationship that is about to brew between Buffy and Spike.

Dawn’s Lament/Dawn’s Ballet: ‘Does anybody even notice?/Does anybody even care?’ …considering there is nobody at the house when she is abducted by the creepy men in smiling masks, I would say no. More than her voice, Michelle Trachtenberg’s dancing experience comes to the fore and blended with Beck’s enchanting soundtrack they create a magical mixture of mime and dance around the Bronze. We’ve never had the chance to take a look at the refurbished night spot whilst it is this empty before.

What You Feel: ‘All those heart lay open, that must sting/Plus some customers just died combusting/That’s the penalty/When life is but a song…’  The essence of cool, Hinton Battle makes his debut performance as Sweet the smooth as silk demon that has brought down this blight of show tunes down on Sunnydale. I’m pleased that Whedon managed to squeeze in some tap into this episode, I find this technically challenging form of dance great fun to watch.

Standing: ‘The cries around you you don’t hear at all/Because you know I’m here to take that call/So you just lie there when you should be standing tall…’ Of all the secrets laid bare in Once More, with Feeling, I found Giles’ confession to be the most touching because it sets up a heartbreaking turn of events in the next episode where he leaves town for good. He’s been observing Buffy’s growing dependence on him for some time now and the camera has lingered uncomfortably on his silent reactions. It’s significant that Buffy doesn’t even hear his confession, she’s so wrapped up in her own world that he reveals his fears that she wont stand on her own two feet and she is blissfully unaware of what he is planning. I think my mum always had a bit of a thing for Anthony Head (stretching back to his Gold Blend days) but after she heard him perform this number she was absolutely besotted. The whole thing plays out like a 80s exercise montage (albeit a very good one) and some of the stunts are very good indeed.

Under Your Spell-Standing (Reprise): Tara finds the flower that Willow used to perform the recall spell under her pillow in the opening seconds of the episode and thinks that she has left it there as a romantic gesture. Hoo, boy. How cruel to show us Willow and Tara at their most dreamily amorous and then twist the knife in threaten to tear them apart – it’s a pure Joss Whedon tactic and it works every time. How he uses the same lyrics to have two very different meanings is very effective, turning something that was so initially so romantic until something far more devastating and destructive. On a musical level, the merging of Anthony Head and Amber Benson’s voices is heavenly. They’re singing the same words to two different people and neither Buffy nor Willow has the faintest clue what is coming to them.

Walk Through the Fire: ‘She came from the grave much graver/First he’ll kill her then I’ll save her/Everything is turning out so dark…’ My hubbies favourite of the episode and one which utilises all the cast. Everybody has something to offer in this song; Buffy feels abandoned by Giles, Spike is torn between helping her and wanting her dead, Anya fears Buffy came back from the dead in no fit state to live, Xander doubts Buffy will be able to cope alone and Giles wonders if he has left Dawn in danger. It’s a fantastic song, packed with meaning and significance and for the awesome shot of the fire trucks screaming past the Scoobies it is one of the coolest things ever seen on this show. Watching all the characters (and through them the various narratives cohere) reach the same climatic location for different reasons is effortlessly achieved. It shows that whatever their feelings, they have always got Buffy’s back.

Something to Sing About: ‘Life’s a song you don’t get to rehearse/And every single verse/Can make it that much worse…’ …what a season six way of looking at things! Finally Anya gets that breakaway pop hit that she has been banging on about. Giles’ line about Buffy requiring backup is a moment of genius (Whedon is often struck by them) and Tara and Anya join Buffy for a chaotic, melodic, tempo-shifting number that captures Buffy’s inner turmoil. This story has given each of the characters a chance to confess truthfully and Something to Sing About brings this concept to a dramatic crescendo with Buffy finally informing her friends that she was dragged from Heaven when they brought her back to life. The look on Willow’s face is one of total desolation. ‘The hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it…’

Where Do We Go From Here: Whedon is a naughty boy. He has burst the seasons secrets and lies open and then poses the question of consequences without having to deal with them himself. Spike’s ‘bugger this…’ is a delight.

Orchestra: Again it says something about Joss Whedon’s faith in Thomas Wanker that he once again calls in Christophe Beck to take on the musical duties of the most important episode of the year. And once again Beck does not disappoint, not only forming an excellent collaboration with Whedon to produce some memorable songs but also providing the linking scenes with some superb incidental music too. This and Hush are the two episodes where the music is absolutely vital and both cases the always excellent Beck betters even his already superb usual efforts.

Result: ‘All those secrets you’ve been concealing/Say you’re happy now/Once more, with feeling…’ In pure Buffy style nobody even pretends that this is a normal sort of a day. Buffy walks into the Magic Shop and asks if anybody else burst into song last night as though that is a normal sort of a question to pose. The confidence that this show expresses at times astounds me. It was such an ingenious device to have a demon summoned who forces our characters to break into song and reveal their innermost secrets against their will just at the point where everybody is hiding something and the show was becoming perhaps a little too subtle and introspected for it’s own good. Through the medium of song our characters can no longer hide from their inner demons, they are forced out into the open and laid bare for everybody to know. This must have been the most anticipated episode of the year and somehow, somehow it doesn’t disappoint. Right from the camp as Christmas opening credits to the show stopping final tune, this is a roller coaster ride of fun, laughter, beautiful character drama, arc development and great songs. It helps that I am a massive fan of musicals but even if you’re not you have to appreciate the amount of time and effort that has gone into making this spectacular piece of entertainment work. Most of the cast reveal themselves to have surprising vocal talent (Amber Benson, Emma Caulfield, James Marsters and Anthony Head in particular) but everybody throws themselves into this potentially ropey idea with real gusto and the ensuing product is probably the greatest ensemble effort from either Buffy or Angel. If Becoming, Hush and The Body still haven’t proven to detractors that Whedon can turn his hand to any genre and come up trumps this masterpiece of music surely has to convince any stragglers. The reception to Once More, with Feeling was overwhelmingly positive and I cannot think of single person that I know that wasn’t buzzing about it when it first aired in the UK. To this date the soundtrack still resides on my computer and I know all of the songs off by heart. Beyond the detailed production, it’s placing in the season is vital and if anybody was starting to wonder if the show had lost it’s magic this showstopper turned up to prove that Buffy still has it and with some abundance. It’s interesting that the next episode is similarly excellent, this episode forcing the series to up its game. How the writers deal with the revelations that this episode exposed is still to be determined but suddenly I am very excited with where the show is going again. Nestled in middle of the most inconsistent year of Buffy resides my favourite episode: 10/10

Tabula Rasa written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Willow does a spell that goes horribly wrong…

The Chosen One: Buffy reacts very badly to the news that Giles is skipping town and can typically only see how his absence is going to affect her. It’s a tough road ahead for sure but ultimately Buffy emerges from season six a stronger individual, one who can genuinely look after herself. It is the right choice but given the timing and what she has recently been through I can see why she feels as though she is being dumped like some kind of problem child. Buffy’s default reaction to hard times seems to be to fall into Spike’s arms but then he always seems to be there when she is at her most vulnerable.

Ripper: The dual storylines of Giles leaving Sunnydale and Tara leaving Buffy are expertly played against one another to give this episode a tugging theme of abandonment for the greater good. He makes an excellent argument to Buffy about his choice although as an audience we have already had it spelt out to us many times this season to why it is necessary for her to stand alone. He’s taught her everything she needs to know about being the Slayer and her mother taught her everything she needs to know about looking after Dawn and she is never going to trust her own instincts if she always goes for the easy option of turning to Giles.

Sexy Blond: Buffy admits that if she stopped saving Spike’s life it would make her life so much simpler, especially in the aftermath of her kiss with him in Once More, with Feeling. It was a watershed moment for both characters and would have been unconceivable a few years ago (indeed Something Blue took the time to rip the piss out of the idea) but the show has evolved in such a way that this feels like the most natural, and bizarrely, most satisfying course for Buffy and Spike. How the season deals with their twisted relationship is without a doubt one of its high points.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: ‘You’re fixing things to your liking…including me.’ It’s time for some tough discussion about the consequences of bringing Buffy back from the dead in the wake of the revelations in the previous episode. Willow is feeling the brunt of the guilt, and so she should, it was her insistence that they go through with the ritual that spurred them all into action. Again Willow’s first thought is to turn to magic to take away Buffy’s pain and so it’s time for Tara to make a stand, especially since she discovered that Willow has been manipulating her mind to stop them from arguing. Willow is no longer considering options when it comes to tough choices, and she’s starting to make decisions for the both of them. As soon as Tara talks about them splitting up I was suddenly paying attention in a way that I haven’t been for the majority of season six to date. This is real character drama of the sort that Buffy excels in. Willow makes promises that she will go a whole month without doing a spell but like all addicts it is just words to appease her and the second Tara’s back is turned she is looking to fix the problem with magic. Watching her take this slippery slope to destruction is tough viewing. I recently watched Six Feet Under and it is rare for me to fall that much in love with a set of characters who make so many terrible choices and leave me screaming at the screen ‘why would you do that!?’ Season six of Buffy is the closest that any other show has come to capturing that delicious sense of conflict – I adore the characters on this show (it’s what gets me through the ropier episodes and bumpy patches where with other casts I would probably abandon a show) but they all (especially Willow) make some really dodgy choices this year. Before the end of the season I will be burying my face in my hands in despair at the path that Willow takes but because I worship the character (Hannigan is also the most accomplished actress on the show) I remain gripped by the downward spiral journey she takes. You want to reach into the TV and stop her from making these terrible decisions but at the same time there is a perverse interest into seeing where they are going to lead. The look that Willow gives Tara when the spell is broken is one of desperation, she knows that she has blown it and there is no saying sorry this time.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander has a simple way of dealing with the issue of feeling bad about the fact that his friend isn’t dead – he doesn’t. The way this guy can simplify things down to make it easier on him is to be commended and he’s going to have to do an awful lot of that come the end of the season.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Welcome to the nancy tribe.’
Randy Giles? Why not just call be horny Giles or desperate for a shag Giles?’
‘I must be a noble vampire. A good guy. On a mission of redemption. I help the helpless. I’m a vampire with a soul’ ‘A vampire with a soul? Oh my God, how lame is that?’ – I’m saying nothing…
‘Then stay up there and keep making bunnies!’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘You don’t want to miss the low down on the latest creature feature.’

The Good: The idea of a loan shark that actually looks like a shark is so deeply unsubtle that you either have to go with it or fight and it’s such a fun idea why would you bother resisting? It’s a terrific design and the actor has channelled his inner gangster. I wouldn’t have minded this character turning up on a more regular basis. We’ve not seen the show switch tones this confidently for some time now and it’s a welcome reminder of the many hats that it can wear. It’s powerful character drama for the first fifteen minutes before the cast all come under the thrall of Willow’s latest spell and then it’s giggles all the way with some scares thrown in for good measure. Every show and its dog has attempted to pull of the hokey idea of amnesia but you can trust Buffy to put a new spin on the idea, revelling in the comic misunderstanding of the entire cast forgetting how they are and trying to figure out their relationships to one another. TNG attempted this exact premise in it’s fourth year but as you can imagine it took a far more po faced route and the resulting experience was pretty dreary. In comparison this is sharp, sexy and funny. I love how Willow is certain she is a girl but still has a feel of her chest to make sure. Giles figures that he is Spike’s father because of the nagging feeling of familiarity and disappointment (‘you’re too old to put across me knee, you know sonny’). Joan the Vampire Slayer? It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? How wonderful is it that Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson can convey their extraordinary chemistry with little more than a look as Willow and Tara start to realise how attracted they are to each other on the run? The warren of bunnies that is attracted to the Magic Shop thanks to Anya’s crappy magic skills has to be seen to be believed. Giles sword fighting with a skeleton is also something I never thought I would see. Anthony Head and Emma Caulfield display a wonderful comic partnership (‘I feel compelled to take some vengeance on you!’) and it’s a shame that they have never had the chance to play with material this mad before. The spell is broken at a crucial point where Willow and Tara have discovered each other again, only for their memories to return and the full realisation of who has been responsible for this to dawn. It’s also the point where Giles and Anya are snogging each others faces off.

Moment to Watch Out For: It’s a small scene but one of my favourite moments in this entire series is when the amnesiac Scoobies open the door to the Magic Shop and are confronted by vampires and they all scream at once and run away. It’s a gorgeous comedy gem that sees the cast delighting in their roles and their time together.

Foreboding: As far as the characters are concerned this show is more serialised than ever. Every episodes seems to explore the consequences of the last and throw up more problems to be dealt with in the next.

Result: ‘Are you saying you’re gonna leave me?’ A genuinely fantastic episode of Buffy that exposes the many facets of the show. It is perhaps not a screaming endorsement of the direction the show has taken in season six that the chance for the entire cast to shrug of their characters for an episode and have the chance to loosen up and play some broad comedy is the ultimate refreshment. There’s real energy and a sense of fun to the middle section of Tabula Rasa and you better enjoy them because things are about to get very dark indeed. The cast are having a ball unshackled by the heavy developments of late and Gellar in particular seems to relish the chance to throw off the dark Buffy of late and play superhero unheeded by depression (her reaction to her first dusting is a delight). However the frolics come at a cost and the final scenes are what truly make this episode stand out. We’ve been promised developments for quite some time now and finally the character arcs are starting to pay off. Accompanied by Michelle Branch’s stunning song Goodbye To You, Giles and Tara make tough choices to leave their loved ones for their own good and the stunned reactions of Buffy and Willow left me heartbroken. By the end of this episode I had laughed and cried and it was a welcome reminder that once all the tricks are over (and Once More with Feeling and Tabula Rasa both indulge in some distracting trickery) it is the characters that make this show worth watching for. In that respect, Buffy will always be on top: 9/10

Smashed written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Turi Meyer

What’s it about: Buffy and Willow take a walk on the wild side…

The Chosen One: Buffy is a tease and she’s the only one who cannot see it. Whilst she is perfectly within her rights to say no to Spike (this would become dangerously relevant in Seeing Red later in the year) she is sending out all manner of mixed signals. Like her life, like her career path, like everything in this wilderness period for Buffy she doesn’t know what she wants. She’s conflicted about everything and is trying everything and nothing seems to be sticking. Except that when she is feeling vulnerable it she enjoys taking solace in Spike’s arms. It’s once she has pulled herself together that there is a problem, he wants more and she can’t believe what her pain has brought her to. It’s a destructive relationship that will play out over the middle section of season six with some turbulence.

The Key: Dawn is having some serious abandonment issues this season. Understandable considering  Buffy never seems to be around and Willow and Tara have just broken up.

Sexy Blond: The turns this story takes with Spike are by far the most interesting. In their usually caustic manner he and Buffy start hitting on each other and the chip fails to react as a result. Spike therefore thinks that he is cured and that he can enjoy himself a feast for his prolonged patience without a kill. Spike might have been a brutal killer in his early years but since the series switched channels he has proven to be the most reliable character on the show (in the first story of the season he was Dawn’s protector and he has been there for Buffy time and again when she has needed him). It’s a testament to his incredible evolution as a character that his sudden homicidal tastes in Smashed are as shocking as they are. During their fight to the death (that leads to their first bout of love making) Buffy asserts that Spike is attracted to her because he likes getting beaten down, that he doesn’t consider himself worthy of love and should be punished as a result. Wow, that is bleak. Gripping, but bleak.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: With Tara gone Willow turns her attention to Amy the Rat and works on a spell (tut tut) that will ensure that she has another magically inclined friend about the place. It’s interesting that Willow she panic so much when Amy uses magic to turn a girls attention towards her. She grew into her relationship with Tara but beyond that she has had no experience with other women and the thought of exploring that terrifies her. Anya makes a point about when good people get a taste of being bad they can’t get enough of it because it is so different. Keep that in mind when we reach the final stages of the season.

Vengeance Demon: You can count on Anya to cut through all the awkward silences and pretence and get straight to the point about Willow’s split with Tara. Every show needs a character like that or nothing ever gets said.

The Trio: They’re still one with the insanely childish masterplans, stealing giant diamonds from Sunnydale museum to power their freeze ray like some cut price Bond villains. Looking at the season as a whole its easy to see what the idea was behind these three guys (beyond being a mouthpiece for writers like Joss Whedon), providing us with some silly diversions sure. But the real intent was to make Buffy questions every aspect of her life, to ask herself if this is how low she has fallen if these three losers are her current arch nemesis’. These early episodes are vital to lull you into a false sense of security around these guys so when things turn dark in Dead Things and Villains they hit home even harder. Wonderfully the Trio would rather be hurt themselves than Spike destroy one of their limited addition action figures.

Amy the Rat: It was an interesting choice to turn Amy back into a human at this stage because she has been out of the loop for so many years but given Willow’s path of destruction at the moment it makes perfect sense. My only issue is that even though we didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the character in seasons 1-3 I don’t recall her being quite this dangerous back then. Mind you she’s been trundling on a hamster wheel for the past three years and who knows what that will do to a person. She doesn’t want to have to deal with her father at the moment because she will have to explain about her dabbling in magicks.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How have you been?’ ‘Rat. You?’ ‘Dead.’
‘I’ve seen every episode of Doctor Who…’ Not a great line but for a fanboy like me…
‘You came back wrong…’
‘I’m in love with you’ ‘You’re in love with pain.’

The Good: I still can’t believe they actually went to the effort to freeze a guy. I should be appalled at the show stooping so low but actually it is pretty cool. A show with such longevity can afford to look back at its past and toss in some mentions that will make a fanboy squeal – Amy’s hope that Larry will ask her to the Prom. I always used to find the scenes of Willow and Amy exploiting the patrons of the Bronze a little underwhelming but there is actually something quite creepy about it. Why would you need magic to play snooker?

The Bad: It feels as though the writers have completely forgotten how to structure a season of this show. This is the point where all the all early hints and subplots should be starting to cohere and the show should be ramping up the interest levels. Instead there seems to be absolutely nothing happening aside from the morose character material. Plot wise there is so little going on this year that Xander, Anya and Buffy spend the majority of this episode poring over books to figure out why the diamond that powers the freeze ray is relevant. It has nothing to do with anything in the grand scheme of things. It feels like a waste of a hour. Cutting back and forth between Buffy and Spike’s fight to the death and Willow and Amy’s magic tricks in the Bronze sees the show swing from it’s most adult to it’s most childish. That’s very season six too.

Moment to Watch Out For: The unbelievably destructive and violent final five minutes that sees Buffy and Spike consummate their relationship whilst a house falls to pieces in their wake. Suddenly the director is awake and the show is being shot with energy in a fantastic location, Thomas Wanker is given something that is actually worth scoring and he switches from dark action fare to a sudden release of vocals and Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters paw at each other as if it is something they have been dying to do for years. It’s unforgettably climactic, utterly filthy and features both characters at their blackest. Eye opening stuff.

Result: I think season six might just be the best and the worst season of Buffy and nowhere is that more exemplified than in Smashed. Like the very first episode of the season it mirrors the year as a whole. They both have extended moments of inactivity, they both push the limits of how far this show can go into soap opera territory, they both enjoy shoving the audiences face into the harsh realities of life and they both come together in the latter stages and produce material that is truly remarkable. For much of running time Smashed is extremely average sabotaged by some truly uninteresting direction and a cast that looks to be going through the motions. Willow and Amy’s exploits at the Bronze are duller than dishwater (this might just be the dreariest attempt to act out that I have ever seen) and the rest of the Scoobies seem paralysed by the fact that there is no narrative for them to engage with. Then in the final few scenes it comes alive in a very unexpected fashion with the Spike/Buffy relationship turning darker than ever and reaching an hauntingly dramatic crescendo.  Say what you will about this season of Buffy (and people sure say a lot, for good or for ill) but this was the year that had people talking about it the most. From Buffy’s resurrection to Willow’s drug allegory to Xander and Anya’s wedding drama to the aftermath of Tara’s death, it was a year that pushed the characters into some very dramatic situations that caught the audiences attention. And after the violent, destructive, pornographic explosion at the end of this episode all I can remember for the next day was everybody talking about the ending where Spike and Buffy did the wild thing. For me this is one of the weaker episodes of the year (but then I’m a big fan of Wrecked and Doublemeat Palace so perhaps I’m not the most reliable of commentators) but it salvages a great deal in those moments where it shines: 5/10

Wrecked written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Willow takes a step into the dark side and Buffy reaches a decision about Spike…

The Chosen One: ‘Nothing’s changed. It was a mistake’ ‘Bollocks! It was a bloody revelation!’ That’s the trouble with letting yourself go and falling in bed with a bad boy, you have to deal with the morning after. We’ve been there, Buffy. The early scenes between Buffy and Spike where she is simultaneously fighting him off and losing herself in his grip are brilliantly played by both actors. Unlike the fairytale love of Buffy and Angel which was achingly romantic but hardly realistic, this is a primal, instinctive kind of love making which feels much more real. It feels like in terms of looking at the act of love and how dangerous it can be, the show has truly grown up a bit. They are like two animals devouring each other, indulging in the most exciting kind of sex. Ultimately she rejects him (as I always knew she would) and he tells her in no uncertain terms that things have changed, that she cannot simply treat him like a piece of shit and then come running when she has an itch that she cannot scratch. In a very defensive reaction to Willow’s overuse of magic, Buffy tells her friends that she is going through something that they cannot understand and that she shouldn’t be judged. There is so little subtext that I’m surprised that Xander and Anya didn’t realise there and then that Buffy and Spike were up to something naughty. It’s fascinating to see Buffy come to the same decision as Willow at the climax, that no matter how good something feels, if it’s bad for you you need to give it up.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: In a moment where she just wishes the ground would swallow her whole, Willow has to face the disapproval of Tara as Amy rabbits on about her magic obsessed evening on the town. Remember when I said in Tabula Rasa that this was the year when I scream the most at the TV at the characters to stop behaving like idiots – this might be the one episode where I was the hoarsest. After her trip out at Wrack’s Willow bursts into tears in the shower, the magicks having drained everything out of her. She’s still in there, our little Willow. She’s so desperate to be with Tara that she makes a fake version of her girlfriend out of her clothes to hold her when she is at her weakest. Willow can make a mess of her own life if she wants to but the second she decides to step into the lions den with Dawn at her side is the moment she has crossed a line and started putting other people in danger because of her addiction. When she skips out of her session with Wrack hours later Willow is suddenly a dangerous character, drunk on her trip and unable to think sensibly about the jeopardy she is putting Dawn in. All I kept thinking when she refused to take Dawn home was that she was going to have an awful lot of explaining to do when they get back. Especially after the demon chasing and car crashing. Finally Willow and Buffy have a frank heart to heart that has been deferred for many episodes. Willow thinks that without magic she is just that pathetic, nerdy little girl that nobody noticed but Buffy reminds her that she was special long before she ever started dabbling. And so begins are her withdrawal period…

Vengeance Demon: Taking the piss spectacularly out of the fact that Xander and Anya did nothing but research on a demon that doesn’t exist last week, they are still at it when we catch up with them in Wrecked except Anya is merely pretending to study with a wedding magazine nestled squarely inside a Who’s Who of Demons tome.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I might be dirt but you’re the one who likes to roll in it, Slayer.’

The Good: Another episode that follows on directly from the previous one, directly dealing with it’s consequences. In that respect season six often feels like it takes place over a short period of time rather than being spread over a year as usual. Whilst the metaphor for drug use might be so unsubtle that they might as well have just come out and said it, the way this episode handles how out of control Willow becomes under the thrall of substances is very disturbing and quite gripping. Wrack is precisely what the season has needed for some time now, a nasty who could happily step into the role of this seasons Big Bad if the writers chose (the Trio for all their irritating schemes are hardly a powerful presence). Hidden away down a back alley with sick, miserable, depressed looking customers waiting for their fix – this is the darkest this show has been since the prostitution metaphor in season five’s Into the Woods. Jeff Kober is intimidating company, playing the intense dealer as somebody who gets off on his customers addiction to the magicks he can provide. He’s an emotional vampire, leeching off Willow whilst taking her to places magically that she should never be exploring (‘you’ve got to give a little to get a little…’). I have rarely felt as uncomfortable watching this show as I did during the sequence where Willow laughs her head off driving away from the demon that is pursuing them. She’s lost control, Dawn is terrified and I had no way of predicting how this was going to pan out. It’s disturbing viewing and yet utterly compelling. The sinewy, hairy demon that nearly takes out Dawn is one of the most horrible examples we’ve seen and the action sequence where Buffy intervenes is very nicely staged.

The Bad: The only scene that I thought pushed the drug metaphor too far was when Buffy confronted Amy who was rooting around through Willow’s things for some sage. Willow’s seduction works because Alyson Hannigan puts the effort in to make us feel for the character even when she is crossing a line but Amy’s sudden reappearance as a desperate junkie doesn’t convince at all. There was no sign of this before she was turned into a rat.

Moment to Watch Out For: Willow’s magic trip under Wrack’s tutorage is out and out one of the most frightening things Buffy has ever depicted. Hypnotically directed and scored with some seriously trippy effects and a committed performance by Alyson Hannigan, Willow is completely consumed by the dark magic as she lies on the ceiling and watches as the room starts blooming. Suddenly she is transporting herself around Sunnydale, a black eyed beauty. Watching a character that you care about being seduced so completely by evil is heartbreaking. I can understand why a portion of the audience rejected this but there is a powerful beauty to these scenes.

Fashion Statement: Somebody has an obsession about James Marsters appearing in the buff in this season. I’m not complaining but this episode might wind up being the one where he wears clothes the least. Looks like he has been working out extra hard as a result.

Result: ‘You taste like strawberries…’ Whilst taking Willow in a direction of self-destruction, Wrecked is powerful stuff and contained scenes that lingered in the mind long after I finished watching. Whilst some have commentated that the route this pushes Willow in is the nadir for the show and the character, I pretty much found the opposite to be true. Suddenly the direction and performances are really trying again and Wrecked offers some startlingly dramatic and frightening moments where the drug metaphor is so blatant I wondered why they were even bothering to hide it behind magic. Slapped by a beaten and bloody Dawn, rejected by Buffy and left in a mess of tears and hysterics on the floor, Willow has hit rock bottom. Surely it cannot get any worse than this for her?  The thing that stops this from being a character assassination is Alyson Hannigan who is so phenomenal an actress that she can make you feel for the character even when taking her to dark and uncomfortable places. Her tears as she falls into Buffy’s arms at the climax left me feeling drained. I wasn’t sure whether to hate her or sympathise with her but there simple fact is I felt both where so many TV characters leave me unmoved. In the hands of a lesser this actress this could have been abominable but Hannigan ensures that, despite Willow’s terrifying addiction to magicks, I still empathise with her. The Buffy/Spike material isn’t quite as strong but we still have a long way to go with this pair and much of this is set up for the startling payoff that comes in Dead Things, Seeing Red and Grave. I can completely understand why people would reject this episode because it does stray into discomforting territory but that is precisely the sort of thing I like every now and again to stop me from feeling complacent about a show. More like this please: 8/10

Gone written and directed by David Fury

What’s it about: Buffy is turned invisible…

The Chosen One: The neat parallels between Willow and Buffy’s addictions continue to be made with Buffy clearing out all the magic junk and coming across Spike’s lighter down the side of the couch.

The Key: I’m still undecided on whether it was a wise idea to continue Dawn’s story beyond season five at this point (whereas in season seven they completely bring me around to the idea with a much more positive portrayal of the character). With both Buffy and Willow going through tough times it is a bit much to add Dawn’s emerging kleptomania and abandonment issues to the mix and as a result of both her ‘parents’ busy indulging in the dark she sinks into a greater mire of depression as the season continues. Michelle Trachtenberg tries her damdest to make the character likable but she is faces an almost impossible task when the writers continue to mould her into the role of the irritating teen as seen here. 

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Xander thinking that Willow might be responsible for Buffy’s disappearance is not so wide of the mark given her recent compulsion and that she is still struggling to keep it under control despite recent events. The best thing to come out of Gone is witnessing Willow’s struggle with resisting the urge to use magic and seeing her back to her old investigating ways. In that respect this is another throwback to season one, but a pleasing one. 

The Trio: A freeze ray and now an invisibility ray? These guys really are the Kings of Nerdom. My biggest issue with the Trio at this point is that we are now halfway through the season and they haven’t done anything of note yet and have only just revealed themselves. The last time a Buffy villain took this long to emerge (the Mayor in season three) the season was severely hampered as a result – time was when the Big Bad was unveiled in the first handful of episodes (like Spike in season two) so they could evolve into something rather wonderful before the years end. These three do enjoy some startling development before season six is out but for the first half they have done little but make a mockery out of the shows fandom and indulged in juvenile humour. Dead Things (which is the point where things really start to get ugly for the Trio) should have taken place much, much sooner. Like now. Jonathan is convinced that they are not killers but Crime Lords and refuses the notion of killing Buffy. Warren on the other hand is more than happy to get the Slayer off his hands for good. The long running joke that nobody remembers who Andrew is until they mention Tucker begins here.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Rhymes with blinvisible…’ Are they even trying to be witty this year? I can’t think of a single season where so many episodes get lines allocated to this section of the review.

The Good: Whilst Doris Kroeger might not be the most might not be the most effective character, I’m pleased that social services are looking into the situation surrounding Dawn and her complete absence of parents. Gone goes to some lengths to expose how inappropriate her home life can be (late for school, talking about car accidents, dodgy British men in leather coats hanging about the place, drugs on display) but the truth of the matter is that the last episode already established that Dawn is not receiving the care that she should be (both Buffy and Willow failed to come home one night because they were too busy indulging themselves elsewhere and Dawn was almost killed as a result of Willow’s mistreatment). There is a very good argument for social services to take Buffy’s sister away.  I liked the reference to Marcie in season one’s Out of Mind, Out of Sight although it’s perhaps not wise to references previous episodes if you’re not going to try and top them. Some of that Buffy confidence is in evidence during the climax when the writer/director dares to feature a fight between two invisible sets of opponents. Unfortunately the poor dubbing guts this potentially great idea of it’s obvious comic potential. Check out the scene between Buffy and Willow at the conclusion – it couldn’t be further from the scene between them at the end of Wrecked and shows that the show is trying to re-establish the connection between its characters.

The Bad: The way Buffy and Spike’s contratante in the kitchen is directed it is clear that she is loving the invasive probing by his hands which makes Xander look spectacularly dense when he interrupts them and completely mis-interprets the scene. Whilst I love the effect of the invisible ray shooting off in every direction, couldn’t David Fury have come up with something a little less embarrassing than the Trio wrestling with the device and it accidentally going off to turn Buffy invisible? It just seems far too obvious to a show of Buffy’s calibre. Was Sarah Michelle Gellar actually present during the invisible sequences because her interaction with the other actors is strained and unconvincing. It sounds like somebody else was reading in the lines and Gellar’s voice work was dubbed in afterwards. I get that this episode is supposed to be light but what Buffy gets up to here is actually pretty nasty. Because a social worker sees what appalling conditions Dawn is living under (and they are appalling whatever way you look at them) and says that she wants to see improvement Buffy intrudes on her place of work and makes her look as though she is going through a nervous breakdown. It’s not even as if she does anything particularly original but float mugs and whisper in her ear. Is this behaviour supposed to enamour us to Buffy? Why would Buffy nibble at Spike’s naked body when he is chatting to Xander? Does she enjoy taking the piss out of her friends? In a scene that sees neither or them at their best, Dawn reacts terribly to Buffy’s newfound invisibility. Shouldn’t Buffy be coaxing her sister into the idea rather than scaring the shit out of her floating pizzas in her direction and shouldn’t Dawn find the idea bit more fun than she does?

Moment to Watch Out For: The best scene by far features Spike making love to invisible Buffy. Something tells me this might have been the starting point for this episode and everything else was worked around it to make it happen. The sight of James Marsters grinding away to nothing was pretty amusing, although probably not enough to justify a whole episode being sacrificed to this New Adventures of Superman premise.

Fashion Statement: Considering she has such a gorgeous haircut in this episode, is Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing a wig during the early scenes?

Orchestra: One of the major weaknesses of season six is the complete lack of any new music from Thomas Wanker. I genuinely believe that a stronger score throughout would have resolved a fair few of this years problems. The last third of the season sees Wanker trying his hand at something a little new and the result is an instantly more interesting show to watch. The majority of the year is taken up with a whole bunch of cues and themes from season five and whilst it felt like a fresh direction for the show then, its just repeated motifs and in weaker material now.

Result: What is going on this season? Wrecked took us to a very dark place and is followed up with Gone which is the lightest of light entertainment, a switch of tone that is so completely different it’s actually quite jarring. There’s nothing especially wrong with this episode despite being a throwback to the worst excesses of season one but it’s all a bit obvious and unchallenging at a time when the season should be delivering some substance and development. Buffy reverts to childhood as soon as she is turned invisible and starts playing irritating party tricks on people that don’t deserve it and the physical effects are only just what I call acceptable for this kind of episode without ever threatening to stray into anything imaginative or clever. It’s annoying because this is the sort episode that Buffy usually excels at but when hampered by so little ambition it can only provide an hour of light relief rather than anything more significant. Saying that it is nice to take a break from the unrelenting misery of season six and the direction is just effervescent enough to prove distracting for the most part. But I can’t help but think this should have been funnier, shaper paced and have greater consequences than it does and that Buffy should have been punished for her behaviour. Bringing the Trio out into the open and the ‘first steps’ scene between Buffy and Willow aside, this is almost entirely filler in a season that has already been plagued by the stuff: 5/10

Doublemeat Palace written by Jane Espenson and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: Buffy has to het a job…

The Chosen One: Continuing this years theme of ‘life sucks’, Buffy is forced into the workplace in order to make ends meet. I prefer to think of her term at the Doublemeat Palace as a punishment for her appalling behaviour last week and can’t help but burst into laughter every time I see that ridiculous hat jammed on her head. I said earlier in the season that it was a little weird to force the viewers through all this mundane life stuff when that is the sort of thing that they are watching the show to get away from but there is something so pathetic about a superhero having to get a job at a burger in order to pay her bills that really makes me empathise with Buffy here. Who hasn’t taken a really terrible job to try and stay afloat in difficult times? Least year Buffy was tackling Gods and monsters, this year she is flipping burgers. Season six continues the shows obsession with taking these characters through realistic stages of life in supernatural drama, the trouble is we have reached the ‘life isn’t fair’ stage of the game that hits you before you embrace the more satisfying aspects of maturity once you have discovered who you are (which will come in season seven). Rather absurdly Buffy admits that the reason she wanted a job at a fast food outlet is because she didn’t want to go through a lengthly interview process. Think it, Buffy, don’t say it. When she shags Spike up against the wall outside the burger joint the character might have hit a brand new low but I can recall heading to Brighton every weekend to shag my mundane week at the restaurant out of my system too at that age. It’s ugly, but there is something real about it too. 

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: What a bitch Amy is. Willow is trying her damdest to keep her magic addiction under control and has struggled through the early stages of withdrawal and along comes Amy to dose her up again and set her right back to the beginning. There is a point here about having friends around you that aren’t good for you that is well worth taking on board. I think we’ve all fallen in with the wrong sort at one stage or another and found ourselves in a bad place as a result. She proves that she can be strong and that she doesn’t need magic in order to intimidate as she warns Amy away.

Vengeance Demon: Halfrek can’t take her vengeance demon mask off and points out to Anya all the lovable quirks that she has that Xander takes the piss out of.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What about the cherry pie?’

The Good: The look on Buffy’s face when she is forced to watch a video of chickens and cows being slaughtered and turned into Doublemeat burgers is worth the admission price of this episode alone. Director Nick Marck wants to shove the distasteful idea of people being turned into burgers right down your throat and the camera lingers uncomfortably over slices of white meat, greasy burgers and oily surfaces. The idea is to make this place look and feels as disgusting as possible. When I worked a stint in a restaurant in my late teens I remember going through the exact same moment when a customer ordered the most complex mix of choices from the menu and I was left staring at the till in astonishment just as Buffy experiences here. Bugs in the fat fryer, fat plugging the ears, fingers in the grinder…this might just be the most distasteful episode of Buffer ever but Doublemeat Palace needed it if it was going to really drive home the potency of its scathing criticism of fast food. I love Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance when she rushes about the Doublemeat Palace in a frenzy, afraid that the customers are chowing down on fried people parts. She’s really started to find the fun again. Xander eating the burger and his subsequent reaction to the ‘secret ingredient’ is pure season one. With the last couple of episodes it really does feel as if we have been zapped through a time warp. The idea of the high turn over of staff at fast food joints being that they are ground down and used to made the food is just vomit inducing enough to work. No wonder it got the advertisers all itchy. How unsubtle is Buffy finding Manny’s bloody stump of a foot lying around? This is a show that isn’t afraid to state the obvious at times but it is pretty humorous regardless (it reminds me of the Sontaran that is killed three ways in Doctor Who’s The Two Doctors – grotesque, obvious but very funny). Oh come one…in the face of some pretty bland demons on display this season the sight of an old dear with a giant phallic snake writhing out of her head and spitting paralysing fluid at least stands out as being pretty memorable. It’s all so deliciously b-movie (as is the solution of shoving the demon in the grinder) that I couldn’t help but get a little carried away with it. I don’t know what I love more – the godawful shot of the tentacle gnawing on Buffy’s shoulder, Willow slicing it from the old dears head, the vomit inducing shot of pus oozing from her bony stump, Buffy stabbing the creature with a scalpel, Willow shoving it in the grinder and its subsequent last minute bid for freedom or their reaction as it turns into mince. I couldn’t tell you if this is really good or really bad but by golly it’s entertaining. The twist that the Doublemeat burgers are made out of processed vegetables made me chuckle, somehow that would probably cause more of stir than had it actually been cheap demon meat.

Moment to Watch Out For: Halfrek is a fabulous new character and by far the most promising new introduction this year. I love the rich comic tone of her appearance in Xander and Anya’s apartment, threatening to flay him alive and then realising that she has been summoned as a guest to the wedding instead.

Orchestra: Oh great, way to make me look like an idiot, Wanker. After accusing him of not writing anything original in season six along comes an episode that is pleasingly score with some fresh music. Although to go with the early season feel of this installment I swear the scenes of Buffy investigating the Doublemeat Palace at the 30 minute mark had music that was ripped straight out of season one.

Result: Things to like about Doublemeat Palace; the cutting satire on fast food, the crushing awfulness of Buffy having to find a dead end job, the introduction of Halfrek, the continuation of Willow’s redemption, the insanely realised b-movie creature that turns out to be responsible and the enjoyable mixture of the grotesque and the light-hearted that harkens back to the early days of Buffy. I don’t get the problem that people have with this episode and certainly don’t find it the ‘worst episode ever’ that certain portions of the audience have claimed. The sad truth is that I can empathise with what Buffy goes through in this episode because I had a similar job at exactly the same age and experienced much of the mundane horror that she does here. I enjoyed the return to a good old fashioned mystery with Buffy at the heart of it and the way the episode uses horror motifs to scrape itself a pass. In all respects this is a reject from season one but unlike Gone it feels much more confident with what it is trying to achieve. Don’t misunderstand me, this isn’t a classic episode of Buffy but there is something very engaging about the unpretentiousness of the material and it’s mixture of humour and ickiness really appealed to me. It’s no compensation for the lack of arc material this year but there is enough here to divert me until it finally shows up. This has only gained enjoyment in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal: 7/10

Dead Things written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: The Trio finally emerge as a genuine threat…

The Chosen One: Interestingly it was this episode that Sarah Michelle Gellar objected to when it came to the dazzling array of mistakes that Buffy makes in season six when I felt this was one of the best examples of convincing me of where the character is at the moment. Buffy is confused with where she is in life, she loathes being back in a cold, harsh world the has seemingly rejected her and she self harms by allowing herself to indulge in some seriously dirty sex with Spike. Both Buffy and Spike know that whatever they have is wrong, it’s purely animalistic and yet they cannot seem to be able to give each other up regardless of the pain it causes. Again mirroring my life, I have been with guys in the past that were bad news, that I knew would cause more pain than joy but somehow I couldn’t be objective when I was with them. The good moments felt so good. There’s something about a bad boy that attracts a certain sort of person. Buffy’s fears that she has come back wrong are understandable, she has hardly been behaving in character of late and it would give her an excuse for some pretty poor life choices. Something is stopping her from simply enjoying the time with her friends, she would rather stand apart and wallow in the murk that is Spike’s touch. Gellar might have had a problem with the scene on the balcony but it doesn’t show in her performance, this is simultaneously filthy and very horny and for a moment Buffy transcends genre television and feels like a moment of genuine lust. I would question whether kids should be watching this show anymore (considering this all but shows you Spike giving Buffy the finger) but it’s a startlingly mature piece of acting that quite took my breath away with its rawness. In the midst of her mid-life crisis Buffy now thinks that she is responsible for killing an innocent. Whilst her decision to hand herself in might seem a little rash some part of thinks that she just wants to tuck herself away, a poisonous individual who has lost her way.  Buffy reaction to Tara’s news that she is still the same old Buffy is one of complete devastation. Now she has nobody but herself to blame for her affair with Spike, her abandonment of Dawn and her treatment of her friends. It’s the most vital step of her recovery from this emotional quagmire she has been stuck in. Now she has to mend her ways and try and make things better.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Tara continues to show terrific growth in this episode. It is lovely to see her and Buffy spending time together away from the group, it’s not a pairing I have given much consideration to before (because it was always about Willow and Tara) and it give this episode a unique feel. I like how Tara immediately leaps to the conclusion that Willow must have done something wrong in order for Buffy to seek her out privately when that isn’t the case at all. It shows that Tara isn’t perfect and a little too judgemental for her own good.  

The Trio: This starts out like any other episode of Buffy featuring the Trio with the three of them squabbling over the most infantile of things but it soon develops into something much more dangerous. Warren has been the morally corrupt element since day one (when we first encountered him he was making robots into sex slaves) and he has somehow convinced the others that brainwashing women into sex slavery is a neat idea. What they’re talking about is rape and it takes Katarina to spell that out to them in no uncertain terms. What I found interesting was my reaction to their recent activities because initially I was shaking my head with despair at their childishness and smirking at the idea of them kitting Katrina up as a French maid and it wasn’t until she broke free of their conditioning and bold facedly told them what they were actually doing that I suddenly realised how serious this was. I had been so programmed into thinking of the Trio as this rather pathetic, childish bunch that the horror of what they were doing bypassed me until the tone of the piece changed. Frighteningly this exploitation doesn’t seem to bother Warren in the slightest but for Jonathan and Warren this is the wake up call they needed and provokes a crisis of conscience. Not only is the idea of Warren casing a joint for prospective totty to brainwash and drag back to their lair spectacularly creepy but the idea of wanting their first victim to be the ex-girlfriend who rejected him takes this to a very uncomfortable messy area. Warren is the ultimate misogynist, he doesn’t like the idea of a woman saying no to him and he is going to punish her for the effrontery. His line ‘you can play with her all you want, after I’m done with her’ chills my blood. Katrina pointing out that they are little boys playing at being men is right on the nail.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You try to be with them but you always end up in the dark…with me.’

The Good: Katrina’s murder is so shocking and convincingly handled that I completely forgot that I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How the episode shifts from something completely juvenile to something morbidly serious left me reeling. Dead Things cuts through the childishness of Jonathan and Warren fighting with light sabres with Warren’s scratched and bloody face and the blood curdling moment when he cracks open Katrina’s skull with a champagne bottle. Although they have already crossed a line with their attempted rape games, this is the point where they are truly beyond redemption. It was long past time they were afforded material this serious…I just never thought that the writers would dare to push them into territory this quite this dark. Suddenly the Trio are worth watching because all bets are off for what they are capable of. Almost as if to make up for some very flat direction earlier in the season the editing during the time jumping fight with the demons is razor sharp. It’s a compellingly handled set piece where you have to try and piece together the fight as it is told completely out of sequence.

The Bad: It’s a shame that the sequence with Dawn should irritate me so much (at this point she is just too whiny for her own good) because otherwise this might have scored full marks.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘You always hurt the one you love, pet…’ We’ve seen Buffy lay into Spike before but this is something else. Buffy’s abusive relationship with Spike reaches its zenith as she beats the shit out of him outside the police station in a conflicted of violent emotions. She loves him, she hates him, she’s angry, she’s disgusted and as she tears away at the only person who has always been there for her she assassinates her own character. It’s one of the most brutal expressions of self hate I have ever seen committed to film. For a show like Buffy to so unflinchingly cast its central character in such an ugly light one of the bravest things they have ever done. Tough viewing but utterly compelling. Where do we go from here?

Fashion Statement: I’m really starting to get used to see Buffy and Spike in the buff together and I have to admit that as presented at the top of this episode they are just about the hottest couple this series has ever seen.

Result: Wow, for the Whedonverse this is about as stark, brutal and adult as it comes. Much of Dead Things is extremely uncomfortable to watch but it provides a healthy reminder of how potent the series can be that it plunges into darkness and results in the most compelling drama of the year to date. Katrina’s murder is so shocking in its implications that it pushes the characters of Warren, Jonathan and Andrew into a much darker genre that they simply aren’t capable of coping with. Suddenly they are fascinating to watch as the desperately try and cover up the murder and start to come apart at the seams. It is interesting that Sarah Michelle Gellar took issue with how this episode portrayed Buffy when I consider it one of her very best performances in the role. Taking Buffy to some very dark, very probing places it illicits a performance so raw and devastating that I was mesmerised throughout. She is at her most unlikable and brutal but at the same time at her most vulnerable. It reminds me of Willow’s portrayal in Wrecked, perversely pushing the character into psychologically dangerous areas but highlighting this seasons willingness to take risks and explore its characters at their most exposed. I definitely wouldn’t want Buffy to be this uncomfortable to watch every week but by shoving the characters down in the dirt the writers have managed to tap into something extraordinarily vivid and powerful: 9/10

Older and Far Away written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: It’s Buffy’s birthday which means bad news for all…

The Key: I was probably a little unfair on Dawn in the last episode. This is the nadir of her character. Actually that is probably a little unfair too. There’s no point of this episode that you could point at and say that her reaction is unrealistic it is just that I am pre-disposed to hate any material featuring angst ridden children who express their hatred through tears and hysterics. After being abandoned by Buffy for the umpteenth time this year she reaches out to the rest of the group but they all ignore her pleas. Cue another round of ‘getoutgetoutGETOUT’ as everybody turns to Dawn to accuse her of the hex that doesn’t let them leave the house. No wonder nobody wants to spend any time with this whiny teen, she never seems satisfied even when entire crowds have spent the night with her.

Sexy Blond: Spike’s raised eyebrow at the cute piece of ass that Anya and Xander are trying to set Buffy up with is priceless. I’m glad that Spike is still battered and bruised, a not-so gentle reminder of Buffy’s violent emotions last week.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: The beginning of the rehabilitation of the relationship of Willow and Tara. It has become clear that the only reason they have been torn apart is so we can see them come together again and fall in love with them as a couple all over again. Willow nervously tries on different clothes because she was wants to look perfect for the girl she loves, taking her back to the initial stages of their relationship when you really make an effort to impress. Thank goodness Willow kept a few magical items back for emergencies but it shows that she wasn’t quite ready to go cold turkey without a safety net. Hooray for the moment when Tara sticks up for her girl when Anya starts to give her a hard time for not using magic to get them out of this situation.

Vengeance Demon: Anya’s claustrophobia reveals an uncomfortable side to her character that we’ve never really seen before. It makes perfect sense in retrospect because ever since she was cast out of the demon world the one thing that has haunted her is the idea of mortality. To be confronted with a situation where they are trapped and one of their number is bleeding to death it was bound to provoke strong emotions.

The Good: It feels like the show has been making a real effort of late with the design and realisation of it’s demons. Last week there was a bunch of time jumping nasties and this week we’re treated to a samurai warrior that turns to quicksilver and pours into his sword only to be let out in a confined space. The sudden revelation that the guidance counsellor is Halfrek comes at precisely the right point. Thank goodness for the demon being released into the house because I wasn’t sure that I could watch this bunch standing around unable to leave much longer. Suddenly the focus is on trying to stay alive which is much more interesting. Scenes of the house creaking like the deck of a sailing ship and the demon slipping from the walls to hack and slash finally mange to generate some tension. Halfrek and Spike recognising each other is a priceless moment, but only if you are a Buffy fanatic.

The Bad: More Clem, less Sophie, that’s what this episode needs. Clem (and Halfrek) are proof that the show can still introduce new characters that are easy to fall in love with, but Sophie proves it can be hit and miss these days. What on Earth is that weird ‘yes you do/yes you are…’ scene between Anya and Dawn all about? At stages of season six it feels as if they have completely forgotten how to write for the ex-demon. Bizarrely enough at exactly the same point when Angel forgot how to write for Cordelia (season four). Go figure. Would Dawn really be so stupid to steal a designer jacket for Buffy and forget to try and take the tag off. Despite some humour, this year epitomises standing around in group scenes with lots of extraneous characters waiting for something to do. Wow and I thought the party scenes in All the Way needed a little work…typically horrendous Summers house music (see also Listening to Fear and Conversations With Dead People) is piped over scenes of Anya and Dawn look listless and bored, Willow slumping into a depressive stupor and Sophie the clown who is intolerant to, well, everything. This is a show that used to know how to party, it feels like everybody is bit too adult and above that these days. Wasn’t there a more subtle way of revealing this weeks curse than having everybody sitting around with one character stating ad nauseum that they cannot leave? Like Gone, it’s all a bit obvious.

Moment to Watch Out For: Love the moment when Anya calls Halfrek to account for herself and she gets stabbed by the demon. It’s a quality shock and the sort of twist that the whole episode should have been made up of.

Result: ‘So d’you ever think of not celebrating your birthday?’ I am starting to notice a pattern with season six of Buffy. When it attempts to do things that the show has done before and invites comparison, it pretty much blows (the Halloween episode, the ‘invisible girl episode, the Buffy birthday & wish episode) but when it tries its hard at something truly original, forging its own path creatively it is pretty much excellent (Once More with Feeling, Tabula Rasa, Wrecked, Dead Things). Fortunately as we hit the homestretch we are about to completely abandon the former and embrace the latter in what I consider to be one of the most effective runs of Buffy episodes. This isn’t a patch on Surprise, Helpless or A New Man and it is the last point in the season where the show needed to express the inactivity of a cast stuck in one location. That’s all they have done all year! Saying that this is far from being a complete washout with some pleasing, claustrophobic direction and some terrific characterisation of Willow, Tara and Anya. What Older and Far Away proves is that season six is character, character, character all the way and when it comes to any kind of narrative flow it has abandoned the usual tightly structured arc for something much more disparate and patience straining. The whole purpose of this episode seems to be to reveal Dawn’s kleptomania but considering that was never the most enthralling of ideas in the first place it once again feels like a waste of an episode. This season needs so consistency and some focus, a constant barrage of standalone episodes of inconsistent quality is starting to wear a little thin. Older and Far Away is adequate, but only scrapes an above average pass on account of the amusing and revealing final ten minutes: 6/10

As You Were written and directed by Doug Petrie

What’s it about: Riley returns to Sunnydale with his new wife in tow…

The Chosen One: The one I seem to be saying an awful lot whilst I have been reviewing season six of Buffy (aside from the inconsistent ‘I love this one’/’I hate this one’ of each subsequent release) is that it taps into something that I can recognise that I have experiences at one point in my life. The theme of the year is ‘life sucks’ and whilst there have been hard moments for the characters to face, most have them have felt painfully, authentically real. And we’re not over with yet. Friends thinking they are doing the right the things but getting it spectacularly wrong (Bargaining), feeling disconnected from the world (After Life), having to pay bills (Flooded), trying to find a path to steer your life in (Life Serial), having to cope with the mistakes of siblings (All the Way), having to let go of people who move out of your life (Tabula Rasa), being addicted to something that is bad for you (Wrecked), having to work in a dead end job to make ends meet (Doublemeat Palace), lashing out at the ones you love when things get too tough (Dead Things)…these are all things that I not only recognise as being part of life but I have personally experienced myself. It is one of the reasons that even though season six is one of the darkest, bleakest years of the show, it is also the one that I can buy into the most. I’m not saying my life has been one miserable moment after the next because for all these tougher life moments there are a dozen wonderful memories but something about the approach to focussing on the hardship of being an adult after the wonderful freshness and frivolity of adolescent really does strike home. As You Were is focuses on another unfortunate element that many people will have faced – the ex-love who stumbles back into your life when things are at their absolute worst. I’ve experienced this on both sides – being both Buffy and Riley and let me tell you it is much more fun being the Riley character in this scenario. There is a real sense of Buffy’s adult life having caught up with her in the early scenes of As You Were (running after the trash men with bin bags, piles of washing up in the sink, letters bearing bad news) whilst Dawn, fresh faced and with her whole life ahead of her, heads off to school leaving all those worries behind her. I think Buffy’s most tragic moment in season six comes in this episode; when faced with the idyllic existence of Riley and Sam, Buffy turns to Spike and forces him to say that he loves her and needs her just to make herself feel better. Although it takes her a little longer to realise it is painfully clear to the audience that she is just using the vampire to make herself feel better and that is where she has been going wrong this year. Rather than facing up to her problems, she is falling into the arms of a man she loathes to distract herself and is hating herself as a result. It’s why she battered him so badly in Dead Things, all she could see was the hideous way she was treating him reflected back at her. She needs to put her tawdry affair with him to bed so she can take control of her life and make something of it. If she is going to have any kind of future with Spike it has to be on equal terms, out in the open and when her life is somewhere she is happy with. There is something very unlikable about the way she treats Spike in Riley’s presence, beating on him and mocking him when he tries to tell her the way she treats him is wrong. I like the realisation that she makes at the episodes conclusion, that she has to stop seeing Spike not for her sake but for his. Far more than the sex, it is the kindest act she has made towards him yet.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Willow’s giddiness over her and Tara speaking again is quite infectious. It really does feel like these two are heading for a happy ending at this stage. Sam gives Willow the sort of gift that she needs right now, news that she has accomplished a great deal by quitting the dark magic because not many others would have the strength to do so.

Gorgeous Geek: The wedding of Xander and Anya is fast approaching and preparations are starting to get on top of the happy couple. They have agreed to let Anya’s friends (who are demons) and Xander’s family (who are monsters) crash at their place and it looks like it is going to be clash of the hideous acquaintances.

College Boy: Fortunately for him leaving Sunnydale (and Buffy) seems to have been the smartest move Riley could have made. It seems a bit unfair that Riley should fall back into Buffy’s life, that he should take her on a whirlwind demon hunt where they abseil down a weir holding onto each other and that he should completely forget to mention that he is now a married man. His life couldn’t be anymore idyllic in a breakneck, killing demons sort of way and the way he has fallen in with a woman as committed and as tunnel visioned about work as he is is perfect. Buffy is still the first person he ever loved, the strongest person he knows and she’s still quite the hottie.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘My head has a cow…’ is about as much sense as Buffy can make in the face of Riley’s return.
‘Did you die?’ ‘No’ ‘I’m going to win…’
‘Just so you know, I’m prepared to hate this woman any way you want’ and ‘What a bitch…
‘The wheel never stops turning, Buffy. You’re up, you’re down…it doesn’t change who you are. And you’re a hell of a woman.’

The Good: It has come to this…Buffy smells so bad after a shift at the Doublemeat Palace that undead fiends shy away from her in the graveyard. The Svelte demon is another season six nasty that looks extremely memorable whilst erring on the side of being a bit naff. With its head a giant maw dripping with saliva and its ability to leap tall buildings, we’ve never seen anything quite like this before and given the amount of demons Buffy has sported this can only be a good thing. Whilst Doug Petrie’s direction lacks the sort of energy that this story needs to really come alive, some of his shots set at the reservoir are cinematic and impressive. I automatically want to hate Sam because she is everything that Buffy wants to be right now but Doug Petrie doesn’t make that a particularly easy task because the actress chosen is extremely likable and the character is resourceful, understanding and empathic.

The Bad: I could have sworn that Gellar and Blucas had more chemistry than this last year? Is this the same couple that shagged their way through an entire episode? Perhaps it was a deliberate move, to show how much both characters have changed since he skipped town. The whole Spike/Doctor element of the story is half baked and disappointing – there’s never any indication that it could be anyone else so it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise when it is revealed.

Moment to Watch Out For: I love the sequence with the Svelte eggs hatching the baby creatures attacking en masse. It has the kind of vigour and sense of danger that the rest of the episode lacks. The puppeteers deserve credit for making the horrid, scuttling spiders a genuine menace.

Fashion Statement: Anya makes a fair comment about Xander chowing down on chips. Nicholas Brendon sure seems to be piling on the pounds at this point, especially compared to the beanpole he was in season one. More Spike nakedness, of course.

Orchestra: What this episode is lacking in a very big way is the sort of score that Christophe Beck could provide during the high octane James Bond obsessed season four. In the hands of Thomas Wanker, the soundtrack lacks the pace and excitement that As You Were desperately craves. I’m pleased that the upcoming final season is going to be put in the hands of a fresh musician because the show really needs a shot in the arm in that respect, but not before Wanker offers up his final work in the run up to the end of the season.

Result: ‘Did you wait until your life was absolutely perfect…?’ The slow beginning of the crawl out of the mire that Buffy has fallen into this year, the return of Riley forces her to take a look at her life and make some important decisions about the future. As You Were is another almost-great episode that doesn’t quite kick into high gear but shows the series regaining its confidence and trying new things. Riley’s return might not be what people were calling out for but I for one enjoyed the chance to catch up with him and to be given the chance to see how well he has done for himself since leaving Sunnydale. It adds a whole new dimension to his ignominious departure from the series last year. We’re supposed to hate Sam but she’s actually a promising new character played by a likable actress and the effects work surrounding the Svelte demon is top notch. The areas where this falls down is where a lot of season six episodes bomb; its pacing, energy levels and musical score. There are a spate of episodes this year that have a disastrously flat atmosphere where previous years they would have scored a victory just by increasing the energy levels and giggles (Flooded, Smashed and Gone are the worst examples). Fortunately this is about the point where the production team seem to realise this and the show suddenly gets a shot of adrenalin and gets its mojo back. As You Were wants to be a high octane James Bond thriller as well as a reunion between Buffy and Riley and it gets all the ingredients right (gadgets, stunts, monsters) but forgets to add the pace that would have secured its success. Still there are some fun moments, the final set piece with the Svelte babies kicks some ass and the realisation that Buffy comes to regarding Spike makes this more than worth your time. This is a far less dramatic but far more satisfying departure for Riley from the show. Above average Buffy, but no classic: 7/10

Hell’s Bells written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: It’s the wedding day of Xander and Anya…

The Chosen One: The scenes between Buffy and Xander as she helps him get dressed for the wedding are rather lovely and recapture that sense of friendship and closeness that has been (deliberately) missing this year. It really feels like Buffy is crawling her way out of a hole and re-discovering what makes her life so worthwhile. Xander and Anya are proof there is light at the end of this very long, depressing tunnel she has been lost down for a while. We’ve not seen Sarah Michelle Gellar smile as much as she does in this episode all year and it is very refreshing to see.

Sexy Blond: Spike tries to make Buffy jealous by bringing the skankiest date he could possibly find to the shindig. Can anyone say desperate? 

Gorgeous Geek: Xander’s decision to call off the wedding might seem like a dramatic one but it is not without some precedent. He’s always had a dim view of marriage given his exposure to the very ugly relationship between his parents (referenced as early back as season one but seen here for the first time) and throughout season six his emotions about the wedding have been seriously conflicted. He held off from telling anybody about their engagement for as long as possible and has found the preparations stressful enough to pile on the pounds. In pretty much every way he was ready for this engagement to fail and seeing what he thinks are visions of the future where both he and Anya hate themselves for being shackled to each other is all it takes to convince him that their wedding will be a mistake. Some part of me wants to reach into the TV and strangle Xander for not realising how he feels sooner and putting Anya through the wringer like this and another part of me understands completely where he is coming from and wants to console him. Like I said with Willow earlier in the season when she made some dreadful mistakes, the fact that these characters make you feel such strong emotions for them, whether you want to murder them or comfort them, proves that the writers and the actors are doing something right. Dramatically, this is a sound direction to take their characters but that stop it from being the last thing I wanted for them. It is the cut to Xander’s horrid parents when Anya is trying to convince him to go through with the wedding that sealed the deal for me. I knew this wasn’t going to happen.

Vengeance Demon: This is the first chance since Once More, with Feeling that Emma Caulfield has had the chance to stretch herself which is truly a waste of her considerable talents. She looks desperately cute in her eye mask practising her vows (but then she is backed up by Willow and Tara giving each other google eyes as they try and help her get dressed). Anya’s shifting vows make for cuddlesome viewing and every time she re-writes them they made me all mushy inside all the more. Anya finally understands love thanks to Xander, and she is about to get a crash course in how much it can hurt too. It is never pleasant when your past comes back to haunt you and Anya’s former life as a vengeance demon trips her plans for happiness in a big way. It is impossible not to feel for Anya as she heads down the aisle, bloody, tear-stained and heartbroken but determined to face her guests. The final shot of her, devastated and broken, being offered a chance to slip back into the vengeance fold by D’Hoffryn offers a tantalising glimpse into the future.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Cousin Carol, your earrings are my cufflinks!’
‘If this is a mistake it’s forever…’
‘Oh Anyanka, I’m sorry. But you let him domesticate you. When you were a Vengeance Demon you were powerful. At the top of your game you crushed men like him. It’s time you got back to what you do best, don’t you think?’

The Good: Xander’s relatives and Anya’s demons are equally repulsive and it would be really hard to pin down who works hardest to make this wedding as unsuccessful as possible. The demons might turn the stomach visually(such as Krelvin with blisters and boils all over his face) but it is Xanders relatives that remind you that when it comes to functions of this nature that it is the family members that can often be the most trouble. We’ve heard much about Xander’s dysfunctional mother and father and here is a chance to finally meet them and they don’t disappoint. Plump, unengaging, single mother cousin Carol is so desperate for a boyfriend she is scouting around Anya’s Carny folk for a date. Hurrah for the return of Halfrek, Clem and D’Hoffryn, two recurring characters that always make an impact whenever they appear. It goes to show how effective this show is at adding memorable new characters to the mix. The squirming, tenticular present for the happy couple certainly raised an eyebrow.

The Bad: The scene between Willow and Xander (as gorgeous as it is, especially the reference back to Homecoming) is oddly placed after Xander’s vision when it would make much more sense for it to take place before. My reaction to the fight that breaks out pretty much mirrors Buffy’s. This is the most obvious thing that they could have done, although it does result in the pleasing sight of Willow and Tara falling into each others arms which is a bonus. It is a shame that the demon reveal is such a disappointment because it could have helped to save the fight scenes which had dissolved away all my earlier goodwill. It’s certainly the tallest demon, but perhaps not the most impressive design.

Moment to Watch Out For: Wow, the visions that the ‘older Xander’ reveals are really powerful stuff. Nick Brendon and Emma Caulfield commit themselves beautifully to these horrific vignettes of their potential future together and expose the horror of a marriage gone horribly, horribly wrong. It is when you see material this strong that you realise just how little these two actors have been given to do this year. This is what they are capable of. This sequence was so well played it gave me goosebumps.

Fashion Statement: Whilst I don’t object to the colour, those bridesmaids outfits really are in a league of their own hideousness. Dawn’s sleeveless version is by far the most fetching.

Orchestra: Another episode that needed a much more interesting score. Think Christophe Beck’s soundtrack for Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered or The Zeppo. What do we get? The same old cues that have been doing the rounds this year.

Result: For the record I hated this episode when it was first broadcast because after the tedious build up to the wedding throughout season six that kept Xander and Anya from doing anything relevant this was the last place I wanted them to be taken. I was appalled. However time has healed many of those wounds (especially since the aftermath of the dramatic conclusion of Hell’s Bells reaps some gorgeous character rewards and gets the series heart pumping again) and looking at it objectively it is a satisfying performance piece with lots of cute touches, some lovely comedy and a real heartbreaker of an ending. The weak moments are few and far between but mostly involve the tensionless scenes between the hideous (emotionally) Harris family and the hideous (physically) demons who has teleported in on Anya’s side. There’s a massive difference between where I want these characters to be (happy and contented) and what is dramatically satisfying and perpetuates storytelling (which would be tearing them apart horrifically) and the fact that I am painfully torn between the two in this episode proves that the show is getting something right. The reason it feels so unsatisfying at this point is that there has been so much misery is season that (with more on the way) that some relief would have been welcome but then I can think of a whole bunch of shows that allowed their characters a happy union and as a result lost their ability to do anything interesting with them (the inactivity of a happy Xander and Anya this year is a great example). As a way of highlighting what superb performers Nicky Brendon and Emma Caulfield can be, Hell’s Bells is to be applauded and they might just break your heart before the end. Again this isn’t quite vintage Buffy  because for all it’s mixture of lightness and drama the direction is a bit off in places. Fortunately this is the last time I will have to say that about an episode for a long, long time as we enter the superb final stretch of season six. Entertaining for the most part, this would have scraped a high 6 but scores one better because the last scene promises so much: 7/10

Normal Again written by Diego Gutierrez and directed by Rick Rosenthal

What’s it about: Have the last six seasons been a fevered dream?

The Chosen One: Sarah Michelle Gellar has been afforded material this season that is far above and beyond the usual comic and dramatic shtick she is asked to play and she has risen to the challenge with some aplomb. Normal Again features one of her finest performances in the seven seasons of the show, probing the depths of Buffy’s potential madness and making some very disturbing observations about her character. There is a very moving moment in Normal Again where Buffy and Willow greet Xander with a big hug and it is the closest we have seen the three characters since two years back at the conclusion of season four. It would seem that you have to get rid of all of their partners in order to give these characters this sense of intimacy (Riley is long gone, Tara left Willow for her own good and Xander left Anya standing at the altar) and it stands as a touching indictment of the strength of this core friendship at the heart of the show. She’s confiding in them again, revealing how detached from reality she has felt of late and admits that the idea that she is a frightened and disturbed girl in an asylum actually makes more sense to her than life in Sunnydale as it is now. Her teary fears that she never left the clinic feel so real as played by Gellar. Spike’s suggestion that Buffy is addicted to misery does seem to have a grain of truth to it. There are plenty of decisions that she could have made to make her life easier this year but she failed to do so. Certainly if she has been open about her relationship with Spike from the off she might have avoided the drama that is to come in the next episode.

The Key: Even Dawn is utilised well in this episode, something of a rarity this season. In Buffy’s ideal reality where her whole messed up life is a fantasy cooked up in her head Dawn doesn’t feature, she’s nothing but a retroactive plot device added late in the day to add some spice.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Over the past five or six episodes the show has managed to recapture that sweet, inoffensive, lovable Willow from the early seasons and it genuinely feels as though her and Tara are on the right trajectory for a happy ending. I guess I should know better by now than to get used to these characters finding themselves in a positive place since the typical Whedon reaction to it is to yank it away from them and see how they cope. The difference this time is that it has been such a slow burn development (and Willows suffering was so agonising) it seems that this time we are being handed exactly what we are after – a little contentment. In Normal Again Willow spots Tara greeting another woman with a kiss and gets completely the wrong idea.

Gorgeous Geek: Of course Xander still loves Anya, like that was ever in any doubt even after the events of Hell’s Bells (if nothing else it did a superb job of giving Xander a solid argument for kilting Anya on the most important day of her life). Now he has a lot of apologising and healing to arrange, if only he could can find the woman he loves (equally understandably she has skipped town).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh come on, that’s ridiculous! What, you think this isn’t real because of all the vampires and demons and ex-vengeance demons and the sister that used to be a big ball of universe destroying energy?’ – when Xander points it out like that, it is easy to buy into the idea that Buffy has invented a fantasy world.
‘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’ – this is some ingenious self referencing dialogue.
‘Last summer when you had a momentary awakening, it was them that pulled you back in…’ – referencing Buffy’s sacrifice at the end of The Gift and her subsequent return to Sunnydale in Bargaining. The way this has been made to fit into the shows continuity is gorgeous. Some real thought has gone into this.
‘Because what’s more real? A sick girl in an institution or some kind of Supergirl chosen to fight demons and save the world? That’s ridiculous.’

The Good: What I love about Normal Again is how it all kicks off like a typical season six episode; the Trio are bickering, Buffy is patrolling the streets looking for them and a typically gruesome looking demon is summoned to deal with her (this weeks version has translucent, waxy skin, tentacles and hideous eyes like fried eggs – ugh!). Even Buffy being stabbed has been done before but the sudden cut to the mental hospital with Buffy being sedated in agonising slow motion proves that this going to be something quite different from the norm. Buffy might come late to the party when it comes to high concept episodes but you can usually count on this show to be the one that makes the most of whichever premise it is test driving from week to week. This series has always been partial to a little meta fiction to make its point but Normal Again takes the idea to a whole new level, suggesting that Buffy is insane and that she dreamt up Sunnydale and the whole cast of characters to feed her delusion and keep her from the real world. She lives in a mental institution, her mom is still alive and still in a relationship with her father and the self destructive path that she has experienced in the past couple of years has all been in her head. It is a chilling idea, superbly realised in a script that takes a long, hard look at all the inconsistencies in Buffy and makes a compelling argument about the inconsistent nature of fiction. The sequences in the mental institution are filmed through a hypnotic lens and look nothing like anything else we have seen this season which really helps to sell the idea that this is world away from the fantasy land of Sunnydale that show usually inhabits. The performances are mute and realistic (Gellar is absolutely phenomenal) and the return of Kristine Sutherland is most welcome. Whilst at first it seems like the demon venom has created the asylum delusion that starts to take over Buffy’s life, the episode plays some depraved games with the audience and soon starts to convince that her life in Sunnydale was the illusion and the venom ‘plot device’ was created by Buffy so she could escape back into the real world. Very, very clever. Buffy is trapped within a schizophrenic nightmare, one where she has cast herself as the hero (the Slayer) within an intricate latticework that supports her delusion, surrounded by friends with super powers facing grand overblown conflicts and monsters both imaginary and rooted in actual myth. The very idea that past six seasons have been a fiction conjured up by a disturbed girl is thrilling and twisted and Normal Again makes many intelligent observations about the shows evolution. Buffy re-wrote her entire backstory to insert Dawn because she wanted a sister figure but as a result it created inconsistencies in the fantasy, started revealing cracks in the fiction. Suddenly the warm, likable characters have started doing uncomfortable and frightening things, the cast of sunny teenagers have become dangerous, flawed adults that are coming apart at the seams. When you put it that the arresting developments for the characters in seasons five and six suddenly start to make a great deal of sense. For once we have a climax which is loaded with genuine tension, where a fight to the death feels real because it is Buffy who is setting a monster on her friends who are bound and gagged. Cutting to Buffy’s devastated reaction to her friends being hurt in the asylum adds greater depth to her inner struggle. Brilliantly the writer and director make Buffy’s emergence back into the Sunnydale reality both a moment of triumph and a moment of tragedy, refusing to suggest that the asylum was all a dream. Without the awesome final pull back from the comatose Buffy, lost in the Sunnydale delusion, this episode wouldn’t have the strength it does. What a phenomenal final twist.

The Bad: In order for this premise to work the show has to add a retroactive element of continuity where Buffy genuinely was placed in a mental asylum between living in Los Angeles and moving to Sunnydale which I can go with because the resulting episode is so powerful. But you would have thought we might have heard about this before, even in jest, or at least when Joyce found out about Buffy’s secret lifestyle in Becoming (something along the lines of ‘So you didn’t have to send me to that asylum after all…’). It is plausible that her parents would have taken steps to try and sort her out if she starting banging on about monsters and demons in her teens at least.

Moment to Watch Out For: The moment when this goes from being a great episode to a classic one is when Buffy makes a choice to reject the path this season has taken her character, toss away the antidote and murder her friends. Her decision is that the asylum reality is the preferable one and that’s a startling verdict for the central character of a show to make about her own series. It almost feels as though the season has been taking its characters down a path of destruction specifically to build to this moment. Suddenly Buffy is revealed as the ‘Big Bad’ and the way she calmly walks around the house taking out all of her friends is terrifying. Or if you want to look at it from the flip side Buffy’s friends are revealed to the ultimate ‘Big Bad’ and now she is finally disposing of them. Fantastic stuff.

Fashion Statement: Everybody has been dressing in such a subdued way this season, befitting the tone the show has taken so when the entire Scooby gang turn up to patrol looking like they have stepped out of a fashion shoot (especially Willow and Buffy in their awesome hats) it is quite the eye opener.

Orchestra: Love the overly dramatic psycho Buffy music at the climax as she searches the house for Dawn.

Foreboding: The Trio are starting to come apart at the seams in the aftermath of Dead Things. Jonathan’s conscience has emerged since he helped to cover up a murder and Warren and Andrew are now plotting behind his back.

Result: ‘You’re going downstairs with the others…’ Normal Again is the best episode of season six to date (Once More, with Feeling aside) and it is written and directed by two new contributors to the series. Whilst I might make this sort of observation about other series and genuinely be screwing in the point that the writing staff have been around for too long, the writers/ directors of the Buffyverse are generally pretty strong but this is proof that bringing in fresh blood does shake things up in a positive way. This psychological drama is one of the most arresting pieces of the year and tellingly it proves to be the point where the season as a whole ups its game and the produces consistently excellent results for the rest of its run. This is my favourite of the horror genres and it reveals how fiendishly clever and unsettling it can be when done right. You might start Normal Again thinking that the previous six season are reality and the Buffy’s asylum visions are the delusion but somewhere along the line the lines are blurred and right up until the final scene the writer holds his nerve and refuses to commit either way. The fact that Normal Again reviews the previous six seasons of Buffy in its self referencing dialogue is inspired, but how it casts a critical eye over the past season in particular displays a confidence that the show has been missing for some time. Buffy manages to convincingly be cast in the role of the tragic hero and the sinister villain and Sarah Michelle Gellar ups her game considerably and delivers a powerhouse performance. I like that this is such a strong standalone episode but continues to evolve all the character arcs and offers some critical discussion of them at the same time. One of my favourite Buffy episodes for its clever writing, powerful ideas and unforgettable conclusion and brilliantly an episode that could only be told in the darkest of Buffy seasons: 10/10

Entropy written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: It’s the most Dawson’s Creek episode of season six…except its really rather good.

The Chosen One: The writers are finally having some fun with the Buffy and Spike relationship again whilst continuing the idea of secrecy that has run through this season like a stick of rock. I love the notion of Spike holding a vampire at bay and trying to use that as leverage for Buffy to tell her friends that she has been sleeping with him. Like that was ever going to work. She’s already told Tara who hasn’t batted an eyelid and given that she tried to murder all of her friends and family last week and they somehow found it in their hearts to forgive her I don’t see any real problem with the news that she has been shacking up with the undead.

The Key: Entropy is one of the sunniest episodes of the year regardless of the dramatic developments in the final fifteen minutes and it even has the time to take hold of Dawn’s kleptomania (which has by far been the most dreary plotline this season) and take the piss out of it (‘You stole a toothbrush? As far as rebellious teenagers go you’re kind of square!’). Since trying to drag her down to the basement and set a slavering demon on her Buffy has gone into mental mom mode and is overcompensating to the nth degree. It’s so nice to see some kind of pleasant interaction between her and Dawn (its been all estrangement and mood swings for so long now) I will happily sit through scenes of domestic bliss, Brady Bunch style. Dawn wants to go patrolling with Buffy, offering the argument that they went practically every day when they were her age (fifteen, not one and a half) but Buffy refuses, saying that she works very hard to keep her away from that side of her life. The honesty between Buffy and Dawn when she figures out what has been going on between her and Spike after witnessing her reaction to the pornographic actions in the magic Shop reveals that gentle chemistry between them at their best that was rife in season five. More like this please.

Sexy Blond: Spike tries to open out to Buffy once again (in the face of her accusations that he has been spying on her) but she rejects him. Somehow her respecting him enough to keep her distance hurts him more than her using him as her sex buddy but then he’s that kind of blood sucking fiend.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Ooh, colour me butterflies at all the flirty smiles and cute exchanges between Willow and Tara. After their nightmarish split earlier in the year it is so enjoyable to see these two falling for each other again. It’s prove conclusive that no matter how much I might like Oz and to a lesser extent Kennedy, there was only ever one person for Willow.

Gorgeous Geek: Isn’t it strange that misery brings out the best in characters? Xander and Anya have been agonisingly inactive throughout most of the year in their whirlwind of domestic bliss and I have barely given a crap about them but the second they were dramatically ripped apart they are suddenly an attention grabbing pair again. The scene where they are reunited is played superbly by Brendon and Caulfield, so restrained and full of tension that I just wanted them to follow Willow and Tara’s example and fall into each others arms. Xander still wants to be with Anya but he stands by his decision not get married, which is precisely what Anya doesn’t want to hear. The venom that ejects from her is pure spite and she tries to drag all the curses from Hell upon him.

Vengeance Demon: Anya pretty much sums up the entire path of a relationship that has a finite life during her drunken rant at Spike, from honeymoon period to jealousy to caring about what they think to kicking them to the dirt. This angry, vulnerable, tragic Anya is more likable than ever. Emma Caulfield aces the moment where she breaks down and ponders whether Xander never wanted her, effectively tearing my heart in two.

The Trio: Now had the Trio been introduced like this they might have been a little more palatable from the off, burning through a moonlit graveyard on quad bikes with stakes taped to the front, smashing through gravestones and staking vampires. In exactly the same way that Flooded set up the events of Life Serial and Smashed the events of Gone for the Trio, much of their material this week is all preparation for their explosion of activity in Seeing Red. However like everybody else in Entropy their interaction is suddenly a lot more interesting (especially as Warren and Andrew plot behind Jonathan’s back) and their geeky tricks are integral to the rest of the story (their cameras allow the Scoobies to get a front row seat of Anya and Spike’s sexual encounter).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So there was no child support in like eleven years, not a single cheque, so now every time he touches a piece of paper that isn’t a cheque for the child…paper cuts!

The Good: I really appreciated the scene between Willow and Tara where the former tries to make the latter jealous by recounting all their adventures since they split up. I remain unconvinced that it was the period of excitement that Willow makes it out to be but I welcome the effort all the same. How delightful is that sequence where Anya attempts to get Xander’s friends to exact terrible torture on him? It reminds me of the cross cutting of interrogations in Checkpoint but this time it is even more penetrating because we are closer to all of these characters now, especially Anya who is hurting so much all she desires is to make Xander suffer in the same way. All the tricks she attempts are sneaky but ineffective and she has to go back to the drawing board. Suddenly drawing attention to the simmering tension between Xander and Spike in Normal Again makes a lot more sense as Anya tries to use his least favourite person to curse him. The criticisms that Spike and Anya make about the Scoobies (that they are uptight, dishonest and false in their profuse niceness) when under the influence of a bottle of Whiskey prove to be startlingly accurate for the most part. The episode manages to generate a surprising amount of tension as the audience becomes more aware of where the unveiling of the Trio’s cameras is eventually going to lead them. As Spike and Anya relax into each others company and Willow works her magic with the computer I was screaming at the three of them to look away as Buffy and Xander witness their ex-lovers seeking solace in each others arms. This is such dramatic gold it suddenly makes this seasons character paths make a lot more sense in retrospect. Suddenly there is an explosion of drama, Xander out for Spike’s head, Buffy wanting answers and Spike revealing his relationship with the Slayer in a moment of spite when Xander is at his absolute weakest. The convergence of all these character arcs in one extremely potent scene quite took my breath away. Finally something is happening in season six…and it’s really powerful viewing too! The apologetic look that passes between Anya and Spike after they have made love, recognising that it was a moment of weakness…oh boy did I have a few moments like that in my late teens.

The Bad: It is another almost entirely plotless season six episode but it is constructed out of character material so strong it leaves episodes like Smashed and Gone in the dust.

Moment to Watch Out For: Despite all the emotional fireworks going on elsewhere, the real punch the air moment is saved until last when Willow and Tara stop keeping each other at arms length and fall into a beautiful, passionate embrace. This is TV that cuddles you tight.

Fashion Statement: How smoking hot does Anya look with her new hairdo and flaming red dress? This is the very image of a wronged woman who wants to look good to show how over her ex she is. The drink fuelled, table top sexploits of Spike and Anya might be questionable morally but regardless it is one of the hottest love scenes the show ever presented, revelling in how naughty it is and being observed voyeuristically by all and sundry.

Result: After a run of very bleak stories this was the last thing I was expecting from an episode called Entropy. For much of it’s running time this is light, breezy, funny and highly enjoyable to watch with the interaction between the regulars more effervescent than it has been in ages. What starts as a farcical attempt to exact vengeance on Xander becomes a much more dramatic affair as two of the character  arcs collide in a moment of ill conceived passion and explodes with powerful consequences for all involved. The moment when Buffy, Spike, Xander and Anya all confront each other in front of the Magic Shop is so full of honesty and cutting remarks you might come away with a paper cut or two. For a season that has been this reserved it is great to see things finally spilling out into the open and the result of holding back as long as they have only serves to make the fireworks even more satisfying. Cutting through all this drama is some fine work being done with Dawn and Willow too, especially the latter in a final scene that reaches out from the TV and gives you a massive hug. There isn’t much plot here but there is oodles of character and I know which one Buffy excels in more. Extremely enjoyable and lots more to tie up in the final run of episodes: 8/10

Seeing Red written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Warren is on the war path and Willow is about to lose control…

The Chosen One: In a story that is loaded with discomforting sexism, Buffy states pleasingly that she wont have to hold back when giving Warren a beating because of his newfound super powers.

The Key: Dawn’s screaming fit when she realises that Willow and Tara pretty much matched my own. When did she become my identification figure? Whilst she hasn’t seen the appalling way that Buffy has been treating Spike this year, her condemnation of his behaviour with Anya to hurt her sister is pretty much on the money. Sometimes it takes somebody who is completely out of the loop to look at a situation to see how it really is. Buffy and Spike are lashing out at each other because they have strong feelings for one another, it isn’t a healthy relationship and slowly all three of them are coming to realise that.

Sexy Blond: After the bathroom attack Spike is in a very dangerous place. He asks himself what he has done, why he didn’t rape her and questions where his relationship with Buffy has taken him. I knew this pairing was going to produce some startling results but I never knew it was going to be quite this dramatic. The question is can this character ever be redeemed after pushing things this far?

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Watch those early scenes between Benson and Hannigan carefully and you’ll see one of the most convincing on screen relationships between two actresses that you are ever likely to see. The way they look at each other, talk to each other and touch each other. It’s effortless. Who hasn’t had one of those days after a disagreement where you stay in bed all day and make love? Those are some of the best days. They spend so much of this episode smiling that the warning bells start sounding, especially coming at the tail end of the ‘no happiness allowed’ season six.

Gorgeous Geek: Finally there is some degree of honesty between Xander and Buffy. He denounces her relationship with Spike and she admits how she has been feeling since she crawled out of her grave and the resulting frankness brings them closer than ever.  I really appreciated the moment when Buffy told him that what she does with her personal life is her business and nobody else’s because I have never known a group of friends who are so involved in each others lives. I’m glad the Xander as a manic depressive drunk angle is wrapped up pretty quickly (there’s some big stuff to deal with after the events of this episode) because although they are successfully milking the calamity of his split with Anya it would get old very quickly (and couldn’t touch the Willow addicted to magic angle).

Vengeance Demon: Anya is attempting to get her vengeance demon career back on track but every time she tries to punish men who have wronged women she winds up ranting on about Xander and putting them off the wishing.

The Trio: Do you know what I find terrifying about Warren is that despite the fact that he is such an egotistical misogynist even when he has magical powers that give him super strength it only serves to make him even more pathetic. He’s so feeble that as soon as he gets equal powers to Buffy he starts hitting on the guys who gave him a hard time at school, trying it on with their girlfriends and most eyebrow raising of all, robbing an amusement park of its takings. He’s such an ineffective bad guy it is almost tragic.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She’s fat. He cheated on me with my fat, ugly sister!’
‘You’ll each get a whirl, once I’m done playing with them…’
‘Ask me again why I could never love you.’
‘He’s Picard, you’re Deanna Troi. Get with the feeling, Betazoid.’
‘It wont le me be a monster, and I can’t be a man. I’m nothing.’

The Good: If you want to see how the mood can change so spectacularly and confidently on Buffy, the opening and closing scenes of Seeing Red take place in Willow and Tara’s bedroom and there is a world of difference between the two. From passionate lust to tragedy in the space of 45 minutes. Whilst it might be the most ridiculously overblown and melodramatic jeopardy device ever conceived, the circular saws that spring from nowhere and attempt to saw Buffy into pieces when she explores the Trio’s lair are so dramatically executed it is a moment of  heart-stopping tension. Even the demons are being utilised in a more imaginative way than usual this week, a bulky, earthy beast being eviscerated and his slimy exterior being used as a second skin to obtain the Trio’s latest acquisition. It’s all very icky which is all for the good. I love the atmosphere of the scenes below ground, it’s like Indiana Jones with monsters. Check out the lighting an music in Spike’s crypt in the scene after he attempts to force himself on Buffy, rarely has this show felt so stark and dramatic. Warren’s rocket pack escape is a moment of pure comic book comedy, perfectly complimented by Andrew’s laugh out loud attempt to follow his mentor and knock himself unconscious as a result. With Tara dead and blood pouring from Buffy’s body, the cliffhanging shock moment gave me goosebumps all over. This is where it is important to have good actors in your ensemble because any series can fire a bullet but it takes the skill of Alyson Hannigan to grip you so completely as Willow cradles the body of her dead lover. From nowhere, this is suddenly the most exciting season ever.

The Bad: If I was churlish, I could point out that the stray bullet was extremely lucky to fund its mark.

Moment to Watch Out For: The real talking point of this episode is the Spike/Buffy attempted rape scene in which it seems every man and his dog has an opinion about. Usually I don’t care for Buffy to venture into such murky waters such as this but the direction their relationship has taken in season six has been so damaging and brutal it almost feels as though this is the only place it could end up before they both call it a day for good. Whilst I find the whole idea of rape uncomfortable, invasive and terrorising, what I find quite interesting is the strong reaction to this scene compared to the relatively ignored Buffy beats the shit out of Spike sequence in Dead Things. Both scenes see the two characters going too far physically and forcing themselves onto the other, both scenes leave scars that last far beyond the shocking events and yet in the emancipated world of Buffy a near rape of a woman is far more disturbing than a man almost being beaten to death. If find them equally distasteful and yet in how the characters deal with the emotional consequences, utterly compulsive viewing. Nobody wanted to see Spike cross this line but he is just as confused and full of violently conflicting emotions as Buffy was when he makes his mistake. They are as bad as each other and the season has taken its time to point that out – Spike was as helpless at Buffy’s hands whilst she was disfiguring his face with her fists as she is here as his hands molest her flesh uninvited. They both have a moment of realisation when they can see what they have become thanks to this twisted relationship. I’m glad the near-rape isn’t shown to be a reaction to the beating that she gave him because that would be a horrific message to send out to the audience. There is enough space between the two events for them to be entirely separate. If anything this is a last minute attempt for Spike to reach out to Buffy who has completely rejected him at this point as is her right. A gesture that should have been gentle and compromising but winds up desperate and invasive. The scene as filmed is about as horrific as Buffy comes, superbly played by James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar and shot with real care by a director that wants to drive home the panic and terror of the experience without shoving it in the audience face. The fact that it takes place in the bathroom, the place where you clean yourself is important and both Buffy and Spike are wearing black which contrasts starkly against the sparseness of the room. Whilst you might reject such discomforting material, the fact that it provokes such strong opinions and plentiful discussion means that it is certainly an avenue that was worth exploring. Buffy has never look more scared or more vulnerable and this scene makes an important statement that when a woman says no she means no and shows you the emotional consequences of when that doesn’t happen.

Foreboding: After their dramatic confrontation Spike is leaving town, apparently to escape the wrath of Buffy’s friends. But things aren’t as simple as they seem…

Result: With shades of light and dark more compulsive than this show has ever been, Seeing Red is an attention grabbing commencement to a powerhouse run of episodes that close season six. Season six has had some riveting things to say about the potentially destructive relationships between men and women and it is in Seeing Red where it reaches its zenith. Spike and Buffy’s relationship has always been abusive, just a few weeks back she took away his choice to fight back and in a startling rape scene in this episode he pushes Buffy into her worst nightmare. With dialogue like ‘I’m the guy that beat you’ from Warren and ‘that means I wont have to hold back’ from Buffy, there is much more going on beneath the surface of Seeing Red than initially meets the eye. There was only ever going to be one conclusion to this battle of the sexes – death – and it is Tara that suffers the consequences for everybody else’s lack of control. I’m making this sound like a real drag, aren’t I? The truth is that this episode blends drama and comedy better than practically any episode this year, features some excellent action sequences, a chance for practically all of the main cast to show what they are capable of and as an overall package it is another extremely confident example of a show that has regain its mojo. Micheal Gershman’s direction is phenomenal, he is as concerned with emotive lighting as much as he is pace and performance and the net result is a gorgeous looking drama. Amongst all this exceptional material, a stray bullet steals the episode and claims an innocent victim. It’s the very meaning of the word cliffhanger as we have to wait to see how the series handles Willow’s reaction to Tara’s death: 10/10

Villains written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Willow is on the war path following the death of Tara…

The Chosen One: When Dawn states that she would kill Warren herself if she had the chance (‘out of the mouth of babes’), it provokes an interesting response from Buffy who finally admits where she stands on the killing of humans. She might be the Slayer but she defers to the authorities when it comes to murder in the human world.

The Key: ‘You’ve been through enough for more than one…ever!’ I’m starting to wonder if Dawn is going to be scarred for life after the traumatic events of season six. We’ve already seen the devastating effect of returning home and finding one of your loved ones dead in The Body but Villains taps into that nightmare again as Dawn discovers Tara’s body where Willow left it. We cut away at just the right time so we can imagine her panicked reaction and when we eventually cut back to Dawn later in the episode we discover her sitting quietly by Tara’s corpse, mute and unable to process what has happened. 

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Prove that those magical powers of Willow’s were brewing just beneath the surface and waiting to spring out, in reaction to Tara’s death she doesn’t even bother the usual ritual but drags Osiris to her and demands that he re-animates her lover. Alyson Hannigan’s broken pleading is heart-rending to watch, unable to concede to a life without the woman she loves. When Osiris refuses her request she vomits all the torments of Hell at him, sending him back where he came from in agony. To Willow’s mind there is only one recourse, vengeance. Thus begins a terrifying three episode blockbuster as the witch sucks in all manner of dangerous, addictive, frightening magicks and heads out on a murder spree to take out those responsible for Tara’s death. Willow is hurting so much she wants to lose herself in the magic, she doesn’t want to come back from it this time. If they were supposed to be able to control things with magic then it wouldn’t change Willow the way it does. Not even an axe to the back is going to stop this disconsolate lover.

The Trio: It has been a long time coming but Warren finally gets his comeuppance for the death of Katrina, Tara and being a pain in Buffy’s butt for the past year. But not before he gets to display more of his pathetic villainy, bragging about killing the Slayer and wandering into demon bars like he is the big I am. He thinks that money is going to be enough to buy magicks to protect him from Dark Willow, forgetting that she is being fuelled by a fury that comes from love. Anything he tries is going to be fruitless but much of this episodes strength comes from him holding back his inevitable death.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It is a human death by human means. You raised one killed by mystical forces, this is not the same. She is taken by natural order.’
‘What’s up with the make over of the damned?’
‘You never felt you had the power with her, not until you killed her. You get off on it. That’s why you had a mad on for the Slayer. She was your big-o wasn’t she, Warren?’ ‘Are you done yet? Or shall we talk some more about our feelings?’ – Noxon cuts right to the chase about what this series has been about and starkly highlights Warren’s misogyny.

The Good: The opening scene gives an excellent indication of the fast paced hour you are about to experience, following an ambulance as it screams down the road towards Buffy’s house in an unbroken shot that runs over their shoulder to where Buffy can be found lying in a bloody mess in her back garden. It is a startling and stylish introduction to the episode. Have they been saving up money for the incredible effects sequence where Willow invades the Magic Box, tears the dark magic tomes from their shelves and sucks the knowledge and power into herself because it looks absolutely phenomenal. The words stream up her arms and transform her from a furious redhead into an impassively cool and black eyed nasty. The running joke that no bugger has even heard of the Trio despite their juvenile activities this year is awesome. They’re so ineffective the underworld carried on its usual business without them registering in the slightest. What I love about the emergence of Dark Willow is how the creators seemed to have wanted to convince us that the show had lost its ability to present us with decent bad guys anymore. That after Glory there was nowhere else to go. It has been a patience straining season with nothing but the Scoobies domestic mistakes to latch onto as any kind of antagonising force to react against but it now feels that was part of the plan, to provoke a feeling of antipathy and then blow you away as Willow unleashes all the forces of Hell upon the world. It was either a struggling production team making it up as they go along and finally figuring out what works or an exquisitely planned mind fuck climaxing in a very impressive way. I prefer to think of the latter because I was sucked in completely and as a result of my earlier ennui I am now glued to my TV. The sequence of Willow taking control of the car that Xander is driving and striding off into the sun kissed desert at dusk to deal with Warren is very dynamically directed. I especially love how she makes the bus that Warren is attempting to skip town on race towards her and scream to a halt right in front of her. This is one pissed off witch. It is a small thing but I thought the way that the cast wore their bloodstained clothes for at least half of this episode was a very effective way to point out the futility of guns. As Xanders says, you cannot escape the blood. It’s Tara’s blood that leads Willow to Warren in the woods, a superb effect that sees her T-shirt create a map out of her blood (and the close up on Willow’s terrifying black eyes always gives me the wiggins). The sudden cut to Spike’s exploits in Africa (whilst clearly being filmed on a moonlit beach in America) are a very welcome distraction from the drama of the main storyline. The demon he has come to bargain with is another expertly designed piece of work, all glowing green eyes and twisting black bones. It is mostly kept in the darkness and that serves to add to its mystery. Steven W. Bailey provides a memorably creepy voice for the beast too. The tricks that Warren throws at Willow look fantastic (I love the flying explosion that Willow freezes midair) but ultimately prove childs play for her to step away from and when she has nature on her side he really doesn’t have a chance.

The Bad: For once Xanders objections do feel valid and leaving Dawn with Spike so soon after he attempted to rape Buffy feels like an unconvincing move. Fortunately it brings Clem back in the fold which is where this episode gets its only release of humour from.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘Now the one person who should be here is gone and waste like you gets to live…’ Willow capturing Warren and subjecting him to all manner of horrors is an extended torture sequence, plain and simple. It is also one of the most deftly performed and protracted periods of discomfort I have ever sat through. I’m not sure if Alyson Hannigan was ever better than what she delivers here; Dark Willow is a cool, effortlessly frightening presence who is getting off on punishing the man who killed her girlfriend. Warren is a nasty piece of work for sure but I’m not sure even he deserves to have a bullet bust into his chest in slow motion whilst his mouth is sown up. She doesn’t just want to kill him, she wants to hurt him first and hear him suffer. I’m not surprised that the censors get itchy whenever this episode is due to be screened because the effect of Willow tearing the skin from Warren’s body and leaving him a flayed corpse is stomach churning. Noxon waits until Buffy, Xander and Anya have caught up with Willow before allowing her to kill so everybody can see that she has crossed a line. I’ve never really thought of Buffy as a horror show but this is probably the furthest they indulged in the genre.

Orchestra: Is Thomas Wanker scoring this episode? It’s dramatic, pacy music, superbly capturing the taste for excitement that the show has recaptured. I especially love the dark undertones to the forest scenes as Willow pursues Warren.

Result: It is only when you get to this blistering final run of shows featuring the biggest badass the series has ever presented in episodes full of action, excitement, scares and great effects that you realise how lacking in these elements the majority of the year has been. Villains is another heart-stopping number, one which starts running and just gets better and better until it climaxes on a memorable and horrific final set piece. The dramatic tension in Villains come from Buffy and her friends trying to catch up with and stop Willow before she commits murder and takes a step too far over the brink. Buffy’s shooting ultimately proves to be a bit of a time waster but delivered this powerfully I am not complaining. All eyes are on Alyson Hannigan and it is no exaggeration to say that she has stolen the show from Sarah Michelle Gellar this season, and no she sets out to become the most commanding foe the show has ever presented. Whether she is sucking dark knowledge from books, drawing bullets out of Buffy’s chest, squeezing the life out of Warren’s decoys or flaying men alive, Dark Willow is an awesomely powerful presence. It feels as though season six has retained its strengths (dark drama, emotional consequences, the willingness to push the show in some disturbing areas) and jettisoned all of its weaknesses (indolence, juvenile humour) and is providing material the likes of which we have never seen before. The final five minutes prove to be the highlight although there really isn’t any part of Villains that isn’t firing on all cylinders. I haven’t clenched my butt as much for an age as I did during the tense climax which catalogues Willow’s first kill and finally sees Warren get his comeuppance in vomit inducingly raw fashion. Top dollar Buffy: 10/10

Two to Go written by Doug Petrie and directed by Bill L. Norton

What’s it about: Dark Willow is on the rampage…and nobody in the world has the power to stop her.

The Chosen One: ‘Please. This is your pitch? Buffy, you hate it here as much as I do. I’m just more honest about it. You’re trying to sell me on the world? The one where you lie to your friends when you’re not trying to kill them? Or you screw a vampire just to feel and insane asylums are the comfy alternative? This world? Buffy, this is me. I know you were happier when you were in the ground. The only time you were at peace in your whole life is when you were dead…’ Wow, what a character assassination by Willow. The trouble is although Buffy has started to crawl out of this hole this is an accurate summation of her path in life this season. Buffy categorically points out that she is not trying to protect Jonathan or Andrew but that she wants to pull Willow back from the brink because she doesn’t want to lose a friend. They’ve been thorns in her side for too long now for her to give a crap what happens to them.

The Key: Dark Willow might not be the most rational of evil, geek killing witches but she makes a fantastic point that everybody would feel a lot better without Dawn’s constant whining.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: ‘Let me tell you something about Willow. She’s a loser and she always has been. People picked on Willow in junior High School, High School, up until college. With her stupid mousy ways. The only thing Willow was ever good for, the only thing I had going for me were the moments, just moments, when Tara would look at me and I was wonderful…’ Joss Whedon is a clever bastard. Slowly allowing us to see how addicted to the magic Willow has become through her cracking relationship with Tara and taking her to what we thought was an all time low in Wrecked. Then kicking off her slow rehabilitation (Amy’s intervention in Doublemeat Palace was especially clever because it was proof at what a difficult process this is for Willow) and allowing us (and Tara) to fall in love with her all over again. It has been a long, agonising process but it felt like we knew where it was heading. To suddenly wrench Tara away from Willow and have her turn nastier than ever as a result is the last direction I expected her to be taken at the time but dramatically it is very satisfying and surprising. Suddenly it has become Willow versus her friends as they try and stand in her way and stop her exacting vengeance on those responsible for killing her girlfriend. What incredible development for this character, not only just in this year but who would have ever have expected that shy, geeky mousy young lady from Welcome to the Hellmouth to evolve into the most frightening foe that Buffy and friends have ever faced. Jonathan actually comments on her development when they are on the run, reminding me that he has been with the show from the start and has seen her progress with us.  We’ve been heading towards this moment for the past six years, a fight to the death between Buffy and Willow. No seriously. Whilst this has always been Sarah Michelle Gellar’s show I would say without a doubt that Alyson Hannigan is the reason that a lot of people keep watching. As good as Gellar can be, Hannigan is the superior actress and manages to steal most scenes without even trying. In season six the focus has shifted between Buffy and Willow alarmingly, their dual addiction storylines taking the largest share of the year (Wrecked/Dead Things saw both at their zenith). With the emergence of Dark Willow, Hannigan has finally wrestled the show away from Gellar and become the focal performer and now is the time for the pair to wrestle to the death to see who will emerge victorious. ‘Come on, this is a huge deal for me. Six years as the side man…now I get to be the Slayer.’

Gorgeous Geek: Anya can teleport, Buffy is super-fast but poor Xander has to try and reach his best friend the old fashioned way. The background tension between the recently split couple provides some substance to the (relatively few) quieter moments in Two to Go as Xander and Anya are forced to try and work together to bring down Willow. He’s kicking himself for freezing up when Warren approached with the gun but I think that is the reaction a lot of us would have in the same circumstances.

Vengeance Demon: Clearly Xander has had some kind of effect on Anya because rather than skip town at the first opportunity of Dark Willow’s path of destruction, she actually wants to help Jonathan and Andrew out instead. Her newfound teleportation skills are a lovely bonus of her being back in the vengeance fold. Clearly splitting her and Xander up was the best move for all concerned, she hasn’t had this much action for ages. She cares whether Xander lives or dies but she can’t quite make up her mind which one she wants. It is Anya’s fear at the climax that gave me the shivers the most, her hysterical cry for help as Willow attacks her is horrifying.

The Trio: With Warren well and truly disposed of, that leaves Andrew and Jonathan to deal with. How much more palatable are these characters as victims rather than wanabee super villains? Gone is the juvenile humour and all that is left are two frightened little boys who are in danger of having their skin ripped off. Although Andrew still can’t help shoving in as many pop culture references as possible (he’s a nerd, it’s in our blood and my favourite has to be ‘You were out of the Trio a long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away…’). I think I should probably hate him but I cannot help but have sympathy for Andrew and his idiotic plans to start up the Duo – even when their foolish schemes have taken them this far he still has delusions of grandeur. He is mot definitely going to have to be taken down a peg or two next season.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why doesn’t Willow just wave her arms and make us dead?’ ‘Because she doesn’t want you dead, she wants to kill you.’
‘You’re back on the magicks’ ‘No honey, I am the magicks.’
‘You saw her, she’s a truck driving magic mama!’
‘Now I’m pretty sure I’m strong enough to beat you to death.’
‘And there’s nobody in the world who has the power to stop me now’ ‘I’d like to test that theory…’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Get off super bitch!’ – not even Hannigan can make that line work.

The Good: I’ve discussed this season as a whole quite a bit throughout these reviews as well as looking at the individual episodes (mostly because I think it is such a fascinating year, plumbing unexpected depths, with bizarre periods surrounded by some of the best material the show ever produced). To be fair to the creators when the best elements are presented as they are at the beginning of this episode (Xander takes over from Giles for one episode with ‘here’s what happened this year…’) you can see a clear evolutionary path for all the characters leading to this incredible final run of stories. It is exhilarating set pieces aplenty again as Willow tears apart a police station, brick by brick, in order to gain access to Jonathan and Andrew and finish the job. Surrounded by cops that she summarily sends into slumber, or simply tosses into the nearest windscreen, Dark Willow stands before the police station impassively as she scares the shit out of her next victims. When they escape Willow lets rip the most terrifying, unearthly scream, frying Anya into unconsciousness. The return of Rack was entirely unexpected but brings a certain coherence to the season and whilst I love the moment where Willow ‘takes a little tour’ in exactly the same way he did to her in Wrecked, it is a shame that this is the last that we get to see of this detestable character. The fact that it is Dawn (and with her the adorable Clem) who discovers his body, her second in as many episodes, is what gives the reveal it’s blood curdling nature. Dawn was the character who previously got the closest to Dark Willow so she has the greatest reason to fear her. The transition between Rack’s joint and the Magic Box is effortlessly achieved and I didn’t realise until it was too late because I was so invested in Willow’s character annihilation of Buffy. Whilst Spike’s actions are completely disconnected from the central storyline, once again they provide a dramatic and exciting counterpoint. His fight against the action man with the flaming fists is visually stunning and he obtains some nasty burns in the process. Whatever it is he is proceeding through these tests for had better be worth it. Whilst I don’t think the Buffy/Willow fight is quite up to the standards of the Buffy/Faith ones in Graduation Day and This Year’s Girl, it is still a marvellously destructive, violent and dynamically choreographed action sequence. Far and away the most impressive engagement in the past two years. And the fact that it is between Buffy and Willow gives it an extra frisson that kept me on the edge of my seat. And boy do they tear the Magic Shop to shreds.

The Bad: Clem is such a delightful character, played with real charm by James C. Leary. If they were looking to brighten up the next season they could have brought him in as a regular rather than give him the handful of guest spots he actually gets.

Moment to Watch Out For: Of all the thrilling sequences that this episode sports my favourite has to be road chase between Xander in his pathetic little roadster as Willow stands atop an enormous truck and drives into the back her friends. When I first watched this episode I can remember bouncing up and down with excitement as Willow stands tall like a spectre of death and tries to score her second and third murders. It is the point where Willow stops caring that her friends are in the way and is perfectly willing to take them out too if they are going to get in her way. Dynamically shot in glistening moonlight, its an unforgettable action set piece. Whilst Wanker’s score is good, I wish it had been a bit more adrenaline pumping. Even Andrew, whose life has been in danger the whole time, has to admit this is cool.

Oh, and the cliffhanger. Which sees the return of Giles in spectacular style. Is he the one who can bring down Dark Willow?

Fashion Statement: Somehow they manage to make the veiny, black eyed Dark Willow look very hot. How did they do that?

Orchestra: What is up with that Wanker? Now he’s out the door he’s finally delivering the sort of music I would have liked to have heard all year! Especially good is the foreboding score when Willow first visits Rack and the rising excitement at the climax when it becomes clear that Buffy and Willow are going to have to thrash this one out.

Result: Another knockout episode. From the stomach turning reaction of Buffy’s friends to Willow’s first kill to the incredible can’t-it-be-next-week? cliffhanger, Two to Go is non-stop excitement from beginning to end. Few episodes of this show have this kind of forward momentum and it is both agonising and gripping to watch Willow as she sinks deeper and deeper into her psychosis and loses any kind of grip on reality. A black eyed, veiny sorceress tearing apart a police station, striding atop a truck, threatening to turn Dawn back into a mystical ball of energy and giving Buffy the thrashing that she thinks she deserves to bring her down a peg or two – Dark Willow is just awesome. It feels as though the creators of Buffy have been saving up all their dosh, imagination and most exciting ideas for the tail end of the season because the last four or five episodes have been so much more edge of the seat viewing than the rest of the year that it doesn’t really bear much comparison. On first transmission I was practically pissing my pants with excitement and this recent rewatch has re-awakened all those gleeful feelings again. You might point at this and say it is melodramatic, overblown and unrealistic in the direction it pushes one of the main characters but I suggest you go and bury your heads in the sand. This is pure adrenalin fuelled television, dark and bewitching, featuring some of the most enjoyable characters on television. The dialogue is scathingly critical and revealing and the production values very easy on the eye. It’s my personal favourite run of Buffy episodes following a disappointing year and its not even over yet: 10/10

Grave written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Can Giles bring down Dark Willow?

The Chosen One: There is some much needed discussion about Buffy’s stance on life and her development since she crawled out of the grave. Season six has taken her to some very dark places as she went through a feeling of terrible displacement, feeling as though she returned from the dead with something missing. It would seem that through her friends’ misery she has discovered who she is again, why she wants to be here and that her aim in life is to help. She knows that when she died it was her time and somebody would have taken her place, although how that would have figured in the First’s gambit next season is anybody’s guess. It was her destiny to be brought back from the brink, to fight the good fight and to ensure that the series changing development from next seasons Chosen took place. There’s a certain symmetry to Buffy winding back beneath the ground for the season finale and having to fight her way back to the surface again, but this time with an entirely different outlook on life.

The Key: There’s a real moment of triumph from Dawn when she slaps Buffy down (figuratively) and tells her that she cannot protect her from the terrible things that life throws at you (as she has spectacularly failed to do this year). Giving her the sword to help her to take down the root creatures is a watershed moment between the two sisters, Buffy finally ready to share her responsibility. Buffy admits how wrong she has been and that she know longer wants to protect Dawn from the world but show it to her. This is a very promising statement if they can go through it next year.

Ripper: ‘Remember that little spat we had before you left? When you were under the delusion that you were still relevant here…’ It is easy to mirror the reactions of Buffy and Anya and bask in the return of Giles, since he has left a massive hole in the series since he left. He’s never looked more commanding, forcing Dark Willow to the floor and trying to reason with the human side of whatever she has become. It is weird how a reunion of all the regulars can be made to feel like such a triumphant moment (when we spent all of last season with this bunch) but things have turned so sour this year and a commanding adult presence has been desperately needed. When Buffy and Anya cuddle up to Giles it is a moment of welcome relief and familiarity amongst all the fireworks elsewhere in this run of episodes. Laughter aside at this years insane developments, Giles is right to apologise for leaving Buffy when she clearly wasn’t mature enough to handle her situation on her own.

Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: It seems appropriate that in a season that has seen the regulars grow up and yet make some of the most childish decisions since we have known them that the real Big Bad should turn out to be Willow surrendering to her darkest impulses and not caring where it takes her. I thought Willow was terrifying when she was using her powers to flay men alive and rip apart buildings but that is nothing to the dark warning she gives Giles when he traps her in a binding spell. Because we have already seen how far she can go we know that as soon as she is free he is in for a whole world of pain. Giles sums up Willow’s position perfectly, when you lose somebody in your life that you love then the other people that love you become meaningless.  

Vengeance Demon: Even Anya, still boiling with rage, is impressed by Xander’s actions at the end of the this story.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Xander left Anya at the altar and Anya’s a vengeance demon again. Dawn’s a total klepto. Money’s been so tight that I’ve been slinging burgers at the Doublemeat Palace and I’ve been sleeping with Spike’ – Buffy sums up this year since Giles left in about as succinct a fashion as possible. Giles’ reaction: hysterical laughter. It would be mine too if I hadn’t been there to experience it too. A delightful scene.
‘It was me that took you out of the Earth. Well now, the Earth wants you back…’
‘Is this the Master Plan? You’re going to stop me by telling me you love me?’

The Good: Thank goodness that dummy was handy because Giles was due to become a complete bloody mess as all those weapons spin their way into life from the wall of the training room and leap towards him at Willow’s bidding. We keep cutting back to Spike’s storyline in Africa and his tests get progressively worse, this time horrid cockroach type creatures crawl all over his skin and up his nose. We started the season with Sunnydale battered and broken and lit by destructive fires and almost as a commentary on how inward looking this series has been (and I don’t mean that critically) we end the year with similar destruction but confined entirely the battered and broken Magic Box. The set is completely devastated and it is a positive mission statement that the series is moving on from this location but seeing it out in destructive style before it goes. In particular, Willow bringing down the whole second level is especially dramatic. Now Willow has told Buffy exactly what she thinks about her and her superpowers, it is time to shift that character eradication across to Giles and his sense of self importance. We saw a moment of tension earlier in the season when he tried to warn her away from dark magic and Grave is loaded full of tense scenes where she highlights his feeling of impotence. The first half of season six seemed to be about everybody keeping their feelings to themselves (One More, with Feeling was so powerful because it bucked the trend) but the latter half of the year has seen a self destructive honesty spread into the series which has led to some dramatic moments and revealing characterisation. Whilst Giles’ plan to stop Willow does seem imperfect given the fact that in order for it to work he has to commit suicide (maybe he thinks that is his lot given his abandonment of his friends) but how he manipulates her into stealing away his magic is very nicely handled. Inside of Willow there is good and bad magic raging inside of her, combating themselves and the resulting rush of emotion and glance into the pain of every living person on the Earth is superbly played by Alyson Hannigan and filmed by Contner. Kudos to the set designers for the phenomenal below ground set that Buffy and Dawn find themselves in, with graves jutting through the walls and with some truly hideous mud demons to fight. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it really does feel like the majority of this seasons budget has been kept back for the final third because this has been an expensive run of episodes the likes of which we have never seen in Buffy before. Borrowing shamelessly from horror movies, the show moves to an impressive cliff top location as a satanic temple tears from the ground with a little help from Willow and threatens to tear the world apart. Something Doctor Who often got very right was how it revealed its monsters in a dramatic end of episode one cliffhanger. Whether it was Daleks emerging from the Thames or Zygons baring down on helpless victims, it had a glorious way of throwing its nasties in your face in great shock moments. Buffy jumps on the bandwagon here, and the way the root creatures burst free of the mud is incredibly effective. Whilst they are ultimately little more than fodder (something for Buffy to fight whilst Xander saves the world) they are executed with real panache. The final twist that Spike has endured the trials in order to salvage his soul is not at all what I was expecting (especially with dialogue like ‘make me what I was…’) and is all the more effective for it. Next year should be very interesting…

The Bad: Willow’s plan to destroy the world does seem to come out of nowhere and have been inserted to replace the apocalypse threat that has been (refreshingly) absent this season. Saying that I understand her motive for doing so (beyond wanting to end everything because she is in so much pain she is also undergoing an inner battle of light and dark magic, the latter attempting to reach out and take effect one last time) and the resolution to this big bad threat (Xander’s redemption) is very effectively handled. It’s a sudden gulp of jeopardy that the series felt it needed to add in order to climax the season satisfyingly (I beg to differ, the violent conflict between the regulars has been more than enough to power the series of late and then some) but it does have some pleasing results.

Moment to Watch Out For: It’s Xander’s most triumphant moment in the series. Whilst the series has revelled in throwing all manner of exciting set pieces at the audience of late, the real strength of this show is its characters and so by boiling everything down to a confrontation by two best friends it regains it’s heart magnificently. You get a real sense of history between these two characters, one that we have explored with them over the past six seasons. Xander’s admission that he loves Willow whatever form she takes is beautiful and forcing her to make the decision to murder him first is the clincher that allows her inner Willow to re-assert herself (with a little help from Giles’s magic). Nicky Brendon  If Alyson Hannigan’s tears don’t break your heart as Willow breaks down in Xander’s arms then you need to check that you still have a pulse, buddy.

Result: There are some that will say that Grave doesn’t reach the lofty heights of previous season finales, although I have a feeling that that is a reaction to not seeing Joss Whedon’s name on the writer/director credits. It is actually an extremely fine episode; full of wit, danger, excitement and character development. I might be biased when it comes to Dark Willow (my personal favourite Buffy baddie) but everything about the way she is handled is exceptional. It’s such a personal antagonist because she knows the Scoobies so well and can scrutinize their characters whilst inflicting blinding torment on them. However, despite the fact that there are a number of superb set pieces (the destruction of the Magic Box is unforgettable) it is the character work that shines the brightest. The return of Giles is triumphant and he brings with him a sense of stability that the show has lacked for quite some time and I really enjoyed the not-so-subtle piss take of the character development this season. Buffy gets to claw her way out of the ground again but with a brand new outlook on life (and regarding Dawn), there is a glimmer of hope that things might resolve between Xander and Anya, Spike has made a surprising sacrifice in penance for his recent behaviour and most importantly of all the core friendship between Xander and Willow shines brighter than ever in the heartbreaking conclusion. It has been an incredible run of episodes towards this finale and if Grave doesn’t quite match up to it’s predecessors (my one major gripe is the sudden world-threatening disaster that springs from nowhere), it is only heartbeat or so behind. It strikes me as odd that season five was superb for its first two thirds before stumbling a little at the last hurdle (although salvaging itself in its breathtaking finale) and season six completely reverses that trend, offering a mixed bag of a season and triumphing with the finishing line in sight. It has been a patience straining year and yet it remains one of my favourites because it really pushed the show into new, uncomfortable areas and eventually reaped incredible rewards for doing so. Unlike previous seasons there are plenty of threads left hanging (Buffy’s promises to Dawn, the return of Spike’s soul, the aftermath of Willow’s rage) but there is an uplifting sense that things are about to get much brighter next season, year seven taking away the emotional substance that season six has brewed up but packaging it into much more optimistic fare. Personally, I can’t wait: 9/10

1 comment:

Juanita's Journal said...

The best scene by far features Spike making love to invisible Buffy. Something tells me this might have been the starting point for this episode and everything else was worked around it to make it happen. The sight of James Marsters grinding away to nothing was pretty amusing, although probably not enough to justify a whole episode being sacrificed to this New Adventures of Superman premise.

This scene disgusted me. It disgusted me because it started out as Buffy trying to sexually assault Spike and it ended with consensual sex. Worse, the entire scene was played for laughs. Sexual assault as comedy? Ugh!