Friday, 24 May 2013

Buffy Season Seven

Lessons written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Sunnydale High is back with a vengeance…

The Chosen One: Buffy spells out that times are still hard but there is a massive emphasis shift since the defeat of Dark Willow from that of the Summers family self destructing to that of a family that is coping and thriving with what they have. Buffy discovers the horror of reaching that age where she can be mistaken for being Dawn’s mother, which she thinks is all down to her hair. Whilst Buffy’s shoulder shrugging reaction to the ghosts in the school shows a character who has battled against far worse things who is completely acclimatised to whatever this town might throw at her, it does mean that the threat is belittled slightly. Moving Buffy out of the Doublemeat Palace and into the High School as a counsellor for the kids there (ask yourself who is better qualified considering not too long ago she was one of those suffering kids) is another massive step in the right direction. The Palace was a good pit stop for an episode or two but there was never going to be a wealth of storytelling possibilities there. This has potential, as exemplified in episodes like Help and Him.

The Key: For everybody who thought the show might develop it’s focus on Dawn if Sarah Michelle Gellar lost interest or wanted to move onto other things, Lessons shows how that idea might have developed. From the off there is a very different, exciting chemistry between her and Buffy which is far less about antagonists domestic and far more about two sisters sharing each others lives. Buffy is living up to her promise in Grave to stop sheltering her sister from her world and instead inviting her in, shoving a stake in her hand and tossing a vampire her way. If that sounds irresponsible, it really isn’t. It’s played mostly for laughs and capitalises on that gorgeous chemistry between Trachtenberg and Gellar that was prevalent in season five but almost entirely absent in season six. It’s not entirely down to Whedon’s characterisation of Dawn (which dumps the whiny teenager in favour of a maturing young lady) but also that of Buffy (who has gone from hating her life to loving it and the results are really noticeable). All Dawn wants is to be a normal girl going to High School but living in Sunnydale and being the younger sister of the Slayer she hasn’t a hope in hell. She is doomed to a life of demons poking her in the eye with a pencil (actually that was pretty nasty) and hanging out with the least cool kids down in the basement.

Witchy Willow: ‘Do you want to be punished?’ ‘I want to be Willow…’ After the dramatic events of the last season, Willow is a fragile and repentant woman. Given how far she went to torture her friends and destroy the world to open this series with Willow back in the fold and accepted by everybody would have been a bit much. This two episode buffer and then a chance to re-introduce her to her friends in Same Time, Same Place was precisely the right way to go. Again this series shows that actions have consequences, especially emotional ones. The magic is inside her now, apart of her and it cannot be extracted. She has to learn how to control it, to take responsibility for it.

Vengeance Demon: ‘What is this, an intervention? Shouldn’t all my demon friends be here?’ ‘Sweetie…they are.’ Anya has always worked as an extension of Xander’s character, right since the end of season three where she became a series regular. Her split with him has afforded her the chance to really step out of his shadow and prove what she can bring to the show. Her relationship with Halfrek is great fun and something I felt the show could have exploited more in the final season (given that all her scenes for this year were shot on the same day I can only assume the actress was too busy to take a more substantial part). Back in the day she was the single most hardcore vengeance demon in the fold but now thanks to Xander’s influence her savagery has been tempered by humanity. This is all useful set up for her dramatic development in Selfless where Anya attempts to live up to her reputation.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘He might not know those fancy marital arts skills that they inevitably pick up…’
‘Like I’m going to turn the world into bangers and mash…and I’m not exactly sure what that is.’
‘Who are they kidding with that happy, shiny crap?’

The Good: The re-introduction of Sunnydale High feels like a great place to start a back to basics approach to the show. It has been long enough since series three for the show to feel like it isn’t covering old ground and there are enough new elements (the sinister Principal, Spike nuts in the basement, the focus on Dawn at school instead of Buffy) to make the setting feel fresh and interesting. Did Joss Whedon need to head to England in order to shoot the scenes with Willow and Giles? Perhaps not, America has beautiful parks of it’s own that could have doubled up for the UK quite adequately. However it adds a touch of authenticity to the show and is another example of the show widening its scope and the material is beautifully shot, exposing the lush English countryside at its best. TV rarely makes me jump but the moment when the ball gets thrown against the locker gets me every time. D.B. Woodside is a very promising addition to the cast, smoking hot and charismatic as the new school Principal and with a shroud of mystery around him from the off. Whatever the new big bad that is about to arrive is, Halfrek informs us that even the demon underworld is getting twitchy about it.

The Bad: I love the idea of Dawn getting her own set of Scoobies to hang with but Whedon doesn’t manage to inject them with the same repartee and likeability that made Buffy, Willow and Xander so memorable in Welcome to the Hellmouth. Carlos is probably the worst performed character I have ever seen on the show and Kit is the sort of manic depressive that makes you want to slit your wrists. They are outcasts (which I guess was the idea) but I’m not exactly sad that we don’t get to spend any time with them again. Check out Cassie and Peter in Help to see precisely the sort of friends Dawn should have realised. The idea of the victims of episodes past emerging to drag Buffy and Dawn down with them is a smashing one but I don’t think it was handled especially well. They should have been a truly chilling reminder of all the innocents that Buffy has failed to save but instead they come across as petulant hair pulling sprites with underwhelming make up jobs. Even the solution is glib and all too easy, Xander discovering the talisman and snapping it in two.

Moment to Watch Out For: it might seem a little rude to state that I think the very first scene in Lessons is it’s best but that is genuinely the case. Whilst the majority of the episode is perfectly acceptable, there is something very exciting about seeing this show branch out geographically to Istanbul and set up a fresh new arc with such immediacy. Seasons five and six were all about the show looking inwards and exploring the lives of the regular cast and this is the first time since the year with the Initiative that Buffy really feels like it is opening out the field again and slipping on it’s ambition again. Great stuff. The sequence of the potential Slayer (although we don’t know that she a potential Slayer at this point, just a girl on the run from some nasties) is directed with real energy and sense of the exotic. It’s an exotic, bold mission statement that this shows final year is going to be trying out some exciting new things. Plus the music is exceptional. The final scene is also a doozy as the villain finally deems to turn up and walks through the list of baddies that the show has presented over the past six years. It’s lovely to see the old faces again (who delightful that all the perfomers agreed to take part in such a small scene) but I especially loved the chance to see Glory, Drusilla and the Master. They are my personal favourites.

Fashion Statement: Loving Spike’s hair as he goes nuts in the basement.

Orchestra: Removing Thomas Wanker from scoring duties gives the show a massive lift. Gone is the all too subtle music that plagued the last two seasons (which was effective during the quieter moments but could on occasion really drag the show down when it was trying to be exciting) and in steps a more full blooded and attention grabbing musician the likes of which we haven’t seen since Christophe Beck at his best. Some of my favourite music in Buffy turns up in season seven and it all starts here.

Result: ‘The Hellmouth?’ ‘It’s going to open. It’s going to swallow us all…’ Lessons isn’t a classic episode in it’s own right (the dangers are far too old hat for that) but it sees a show taking note of all the areas that it went wrong in the previous year and making dramatic steps to improve. So we have a Big Bad on the horizon in episode one that is already getting everybody twitchy (the Big Bad of series six didn’t rear it’s head until episode nineteen!), an increased level of humour, a back to basics approach with the resurrection of one of the shows previously strongest elements (the academic setting) and sparky interaction between all of the leads, especially Buffy and Dawn which was much needed after their antagonism last season. Dawn’s adventures at High School should have been written with a lot more pizzazz though, and I can’t help but smile at the thought that we never have to endure Kit and Carlos again. The best scenes are the ones that set up the season as a whole; the astonishingly shot pre-titles sequence in Istanbul, Willow’s awareness of the emergence of the new Big Bad, Spike’s sudden appearance in the basement and the roll call of all the villains that Buffy has enjoyed as proof that season seven will be celebrating the history of the show as well as pushing forward with it’s own story. Joss Whedon has a real problem with opening seasons (Buffy vs Dracula is still me favourite opener and it was penned by Marti Noxon) and yet all his other episodes, especially his finales, kick ass. Because the writers seem to have a superb sense of what they want to achieve with season seven from the off, Lessons is buoyed by an injection of confidence and a real feeling that this is going to be a superb year, tantalising the audience with some exciting pointers of what is to come. As a result it is probably Whedon’s strongest first episode, albeit with some issues that drag it down from being anything truly special: 7/10

Beneath You written by Doug Petrie and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: ‘From beneath you, it devours…’

The Chosen One: Whilst it is clear later in the series that Buffy was manipulated into a position in the High School so Principal Wood could keep an eye on her, being a counsellor is actually a role that she is rather good at (for the most part). I would certainly rather go and see somebody normal and on my level like Buffy than a holier-than-thou example of humanity like Troi from Star Trek: TNG. Understandably, Buffy recalls her near rape every time she touches Spike and it seems as though the thing that the audience wants most of all, for them to get together, is way off the cards.

The Key: In moment that makes you sit up and pay attention, Dawn tells Spike that if he hurts Buffy again she will dust him when he is sleeping.

Sexy Blond: After his memorable return to Sunnydale (plus soul) in Lessons, Beneath You gives Spike a much larger slice of the pie and as a result is the most responsible use of the character since Dead Things. He can be seen down in the basement again hiding from the nasties beneath the ground and talking to his rat companions and generally behaving in a less than cogent state. Surely having his soul returned has not driven him to this state? The next we see of him is far more like the Spike of old, squeezed into a mouth wateringly tight top and offering to help Buffy with the latest demon to menace Sunnydale. It takes his attack on Ronnie to prick at his emerging soul and he starts losing it again. This might feel inconsistent but it takes the explanation of who the Big Bad is to make sense of all this so it only becomes clear in hindsight. In season three, the First pricked at Angel’s conscience and enticed him to commit suicide because of all of the people that he had killed in the past. Beneath You sees Spike being manipulated into a similar position, although we aren’t seeing the manipulation yet, just the result of it (although Spike does mention that ‘everybody’s in here, talking…’). Spike got his soul back as a penance for what he did to Buffy, wanting to become a man for her and reject his demonic nature. It might have seemed that he would never be able to make up for the appalling act he committed, willingly torturing himself with a soul and then offering up his life as he does here comes as close as he was going to. Buffy states that there is something different about him in this episode and at its climax she realises what that is and sheds a tear as he throws himself at her mercy. Suddenly Spike is a genuinely tragic character on a road to redemption. We’ve seen him at his worst and now it is time to watch him pick himself up and prove that he really does have something to offer Buffy. I find the Buffy/Spike relationship so much more believable than the Buffy/Angel one in that regard, for one because it is far less melodramatic, for two because it is much more realistically passionate and for three because it is handled in a far more realistic and adult way. The final scene is one of the high points of their relationship, blissfully written and acted, subtle and very touching.

Witchy Willow: ‘You may not be wanted but you will be needed…’ Giles knows that Willow is going to be needed in the fight back at Sunnydale and insists that she leaves but she is terrified at the thought of facing her friends and being unsupervised around magic.

Gorgeous Geek: Gone is all that bluster and stubbornness that could make Xander such a frustrating character in the first couple of seasons and what has emerged is a quietly confident and likable young man. He tells Buffy that the kids are lucky to have her working at the school in whatever role she happens to be filling and that he was always grateful of the fact. Showing how far he has come since season one, he scoffs at the idea of being mistaken for Buffy’s boyfriend. He sees a chance to get back on the dating bandwagon with Nancy but it would appear that fate has conspired to make that prospect as difficult as possible. Even when he falls for a nice, normal girl there has to be a demon connection somewhere and that comes in the shape of her former boyfriend cursed by his former girlfriend. It’s complicated.

Vengeance Demon: Discovering that Anya is the cause of all Nancy’s problems is rather cathartic on her part and a nice way of reminding us that now she is a vengeance demon there is a divide between her and the Scoobies that is getting bigger. It’s useful set up again for the events of Selfless where her relationship with the Scoobies is almost poisoned for good. She’s completely amoral these days, an angry woman who is taking her own personal issues out on as many men as possible. Whilst he has much to atone for before they can heal the wounds between them, Xander finally plucks up the courage to tell Anya that he cannot be held responsible for every bad turn her life is taking.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Trust me, you open that door and these students will eat you alive’ ‘You heard about Principal Flutie, right?’
‘Oh penis…
‘Is there anyone here who hasn’t slept together?’
‘No more mind games. No more mind.’

The Good: Nancy is a fun character, somebody who is relatively normal who gets dragged into the bizarre world of Buffy and the Scoobies and somehow finds that their relationship issues are even weirder than the giant worm monsters that seems hell bent on trying to eat her. What’s freaky is how Xander attempts to replace Anya with somebody who is almost exactly like her, Kaarina Aufranc looking and sounding almost exactly like Emma Caulfield when she first joined the show (seriously listen to the way she says ‘Well, thanks…’ to Xander outside her flat. Shut your eyes and you would swear it was Anya). I’m a massive fan of stories that show their monsters bursting free of the ground since it is a fun and dramatic way to make an entrance and whilst I have never seen the film Tremors (of which I am reliably informed the monster from this tale could easily be from) if the ground churning beasts from that film are half as fun as Ronnie the giant worm than it sounds like I should be trying to get hold of it. Ever since Buffy headed over to UPN and had it’s budget increased the demons on this show have been more imaginative and ambitious and this weeks Sluggoth demon is one of the most terrifying yet, edited rapidly so each shot of the creature is one of it opening its gaping maw and threatening to devour. I love it’s fabulously over the top appearance outside Nancy’s flat, ripping through the concrete flooring as it approaches and bursting free. By the time Anya reverses the spell at the same time Spike shoves a pole right through his shoulder blade the episode is taking some very interesting turns. For Spike, this is another victim and another reason to curse the return of his soul. The direction during the final scene is fantastic, the camera slide across the moonlit church to settle on Spike and the conjuring up imagery as powerful as him embracing a cross in silhouette and smoking in the darkness.

Moment to Watch Out For: Another terrific pre-titles sequence that proves that the incident in Istanbul that still hasn’t been explained was not a one-off but one of a series of killings of young women worldwide. Who are these robed men who are travelling the globe gutting these girls? It’s a great hook into the season and one which is left just long enough to explain before it gets too vague. The direction here matches Joss Whedon’s at the start of Alias, albeit in a very different way. The techno music, electric pink hair and nightclub setting all conspire to deliver a high octane and vivid opening sequence set in Frankfurt. Buffy is sharing their pain, receiving dreams about them and becoming aware that there is a global massacre going on out there in the world. Visually it recalls Alias at its height and again it feels like the show is once again stretching it’s wings.

Result: The story of a horror rising from below to serve as a red herring to disguise the real Big Bad this year, Beneath You is a sharp and peppy episode that offers some enjoyable relief before the season explores some serious themes of guilt and suicide in the next few episodes. The centrepiece of this episode is the very funny scene in the Bronze where Xander’s potential new squeeze Nancy is surrounded by all the Scoobies and realises just how fucked up their relationships are (Xander and Anya are troubles exes, Spike attempted to rape Buffy, Anya and Spike slept together on the rebound) which made me laugh so much it almost made all that extended misery last year worthwhile. It also reveals Anya’s newfound ambiguous morals and Spike’s humanity in a very enjoyable way and results in a fight where everybody is working out their personal issues with their fists. Season seven has differentiated itself from seasons five and six by being extremely focused and busy from the off. In fact I can’t remember a single year of Buffy that has been as prepared and confident in it’s task ahead and with so much happening (Willow’s sojourn in England, the girls being murdered, the repeated motif of ‘From beneath you, it devours…’, Buffy’s new job, Xander’s rocky love life, Spike’s rehabilitation) there is an abundance of substance even to the slighter episodes. All of the characters feel fresher for their turn to the dark side last year and the abundance of humour that runs through this (actually very dark) episode helps to keep things lively and ticking over. Once again the high points are the first and last scene, another young girl is killed in mysterious circumstances and Spike throws himself on Buffy’s mercy, but overall this is a much more satisfying episode than Lessons sees that burst of confidence at the end of season six extending into the shows final year: 8/10

Same Time, Same Place written by Jane Espenson and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Willow has returned to Sunnydale in time to be the major suspect of some terrifying attacks…

The Chosen One: Buffy seems to be the voice of reason when Willow fails to return home and a flayed body is discovered. All the evidence points to Willow and she is not afraid to say so. I really liked how Willow failed to blame Buffy for thinking that and how she gently offers a firm sign of friendship by giving her her time and strength in the very sweet coda.

The Key: Dawn commenting that nobody ever seems to ask for help when they need it is very observant. I’ve noticed a real effort to make the character lighter and more enjoyable to be around this season and the net result is a much more satisfying member of the central cast, especially compared to her relentless whining last year. She’s at the computer doing all the Willow Whizzkid stuff, researching all manner of demons until she settles on the right one. The way she handles all this stuff without batting an eyelid is daunting for Buffy and Xander who still find it all rather tasteless. All the material with the comically paralysed Dawn is hilarious – how marvellous to be taking the piss out of this character because it really helps to make her more likable. Xander shoving her face down on the sofa made me howl. 

Witchy Willow: As soon as she returns home, apparently unloved, she heads to Buffy’s house which she finds vacant. Entering her bedroom, she recalls the death of Tara but doesn’t turn homicidal as a result so I guess that is some improvement. Throughout it is impossible not to feel empathy for Willow, primarily down to Hannigan’s gentle portrayal of the character (heck I almost felt sorry for her when she was threatening to kill all her friends last year because Hannigan managed to inject some humanity into her characters dark turn), but also because she is doing a very brave thing returning home to face the judgement of her friends. I especially liked the ending where she admits herself that she doesn’t know if she is going to be able to recover fully from the dark magic, not kidding herself that it is going to be easy. This episode reinforces that with the help of her friends, their forgiveness and their patience, she is in excellent hands.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is still astonished that his mouth saved the world and I have to say it’s not something I ever imagined happening either. His plaque written in yellow crayon is a lovely gesture to his best friend. It’s just a shame that her misplaced guilt means that she got to see it.

Vengeance Demon: ‘I can only teleport for official business. I have to file a flight plan and everything…’ Anya always offers a slap of honesty and when Willow approaches her and says she is much better now the vengeance demon points out that she said once before and because they all trusted that promise she now picking through the remains of her livelihood. ‘You feel really responsible? You are really responsible!’ The relationship between Willow and Anya has always been a fractious one (remember their hilarious conflict in season five’s Triangle?) and during the latter stages of season six when Dark Willow emerged Anya was desperately afraid of her. But now it feels time to heal some wounds, they have both done terrible things and feel guilty for it and Anya finds it in herself to take pity on her when it appears that her friends have rejected her. Anya and Willow concurrently asking whether they skinned the victim at the High School is very funny. Anya is discovering that inflicting pain on others is actually quite upsetting in a way that it never used to bother her. We witnessed her withdrawing her vengeance spell on Ronnie last week and as a result she has been punished, More set up for Selfless.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s smelementary!’
‘Oh! You’re opposable!’
‘Wouldn’t it be tragic if you were here being silly with your comically paralysed sister while Willow was dying?’
‘Inside me you’ll already be!’

The Good: For once the pre-titles sequence isn’t a furious action sequence with a young girl being ruthlessly slaughtered by knife wielding maniacs but a clever and touching introduction to the episode that sets the scene perfectly for the terrific drama ahead. The way James A. Contner films the same scene twice over so seamlessly, one with the Scoobies turning up and discovering that Willow is not on the plane from England and the other with Willow arriving and finding her friends absent is seamlessly done. In both scenes the absences make a big impact, in one Buffy and friends wonder if Willow is still in a bad place and was too afraid to face them and in the other Willow steps of the place friendless and thinking that none of them want to support her rehabilitation because of what she put them through. The are several transitions from one version of events (Willow’s) to another (Buffy, Dawn and Xander’s) that take place in this episode and each one is very effectively handled (the zoom from Willow to the flayed corpse to Buffy and Xander is very dramatically shot). I also liked the way that one version of events could be aware of the other; a banging door, something dropped upstairs and Spike who is able to bridge the two. To add to the parade of memorable nasties that Buffy has been playing about with lately, the Gnarl demon might just be the nastiest of the lot. Visually he is impressive, like some obscene demonic version of the Child Catcher with his clackety clack nails and childish taunts and prancing but that is all a cover to disguise his genuinely disgusting raison d’etre which is to shred the skin from your flesh and swallow it in nice, clean strips. And then lap up your spilt blood. Seeing this is perhaps the most vomit inducing thing that this show has ever presented. Espenson crafts the scene where Spike simultaneously talks to both Buffy & Xander and Willow very carefully so it can be played out twice over and make perfect sense regardless of who is reacting to him. It plays very nicely into the way that Spike has been characterised with a high dosage of insanity of late so anything that he says that doesn’t make sense to either party can be brushed off as loony Spike. It’s funny to think that magic barely featured in the first four seasons because it is such a mainstay of the series now. The sequence where Willow and Anya highlight all the demons on a map of Sunnydale with twinkly lights is beautifully done (especially the cluster of lights around the High School which ignites – there is definitely something nasty going on there) and shows that the show is far from done with Willow’s powers yet. I love how the script uses the premise that Buffy and Willow can’t see each other to inadvertently put Willow in terrible danger, holing up the cave and trapping her inside with the Gnarl. His camp threats are actually rather menacing, but nothing could have prepared me for the moment he revealed himself and started tearing bloody strips of flesh from her belly (I bet the censors go to town with this episode). The thought of being paralysed and very slowly flayed and eaten is such a horrific notion I’m surprised the production team went along with it but I’m glad they did because they are really pushing the horror content of late into uncomfortable areas. He’s a demon with a real personality, which is rare, and the design is phenomenal. ‘Lock you in nice white skin!’ He gets a gloriously ugly death scene too, Buffy stabbing him in the foot and taking out his eyes with her thumbs. The sudden cut to Dawn falling off the couch cracks me up every time.

The Bad: The revelation that Willow caused the problem all along makes perfect sense, magic taking on a manifestation of her guilt, but it is a little underwhelming as these things go.

Moment to Watch Out For: It would be nothing but a well staged wind up with no pitch if the clever intercutting of Willow and Buffy’s perceptions weren’t leading up to some kind of emotionally satisfying conclusion and this is where Same Time, Same Place scores it’s biggest win. Willow’s joy when she realises that Buffy and Xander have come to rescue her is touchingly played by Alyson Hannigan and the moment when they are reunited it taps into the core strength of this show that their three way friendship brings to it. This episode spends so much time with the characters thinking ill of each other that the moment it dawns on them all that they have been wrong they just cling onto each other to affirm their strength of feeling for each other. It’s another indication that season seven is getting back to basics, their friendship back at full strength. It’s about time.

Result: A perfectly formed Buffy episode that manages to combine effective horror, chucklesome comedy and touching drama to great effect. What really stands out in Same Time, Same Place is James A. Contner’s direction. Every scene feels as though it has been very carefully crafted so the intriguing premise translates on screen in a very satisfying and fluidic way. As soon as the focus is on Willow the already-doing-well season seven steps up a notch, using the dramatic events from the end of the last season to give the characters solid motives for feeling the way they do and to add much substance to the investigation of the latest (icky skin eating) demon. The Gnarl is a truly grotesque creation, pushing the horror about as far as they can go on this show and presenting a nasty with a memorable personality and appearance. The characterisation is superior across the board with all of the character learning from their mistakes last year (hiding all of their vices) and being honest with each other. It makes for far more effective and revealing drama. There’s even some gorgeous comedy as Dawn is paralysed and everybody gets to have a go at abusing the powerless teen. Jane Espenson has always been one of the finest Buffy writers but she went a little awry in season six (along with some of the other superior contributors so she wasn’t alone by any means) and so it is great to see that she is back on top form for the shows final year. A marvellous hour of television: 9/10

Help written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by Rick Rosenthal

What’s it about: A young student informs Buffy that she is going to be dead before the week is out…

The Chosen One: I have read recently that the idea of Buffy becoming a counsellor is absurd and it is an opinion that I disagree with strong. When you shove somebody with loads of qualifications in the chair you get somebody like Counsellor Troi the automaton in Star Trek: TNG, a character so whiter than white that she surely cannot of had any life experience about the things that she preaches about. Forgive me, but in the twisted hands of Joss Whedon, Buffy has already had suffered an incredible amount of life experience and pain, falling in love, losing a lover and a mother, messing around with the wrong guy, succumbing to her worst vices, using men…it’s an endless parade of all those things that we try not to think about. And she has come out fighting. She might still be young but that doesn’t mean she cannot be astute and empathic (a common misconception) and Buffy’s first instinct is to help people, despite her occasion self centeredness. Plus she has a likable and attractive façade and there is scientific proof that we find it easier to relate to and trust good-looking people. Even the characters in the show wind up mocking her time working at the school but I personally see no problem with it whatsoever. It plays to her strengths as a character, she actually does some genuine good outside of her role as a Slayer, it generates some good storytelling and it merges with the back to basics approach that season seven is all about. No issues from me at all. Buffy is worried the students will come at her with issues that are weird and tricky but after a few mishaps she more than slips into her groove. She comes to a very mature decision at the end of Help, having failed to save Cassie and realising that sometimes you just cannot help people no matter how hard you try, she heads back to her desk to keep trying.

The Key: Why does Dawn have to be the one stuck in the child coffin? Because it’s very amusing, that’s why (‘I think this thing has a fricking child lock on it!’). It is another terrific use of Dawn, Buffy utilising her to worm her way into Cassie’s life in a way that she could never manage as an adult. What starts off as subterfuge actually builds into quite a strong friendship, especially when the deception behind it is exposed and Cassie doesn’t care because it has allowed her to get close to Dawn. She has her own (incorrect) theories about what is going to cause Cassie’s downfall but at least she is trying. As everybody sits around at the climax blaming themselves for Cassie’s death it is Dawn (who is starting to make more sense than any other character on this show – when did that happen?) who points out that there was nothing that they could have done, that Cassie was her friend but you can’t agonise over something as unstoppable as a heart condition.

Witchy Willow: Willow’s visit to Tara’s grave is beautifully acted, directed and scored. It touches because it is long overdue and is so understated. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘And I’d love to see my cousins grow up and see how they turn out because they’re really mean and I think they’re going to be fat!’

The Good: It has been a while since the show has self referenced its recent episodes quite as much as it is doing at the moment. Which is…you guessed it, another element of the back to basics approach. Weirdly season seven feels like it has come immediately after series four because it shares the amusing tone, entertaining style and ambitious arc storytelling of the shows first four years. Whilst the consequences of the previous two seasons have spilled significantly into the last season, in terms of the approach to the series and it’s mood this feels like it comes from a far sunnier place. It’s a real refreshment after so much (well acted and played) misery. Amanda is the first student to duck in Buffy’s partition and she winds up being one of the last Potential Slayers to reach Buffy and the gang later in the season. This is once again some clever foreshadowing for the larger story that is about to unfold and show how much care has gone into setting it. Amanda is socially inept and a bit freakish, so I guess it was inevitable that she was going to wind up in the Scooby fold, but her imperfections are also what make her so agreeable. The series of sessions that we get to experience show a pleasing amount of diversity; kids that are bullied, kids that want to waste Buffy’s time and skip class and kids that have problems that go deep and need to have them coaxed out into the open with a little patience. This could have been terribly earnest but there are enough time wasters present to make the sessions feel real. Azura Skye is almost too good to be wasted in a single episode of Buffy, taking one could be a seen but quickly forgotten character and turning her into something more memorable. The part requires Cassie to be aware of her death but not be maudlin about it, to play the insecure teenager but not irritate with the usual clichés and to provide a likable character that we care about, especially considering the ticking clock that leads to her death. It is quite a big ask from a guest actor but Skye delivers all this and more. Had she been introduced as one of Dawn’s friends in Lessons I would very much have liked her to have more of a presence this season (but given how the regular cast bloats so dramatically I don’t think there ever would have been space for her). I liked that Cassie’s foreshadowing of her death is dealt with as a cry for help and attention because that is the natural reaction but the way Skye plays the scenes convinced me that that was never the case. I know we have been on the journey with them so the fact should be an obvious one by now but it wasn’t until there were two scenes back to back feature Dawn & Cassie and then cutting to Buffy, Willow and Xander that I realised how much the central characters have matured. In the first couple of years the latter were exactly where the former are right now. The meat cleaver that Mike attempts to cut Cassie’s throat with has Dexter engraved on it which really tickled me.

The Bad: Cassie’s dreary hormonal poetry is the one element of her character that repulsed me. It’s vile, but I never bought into the idea of the power of poetry despite my irritating aptitude for studying it academically. The introduction of the bizarre cult of students that want to mess with Cassie is a complete red herring and seems to come from nowhere but whilst we are dealing with the illogic of this previously unseen coven being the cause our minds are being taken off the very real, much simpler reason for her downfall. Buffy even says to the cult: ‘Do you know how lame this is?’

Moment to Watch Out For: I love how the climax plays out with several red herrings (the cult, the demon and the booby trap) all being foiled by Buffy (with a little help from Spike) before the crushing inevitability of something that cannot be fought snatching Cassie’s life away.

Foreboding: When it appears he has saved her life, Cassie tells Spike: ‘One day she’ll tell you…’

Result: Help is another strong episode that commits to the idea of Buffy becoming a school counsellor and plays some interesting games with the idea. It has a relatively simple plot but it is one that is generated by real emotions and has serious consequences for the regulars. To have a story that is set so much at Sunnydale High School is a real blast from the past but not an unpleasant one and Help populates itself with the sort of characters that Dawn should have been hanging out with in Lessons. There is a methodical way that Rebecca Rand Kirshner approaches the idea of Cassie’s impending death that means the episode feels as though progressive naturally and realistically, Buffy, Dawn and their friends attempting every avenue to discover the cause of her premature passing before it happens. It might seem that in the grand scheme of season seven that this is a little throwaway but there are a number of elements that crop up again (Cassie plays an important role in Conversations with Dead People and Amanda is a semi-regular come the last third of the season) and once again the focus on Dawn is a very positive thing. Of everything, she has emerged as the greatest innovation in the spruced up, sunnier season seven and is a joy to be around now. None of this would be worth a fig if Cassie wasn’t a character that I liked and despite some teenage excesses that serve only to poison the stomach (that godawful angst ridden poetry), Azura Skye’s confident and nuanced performance brings the character to life in unexpected ways and makes the characters sudden exit really hit home. Sensitively played, with some lovely turns in the plot and a race against time ending, Help is another example of the positive direction the show has taken: 8/10

Selfless written by Drew Goddard and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Anya has killed and it’s time to put an end to her vengeance demon ways…

The Chosen One: Buffy is clearly having something of a slow day in the counsellors office, balancing pencils on her head for kicks. In amongst their tense exchanges there are some very valid criticisms made about Buffy – that she lost all sense of judgement last year when she slept with a mass murderer, that she cuts herself off from everybody when she chooses and acts like she is the law. In another breath she reminds Xander that she killed Angel, the man she loved more than anything, and so she is willing to make sacrifices when it is for the greater good.

The Key: Dawn’s ‘nod and smile like you know what people are talking about’ is great advice that I offer to people all the time. 

Witchy Willow: Willow is slowly piecing her life back together, starting with heading back to college to finish her studies. It is far more believable that whilst everybody around her is making it as easy for her as possible to adjust it is her internal demons that are still plaguing her every step. When she has to use magic to repel one of the spider demons she feels that course of fury run through her again and it terrifies her. At once tempting and terrorizing, Willow turns nasty and then repentant in a heartbeat. Willow is very important part of this episode because of her recent killing spree, the very interesting notion of Buffy being able to forgive her best friend for all the torments that she set upon them but wanting to kill Anya for committing similar acts is raised and explored.

Gorgeous Geek: Poor Xander, he’s only  just gotten over the fact that his best friend turned to the dark side and tried to wipe them all out and now he has to get a handle on his ex-fiancé indulging in her previous murdering ways again. Xander admits that he still loves her and that he cannot let Buffy kill her, he will step in the way no matter what.

Vengeance Demon: ‘Vengeance is what I do, Halfrek. I don’t need anything else. Vengeance is what I am…’ The best Anya episode bar none, and the only one where she is the central figure throughout. As a testament of how well the character has been nurtured and why Emma Caulfield is so beloved by the production team there is no episode finer. Anya’s first brush with vengeance comes when her burly partner Olaf has been playing about with a bar wench and she seeks to teach him a lesson that means they will never look at him again. It was inventive and cruel enough to attract D’Hoffryn’s attention. Modern day Anya is torn between her newfound humanity and guilt and her need to impress the higher beings that she can still dish out extreme punishments. Unfortunately this conflict leads to her washing blood off her hands and walking away from a frat house full of bloody corpses, an act that Buffy and her friends cannot ignore. This has been a long time coming ever since Xander left Anya at the altar and she fell back into D’Hoffryn’s hands, a conflict was inevitable and we saw the first steps in Beneath You when Anya turned an abusive boyfriend into a giant worm that almost swallowed his girlfriend whole. The peek we get to see of Anya at work as a vengeance demon shows that she was remorseless and calculating and always looking for more scorned women to avenge, a far cry from the Anya today who is wrestling with her conscience. Xander and his friends must have had a profound influence on her. Anya accepts that whilst she has a job to do, so does Buffy and their fight to the death was inevitable at some point. It’s interesting that she tells Xander to stop trying to save her, she is so wracked with guilt that she wants Buffy to kill her and let her off the hook. She’s not quite a vengeance demon and she’s certainly no human…Anya ponders whether she is really a nobody. She walks away from this experience having saved lives but caused the death of her best friend, blood and tear stained and with much soul searching to do.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Is it my imagination or do we have substantially more rabbits in the house today?’
‘And I yelled just once I wish you could all feel what it’s like to have your hearts ripped out…’
‘There is little that can distract the Willow when she is on the hunt for the mighty syllabi.’
‘There’s a revolution going on outside that you are somewhat responsible for!’
‘The flaying of Warren Myers. Truly inspired. That was water cooler vengeance.’
‘Haven’t I taught you anything, Anya? Never go for the kill when you can go for the pain.’

The Good: Now that’s how you open an episode of Buffy. Anya sitting alone and devastated amongst a room full of teenage corpses, blood flung everywhere and questioning what she has done. I really sat up and paid attention, shocked at how far Drew Goddard was willing to go to show that Anya has gone too far. There’s more glorious kisses to the past but in a very original, visually stimulating way as we flash back to her life with Olaf in 880. It’s always fun to spend time with Abraham Benrubi and this is invaluable background to Anya’s character, explaining why she became so angry with him that she turned him into the giant green troll that tore through Sunnydale in Triangle. There’s a very revealing moment when Spike pours his heart out to Buffy, which is gorgeously played and seems very real until the real Buffy walks in on the scene and a massive clue about the identity of the Big Bad this year has been played out. Olaf being chased out of town is hilarious, filmed like a real lifer historical re-enactment as seen on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The location that they have chosen to film in is lush, picturesque and very easy on the eye. The way that Anya and D’Hoffryn chat as the Olaf being chased by the screaming, insulting villagers keep passing by made whoop with laughter. Isn’t fantastic to see Buffy taking hold of references from it’s past episode and realising them so spectacularly? Halfrek has been cleverly seeded in the series since her introduction in the Doublemeat Palace, turning up enough times to be considered a semi-regular of sorts (Older & Far Away, Hells Bells, Entropy & Lessons) and her appearance in Selfless to congratulate Anya on her student massacre feels like just another appearance by this incredibly fun character. Drew Goddard is planting her in precisely the right place, Whedon style, to punish Anya at the climax of this tale. I had a few issues with the realisation of the spider demon when it attacked Willow in the frat house (the director frames the shot so it is obvious that something is going to crawl behind Willow) but when it takes on Buffy in the woods it is excellently realised, especially it’s hideous mouth that emerges dripping with saliva at the thought of it’s next meal as it straddles her. CGI was in it’s infancy at this point but this an excellent attempt at creating something that would be very difficult to achieve practically. Have they been saving up for this episode because some sequences are exceptionally realised with what looks like double the usual budget. The Russian Revolution sequence is probably my favourite of the year so far; the camera sliding along an elegantly dressed table with corpses strewn over their meals and settling on Anya and Halfrek basking in the chaos they have caused, explosions ripping through the night in the window behind them. It is an exquisite glimpse into the life she used to lead and the historical trouble she used to cause. It has been all smiles since we have returned to Sunnydale for season seven and so the tension that arises between the Scoobies when Anya’s massacre is brought to light is extraordinary. Suddenly all those dark moments that occurred last season are brought to light again as Xander attempts to make some kind of defence for the woman he loves. Astonishing that Goddard would bring up a plot point from season two and attempt to resolve it (Xander giving Buffy a message about killing Angel from Willow). When Buffy and Anya trade blows I kept wondering how on Earth they were going to backtrack from this at the end of the episode, it feels like this is genuinely the end for Anya (like they were ever going to kill off Buffy…for good). The sword in the chest was a terrific shock but it was the sudden cut back to it that affected me the most – from cheery singing to Anya pinned against the wall and screaming as she slides the knife from her belly, screaming. Buffy has always been good at switching tone like this but this is such a violent wrench it punches you around the face. I have never been a big fan of the reset button but Selfless is one of the few dramas I have seen that pulls it off with real class. Anya manages to salvage her reputation amongst the Scoobies by asking for D’Hoffryn to undo the massacre she has caused but it comes at a price, the life and soul of a vengeance demon. It looks for certain as though this is going to be Anya’s curtain call. D’Hoffryn clears any doubts that he is an ally, summoning Halfrek and killing her in the most obscene way possible. Anya’s reaction is devastating.

The Bad: I would never want to be without Anya on this show, that is for sure but looking at the season objectively this would have been the ideal place for her to exit in the most dramatic, memorable way possible (her actual exit in Chosen, whilst tragic, is a little throwaway). It’s such a fantastic episode it would have seen the character go out on a massive high. As it stands Anya adds many laughs to the rest of the season but rather gets shuffled into the pack as the regular cast swells. So this is objection of Selfless itself but the season as a whole.

Moment to Watch Out For: Cute, funny, catchy and revealing; it has to be the flashback to Once More, with Feeling although pretty much the entire episode is of this superior quality.

Result: Extraordinarily good, Selfless resides proudly in my top ten favourite Buffy episodes. Few stories manage to fit this much in and remain as confident and coherent as this; it is an episode packed with great comedy, stunning character drama, kisses to the past, expensive production values, gem after gem of dialogue, astonishing performances, hard choices and gut wrenching consequences. If people genuinely think that Buffy never hit the heights of its early years again then they are clearly watching a different show to me because this is exceptional viewing. It’s astonishing to realise how much mythology has been built up around Anya and this episode slides effortlessly into her past and offers up blissful glimpses into some of the most important moments of her life. With Anya came fan favourites D’Hoffryn, Halfrek and Olaf and they all take their place in the episode that celebrates her character. Selfless is a drama that manages to convincingly force Buffy and Anya into a fight to the death after three years of working together and revels in all the character fireworks that naturally spring from that scenario, especially the objections from Xander who cannot comprehend how his friend and lover are now exchanging killing blows. David Solomon offers up his best ever direction, switching genre and tone effortlessly and making sure that the whole piece flows beautifully despite it’s scatterbrained nature. Emma Caulfield delivers a sterling performance; funny, scary, touching and proves once again what an incredible asset she is to this show. But the real star of Selfless is newcomer Drew Goddard who has written a fantastic script, the sort of standard that we only usually see from Joss Whedon at his very best. It’s further proof that adding fresh talent to the show has been long overdue. Stunningly good, I’ve run out of superlatives: 10/10 

Him written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Dawn falls in love…

The Chosen One: There’s a definite shift in Buffy’s attitude towards Spike now that he has been granted his soul. Rather than fearing him, she now pities him and convinces Xander to let him move in with him for the time being. She doesn’t love him but she does feel for him. As I saw Sarah Michelle Gellar giggling like a school girl on heat and playing the character more loosely than ever it struck me that it is starting to feel like all the internal horrors that she went through last year have been completely excised. Whilst it was a thoughtful exercise at the time, this version of Buffy is far more enjoyable to be around. Although I’m surprised she managed to escape this episode with her job at the High School intact, especially after seeing her straddle RJ quite as provocatively as she does in an eye watering scene. Hilariously, Buffy is constantly trying to remind RJ that she only left High School a few years ago. Can you say desperate?

The Key: What has happened with Dawn this year? She has gone from irritating angst-ridden teen to a maturely written, witty and knowledgeable young woman somewhere between seasons to the point where I am actively seeking more time with the character. It re-affirms what I have always thought about Michelle Trachtenberg too, that if you give her the right material that she would shine brighter than many of the other cast members. She has run with her material this year, enjoying the chance to take Dawn to places that have been previously sealed off to her as an actress. They are letting the character grow up, but not without some gentle reminders that she is still at High School and can make the same mistakes with boys as everybody else. Watching Dawn trying to break into RJ’s social circuit is painful since clearly nobody wants her there and treats her appallingly. There’s a lovely moment which plays out similarly to many tiresome moments in season six when Dawn is in her room screaming at Buffy to go away whilst she tries to coax her out but this time it is all played for laughs which makes a world of difference.

Vengeance Demon: Proof that Buffy can turn it’s characters actions on a sixpence and make it convincing, we have gone from Buffy trying to kill Anya in the previous to fighting to protect her in this one.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! God, it’s like I have a disease or something…’
‘First with the lap dance, now with the catfight. Want to get drunk and barf next?’
‘I’m extremely youthful…and peppy!’
‘His physical presence has a penis!’
‘Yeah right! What are you going to do use magic to make him into a girl?’
‘You realise Anya is probably seducing RJ as we speak!’ ‘My God, you think so?’ ‘I wouldn’t put it past her…she’s recently evil, you know?’ ‘Well so am I! Why should I miss out?’

The Good: There is such a effervescent tone to this episode spending most of it surrounded by gorgeous young people that I think I might have shed a decade just watching it. It certainly succeeds in taking me back to that feeling of childhood that the first three years did so successfully, focussing on the trials and tribulations of trying to impress people at school who really aren’t worth your time. Watching Dawn tryout for the cheerleading squad, a role that she is not skilled to perform might just be one of the most mortifyingly hilarious moments in Buffy’s entire season years. I was watching through my fingers. I love how completely not seriously everybody is taking this episode, even the writer who irreverently has Xander point out that it is RJ’s jacket that is causing all the girls to swoon and he turns out to be absolutely right. The signs that something is wrong with Dawn’s obsession are quickly made as shreds Buffy’s cheerleading outfit and pushes Lance down the stairs at school. The one moment of real depth in Him comes when Xander visits the boy jock that used to give Xander a hard time and it turns out he ended up in a dead end job and piled on the pounds after leaving High School. There’s a lesson in there that everybody can take away. The casual way that Xander and Spike deal with the problem, nicking the coat from RJs back and setting it on fire, is wonderfully relaxed. It’s an episode that can’t even be arsed to set up a satisfying denouement. That would just get in the way of the fun.

The Bad: Angela Sarafyan gives a spectacularly wooden performance as Lori and is especially bad when she confronts Dawn in the back alley (‘I saw you with RJ!’). Although it does lead to a hair pulling bitch fight and those are always pretty amusing.

Moment to Watch Out For: Possibly my favourite comedy sequence in Buffy comes during the split screen delight in Him when all the girls head off to try and impress RJ in various imaginative ways. Willow’s doing her magic, Buffy’s attempting to kill the Principal, Anya is going to rob a bank and Dawn wants to offer her life to show how much she cares. Okay, the last one isn’t hilarious but the sequence sees Buffy letting its hair down in a way that it hasn’t for ages, offering up something that is visually very fun to watch and the music is to die for. The resulting scenes featuring Xander intervening with the spell, the silent sequence that sees Spike tackling Buffy before she can use a rocket launcher to blow Wood away and Buffy saving Dawn from being squished by a train are all excellent too. Spike running with the launcher makes me piss myself every time I see it.

Fashion Statement: In this throwback to the earlier years of Buffy, all the cast are looking their most youthful and gorgeous. Check out Sarah Michelle Gellar in the pre-titles sequences as she and Dawn watch the football game, she looks like she has shed the last couple of years (and her hair looks amazing). Dawn looks so smoking hot with her ‘I’m going to give this boy everything he wants’ look at the Bronze that both Xander and Willow are admiring from afar until they realise who it is (Buffy calls her a slutbag hussy!). RJ is pretty cute but a little too slight for the role that he is playing, surely he should be a little more buff to convince as the leader of the football team?

Orchestra: Another season seven episode with an incredible soundtrack, Him boasts not only a memorable and peppy original musical score but amongst that it utilises everything from the delightful theme from Summer Place, Coldplay and King Black Acid. The music chosen is delightful and really highlights this episode as a throwback to the early years.

Result: Brilliant fun, this extremely enjoyable filler episode attests to season seven’s back to basics approach more than any other as it could happily reside in any of the shows first three seasons without too much tweaking. The High School setting, the comedy high-jinks, the romance angle, the way things complicate so manically, the gorgeous soundtrack – it’s a counterpart to season two’s Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (we even flashback to that episode) and although it isn’t quite as razor sharp with it’s delivery it is probably the one of the most outright entertaining episodes of the last three years that has no ulterior motive but to amuse. Him starts off as a regular teen crush episode of the sort we saw many times in the past but soon takes a fantastic turn into sitcom territory as all the girls in the show develop a crush on the same guy and are trying to find ways to impress him and get one up on each other. It means that everybody can toss their usual portrayals away for one week and farce it up with Sarah Michelle Gellar in particular grabbing hold of the chance to play a looser, funnier Buffy and sprinting to the finish line. It’s all a little too slight and unimportant to score higher but ultimately this is addictive popcorn entertainment of the sort that Buffy excels at (but completely forgot how to pull off last season – compare this to the last Dawn falls in love episode, All the Way, and the levels of enjoyment are vast). The first five episodes of season seven have all ranged from good to excellent with a pleasingly diverse mixture of style and storytelling techniques. More please: 8/10

Conversations with Dead People written by Jane Espenson (the Dawns scenes), Drew Goddard (the Trio scenes), Joss Whedon (the Buffy/Holden scenes) and Marti Noxon (the Willow/Cassie scenes) and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: Dead friends and family contact the Scoobies…

The Chosen One: Things we learn about Buffy in this episode: that she thinks that there are relationships that survive but she has a habit of targeting the impossible ones, she has a hard time trusting men because her first example of one (her dad) cheated on her mum, she has trouble connecting to men because she thinks she is better than them, she admits that she behaved like a monster with Spike and at the same time let him completely take her over, last year she wanted to be punished in the way that she thought she deserved, even though her friends tell her that they love her it doesn’t penetrate because they cannot possibly understand what it is like to be her – she has a superiority complex but she’s got an inferiority complex about that. Oh how I miss complex characterisation like this in cult television. Oh and she’s so self involved she barely remembers anybody who existed on the periphery of her life during High School (‘I don’t remember you being this annoying!’ ‘You don’t remember me at all!’ ‘Yes I do!’ ‘Yeah after 30 minutes of reminding!’).

The Key: More of this frighteningly likable Dawn, buying pizza against her sisters instructions and spilling it over one of her shirts and shrugging it off because she’ll probably think it is blood. Oh and cutting chunks out of the wall when playing with Buffy’s weapons and shoving pot plants in its place to cover it up. 

Witchy Willow: Alyson Hannigan proves just how good she really is (if she hasn’t done so already you must have lost all your critical faculties) by breaking down whilst talking to Tara when she isn’t even present. I had goosebumps all over when she admitted that her girlfriends absence hurts so badly and isn’t getting any better. I can believe in this relationship even when one of the participants is dead. Willow admits that she lost herself after Tara died, that she used the magic to become somebody who wasn’t in pain but it turned her into something dark and evil.

The Trio: Jonathan and Andrew are back in town because they think they might be needed in the fight that is to come and to potentially redeem themselves. Cue comic mishaps from the off, starting with their hilarious misinterpretation of the Klingon portent regarding the new Big Bad: ‘It eats you starting with your bottom.’ In Seeing Red we saw Andrew trying to make a dramatic exit to the skies and it going hilariously wrong, this time he is trying to make a stealthy entrance in the other direction and winds up screaming into shot and landing on his arse. Great stuff. It’s when Warren showed up that I started to have an inkling about who the Big Bad might be…there have been far too many appearances of dead people for this to be a co-incidence now (Buffy haunting Spike, the montage of old villains in Lessons, now Cassie and Joyce). In a very sweet speech Jonathan admits how much he misses High School, from the people who pretended to be his friends to those who treated him appallingly because at that point in his life he felt as though he belonged somewhere. He misses those people and in a spectacularly cruel display Andrew informs him that none of those people even know he exists anymore. There is something horribly malicious about Andrew leading Jonathan to the Seal only to stab him in the gut and end his life. The First has proven itself as a darkly manipulative force that will utilise any methods to achieve its purpose. Andrew is going to have to do a great deal of soul searching and repent in order to wipe away the sins he commits in this episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Are you alone?’ BANG! BANG! – very creepy.
‘This is beyond evil, this is insane troll logic!’
‘Buffy I’m here to kill you not to judge you.’

The Good: The unusually stylish opening sequence immediately informs the viewer that this going to be something a bit different, to some seductively sombre music we experience a montage of clips featuring Buffy in the graveyard, Willow in the library and Dawn at home. The locations where they will remain throughout the episode in their various confrontations with the new Big Bad. The episode keeps cutting back to Spike at a bar trying to pick up women and it fails to make any sense until the conclusion, proving just how well plotted this piece is.

Once again the Summers household seems to be tuned into Carnival FM but it’s a million times better than the drivel Buffy was weeping to in Listening to Fear. Immediately there is a feeling that something terrible is about to happen to Dawn at home alone, there has never been scenes like this before with one of the characters wandering about and enjoying themselves. Nick Marck shoots through the kitchen window as Dawn dances about as if somebody is watching her from outside. It is the closest that the series has ever coming to offering an authentic horror movie experience and the director is smart enough to remember that sound effects and subtle visual effects are far more effectively creepy than throwing a whole ton of CGI at the audience. Cue the reverberant banging around the house, the TV that turns on by itself unplugged, the microwave that explodes and the subtle suggestion that Joyce is trying to reach. When Joyce manifests herself on the sofa in the pose she was found in at the point of her death in a split second shot my heart skipped a beat. Blood writing on the walls, furniture stacked, growling in the darkness – Marck throws every horror cliché at you and directed this well it really gets under your skin. If you pause the DVD at the right point you can see the demon straddling the white eyed Joyce as she screams and reaches out for Dawn, it’s terrifying. The Summers residence sure does take a beating in this season but nowhere is it more destructive than in Conversations with Dead People. Walls burst and crack, windows shatter and furniture is destroyed. The First proves itself to be a truly insidious force, faking a ghostly manifestation so Dawn feels like she has defeated something sinister in order to speak to her mother. The truth being that Joyce is a manifestation of the First offering her a warning that would eventually serve to turn her against her sister.

It absolutely sucks that Amber Benson couldn’t take part in this episode. Whether it was because she was unavailable or because she didn’t want to play Tara as something bad, it is disappointing that they couldn’t offer one last glimpse at their incredible relationship. Saying that I think the writers dealt with the situation in the best way that they possibly could, bringing back Cassie from Help and offering her as a conduit between Willow and her ex-lover. Giving the reason that because Willow has killed that she cannot be reunited with Tara makes perfect sense even if this ultimately proves to be a ruse on the First’s behalf. Once again Azura Skye is superb, managing to swing from melancholic empathy to grinning malevolence. The First is attempting to convince Willow to stop using magic because it knows that she is one of Buffy’s strongest weapons. Cassie/Tara is believable to a point but Willow soon starts to suspect foul play when the conversation takes a turn towards discussing suicide.

It’s the dialogue that stands out in the Buffy/Holden sequences; razor sharp, funny, revealing and quite touching. It’s Joss Whedon at his finest, far superior to his half hearted approach to Lessons as the beginning of the year. Outing Scott Hope as gay was a really nice touch. This is the extended therapy that Buffy has needed for some time, being able to air her feelings without any fear of reprisals and the fact that her recipient of all this honesty is a vampire that she is fighting to the death gives these scenes a real edge. The crushing inevitability that they are going to fight to the death even though they are clearly enjoying each others company always lingers. The action itself is very smartly choreographed, especially when they struggle with each other whilst crashing through a stained glass window into a mausoleum before the graveyard setting gets stale. 

Moment to Watch Out For: There are many, many great moments in Conversations with Dead People but the highlight has to be the quadruple whammy of twists as the plotlines all converge in the last five minutes. Holden reveals that Spike was responsible for siring him and thus he is killing again. Joyce manages to speak to Dawn and warn her that when the time comes Buffy wont protect her. Andrew murders Jonathan in a callous act that brings the Seal in the High School basement to life. And the First reveals itself to Willow after attempting to convince her to commit suicide (‘It’s not that bad…it’s just like going to sleep’). All these threads that have gaining momentum throughout the first handful of episodes are already paying dividends and its only episode six. If we can keep up with this quality of storytelling Buffy will be going out on a real high. The climax to this episode enjoys that tingle of excitement you get when everything starts to come together in a very exciting direction.

Foreboding: Check the section above – so much to deal with after the revelations dished out here.

Result: ‘You don’t know hurt. This last year is going to seem like cake after what I put you and your friends through and I am not a fan of easy death. The fact is the whole good versus evil, balancing the scales thing, I’m over it. I’m done with the mortal coil but believe me I’m going for a big finish…’ With the four best writers on this series, both old and new, combining to write a script I was expecting big things. Fortunately it doesn’t disappoint and this is the second episode in the opening run of season seven that exists in my top ten favourites of the entire series. Conversations with Dead People is one of those Buffy episodes that sticks out because it so different from anything else the series has done before and yet it contains all the core ingredients that make the show such a smash hit; laughs, drama, intense character development, great twists, memorable action, scares and scorching dialogue. I couldn’t have been more thrilled with where season seven was heading when this episode first aired and it holds up to repeated viewing brilliantly with Nick Marck’s polished direction looking as good now as it did a decade ago. It deals with many of the criticisms of season six (looking into both Buffy and Willow’s self destructive behaviour) whilst pushing forward this years plot with a hefty shove. Dawn’s horror movie experiences at home are probably as intense as the show ever dared to push the genre and the re-introduction of Trio works a treat because whilst it appears that they have come to repent for their previous misdeeds there is something far more sinister at the heart of it. The dialogue is constantly surprising, the action relentless and the last ten minutes manages to kick start a multitude of fascinating new plot threats that weave throughout the rest of the year. Like Selfless before it, this is Buffy at it’s very best and it’s fantastic to see the show delivering such value so close to it’s demise. Exhilarating: 10/10

Sleeper written by David Fury & Jane Espenson and directed by Alan J. Levi

What’s it about: Spike is killing and Buffy has to stop him…

The Chosen One: Buffy experiences all manner of conflict in Sleeper and it finally forces her to choose where she is with her relationship with Spike. If she can somehow see past him killing again then she can pretty much forgive him for anything. I enjoyed the subtle way that she tried to coax a reaction out of him by mentioning Holden’s name but of course he is completely unaware of the First’s manipulations after the murders and is the picture of innocence. We haven’t heard Buffy and Spike go at each other like this for some time now and it’s a stellar reminder of the chemistry that Gellar and Marsters share when given the right material. Spike’s apparent betrayal hurts because Buffy has put her trust in him even after what he tried to do to her last year. This feels like another slap in the face. At the end of the episode she can see how much he has been manipulated and tortured into killing but the net result is still the same. Her friends try and be the voice of reason but for some reason she just can’t finish him off in the same way she was willing to do with Anya a few episodes earlier. Even I have to admit it seems like she has had a logic bypass at this junction because Spike is just as dangerous to have around as he would be on the streets. However come the end of the season her instincts would be proven correct, but not before Giles tries to intervene in a very dramatic way.

The Key: Dawn is not in the mood to share the advice that Joyce gave her; she is keeping that very close to her chest.

Sexy Blond: How the episode can go from trying to convince us that Spike is ruthless killer and has caught Anya in the act of trying to sneak into his room to find some evidence to having him playing the terrified stallion afraid of her sexual advances is effortlessly handled. It’s that kind of confidence that this show has survived on for so long. The chip was forced upon him but the soul he acquired himself, for Buffy. Spike admits that he goes out and talks to women but that is only because Buffy wont let him in. 

Vengeance Demon: How times have changed. Just last year Xander was handy with an axe after Anya spent some quality time with Spike and now he is encouraging her to do so. This time she could wind up as a bloodless corpse but then paybacks a bitch.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m just saying soulless Spike would have had me upside down and halfway to happy land by now.’
‘Sorry ma’am, but it’s my job…’ whilst staking a vampire might just be one of Buffy’s best ever lines.
‘I can’t cry this soul out of me.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Is that all I was to you? A one bite stand?’ – occasionally Buffy goes for a line that might have sounded hip on paper but proves to be an epic fail on screen. It comes just after a suggestion that Spike comes onto a guy though so I was in a fairly benevolent mood at the time.

The Good: Immediately Sleeper has a very striking, shadowy feel. The lighting in the first scene in Xander’s is far more sombre than usual and the image of Spike digging a grave and shoving a corpse in it whilst merrily humming a tune is memorably grotesque. The whole questions of whether he can kill or not has been the subject of much discussion (and ridicule) over the past three seasons so it’s great that somebody has finally cut through all the chatter and made a decision. He’s killing, it’s real and Buffy has to stop. Given everything they have experienced in the past year or so that task is not going to be as simple as it might appear. Another dead girl, this time in England and it’s very clear that this is turning into some kind of pandemic. I’m so pleased they didn’t open this episode with the Summer’s household all squeaky clean again, with Xander banging the last nail in and going ‘good as new…’ Given the whirlwind of destruction that Dawn caused in the previous story, the house looks as though it has been hit by a tornado. The scenes of Anya being left alone with Spike manage to generate some exceptional tension  because I was just waiting for him to wake up and catch her going through his things. A small thing but I am massively fond of the ditty ‘Early One Morning’ and have it stuck in my head for days every time I watch certain episodes this season. Having the First disguised as Buffy walking in on Spike as he is about to sink his teeth into his latest victim in an alley is cleverly done so you’re not sure whether it is the genuine article or not at first. It struck me here at just how manipulative the First has been so far this year before its plans have even started getting into motion. It’s trying to take the Scoobies out of action one by one because it knows that they are the only ones that will be able to stop it’s apocalyptic schemes. It has already successfully killed Jonathan, tried to make Willow commit suicide, attempted to turn Dawn against Buffy and turned Spike back into a killer so he can polish off Buffy in his house of horrors. Clearly Xander isn’t worth worrying about at this stage but Giles also faces the axe at the end of this episode.

The Bad: The stock footage of England is precisely what it looks like’ ancient, grainy and thoroughly unconvincing when spliced in with the filmed material. Oddly none of the shoppers seem to be able to Spike’s victim screaming her head off just a few feet away.

Moment to Watch Out For: Did I say that Conversations with Dead People was the closest that Buffy ever got to pure horror? I had clearly put The Dark Age, Helpless and Hush out of my mind but then I always think of exceptions after I have made grand statements like that. Sleeper continues the trend, heading into haunted house territory as the big bad vampire leads the innocent blonde victim into a dank and dirty basement that is filled with corpses that burst to life and try to kill her. What this leads to is one of the most impressive action sequences this year as Buffy tackles them all. Spike coming at her with a shard of glass is pretty graphic but my favourite moment comes when the vampires all burst from the ground in a spectacularly dramatic display (I love anything bursting from the ground).

Fashion Statement: Spike, in bed, barely covered and clearly wearing no underwear. Phew. And seeing Spike sucking on the neck of another guy. Great stuff.

Orchestra: Season seven has really re-discovered Buffy’s former love of contemporary music and Aimee Mann’s Pavlov’s Bell is played over an awesome sequence where Spike gets up close and personal with a girl that he has sired recently, conclusive proof that he is back to his old tricks. It’s a dramatic song and it suits the action perfectly. The vamp being dusted so publicly and interrupting the song (but just for a moment, Mann leaps straight back into action to distract the crowd) is perfect.

Foreboding: How on Earth is Giles going to escape that axe that is swinging precariously close to his head at the end of the episode?

Result: As well as provoking the best work from some of the established Buffy directors this year, we’re also seeing some new names being added to the mix and the resulting episodes are much more satisfying and fresh. There is a deliciously brooding atmosphere to Sleeper that springs from the question of whether Spike is killing again or not which really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Last season practically every episode shared this episode’s dark tone and it became very wearisome and the whole argument over Spike’s potentially homicidal tendencies has been flogged to death and yet Sleeper manages to do something very unique and interesting with the concept, stripping it right down to the basics of a killer prowling the streets and a Slayer trying to stop him. Spike’s house of horrors, where he has buried all of his victims, is one of the most creepy locales ever seen in Sunnydale and leads to the marvellous scene where all the vampires burst from the ground at once. The allusions to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo are apparent  but only serve to strength the overall feeling that a great deal of care has gone into constructing this drama. Every episode this year has felt very different but has contributed beautifully to the overall story being told and it really feels like things are accelerating now. The Big Bad is on the move, and everything is about to converge on Sunnydale. Exciting times: 8/10

Never Leave Me written by Drew Goddard and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: The First reveals itself and makes another powerful move…

The Chosen One: Finally Spike gets to be completely honest with Buffy. He is tied up and she is listening so there is no better time for them to talk through their destructive relationship. Buffy hated herself in season six and she took it out on Spike, both making love to him and by violently beating him too. Perhaps that is why she can’t dispatch him, because she feels she owes him a debt of some kind for abusing him so badly when she was at her lowest. Even Spike asks why Buffy can’t finish him off and offers her an answer – that she likes men who hurt her. That is opening a massive can of worms that I’m not sure that the show has time to deal with but it’s certainly a possibility given her choices of partner to date. Buffy vehemently denies the claim and states that she doesn’t hate herself anymore and doesn’t need that sort of pain to do her job. 

Sexy Blond: Spike is still a dangerous animal, influenced by the First to savage anybody that is in his path and Buffy is playing a dangerous game keeping him barely restrained in their house. Spike figures that the visions he has been suffering that have been enticing him to kill where just what happened when a vampire regains his soul (this is another massive pointer towards the season three episode Amends and the identity of the Big Bad this year). Buffy gives Spike a great deal of succour in this episode, forcing him to stop pretending to be monster and embrace what he has become. He faced the monster inside of him and he fought back and risked everything to be a better man. The look on his face when she tells him that she believes he can be a better man is priceless.

Gorgeous Geek: There is a key scene between Anya and Xander after they first tie up Andrew which shows a gentler interaction between the two of them than we have otherwise seen this year. It’s evidence that they could make it as friends (or even perhaps rekindle their passion at some point).

Vengeance Demon: I’m glad Anya points out that the last time one of their friends was responsible for a massacre (her) the net result was Buffy stabbing her in the chest with a sword.

Super Geek: If you would have told me last year that Andrew was going to be one of the major characters of the shows final season and that he would wind up being one of my absolute favourites I probably would have laughed until I dropped. He was irritating as sin in parts of season six, only really coming into his own when his rocket pack so spectacularly failed to fly him to safety and he was forced on the run to hide away from Dark Willow. Obviously the producers saw something in Tom Lenk and I’m really pleased that they did because once you strip away all those pathetic attempts at villainy he is pretty neat character; vulnerable, silly, a little bit pathetic and a great deal of fun. Many of the best moments of the second half of the season feature Andrew in some way or another. Once they realised that he worked as a hostage within the Scooby gang the writers really ran with it. As soon as Goddard chose to introduce Andrew with a gag at his and Spike’s expense I knew that we were onto a winner. He looks absolutely ridiculous dressed up in leathers and trying to act the hard man. Andrew has always been a bit effeminate but this is the first instance when the script points out that he might be gay (gazing lustfully at the thought of Patrick Swayze). He’s such a doofus that instead of realising that the First is the same person taking on different peoples forms he thinks that he is directly speaking to the ghosts of both Warren and Jonathan. At this stage Andrew is little more than an inconvenience (although he does have information about the Seal that comes in useful) and there for everybody to vent their frustrations upon (perhaps not ethically right but when it comes to scenes like Anya going completely berserk and slapping him around the chops I was laughing my head off). I like how even in the episodes darkest moments there is still time to play out the gag that nobody knows who Andrew is. He’s the Sue Heck of Buffy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Stand down She-Witch, your defeat is at hand!’ ‘Shut your mouth! I am a She-Witch. A very powerful She-Witch…or Witch as is more accurate. I am Willow. I am Death. If you dare defy me I will call down my fury, exact fresh vengeance and make your worst fears come true. Okay?’
‘Meaning I have come to redefine the term pain and suffering since I fell in love with you’ – Spike makes an excellent point, it’s been nothing but pain and suffering since he lost his heart to Buffy.
‘Maybe its another musical. A much crappier musical.’
‘You think you have insight now because your soul’s drenched in blood?’
‘I was going to bleed Andrew but you look a lot better with your shirt off.’

The Good: We finally get a glimpse at the Watchers Council and it is exactly as I envisaged it to be; a bunch of stuff shirts in tweed, sitting around an ornate table in plush surroundings and pontificating. Whilst it is always a joy to see Haris Yulin in Buffy, the attention to detail in bringing back all the same actors from the Council that appeared in Checkpoint really shows how much effort is going into this final year. It is clear that he is up to no good after Buffy hears somebody talking to Spike in the bedroom but the way he breaks free of his chair, bursts through the wall and gnaws on Andrew’s neck was entirely unexpected. It’s at the exact point that Andrew was about to spill about the Seal, the First once again trying to protect its secrets. Principal Wood has been introduced very quietly this season, almost as a stand in parental role for Giles whilst he is hob-nobbing it back in the UK. This is the first indication that there might be something sinister about the character beyond what we see on the surface. He doesn’t bat an eyelid at the sight of Jonathan dead across the Seal in the cellar and quickly sets about burying his body. The fact that the writers have waited this long to play this trump card shows great restraint and the amount of time that they hold off before revealing his true identity (about two thirds into the season) informs that they wanted to make sure their had some tricks left up their sleeve to bolster the second half of the year. For the moment he is a sinister mystery but it’s another element to a year already packed with substance. Can you believe it? Just as Xander is making some headway in doing up the Summers household after the tornado of destruction in Conversations with Dead People, along come the Bringers to reduce it to dust again. How the house goes from being a sanctuary for all the characters to trap where they have to fight to the death is very effectively handled and having the fight take place in near darkness really helps sell the danger. Everybody gets a chance to kick some Bringer butt and yet the tensest moment came when Andrew was tied to the bed and looked set to be facing certain death. The explosion that rips through the Watchers Council building comes as complete surprise because the episode suddenly takes on a triumphant tone that they are about to fight back. It feels as though they are about to make their presence felt more strongly than ever in Buffy when they are snatched away. The explosion itself isn’t realised as powerfully as it could but as an but it’s a real indication that facing this threat is going to be a massive game changer for the series. It’s a shame that the Turok-han should be filmed in quite such a camp manner, reaching out for the sky as it does but there is still a rumble of excitement as the Seal opens (the blood dripping from Spike’s chest looks like it is really draining from James Marsters’ body) and this horrific looking nasty emerges.

Moment to Watch Out For: Andrew attempting to slaughter a piglet. Just the funniest thing I have ever seen. ‘Babe II: Pig in the City was really underrated…’ The piglets sudden reappearance in Storyteller is one Buffy’s best unexpected gags. Oh and Buffy using Andrew as a weight to knock the Bringers out of her way later in the episode also made me chuckle.

Result: Never Leave Me proves how far we have come in a year. Early season six was plagued with episodes that seemed to revel in inactivity, where everybody seemed to sit around avoiding talking about their feelings and no central narrative appeared to be emerging. This is a bottle episode of sorts, aside from some location work we don’t really venture out of the Summers household but there has already been such an abundance of plot this year that the momentum the continuing plotlines steam roller through this piece. It’s also written by newcomer Drew Goddard so the memorable dialogue comes thick and fast and the character interaction is on fire (check out his episodes of Alias too – he wrote some memorable stories). I really like how the intimate (the internal dramas of the Summers household) and the epic (the Watchers Council in England being prevented from going to war with the First) are bedfellows in Never Leave Me, exploring the best of both worlds as this massive jigsaw of a season arc continues to build. It’s a series of one-on-one confrontations that range from hilarious (Andrew and Willow’s villain-off) to personal (Buffy trying to get through to Spike) to the even more hilarious (Anya & Xander’s good cop/bad cop routine). In amongst all this exposition there is still time to dispense with the Watchers Council, turn the light of suspicion on Principal Wood, introduce a spectacular nasty, reveal the identity of the Big Bad and feature possibly the most exciting fight sequence to ever take place in the Summers household. Every episode feels like it is packed with treats this year and nine episodes in and there hasn’t been a single dud yet (Lessons was perhaps sub par in its own plot but as set up for the season it was exemplary). I cannot think of another season of this show that has kicked off with such determination and style. Here’s hoping it continues: 8/10

Bring on the Night written by Marti Noxon & Doug Petrie and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Buffy faces the vampire that vampires fear…

The Chosen One: Pulling an all nighter, Buffy is falling asleep in front of the students that are seeking her guidance. Beaten, bruised and bloody at the finale, we’ve never seen Buffy quite so abused before.

The Key: Dawn’s having fun slapping Andrew round the chops and trying to wake him up. Did I tell you how much fun I am having with this character this year? It’s a bloody good thing that social services don’t turn up at Buffy’s house to check up on Dawn now what with the windows boarded up and the manifest of squatters that have taken residence.

Ripper: There is a massive question mark hanging over Giles at the moment that wont be resolved for quite a few episodes. The last time we saw him he was facing certain death as an axe was about to get very friendly with his neck. Now here he is in Sunnydale, head intact, and ready for battle. Once again season seven is patient with its mysteries, dealing with those it has already set up, and enjoying the ambiguity of not giving all the answers immediately. We know that the First can only appear in the guise of those who have passed away so there is every possibility that Giles might be dead.

Sexy Blond: When Spike said that he had redefined the idea of pain since he fell in love with Buffy I didn’t realise we were going to see that first hand quite so graphically in the next episode. What he goes through here is physically (stabbed, beaten, drowned) and mentally (haunted by both his ex-lover and his current one) torturous. Surely he has proven himself by now?

Witchy Willow: Willow is willing to do whatever she can to stop the First but it would appear it can manipulate her magicks and turn it against them. She’s left terrified that the darkness that consumed her last year is still inside her and begs for them to not use magic as an avenue.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander believes that they are all stuck in a mummy hand style time loop where the Summers house is continually destroyed and put back together. As much as he might not care to admit it, Xander has found a soul mate in Andrew, somebody who is as geeky as he is and not afraid to show it.

Super Geek: Andrew’s hyper-dramatic interruption of the wealth of exposition that Giles brings with him is much needed and hilarious.

The Potentials: I know some people that consider all of these characters as the spawn of Satan. It’s a bit of an extreme reaction but I do have to admit that the idea of the Potentials may have been much better in theory than it was in practice – at least at this point in time (I had more than adjusted come the final run of episodes). The biggest problem is the overwhelming personalities and the hideous accents that some of the characters sport (especially Molly whose cod-cockney is so utterly dreadful it might just be the worst interpretation of the country I have ever seen attempted on American television). Suddenly the repeated motif of girls being slaughtered around the world from the first couple of episodes makes sense, they are all potential Slayers who could be the next in line if Buffy dies. The First plans to kill Buffy (the person responsible for many an apocalypse) and then prevent any of her replacements being called. I said it was a devious git. At this stage we are introduced to Kennedy, Molly and Annabel. I like Kennedy because she has a bit of spunk to her (and clearly has eyes for Willow), I’m completely at a loss at what Molly is saying much of the time but her dress sense suggests hippy parents and Annabel is the worst kind of person, one who preaches an awful lot but does practice her own dogma. Listening to Molly and Annabel talking is like the show is suddenly taking place on an alien planet.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m sorry to barge in. I’m afraid we have a slight apocalypse.’
‘As Neanderthal man are to human beings, the Turok-han are to vampires. They are the vampires that vampires fear…’ – okay, that’s a pretty scary idea. Not just vicious bloodsucking fiends but ones that are completely without intelligence and rely purely on bloodlust and instinct.
‘We don’t know how to fight it. We don’t know when it will come. We can’t run, we can’t hide. We can’t pretend it’s not the end because it is. Something’s always been there to try and destroy the world and we’ve beaten them back but we’re not dealing with them anymore. We’re dealing with the reason they exist. Evil, the strongest, the First. I’m beyond tired. I’m beyond scared. I’m standing on the mouth of Hell and it is going to swallow me whole. And it’ll choke on me. We’re not ready. They’re not ready. They think that we’re just going to wait for the end to come like we always do. I’m done waiting. They want an apocalypse…we’ll give them one. Anyone else who wants to run, do it now because we just became an army, we just declared war. From now on we wont just face our worst fears, we will seek them out. We will find them and cut out their hearts one by one until the First shows itself for what it really is. And I’ll kill it myself. There is only one thing on this Earth more powerful than evil and that’s us. Any questions?’ This could have been the most dreadfully clichéd lot of nonsense but it is delivered with such care by Sarah Michelle Gellar that it becomes a genuinely empowering mission statement. Bravo.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘With the magic going all arrrggghhh and me going all eeeeeee and everything getting all urrrghhh…’

The Good: It is always gorgeous to see Joyce back and since her departure from this mortal coil Kristine Sutherland has appeared five times now (Forever, The Weight of the World, Normal Again, Conversations with Dead People and Bring on the Night) – when people say that a character dying in science fantasy doesn’t mean that they can’t turn up in show again is true! Season seven is turning out to be a real celebration of the things that made Buffy the Vampire great. Already we’ve had an excellent sequence that saw the First taking on the guise of every single season long villain, allusions to Tara, a return of the Trio and in this episode we get a peek at both Joyce and Drusilla. Before the end of the season Faith and Angel will have popped up too. It’s a massive love-in for the series as a whole whilst still pushing the show forward and considering this is its final year it is exactly the right time to do so. I was less excited about seeing Drusilla again (she was recently back for a final curtain call in Crush) but it is always fun to see Juliet Landau getting her crazy on (although Spike is right, the real Drusilla is far nuttier than this) and she gets a superb final showpiece in Lies My Parents Told Me. Seeing Principal Wood down in the basement, dirty and exhausted from burying Jonathan, immediately sets bells ringing for Buffy. At first I questioned whether all that build up surrounding the Turok-han was worth it when all it did was kick the shit out of Spike (and everybody has had a pop at that in this show, even Buffy) but when we finally get to see the beast in action against Buffy and it savages her suddenly everything started to make sense. The two action sequences (both underground and in the builders yard) are two of the most vicious of their kind ever seen in the show, with some incredible stunts and Buffy truly have the wind knocked out of her. The way it just casually pulls a stake from its heart like it is a minor inconvenience is very cool.

The Bad: Whilst Bring on the Night down accelerate the season arc considerably before the credits roll, it does take a little while to get going. The first fifteen minutes are just padding until the Potentials show up to take their place. The random mention that it is Christmas comes out of nowhere, seemingly to tie in with Amends.  Buffy just randomly falls down a hole into the First’s lair?

Moment to Watch Out For: During the final fight sequence there are many moments to enjoy; the Turok-han licking at the blood Buffy spits in its face, the equipment that she utilises to crush the beast to death and how casually it bats that aside and generally how it feels like an unstoppable force that Buffy cannot run away from.

Orchestra: The music has been so good this year I have started taking it for granted. Check out the awesome fight score during the climactic battle between Buffy and the Turok-han, matching the industrial setting with some dramatic, metallic notes.

Result: The first uneven episode of the year but one that is still packed with memorable moments and adds more momentum to the overriding storyline. There is an awkward and slack pace to events as lots of exposition is dealt with, necessary after the mass of set up that season seven has indulged in. The introduction of the Potentials was probably a great idea on paper but is clumsily cast and with some horrific fake accents on display they are the first major misstep in the year-long storyline. Things will improve exponentially when Annabel and Molly are killed but the very fact that I am considering these characters as disposable and willing them to die means that something has gone ever so wrong in their execution. Once the Potentials are fronted by Kennedy, Amanda and Rona we will be in much better shape. On the bright side this is an episode that revels in Buffy’s past, allowing us a glimpse at fan favourites such as Joyce and Drusilla and the whole piece climaxes on an unforgettable battle that sees Buffy taking a beating like we have never seen before. But there is a feeling of marking time as well and that this is part of a much bigger puzzle and not a standalone piece in its own right (every other episode so far this year could happily stand on its own). A lot of what is set up in Bring on the Night is concluded in Showtime and I couldn’t help but wonder that the two so-so episodes could have been condensed down into a much more satisfying single installment. By no means poor but far from classic, this is middle of the road Buffy which still makes it better than most other shows out there: 6/10

Showtime written by David Fury and directed by Michael Grossman

What’s it about: Buffy takes on the Turok-han…

Sexy Blond: Showing the bond that has developed between them, Buffy is desperate to find some kind of vulnerability of the First’s because Spike is running out of time and Spike whispers quietly and certainly that he knows she will come and save her. I can’t believe how they have managed to turn this around and make it a believable transition but Buffy and Spike are now the shows guiding relationship, one that is out in the open and raw with emotion.

Witchy Willow: Kennedy is trying awfully hard to appeal to Willow and it is clear that there is some interest but perhaps it is still a little too soon after Tara’s death for her.

Vengeance Demon: Poor Anya can’t even give away her sexual advantages any more (she has now been rejected by two demons in as many episodes).

Super Geek: Andrew is still tied to a chair which is funny when you think he has been stuck in that position for nearly three whole episodes.

Potentials: Despite how much she may go on to gripe and moan and wail before the end of the year, Rona feels real to me in a way that manufactured characters like Molly and Annabel never do. Here’s a kid who feels genuinely out of her comfort zone who has a life outside of this setting. Stepping off the bus to Sunnydale and being surrounded in the dark by Bringers might not be what she was expecting when she fled to California but it is the life she is stuck with now. Kennedy automatically becomes the most appealing Potential because she’s the only one willing to muck in and fight instead of moaning that she isn’t capable like the others.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m so alone’ ‘Then maybe you shouldn’t have killed your only friend.’
‘The world would have been better if Buffy had just stayed dead.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Welcome to Thunder Dome’ does not sound right coming out of Buffy’s mouth.

The Good: I can’t decide whether the Beljoxa’s Eye is an insane attempt to do something a bit different or a hideously unconvincing prop that Anthony Head and Emma Caulfield have to try and interact with. There’s simply no way to be sure because I have never seen a giant pulsating eyeball constructed out of smaller, blinking eyes before, with the optic nerve trailing behind in the breeze. However it is one of the more diverting scenes in the first half of this episode so I’ll give it a pass. It turns out that the only reason the First is back is because of the disruption in the Slayer line when Buffy was brought back to life. The two of them are inextricably linked on some way.

The Bad: There is an awful lot of running on the spot in this episode, delaying the inevitable until Buffy can kick the fuck out of the Turok-han and rescue Spike. More Potentials show up to fill up the Summers house and Spike escapes only to be captured again (I thought that one went out with Pertwee Doctor Who). Eve is so obviously a manifestation of the First because she is so obstinately trying to spread discord amongst the other Potentials. Had this been more subtly played or written it might have served as a decent twist…I probably would have let this run on for a couple of episodes, introduced a more likable Eve that we all get to know and then hit the audience with the news that she has been a plant. This feels too much like it is being made up on the spot. Buffy of old would have shrouded this twist by pointing the finger at Eve but making the First turn out to be one of the quieter ones like Chloe. There is conversation between Dawn and Andrew when they are both stuck at the house which doesn’t seem to be about anything, it’s just empty waffle to give them something to do. This is the only episode of Buffy to be directed by Michael Grossman and I’m pleased that he didn’t get to do another because he seems to lack the touch that gives this show it’s sparkle. Watch the sequence where Buffy communicates telepathically with Willow and Xander (how does she do that exactly?), that should have been far less obvious so that when the scenes is played later with the dialogue keyed in it comes as a genuine surprise. Instead it is patently obvious that they are communicating with each other. Buffy lives on an ordinary street – does none of her neighbours wonder why there is an army of Bringers ganging up outside her house? Are we beyond asking questions such as that now? The fight at the climax is memorably violent and graphic but all the sequences leading up to it don’t feel like they are random chaos but expertly strategised. After all that waffle about trying to save Spike Buffy just walks into the First’s camp and takes him without a struggle? Where are the Bringers? Was anybody paying attention in this episode?

Moment to Watch Out For: The fight arrangements on this show just get better and better. I dread to think the amount of carnage that would be on display if it were still being broadcast today. Whilst Buffy does eventually manage to best the Turok-han it is not before it tears some lumps out of her, tossing her about like a rag doll and fighting off all manner of building equipment. It’s a vicious struggle that leads to a memorable beheading. Now the Turok-han is dead we can get back to the decent storytelling.

Result: The trouble with Showtime is that it is dealing with all the leftovers from the previous episode and doesn’t have much of an identity in it’s own right. I doubt you’ll find many people reaching for their shelves and grabbing this when they want to watch a single episode of Buffy one evening. My biggest problem with Showtime is that it should (and could) be full of surprises but instead it signposts every twist and turn making this one of the most predictable episodes of late. The First has proven to be a terrifying and cunning foe until now but the Eve deception is so ineptly handled it almost feels as though it wanted to be caught (why not just hide Eve’s body so it could have permanent mole in the camp?). There is something very staged about this whole episode, something artificial that just doesn’t feel right somehow. First time (and last time) Buffy director Michael Grossman seems a little at sea with all the activity going on, unable to convincingly stage group conversations or make the lead up to the climax look anything but planned out in robotic stages. What a shame that the last two episode should have stuttered so because until then season seven was progressing skilfully at a rate of knots but perhaps this is the pay off from so much excellent set up. I hope the show isn’t going to run on the spot like this just to delay the final fight between Buffy and the First and that there are more avenues to explore before the series ends. This is a desperately awkward piece of drama and for me the weakest episode of the year: 4/10

Potential written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Dealing with the sticky subject of Dawn being the next Slayer…

The Chosen One: Although she is dispensing good advice, Buffy’s role as the leader of the Potentials does mean that she becomes steadily more dictatorial throughout the season. Be prepared to hear her making long winded, inspirational speeches from now until the finale (although also be thankful that there are people around like Andrew to take the piss). Cue Potential which deals with the often talked about but never realised (beyond a moment in the first episode of this season where Buffy was seen training Dawn to dust vampires) idea that Dawn could be the Slayer. It’s clearly an idea that has never popped into her head before and her first thought is that Buffy would have to die in order for her to be called and fulfil that part of her life. Anya sums it up perfectly when she sums up the whole potential Slayer gig: ‘if she gets to be the Slayer then her life is short and brutal and if she doesn’t then it smells of unfulfilled potential.’

The Key: Amongst some less subtle characterisation of the Potentials there is Dawn in the background, silently watching as everybody else is being treated reverently and gearing up for the big fight with the First. Prevalent in season six was her feeling of disassociation but now it is very much a reality as she surrounded by girls that are being told they are important and that they might be the next Slayer whilst she is left on the sidelines doing research and being treated like the go-to kid sister. Fortunately the writers are not falling back on the whiny, argumentative approach that they did for Dawn last year that made her so unbearable to be around, instead she is seen to be observing silently and wishing she was part of the action. Thinking that she might be the next Slayer, Dawn decides to head to the High School and tackle the vampire that Amanda has locked in a classroom. You can imagine how well that goes. She manages to fend off the creature for a while but it’s obvious that she is never going to be the worlds greatest superhero. When the Bringers invade and she realises the truth (that the title of Potential Slayer belongs to Amanda) she passes the torch with no hint of jealousy or selfishness. She’s embarrassed by the way she behaved when she thought she might be the Slayer but what really shines through in this episode is her humility and inner strength. Her willingness to do what needs to be done even if it is the dog work on the sidelines. Xander’s right. She is kinda extraordinary.

Sexy Blond: Buffy is using Spike as her vampire in hiding during her training sessions but things get a little sexy as she beats him a little too hard.

Gorgeous Geek: Dawn tells Xander that his strength is seeing without being noticed…which is something that will come back to haunt him before the end of the season.

Super Geek: Andrew’s dialogue is top notch this week in his ability to make you laugh and cringe at the same time. First he turns Dawn’s calling into a Star Wars parody and then moulds their conversation into a metaphor for womanhood.

The Potentials: Introducing Vy, a sweet redhead who is out of her depth. She reminds me of where Willow was back in season one but with better dress sense (not much better…but then Willow’s clothes back then were the pits). Sarah Hagan made a brief appearance as Amanda in Help and returns as the twist Potential in this episode, a shy and slightly awkward girl who nevertheless is very likable to be around. Molly is still the most ridiculous English stereotype (her ‘Halt!’ when handling a crossbow might actually be insulting enough to destroy international relations between the UK and the US permanently) which is a shame because the actress, whilst struggling with the fake accent, is actually rather sweet. Had she been allowed to play this role with her normal accent things might have been different but as it stands that Bringers axe cannot be wielded soon enough. I love how fatuous the Potentials are being about their training, spotting the chemistry between Buffy and Spike, when she walks out on them, leaving them with a stake and vampire to deal with themselves. That soon wipes the smirk of their faces.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This two are dead…why?’ ‘Because the black chick always gets it first?’
‘Wow it’s like one second you’re this klutzy teenager with fake memories and a history of kleptomania and then suddenly you’re a hero. A hero with a much abbreviated life span.’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘I like the feel of wood in my hand’ ‘Lost me there’ – okay we get it, Kennedy is a lesbian. No need to drive the point home.
‘That cloud hit me and I got a little dizzy and discombobulated…’ – sometimes Kirshner’s dialogue struggles to sound realistic.

The Good: Finally somebody has thought about attempting to forge these girls into some kind of an army. Within this setting of Slayer training school Buffy feels more like a leader than ever, giving out invaluable advice to the Slayers in waiting. I really enjoyed the scenes at the demon bar, mostly because it was a chance to reunite with Clem who I wish would turn up in the show more often than he does. It feels like we are back in season one-three territory as we explore a deserted and shadowy Sunnydale High with Dawn and Amanda in some very nicely directed scenes. It’s been a while since the threat was just a commonplace vampire (when did soulless fiends become commonplace?) and shot of him hanging from the ceiling in a classroom waiting to prey on the girls is enough to give you the willies. It reminds me of when these guys really were the central threat in the first few years of the show. Intercutting the scenes of Dawn and Amanda being menaced in the school with Buffy teaching (and lecturing) the Potentials ties the two plots together with a neat bow. The director manages to generate a great deal of energy in this sequence as we cut from one narrative to the other, indulging in some neat stunts (the Bunsen burner attack) and climaxing on a great surprise (Buffy abandoning the Potentials to their fate). The Bringers leaping through the window at the last minute and inadvertently saving Dawn whilst attempting to murder Amanda is a wonderful turn that comes from nowhere but makes perfect sense within the context of the season.

The Bad: I don’t exactly buy the idea of Dawn and Amanda being on two sides of the same door and the light from Willow’s spell working its way through one of them to get to the other. Surely there must have been a more imaginative way to suggest the confusion? And then Amanda and Dawn just happen to bump into each other in the street after the former has been attacked by a vampire in the school? Hmm… Xander turning up and overhearing Dawn’s motivational speech to Amanda at the climax is clumsily done too. And Buffy magically turning up on the scene to sort the Bringers out. Why has the plotting on this show gone to plot in the last couple of weeks? At least Potential has other strengths to fall back on.

Moment to Watch Out For: The closing moments of Potential are splendid enough to wipe away any plotting issues I might have had with this episode. Dawn feel rejected and a little bit useless after being promised a potentially legendary status and having it snatched away. Xander was never going to achieve the same level of greatness as those around him and can sympathise with her plight and explains what her real strengths are and what she brings to the team. If that sounds sappy then it really isn’t, it’s delicately scripted and performed and proves to be one of those Buffy moments where you want to grab hold of your loved ones and embrace them. ‘They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realises because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night, I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary.’

Result: A sweet little episode with a few problems but remains afloat thanks to its gorgeous character moments and a memorably hectic climax. The idea of Dawn being the next Slayer in line must have crossed your mind before and this is the drama that attempts to deal with the concept, whilst the season still has time to play with the idea. Michelle Trachtenberg grasps hold of the opportunity to take centre stage and delivers a terrifically confident performance, showing Dawn’s frustration, then confusion and finally her humility when she realises she isn’t going to take the mantle from Buffy. Xander has been a quiet contributor this year but is afforded his strongest scene so far, offering Dawn the emotional support she needs in the tearjerking final scene. Rebecca Rand Kirshner’s scripts always falter in one area and this time it is her plot logic which ensure that the most incredible co-incidences occur so this episode can play out the way it does. However her dialogue is mostly excellent and the duel plotlines of Dawn and Amanda being menaced at the school and the Potentials being forced to tackle a vampire solo give the concluding scenes a real lift. The middle period of season seven is where the season arc falters but Potential is a little gem nestled inside that four episode stretch and one with enough treasurable moments to rate it way above average: 7/10

The Killer in Me written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Willow is haunted by her love for Tara and the murder of Warren…

The Chosen One: There is a real feeling that the bond between Buffy and Willow has been re-established, talking about their respective patients (read: other halves) in the kitchen. Buffy gets the choice to either repair Spike’s chip or remove it, a decision that will return to haunt her many times (thanks to Giles) before the end of the season.

Ripper: We still haven’t seen Giles touch anything so there’s no assurance that he isn’t a guise of the First. I like how the writers trust the audience to figure this one out for themselves, waiting a full four episodes before pointing out that he hasn’t touched anything and could be a villain.

Sexy Blond: It is long past time that Spike’s chip was dealt with. It has been hanging around his neck like a chain for three seasons now but his character has developed to a point where he isn’t about to go feeding on a whimsy (unless some manifestation of evil starts singing a cute little ditty in his ear).

Witchy Willow: Kennedy has got her sights on Willow and is willing to go to any lengths to get some time alone with her. Perhaps it is because of her pushy nature or perhaps it is just because there hasn’t been the time to invest in their relationship but the chemistry between these two lacks the subtleties and realism that Willow and Tara had in abundance. It’s not as though these scenes don’t work at all (although the dialogue is trying a little too hard in places) but it feels like a relationship based more on lust than love, which isn’t my preference. Her mother was proud when she told her she was gay and waved it like a banner making a political statement but in reality she barely ever met Tara. Which was precisely how Willow liked it because they had their own secret life. Kennedy lists all the things that she loves about Willow but she’s been around for, what, two weeks? She’s not keen on the magic but is willing to put up with it because Willow is involved with it. When she kissed Kennedy she felt extreme guilt because she felt that in that moment she had forgotten Tara and moved on. That’s why Amy’s glamour managed to kick in at that point. Willow feels as though she has finally accepted that Tara is dead, something that she was always going to have to face.

The Potentials: At least everybody is taking the piss out of the Potentials by now, with Giles asking Dawn to smack Vy over the head with her notebook and Molly being shoved in the trunk of the motor.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Remember when things used to be nice and boring?’ ‘No.’
‘Who you gonna call? God that phrase is never going to be used again, is it?’

The Good: The idea of Willow turning into Warren as an expression of guilt for getting over Tara is a neat one and one that the director has fun skipping back and forth between the two characters. I love all the comical confusion over Willow being the First (Xander backs away like a big baby), Buffy walking into the room and calmly punching Warren around the face (lets skip over the fact that she should believe he is insubstantial) and Spike on the sidelines writhing in pain. It has that feeling of Buffy madness to it that has been missing the last couple of weeks. The direction during the Initiative sequences is pure horror movie, turning the lights right down and throwing demon rejects that were long thought dead at Buffy and Spike. I really like it when Buffy starts firing off in other directions and the sudden appearance of the soldier boys in the Initiative certainly qualifies. The recreation of the end of Seeing Red is excellently done even if all this gun waving does make me edgy.

The Bad: I am not entirely sure Adam Busch has the acting chops to pull off a convincing Willow and in some scenes he stands there looking gormless and completely out of his depth. The scene between Willow and Kennedy on the street is really flatly directed and choppily edited together, it doesn’t flow like a normal conversation. I thought the government filled the Initiative with concrete so nobody could ever discover what they tried to do down there? Obviously the clean up squad never got that memo. I don’t buy the characterisation of Amy in seasons six and seven. There was no indication in seasons one and two that she was this psychotic and whilst the experience of being trapped as a rat for years might have twisted her a little the writers have used this as an excuse to turn her into a vengeful hardcore junkie with no redeeming features. It’s a good enough explanation for why Willow has turned into Warren but it doesn’t have any imagination or sparkle to it. I’m glad we never see her again, she’s been damaged beyond repair. Her explanation about being jealous of Willow having all the power is appallingly written, the sort of shoulder shrugging motive you see in shows that Buffy is usually mocking. I don’t quite remember Warren being so outrageously misogynistic either. Everybody seems to be boiled down to their most basic characteristics in this episode – Kennedy: lesbian, Willow: guilt ridden, Amy: evil, Warren: woman hater. There’s no light and shade to any of it. It’s lucky we have Alyson Hannigan there to emote the hell out of the dodgy dialogue (although she overplays the moment when she buys the gun…would anybody really sell her a weapon when she is practically salivating over the opportunity?).

Moment to Watch Out For: Giles has taken the girls out into the desert to discover the source of their (potential) power but this takes on a sinister turn when it turns out that Robson back in England last saw the former Watcher about to get friendly with a Bringer’s axe. Is Giles a manifestation of the First? We find out the answer in a hilarious sequence that sees Xander, Anya, Dawn and Andrew attack him in the desert and grope him all over to make sure that he is corporeal. The look on Giles’ face as they rush him might just be the funniest thing all year.

Result: The last of the awkward middle episodes of season seven but actually far more effective than you might have been led to believe. The Killer in Me at least feels like an episode in its own right (unlike Bring on the Night and Showtime) but it definitely has a feeling of picking up all the loose ends of stories gone by and tying them all up before we head towards the final run of episodes. It deals with Spike’s chip (which has been running since season four), the fate of the Initiative, Amy and Willow’s guilt over Tara and Warren’s deaths. The only part of this episode that engages with season sevens arc is Giles out in the desert and that proves to be the best scene in the entire show, a hilarious reminder of how funny this show can be. It’s a busy story and doesn’t really have the time to deal with all of it’s narratives substantially which leaves the whole thing feeling stretched pretty thin but the up side is that if you don’t the current scene there will be something along in five minutes that might be more to your liking. The performances are great, especially Alyson Hannigan who once again proves why she is the greatest asset to this show and the director ensures that it flies by like a dream and has some memorable moments (re-staging Warren’s attempted murder of Buffy with Willow in his place is fantastically done). Conceptually this plays out like a fairytale, a kiss from Kennedy breaks the spell and Willow can let go of her guilt but it feels like a easy way out for a show that is usually more psychologically probing than that. It’s such a uneven mixture of good and bad that it is one of the hardest episodes of the year to judge. I know people who loathe it beyond comparison (and with the awkward characterisation of just about everyone, especially Amy, I can understand why) but I found enough to enjoy to at least scrape a pass. The heart of season seven has completely lost it’s way but fortunately the show is about to get back on track in magnificent form for it’s final stretch: 5/10

First Date written by Jane Espenson and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Buffy and Principal Wood go on a date…

The Chosen One: Buffy is convinced that she has seen into Spike’s heart and knows that he can be a good man. She has become a real advocate for the character, defending him to Giles. I would like to head back just two or three seasons and tell Buffy that she would be rallying for her mortal enemy. It is another sign of how characters evolve so dramatically on this show. Her point that he will never get the opportunity to be a good man I they don’t give him the chance is a very good one. Buffy does feel attracted to Robin Wood but she’s unsure if that is because she suspects he is up to no good…perhaps she will always have a thing for bad boys. He’s about ten years older than Buffy which is about a hundred years younger than her usual type. She learns that she was manoeuvred into her position at the High School not for her counselling skills but because Wood wanted to be close to the Slayer during this latest crisis. 

Ripper: Giles is all mouth when describing how he knew the Bringer was behind him, going on about instincts honed by years of experience and yet in reality it was because his shoe squeaked. Buffy’s decision to remove Spike’s chip has driven a dramatic wedge between the two characters with them firmly on different sides about the choice. Giles’ paddy at the end of the episode might have had more impact if he hadn’t have grabbed his hilarious flashcards to drive his point home.

Sexy Blond: The First says that it isn’t time for Spike yet and he and Giles exchange a dark look. Watch out for this two, people. Spike pretends he is fine with Buffy going out on a date with Robin but in reality he seizes the first opportunity to interrupt. 

Vengeance Demon: First Date pushes Xander and Anya in a direction that I have longed to see them go in ever since they split up at the altar, despite the dramatic opportunities that has provided. Anya cannot control her jealousy when discovering that Xander has a date and stays up like a worried parent desperate for news that it either went terribly or he wound up dead.

Super Geek: Even in the lighter episodes this year there is space for the First to show up in his many guises and make another attempt on the Potentials’ lives. To appear to Andrew in the guise of the man he killed is pretty cruel but I guess Jonathan (or Warren) were the ones that were going to get through to him most effectively. First Date borrows the gun that Willow obtained in The Killer in Me and Jonathan asks Andrew to take the girls out with it. At this point we’re still unsure where Andrew’s loyalties lie and so it is nice to see him tested like this.

The Potentials: I don’t care what anybody says…I love Chao-Ann! The comedy that brews around her character might not be subtle but it sure did make me laugh. Is it a co-incidence that we haven’t seen Molly for some time now and instead the safer bets Amanda and Kennedy are fronting the Potentials? 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Like a bidet of evil!’
‘Confidentially a lot of her people are murderers…Anya and Willow and Spike…’ ‘Interesting, and you’re the only one she makes seek redemption?’
‘Are the flashcard monsters attacking?’

The Good: I’m pleased that they bothered to show what actually happened when Giles was almost decapitated by a Bringer in Sleeper because if I hadn’t seen it for my eyes I would have thought it was an impossible situation to escape from. There’s a fantastic gag when Spike attacks Giles and that relates to much of the previous episode – that Giles is not a manifestation of the First and Spike no long has his chip in his head. Straight away we are clearly in Jane Espenson territory and the dialogue is sharp, pacy and natural. I’m not really of the JNT school of thinking that the bigger the celebrity the more sophisticated the casting but even I have to admit that the producers of Buffy scored a big win when approaching Ashanti to play the part of Lissa. She is a natural on screen, sexy and funny and I would not have objected to have seen a relationship between her and Xander develop. I enjoyed the fact that her opening gambit with Xander was to ask him about the very rope that would secure him to the ceiling so she could bleed him dry. It is long past time that the show started dealing with the mystery that is Principal Wood. He’s kind of slipped into the background since his introduction (and yet DB Woodside has remained a charismatic presence) and Bring on the Night suggested that he might be tied into the First’s masterplan in some way. First Date plays on that idea and has great fun with it, Buffy investigating the school for any signs that he has been up to nefarious activity before their relationship takes a surprising turn and he asks her out on a date. Given Buffy’s track record with men it is perfectly possible that he could turn out to wine, dine and slaughter (especially given the extreme misdirection of his weapons store at the school). The running gag that nobody thinks Buffy is a decent counsellor is great as is the sequence with Giles’ flashcards (he has a long running history of not being terribly good at this sort of thing for any of you that can remember the projector sequence in Hush). It is a terrific moment when Wood reveals himself to be an ally and the cute little French restaurant at the same time. I cannot believe they held onto the twist that Principal Wood is the son of a previous Slayer for this long (they really have plotted out this season well to ensure there are continual surprises). It’s a great reveal and ardent fans of the show (we’ll give Buffy a break for not figuring out sooner what Wood’s relationship with Spike is given there is so much other stuff going on at the moment) must have felt some excitement for the complications that were to come. Xander being stabbed in the gut is at least wince factor seven.

The Bad: The whole angle of Xander being tied up and bled is rather haphazardly handled. Because the Buffy/Wood scenes are getting all the attention it feels like the Xander/Lissa storyline is short changed. The quick cut to Xander at her mercy (forgoing showing us the scene where she reveals that she is evil) feels too sudden and awkward. Also the dialogue surrounding Xander wanting to turn gay lacks any of Espenson’s normal sparkle.

Moment to Watch Out For: Wood, rejected by Buffy once Spike shows up, heads home to mope when he is finally deemed worthy of a visit from the First in the guise of his dead mother. Who happens to be Nikki Wood who was seen fighting Spike to the death in Fool For Love. Not one to miss an opportunity to stick one in the neck to the Scoobies, the First informs Robin of the identity of his mothers killer. It’s an intensely played sequence and a twist that would go on to produce one of the finest episodes of the year.

Fashion Statement: Principal Wood looks smoking hot when he is wielding a stake (no that isn’t a euphemism). It’s not until he is suspended upside down with his top off that you realise that Nicky Brendon has put on a lot of weight.

Result: What at first feels like a diversion from the season arc actually winds up having a great deal of significance, First Date is precisely what was needed at the this stage of season seven and that is a massively entertaining Buffy episode to remind us why this show is so much fun to watch. The First is still trying to kill off the Potential Slayers in new and devious ways but the majority of this episode focuses on the very interesting relationship that is developing between Buffy and Principal Wood. D.B. Woodside is a huge draw and he brings a presence to the show that many of the guest stars simply don’t posses and his reaction to the truth about who killed his mother closes this episode on a spine tingling moment. Jane Espenson’s knack of writing zippy dialogue is really in play and there are many amusing moments dotted about from Anya’s petty jealousy of Xander’s date to the latest foreign Potential in town. This is the sort of episode that season seven was showing off in it’s opening salvo; something that makes you smile, is packed with substance thanks to the unfolding arc but also handling it’s characters with real verve. I always come away from First Date with a grin on my face and a feeling that things about to get a lot worse. Another entertaining installment of this incredible final year: 8/10

Get It Done written and directed by Doug Petrie

What’s it about: Buffy discovers how the original Slayer obtained her power…

The Chosen One: Buffy’s role as a leader is one of the main focuses of the latter half of season seven and this is the point where she stops going easy on everybody and starts to pound home that they are all going to have to up their game in order to survive this fight. Sometimes the role of a leader is to be the one that everybody hates or fears, so that your army is cajoled into behaving in extraordinary ways. She does have a strong group of people supporting her but they all seem to have been castrated of late. Willow is only dabbling with light spells, Spike has gone from vicious killer to a man seeking redemption and the Potentials all doubt themselves and their ability. As horrible as it might seem, after Chloe commits suicide Buffy has an opportunity to drive the point home that they are not ready and they have to toss away their insecurities in order to transform themselves. During her trip to the realm of the First Slayer Buffy learns that she isn’t the Hellmouth’s latest guardian, she is the last one. Whatever is coming it is going to affect the Slayer line in a very profound way. Buffy is smug in the fact of the Shadow Men, rejecting their dark gift and refusing to become something other than human in order to defeat the First. However they show her an image of what is to come that makes her instantly question whether she has made the right move.

Sexy Blond: Buffy is in something of a quandary with regards to Spike because in her day to day life she is defending the spanking new Spike with a soul to Giles and yet when it comes down to her fight with the First she needs the dangerous Spike back. The one who tried to kill her when they first met. Once she is out of the picture and there is a badass demon on the loose he sees this as an opportunity to shrug off his new cuddly image and kick some real ass. His hysterical laughter when he gets to jump into a scrap and snap the beasts neck is fantastic.

Witchy Willow: Willow has always warned Kennedy that the magicks that lie within her are dangerous but this is the first time she has come face to face with that power. 

Vengeance Demon: Anya is getting desperately horny in the wake of her split with Xander and tries her luck with Spike again, who is relieved to have an interruption from one of D’Hoffryn’s assassins. Aside from providing much needed sarcasm Anya is also there because she is too scared not to hang out in the protection that Buffy’s shadow affords. When it comes down to it and Buffy is lost, it is Anya who points out where everybody is going wrong in trying to bring her back.

Super Geek: Buffy introduces Andrew as their hostage but he likes to think of himself as a ‘guestage.’

The Potentials: Kennedy is having a little too much fun ordering the Potentials about and instilling some discipline but it’s precisely the sort of training they need to turn them into a fighting force.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re like a dog with a bone!’ ‘So what?’ ‘It’s my bone, just drop it.’
‘Oh thank God. If I had to explain all these weapons I had nothing.

The Good: I’ve always been full of praise for Buffy’s dream sequences and the one that opens this episode is no different, especially when the First Slayer leaps out at Buffy unexpectedly in a heart stopping moment. There is an uncomfortable feeling that things are starting to get out of control, that the First is stretching his malevolent influence out across Sunnydale. With the advent of the news of who Robin Wood is, he can now share with Buffy a survival kit that his mother had to hand when she was the incumbent Slayer. You can feel Buffy cringing inwardly as Andrew reveals his big board (more on that in the next episode) but this leads to her moment of pride when she unveils the kick ass Potential Slayers who have been training to within an inch of their lives. It is the first sign that they genuinely might have a chance of fighting back. How well done is the moment when they discover Chloe hanging from the ceiling? It shocks so spectacularly because we’re wandering through the Summers household during a particularly amusing scene between Buffy and Dawn and cuts right through their amiability. The First is proving to be an effective villain not because it is sending nasty vampire types from the dawn of time at the Potential but because it can get into their heads, taking on the form of any dead person it wants and convincing them to kill from within. There’s something spectacularly nasty about a young girl hanging from the ceiling in her cute pyjamas. The shadow casting sequence is an opportunity to do something visually very creepy and a bit different, with the most lurid images being cast on the walls as the story plays out. The use of sound effects and music is exceptional to build up the suspense. When the exchange student comes a’knocking (a muscled up demon) it is great fun watching the remainder of the gang trying to deal with it (Kennedy and Dawn hack at it with swords) and seeing Spike being literally thrown through the roof. Proof if it were needed that they do need Buffy to handle the tough stuff. It’s nice to revisit the location that Buffy visited in Intervention during season five and this time it looks even more arid and uncomfortably hot thanks to the stylish gradient they add to the picture quality. What looked like it was going to be a lecture on leadership and loyalty turns out to educate the audience on the nature of the Slayers power and where that original strength came from. The First Slayer was chained up by the Shadow Men and forced to accept a dark force that has been bled from a demon and that force has been transferred to each new Slayer ever since. That is why Buffy has the strength and ability of several men, she has the life force of that demon coursing through her. How this ties in with the revelation in Buffy vs Dracula that darkness is her power is inspired. How nasty is that black smoke that threatens to consume Buffy? I really liked how we were afforded our one ear splitting scream from the character as she vomits the smoke back out. As we pull back from the Turok-han army and realise just how powerful its force is (especially in the wake of how hard it was to kill just one of them in Showtime – suddenly the drawn out battle against the Turok-han makes sense), I could be heard whispering ‘oh shit’ when this was first broadcast.

Moment to Watch Out For: Petrie’s episode really gains momentum in the second half and there is real drama as we cut between several different plot lines; Buffy chained to the rock and being fed the demon energy, Spike attacking the demon at the school and Willow attempting to coax the portal back to life. Buffy rejects the strength that could have helped her to win her war with the First (bad move), Spike regains his cool (I love the reference to Nikki Wood’s leather jacket and the way he strikes his match on the dead demon) and Kennedy learns the tough way that Willow’s magic can drain the life out of you. It’s busy and violent and memorable. I really can’t see why anybody would have problems with this season on the whole, it is so much more dynamic than the previous year.

Fashion Statement: Spike’s jacket. Clearly the essence of his cool. Willow looks awesome when the magic drains out of her, her hair dark and her T-shirt taken on a psychedelic hue.

Result: ‘It’s started, hasn’t it?’ By far the best of the ‘written and directed by Doug Petrie’ episodes, Get It Done takes a deeper look into the Slayer mythology and answers some long posed questions about the nature of Buffy’s power. It is a visually spectacular piece with everything being thrown into the mix (dream sequences, creepy shadow puppetry, stunning locations) to make sure that the hour passes by agreeably. Direction wise, there is more going on in this one episode than there was in practically the entire first half of season six. Buffy’s role as a leader is called in to question (and would be again before the season is out) and she takes on the role of the bad guy in order to force everybody to up their game. Chloe’s suicide shocks, but what comes from that is a determination that the First wont be able to consume them from within again. There’s great moments for practically everybody; discussion of Anya’s place in the gang, Dawn continuing to earn points on the periphery doing research, Willow teaching Kennedy a hard lesson in the pain magic can bring, Spike regaining his mojo and Robin Wood just waiting to make his move against him. These season seven episodes might be spectacularly busy but that is because there is so little time left and they are trying to pack everything they desire into every installment before. The net result is that almost every episode is packed with real gems of scenes. Get It Done is an exciting struggle to learn essential information about Slayer mythology and the strength of the First’s Turok-han army. It is a puzzle piece but does hold up well as a good show in its own right. We haven’t even reached the really good stuff yet: 8/10

Storyteller written by Jane Espenson and directed by Martia Grabiak

What’s it about: A day in the life of Andrew Wells…

The Chosen One: In what might be the best gag of the year Andrew walks out of the kitchen as Buffy goes on one her inspirational rants and films the rest of the group looking deathly bored as she drones on and on. Buffy hasn’t lost its ability to take the piss out of itself in the most hilarious of ways.  We even cut away to a dream sequence and then minutes later Buffy is still lecturing them. Brilliant.

The Key: Dawn is clearly learning to like Andrew although he almost blows it by comparing her to a set of keys that is lying on the table.

Sexy Blond: Spike likes to pretend that he isn’t interested in being filmed and yet retakes his objections because the light doesn’t capture him at his best!

Gorgeous Geek: Andrew clearly has a bit of a thing for Xander, calling his intro ‘the man who is the heart of the Slayer machine.’ He does a wonderful thing for Xander and Anya by forcing them to talk about their split at the altar and face up to the fact that they still have feelings for each other. Okay he might have drop the subject on them unexpectedly when their guards are down but sometimes that is the only way. If you were switching on at this moment you might think that you have stumbled on an episode of In Treatment with Andrew counselling the couple. It’s another example of the many hats that this episode can wear. Xander and Anya both admit that they still love each other but neither of them knows what that means any more. They fall into bed together and sleep that urge to be together out of each other. The decision at the end of Storyteller is that they might finally be over each other but will always care a great deal. It is a very mature decision for two people to make, the time they have had apart giving them time to think through their relationship.

Super Geek: Andrew is still trying to find his place in the group and thinks that chronicling the ultimate fight against evil might be something that he can devote himself to so people can view their work in generations to come. Even if the human race does come to a sticky end at least there would be the proof that we did our best. Andrew has a truly glamorised vision of his role in the Trio last season, seeing himself in retrospect as the head of the group of nerds and the other bowing and scraping at his feet (with Warren actually lusting after him). Anybody who watched season six will know that this was clearly not the case. Without ever actually having to say it Andrew has clearly set upon his sexuality, completely ignoring Kennedy and Willow snogging on the sofa and concentrating his camera instead on Xander’s expert workmanship in putting the Summers household together again for the umpteenth time. Andrew is so in love with Xander that he films his reconciliation with Anya and keeps rewinding it and mouthing her parts. Even when facing death at the end of Buffy’s blade Andrew still tries to add a little fantasy to the scenario, something that she categorically denies him, forcing him to look into a mirror and see the reality of the murder of Jonathan. Andrew makes everything into a story because that makes it safe, everybody following a script and nobody is responsible for their own actions.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh there’s also these guys. They work for the First. We don’t know very much about them except they are very ugly and they’re very mobile for blind people…’
‘Even Willow looks bored and she can usually take a lot of that stuff.’
‘Turns out everyone likes a good goats tongue. Rock groups, covens and Greek cookbooks.’
‘You put your old murder weapon in with our utensils?’ ‘I washed it…’
‘You stabbed Jonathan to death! What were you trying to do, scratch his back from the front?’
‘This isn’t some story where good triumphs because good triumphs. Good people are going to die. Girls. Maybe me. Probably you. Probably right now.’

The Good: Opening in true Andrew Wells style, we enjoy a wonderfully funny piss take of Tales of the Unexpected as we pan across a room of his geek memorabilia and focus on the main man himself sitting before a fire in his dressing gown and preparing to tell his chapter of the fight against the First. It is soon apparent that he isn’t telling his story in such lush surroundings but recounting some footage he took of the Slayer fighting the previous evening in the bathroom, a sharp reminder of the gulf between fantasy and reality which the episode grabs onto as its central theme. Marita Grabriak is constantly thinking of fresh new ways to shoot a Buffy episode in Storyteller, more proof that new directors bring with them a sense of originality. Check out the graveyard scene, the sort of which we have seen a million times before on this show but instead of point and shoot Garbiak chooses to film it from the POV of Andrews camcorder and then cuts to a truly impressive crane shot that encompasses the entire location from above. If for some bizarre reason that you are new to the show at this point in the seventh season then Andrew’s little recap on where the show is at (with help from the big board) is actually quite handy. I love the snippets of camcorder footage that we get throughout the episode, it not only offers a dramatic alternative perspective during the tenser moments but also offers a birds eye view of the trials and tribulations o the Summers household (‘And the air is filled with foreboding’ ‘We’re out of raisin bread!’). The funniest thing about Andrew’s dream sequence where he characterises himself as some kind of super villain is that the plan to turn Buffy super magnetic is not a million miles away from the ludicrous and time wasting plots the Trio were involved in last year (can anyone say Freeze or Invisible Ray?). How this show is so willing to offer and alternative perspective on previous events (such as Andrew’s ability to take on Dark Willow) shows much confidence. When things start going nuts at the High School, Storyteller not only references old episodes (a shy vanishing is straight out of Out of Mind, Out of Sight) but also features a student spontaneously exploding because he is too stressed out (his heart thumps against the window that Buffy is standing next to in grisly style). This might comical but it’s further evidence that the First is getting impatient and spreading its dark tendrils outwards. Buffy re-iterates the shows mission statement – ‘Being at High School can feel like being at war.’ From horror movie to farce, one scene cuts from Principal Wood embodying the First in a genuinely freaky possession to the piglet from Never Leave Me trotting past (‘God I hope that’s not a student’). This is the episode that just keeps on giving. Storyteller even fills in some gaps that we never got to see earlier in the season, chiefly what happened to Jonathan and Andrew in Mexico and why the reason they came back to Sunnydale (it’s also a great excuse to shove some Klingon into Buffy). How Andrew representing this memory in present affects its narrative flow in the past says something very telling about how much of this story is being told by an unreliable narrator. It makes far more sense of Andrew’s dispatch of his best friend in Conversations With Dead People too, the First in Warren form chipping at away at his objections. As outrageous as the ‘we are Gods!’ fantasy is what really made me laugh was how the camera pulls in and out of a dreamily seduced Andrew. We’ve never seen anything quite like the riot ruined High School before, litter, fires burning and graffiti everywhere. Trust Andrew to mistake the unease between Spike and Wood as sexual tension, the show not letting us forget this uneasy alliance until it comes to fruition in the next episode. In a tense moment Wood has a chance to kill the man who killed his mother and I bet it took all of his will to hold back and wait for the right moment. The students with bloody Bringer scars all over their faces is pretty damn grisly. As Andrew changes his mind about how and why Jonathan died we see the scene play out twice over in very different ways.

The Bad: The only thing I don’t understand is how tears turn the Seal off. What the hell is that all about? But it does allow Andrew to finally face up to the truth about himself.

Moment to Watch Out For: The final confrontation between Buffy and Andrew strips away all the cuteness and tricks that this episode has deployed and gets very serious. It’s down to Buffy to cut through all of Andrew’s fantasies and get to the truth at the heart of the problem – Andrew is a murderer and he has to face up to that fact. Sarah Michelle Gellar is exceptional, playing the scene where she threatens to murder Andrew for real but Tom Lenk is the star here, breaking down as he owns up to the fact that he is just a weak person who made a bad choice. Andrew’s final confession to camera where he owns up to his failings and the fact that he deserves to die in the fight against the First is very touching. It is the first time in the whole episode when he has been truly, unequivocally honest.

Fashion Statement: Andrew’s glamorised version of Buffy, Spike and Anya see them shot through a fuzzy lens, wind blowing through their hair as they make love to the camera. Spike walks around with his top off (actually there is nothing unusual there!) in Andrew’s wet dream and Anya eats grapes as though she is about to tea bag her latest victim.

Result: ‘Stop telling stories. Life isn’t a story…’  It is a tough one to judge because so much of season seven is quality material but Storyteller might just be the finest episode of the year, or at least my personal favourite. It is an episode of Buffy that has all of the shows best ingredients in abundance; imagination, style, biting humour, sparkling lines, memorable fight sequences, fourth wall demolition, character development and it is all wrapped up in some bountiful direction. It really feels like Espenson is in a great place to write this episode, using all the best tools that show has nurtured over the past seven years and filling it full of tricks and treats of her own. Andrew has infiltrated the Summers household and become one of the most amusing characters in the show, the writers really getting a handle on him after their bizarre mishandling of him in season six. If you would have told me last year that an episode that pushed him into the limelight was going to be one of my favourite episodes of Buffy I would have laughed your head off but the way Espenson uses the character to define the thin line between fantasy and reality is exceptional. Tom Lenk seizes this opportunity to offers and really gets to explore the character in a way that has been denied to him before. He really impresses, throwing himself into the part. Espenson fills the show full of amusing dream sequences and narrative tricks but it is the way she strips away all of that at the conclusion and forces Andrew to confront the truth about himself that gives Storyteller its most powerful moments. In between there is a reconciliation (of sorts) for Xander and Anya, a further reminder of the unspoken relationship between Spike and Wood and dramatic and comic proof that the First’s influence is spreading. There are references to the past, echoes of what is to come and even some amusing rewriting of last years more salient moments. Storyteller is packed with goodies but holds together as a fantastic episode in it’s own right, the epitome of what Buffy can bring when everything comes together perfectly. I’ve seen it dozens of times and I still love it: 10/10

Lies My Parents Told Me written by David Fury & Drew Goddard and directed by David Fury

What’s it about: The showdown between Wood and Spike…

The Chosen One: Any apocalypse that Buffy can avert without dying are the easy ones. In any other show that would sound like a boast but for a character that has risen from the grave twice it’s just another day at the office. Giles believes that Buffy is very good at making bold speeches but when it comes down to it isn’t willing to make the bold decisions. I love how Buffy empathises with Wood about losing his mother but follows that up with the promise that if he tries to do anything to hurt Spike again she wont stand in the way when her ex-lover kills him.

Ripper: After being sidelined for much of the previous two season, this is a great episode for Giles. Or rather it’s a great exploration of the Buffy/Giles relationship and what it has developed into. When Giles departed suddenly in season six to force Buffy to stand on her own to feet it would be no exaggeration to say that she fell to pieces for a while and lost herself but slowly she managed to pull herself together and gain a great deal of independence and confidence in her abilities without any kind of safety. Now Giles zips back and forth from the UK to the US and Buffy is very much in charge of her own life but he seems to want to adopt the parental role regardless when he is visiting Sunnydale. Enter Spike who Buffy got to know a lot better last year and as far as Giles is concerned is still the enemy. It is the first time that he and Buffy have had a real clash of opinion that cannot be rectified, Giles considering him a danger (and given that he was a puppet of the First during the first half of the season you can see why he might come to that conclusion) and Buffy willing to give him a chance to prove that he can be a good man. So far this has only been an awkward undercurrent but this is where their difference of opinion threatens to tear them apart and Buffy truly steps out of her mentors shadow. Giles finds a kindred spirit in Wood, a man with a personal grudge against Spike and rather than telling Buffy of their connection he decides to allow the Principal to take matters into his own hands. Worse, he aids him in his cause and for the first time in seven season actively betrays his pupil. Let’s not underestimate the importance of that act. Until now Buffy and Giles have been a lynchpin relationship for his series and to turn them against each other in such a underhanded way is a dangerous risk that could alienate the audience. I can remember my heart sinking when I realised what this meant for their relationship but basking in the bravery of a show that is willing take them to such a dark place so close to the end.

Sexy Blond: I am so used to James Marsters’ sexy vampire that it really jars as he takes us back to Spike’s early days as the whiter than white William. It transpires that his mother used to sing Early One Morning to him as a young man, the First tapping into the emotional aches of his past to exploit him. It’s clear that his siring awakens a voracious sexual appetite, enjoying Drusilla in his mothers home without a thought that she might walk in. William was such an inherent mummys boy that even when a demon takes residence in his soul he cannot quite break free of his mothers apron strings and wants to her to stay close. He loved his mother so much he turned her into a vampire to make her well again. The difference between Spike and Wood is that his mother loved him back, something he had long forgotten because the monstrosities the demon spoke through her lips after she had become a vampire. Now he has come to realise this the song that the First was using as his trigger is no long effective. He’s free of its influence.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘By the way…love the coat.’
‘All the rubbish people keep sticking in my head. It’s a wonder there’s any room for my brain’ ‘I don’t think it takes up that much space, do you?’
‘I have become a creature of the night. A vampire’ ‘Are you drunk?’ ‘A little bit…’
‘Do you think you’ll be able to love her? Do you think you’ll be able to touch her without feeling me? All you’ve ever wanted was to be back inside and you finally got your wish, didn’t you? Sank your teeth into me, an eternal kiss.’ 
‘This is the way wars are won!’
‘If you try anything again, he’ll kill you. And more importantly, I’ll let him.’
‘I think you’ve taught me everything I need to know…’

The Good: What a magnificent opening sequence. We get to witness that first meeting between Spike and Nikki Wood in a rain lashed Central Park, New York. Robin watches on as his mother and nemesis play a game of cat and mouse, lightning lighting up their scrap. It’s a visually dynamic, cinematic set piece that kicks off this Spike-centric episode in true style. From that opening scene the episode begins exploring the untidy relationships between parents and children and how events from the past can haunt you in the future. We cut to Robin in the present day, disturbed by his mothers death and her devotion to the mission over her relationship with him. How galling it must be for him to be saved by his mothers killer and how tempting it must be just to slide a stake into his heart. Rather wonderfully Buffy and Giles sum up most of Spike’s backstory in front of a bemused Robin Wood, highly appropriate in what is probably the ultimate Spike episode. There is something of a nod to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan during the spine tingling sequence as the memory worm slurps its way into Spike’s ear and makes its way to his brain. What raises this from being a very good character drama to a mesmerising one are the exquisite flashbacks to Spike’s past. He gets an uncomfortable front row seat at one of William’s godawful poetry readings to his mother and it is clear even before he is vamped that there is something a little too close happening between mother and son. I must mention the set design, which is fantastic and provides another visually distinct location in season seven. Bask in the glory of Caroline Lagerfelt’s performance as Spike’s mother, Anne. Her transformation from ailing doting mother to sexually charged fiend is a thing to behold, the two personas so indistinct they could have been played by different actresses. Buffy’s defence of Spike so passionate that you tend to back her all the way but when he transforms into a slavering homicidal mainiac before their very eyes it is hard to fault Giles’ argument for putting him down. Thank goodness he was chained, that’s all I can say. Lies My Parents Told Me features a much better use of Drusilla too after her disappointing appearance (as a guise of the First) in Bring on the Night. The idea of Spike wanting to bring his mum along on his and Drusilla’s bloody massacre through Europe always makes me laugh (especially Dru’s uncomprehending reaction). The idea of a boy telling his mother ‘it only hurts for a moment’ is such a direct metaphor that I am surprised that the censors didn’t get a little more antsy. Buffy shutting the door on Giles feels like the end of their relationship and it is a heartbreaking note end this episode on.

The Bad: It feels oddly like the reveal in Conversations with Dead People from Joyce regarding Buffy and Dawn was supposed to be part of a much bigger plot later in the season but has been forgotten. As such Giles’ quick line about Buffy being unwilling to save Dawn if she had to make the choice between her and the world again is dropped in here and then promptly forgotten. It was such a struggle for Dawn to get to Joyce in that episode that this doesn’t feel like adequate pay off.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘This what it felt like? When you beat the life out of her? Toyed with her? When you snapped her neck!’ I had a crushing sense of foreboding when Spike was invited into Wood’s little hideaway and the lights snapped on to reveal wooden crosses decorating the walls like some kind of anti-vampire fashion statement. The juxtaposition of Wood preparing for the fight of his life and playing Early One Morning should jar horribly but it only adds to the atmosphere of unease. What follows is the most testosterone fuelled scrap that this show has ever seen in which D.B. Woodside acts his heart out, screaming blue murder as he attempts to punish the monster that killed his mother. It’s exceptional drama, rivetingly directed.

Fashion Statement: Anya complains that Spike seems to have some kind of get out of jail free card when it comes to Buffy paying no attention to how dangerous he is. I think it’s just because he looks great with his shirt off.

Result: ‘The mission is what matters…’ Everything that Drew Goddard touches seems to turn to gold this season. First there was the multi-faceted Conversations with Dead People, then came the dark drama Sleeper, then the game changing Never Leave Me and now what is possibly the best episode of the final year. The fact that it is followed up by Dirty Girls, the years biggest shocker, which is also written by Goddard and you start to see a pattern forming. It’s an episode that is willing to put Buffy and Giles at loggerheads over Spike, set a bomb off and watch their relationship tear apart. It’s an episode that offers riveting (and often very funny) flashbacks into Spike’s past and charter his uncomfortably close relationship with his mother. And it’s an episode that allows Robin Wood to finally make his move against the fiend that snapped his mothers neck. For those of you who think that Buffy is just Clueless with vampires then I suggest you check this installment out because it is one of the most layered, deftly characterised, maturely written pieces of drama it has ever been my fortune to watch. James Marsters steps into the limelight once again and provides another outstanding performance and he is ably supported by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Head who seem really charged at being able to take their characters into some uncomfortable places. David Fury’s direction is exceptional and there are plenty of memorable set pieces and with Goddard on board the dialogue is once again top notch. What really stands out more than anything else is the exceptional performance courtesy of D.B Woodside who has really stepped from the shadows and proven to be a formidable presence in the latter half of the season. This is a pause in the arc story to tell a gripping character piece and I’m so pleased that they did so, it adds much weight to the Buffy/Spike revelations to come and proves to be one of the most impressive performance pieces the show ever delivered. Another classic: 10/10

Dirty Girls written by Drew Goddard and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Caleb rocks up in town to rain death upon the Potentials…

The Chosen One: It might seem as though Wood is being petty for firing Buffy from her job as school counsellor but he does have a good argument for doing so. It is getting to the stage where she needs to concentrate her attention solely on the girls and getting them ready for battle. She doesn’t want to lead them into battle because she knows that some of them wont make it out alive. That is a heavy burden for anybody to carry, but especially a woman whose very existence is built around saving lives.

The Key: Dawn has been so integrated into the show now it is easy to forget that she has only been around for three seasons. It’s strange to think that she and Faith have never appeared on screen together before, although the episode points out that they are not strangers.

Ripper: Ouch, things are really strained between Giles and Buffy after the events of Lies My Parents Told Me. He thinks that Buffy is making a mistake by taking the girls into danger and she cuts him down with a deep blow, suggesting that he stays at home with the girls that still need a teacher.

Sexy Blond: There is definitely a powerful sexual charge between Spike and Faith in this episode and if the writers were testing the two characters as dry run for a new series then there are real possibilities here. Here they reminisce about old times, body swaps and warm champagne.

Rogue Slayer: ‘Are you the bad Slayer now? Am I the good Slayer now?’ Faith made a huge impression on the third season of Buffy, a psychotic rogue Slayer who went on a path of self destruction and tried to tear apart Buffy’s life in the process. Since then we have seen her on a road to redemption with Angel as her stalwart supporter, giving her a chance even when everybody has turned her back on her. She has been in prison of late but after an attempt on her life by the Bringers (a rare Buffy/Angel crossover in the latter years) she managed to break free and has returned to Sunnydale with Willow at the one point where Buffy cannot object to her presence. She needs every fighter in this war against evil, especially ones as proficient as Faith. It is a amazing how different the interaction between Willow and Faith is now, especially since their last meeting the former had her own brush with the dark side (in season three Willow was the meek sidekick and Faith always one beat away from smashing her face in but now we know Willow can look after herself). You might think that Faith devoid of her murderous tendencies might be half a character but Eliza Dushku has enough presence and chutzpah to pull off the removed version, whilst still giving her some bite. Naturally she isn’t welcomed with open arms at command central but unease amongst the heroes isn’t just her problem at the moment (it doesn’t surprise me that she and Spike wind up in the cellar together).

Gorgeous Geek: Whilst there hasn’t been the time to give Xander the space that he deserves this year, he has still had some excellent moments and Dirty Girls returns to the idea that was flaunted in Potential that he sees all and says nothing. It takes that idea and does something spectacularly nasty with it, the First punishing him for his insight and choosing him as a casualty of war.

Super Geek: Andrew is on fine form, catching the Potentials up on the history of Faith (and the audience since it has been a while) and brilliantly misrepresenting the identity of her human victim in season three. This is the only time you’ll ever get to witness Faith taking on Spock (with cod Star Trek Original Series music) and it is hilarious. Silly, silly Andrew.

The Potentials: There was always going to come a time when the Potentials had to prove their worth and step into battle but the resulting massacre in this episode proves that perhaps they weren’t quite ready yet. I always thought that Rona was one of the more likable Potentials but all she does is complain. If it weren’t for Molly’s hideous British accent I would have preferred that she was the lamb sacrificed in this episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Angel’s dull as a table lamp. And we have very different colouring.’
‘She wrapped evil around her like a large, evil Mexican serape…’
‘Don’t even tell me little Miss Tightly Wound’s been getting her naughty on?’
‘There was this choir girl in Knoxville that I had to give singing lessons too. She even screamed on key.’
‘The Slayer must indeed be powerful. So, what else you got?’
‘What can I say, I work in some pretty mysterious ways. (Molly is stabbed in the gut) And also some fairly straightforward ones’ – Caleb gets all the best lines (or perhaps it is just the way Fillion delivers them).

The Good: Nathan Fillion’s career has been on an upward trajectory for the past decade and he is probably one of the most high profile actors to have appeared in the show in a major part. It was just at this point where the audience is getting slightly complacent about the threat of the First (because besides trying to goad Andrew and Wood into killing it has been a little quiet of late) and so it unleashes its most frightening creation on the engorged Scooby gang (and no I’m not talking about the Turok-han). Caleb is a really nasty piece of work, and chillingly played by Fillion. Whilst his misogyny is uninhibited and his homicidal tendencies are relished, he is also something of a charming man which is Fillion’s natural weapon in all of his performances, even one as dark as this. It’s how he turns on a sixpence from decent country vicar to aggressive murdering chauvinist in a heartbeat in that first scene that terrifies. Sometimes character take a while until they mature and impress but there is no time to waste with Caleb and he makes a terrifying impression from his first scene. If there was ever a sermon about not jumping into cars with strangers, this might just be the ultimate example. For Caleb its not enough to simply stab Shannon in the gut, he wants to terrorise and mark her first. In a moment that reminded me of Whedon’s first piece of misdirection on this show (Darla’s transformation from frightened schoolgirl to hungry vampire in the first scene), Spike and Faith have a misunderstanding over an innocent blonde that turns out to be a bloodsucker. The gag is that they are unsure which of them is good and which is evil and so they keep hitting each other until Buffy steps in and informs them that they are all on the right side. Caleb’s relationship with the First is uncomfortably playful, he enjoys playing games where the manifestation of Evil disguises itself as an innocent girl that he leads to the slaughter, reminding him of previous victims. The First feeds his violent sexism, encourages it. It wants him to kill all the Potentials, cut a bloody swathe through them all the way to Buffy. The sequence where Xander makes a speech of his own (obviously taking inspiration from Buffy) is very touching, especially when we get to witness Buffy’s reaction. It feels like they are going into this fight armed, confident and ready to give the First a bloody nose. It feels like nothing can stop them.

Moment to Watch Out For: Dirty Girls promises a fight and then goes on to deliver the biggest blow to Buffy’s campaign against the First yet. It is a spectacularly malicious sequence that sees Molly gutted like a fish (I cheered despite myself), Rona’s arm broken, necks snapped and in a moment of bloody horror Xander loses an eye. Caleb smiles as though a good days work has been done as they retreat and you know Buffy is going to have a lot to answer for.

Fashion Statement: There is a wonderfully naughty sequence where we get a glimpse at the kind of wet dream Alexander Harris indulges in with potential Slayers coming on to him in droves, offering to put on a lesbian show and treating him to a pillow fight in their underwear. The result? Muscle cramp. 

Result: This isn’t a show that is afraid to punish it’s heroes, is it? After a middle period where the First has appeared to have gone into retreat mode it is finally time to set the two armies on each other and see who has the upper hand. Who do you think? Dirty Girls is an episode that is packed full of goodies and not just the obvious ones like returning characters and new villains either. There are some very amusing sequences in amongst the drama (Xander’s wet dream, Andrew’s cod Star Trek fantasy), a speech is given from somebody other than Buffy (a miracle in itself) which melts the heart and the game changing fight at the climax is memorable for wiping out several Potentials we have gotten to know quite well and punishing Xander in a spectacularly wicked way. However the real bonuses to Dirty Girls are the appearance of Faith to take her place in the ultimate fight against evil and the introduction of Nathan Fillion’s terrifying misogynist priest Caleb. For a season that has been constantly introducing new elements it is hard to believe that it would continue to do so this close to the end but the introduction of these two characters are just about the finest innovations yet, a memorable participant for the forces of good and evil. Dushku and Fillion give phenomenal performances and I can’t wait to see what else they have to offer as the season gains momentum as we steam towards the climax. Funny, shocking and packed with great lines, Dirty Girls is another example of why I still miss this show ten years on. At this point it isn’t clear how this battle is going to end but it is apparent that it will come with a great deal of sacrifice on both sides. Powerful stuff: 9/10

Empty Places written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Buffy is having a bad day…

The Chosen One: ‘I don’t know if I can lead but the real question is…can you follow?’ Buffy wants to immerse herself in her work because she doesn’t want to face what has happened to Xander and the other potentials. She sees it as her personal failiure to prepare them all for battle and the easier option is tuck your head away and try and ignore the consequences. When Faith finally calls her on her decision to drag the girls to the vineyard, she gets a bunch of fives to the face. Sometimes Buffy is just too uptight for her own good and when she walks in on the scrap outside the Bronze she gets completely the wrong idea and tries to pull rank. The trouble with this girl is that she is often right (she was right to keep Spike alive given the events to come in Chosen, just as she is right about Caleb hiding something in the vineyard) but her in-yer-face approach often encourages a negative reaction. 

Gorgeous Geek: There is a gorgeous moment when Willow sits at Xander’s bedside, devastated at his condition that is a firm reminder of the bond between these two characters that has been missing through much of the final year. Willow is trying to remain upbeat for her best friend but she can’t quite manage it.

Super Geek: Thank goodness for Andrew, he provides decent comic relief even when all hope seems lost. His hot pocket grudge against Faith is chucklesome and I’m pleased that this episode exists for no other reason than to see him on the back of a bike ridden by Spike wearing the same football helmet that Dawn sported in Bargaining.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You really do think you’re better than we are  but we don’t know if you’re actually better. I mean you came into the world with certain advantages, sure. I mean that’s the legacy. But you didn’t earn it. You didn’t work for it. You’ve never had anyone come up to you and say that you deserve these things more than anyone else. They were just handed to you. So that doesn’t make you better than us. It makes you luckier than us’ – trust Anya to be the only person to make sense during the final tirade against Buffy. But then these two have always had beef with each other.

The Good: This time we are facing an apocalypse that has genuinely gotten under the skin of all the residents of Sunnydale and they are in the midst of a mass exodus. This serves two functions; one to show how serious things have become, and two to clear the town so Joss Whedon can dispose of it during his devastating finale. It’s always nice to catch up with Clem but he is one of a terrifying number that is walking away from this fight (love his red and sporty car though). Whilst Andrew and Anya’s cod-training session is the show treading water, the former writing BREAK UP SEX on the white board makes me giggle every time. Faith take the girls to party is such a relief, it is so nice to see them letting their hair down for a change. Plus we get to see the rogue Slayer beat the crap out of four armed cops that are under the thrall of the First and it is always hot to see Faith get physical. The Potentials are no slacks either, disarming a cop and coming to Faith’s rescue (Dawn shrieking as she leaps on his back is particularly amusing!). There’s a real spark between Faith and Robin that looks like it might be leading somewhere promising. Caleb really is the embodiment of everything Buffy opposes, isn’t he? A man who wants to exploit and intimidate women (‘you’re angry, frustrated, scared…I like that in a girl’) and keep them in their place. If Buffy was created as an icon for female empowerment then that makes Caleb her nemesis. Scenes of him bullying and beating her in this episode are uncomfortable to witness but it is only going to make his eventual defeat all the more satisfying.

The Bad: Hang on a minute…Ubervamps can be staked through the heart now? Didn’t Buffy try that in Bring on the Night and spectacularly fail? Wow, padding. This whole episode is one long exercise in keeping the show in a holding pattern and deferring the final battle with the First. Cue scenes of long faces and slow walks through empty streets and corridors as the gang doubt their ability to beat this thing. Wouldn’t it have been more exciting to have witnessed Caleb’s terrorism of the monks rather than to hear the story recounted? It would have made a very effective pre-titles sequence to have hidden away with the one remaining monk whilst Caleb cut a bloody swathe through the others.

Moment to Watch Out For: The final scene where all of Buffy’s friends, family and the Potentials turn on her and eject her from her own home is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It’s one of those conversations that starts out rationally and winds up spiralling out of all control. Faith’s reaction is understandable since she and Buffy have always had a clash of ideologies and Buffy’s current relationship with Giles means that his dismissal of her plan is also reasonable, if seeming a little petty. The Potentials have often been portrayed as a selfish bunch of girls (especially Rona) so let’s not give too much of a damn for their input. It is when it comes to Willow, Dawn and Xander where I completely lost the plot. How these three could betray Buffy in such an underhanded way angered me so much on my original viewing and might well explained why I have never watched this episode since. It’s obscene characterisation, betraying the sense of family that they have built up and turning their backs on the one person who can get them through this mess. Just typing these words is stressing me out.

Fashion Statement: Buffy should have worn a less transparent top during the final scene. If the lashings of betrayal weren’t bad enough, we can all see her bra too.

Result: Mostly a filler episode, running over the same ground as the rest of the season with a real nasty turn of events at the climax that may just turn you off the show for good. Everybody is just hanging around and basking in their diabolical failiure in the previous episode, drowning in anxiety and pointing the blame at all the wrong people. In all fairness it is quite a realistic look at the aftermath of a lost battle, but the resulting television episode isn’t particularly likable. Thanks goodness that Caleb and Faith are around to inject a little interest, the former continuing to menace Buffy in some creepy scenes and the latter taking the girls out to blow off some steam at the Bronze. Even those scenes were handled better in the previous episode though. If people thought that Buffy was tortured in season six probably weren’t prepared for the pain that she suffers in Empty Places. She bears witness to the mass exodus of the town that she has pledged to protect, is beaten and bullied by Caleb and then has to bare the ignominy of having all of her friends and family turn against her and ask her to leave the house that she owns. It’s a despicable ending and even if some of what they say does strike a chord surely Buffy has done enough over the past seven years to be cut a little slack. It feels like the work of a writer who truly misunderstands these characters and it is doubly unfortunate that such a blemish should appear so close to the shows end. Dawn asking Buffy to leave might just be the nadir for the entire show, the point where I thought the writers might just have gone mad. Whilst it isn’t all bad I do kind of wish that this episode was never made and that Touched had followed Dirty Girls. It would have made a far more impressive run up to the finale: 4/10

Touched written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Spike proves himself to Buffy and Faith takes charge of the girls…

The Chosen One: Buffy is at a loss at where to go and what to do and since everybody seems to be leaving town she breaks into somebody’s house and seeks refuge. We’ve never seen her quite this despondent before, all the fight drained out of her. This is the episode that we have been leading to with Buffy and Spike for the past three seasons, the episode where she realises just how much he means to her and what he has to offer. Buffy had so far to go to reach this epiphany, to see past the previous attempts on her life and their constant rivalry in the early season and see a man that has, as much as he has tried to fight it, fallen head over heels in love with her. Buffy has lost her head because she has been forced into a role where she is being asked to sacrifice the very people she is usually sworn to protect. She thinks that because she is the Slayer that she has always tried to push people away even when they have tried to connect with her.

Sexy Blond: ‘I don’t exactly have the reputation of being a thinker. I follow my blood, which doesn’t exactly rush in the direction of my brain…’ The moment we are all waiting for in this episode is Spike’s return to find that Buffy has been ejected from her house and her role as General. It’s odd that everybody sounded so stalwart and sure once Buffy had left and yet in the face of Spike’s accusation they all look guilty and can barely string a sentence together. Only Faith has the balls to stand up to him which results in a scrap in the dining room watched by all. Spike proves just how close he and Buffy have become, being able to trace her scent from a distance. It is so cute watching Spike try and comfort Buffy because he usually talks with his fists but he has a good stab at trying to explain what he sees in her. James Marsters sells that moment beautifully (and Gellar’s reaction gave me goosebumps), it really is an understated highlight of their relationship. Spike has seen the best and the worst of Buffy and understands exactly with perfectly clarity that she is a hell of a woman. The moment when Spike climbed into Buffy’s bed and simply her to give her strength was the moment when I truly believed that he had taken the mantle from Angel as her champion. What he gives her in this episode is beyond love, he gives her hope and allows her to believe in herself again.

Rogue Slayer: ‘I’m an ex-con who didn’t finish High School’ ‘Yeah well I’m the Principal of a school where nobody finished…’ It is clear that in the absence of Buffy that somebody has to step into the role of leader before their plan of action turns into an all out bitch fight. And probably to get Kennedy to shut the hell up too (when Faith finally does I literally punched the air – it was about time somebody told her to calm the hell down). The First in Mayor form makes an interesting point about Faith always needing Buffy’s acceptance even when she was trying to destroy her life. Now she is in a position to truly earn it by protecting the girls as best she can. Seeing the Mayor again shakes her up more than anything else could because he was the one man who was good to her as she was falling apart at the seams a few years back. The Faith/Wood thing probably shouldn’t work because they are from such different worlds but they sparkle together because of that. He tempers her rough edges and she allows him to play bad boy.

Witchy Willow: There is some consideration of the Willow/Kennedy relationship which hasn’t ascended to the highs of Willow and Tara but it has been pleasant enough to follow. This is the first time we have seen Kennedy offer something other than her body to Willow and so there is a little more depth added to their relationship. Willow is terrified of the magicks boiling inside of her and what might be asked of her in the final battle with the First and just what form those powers will pour out of her in. Kennedy promises to ground her if she is ever getting out of control, to be her kite string.

Gorgeous Geek: Anya and Xander get down and dirty on the kitchen floor. I guess their ‘one last time’ and ‘we’re over each other’ was just words then.

Super Geek: Andrew’s idiotic blabber is used to good effect in this episode, the others unaware for a while that the Bringer is talking through his lips.

The Potentials: Now the Potentials have managed to get rid of Buffy the more outspoken ones (especially Kennedy) think it is their time to step into the limelight and have their say. The trouble is they try and do that by steam rolling over the opinions of people like Faith and Giles who have far more experience at this sort of thing.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s a translation of it? I’m over it…’
‘You are so lucky that you did not just magically decapitate me!’

The Good: …and it immediately becomes clear that Buffy was a necessary evil in charge because the girls are suddenly at loggerheads as the Summers household becomes a democracy where everybody has a say. David Solomon directs the group scenes really effectively, creating a sense of panic and uncertainty as every man and his dog tries to make their opinion heard. There is a sense of chaos, that there is no direction amongst the heroes now. Kennedy running off in a huff like a lamb to the slaughter is a nice piece of misdirection that I didn’t see coming. I like how both sides are getting devious in this respect, the First allowing the Bringer to fall into their trap so it can feed them false information about the sewers and the weapons store. It is such a shame that his arc was so mishandled in season three because each of Harry Groener’s appearances since have been terrific and a firm reminder of the charm and personality that he brought to the show. Having him the First appear as the Mayor is a gorgeous idea because it allows him to be the same fluffy Mayor that we all know and love with some acidic one liners that remind you that this character had some real bite. The slow motion fight where Buffy gets the upper hand over Caleb has been a long time coming and is beautifully directed, as is the fight with the Bringers in the sewers which is light by moving torch beams to add to the sense of disorientation. Amanda going nuts at a Bringer is way cool, she really knows how to kick ass. Prepare yourselves for a heart stopping bomb ticking cliffhanger.

The Bad: Just when they were starting to get some information out of the Bringer. Giles decides to slice its throat open. Why?

Moment to Watch Out For: Before the next ritual slaughter in this battle there is a round of love making that makes for quite a raunchy montage. Buffy shows itself to be a truly diverse show, promoting interracial, lesbian and demonic (hehe) love. I’m not the sort of person who usually gets turned on by guys and gals getting it on but Faith and Wood together is hotter than piloting a spaceship into the sun. Buffy and Spike were all about sex last year, it is lovely to see them just holding each other as everybody else gets up to the sweaty stuff, suggesting they are in a much deeper place. The music rocks in this sequence too. There’s even a deliciously malevolent moment between the First and Caleb where the embodiment of all evil shares its jealousy at their being able to expunge all their desires. It wants that sensual experience too, but only in the form of killing.

Result: Emotions are running high but they handled so much more effectively in Touched than they were in Empty Places. This is an episode that gets quite a rough ride from fans of the show but their reasoning confounds me because it is one memorable scene after another. If you don’t like Buffy taking on the guise of a soap opera (and if not you are watching the wrong show and should probably have stopped watching around season two) then this might not be for you but it brings all the central characters (Buffy and Spike, Faith and Wood, Willow and Kennedy, Xander and Anya) into sharp focus and gives them a moment to reflect and consider their feelings before the preparations for the final battle begins. As a result it is a slow episode, but if you are invested in these relationships it is invaluable. This is precisely where the Buffy and Spike relationship has been heading for the past three years, to a point where he can step in and become her champion and it suddenly makes sense of the madness at the end of the previous episode. Gellar and Marsters have always sparkled on screen together but in their quiet moments in Touched they reach a new high, their relationship ascending to something much more substantial. The strength that he gives her thanks to their night together more than justifies her faith in him this season. There is a nice burst of action at the climax (especially the Buffy/Caleb fight, Matrix style) but that isn’t what this episode is all about. It is about reaffirming what is the greatest strength of this show when all the tricks and stylistic touches are out of the way: the characters. And it is the sort of the piece that reminds you what a privilege it has been to know them: 8/10

End of Days written by Jane Espenson & Doug Petrie and directed by Marita Gabriak

What’s it about: Buffy learns about the Guardians and their gift…

The Chosen One: Much like season four, it now seems clear that Buffy was torn apart from her friends only for them to be brought back together and make us all go ‘awww’ as they do. As soon as Buffy held the Scythe she knew it was a strong and she knew it belonged to her too. Buffy has come to understand that all war is about is needless, pointless death and she refuses to let Faith wallow in the fact that when she was in charge people died on her watch.

Ripper: Giles goes nuts over a Jaffa cake after Andrew raids the store, a little piece of home. Brilliantly he wonders how something like the Scythe could exist without him having heard about it – the writers hanging a lantern on the very questions that was posing in my head.

Sexy Blond: After some baiting from Buffy who is bored with all their mixed signals, Spike admits that the previous night was the best of his life. He’s made love to people plenty of times but he has never been emotionally close to anybody. He has a new connection with her now.

Rogue Slayer: Faith has reached a point where she can tell Buffy that she is jealous of her without wanting to rip her face off. Maybe the reason they are not supposed to get along is because there is only supposed to be one Slayer. Maybe because of the radical innovation that changes all that in the next episode means that they have potential friendship possibilities in the future.

Witchy Willow: ‘I can hardly do a locator spell without getting dark roots…’ Willow and Giles researching together, her at the computer, him pouring over scrolls and texts gave me a nostalgic thrill. Season seven has been all about pushing the series forwards and opening it out to new possibilities but it is lovely to have a reminder of where this show came from every once and a while. Especially so close to the finale. Giles is trying to prepare her for the possibility that her magicks may be essential during the final fight, something that Willow is desperately unprepared for still.

Gorgeous Geek: ‘You’re my strength, Xander. You’re the reason I made it this far…’ When things get tough Buffy wants Dawn out of the way so that she isn’t in danger. Unfortunately she has to get Xander involved in this plot to sneak her sister away which he objects to because that will be his entire input in the final fight against the First. The fact that she trusts him to perform this vital task is very touching and convinces him to step away from the battle of which he always thought he would be a part of. He’s a sneaky bastard, luring Dawn outside and making silly jokes to get her guard down and striking when she least suspects it. Dawn is no slough though, tasering Xander whilst pretending to read Buffy’s heartfelt note and turning the car around. She’s not about to be left out of this fight, no matter what her sister might want.

Vengeance Demon: There is an essential conversation between Anya and Andrew about why Anya has stuck around to fight instead of running away (especially now she no longer has an emotional tie to the group in her relationship with Xander). She has grown to appreciate that for all our flaws, humanity are not quitters and she respects that and wants to fight at our side to see it through with us.

The Potentials: Kennedy finally gets to come into her own, facing up to the Turok-han like a Slayer and not a frightened little girl. With Buffy and Faith out of the way she step forward to lead the girls and show them how it is done. Trust the Potentials to try and blame Faith for their defeat in the sewers (in a cowardly roundabout sort of way) – sometimes I have to wonder if they actually deserve protection.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Yeah there’s a plan. Get ready. Time’s up.’
‘I told you I don’t leave my crossbows around all willy nilly. Not since that time with Miss Kitty Fantastico’ – so that’s what happened to Willow and Tara’s kitty from season four who mysteriously vanished between seasons!
‘Let’s do it’ ‘Boy, you sure know how to rom-ance a girl!’
‘Thank God we’re hot chicks with super powers.’
‘I’m sorry, what’s your name?’ ‘Buffy’ ‘No, really?’

The Good: Cutting to the credits before seeing the explosion in the last episode was a good dramatic exercise but I am pleased that we actually get to witness the moment of destruction during the ‘previously on’ sequence in end of Days. There must have been some power packed into those explosive because the girls are literally sent flying. Sarah Michelle Gellar has really gotten the hang of playing the First at this point, portraying a level of quiet malevolence purring in Caleb’s ear. The destruction that is realised after the explosion has ripped through the sewers is worthy of a big budget movie, water logged sets falling to pieces, sparks flying, flames flickering and girls being dragged dead out of the sewage. When you add a general sense of panic (well acted by the Potential girls) and add a Turok-han to the mix (seen pursuing them in POV before climbing on top of the wreckage and growling at them with savage relish). Marita Gabriak directed Storyteller with a stylish mix of hilarious comedy and high drama and she approaches End of Days with determination to do as phenomenal a job brining it to the screen. It is a real shame that the creators of Buffy hadn’t found her sooner as she is a proven asset to the show now. She makes scenes like running through sewers tunnels genuinely vibrant. Watch the camerawork too, which rarely stops being on the move and makes for a greater sense of energy (especially during the house scenes which can be slow and stagy because of the dreary point and shoot approach). When Buffy was tackling the Turok-han in Showtime it felt like a minor bother but now the girls are facing up to them alone and are clearly unprepared for such a task (and absolutely terrified) suddenly the creatures feel like a formidable force. Savage, uncontrollable and unstoppable. Watching a trio of them rip a girl to pieces and come away bloody and smiling is unpleasantly memorable. Buffy emerging from a sunlight hole to save the girls should probably be hideously embarrassing but the Scythe is such an awesome weapon that you quickly forget the fanfare that accompanies her sudden appearance and marvel in her skills with the big shiny knife. Suddenly this show isn’t about a bunch of girls bitching and griping at each other (as was the norm the previous two episodes) but the dying and wounded filling up the Summers household, it is a dramatic shift in the shows favour. Wonderfully every sentimental scene in this episode (of which there are a fair few) is subverted with a great gag at the end to stop things from getting great mushy (Buffy mocking Xander’s inability to fire a crossbow, Anya and Andrew playing wheelchair wars). Suddenly we are introduced to a whole new layer of the Slayer mythos – the Guardians, who are the female equivalent of the Watchers. They forged the Scythe as the ultimate weapon for the Slayer to kill the last demon that walked the Earth. It was supposed to remain hidden until this final battle, to be the ultimate weapon to take on the root of all evil. Whilst this is an exciting, fascinating innovation and last minute surprise, I loved how Caleb appeared to snap the Guardians neck before it got a little too Lord of the Rings. Trust Espenson to cut through all the pretentiousness with a sudden shock. The understated cliffhanger that sees Spike watching Buffy and Angel kiss (‘that bitch…’) is a hundred times more effective than the previous one because it is rooted in character and the shows history.

Moment to Watch Out For: Unlike all of his other post-season three appearances (except perhaps Forever), the return of Angel this time is indisputably triumphant. How he leans back and gets off on Buffy fighting Caleb really made me smile. Although even that is not quite as satisfying as watching her slice through the preachers stomach with the Scythe.

Result: Suddenly the show kicks into high gear as tension ramps up towards the finale and End of Days proves to be a near perfect set up for Joss Whedon’s final Buffy episode. Like most season seven episodes it is packed full of surprising goodies by this time everything is ramped up to eleven. You can savour the desperation and claustrophobia of the sewers scenes, the heart-warming joy of Buffy and her friends being reunited, the excellent ‘morning after’ sequence for Buffy and Spike, how Espenson and Petrie cleverly revealed a new layer of Slayer mythology, the sheer presence of the Scythe, Giles and Willow researching like old times, Anya’s gorgeous admission about humanity, another chance for Buffy and Caleb to go at each other and the final, triumphant return of Angel to the show. It really feels as if the show is winding up now but nothing about End of Days screams of a series that is past its prime, quite the opposite in fact. I wish Marita Gabriak had been discovered earlier because she is a perfect fit for the series and her two episode this season have been improved tenfold thanks to her polished, stylish direction. Sharp dialogue abounds and the character dynamics are at an all time high for season seven. Whilst there have been a few wobbles throughout the year, it has overall been an exceptionally strong batch of episodes and End of Days proves that the show was always heading in an exciting, climactic direction. It whets your appetite for the finale and then some: 9/10

Chosen written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Sunnydale’s time has come…

The Chosen One: ‘I want you to get out of my face!’ I remember stating in my first Buffy review that I have had a running debate with a good friend of mine over the ability of Sarah Michelle Gellar. She doesn’t rate her at all as an actress so I was using this marathon review session to really watch and assess her throughout the run. The conclusion that I have come to is that my friend is wrong and that Gellar has managed to support an increasingly popular show and tackle pretty much any material that the show has thrown at her. Buffy has been a rich and complicated character, wise beyond her years in some ways, astonishingly naïve in others and managing to thrill, excite, frustrate and annoy at various points in the series. She’s Whedon’s first major creation and she’s still my favourite, a symbol of female empowerment with a cracking personality, flawed as hell and yet witty and wonderful too. There will always be something very special between Buffy and Angel and whilst they greet each other with a kiss it is clear that her heart now belongs to Spike and they have both moved on. When they see each other now a kiss is like the pair of them toasting what they once had. Buffy makes a good point that if Sunnydale falls then she needs Angel in LA as a second location of attack against the First. All very good and rational, but she also wants to get rid of him because the ‘champion with a soul’ that is supposed to wear the amulet isn’t Angel. And she has no way of telling him that, until he forces her. She can’t say that she is in love with Spike but does admit that he is in her heart and after everything he has done for her over the past three seasons that is something that Angel deserved to hear. When Sarah Michelle Gellar delivers her ‘cookie dough Buffy’ speech it is like we are back at Welcome to the Hellmouth again, all those years of wisdom dropping away as she realises that she doesn’t have to settle down if she isn’t ready. What’s brilliant is where the Buffy and Spike relationship is left, in a very complicated place with no sense of closure. She feels safe in his arms and spends her last night as the Slayer with him and yet they still can’t quite decide whether what they have is love. What thrills me about Buffy’s plan to activate all the Potential Slayers is her sheer selflessness, her willingness to hand of the mantle that she has coveted for so long to other girls who also deserve the same power as she wields. I realise there is a level of selfishness in there as well, that Buffy has always wanted a normal life but has been chained to a role that has denied it to her but it takes one in a million to stand up and say that they are willing to share the limelight with others, that they want to share their gift. The final shot of Buffy standing silently and smiling, her whole future ahead of her and not knowing what is to come, is a marvellously upbeat way to finish the show. She deserves this moment of peace, she’s earned it.

The Key: Dawn has grown up in the three years we’ve known her. There was a time when she would have gone flailing out of a room screaming her head off but her brilliantly subtle way of showing her sister her dissatisfaction with her plan to sneak her away from the final fight is to kick her in the leg silently. She calls herself a Watcher Junior, which pretty much sums up where her journey has lead her. Not in the limelight but on the sidelines doing all the work that goes unnoticed but is essential to success. Quietly, Dawn has found her niche.

Ripper: I bet Anthony Head had no idea how taking on this role as a British librarian in a US teen show would change his life so dramatically. Already fairly well known, this really put him on the map internationally. There is a gentle moment between Giles and Buffy where he gives his consent to her plan to alter the Slayer line. I don’t think I could have stomached it had this show ended with these two still at loggerheads.

Sexy Blond: Possibly my favourite Spike moment comes when he doesn’t even say a word but is the reveal that the punch bag he has been taking his frustrations out on has a hastily drawn picture of Angel’s face taped to it. Makes me crack up every time. Spike’s sacrifice is beautifully handled and his eventual dusting is the slowest we have ever seen and quite right too.

Rogue Slayer: In Joss Whedon’s hands Faith suddenly has a whole new way of talking, reducing every sentence to street talk and pop culture references. I actually prefer it this way, although it does feel like a slightly different character to the one from the previous four episodes. Faith has an extremely bleak view that one she has gotten down and dirty with a guy that is all she needs to know about him. Wood is going to set out to prove her wrong and change her worldview – some guys are worth your time. They are such different people that this might actually work.

Witchy Willow: If I’m perfectly honest I think that Willow probably peaked in season six during her Dark Willow phase. Nothing since could quite live up to the strength of that material. Saying that she has been our rock throughout the entire series and Alyson Hannigan has been a vital proponent of what makes this show work so well. She’s a terrific little actress (it breaks my heart to see her chained to a sitcom at the moment but I guess that’s where the money is) and has provided the best emotional highs and lows in its seven year run. Willow has been my identification figure and it has been wonderful to watch her grow in confidence from the mousy nobody in Welcome to the Hellmouth to the strong and empowered woman that she is come the finale (with some spectacular wobbles along the way). Again, whilst not hitting the heights of Willow and Tara, her relationship with Kennedy has come on in leaps and bounds and the actresses now share a very relaxed chemistry. Willow reaches her apotheosis when the essence of good magic flows through her and for a second can be seen in the guise of a white witch. It’s her reward for stepping back from the brink.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander doesn’t fall to pieces when he learns of Anya’s death because they all walked into that fight knowing it was a possibility. Instead he walks away proud and certain that she has done the right thing. That just set me off again.

Vengeance Demon: Her death is possibly the most real the series has seen. No fanfare, no eulogy, just a pointless murder in the middle of a battle. For straight talkin, no nonsense Anya I cannot think of a better way for her to go.

Super Geek: Andrew dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood mocking Giles at his piss poor performance at D&D is a highlight.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I used to be a highly respected Watcher and now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doyley.’
‘Looks like the Hellmouth’s closed for business’ ‘There is another one in Cleveland. Not to spoil the moment.’

The Good: As terrifying as he was, the final fight against evil was never going to be between Buffy and Caleb (and besides which we have seen them scrap endlessly over the past few episodes) but it is still nice for them to get to go at each other one last time. Buffy’s defeat, slicing him in two with the scythe, might just be my favourite death in this shows entire run. And you don’t even get to see it (its all down to Gellar’s facial expressions and delivery of ‘he had to split’). In an episode that re-affirms the shows message of female empowerment it is great to see Buffy crush the ultimate misogynist. Whilst Boreanaz hardly sets the screen on fire (a common problem when he is playing Angel), his sarcastic reaction to learning Spike has a soul is very funny. Did we need the first seven minutes of the finale devoted to a long character scene between Buffy and Angel? Frankly yes, because these characters came together in the first episode and it was only right for them to do so again in the finale (I love that Angel departs this series exactly how he was introduced, backing away into darkness). It wouldn’t be an episode of season seven without Buffy making some kind of grandiose speech but this time we cut away at the vital moment, the point where we learn what Buffy’s masterplan is. It’s probably the only time this year where I have wanted a speech to go on a little bit longer but spoilers before the final fight are strictly a no no. Where else could the final fight happen but at the Sunnydale High School? Whilst seasons five and six may have shied away from educational settings, they have always been the battlegrounds in every other year. I like the fact that Buffy takes the fight to the First rather than hanging around any longer and losing any more territory. The fact that it is trying to bait her is the first sign that it is scared of losing. I know that the CGI used in this episode might seem pretty primitive by today’s standards but I still think it captures the epic feel that Joss Whedon was going for on a meagre television budget. The technology used to bring the army of Turok-han’s to life (inspired by Lord of the Rings, I believe) is impressive and gives the impression of thousands of Ubervamps going through their paces as the Potentials stumble on their lair beneath the Seal. It’s a triumphant mixture of CGI and physical effects, the moment when they all look up in unison is supremely dramatic and is followed by the intimidating visual of them climbing the cliff face en masse to deal with the girls. It’s brown trousers time. Suddenly Buffy’s (or rather Joss Whedon’s) plan is revealed and it’s brilliant. To turn every potential Slayer into an actual one, to have an army of powerful women to protect the planet and to kick the First Evil straight back to Hell. To give women the strength to stand up to their oppressors (beautifully captured in the moment where a young girl is seen catching her abusive fathers hand before he can hit her). If there was ever a time to change the entire nature of the show, this is it and Whedon proves startlingly innovative to the last. We’ve been promised a final fight for ages now and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. It is carnage, excitingly choreographed and packed full of death and destruction. It’s the largest scale fight Buffy has ever attempted and it lights up the screen with chaos, evolving from the triumph of an army of Slayers tackling the First to the staggering defeat of so many of them being slaughtered.  Buffy is stabbed through the back, Anya is killed in a heart stopping and spectacularly unheroic way mid battle, Wood takes a knife to the gut, Chao-Ann is seen being savaged in the neck and girls are seen having their spines broken and falling to the ground with blood running down their faces. In no way is this an easy final fight and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The sunlight tearing through the cavern and incinerating the Turok-han army is a staggering visual. The final indignity (although it buries the First and its defeated army forever) is losing Sunnydale, an earthquake tearing through the streets and the whole town vanishing into an abyss. I love the shot of the bus making its way towards the desert as we see row upon row of houses falling into the ground. Suddenly evacuating the entire town makes perfect sense. Out in the desert with its setting destroyed and it’s premise updated, Buffy can never go back to what it was again.

The Bad: My one serious complaint is that with the destruction of Sunnydale and the nature of the Slayer line changed so radically, I would have loved to have seen what happened next. On television, not in comic book form. Oh, and the Turok-han’s have devolved from super strength vampires to your regular kind. But if that hadn’t been the case the message of empowerment would rather have been lost.

Moment to Watch Out For: The awesome moment where everybody departs in the school corridor and leaves the core characters on this show (Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles) to enjoy one last scene of wit and good humour together before the final fight. Of all the great moments in the finale, this is the one that feels most right. ‘The Earth is definitely doomed…’  My other favourite moment comes when Buffy takes Spike’s burning hand and tell him she loves him. It feels like a massive reward for following their story and I am not ashamed to say I was in pieces. Oh and finally, the Welcome to Sunnydale sign falling into the canyon. Just brilliant.

Fashion Statement: I haven’t spoken about the music much this year because it has pretty peerless throughout. Dramatic when it needs to be, funny when appropriate and blissfully exotic at times too. We are so far out of Thomas Wanker’s reused musical cues it is such a shame that Douglas Romaine wasn’t brought onto the show earlier. The stirring, epic score for the final fight is justly famous and fully deserved its place on the Buffy album. As soon as it kicks into gear my feet start tapping.

Result: ‘Are you ready to be strong?’ Everything you could possibly want from a series finale of one of the best shows on television. Chosen sees Buffy the Vampire Slayer going out on a high, it that is quite a statement for a show that has been running extremely successfully for seven seasons. It has everything you would expect from a great Buffy episode; sunny characters and interaction, witty dialogue, twists and turns, a chance for the actors to stretch themselves and a bloody great big fight. This time however all bets are off and Whedon, famed for punishing his characters, can put anybody to the slaughter and change the series any damn way he likes. Instead he chooses to go out triumphantly, changing the whole nature of the series at the last minute and promoting the message of female empowerment with real style. The first half of Chosen is devoted to the characters and it is our last chance to catch up with them before the battle that seals their fate. There’s a real sense of the core characters of the show – Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles – coming together again just like they always used to in the early days and it gives the finale moments of powerful nostalgia. Everybody is given some consideration though; Andrew’s hilarious speech, Anya describing the girls as ‘canon fodder’, Kennedy giving Willow reassurance, Faith and Wood discussing their future together. There is real feeling that even though there are sweeping events afoot that it is the characters that are the most important thing and it is the essential element that has made this show triumph where so many others have failed. When the finale fight kicks off it is like nothing we have ever seen before, a real attempt at pulling off a cinematic battle on a television budget. It’s not merely a case of good triumphing over evil, plenty of people don’t make it (Anya and Spike amongst their number) but the overall effect is that of giving the First Evil a damn good kicking. Full of wonderful intimate moments and radical sweeping reforms (Sunnydale’s demise might be the best creative decision in the finale), it embodies the best of the shows past whilst offering a tantalising glimpse at what could have been its future. At it’s heart is Sarah Michelle Gellar giving one last impressive performance. Between her a Whedon, this show was always going to smell of success. Season seven is much, much better than people give it credit for. Looking back over the whole seven years I think it might score the highest average in my marathon and it has certainly earned it, providing a roller coaster ride of nostalgia and innovation. Chosen is the icing on the cake: 10/10


James Matthews said...

As always with your well thought out reviews, it gives me food for thought and sometimes a different way of looking at the episodes.
I am loving your Buffy reviews (I sound like a stuck record again,lol)
Can't wait to see what you think about Caleb,oh and please review The Name Of The Doctor, go on you know you want to (I'll get my coat,lol)

Thanks again Joe


Doc Oho said...

Thanks, James. I have finished watching the series now (:-() and it has been a great experience. I will be posting the remainder of the reviews up next week. Thanks for your support on this venture, it's always great to know people are reading and enjoying the blog.

As for Name of the Doctor...soon.

James Matthews said...

Joe as always your reviews are great,thoughtful and really interesting to read. Ive been going through the episodes after each review has been posted and it has been like watching them with a friend,thankyou.


Doc Oho said...

James, you are a true gentleman. If you want to chat further, my Facebook page is here

It's been a great ride :-)

Karrie said...

I found your blog because I love Doctor Who, and was pleasantly surprised to find your reviews of another series I love, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I have enjoyed your reviews so much. I've been watching a Buffy marathon again and reading your reviews as I go along. Your reviews are extremely thoughtful and thorough. I especially love that you talk about the music in the series. Most people overlook a series' score, or take it for granted, but it is so important to help set the tone.

By-the-by, I am also enjoying your Doctor Who reviews.

Doc Oho said...

Hi Karrie,

Thank you so much for leaving such a lovely comment. It has been great to hear that others have been going on this Buffy journey with me. It was one heck of a ride and I'm pretty sad that I have to leave these characters behind now. You are absolutely right about the music, it is an essential ingredient of television as far as I am concerned and helps to give a series an identity as well as the mood of the induvidual episodes. I am really pleased that you are enjoying the site - I hope you continue to do so with the Doctor Who reviews.

Dahlia said...

Hi Joe,

I never watched Buffy during its run, but did a marathon viewing of it via Netflix and call it one of my favourite shows.

Spike is pretty much an all time favourite of mine. He's funny, heartbreaking, and complicated and his development was incredible.

I agree with you on how good Sarah Michelle Gellar was as Buffy. If Buffy was not played by someone who could act (I'm not saying all her stuff has been great, but here, with the material and whatnot she really sold it and showed her acting chops.) then the show would have sunk.

I do think that season 7 was very underrated. I went into it without knowing what people thought and got caught up in it and about season 4 on, I was completely in love with it, and found it, over all, got stronger. Sure there were bad episodes here and there, but the fact they kept exploring the characters, letting grow, get lost in that weird world between high school/university and 'real life as a grown up' was just wonderful. I loved how the supernatural stuff reflected on it.

Thanks for the reviews!

Mott1 said...

Really well-written, entertaining reviews. I find each season of Buffy surprises me with how extreme it can be on rewatch, notably the 'post-Angel' ones: s4 is even more mixed and silly than I remember, s5 is even higher quality than its reputation has it, s6 is even more heavy-going and s7 is even more redemption-obsessed.

I agree on D B Woodside's excellent performances, particularly in "Lies..." where he is superb opposite the always-brilliant James Marsters. I also find s7's nostalgic tone wrongfoots you - its regular nastiness (Xander's eye, the brutal fights, the suicide scene, Willow being slowly eaten alive) is somehow far more jarring than in the more downbeat s6, for example.