May 18th, 2011
“Is this hell?”
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
While I may have remained mostly spoiler-free for the major events in the final two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s hard not to feel that my experience with them will nonetheless be very much influenced by the conversations I’ve heard about these seasons over the past number of years.
While my Twitter friends have been kind enough to walk on tiptoes around me when it comes to specific spoilers, the general topic of whether or not the final two seasons of Buffy are a crippling disappointment, a misunderstood masterpiece, or somewhere in between was sort of unavoidable. While these conversations started in the comments going back to the fourth season, and certainly lingered through the fifth, we are entering the period where the fans are decidedly divided, and where my opinion (rather than simply my analysis) will be more closely watched to see which camp I fall in.
Although my six-month delay in the Cultural Catchup Project was certainly not ideal, I will say that I think it helps clear the slate for the season that follows. This is not to say that I have forgotten so much that fundamental differences (or problematic similarities) are going to go unnoticed, but it means I am recreating something closer to the experience of those who were watching in October 2001 than if I had picked up the first disc of Season 6 back in the fall. While my seven months are slightly more than the four months between the fifth and sixth seasons, returning to “Bargaining” felt like a return in ways that highlight its function as an episode, and offered a clear framework through which we can understand its successes and failures.
At the end of the day, “Bargaining” is more successful in theory than in practice, never quite stringing together its most successful scenes into a cohesive whole. While the value of its in medias res opening is clear by the conclusion of the episode, there is an artificiality in the way the episode is presented that it could never quite shake. Instead of the Scoobies feeling lost and aimless without Buffy, the episode felt as though it was always choreographing its next step, dropping in at the very moment where the more thematically interesting material was replaced with a rush of plot to get us to the point where Buffy Summers can rise from the dead.
While the resonance is not entirely lost, captured in brief moments of grief that are nicely drawn, there’s an inevitability to “Bargaining” which renders its poetry less effective than might be ideal.
I remember when I wrote my review of “The Gift” that there were some people admonishing me for not finding “Sacrifice,” the Christophe Beck piece which scored Buffy’s final moments, as memorable as they had. At the time, I chalked it up to trying to rush the episode in the midst of the beginning of the semester, not really in a space to really let its impact sink in. However, now I’m willing to chalk it up to a difference in perspective: while many of you have had years to consider the resonance of that moment, I had only had a few days.
When “Sacrifice” has its reprise towards the end of “Bargaining,” the weight of both the song and “The Gift” in general really came into focus. In that brief musical callback, done under the advisement of a new composer unless I’m mistaken, I had all of the resonance I needed: the flashbacks were wholly unnecessary, especially given how much Beck’s score captures the simultaneously epic and intimate qualities of Buffy’s decision in that moment. In truth, a lot of the “plot” around season five is actually on the hokey side if I really start to think about it, but that moment felt transcendent. While I would certainly not argue that Buffy has some sort of basic generic failure that it must transcend to be truly resonant, that was one instance where a fun but somewhat convoluted action sequence suddenly shifted into this intense personal sacrifice, and the poetry of that moment came rushing back as Dawn and Buffy stood atop that rickety scaffolding.
What I also liked about that moment was that the conflict was not really conflict at all: while the scaffolding was falling over, it wasn’t being shaken by someone down below, and there wasn’t some sort of sinister force behind it. The threat was simply instability, and the weight that threatened the tower’s stability was represented less by Dawn and Buffy themselves and more the emotional baggage that this supernatural resurrection taps into. Forget the logistics of how it took them to get there: as “Sacrifice” returns us to that fateful moment, the quasi-tragic poetry of this return is written across Sarah Michelle Gellar’s face and fairly well-handled by Michelle Trachtenberg as well.
Of course, this moment comes at the conclusion of a two-hour episode, and their miraculous escape from that falling scaffolding leaves something to be desired (with the music seeming particularly over the top here). As much as this moment may have connected, sending me to YouTube to seek out “Sacrifice” and building on the series’ serialized storytelling, getting there was a slightly different story. It was one of those circumstances where the purpose of each story move was a bit too transparent, both in terms of facilitating cast shakeups (which I presume were driven by budget concerns that came with the move to UPN) and in terms of getting the plot up and running in a more sustainable fashion. Although the final moment doesn’t feel as though it is severely damaged by the artificial nature of the buildup, I nonetheless feel that “Bargaining” only rarely taps into the show’s best qualities along the way.
The absence of Anthony Stewart Head from the credits was impossible not to notice: maybe we would not have been accustomed to the shifts in credit sequences back then, but the nature and structure of guest credits has become more prominent with time, and so looking back it becomes very clear that they’re going to need to find a way to get Giles out the door at least temporarily (this is where having seen “Once More With Feeling” becomes interesting). Indeed, the show doesn’t even try to hide this fact: it admits up front that it’s just waiting for Giles to get around to it, using his continued presence following Buffy’s death as one of a number of instances of characters being not yet ready to move on from the events which closed the fifth season.
Head does a fine job with this storyline, and the actual sendoff is charming and emotional. It’s just that the weight of it all is limited when it feels like a budgetary move [Edit: Note “feels.” As the comments point out, it was a personal decision], and when you sort of know that Buffy isn’t going to remain dead forever. There’s nothing wrong with the scene itself, but the context in which the scene is almost necessarily viewed makes it seem more convenient than anything else. Whatever thematic resonance there is to be found in a Watcher without his Slayer feels truncated when it’s mashed into such a small space, and at least somewhat redundant given that Wesley is sort of playing out this storyline over on Angel (and has been doing so for more than a season and a half at this point).
I like the idea that they haven’t quite had time to process life without Buffy since they haven’t been allowed to: rigging the Buffybot to perform Buffy’s duties helps keep Sunnydale safe, but it also keeps them from truly moving on. Giles still trains with the Buffybot as he trained with Buffy, as silly as that is, while Dawn takes the Buffybot to Parent/Teacher day and snuggles up to her at night. There’s something deeply psychological about the Buffybot’s presence, and I’ve got to admit that I wanted a bit more time to explore this. Instead, it’s told in brief scenes of shorthand while the plot keeps on moving: we get brief moments of Spike’s refusal to acknowledge the robot, and Spike’s continued protection of Dawn in order to keep from losing her, but it’s all told as part of what is sort of a mess of a procedural storyline.
The Demons of Anarchy, as my brain first thought of them given our current cultural reference points for biker gangs, exist solely as a force of destruction. I understand the logic: the show needs Buffy to be resurrected into a seemingly post-apocalyptic world, and introducing an anarchist group of demons hellbent on destruction and not much else is a fine way to cheat your way into fiery cars and broken glass. We are told that the group takes advantage of towns which are vulnerable, and it makes sense that news of Buffy’s absence (and of Buffybot’s vulnerabilities) would make them consider Sunnydale an easy target.
However, it honestly makes too much sense. We’re told very little about this organization, but what we are told is all exposition that justifies their presence. Although the makeup was compelling, and Fury’s willingness to take them to a dark place (where the leader threatens to have his men rape them with their anatomically abnormal sexual organs) had an impact, their presence was entirely in service to the plot machinations surrounding Buffy’s resurrection. While I didn’t necessarily need an elaborate back story or mythology, and understand the value of a simple villain designed to facilitate character development, it was one of many parts of the episode that felt like a means to an end the moment it was introduced. That brief moment where the leader of the bikers suggests that this is what they’ve been waiting for, and that they’re going to settle in Sunnydale instead of moving on, was entirely empty for me. There was absolutely no point where I believed they were anything but a solution to a problem of needing a hellscape for Buffy to wake up into, which didn’t help the feeling that Giles’ exit and the plan to resurrect Buffy were more necessary than they were organic. As we’ll see later today, there’s a similar storyline in “Heartthrob,” but there the scale is so much smaller and personal that they can get away with it: here, it just rings false.
That said, the circumstances surrounding Buffy’s resurrection are properly horrifying: given that they are dabbling in dark magic, darker than anyone but Willow entirely realizes, there’s snakes, magical lacerations, under-skin bugs, and the trauma of Buffy waking up in her own coffin. This is all helpful, especially given that Willow is obviously heading in a particular direction (Yes, I saw the disc, and the DVD cover – it’s unavoidable), but even then I feel like it got lost in the plot a bit. The blurred camera effect for Buffy’s point of view ended up feeling a bit overused and overdone, while Xander spelling out the fact that she woke up in her own grave seemed to work too hard to draw out the trauma instead of letting Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance speak for itself.
I don’t know that this would have been any different if Joss Whedon had still been in charge of the writers room, nor do I think that’s necessarily a question that needs to be asked. None of what takes place here is irrevocably damaging so much as it is deflating, limiting the potential impact of some scenes by surrounding them with less elegant storytelling. It is quite possible that the awkwardness of “Bargaining” is a necessary launching pad for the season, and that the end justifies the economy (and artificiality) of storytelling on display. There are moments even within the episode where it feels like this might be the case, like Buffy and Dawn on top of that scaffolding for example.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something was simply off about “Bargaining.” Maybe it was that we never got to see them truly mourning for Buffy, or maybe it was that the episode was moving too fast for things to feel like they weren’t being introduced for a specific narrative purpose. And while it’s one thing if the show was introducing a new big bad (which it’s clearly not), or if it were establishing a new setting or a new character, here it was pieces being moved into place with angry bikers, resurrections, and more clunkiness than was perhaps advisable.
While it may not be enough to give me any great concern heading into the remainder of the season, given that where it leaves us has a clearer sense of purpose, the uneven nature of “Bargaining” did give me reason to pause and contemplate the debate that we will no doubt be having throughout this season. I do not yet know what side I will fall on, but I do know that both sides seemed to be represented in this particular outing.
- I suppose that one could argue that “Bargaining,” like “Anne,” serves as more of a prologue to the season than an actual beginning, but this was a two-hour prologue with a whole lot of plot and a lot of emotional baggage, while “Anne” was a very streamlined and straightforward monster story in which Buffy got her groove back. I think “Anne” is probably the show’s most successful premiere thus far, at least for me personally, but there’s so many different philosophies behind them that I’m guessing opinions differ wildly.
- While I get that it was perfectly in character for both of them, I felt Xander and Anya were a bit one-dimensional here (and I’d probably say the same for Tara). Anya’s initial attempts to force Giles out the door and use the proposal as a buffer against Buffy’s death seemed like a chance to really negotiate her social instincts (which are not that far off in this instance), but then it just became another “Anya has a one track mind” storyline without much direction otherwise. The characters just felt really reduced, which was unfortunate to me.
- Speaking of Xander, that early runner about him having named Willow leader was a criminal case of overwriting – this initial joke was fine, but the whole thing about having a plaque made sounded like something I would have written in high school. I realize this could be read as generic Noxon-bashing, but I don’t care who wrote it: that was just dumb.
- I think part of me was frustrated with the lack of lingering because I sort of liked Buffybot and the potential therein. The Parent/Teacher session was charming, the breathing was a fine bit of comic timing, and the early parts of the episode did a nice job of trying to reach the balance of comedy/drama that the show is known for. Finding that tone was particularly challenging given the events of “The Gift,” and I liked that it was a bit jarring in that opening scene as the audience has that moment of “Huh?” when it’s clear that “Buffy” is still present. I would have been fine for them to explore that for a while, really.
- Not too much for Spike here, but the material with Dawn was really effective, and the particular pain he has to deal with in regards to Buffybot (who is still on some level programmed to be in love with him) is really compelling. Would have liked more of it.
- Curious to hear your thoughts about the episode itself, as always, but I’m also interested in any recollection you have of what the shift in network was like and how that framed your experience of the episode. There’s also the whole September 11th question as well, although I don’t know if UPN had always intended on premiering in October.