Cultural Catchup Project: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Bargaining”

“Bargaining”

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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57 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

57 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Bargaining”

  1. Charles

    “more successful in theory than in practice” may as well be the motto for seasons 6 & 7.

  2. Carlie

    For the record, Anthony Stewart Head left the credits not due to budgetary concerns, but because the actor wanted to be able to spend more time in London in order to pursue other projects.

  3. Aeryl

    Oh, Myles, do you got it wrong!!

    LOL

    OK, not really, but I think knowing where the season could be going(don’t let that DVD case fool you!) may color your viewing. There is going to be a Big Bad introduced, the Biggest Baddest of them all(even more than S7’s), but it won’t be easily recognized.

    And Head’s departure was not a budgetary move, it was him wanting to go home and be with his kids, as he’d missed large chunks of their lives, filming Buffy for five years. His departure will also have thematical resonance, in the episodes to come, so I think it’s unfair to read it as a shallow move. Definitely keep an open mind about how this departure will pay off, in keeping with the themes of the season.

    Your point about how they skipped over the grieving is valid, but all of us had been grieving all summer for Buffy, so I can understand the writers reticience to go over what might already be a tired and fraught subject for the audience(I understand large portions of online fandom knew Buffy was switching networks, but I didn’t until the epic ads showcasing Buffy’s resurrection started airing on UPN in September, as I wasn’t online yet, and I think I speak for a majority of the average fandom, in that we grieved when Buffy died, as if she was never coming back).

    And yes, the whole bit about Xander’s plaque for Willow was immature and adolescent, but a focus this season for Xander’s character(as well as everyone else) will be if he can overcome his immaturity, so it’s an apt behavior for him to still be engaging in.

    If there is one complaint I have about this season, is that the writers don’t have the trust that the audience “gets it” without belaboring the point, like you pointed out where Xander vocalizes Buffy’s trauma, waking in her coffin, when Gellar’s acting in that sccene made the point enough. Plus, with her history, like in S2’s Nightmares, you can imagine her fear, whether she was a vampire to be awakening in such a manner(vampires saving their beloveds for eternity thru transformation has been around a lot longer than Twilight. Honestly, a scene where she touches her face to see if she’s vamped before she started to tear her way out of the coffin, would have sent me to blubbering).

    • Aeryl

      Just to clarify, the first line in my above post, is a joke. The divisiveness of these two years in very high, with many people unable to allow for different interpretations of what is shown.

      The caliber of the discussions here previously, leads me to believe that such degeneration won’t happen here, hence the funny(to me at least) irony of my initial line.

  4. I always liked Bargaining (my own long, but not AS long :-) reviews here). I certainly think most of your points are true, but Buffy has so many cheesy villains of the week that I barely blink at that (and it is my favorite show of all time). Still, I wonder about the differencing psychological effects of having a pause between The Gift and Bargaining. I’ve watched the entire series three times, and in all cases I’ve never had the restraint to let more than a day (and usually like a minute) between the series 5 and 6 finales. I even have a hard time stalling on the third hour of season 6 (even though it’s not the greatest).

    But I’m a season 6 lover, even if it’s perhaps slightly inferior to season 5. Season 7 is another thing altogether.. :-(

  5. tjbw

    I’m biased. I’m just going to go ahead and put that out there. So just know that everything I say from here on out will be in defense of the last two seasons.

    Adjectives like ‘lost’ and ‘off’ and ‘mess’ describe the S6 opener, but in my opinion it was intentional. As viewers we worry that the writer’s don’t trust us to ‘get it’, but what about us trusting the writers to do the same? Does it not make sense that “Bargaining” was meant to feel lost, off, and messy? Is it so hard to believe that this is the truth of their world as we are reintroduced to it?

    I dunno. I guess I was never one to expect BtVS to be more than it is.

    …who is still on some level programmed to be in love with him…
    You have no idea how happy it makes me that you phrased this description of the bot this way.

    • Aeryl

      As viewers we worry that the writer’s don’t trust us to ‘get it’, but what about us trusting the writers to do the same? Does it not make sense that “Bargaining” was meant to feel lost, off, and messy?

      This is a very apt description of our reintroduction to Buffy, and plays well into the themes to be explored this season. But my feeling that the writers feel the need to relentlessly hammer points into our heads, only gets worse as the season goes on, it is one of the true differences I see in Joss’ departure as showrunner. He made a greater use of “Show, not tell”, whereas now the writers will do both.

      **SPOILER**

      The initial scene in Gone, where they are removing all traces of magic from the house, is a familiar scene to those who’ve ever been touched by drug addiction(when my partner overcame his addiction, there was a similiar scrubbing, where even movies watched while on drugs were discarded). It demonstrates that the characters (mistakenly) believe Willow is addicted to magic, and that her problem will be treated as such. We didn’t need the additional commentary from Dawn, which only served to further audience animosity towards her, nor Buffy’s patient explaining that all temptations must be removed. We got it when we some them boxing up the magic weed and candles.

  6. Gill

    I want to state right from the outset that I’m in the “Season Six is awesome” camp, because I do agree with you to some extent about the tangles in “Bargaining”, though some elements do become thematically important later on.

    Some things are handled well, though – the Spike/Dawn interaction, when neither of them really know what is going on or what the others have planned, Willow’s killing of the faun, Buffy’s walk in her grave clothes through the streets of Sunnydale – and the destruction of the Buffybot which has an emotional resonance despite the fact that by that point we know Buffy herself has returned.

    At the start of the season Marti Noxon said two things – “Life is the Big Bad”, which is in many ways the thematic core of the season, and that they planned to move away from metaphors, with which I disagree wholeheartedly, as I feel the entire season is a superb and complex metaphor. It was also supposed to be about “grow up, already”, which is also at the heart of the major arc, though not necessarily in ways you’d expect.

    I’ve never understood why season openers were such a problem for the ME team, but in general they have always seemed a little weak to me, party because of the need to remind viewers of the backstory, partly because the tone never seems to be fully established. Whedon may have been responding to the sort of pressure he encountered in other shows, to try to make something which could attract new viewers, though it’s hard to see that happening in S6; very likely in other seasons, when the main arc never seems to get going till about episode 3 or 4.

    As others have said, Tony Head was determined to spend more time with his daughters that year, and it took quite a lot of pressure to get him to agree to do even as many episodes as he did. He’s well enough known over here that he wasn’t in much fear of being without work if the Buffy team dumped him permanently, and he’s always been very grounded about where his priorities lie.

    It’s good to see you back on the subject of my favourite show of all time, Myles. I’m looking forward to the ride!

  7. lawrence

    My biggest problem with Bargaining was the timing of some of the scenes. Think about how much more impact it would have had if we saw Willow explaining that the spell failed and Buffy wasn’t coming back *before* we actually saw the spell work and Buffy start clawing at the inside of her coffin.

    And I guess that also falls into the category of overwriting. I mean, if writers of literature can follow “show, don’t tell” then surely TV writers can, since they actually have the ability to literally *show*.

    At least if the scenes are reversed, we’d be shown the other characters’ emotional reactions to the failed spell. Instead, it’s kind of a failed dramatic irony.

    And that happens throughout the next two seasons. Lots and LOTS of telling and non-ironic contradictions. (Almost any time someone says something to the effect of “It couldn’t possibly be *that*. That would be *crazy*,” you pretty much know they’re about to be proven wrong. Yes, that’s been used plenty of times before in Buffy, but it’s been done for good effect. Whenever it happens now it just feels like lazy writing.)

  8. Mostly commenting so that I can click on “Notify me of follow-up comments.” :-)

    I enjoy season 6 a lot, primarily because I adore the — ::ponders how to say this without any spoilers:: — can I just say “the Trio”? But no, I don’t like Bargaining. It’s clunky, I don’t think it’s SMG’s best acting, and, yes, the Demons of Anarchy are lame.

    That being said, Spike + Dawn = Awesome.

  9. Welcome back, Myles!

    You make several points, both positive and negative, that ring true about “Bargaining.” However, like tjbw and others have already pointed out, a lot of your complaints are mitigated when you know the overall context in which they are in this season. Season 6 is messy, flawed, but also occasionally brilliant.

    Due to the nature of the season, I feel that some of that messiness and many of those flaws actually kind of work in the season’s favor. There’s one oft-hated episode mid-season, for example, that feels almost intentionally flawed, as a way to precisely relay what the characters are going through, on an emotional and psychological level, to the viewer.

    This is all not to say that there are some flaws that aren’t just straight-up flaws, but rather that there’s a lot of psychological complexity in this season, perhaps the most in any season in the entire series. This isn’t the tight package that I feel Season 5 is, but it’s an immensely valuable and challenging one nonetheless.

    As for your complaint about certain things seeming rushed for the plot, I agree with you to an extent. The biker gang didn’t do much for me, and I think they’re the weakest aspect of the opener. But there are so many vital scenes throughout “Bargaining” that come to have a lot of meaning knowing what’s ahead. Although that’s something that could be said about almost all of Buffy as a show — it only became as transcendent as it is for me after multiple complete viewings, when the full nature of how interconnected the whole thing really is came into view.

    With that said, I think you’ll find that the next episode, the Espenson gem “After Life,” slows things down considerably and really looks deeper, in a very low-key and mostly subtle way, at what effect all of this has had on everyone (and particularly Spike).

    My parting thought for now: I love that “leader-of-us” line about Xander, plaque and all! I found it not dumb in the slightest, but actually quite amusing. The fact that is goes on as long as it does is precisely what makes it so funny to me. Each to their own, huh? :)

    • I like the Xander line too. I can absolutely see Xander doing all of that, with the plaque and everything, as a kind of grieving coping mechanism, if that makes sense.

    • To each their own indeed. I don’t know entirely what it was, but something set me off. Maybe if it had been a certificate and not a plaque? Or if Tara had been joking about the plaque, and it had been a humorous extension of his otherwise logical enthusiasm.

      …what I’m saying is that I think it was the plaque that set me off.

      • Aeryl

        You just want one of your own. I have to agree with Mikejer, I was quite tickled by the thought of a little homemade shop plaque Xander made from a scrap of a 2×4 found on a construction site, that he woodburned to say “Boss of Us”

        Want one myself to be honest.

  10. diane

    I think you’re very much on target about Bargaining feeling “off,” but I agree with others that it’s important to keep an open mind about how much that is deliberate. And that’s the last I can say about that for a while.

    Joss almost always has problems with season openers. For one thing, he takes his time laying careful groundwork and backstory for the season to come, so openers tend to be less than solid in terms of being satisfying stand-alone episodes. At the same time, they tend not totake the time to let the lingering effects of the previous season-end come to a natural closure. “When She Was Bad” gave Buffy one episode to “get over it” about her first death. Season two ended with nearly as much trauma as seaon 5, but season 3 pretty much swept that one under the rug as well, particularly with the unsatisfying “Dead Man’s Party.” In Bargaining, however, Buffy’s grief, shock, and horror are brought front-and-center. How she deals with that, and how her friends deal with her dealing with that, is a big deal.

    The best season opener, bar none, was season 10. (Oh, wait….)

    I’d forgotten, if I’d evern known, that the biker demons were the Demons of Anarchy. Foreshadowing for Sons of Anarchy…..

    • I don’t think there are any mind-blowing season openers in either show, actually. A4’s “Deep Down” might be the best of the lot, but there are plenty that I think are really good and quite successful at what they set out to do. I actually think “Bargaining” is Buffy‘s best opener, personally, but I’m also partial to “Buffy vs Dracula,” “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” and to a lesser extent “When She Was Bad” and “Lessons.” I feel “Anne” and “The Freshman” are the two weakest openers of them all. None of them are outright bad though.

      • Ooooohh. “Deep Down.” Absolutely and 100% the best season opener ever, out of both shows. Can’t wait to get there.

        Diane — they’re not really the Demons of Anarchy. That’s just what Myles was calling them. Because, well, these days, how can you help it?

      • Carlie

        Deep Down = for sure the best opener, which is funny, because S4 Angel is by FAR my most HATED AND DESPISED story arc of either show, though it has many awesome individual episodes/moments.

        • I am constantly astonished when people like Angel (the show) but do not enjoy the A3/A4 story arc. I mean, that’s the whole point! If you don’t like those characters/those storylines, then what is the point of liking the show?

          (Not arguing. Just perplexed.)

          • Carlie

            See, I LOVE S3. And I love much of the concept behind S4. I loved where I thought S4 was going when I first watched Deep Down, and on re-watchings, I do find that each time I hate S4 less. It’s mostly the execution of the concept (as well as the mangling and gross mishandling of a certain character whom I love very dearly) that puts me off about S4.

            MAJOR ANGEL SPOILERS!!!

            I think people who love Cordy and her character development in S3 almost always hate S4. Especially when I read interviews/behind the scenes/etc, and find out that at least part of the handling of Cordy was Joss throwing a petty hissy fit that Charisma Carpenter got pregnant without his ok. The whole Jasmine story? Awesome. Cordy and Connor? Gross. Skip completely negating/erasing ALL of Cordy’s growth/accomplishment/awesomeness from S3? Unforgivable.

          • Susan

            (Kinda vaguely spoilery for Angel S4)

            There’s a lot about Angel S4 that I love, including several really great individual eps. It has me right up until about, oh, say, the end of “Orpheus” and then it loses me entirely until “Home.” In fact, I completely skip those intervening eps these days, though I SUPPOSE I’ll watch them around the time Myles gets to them. I’ll want to be fresh for my diatribe. That one arc (and the larger problem about the whole series manifested in a key aspect of that arc) about kills the whole season for me–much like the Initiative about kills Buffy S4, despite so many individual eps I love.

          • Susan

            CONTINUING ANGEL 4 SPOILERS–MYLES, YOU SHOULD NOT BE READING THIS THREAD

            I can hang through “Orpheus” because of the return of one very cool character, but what goes on with Cordy pretty much from the get-go of S4 is an abomination.

            And yeah, I’ve heard too from various sources that Joss pitched a fit and made Charisma pay.

          • Ack! BAH! You guys! We’re not supposed to be talking about this yet. :D

            I will *briefly* say that of all the problems in s4 (and there are a few), Cordy is one that I’m okay with. See, I never bought squishy, nice Cordy. She’s always felt really fake to me. I’m alright with the super evil, and I actually love how very, very wrong it is. That’s the whole point.

            But let’s have this argument full on once we get there! I REALLY don’t want Myles to know…

  11. The DMG

    “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.”

    Add to that that there’s even sub-camps of people like me and the majority of my friends who loved Season 7 (my third favorite season behind 3 and 5) but were in the disliked-to-hated group for Season 6. And vice versa. Fandom = always messy.

  12. greg

    The great: how much do I love that it’s not Buffy, but Tara (of all people) who kills Razor?

    The less great: what the frilly heck happened to the Buffybot, anyway? Just like April, it got abandoned for some random cleaning crew to take home or something? These guys really need to learn to clean up after themselves. Sunnydale is essentially trashed (just how many people were raped, attacked or killed anyway? it’s never mentioned again!) and none of it’s dealt with – some concern for the people who aren’t the primary cast (does Buffy or Dawn even know who their neighbors are?) would have gone a long way to making much of this seem more realistic. A few police cars or fire truck or ambulances at least.

    Also; why demon bikers anyway? Did they do anything that your average, run-of-the-mill human bikers don’t do?

    I like the episode enough, just because it kick-starts the season off (and I’m a big fan of s6; it DOES get much better from the next episode on (at least for me)) but some of the scenes (Buffybot at the school especially) are cringe-worthy. I really think the script needed another rewrite before it got filmed. And maybe some different editing once word came down from the network to splice the two episodes together for a two-hour premiere.

    • Aeryl

      Her first kill too I do believe.

      The Scoobies narrow minded focus on themselves, doesn’t really bother me, as civilians just get killed being too close to their radius anyways, and later attempts to flesh out this world, always fall flat to me(interactions with police, S7), though the background interactions in OMWF are brilliant. I just take for granted that everybody locked the doors, and like the guy in S7’s Empty Places, everyone has a shotgun. I bet the NRA gets HUGE membership from Sunnydale. Probably more guns in that town, than in South Central.

      I do agree with the problems with the demon bikers, a better idea would have been having Sunnydale slowly degenerate into the demon paradise that Buffy saw upon her resurrection over the course of the summer, but then the clean up would have taken several weeks to of storytelling to clean up, and I think the writers wanted to be able to move on to the more gripping episodes that are coming. What would you have rather had, the rather low key, but gripping “After Life” or “Buffy does Thunderdome” So the MOTW for this episode had to be something that the story could move on quickly, to get to the true meat of the season.

      Also, don’t forget, Dawn separates from Spike after they discover the Buffybot, so perhaps he destroyed it in a fit of grief. It sucks sometimes when the writers don’t make actions and consequences explicit, but sometimes I find how fans fill in these empty blanks fascinating.

      So Myles, speaking of the Buffybot, did you notice just who is standing in Buffy’s iconic spot at the end of the credits? In many ways, she is gone, but not forgotten.

    • Carlie

      I agree about the demon bikers. With the whole “Life is the Big Bad” theme of the season, wouldn’t it have been so much better for it to have it be just an ordinary, run of the mill, human biker gang trashing the town?

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  15. Christopher

    Myles, glad you are back! As usual, great review.

    Once again you have articulated well a number of things that have always bothered me about Bargaining: the sense of it being a series of plot points to get where they need to go rather than an organic, cohesive story, the weakness of the biker gang as an obvious device, the lack of time spent on Giles and the Buffybot, etc.

    I am a fan of many parts of Season 6, and think there are several episodes that are some of the best in the series, but this opener had me worried when I first watched it. It felt a bit like BtVS was falling into the problems that many longer running shows have: the actors and writers come off as self-satisfied and over-sure of themselves. And the actors start playing their roles in more formulaic way, trying to duplicate what they feel has made them successful so far.

    To be clear, I don’t think this happens to BtVS this season (S7 is another story as far as I’m concerned), but I saw elements of that in this two-parter that made me worry. As it turns out, S6 plays with expectations in effective ways and makes some daring choices that I feel pay off well. But some of the clunkiness that is there in this episode does surface later this season.

    I hope you enjoy Season 6 as much as I did. Lots of fun stuff to come (and some not as fun…).

    • Susan

      Yippee! I’ve missed this! The usual astute analysis, Myles, though I don’t agree with you on all points.

      I am in the pro-S6 camp, and there is a lot I like about “Bargaining,” though the demon bikers are not among the positives–for all the reasons outlined thus far. But I agree that the narrative isn’t especially coherent as a whole. Buying back Buffy’s life is a hard bargain though (see what I did there, haha), and I think there’s a case to be made that there’s just too much to do.

      As a season premiere, though, I do think it works pretty well to start our friends out on their paths this season.

  16. rosengje

    I’m of the opinion that Season 6 is messy with moments of brilliance while Season 7 is frequently aggressively bad. And yet despite extremely problematic in different ways, I find them both strong conceptually but lacking in execution.

    What is the consensus on the best Buffy premiere? I personally think “When She Was Bad” is the strongest, but I also like how unlikable most viewers find Buffy in that episode. BtVS had reliably great finales, but I find it fascinating that its premieres were typically seen as lackluster.

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  18. lyvanna

    Yay! And we’re back.

    I completely agree that this opener feels overwritten at points, though I don’t think I’ve been able to articulate it as well as you before. Some of the scenes where the Scoobies seem to be constantly talking about ressurecting Buffy and the problems they might have feel so repetative, expositiony and over-long, it feels to me like half way through the writing process they suddenly decided to make it a 2-parter and so added a bit more padding (some successful, some not).

    That said I do like Bargaining. It probably sits right between ‘Anne’ and ‘The Freshman’ (yes, I like that) in my list of favourite season openers. The increased epic feel (helped by it being a two-parter and having a lot more location shooting), the Buffybot, the quiet moments of sadness from Dawn and Spike and some other stuff I won’t mention now really draw me in on rewatch. Buffy clawing her way out of her grave is truly chilling and so well acted by SMG. As you mention the return of ‘Sacrifice’ is well done – the slightly different version they use here is sadder and works very well.

    FWIW, put me in the love S6 category (you’re making a pie chart yes?) and the like-almost-love S7 category.

  19. Susan

    I spend too much time on Facebook. I keep wanting to “like” comments.

  20. greg

    Okay, I’m gonna bring this up, if only because I’m pretty surprised that no one else has yet:

    How do we all feel about Marti Noxon’s choice of imagery here? Everything in the first half culminates with a lesbian on her knees with a giant snake coming out of her mouth. Almost a decade later, I’m still not quite sure how annoyed and/or amused I’m supposed to be about that. There’ll be other visual metaphorical gags later in the season that work much better (trying to stick a magically-flaccid pencil into a purse is always fun) but this one here just seems too cute for its own good.

    • Aeryl

      You know, I never thought about that before.

      I think it definitely goes to show how unnatural what Willow’s doing, is. I mean natural happy magic ends with deflowering roses and lesbian orgasms. This is an inversion of that, symbolically putting Willow in a hetero and submissive(culturally, not necessarily personally) position.

      Spot on, observation, brilliant. Puts some lyrics in perspective for me too, but I’ll touch on that when we get to OMWF.

    • Well, Marti and David Fury co-wrote this episode, so we can’t blame Marti exclusively.

      I had never thought about this either. My initial thought is that no sexual connotation was intended. If I were trying to write about scary dark magic, “barfing a snake” would be a natural place to go. [Add that to the list of phrases I never thought I’d say…]. I mean, sometimes a snake is just a snake. And all of them are on their knees, not just Willow. And I don’t think that her painting the blood on her cheeks is meant to be a commentary on Native American relations.

      I’ll have to think about this more.

    • You know, I never thought about it that way, either, but as soon as you said it, I was like, “Well, yeah, I guess that’s what it is.”

      Definitely unnatural. That’s what I’m going with here. If they did it on purpose, it was because it was supposed to be unnatural. Did we not just see Willow do something violent to a baby deer? It’s all just indicative of her total willingness to do the icky black magicks.

  21. Anne was probably my least favorite premiere of all the Buffy seasons. It was the only one that really took us out of Sunnydale, with a Buffy we didn’t recognize. On the other hand, third season provided a lot of great character development and, in my opinion, the best Big Bad the show ever had. Sixth season? Eh. Not going to spoil anything, but just a solid Eh.

  22. Marie

    In response to your last question:

    * 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.

    Yes, I think when it aired and when/where a person viewed those episode did have a huge bearing on how it was perceived. For myself? I live in NYC and experienced 9/11 more or less first hand – and my world both business wise and environmentally did a topsy turvey. In short, I felt as if someone had turned my life upside down and thrown me into hell. I remember watching the Season premiere – it aired as one solid two-hour block back then, if I remember correctly. UPN did not come in as clearly as WB and I usually taped it on VCR. (No DVDS or DVR’s). And I cried with Buffy when she stood on that tower staring into hell – finally, I thought, someone gets it.
    Finally a tv series or book or piece of art that understands what I feel.
    Before that episode – I saw Buffy as just another tv series, something I did not tell anyone I was watching and enjoyed, but was hardly obsessed with.
    After that episode…I slowly became obsessed. And it had a great deal to do with how I viewed it and when.

    Was it planned? Yes and no. The episode was filmed long before 9/11 happened and they did question whether to air it or redo it, but they chose, and rightly so – to air it because it addressed what many people felt at that time.

    UPN was different from WB in one important aspect – it had no Standards of Television in place or rules. It was basically just airing sitcom reruns and
    Voyager back then. So when Buffy jumped to UPN – anything goes. In other words – the parent left the room. What this meant? Well, WB told them no body piercings or face piercings. So of course the bikers have face piercings on UPN. The writers went crazy.

    On who ran the show? Whedon and the other writers revealed long after the show had finished that Whedon literally went over every script. So, he was present more or less. He went on to the Whedonseque blog and told people that every decision made in S6 and S7 was his not Marti’s. If you didn’t like what happened? Blame him. I give him credit for that. And after reading the S8 comics and seeing similar problems, I believe him.

    The big difference between S6/7 and S1-5 may be the marked absence of Whedon’s writing partner and co-producer David Greenwalt who helped plot most of 1-5 of the series. And ran Angel up until roughly S4.

    Bargaining was co-written by Marti and David Fury – so many of those lines may have been Fury’s. Fury tended to do the comedy bits while Marti did the emotion as revealed in commentaries.

    The episodes themselves are written very quickly and filmed even faster.
    They have maybe one day to get the script in shape, and often are rewriting it as they are filming. The director’s film it fast – sometimes the writers make it on set to supervise – often the headwriters (which is what happened in Fool For Love). In a lot of cases the director doesn’t know what the writer intended and you don’t do all that many takes. As a result actors are given a bit of power in how they interpret and read the lines. While Whedon did go over every script, he couldn’t be on set…Marti or Fury might have done that. The exception of course were the episodes directed by the writers themselves. If you get the chance listen to the commentary, it is enlightening in regards to the process.

    I think how people viewed the seasons of the show may have a lot to do with what they were going through at the time. I didn’t find the highschool bit all that innovative or groundbreaking, but I was also 28 years old when I watched the series.

  23. DaddyCatALSO

    The demon bikers are exactly why this episode doesn’t work and never could have worked as written. (and keep in mind, they smash the Urn and destroy the Buffybot so they are essential and can’t be ignored like some bad features in other episodes.)

    Yes, as was pointed out above, they’re demons, not humans, but they do nothing even remotely magical. They just act like a biker gnag, and denial of supernatural things, no matter how far it goes, just cannot explain why they can just ride into town and be ignored.

    I mean, there’s a reason why, even in the 50s, biker gangs didn’t terorize towns of almost 40K people. Towns thta big have good-sized plice forces. They have lots of respetcable home and business owners with guns. They are located physically close to reinforcements from state police, county sheriffs, and the National Guard.

    The menace isn’t implausible, it’s l;iterally impossible, so it fails depsite the great stuff.

    • Karen

      True.

      But there IS great stuff.

      I like to describe S6, my favorite season, as as a magnificent failure. Frankly, given all the mundane failures around…..

  24. morda898

    Glad to see you’re back Myles, I’ve missed your inciteful, fresh opinions about my oh-so-favourite show. And you are more or less right about this premiere. It is kinda of a cobbled mess, but an entertaining (and very dark and epic) one. I didn’t much care for this episode my first watch through but now I find it to be one of my favourite Whedon openers (Although such episodes have never been his strong suite).

    I know Marti Noxon was made head writer but Joss is still the final head of the writers room. All scripts and edits go through him before being finalised.

    Also, I was surprised you didn’t mention anything about Willow killing the faun. It’s probably one of the darkest moments of the show. It might have more resonance if you remember Willow in the first episode, with her hair and that dress her mum picked out for her. That level of resonance is what makes Buffy great in my opinion.

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