September 3rd, 2010
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When I reviewed “Into the Woods” earlier this summer, I was admittedly somewhat hard on Marti Noxon, which was probably a bit of bandwagon hopping: I’m aware, perhaps too aware, of the criticisms which face Noxon in regards to the later seasons of the series, and I think that I held her accountable for my issue with the way that episode was structured and executed in a way which was probably unfair. Now, mind you, this isn’t to say that I don’t still have issues with the episodes, nor is it to say that I still don’t find some of Noxon’s writing to be a bit (and often a lot) romantically heavy-handed. Rather, Noxon was but one part of a larger team, and holding her personally accountable is reductive to the collective effort involved.
I raise this point because while watching “Forever,” I realized why Noxon’s somewhat divisive qualities actually work to help this post-tragedy episode feel just the right level of uncomfortable. I have some issues with the way the episode unfolds, and the lack of subtlety across the board is still somewhat unsettling, but the conflict between an emotional explosion waiting to happen and the attempts to carry on with one’s life feels natural. In other words, while I felt as if Noxon was attempting to rewrite Riley and Buffy’s relationship to create a heartwrenching moment, here she is drawing from a situation so filled with heartbreak that her poetry feels purposeful, desired.
My biggest issue with “Forever” is that it forces us to accept that Dawn was left this unsupervised for this long. I buy the argument that everyone else is so worried about setting their own affairs in order after Joyce’s death that they fail to see what Dawn is going through; in fact, the episode’s best scenes are probably those which simply capture how the various characters have reframed their existences in the wake of Joyce’s passing. You have Anya realizing that sex is about more than smushing two bodies together, you have Giles sitting listening to the record he and Joyce listened to in “Band Candy” (full disclosure: I have no idea if I would have picked up on that if it hadn’t been mentioned in comments for “The Body”), and you have Willow writing a journal so as to ensure there is some sort of record of the life she would leave behind.* These scenes tell us why everyone is willing to allow Dawn to sneak around in the shadows, stealing numerous items from the magic shop and eventually teaming with Spike to perform a resurrection spell on her mother.
* Just as a note: I’ll probably write about “Epiphany” at some point in the future, but I can’t help but draw a connection between Angel’s realization regarding “meaning” and the kind of self-reflection we see in “Forever.”
I like that Willow is complicit in the situation (I presume we’ll get a bit of fallout from that), but I felt as if the hands-on approach to Dawn violated the season’s logic regarding the importance of protecting her. The scenes with Ben and Glory were entirely unnecessary to this episode’s story, and all they did was remind us why it’s a terrible idea for Buffy and Co. to be ignoring Dawn in this sort of capacity. Without those scenes, I think I would have been able to remain inside of this situation and avoid the apparent contradiction. No, not every episode could be like “The Body” when the seasonal arc is in place, but when those scenes never added up to anything it does make for a curious inclusion. It is possible, I suppose, that Ben’s use of “innocent” is then deconstructed by the remainder of the episode as Dawn takes matters into her own hands, which is technically true: this was a strong episode for Michelle Trachtenberg, and for her character. I guess I just think it would have been even stronger had it been able to make that argument without my constant concern over why they weren’t being more careful with Dawn.
It helps, though, that Dawn’s night on the town is given a strong foundation in Spike’s desire to remember Joyce and help Dawn grieve which really does have nothing to do with Buffy – “Crush” and “I Was Made To Love You” weren’t particularly flattering portraits of Spike, and it’s important that we see how this tragedy also forces him to reflect on what Joyce’s death means. Some of it is informed by his love for Buffy, but there’s enough evidence in the series for us to see the truth in Spike’s humble gift of stolen flowers, and while it’s unfortunate that his way of helping involves a risky resurrection spell you can’t doubt his determination when taking on the three-headed lizard. Throw in Joel Grey, who I always enjoy, as Doc the tailed resurrection expert, and you have a series of events which was made me a tiny bit skeptical but were solid enough to get us to the conclusion.
And what makes “Forever” work is that the poetry feels meaningful: sure, it’s manipulative for no one to discover Dawn until the moment she finishes her spell, but that Buffy and Dawn finally get to have that conversation about how one should respond in such a crisis while we wait for Zombie Joyce to return to her children is just a really nice piece of writing. Sure, the setup on the picture makes its conclusion pretty darn clear, but Sarah Michelle Gellar and Trachtenberg really knocked the emotions of the scene out of the park, and the conclusion really is a piece of poetry. The notion that their mother could have returned as if she were normal, but that Dawn (and not Buffy) made the decision to turn her away, is the moment where things sort of started to connect for me. It’s the moment where Dawn, in the wake of her mother’s death, takes ownership over her own security: it was a risk to resurrect her mother, but in some ways it’s even riskier to keep living without her, and so that decision holds a great deal of weight for her character. And, because so much of that weight is emotional, Noxon’s particular brand of writing feels like an ideal fit: the emotion of tragedy doesn’t end with a funeral, but rather gains new context, and so Noxon was the right writer for Stage Two of the grieving process.
- As for the Angel cameo, I thought it was well done – it wasn’t treated as something overly dramatic or emotional, but rather a source of comfort for Buffy in the idea that someone is there for her, and that she is not alone. I do think that their kiss and the sort of restatement of their current situation as two people still in love but unable to be together was a little bit over the top, drawing attention away from the subtlety of how the scene played out, but I don’t blame Noxon for being unable to resist the romance (which she used throughout the episode to counterbalance the tragedy).
- It’s not shocking that Buffy’s father doesn’t enter the picture: with Giles as the requisite father figure, and with Angel as the heroic figure, his arrival would have been a further distraction.
- I talked a little about this on Formspring, but the theme song really doesn’t fit these sorts of dramatic cold opens: cutting from the shot of Dawn staring at the casket, after a nice subtle scene about the notion of “what Mom would have wanted,” right to the credits was very jarring, even with the spooky opening notes.
- It’s probably fitting that I took a good three weeks to watch this after seeing “The Body,” since viewers had to wait almost seven weeks to watch it when it originally aired – feel free to share your thoughts on what it was like to wait that long and return to this sort of catharsis.