Throughout Buffy’s sixth year, our heroes give in to their worst impulses and struggle in adulthood, as people without parents or guardians helping them frequently do. And though every Buffy season explores its main theme for the year both internally and externally, season six is the one year where those two ideas are as closely interwoven as they would ever be. The real enemies of season six are the “personal demons” we all wrestle with as we try to figure out life in our 20s, and those personal demons make the lives of our characters miserable all season long.
Xander struggles to break out of the long and ugly shadow of his deadbeat, alcoholic father, whose marriage is in shambles and whose life is spent mostly with him wasting away in a recliner with a beer in hand and a perpetual five o’clock shadow on his face. In what should be Xander’s highest and greatest moment as a character—his wedding day—he faces his ultimate test: Will he solidify his character growth over the past six years, marry a woman he genuinely loves, and become the man he can be?
He cowers. He caves. He gives in to his worst fears. He runs away, leaving his bride at the altar, refusing to go through with his marriage simply because he can’t shake the fear that he might become the same sort of deadbeat husband that his father is. Do we hate watching Xander make such foolish and hurtful decisions? Yes. After six years we have invested in the character and, after six years, Joss Whedon is allowed to make us feel shame and pity and frustration toward him. Life isn’t always rainbows and happiness and always making good choices. It’s much messier and Xander’s actions this year remind us of that.
Willow struggles with her persistent insecurities and negative feelings of her self-worth, something which she had been successfully repressing over the past few years as her magical powers blossomed. The problem is, Willow’s insecurities never went away, and the more powerful she becomes as a witch, the more she comes to believe it’s the only “good thing” about her that’s of any value to anyone. That’s a very dangerous personal philosophy to hold, and when her friends try to tell her that too much reliance on magic is becoming a problem, she shuts them down and shuts them out, growing darker and more isolated as a result.
Tara is there to try and keep Willow grounded but even she is shunned. Instead, she turns to Amy, the minorist of all minor characters, who returns in what, admittedly, is a killer bit of continuity commitment. Amy brings out all the worst impulses in Willow, leading to her becoming her most reckless and ugly self. When she finally crosses the line and nearly gets Dawn killed, she seems to revert, but really it’s an insecure character retreating back to her insecurities. Having already gotten a taste of what, to her, defeats those negative feelings, her respite from magic was never going to last. After Tara is killed, Dark Willow emerges and there is seemingly no pulling her back to the light.
From a writing standpoint, I rank the first part of the Dark Willow storyline among the worst-written and acted episodes of the whole series, but after binging the entire twenty-two-episode run, it’s much more tolerable than it was back in 2001-2002. The worst of it only lasts for two episodes (“Smashed” and “Wrecked”) and after that things improve instantly. At the time, “Wrecked” was the last hour to air before the winter break, meaning no new episodes aired for five weeks; that’s a long time to stew over what is, in my opinion, the single worst Buffy episode of them all. Today, however, the episode is over and the next one is on mere moments later.
Binging the season helps see the storyline as a single entity and appreciate what is going on with Willow’s very damaged character this year. Of course, we didn’t even mention one of the big catalysts for Willow’s conflicting feelings this season is the knowledge that her (very dark and complicated) spell to bring Buffy back from the dead, did not—as Willow believed—rescue her from Hell, but actually pulled her out of Heaven.
Buffy’s storyline this season is nothing short of tremendous, but that’s an opinion hardly felt twenty years ago. Back then there was too much talk about the will they/won’t they with Spike, the glum attitude she had for most of the year, and how miserable she seemed some of the time while being overly chipper the next. It seemed like bad writing. It seemed unfocused and inconsistent. In fact, it was the best realization of the messiness of depression ever displayed in “genre TV.”
Buffy begins the year in a coffin, ripped away from the afterlife by her friends, and then spends the next few episodes in a haze, trying and failing to “just get back to normal.” It all comes to a head in the seminal episode “Once More With Feeling”, where it is revealed to her friends that Buffy was happy where she was, having saved the world and given her life to do it. Now she’s been forced away from all that and thrown back into the messy, ugly, wicked world all over again. Not only does her sacrifice feel pointless (what changed? evil is still rampant), but the reward she was enjoying because of that sacrifice is taken away from her. No wonder she’s depressed. And yet, all she hears from her friends is “suck it up and get over it” (not in so many words, but that’s how she interprets their words and actions). Naturally, she’ll put on a lying face and smile for them when she can, and it makes perfect sense, too, that she would give in to her worst impulses and engage in a prolonged relationship with a soulless Spike.
What’s most remarkable about this year is how the episode everyone loves from the season, “Once More With Feeling,” is often lauded as being a happy oasis in a sea of gloominess. In reality, “Once More With Feeling” is the most poignant episode of the whole series. It might not be as straightforwardly sad as “The Body” but it’s a close second. The difference is that it hides its sadness behind the song and dance numbers. When you read the lyrics to the songs in question you soon realize that Joss used his “musical episode” as a way to sort of lay out his thesis for the whole season. I’ll have a detailed write-up of the whole episode and all its numbers later, but for right now, just focus on the second verse of the big show-stopping song at the end:
Life’s a song
You don’t get to rehearse
And every single verse
Can make it that much worse
Still, my friends don’t know why I ignore
The million things or more
I should be dancing for
All the joy, life sends
Family and friends
All the twists and bends
Knowing that it ends
Well, that depends
On if they let you go
On if they know enough to know
That when you’ve bowed
You leave the crowd
Buffy basically says that she knows all the things people love about life and that she should be happy to sing about them, but she can’t. She used to live that life, but then she died. That life was over but instead of letting her go, her friends intervened. She played her part, did her bow, and left, only to be forced back…
There was no pain
No fear, no doubt
‘Till they pulled me out
So that’s my refrain
I live in Hell
‘Cause I’ve been expelled
I think I was
So, give me something to sing about
Give me something
It’s worth noting that the demonic curse that permeates the episode is the fact that singing and dancing are now life-threatening. If you don’t stop, you will dance till you spontaneously combust…which is what Buffy starts to attempt when she asks for something (happy) to sing about. When no answer is given, she starts dancing and smoking, about to die. That’s what she wants in the moment. That’s what she wants this whole season: She wants something to sing about. She needs something to pull her out of her depression. Of course it’s Spike who stops her before she dies, and sings to tell her his own thesis…
Life’s not a song
Life isn’t bliss
Life is just this
You’ll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
You have to go on living
So one of us is living
Ever the nihilist-poet, Spike tells Buffy there is no happy answer, only further existence. It’s hardly what she needs in the moment, but it’s something, and what will come from it is a sordid relationship built on Spike’s “just live” philosophy. To say that road will lead both down to a dark place would be putting it mildly. Before the song ends, however, Dawn adds a final line, and it’s a callback to something Buffy said to her just before she leaped to her heroic death…
The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.
What a fantastic callback this is. The first time we heard it came at the end of “The Gift,” as Buffy decided she had to die a hero. Now we hear it after Buffy has resigned herself to die as a way to give up and succumb to her depression. Dawn’s words are a sobering reminder that death will not solve the problem this time as it did last time. Buffy walks away, not necessarily determined to live, but no longer prepared just to end it all right there.
Again, I’ll have much more to say about “Once More With Feeling” in the “worst to best” countdown. Before moving on, I want to leave this here…
DEPRESSION HOTLINE USA: 1-800-662-4357
DEPRESSION HOTLINE UK: +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90