So with “Once More With Feeling” establishing the thesis, not only with Buffy and her depression, but with Xander’s lingering uncertainty regarding his wedding, and Willow’s careless over-reliance on magic, the rest of the year explores just how much damage the core trio of Scoobies can do to themselves. They’re helped along the way by outside factors, of course; Halfrik prods Anya and Xander into doubting how right for each other they really are, Amy goads Willow into going deeper into dark magic, and Spike operates as a devil on Buffy’s shoulder, encouraging her to give in to her most self-destructive tendencies.
Everything comes to a head at different moments for the Scoobies.
For Xander, his rock bottom comes in the episode “Hells Bells,” where a version of himself from the future goes back in time to show him a premonition revealing how he will become exactly the kind of deadbeat he always feared. Even when he learns the “future Xander” was just a demon out for revenge against Anya, Xander doesn’t care; the vision—fake or not— hits too close to home. He runs away, sending Anya into her own dark place.
Why Xander? Why must you be so short-sighted? That’s the question fans asked at the time, believing the writing was doing the character a disservice. Actually, it was perfectly in line with where the character was at that point in time. The fact is, he’s a slave to his upbringing, as we all are to some extent. He loves Anya too much to subject her to being what he thinks a husband/father is (his own father). Running away from his responsibility, running away from the grown-up thing is the only thing that makes sense to him. He can’t be the brave adult he needs to be, he thinks.
For Willow, she has not one but two rock bottom moments. First, when she’s high on dark magic, she crashes a car and nearly kills Dawn. This happens not even halfway through the season (episodes nine and ten, “Smashed” and “Wrecked”), but just when we think she’s turning the corner, a stray bullet ends the life of Tara, and Willow—who had been suppressing her temptations to use magic—unleashes everything she has, to the point where she tries to destroy the world.
Why Willow? Why must you be so entirely evil, so suddenly? That’s the question fans asked at the time, believing the writing was doing the character a disservice. Actually, it was perfectly in line with where the character was at that point in time. She’s not trying to destroy the world for some silly “she’s evil and that’s what evil people do” reason. She’s not The Master (season one) or Angelus (season two). She wants the world to end because that’s what she can do…and what she can’t do is bring Tara back. She needs control. She lost control when she gave up magic and what happened was her loved one died in her arms. Control is all she has left, and in her pain and anger, using her control over the world to “end it all” is the only thing that makes sense to her. She has nothing left, she thinks.
For Buffy, her rock bottom comes about a dozen different times in a dozen different ways. I mean just pick one: There’s her being forced to work at the Doublemeat Palace…which is topped by her ex-boyfriend Riley (blech) popping in to see her with his new wife in tow. There’s the magical side-effect that a demon gives her, which causes her to believe that her entire life—being a Slayer, saving the world, etc—is just a figment of her mentally broken imagination, and that the real Buffy Summers is in a mental institution. There’s the other side-effect of a demon baddie that causes her to think she accidentally killed an innocent person. And there’s the feeling of shame she feels over her ongoing tryst with Spike.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander all have it hard this year as they battle their own personal demons.
And yet, as much as season six is about the heroes sinking into the pits of their worst impulses, the year does not end on a sad note. On the contrary, the finale is one of the most uplifting and hopeful of them all. In the end, all three overcome their personal demons and close the year on a positive note…
In the end, Xander rises to the occasion when it matters most. He might’ve withered at his wedding, but when the world was at stake, he stood up to Dark Willow and got through to the kind-hearted person that was buried under all that dark magic. He reached her in a way no one else could, not even Buffy. Willow and Buffy had been friends since tenth grade; Xander and Willow had been friends since Kindergarten, and the “yellow crayon” speech he gives brings out the tears, not only in Willow but in everyone watching at home…
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It’s so darn cheesy. The special effects are shoe-string budgeted, the makeup and costuming is peak late-90’s/early 00’s (baggy…everything baggy, and goth!), but after six years of getting to know these characters…the scene just works. Buffy doesn’t save the world this time. She did that last year. This time it’s Xander who does it, because Xander was the only one who could.
In the end, Willow lets go and decides to cry and mourn for Tara rather than end the world over it. Seeing as how Tara was one of, if not the, purest, kindest, and most harmless characters in the series, that’s exactly what she would have wanted. Willow embraces her friend and saves the world simply by deciding not to destroy it. That’s maybe understating things, but it’s all right there in Xander’s big moment; they overlap.
And in the end, Buffy—who began the year by climbing out of a grave—ends the year in much the same way. At the start of the season, she climbed out against her will, entering a dark and wicked world. At the end of the season, she climbs out with a renewed sense of purpose and enters a bright and hope-filled world that awaits her.
Buffy’s sixth’s season is hardly the show’s tightest, most focused, or highest-quality batch of episodes. What it offers, however, is a powerful analysis of how we—people, us—are often our own worst enemies, capable of hurting ourselves and our loved ones in a way no one else can. What we often need is some perspective, a reminder that we’re loved, and someone to show us that life is still worth living, no matter what.
Oh and as for Spike? He has his own little character arc this year, the low point of which is an attempted rape of our main heroine. It’s easily the most uncomfortable five minutes you’ll have watching this TV show, and though I didn’t like it (who would?), I can at least say it wasn’t done for nothing. Spike—soulless vampire that he was—felt remorse and shame, something hard for a vampire to come by. In response, he left Sunnydale and ended up in the hut of a shaman who, after the obligatory trials and hardships were endured, granted him what he needed to, in his words “give Buffy what she had coming to her.”
Spike got his soul back as the credits rolled.
Buffy’s sixth season ended in a way no prior year did: It ended with a cliff-hanger. With the promise of another year already guaranteed, Joss kept us hanging, wondering what was coming next, in the show’s seventh and final season. We’ll talk all about it next time.
Until then, there’s Angel…