Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chosen (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective)

Some thoughts on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, mostly written upon finishing the last season:

Caution: Spoiler-riffic

Well, wow. What to say here. The seventh and final season was a step down from the previous seasons (namely, five and six). It wasn't bad or anything, but there were a lot of story elements I could have done without. There was also a lot of rushing, as if they had to get as much done as possible before the buzzer. Seemed like the characterization suffered from this throughout. Kind of the same issues I had with Serenity, actually. Also like Serenity, it's tough to see characters you care about die in the final battle.

I may have had some issues with the final season, but it picked up hugely in the last seven episodes. The last episode, "Chosen", was pretty amazing.

I'll get it out of the way right now... this may well be the best TV show I've ever watched. What starts out as a campy "highschoolers-fighting-demons" show quickly evolves into something incredibly thoughtful, insightful, and self-aware.

Originally the series was seven years long, but for me it took a lot less time to traverse. Join me for this trip down memory lane.

Season 1 - I started watching this in the Spring of '07. It's the shortest season (12 episodes). It revolves around Buffy's high school experience and doesn't seem to be sure what kind of a show it is yet. It also has a certain finality to it by the end... I assume the people behind it weren't sure if it'd make it to a second season. I wasn't all that into this season myself, all things considered, but I liked Buffy herself enough to keep watching.

At this point in the show, her general innocence and (soon shattered) sense of safety have a certain charm. That said, Season 1 really isn't very good. The music and the lighting, etc hadn't evolved yet. When it comes to new people to the series I'd almost suggest starting with S2... but S1 is important in its own way. It's just a bit off-turning at times. Nonetheless two of the three friends I've gotten into the show both started with S1 and stayed with it, so maybe I'm wrong.

Season 2 - Here's where it starts getting good, with the debut of Spike as the new main villain, and some more interesting storylines. The first real extended arc of the series is the infamous Angelus saga, and it's also the arc that made me realize, lo and behold, I actually really like this show.

I was never crazy about Angel, but he was Buffy's love interest (and now, looking back... pretty much her -only- one, as sadly she never completely clicked with anyone else in the show's seven years). Having him revert to his Angelus persona and torment her really helps her grow as a character, as rough as it must be. It also shows Angel's depth - when it comes down to it, he isn't a holy man. He's a bad guy trying to be a good guy, seeking redemption by helping others. And for a few episodes here, he reverts to that bad guy persona that he's running away from.

Angelus causes massive grief for the other protagonists and does it with pride. And speaking of pride, let's not forget the season's primary villain... Spike. While he ended up being perhaps the most popular character on the whole show when it was all said and done, in Season 2 he starts out as a pompous, pampered punk; sort of a cross between Billy Idol and Vegeta. As tremendously charismatic as he is, Spike is a large part of why this show is so good.

Season 3 - Judging from polls and the like, many fans seem to think this is the best season... and while it isn't my favorite personally I can't argue with that too much. There are no bad episodes or fillers. This season is the last high school season (and at first I would have said "good riddance", but now I enjoy the high school arcs) so I figure they wanted to pull out all the stops.

There are some extremely inventive episodes here - such as "The Wish" - that are unforgettable in their own way. This is also Faith's main season. She's in almost every episode here, and that's pretty awesome. She manages to pull Buffy into her bad-ness a few times, too, which makes for some good television. Buffy tends to be a snow-white character a lot of the time, so when she shows a dark side it gives her depth. The only downside to this season? A complete lack of Spike.

Season 4 - The highschool era is over and the show can finally get out of that it goes right into a college theme, complete with rock and roll music. I got about a third of the way through this season, and stopped. I was going through some post-surgery doldrums and had an excess of stuff to do, so the show kind of got shelved for a while.

Fast forward nearly a year, and I picked it up again in October '08, likely because of the Fall mood being in the air and the way this show, well, reminds me of Halloween. At this point I was a little older and more appreciative; I liked the show a lot more than I had previously as I began the second half of the series. That said, Season 4 is... well, it's kind of on the weak side. It's without a doubt the weakest season outside of the first. But it still isn't bad. The storyline here just didn't capture my imagination too much. Which, again, doesn't mean it was bad. Nothing in this show outside of season one is anywhere near bad. Finally, when I saw "Restless", the last episode, I realized how well I understood the characters (and therefore how invested I'd gotten in the show without knowing it), and forged onward. The dream-themed "Restless" is one of those transcendent episodes that makes this show stand out from all others.

Season 5 - I flew through this season faster than any other season up to this point. At first, I wasn't all that crazy about it, but I found that I'd been having more and more trouble turning it off after an episode. By one particular episode it finally hit me that I may have a new favorite show. "The Body" is about the death of Buffy's mom (a possibility that had been in the air since "Fool for Love", with her mom's worsening health issues), and the way it's handled is amazing. It's an episode with no music, no tragic score. The closest you get to a BGM is the sound of kids playing in the distance when Buffy goes outside and blanks out. It's the most realistic depiction of a "day your parent dies" that I've ever seen a TV show do. I have some idea of what this is like, having been by someone's side during a day like that. There's a sense of "I have to do something" without knowing what, the disbelief, the drifting off into imagination where everything turns out fine after all, the not being able to hear the people around you.

Joss Whedon has been there too, and wrote this episode from personal experience. It's an episode that could be depressing, but instead manages to just move you. Everything in this episode was done to perfection. If I wasn't already attached to the main character, I was now. ...and then she dies. I knew that was going to happen in advance, but it still had a powerful impact. She wanted to die at that point, and everything that led up to it made it believable that she -would- want to. All she really wanted at that point was to be finished and complete, if possible. If I could sum this season up in one sentence, it'd be "it doesn't insult your intelligence". After a certain point nothing about this show insults your intelligence.

Season 6 - I watched this in January '09, and it just confirmed that this is pretty much the best TV I've ever seen. It's dark as hell, and some things could have been handled better (everything Willow did, since she was more or less the star of the show for a little while). This season was largely humorless, a first for the show. Still, the character development in this season is off the charts. "Once More With Feeling", the musical episode, is a good example. It's the last episode Whedon wrote/directed before he made Firefly and it's basically a love letter to the fans. After that episode was over I stood up and declared to friends in attendance that "that was the best episode of anything I've seen in 25 years". ...and I was only half kidding. Funny thing was, the guys agreed with me more than the girls did. I thought it was the other way around with musicals? Well, what do I know.

It's kind of fitting that this season has the Original Three main characters on the box cover (Buffy, Xander, Willow) considering it's an emotional trip through their adulthood that, in the end, makes you miss "the good old days" when they were younger, before their adult experiences crashed down on their heads. This is the only season that doesn't have a solid "main villain" in it, and Joss Whedon has said this is because the "villain" this time is life itself, specifically coming to grips with it. The highs, and the lows... and in this season, the lows are about the lowest imaginable. "Seeing Red" is probably the most disturbing episode in the whole series. Right from the start, it's full of the color red, American Beauty style. If you think it's going to go badly... well, you'd be right.

Then there's the Buffy-Spike "relationship". The seeds for this get planted in season five... season six is when it blows up, though. The show makes you clamor for it, then revolt at how wrong it ends up being. Throughout all of's riveting, as our heroine ends up giving in to the advances of her former nemesis. Due in large part to this story, the Willow saga, the musical episode, and the general theme of dealing with adulthood - S6 is personally my favorite season of this or any show.

Season 7 - I watched this almost right after 6 (with a couple weeks off for Firefly...taste the chronological-ness). It's one big arc. The grand finale. The big last battle. The final few episodes really take the whole thing out with a bang. I've seen some anticlimactic series finales in my time, but "Chosen" is completely climactic. If the previous season was about the depths life can hit, this one is about redemption. It seems everyone has some redemption they have to find before it's all over.

One downside is that the Sunnydale High School, for the first time since Season 3... exists. They rebuilt it. Bastards. It's okay, though... at this point it had somehow become something I missed, and the show doesn't revolve around it as it did previously. Not a student anymore, Buffy now works there, and her little sister is a student. It's cool in a way to come full circle. This leads to the introduction of a new character in Principal Robin Wood. He spends most of the season in a suit, minding his own business. However, it's always clear there's more to him than meets the eye, and he later turns out to be quite the badass.

Spike steals the show, like every season he's in. Considering how despicable and hated he's always been, here he shines... as a person. Later on this season has one of the most menacing villains in the show, psychotic preacher (and avatar for an evil god) Caleb. He's a massively powerful foe and has his way with our heroes on several occasions.

This is the final battle of the series. People get destroyed right up to the end. Characters you care about. It's difficult, and it sucks. matters, and it's impressive that a show can make the kind of character-driven impressions that this one does in the first place.

Maybe the best thing about the way this show ends is that it has Buffy embracing life and seeing the world (and the future) as being hopeful again - something she hadn't been able to do since her mother died. This is seen clearly in "Chosen". On the day of her biggest battle - rather than entertain any defeatist attitudes - she talks about her plans for tomorrow.

As for the most tragic character of all, at the very end Spike finally gets his wings.

All said and done, aside from falling in love, watching this show had more of an impact on me than perhaps anything else I experienced in the past couple of years. It's had the intangible "I love this" effect on me in the present that things like Chrono Trigger had on me in my teens. That elusive effect that I've spent years and years trying to find again in my entertainment mediums. Well... I found it. Even if only temporary, it's something I've been wishing for for some time. I guess I got my wish. Thanks, Joss.


  1. Heck of a show. I hear season 6 was supposed to be funnier after the seriousness of 5... well that didn't happen!

  2. I don't think anyone said S6 was going to be more cheerful. It had it's moments, though. ("How's that muscle cramp, Spike?" and "Full! Copper! Repipe! No! More! Full! Copper! Repipe!" And, of course, OMWF. "No, I'll only make [waffles] for myself, but by California law you will own half of them.")