How His View of the Characters in Buffy in the Later Seasons Foreshadowed How Little He Thought Of Them and the Human Endeavor
Buffy’s sixth season is almost universally considered the worst season of any Joss Whedon series period; at the time, few fans could find anything redemptive about it, and in hindsight, it actually looks worse. What makes it look even worse in retrospect is how little the world of the supernatural has to do with so much of the horrors of the season — all they do is essentially magnify, if not completely destroy, almost every bond fans had come to love about Buffy for the last five years.
Perhaps we should have been clued in from the beginning of the season when the remainder of the Scoobies decide to bring Buffy back from the dead after nearly six months in the ground, with little if any consideration for the consequences. Willow, who is now the de facto leader of the gang, brooks no argument saying that Buffy must have spent the last several months in a hell dimension. The resurrection spell does work — but Buffy comes back to life in her grave (we see her decaying corpse become whole) and she has to dig herself out of her coffin. She spends the opening episodes essentially as a zombie. Then in the third episode, Buffy lies to her friends and tells them she was in hell — and then confides to Spike at the end of the episode that she was at peace — “I think I was in heaven.” This inability to deal with reality commands all of her actions for the remainder of Season Six and increasingly drives a wedge between her and her friends.
They are, for the record, doing a pretty good job destroying themselves. In a more unbelievable storyline Willow is increasingly becoming ‘addicted’ to dark magic and using spells to manipulate her friends. This causes her girlfriend Tara to break up with her a third of the way through the season, and actually causes her to go even deeper into addiction. (‘Smashed’ — an episode where Willow essentially spend in a magical crack house — was considered the creative nadir of the season. I’d argue it was a feature of the season, not a bug.) Many of the gang continue to have trouble trusting Willow from that point forward.
Xander and Anya, in the meantime, who have been a couple for the past two seasons get engaged and plan to get married. Anya is a former vengeance demon, so the wedding plans are, problematic, to say the least, but the couple seems to be doing fine until their wedding day, when a demon, taking the version of a future Xander shows himself to Xander, and shows him a vision of the future where the two of them are in a horrible marriage ultimately hating each other. Even when the demon is exposed as a fraud, Xander still ends up dumping Anya at the altar. Xander’s home life has always been the most troubled of the Scooby Gang, and its made very clear that Xander’s father has been abusive to his mother and to Xander himself. The writer’s try to show that Xander is afraid of what he will become but it still speaks of sloppy writing above all else. Anya reacts by become a vengeance demon again, and even worse having sex with Spike on a closed circuit feed that the rest of the Scoobies see.
By this time, Buffy’s life has completely deteriorated. Her mother died the previous season, her father has essentially abandoned her and Dawn, and by this point Giles has returned to England. (At least this part of the story was outside the writers control: Anthony Stewart Head had tired of playing Giles and was no longer a series regular.) Combined with her emotional numbness from coming back from heaven, Buffy begins having destructive sex with Spike, the vampire she utterly loathes because it’s the only way she can feel anything. When she tries to terminate the relationship, Spike becomes frantic and nearly rapes her on the Summers bathroom floor. Between this, the ‘villains’ of Season Six work a spell on her to make Buffy believe that her entire life in Sunnydale is a delusion and that in order to go back to ‘normal’, she must kill all her friends and sister — which she comes perilous near to doing.
The villains, for the record, are universally considered the weakest in the history of the series: three minor characters who had been nerds in high school who, on pure impulse, decide to ‘take over Sunnydale.” They are completely incompetent at what they do and have no clear aim, but it soon becomes clear one of them — Warren — is worse than the other two and murders a woman who broke up with him. Jonathan (Danny Strong) who’s never been fully committed to the mission, more or less turns against him near the end of the season.
This leads to perhaps by far the worst arc of the miserable season. Tara and Willow have gotten back together. Xander attempts to reconcile with Buffy. Then Warren shows up with a gun, determined to kill Buffy for ruining his plan. He shoots her, but a stray bullet ends up hitting Tara, and she dies. The death of one of the few purely good characters, as well as the only gay regular on the series, is still something fans have not forgiven Whedon for. Even worse is the fact that Willow effectively becomes ‘Dark Willow’, tracks down Warren, and right in front of Buffy, effectively flays him alive. Attempting to stop her from killing the other two, Buffy and Willow end up fighting each other with her nearly killing her. Giles emerges to try and stop her, and Willow drains him of his magic — leading her to, complete spur of the moment, to destroy the world.
Now (spoiler) she is stopped by the pleas of her best friend Xander, in what is admittedly one of the show’s greatest moments. But honestly, everything in the last ten minutes of the seasons seems completely ham-handed, especially Buffy’s remarkable regaining of her will to live and her decision to become a better sister to Dawn. Everything about Season Six is miserable, and it seems Joss Whedon and his writers limited the supernatural element in regard to the character’s misery and made the ‘Big Bad’ so utterly powerless to basically send a message that all the supernatural power in the world will still get their ass kicked by the real world.
The seventh season is an improvement, but not by much. Willow returns to Sunnydale having been ‘healed’ by Giles, but there are no consequences for her actions, legal or otherwise. Anya stops being a vengeance demon but seems tangential to the Scoobies from that point on. Sunnydale High, which was famously blown up at the end of Season 3, has been completely rebuilt by the beginning of the season — just in time for Dawn to matriculate there, and Buffy to take a job as guidance counselor. But all this normality is essentially being done while the writers are essentially tearing down the mythology of the series.
‘Potentials’ — young girls who have the possibility of being Slayers — are being murdered across the globe. (The fact that there’s never been a hint of this through the series to this point is actually the least of the problems of the mythos.) By the time Sunnydale learns of this, the Watchers’ Council has been decimated and the home offices in London have blown up. When Giles returns with a few stray girls at the halfway point of the season, we are finally told of the threat — ‘The First Evil’.
Now, we were introduced to the First Evil in a Season 3 episode and told fundamentally that this was the source of all evil and was impossible to be killed. Buffy dealt with at the time as a tangential threat, and because the series knew that there wasn’t much to be done with this, moved on. The First Evil is now engaged in a plan to eliminate the Slayer line, finishing up with Faith and Buffy and then destroy the world. The thing is, by this point the characters have been dealing with the apocalypse on a yearly basis (it’s practically a running gag by this point) so its hard to see how this threat (which is incorporeal and at most seems able to shift its form into the dead) is somehow more serious than all the ones have come before. The writers try to up the stakes by saying that the First Evil can not be killed. What the writers never even try to do is explain why, after having been dormant for millennia, the First Evil is moving now or even what happened to make the threat more obvious. The First Evil may have been planning longer, but there’s nothing to make us think that’s it more dangerous than any of the Big Bads it almost casually takes the form of throughout the season. I think the overall explanation is simple: everybody knew at some point this was going to be the final season and they just wanted to make it as big an ending as possible. But you’d think after writing for seven years, they’d have worked through it by now.
And at the end of the day, Whedon and his writers aren’t really interested in that threat — they’re still interested in tearing up the foundations they’ve spent the last seven years building. In the final third of the series, Giles is led to believe by Principal Wood that Spike — who has been in control of the First for much of the season — must be put down. Without talking to Buffy, he tries to do so and when she finds out, the betrayal is so great that there is a wedge driven between them that is never quite healed.
In the next episode Faith (Eliza Dushku) is driven back to Sunnydale by Willow (I’ll get to that in the next part) to help with the fight against the first. Considering the two of them never got along and the last three times they met, they tried to kill each other — this is not a warm reunion. But there are bigger problems: Caleb (Nathan Fillion) the vessel for the First has shown up in Sunnydale. A fundamentalist preacher who believes women are the source of all evil, Buffy underestimates him when she leads her troops into battle. They pay a high price; several potentials are killed and Xander loses an eye.
There’s a definitely fissure among the Scoobies at this point; the next time Buffy tries to order them into battle, there is an open revolt and the entire group — including Dawn — orders her out of the Summers house and on the streets, which by this time have been essentially overrun by the forces of darkness. I still have no idea why this happened, by the penultimate episode, Buffy’s back in charge as if nothing has gone wrong. I think it was just another reason for Joss to drive another wedge between the group.
By this time, it’s almost inconsequential that almost every other human resident of Sunnydale — and quite a bit of the demon population — has vacated the town in a mass exodus. The fact that for the entirety of the series nobody in the general population of Sunnydale seemed aware of everything going on but somehow all simultaneously decided to leave everything they owned behind is just overlooked; the fact that the few family members the Scoobies have all leave as well is completely ignored. The implication, I guess, is that by now the Scoobies are essentially a family, but this would mean more if Whedon and company hadn’t spent the last two years essentially driving them apart.
Of course, the real reason why everybody in Sunnydale has left is made very clear in ‘Chosen’ the series finale. In an effort to take the fight to the First, Buffy leads her troops for one final, definitive battle in which she has decided to utterly change the rules. With the help of Willow, she has decided to open the Slayer Line “In every generation, a Slayer is born because a bunch of men decided thousands of years ago made up that rule.” In what seemed to be the ultimate victory over the patriarchy, the most powerful woman on the show broke that rule, and now any girl who can be the Slayer will be the Slayer.’
I’m not going to lie: the last fifteen minutes of the series are extraordinary. Watching women across the world, many of them being bullied or harassed at the time, suddenly gaining strength is incredible. Seeing one of the weakest potential smiling and saying: “This is gonna be fun,” was brilliant. Watching Spike the ultimate sacrifice to save mankind, was excellent. (Of course, if you’d watched the final season of Angel you know it was temporary — and definitely not planned by Whedon) . And watching the last school bus drive out of Sunnydale as the Hellmouth closed for good — taking the entire town of Sunnydale with it — was the finale we all wanted. And if the final shot of the series where Dawn asks Buffy: “What do we do now?” with a pure smile appearing on Buffy’s face as she realizes for the first time in years she can actually consider this question, is beautiful.
But I’m not going to lie, a lot of this is negated by two factors, one of which occurred later on, the other that was going on simultaneously. The first would involve a new set of comics, authorized by Whedon and the show. The second was the storyline that was going on Angel which came to its climax the same week as Buffy.
The final two seasons of Buffy had been dark, no question — but there were people like me who fundamentally thought that the last season had basically redeemed the show. But even if you were willing to ignore all of the ways the show was fundamentally destroying the characters we’d loved for seven years, it was a lot harder to ignore the message that Whedon and his writers were sending us in the final episode of Season 4 of Angel. I will make that message fundamentally clear in the next story in this series, in which it becomes crystal clear that Whedon’s treatment of his characters pales to his vision for humanity as a whole.