Buffy Season 5 cast photo

In parts 1 and 2 I discussed at length Buffy‘s first few seasons, establishing how its dialogue and style was unique and exciting, and how Whedon managed to build in complicated, long-arc structures with a high degree of flexibility built-in to ease dealing with network restrictions. By season 4, this structure was well entrenched, and most of the following seasons require the viewer to see every episode in order to follow it properly. In part 3, rather than looking at these seasons in detail, I want to talk about a few of the episodes that truly distinguished themselves on an already remarkable show.

Season 4 transitioned the series away from a high-school drama, as the Scoobies have graduated (and Sunnydale High is toast following the season 3 finale). Whedon would eventually bring it all back around to high school in season 7, though its high school sequences are completely different; more adult, dark, often set in the seedy, sprawling basement structure of the school. Dawn’s trials and tribulations, often mirroring Buffy’s, made her seem childish and superficial, while they seemed dire when the main cast experienced them in early seasons. This gave the show the opportunity to satirize its first 3 seasons beautifully.

The transition to college, and eventually working life, was handled smoothly. While episodes often spoofed the tropes of other post-high school dramas (eg. “Beer Bad”, “Living Conditions”) it didn’t have the trouble most other shows have transitioning because the plot and characters of the series generally had little to do with its setting. Whether the library, Giles’s house, Buffy’s house, or the magic shop, all the series needed to thrive and express itself was the core cast gathered together, riffing on each other with the classic Whedon dialogue that he polished most episodes with, regardless of who received the writing credit.

That’s what makes one of the best episodes of the series, “Hush”, such a remarkable achievement. A fan favourite, the story goes that Whedon was tired of hearing people say exactly what I just did; that he relied entirely on dialogue. So he made an episode with virtually no dialogue to show us up, and he proved himself right, the only episode of the series to receive an Emmy writing nomination. While proving he could plot exciting, memorable moments without relying on his dialogue, it established that what he really is a brilliant at isn’t just dialogue, but use of sound.

The use of classic silent film musical cues and tropes was inspired and sometimes subtle, such as the way Buffy and Willow’s whiteboard necklaces evoked silent film title cards. Title cards were used in a more obvious way in the best sequence in the episode, when Giles uses a series of transparencies in a college lecture hall to explain exactly what must be done. Subtexts of the episode – such as the quick turn to gouging consumerism and religion by a panicked populace – was spot-on, as Whedon himself pointed out in the episode commentary after seeing the post-9/11 reaction. It was also, as many of Whedon’s episodes do, was a key turning point for the character arcs, with both Buffy/Riley and Tara/Willow truly beginning their relationships in the episode.

Season 4 has a very unique finale compared to the other six seasons; in the penultimate episode, the Scoobies combine their essences with the Slayer’s to turn her into a superhuman easily capable of defeating the putative Big Bad, human/computer/demon cyborg Adam. The season finale, “Restless”, deals with the aftermath of this, as the act offends the spirit of the First Slayer, who then attacks each of the Scoobies in their dreams. The First Slayer is offended by the way Buffy relies on help from her friends; this resistance of Buffy’s to the ancient rule that the Slayer works alone is, along with her refusal to accept the authority of the Watchers discussed in part 1, one of the principal things that distinguish her from the Slayers past, and eventually allow her to end the curse of the Slayer’s loneliness in the final episodes of the series.

“Restless” also contains our first hint of Whedon’s musical aspirations in the Giles dream sequence, and Buffy’s contains the last of the foreshadowed references to the arrival of Dawn in season 5, one of the most audacious tricks Whedon pulled. Satirizing the conveniently disappearing or reappearing siblings that writers of less tightly plotted dramas use as plot hooks, Whedon dropped a never-before-seen little sister into Buffy’s world without a breath of explanation, and fans didn’t know what to make of the entire Scooby gang acting like Dawn had always been a part of things. He then gave a plausible in-series explanation for her existence; much of the season was devoted to the struggle for the Summers family to come to terms with what Dawn was, where she came from, and whether she really was part of the family – a question Buffy’s death at the end of the season answered definitively.

Whedon later used sound incredibly effectively in the most powerful episode of the series, season 5’s “The Body”. Using only diegetic music was an inspired choice for the episode dealing with the aftermath of Joyce Summers’s shockingly abrupt death. While fantasy series often have characters return from death, and Buffy is no exception, the show established a rigid rule: Magical deaths could be recovered from; “natural” or human deaths could not. Angel and Buffy could return, but there was no chance for Jenny to come back from a snapped neck, or Tara from a bullet to the chest. (Note there is one interesting exception to this; Buffy’s death in season 1, which required conventional CPR to correct. This also required some retconning of Warren’s “natural” death when he was written into the Season 8 comic series; Whedon confessed that he just forgot. No-one’s perfect).

When we saw Joyce dead on the couch, knowing her medical issues in the past, we already knew that there was no coming back from the moment Buffy uttered her heartbreaking “Mommy?”. In “The Body”, which immediately followed, we get a wrenching portrayal of grief and loss that is among the most powerful ever seen on television, in any format. The structure of the episode, which is essentially short vignettes each following a set of characters as they prepare to go to the hospital and deal with the news, gives it a very different feel than other episodes; as does the almost complete lack of sound in the episode other than the character’s voices. The lone vampire kill over Joyce’s corpse in the morgue is a sad reminder that Buffy, even in the midst of shattering grief, is never free from her duties.

Buffy and Dawn’s relationship changed significantly after this episode, as did Buffy’s character, thrust into the thoroughly unexpected role of a single mother to a teenager. Even Anya was given much greater dimension by this episode, when for once we see her blunt inappropriateness for what it is; a complete inability to understand how to deal with mortality.

After Buffy’s death and return from Heaven, the show took a dark turn in season 6, as many characters began questioning many of their fundamental world views. Giles, aimless without a Slayer, prepares to return to England; Willow’s plunge into the dark magics required to resurrect Buffy begin corrupting her and would eventually turn her into the season’s true Big Bad; Tara was questioning her relationship with Willow out of concern for her magic abuse; Spike had lost his love and was awkwardly becoming a foster father to Dawn; Xander and Anya were questioning the wisdom of getting married.

All of this came to a head into Whedon’s masterful musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling”. Many other shows had done musical episodes before, but generally they had many differences with Buffy‘s. Often they were done to take advantage of a cast with backgrounds in singing, such as Chicago Hope‘s excellent musical episode, but most of the Buffy cast – excepting Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson, as well as the demon “ringer” – were inexperienced with singing at all. Other musical episodes usually take place using standard musical conventions; people burst into song and dance with nobody questioning why or how, while the characters in the Buffy episode are very aware of the bizarre incongruity of what is happening.

What really made “Once More, With Feeling” unique was its importance. Musical episodes were always throw-away episodes, “one-off” episodes of little importance, such as the Drew Carey Rock Horror Picture Show tribute episode. “Once More, With Feeling” is one of the most important episodes of the series, and certainly the most important of the season. All those secrets that they’d been concealing from each other were laid bare, and these revelations have powerful repercussions throughout the season. Buffy and Spike begin their self-abusive relationship; Xander leaves Anya at the altar; Willow plunges into dark magics out of grief and guilt for what she did to Buffy; Tara decides to leave Willow, and Giles decides to leave Buffy. These acts continued to reverberate right through the final episode.

In this Thursday’s fourth and final part of the series, I’ll finish off my look back at Buffy, discuss the effect Whedon has had on subsequent TV series, and finally bring it back around to the question I posed at the beginning of the article; why do these unique, critically acclaimed shows struggle, and what does it mean for the future of his latest venture, Dollhouse?

Joss Whedon’s past and the future of “Dollhouse”: