Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 6: Deconstruction, Self-Destruction, and the Real World


“Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”
- Rorschach, in Alan Moore’s Watchmen

One of my theater teachers gave me some advice before I performed a particularly bizarre piece on stage. He said, “Make the character’s reactions real. No matter how wild the situation or how crazy the setting, you have to make the audience believe that this is how someone would react.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the fantastical world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sure, creator Joss Whedon lays down some important ground rules for his universe, but at its heart, it’s still a fantasy world where the chosen few do battle with demons and monsters and bloodsuckers in a quiet California suburb. Through five seasons of Buffy, Whedon & Co. populated this world. They gave it life as a place where the mystical reigns above the everyday. Then, in Season 6 they decided to turn it completely on its head.

They changed course and put their focus on how the folks battling supernatural threats handle the fallout of that fight in their everyday lives. The mythic elements of Buffy–the monsters, the spells, the magic–were all still there, but they took a backseat to giving the audience one, big, season-long reminder — that the story of Buffy Summers is supposed to take place in the real world.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the death of Tara in the latter part of the season. Tara was not the first significant character to be killed on the show, but something about her murder was different. It wasn’t a mythical being taking a life as happened with Ms. Calendar or even a death by natural causes like that of Joyce Summers. Instead, it was ordinary everyday gun violence. An otherwise powerless human being, brandishing a firearm, killing another person.

There was something jarring about that moment beyond the loss of life involved. There have been many fatalities in Buffy. The series has often gone to significant lengths to show that there is collateral damage in this perpetual war. But those deaths always came in the magical struggle between good or evil.

 

Tara's death after reconciling with Willow was heartbreaking.

 

This was not a murder from a fantasy world. It was the kind of murder that happens every day. It was a reminder that amidst the spell books and prophecies and horror movie creatures, there are bad people out there who do not need magical powers to take an innocent life. It defied the rules of this universe that resigned killing to take place in the context of a magical fire fight, not one using live bullets. It’s a death we read about in the newspaper, not watch in a fantasy television show.

It was indicative of the biggest theme from the entire season — an exploration of realism in the Buffyverse. How do people stumble and falter in the shadow cast by prior events? What happens when the Big Damn Heroes start to mature and feel the weight of their circumstances? How does one respond to the dangers and the pitfalls of the real world that’s supposed to undergird Whedon’s fantasy world? In sum, how would people really react in this kind of situation?

These questions are seen most clearly in the lack of a true “Big Bad” in Season 6. Despite Warren’s late season extremes, “The Trio” of nerds who are ostensibly the season’s recurring baddies are generally bumbling, silly, comic relief. They don’t match the straightforward villainy of The Master, the smiling evil of The Mayor, or the power-fueled mania of Glory. There’s not the same persistent evil-doer, lurking in the shadows, and causing the bulk of the problems our heroes face as in earlier seasons.

Instead, this season’s true big bad is something very different, something that hides behind almost every misfortune the team faces — personal self-destruction.

There’s no true grand, overarching, corporeal evil looming over the Scoobies in Season 6. Instead, you have Buffy straining under the stress of being an unexpected legal guardian to a minor and working for minimum wage. You have Willow losing the woman she loves due to her own struggles with addiction. You have Xander crumbling under the weight of his own fear of the future. You have Anya seeing her dreams destroyed and struggling with what she’s given up. You have Dawn feeling neglected by a family that faces a dozen crises a week. And you have Spike attempting to force himself into a relationship with a woman who’s repulsed by him.

 

One of the most legitimately unsettling scenes in the entire series.

 

You also have the absence of the show’s authority figures. Joyce has died. Giles is leaving. There’s something missing in all these situations. There’s a lack of guidance, a lack of direction, a lack of time-tested wisdom to keep the Scooby Gang from drifting. It’s an exploration of how people react when they realize the fight is suddenly theirs and theirs alone.

The story of Season 6 is the weight and struggle that realization, of what it would really be like to have to face personal demons while also facing actual demons. This is not the same all-consuming evil that threatens to tear the world as we know it apart. It’s the personal sort of evil that simply tears down individual lives.

Of course, the show throws that guiding theme away at some points in the season. The opening couple of episodes are about as awkward a transition to a new season as it gets. Obviously a series should not shortchange the story of its main character coming back from the dead, but the first few episodes felt as though the series stretched out the return of our protagonist at the expense of actually exploring it.

Similarly, the mid-season finale combination of “Wrecked” and “Smashed” seemed as though the pair had been produced by the same people who make elementary school D.A.R.E. videos. I happen to agree with the message of the episode, and using mystical problems as a stand in for real ones is nothing new to the show. On the other hand, the whole event came off so hacky, forced, and cliche that it took away any poignancy or bite that story might have had.

The same goes for the many problems in the season finale. I like the idea of a grief-fueled Willow as the final villain in Season 6, but the storyline suffered from poor execution. Maybe the writers were scraping against the limits of Alyson Hannigan’s range, but it’s hard to see Willow, no matter how dark she’s become, as a wisecracking, monologuing Bond villain. If Tara’s death was enough to turn Willow to unflinching evil, why wasn’t that expressed purely as fury and a thirst for vengeance, like an unfeeling force of nature, rather than as a combination of smart aleky comments and pointless snarky sadism? I bought the impetus for her turn wholeheartedly, but the villain she became just did not match up.

 

Dark Willow's snark vs. Early Buffy's monster-killing quips. Let the cheesiness battle rage on.

 

There were other problems with the ending as well. Whenever you deal with magic as a central element, you run into the same cliched solutions. “I’ll have to use an even deeper and stronger magic to help defeat it!” Xander getting the win was a nice twist, but too much of the season’s finish felt pointless or shoehorned in. Did we need a magic homing fireball? Did we need an apocalypse plot replete with a long-lost satanic church rising out of the ground? Did we need random dirt monsters to start attacking Buffy for no other reason than to give her something action-y to do while she made up with Dawn? It was a comic book ending, not the quieter deconstruction of what it is to be a hero that made up the heart of this season.

Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen engaged in a similar deconstruction. He cut through the four-color comic book world and shined a stark light on the debilitating mental and emotional turmoil that would inevitably plague the human beings behind superhero costumes. Whedon is a noted comic book enthusiast, and is on record as seeing characters like Buffy as cut from the same cloth as those masked adventurers. In the finale, he seems to take us back to Action Comics, but for the bulk of Season 6, the show took a page out of Moore’s book.

 

Although sometimes he took the whole "Deconstruction of Buffy" thing a little too literally.

 

At the end of the day, Buffy needed to have a season like this. Too frequently in these sorts of shows, the audience becomes accustomed to seeing the heroes shrug off the danger. Vampires, demons, even gods are slain and life just goes on, with little more than a sarcastic quip and a singed top to show for the exercise. It’s fun, and it’s an adventure, and it’s entertaining to see our heroes triumph.

But there’s a great depth in Season 6 that goes beyond an action-packed tale of good conquering evil, or even the personal relationships that give color to that fight. It’s the depth that comes from showing the characters you have come to know over a hundred episodes have been damaged by what they’ve seen and done. It’s showing that even without casualties, people do not escape from these sorts of events unscathed.

One of the biggest themes of this season is everything coming at a price. Actions, even helpful, well-meaning actions, have consequences. Good Samaritans become apologetic, regretful friends. Mirth-filled teenagers become insecure adults. Unflappable heroes still bear their psychological scars. Even in a world of gods and monsters, there is rape, malaise, neglect, and ordinary death from an ordinary man and an ordinary gun. Too often, television will show the audience the fruits of labor without showing the costs. In the end, Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was about exploring the price of five years worth of fighting this war, and it stands as one of the greatest, most insightful, and most honest seasons the show has ever done.

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4 Responses to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 6: Deconstruction, Self-Destruction, and the Real World

  1. George says:

    Great summary of the conflicted feelings that seem to swirl around Buffy 6. I personally dislike this season for many of the reasons you identified, but don’t feel that its deconstruction works well enough to really overcome them.

    An interesting note re: Tara. Her death caused a lot of backlash in the fan community, some of it based on her sexual orientation, but mostly due to the fact that her death episode (“Seeing Red”) is the first and only episode where she is given main cast billing (rather than being listed post-credits as a guest star).

    A rumor that I’ve heard a couple times is that before Whedon was pressured into ending the series, there were plans to bring Tara back. The story goes that Buffy would be granted a reality-altering wish. Buffy makes the wish off-screen and then reappears in front of Willow with a pair of new shoes. Willow is about to explode when Buffy steps aside and reveals Tara.

    When you get to Season 5 of Angel, there’s a similar “what would’ve happened” story about Fred.

  2. Daniel McMahon says:

    This summary made an interesting read and I’m glad people are still talking about this season, as it is definitely one of the most packed and draining seasons to watch and make sense of. On the one hand, we can identify with the vulnerability of Buffy, Willow, Xander and the emotional fall out of their fight, however, our heroes doing repulsive things, struggling to be good friends( Buffy comes across as very self-involved in ‘Smashed’ while talking about Willow), lovers (Willow uses mind control, Xander jilts Anya, Anya boinks Spike – it’s a bleak and dark little picture. I remember feeling incredibly broken and terrified as a child, watching this for the first time, as my role models( yes, how sad) took on the moral ambiguousness this show is so excellent at dabbling with. Buffy may have ‘saved the world a lot’, but her own comes apart, scap by scap and it moves me like no other season can.
    Unlike seasons 2-4 and even 7, season 6 lacks the masterpiece episodes, however, it’s in the moments and detail the magic of this season lies for me, even if, besides OMWF, we don’t get 4o straight minutes of cine-Whedon glory. However the arc is very satisfying and the consequences of each characters actions are well explored and dramatised. Particularly in the case of Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy- a harrowing, terrifying scene.
    Our opinions would however differ on a number of small issues, most notably the issue of adult presence and on Dark Willow’s quick witted sociopathy.
    The most promising and inspiring character arc in season 6 comes from Tara, who seems to grow up and become our mature voice. I felt like Tara came into her own in this season, taking on the wise, introspective, guardian even she didn’t know she had in her- mothering Dawn, comforting Buffy, supporting Willow’s rehabilitation. It’s thrilling to watch her grow. Tara is the mother and watcher of season 6, meaning Giles and Joyce weren’t as necessary, in my opinion. I agree somewhat with your point about how we are seeing our teens without adult guardians, but would argue Tara prevents some of the potential damage that could have occurred. She becomes a moderating force, keeping the cauldron from bubbling over. We should have known then, her days were numbered. It’s just like Whedon to give a character an arc where they are constantly self-actualising and becoming the stabilising force in a fragmented group, only to kill that character and let chaos ensue.
    In my opinion, Willow’s ‘big bad’, while a bit theatrical, seemed justified and there was plenty of build up. It follows from a season of using increasingly dark magicks, losing her girlfriend to addiction and feeling responsible for Buffy’s pain. In ‘Tough Love’, when Tara was brain-killed in season 5 by Glory, the grief striking avenger Willow, who takes on Glory does somewhat resemble ‘scary, vein-y Willow’- she’s sarcastic and even takes on Glory by throwing magic knives. The grief is infinitely more painful in season 6 because she had just gotten Tara back and they are having a honeymoon after hell phase in ‘Seeing Red’. Willow also comes to this grief and vengeance from a much more disillusioned and lonely place after the events of the season- Buffy can’t rein her in like in ‘Tough Love’ and there are no hell gods around to kick her ass- it made sense that it elevated to a psychopathic nihilism to me. Willow discovered herself through her relationship to Tara and is unsure of her place without her. As she’s just recently learned to accept herself without the witchcraft, as ‘plain old Willow’, who is ‘wonderful’ because she has Tara’s love, going back to life with no anchor( Tara or witchcraft), strikes me as a near impossibility for Willow at this time.
    I enjoyed this piece very much- season 6 of Buffy is nothing if not divisive. Thanks for keeping the debate going, I hope we never put the last nail in the coffin of Buffy discussion and debate, well, at least not without a powerful wicca and an orb of thesula at the ready.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for your thought-provoking response, Daniel. I am sorry to admit that the reason at least I’m still talking about the show is that I came to it very late (starting in October 2011) so I wrote this piece write after I finished the season. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to the influence and intrigue of the show that it’s still drawing in new viewers close to a decade after it finished its run.

      My girlfriend (a big Buffy fan and my guide through the Whedonverse) explained to me that many people dislike this season for the sort of reaction mentioned — that they were taken aback by the characters they loved acting thoughtless and sometimes even cruel to each other. Though I, like you, was also moved, if a little appalled at times, by this struggle.

      I have to disagree with you, though, that Season 6 does not have masterpiece episodes. The easy answer is that OMWF may be the most creative thing Whedon ever did with BtVS. “Tabula Rasa,” while light, was great fun. I also loved “Normal Again,” an episode that, like the season, I’m aware is divisive, but is for me the most chilling and in some ways disturbing episode the show’s ever done. Your mileage may vary, of course.

      You make an interesting point about Tara. She certainly becomes the voice of reason in Season 6, trying to look after Dawn, hold back Willow, and prop up Buffy. Not to take anything away from her story, but I do think there’s something to the fact that Tara is a peer to the scoobies, and thus she inhabits a different space than Giles and Joyce. That’s not to say that she does not come into her own to fill that role as best she can in their absence, but I think it’s as much a commentary on how our friends can become our family as we grow older. You are quite right about Whedon killing her off though — this sort of exit at the peak of happiness/self-actualization might as well be his trademark.

      For what it’s worth, I actually really like the concept of a dark, grief-stricken Willow as the Big Bad, I just did not care for the way they went about it. She was too quippy for my tastes (in a “here’s some marzipan in your pie plate, bingo” sort of way) and too much of a megalomaniac. What I wanted to see was righteous fury, and instead I think we got a 50′s comic book villain. I like the nihlism; I like the disillusionment, and I like the “unanchored power” idea. I just thought they ended up writing it as far too campy and convenient. Different strokes for different folks.

      Again, thank you very much for writing and discussing the article! As far as I’m concerned, the best part of BtVS is talking about it, and you provide a great deal of food for thought.

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