“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.