Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV)

Grade : A+ Year : 1997-2003 Director : Joss Whedon (Creator) Running Time : 6380min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

Originally Written: Summer 2003

This is the show that got it right.

All season, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has been full of surprises, successes, setbacks, and sadness. Surprises in its’ expansion of the slayer mythos and the evolution of the show’s most surprising relationship. Successes in its’ ability to stay fresh, stay interesting, and in the character’s fight against the forces of evil gathering at Sunnydale’s Hellmouth. Setbacks in the occasional dip into its’ past cliches and in the character’s losses in the battle for Sunnydale taking place at the Hellmouth. And sadness in the fact that, this would be how one of TV’s most innovative and imaginative shows was coming to an end after seven seasons.

Seven seasons. 144 episodes. Six multimedia spinoffs to date (TV’s “Angel” and it’s comic and book series’; the “Buffy” comic and book series’; Joss Whedon’s futuristic Slayer epic “Fray”). Two networks (The WB from 1997-2001; UPN from 2001-2003). All from one mediocre 1992 movie.

Seven “Big Bads.” Seven Apocalypses (what is the plural to “apocalyse?”) to be averted. Two times Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has died, only to be brought back. Two times other Slayers have risen (Season Two’s Kendra, Season Three’s Faith (Eliza Dushku)). Three loves in Buffy’s life (vampire-with-a-soul Angel (David Boreanaz); grad student/covert operative Riley (Marc Blucas); and bad boy vamp Spike (James Marsters)). Three devoted friends- aka the Scooby Gang- to help Buffy in the “good fight” (on-and-off Watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), best friend and wicca Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and goofy but well-meaning Xander (Nicholas Brendon)). One Summers family member lost (mom Joyce (Kristine Sutherland)), one Summers family member gained (sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg)). All from one gifted creative mind (that of series creator Joss Whedon).

I bring up these numbers not just to point up how rich the “Buffyverse”- as it’s lovingly called by fans and writers- has been over the years, but also because one number has been at the center of it all. One. As in, the “Chosen One.”

“Into every generation a Slayer is born. She alone will face the vampires, demons, and forces of Darkness.”

This- as we’re told in “Buffy’s” pilot episode and many since- is how it’s always been. As long as there’ve been demons, there’s been a slayer- one girl in all the world- to strike down the worst monsters the depths of the Hellmouth- a mystical “whosit” as Buffy so succinctly put it once- and keep the world safe. She was always alone in this fight. Cut off from friends, removed from family, and looked over by a Watcher, the Slayer was the general and calvary in a nightly war against the likes of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. And when one would die, another would be called. So went the cycle for generations.

But from the first time we saw her, Buffy marched to her own drummer. She wanted a normal life. She went to high school, and later, a brief stint in college. She had friends she could confide in, a mother who would grow to support her, a Watcher who was the father hers couldn’t, and a lover in Angel who understood her, could watch her back when she needed it, and would stand side-by-side with her when she needed him to. From these “liabilities”- as the conservative Watchers Council would tell her- she would get her strength, and the will to succeed where her predeccesors would fail. There would be setbacks (there always are in life), and lives would be lost, but she wouldn’t stop fighting, stop trying. No retreat, no surrender, and save for one moment at her Senior Prom, no acknowledgement from those outside of the Slayer Circle. She would fight to the end, and twice did. Buffy’s personality and sacrifice was best summed up in the epitaph her friends would have engraved on her tombstone after the SECOND time she died: “She Saved the World- a Lot.”

What she’s endured the past seven years is worthy of such recognition. She’s vanquished vampires older than any in written record, even after they’ve vanquished her (Season One’s The Master); she sent Angel to Hell to save the world (in Season Two’s unforgettable finale); she was expelled from school (Season Two); she exiled herself to the big city for a summer after a fight with her mother; she survived the betrayal of an ally (Faith) and dumping from the love of her life (Angel) (Season Three); she united the high school against Sunnydale’s supernatural mayor- now a 60 ft snake- as they graduated (Season Three); she defeated her psych professor’s Frankenstein-esque demon experiment and survived the dangers of dating a hottie covert ops soldier from the project who would later dump her (Season Four); she lived through the shock of being given a sister (Dawn) to protect who also happened to be able to open the portal between all the demon dimensions (Season Five); she survived grief and budding adulthood in the wake of her mother Joyce’s death (Season Five); she fended off apocalyptic doom when a demon god (Glory) used her sister to open said portal by sacrificing her own life in the place of her sister’s (Season Five); and after being pulled from Heaven from her friends after dying a second time, she shakes off a year of depression, a desparate affair with former enemy Spike, and a pending apocalypse caused by a close friend (magic-addicted, grief-fueled Willow) to realize she wants to show sister Dawn the world (Season Six).

The show’s seventh and final season has been the culmination of six years of doomed romance, apocalyptic battles, and exploration of the Slayer legacy. Everything that’s come before it infused it in ways that were unexpected and unforgettable as Buffy and her band of Scoobies prepared for the final battle against The First (as in, “The First Evil,” whom fans will remember as the morpherrific baddie who haunted Angel in Season Three’s memorable Christmas episode “Amends”) and its’ army of Turok-Han (Ubervampires) and Bringers (“high priests” of The First) as they looked to wipe out the line of Slayers (and their Watchers) once and for all. Unfortunately, they missed a Watcher- Giles (in England after realizing he’s no longer needed as Buffy’s Watcher), who returns to Sunnydale with news of The First’s plans and gifts in the form of the “Potentials,” girls “chosen” to be the “Slayers in Waiting,” one of whom would be called when the actual slayer dies (in theory, that’s Buffy, but Faith- who’s in prison in L.A. after her Season Three and Four walk on the wild side- is the one who holds the Potential’s fate). The idea of introducing the “Potentials” as a makeshift army for Buffy and the Scoobs to lead was inspired (ditto reintroducing Faith to the Slayer Circle after a guest spot on “Angel”), surpassed only by the way it was paid off in the show’s final hour (which aired May 20) entitled “Chosen.” What happened I’ll leave to you to learn in syndicated reruns on FX (Mon-Fri 6pm-8pm) and on DVD (by early 2005, all seasons should be available), but like any war, there were casualties, setbacks, surprises, and heroes that revealed themselves.

After the unevenness of the much-maligned Season Six, how refreshing to see Seven’s well-modulated story arc built on the slow-burn revealing of The First- as we’re gradually introduced to the picking off of the Potentials by Bringers- and the noose tightening ever-so-carefully around the Scooby Gang’s proverbial neck as Buffy’s back is put to the wall by the ever-strengthening First’s army of Ubervamps, leading to a five-episode, series-ending arc that saw the return of Faith, a mutiny of the Potentials against Buffy, a gift from Angel (in a much-anticipated cameo), the right hand of the First- a sexist preacher called Caleb (Nathan Fillion from Whedon’s now-defunct “Firefly”)- riding into town to help defeat the Scoobs and Potentials, the epic battle within the Hellmouth between the Buffy-led Potentials and a massive army of Ubervamps, and the discovery of an ancient weapon- first seen in Whedon’s “Fray” comic series- that plays a pivotal role in the final battle.

Of course, this being “Buffy”, the love-lives of the Scoobs also get thrown around and beaten a bit. After having left her at the alter in Season Six, Xander’s relationship with Anya (Emma Caulfied) is strained and turbulent after Anya returns to her vengence demon ways, though it doesn’t stop them from having a couple bouts of “last time” sex. The true love of Willow’s life- fellow wicca Tara (Amber Benson)- may have died at the end of Season Six, which set her on the path of dark magic that would consume her, but she would recover, and find a new parter in Potential Slayer Kennedy (Iyari Limon) who would ground her when she needed to summon powers that could send her over the edge again. Meanwhile, Buffy is reunited with Spike- newly re-souled, as was seen in Season Six’s shocker of an ending- and though he nearly raped her the last season, she finds him in a mental state which induces more pity than anger. Is it the energy of the Hellmouth (located underneath the newly rebuilt Sunnydale High, the basement of which she finds Spike)? Is it his soul? Actually, it turns out The First’s been clawing it’s way into Spike’s psyche all summer, and is looking forward to using his re-souling- and Buffy’s newfound trust in the bloodsucker- to it’s advantage in wiping out the Slayers.

Great stories, conceits, and scenes abound this season. The Potentials. Faith. The First and Caleb. The mysterious, surprising “true” identity of Sunnydale High’s new principal, Robin Wood (D.B. Woodside). The bringing back of Uber-geek Andrew (from Season Six’s “Nerds of Doom” trio, played by Tom Lenk), and his introduction into the extended Scooby Gang. Xander’s speech to Dawn at the end of one episode that reveals a Potential in the city district of Sunnydale. The stand-alone episode revolving around Sunnydale High’s troubled Cassie (Azura Skye). Buffy as guidance counsoler at Sunnydale High. Buffy, Willow, and Dawn’s “Conversations With Dead People” in one particularly terrific episode. The episode when Willow returns from her rehabilitation in England to Sunnydale. The episode that explores what being human has done to Anya as a vengence demon. But what made this season work- what held it together when it threatened to derail- was the further exploration of Buffy and Spike’s love-hate-really hate-like-love relationship. Marsters and Gellar’s performances were never better this season than when they were playing in scenes together. The humanity Gellar brought to Buffy was matched by Marsters’ increasingly-complex and endearing portrayal of Spike, making their final scene together (before Spike heads over to “Angel” next season) as resonate emotionally as when Buffy sent Angel to Hell at the end of Season Two. And as fans will tell you, that was wrenching. In the end, there were a couple of really disappointing things in tying up the show’s “loose ends,” but they’re minor quibbles compared to the overall quality of this season, my favorite of the show’s seven.

To close (because I could go on, but it’s best to just watch for yourself), what’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” been for me? For me, it’s been mythology and melodrama, metaphor and morality tale. It’s been teen horror epic, daytime soap opera, contemporary sex comedy, comic book action-adventure, hero’s journey, and Shakespearean tragedy, and many times all in the same episode. It’s been a tale of feminist empowerment that’s without compromise or condensention, and doesn’t forget that guys watch the show as well. It’s been the story of growing from teenager to adult, assuming responsibility for your actions, and the consequences that may follow, and surviving the trials and tribulations of high school, college, and the real world. It’s been the latest in a proud legacy of myths from “Star Wars” to “Lord of the Rings” to Greek Mythology.

But most importantly, it’s been the seven-year story of four friends (Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles) as they’ve met the challenges dealt out by school (high school and college), life, love, family, responsibility, fate, and the Hellmouth, and have done so together, through thick and thin.

Buffy may have been the only “Chosen One,” but she was never alone.

She may have gotten all the credit for fending off the Earth’s destruction, but she’d happily pass it on to her nearest and dearest, for in the end, they gave her the opportunity to have something she’s longed for since becoming the Slayer. That wonderful smile Buffy exudes in the final shot of the series? It’s not just for a job well done; it’s for something much more profound. She may have saved the world, but her friends saved her. Saved her from being another nameless entry in a Watcher’s Diary. Saved her from being another isolated, solitary life, cut off from the rest of the world. Saved her from being another thankless champion on the part of mankind. In the end, they gave her the chance to have a normal life. Finally.

Together, They Saved the World- a Lot.

They have my thanks.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: The Seasons, Best-to-Worst
1. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season Five (’00-’01)- A+
2. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season Seven (’02-’03)- A+
3. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season Two (’97-’98)- A+
*”Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Second Season” DVD Box Set- A (Great behind-the-scenes, good commentaries, cooler menus, but still no cast interviews or outtakes/deleted scenes keep it from an A+. A better overall effort than the “First Season” set, though.)
4. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season Three (’98-’99)- A
*”Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season” DVD Box Set- A (Some entertaining and enlightening behind-the-scenes stuff, good cast chats, and rich commentaries put it on par with the season it houses.)
5. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season Four (’99-’00)- A-
*”Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season” DVD Box Set- A+ (The best set of commentaries- including two gems from Joss Whedon, and a gut-buster from Whedon, co-executive producer Marti Noxon, and actor Seth Green- and featurettes to date for the Buffster and co. come- shockingly- from the DVD set of the series’ most criticized- unfairly, in my opinion- season at the point it aired.)
6. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season One (’97)- B+
*”Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season” DVD Box Set- B (Only a pair of Whedon commentaries, and brief interviews with Whedon and Boreanaz? Not enough bonus material to make it a 3-star set.)
7. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: Season Six (’01-’02)- B+
*”Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Sixth Season” DVD Box Set- A+ (Without question, “Buffy’s” best box to date. A great variety of commentaries, some fine bonus features (one exclusively on the musical, another a panel discussion with Whedon and member of the cast and crew), and overall commitment to quality make this a DVD box for the ages…even if the season wasn’t the best (though it does improve with time).)
8. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: The Original Movie (1992)- C
*”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” DVD- C- (Perhaps befitting a mediocre movie (albeit one that inspired a classic TV show), there’s little more than a gratuitous, little substance behind-the-scenes feature, a couple of trailers, and a fair transfer of the movie. No Whedon on here (probably to be expected), but am I the only one who’d pick up a SE with Joss on a talk track?)

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: The Essential Episodes
**In Order of When They Aired**
1. “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest” (Episodes 1.1, 1.2)
2. “Angel” (Episode 1.7)
3. “Prophecy Girl” (Episode 1.12)
4. “School Hard” (Episode 2.3)
5. “Surprise”/”Innocence” (Episodes 2.13, 2.14)
6. “Passion” (Episode 2.17)
7. “Becoming Pts. I & II” (Episodes 2.21, 2.22)
8. “The Wish” (Episode 3.9)
9. “Amends” (Episode 3.10)
10. “Earshot” (Episode 3.17)
11. “Graduation Day Pts. I & II” (Episodes 3.21, 3.22)
12. “The Freshman” (Episode 4.1)
13. “Hush” (Episode 4.10)
14. “This Year’s Girl”/”Who Are You?” (Episodes 4.15, 4.16)
15. “Restless” (Episode 4.22)
16. “Buffy vs. Dracula” (Episode 5.1)
17. “Fool For Love” (Episode 5.7)
18. “The Body” (Episode 5.16)
19. “The Gift” (Episode 5.22)
20. “Bargaining Pts. I & II” (Episodes 6.1, 6.2)
21. “Life Serial” (Episode 6.5)
22. “Once More, With Feeling” (Episode 6.7)
23. “Lessons” (Episode 7.1)
24. “Dirty Girls” (Episode 7.18)
25. “Chosen” (Episode 7.22)

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Compilation Albums”
-“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Album” (1999)- A-
-“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once More, With Feeling” (2002)- A+
-“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Radio Sunnydale” (2003)- A-

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