The only really real Buffy is really Buffy.
— Xander (Nicholas Brendan), “Bargaining”
I live in hell. / ‘Cause I’ve been expelled from heaven.
— Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), “Once More With Feeling”
I’m in your system now. You’re gonna crave me, like I crave blood. And the next time you come crawling, if you don’t stop being such a bitch, maybe I will bite you.
— Spike (James Marsters), “Wrecked”
Buffy‘s sixth season is about death and resurrection, specifically, how to survive them. As the previous season ended with the death of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the first task for the new one was to bring her back (again, as she had died before). Along the way, it tangled up assorted relationships in order to restore them to a new kind of life as well.
These tanglings weren’t always clearly laid out, even for those doing the laying out. Watching the season’s first episode, “Bargaining,” writer Marti Noxon says, “I remember when Joss pitched that Willow was psychic. And I was like, ‘Isn’t that going to throw a monkey wrench in everything, ’cause she’ll be able to talk to people in their heads throughout the whole series?’ And like many things we’ve done on Buffy, she used it a couple of times and then seemed to forget it.” “Whatever’s convenient,” says writer David Fury.
Ha-ha. Their commentary track for the two-part “Bargaining” includes other similar moments, when they wonder at their process, chuckle at the craziness, sigh and move on. Such is the adventure and frustration of working on series television. More to the point, it’s a typical day in the Buffyverse, where narrative logic is much less interesting (and likely) than political and philosophical questions or character evolutions. That said, the episode begins with a doozy of a logical problem, namely, the Buffy-bot. “I think Sarah had a lot of fun playing the robot,” says Fury. Noxon agrees: “She got to be perky in a pretty mopey season, that’s for sure.”
Human Buffy’s return from the grave, in other words, colors the season, as she’s (understandably) distraught, alienated, and often enraged; the resurrection turns gnarly, as it’s Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) first time, and worse, she’s been sucked back into the chaos of Sunnydale from heaven, or at least a very serene place. Righteously confused, she’s tormented by the dreaded geek troika (Warren [Adam Busch], Jonathan [Danny Strong], and Andrew [Tom Lenk]), in “Flooded” (where the boys speed up the Slayer’s time) and in “Dead Things” (where they convince Buffy, briefly, that she’s responsible for the murder of Warren’s ex). Readjusting to life per se, as well as supporting Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), Buffy seeks employment in “Life Serial,” landing a job at the Doublemeat Palace and a mercifully brief visit by Riley (Marc Blucas). Little does she know that these will be the least of her problems.
For one thing, this is the season of the infamous musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling,” in which the primary characters sing and dance and expose their feelings for one another in the way that characters in musicals tend to do. The DVD set (which includes some nine and a half hours of extras total), features several specifically to flesh out the musical concept, including “David Fury’s Behind the Scenes of ‘Once More With Feeling'” (comparing rawish footage to the finished product, sitting in on production meetings and makeup and choreography sessions); “Buffy Karaoke” (you can sing along with “Bunnies”); and Whedon’s commentary.
Given how chatty he’s been over the years (on line, in interviews, and on DVD commentaries), this last is less surprising than it is satisfying. The man likes to think through his process, and tell you all about it, all the time. “Everything,” he insists, “is tailored to my actors.” That is, he write songs and bits with each performer in mind, at once testing their limits and showcasing their talents. While watching the scene that essentially lays out the episode, he says,
This whole sequence is there very simply to say, “Hey, we’re in a musical and we don’t like it either,” because people have trouble accepting musicals. And I got around that because in Sunnydale, anything can happen, because Buffy is so sophomoric it’s practically a musical anyway, and because when people suddenly start singing and whipping off their glasses, I’ve already said “Well, we don’t feel comfortable doing that and we hope it doesn’t happen again.” So already, they’re in the same boat as the audience.
In encouraging viewers to identify with the characters in this way, the episode underlines allegiances that will be helpful later, as when, well, Willow goes murderously insane and Buffy starts snogging Spike. Willow’s troubles begin as, following her success with bringing back Buffy, she is increasingly addicted to her witchy magic, disquieting and eventually driving away Tara (Amber Benson). In “Tabula Rasa,” she erases the gang’s memories, and in “Smashed,” she de-rats Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen). For this episode, writer Drew Z. Greenberg comments on seeing his work performed, wholly pleased with seeing his name in “Buffy font,” as well as developing relationship between Buffy and Spike (watching Marsters: “Man, does that man have cheekbones forever”). “Like all the characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he’s got a lot of things going on,” Greenberg says of Spike. “And if you pay attention, you can see that he has to psych himself up to do the biting” of a pretty girl victim he believes he can attack, despite the chip in his head. “And the question becomes, does he want to bite the girl or does he want to want to bite the girl? He has to do a lot of convincing of himself. So what does that mean? I don’t know. I’m just the writer.”
“Smashed” is best remembered for the Buffy-Spike sex scene, and, as Greenberg notes, “the explicitness of the encounter.” That their foreplay is beating each other up is to be expected, as they’ve treated each other in this way for years, and besides, they’re not “normal,” but rather “basically superheroes, and punching Buffy isn’t like punching any other girl.” Because they’re both “outsiders, and neither one really fits into the world anymore,” they’re also made for one another — because and despite the house crashes down around them.
Along with Greenberg’s commentary on “Smashed,” the third disc includes an hour-long panel discussion at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, taped on 18 June 2002, with Whedon and Noxon, director of photography Raymond Stella, production designer Carey Meyer, and cast members Brendon, Hannigan, Marsters, and Trachtenberg. They talk a lot about the hard work that went into the musical (Whedon says the payoff was excellent: “Everyone was just glowing, like they lived in a musical!”), as well as the season’s “darkness.” Asked when she knew that Willow would be trying to “destroy the world,” Hannigan quips that the black hair and the “book-sucking thing” were unmistakable hints. “I think it’s vital that each character go through a dark period in life,” adds Trachtenberg, “because that’s what we go through.”
This dark period extends to Xander and Anya’s would-be wedding, in “Hell’s Bells,” for which director David Solomon and writer Rebecca Rand Kirshner provide bland commentary, noting the fake rain throughout the episode, the use of mirrors, the functions of cumberbunds, and the great joy embodied by Emma Caulfield. The next episode, “Normal Again,” also features commentary, by director Rick Rosenthal and writer Diego Gutierrez, who crack jokes about Sarah Michelle Gellar’s athleticism, and the possibility that she’ll punish a new director who does the wrong thing. More interestingly, they discuss the show’s mythology, and its stretching and permeability, explored in this episode.
The show’s premise comprises an alternative reality, intercut with the familiar one, has it that the previous six years have not happened. This second reality has Buffy in an insane asylum (“trippin’ like a Ken Russell film festival”), with Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) alive again, and still married to Buffy’s dad. Rodriguez notes that the episode is focused on how the characters’ relationships have all broken down — Anya and Xander have broken up, as have Tara and Willow, and Buffy is unable to acknowledge her changed (sexed) relationship with Spike, leading him to be even more ornery than usual: “Well,” he snarks to Xander, “We’re all little figments of Buffy’s funny farm delusion.”
This notion not-quite-neatly frames the season’s course, as indicated in the sixth disc’s season overview, “Life Is the Big Bad,” featuring Whedon and other writers and crewmembers, along with actors Trachtenberg, Hannigan, and Busch. This half-hour is more specific and so, more compelling than the other featurette here, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Television with a Bite” (made for A&E and retelling Buffy‘s origins as a movie and resurrection for TV. Setting the season in context of Buffy’s painful return: “Everything here is hard, and bright, and violent,” she tells Spike, “Everything I feel, everything I touch — this is hell.”
Buffy’s shifting relationship with Spike — indeed, the changes that overwhelm everyone all season — are in large part founded in her belief that, as he tells her, “You came back wrong.” Just so, they contend with the wrongness of that return. The final episode, “Grave,” pits Giles (just returned from England) against Dark Willow, as she is intent on destroying the world following Tara’s murder. Commentators David Fury and director James Contner mention budgetary limits and Whedon’s elaborate planning of the series, but focus most of their attention on Buffy’s ongoing evolution, as she feels increasingly beset by life, in particular after death. Though Willow believes that she will rescue her friends by stopping the pain (“burning away all suffering souls”), Buffy, in the season’s 22nd episode, believes at last that she can fight that fate, and save the world. Again.