Re-buffed: Rewatching the Buffy series finale

Recently the Syfy channel showed the top 20 Buffy episodes, as decided by the fans. I was less than impressed to find out why: the channel was celebrating the 15th anniversary of the show’s launch. I’m so old.

I started watching Buffy around season one or two. It aired on either a Thursday or Friday night. I told people not to phone me when it was on, yet the same person would continually phone during it and I’d be too polite to ignore them. So I’d talk, giving half-hearted monosyllabic replies and trying to keep up with the show as best I could. Because of this I struggled to keep up with the show’s storylines. Then the broadcast schedule changed, then changed again, and I completely lost track. Years later I discovered that a friend had the full series on DVD. I worked through it in a time that simply wasn’t healthy.

Rewatching the finale reminded me of just how good a show Buffy was. So many good memories: the ingenious Dawn introduction and subsequent Glory storyline, the Mayor, Willow’s magic addiction, what Glory did to Tara, Buffy’s resurrection after finally finding peace, the Sunnydale High students showing they did actually recognise their situation and fighting back, Willow’s arc from goofy nerd to magic lesbian, Joyce’s death, Joss Whedon’s trademark dialogue, Hush, Once More With Feeling. All that and more, plenty of goodness somewhat forgotten as more realistic and serious shows have taken their place as TV’s classics.

I’m amazed that people prefer earlier seasons; to me the span from season five to seven was the best, with season six being the peak. Seven couldn’t quite match that level of quality, but it wasn’t that far off.

***

On to the finale itself. I like the idea of watching an episode on its own, even one that’s part of a long story arc like this. Though my history with the show is unavoidable, this isolation scrapes away some of the contextual edges to see if the episode can stand on its own.

It can, but the context would have helped. Buffy was a show which dealt regularly with apocalyptic events. To give this particular ELE more gravitas than the others, that context is needed.

The First Evil (and an assload of vampires) are planning to take over Sunnydale as the first step in dominating the world. I have no memory of this at all, but apparently what allowed The First to attack was Buffy dying and being resurrected. I like. This makes Buffy and her friends implicit (though unknowingly) in the potential end of the world. For all the times Buffy’s saved the world, her very existence could be responsible for destroying it.

Watching this episode reminded me of a great bit of foreshadowing (which the internet tells me is wrong). I remember an episode where a girl is kidnapped at a college frat party and is to be sacrificed when Buffy arrives and saves her. As the episode comes to its usual light and cheery end, a vision of a monster arises from the flames, Our first glimpse of The First. That’s at odds with what Wikipedia tells me, but I like my version so I’m sticking with it.

Seeing Anthony Stewart Head listed as a guest star is strange. He was such a vital part of the show, I forgot his role was lessened towards the end.

Whedon’s dialogue (and the Whedonesque dialogue of other writers) is refreshing. Angel makes a cameo, Buffy calls him “Dawson”. Angel is jealous of Spike and says “Everyone’s got a soul”. On my first viewing of this episode I thought Angel’s appearance was a pointless cameo. On viewing #2, I realised I’d been a fool. It’s maybe a bit of fan service, but it’s safe to say Angel would have helped try to stop the world ending (though he did take his sweet time turning up). It was his last scene in Buffy (the show not the character), and he also brings the vitally important necklace thing, a point which seemed to escape my younger self’s attention. His appearance highlighted one possible direction Buffy could take after the ‘what are you gonna do now, Buff?’ line that ended the series.

If The First can take on the appearance of a person but can’t be hurt, why doesn’t it taunt people until it drives them insane? I’ve got the feeling that happened already. If it didn’t, it should have. Screaming, inches from someone’s face. Even if you knew the person wasn’t real, that would be hard to take. Even with a blindfold on and earplugs in, could you ever rest?

When looking up this episode I discovered some people thought Giles could be the First. Whedon played this up by having Giles avoid touching anything (The First has no physical form, remember?). Another thing about the show utterly lost on me.

Faith is a more embarrassing character now. Many actresses would struggle with Faith’s black/urban lingo, Eliza Dushku does her best. But in one scene she tries to sound cool to Robin, who’s black, and the whole thing is cringeworthy.

Some of the cast sit around a table planning for the big battle. But when the camera pulls back the reveal is that they’re playing a Dungeons & Dragons-type game. This misdirection thing happened in Angel and Lost and I’m quite sure a number of other shows. Did Whedon invent this?

Anya’s lack of social skills are always funny. When going to gather the new slayers she says “Assemble the cannon fodder”, to which Xander replies “That’s not what we’re calling them, sweetie”.

There seems to be no civilians left in Sunnydale. Finally. I always wondered why people chose to live there, then season four’s finale showed that at least the Sunnydale High students recognised there was something wrong with the town. Did they still stay until this season?

The camera follows Buffy, Willow and Xander through the school. Willow silently breaks off into a classroom. It’s a subtle touch, she’s presumably confident that they’ll survive, and it allows the show to have Buffy say possible farewells to only Xander and Dawn. And Xander keeps the tone light, wondering what they’ll do tomorrow. Nicholas Brendon’s Xander became less likable towards the end of the series. His character was written to be less funny, more serious and adult, but it seemed like Brendon was still growing out of the role.  He entered rehab for alcoholism shortly after Buffy concluded, so I wonder if his problems affected his performance. It made me think of Matthew Perry and how he was working on Friends while addicted to Vicodin. Getting by on his charisma and still delivering his lines well, but there was something empty about his performance.

Buffy had a lot of ropey effects, as you’d expect from a fantasy show in the 90s. The hellmouth seal opening was badly done, so it was all the more surprising when shots of hundreds of vampires actually looked pretty good. We were deliberately kept at a distance, but the general effect worked quite well.  LOTR-lite, if I may.

I question Buffy’s strategy. If all the vamps had to climb a set of stairs to escape the hellmouth, why not fight them from the top of the stairs? Why descend and have vamps attack from all angles when you could take advantage of the bottlenck? The vamps that Anya and Xander fight overground seem to have just snuck by Buffy and the slayers.

The distribution of power to all the slayers was well done too. Buffy railed against the one slayer tradition throughout the show, and it was about time for a new order. A feminist stance against the male-dominated rules of the past? Yes. It was good to see slayers across the world empowered, reinforcing that there’s life outside of Sunnydale (unless Buffy fails and everyone dies).

Earlier in the episode Buffy defeated Nathan Fillion’s preacher by driving an axe up through his body. Syfy was airing an edited version, which quickly cut around her swinging the axe between his nuts. Luckily this editing stuck in my head, because later Buffy crashed to the ground bleeding with no explanation. I sat watching, confused, for a few minutes, expecting some supernatural explanation for what happened, before I remembered about the editing. Buffy had been stabbed, but the shot had been cut out.

The episode ends fairly lightly, for a series finale at least. Spike is gone (all things considered, he did deserve it, but at least he died a hero’s death), Anya’s dead, some other slayers too. The rest just seem to disappear. Maybe killed, maybe not. There’s a funny moment when Faith thinks Robin is dead and tries to close his eyes just as he regains consciousness. I’d like that to happen more often with death scenes.

And then that line again. What is Buffy going to do? We’ll never know (until Whedon wrote a comic about it). That ending does wrap things up neatly with just a line suggesting that the Buffyverse continues without us. I hope people didn’t get up in arms about unanswered questions, as Americans seem prone to do.

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