[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Stephen DeKnight | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 05/08/2001]
To be completely honest, “Spiral” is a pretty big disappointment. I was expecting another layered and complex episode with some impressive action sequences. What I got instead was an episode with suspect plot logic and utterly ridiculous set pieces that border on goofy, which is not cool. With all that said, there’s still much plot progression, some great subtle character moments, and some chilling exposition that lay the stakes on the line. This entire episode is basically one big action scene after another with a big chunk of exposition in the middle of it. That’d be okay if it was done with some more sensibility.
The opening scene, though, has plenty sensibility and is super cool to boot. Glory blasting through the wall and running incredibly fast through some doors at UC Sunnydale is a sweet visual effect. After Buffy and Dawn barely escape Glory thanks to Willow’s useful forcefield spell and a truck, it quickly becomes obvious that the Scoobies can’t stop her forever. So what’s Buffy’s idea to save them? Apparently to cram everyone in a winnebago that can’t go past 35 mph and is about to fall apart. Simply packing them all up in two smaller but faster cars would have done the trick and avoided all the problems that follow. This idea by the writers was mistakenly taken for laughs when it should have been taken seriously, like Buffy is. I can overlook small plot contrivances but this is a huge one.
While I’m dwelling on the negative I might as well get it all out of my system. How in the world did the Knights manage to get their whole little stupid army over to Sunnydale… with horses… looking like that? These guys look like they came out of a Xena episode. What is going on here? Also, how’d the Knights find the winnebago let alone catch up with it? Ugh… I’m sorry but there’s just too much stupidity in plotting for me to excuse any of it. I expect more from Buffy, a lot more. But wait! It doesn’t end! We get to see their general guy run into Buffy’s makeshift stronghold with only one guard! At this point I don’t even think I need to mention how utterly one-dimensional this group is. When Glory slaughters all of them at the end of the episode and that one guy gasps out, all melodramatic-like, “the beast…” all I can do is cheer. Thank you Glory for killing those, as Spike elogantly puts it, “role-playing rejects.” It’s such a shame the writers couldn’t intelligently work the Knights into the plot and it represents one of the big missed opportunities this season.
Okay, take a breath. With all that disappointment off my chest, I can actually start talking about some of the stuff I loved. Yes, there is stuff I loved. First is a fascinating parallel between Dawn and Ben that’s developing. Both of them have manufactured existences and are victims of circumstances having to make the best of their respective situations. We see Ben constantly saying that this is his life and that he’s going to do whatever it takes to keep it. At this point he’s not quite willing to kill Dawn to save himself, but he’s not ruling it out. Dawn on the other hand doesn’t want to hurt anyone and is kind of helpless to do much of anything about her situation.
Like Spike told Dawn before and Ben told himself before, it doesn’t matter much how you got here, it’s what you do now that matters. Both Dawn and Ben started out in the same boat, but in these final episodes we see Dawn pulling more towards being willing to sacrifice herself rather than see others hurt and Ben going the exact opposite way. The beginning of this split is played excellently for tension while Ben is helping an injured Giles.
Another well-done aspect of this episode is everything surrounding Buffy’s attitude. We see a cold, depressed, and scared Buffy who just gets bombarded by one disaster after another without being given time to process what’s happening and make good decisions. When they first load up in the winnebago and everyone objects to Spike being there, Buffy just yells out, “Look this isn’t a discussion! He stays! Get over it!” She’s right, they need him helping them–they need anyone willing to help them. This makes Buffy go even further into isolation, locking herself in the back room. Later on Dawn comes in and does something that’s been way overdue: thanking Buffy for all the amazing stuff done for her. Although Buffy appreciates the sentiment, it’s not nearly enough to break her away from the reality of the situation. Tearing up a bit she says, “It just keeps coming. Glory. Riley. Tara. Mom.” Things have really been piling up on Buffy this season, and she’s about to snap.
Another brief moment of comfort for Buffy is when an injured Giles also essentially thanks her for everything she’s done. He tells her, “What I’ve always admired… Being able to place your heart above all else. I’m so proud of you. You’ve come so far. You’re everything a Watcher… everything I could have hoped for.” I’m glad Buffy heard this directly from Giles and wasn’t left implied any longer. They’ve been through so much together, it feels right for it to finally be verbalized.
As things continue to get more dire towards the end of the episode, Buffy begins taking this attitude of ‘everyone’s going to make it’ which, while admirable, is hardly practical and something in future seasons she’ll realize. This extends to Buffy genuinely promising not to let anything happen to Dawn. Nearly immediately after this promise Ben, who was called to help the injured Giles, transforms into Glory right in front of everyone and starts crazily tearing the place up going after Dawn. Buffy can’t stop her, Glory snags Dawn, kills all the Knights outside Willow’s cool protective bubble, and vanishes thereby shattering Buffy’s promise to Dawn. Understandably, this is when Buffy completely shuts down and goes into a catatonic shock. Pieces have been coming together all season to build to this moment and here it finally happens. More good character continuity.
A few other bits that I found on the positive side of things include Xander helping Spike light his cigarette (“You know those things will kill you”), finally showing some acceptance and gratitude for Spike’s help which has been long overdue though understandably absent until now. I also really enjoyed getting a ton of background on what exactly the Key is and what the stakes are if Glory succeeds. It’s amusing that Glory could care less about harming the world, it just so happens that’s a side effect of getting her back home. If the Key is activated it will cause “The walls separating realities will crumble, dimensions will bleed into each other. Order will be overthrown and the universe will tumble into chaos. All dark. Forever.” Pretty heavy stuff, though it’s great that at least Dawn finally knows why everyone’s out to kill her.
During this exposition from the Knight General, Gregor, we discover they seem to have blind devotion in the name of God. Whether or not this is the Christian God or some other is unknown, but no sane God would ever will an innocent to be murdered, which is the case Buffy makes. The Knights reek of religious hijacking which actually has some interesting parallels to how terrorists are molesting the Muslim religion. Whether or not this was intended by the writers I am unsure of. All I know is that the writing team kind of left the exploration of this topic in the air, as it is not discussed again nor does Gregor even have a response to Buffy’s initial plea.
In the end my feelings are a big mixed bag on this episode. There’s some stuff to genuinely like while there’s almost as much to be repulsed by, mostly involving the entirely dumb and one-dimensional Knights. The action scenes prove to be pretty enjoyable when I could look past all plausibility issues, and I feel the character moments outweigh the negatives just enough to keep this one out of the C-range, but barely. Those negatives do drag the episode down a fair amount though. It’s just a shame this late in the stretch the writers couldn’t nail down a consistently explosive multi-part finale.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Buffy’s fight on the top of the winnebago is pretty well done.
+ Anya knocking out a guy with a frying pan. “Not a piano, but hey!”
+ Grappling hooks on a winnebago? Even though ridiculous, it still manages to be oddly hilarious.
+ Spike’s reaction to seeing Ben still flirting with Buffy.