[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 10/02/2001]
“It’ll be dark soon,” Xander utters as he and the remaining Scoobies watch Giles fly back to England. Understatement much? More than ever before, “Bargaining” joined with “After Life” represent one of the darkest group of episodes I’ve ever witnessed in my years of television consumption. And check out the load of symbolism crammed in these babies! Where does all this darkness stem from? First Willow, and then Buffy herself. What has been carefully crafted for four years now has finally arrived: Willow is a powerful witch whose hints of power abuse in the past is now fully manifesting itself. To bring Buffy back to life, for partially selfish reasons, Willow murders a young deer, taps into the most dangerous of magics, and nearly dies. Does a newly resurrected Buffy make anything better? Nope, it rather makes things much worse.
This opening three-part episode is a radical departure from what we’re used to seeing in a Buffy season opener. We were left with a bleak, yet poignant, finale with “The Gift” [5×22] and there was only one way that S6 could be successful in my mind: follow through. Back in S2, “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] left Buffy and us in a situation of sadness, self-analysis, and a bit of depression. When S3 began I wanted a deep look at some of these not-so-pleasant emotions over the course of a good many episodes. What I got instead was “Anne” [3×01] , a decent episode in its own right, but the complete opposite of what I wanted to see. Here in S6 I initially worried that it would suffer the same fate as early S3, but thank you Joss Whedon, you followed through this time! S6 is easily the darkest season of Buffy, and I feel it’s fairly easily the darkest season of all of Whedon’s shows, or any show I’ve ever seen for that matter.
What’s to gain from all this darkness is something I’ll thoroughly go into during the Season 6 Review. For now I’m going to jump into how it all began. Even though it appears on the DVD set as one episode, I’ve decided to split “Bargaining” into two parts mainly because there is a noteworthy quality difference in them (plus, there’s 22 episodes in a season, not 21). I really only have one major complaint with the first couple episodes, which I’ll discuss right now. Just how lame are those biker demons? Not only am I confused that they can get away with driving around on motorcycles in broad daylight without anyone caring, but where in the world is the Sunnydale police department? We see one police car destroyed on the street, and that’s about it. That department could have shot up that gang in seconds! This gang also has extremely cliched and silly dialogue. These are the primary reasons why “Bargaining Pt. 1” scores higher than “Bargaining Pt. 2” [6×02] . They’re hardly in the former, while they’re a big focus of the latter.
Since Buffy’s not even in this episode… she’s dead, I feel the immediate desire to talk about our new main character: Willow. Right from the opening scene in a graveyard can we see how consistently creepy she’s gotten over the summer, which is built on top of her magic run at the end of S5 to fight Glory. What was a new and big deal in “The Gift” [5×22] , telepathy, is now used by Willow commonly and even casually. It, of course, proves to be useful in this opening patrol, but Xander and Anya’s creeped out reactions remind us that the power itself is not indicative of good times. What’s more is that Willow’s been elected “boss” of the group (recalled in a hilarious scene), which makes complete sense in remembering the many times that, in Buffy’s absence (and even moreso without Giles around as well), she took control of whatever odd situation they were in and lead. Willow likes this feeling of power, which only goes to fuel her obsession with magic.
When the Urn of Osiris arrives Willow decides it’s time and is not entertaining any other opinions, even forcefully stating “no one’s changing their minds. Period.” Everyone else takes a step back with Xander leading the concerned front. He, functioning as the voice of reason, says “Whoa! Let’s apply the brakes and check the rear- and side-view mirrors here. This is deep stuff, Willow. We’re talking about raising the dead.” Tara jumps in and states, “It is wrong. It’s against all the laws of nature, and practically impossible to do.” It’s interesting to me that Tara is going along with this though. You’d think she would have put up more of a fuss. I get the feeling that Willow did a lot of convincing to get Tara reluctantly on board with this, and we find out later that she still left out some gruesome details.
I must point out how much I respect the episode for taking the time, in this same scene, to describe the particulars of the entire situation. Willow explains, “Xander, this isn’t zombies … This isn’t like Dawn trying to bring Mrs. Summers back, or anything we’ve dealt with before. Buffy didn’t die a natural death. She was killed by mystical energy.” This gives us a reasonable explanation to why resurrecting Buffy is possible, but doing it for Joyce (or any natural human death) is not. It also makes sense to me why Willow and the gang could convince themselves that Buffy might realistically be trapped in a torturous hell dimension. Lets think about this. The portal that drained the life out of Buffy was Glory’s portal to one of the worst hell dimensions known to exist, and she clearly died while inside the portal. That, with what we know about Angel’s experience in hell, combine to form enough evidence to support Willow’s line of thought. It’s only after Buffy’s back and they see her state of mind that Willow hangs onto this theory only to make herself feel better rather than thinking about the alternative.
All of this is setup for the massively disturbing scene where Willow, dressed in a starkingly contrasting bright white dress, murders a young deer with a knife to collect its blood for the spell to resurrect Buffy. Wow! Willow hs gotten deeply scary, even to herself while doing the act. This is not only shocking in its own right, but Willow doing it really socks me in the gut, forcing me to recognize how astonishingly different she is from the innocent, cute little Willow of S1-S3. This deeply dark place Willow has reached was so superbly developed over the seasons, though, that this is not out of character! Now that takes some serious long-term planning and writing skill to pull off! Major props to Whedon’s long-term vision for Willow. Exploring her darkness allows us to find out the remaining pieces of exactly who Willow really is, and to address those character flaws that began the series so subtly.
It’s here where a lot of the symbolism of this three-part opener begins — clothing playing a big role. Check out what Williow’s wearing during this episode. Before she stabs the dear she’s wearing a bright white dress. The act of murder then stains the remaining piece of her innocence with the red of blood. In her next scene we see her now wearing a red dress, symbolising that she, her conscience and hands, are now soaked in blood. When she performs the spell to resurrect Buffy it gets even darker as we find her wearing a black dress with red, blood-like, blotches all over it. In two quick strokes Willow’s wiped away her remaining innocence and fully embraced black magic. We see the full scariness of this new Willow after she recovers from her magic drain in “After Life” [6×03] , creepily breaking away from Tara and going black-eyed to corporealize a ghost. This pattern directly continues when she unleashes some verbal wrath on Giles in “Flooded” [6×04] .
But the final step in pushing her to this place is the spell to resurrect Buffy. This spell is undoubtedly the best creepy/cool mix I’ve ever seen witnessed on television, including all of Willow’s other spells. As swirling dark red energy wraps around a barely in-control Willow, which is very reminscent of how the Grim Reaper himself is occasionally represented in things I’ve seen, it becomes very clear that the rest of Scoobies had no idea of the black depths Willow was getting herself into to perform this resurrection. Only Tara seemed to know a few of the details, but still not very much. We see Willow’s arms being ripped open, a snake coming out of her mouth, and that this spell is taking a ton out of her — the whole process comes very close to killing her. The episode ends with her literally going unconcious from physical trauma. This represents fantastic use of the character development Willow has gotten to this point along with the entire reason I love this season opener: follow through.
As much as I hate to move on, I get to talk about Willow a lot more in the next couple episodes and there’s several other awesome things going on in this one. We find out that during the summer Xander convinced Anya to wait to announce their engagement. At first it’s very understandable, what with Buffy’s death and all, but after a while Xander should have had enough confidence in his decision to go public with it. He’s using constant excuses to keep delaying the announcement. Holding back this announcement is driving Anya nuts, but it’s not the only thing. With Buffy dead, everything’s changed. Giles is heading back to England, thereby leaving Anya in charge of the Magic Box, and has also been stalling. This leaves a conflicted Anya, who wants to run the shop herself but worries that with the imminent spell Giles should maybe stay.
Why is Giles still hanging around? This is a topic directly addressed when he and the BuffyBot have a little chat. It tells him “Every Slayer needs her Watcher.” He responds, a little sadly, “I just can’t help but wonder if … she would have been better off without me. Buffy … I did what any good Watcher would do. Got my Slayer killed in the line of duty.” Even though his primary relationship with Buffy was as her Watcher, he loved her like a daughter as well, which is why his departure from Sunnydale would force him to truly accept that she’s gone. After this chat with the BuffyBot he finally makes the decision to move on with his life, even though he will greatly miss the rest of the Scoobies.
All of this leads to the really touching scene at the airport where the Scoobies give Giles a proper send off. I love it all, from Anya’s bought manufactured apple pie (I can almost see her saying, “now that’s craftsmanship”) to Willow’s overblown “Bon Voyage” to Tara’s hilarious Sunnydale finger monster…”grr! argh!” Giles reminds Dawn, the closest remaining biological link to Buffy herself, that he’s only a phone call away. Willow even amusingly says, “Well, you should get going. Don’t you have a life or something?” His response, a throwback to his development in S4, “Um, well, I suppose that’s the question really.” They all warmingly hug him, and then he leaves. Wow, what a way to open a season! Buffy’s dead and Giles is not a regular anymore. As much as I love Giles, this once again proves Buffy‘s uniqueness as a show. Characters evolve, grow, and move on — nothing stays the same and each season has a new theme, focus, and tone. Sometimes this new place can take a while to adjust to, but its place as a piece of the whole picture is always firm in its importance.
The remaining important bit of character work involves Dawn, Spike, and how they both interact with each other and the BuffyBot. Dawn just outright misses Buffy. To prove the depths of her sadness, we see her touchingly sleeping next to the BuffyBot at night because even resting with something in the image of Buffy is more comforting that nothing at all. This is truly both sweet and sad; a poignant scene in which we’re relayed exactly what Dawn’s thinking and feeling without her even saying a word. This is definitely one of Dawn’s best scenes in the season. Spike’s reaction to the BuffyBot is the complete opposite of what it was when he initially got it. Now he can’t stand the thing and won’t even directly look at it. When it compliments his abs, he demands Willow get rid of all the remaining junk that he originally had Warren program in it, which also gets us briefly thinking about Warren, who plays a big role this season.
It’s also interesting to see the reactions of the Scoobies. When it runs up to Dawn and rigidly hugs her, we can clearly see how disturbed the entire group is. It’s moments like this that really go to remind everyone that the BuffyBot is not even a remotely close replacement of Buffy herself. Even so, it was formulaic enough to fool everyone at Dawn’s school.
As Spike later amusingly points out, “Yeah, [they] responded to BuffyBot because a robot is predictable. Boring. Perfect teacher’s pet. That’s all schools are, you know. Just factories, spewing out mindless little automatons. Who go on to be… very… valuable and productive members of society, and you should go. Because Buffy would want you to.” I hate to say it, but based on my own experiences in the public school system he couldn’t be more right, especially when talking about high school and, to a lesser extent, college/university. School’s all about going through the institution’s games to get your silly grade and is rarely ever about actual learning, but I’ll stop here before I go off on a tangent. For more on this subject, I direct you to the sublime movie Donnie Darko.
Another poignant scene involves Spike’s reaction to Dawn trying to get out of being babysat. He slams his hand down and, slightly choking up, says “No! I’m not leaving you… to get hurt. Not again.” This represents Spike’s utter devotion to the memory of Buffy, which began after the genuine “thank you” kiss in “Intervention” [5×18] . We know Spike’s a bit of a romantic, which stems from William’s poetry, so it makes complete sense that he’d have a real hard time moving on from something like this. Just remember how long it took him to stop moping over being dumped by Drusilla!
Anyway, I’m going to wrap this review up by mentioning the utterly frightening image of Buffy’s body being infused with life again from its corpsified state. In an episode filled with some extremely potent disturbing images and an overall excellent use of CGI (e.g. Willow’s resurrection spell), the final one manages to easily compete. This brief sequence is shocking and terrifying, plain and simple. The visual effect used is one of the most pheneomenal uses of CGI I’ve ever seen — it looks completely real, if such a thing was possible. All I can think about is how passionately I hurt for Buffy right now. As shocking as this scene is, I’m very glad it was shown to us in this kind of gruesome detail. How else would we have understood and, moreso, felt what Buffy’s feeling after this? Just implying it happened wouldn’t do the trick I’m afraid.
“Bargaining Pt. 1” is an excellent season opener, easily the best of Buffy and possibly the best of the entire Buffyverse altogether. It’s got so much character development, darkness, powerful images, and gigantically impacting events that its importance and value cannot be overlooked. The only thing holding it back from a P are the small bits involving the excessively lame demon biker gang. Ironically, how little they’re used here is also what raises this episode above it’s conclusion. However, great stuff! This is what I want from a season opener that picks up from the kind of devastating events of the previous season’s finale. Where “Anne” [3×01] failed, “Bargaining Pt. 1” succeeds.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ It being implied that Dawn stole Willow’s clogs.
+ The BuffyBot on ‘repeat’ mode when making sandwiches.
+ Everyone jumping at saying “no!” when the phone rings and the BuffyBot offers to answer.
+ Willow being able to repair the BuffyBot after “The Gift” [5×22] makes complete sense. Remember “Ted” [2×11] and the keeping of certain mechanical parts?
+ Tara’s little energy ball to separate Anya from one of the demon bikers.
– Seriously, how dumb of a girl must you be to walk alone at night in Sunnydale after this long? It’s so stupid that’s it’s silly, and the writers should know better.
* Right after Giles flies away to England, Xander says “it’ll be dark soon.” While in the literal sense he’s talking about it being night soon, the comment is also true of the rest of S6.