[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Fury | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 10/02/2001]
While “Bargaining Pt. 1” [6×01] succeeded by focusing on what life is like for the Buffyless Scoobies, part two struggles a bit because it spends too much screen time dragging out the lame biker demon threat. With that said, there’s still plenty of important character development and powerful images that keep this episode alive and darkly cracking. Most of the great material, and where most of the episode focuses, comes from a very new, very confused, and desparately saddened Buffy. There’s a lot of really fantastic subtle acting from SMG here, and even more in the follow up “After Life” [6×03] . Quick! To the heart of the review! Away!
Actually, before I begin I just want to express a grievance of mine in that a lot of people seem to talk about how many times Buffy dies and comes back like it’s ‘cool’ or something. I really hate this because it gives off a really bad impression to new viewers. Buffy does not die a lot. In my mind she only genuinely dies, in the permanent sense, once in the entire series: “The Gift” [5×22] . The “dead in the medical sense” is really overblown by people and makes it seem like Buffy dying is frequent and a joke. This annoys me to no end. Stop talking like that! It scares away new viewers and isn’t even really true.
With that said, Buffy’s alive! There are so many ways this could have been handled poorly, but “Bargaining,” “After Life,” and the rest of S6 are fortunately up to the chore of handling this realistically. Here in this episode Buffy goes through three distinctive states starting with shock, then moving into utter confusion, then finally the dead weight that is depression. Let me preface my feelings about Buffy’s mental state this season by saying that I’ve never been this depressed myself before, I cannot directly relate to her relationship with Spike, and I’ve never had reason to be quite that ashamed with my actions before.
I say all this because I still find all this subject matter utterly captivating and thought-provoking. To be able to get inside someone’s head during extremely dark times, see how they struggle, and see them find the strength to pull out of it is something that’s not only useful insight for me in case I ever need to help someone who’s like this, but also if I myself ever have a really bad spell in my life (which is doubtful the way I am, although one never knows where life will take them). Also, this is all just plain fascinating to think about.
As long as you look closely, which sometimes requires noticing some sutble material, S6 is as strongly written as any other season of Buffy after the first, with the notable exception of Willow’s characterization in “Wrecked” [6×10] . What’s especially true is that the writers still completely excel at showing me what’s inside the characters’ heads and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Buffy does some shameful things this season but, you know, I understand why she’s doing them and still sympathize while cheering her on to overcome very traumatic internal problems.
“Bargaining Pt. 2” begins a very long, very harsh road for Buffy to travel this season. As she’s ripped out of heaven and dropped into her body on Earth she awakens in utter shock, trapped in her own coffin with no light aside from the residue of the spell that Willow casted, and has practically no air. This forces her to horrifyingly punch her way through her coffin, crawl up through the dirt, exactly like a vampire, and then claw her way to the surface — all this nearly kills her immediately again. It’s at this point where a particular scene in “Nightmares” [1×10] becomes strikingly relevant: one of Buffy’s worst fears was being buried alive and having to crawl out of her own grave. Well, Buffy is now forced to live this nightmare for real, and it’s not pretty.
After her hand plunges from the dirt in her grave, she pulls herself out and in complete shock must stare at her own tombstone in the black of night. As she roams the streets of Sunnydale, in flames from the bikers, we get a visually impressive metaphor in that the literal burning is representative of hell itself. This is where Buffy thinks she is now, and I can’t blame her when considering where she was only minutes earlier. Buffy looks completely disorientated, confused, and scared. The little touches, like how Buffy is pained and incredibly reactionary to loud noises and any bright light, add a lot to the overall effect of these sequences. The overall imagery here is very impressive and actually makes good use of a gang of demons that just terrorized the town.
Buffy finally wanders herself into the demon crowd, 100% disorientated and still without any words, to watch the final embodiment of a care-free existence of herself very violently ripped apart into pieces all over the ground — another metaphor representing her loss of happiness and her mind being shattered into a ton of pieces. Welcome to S6 everyone! Some people fail to see that just because the later seasons don’t use the supernatural to create commentary on life in high school doesn’t mean it doesn’t make use of metaphor anymore.
Eventually Buffy bumps into the Scoobies for the first time since being back, and she pretty much doesn’t even recognize them. When Razor, the lead demon, starts making big threats Buffy steps up, takes a hit to her face, and then pummels him into the ground. The Scoobies are all excited by this behavior thinking that it indicates Buffy’s mentally back, but her lack of pun or any comment whatsoever when looking over Razor’s body signals something far scarier. The reason why Buffy fought was pure slayer instinct, nothing more. The Buffy of old is not back with a one episode trial and a cheery Ghandi quip (“Anne” [3×01] ) or an “I’m good” (“The Freshman” [4×01] ). Buffy is seriously damaged right now and it will take time to figure out just who this new person is. That person, alas, will never be the person she was pre-S6 which is exactly why Buffy is my favorite piece of ‘entertainment’ (it’s so much more than just entertainment) ever.
As Buffy’s memories start to flood her brain she finds her way back to Glory’s tower — the spot of her last memories on Earth. When she finally reaches the top of tower, there’s a quick and subtle moment where Buffy actually warmly smiles because she briefly replays the moment (with a reprise of the theme song) of complete clarity and purpose she reached in “The Gift” [5×22] . But this moment is short-lived when the reality of her current situation comes crashing down on her. Buffy wants that clarity of purpose back, so she places herself on the edge of the tower wanting to commit suicide to go back to the beautiful place she was at.
It’s vitally important to realize that her first unique sentence in this season is “Is this hell?” She continues to tell Dawn, who arrives behind her on the tower, “It was so… clear… on this spot. I remember… how… shiny… and clear everything was. But… now… now…” Now, nothing is clear: her purpose and her entire point of existing. Unbelieveable loss is all that she can feel now. This is why here, now, Buffy wants to be dead. As frightening and disturbing as this is, the episode does an excellent job of relating why Buffy feels this way.
After largely ignoring a weeping Dawn in a scene that should have been shorter due to MT’s acting limitations, Buffy temporarily snaps out of her suicidal bout when Dawn becomes in real danger. So, like she did in “The Gift” [5×22] , Buffy instinctively does what she needs to do to save her sister. They grab onto rope and fall down on the exact spot Buffy’s dead body lay in “The Gift” [5×22] . Glory’s tower then finally crashes to the ground (why didn’t it fall down before this?). Dawn’s all excited that Buffy’s finally back, but as the camera turns to Buffy’s face all we see is an utterly bone-chilling expression. Buffy is not okay, and is devastatingly sad.
Although Buffy got a lot of critical attention this episode, Xander actually had some pretty important things to say as well. Right after the spell got broken up in the woods, Xander starts pressing Willow for answers. He says, “How come you didn’t tell us how much- … What were we into back there, Will? … Do not get all avoidy on me.” In addition to this, he’s the first one to call them all stupid for what they did, which is appropiate, when he sees how damaged Buffy is. It’s good to see Xander stepping up and expressing a bit of anger at being kept in the dark about certain details of this spell.
The only real problems I have with this episode are its laggy pace and the silly demon bikers. They’ve got pretty bad dialogue as well, although at least it’s occasionally suitably gross. With Razor’s gang rampaging through town I have to wonder where in the hell is the Sunnydale Police Department? And no, that one destroyed cop car doesn’t count. Sure they’re inept, but they’d at least be out in force. If a town was this wildly under assult a swat team would be in there extremely fast as well. They could have still made this plot work if there’d been more demons in the gang with the police shooting a bunch of them up in the background. But the way things stand, this group just ends up dragging an otherwise strong episode down.
Well, that pretty much sums up my thoughts on this one. When focused on Buffy, “Bargaining Pt. 2” is great. When focused on the demon bikers it’s, well, not. As a whole it’s still pretty good. Thankfully the follow-up we get in “After Life” [6×03] quickly washes any remaining negative feelings of the biker demons away.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Willow’s emotion when she thinks her spell failed.
+ Spike’s “looks like fun” when missing out on the demon carnage.
+ Spike stealing a motorcycle in the coolest way possible and then keeping it throughout the season.
+ Xander pointing out how badly he needs male friends.
+ Dawn yelling “the tower was built by crazy people and I don’t think it’s holding up very well.” 😀