[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Jane Espenson | Director: David Solomon | Aired: 10/09/2001]
Brilliant! Jane Espenson for the win! Cheers all around! Yes!! “After Life” perfectly delivers everything I wanted to see from a conclusion to “Bargaining.” This is Espenson’s shining moment, a stand-out episode even topping the one she’s more famously known for: “Earshot” [3×18] . To say “After Life” is underrated is an understandment. It’s not only underrated, but it’s also often ignored simply because some people don’t like Buffy’s forty-five second fight with the wispy ghost towards the end of the episode. I often need to ask these people “…but what about the rest of the episode!?” Anyway, this is darkness done at its best and is one of the bleakest episodes of a season filled with bleak episodes. Its depressing, dark, and haunting atmosphere, combined with an excellent use of symbolism to relay important information about the characters, is unique and surpremely compelling.
Like the best plots in Buffy the one here, involving a demon created as a ‘price’ for Willow’s spell, is just a means to show us what’s going on with the characters. It also turns out to be a clever red herring in misleading us to think, throughout the episode, that this demon ghost is the only repurcussion of Willow’s resurrection spell in “Bargaining Pt. 1” [6×01] . In truth, there is a price to pay for her spell: Buffy’s depression and her lack of interest in living. Sarah Michelle Gellar turns in a brilliantly nuanced performance — one where, if you’re not actually paying close attention to her subtle facial expressions and body movement, you’ll likely have no clue of the depth of emotion being expressed without blatantly spelling it out for us.
I’m really happy this is a direct continuation of “Bargaining” because there’s a lot of stuff that badly needs to have screen time, the biggest being Spike’s reaction and just how Buffy will react to everyone. The episode’s title is about what happens after you’ve lived your life already. Although there’s no direct way for us to relate to being ripped out of heaven, I can say that this season is clearly intended to be the full introduction to the adult world for the Scoobies. Buffy’s death in “The Gift” [5×22] can be seen as a metaphor for the death of childhood, so in that respect, the afterlife of childhood would be the adult world of responsibilities, day-to-day work, and growing internal problems that could often just be laughed off when you were a kid.
As Buffy walks with Dawn into their house, still in a daze, there’s some subtle things that begin replacing Buffy’s confusion with utter depression as she remembers her old life and all the pain it wrought. Throughout this entire ‘tour’ through the house SMG makes fantastic use of quick, subtle facial expressions that tell me a lot. The first of these things is seeing the photo of her mom — you can see Buffy quickly wince in pain as she remembers what happened. During this entire time Dawn is talking to her, trying to reconnect, but Buffy shows complete disinterest in everything she’s saying. I have to come back to SMG’s terrifcally morbid, hollow, and detached performance — it’s so atmospheric and gut vacating.
Dawn cleans Buffy up a bit and asks her if she’s going to button-up her shirt, but Buffy simply wanders off not even remotely caring about something as insignificant as her looks at a time like this, another grave sign of how broken she is. After a short while, Dawn expresses some concern as to why Buffy won’t talk to her and says, “Buffy? You wanna, like, stop? We can… we can sit down and talk.” Instead of giving her an answer Buffy simply skips right past wanting a discussion of any kind and asks the procedural “what else is different.” Eventually Spike comes in and notices Buffy on the same staircase where a choked-up Spike shared his gratitude for the respect Buffy had given him in “The Gift” [5×22] . His expression seeing Buffy alive says it all. It’s interesting to note that Buffy now immediately buttons up her shirt, the one she didn’t care about a minute ago. It’s a small thing that is ultimately important, because it signifies her first step into re-integrating back into this world.
While Dawn expresses confusion as to why Buffy’s knuckles are all bloody, Spike knows exactly what happened because he had to do it himself once before. This connects the two of them in a dark way they never had before. One thing I want to stop and point out is how every time someone pays attention to her bloody and beat-up hands she immediately hides them, which is representative of hiding the emotional pain she’s feeling and is exactly what she does when lying to the Scoobies at the end of the episode. Spike is incredibly gentle, kind, and understanding to Buffy here and his passion for her is immediately shown to us, and her, as not slightly diminished when he knows that she’d been dead “Hundred forty-seven days yesterday. Uh… hundred forty-eight today.” He also asks the important question of “How long was it for you… where you were?” Her response is expectedly, “longer.”
To contrast Spike’s wonderful gentleness, the Scoobies come crashing in showing they have no comprehension of what they just did. Notice how Spike shakes his head and immediately leaves the house? The gang is pushy, one-sided, and completely inconsiderate of what Buffy’s gone through. They all mean well, but they’re really not thinking the situation through and putting themselves in Buffy’s shoes. I’ve got to say thank you to Dawn for telling them all to back off. The problem stems from the fact that the Scoobies have all bought into this “we got her out of hell” line of thinking. At first it’s a valid concern, but after seeing Buffy’s demeaner we see that many of them are concerned yet they keep trying to convince themselves they did the right thing, especially Willow. The alternative is too painful to consider, so I completely buy why they’re acting this way. They’re also keeping in character. Anya, always the up front one, isn’t paritcularly fooled by the group’s delusion at this point and says “I think Willow’s wrong. I don’t think she’s [Buffy] particularly normal at all.”
Spike, who’s crying outside after leaving the cluttered ‘scene’ inside, forces Xander to open his eyes even further than he was in “Bargaining Pt. 2” [6×02] . Spike says “I’ve figured it out. Maybe you haven’t, but I have. Willow knew there was a chance that she’d come back wrong. So wrong that you’d have… that she would have to get rid of what came back. And I wouldn’t let her. If any part of that was Buffy, I wouldn’t let her. And that’s why she shut me out.” Xander, at first, responds in denial saying “What are you talking about? Willow wouldn’t do that.” But, observant as he always is, Spike can tell there’s more going on with Willow than everyone is recognizing when he snaps back “Oh. Is that right?” Before riding off in the motorcycle he picked up in the previous episode, he tearfully repeats an important lesson that’s a hint of things to come: “That’s the thing about magic. There’s always consequences. Always!” This can also be said about the Buffyverse in general, which parallels our lives in this important way which is another reason why these shows so consistently resonate with me.
Switching back to Buffy’s perspective we see her, after says she just wants to sleep, sitting on her bed in complete silence, darkness, and depression (a similar scene in “Anne” [3×01] comes to mind). As she picks up a photo with her, Willow, and Xander in happier times, it feels like it’s from a past life or is simply a distant memory. In more than one way, the photos are from a different life. I’ve been saying this a lot, but it’s important to realize that Buffy is not the same person she was and never will be again. The creepy moment when all the people in her photos turn to skulls is a metaphor for this change — how her past, happier life is dead to her now.
The next morning the Scoobies come up with the hitch-hiker theory. This turns out to be a red herring for the demon they actually inadvertantly created by resurrecting Buffy which turns out to be a red herring for the real threat introduced in the episode: Buffy’s long-term, suicidal depression. When Buffy finally joins in on this conversation we get two brief but vital signs of the real problem Buffy must fight this entire season. The first is that she’s wearing a completely black shirt. The second is that when asked how she’s doing she, once again, skips the question and immediately asks “what are we killing?” Buffy needs to kill her depression which is symbolized here in that black outfit she is currently wearing. In order to do that, she’s going to have to face her pain, and pain like this isn’t going to go away quickly.
A little later on, in the Magic Box, the gang is researching the demon further and we can once again see Buffy isn’t listening or caring at all. In the middle of nowhere she just says “I miss Giles” and then that she should go and patrol. This shows that she clearly wants to get away from these ‘friends’ of hers, which right now she’s incredibly alienated from and not terribly happy with. The fact she doesn’t even make sure Dawn will be okay, as Dawn herself notices, shows us how right now Dawn isn’t even on Buffy’s radar.
All of this quickly leads to one of the coolest symbolic visuals that the series has ever treated us with: Buffy’s body lining up perfectly with the statue of an angel so it appears Buffy has wings on her back. The sad, pained look on her face, the black shirt, and the angel wings on her back all symbolize her as a fallen angel — ripped out of heaven, but with the twist that it was against her will and wasn’t deserved. Although now, during this season, Buffy definitely ‘falls’ hard. My entire heart goes out to Buffy and this episode has me crying for her. This beautiful symbolism is also the first solid hint we get that she was actually in heaven.
Still sad and depressed, Buffy heads to Spike’s crypt — the one place she knows she’ll get someone who talks to her quietly and with respect for her situation. Spike has sure come a long way, hasn’t he? Even so, we’ll soon get to see that while he’s certainly become a kinder individual to the Scoobies, he’s still very much a soulless vampire. For this moment, though, he gives Buffy exactly what she needs and a remarkably beautiful speech about his remorse. Here’s a piece of it: “I do remember what I said. The promise. To protect her. If I had done that… even if I didn’t make it… you wouldn’t have had to jump. But I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of course, but… after that. Every night after that. I’d see it all again… do something different. Faster or more clever, you know? Dozens of times, lots of different ways… Every night I save you.” This is such affecting dialogue. Wonderful. This episode is filled with one amazing character moment after another.
Over at the Magic Box, Tara says “I like sunrise better when I’m getting up early than when I’m staying up late, you know? It’s like… I’m seeing it from the wrong side.” Here’s yet another subtle piece of symbolism that connects the sunrise that helped Buffy realize it was her time to die in “The Gift” [5×22] with her current situation. The sunrise in “The Gift” [5×22] represented Buffy’s entry into heaven, while the one Tara speaks of here has her at the opposite end of that experience — entry into an after life where she has no purpose, direction, or meaning and must suffer each moment with the intolerable loss of pure contentment and peace. This is a unique form of a kind of mythical torture for Buffy that is in a league of its own.
Before I discuss the utterly shocking and saddening ending scenes, I want to talk about some of the factors that led to them. First is taking a look at how Willow interprets Buffy’s inanimate responses while the second involves looking at the actual plot at hand, the latter being a very small part of the episode (just look at how much I’ve had to talk about that has nothing to do with the plot). Anyway, jumping back to the beginning of the episode we see Willow starting to see that something’s not right, that maybe Buffy might never return back to normal (note the relation between the title and character importance of “Normal Again” [6×17] , key word: ‘normal,’ later this season). Anya importantly tells Willow point blank “and you think of this now!?” Anya’s ultimately right here as Willow was being largely selfish and didn’t even fill in the others on the details of the spell.
In bed later on, Tara is able to force out some of what Willow’s thinking about beyond the superficial. The subject of Angel’s savage return from hell in S3 comes up (a useful and appreciated use of continuity). But Buffy is not like that, as Tara points out, which is a hint of the opposite but still not obvious enough to clue the two of them in. Willow does, however, notice that Buffy is extremely unhappy about being alive. They both excuse the behavior as simply needing some ‘time’ to re-adjust. What’s really telling here is that Willow is acting incredibly selfish in admitting that she expected Buffy to give her a pat on the back, recognize how powerful she is, and give her a chipper “thank you,” which are all responses only something like the BuffyBot would give her. This is very disturbing behavior and continues to illuminate the imminent disturbance in Willow’s thought process. All the black magic she’s been using has really blended itself in with her.
The plot intersects with this character thread when a manifestation of Buffy appears over their bed and starts yelling out all of Willow’s recent bad deeds. It says “Do you know what you did? You’re like children. Your hands smell of death. Bitches! Filthy little bitches, rattling the bones. Did you cut the throat? Did you pat its head? The blood dried on your hands, didn’t it? … You were stained. You still are. I know what you did!” What’s so creepy about this scene is that these are things that Buffy herself could very well want to yell at Willow if she knew all the details of her resurrection. It’s impressive to be able to pull that kind of confusion off. Tara immediately asks Willow if she knew what it was yelling about, but Willow just blatantly lies to Tara — not a good sign at all. Creepily breaking away from Tara during a spell later in the episode confirms these problems even further.
The ghost/demon thingy then makes an appearance at Xander and Anya’s place (can it teleport? Seems like it). I’ve got to use this moment to point out that the one thing Buffy has lacked a bit is genuine scariness. But seeing Anya cackling while cutting open her face, a genuinely terrifying sight, won’t soon leave my mind. Up until this point the demon has proven to be excellent in scaring the crap out of the Scoobies and me. Where it loses its potency is when it becomes a ghost-like wisp that attacks a Buffy who can’t hit it but can be hit by it, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I, personally, think the effects for it were kind of cool (I like wispy things) though. In the end this quick ending fight is really not important. The entire plot proves to simply be a clever red herring for where the true price, and fright, of Buffy’s resurrection lies. It also helps the Scoobies be more convinced than ever that they’ve already overcome the consequences of their dark act.
Towards the end of the episode, after all the action has passed, we see Dawn walking off to school in the morning with Buffy, homemade lunch in hand, stopping her for a minute. Take close notice to the “everything is back to normal” super happy music that plays at the end of so many television shows at the end of an episode, where things are easily back to normal. Dawn tells Buffy that all anyone wants is to see her happy. This, of course, leads directly to the scene at the Magic Box where she lies — holding back a lot of pain and even some tears — about where she had been. Buffy tells the Scoobies that she was in hell and that she’s grateful of them, especially Willow, for getting her out of there. She blatantly lies about this so that her friends will feel better about themselves but, more importantly, also because she does not want to share or deal with the pain she has. More great, subtle, acting from SMG here. Utterly heart-wrenching stuff.
Amazingly, the brilliance isn’t quite finished yet! In the final scene of the episode we witness a tenderly painful moment when Buffy reveals to Spike what happened to her. The first thing to notice is where Spike’s located: in the shadow, a place in between light and dark. Buffy walks into the shadow with him, shares her heart-breaking secret, and then braces the painful blinding light that is hurting her almost as much as it hurts Spike. It hurts her so much that she’s going to avoid it as often as possible and become increasingly attracted to the dark. Her admission to Spike and the resentment of her friends, specifically Willow, is completely new ground for the characters and the series and is completely fascinating to watch.
As I mentioned earlier, Buffy’s jump in “The Gift” [5×22] repesented (among other things) the death of her childhood. So when she, here, talks about being happy in heaven it’s really just a metaphor for the warmth, lack of worry, and innocence of her childhood, an extension of “The Gift” [5×22] . Now Buffy’s fully stuck in the young adult world of mundane day-to-day responsibilities and (for many) lack of purpose in life. Having to abruptly enter this stage in life is often like, well, pulling yourself out of the grave of your childhood. This is something that Spike doesn’t have experience with and cannot relate to, which is the major thing that proves to be the undoing of their soon-to-be relationship and best represented in, the also brilliantly dark and complex, “Dead Things” [6×13] .
As should be obvious by now, I feel “After Life” is a seriously underrated dark and haunting masterpiece. There’s basically no action, so I can see why it doesn’t appeal to the casual watcher. But as I hope I’ve pointed out, there is a load of excellent and important symbolism, one fantastic scene after another, juicy insight into the characters’ thoughts, great acting, and a chilling, haunting atmosphere.
I’m going to wrap up this review on Buffy’s painful make-me-cry ending speech: “I was happy. Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time… didn’t mean anything… nothing had form … but I was still me, you know? And I was warm… and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or… any of it, really… but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out… by my friends. Everything here is… hard, and bright, and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch… this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that… knowing what I’ve lost…” (sniff… I need a hug).
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Anya describing how a demon hitch-hiker can latch onto beings passing through dimensions. Cool idea, even though that’s not what this demon actually did.
+ Several times in these openening episodes Anya comes across as incredibly rude to Buffy. But, as we found out in “The Body” [5×16] , this stems from a simple lack of understanding. Anya just doesn’t get what Buffy’s feeling thus being blunt in talking about it. Very in character.
* Willow breaking away from Tara during their corporealization spell. This shows that Tara has now become a hindrance to Willow’s use of black magic and overall power, which hints at imminent future problems for these two.