[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Fury and Jane Espenson | Director: Nick Marck | Aired: 10/23/2001]
Here’s an episode that just misses the mark of excellence. “Life Serial” is a very enjoyable yet slightly flawed outing which continues the slow burn to the, well, hyper excellerated burn that will happen in “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] . What it does right is balance the darker issues running in the background with a mature flavored candy-corn surface. In other words there’s some solid value and, thanks mostly to the Trio, it’s hilarious.
The plot — Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew trying to test the Slayer while she tries to put some of her life back together — functions as a means to showing how complicated it will be trying to find a new purpose in life. It also shows how fragile Buffy is and how easily she gives up when things don’t go perfectly the way she wants. Everything focuses squarely on Buffy, although it’s important to notice how much more interested Giles is in regard to many of Buffy’s answers to tough questions about her life.
This begins when Dawn asks how Buffy’s trip to see Angel was (damn networks!!). Giles perking up with great interest in Buffy’s response says a lot by itself. He wants to see if she’s going to take charge of her life and only ask him for assistence, not complete control over all the unpleasant things she doesn’t want to have to deal with right now. When she answers a different question, Giles bluntly asks her what’s next with her life. Dawn’s even excited to hear Buffy’s hopefully determined response, but instead all both of them get is confusion. As Warren will correctly say later, “it’s like she’s completely without focus.” Buffy’s first thought is going back to school, of which she was sad to be forced to leave in “Tough Love” [5×19] . Instead of just going with it, she seeks Giles’ agreement first.
In the past, Buffy often going to Giles for opinion and agreement over life-changing matters was expected, and even healthy. But now that Buffy’s mom is dead (and dad forever neglectful), Giles knows it’s time for Buffy to step up, grab ahold of her life, and start making autonomous, adult decisions. Disappointment immediately becomes Giles because he knows this is something Buffy is capable of; how she handled the Glory crisis, particularly in “Tough Love” [5×19] and “Spiral” [5×20] , proved it. But taking control of your inner demons proves to be a much, much harder nut to crack. This is, in a nutshell, what S6 is entirely about and a big reason why I love it. It realistically depicts just how impossibly difficult and time-consuming it is to break out of horrible habits and emotions.
It’s at this point when the plot kicks in. The Trio throws three tests at Buffy aimed to gain (what turns out to be mostly inaccurate) information about her. Only in this state could Buffy ever be more than annoyed by the pranks the Trio pulls in the first half of the season. First we see Buffy giving university another shot. This is a scene that really shows how utterly sophisticated and confusing college can be when you’ve been out of it for a while. Willow nails it when she later tells her “you’re not dumb. Just rusty.” It’s unfortunate for Buffy that, combined with the Trio’s time inhibiter, she’s just not in the emotional space to be persistent and keep trying. It’s also interesting to see how Buffy’s language has gotten harsher along side her life. You can see a “what the f…” come out right as the scene amusingly cuts away.
Feeling unjustly stupid about her aptitude for school she decides to use Xander’s help in getting her a construction job, definitely a possible fit for her strength. It’s funny just how small and meek she looks here (with pink lunch bag in hand)! This just makes it all the more fun to see the shock of all the other workers when she easily picks up an incredibly heavy metal beam right after being ridiculed. As she works she talks up a storm to her new co-workers who are getting angered by how quickly she’s working. Everything was going surprisingly well until Andrew’s summoned demons attack and then all the guys blame Buffy, thereby getting her fired. It’s a shame these demons Buffy dispatches are so incredibly hokey as it takes some of the fun out of the scene.
After failing in the workplace of, once again, no fault of her own she decides to stoop to retail, a fate she earlier claimed is worse than death. This entire sequence of scenes is not only positively hilarious, but also go to reinforce how easily Buffy’s giving up. All the differently abrupt ways Buffy tries to alter the time loop fail to break her out of this painful cycle. At one point she even has a quick succession of confusion, anger, and tears. It’s not until she calms down and reasons her way through does she break out of it. This whole sequence represents a large part of her struggles to come — being stuck in a ‘loop’ of destructive behavior until she takes a calm step back from her emotions and reasons things through all that confusion, anger, and tears. It’s interesting to note that Buffy does fairly well at everything she tries, but the Trio and her lack of persistence keep mucking things up.
After all the pain of the day, Buffy runs to Spike and starts drinking. A lot. In a not-so-with-it state she blurts out “life is stupid.” Well, yes, it very often is stupid and one of a whole lot of different things, both good and bad. Spike points out that she is the type of girl who’d enjoy throwing punches and getting information the rough way. This is something he’s seen in her for a long while now dating back to “Fool for Love” [5×07] and “The Weight of the World” [5×21] . Attention is brought to this again because of where their relationship is heading. Spike then elaborates this time, saying “your life’s gonna get a lot less confusing when you figure this out” … “You’re not a schoolgirl. You’re not a shop girl. You’re a creature of the darkness. Like me. Try on my world. See how good it feels.” It turns out Spike is going to get his wish before too long.
Although right now Buffy just wants to ignore her problems with the closest bottle of alcohol, her agreement of Spike’s suggestion goes a bit deeper than it appears. We find out in “All the Way” [6×06] that Buffy’s thoughts about Spike have become more sexual. That, combined with the fact that the only person she can stand to be around is him, creates some interesting development. Here, though, this entire kitten poken sequence feels very date-like and would probably constitute their first (mutually speaking, of course). A few things I just plain enjoy about this part of the episode are Buffy’s incredibly entertaining reactions to chugging down big gulps of alcohol, Spike’s subsequent amusement, cheating at kitten poker, and Clem! Instead of the usual ‘boyfriend wants to play cards with his buds but the girlfriend is bored’ we get a neutered vampire wanting to play cards with his demon buds but the Slayer is bored. Very fun situation!
In the midst of all of this Buffy comes back home to Giles: the warming effect. He instantly makes her feel safe, taken care of, and warm again. This is when he gives her a check to help her get back on her feet, saying “Go easy on yourself, will you? I mean, you don’t have to figure the whole thing out at once, you know, job and everything. You’re pushing yourself too hard.” The check is intended only to do just what I said: help her get back on her feet. Buffy’s gratitude is heart-warming, recognizing that having him around reminds her of having her mom alive.
Unfortunately, before she leaves the room, she tips Giles off to the unfortunate fact that Buffy’s accepting this money for the wrong reasons. Buffy says that “this… makes me feel safe. Knowing you’re always gonna be here.” Giles doesn’t want Buffy to feel like she can come to him everytime she needs something important taken care of in her life, or everytime she’s low on cash. Giles wants her to grow up, take care of her own family, and handle adult responsibilities. This is because, ultimately, Giles won’t be around forever. Even if he didn’t choose to leave in “Tabula Rasa” [6×08] , Giles can’t be the one to give Dawn the kind of discipline and love that only Buffy can. He can’t be the one to pay for everything in the household. He also can’t sit and watch Buffy continue to act like she’s a kid still when she’s really not anymore, and not just from a responsibility standpoint. Most of all, he simply wants to see Buffy grow up, find strength in herself, and move onto the next stage of her life. This moment definitely gets Giles thinking it’s time for him to leave which he hopes will force Buffy to face herself: her biggest challenge yet.
In the end, “Life Serial” turns out to be better than I initially thought, although it’s still marred by a handful of nagging bits of hokiness. Between all the laughs is some solid character work for Buffy which keeps her development moving forward to new and interesting places. I have to say I’m quite pleased with the balance achieved here.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Willow’s “I’m a breast girl” remark goes to show how abrasive her magic use has made her. That comment’s out of place at the dinner table. I love Giles’ reaction.
+ Buffy brings home chicken while Angel brings home ice cream. Ah, the wonders of comfort food. This implies their meeting didn’t go so well.
+ Andrew’s spray-paint of the Death Star on the van. Hilarious.
+ Buffy continuing to crack incredibly morbid death jokes that aren’t amusing anyone around her.
+ Andrew rigging the van to honk out the Star Wars theme song. Awesome!
+ Jonathan’s magic bone.
+ The references to Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Cause and Effect” ) and the X-Files.
+ The Trio’s big argument over who was the best Bond.
+ Jonathan glamoring into an uber corny demon with the proportional strength of, well, him.
+ The Trio laughably thinking they have important information about Buffy based on her reflexes while drunk.
– Warren’s time inhibiter doesn’t make a bit of logical sense in the way it’s executed.
– The Trio’s overdone awe with “free cable porn.” I don’t think these guys are fourteen years old…
* Giles’ reaction to Buffy’s final words of the episode hints at his, more permanent, departure.