[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 11/06/2001]
Why is “Once More, With Feeling” so special? Is it the singing? I say ‘no,’ or at least mostly ‘no.’ I critique musicals as strongly as I critique movies or television episodes, so I must say that just being a musical does not make this a great episode. The attention, care, and effort put into it does. Although not my favorite episode of the series, it comes pretty darn close because of its endless rewatchability that is the result of vital character development, beautiful lyrics and cinematography, and the utter conviction of everyone involved. This is not about showing off and saying “hey, look at us! We made a musical!” It’s very clearly about one, and only one, thing: the characters. That is the reason why it so amazingly succeeds.
The plot device of singing out secrets is like any other great Buffy plot in that it uses the supernatural as a springboard to say something meaningful about the characters or life in general. Some great examples of this over the seasons include episodes like “Innocence” [2×14] , “Earshot” [3×18] , “New Moon Rising” [4×19] , and “I Was Made to Love You” [5×15] . Especially like “Innocence” [2×14] , though, “Once More, With Feeling” takes the characters’ emotions and throws them all out into the open for all to see, which launches the season into a completely new place (after the small, but amusing, pause that is much of “Tabula Rasa” [6×08] ). The entire musical is also incredibly deceptive in its tone. Most of the songs appear very happy on the surface, but when paying attention to the backstory and lyrics you quickly come to realize just how dark the songs really are. So without further ado, lets get started!
An alarm clock rings. Buffy wakes up and instead of turning it off, opts to simply pick it up and give it a good distant stare… for an entire minute. Clearly, Buffy is having a hard time just finding the motivation to get up in the morning and live. This, of course, has been an issue all season so far and will play a huge role at the end of this episode. This beautifully shot opening sequence quickly jumps to night where Buffy’s doing her usual patrol (“Every single night, the same arrangement/I go out and fight the fight.”) until she begins singing all Disney-like. Ultimately every single word in this song is something we all have been able to piece together in previous episodes, but it’s liberating to hear Buffy finally specifically recognize her problems: “I’ve been making shows of trading blows/Just hoping no one knows/That I’ve been going through the motions/Walking through the part.”
“Going Through the Motions” is deceptively subversive to the surfacey, up-beat, and happy Disney-like quality that permeates the song. Ultimately, it tackles the major character focus of the episode: Buffy’s detachment from life and near-suicidal impulses — not the stuff Disney dreams are made of. It says a lot that when Buffy saves the Disney-like man tied up to the tree, his offer of romance for his rescue is greeted by “whatever” — indifference. Before this season, Buffy has never been indifferent to romance (“Nothing seems to penetrate my heart.”). At this point Buffy neither cares nor believes in it. In the end, all Buffy really wants right now is to feel again — “I just wanna be…. aliiive!”
When Buffy enters the Magic Box the next day, it’s fun to see her of all people surprised when asking everyone if they burst into song the previous night. This quickly leads to Giles almost impulsively jumping in with knowledge: “I’ve Got a Theory,” and it turns out that his theory was dead-on right. This is a great exposition song in that it explains what’s basically happening while also subtly revealing character issues. These issues include Buffy’s continued morbid sense of humor, Giles not initially buying Buffy’s fabricated optimism, and the wonderful subversion this episode has in spades. As everyone in the group sings their amusing theories, we see Buffy very quickly pull out of frame — she’s not partaking in the ‘fun.’ The crux of the song comes when Buffy finally does partake in the singing. She sings “What can’t we face if we’re together?” and we can see an extremely skeptical look on Giles’ face, like he’s not buying her optimism. Eventually she pulls him in, even though it’s clear Buffy is just singing what’s expected of her and not what she really feels. That comes out in “Something to Sing About.”
The next song, “Under Your Spell,” is the ultimate representation of disturbing subtext. Tara is literally under Willow’s spell right now and it’s incredibly sad to see her sing about the person who has had such a massively positive influence on her personality while knowing that her mind has been violated by that very same individual. Lines from Tara like “How you set me free/Brought me out so easily” reinforce just how much Tara has changed from the shy, stuttery, and introverted girl back in “Hush” [4×10] . The following lines show an amazing duality of meaning: “Something just isn’t right/I’m under your spell.”
This song also shows a duality in being heart-breaking. In one sense because Tara is so genuine in her intentions, and another because of what’s really going on in their relationship. When the song moves into the sexual I find myself surprised by just how much near-explicit sexual ‘singing’ Whedon got away with here. It’s very refreshing, though, mainly because Whedon is explicit while not being crass. This is a very insight-heavy song for Tara showcasing Amber Benson’s utterly beautiful voice. Awesome song, great voice, and fantastic character work.
“I’ll Never Tell” is a fun little piece that reveals the precise feelings both Anya and Xander have about their impending marriage. It turns out to have even more significance in retrospect knowing that their marriage doesn’t happen because of Xander’s fears, many of which are revealed here. This song also marks a turn in the episode from being subversive to more forthright about its intentions. Both Xander and Anya are very openly revealing their secret worries and fears to each other, which is in contrast to the hidden meanings of the previous songs.
This tells me that at first people aren’t singing away their secrets to anyone else, but rather expressing the surfacey positive things they all want to believe in (excluding “Going Through the Motions,” but Buffy was essentially alone during that song). Now the secrets are starting to pour out and it’s making everyone a little more jittery about it. After this song, we can see that Xander is getting a lot more concerned about summoning this demon when he hears Giles say someone got killed because of it. Xander even asks Giles for confirmation about this. “I’ll Never Tell” is not only relevant in its characterization, but also in its sense of fun. With lines like Anya’s “His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe,” one can’t help but squeal in glee.
“The sun sets and she appears. Come to serenade me?” Amusingly, the opposite ends up happening. I really love how hard Spike tries to kick Buffy out of his crypt before he starts singing to her, especially after telling her he’s immune. After Buffy begins to wonder why Spike wants her gone, he starts spontaneously singing and gets this “oh shit” look on his face. Right as this happens, we get Spike’s trademark multi-dimensional facial expressions. These range from being worried, after eyeing Buffy for interest as she just rolls her eyes, to embarassed to determined. I love it when this show uses eye contact and facial expression to convey meaning. I’m reminded of a fantastic scene during “Wild at Heart” [4×06] where an entire conversation was had without speech and then, of course, “Hush” [4×10] where most of the episode is without speech.
Spike begins the song by throwing his insight of the truth of Buffy’s situation in her face: “Whisper in a dead man’s ear, it doesn’t make it real.” This is all about how on the inside Spike is very tired of Buffy playing games with his love. She’s already using him and has been since she told him her secret in “After Life” [6×03] . Although Spike wants Buffy to “misbehave” (and knows she’s thinking about it), his love of her is proven again by showing that he will still kindly follow her into hell and back if she doesn’t, regardless of how she treats him. This is why he knows but can’t stop the fact that Buffy’s “got a willing slave.” He both wants her there and wants her gone until she reciprocates his feelings in some way. This entire song is perfectly summarized after its over when Buffy goes charging off and Spike says, “So… you’re not staying then?” Both funny and revealing.
It’s a bit unfortunate that Dawn’s entire arc this season is summed up by her brief singing at home: “Does anybody even notice? Does anybody even care?” All season long she plays a fairly important part in the lives of everyone else and I even sympathize with her. But I’m a little disappointed the writers didn’t try to have her learn from all this and go through an arc of her own. Instead all we get is the stealing thing. Sweet’s song, though, is actually a bit more revealing than one might expect which makes it even more of a shame the writers didn’t run with it. Sweet sings to her, “I know just what you feel, girl” right as they are dancing in a more mature manner. Dawn wants (and always has) to be treated like an adult, but as evident by her reaction to the more mature dancing, she’s not quite ready to be an adult yet. She wants that maturity, but almost knows she isn’t ready for it yet.
What Sweet’s song is primarily about, though, is an explanation on exactly what his power is. Sweet’s ability is to translate people’s emotional secrets into song and dance. But when someone is really having extreme emotional issues it ends up, in this case, literally making them dance until they burn up and die — engulfed by the flames of their own emotions. This is a classical BtVS situation where something real is represented by the supernatural in the form of metaphor, and it really works wonders here. The idea is that these people would have reached the boiling point anyway, but Sweet simply forces it out of them now with a supernatural twist. All of this makes Sweet’s song very relevant while already being fun to listen to.
“Yeah, I’m pretty spry for a corpse.” Buffy’s morbid sense of humor sure hasn’t lessened since her resurrection. Judging from Giles’ very concerned reaction, it seems clear he’s really not buying that she’s alright. He then asks her if she’s “spoken to Dawn about that incident at Halloween,” and she is quick to respond, “Oh. I thought you took care of that.” This is the moment when Giles launches right into song about his feelings for her. “Standing” is a touching song that, while simplistic in meaning, is complex in emotion. Simply put, Giles is torn in his fatherly love for Buffy. He says, “Wish I could slay your demons/But now that time has passed.” Giles wants to always be there to help Buffy fight her demons, but he believes that would impede her growth as an adult. There comes a point where you must let your children make their own mistakes, find their own way, and let the lessons and wisdom you’ve taught them help them the best it can. Even if you’ve raised them well, sometimes a child needs to see things for themselves before adopting a certain path.
Giles knows Buffy has it in her to get through all her troubles, but as long as he stays there to take care of everything for her, she never will. He sings this intention very clearly: “Your path’s unbeaten and it’s all uphill/And you can meet it, but you never will/And I’m the reason that you’re standing still.” This is the moment he really decides to leave town again, thereby forcing Buffy to face her inner demons and, hopefully, come out of it an adult. It’s really cool to have Giles see through Buffy’s ‘show’ of being fine. He sings it right off the bat of his song: “You keep pretending, but you just can’t hide.”
Ultimately this is a supremely tender and moving song of a father who has to let go of his daughter in the hopes that she’ll become a full-on adult. Whether this is a smart decision or not is debateable (I can think of some less extreme approaches to try first), but what’s not debateable is whether this is in character or not. It very much is in character for Giles and really lines up with his opinions on the subject heard in earlier episodes.
One moment in particular in “A New Man” [4×12] seems a lot more important now in which Giles tells Maggie Walsh, “Oh, uh, I think it’s best if-if. . . if we let a young person find their own strengths. If you lead a child by the hand then they’ll never find their own footing.” Walsh responds by offering another, completely valid, point of view: “She’s very self-reliant, very independent — which is not always a good thing. I think it can be unhealthy to take on adult roles too early.” Ultimately, here in S6, Giles’ plan gets the job done, but quite possibly with a lot more pain involved for Buffy than there may have needed to be. Then again, maybe not. It’s complex and there’s no easy answers.
The end of “Standing” leads directly into “Reprise” which combines Tara’s (who just found out Willow erased some of her memory) and Giles’ songs into one uber song. Since these two have the best singing voices, this combo makes for a real treat on the ears while also pulling the emotional strings. These are two people who don’t often talk much due to usually having very little in common. It’s been clear since S4 that Giles is shown to be consistently uncomfortable with the Willow/Tara relationship, something not uncommon from people of his generation. But here, now, all that is irrelevant as they do have something in common and share a very moving song together in which they both decide they need to leave their loved ones. This is obviously a big change in the season, but all the character work thus far has so naturally built-up to this it feels completely in character for all the people involved.
When Spike comes in with one of Sweet’s minions, Giles tells Buffy to face this threat alone. He has faith in her ability to get it done without any help, just like he sung. But, as “Walk Through the Fire” proves, if he stays around he’ll always end up helping her because he loves her so much. Willow suggests using a “confusion spell” which causes Tara to immediately jump on the “no” bandwagon. Thus begins my very favorite song of the entire episode. So much of what Buffy feels and what’s to come are sung out in gloriously dark song right here. She sings, “I touch the fire and it freezes me/I look into it and it’s black/Why can’t I feel?/My skin should crack and peel/I want the fire back!”
Buffy can’t ascertain the specific reason why she can’t feel anything anymore and badly wants some of her old fire back. The lyrics here are very artistically written and SMG’s performance really gets to me. What’s most disturbing of all is that Buffy still has some suicidal feelings. Singing “To save the day/Or maybe melt away/I guess it’s all the same” proves she could care less about whether or not she wins the battle or dies… either resolution would provoke the same emotionless response out of her which, honestly, is deeply tragic and tear-worthy.
Spike’s feelings, on the other hand, are summed by this: “I hope she fries/I’m free if that bitch dies!/I better help her out.” He wants to simultaneously see her die and personally save her at the same time. Talk about a fascinating dual-complex at work here. Because he’s stuck loving her, though, he opts for, no surprise, trying to save her which he actually ends up doing. This part of the song wonderfully layers in all kinds of singing from just about everyone involved.
Buffy tries to hold onto her secret (“But why I froze, not one among them knows/And never can be told.”), Tara points out what’s finally becoming unflinchingly clear (“Everything is turning out so dark”), Spike can’t decide what he wants to do (“First he’ll kill her, then I’ll save her/No, I’ll save her, then I’ll kill her.”), Willow expresses that she feels she has nothing to sing (“I think this line’s mostly filler”) — a scary realization, Giles wonders what it’ll take to spark Buffy’s interest in life again (“What’s it gonna take to strike a spark?”) — an interesting comment when you think about why Spike gets a soul which he names a “spark,” and Sweet is letting us know that the Gang is not going to find what they expect when confronting him (“What they’ll find/Ain’t what they have in mind/It’s what they have inside”). This stunning ensemble piece leads directly lead to Buffy’s revealing song.
“Something to Sing About” is a fascinating philosophical piece about life. Right before the song begins, Sweet is surprised with Buffy’s attutide about life. He says, “Come now, is that really what you feel? Isn’t life a miraculous thing?” Buffy chillingly replies, “I think you already know.” In a way this song tells the story of Buffy’s life to date. Buffy begins with “Life’s a show/And we all play our parts/And when the music starts/We open up our hearts.” This is directly referring to her life ala S1-S2.
Buffy goes on to say, “It’s alright/If some things come out wrong/We’ll sing a happy song/And you can sing along,” which means that during that time period when something didn’t go right the group would make some jokes, pull together, and get through it. She then goes on to sing about some of life’s biggest cliches of which she clearly doesn’t believe are true after what’s her life’s been like: “Where there’s life/There’s hope/Every day’s/A gift/Wishes can/Come true/Whistle while/You work/So hard/All day/To be like other girls/To fit in in this glittering world/Don’t give me songs.” This is Buffy’s way of saying her life has proved time and time again none of life’s cliches are remotely true — that it’s actually something much more resembling a constant struggle.
What Buffy really feels is that “Life’s a song/You don’t get to rehearse/And every single verse/Can make it that much worse.” What she’s saying here is that as you get older each chunk of life can make you more and more miserable. Her ‘open heart’ has been largely shut down ever since “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] — just look at her relationship with Riley. Obviously this doesn’t speak to everyone, but it’s extremely true of what poor Buffy’s had to endure over the years and what a lot of people in their early 20s experience. I find this very sad, but also extremely fascinating to contemplate. Buffy goes on, beginning to get angrier, that her friends just don’t know what she’s been through and “why I ignore/The million things or more/I should be dancing for.”
The joy of living is that you know there is an end to it. If death didn’t matter, if we were all immortal, then the simple pleasures and experiences of life would be utterly meaningless — like how a vampire’s taste of food is but a shadow of what it is when being human… or alive. Buffy sums this up by singing, “All the joy/Life sends/Family/And friends/All the twists/And bends/Knowing that/It ends/Well that/Depends.” A quick side note: huge praise for Sarah Michelle Gellar this entire episode. This girl really gives this episode her all, and it is the biggest reason for its success (aside from the writing). Great job Sarah!
Now that Buffy’s alive again, after feeling that her life was complete, she feels truly dead inside. Nothing matters to her; nothing seems imoprtant anymore. Buffy was in a happy place and wanted to stay dead. But her friends didn’t let her… they pulled her out of that bliss which then forces her to face an existence where none of the unique things about life that she was singing about matter anymore. Whedon’s making a superbly strong case against resurrection in fantasy and sci-fi. When death is cheated, why is the fight against evil so important. People die, sure, but hey! They can just be resurrected! So who cares if you die? Death has become unimportant. Plus, this realistic depiction of the confusion and depression of coming back from that only hurts the resurrected person anyway. This is why I almost dislike the resurrection of Buffy.
With that said, the fact Whedon stuck to his rule of only supernatural deaths being resurrectable makes Buffy’s resurrection worth it… to get her to a place of depression unlike anything she’s ever experienced before. This is tragedy on the highest level, and it hurts me to see Buffy be put through this. But through this pain is where we find out what we’re really made of as individuals. This is where true character growth lies: through adversity, struggle, and pain. On the other side of this internal battle lies hope, happiness, and joy. Without one, we could not have the other. This is what makes life worth living. Buffy was cheated death, so now she must struggle to find the joy of life again.
This doesn’t happen by flipping a switch, but is instead a long, painful process of self discovery and determination. Buffy sings, “So give me something to sing about/Please/Give me something…” Now Buffy’s friends know what happened to her. Willow’s shocked and tearful reaction is potent (she almost looks like she’s about to throw-up in disbelief) and will only cause more problems for her as well. All of this is summed up succinctly by Spike saving a Buffy who gives into her suicidal feelings and nearly burns herself to death. He profoundly tells her, “Life’s not a song/Life isn’t bliss/Life is just this/It’s living/You’ll get along/The pain that you feel/You only can heal/By living/You have to go one living/So one of us is living.” Dawn adds to this by telling Buffy the very thing Buffy told her in “The Gift” [5×22] : “The hardest thing in this world… is to live in it.” This is what Buffy must deal with for the rest of the year and is what very clearly manifests itself as the “big bad” of S6.
A small touch I liked was how Sweet only bailed after Willow’s angry threat towards him. He says, “Mm, I smell power. I guess the little missus and I should be on our way.” Although he hides his fright, the quickness at which he gets out of there is very, very interesting. He likely knew if he didn’t vacate Willow would have torn him to pieces. The episode ends with a group singing of “Where Do We Go From Here.” The key line out of this song that interests me is that the Gang sings “Understand we’ll go hand in hand/But we’ll walk alone in fear.” That’s the journey of our lives, isn’t it? We all try to surround ourselves with friends, lovers, and companions throughout life and they are all valuable and healthy, but we’re all individuals and “In the end, you’re always by yourself. You’re all you’ve got. That’s the point.” (Whistler, “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] )
“The curtains close on a kiss, God knows we can tell the end is near.” Buffy has decided to latch onto the only spark of life left in her: desparation to feel through a largely lusty sexual attraction to Spike. This action is taken in the hope that it will make her feel again, which would make her depressive, suicidal feelings subside. This she directly sings to Spike: “I touch the fire and it freezes me/I look into it and it’s black/This isn’t real/But I just want to feel.” This reasoning for becoming sexual with Spike largely accomplishes her base goal, but ends up having major unforseen consequences down the road. But for now, the curtains close on a completely desparation-filled kiss. “Where do we go from here” indeed. THE END. (sings) “Grr… argh….”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The altered introduction (and ending) credits. I love Willow’s huge and way-too-excited smile.
+ Willow’s “Some kid is dreamin’/And we’re all stuck inside his wacky Broadway nightmare” reference to the kid in “Nightmares” [1×10] .
+ Anya’s rock song/rant about bunnies.
+ The Mustard Man! Go David Fury!
+ The police taking “witness arias.”
+ The cleaning guys with the brooms. Pure awesomesauce.
+ Giles sending Buffy “backup” in “Something to Sing About.”
+ Some of the editing during the completely out-of-place and contrived ‘night-time funeral’ in “Rest in Peace.”