[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Drew Z. Greenberg | Director: Turi Meyer | Aired: 11/20/2001]
I’m sitting here wondering, once again, just why so many of these S6 episodes are considered so poor. I’m very confused and simply don’t understand. “Smashed” is an episode, considered by most as mediocre at best, that engages me on all levels. Does it have a couple annoying flaws? Sure. But it’s also loaded with sharp humor, deeply involving character development, extremely murky themes, and just overall gutsy and daring writing. Here we see Buffy continue to descend into the waters of dispair, but take the time to explore what that means while it’s there. “Smashed” is a very good episode, one which would have easily scored an A had some flaws been cut and the edges tightened up a bit. But those faults really shouldn’t rob the episode of the fact that it’s got an amazingly juicy center. Ready for a bite?
The main focus of “Smashed” seems to be showing some very interesting parallels between Buffy and Willow while highlighting the exact reasons behind each of their individual struggles. Throughout the episode we see how each of them are falling and failing to see what’s happening to themselves, or each other. We can tell exactly what Buffy’s thinking and feeling through her facial expressions and dialogue while with Willow it’s through her actions and magic. At several points we see the two of these set of problems interact with each other (the de-ratting of Amy) or parallel each other (Willow giving into her magical desires while Buffy gives into her sexual desires — both regardless of the consequences to themselves and the people they love).
It turns out that Willow’s in a lot more serious trouble than Buffy is, especially at the beginning of this episode when she tells the Amy rat that Tara left her “for no good reason.” It doesn’t sound as if she said it like she truly believes it though. Willow’s just trying to justify her use of magic and take the blame off of herself. This comes up again when the gang’s doing research at the Magic Box.
Both Buffy and Xander express concern over Willow running to magic every time she wants something done (magically connecting to her laptop in this instance). When Willow calls them on it and says she’s fine, both of them don’t push harder. But Anya sure does! Everyone knows Willow isn’t fine, but Anya’s the only one who will just come out with it: “Oh, for crying out loud. This is bizarre. You’re all, ‘la la la!’ with, with the magic, and the not talking, like everything’s normal, when we all know that Tara up and left you and now everyone’s scared to say anything to you. Except me.” Although Anya nailed the problem, no one does anything about it which is why things continue to spiral out of control.
Buffy, especially, continues to make excuses for Willow just because she’s also been making some questionable decisions lately (“We can’t assume that everyone is getting seduced”). This blinds Buffy to the fact that’s she’s letting her friend slip away. Even in our darkest times it’s important to help our friends when they’re in need. Buffy and Willow don’t realize this until things have gotten so far out of control there’s no avoiding it anymore. Obviously this is not the best way to handle situations like these and is something both Buffy and Willow are learning the hard way.
This is where Anya’s speech about “responsible types” comes into play. Anya’s correct here: it’s important to not be entirely up-tight and utterly responsible all the time. However, this line of reasoning can also lead to making excuses for going overboard in being unresponsible. There are certain lines one should never cross. Learning from others’ mistakes is an invaluable way to shed yourself from unneeded pain and consequences. There are some things that you simply don’t need to try/do, because the consequences are readily evident and really just aren’t worth it. Buffy‘s a series that never glamorizes the consequences of poor decisions, which is why I’m shocked every time I see/read/hear someone claim it’s an immoral show. In reality, it’s completely the opposite: this is the most moral show I’ve ever seen on television, and it portrays this morality in a starklingly realistic way.
All of this ‘talk’ about Willow is good and all, but what she ‘does’ continues to reveal more depth. Amy uses Willow’s nerd roots to convince her to go out and be reckless (“Or… maybe… you’d rather sit at home, all night, alone, like in high school”). This scene is interestingly connected with the scene where Willow stares down a pimento and chomps on it. The pimento scene itself is strikingly reminiscent (and likely intentially so) of the first time Buffy and Willow socially interacted together (“Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] ) at the Bronze. Buffy was slurping on a drink of some kind with a pimento (or possibly a cherry) on a stick when telling Willow her theory of “seize the moment.” We all remember how that turned out. Is Whedon warning us about the dangers of eating pimentos?
More realistically, though, both of these scenes (along with Amy pushing Willow’s nerd button) are connected. As we’ll discover in “Wrecked” [6×10] and was front and focus in “Restless” [4×22] , this is all about Willow wanting to become “super Willow” in an attempt to wash away her fears that she is just the insecure nerd she thought she was in high school — “Let me tell you something about Willow. She’s a loser. And she always has been. People picked on Willow in junior high school, high school, up until college… with her stupid mousy ways” (6×21 “Two to Go” [6×21]) — and will never be anything more.
So, as you can see, there’s some wonderfully subtle connections being made about Willow here. It’s just a shame Willow and Amy’s magic-fest at the Bronze quickly stops being funny and devolves into being over-the-top silly. While there’s clearly a parallel going on here between Willow and Buffy, this scene and Buffy and Spike’s violent sexual fight are so jarringly different in tone that, blended together, it simply doesn’t work. The Buffy/Spike fight is intense and relevant while the Willow/Amy magic-fest is just silly and doesn’t really show us anything we don’t already know. It’s a real shame this duality is so poorly executed on the Willow front, because if done right it really would have allowed this episode an easy A. What we have, though, ends up just holding it back from the A-range, which is honestly a shame because there’s just so much great material packed in this episode.
Speaking of great material, lets move onto Buffy. Wow is there a lot of shocking, complicated, and murky stuff at work here. Early on Spike tells Buffy that he’s the only one there for her. This is something he’ll repeatedly try to get her to believe until he realizes otherwise in “Normal Again” [6×17] . For now, though, he only does her harm by fueling her depression even further as he continuously tries to pull her away from her friends so she’ll keep coming back to him. The fact he’s doing this even though he knows that Buffy’s strength lies in her family and friends (“Fool for Love” [5×07] ) shows that he’s still got plenty of evil coated around his recent good deeds. I’ll dig into this more in a bit.
Early in the episode Buffy attempts, once again, to her emotions loose with her friends, in this case Willow. Buffy tries to admit to her that she kissed Spike. Again though, like in “Tabula Rasa” [6×08] , she gets interrupted from this vital, yet painful, healing process which undoubtedly would have helped her from sliding further into this ‘relationship’ with Spike. It’s no one’s fault but her own, though, that Buffy’s unfortunately using these interruptions as an excuse for not telling all to the people she loves. I understand her resistance in telling, but it’s important to note that this is a reason why she falls so hard at the end of the episode. It’s also interesting to take notice of the fact that Willow knew Buffy had something important to say, but she let her walk away without trying to dig it out of her.
In line with the Amy excuse for keeping her emotions bottled up, Buffy tries to convince Spike (and herself) that the only reason she kissed him again was because she was depressed about Giles leaving town. Rather than admit her sexual feelings for Spike, she gives him some venom about how he’s just an “evil dusgusting thing.” This venom doesn’t go without consequence though, as right after being insulted by Buffy Spike finds out he can hurt her without the chip firing. Check out the big smile on Spike’s face now that he knows he doesn’t have to be completely subserviant to Buffy anymore. This is an incredibly daring and gutsy move by the writers. A Spike in love with Buffy but who has the ability to kill her is a whole lot scarier/murkier than one that can’t.
When Spike thinks his chip isn’t working at all anymore, the first thing he does is try to kill a girl. If that’s not a hint that Spike’s still evil I don’t know what is. Even after all he’s been through, he’ll still kill someone outside of Buffy’s circle if given the chance, and that’s after he told Buffy “a man can change” not even minutes before. Buffy responded to that comment by saying, “you’re not a man,” and she’s right.
Even though Spike has to convince himself to try to bite the girl (which, by the way, interestingly resembles Buffy on a basic physical level), it goes to show that he’s only been conditioned to do otherwise, not that he really doesn’t want to anymore or understands that it’s wrong. This, right here, is why Spike attempts to rape Buffy in “Seeing Red” [6×19] and why he needs to get a soul if he ever hopes to fully understand the Buffy half of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This whole subject is extremely fascinating though, because Spike has done a lot of good out of his love for Buffy. But just how much does that really mean? He has been trying to change, but with that chip in his head we never really know if he has. Our answer is provided in clear darkness right here.
In addition to catching a glimpse of Spike’s current nature, we also find out that he can’t hurt anyone but Buffy, which leads him to think — and tell Buffy — that she came back wrong. This news both scares and encourages Buffy to partake in activities she would have never allowed herself to do before. Before finding out Spike could hit her, she treated him like a convenient joke, made evident by her humored reaction to the idea that Spike can do much of anything to her. But now, everything is different. The fact Spike can now kill her actually fuels her desire to become more sexual with him. Although Buffy keeps saying “you’re wrong” about coming back “not-so-human,” she actually completely believes it. This is why she unloads everything she’s currently got bottled up onto Spike: depression, anger, pain, fear, disgust, and then, finally, lust, most of which are extremely potent emotions (depression being the exception, which is what she immediately felt following her resurrection) — ones that make her feel the most she has since crawling out of her own grave.
The fight in the house is fittingly physical and brutal as the two of them exchange some mutually truthful and angry jabs at each other. It turns out in retrospect that all of this is just foreplay for the two of them. This fight gets them both worked up without either of them knowing it. Spike has absolutely no clue if Buffy’s going to beat the shit out of him or start kissing him. Eventually the fighting switches to violent kissing followed by Buffy jumping Spike. Check out the look of utter shock on Spike’s face — he did not see this coming. Buffy was, without doubt, the sexual agressor here and the fact she does this only now that she knows Spike is dangerous to her is fascinating, shocking, and frankly pretty hot.
What makes this sex scene work so perfectly is the focus on the characters’ faces. The looks we see from the two of them — utter shock from Spike and pure sadness/desperation from Buffy, both of which mutate into sexual pleasure — says far more to me than simple flesh ever could. It’s no surprise that the sound disappears, sad/haunting music starts, and the building comes crashing down around the two of them — clearly a metaphor for Buffy’s life crashing down around her. Buffy said she wanted to feel again and she got her wish… it just comes with the cost of one of the worst decisions she’s made in her life… and boy will she suffer for it. This scene is soaked in mournful darkness, is spectacularly acted, and is superbly put together. I find myself emotionally stimlulated, physically stimulated, and intellectually stimulated. I think it easily warrants a big ‘wow.’
There’s a couple odds and ends involing Warren and Tara that I’d like to mention before wrapping this one up. The Trio stealing the diamond isn’t anything too interesting in of itself, but I particularly enjoyed Warren’s “get the freeze ray” lines. It’s also telling how ‘in control’ of the situation Warren is because it begins to show us that he’s the only real villain of the group. The Trio may start off the season as a bit annoying and extremely pathetic, but that’s what makes what happens later so powerful.
I really loved the Tara/Dawn bonding scene. I’m really happy that they’re still hanging out together as it’s both sweet and sensible, although it’s heart-breaking to see Dawn misleading Tara about Willow’s recent magic use just because she wants Tara to move back in so badly. Poor Dawn. Everyone but Tara ignores her and just about everyone but me in the fandom hates her. I, personally, thought Dawn convincing Tara to hang out with her while waiting for Buffy and/or Willow to return to the house was adorable.
I’m not sure why so many people consider this to be one of the season’s weaker episodes, because as I hope I’ve made a case for here, it’s pretty much the opposite. “Smashed” is loaded with relevant and powerful character development that inspires thought and all different kinds of twisted emotions over who to root for, who to feel sorry for, and who, if anyone, to be enticed by. Plus, it’s chock full of sharp, witty dialogue. All the characters are motivated out of the building blocks of previous seasons, and now things are finally playing themselves, darkly, out. This is a daring episode that pays off dividends and, despite its realistically small but nagging flaws, should be recognized as such.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Spike being persistent as ever in trying to get more kissage out of Buffy. He calls her a “tease.”
+ Willow de-rats Amy! I love Amy’s scream. There’s been so much going on since Buffy’s resurrection that I don’t think it even occurred to Willow that she could turn Amy back until now.
+ Amy thinking she was only in the cage for a few weeks. Fun dialogue here, although it’s interesting how angry Amy is when she finds out that she was a rat for much, much longer.
+ Buffy jumping up and down so she can see over a crowd of people at the crime scene of the frozen man.
+ Warren saying “it turns out, size is everything” and then apologizing to Jonathan.
+ Spike’s utter joy and the Trio’s utter fright at Spike threatening to pop Boba Fett’s head off.
+ Spike getting pissed off when Andrew and Jonathan go off about Dr. Who DVDs.
+ Willow and Amy making the guys that were coming onto them too hard dance near-nude inside cages. The utterly scared and confused looks on their faces are what make this amusing.
+ Spike’s dark and mysterious phone call that ends with Buffy breaking up the intrigue and getting Spike to just say “Bloody hell. Yes, it’s me.”
+ The frozen man being pulled out on a cart with the James Bond music cue is a little over the top for my tastes.
* When Buffy walks downstairs to chat with a newly de-ratted Amy, there’s a commericial in the background for the Doublemeat Palace, which obviously hints at where Buffy will be working soon.