[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Drew Z. Greenberg | Director: Michael Gershman | Aired: 02/12/2002]
“Older and Far Away” represents an episode with good intentions that just aren’t realized very well. I’ve scored it the same as “All the Way” [6×06] because it shares many of that episode’s problems: A focus on Dawn that doesn’t really develop Dawn much, a plot that’s fairly inconsequential, and a large part of screen time that just doesn’t pay off in any kind of a meaningful way. Also like “All the Way” [6×06] , there’s bits and pieces here that I absolutely love. It’s rather unfortunate that the central focus isn’t nearly as enjoyable as the surrounding material.
Another sad fact is that anything following the scrumptious “Dead Things” [6×13] is going to suffer in comparison. I’m not going to let “Older and Far Away” off the hook because of it though. Since, in theory, its intent is to largely focus on Dawn’s issues, that’s where I’ll start my analysis. Although Buffy had a brief realization in “Dead Things” [6×13] about her disconnect with Dawn, it’s not until this episode where it takes center stage. I have to say that I like the idea of what’s presented here and I love the continued follow-up from previous episodes.
In an early scene, we catch Dawn asking the gang if anyone wants to go shopping with her for Buffy’s birthday. The problem is that everyone’s too busy to spend time with Dawn. I can’t help but sympathize with everyone in this scene. The “adults” are too busy with real life and obligations, which causes Dawn to feel a bit rejected over it. I mean, true, the adults definitely need to attend to their priorities, but someone really needs to go out of their way to give Dawn a little companionship every now and then.
With Tara never around anymore, Dawn’s got no one to give her that little special nugget of attention. I really feel bad for Dawn here, even despite her inability to completely grasp the severity of the situations around her. Dawn explains her feelings (err, wishing) out loud to Guidance Counselor Halfrek: “People keep… people have a tendency to go away… and, I miss them. And sometimes… I wish I could just make them stop.” Once again, I’m much with the sympathy. But still, that’s no excuse for resorting to theft and lying, although I do understand the why.
Further into the proceedings, Dawn postures that Buffy doesn’t understand what it’s like to be alone. Clearly she’s not thinking hard enough. Manufactured memories or not, “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] anyone? Dawn’s being overly selfish here, no doubt about it. The selfishness may be rooted in something genuine, but it’s still selfishness. This whole season is a time for her to really begin fully waking up to the adult world and its numerous complexities — she’s a part of it now simply by proxy of her relationship to Buffy and the situation around her.
As the situation with the plot gets intense (in theory, anyway), more and more signs point to the fact that their situation of being stuck inside Buffy’s house has something to do with Dawn. Eventually it reaches a boiling point when a desperate Anya starts digging through all of Dawn’s things. I’m very pleased that Anya discovers all the little trinkets Dawn has stolen from the Magic Box for nearly a year now. This, of all things, would hurt Anya badly. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that Anya’s not a lot more angry at her for the theft. When I think it about it some more, though, this is a testament to how much her relationship with Xander has affected her. Although Anya wants retribution, she’s certainly not vengeful about it, which actively shows us the growth of Anya as a character.
Although Halfrek’s speech towards the end is a bit overwraught, she’s not wrong. No one was noticing Dawn’s pain because they were too busy dealing with their own. The episode’s title fully manifests itself here: everyone’s gotten older (ergo adult responsibilities) and feel much further away both from Dawn and, in reality, each other. This is unfortunately one of the inevitabilities of growing up — old friends tend to get lives separate from their group, which ends up causing everyone to break apart. It’s just a crappy situation all around, although I think just about everyone is a bit sympathetic to Dawn’s pain. As Tara points out, “It happens. We all went through it.” The episode ends with Buffy glancing at Dawn, who then throws back a genuinely warm smile. I loved the subtlety of this little moment and how it hints that their relationship, and things in general for Dawn, are going to improve which, more or less, in time they do.
So, the primary focus of the episode definitely has its moments, but it’s all a bit underwhelming. Things get especially rocky when the actual plot kicks in gear. First off, there’s the overly hokey demon. Mr. Red Shirt (and hey, he’s actually wearing a red shirt!!) gets stabbed right as expected, which leaves everyone all occupied by a boring plot, with a demon that exists only to prolong the episode and create non-existent tension. The episode tries really hard to play up the fear and claustrophobia, but all it succeeds in doing is making me wonder when we’ll get another character moment. With a plot this uninspired, there’s got to be some character relevance to back it up. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t have much.
Although I found several things they did with Dawn inspired, there simply wasn’t enough substantive material here to make an entire episode about. It’s particularly bad when they go overboard with Dawn’s angst. As expressed earlier, I have a lot of sympathy for Dawn’s situation, but the way the scene in her bedroom plays out is just awful (even if I were to graciously ignore the awful “GET OUT!” outburst, which I won’t — it’s awful). Dawn comes off as far too whiny, in an over-the-top kind of way. Dawn’s words and MT’s acting in the scene are just atrocious. I rarely say that about this show, which makes it particularly stick out when it happens. Even so, I’m not going to let once bad scene spoil an entire episode for me.
On a more positive note, there’s a whole bunch of smaller moments that ended up allowing me keep the ‘+’ on the ‘C’ that is this episode. I have to say, I just loved Tara in this episode. Everything she said and did made me smile, proud, and/or warm inside. It starts with some good continuity, with Buffy thrilled to see Tara showing up to her birthday. I love their new friendship, which is far stronger now than what they had before. Buffy tells Tara that she’s alright at the moment even though she’s still not at all better, let alone ready to openly admit her involvement with Spike.
Continuing the Tara love is when Dawn’s gift to Buffy, obviously a stolen one, is shrugged off by Buffy as seemingly nothing special the moment Xander rolls out his (completely awesome) gift. Dawn deserved at least a hug and a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for the gift. When Dawn walks by Tara to shut the door, you can tell Tara can sense Dawn’s sadness and you can feel Tara’s sympathy for her.
I nearly fell on the floor in laughter with how Tara treated Spike’s delicious excuse for what he was trying to do with Buffy against the wall. “I had a, uh, muscle cramp. Buffy was helping.” Tara’s barely-restrained-grin reaction is priceless: “A muscle cramp, in your… pants?” Spike looks terrified of her and I’m loving Tara for every moment of it. Tara’s response to Spike out in the family room is also amazing, “How’s that cramp Spike? Still bothering you? … Maybe you, uh, wanna put some ice on it.” I’ll I can say is: grin.
During a crucial moment, Anya is trying push Willow into using more powerful magic to get out of their current predicament. Xander, of course, backs Anya up, who does have a point: it is Willow’s fault that she has self-control issues and can’t use magic responsibly. Saying that now, though, doesn’t help the current situation at all and puts Willow in a really awful, unfair situation. What happens next? Well, of course, Tara comes to the rescue and stands up for Willow! I just love Tara altogether in this episode — she really steals the whole thing away from its intended focus on Dawn and ended up making the episode a frequent joy to watch. I’m very pleased to announce that Tara’s really come into her own, and I’ll always remember this episode fondly for it.
One last little bit I found amusing is Anya’s attitude towards Dawn. How very condescendingly funny she can be sometimes. This attitude has always remained the same in that she treats Dawn like a very small child. Although Dawn has every right to be completely frustrated at Anya because of this, I can’t help but laugh at the way Anya talks. I just love it.
So, the final verdict on this one is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of material I really appreciated and enjoyed, but the poor use of the demon, some plot contrivances, the minimal and somewhat haphazard development of Dawn, and the overall failed attempt at producing any kind of real drama out of the situation just bring it all down. My biggest beef with it is simply that what it focused on wasn’t nearly as good as it could’ve been. On the other hand, there’s so much ancillary joy that the episode isn’t a complete waste either. In a nutshell, it’s a moderately important episode that has its moments but is plagued by a few serious issues.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Despite the demon’s hokiness, I did get a chuckle at Buffy’s little spurt of giddiness over her new sword. “Ooo! Shiny!”
+ Xander politely asking Willow if she’d mind if Tara showed up at Buffy’s birthday party.
+ Buffy claims she’s not one of those people who can’t make friends out of her tight little circle. Turns out, she kinda is… kinda like me. 😉
+ Although I don’t like how what Buffy did to Spike wasn’t addressed at all (aside from a passing comment from Spike), I do find Spike’s capacity for not letting physical violence towards him change how he feels.
+ The instant tension in the room when Spike arrives (with Clem!) followed by the random “set up” guy that Xander and Anya brought for Buffy. Spike’s raised eyebrow is hilarious. Tara jumping in, calling him “cute” while getting Clem to agree was also very amusing.
+ We can tell Spike’s here not so much for the boring party celebration. He’s got other things in mind.
+ Willow’s present to Buffy is beyond funny: an electric back massager. “Instant gratification for all your little achies.” Spike raises another eyebrow hinting at some other uses of the device.
+ Willow upstairs, getting herself together, and trying to look her best for Tara, followed by their mutual nervousness at talking to each other again.
+ Buffy and Spike’s argument by the door is entertaining. “No, you were right. You’re insane.”
+ Clem, Xander, and Dawn watching cartoons together in the morning.
+ I like how when Xander sees how worried Anya is over his flesh wound, he immediately gets up and reassures her. Just a nice little touch there.
+ The little nod to Halfrek being Cecily, Spike’s pre-vamp love.
– Despite Buffy’s awareness of the situation, I still have a hard time believing she’d catch on to the wish angle from Dawn so quickly. It just didn’t feel realistic to me.