[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Diego Gutierrez | Director: Rick Rosenthal | Aired: 03/12/2002]
The plot in “Normal Again” is that which has been seen many times before in various shows from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to Charmed to Smallville. I’m not really sure where this plot originated, and I don’t really care. What makes the Buffy adaptation of this premise so fresh? Well, the answer to that lies in the answer to the question of what makes Buffy as a series so fresh — it’s certainly not the fairly unoriginal plots. What makes it so fresh is how the plots affect and service the characters. It’s all about the characters. “Normal Again” takes this common genre plot and twists it into something incredibly unique. It also ends up being one of the most emotionally gripping episodes of televsion I’ve ever seen.
The Trio’s plan to summon a demon that makes you go completely inside yourself is not only brilliant for what it brings out of Buffy, but it’s also completely fitting with the Trio’s approach to keeping Buffy at a distance — throwing her off her game. The one thing in particular that gets me a bit worked up when discussing this episode with many other fans is how a lot of them feel it is so great (or bad) because of its implications about Buffy’s reality. They feel that the ending represents (or possibly represents) the fact that Sunnydale isn’t real, and that the entire series is in Buffy’s head. Let’s just say that I don’t see it this way at all. To me, as a viewer, there was never any question as to whether Sunnydale is real or not. If it wasn’t, then this would be a pretty pointless series. If you want to watch something about a schizophrenic, I kindly direct you to A Beautiful Mind. That’s not at all what this episode’s trying to do though.
The ending scene in the hospital, although played for a brief “what if” moment, is actually a triumph for Buffy. She is able to bravely choose to ignore the fantasy of the asylum, so I ask all of you to follow in her footsteps and not let the fantasy trick you! I’ll admit that the doctor, going on about Buffy’s alleged schizophrenia, makes a pretty convincing case at first. This is an example of the show looking itself in the eye, almost realizing how much of a “fantasy” all the stories that have been told really are. The doctor unknowingly slips up, though, when he tells Buffy that her delusions aren’t as comforting as they used to be. If Sunnydale is truly a fantasy completely constructed in her mind, wouldn’t that be a fantasy that painted a much more happier picture and history? Why would her parents break up in her fantasy if that’s what she ultimately desires? The fact her parents are here in the asylum prove that the fantasy is here.
In this fantasy, Buffy’s parents are alive, well, and together. Buffy doesn’t have the burden of taking care of a sister, or even of being the chosen one — the Slayer. Here life is simple — she’s just a sick little girl who wants to get better — and she is convinced that if she rids herself of Sunnydale, she can become normal again in this happier world. But that phrase, “normal again,” really can only be obtained by recognizing the asylum for the fantasy it really is and facing the pain of her real life. In order to do that, she has to really let go of her parents for the final time, and completely leave behind the memory of what she wanted her childhood to be in the process. It’s painful, and it’s sad, but it’s life.
With my point about Sunnydale being real out of the way, we can move forward with the analysis. In the asylum, Buffy doesn’t believe what’s going on at first — she’s dazed, confused, and very concerned. Then her parents show up — yes, that was plural: both her mom, alive and well, and her dad — the two of them still together, which is what Buffy always wanted. It’s at this point where Buffy wants to believe in this fantasy. This is the crux of the entire episode. Thanks to Gellar’s beautiful performance, you can identify so much of what is going on in Buffy’s mind: confusion, pain, sadness, hope, and pure undiluted sorrow. I can see the tug-o-war in her mind start firing off right here — a war between the pain of her real life, the memories of her parents, and the utter shock and hope of the fact that there may be a happy ending for her or, at the very least, an easier one.
I absolutely love the continued use of the Doublemeat Palace. Buffy’s still working there to support Dawn. The paralysis metaphor still works, but what I love about the fact that Buffy flashes out while working is how it immediately shows us that it’s time for her to be given the opportunity to finally break out of that paralysis. She took the first step by breaking off her relationship with Spike. These flashes are a painful blessing in disguise, as they force her to make a choice: either leave your life for the illusion of happiness, or deal with your actual life, work through the pain, and search for real happiness.
Later on, Buffy’s conversation to Willow highlights a vital point for her arc in the season. She says, “I feel so lost … Even before the demon. I’ve been so detached. Every day I try to snap out of it… figure out why I’m like that.” It’s wonderful to hear Buffy talk to Willow about this, and to verbalize it to herself. “Normal Again” represents the end of Buffy’s S6 ‘depression’ arc, which began in the sublime “After Life” [6×03] , and it’s of no surprise that it takes unbelievable internal strength to get through it.
Buffy continues talking to Willow about the fact that she was in an institution before Sunnydale. I feel this actually fits in just fine with continuity. From Joyce’s concerned “You need help” in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] to what we know about the characters, it doesn’t at all feel like a cheap retcon for the sake of the plot. I feel this knowledge — something Buffy never told anyone before — works here well. Buffy’s worry that she never left that clinic is palpable, and actually somewhat plausible. I hurt for her here and completely feel the emotions she’s feeling. Gellar is absolutely stellar in this episode. I’m getting all watery-eyed writing this.
The hallucinations eventually start to get Buffy doubting her reality. The little comment about how she should be taller than Dawn is one of the first signs that show Buffy starting to think about what the doctor’s said. She’s adding up those “inconsistencies” and starting to think that maybe he has a point. When Spike shows up later and forces her into a corner about revealing their relationship, she makes the final decision to completely give up reality in favor of the much happier fantasy of the institution. Buffy’s comments to Dawn later are revealing, “Because what’s more real? A sick girl in an institution, or some kind of super girl, chosen to fight demons and save the world. That’s ridiclulous. A girl who sleeps with a vampire she hates… yeah, that makes sense.” Speaking of Spike, I really appreciated the little touch of having him walk in the beam of sunlight in the middle of this conversation. It is so symbolic of Spike’s love of her from the start — him either having to step through the light or pull her into the dark to get to her. The only place they can actually interact with without getting ‘burned’ is in the shadows — at least until S7.
Spike admits he had it wrong in “Dead Things” [6×13] . He says, “But I hope you don’t think this antidote… I hope you don’t think this antidote’s gonna rid you of that nasty martyrdom. See I figured it out, love. You can’t help yourself. You’re not drawn to the dark like I thought. You’re addicted to the misery. That’s why you won’t tell your pals about us. Might actually have to be happy if you did. They’d either understand and help you, God forbid, or drive you out where you could finally be at peace, in the dark, with me. Either way, you’d be better off for it, but you’re too twisted for that. Let yourself live, already. And stop with the bloody hero trip for a second, we’d all be the better for it. You either tell your friends about us, or I will.”
This is a brilliant piece of insight out of Spike, although he’s entirely too insensitive about it. Buffy’s in no condition to be dealing with their issues right now. Spike’s definitely right when he says telling her would likely make her happier, one way or another. But by saying this he shows his own critical gap in understanding the complexity of Buffy’s emotions, history, and duty. Although Spike certainly understands the darker aspects of the Slayer, he’s completely lost at understanding what Buffy demonstrated in “The Gift” [5×22] — undiluted selfless love for humanity. In essence, Buffy should be feeling bad about being with Spike. But, Spike’s not a purely evil creature either, and the parts of humanity he retains and chooses to let flourish deserve respect. So, Spike certainly has a point. They’re both right and they’re both wrong, at the same time. I love their relationship. It’s only going to get more amazing in S7 because it builds on all of this while giving Spike the key component he’s missing in completely understanding Buffy — his soul.
Joyce says earlier, “Mom and dad just want to take you home and take care of you.” Buffy’s missed that very feeling of comfort for so long now that she’ll do almost anything to get it back. This is exactly what she wants, which is why it’s not real. This is powerful stuff. Buffy choosing to dump that antidote in the garbage represents what I feel is the lowest point in Buffy’s entire life — she’d rather be a schizophrenic in a mental hospital than continue the life she’s living now. She tells the doctor, immediately following Spike’s ultimatum, “I don’t want to go back there. I want to be healthy again. What do I have to do?” Poor Buffy! I want to give her a comforting hug so badly right here.
Ignoring the antidode, Buffy goes down the awful road of killing her friends to release her from the burdens of her life. It’s consistent that the moment Xander starts talking about Spike, Buffy whacks him over the head and drags him down in the basement with Willow. I find it particularly interesting that even in this state she can’t bring herself to kill her friends with her own hands — she tries to get the demon to do it for her. It’s utterly shocking to see Buffy do this to her friends. The fact that this makes sense within the context of the season, and the fact we’re able to sympathize with her at the same time, is a product of great writing, a great character arc, and insanely awesome continuity. I love this series, and episodes like this remind me why.
Even with the “comfort” of her parents and the doctor, having her friends of 6 years and her sister killed proves to be incredibly difficult for her. She’s torn, moment to moment, with all the pain, confusion, anger, and depression of not only all that’s happened since her resurrection, but also with her entire calling as the Slayer, and that long forgotten but never too distant desire to be normal. This is gut-wrenching material. When Buffy grabs Tara’s ankle on the stairway, I was actually shocked — that could have killed her.
Joyce’s words of confidence in Buffy were exactly what she needed at that moment. This delusion provided one thing for her she normally could have never gotten: important final words from a mother to her daughter. Joyce isn’t around to actually say these things anymore, so this accurate memory of her in Buffy’s mind ends up doing the job admirably. Joyce’s words have the opposite effect of what was intended in the context of the fantasy. Buffy takes them to reflect what she needs to do in her real life: “Buffy, fight it. You’re too good to give in. You can beat this thing. Be strong, baby, okay? I know you’re afraid, I know the world feels like a hard place sometimes, but you’ve got people who love you. Your dad and I we have all the faith in the world in you. We’ll always be with you. You’ve got a world of strength in your heart, I know you do. You just have to find it again. Believe in yourself.” This is a brilliantly written and acted sequence, and I say this with much enthusiasm! Absolutely moving, sad, and powerful. I’m crying for Buffy, having to say goodbye to her mom, who’s already dead, for the last time. But it’s in that act that she breaks free of depression and becomes, yes, normal again.
Buffy’s officially taken the step needed to have the potential to live happily again! It’s amazing how painful this process is. Buffy has now completely let go of any hope of the happy life she wanted growing up and has instead chosen to make the one she has right again — she chooses to be normal again. This moment represents the end of her S6 arc, and what an amazing ride it’s been. After going through all this pain and suffering, she’s reached a point where she’s a much stronger, and accepting, person for it. I feel this arc is near flawless and one of S6’s biggest strengths. I’ll go into this in much more detail in the Season 6 Review.
As is usual with most Buffy episodes, we happily get some great character moments for many of the other characters too. While Buffy’s dealing with her ordeal we still get a status update on how Willow’s doing, Xander’s growing tension with Spike, and what the Trio’s up to. I really enjoyed seeing Willow building up the confidence to ask Tara to go out and have coffee with her. Unfortunately she catches Tara chatting with another girl and makes assumptions, but at least Willow’s realistic enough with herself that she’s probably over-reacting.
When Xander shows up for the first time since he broke off the wedding with Anya, I adored Willow and Buffy’s complete kindness and support for him. This shows just how much they’ll come to support Buffy when they find out what she’s been up to. What Xander tells the two of them reflects a lot of what Buffy’s been through. He says, “I don’t know how things go so messed up.” Xander’s completely honest to himself here too: “I left and ever since I’ve had this painful hole inside. And I’m the idiot that dug it out. I screwed up real bad.”
Later in the episode Xander jokes about about the manner in which the demon “poked” Buffy. I think this is more than just a chuckle — it shows that there’s possibly some substance to the idea that he still does love Buffy, and that maybe that played a small part in his decision to break it off with Anya. The fact that Buffy played such a critical role in Xander’s nightmare vision in “Hell’s Bells” [6×16] lends even more credence to this idea. If his feelings for Buffy are starting to resurface (if they ever diminished), it would also explain why there’s so much tension between him and Spike — who he knows, at the very least, has affection for Buffy. When Xander makes fun of Spike, like he always does, Spike shoots right back using the info Buffy just gave him about the wedding as ammunition, just as Spike does. This is great character writing here, and it serves as an excellent build-up to their huge confrontation in “Entropy” [6×18] , which is about the same time Xander gets crushed by the news of Buffy’s recent actions with Spike.
I also like how Spike actually reveals those actions with Buffy while walking with Xander, but Xander thinks it’s so ridiculous he doesn’t give it a moment’s serious thought. Spike, on the other hand, calls Buffy “self centered.” Once again, we’re seeing both sides of Spike here. On one hand, you’ve got the kind suggestion of ice on her neck. On the other, you have Spike failing to understand the fact that Buffy is really in pain here and is being affected by an outside force. This, once again, reminds us of Spike’s inherent complexity. Something’s got to happen here, and it will in “Seeing Red” [6×19] .
The last thing I want to address is what the Trio’s up to. Seeing Warren and Andrew playing stupid games despite what has happened is very creepy. Not only that, they’re now picking on Jonathan. This group of “friends” is quickly turning on a scared and angry Jonathan. They’re beginning to treat him like people treated him in high school. Already the seeds for his separation from them in “Seeing Red” [6×19] are being planted. This is good stuff.
Alright, that’s about it. “Normal Again” is an exemplary example of the strengths of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It takes an overused genre plot and turns it into a masterpiece of character work. This just goes to show that great TV isn’t necessarily about originality in its base premise, but rather originality in its implementation. Everything about this episode screams to me ‘brilliant character episode’ for Buffy, which alters her path for the rest of the series. It’s also the episode that lets Whedon completely off the hook for resurrecting his main character from the dead, which is normally handled awfully in everything else I’ve seen.
S6’s follow-through for Buffy from S5 is now complete. From “After Life” [6×03] to “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] to “Dead Things” [6×13] to “Normal Again,” Buffy’s arc has been crafted with care and gradual near-flawless precision. “Normal Again” is also one of the most emotionally draining, painful, and powerful episodes I’ve ever seen, which was only made possible by the phenomenal foundation built by the episodes that preceded it. Kudos!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ No Anya in this episode — I think this was a wise decision, although I’m really happy she gets a lot of attention and development in the next episode.
+ Buffy back on track, looking for the Trio — she’s been so occupied with personal issues that she hasn’t gotten around to them.
+ Buffy having a nice, calm chat with Spike about the failed wedding. Spike saying, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming” really says a lot, because we all know Spike has a keen insight on the people around him. I love all the follow-through from “Hell’s Bells” [6×16] .
+ Spike doing all he can do to help Buffy when in the presence of her friends. He tells them to “Put a little ice on the back of her neck… she likes that.”
+ I love the doctor’s accurate description of the Trio: “Just three pathetic little men, who like playing with toys.”