[Review by Mike Marinaro]
Well everyone… we’ve, at last, arrived at the end of the road. It’s been quite the journey over these seven seasons and, wow, almost five years. My exploration of the series has helped me explore myself as a person – something that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is very conducive to. As the brilliantly rendered characters grew and evolved through their adolescence and young adulthood, I grew too; as they learned about themselves, I did as well.
But this is not the moment for a series retrospective. That comes later, after the conclusion (section) of this review. For now let’s focus our sight on the widely disliked and marginalized Season 7. Let me be clear up front: this is not one of the strongest seasons of Buffy, but it’s also far from the worst (S1). It would probably feel like a better season if it wasn’t up against such stiff competition. But we all know that answer isn’t good enough.
Season 7 (S7) has the daunting task of satisfyingly wrapping up every character’s journey, still evolve those characters, have an entertaining plot, and go out with a bang. While it’s definitely disheartening that the writers couldn’t pull all these elements together perfectly, there’s still plenty to admire as they did get a lot of it right. For starters, S7 began with one of the best opening run of episodes in the entire series. On the other hand, there’s a bit of a let-down with what followed, most notably plot-wise, as it couldn’t match that consistent and engaging opening volley.
Like S6 this season has its fair share of guts. It frequently goes out of its way to challenge the viewer and their perception of what the show and the characters have become. We find characters having divergent yet valid viewpoints and are left unsure of who is right and who is wrong, if there even is a right or wrong in some of these situations. There’s some courageous storytelling on display when we see the old make way for the new. A lot of the characters fully outgrow their youthful relations as they become self-aware adults – a process that really started picking up pace in S5. This process is often painful for the viewer at first until the realization sets in that all of this really does stem organically from what has come before and is needed for these people to come into their own.
Beyond just being gutsy in places, S7 sports some incredible stand-out moments. How about the closure to Buffy and Spike’s arcs and the beautiful episode “Touched” [7×20]? How about the probing, smart, and gutsy episodes “Selfless” [7×05], “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07], and “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17]? How about the drama of the church scene in “Beneath You” [7×02] or the comedy of the rocket launcher in “Him” [7×06] or the beauty of Xander’s compliment to Dawn in “Potential” [7×12] or the insightful fun of Espenson’s “Storyteller” [7×16] or the return and further growth of Faith starting in “Dirty Girls” [7×18]? All of those standout moments and many others are the courtesy of Season 7, and not just the first seven episodes of it! Please take note of this and don’t look back.
The season has several focused themes and it runs with them quite well. These themes aren’t limited to Buffy’s journey either. Willow, Xander, Spike, Faith, Giles, and our villain the First (among others) are all inexorably linked to them too as is their development and relationships to each other. This is not a poorly written season — quite the opposite in fact; it’s just poorly executed plot-wise and a bit inconsistent at times.
If I were to rank S7 against all the other seasons, I admit it would come in near the bottom. Definitely above S1, but not easily said to be above anything else. It competes with S4 for the weakest full season, which isn’t a terrible thing to be compared to. At the very least this reminds me that the season is worthy of being considered an integral part of the show; I can’t imagine Buffy without it.
Season 7 opens in a manner quite similar to S5 with several character pieces and stand-alone episodes. “Lessons” [7×01] is a light-weight romp that does an excellent job at setting the tone of the season to something new, fresh, and altogether different from S6. It also serves as an appetizer to some of the season’s larger themes. Plus, Buffy gets a job as a school counselor of sorts! Principal Snyder’s probably rolling in his half-eaten grave. 😉
While “Lessons” [7×01] eases us into the season, “Beneath You” [7×02] wastes no time in getting us back into the thick of things from a character perspective. Anya’s working the vengeance again, Xander’s still searching for what’s next in life, and Buffy ends up getting thrown for a loop by a completely crazy, yet very soulful, Spike. “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03] tackles Willow’s return to Sunnydale from England. Willow’s character arc is thus kicked off in fairly solid fashion when she accidentally casts a spell just by thinking it. The stand-alone episodes continue with “Help” [7×04] giving Buffy a taste of the fact that she won’t be able to save everyone no matter how hard she tries. “Selfless” [7×05] gives Anya her powerful standout episode and sets her on a new path in life. Then we get a bit of comedy from “Him” [7×06] before the main arc of the season kicks into full gear.
“Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] and “Sleeper” [7×08] are when things get crazy and the seasonal arc becomes front and center. “Never Leave Me” [7×09] continues this trend yet stops and takes the time to analyze what just happened, bringing in Andrew and getting to the bottom of Buffy and Spike’s relationship at this point. With “Bring on the Night” [7×10] and “Showtime” [7×11] we have a couple plot-heavy episodes that test Spike’s newfound faith in Buffy while the Scoobies and the newly arriving Potentials start flooding in with Giles from various parts of the world. Buffy also shows the new Ubervamp in town who is boss in a public smack down.
With the First sadly “in remission” of sorts, “Potential” [7×12] through “First Date” [7×14] tackle various character bits including Kennedy’s interest in a relationship with Willow, the training of the Potentials, Buffy figuring out her new role of army general, Spike’s chip going wonky and subsequently being removed, and the scoop on the mysterious Principal Wood.
Returning to the arc in “Get it Done” [7×15] we get a final picture of the source of the Slayer’s power as Buffy forces her most powerful allies to push past their fears and hang-ups. “Storyteller” [7×16] and “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] are major character pieces covering Andrew and then Spike, Wood, and Buffy. Then Nathan Fillion’s Caleb and Faith sweep into town. Caleb does some real damage in “Dirty Girls” [7×18] which kicks off the beginning of the end. “Empty Places” [7×19] through “Chosen” [7×22] march towards the finish line with the group committing mutiny against Buffy and then Spike doing what he can to get Buffy back on her feet.
All of this comes together in the fairly exciting finale, “Chosen” [7×22], where Buffy takes all the Potentials and her various other allies down into the Hellmouth to finish it once and for all. The result of this preemptive strike is a scorched Spike, a dead Anya, the entirety of Sunnydale sealing the Hellmouth, and all of the Potentials now being slayers allowing Buffy to be released from her burden of solitude.
- Stalled plot momentum resulting in a relatively inert villain.
- Stronger emphasis on a troubled plot at the expense of some of the established characters.
- The entrance of a lot of underdeveloped new characters.
- Occasional lapses in writing quality and frequent lapses in plot consistency.
While many of the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer often get derided, I think S7 takes the crown when it comes to the number of ‘colorful metaphors’ used to describe it. On a basic level I ‘get’ where some of it comes from. I mean, this is the final season of our favorite show, right? It needs to be out of this world in quality! S7 is not Buffy ending at its peak, and this is most certainly sad. Yet it’s also not the complete travesty many fans would have you believe. Like S6, a lot of risks were taken here and a lot of them paid off. However, a couple of them don’t pay off and therein lies a problem.
One of these initial risks was the sheer scope and ambition of the season’s plot involving a return of the First Evil that tried to get Angel to kill himself in “Amends” [3×10]. You know what? That’s a cool concept with the potential to be a wickedly psychological villain. Some seeds were planted in many of the early character episodes and when the plot kicked into full gear in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] it proved to be terrifying, unsettling, and explosive. I was completely enthralled by the scope and ambition of what the writing team was trying to put together for the final season. This momentum held quite strong for me through “Showtime” [7×11] when Buffy excitingly defeated the tough Ubervamp in a wicked cool smack down with the Potentials as audience.
Up until the half-way point of the season things were looking pretty sweet! But now what? This is a question the writers clearly didn’t have an answer to, plot-wise. They definitely knew where they wanted to end up but they seemed to be at a loss on how to get there. “Potential” [7×12] broke the news that the First was “in remission.” To me, this is writer-speak for “we’re all out of ideas and are too lazy or exhausted to keep things moving.” S7 is much more plot and suspense driven than any other season of Buffy, or at least it was during its first half. In order for this approach to succeed the momentum and danger must keep ratcheting up. This is one area Buffy could have taken a page from some of the earlier seasons of 24. For a few episodes the First was pretty much nowhere in sight which simply demolished all that tension, suspense, and emotion that had been accrued. This is where the plot got lost and never really came back and, as a result of this, the First largely ceased being a threat to worry about.
When the main plot starts to come back into focus, it never quite becomes completely focused. Instead it gets more confusing, sloppy, and contrived from here on out and while the First has the occasional cool scene it’s just not reaching its full potential as a villain. The relevance, power, and even description of the Seal of Danzalthar are all inconsistent at best. Then plot devices start dropping in the characters’ laps ranging from the Slayer Scythe to the Guardian Temple to Angel’s Amulet. Add to that the fact that all of these items start appearing right before the very end of the series and it begins to chip away at the integrity of the plot all the more. In some ways S4’s Initiative plot is actually better than this because it really wasn’t the season’s primary focus — the characters were.
Okay, so the plot started strong and then kind of fell apart to a large extent. If that was the only problem I’d be bummed but not torn up over it. After all, plots were never one of Buffy‘s strengths as a show. Unfortunately, due to all the attention given to the ultimately lackluster plot, some of the characters got less attention than they otherwise would have. The season’s certainly not devoid of character development or even character episodes, not by a long stretch, but while the sum total of development is quite a lot this season it feels as though it’s spread a bit more thin across each individual character (with a few big exceptions).
With reduced screen time for character moments the season had to narrow down which characters it wanted to focus on. This is why we got some phenomenal development for Buffy and Spike, decent development for Willow, and a bit of a diminished role for everyone else. There were some secondary highlights mind you, mostly coming from Xander’s bits of perspective, Dawn’s background maturity, Andrew’s nice little arc, and Faith’s return, but this bit of character-for-plot action was noticeable nonetheless. Being the fan of shows that focus on primarily on their characters that I am I can’t help but be a little bit disappointed by this.
The emphasis on plot wasn’t the only reason why some of the characters got less attention. Let’s not forget the huge influx of new minor characters into the show around that troubled mid-season mark as well. Once the Potentials began streaming into town, things got literally way too crowded. I do kind of the like the Potentials in concept, which I’ll discuss more later, but I can’t help but feel that the writers should have either devoted more time to them, or less. Either way they should have gotten more capable actors to play those parts. What we ended up with is a bunch of largely one-dimensional characters that mostly just sat around a lot and complained — not the greatest trade-off.
The final notable problem this season was some very odd occasional lapses in writing quality. The end result is the feeling that the writers were simply exhausted and ready to send the show off, which personally makes me very glad S7 is the final season. Some examples of this include the whole Eye of Beljoxa thread revealed to us in “Showtime” [7×11], the pointless excursion into leading us to think Giles was the First, and the relative lack of character insight and overall focus in the final five episodes (outside of “Touched” [7×20] and “Chosen” [7×22]). These are the type of things that generally weren’t problems in previous seasons.
In the final group of episodes we got two C-range episodes, some very sloppy plotting, contrived solutions to plot problems, and an odd vacuum in momentum (“End of Days” [7×21] best representing this feeling). This is probably the worst lead up to a finale outside of S1 and perhaps S4. This weakness is again amplified by the fact that these are the final moments of such a remarkable show. In the end it’s just a little sad that it couldn’t go out in a more consistent manner.
S7 is filled with missed potential plot-wise and has other flaws that tug it down a bit, but fortunately there’s far more to the season than just the flaws.
- The symbiotic beauty and power in Buffy and Spike’s relationship.
- Incredible thematic cohesion throughout the season.
- Buffy’s trials and development as a leader.
- A very strong opening ten episodes for almost all the characters, and in general.
- “Selfless” [7×05], “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07], and “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17]
The character highlight of S7 to me is, without a doubt, Buffy and Spike’s powerful individual arcs and how they’re inexorably tied together and concluded. It really is quite the symbiotic relationship between them this season, one which evolves from the massive backstory and foundation that precedes it. In S6 these two went through quite the tumultuous journey together — one of darkness, pain, abuse, self-exploration, and revelation. This journey was also one of the stand-out aspects of S6 in terms of its gutsiness, consistency, and intensity. Out of this Buffy became fully acquainted with the darkest aspects of not only her slayer nature but also her own personality, while Spike loved her in the only way he knew how which, unknowing to him, pushed Buffy further into despair.
This backstory colors how they evolve here in S7. Their post-soul relationship truly begins in the absolutely haunting final scene in “Beneath You” [7×02] where Spike – sounding more like William — spills his soul all over a church, shocking Buffy in the process. This scene establishes a Spike that is broken, hurt (likely a part of which is due to Buffy’s treatment of him in S6), remorseful, and mightily confused, what with multiple voices inside and outside of his head.
Buffy, having gotten to step inside Spike’s soul for a few minutes, knows that she’s not dealing with the same person anymore. This revelation is soon put to the test in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] and “Sleeper” [7×08] where she finds out that he’s been killing again. After a controlled Spike has the opportunity to kill her, Buffy has every outward reason to kill him — in fact, Spike wants to be killed – he says he needs it. Fortunately for both of them Buffy is smarter than to give into what’s playing all of them and makes the connection with the psychological force that has been attacking them. By sparing Spike she deals a silent blow to the First.
In “Never Leave Me” [7×09] we witness a defining moment in their relationship. Spike, once again, encourages Buffy to kill him due to the danger he represents and also the pain that burns inside of him. This is a moment that works so well because of how genuinely earned it is. It is born out of what Buffy learned about herself in S6 and the genuine change she sees in Spike here in S7. It’s extremely important to note that, although not her intention, this faith in Spike’s potential ends up being paid back in full during key moments later in the season.
In the short term Buffy’s faith in Spike is what gives him the motivation and desire to live while being tortured by the First Evil – both things he hasn’t really had much of since getting his soul. Buffy rescues him in “Showtime” [7×11] and as she cuts the ropes that bind him to the wall, which is symbolic of them being freed from the chains of their dark history together, he lays his hand on her shoulder both confirming that she’s really there and solidifying their connection to each other. This is truly beautiful character beat.
This connection pays off in a tangible way in “Touched” [7×20] where an isolated, exhausted, and hurt Buffy gets a much needed boost in confidence from Spike. He tells her like it is: “I’ve seen the best and the worst of you… and I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You are a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy.” The two of them end up sharing a quiet evening together in each other’s embrace — eyes to eyes, person to person. In this moment they both fully understand each other; they both fully love each other. This loves then shines very brightly as Spike lets himself burn not just to save Buffy but, for once, to genuinely save the world.
Buffy’s interaction with Spike isn’t the only thing that stands out this season. The season’s themes – self-awareness, power, leadership, and human potential (among others) — all play off each other quite nicely while being very well presented on their own as well. These themes are largely entwined with Buffy’s emergence and growth as a leader, but they all affect the other characters in their own unique ways. Spike has to deal with the vampire within and come to terms with his worth and purpose as a being with a soul. Willow struggles balancing her scary power with the ability to control that power all while being forced to step up the plate in a way she’s never had to before. Xander and Dawn both come to terms with their abilities, the lonely feeling of always being out of the spotlight, and their own potential and path in life. Anya, Faith, Andrew, and Wood all work into these themes as well. Even the First has some brilliant moments that put a different, darker spin on things.
Of particular interest this season is Buffy’s emergence as a leader not just of a small group of friends, but of a true army of her own. It turns out it’s not quite as simple as that, though, as the season studies not only the complexities of becoming a leader, but also the difficulties of being one. The fact that Giles is the one to initially heap all this responsibility onto Buffy becomes a true point of interest later in the season and in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] in particular. However, it all starts in “Bring on the Night” [7×10] where Buffy gets the crap beat out of her by the Ubervamp and instead of giving into hopelessness and fear she turns her temporary defeat on its head and transforms it into marching orders against the First: “I’m beyond tired. I’m beyond scared. I’m standing on the mouth of hell, and it is gonna swallow me whole. And it’ll choke on me. We’re not ready? They’re not ready.”
What I love about this aspect of the season is how step-by-step we see the different stages of Buffy’s growth as a leader. The season doesn’t shy away from showing both the strengths and weaknesses of her approach while guiding her to the balance she needs to succeed. In the end “it’s about power. Who’s got it. Who knows how to use it.” It’s a rough learning experience for Buffy, but she ultimately puts it all together in the final episodes when she realizes it’s all about sharing that power. The fact all of this subverts the burden of the Slayer’s loneliness and turns it into something beautiful is the icing on the cake. This conclusion is even foreshadowed several times throughout the series along with several early S7 episodes. The season takes us full circle in reminding us what the show was initially and always about at its core.
In addition to all that has been mentioned already let us not forgot how awesome the season started! We got ten solid episodes that were fertile with excitement, tension, growth, hilarity, and psychological insight. Mixed in there were two absolutely brilliant episodes of television in the textured and continuity-laden “Selfless” [7×05] and the psychological bomb that is “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]. I don’t want to forget to mention how much I loved the music of the season too. Robert Duncan in particular did a fabulous job with some really memorable musical moments throughout the season; like how the score for “Chosen” [7×22] really delivered everything I wanted from it. For all of S7’s flaws, I’ll never forget that it actually did quite a bit right and was — perhaps most importantly — a metaphorically, thematically, and emotionally satisfying end.
Buffy’s character arc in S7 is not quite as focused from episode-to-episode as it was in S6, but it still has a very cohesive picture to it. Best of all, though, is how it so eloquently wraps up her journey throughout the entire series. Looking back at the previous season, Buffy learned a lot about herself and most of it wasn’t pretty. What she worked so hard to gain, though, was a self-awareness and acceptance of her best and worst qualities. This knowledge proves to now be quite an asset allowing her to accomplish some pretty amazing things and see an ending that is much more optimistic and inspiring than any other ending could have provided. The best part of what this season does for her, though, is to address and move beyond those struggles while setting up a future beyond the series.
To start with, we can feel the growth and maturity Buffy has gained right from the start of the season in the very detox-y “Lessons” [7×01]. This feeling is acknowledged several times early in the season but is mostly reflected throughout her decisions, actions, and outlook as things progress. Although S6 was a time of learning it’s not until the first third of S7 that Buffy actually verbalizes, understands, and analyzes the very complex issues present in her life and personality. This full recognition of her history and life eventually begins to allow her to gain some perspective and set more realistic expectations for the future.
One topic I’d like to touch on before getting into the thick of things is that no matter how devoted Buffy is and how hard she tries, she can’t save everyone. This is a smaller recurring theme throughout the series that has showed up in episodes like S2’s “Lie to Me” [2×07], S5’s “The Body” [5×16], and this season’s “Help” [7×04]. This is a noteworthy theme because of all the Potentials that are killed under Buffy’s leadership and how she must march on strongly despite her emotions to the contrary, as dwelling on what she could have done better won’t solve anything. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.
“Selfless” [7×05] is the episode that kicks things off as Buffy explains her understanding of the burden of being the Slayer to Xander in a pivotal argument over Anya: “You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the Slayer is always cut off. There’s no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing council. Human rules don’t apply. There’s only me. I am the law.” This speech becomes particularly palpable as the season progresses. In “Him” [7×06] we see Buffy explain the confusion over what happened with Spike in S6 to Dawn, which touches on some of her relationship issues. Then in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] we see Buffy go deeply inward yet be able to express it all outward. This allows her to be able to sort out where the root of some of her issues with relationships, friendships, and the loneliness inherent in the burden of slayerhood are. The vampire Holden tells her, “You do have a superiority complex. And you’ve got an inferiority complex about it. Kudos.”
If we really want to go back to the source of a lot of these issues, it’s quite amazing just how many stem from the key moments of “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] and the general fallout of the Angelus arc of S2. Buffy closed herself off after that and only begins to fully open her heart to another at the very end of the series. This is one of many reasons why the loving embrace she shares with Spike in “Touched” [7×20] is so important and beautiful. Admittedly, some of her issues don’t even have anything to do with being the Slayer. There’s definitely some lingering damage done by her parents’ divorce and her father’s terrible treatment of her afterwards. It turns out that her nightmare dad back in S1’s “Nightmares” [1×10] was more prophecy than living dream — as was being buried alive.
What these moments in the masterwork that is “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] give Buffy is the confidence to be able to handle the trials that await her here in S7 and beyond. Buffy knows who she is at this point in time, completely, even though that very self-awareness sparks the realization that she still has some growing to do. She is still young and has a lot to learn before she’s ready to be at peace with the disparate parts that make her who she is and who she is to become. All of this is quite perfectly captured by Buffy’s “cookie dough” speech in “Chosen” [7×22] – something that’s actually quite applicable to all the younger main characters at this point.
Before “Chosen” [7×22] arrives, though, there are quite a few trials that Buffy must first face. Although she makes mistakes, she makes them with a confidence and knowledge of herself that is to be applauded. Most of her mistakes stem from simply being inexperienced and caught off guard by being thrown into the role of leader by Giles around the mid-season mark (see “Bring on the Night” [7×10]). Although Buffy’s led her friends many times before, the only time she really led anything close to an army is during high school graduation (see “Graduation Day Pt. 2” [3×22]). That was a one-time gig though. This season has Buffy facing an entirely new challenge in needing to learn to be a leader ‘on the job’ and for the long haul.
At first Buffy has a fairly casual approach to letting the Potentials in on the strategizing, but as more and more of them start pouring in she begins to separate herself from them. In “Potential” [7×12] we begin to see her really diving into an active leadership approach that starts off pretty well. It’s the combination of Giles’ concern in “First Date” [7×14] and the First Slayer’s visit to Buffy’s dreams that begin to push her, understandably, to a much more authoritative position. Unfortunately this path ends up leading to some problems.
This can be seen immediately in “Get it Done” [7×15] when Buffy gets frustrated after Chloe’s suicide, telling everyone “Well, from now on, I’m your leader as in ‘do what I say.'” Following this she pushes both Willow and Spike to get over their hang-ups and overall fear of their respective power. While Buffy shows some remorse to Willow over being hard on all of them at the end of the episode, this is ultimately a critical moment that allows both Willow and Spike to end up proving to be exceptionally useful in the final battle. I think this is something both of them come to accept as necessary despite how uncomfortable it made them feel. It also shows that, despite being harsh, Buffy did what needed to be done to get her biggest weapons active. This represents a definite success in her role as leader, one which is unfortunately lost on the Potentials. On the other side of the coin, though, Buffy’s much more closed off leadership style begins to forge a rift between her and the Potentials, one which leads to a huge clash in “Empty Places” [7×19].
A ton of the themes and character arcs of the season thus far come crashing together in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17], from Giles’ argument with Buffy over Spike to Wood’s vengeance trip to Spike’s pain and reformation of himself, and then back to Buffy’s evolution as a leader. This journey isn’t only represented through the Potentials, but also in how she handles Spike. This doesn’t just become relevant in this episode either, as Buffy and Giles have had several prior disagreements over how to deal with Spike. Regardless, what goes down in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] warrants some extended discussion.
I feel both Buffy and Giles make pretty convincing arguments here. In a nutshell, Giles feels that Buffy is allowing her feelings for Spike to cloud her judgment in regard to the risk he poses to everyone. Buffy, on the other hand, knows that a soulful Spike is a brand new person that will be a big asset in the upcoming fight. I’m not going to try to claim that personal feelings don’t play a role here, but it’s not the biggest factor by a wide margin. Having grown tremendously throughout the series Buffy puts her foot down here in a way she wouldn’t have before on this kind of issue. She is the leader now, a position given to her by Giles himself if not one she has earned despite being new at it on this scale.
Buffy’s admittance that now she would let Dawn die if a similar no-way-out situation theorized in “The Gift” [5×22] presented itself proves that she’s willing to make that kind of heart-breaking decision to win the larger war. I feel that this goes a long way in showing that her decision to have Spike by her side is not just because of her feelings for him. It’s also her call to make and one she makes without hesitation because she feels it is the right thing to do. The irony here is that Buffy’s done precisely what Giles lectures her about in in the graveyard. He tells her, “it’s time to stop playing the role of general, and start being one.” It’s in this moment that she lives up to those words, despite the wedge it puts in her relationship with Giles.
This is brave, it’s new, and it’s incredibly consistent with Buffy’s growth over the last seven seasons. Some believe this moment to portray Giles as the villain, but that’s really just not the case. His argument is sound but his methods are questionable (which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘wrong’), both of which are quintessential Giles. Buffy is simply outgrowing her fatherly figure and forging her own way of doing things. The fact that, thematically, this becomes a key part of Buffy’s final plan – and is a part of who she is throughout the entire series — really beautifully ties all of this together.
To the Potentials, what happens at the vineyard in “Dirty Girls” [7×18] is on Buffy’s shoulders. The reality is that it’s not that simple. Although it’s easy to call this a mistake in retrospect, Buffy’s plan of attack isn’t terrible and is actually quite consistent with what she’s been doing since her rousing speech at the end of “Bring on the Night” [7×10] where she decides to take the fight to the enemy. Although it can be debated how she could have approached this moment better, I find it more interesting to talk about the aftermath – this is where Buffy’s leadership style comes back to bite her in the ass.
The reason why all the Potentials ditch her in “Empty Places” [7×19] is because of how she’s treated them since “Get it Done” [7×15]. Although we, the viewers, can sympathize with her desire to close herself off from being hurt when Potentials start dying, the Potentials just see coldness — a sincere lack of connection and an always-on authoritative style. This is why the Potentials are not willing to follow Buffy back into the vineyard even though her instincts are right on the money. Not only did she not have the group’s support at this point, but her return plan is pretty hasty. Yet understanding the complex situation Buffy’s in, I still have sympathy for the girl. Buffy is not an experienced leader at this scale so there are bound to be missteps along the way.
As I pointed in the Pros section of this review, “Touched” [7×20] is when Buffy’s faith in Spike begins to come full circle as he reminds her of her journey – her imperfections and strengths — and that he loves her not just because of emotion or desire, but as a human being. Beyond being beautiful, it gives Buffy the boost to move forward and face Caleb again. While Buffy follows up on her instincts, we see a nice counterpoint to the vineyard massacre when Faith takes the reigns and ends up with a very similar result. Faith, also, is not a leader and is thrown into the position of one. I love the perspective Faith gets on what it’s like to be in Buffy’s leadership shoes for a day and that insight gives her some newfound respect for Buffy in the process. We also see Faith quickly, instinctively, move into a similar authoritative style to Buffy when she completely shuts down a pushy Kennedy. Right now Faith’s simply new to everyone, so it doesn’t rub off the wrong way to everyone (except Kennedy) yet.
One interesting note is how in “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] Buffy sang “I touch the fire and it freezes me/I look into it and it’s black.” I really appreciate the counterpart given to us in “Chosen” [7×22] when Buffy clutches Spike’s hand, flames engulfing them. Touching the fire no longer freezes Buffy and, instead of seeing black, she now sees a kind of love that is something she hasn’t seen before. It’s not “a kind of blind love” either, but instead comes from a place of intelligence and maturity.
Speaking of “Chosen” [7×22], it is quite honestly a brilliant episode for Buffy in terms of thematic relevance and history, as is the season as a whole. So what’s the solution that ends up winning not just the battle, but the war? Well, Buffy shows us that it’s not about hoarding power and using it to subordinate others but instead sharing that power. In light of this solution Buffy finally comes to understand that being a leader in this situation is not about establishing authority over others, but rather that she’s equal to them – a peer. These revelations are not only pertinent to her battle here, but also to her personal life and relationships. When Buffy gives her final speech to the Potentials about “making a choice,” so many key moments in the series come flooding back to me. It’s at this moment when I have to take a step back and acknowledge the scope, consistency, and overall brilliance of Buffy’s series-wide arc.
Many of the biggest themes surrounding Buffy throughout the series were that of the loneliness of slayerhood, the importance of family and friends in the face of that loneliness, female empowerment, and the use of power in general. What “Chosen” [7×22] – and the season at large — accomplishes is taking these themes and tying them all together into something quite stunning. In order to see the whole, though, we have to study how we got here. The first seeds that were planted in this regard are actually right there in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] in how Buffy utterly rejects Giles’ old school textbook approach to slayerhood. This idea is reinforced with Kendra used as a prime example of how a slayer is “supposed” to behave (while Faith shows us the opposite extreme). A big revelation comes in “Helpless” [3×12] when Buffy sees the full extent of the Council’s antiquity and Giles’ part in it.
Continuing with the seed theme, the first root that sprouts from that seed is when Buffy quits the Watchers Council in “Graduation Day Pt. 1” [3×21]. The Council, by nature, is a relatively patriarchal institution that uses draconian techniques to use and control the power of the Slayer to make up for their own inadequacies. When Buffy quits the Council, it’s thematically a much more significant moment than we initially realize. Buffy subverts what the Watcher’s Council expects of her and defies the notion that she’s just a subordinate tool for them.
One thing to remember is that the character of Buffy was initially created as an icon that, among other things, represented female empowerment and the subversion of the old horror trope of the helpless blond victim. Buffy’s dream in “Restless” [4×22] reconnects us to this and highlights several important things: the fact that the Slayer’s power in rooted in darkness (something S5 went to great lengths exploring), that the Slayer is expected to walk alone, and – most importantly – that Buffy constantly subverts what is expected of her. Buffy tells the First Slayer, “I am not alone” while looking at her friends through a ‘window’ of sort. She later goes on to say, “You’re not the source of me.” Both of these statements are unbelievably foretelling of the key to Buffy’s plan in “Chosen” [7×22] – one that metaphorically liberates her from the chains of slayerdom.
Buffy’s defiance of the First Slayer’s insistence that her power be used in isolation – which was in response to the joining (a.k.a. ‘sharing’) spell the core-four did in “Primeval” [4×21] – is essential in her growth as a person and in defining what makes her such a unique slayer. Sure Buffy suffers from issues of loneliness and, yes, the slayer gig doesn’t help much, but as Holden tells her in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07], “Oh, it makes every kind of sense. And it all adds up to you feeling alone. But, Buffy, everybody feels alone. Everybody is, until you die.”
The tactics used in those closing S4 episodes show up again in another episode that really ties into the core of things, and that is “Checkpoint” [5×12]. A delegation of Watchers descend on Buffy’s world trying to reassert that which they lost from her in “Graduation Day Pt. 1” [3×21], using their knowledge of Glory and threats against Giles as leverage to essentially force her into submission. Yet again, though, Buffy doesn’t ‘submit’ — she subverts! Buffy tells the Watchers that “[y]ou all may be very good at your jobs. The only way we’re gonna find out is if you work with me.” Again, success is found when the power and knowledge is shared.
S7 itself reminds us of this remarkably cohesive recurring theme in the memorable episode “Get it Done” [7×15]. It’s here where we finally discover the source of the Slayer’s power and how the First Slayer was created. After thinking about the history of the show and how the Watchers Council interacted with slayers over the years, it now comes as absolutely no surprise when we find out that the Shadow Men are the original Watchers. Buffy, chained to the ground as we saw the First Slayer was in “Restless” [4×22], puts it perfectly as she tells them, “No, you don’t understand! You violated that girl, made her kill for you because you’re weak, you’re pathetic, and you obviously have nothing to show me!” Buffy rejects the notion of power at the expense of her humanity and ties to the world.
So, in the very end, what is Buffy’s plan again? Well of course it is all about sharing her power thereby empowering girls around the world with it. This has us coming back full circle to the one of the initial mission statements of the show. This power comes from a place of cooperation and freedom (e.g. Buffy) rather than a place of control and isolation (e.g. the Watchers). At the very end Buffy subverts what is expected of her for the final time and does something that, as Giles perfectly puts it, “flies in the face of everything we’ve ever- of what every generation has done in the fight against evil. I think it’s bloody brilliant.” Buffy reaching this conclusion didn’t come out of nowhere, but out of stepping stones throughout the series that were subtly tied to her growth at those respective time periods. The finale not only provides a perfect book-end to the season, but also to the entire series. This is truly spellbinding long-term character work.
It’s worth noting that by sharing her power Buffy didn’t actually lose anything — she actually received a figurative power boost because of it. This plays as a wonderful metaphor for the benefits of giving to others and sharing your ‘riches.’ Contrary to how it may seem, those ‘riches’ often return untold dividends in ways one never expects. This concept is symbolized by some of the other characters as well, such as how Buffy’s gift of strength to Willow in “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03] is paid back with the big spell using the scythe – in the end a symbol itself of where Buffy’s true power lies.
In the very final moments Buffy has a lot to smile about. They all just changed the world, something fundamentally different from simply saving it. On a more personal level, what this means for Buffy is that her life is now an open book; a book in which only she has the power to write in. This is visually represented by the open road in front of her. With her power shared and a world brimming with new challenges, Buffy realizes that she is no longer detached from this world. Cue smile.
If it’s not already obvious, S7 does an excellent job at giving Buffy a fantastic send off. All of her major inner conflicts have been addressed and evolved. Although S5 and S6 might be more transparent episode-to-episode in regard to Buffy’s development, S7 holds its own quite well. This wasn’t just done in a stale vacuum either but with loads of style thanks to, for starters, “Selfless” [7×05], “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07], “Never Leave Me” [7×09], “Get it Done” [7×15], “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17], “Touched” [7×20], and “Chosen” [7×22]. Buffy ends the series as a self-aware, smart, mature, beautiful, and powerful adult, and I love S7 for doing her — my favorite character in any medium — justice. Also, thank you Sarah Michelle Gellar for seven seasons of tremendous acting and in bringing this character to life!
“She will. She’s not all grown yet.”
In S6 Willow’s building obsession with power completely dominated her underlying personality, something that was a long time coming and heavily foreshadowed. This obsession led to addiction, a complete loss of control, and then finally a complete loss of who she was. Willow even murdered people; people that arguably deserved it, but she killed nonetheless and seriously threatened friend, foe, and then the world at large. This leaves Willow with having to figure out what’s next here in S7. While this season doesn’t devote all the time to these issues that I would have preferred, it does address each core issue and gets Willow to a place of control and understanding. So, not perfect, but pretty decent nonetheless.
In “Lessons” [7×01] we see Willow with Giles in England learning from a coven of witches, as Anya will later put it, “how to not kill people.” I really enjoyed the fact that, as has been true throughout the series, Willow has retained much of the power she accrued from before. This includes that hybrid of natural earth-connecting magic and darkly rooted black magic that allows Xander to access her humanity and emotions in “Grave” [6×22]. As Willow tells Giles when asked if she wants to be punished: “I want to be Willow.” This is a statement informing us of her desire to find herself, and by this I mean not that scared shy girl in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] or the hopped up uberwitch in “Grave” [6×22], but that person who’s grown all these years in the shadow of everything else that’s happened – the girl we started to see emerge in “Halloween” [2×06] and then in “Doppelgangland” [3×16].
While Giles asks Willow if she wants to be punished, it’s worth considering if/how Willow should be punished. Would Willow turning herself into the police a la Faith end up providing justice to anyone? Would it help her reconcile her best and worst qualities? Would it even be right to not utilize Willow in the big fight that arises here in S7? Personally, I feel the season addresses what to do with Willow decently and that what happened last season will be with her for a long time. “Lessons” [7×01], “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03], and “Help” [7×04] all help address most of these issues while “Selfless” [7×05], “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07], and “Bring on the Night” [7×10] remind us of the dangers that still lie in front of her.
The search to find out who she even really is anymore is something that permeates Willow’s development in the season. In this new Willow we see a person who becomes increasingly confident with herself as a person which then branches out to her control and confidence as a witch, whereas before it was largely the other way around. A part of this struggle lies in finding the right balance between power — a big theme of the season — and control. In “Help” [7×04] Xander, on the way to Tara’s grave (which represents an instance where Willow completely lost control), gives Willow a perfect analogy that really corporealizes her struggle throughout the season. He says, “Figuring out how to control your magic seems a lot like hammering a nail. Well, uh, hear me out. So you’re hammering, right? Okay, well at the end of the hammer, you have the power, but no control. It takes, like, two strokes to hit the nail in, or you could hit your thumb … So you choke up — control, but no power. It could take like ten strokes to knock the nail in. Power, control; it’s a tradeoff.”
Although Xander has some wise words, it doesn’t make utilizing them any easier. We see how scary Willow’s power still is in “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03] when she makes herself invisible to her friends just because she was worried about them not welcoming her back with open arms. This is a really good episode that allows us to reconnect with Willow emotionally, along with helping her reconnect with her friends. In “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] the First makes things especially rough for Willow as it deviously plays on her justifiable fears in order to scare her away from magic. It bites off more than it can chew when it goes for suicide, but it follows up on its threat about magic use shortly afterwards in “Bring on the Night” [7×10] when it briefly takes control of Willow during a spell. This not only shuts Willow down for a while, in terms of big spells, but it also instills a tremendous doubt and trepidation about herself in general.
We see Willow take initial steps in utilizing yet controlling her power in “Showtime” [7×11] and “Potential” [7×12], but it’s not until “Get it Done” [7×15] where she is forced into the position of using a lot of it in a dangerous, powerful spell. Buffy knows that both Willow and Spike have a lot of value they can bring to the table if they can simply get over the fears while keeping true to themselves. In Willow’s case, she has to re-open a portal Buffy jumped into to get her back. To do this, she sucks the power from the nearest strong bodies. I like both the consistency of the magic, as the concept of ‘taking strength’ is used “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03], and what that magic represents. In “Get it Done” [7×15] Willow takes strength while in “Chosen” [7×22] we see her give it.
“Chosen” [7×22] is where everything clicks for Willow as she gets the opportunity to pay everyone back. To do this she uses the essence of the Slayer Scythe to turn all the Potentials into actual slayers. In doing so she conquers her fear and controls her immense power. It makes perfect sense that, because we see this power come from a place of control and compassion, Willow becomes the opposite of what she was in “Villains” [6×20] — that came from a place where control and compassion were absent yet obsession, rage, and vengeance were very much present. I have to say that this is a sublime end to Willow’s overall excellent series-wide arc.
Part of Willow’s personal discovery includes having to move beyond Tara. This is not an easy thing to do. If there’s one area of Willow’s development this season that I’m not entirely satisfied with, it’s this. I do like what we got early in the season, with an emotional visit to Tara’s grave in “Help” [7×04] and a huge emotional outpouring of pain and regret in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]. Alas, it goes a bit awry in “The Killer in Me” [7×13] when Kennedy makes the moves on Willow. Despite this episode’s severe execution problems I did appreciate the pain and overall resistance Willow has in letting go of Tara. It’s in the person who ‘replaces’ Tara that is the problem here. I just have a hard time believing that Willow would be into the kind of person Kennedy is. With that said, Willow’s really trying to find herself this season and Kennedy is likely a part of that. I doubt these two will last, but it’s always possible they could both grow into being right for each other in time.
Willow’s seven year journey had a lot of big milestones and even more subtle ones (like, for example, “Fear, Itself” [4×04] and “After Life” [6×03]). The overall cohesiveness of it all is truly inspiring, from the initial seeds of “Doppelgangland” [3×16] to the scary ‘almost’ of “Wild at Heart” [4×06] to the abuse of “Something Blue” [4×09] to the first wave of rage in “Tough Love” [5×19] to all-out fury in “Villains” [6×20]. Step-by-step the magic began overtaking Willow’s natural growth as a person to the point where the magic was all that was left. It’s wonderful that we have S7 to clean up the fallout of that arc and then evolve Willow to a place of self-awareness, control, and strength.
S7 got Willow mostly right. I would have liked her to get a little more nuanced attention at various points in the season, but what was there was largely solid and well done. The only part of her growth that left me wanting a bit was her relationship with Kennedy. Overall, though, I feel this was a nice sendoff to a complex and memorable character. Much kudos needs to go out to Alyson Hannigan for all the tears, laughs, talent, and unbelievable adorableness. On Willow’s seven season journey, let’s say it together: “That was nifty!”
Xander’s never really been a character to get a tremendous amount of development, and that’s okay as he is usually by nature in the background of the action. Not every character has to get the kind of attention that the central character of the show does, particularly if it doesn’t make sense for them to. With that said, there have been some highlights for Xander’s growth over the years with S4-S6 having most of them. Last season his development surrounded the not-marriage, learning about Buffy’s nighttime activities, trying to make sense of seeing his friends shot and killed, and then saving Willow and the world. S7, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot going on in the Xander department, especially compared to Buffy, Spike, and Willow. He is more of a background player, in a very Buffy/slayer-focused story, than ever before. The season is self-aware of this, though, and gives him some very fine reflective final moments nonetheless.
One thing we’ve got to ask ourselves is just how much more there is to learn about Xander. The season doesn’t try to disguise that its focus is simply not on him. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there were some missed opportunities to integrate Xander into the mix more throughout the season, but the whole point of Xander’s arc is that he has come to value and accept his role as “the guy who fixes the windows.” His value and power as best friend and heart of the group has proved to be memorable in the big ways (S6) and lots of the small ones.
Early in the season we see a couple interesting things from Xander. For one, his job looks steadier now than it’s ever been. He also seems even more tight with Buffy than he has been in a long time, which I guess makes sense considering that Willow was gone all summer and Anya has returned to vengeance leaving only Buffy, Xander, and Dawn to be “the gang.” I love the makeshift family they’ve formed in “Lessons” [7×01] although that dynamic largely goes out the window as the season gets going and everyone starts flooding in. When Spike makes an appearance at Buffy’s house in “Beneath You” [7×02], Xander is understandably defensive although he respects Buffy’s wishes without too much argument this time.
A big moment for Xander, not so much in terms of surprise but rather in action, is the lengths he goes to save Anya in “Selfless” [7×05]. When Buffy tells him she has to kill Anya, he does his best to convince Buffy to back down but loses the argument the moment Buffy brings up the events of “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] and his lie, thus giving Buffy’s counter argument that much more power. So he then goes to Anya and tries to convince her to talk it out and work to undo the damage she caused. It turns out Anya has other things in mind and doesn’t want help, telling Xander the reality of the situation: “You’ve always seen what you wanted to.” To an extent this is true, but Xander often sees the best qualities in those he cares about, especially from S4 onward, even when those qualities sometimes aren’t entirely there. It’s worth noting that Willow didn’t appear to want help in “Grave” [6×22] yet needed it nonetheless. Here in “Selfless” [7×05] Xander comes through and saves another girl he loves. Buffy may have actually gotten the chance to kill Anya (who by the end of the fight wanted death) had Xander not pushed her away before Willow got D’Hoffryn involved.
For most of the season, though, Xander plays a supporting role. I’d like to stress how Xander, and the season at large, is very self-aware of this role and is actually quite content with it. He knows what he’s good at, how he can help, and is largely past the need to be stronger or more useful in other ways. Xander not only offers advice and “heart” to those around him, but he has practical construction skills too which are put to good use in the Summers’ home throughout the season.
Xander’s experiences throughout the series are what have led him to this place of self-awareness that he possesses this season. This is precisely why, in “Potential” [7×12], he is able to impart this knowledge on Dawn in what is probably his best moment of the season. He tells her, “The amazing thing is, not one of them will ever know, not even Buffy. … How much harder it is for the rest of us. … Seven years, Dawn. Working with the slayer. Seeing my friends get more and more powerful. A witch. A demon. Hell, I could fit Oz in my shaving kit but come a full moon he had a wolfy mojo not to be messed with. Powerful. All of them. And I’m the guy who fixes the windows. … They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me.” When Dawn posits that perhaps his power is “seeing, knowing,” I think she might be right. This is a trait, along with his “heart,” that can be traced back to “The Freshman” [4×01] and that shows up again and again afterwards.
This realization is what makes Caleb poking one of his eyes out that much more disturbing. One thing I would have really appreciated is for Xander to have one last moment of great insight after that injury to prove one last time that his value isn’t in his literal sight but rather in his ability to see things through his heart. Although we all know this is true, I would have been that much more excited to see it validated on screen one final time.
The final thing to note about Xander this season is the confused state his relationship with Anya is in. As the season progressed and they found themselves both stuck together and out of the main action day after day, they really began to reconnect. This reconnection always came with the knowledge that, although they will always love each other, they’re on separate paths now. Anya is finally becoming her own person and needs to figure things out for herself similar to the way Buffy realized in “I Was Made to Love You” [5×15]. This leaves Xander’s interaction with her as comfort food. I have to say that I really enjoyed seeing them end things on good terms though. They’d healed most of the wounds left from Xander’s actions in “Hell’s Bells” [6×16] and have come to be at peace with each other. Color me pleased.
One thing Xander really shares with Buffy this season is a confidence with who he is. Xander knows what he’s capable of but also that he has an unknown future ahead. This future is an open book for him, one only bound (in a good way) by the love of his friends. While Xander didn’t get as much attention and development in this final season as I’d have liked, he got enough in the previous four to make what he did get here fairly fitting and still quite resonant.
In the high school years I actually didn’t care for Xander much as a person and found him too wrapped up in his own inadequacies and jealousies to sympathize with much. That began to change thanks to “The Zeppo” [3×13] and his selflessness towards Cordelia at the end of S3. Since then I’ve gradually come (in S4-S7) to really understand and appreciate the guy along with what he brings to the table. I have to give props to Nicholas Brendon for playing the role with a lot of, uh, heart (pun sort-of not intended). Now, where’s that peg leg to complete the ensemble?
Ah, Giles. Always a character I enjoyed but was never particularly fixated on. Does S7 give him a proper send off? Well, it depends. In terms of how his relationship with Buffy evolves: yes. In terms of getting his own moment in the spotlight: not so much. Even with the limited screen time that he had I feel a bit more could have been done with the character, particularly in the final five episodes. While his presence is most certainly felt in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17], and he gets a few small bones thrown his way by Whedon in “Chosen” [7×22], there’s just not much else going on with him towards the end of the season.
The role he does play ties in tightly with Buffy’s development as a leader. Giles doesn’t have his own arc this season as much as having a presence and impact on those around him, which is also valuable. In “Bring on the Night” [7×10] we find out he snatched some important files from the Watcher’s Council before it exploded and is rounding up potential slayers from around the world. When he shows up at Buffy’s front door in Sunnydale he brings all of this with him and drops it on her lap. He even tells her that it’s all up to her and that she must lead. This exchange of responsibility turns out to be a lot more difficult for Giles to fully accept with than I think he even imagined.
The first real hint of a rift between Giles and Buffy appears in “First Date” [7×14]. There’s actually some great dialogue in here in which both of them make their case for or against Spike. Giles believes Buffy’s letting her emotions towards him cloud her judgment. This is an argument that, from Giles’ perspective, is quite real and entirely valid. Looking at history, Buffy wasn’t willing to kill Ben when it was the smart move in “The Gift” [5×22] and was blind to Willow’s self-destruction due to her involvement with Spike in S6. Giles has every right to be concerned, although he’s also somewhat blind in the ways in which Spike has genuinely changed.
While Giles is certainly more of a free thinker than most of the Watchers in the Council, he still has a ‘do what must be done’ old-fashioned attitude about him that has popped up again and again. It’s why he allowed the Council’s ‘test’ of Buffy in “Helpless” [3×12] to go on as long as it did, but it’s also what gave him the clarity to kill Ben in “The Gift” [5×22] and be ready to try to kill Dawn if that was the last resort. This trait can and has been used in both a negative and a positive way. His actions in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] aren’t necessarily right or wrong, which is part of what makes the episode so compelling. Giles always does what he feels needs to be done to save “this sorry world,” and I can’t fault him for that. What I can fault him for is not recognizing that in order for Buffy to truly be the leader he asks of her, he has to accept the tough choices she makes and not just the ones he agrees with. Keeping Spike alive isn’t a game of emotions for Buffy — she has both a personal and a practical need to have him by her side. This is something Giles is simply not able to see clearly.
In the end, though, Giles got one thing he wanted: for Buffy to truly act the role of general and make the toughest of choices. Am I a little sad that the two of them aren’t on the best of terms heading into the finale? Sure, but it made complete sense both thematically and in characterization. “Chosen” [7×22] also goes out of its way to remind us that although Buffy and Giles may disagree on certain issues, they’re still on the same team and respect each other’s opinions. Has that father/daughter aspect of their relationship largely passed? Yep, but it was time. Giles left Buffy in S6 to force her to stand on her own, grow up, and become that confident adult. In many ways that plan worked and now Giles learns he needs to treat Buffy as an adult and a colleague rather than a daughter. Like Buffy learned to become a peer to the Potentials and share her power, Giles has had to learn to become a peer to Buffy. To use a Giles quote to sum up how their relationship organically evolved throughout the series: “I think it’s bloody brilliant.”
Although Giles’ relationship with Buffy evolved in the gutsy but natural way it needed to, I still would have liked to have seen some moments for Giles himself to shine. This all makes for a good, but not great, send-off for a really good character. Oh, and it goes without saying, but Anthony Stewart Head rocks!
Oh my, Spike’s sure had quite the journey hasn’t he? This can certainly be said about a lot of the characters on Buffy, but Spike’s definitely one of the prime examples. Also like many of the other characters, Spike’s arc this season not only wrapped up his series-wide arc but also managed to integrate into the themes of the season — particularly when it comes to his potential in becoming a great man. I found this to be a particularly well-written and strong season for Spike where everything clicked.
The opening volley of the season is very focused on introducing both the audience and the other characters to Spike’s new soulful state. I also must point out how much I respect the writers for not holding back this knowledge just to tease the other characters. When we first see Spike we’re inclined to initially make comparisons to Angel who spent nearly a century struggling to come to terms with what it means to have that soul. The burden of it weighed heavily on Angel until crossing paths with Buffy who made him feel love for likely the very first time in his existence. It’s safe to say that Angel’s experience with her changed him.
It’s with this point of reference that we look at Spike, a very different beast. Yet Spike does have one thing in common with Angel: how Buffy helped transform him from nothing into someone worth fighting for. The key difference is that the majority of this transformation happened for Spike when he didn’t have a soul. Instead he had somewhat of an intermediate step — the Initiative chip — that acted as the catalyst for change, but the actual changing was all him. Through obsession, lust, and a kind of love Spike found himself at a crossroads towards the end of S6. He could be neither monster nor man and had to make a definitive change. He courageously chose to work towards becoming a man, despite not having the capacity to fully comprehend the implications of that decision. This reality makes that decision all the more unprecedented.
Spike is sure able to comprehend the implications of having a soul when Buffy forces him to come clean at the end of “Beneath You” [7×02] though! In one of the best scenes of television I’ve ever witnessed Spike pours his heart, body, and soul all over Buffy while inside a church. In Spike’s act of contrition and plea for forgiveness Buffy sees genuine potential in him to become much more. Despite Spike’s proclamations, pre-soul, that he’d changed (which he had, but only to an extent) Buffy now knows that a morality-altering change has occurred for real this time, one that goes far beyond the scope of his love for her.
From “Lessons” [7×01] to “Selfless” [7×05] Spike appears completely mad in the basement of the school, and I love the ways in which these episodes toy with everyone’s opinion on what it means. The viewer first assumes all the craziness is just because of his soul. Buffy doesn’t know what to think other than she can pretty much feel that he’s different in some way. The truth of the matter turns out to be far more complicated. Whether it’s the First, the Hellmouth, Spike’s own guilt, and/or a higher power involved, there are forces at work that make it very difficult for him to move forward. All of this subtext makes watching those early season scenes a lot of fun to come back to.
Although justifiably brash with him, Buffy is the first to step forward in giving Spike a chance. Buffy, showing remarkable patience and wisdom, puts up with his insanity just long enough to get to the root of the problem. Then she helps him get out of the school basement and spares his life when he begs for death after being manipulated and controlled into murdering. In “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] and “Sleeper” [7×08] Spike is at his most doubtful. The First has been controlling him to kill for it and after regaining memory of these events Spike encourages Buffy to kill him and even partly desires it.
The pivotal turning point for Spike is in “Never Leave Me” [7×09]. This is the moment where all that insanity and doubt transform into belief — belief that he can actually become a good man worthy of Buffy’s trust and one in control of his own destiny. This is when Spike gets introspective and reflects not only on his recent ‘actions’ but also on his history both with Buffy and before. It’s Buffy, though, who gives Spike what he needs: the truth. She says, “You’re not alive because of hate or pain. You’re alive because I saw you change — because I saw your penance. … Be easier, wouldn’t it, it if were an act. But it’s not. You faced the monster inside of you and you fought back. You risked everything to be a better man. And you can be. You are. You may not see it, but I do. I do. I believe in you, Spike.”
Buffy’s faith in Spike allows him to have faith in himself as a human being for the first time since before he became a demon. Spike’s growth causes him to start to reflect on their history together, too, which helps him see Buffy’s growth. At this point in the season, their care for one another begins to resemble a symbiotic relationship, one which will fully manifest itself in “Touched” [7×20]. But for now, this gives Spike what he needs to survive the physical and mental torture that the First throws at him in “Bring on the Night” [7×10] and “Showtime” [7×11]. When Buffy releases Spike from captivity, you can feel the very new connection they have. It’s hinted at in “First Date” [7×14] that this is a connection that need not be romantic to be powerful.
Now that Spike has belief in his own self-worth he is faced with the challenge of breaking free of the various restraints placed upon him that will only hinder his growth going forward. Without being free he can never fully realize his potential and redefine himself. What are these agents of restraint? I see them as the Initiative chip, his reservations about letting his inner violence loose and, of course, the trigger. Breaking down each one of these barriers to freedom wisely gets specific attention from S7.
Buffy recognizes Spike’s need of freedom to flourish so she authorizes the removal of his chip in between “The Killer in Me” [7×13] and “First Date” [7×14]. Despite not showing her make the actual decision, the writers don’t neglect how big of a deal this is both for good and possibly ill. Giles has never had a liking to Spike, but here he views Spike as not simply a nuisance but as a direct threat. This causes a rift between Buffy and Giles. Notice how both the actual decision to remove his chip and the fallout from that decision are all beyond Spike’s control? This is representative of the fact that the chip was done to him in the first place without his control.
The rest of Spike’s restraints aren’t so easy for him to break free from, though, as they stem from inside of him. “Get it Done” [7×15] does a solid job of bringing attention to Spike’s lack of lust for action and ‘the kill’ that he used to have. I find it hard to fault his newfound lack of enthusiasm for it, but Buffy’s right in forcing him (and Willow) into positions where they have to put aside those reservations and become the warriors they are capable of. In Spike’s case he finds his iconic leather jacket, uses his inner demon, and gets a fun brawl out of it. This sets him up to be useful in the action down the home stretch of the season.
The final piece to this puzzle arrives in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] where Spike gets to the root of his trigger. I think my good friend Rick summed up how this went down quite well in his supplementary review of this episode: “[Spike] certainly can’t relish in a redemption filled with violence and destruction. But, without a viable response to his mother’s rejection, he can’t exactly revert to his former human self either. That’s why, when presented with a lullaby once sung by the mother whom his life disappointed so deeply, Spike is ‘triggered’ into the killing machine that freed him from the mediocrity of his human life.” By confronting the reality that his soulless mother was not the same loving individual she was before and recognizing that he is no longer the same being responsible for siring her, he is able to break free from the trigger.
“Fool for Love” [5×07] showed us how Spike, the soulless demon, was constructed piece-by-piece. What these mid-to-late season episodes (and the season as a whole) accomplish is the same thing only for soulful Spike, and we even get some time to really let this growth flourish. It’s beyond fun seeing Spike construct a new persona while never fully leaving behind the best qualities of his previous persona. What a wonderfully complex character he’s become.
With Spike now fully in control of himself and his destiny, the final leg of the season sees him ‘giving back’ and sharing his newfound understanding and power to those that helped him get here — most notably Buffy. This is best represented in “Touched” [7×20] during the sublime scene in the abandoned house where Spike tells Buffy like it is. Since I’ve already quoted this speech in this review, I’ll refrain from using it again. But the speech speaks as much to Buffy as it does about who Spike has become.
In “End of Days” [7×21] the two of them have a conversation where they essentially admit love for each other, but are both unsure of what it means for them right now. This nicely ties into Buffy’s “cookie dough” speech to Angel in “Chosen” [7×22] and how Xander and Anya end the series. In the very final episode we see Spike sacrifice himself not just for Buffy but also genuinely for all of humanity. Buffy giving Spike the amulet turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as I don’t think Spike was a champion until he put it around his neck and let himself burn for the world. The amazing thing: I think Buffy knew this and had faith that by using the amulet he’d finally become the man she had faith he could become earlier in the season.
Spike’s arc this season is incredibly well-written and well-defined. As he goes out burning in a pillar of sunlight and flame (“Chosen” [7×22]), grinning with joy in his final moments, I can’t help but applaud. What a satisfying, gutsy, well-written, and brilliant character arc throughout the series. It’s vital we also remember how Spike got here: it’s all because of Buffy; Buffy as slayer, Buffy as girl, Buffy as lover, and then Buffy as peer. From the first moment Spike laid eyes on her with lust and awe in “School Hard” [2×03] to his sacrifice, Buffy is the reason why Spike is here. S7 does Spike real justice as he becomes one of the best, most complex characters in the show’s run. Beyond all that, I found his arc this season to be quite beautiful and moving. Before letting Spike go I have to applaud James Marsters’ consistently engaging and amusing performance. A not-small part of the success of Spike is definitively attributed to him.
“It’s cool: Watcher Junior to the library.” If I had one quote to sum up both Dawn’s role and attitude this season, this would be the one. Dawn was a character I found myself fairly sympathetic to in S5 but felt got lost in shuffle a bit during S6. She ended up being something other characters revolved around rather than her own person, which I admit was kind of the point, but I still felt like it short-changed her potential to be a bit of a deeper character. S7 sees Dawn in a much better place even though she still doesn’t get quite as much narrative attention I feel she deserved. Yet, apart from an unfortunate moment in “Empty Places” [7×19], I appreciated how the character interacted with everyone throughout the season.
Beyond briefly getting the spotlight in “Lessons” [7×01] and then an ominous message in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07], Dawn is relegated to the background of the season much like Xander. To the writers’ credit, this reality is molded into theme in “Potential” [7×12]. While it’s a shame that Buffy didn’t get the chance to fully live up to her promise in “Grave” [6×22] we do see a stark contrast between how she treats Dawn. Besides beginning to train her (which is a huge deal for Dawn) Buffy also allows her to fully be a part of the Scooby Gang. Dawn contributes frequently with research now too and is all-around resourceful. Plus, the end of “Chosen” [7×22] hints at a future of wonderful shared experiences for the two of them.
Throughout the season Dawn is very self-aware of her surroundings in a way that she was too immature to before, which is lovely to see. “Potential” [7×12] is a flawed but important episode in which Dawn is led to believe that she’s a potential slayer only to later find out that it’s not her. During that brief time when she thought she had slightly enhanced abilities we see a new kind of initiative and confidence out of her. Through finding her own inner strength and power she is able to effortlessly concede the literal strength and power to the real Potential.
Although Dawn is saddened to not be in the spotlight and not be “chosen,” Xander explains to her that this doesn’t mean anything less of her. He says, “They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary.” I have to say that I agree. It takes a lot to put one’s ego aside in service of a greater good. While Buffy sadly isn’t able to show Dawn her gratitude for this in a literal way right now, we do see in more subtle ways (e.g. stroking her hair in “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17]) how Buffy’s entire effort is in large part for Dawn and her future.
Despite not being the center of attention anymore after S5 Dawn’s matured quite a lot over the years, going from spilling ice cream all over her face to being willing to sacrifice herself to save the world to having a hard time dealing with abandonment to accepting and embracing her background role to contributing to Buffy’s fight and literally fighting alongside Buffy in the final battle. Dawn is not one of the best characters in the series, but she certainly doesn’t deserve the hate generally thrown at her. S7 does Dawn decent justice in the end and I, for one, am quite pleased to see it. I also felt that Michelle Trachtenberg really grew as an actor along-side the character.
Right until the end Anya never ceases to be funny and moving. In S6 Anya fully came to understand what love was just as it was taken away from her. Instead of reflecting on the experience she reverted back to what was familiar: vengeance. In the waning moments of that season, particularly in “Entropy” [6×18], we saw Anya come to realize that reaping vengeance on Xander will not quell her pain. This is the state in which she begins S7 in and is reinforced in the first few episodes despite her desire for it not to be.
While in “Lessons” [7×01] we see Anya make excuses to Halfrek for her tame vengeance spells, we get a little more focus of the subject in “Beneath You” [7×02]. Despite extreme reluctance and obvious outside pressure, Anya does reverse the worm spell she casted on a girl’s ex-boyfriend. Then in “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03] we see her blunt but ultimately helpful to a newly returned Willow. These are all important things to take note of when tackling Anya’s shining gem of an episode, “Selfless” [7×05].
Through a series of fun and smart flashbacks we see the journey Anya has taken throughout her life. The most interesting part of this is what binds them all together. Anya never takes the time to find out what makes herself tick — to find out who she really is as a person – even after all those years. The earliest instance of Anya shows a quirky woman who was completely devoted to her Olaf. In this original personality we see inklings of a whole person with self-awareness; one who is crafty, smart, and unique even if the world around her fails to appreciate those qualities. Yet she is primarily defined through her relationship with Olaf. He, of course, cheats on her so she reaps horrible vengeance upon him (i.e. turning him into a troll, thereby leading us to the awesome phrase “that’s insane troll logic”) which kicks off her career as a vengeance demon.
Over the next thousand years Anya fully assumes and relishes this identity, allowing it to define her as Olaf had before. As she says in Russia, “Vengeance is what I do, Halfrek. Vengeance is what I am.” Many years later, stripped of her powers and human, we see Anya defining herself once again into something or someone else that is not herself. In this case it’s Xander and if they had actually been married, she would be defining herself by being “his missus.” The most successful marriages tend to work when two fully realized self-aware individuals completely commit to each other with full knowledge or both their strengths and weaknesses. Since both Anya and Xander, individually, had not adequately gotten to that point yet there was little hope that they would have been able to last, which is largely why it was probably a good idea that it didn’t happen (despite the cruel timing on Xander’s part).
After D’Hoffryn roasts Halfrek and once again strips Anya of her powers she finally realizes that it’s finally time she deals with whomever she is as a person, by herself. This is what makes her long walk away from Xander at the end of “Selfless” [7×05] so tough and heart-breaking, but it’s a lesson that all of the younger (in human years) main characters have had to learn at one point or another throughout the series. This is an important life lesson for adults in their early 20s — one that if taken seriously will better set them up for a happier future. But it’s not for the timid.
If there’s one complaint I have about the treatment of Anya this year it’s in what happens next. That’s to say, what did not happen next. From “Him” [7×06] through “Get it Done” [7×15] we see Anya mostly just in the background “providing much needed sarcasm.” While I always appreciate the sarcasm, I like nuanced growth even more. The fact Anya does offer to help despite having no direct motivation to anymore speaks well of her growth post “Selfless” [7×05], but I have to say I would have really liked her to get a little more direct attention during this chunk of episodes. I felt like we lost touch with her a little bit in there. I’d complain more about this except that what the season does give Anya is generally handled quite well, although I’m not sure why D’Hoffryn bothered sending exceedingly lame demons after her throughout the season. The demons are so pathetic that I have a hard time taking them as serious threats and view them as a mere nuisance to keep Anya unsettled more than anything else. The whole thing still feels like an odd afterthought though.
Thankfully the end of the season gives Anya a truly wonderful farewell aside from, you know, the death and all. Before I get into all of that, I’d like to make note of the lovely little pit stop in “Storyteller” [7×16]. Here both Anya and Xander admit to still being in love with each other despite recognizing that it might not mean anything for them anymore. This is a nice moment between the two of them that ends what they had together on a sweet, upbeat note. Added bonus: getting the phrase “merry-go-round of rotating knives.” I’d also like to stress how Anya’s become a much better person by having Xander in her life despite the troubles they ran into. Looking at the clueless Anya in “The Prom” [3×20] in relation to the one we see here in S7 makes Xander’s influence that much more obvious.
Anya’s big moment of self-reflection and self-awareness arrives in “End of Days” [7×21] in an oddly fitting conversation with Andrew. Andrew asks her “how come you’re here? I mean, you could just go, right?” Anya, referencing her fleeing action in “Graduation Day Pt. 1” [3×21], points out that she did run before. “What’s different” Andrew asks her. Well, before jumping into her response now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how she didn’t flee in “The Gift” [5×22] either. Ah, but recall the reason she stayed that time was primarily Xander. Even then Anya would have had little reason to stay and fight if Xander weren’t in the picture. But things have changed now and Anya has grown.
Anya sums up this change better than I could: “Well, I guess I was kinda new to being around humans before. But now I’ve seen a lot more, gotten to know people, seen what they’re capable of and I guess I just realized how amazingly screwed up they all are. I mean, really, really screwed up in a monumental fashion. And they have no purpose that unites them so they just drift around blundering through life until they die, which they know is coming yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They’re incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane and yet… here’s the thing. When it’s something that really matters, they fight. I mean, they’re lame morons for fighting but they do. They never- they never quit. So I guess I will keep fighting, too.”
Naturally, after coming to such an important realization, Anya abruptly dies in “Chosen” [7×22] in the way good people really die in these kinds of battles. Yet leading up to that moment we’re left with some parting gifts to remember her by, from her “Wagnerian snoring” (thanks, Giles in “Goodbye Iowa” [4×14], for that one) to her gaining strength from envisioning the slaughter of bunnies to selflessly giving her life for humanity and living up to her words in “End of Days” [7×21]. Despite wanting more for Anya in the middle of the season and being sad at losing her, she still got some brilliant moments on the whole and ended the series a fleshed out yet still wildly entertaining character. This is where a huge thank you goes out to Emma Caulfield for being so effortlessly hilarious and fun to watch. It’s almost as if she was born to play this role.
Since awakening from her coma in “This Year’s Girl” [4×15] Faith has become a very unique specimen in the way in which she has grown. I can’t think of any other character that has grown so much on two different shows, with the possible exception of Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The cool part is that each show’s slant tackles Faith’s issues and development in their own unique way. Angel’s mission of saving souls really suits Faith well when she gets to the point of wanting to die in Angel‘s “Five by Five” [1×18]. In “Sanctuary” [1×19] Angel offers Faith the chance at recovery in a way that Buffy couldn’t at that point in time. Ultimately, though, it is Faith who makes the decision to pay for what she’s done in prison.
Now we flash-forward to the present and see Faith returning to Buffy’s world a new person. After returning the favor to Angel (in S4 of that show) we now see Faith tested in the outside world for the first time in a few years. Although she comes back to Sunnydale in “Dirty Girls” [7×18] (and has a scorcher of a scene with Spike), it’s not until “Empty Places” [7×19] that we begin to see this change and continued growth. For starters there’s a nice little moment where Faith has the know-how to see that Buffy is distressed over Xander’s injury and kindly tells Dawn to stop prying for information.
The juicy center, though, is when Faith takes the Potentials out for a little fun and lets things get a little too wild. When Buffy finds out about this she is pretty upset. In frustration Faith throws an uncalled-for comment about the massacre at the vineyard at Buffy that results in getting her punched to the ground. A key thing happens in this moment though: Faith doesn’t fight back. Later when talking to Principal Wood about the incident she informs him that “other things matter more.” Faith is also the one to suggest everyone take a breather in the big mutiny scene at the end of the episode.
With Faith now leader of the Potentials in “Touched” [7×20] we get to see her in a completely new environment. As Buffy didn’t ask to be leader when Giles heaped the responsibility on her, Faith didn’t either. For the most part, Faith does a decent job keeping things together while being presented with a couple big obstacles. The first of which is learning how to use her authority when necessary such as when Kennedy is pushing too hard. The second is trying to keep her emotions in check when being confronted by the First as the Mayor which makes for a tremendous scene as a certain amount of doubt is put into her mind over her own ability to lead and the threat Buffy may still pose to her.
After leading a bunch of Potentials into a trap that gets some of them killed we see Faith verbalize what she’s taken away from the experience in “End of Days” [7×21]. To quote myself, “Buffy correctly informs Faith that the deaths the group incurred were not her fault. Faith also gets introspective and finally begins to understand Buffy and her burden. It’s easy to be jealous or criticize someone from the outside, but it’s not so easy when you’re in their shoes and have to do that job. Even though Faith had all those people supporting her, she felt alone as ever before. Faith then tells Buffy, ‘and that’s you, every day.'”
Finally, in “Chosen” [7×22], Faith fully becomes a part of the solution as she participates in equal measure with Buffy to share their power. Principal Wood is even able to open up a new door for Faith relationship-wise; one that I hope and expect Faith will step through in the future. I can’t help but think that her experience with Riley back in “Who Are You?” [4×16] is what even allows her to be open to the idea of taking things further with Wood. When taking all of this in as a whole, I must say Faith got some great experiences and growth in just a handful of episodes. It was wonderful to see her back on the show for the end. Eliza Dushku has always nailed this role and I found her more adult portrayal of Faith to be just right.
Well how about that, I’m writing about Andrew. Who’s to blame for this? Yeah, I’m looking at you Jane Espenson! Andrew was, in my eyes, unquestionably the least interesting and developed of S6’s geeky Trio — a two-dimensional character at best. I have to say that I’m pretty impressed by how the writers (mostly Espenson) took him in and actually gave the little dweeb some depth. This season more than before found Andrew with just the right mix of funny and stupid. It’s quite the fine line between the two and, for me at least, it’s one the character successfully traverses. With that said, if you don’t find the character funny then all that remains is the stupidity. On that level I can certainly understand why many people can’t stand him. Yet funny I find him nonetheless.
In S6 we learned that Andrew was a gullible, weak, and morally confused nerdy boy. In the wake of Warren’s murder of Katrina and subsequent rampage we see Andrew often rooting Warren on in a blind sense of devotion. Despite being a slave to Warren we do get a glimpse or two that he’s got the potential to grow out of this. Unlike Warren, Andrew has not yet completely gone off the deep end. But he comes awfully close to it when he returns to Sunnydale with Jonathan in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] only to follow the First, disguised as Warren, to kill Jonathan. When we next see him in “Never Leave Me” [7×09] he’s neither overly remorseful nor completely at ease with what he did, but mostly in denial over what happened and wanting to not think about it much.
After this we begin to see a few cracks in Andrew’s fresh denial. This is particularly apparent in “First Date” [7×14] when he agrees to allow himself to be wired so Willow can record and extract information out of the First. Andrew also quite firmly rejects the First’s suggestion to kill all the Potentials, but it’s not until we get to Espenson’s little gem “Storyteller” [7×16] where we really dig beneath his exterior.
“Storyteller” [7×16] manages to accomplish the tough task of taking a recurring two-dimensional character and making him a three-dimensional character. Andrew’s camera work in this episode really defines where he’s content to be: on the sidelines as a detached viewer of everything that’s happening around him. We even see him view himself as a ‘victim of circumstance’ in his own fabricated flashbacks where he re-writes history in his mind to make him come out looking ignorant to the horrors he’s had a hand in, directly or otherwise. Yet when Buffy puts his life on the line we finally pierce the denial thereby reaching the truth. It turns out that he is aware that redemption isn’t easily found and that even his death here and now wouldn’t redeem his actions. Redemption isn’t something you can achieve with one grand gesture — it’s something that must be earned over time and isn’t a concrete eventuality. Often times that grand gesture is just a start.
In “End of Days” [7×21] Andrew learns about the best of humanity from Anya telling him, from her own experience, “When it’s something that really matters, they fight. … So I guess I will keep fighting too.” It’s also here where Andrew ponders that he is not likely to survive the upcoming battle. Yet he does end up surviving precisely because he has not yet become fully self-aware or been redeemed by any standard. While Anya has come to finally find herself as a person, Andrew still has a lot to learn and a lot of growing up to do. His journey is just beginning. Yet he ends the series on the right path “as one of those lame humans trying to do what’s right.” Albeit with a case of swimmer’s ear. I’m pleased to say that Andrew ended up being a nice addition to S7 due both to his comedic value and his own bit of growth as an individual. Towards the end I really think Tom Lenk stepped up his game too.
The newcomer Principal Robin Wood is a decent little character that doesn’t have tremendous depth but yet just enough to keep things interesting. Rather than having a big story of his own he’s kind of thrown into the mix of the season. For the first half of the season he doesn’t get a lot to do besides ooze charm and be a mysterious figure, both of which I feel D.B. Woodside did a great job with. With how many balls were in motion this season I honestly don’t think there was room to focus on yet another character, so his role of side player worked for me. In the second half of the season, though, he does get some interesting stuff to do. This, of course, starts when he finds out Spike killed his mother in “First Date” [7×14].
Although Wood’s definitely committed to Buffy’s fight, he lets vengeance get in the way of the larger mission. “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] is the moment he tries to take Spike out to ‘avenge’ the death of his mother and his loss of a normal childhood. What’s intriguing is how he triggers Spike before attacking him, thinking that this Spike is the same monster who killed his mother. The truth is, of course, a lot more complicated. Triggered Spike isn’t soulless Spike – it’s a mindless vampire with no thought whatsoever, which is why the First is the one usually pulling the strings. Without the First controlling it there’s nothing there but an animal. Wood is trying to kill a monster that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s extra neat that this recognition very much parallels what Spike realizes about his mother after he sired her, thus freeing him from the trigger.
After this big blowout Wood drops the subject after getting sympathy but also a stern warning from Buffy. When Faith arrives in town we quickly see them make a connection in “Touched” [7×20], but it’s one that Faith characteristically shrugs off. Wood doesn’t let her off the hook easily in “Chosen” [7×22], though, and convinces her to give him the chance to surprise her. If the television series had continued I would have very much enjoyed exploring a relationship between these two. While Wood isn’t exactly the most important or complex character, I felt he was a fresh addition to the mix nonetheless.
Ah yes, the infamous Potentials. I’ll just jump right to the point. Yes, these girls are what partially took screen time away from characters we care much more about and the individual girls weren’t terribly well acted or deeply characterized. Yes, this is a notable flaw in the season. Yet I can’t completely condemn the writers for what they were trying to do here. In fact, the Potentials actually work pretty well as a group in terms of how they fit into some of the themes — that of human potential, sharing power, and female empowerment — of the season.
When looking at the Potentials as a single character their purpose within the season snaps into focus much more clearly. The real problem ended up being that the writers tried to straddle this concept with shallow individual personalities. They tried to have it both ways, not developing the individual Potentials enough to become fully developed characters yet giving them enough attention that you can’t just look at them as a group. Somewhat ironically, this kind of parallels Buffy’s own struggle to get to know them well enough to form meaningful bonds, but not so much that she becomes too distracted from the mission and her friends.
While I certainly didn’t mind a few of the Potentials — mainly Kennedy, Amanda, and Vi — there were as many or more that I didn’t care for or were indifferent to. When I feel out whether they helped or hindered the season, I tend to lean towards the latter. I appreciate what the writers were trying to do, though, and still very much enjoy the thematic relevance they have as a group. In fact, in “Chosen” [7×22], I actually get quite the thrill from everything come together thematically and seeing them all confident, determined, empowered, and kicking all kinds of ass.
After “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] and “Sleeper” [7×08] I found myself bracing for an amazing ride in what had the potential (heh) to be one of the best seasons of the entire series. The tension, terror, and excitement of that opening volley instead began to slowly diminish until “Potential” [7×12], where it was even stated within the narrative itself that all of that build-up is now gone. The First being “in remission” is the quote that pretty much killed the plot arc of the season for me. If the writers had gotten it back on track I might not be saying this but they sadly couldn’t get it going at full-steam again.
In addition to how poorly paced the second half of the season is plot-wise, I can’t even express how many missed opportunities there were for psychological terror with a villain such as the First. With it able to be Buffy, imagine how it could have planted even more severe seeds of doubt into both Willow and Spike thereby making their journeys even that much scarier and the terror of the Potentials that much more palpable. The one slam-dunk use of the First towards the end of the season was in bringing back the Mayor as a foil for Faith, but sadly more former guest stars weren’t brought back.
With the season’s plot on life support the writers decide to toss in a corporeal villain to give the group something tangible to fight. Despite the transparent attempt at giving the First some teeth again, I actually didn’t mind this approach, conceptually, at all. Enter Caleb, who in “Dirty Girls” [7×18] is fresh and dangerous enough to be genuinely scary. I have two problems with his introduction into the season though. The first being it happened too late to save this aspect of the season. The second is that Caleb is a one-dimensional villain that gets repetitive fast, despite Nathan Fillion’s disturbing portrayal. It’s worth noting that a purposefully simplistic villain such as Glory had much more complexity and depth than Caleb could ever hope for.
I do feel a character like Caleb could have really helped the season under the right circumstances. The First would have to still be scary and never have been “in remission,” Caleb would actually have to have some depth, and he would have needed to be introduced a little earlier in the season — likely shortly after “Showtime” [7×11]. I think this scenario could have really been a compelling mix with a lot of opportunities to play off the main characters.
With all that said, the First also has moments that play quite nicely thematically. One image to ponder is the First imbuing Caleb with its power. This ends up being a kind of an evil inversion of what Buffy does with the Potentials. In both cases power is being shared, but the intent and use of that power is of huge difference along with the manner in which it is shared. In the end it’s just too bad the final villain has to be summed up as ‘tons of untapped potential.’
Season 7 of Buffy has its flaws, but as a whole it is in no way ‘bad’ and does not deserve the vitriol that I constantly see thrown at it. I can sympathize a little in the sense that I too wished the final season would have been better, but that fact doesn’t erase how much amazing television it brought to my screen. There’s a saying out there that the worst of Buffy is superior to the best that most others shows are capable of and, outside of S1, it’s a statement I largely agree with. Season 7 has a rough exterior that requires a bit of digging to get past but once you do there’s a whole sea of thematic goodness just waiting to be consumed.
There are countless moments and several entire episodes within this season that effectively and evocatively utilize six seasons of character development and backstory with such grace, emotion, intelligence, and wit that I am beside myself for words. Such a thing, in my mind, could not be said about a truly terrible (or even poor) season of television. Let’s not forget to give S7 its due props while we dissect its flaws.
The primary flaws of the season include a plot-arc that largely loses itself around mid-season and an influx of new under-developed characters that ended up stealing some valuable screen time from some of the main characters. Yet despite its struggles, the season holds together due to some extremely compelling character arcs and a strong opening volley of episodes through the first half of the season. The season also occasionally continued the trend S6 set in producing some challenging and gutsy moments and episodes. Perhaps the most consistent aspect of the season, besides Buffy and Spike’s sublime and complex evolution, is how the themes of the season really bind all the moving parts together and excellently conclude the entire series.
So in the end this is a solidly ‘good’ season of Buffy yet also perhaps the weakest outside of the first. Some of the problems that plagued S4 actually show up here, which is one reason why these two seasons keep battling it out in my head for the mantle of second-weakest season in the series. Yet despite their respective flaws I love both seasons all the same. When I look back on S7 the great moments stick out in my mind far more than the weak ones, from Spike draped over a large cross in “Beneath You” [7×02] to Anya singing on the balcony in futility in “Selfless” [7×05] to the rocket launcher in “Him” [7×06] to all of “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] to the faith Buffy puts in Spike’s potential as a man in “Never Leave Me” [7×09] to the Ubervamp fight in “Showtime” [7×11] to Xander’s speech to Dawn in “Potential” [7×12] to Andrew’s cry of guilt in “Storyteller” [7×16] to the complex arguments of “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] to Faith and Spike’s conversation in “Dirty Girls” [7×18] to the utter beauty of “Touched” [7×20] to the final battle in “Chosen” [7×22]… and plenty more.
While a part of me is sad to see it all end, I can’t help but feel that this was the right time. Even though the plot slowed it down, Season 7 truly is a brilliant end to the series thematically. The best part of moving past the sadness of not seeing the characters’ journeys continue is how it refuels my excitement for going back to the beginning, marveling at the contrast, and starting those journeys all over again. The amazing thing: the series only becomes further enriched with each viewing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks everyone for one hell of a fun ride!
There was a time when I was planning on writing a complete series review. As I approached “Chosen” [7×22] I began realizing what a futile endeavor that would be. Not only would it be probably be book-sized, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d be repeating a large quantity of things I’d already said throughout not only my episode reviews but also my comprehensive season reviews. Then it dawned on me. What’s missing is not a series “review” but rather a series retrospective, the point of which is to run down the reasons why this show has touched me the way it has. What separates Buffy the Vampire Slayer from other great television shows besides just the influence it had on TV as a medium?
Well, if pressed to boil it down to one reason above all others I’d yell out characters! That doesn’t really get to the heart of things, though, does it? Alright then, without further ado, here’s my 10-item unordered list of what makes Buffy so damn special.
- Character Fluency. When you get caught up in watching a string of episodes it’s often easy to overlook the connective tissue that binds the characters to the various stories being told. If you pay close attention, though, you’ll find the characters casually referencing what happened in the previous episode(s). Characters not only remember what happened seasons ago, but also what happened last week! I find this quality to be incredibly vital to why the characters feel so much like real people as opposed to just puppets of the writers and the plot. This dynamic allows for a level of ‘intimacy’ with the characters I’ve seen no other shows, quality or otherwise, accomplish to this extent. This is why it is one of the first things I notice is missing in other shows. Long-term and short-term memory in characters is something that I’ve only ever seen Buffy do completely right.
- Continuity. This show’s self-awareness of its history is immaculate. It’s not perfect — no show is — but I’ve never seen another that’s even come close to this one’s consistent use of continuity in a sea of ever-changing characters and plots. The fact this consistency is maintained over a span of 7 seasons and 144 episodes simply boggles the mind. From whole storylines to character development to in-jokes to throw-away references to poking fun at itself from time-to-time, Buffy never forgets where it came from.
- Foreshadowing. So Buffy does a fantastic job of remembering what happened before, but that joy impressively also goes in the other direction! Many major plot points and character arcs were planned seasons in advance, and that enhanced direction often shows itself in the form of subtle but largely deliberate foreshadowing. Between both the clearly intentional and the likely accidental hints of things to come, this level of interconnectivity between different parts of the story is truly unprecedented. I often find myself amazed to see something foreshadowed only to jump ahead to that point in the series and see a reference back to the episode that foreshadowed it.
- Psychology. The characters not only have short-term and long-term memory, they also have a lot going on inside them psychologically. Fortunately for us, Buffy is masterful at allowing the viewer into the minds of the characters. Through the thorough and nuanced development many of the characters get in nearly every episode there is rarely a point in the series where you don’t completely understand why someone’s acting the way they do or making a particular important decision. Some of this insight is conveyed through the themes of an episode, sometimes through the dialogue, but other times through literary techniques such as metaphor and symbolism, and yet still other times with simply great acting with subtle facial expressions and body movement at the right times. The characters all have unique personalities, opinions, and perspectives that largely drive how they’ll react in any given situation. All of these factors add up to a feeling of genuinely knowing and understanding who these characters are.
- The Fun Factor. Despite all the other quality aspects of the show, I have to admit I wouldn’t be nearly as invested in it if wasn’t just plain fun to watch. The show is far funnier than most comedies and is also able to blend that comedy with intense drama and pathos. The humor of the show isn’t one-dimensional either. The show sports situational comedy, character-based comedy, dialogue-based comedy, continuity/history-based comedy, and even silent comedy, sometimes all at once! Beyond the comedy, there is also some pretty awesome action sequences littered throughout the series. It’s quite fun to watch Buffy’s fighting style literally evolve season-to-season. Buffy is also very playful with language, yet it’s always consistent with its own internal rules. The best part of all this is that all of these qualities aren’t just in “the comedy episodes” — they’re a part of every episode in the series, albeit some episodes emphasize certain qualities more than others.
- The Cry Factor. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, once said that there are “[t]wo things that matter to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers.” I’m not one to easily get emotionally invested in fiction, yet Buffy is able to emotionally bring me to my knees, often while laughing and cheering all at the same time. There’ll be a scene that has you on the brink of tears only to slip in a subtle joke that causes you to chuckle through the tears. Yet there are also moments — moments grounded in carefully crafted character development — that simply punch you in the gut and then kick you while you’re down. Despite being a fantasy show, Buffy is more consistently emotionally resonant than any other TV show I’ve ever seen. A large part of why this is so is because these moments are actually earned — they don’t come out of nowhere and feel natural based on what came before.
- The Brain Factor. Despite the cheesy title, Buffy is actually a tremendously smart show that deftly utilizes metaphor, symbolism, and subtext which are all used with surprising subtlety. It’s also a show that is rich in themes that are present in every episode and through entire seasons, always saying something relevant about the characters. There are scenes that’ll have a witty pop-culture reference followed by a subtle literary reference, all of which ends up foreshadowing a character’s actions in the next season or is directly related to the themes of the present episode or season. There is a tremendous amount of sophistication in not just the text of the show, but also in its visuals. It should also be mentioned how incredibly gutsy the show can be at times, sometimes devoting itself to entire seasons. Most shows chicken out when it comes to following-through with the consequences of previous episodes or seasons, but Buffy nearly always delivers and has the guts to take the characters where they should organically be heading after what they’ve experienced.
- Variety. Buffy never gets stale throughout its seven seasons. There are many reasons behind this. The first is that that the show spans multiple genres ranging from drama to comedy to action to horror to romance, sometimes all within the span of five minutes. Yet all these elements are blended together so cleverly that it almost never feels jarring. The characters have complex personalities with both positive traits and negative traits. They can be witty and fun, but also occasionally out-of-line and mean, although their position is always understandable. This sort of spontaneous flexibility in tone is also present from episode-to-episode, with some episodes focusing more on an individual component of the show’s tone — there are hilarious comedy episodes, scary horror episodes, touching romantic episodes, and gut-wrenching dramatic episodes, and each of these have aspects of the others. On top of all of this, each season has a unique tone, look, feel, and even music. No season repeats the feel, themes, or character development of previous seasons. Because of this, each season comes out being completely unique from all the others. At no point does the show feel like it’s treading the same ground.
- Unique Episodes. The average episode of Buffy contains all of the things I’ve already pointed out, which already makes it an absolute joy to watch. Yet the show is never content to lean exclusively on its known strengths. There are a whole bunch of episodes that successfully do something completely different, whether it’s looking at the series from a different point of view or letting a minor character be the central character. It can get even more experimental than that, too, like having an episode with almost no dialogue or an episode that takes place entirely in the realm of dreams or an episode with absolutely no music or an episode with almost nothing but music. Despite how some of these episodes appear “gimmicky” on the surface, these ‘unique situations’ are always used as a springboard to say something about the characters and to move the story and themes forward.
- The Journey. The first time I finished all of Buffy I paused in reflection of what I’d just seen while being simultaneously saddened that my ride with the characters had ended. After this pause, I went back to the very beginning of it all out of sheer curiosity. I found myself completely shell-shocked at the contrast between the beginning of the series and the end of it. In the former, the characters are mere children who have unformed opinions, a romanticized outlook on relationships, are blissfully unburdened by the reality of death, and are the opposite of self-aware. Season-by-season these characters very gradually and naturally — based on their experiences and history — learned, loved, lost, evolved, and eventually became adults not just in physical appearance but as people. The characters we see at the end of the series are self-aware adults who are largely knowledgeable of their and each other’s faults, strengths, and motivations. The journey through the series isn’t one focused on plot or some big evil scheme, it’s one entirely centered on the characters. In this aspect Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like one giant book where each season represents a chapter in that story.
So, in the end, the common thread of all of these points is back to what I started with: it’s all about the characters. All of these items don’t exist in isolation either, they work together to make each individual quality that much more resonant. On top of all of this, there’s always something new to learn. There are many areas of the show that are worthy of study that I either don’t have specific interest in or simply haven’t started digging into yet, but they’re there to explore nonetheless ranging from the show’s use of music to gender studies to cultural impact, and plenty more. I learn more, pick up new things, and make new connections each time I watch the series. This is one of the rare times where the material is actually enhanced each time you watch it rather than getting boring or old. That’s the magic of a complex show that uses plots to service the characters, not the other way around. Plots on any show get old after you’ve seen them once or twice, but rich and layered characters end up taking on a life of their own.
Now despite all the praise I’ve heaped on the show I would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly touch on its flaws, which I personally find to be minor drawbacks rather than deal breakers. There’s really only one notable flaw that comes up again and again on Buffy: mediocre and occasionally poor plots. If you’re looking for a densely plotted thriller, you’ll rarely find yourself satisfied by Buffy, although it does have its moments. The plot is a means to an end — the end being character growth and theme — and because of this it occasionally doesn’t get the thought or polish that it needs. Some of the plots end up being a bit silly while others end up not making a ton of sense. Generally all the major plot arcs hold together pretty decently, but there are mistakes. In summary, plot is most definitely not one of Buffy‘s strengths. This is why people that prefer strong plots over strong characterization tend to not enjoy the show nearly to the extent I do.
I also want to stress that Buffy is not perfect when it comes to its positive qualities. It can, rarely, not really succeed thematically or slip up a bit of characterization or fail to follow-through on something that happened before, but all of these instances are exceptions to the rule. Considering how long the show ran, it’s actually quite remarkable how consistent it is.
A series retrospective wouldn’t be complete without a final look at how the seasons stack up, would it? So here’s my final estimation of how the seasons compare, putting grades to groupings.
- #1 (A): S5. To me, S5 is unquestionably the peak of the show. The season had a compelling plot, rich themes, deep characterization, plenty of laughs, a little bit of romance, and lots of excellent drama. There was no weak link in what was not only the most consistent season, but also the most powerful once you added up all the pieces. In light of all these factors S5 stands alone as the complete package and my favorite season of television.
- #2 (A-): S2, S3, and S6. All three of these seasons are great, yet each also has a few flaws that hold them back from hitting the very top. It’s interesting that S2 and S3 have pretty much the opposite strengths and weaknesses which, in the end, put them in the same league of each other. Out of these three seasons I like S3 the least, but in terms of overall quality it certainly stands tall with the other two. S6 earns its place here from its gutsy storytelling and characterization, most of which wildly succeeds, and its unmatched follow-through from the previous season. I feel that S5 and S6 make the best two-season punch in the entire series.
- #3 (B+): S4 and S7. First, let me be clear that both of these seasons are very good seasons of television. The problem that largely separates them from those above them is that they have very sloppy plot arcs — arcs that start out with a lot of promise but then crumble under the weight of what they’ve built. This ends up causing these seasons to feel as though they have an extreme lack of focus. The truth is that they both hold together quite well thematically and contain some superb character development. Yet the narrative problems really do end up disrupting the overall cohesiveness of these seasons, which is why they fall behind a notch.
- #4 (C+): S1. In what barely even seems like a part of what the series became, S1 comes in at a distant last. The season is not terrible but it’s not really all that good either, despite a few high points. This season shows a Buffy that doesn’t quite know what it’s capable of. It sticks with a fun yet simple mission statement that only scratches the surface of what lies beneath it. In light of what came after it, the season ends up being a lot more fun to watch albeit only very slightly more impressive critically.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a uniquely marvelous television series, one that actually gets better every time I watch it. Thankfully the show isn’t an academic bore to watch and is instead boundless fun. When I’m not feeling well and need a good laugh, I generally go to Buffy to cheer me up. When I’m in the mood to be deeply affected by something, I watch Buffy to give me a little teary-eye. When I’m in the mood to think about my entertainment, I watch Buffy and then write about it… a lot. This show is able to deliver on all these qualities and much more. This is what the show means to me. Now please go (re)watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and find out what it means to you.
Final series score: 94 (A-)