ONTD Original: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In Defense of Season 6.
Hello, my lovelies. Welcome back to the third installment of the ONTD Original: Buffy the Vampire Slayer posts. I hope you’re having a wonderful day, and if you’re not, I’m always hopeful that these posts might distract you with nostalgia and, fingers crossed, happy thoughts.
If you’re interested in seeing the first two posts in this series, you can look here and here.
Today, I thought it would be fun to look at perhaps the most hated season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6. The internet is flooded with blog posts and opinion pieces about this season, but I haven’t found one that touches on the parts of season 6 that mean the most to me.
**If you haven’t seen seasons 5 & 6 yet, I would suggest skipping this post until you’ve watched it, as it will contain spoilers.**
Also, get your popcorn ready, folks. This is a LONG one, and I’m putting a LOT of thought into this. Also, there are many cuts so you’re not overwhelmed. It’s a LOT of reading, but I promise, it’s good.
As per usual, DISCLAIMER: this is my opinion only. Please be nice (to me, and each other). I’d absolutely LOVE to hear your views/thoughts/etc. on anything covered, and everything not covered!
Argument #1: Season 6 is too dark and depressing.
Explanation: Season 6 is essentially a metaphor for depression and grief. Taken without context, yes, Season 6 appears to be filled with a sense of overall depression and sadness. Buffy Summers has lost much of her light, sass, and overall positivity that drew us in through seasons 1-5. But is it really shocking to anyone, having actually watched seasons 1-5 and the first 3 episodes of season 6? Let’s dive into this a little bit.
Buffy has experienced a significant amount of trauma and loss throughout the series.
(a) In a lot of ways, Buffy’s youth and adolescence were taken from her. She spent what should have been very formative, exploratory, mistake-making years with the literal weight of saving the world from unspeakable evil on her shoulders.
(b) She’s really never had an authentic relationship in her life that didn’t start out without a lie, aside from her watcher. If we think about it, even Buffy’s Mother didn’t know “who she was” until she was 17. When she met her best friends, there was still a secret identity component. While this seems common (i.e. gay/trans people not sharing with everyone automatically), I’d be surprised if the lack of ‘normal’ relationships didn’t have a significant impact on her. Think about her sadness when things didn’t work out with Scott in season 3, or her disappointment with Riley’s government role being revealed; “I thought you were a nice, normal guy.” The idea that she couldn’t attract and maintain a ‘normal’ relationship because of her slayer status, on top of everything else it took away from her? That seems pretty heavy.
(c) She deals with the responsibility of vampire-related deaths, demon-related deaths, etc. Think about Ms. Calendar? In my opinion, this one falls on her, but I digress. If she’d only told someone about it and not tried to be all secretive…there I go again, sorry. ANYWAY. If Buffy had done the “slayer thing”, she would have killed Angelus in the shopping mall instead of kicking him in his privates. If Buffy had done the “slayer thing”, there are probably a good amount of deaths that wouldn’t have happened. (This is NOT me blaming Buffy, btw. I do not think she should hold this responsibility, but I think this is an inevitable feeling of someone in her position) We can see a small part of this in season 4, when she finds Ricky has been turned after she said goodnight to him. We also saw it in season 2, when she apologized to Giles about not being able to kill Angelus. That weight doesn’t go away, and I’m sure more piled on as time went on.
(d) Buffy took on responsibility for her sister in season 5, in a much bigger way. Dawn wasn’t just “her sister” any more, she was “the key.” And it wasn’t just Glory who wanted her, it was the Knights of Byzantium who wanted to kill her. It was other demons who worshipped ‘the Beast’ who wanted to get in good with her. And then there was Glory.
(e) Angel left. Riley left. The primary reason these guys left had to do with completely different sides of the Buffy coin. Angel left because Buffy’s human, and deserves “a normal life.” Riley left because Buffy, as the slayer, was unable to give him what he needed. The juxtaposition between these two relationships’ “cause of death” HAD to have a pretty heavy impact on her. She can’t win. She’s too human for demons, and she’s too ‘super hero’ for humans.
(f) Buffy lost her Mom shortly after her relationship ended, and had almost zero time to process the losses. We saw her struggle back and forth with, “If I had just gotten to Riley a minute sooner…”, and “If I had just gotten home to my Mom 10 minutes sooner…” The unresolved grief of things being stripped away from her, and acknowledging her overwhelming hopelessness were highlighted in her speaking to Giles at the end of season 5: “I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much, but I knew what was right. I don’t have that any more. I don’t understand. I don’t know how to live in this world, if these are the choices. If everything just gets stripped away. I don’t see the point. I just wish…I just wish my Mom was here. The spirit guide told me that death was my gift. I guess that means a Slayer really is just a killer after all.”
(g) In the beginning of season 6, Buffy is resurrected to her coffin. 6 feet underground. She awakens to a dark, confined space, running out of oxygen, and has to claw her way out of her grave. She comes out to a version of Sunnydale that’s destroyed, on fire, crawling with demons, and the first thing she has to do is fight. She runs into her friends, and they (surprise, surprise) need saving. They don’t understand why she’s not happy, and they try to push her to just ‘be OK.’ Then she stands up where she remembered the moment of absolute clarity, and her sister tells her that she’s home, and that where she was ‘is over.’ (We find out later that she was in heaven, and the person she sacrificed her life for is telling her it’s over.)
(h) Buffy takes it upon herself to NOT tell her friends she was in heaven until the musical, when she sings it to them against her will. Now, on top of dealing with the grief of losing her Mother, her boyfriend, her youth/innocence, and feeling like there’s something wrong with her, she takes on the feelings of guilt around her friends feeling bad. She acknowledges that she has been ripped out of heaven, and we watch her life literally falling down around her.
(i) Buffy’s friends are basically worthless. They rip her from heaven, they tell her the money her Mom left is gone, and the house begins to fall apart around her. Her watcher is gone, having moved on, and her friends all seem to have their lives relatively together. Willow and Tara are in school and progressing, Xander is working and making money living on his own with his soon-to-be-left-at-the-alter girlfriend, Giles has left, and even Buffy’s coworkers at Doublemeat Palace seem to have plans and directions. Buffy feels hopeless. She’s denied re-admission to UC Sunnydale, she’s denied a loan, she has social services come to her home and tell her she’s not a fit guardian for her sister, she has Spike repeatedly tell her he’s “all she has”, and then Giles decides she needs to stand on her own, so he leaves (again).
(j) On top of all of this, the one ‘sort of’ relationship Buffy has in season 6 results in an attempted assault. Throughout the season, Buffy seems to have lost her self-respect, knows it, but doesn’t have any idea of what to do. When telling Tara about what is happening, Buffy breaks down and says, “Why do I let him do those things to me?” (It’s unclear if she just means having sex, but my interpretation has always been that she doesn’t understand why she’s in a physically violent, sexual relationship with someone she believes she hates).
There’s no denying that Season 6 is incredibly dark and depressing. The above information, taken at once, is a LOT. (Granted, the above information spans the entire series, but still.) It’s easy to see WHY Buffy felt being dead was superior to being alive through the first half of season 6.
Counter Argument #1
Now we get to the reasons Season 6 is actually pretty great.
Buffy starts to come to the realization that she doesn’t want to die.
In the episode “Gone”, we start to see a gradual return of the old Ms. Summers. Buffy starts with clearing out her home of magic paraphernalia and comes to the realization that she’s in the same boat as Willow, in trying to stop unhealthy behaviors, when she finds Spike’s lighter. She has a visit from social services, and is essentially told she’s a mess and unfit to care for Dawn, and that if she doesn’t get her act together, Dawn will be taken away.
After she is hit with a blast from the invisibility gun by “the trio”, Buffy starts to have fun.
While she’s invisible, she feels free to do what she wants to do. No one can see her, so no one can judge her. For me, this was a metaphor for how Buffy felt when she was dead: no responsibilities, not a care in the world. She went around town making jokes, mocking people, and giving the social worker some payback.
Lightheartedness aside, let’s look at what happened:
(a) Buffy did something many people do when they’re trying to shed negativity: she chopped her awful wig hair off. She sat in her mirror after a rough morning, pulled out scissors, and just chopped it off. Then she went to a salon to have it fixed. My take is, this was a moment that made it clear she wanted to change, and didn’t want to be weighed down by anything unnecessary anymore.
(b) Buffy actually got scared at the idea of fading away. She sits on the curb with Willow after being made visible again, and she calls this out to Willow herself, saying, “That’s something, right?” This moment is a heartwarming realization to me: Buffy wanted to live. For perhaps the first time this season, she had a side of her that thought, “I don’t want to fade away.”
(c) When it’s revealed to the group that Dawn has developed a habit of theft, there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment where Buffy seems to recognize how her absence and distraction is having an impact on her younger sister. When I watch this, it looks to me like another turning point where Buffy realizes she has to step up (in the next episode, we see Buffy and Dawn walking and talking about which stores Dawn’s stolen from, etc.)
(d) When Riley returns, Buffy has a brief period of hope that he’s come back and that they might be able to reconcile. When she finds out he’s married, the rest of the episode is filled with her realization that it’s actually over. There’s a sense of closure.
(e) Buffy faces a demon who makes her hallucinate that Sunnydale is “fake”, and that she’s really a mental patient in Los Angeles who has imagined the entire series prior to that moment. We see Buffy’s final dip into the temptation to give up her life as the slayer (this season). She goes through the process of actually tying up her friends and sister, and throws them in the basement with a demon, at the urging of her hallucinations. As the demon is about to carry out the sinister plan, Buffy snaps out of it and says “Goodbye” to her hallucination that, in my opinion, was her ‘best case scenario’ (i.e. a world where she could ‘wake up’ from the madness, her Mom and Dad are still together, and she could be released from the hospital and carry on a normal life). She slays the demon, and apologizes to her friends and family, and moves forward.
(f) Buffy’s secret is finally let out, and her friends (for the most part) don’t react quite as badly as she thought. She starts being more open, and we see the improvement of her well-being as she ‘comes out of the dark’ with honesty. Her communication with friends increases.
(g) She is put in the ground with these ‘dead body/corpse’ things that keep coming when Willow is trying to end the world, and she finally recognizes that her sister is a woman and she wants to focus on showing her the world and not being so oppressive. She emerges afterward and it’s daylight, and she walks off with Dawn into the light, telling her she wants to ‘show her’ the world, and not hide her from it.
The depression arc was intense, and I’m aware a lot of people fell off mid-season. Many didn’t stick around to see what the rest of the series offered. But my primary feeling about this season is: it’s an important picture of how complex trauma and cumulative pain can impact someone, and it sends the message that even in this supernatural, extreme case, there is hope to come out of it.
Argument #2: The BIG BADS in season 6 are lame.
Explanation: The first of the “big bads” in season 6, aside from the monster of the week characters, was the human trio: Warren, Andrew, and Jonathan. The second was Willow Rosenberg, following the sudden death of Tara at the hands of Warren. Many people felt “the trio” was a disjointed storyline, and that it was a letdown following the literal God Buffy faced in season 5. People also felt the “Dark Willow” arc was too rushed, and the issues with Willow and her addiction to magic dragged on too long.
Warren, introduced in season 5 when his robot ex-girlfriend, April, comes to Sunnydale looking for him, starts working with his minions Andrew Tucker’s brother and Jonathan to ‘take over Sunnydale.’ There is no superpower or special abilities here; Warren is good with technology, Jonathan is ‘sort of’ comfortable with basic magic, and Andrew…well, Andrew is basically a prime example of a mindless follower who clings to what he perceives as power or ‘coolness.’
After struggling with magic ‘addiction’ and cleaning up her act, Willow and Tara finally reconciled. After a tragic event, Willow ‘relapses’ in the worst way and becomes ‘Dark Willow.’ (more detail below)
(a) The trio starts off relatively slow. They summon a demon to rob a bank, and promise to serve him the slayer on a platter as payment. (This is the new ‘big bad’? A trio of nerds who summon a demon? THIS is how you follow a literal God?)
(b) They start testing Buffy’s skills by sending obstacles her way; the hour that wouldn’t end, demons in her workplace, a perception/reality-altering chip that makes Buffy experience ‘time warps’, etc. (Seriously? This is the best they can come up with?)
(c) The trio steals a diamond to finish an invisibility ray, accidentally turn Buffy invisible, and then realize they could easily kill her by shooting her with another blast of it. This is the first time they directly try to kill Buffy, and also the first time Buffy fully identifies who they are. (Ok, they’re starting to get sort of dangerous, but…still…)
(d) The trio develops a ‘cerebral dampener’ that essentially turns a human into their slave. Warren, of course, uses it to get his ex-girlfriend to be his sex slave. The effects wear off, and she fights, calls them out as rapists, and promises Warren will pay for this. As she tries to leave, Warren kills her. (Ok, they’re officially dangerous and full on scum bags.)
(e) The trio decides to summon demons who cause temporal disturbances and execute an elaborate plan to make Buffy think she killed the girl by accident.
(f) When Buffy realizes what they did, she tracks them down with the help of her friends, and intervenes when they’re robbing a bank trunk. Warren, having literal balls of what appear to be magical steel, is now stronger than Buffy. He beats her up, nearly wins, but Buffy smashes his balls and he loses his strength. He unveils his literal jetpack and flies off into the night.
(g) Warren then turns to a completely human means of murder, and shows up to Buffy’s back yard with a gun. He shoots at Buffy, and fires off several shots, hitting Tara and killing her instantly. This immediately leads to the rise of Dark Willow.
(h) After unsuccessfully trying to resurrect Tara, Willow goes to the magic box and literally absorbs all of the dark magic from the darkest books she can find. I believe it represents when someone has relapsed and ‘goes off the deep end’ following a tragic loss.
(i) Willow saves Buffy, then sets out on a journey to make the trio pay for killing Tara.
(j) She tells Buffy she’s going to kill them, and when she tries to stop her by convincing, Willow leaves her behind to track Warren on her own.
(k) Willow eventually finds Warren and skins him alive, then uses her magic to incinerate his body in front of her friends.
(l) Willow tracks down the other two, being protected by Buffy and the rest of the Scooby gang, and this starts a physical fight with Buffy. During the fight, Willow essentially tells Buffy that she’s not there anymore, and it’s as if Willow’s angry “inner addict” it at the wheel. She spews verbal venom at Buffy, fights with her, and nearly kills her before Giles shows up with borrowed power (and a plan) and stops her.
(m) Willow steals Giles’ borrowed power after weakening some, and the plan works: Willow feels all of the pain of herself (and the world), and decides the entire world needs to end.
(n) The end of the world is thwarted by none of than my least favorite character of all time and his annoying chain of “I love you’s.”
Counter Argument #2
Now we get to the reasons these “big bads” are actually pretty great.
The big bads in this season fit in with the theme of depression: monotonous and consistently nagging at first, sometimes leading to a devastating turn.
Think about this: depression, for many, often begins as ‘not feeling right.’ Quite a lot of people who struggle with depression don’t recognize it, but it’s just an annoying, nagging feeling that something just isn’t right. If we think of this season as being a metaphor for ‘depression’, these characters fit into it flawlessly.
(a) Over the first few episodes of the season, we know ‘something’ is wrong with Buffy. We see it, she tells us, but it’s actually in the episode following Buffy’s admission that this is her hell, that we are introduced to the concept of ‘the Trio’, and their plan to ‘take over Sunnydale.’
(b) Following the ‘annoying’ things the Trio did, they started becoming more and more dangerous. If we really observe, Buffy didn’t truly do anything to intervene with the Trio outside of foiling some of their schemes ‘in the moment’, prior to going to their home and taking what she could (when they had the buzz saws and ruined her jacket). The timing of this was also important, because it was right after her ‘secret’ with Spike was outted. The shame and all of that was put ‘out there’ after the hidden camera showed the Scooby gang that Anya and Spike did it in the Magic Box, and Spike told everyone about him and Buffy. (For me, this was sort of like facing the fear, getting up and taking a shower, feeling that sense of washing away a figurative gross feeling. Or opening up to a friend/family member, and getting your feelings out there and being validated.)
(c) Because the ‘depression’ really hadn’t been faced (i.e. treated), the Trio ramped up their efforts. Now it was about getting the strength to take what they want by force, and facing the slayer head-on. It wasn’t “stopped”, because it ‘pulled a rocketman.’
(d) The ‘depression’ caused a major dip: it attempted to kill Buffy, killed someone else, and then it was ‘the end of the world.’
Final Closing Argument
I understand, for many, the story being told the way it was seemed a little disjointed. The “big bad” came and went depending on the episode, and sort of became lost in the telling of the monsters of the week. The random musical, Riley coming back, the magic addiction/crack den, the breakup with Tara/Willow, Xander leaving Anya at the alter, Spike and Buffy’s story arc, Tara’s death, etc. all sort of pulled from the central theme here and there. But, in my opinion: that’s sort of exactly the theme, and it all fit together beautifully. Isn’t that the truth of depression and mental health in general? Feeling like you’re alone, drowning, and trying to face your demons while going through the motions of your everyday life? For Buffy, the “distractions” we all encountered ARE her everyday life—as the slayer. There’s always this nagging feeling of, “but WHAT ABOUT THE BIG BAD?” in this season, but it only comes out ‘in your face’ in the last few episodes. Many who are familiar with depression (whether tied to a diagnosis or situational), this is sometimes the nature of the beast: it’s never really that bad, until it’s the end of the world.
If you made it through the entire thing, what did you think? Do you agree/disagree? Are there any glaring pieces you think were missed? Was there anything highlighted you maybe missed?