[Again, note that spoilers will be present. In this case, they start in the first paragraph.]
When Buffy takes what I called, when viewed through the lens of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, “a leap of faith” at the end of Season 5, showrunners and fans alike already knew she’d be back. Different network, sure, but she’d be back. Yet as the camera focused on the tombstone in the closing image, fittingly ending with a joke, “She saved the world a lot,” much was left up in the air.
Granted, Sunnydale was populated by fascinating characters, but the show couldn’t continue without the titular heroine. We’d already seen beloved characters bite it. No resurrection for Jenny Calendar or Joyce. We’d also seen Angel spiral into a hell dimension only to find his way back at the conclusion of Season 3’s first episode. More like Angel than the “natural” deaths of the others, Buffy died plunging into a mystical portal. There was precedence for resurrecting her.
(It wouldn’t be the last either. Darla, staked by Angel in Season 1, is revived by Wolfram and Hart. Wesley and Warren both reappear in the follow-up comics. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m told recently that Fred has manage to split from Illyria. This is without mentioning Agent Coulson’s visit to T.A.H.I.T.I. in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
But how to do so? I’ve often remarked that in comic books “death is just an injury.” So often, those “deaths” feel like cynical marketing ploys. How would Buffy avoid that? (As a quick aside, the Russo Brothers and Marvel Studios have to grapple with this same question as they roll out the next Avengers film in 2019.)
Whedon shed some insight in a posting on The Bronze message board: “How will we bring her back? With great difficulty, of course. Will it be cheezy [sic.]? I don’t think so.”
Nor do I, but it is a little jarring. And–based on pure speculation–I think the writers were aware of that.
This season frequently employs meta-narrative. We’ll discuss that in depth when we get to “Normal Again” (E17). In the DVD extra “Life Is The Big Bad: A Season 6 Overview,” many of the show’s creators discuss how the Trio mirrors both the writers themselves and, as scholars such as Rambo have pointed out, also the fans themselves (“Yeats’s Entropic Gyre and Season Six”).
I might suggest that the lines spoken by Dawn, which I’ve chosen as the title of this section, also serve as a symbolic meta-narrative. Always fans of self-deprecating humor, the “crazy people,” aka the writers, certainly realized the direction they were going. Standing on the tower built by those under Glory’s thrall, the spot of Buffy’s demise, could equally be read as the narrative built for the first five seasons. It’s shaky, and, fittingly, it collapses.
Though this episode is unique in that it is the first season opener not written by Whedon (Marti Noxon wrote part 1, David Fury part 2) and the first to air as a two-hour season opener, it does mirror the first five debuts by setting the tone and themes that will unfurl over the course of the next twenty-one (in this case twenty) episodes.
Rather than go through a chronological exegesis, I think it might be fitting here to cover the groundwork laid by this opener.
Yeah, I know: dark. Mark Adams astutely notes in “Buffy and the Death of Style” that Season 6 marks a departure from characteristics that had defined the first five seasons. Most notably, the quippy “Slayer slang” is toned down. He is right to observe, for instance, that the Scoobies’ habit of taking a noun, adding a “-y,” and creating an adjective occurs less frequently. (It’s not absent. Xander and Willow both use “focusy” in an exchange while in the woods.)
Though less punny, it’s not less funny. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the humor is dialed back. It is not, however, nonexistent. In fact, some of the most laugh-out-loud moments occur in this season, which is saying a lot for a show whose humor is legendary. “Once More with Feeling” and “Tabula Rasa” are among the most hilarious, yet in both cases, after a good forty minutes of laugh riot, the rug is yanked from underneath and the viewer is left emotionally devastated. (I should note this happens in other seasons. “Hush” is also pretty dark, but has some hilarious moments. “Storyteller” also ranks high in humor episodes but ends in a tremendous swell of pathos.)
“Bargaining” starts out pretty light as well, tonally identical to what we’ve seen before. The cold open features quotable lines. “Life flash before your eyes? Cup of tea, cup of tea, almost got shagged, cup of tea.” “That’ll put marzipan in your pie plate, Bingo.” “We want her to be exactly she’ll never be exactly I know the only really real Buffy is really Buffy and she’s gone who?”
The laughs continue throughout, even in the darkest of moments. The desert gnome and the Backstreet Boys Lunchbox, Willow as “the boss of us,” Xander’s comment about being a powerful “manwitch.” The intertextual laugh-line as Tara says, for the first time outside the end credits, “Grr … Aargh.” Even the slapstick humor of the damaged Buffybot walking into objects.
One of my personal favorites occurs at the height of danger. Razor mocks the power of Tara and Willow, suggesting they are only capable of party tricks, such as “pulling a rabbit out of a hat.” Anya recoils in horror and asks, “Why would she do that?” Anya’s leporiphobia, revealed in “Fear Itself” (S4.E4), is one of my favorite running gags.
That notwithstanding, even the artistic direction takes an ominous turn. Sure, Buffy is a show that is primarily set at night. But note the lighting and ambience of the graveyard scene in the cold opening and contrast it to later scenes of ravaged Sunnydale, partially aflame as the Hellions ransack the city. I’m no film critic, therefore not qualified to properly analyze mise en scene, yet its undeniable that everything from the lighting to the filter shifts once Razor and his “boys” ride in.
Season 6 also shifts here. We understand that Willow is a powerful witch and has been since season 2. But at least since 4 with the emergence of Tara, magic has served as a metaphor for lesbianism. As noted in the intro, the shift from WB to UPN loosened some of the restrictions on the series, allowing them to portray the same-sex relationship in a more literal light.
And the metaphor changed. Addiction will be an issue confronted head-on, and Willow clearly is portrayed as an addict in later episodes. This understandably upset many viewers, especially those in the LGBT community who finally had a positive portrayal of gay characters. Is there a subtext that lesbianism is a disease? Can one be addicted?
I’m always hesitant to wade into waters such as these. I’m a straight, cisgendered male with no desire to mansplain, straightsplain, or cissplain. That said, as I’m also an unsuccessful writer, I know the perils of being married to a metaphor. When playing with symbols, sometimes they have to change, especially if it will otherwise alter the narrative. Dogmatic adherence will push one into the realm of allegory, which is not always a good thing. Case in point, while I’m a huge fan of Orwell, I loathe Animal Farm.
The metaphor changed. And it will, at the least, be problematized by season 7. Willow must learn to harness her power, keep it from overcoming her, but still use it for good. I don’t know of many addiction counselors who would tell a patient to use but try to keep it in check.
In “‘Just a Family Legend’: The Hidden Logic of Buffy‘s ‘Chosen Family,” Curry and Velazquez offer a salient against-the-grain reading of Willow’s use of power. Her “feminine” skills are in need of anchoring by the more “masculine” physical prowess of the Slayer, both Buffy and, in “Chosen,” Kennedy. They conclude, “this is actually a very traditional and patriarchal constellation: woman as the possessor of a dark and mysterious force, but an unruly force, that needs to be tamed by the clarity of a man’s authority and command” (141).
In the scope of this episode (and I will watch for this later in the season), however, it is also worth observing that aspects of Willow’s magic, particularly when she moves into darker, forbidden territory, become more masculine, at least in a Freudian sense.
The final “black market” ingredient she must procure for the spell, vino di madre, involves her summoning a doe, slicing her open, and cutting out her heart. She does this with a phallic dagger, and it should not be lost that the vessel has to die in order to obtain the “wine of the mother.” Keep this heart-wrenching scene in mind when viewing the next episode.
During the ritual, as Willow is tested, a snake slithers through her body and is vomited from her mouth. Though certain ancient societies revered serpents as healers and equated them with the feminine magic, Western (Christian) society paints them in a negative light. From a Freudian analysis, they appear as phallic symbols. Wilcox notes in “‘Set on This Earth Like a Bubble’: Word as Flesh in the Dark Seasons” that it can be read as “the woman’s acceptance of the snake as a sign of her sin; it might even be seen as Willow’s endorsement of the story of the fallen woman” (84).
Furthermore, Willow will be the one to kill Razor when he threatens Tara. Having been tapped out, magically speaking, by the resurrection spell, she does this by hitting him in the back with an axe, using traditional force as opposed to the “feminized” magic. Her line “nobody messes with my girl” also seems more fitting in the arena of toxic masculinity as opposed to tender lesbian relationships.
The final symbol that, in part, “masculinizes” Willow’s magic in “Bargaining” ties in with another motif that, if uncomfortable, still requires scrutiny.
In the aforementioned essay, Wilcox also notes that the motif of rape will reoccur consistently in Season 6. Having only re-watched the first two episodes, I can immediately think of two literal attempted rapes, at least one other that could qualify due to mystical circumstance (not unlike using a date-rape drug to bypass consent), and several metaphorical rapes.
Again, in the cold open, we see Willow perched on a monument to “get the lay of the land.” She communicates with the other Scoobies telepathically. When she speaks to Xander, he recoils. “Great googly moogly, Willow, you’ve got to quit doing that.” Anya is more emphatic: “It’s kind of intrusive. You could knock first or something.” In other words, ask for consent before forcing yourself in.
The mind, like the most intimate parts of our physical body, are the places we guard most stridently, only letting people in when we choose. Willow’s assumption she can enter at will is the starting point for subsequent mental violations.
Lastly, there are the lines spoken by Razor, the leader of the Hellions, as he has the Scoobies cornered in the warehouse. “We’re not gonna’ fight you. We’re just gonna’ hold you down and enjoy ourselves for a few hours.” Stafford calls the lines “completely unnecessary,” and indeed viewers will find them off-putting. Nonetheless, as Erickson and Lemberg observe, they set the tone for this “new era,” another phrase uttered by Razor that could equally be applied to the new direction Buffy has taken.
Aspects of Buffy are as, if not more, culturally relevant today than they were upon its first airing. However, I have heard people remark that the show “has not aged well.” Though I disagree, I think much of this has to do with fashion worn by the teenagers during the high school years. It’s not Willow’s “softer side of Sears” that makes her a fashion nightmare, it’s the mixture of fabric and patterns, though understandably, this is an extension of her shy, geeky nature. Thankfully, starting in Season 4, she sheds this.
By Season 6, most of the trendy get-ups have been replaced by classic dress: jeans, slacks, and skirts up top, Tees, blouses, and button-downs mostly of a solid color. Those looks never go out of style.
What has always puzzled me since the first watch, however, are the choices in this episode, specifically the numbers. Willow’s shirt in the first few acts has the number 11, Xander’s 13. Later, at the scene where Giles is sent off to England, Dawn’s shirt prominently features 07. Is this deliberate, or just a random choice by the costume department?
Since it’s a show that focuses on magic, here is the mystical numerological significance of each number. (All quotes come from numerology.com.)
- Willow – 11: “It is instinctual, charismatic, dynamic and capable when its sights are set on a concrete goal [ . . . ] When focus is not applied toward a goal, the 11 can be extremely self-sabotaging. As a Master number, the positive characteristics will turn into obstacles when not understood or used properly” (emphasis mine). Sounds about right.
- Xander – 13: “Hard working and devoted to slow progress.” This not to mention the baggage tied to this number in contemporary society. Some Christian mystics believe that since J is the 10th letter and C is the 3rd, 13 represents Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is deliberate, as we’ll see parallels between Xander and Jesus explicitly drawn later on. 13 in the Tarot symbolizes a new birth after metaphorical death. Interesting, though it’s Buffy who is about to be reborn.
- Dawn – 07: The number is “spiritual, intelligent, analytical, focused, introspective, studious, intuitive, knowledgeable, contemplative, serious, persevering, refined, gracious and displays much inner wisdom.” Negatively, “7s can be aloof, distant, sarcastic, socially awkward, melancholic, cowardly and, when they’re at their worst, back-stabbers.” I don’t know what to do with that. Maybe someone could help.
I’m certainly no expert in costume design, but for those interested, both March Recht and K. Brenna Wardell have done some great work into the topic. I suggest looking into their work.
Other Notable Points
Kudos for capturing the emotion of Buffy’s resurrection. From the harrowing shot of Buffy’s decayed corpse rejuvenating to the claustrophobic panic of clawing out of the grave to the blurry POV of the resurrected Slayer, it’s all masterfully done. It’s also a nice moment when Buffy watches her robot likeness drawn and quartered by the biker gang. For more on the emotional impact of that scene on the character, see Bronwen Calvert’s excellent piece.
Speaking of that scene, though the bot is pulled apart by motorcycles instead of horses, Razor still fires a gun in the air. This is the second gun we see. Earlier, Buffy wanders into someone’s yard, and he comes out brandishing a shotgun to run her away. Erickson and Lemberg state “the rare and always startling appearance of a gun on BtVS indicate another radical direction this season will take” (103-04). There will be more foreshadowing here.
Lastly, that scene where Dawn gets out of bed, goes into Buffy’s old room where the Buffybot is charging, and snuggles up to her … Don’t act like that didn’t hit you in the feels. Damn good TV.
The episode ends on a tense note. Buffy and Dawn manage to swing, then fall off the tower. We are treated to a horrible CGI rendition of its collapse. If read as meta-narrative, the entire foundation Buffy has been built on is now in ruins.
This is mirrored in the blank expression of the Slayer. Dawn hugs her tightly, tearfully declaring “you’re home.” But the final shot focuses on Buffy’s face, wide-eyed and despondent. Maybe she didn’t come back “quite right” after all.
Adams, Mark. “Buffy and the Death of Style.”
Calvert, Bronwen. “Going Through the Motions: Reading Simulacra in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Slayage 15 (December 2004).
Curry, Agnes B., and Josef Velazquez. “‘Just a Family Legend’: The Hidden Logic of Buffy‘s ‘Chosen Family.'”
Erickson, Gregory and Jennifer Lemberg. “Bodies in Narrative Crisis: Figures of Rupture and Chaos in Seasons Six and Seven.”
Melvin, Stephen G. “‘Trouble Still Comes Around’: Sisyphean Philosophy in the Whedonverse.” 8th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, June 2018, Florence, AL. Unpublished Conference Paper.
Numerology.com: Decoding the Patterns of the Universe. numerology.com, 1 July 2008.
Rambo, Elizabeth. “Yeats’s Entropic Gyre and Season Six.”
Stafford, Nikki. Bite Me!: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ECW, 2002.
Whedon, Joss. Online posting. 23 May 2001. Bronze VIP Archive. Qtd. in “Preface: At Sixes and Sevens in Sunnydale.” Buffy Goes Dark.
Wilcox, Rhonda. “‘Set on This Earth Like a Bubble’: Word as Flesh in the Dark Seasons”
All images © 21st Century Fox/Mutant Enemy. No claim of originality is made by the author of this essay. Images are displayed for educational and critical purposes and not for profit, therefore fall under the terms of Fair Use (17 U.S.C. § 107).