The new millennium brought with it a downward spiral of quality for the recently revived genre of horror. Scream (1996) breathed new life, sure, but aside from being blatantly self-aware, it also had some genuine creep factor. 2000 gave us Cherry Falls, a great flick in the tradition of Scream, but it wasn’t scary at all. Nor was Scream 3. And don’t get me started on Final Destination.
Point being, by the late 90s/early 2000s, when Buffy was going full steam on TV, horror at the cinema was suffering, much of it sanitized and clean-scubbed drivel marketed to a PG-13 audience. (Much as I love Sarah Michelle Gellar’s acting chops, The Grudge?)
Whedon and crew, however, were doing it right on the small screen, often encumbered by the same limitations mentioned above. Yet they delivered. “Killed by Death” is one of my least favorite episodes of Season 1, but Der Kinderstod (literally “Child Death”) was a creepy little bastard. Before “Fear Itself” turned hilarious, it had some genuine chills. “Hush.” That’s all I need to say about that one.
To me, “After Life” ranks right up there. The non-corporeal demon is well-designed, but the real chills come at the beginning. First, the manifestation of a Buffy-like entity, screaming “Filthy little bitches, rattling the bones. Did you cut its throat? Did you pat its head?”
The nightmare-inducing scene for me comes just after.
Point is, “After Life” is an oft-overlooked episode when discussing the genuinely creepy moments of BtVS.
And it should be. After all, as Spike says in the first act: “Thing about magic, there’s always consequences. Always.”
Ask any of my comp students how I feel about absolute statements. They’ll roll their eyes perhaps, but I make sure to sear into their consciousness the danger of words like “always.” Still, in most cases, especially concerning a spell of this magnitude, Spike’s not wrong. As noted in the analysis of “Bargaining,” Whedon himself said it wasn’t going to be easy. Clearly, this episode sets us up to think that the thaumogenesis demon was the consequence, and Buffy renders it headless by the middle of Act Four.
The middle of Act Four. It’s not going to be that easy. The demon hints at this with her taunting of Buffy: “Did they tell you you belonged here? Did they say this was your home again?” “Bargaining” ended with Dawn tell Buffy she was home. “After Life” opens with Buffy and Dawn standing in front of their house, and again Dawn says “home.” There is that old cliche, right?
We’ll double back to this thought, but first, a couple of observations.
Knowing what is to come in later episodes, I’m impressed with the subtle nuances that unfold in this episode.
The idea that Buffy “came back wrong,” or as Anya puts it, “I think we screwed it up and she’s broken,” is consistently reinforced. Upon stepping back into her house, notice how Buffy winces every time Dawn turns on a light. There’s a jarring cut from the dimly lit rooms to a shining white sink, but as the camera pans up, we see Buffy reflected in the mirror, shrouded in shadow.
It’s also worth noting that after she’s cleaned up, the first glimpse we get of Buffy is not her but a reflection. This is a similar doubling technique that Calvert notes when the Slayer witnesses the Buffybot being drawn and quartered.
Buffy is still fragmented.
Spike initially mistakes Buffy for the bot, but only for a second. Then he notices her bloody hands. He knows exactly how it happened–clawing her way out of a coffin, something he’s also done. Later, just before she visits him in his crypt, Spike punches the wall out of frustration and damages his hand in similar fashion.
As he’s waiting on Dawn to bring the first aid supplies so he can bandage her knuckles, notice how long the two of them hold hands. It’s almost as if this hand metaphor is intentional.
The episode ends with Buffy and Spike sitting in the alley outside the Magic Box, again in shadow, as the sun sets. The suggestion here is that, now resurrected, Buffy has changed, perhaps “changed utterly” to borrow another phrase from a different Yeats poem.
Dawn’s words have had an impact on her. “It’ll get better now, now that they can see you happy. That’s all they want.”
In a truly selfless gesture, Buffy goes to the Magic Box to thank her friends. She confirms the assumption she’s already heard them make, that she was in a hell dimension. They immediately feel relieved and share a, in Spike’s words, “soggy group hug.”
But then she steps away, feeling alienated. She feels more at home with Spike, a creature of the night.
As for Willow, again, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of foreshadowing. When she and Tara are preforming the spell to make the demon corporeal, they are, as usual, joining hands. However, at the last moment, Willow pulls away, looks up with those black eyes (get used to them) and simply says “solid.” It’s a nod to how much power she has but also telling that she pulls away from Tara in the process (Ryan 56).
I talked a little last essay about how the humor is dialed down a little from the first five seasons. There are still plenty of jokes in this episode, but it’s interesting that they almost all come from Anya. In one DVD commentary (can’t remember which nor do I feel like scouring them all for it), Whedon remarks that Emma Caulfield is a “natural comedienne.” Her delivery is usually spot-on. It also helps that she’s set up for laughs with the traditional role of “fish out of water.” Even though she’s been human again for–what–two and a half years at this point, she still hasn’t mastered the social niceties, and her blunt personality evokes chuckles.
- Her first words to Buffy are “Are you a zombie?” She then remarks that “jet lag from hell has got to be … jet lag from hell.”
- The next day, in an inept attempt to be comforting, she tells Buffy, “it’s OK if you’re still plagued with nightmarish visions of hell.”
- After her coffee/hot chocolate exchange with possessed Dawn and the fire-breathing incident, she looks at Dawn collapsed on the floor and asks if she looked like that when possessed. When Dawn comes to, she warns that dry mouth might be a side effect.
- In the car headed to warn Buffy, she encourages Xander to drive faster. “You’re like a snail, a snail that’s driving a car very slowly.” They need to hurry because they have to “help Buffy with that demon you [Xander] sent after her.”
I know I remarked last essay that over the years, the garish wardrobe of the Scoobies has gotten better. I may have to take that back. Anyone else notice that sweater Willow is wearing? It looks like she killed and skinned Elmo.
I also talked a little earlier about the unorthodox structuring of Buffy (and Angel). When taken with “Bargaining Parts 1 & 2,” “After Life” also subverts narrative expectation. “Bargaining” ends with Dawn embracing Buffy, though the look on the Slayer’s face suggests she’s not completely peachy on her return. “After Life” picks up immediately afterwards, with the Scoobies searching for Buffy. The cold open and the first act deal with their reuniting. It’s almost as if the actual episode doesn’t pick up until Act Two, when ghost Buffy appears in front of Willow and Tara.
This may not be unusual anymore, with streaming platforms and binge watching changing the nature of storytelling, but imagine how revolutionary this was in Season 6. Sometimes, playing with the formula can cause narrative confusion or make the story fall flat, (see VanDerWerff’s essay in Vox for an example), but here it works beautifully. It also shows that Whedon and company have faith in the intelligence of their audience.
Likewise, the antagonist is defeated early in the fourth act, and we get a lengthy denouement. If this episode hit the normal beats of an hour-long drama, Buffy’s thanks to the Scoobies and the group hug would have ended it. I don’t remember thinking this the first time I watched it, but I was probably expecting the credits, thinking that all the consequences of Buffy’s resurrection were dealt with and we’d be moving on to the introduction of the season-long arc of the Big Bad. After all, episode 4 is generally the point where the rest of the season is laid out.
We do meet the Troika next episode, but recall the showrunners’ comments: “Life is the big bad.” And, oh, do we get that in the closing scene with Spike.
I’ll include Buffy’s entire monologue here.
“I was happy. Wherever I was… I was happy… at peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time… didn’t mean anything. Nothing had form. But I was still me, you know? And I was warm. And I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. I – I don’t understand theology or dimensions, any of it really… but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out, by my friends. Everything here is hard and bright and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch. This is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that. Knowing what I’ve lost. They can never know. Never.”
After her resurrection, the first words Buffy utters to Dawn are “Is this hell?” (Her only line of dialogue before this is “No!” upon witnessing the Buffybot’s destruction.) At the end of this episode, she answers her own question. “This is Hell.” To quote Whedon from another of his creative endeavors: “What? You didn’t see that coming?”
Calvert, Bronwen. “Going Through the Motions: Reading Simulacra in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Slayage 15 (December 2004).
Ryan, Brandy. “‘It’s Complicated … Because of Tara’: History, Identity Politics, and the Straight White Male Author.”
VanderWerff, Todd. “The Biggest Problem with Modern Blockbusters, Explained by Independence Day: Resurgence.” Vox. Vox Media. 29 June 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/6/29/12046656/independence-day-resurgence-bad-review-no-second-act-problem Retrieved 3 July 2018.
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