Buffy Season Six: Stupendous or Stinky?

By Juliette and Victoria

Contains many big spoilers!

Here in the U.K., there's a well known phenomenon surrounding a sandwich spread made from yeast, Marmite. The sticky black stuff's strong flavour tends to produce extreme reactions — people either love it or they hate it, and there is no in between. This is so well known Marmite have even used it in their adverts.

There are, of course, many other things that this love it or hate it distinction applies to. Science fiction and fantasy in general, for one thing, and popular TV shows in general. Sometimes, as the Roman poet Catullus pointed out, you can hate and love a person at the same time. But in this case, we're talking about a particular season of TV that tends to produce unusually strong emotional reactions in fans of the show. Many of us here at Doux Reviews love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but we don't all love season six. For some fans of the show it's one of the series' highest points, but for others one of the absolute lowest.

So, is season six of Buffy stupendous or stinky? Magnificent or malodorous? Fantastic, or a fantastic flop? Master or disaster? Do we love it or hate it? Since we couldn't agree on the issue, Victoria (who loves it) and I (who hates it) decided to put forward the case for our opinion — let us know which one of us you agree with in the comments!

Buffy: What's to Love about Season Six?

Victoria Grossack

Risks.  Season six took risks and created some amazing episodes, especially the musical 'Once More with Feeling.' Even the less well-received episodes were daring, including 'Doublemeat Palace' (which made the fast-food industry nervous) and 'Normal Again' (an indulgence for the writers that finally explains some of the odd choices in prior episodes).

Consequences.  So many series press the reset button, or resort to the same formula week after week, but Buffy season six does not do that.  All of the "good" characters do terrible, irresponsible things out of despair.  Giles abandons his post.  Dawn cuts class, shoplifts and makes terrible wishes.  Buffy, unable to reconcile herself to being alive again, sleeps with Spike.  Willow becomes addicted to magic.  Xander breaks up with Anya in the worst possible way.  Even Spike and Anya, with big-time evil pasts, sink: after they are rejected by their lovers, Spike tries to rape Buffy (one of the most controversial scenes of the show, but I thought it was logical, even inevitable) and Anya resumes her career as a vengeance demon.  The steadiest character is Tara, but because Willow fiddled with her memory, she walks away.

Evil and good are close to home, something that for me strengthens the series and which would not have worked in earlier years.  For much of the season The Trio are the main baddies, wreaking havoc but not permanently hurting anyone.  Xander thinks he’s solved the problem — a frost monster that likes diamonds — when another Scooby points out that he’s reading a D&D manual.  If our heroes pursued the D&D angle, they might have found the nerds-now-villains sooner.  These bad guys are so funny that you both kind of like them and don’t take them seriously.  The arc turns dark when Katrina points out that what they’re planning is rape — making Jonathan, at least, aware of their guilt.   Becoming evil is easy. A gun, not even aimed at her, kills Tara (one of the most shocking moments in the entire series).  But in the end, Willow, good, cheerful Willow becomes the big bad, and can only be helped by Xander, her best friend, and he has to do it without magic.  Evil, though we like to pretend it's the Other, in Buffy personified by demons, comes from humans and has to be dealt with by humans.

Entertainment value.  I laughed a lot, such as during 'Tabula Rasa', with the loan shark, and when Spike threatened Boba Fett in 'Smashed'; I found the sex between Spike and Buffy hot; I loved the arcs and the twists, which managed to be both logical and surprising, the oft-incompatible goals of storytelling. I was moved by Tara, her loving and her death; I even liked Amy the rat.  I thought Riley’s wife was too Mary Sue, but the fact that Riley married on the rebound was logical and I liked how it spurred Buffy into breaking up with Spike.  Most of the characters felt true (the exception was Giles, who should have stayed in Sunnydale, but Head wanted to go home and Giles’s absence helped the other characters grow).  Season six kept me watching, laughing and crying — it even got me singing and dancing!  What more could a show do?

Why I still hate Buffy season six

Juliette Harrisson

First of all, a quick introduction. When I first started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 6, I was really excited. I was at the height of my Buffy obsession, having started watching and binged the earlier seasons while season 4 was airing, and absolutely could not wait for each new episode. That excitement continued throughout the first part of the season — up to and including episode eight, 'Tabula Rasa', I was really enjoying the season. I remember getting together with friends at university and binge-watching the whole of the first nine episodes (up to 'Smashed') and my friend literally screaming when Buffy and Spike brought the house down at the end of that episode.

But after that, not just for me but for many others as well, it all started to go a bit wrong. I stopped watching the show around episode 13, 'Dead Things' — I am not one of those people who continues to watch a show they're not enjoying while endlessly complaining about it online! If I'm not enjoying watching something, I stop. The reason I have since gone back and watched all of season six of Buffy is because when I started reading about season seven online, I started watching again, and I needed to catch up on everything that had happened.

So, why did I stop watching season six, and why didn't I change my mind about it when I eventually caught up on it?

Disappointment in the story arc.
Over the first eight episodes of season six, I thought the writers were developing a really interesting arc plot about Willow’s abuse of her magical power. This had been touched on when she attacked Glory at the end of season five, and seemed to be building through the first part of season six, as Willow abused Tara by taking away her agency when she made her forget their fight. However, from 'Smashed' onwards, this shifted to become a story about drug abuse, in which magic was used as a metaphor for drugs, despite never having been depicted this way on the show before. For many of us, a story about the abuse of power seemed much more interesting than a story about drug addiction that we'd seen many times before.

Tara got fridged.
'Fridging' refers to the killing off of a character, usually female and usually a hero’s love interest, for no other reason than to motivate another character. The deceased character’s storyline abruptly ends with no real conclusion, and their death is used to produce pain and anguish in another character. The series had already played with this when Jenny Calendar was killed purely to cause pain for Giles and demonstrate how evil Angelus was, but the fridging of Tara, a positive and important character in a same sex relationship at a time when that was a rarity on network television, was especially painful.

Xander dumped Anya in the worst possible way.
If the writers wanted to break up the Xander/Anya relationship, fine. It was stated many times that Life was the real enemy in season six, and negotiating adult relationships and relationship difficulties is certainly a major aspect of growing up. But to have Xander, having experienced doubts for a while, decide it won’t work thanks to interference from a demon on his wedding day and leave Anya at the altar did a disservice to their whole relationship, and to Xander’s character.

...in order to force forward a desired plot development.
The reason Xander had to not just leave Anya, but jilt her at the altar, was because the experience had to be horrific enough to prompt her to return to being a vengeance demon. That did, indeed, lead to some interesting storytelling and season seven's excellent 'Selfless'. However, it would surely have made more sense to prompt this development by having Xander cheat on her, something the character has a previous history with (in Xander and Willow’s story arc in early season three). Anya could have been devastated and angry enough to do something drastic, but there would have been more consistency in Xander’s characterisation.

Spike's actions did not match the character as I had interpreted him from earlier episodes.
On the subject of characterisation... This one is controversial. The problem with the Spike/Buffy relationship, and with Spike's whole character and character development, is that different viewers had interpreted the show very differently. For many, Spike was a soulless, evil demon, capable of any evil act, and his sexual assault on Buffy was merely another aspect of that. However, for many of us who liked the Spike/Buffy pairing due to the actors' intense chemistry, were excited by the ending of 'Once More, With Feeling' and wanted to see a story where redemption was achieved through acts and choices, not having a soul forced back onto the character by external forces, this was a huge disappointment.

Way back when Spike was first introduced in season two, his love for Drusilla was one of his defining characteristics; the Judge complained that their love for each other prevented them from being pure evil (though Spike was evil enough to be able to tap him when he was low on power); throughout seasons five and six Spike had been protective towards both Buffy and Dawn. You could make an equally effective argument the other way (Spike wanted to possess Buffy, he chained her up in season five, he was abusive towards Harmony) but the point is, for those of us who consciously chose a romantic reading of that story arc, this was a bitter kick in the teeth.

Much of it is just unpleasant.
This is also part of the bigger problem with the latter half of season six — it’s just deeply unpleasant. I have no desire to watch three men victimise a woman (Warren’s ex-girlfriend Katrina), rob her of all agency and then kill her, for fun. I don’t want to watch characters I like, played by actors I find attractive, sexually assault each other, try to kill each, or leave each other at the altar. I don’t want to see a character I’ve grown to love over three years put into the credits for the first time and immediately killed off because the creator thinks that's somehow an entertaining thing to do. And whatever was going on with Dawn and that odd, under-developed shoplifting storyline, I’m not interested. This one is entirely down to personal preference, of course. But what I loved about Buffy was its humour, its emotional honesty, its subtle use of metaphor, and the wish-fulfilment aspects of some of it. In the latter part of season six (and bear in mind, for the first eight episodes, including 'Once More, With Feeling', I was loving it), I felt like those qualities were drowned out by a string of unpleasant developments that brought these characters to worse and worse places with little in the way of relief.

15 comments:

percysowner said...

I'm on Juliette's side here. I did stick it out to the end of season, mostly because I kept hoping the show would go back to the one I had loved, but all of the problems Juliette had with the show were mine. The biggest was the excusing of Willow's abuse by making it "magic addiction" instead of the fact that she was abusing Tara. Since this was being parallel to Wesley's turn to the dark on Angel, I found it especially disappointing, since on the sister show, the psychological aspects were being handled magnificently, IMHO.

I too had problems reconciling Spikes attempted rape of Buffy with his characterization since season 4. He hunted with the Scoobies even when Buffy was dead and was very protective of Dawn. So I didn't see trying to rape Buffy as a choice he would have made. The relationship was troubling but it was mutually abusive, IMHO. I found the chemistry compelling, but could have accepted that Buffy didn't want the relationship to continue because she found it unhealthy, although I didn't think RILEY was a reason to make her see it that way. Then I never bought the chemistry between Riley and Buffy.

Season six turned me away from Buffy and I did abandon ship in season seven. There were some good episodes and the first half was enjoyable, then things went in ways that simply didn't jell for me.

Marianna said...

I also agree with Juliette for all the reasons listed but mostly because I hated the villains. I never bought the idea of the real villain being life as an excuse for having really lame villains. The big bad was always a metaphor for life. Buffy simultaneously dealt with serious villains while dealing with cry-yourself-to-sleep life problems. That's the essence of the show and season six took that away.

Billie Doux said...

I'm with Victoria. I thought the season as a whole was sort of amazing, just when it came to the risks they were taking and the negative aspects of our heroes that they were exploring. Buffy making Spike her sex slave and abusing him because she saw him as inhuman was an intensely heavy thing to do with our heroine. Xander leaving Anya at the altar was in character for him. Willow's addiction to magic and descent into evil felt inevitable, after five seasons of flirting with magic.

Although I think Juliette has a lot of valid points. I was angry about what I saw as character assassination of Spike in "Seeing Red," and totally furious about losing Tara the way we did.

Eric Parsons said...

It seems that everyone (myself included ) likes the first eight episodes of season six. After that, I largely agree with Juliette, although I do feel that the season finale is powerful. For me, season six can be broken into two parts - episodes with Giles and those without. When he's there, it works well (and the show produces some of my favorite all-time moments). When he's not, things somewhat fall apart. There's perhaps a metaphor there, but I doubt that it was intentional.

Lamounier said...

Team Victoria here. Although I think season 6 was both stupendous and stinky. Hee.

I agree with Marianna, I hated the trio. A freeze ray? An invisible fight? What were the writers thinking? Lame, lame, lame. I liked their decent into darkness, but they were never compelling villains. Having that said, Warren individually was a despicable person and an interesting character.

I can live with Willow’s addiction arc, mostly because it gave us a lot of good old Willow while she was magic free. I do agree it could’ve been done better, but it doesn’t bother me. Heck, I don’t hate “Wrecked” at all, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as a lot of people say it is. I’m more disappointed with Dark Willow on the final two episodes of the season. While she was terrific on “Villains”, after Warren’s death it appears the writers didn’t know what to do with her and went with a check list: fight Buffy? Check. End the world? Check. Meh. They killed off Tara, they should’ve made Dark Willow’s journey epic. Not that it was bad, it was just... kind of there.

Tara’s death. Looking at season six, I can see why it happens. I understand why the writers did it and I don’t resent them. Looking back at the series as a whole several years later, I think it’s one of the series’ two biggest mistakes (the other one being the potentials on season seven).

The thing is, when season six is great, it’s GREAT. I mean, Afterlife, Once More With Feeling, Dead Things... All great TV. Many other episodes have flaws preventing them from being Buffy classics, but there’s still a lot to love. It’s a rollercoaster of a season and it gets better with time.

Regarding Spike, I don’t think the attempted rape was out of character at all. He was always very possessive of his ladies. He kidnapped Drusilla, then tried to mind rape her (and kidnapped Willow to do it), he treated Harmony terribly and his relationship with Buffy was mutually abusive. Buffy said “no” several times, but he still did it anyway. When they had sex at the Bronze, Buffy clearly didn’t want but gave in to Spike’s control. He had her look at her happy friends as they did it and told her she belonged with him in the dark. That’s abuse right there. I’m not saying this as a Spike hater, the abusive nature of their relationship is both unsettling and psychologically fascinating. It’s very true to life. What I’m saying is that it all backs up the attempted rape.

Buffy’s arc is amazing. It’s the best part of the season hands down. I love it. Being taken out of heaven, feeling depressed, her destructive relationship with Spike, her confession to Tara, her resolution to end things with Spike, her decision to stay and stand the trials of life (on “Normal Again”). It’s a hell of a journey.

Anonymous said...

I used to hate this season when i first watched it..I also found it boring watching it at a younger age...Only when i rewatched in my mid twenties did i really appreciate what the writers were going for..
This season is tough because it breaks down every character and we as an audience have to watch them be less than what we know they are.
People may not have like the Angle they took with Willow, i didn't i would have preferred her descent be to the hinted power hungry and almost oppressive force she was at the start of the season..However addiction in all forms is not something to be shied away from and considering the times i think it was brave (if not excecuted well) to tackle it and especially with Willows character..I think they tried to put a spin on drugs and alchohol but with Magic but it didn't really work out.

Tara had a good arc on the show, i never felt her death was a fridging per se, but its easy to understand the outrage.
No season of television is perfect, this season has some real hits and some real misses but its a spectacular and accurate piece.


magritte said...

Count me as another non-fan of Season 6. and took a break partway through the season in my recent watch. Firstly, season arcs on Buffy depend heavily on their chief antagonist, and I hated the trio. Every time they were on the screen I felt like Big Bang Theory had invaded Buffy.

Also, while the idea of exploring the dark sides of Willow, Buffy, and Xander was an interesting idea, in all three cases, they pushed beyond what I could believe of the characters. And in a more general sense, it felt like to me, season 6 seemed to imply that none of the characters had matured since they were 15. In the absence of Mom and Dad (Giles), it felt like the characters went backwards.

I should say with regard to the Willow plot line, I totally bought her going dark side when Tara was killed, it was her mid-season breakdown that I felt went too far.

Yes, it had some great individual episodes, but--like season 4--I found the overall story arcs unsatisfying. Though the trajectory was the opposite. I thought season 6 opened and finished strongly, whereas season 4 was at its best in the middle.

Patryk said...

I did not watch season 6 live. In fact I only saw it when I bought the entire series on DVD (along with Angel too). So I already knew there was a musical and about Dark Willow and Tara's death. So I guess I'm not entirely qualified to talk about it.

But I know I always complain when shows get stagnant so this season at least gets a lot of points from me for trying to do something different. Sure the trio is mostly boring and Whedon did the evil nerd storyline a LOT better in Dr Horribles Sing-Along Blog, but Buffy's depression is imho a really good arc and even if You only watch Once More With Feeling and Tabula Rasa it makes the entire season worth it just for those two episodes. Just like season 4 is made a lot better by Hush.

Writing this I realized I remember a lot less from the stuff that happened in season 7 then in season 6. So at least You can say season 6 is memorable.

TheShadowKnows said...

I think it's fairly clear what the writers were trying to do with respect to the trio. If Buffy had been facing some world-threatening menace, she would have snapped the hell out of it a lot sooner. Since her nemeses were complete idiots, it only worsened her depression. Buffy didn't really snap out of it until the season finale, when Willow actually did try to destroy the world.

I liked season six fine. Maybe not every episode was a home run, but what can you do? Seven was the season that I liked the least, but even it was pretty good. At least BTVS didn't go out crawling on its belly, the way True Blood and TVD have. I would have been up for an eighth season of BTVS, whereas the thought of another season of either one of those shows makes my skin crawl.

sunbunny said...

Season six is my favorite. As someone who's struggled with mental health, seeing Buffy, someone I really looked up to and admired, go through what I was going through (but with vampires) was really powerful. Watching her climb out of that hole in the finale was so cathartic. The one thing I really hate about the season is Giles' leaving. It was basely ridiculous that he thought his TWENTY ONE YEAR OLD daughter figure needs to save the world by herself, raise her teenage sister by herself, deal with her worsening depression by herself, financially support herself and her sister...I mean she's TWENTY ONE. What kind of parent leaves a child to deal with half of that at that age? I mean maybe if she were 30 or something but geez Giles. And I get it was just done because Tony Head wanted to spend more time in England but they could have come up with a better way to get rid of him. As it is, I can only blame six years of brain damage from being continually knocked out.

Juliette said...

sunbunny - I agree they could have found a better way to write Giles out too - I thought that was daft as well! It's the one thing that really brings down the musical for me. Though I guess it's good that they didn't kill him off.

Victoria Grossack said...

Giles' reason for his departure, although useful for the arcs of all the other characters, was the one big flop for me. Why would a Watcher ever abandon a Slayer? And the writers could have taken him out of the US so easily without his showing such a lack of judgment - simply deport him, as was threatened in an earlier episode. He could have gone with a statement like "I think you can stand on your own, Buffy" and could have been incommunicado while in the UK for other reasons.

Mallena said...

I'm siding with Victoria. Besides some bad plots, here and there, the season is very interesting and I loved it. Season 7 was a big disappointment for me, I skip a lot of it on rewatch, but I always enjoy season 6.

Anonymous said...

Season six is my favourite season. There isn't much I don't love about it and I think the characters struggling and failing each other was a brave direction to take it.

Re: the attempted rape, I agree with people who think it was an important point for Spike because he let himself down after saying he would never hurt Buffy. When he talked to Clem we saw he was confused by what he had done and also why it bothered him too(!). He thought he could walk the line but found he couldn't, unable to be a monster or man, and he had to choose a way to go. Once souled you see how upset he was in S7 in Never Leave Me when talking of his past and what he had done. He has the breadth of emotion to care about all those he attacked/raped, the evil he had done, not just that he had attacked Buffy after saying he wouldn't. He may have tried to be good and love Buffy but it turned out to be limited and when he describes it as a selfish bastardisation of love in S10, I understand what he means. Souled Spike died in the Hellmouth to save the world full of people he didn't know, he became a hero. Without the failure prompting the wish to change he would never have become that person who was able to lift Buffy up, strengthen her and join her in the light rather than trying to pull her to him into the dark.

Sera said...

I absolutely loved season 6.
While I think all of Juilette's reasons against the season are valid (Tara! and Spike!!), season 6 was still just insane wish fulfillment for me. I was a Spuffy shipper ever since the very first time Spike appeared on the show and to see it happen on screen first in Once more with feeling (the utter SHOCK) and later in Smashed (what's the superlative of SHOCK??) made me scream.
But then, the relationship between Buffy and Spike was so dark and twisted that it was even more interesting AFTER it happened, instead of fizzling out in a "happy ever after". Season 6 was the only show ever that had "my ship" become an official couple AND keep it exciting to watch.
Shows nowadays either have their ships flipflopping between different players at breakneck speed (TVD, True Blood, so many others) or endlessly tease without ever going their (Sherlock). BTVS both went there and payed proper attention to the emotional implications and consequences.

Looking back, Season 6 had so many scenes that literally made me scream at my TV in shock, horror or joy, I don't think any season of any show ever evoked so many memorable emotions.