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?
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
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.