Thursday, 20 March 2014

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 5.5 & 5.6 – 'No Place Like Home' & 'Family'

Thursday, 20 March 2014
WILLOW: I can't help it. I just have all this involuntary empathy for Dawn, 'cos she's, you know, a big spaz.

I wasn't expecting "false sister" Dawn's (Michelle Trachtenberg) mystery to be explained this early, and in some respects I'm disappointed because Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a lot of hours to fill and it felt like a fun enigma deserving of a longer tease. But instead, "NO PLACE LIKE HOME" busts everything wide open, and also introduces a super-villain referred to as The Beast, whom I'm aware is actually named Glory (Clare Kramer) and will be this season's Big Bad.

For an episode so full of a big new introduction and revelation, I was disappointed it didn't click with me. Glory's sub-plot felt so extraneous to the side issue with Dawn, until they connected near the end, that it actually felt like a big distraction I couldn't get invested in. Or a handle on. First there are some Czech-speaking monks being pursued by an unseen enemy who can break down giant wooden doors, then Buffy's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) handed a glowing orb by a security guard (who's later found insane in hospital), and then the monk's enemy is revealed as a foxy woman in a tight red dress (also acting insane), then Buffy's suspicious of her mother's illness and performs a ritual to access a weird "limbo realm" where she does-and-doesn't have a sister, and then one of the monk's reveal Glory is looking for The Key (i.e. energy they moulded into human form and planted into the Slayer's care in the guise of a fictional sister who doesn't know she's unreal).

Got all that? I think "No Place Like Home" suffered from a feeling too much was being bandied around, and most of it held together in an awkward and confusing manner. "Real Me" gave us the clear impression Dawn knew she isn't "real", for instance, but that's suddenly untrue? And while it's likely future information about Glory and Dawn-the-Key will improve this episode in hindsight, for now it came across as unconvincing. I'm glad Dawn's mystery wasn't a rehash of a similar gimmick in season 4 (when school nerd Jonathan magicking himself into becoming the alpha male leader of Buffy's clique), and I like the suggestion Buffy's going to keep the truth a secret from Dawn because they're united in filial love, but I wish this episode had been written differently. I found it largely frustrating, and my first impression of Glory isn't an entirely positive one—mainly because she seems to be a crazier version of Faith with a more traditionally feminine dress sense.

BUFFY: Nothing like gettin' your ass kicked to... make your ass hurt.

Joss Whedon writes and directs "FAMILY", so expectations were once again elevated—although his fingerprints were all over a recent episode of Angel I didn't find all that compelling. This was a much better effort, but it felt like a rehash of ideas BtVS has covered before (a worry for all shows in their fifth season). This was a focal episode for witch Tara (Amber Benson), long overdue, although I'm disappointed to discover it's actually the only episode where Tara takes centre-stage with two more seasons to come—which is both surprising and unfortunate, although Benson's hardly the greatest actor of the ensemble.

Like a lot of episodes, there was a fair bit of preamble before the meat of the story truly started; and because of the title I was expecting something involving Buffy and Dawn, but the fact Buffy's aware her sister's not human wasn't a major concern—although we learn that Giles (Anthony Head) has been told the news, and agreed to keep Dawn's true nature a secret from everyone else. Oddly enough, the idea of someone having a secret identity was still the thrust of this episode, as Tara's family arrived—father Mr Maclay (Steve Rankin), brother Ben (Charlie Weber) and cousin Beth (Hollywood star Amy Adams, in an early role)—and it became clear Tara's magical power derives from the fact she's part-demon.

This idea of Willow (Alyson Hannigan) having chosen the perfect lover, only to realise they have an alter-ego that threatens to derail their relationship, is nothing new. It was pretty much the arc behind her ex-boyfriend Oz the werewolf, so "Family " couldn't help feeling like a rehash of a better version of that story we've been told before. Thankfully, there was an unexpected twist when it became clear Tara isn't actually a demon, but it's a Maclay family legend with no basis in fact, so I'm glad we're not headed for another breakup to send Willow into floods of tears. Been there, done that.

It may not have been a very original feeling hour, but I enjoyed the affirmation of the Scoobies as a "family" of their own, willing to protect members of their clique from bullies and oppressors. And the story nudged along some peripheral concerns—like Riley's (Marc Blucas) discontentment with his relationship with Buffy, Glory (Clare Kramer) asserting herself as as a smart-mouthed villain, and Spike's (James Marsters) burgeoning love for Buffy now he's fantasising about fighting her during sex with Harmony (Mercedes McNab).

written by Doug Petrie (5.5) & Joss Whedon (5.6) | directed by David Solomon (5.5) & Joss Whedon (5.6) | 24 October & 7 November 2000