Thursday, 2 April 2015

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 6.6 & 6.7 – 'All the Way' & 'Once More, with Feeling'

Thursday, 2 April 2015
DAWN: I've been kissed before. I-I kiss all the time. Not that I'm a kiss slut. Just, you know, with-with the lips and-and the pressing together and stuff. Hey, expert here. Okay, okay, it was my first kiss. I know, I know, I suck. My-my lips are dry and my tongue's all horrible and sticky and I'm pretty sure I drooled on you.
I'm predisposed to liking Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Halloween episodes (as past ones have been good fun), but "ALL THE WAY" didn't even lean on its spooky trappings to become a highlight of the season, thus far. There were three interesting stories vying for attention, but this hour primarily concerned Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) absconding on All Hallows' Eve to meet up with friends and, crucially, experience her first kiss and a taste of life without big sis Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) around to protect her.

This storyline gave Dawn a bit more agency as an individual (instead of the cute little sister role), and made me realise just how much the show keeps its "Scooby Gang" hemmed in—as they really appear to have fully-formed lives, outside of their tight circle of friends. I know a lot of that's budgetary constraints, but I do wonder the BtVS producers regret rarely creating a feeling the gang are part of a wider community. Or maybe the show has simply edged away from that by virtue of the fact it's no longer taking place at school/college.

"All the Way" also pulled a signature BtVS trick I really should be incurred to by now—the reversal of expectations rooted in horror tropes. We'd been led to believe Dawn and her new pals would encounter creepy Kaltenbach (an old man who sings "Pop Goes the Weasel" and brandishes kitchen knives), when the true danger was from within their own group. Justin (Kavan Reece), a boy who fancies Dawn, was soon revealed to be a juvenile vampire keen to go 'all the way' (creating vamp progeny analogous to taking a girl's virginity). It was an old narrative trick for the show, sure, but it still worked—and kept things feelings unpredictable once the threat shifted and the hour became about saving Dawn emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Elsewhere, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) had a sudden yearning to tell his friends that he's marrying ex-demon Anya (Emma Caulfied) after, uh, watching her do a jig after counting cash from the Magic Box's till. I was a bit surprised the reaction of the Scoobies was a subdued, with Buffy and Giles (Anthony Head) actually keen to make Xander reconsider without coming across as pessimistic meanies. While it's true Xander and Anya are young and naïve, it all felt slightly strange to me—as I got the impression Xander and Anya were supposed to be this unexpectedly perfect match. But hey, perhaps it's good BtVS is now questioning their long-term suitability? It certainly makes for a bit of added drama, as both have been stale as characters for awhile.

And finally, there's the thought-provoking situation with Willow (Alyson Hannigan) beginning to give girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) the heebie-jeebies; in the sense she's increasingly open about using witchcraft to solve unremarkable problems, even when it's like taking a hammer to crack a walnut. Willow's becoming quite a scary person this season (having resurrected Buffy at the risk of destroying the world just recently), and Tara's quite rightly unnerved by how nonchalantly her girlfriend's using powerful magic these days. Indeed, in the denouement it's revealed Willow has used a spell to make Tara forget her misgivings; effectively resetting their relationship to a false positive come bedtime. And how often has that been going on? And will there come a time when Willow's selfish act, papering over cracks in their relationship, just can't continue without worse repercussions?

Overall, I really liked "All the Way—it was a welcome return to the kind of subtextual storytelling I think BtVS does well in doses, with a better focus on characters and real developments offered up. Even Giles is starting to realise he's being used as a quick-fix surrogate parent, for Buffy to steer towards her little sister when discipline and 'grownup talks' are required... and that's not fair, or really his role to play.


written by Steven S. DeKnight • directed by David Solomon • 30 October 2001 • UPN

XANDER: Does this mean that I have to... be your queen?
SWEET: It's tempting. But I think we'll waive that clause just this once.
In watching old episodes of BtVS for the first time, many years later, it's interesting whenever an episode comes along I actually recall being a talking point. Sometimes, even during the dialup internet era, something broke through beyond its fanbase that made everyone sit up and take notice. The last time this happened was season 4's "Hush" (where voice-stealing ghouls invading Sunnydale), and now it's happened again with the sublime "ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING"—likewise an instalment written and directed by creator Joss Whedon.

Making TV is such an industrialised process in the U.S that it's amazing quality remains as high as it does, because the turnaround on episodes going from idea to screen can be surprisingly quick. I don't know if many shows could produce an hour like "Once More, with Feeling" without the unique position Whedon was in—having birthed and nurtured the show in its infancy, he essentially drops in to write and direct instalments that are more experimental, or require more planning. It apparently took Whedon six months to craft this hour, given the songwriting component, and the cast underwent three months of vocal coaching as preparation. Filming was then slotted inbetween the production of four other episodes, so it was a real labour of love.

Oh, for those somehow unaware of what this episode's about, it's a both a very simple and absurd idea, and yet treated with enough seriousness to make it fly: a zoot suited demon (Hinton Battle) is unwittingly summoned by one of the Scoobies, where he compels the people of Sunnydale to break into song and dance numbers.

The bulk of the episode resembles a musical in the classic Hollywood style (echoed in the opening 1920s-style titles), but this format wasn't just a frolicsome excuse to rhyme words and watch the actors tap-dance... oh no. Like all the best musicals, the lyrics actually meant something—and turned a 'gimmick' into an important story that affected most of the relationships on the show. Buffy's sorrow about her miraculous return from the dead was revealed to her friends; Giles's belief that he's being taken for granted as a surrogate parent grew stronger, forcing him to push Buffy into a solo rescue; the misgivings between Xander and Anya about their impending nuptials was brought into the open; Tara deduced that lover Willow has been erasing her memories of their tiffs; and Spike's frustration over his unrequited love for Buffy led to an unexpected breakthrough.

This is the kind of episode you could write about for ages, if you really wanted to dig deep into all the nuances and technical aspects of what made it work; but suffice to say, it was an imaginative and creative hour of TV, that made a nutty idea work and propelled the narrative forward better than a typical hour could have. It was significantly more appealing to hear the characters communicate their hidden feelings in song, and unlike genuine movie musicals there was a reason for it to be happening! Sweet-voiced Amber Benson actually did her best work here as Tara, too—so maybe she should sing all her lines in future?

I hear this episode's success resulted in an album release and theatrical sing-a-longs—until a dispute over actor's royalties sadly put an end to that fan tradition in 2007. I was expecting "Once More, with Feeling" to be an amusing hour, only of huge interest to fans of the musical art form, but instead it was an ingenious joy everyone can enjoy. I mean, Buffy and Spike had a very passionate in a dark alley before a black curtain fell across the screen, and none of that felt weird and wrong to me. Encore!


written & directed by Joss Whedon • 6 November 2001 • UPN