Although the centerpiece arc is Willow’s drug-like magic addiction, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Season 6 (2001-02, UPN) is the year that mostly abandoned metaphors and went for straight-ahead, character-driven emotional storytelling.
Buffy, going through the motions after being ripped out of Heaven, uses Spike for sex; Xander leaves Anya at the altar; Dawn feels left out; Giles splits town; and Tara is killed — by a wayward bullet from a gun. It doesn’t get much more visceral than that. Mostly, this non-metaphorical approach works really well; in a few cases, it seems spectacularly out of place and drags the show down.
The episode where Tara is killed, “Seeing Red,” is this season’s equivalent to “Passion,” “The Prom” or “The Body” — the painful game-changer that can hold up a rewatching project as I work up the nerve to plow through it. Big moments like that characterize all the strong seasons of “Buffy.” And indeed, Season 6 has enough good stuff that it easily ranks ahead of the three weaker, mellower seasons (1, 4 and 7) but also enough flaws that it has to rank behind the three great, heartwrenching seasons (2, 3 and 5).
Without a doubt, Season 6 is the most hotly debated season among fans. I think “Normal Again” is a beautiful masterpiece; other fans hate its ambiguity. “Doublemeat Palace” is despised by many fans (the Buffy Phenomenon website, an aggregate of critical rankings, puts it dead last among all 144 episodes); I think it’s rather daring — yes, I’m a rare (maybe the only) “Doublemeat Palace” apologist. Some people love Dark Willow and her four episodes of mayhem; I think the best part was when the arc finally ends. And I think the breakup of Xander and Anya is pretty much indefensible.
One thing we can all agree on is the best episode: the wonderful musical “Once More With Feeling,” which the aforementioned rankings place at No. 1 among all 144 episodes. As much as I love being a contrarian — and there will be some controversial placements among my Season 6 rankings — I gotta side with the masses for the top spot.
1. “Once More, With Feeling” (episode 7, written by Joss Whedon) — Whedon spent the whole previous summer working on this one episode, and it shows. The fact that he tailors the songs to his cast’s strengths helps; for example, talented singer Amber Benson has a gorgeous pop ballad, whereas non-singers Alyson Hannigan and Michelle Trachtenberg only get a couple lines. There’s a reason why Sarah Michelle Gellar never tried to cross over into pop music like many of her contemporary actresses, but I admire the way she throws herself completely into her two songs and sells them. Anthony Stewart Head and James Marsters are both solid singers, and Nicholas Brendon also holds his own, while Emma Caulfield knocks it out of the park with both singing and dancing. Like all great “Buffys,” the storytelling is efficient, with room for humor (“Bunnies, bunnies, it must be bunnies!”) and big revelations (“I think I was in heaven”), yet the musical also makes for a rocking soundtrack album. It’s because of this episode that I had to amend my stance on musicals to: “I dislike musicals — except the ‘Buffy’ one.”
2. “Normal Again” (17, Diego Gutierrez) — Poisoned by a demon’s stinger, Buffy mentally drifts back and forth between Sunnydale and an asylum where her six years in Sunnydale never happened. It’s a remarkably daring effort from Gutierrez in his only “Buffy” episode, although his grasp of the characters makes sense when you realize he had been Whedon’s assistant for a few years. Because the final scene is in the asylum, after Buffy had drunk the antidote, a literal interpretation of the episode says the asylum is real and Sunnydale is a figment of Buffy’s imagination. However, common sense tells us that can’t be the case (1, there are too many scenes that aren’t from Buffy’s point of view, including the entire “Angel” spinoff, and 2, it would be stupid — even “Dallas” only wiped out part of its run with “It was all a dream”). I reconcile it in my head thusly: Buffy was still feeling fading effects of the poison; the camera pulling away from her and out the door indicated the fading away of the asylum world and the return to normalcy.
3. “Tabula Rasa” (8, Rebecca Rand Kirshner) — Just like the last time Willow went too far with magic (Season 4’s “Something Blue”), funny consequences result: Everyone has amnesia, so they make logical assumptions: Willow and Xander (or “Alex”) must be a couple, as are Giles (“Rupert”) and Anya (“Ann-ya”), while Rupert and Spike (“Randy”) must be father and son. Buffy’s and Dawn’s natural bickering makes the correctly assume they are sisters, but Buffy — having to name herself due to lack of ID — calls herself “Joan,” underscoring her deep-seated longing to not be a superhero. For all the laughs, the episode ends with tears as Michelle Branch performs “Goodbye to You” at the Bronze, interspersed with Tara moving out of the house and Giles flying to London.
4. “Gone” (11, David Fury) — This one is just plain fun: Buffy turns invisible thanks to an errant blast from the Trio’s invisibility ray, and all of the expected jokes ensue — plus some shockingly racy stuff in Spike’s bedroom — with Gellar providing Buffy’s disembodied voice, presumably in order to get (sort of) a break from acting.
5. “Older and Far Away” (14, Drew Z. Greenberg) — There’s not much to say about the plot: Vengeance demon Halfrek, in granting Dawn’s innocent wish, makes it so no one can leave the Summers home. Thus the entire episode takes place in the house, and it’s all funny and dramatic character stuff, plus a few oddball throw-ins such as Buffy’s date, her friend from work and Spike’s pal, Clem (a demon who gets along with everybody and who appropriately became a fan favorite). Unlike another “trapped” episode, Season 4’s “Fear, Itself,” this one has a genuine sense of suspense.
6. “Villains” (20, Marti Noxon) — The Dark Willow arc is hit-and-miss, but this one hits. There’s serious suspense and intrigue as Buffy and Xander put the pieces together that Tara’s dead, Willow’s evil and Warren’s the target of her vigilante justice. As everyone’s emotions run high in the wake of Tara’s death, Buffy shows an understated aspect to her heroism when she explains to Dawn why she can’t take the law into her own hands — and the price Willow will pay if she kills a human. By the way, all the stuff with Tara’s corpse benefits greatly from the fact that we saw “The Body” last year; it’s visceral and painful, but the fact that we already went through this with Joyce allows the writers to move the story forward — not getting hung up on Tara, but also not being disrespectful of a beloved character and her many fans.
7. “Two to Go” (21, Douglas Petrie) — This is the other solid Dark Willow episode as “Darth Rosenberg” pursues Jonathan and Andrew, and Buffy determines that the killing of Warren’s two mostly innocent sidekicks is the line that she cannot cross. There isn’t a cooler final moment in any “Buffy” episode than Giles appearing in the doorway and telling Willow “I’d like to test that theory.” I openly giggled when this episode first aired.
8. “Life Serial” (5, Fury and Jane Espenson) — For the first time after the resurrection arc, “Buffy” breathes a little again and gives us a goofy hour where the Trio launch three tests at an unwitting Buffy, who just can’t seem to land a day job. It’s not entirely her fault, but she fails at construction and customer service, then gets humorously drunk with Spike, who we learn likes to gamble with kittens.
9. “As You Were” (15, Petrie) — Riley may have been a mediocre character, but the episode featuring his brief return is actually quite good. New wife Sam correctly outlines everything that makes Riley a great husband, inadvertently rubbing it in on Buffy. I wouldn’t want a whole series about them, but Riley and Sam are great recurring characters (we caught up with them again in the Season 8 comic book).
10. “Doublemeat Palace” (12, Espenson) — And I hereby launch into my apologetics: “Buffy” is better, not worse, for addressing real-world concerns such as the fact that Buffy needs a job. Logically, the first job she is able to land with her decidedly limited resume is at a fast-food joint, and this allows Espenson to launch into a “work is hell” yarn. Unlike most of her writing, “DP” isn’t obviously comedic; in fact, the tone is darkly weird, sort of like an “X-Files” episode during the period where David Duchovny started playing things archly (see the similarly fast-food-oriented “Hungry”). We get a lot of pseudo-mysterious things here that mean nothing (the dehydrated pickles, the locked file cabinet) along with disgusting observations about the biz (the burger flipper’s ears got filled with grease) and melancholy ones (Manny the Manager taking pride in his “10 Years” button). Gellar seems to be in a daze throughout the episode — as if wondering what other show she stumbled into — and that’s the appropriate tone. All told, “DP” is a spot-on portrayal of a mindless but necessary first job.
11. “After Life” (3, Espenson) — Essentially the third part of the season-opening three-parter, the plot is identical to the “Angel” episode “The Price”: Buffy came back from the grave, but so did an evil entity. Buffy’s speech to Spike that she was in heaven is a remarkable monologue. I remember being blown away by both the plot revelation and Gellar’s acting when it first aired, but even on repeat viewings it’s great. James Marsters deserves kudos for his reaction shots, too.
12. “Smashed” (9, Greenberg) — This hour where Willow’s magic addiction starts to get out of hand often gets lambasted, but I think some people unfairly lump it in with the disappointing follow-up, “Wrecked.” Greenberg’s “Buffy” debut actually has some good stuff in it, notably the return of Amy (and everyone’s reactions to it, such as: “How’ve you been?” “Rat. You?” “Dead.”).
13. “Entropy” (18, Greenberg) — The drawn-out Spike-and-Anya conversation nicely humanizes the pain that the two characters are feeling, while the fact that the rest of the gang catches their tryst on video allows all the secrets to finally spill into the open.
14. “Dead Things” (13, Steven S. DeKnight) — The darker side of Warren emerges here when he accidentally (but recklessly) kills his ex-girlfriend and decides to cover it up while also framing Buffy. It would rank higher on my list except that the “What if Buffy killed a human?” angle had already been done in “Ted” and “Consequences,” and nothing new is added here.
15. “Seeing Red” (19, DeKnight) — I like how the Trio — good for so much comic relief throughout the season — now coalesces into distinct stances: Warren’s bad, Andrew’s a meek follower, and Jonathan’s actually pretty decent (He whispers to Buffy the clue to defeating the magically enhanced Warren). And there’s no denying how shocking the final few minutes were upon first viewing. On repeat viewings, though, the facts of Warren shooting Buffy (on purpose) and Tara (accidentally) and Willow turning evil are notably blunt and lacking in “Buffy”-style poeticism. I know that’s part of the point — guns are cruelly blunt killing instruments — but unlike other painful “Buffy” moments where sadness leads to great TV, I don’t know if we ever really got our money’s worth out of Tara’s death.
An even worse example of the writers trying too hard to shoehorn a traditional plot point into the Buffyverse is Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy. I know she got injured in a previous scene, and I know she eventually is too strong for him, but the scene — and subsequent episode’s interpretations of it — tries too hard to be specifically about rape rather than Spike’s attempt to overcome the programming of his chip. The scene is unsavory to me, but not entirely for the intended reasons. (Fun bit of trivia: This is the only episode with Benson in the opening credits. Although it was done as a kindness to the actress, it’s also kind of cruel to fans who might’ve gotten excited that she’d be around a while.)
16. “Flooded” (4, Petrie and Espenson) — After the resurrection episodes, this hour sets the stage for the theme of the season: That life, even aside from the Slayer stuff, is hard. It’s about everyday bills, unexpected house repairs (hence the title), and the raw boredom of finances. It’s understandable that some fans didn’t want to take this journey — and this episode falls short of being a great introduction to the theme — but I think the show had to go here; if it hadn’t, it could’ve drifted too far into a detached fantasy realm (something that would later plague the Season 8 comic). Bonus points for Dawn’s delivery of “That’s not a horn.”
17 and 18.“Bargaining, Parts 1 and 2” (1, Noxon/2, Fury) — The suspense on first viewing was undeniably palpable. Just how exactly would Whedon and his writers resurrect Buffy from the dead? Because it’s a great show, we knew they wouldn’t make it easy on Buffy or her friends, and indeed they don’t. But the admirable trait of going through the hard work of bringing back Buffy is the same reason why this two-parter ranks a bit low on my list. Willow killing Bambi and barfing up a magic snake, Buffy clawing out of her grave, a biker gang ripping apart the chipper BuffyBot — it ain’t exactly fun to watch. And while the emotional truth of Buffy’s return is spot-on, the logistics are a bit off: Even in Sunnydale, someone should question why Buffy has a gravestone (and presumably had a funeral) yet shows up at parent-teacher meetings.
19. “Grave” (22, Fury) — While the “hard work” approach of the season premiere is excusable, the same can’t be said for the finale. (Although episodes 20 and 21 rank much higher on my list, they hinted at the problems that come to the fore here.) Look, I know the things that happen in “Grave” are important, and of course I’m glad that Xander is able to talk Willow back from the brink with his famous “broken yellow crayon” anecdote (and yes, Brendon is good in that scene). But the episode holds no surprises, and Hannigan — normally a great actress — gives a bland performance as Dark Willow (even though she looks cool from an action figure designer’s perspective).
Think I’m being harsh? Compare Dark Willow to Angelus, bad Faith, bad Spike and Fred-turned-into-Illyria. This episode, too rote for such epic circumstances, could’ve been helped with flashbacks showing Xander and Willow in kindergarten, just as some Buffy-centered episodes (“Killed By Death,” “The Weight of the World”) have been given heft when we see the younger Buffy. And not to pile on, but the writers cheated with the surprise of Spike getting his soul back rather than getting his chip removed. Every line reading up to that point suggests he wants the chip out so he can kill Buffy, yet in the next season we find out he was seeking a soul all along.
20. “All the Way” (6, DeKnight) — On the plus side, this is a Halloween episode, and indeed it starts off with some colorful scenes in the Magic Box such as Anya roller-skating around and getting in the holiday spirit (due to the commercialism, of course). And it does have a pre-“Joan of Arcadia” Amber Tamblyn in it (she should’ve been used more as Dawn’s friend, Janice). And it is a Dawn episode; we never did get enough of those. However, it’s also very padded — Dawn seems to engage in kissage with her love interest (a bizarrely patient vampire) for an entire act. Then the final fight scene takes forever. “All the Way” suffers from coming right before “Once More, With Feeling,” which was probably getting all the love around the “Buffy” offices and sets.
21. “Wrecked” (10, Noxon) — “Smashed” set up everything pretty nicely. All that was missing was Willow’s rock-bottom moment, and we knew we were gonna get it here. Unfortunately, Noxon can only come up with Willow getting behind the wheel while drunk on magic, leading to Dawn breaking her arm. While it fits with the “real world” approach to Season 6, we’ve come to expect something a little more creative from this show than Willow driving drunk.
22. “Hell’s Bells” (16, Kirshner) — In general, an episode should be judged on its execution of a story, not the story itself. But I can’t get past the fact that I hate, hate, hate that Xander stands up Anya at their wedding. Sure, he saw visions of a possible future of misery. But that would’ve made it even more powerful if he decided to marry her anyway. Although I disliked this episode when it first aired, I admit that my dislike is partially colored by what comes next for Anya’s character: While absolutely wonderful as a happy fiancée, she’s hard to watch as a vengeance demon who resents Xander for the next season-and-a-half. (Interesting trivia: “Hell’s Bells” marks the first time we meet Xander’s folks on screen, and they are indeed awful, especially his dad. It makes me think about “Buffy” as an exploration of parental influence, an issue with which it takes an uncommon stance. Buffy and Dawn had a great mom and Buffy has a great father figure in Giles. All of the other characters in the Buffyverse, with the exception of Fred, have bad parents. Yet the kids mostly turn out all right. The power of friendship? The underappreciated influence of Joyce and Giles as role models? Discuss.)
As you can see, even the weaker episodes of Season 6 get me thinking. In the end, it’s a mix of fascinating success and instructive failures. Despite the flaws in some episodes, the overall arc of Buffy doing the hardest thing in life (living) is a worthy one, and it shows that “Buffy” is still fresh at this point in its run. Season 7 — if memory serves — is another story, but I’m looking forward to giving it a fair shot when I rewatch it. In the meantime, share your feelings and rankings for Season 6 in the comment thread.