“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Season 7 (2002-03, UPN) is the ultimate mixed bag from the series’ run. Although it bows out in a satisfying enough way and has a lot of stand-out elements, it’s also the most bothersome season because it misses the mark so often.
I’ve spent way too much time mentally rewriting Season 7, keeping the general arcs in place but putting them together in more satisfying ways. And I suspect the writers wouldn’t mind another crack at it. In fact, Joss Whedon has openly admitted that he should’ve given Dawn more to do in Season 7.
Another way to improve the season, in my opinion, would be if the Potentials had been given their Slayer powers earlier. I also think the revelation of Principal Wood being the son of a Slayer could’ve come sooner and his office could’ve functioned as the equivalent of the first high school’s library. Generally, it’s too ambitious (scenes with 30 characters in the Summers living room are much harder to pull off than scenes with five characters), yet also tamely written (sometimes because of budgeting, I think). And the fact that the season’s Big Bad, the First Evil, was dispatched in a single episode back in Season 3 is a lingering oddity.
It’s no coincidence that this is the only “Buffy” season that had to share Whedon with not one, but two, other shows. And “Firefly” definitely got most of his love in the fall of 2002. But was Season 7 a complete and total loss? No way. It had many great episodes. Actually, it only had two out-and-out bad episodes. It’s just that so many good episodes were filled with flaws we didn’t see in the first six seasons (I’ll point these out in my episode reviews below). Because of this, I rate it second-to-last on my seasonal rankings, ahead of only the formative Season 1. My ranking order is 3, 2, 5, 6, 4, 7, 1.
Here are my rankings of the sometimes great, sometimes bad, often frustrating 22 episodes of “Buffy’s” final season:
1. “Lies My Parents Told Me” (episode 17, written by David Fury and Drew Goddard) — I’m a sucker for any episode with Spike flashbacks, and it’s remarkable that at this stage of the game there’s room for a surprise: Spike turned his mum into a vampire! Plus, it nicely dovetails with Wood’s flashbacks to his mom focusing on “the mission” at his expense (Small complaint: The Spike stuff overpowers Wood’s story by episode’s end). Completing the trio of “lies” from parental figures, Giles distracts Buffy so that Wood can kill Spike. This episode also crystallizes the difference between Spike and Angel, and perhaps why Spike was able to recover faster from getting his soul back: Whether William or Spike, his feelings are always out there to get stomped on, and that’s why we love him.
2. “Him” (6, Drew Z. Greenberg) — I find this crazy-in-love riff to be flat-out hilarious, and as a bonus, it’s a rare Dawn episode (one of only two this season, along with “Potential”). Pitch-perfect scenes include Dawn trying to fit in with RJ’s group but being left standing outside their circle, Dawn’s cheerleading tryouts, Buffy trying to kill Principal Wood before Spike tackles her, and guidance-counselor Buffy getting flirty with student RJ after he puts the magic letterman’s jacket on. Oh, and we can’t forget a horrified Xander realizing he was getting googly-eyed at Dawn in the Bronze (“Daddy like!”). I wonder if Whedon knew at this point that Xander and Dawn would become an item a few years down the road (in what would eventually be the Season 8 comic book).
3. “The Killer in Me” (13, Greenberg) — This was the most pleasant surprise on this rewatching. Certainly, there’s some obvious surface appeal, as it features two of my favorite Buffy supporting actors, Adam Busch as Warren and Elizabeth Anne Allen as Amy. But “The Killer in Me” is brilliant for how it works on multiple levels: On one reading, it “buys back” Willow from her Season 6 evil phase more effectively than “Same Time, Same Place” as she literally starts to transform into the man she killed. Amy effectively speaks for some viewers when she points out that Willow’s standard for redemption seems to be lower than hers (and other “Buffy” characters); this is a case of the writers solving a narrative snag simply by bringing it into the light. On another reading, it’s about how Willow emotionally lets go of Tara for the first time (which also adds a nice legitimacy to the Willow-Kennedy kiss). In the B-plot, Buffy and Spike return to the sort-of-cemented-in Initiative and we get some of the best-looking horror scenes in the series, lit only by flashlight, “X-Files”-style. And in the end, Spike finally gets his chip out. Nitpick time: The lines about the chip “killing” Spike are silly. He’s a vampire. Certainly, though, the chip could’ve driven him crazy.
4. “Storyteller” (16, Jane Espenson) — This funny, creative episode is a welcome opportunity to really focus on Andrew. It has a lot of humor (Anya and Spike both want to look good on camera), plus the emotional scene at the end where Andrew, wrenched away from his fantasy world, confesses that he killed Jonathan and he can’t use The First’s manipulations as an excuse. It’s interesting how Espenson makes in-jokes about the bad elements of the season (Andrew points the camera at a Potential and says he doesn’t know her name; Buffy gives a really long speech) and yet these flaws persist. Additionally, there’s a missed opportunity for a sequel: Andrew’s video would’ve been a great device for getting to know more of the Potentials, rising them above the status of house-filling Turok-han fodder.
5. “Selfless” (5, Goddard) — Even though this was Goddard’s first writing credit, “Selfless” has all the ingredients of a classic “Buffy” episode, starting with the Olaf-and-Aud flashbacks, which get more amusing with each viewing. Then — in a very cool bit of continuity — we learn that Buffy knew all along that Xander tried to trick her into killing Angel way back in the Season 2 finale. It has a moment of tragedy when it appears Buffy might’ve killed Anya. Finally, it winds down with the beautiful, bittersweet moment between Xander and Anya, where we know their relationship is over.
6. “Conversations with Dead People” (7, Espenson and Goddard) — When this season first aired, I ranked this as my top episode, and many fans still do; it just doesn’t gain a lot from repeat viewings compared to those higher on my list. The first time, I enjoyed the Dawn haunted-house scenes (a rare case of “Buffy” going for pure horror). Now I think the Buffy-Holden scenes are the best — I love how they keep taking the joke of a vampire playing shrink to a Slayer farther and farther and it’s still funny. A fun bit of trivia: Holden actor Jonathan Woodward is one of only five actors to appear on “Buffy,” “Angel” and “Firefly.”
7. “Chosen” (22, Joss Whedon) — The series finale is a mixed bag, although it’s ultimately more satisfying that not. Whedon achieves a tricky balance of satisfying ‘shippers of both Buffy-Angel and Buffy-Spike, Spike gets a heroic send-off, and the Scooby core survives for a happy ending while the price of war is paid in the form of Anya and several Potentials, including Amanda. The epic Slayers-vs.-Ubervamps fight looks and sounds (thanks to guest composer Robert Duncan) outstanding; obviously a lot of the season’s budget was saved for this. Now my criticism: I’ve always had a problem with the presentation of the “female empowerment” theme here — not the theme itself, but the fact that the girls acquire it by magic. In the montage, for example, we see a softball player gain confidence in the batter’s box once she’s infused with Slayer power. Read metaphorically (as much of “Buffy” intends to be read), it’s not an issue. But read literally, it says that girls need magic to be powerful, and much of Season 7 is presented literally (a side effect of the serialization, I think), leading to a potential misreading. This is a rare case where I think Whedon’s message doesn’t resonate as crisply as he intended it to.
8. “First Date” (14, Espenson) — Finally, we get some payoff to the lingering mystery of “Who is Principal Wood?” Although there’s no good reason why we had to wait this long, it’s a good payoff: He’s the son of a Slayer! (Specifically, Nikki Wood, whom Spike killed in 1977 in the flashbacks in “Fool For Love.” It’s not explicitly stated here, but savvy fans could do the math.) Can we talk for a moment about how awesome D.B. Woodside is as Wood? Even when he stumbles over his words, he’s suave about it. It’s a shame that he hasn’t had a bigger role in the Season 8 and 9 comic books (We know that he and Faith broke up and he’s now a Watcher based in Cleveland). A nice bonus in “First Date”: Ashanti plays Xander’s date (who, naturally, turns out to be evil).
9. “End of Days” (21, Douglas Petrie and Espenson) — This is a solid set-up for the series finale as the hard feelings from previous episodes are resolved, and Buffy kills Caleb with the scythe (well, mostly — she’ll have to finish him off at the start of the next episode). The scythe, although largely a convenient plot device, gets an extra dose of awesome because Whedon introduced it a few months earlier in his “Fray” comic book about a future Slayer. There’s no denying the coolness of the ending, where Angel comes in out of nowhere to help Buffy at a key moment.
10. “Touched” (20, Rebecca Rand Kirshner) — “Touched” does the hard work of recovering from the awful “Empty Places,” which ended with Buffy being inexplicably kicked out of the house in the wake of a failed attack on Caleb’s wine distillery. We get a nice Buffy-Spike scene in an abandoned house (it’s nice to see somebody is on her side) and we get to see Faith trying her hand at being the leader. Also, there’s a nice montage of hook-ups (including the giggle-worthy Faith and Wood) that remind us of what people are fighting for.
11. “Dirty Girls” (18, Goddard) — “Dirty Girls” has a lot of cool things in it, including the excellent Nathan Fillion (“Firefly”) as a woman-hating, serial-killing defrocked preacher. Xander loses an eye and two nameless Potentials die, emphasizing the evil of Caleb, yet the mood of this hour is bit cold. On the other hand, every scene with Faith in it is awesome (she’ll be on board from here through the finale). Both Faith-and-Spike scenes are fun, and I’m glad the writers remembered that the characters “met” in “Who Are You” even though the actors hadn’t worked together. Goddard admitted in the commentary that the writers realized this just in time, thus averting the biggest continuity gaffe of the series. (Trivia time: Potential Slayer Colleen is played by Rachel Bilson. Perhaps because of filming “The O.C.,” which started in Fall 2003, this is her only episode.)
12. “Help” (4, Kirshner) — “Help” is a nice throwback to those old standalones from Buffy’s high school years, but it’s also a bit more resonant because we learn that Buffy can’t help everyone (Cassie, nicely played by Azura Skye, has a terminal illness). Also look for “Home Improvement’s” Zachery Ty Bryan doing a very effective job playing a complete jerk.
13. “Lessons” (1, Whedon) — “Lessons” nicely sets the stage for the season (or rather, what the season should’ve been — with more throwback high school episodes), notably introducing Principal Wood, the year’s best new character, and Buffy’s new job as the school’s guidance counselor. And it’s cool to see disturbed, soul-having Spike visited by ghosts of past “Buffy” villains (actually The First Evil, the villain from Season 3’s “Amends”). Here’s the first big unexplained element of the season: The Hellmouth seal in the basement below the principal’s office — who put it there?
14. “Potential” (12, Kirshner) — There’s one big problem here: The characters operate under the premise of Buffy being the active Slayer (in order to get pathos out of the idea that Dawn could be a Slayer if Buffy dies), but everyone knows Faith is the active Slayer. And on a nitpicky note: Dawn and Amanda fight off the Bringers rather easily, starting a trend where the Bringers and Turok-Hans become gradually less powerful for the sake of story convenience (something Whedon basically admitted in his commentary for “Chosen”). I also find it odd that Buffy and Spike are OK with locking four Potentials in a crypt to take on a vampire. What if they had died? However, I do enjoy the English Potential who is always taking notes (Molly), and Willow’s new love interest, Kennedy. On first viewing, I hated Kennedy for her arrogance. This time around, I think her brattiness is endearing, and a refreshing contrast to scaredy-cat Potentials such as Vi and Rona. As with Riley, Kennedy made a significant jump up my tolerance meter on this rewatching of the series.
15. “Sleeper” (8, Fury and Espenson) — This is an appealingly dark episode with a sense of mystery as Spike goes around picking up women and killing them (we eventually find out, in “Lies My Parents Told Me,” he’s being controlled by The First thanks to a trigger song). It has a funny scene of Anya trying to weasel her way out after being caught digging through Spike’s room. This episode marks the start of a gradual slide in quality for the season, as it becomes largely serialized and centered around The First’s manipulations and the good guys’ war strategy, too often marginalizing the core characters.
16. “Beneath You” (2, Petrie) — There’s a palpable foreboding here about the seasonal menace (“From beneath you, it devours”) even though the underground worm creature in this episode is merely a victim of Anya’s overzealous demon vengeance. It boasts a visually iconic ending with Spike hugging a cross in church, smoke rising from his burning flesh, although his religion-tinged speech is overlong.
17. “Never Leave Me” (9, Goddard) — The serial starts to get relatively dull here; this episode consists almost entirely of Buffy worrying about whether Spike can control himself. The scenes of Xander and Anya playing “good cop, bad cop” with Andrew help a little, and the cliffhanger of Giles being targeted mid-ax-swing certainly kept us busy at the Bronze posting board back in 2002-03. From the “paths not taken” file: I think it might’ve been cool and creepy if Giles actually had turned out to be dead, especially since Anthony Stewart Head expressed interest in playing The First. Writers also toyed with the idea of killing off Xander and having Nicholas Brendan play The First. In order to have a happy ending, I think it was important that Buffy, Willow, Xander and Dawn survive, but killing off Giles here might’ve been worth it.
18. “Bring on the Night” (10, Marti Noxon and Petrie) — This is essentially two cool Buffy-vs.-Turok-Han fight scenes and a bunch of filler. I found the scenes of Spike being tortured by The First boring the first time I watched them, and they still are (even if it is an excuse to bring Drusilla back). I think Buffy and Spike fighting as a team would’ve have been cooler. It is interesting to note that the first three of the much-maligned Potentials (Kennedy, Molly and Annabelle) aren’t annoying at first; in fact, they are kind of amusing (although Annabelle running off to get killed makes little sense). The Buffy speech at the end is the first of too many “characters speechifying in the Summers house” scenes in the back half of the season.
19. “Showtime” (11, Fury) — This is the episode where a freshly inspired Buffy gathers everyone together to watch her kill the Turok-Han that beat the crap out of her in “Bring on the Night.” The actor who plays the Turok-Han does a nice job with the over-the-top menace. However, much of the hour consists of the Potentials sitting around being scared. And from the category of the bizarre and unexplained: Chloe (the Potential Slayer played by “Lizzie McGuire’s” Lalaine) is in “Showtime” and she’ll return in “Get It Done,” but her absence is not explained here. It wouldn’t matter later in the season when the house fills up with dozens of Potentials, but at this point there are only a handful of them. A simple line of dialogue could’ve solved this: Perhaps Chloe was accompanying Giles on a trip to fetch another Potential. As it stands, the “Where was Chloe?” mystery vexes fans to this day.
20. “Same Time, Same Place” (3, Espenson) — This episode, which tackles the job of “buying back” Willow from her bout of being evil, is conceptually clever with its multiple realities. However, it’s kind of obvious what’s going on, and although I hate to pigeonhole writers, I have to say that Espenson’s strength is comedy, not darker drama.
21. “Get It Done” (15, Petrie) — With the series winding down, this comes off as a wasted hour: Basically, Buffy enters another dimension to learn that there is an army of Turok-Hans lurking below the Hellmouth. She also meets the sorcerers who created the Slayer line, but doesn’t get much out of the experience. I guess that’s part of the point, but still, this feels like a water-treading episode.
22. “Empty Places” (19, Greenberg) — There’s no nice way to say this: Buffy getting voted out of the house by everyone is asinine. And there are other problems: Why is everyone in Sunnydale splitting town because of this latest sense of impending doom? They didn’t do that in previous apocalypses. Why did the cops seem to want to kill Faith at the Bronze and not have any problems with the idea of killing bystanders? I guess it’s because everyone split town and we’re supposed to get a sense that chaos reigns. Still, it’s a pretty aggressive and out-of-the-blue anti-cop statement. And from the just-plain-odd department: Sarah Michelle Gellar — and therefore, Buffy — has a cold in this episode. She sounds like Tara Reid.
What are your rankings of the 22 episodes of “Buffy’s” final season? And what are your rankings of the seven seasons? With my “Buffy” and “Angel” rewatching project complete, I’ll be tackling Whedon’s other iconic series, “Firefly,” in an upcoming post.