I like picking things apart and imagining how they could have been made stronger; it’s a useful mental exercise for me as a writer. So, with that in mind — and having finished my two-month DVD binge of the entire series — I’m going to discuss Buffy Season Seven: what they did right, what they did wrong, and what they could have done better.
I’ve said before that I think the idea of S7 is rock-solid, and I stand by that. They made some smart choices after S5, wrt the Big Bads. What do you do after Glory? Where do you go after a god? Trying to top that rapidly leads you to silly extremes. So they scaled it down in S6; they made it personal. They made it Willow. (The execution of that idea left something to be desired, but I already know this is going to be a heckuva long post; I won’t make it worse by trying to cover two seasons.)
But “smaller and more personal” doesn’t work when you know you’re going into your last season. You have to top everything you’ve done before. Given the scale of threat Glory posed, that pretty much means you have to call in the First. Of course, that poses its own problems: anything that big and bad makes a very poor long-term threat, since your audience will constantly be asking why it hasn’t just pasted the good guys already. You can see that problem in S5, actually, as they have to go through some plot gymnastics to keep Glory in check until it’s time for the season finale. They solved that here in part by making the First incorporeal. It can’t just kill them outright; all it can do it talk. Which it does, to devastating effect — but that isn’t enough.
They got around the rest of this problem the D&D way. Fighting a single high-CR monster in D&D is a tricky proposition; there’s a hair-thin line between an interesting fight and Total Party Kill. Much more effective is to put the heroes against multiple lower-but-still-high-CR critters: in this case, the Bringers and the ubervamps. The Bringers are easy enough to kill, but there seems to be no end of them, and they can generally take out any potential on her own, so they believably endanger the entire Slayer line. The ubervamps, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings — more powerful, more numerous, and a very credible threat without ever crossing the line into outright stupidity.
The other good thing about the ubervamps is that they fit the finale-appropriate theme of “back to the beginning.” Sure, the writers dragged a lot of demons and witches and ghosts and so on into the series, but ultimately it’s still Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. So back we go to vampires, the Hellmouth, the high school — where it all began. It was established a while ago in the series that vampires are sort of lower-class halfbreeds as far as the demon world is concerned — so what’s the non-human half like? I call that a pretty good way to scale up vampires into a bigger problem than they tend to be on their own.
It’s also the perfect time to finish off what they started at the end of S4, when they began raising the question of the Slayer’s origins. The axe and the woman Buffy talks to about it are a bit of a mcguffin, but whatever; I like the way the writers problematized the whole Slayer thing, and also worked in the potentials. After all, we know they’re out there; now’s a fantastic time to make use of them in the plot. Multiple heroes for multiple villains. And the end of the show is awesome in much the same way that the end of S3 was awesome; I get a little misty-eyed when the entire senior class whips out their weapons and lets loose on Snake!Mayor. (Don’t ask me why, but my heart goes squishy for weird things like that.) I honestly can’t think of a better move for the end of the series than to give them all Slayer power at once.
So that’s the core stuff. They also do some good ancillary things. I mostly like the ongoing Spike plot; the writing and the acting produce an effective kind of crazy, rather than useless crayon-eating Malkavian crazy, which can be hard. I also like the inclusion of Principal Wood, for a variety of reasons. It’s part of the back-to-basics thing, for starters. And since Principal Flutie was a clueless nebbish and Principal Snyder was a minion of evil, if you want to do a new thing with that role, you either need someone utterly uninvolved (boring) or someone on the side of the heroes. But they do more than that, making him Nicki Wood’s kid; not only does it lend a human note to the whole Slayer line (one of them had a kid?), but it gives him a reason for his demon-fighting competence and creates a nice foundation for trouble between him and Spike. (And the ancillary benefit of the most prominent character of color they ever worked into the show.) Good stuff all around.
With all that in mind — why isn’t Season Seven better?
I see two linked problems that could have had linked solutions. The first is one of pacing. Normally they fill a fair number of their twenty-two episodes with Monster of the Week-type stuff, but that’s hard to do here. Forget coming up with new ideas; the real issue is that Monster of the Week plots tend to require the characters to get wrapped up in this little thing, either unaware of or temporarily putting aside the bigger threat. Doing that now would cheapen the First and make it less scary. But keeping the First in mind leads to the script hammering too much on the same notes over and over, most specifically the question of what to do with Spike. You could get a pretty good drink on during the early eps by taking a shot every time Buffy utters some cosmetic variant of “It’s different now. He has a soul.”
I think they needed more middle-range plots. Things halfway between minor one-off bits (like the degradation of Spike’s chip/Amy’s revenge on Willow, “The Killer in Me”) and the major arc plot of the season. The First is active in the plot much earlier than the Big Bads tend to be, but that means the writers have to stall for time before it comes to fruition. They could have solved this, it seems to me, by taking a thread from D’Hofran’s confrontation with Anya: what do the demons think about what’s coming? Whether you chose to structure it as “demons on one side, humans on the other, and bye-bye to the days when we played semi-nice” or a S2-style “not all demons want the world destroyed” scenario, you could create a lot of plots out of some or all of the demons aligning themselves with the First and helping it do things to get ready for the grand finale.
Which would also create a useful hook on which to hang a solution to the second problem: the Buffy-as-leader plot. The problem with that plot isn’t that Buffy’s bad at it; it’s that she’s bad at it for so long. It drags on for episode after episode, and if it’s going to do that, it needs an arc — which, unfortunately, it doesn’t have. She just keeps sucking until her one brilliant idea at the end. I don’t know if the shows’ writers just didn’t grok leadership enough to write a good arc for Buffy to grow into that role or what, but there needed to be development there.
Pair that with more two- or three-episode arcs of demon trouble, and you’ve got the framework you need to prop up the last third of the show. The Council needs to get blown up early in the season — I had no problem with the timing of that — which leads directly to the potentials arriving at Buffy’s house. Rather than having them be skeptical of her (we’ve seen that before, after all), have them idolize her. I mean, OMG, it’s the Slayer — the one who’s died twice and saved the world like a million times and we finally get to meet her!
Then have Buffy screw it up.
But do it earlier than ep 18. By that point, we’re already sick of her being lame, and she doesn’t have much time to fix it in, either. The potentials arrive in ep. 9; have her make a dumb decision more around 12 or 13. Rather than trying to keep the potentials safe — which we did last season with Dawn — have her really go for the front-lines training right off the bat, and then overestimate what they’re capable of. And screw it up. Now the hero-worship goes away, hard, and the new potentials coming into the house get horror stories of what they’re in for. Buffy has to learn, grow as a leader, and earn back their respect — and, given the number of potentials, get other people to learn the same. Break them up into squads and nominate squad leaders, because with all the demons getting antsy, there are just too many threats for her to tackle herself. She has to send them out there to fight. They have training already; what they need is experience. You don’t want to take your focus too much off the main character, of course, but you could probably spin good plot out of the Command Central side of things, with brief excursions out into the field for our weekly dose of monster-mashing.
Do that for a while, and in the meantime play a macro version of what you get in “Storyteller.” The first half of that episode blows — I want to punch Andrew in the throat, and are they deliberately trying to recap everything we know in case people have been missing episodes? — but the second half is good. I like Buffy playing hard-ass on Andrew for the purpose she does, I like the commentary on redemption they use Andrew to express, and I also like what they do with the high school. Buffy spends about five minutes running around trying to turn invisible people visible and stop stressed students from exploding, and then she steps back and lets the school riot while she deals with the illness instead of its symptoms. She can be questing for a macro solution to the First while the potentials put out the smaller fires. And that keeps the other main characters involved, too: Willow helping with magic, Xander helping with military command, etc. It wouldn’t be hard to find uses for them all.
And that gives you something to fill your fifteen episodes between the potentials showing up and it all going down.
It’s the sagginess of the Buffy-as-leader strand more than anything, I think, that weakens S7. She just doesn’t grow through it. The other pacing issues wouldn’t have seemed as important without that dragging them down. I could get into micro-level matters about individual episodes, but honestly it isn’t worth my time or yours; it’s over and done with, and (as I told my students the other week) you have to fix your top-level problems before you get to the smaller ones, because some of the smaller ones may vanish and new ones appear while you’re doing that other fix. Not that anybody’s fixing anything here, but you know what I mean: talking about how to fix the first half of “Storyteller” or “Touched” is kind of like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The sad thing is, I really do think a lot of it is due to Joss having his attention on several other projects that year. The only ep he wrote was “Chosen,” the finale, and man can you feel the difference. Same thing in S6, actually; that’s one of several reasons “Once More, With Feeling” stands out so strongly. I can’t help but think the execution of all the good ideas would have gone much better if he’d been more hands-on with the show that year, because his scripts just have a tightness and energy the other writers could only match occasionally. And — in flagrant contradiction of what I just said in the last para — sometimes script-level improvements can prop up storylines you didn’t think were working.
But for all that? I still like S7. I might not re-watch the 15-21 range if I weren’t going through the whole thing in sequence, but I was enjoying myself in the early part of the season. And for all the flaws in the eps leading up to it, I would not have missed that finale for the world. Blowing open the Slayer line was the perfect ending — an unexpected twist (at least for me), a giant leap upward into something bigger and more awesome than they’ve ever done before, and a beautiful last statement on the theme that got Joss started on this project in the first place.
I wish the entire thing had been that good.