A very well-done mood piece that sets the tone for the whole season.
Wikipedia has a good quick summary here.
Whedon and company thought their opportunity to tell stories might end after five seasons. They were wrong. Unfortunately, they wanted a good finale in case their contract wasn't renewed and they killed Buffy in the greatest Buffy episode of all time to get one. Now they had a HUGE uphill battle to earn back their hero in a manner commensurate with fan expectations and equal to the brilliance of "The Gift". This two-part season opener doesn't quite match "The Gift"...but what it does do is brilliantly set the mood for the year to come and without a surplus of exposition. It also stays very in character for all involved and we'll discuss that more specifically in a moment.
For tone...my five favorite moments (in chronological order) for establishing mood:
- In preparation for doing the resurrection spell, Willow murders an ADORABLE baby foal and appears to care not one whit as she does it. Rationalize it all you want...she is desperate to avoid grieving for her fallen best friend, she fears Buffy is trapped in hell and needs rescuing, she has turned off her emotions to do a task she knows will be very hard...but this scene is indescribably evil and my uninitiated friends, when they watch it, all simply say "wow...that was just evil." And this is where Willow is headed not too long from now.
- Giles converses with BuffyBot and realizes that without a slayer to teach, he can't go on living here in the shadow of her grave. This scene works largely because Tony Head is a genius. But it will be a theme this year as well...Giles deciding what he must do to best help his slayer (let her go)...and then realizing he's wrong when it all falls apart and Buffy doesn't even notice.
- Buffy's punch-drunk stumble into town...this is mostly wordless, but after all of the destruction wrought by the hellions, the town now reflects the hell she believes she's experiencing (in comparison to the heaven where she'd gone). This is done so well that all you can do is feel terribly sorry for her.
- After the hellions capture the girls (including Xander...LOL) and threaten them with rape and torture for their amusement (which is, in and of itself, a chilling scene...as, oddly, is the demolition of the BuffyBot), all it takes is one punch to remind Buffy of her first instinct - her calling to fight evil. The ensuing fight sequence is very emotional for the viewers because it is depicted as extremely raw and dark. This isn't the Buffy motivated by love that we knew from fifth season...she's lost something...now she really is just a slayer.
- That is until...she sees Dawn in trouble on the tower. Dawn finds her reliving her won death and considering dying a second time to escape this hellish place (the world is hell compared to heaven, after all), and after begging her to come down, the tower begins to collapse and traps Dawn. Now that her sister is in trouble, Buffy remembers her capacity to love and saves Dawn (rather spectacularly). She's not healed, of course, but the human element begins its return with that one great gesture.
I think that Willow's character arc (the center of attention in season 6, along with Buffy's descent into self-abuse and mystery) is completely logical and very engaging. Why fans don't like this season is beyond me...perhaps because it takes Buffy out of the hero's spotlight and makes her - very nearly - a secondary character? Perhaps because the super-bad is not some great demon, but life itself? I, personally, like that kind of diversion for formula a heck of a lot more than I liked Buffy in college battling a military-crafted robo-demon. This episode is lighter on thematic punch that some of the ones that will follow, but I definitely don't want to downplay its significance. As a season-operner with something to prove, it does the job.
The script isn't the winner here...the dialogue is, by in large, ordinary, and the bad guys, while definitely intimidating, aren't special. What gives this story a feature score for writing is the directorial work that made it a brilliant mood piece.
Tony Head, Alyson Hannigan and even a few of the guest stars (especially the lead hellion) dominate the good side of the ledger. Unfortunately, Michelle Trachtenberg comes up a bit short this time (as compared with her chops in "The Gift")...her moments with Buffy seem a bit on the heavy side.
The messages aren't handed down in this episode yet...they're coming later...and they're very intriguing to be sure.