Believe me when I say that I don’t give out 9.7’s very often for sheer gimmick value and entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with being entertaining, but to get an elite score like this, the episode must be both entertaining and truly emotionally impactful. In Whedon’s first attempt at musical composition, he proves his mastery of the craft and of the written word at the same time.
The full summary of this enchanting Broadway send-off can be found at Wikipedia.org - complete with some very interesting details regarding how this show came together and some technical background.
We’re going to break this into several categories to cover the various aspects of this musical production from the technical to the character-driven, to the plot-heavy to the whimsical. We’ll start with some general commentary on the music itself and go from there.
This entire hour long musical is a monument to Whedon’s obvious love for the legitimate theater. Every song is written in a different style to convey a different mood and is itself a send-off for a popular form of musical. There are even lines of dialogue that serve as meta throw-away commentary on the choices Joss made for each character. “Really? Was it a metal ballad or more of a breakaway pop number?” or “It was horrible…I mean I always pictured something a bit more contemporary, but suddenly we were singing this retro pastiche!” (both Anya’s comments…LOL)
But think about it – Buffy sings the overture-lead in, but then all of her remaining songs are edgy rock-opera – particularly the big show-stopping number. For Spike, Joss played on Marsters’ British pop-rock looks for a perfect little alt-rock ballad. Anya and Xander – often the show’s comic relief (and the most normal people in the cast other than Dawn) – get to sing that retro 1940’s Sondheim/Hammerstein classic duet and dance number, which can be thought of as a throwback to more innocent times. Tara gets the ingénue romance (it befits her quiet personality), and then the song of love-sick betrayal. And Giles…Giles gets to sing the kind of classic rock tune he sings every other time we hear that beautiful voice of his throughout the rest of the series. If this were a stand-alone musical, we’d accuse Joss or perfect casting, so we’ll call this perfect reverse casting.
But more than appreciating that Joss crafted songs that fit his characters perfectly, we also simply love the songs! They’re catchy like an old-world Broadway money-maker, they sound great (much credit should go to the cast, who reveal that they’re talented in oh so many ways in this episode), and they live by the rule less is more. Joss didn’t try to do too much…he made the melodies simple, the harmonies diverse, but thematic (and thus easy to remember), and the lyrics still felt like a typical Buffy dialogue...filled with the usual modern language and flare we’ve become accustomed to over the years. In other words, Whedon didn’t show off like a lot of new composers often do…he just had fun and so did we.
What’s even more impressive about this – Whedon wrote the music (and the rest of the script) on his own…and then directed the episode, including the immeasurably complex blocking and choreography that went into even the simplest moments (they got…the mustard out!!! They got the mustard OUT!!!!!). And he did all of this on a not-unusual production schedule. The dancing certainly doesn’t match the work in, say, The Lion King or even Rent for difficulty (he has to work with actors who have a certain skill range, after all – Tony Head isn’t known for being a brilliant dancer, nor is Alyson Hannigan or James Marsters classically trained. BUT…Michelle Trachtenberg (who begged not to have to sing) is classically trained in ballet, Emma Caulfield dances like a pro because that’s where she got her start, and hey, Nicky Brendan has soft-shoe and ballroom background, who knew!
So he adapted his choreography to play to the strengths of his crew and gave us technically complex stuff whenever he could, and visually fascinating drama when he couldn’t break out the professional moves. Marsters, for example, does nothing more than sing while doing his usual stage combat stuff, and it looks like dancing because of the way it’s filmed and staged. The same is true of Gellar -- except in her show stopping number, where she gets the chance to show her Broadway dancing chops (and boy does she!). We get a stylized fight sequence for Dawn, framed against a ballet number that has to be seen to be believed (see…she doesn’t have much stage combat know-how…but she can look like she’s fighting for her life while dancing).
The thing that makes this gimmick work is that it’s not a gimmick! This episode would play at least as well if there were no singing at all. Plot threads established in previous years and episodes continue running apace here. As a matter of fact, this musical does more to move the plot than any other episode in sixth season. A summary of some of the great character-driven choices made:
- After being yanked out of heaven, Buffy is dealing with the depressing reality that nothing on Earth can compare to that kind of peace and joy. Like most people suffering from clinical depression, Buffy is unable to feel her emotions (because allowing herself to feel would be incredibly painful). In this episode, the secret that’s been gnawing at her since her return finally comes out and smashes the entire house of cards that was her façade of normalcy. Not only that, but as soon as Buffy’s secret escapes, she makes the next rational decision (rational from the perspective of someone as depressed as Buffy) and kisses Spike – propelling us into an extremely unhealthy relationship.
- Giles, meanwhile, is realizing that Buffy has grown enough that she needs to be called upon to stand on her own two feet. On the one hand, he knows she’s in pain and wants to be there to help her through it, but, on the other…he knows that like any good father-figure, he’s got to find a way to kick her out of the nest and force her to confront her problems. This is a common problem with parents and their young adult offspring – a problem getting worse and worse in modern society, where all of our emphasis is on safety and not on productivity. It also completes Giles’ character arc – he has come to accept that he must step aside and let Buffy fend for herself.
- Xander and Anya and now realizing the magnitude of their decision to marry and getting cold feet. Here, it’s played as innocent and very typical fears, but this begins a period where Xander comes to terms with the reality that Anya has, in her zeal to live her life instantly before she dies (she’s only got 50 or 60 years left!!), has pulled their relationship further along than he’s prepared for emotionally. This will culminate in the painful blow of their cancelled wedding.
- Willow’s descent into the evil misuse of magic continues – following her abuse of a memory charm in the previous episode, Tara learns of her misdeeds from Dawn and resolves to break it off with her. Ouch. The bottom line for Willow is that she’s always felt that she was inferior – just a gawky, nerdy little girl who no one could possibly want as a friend or a lover. She careened from being ignored by Xander to being loved by Oz (before that all went wrong) to being in a relationship with Tara that brought out her desire for a mask to cover her insecurities lest it go wrong again (and thus her use of dark magic) and now, when Tara abandons her in fear of her abuses, Willow will fall into a drug-like reliance on magic that will nearly destroy her.
- Dawn even has a bit of plot-continuity. Because Buffy is off in her own little withdrawn world, Dawn feels neglected and is desperate for attention. Her budding kleptomania gets her in trouble here and her bad behavior will not subside entirely until Buffy resolves to show her the world, rather than trying to hide it from her in this season’s finale.
What’s truly amazing about this episode is that it covers all of this ground without feeling rushed at all! Most good episodes of Buffy pick up one, two or occasionally three plot threads for significant screen time, but this one covers five (!) and does it through pure character study (under the theme of secrets and their corrosive impact on us).
The question is…why does it all go to hell in the sixth season? I think this episode goes part of the way toward answering that question (even before it all goes entirely to hell). The Scoobies have always depended on strong leadership from Buffy and Giles. Giles is no longer able to truly influence Buffy and Buffy is no longer leading from strength. While she deals with her own psychological troubles, the rest of the group must fend for themselves…a happier, more commanding Buffy would, I believe, have prevented most of the suffering that occurred in year six. You may think that’s not fair – why should Buffy be called upon to save her friends from their own flaws and self-doubt? But then…why should Buffy be called upon to fight evil alone and unaided either? That’s the hero’s role. They must sacrifice and stay strong because it is who they were meant to be and because no one else is equipped to fill that need. Whedon has said that the big bad in the sixth season was life itself. I would clarify that a bit and say that the big bad was life without faith and hope. They look to Buffy for their moral strength…when she falters, so do they, fair or not.
I urge you to try to locate one significant flaw in the lyrics, the plot and characterization, or the production values for this musical experience. You won’t…because there are none.
I am being, perhaps, just a touch more forgiving than I normally would be when it comes to the performances of some of the regulars and semi-regulars outside the core of the Scoobies. Trachtenberg isn’t wholly convincing at every moment and there are some strange moments for a few of the bit players, but the combination of brilliant choreography, singing chops and strong acting from the leads makes me feel generous.
Later episodes will hit some of the thematic points regarding leadership and sacrifice much harder than this one will. Oddly, despite the massive plot movements here, this episode is more of a set-up piece in that regard. However, as a cautionary tale regarding useful deception, it’s still strong on the message front.
And Now for the Musical Part of this Review:
(With apologies for any imperfections in the voice or audio. My camera is cheap, and I'm still recovering from The Cold of Doom.)