Thematically, this finale is strong, dramatically, this episode is potent, but technically, there are problems.
For Two to Go, get the info here.
Fir Grave, go here. Wikipedia comes to our aid again on both counts.
Big pieces of these two episodes work very well. I don't want to make it sound like I am thrown out of the moment constantly, because that's not the case. There are moments where the acting and direction shine and serve to highlight the major strengths of the episode (namely, the dramatic escalation of tension that follows the whole episode and the character and moral themes that hold the episode together). But there are definitely places where this one feels like it was put together by comic book nerds, rather than masters of subtlety. Comics are generally devoid of subtlety and nuance because you have to tell sweeping stories in a series of tiny colored boxes - this is one of the reason J. Michael Strachzinsky wrote excellent comics but stilted and often silly dialogue on Babylon 5. The obvious "teaser frame" dialogue and action zoom shots highlighting Willow and Buffy's stage combat scene feel like they should be surrounded by a box and highlighted with cartoon bubbles. "Guess what...she's turned pro!" ranks right up there as one of the dumbest-feeling lines of dialogue in the show's entire history. And Andrew's string of nerdy references in the famous mediclorians speech just seemed a bit over the top to me. I wasn't a big fan of the melodramatic tasks which Spike had to perform to prove himself worthy of "getting what he wants" either...it all just feels like it belongs in a comic book...and there's a reason I don't really care for comic books.
On the better side, we have the "big themes" of this particular comic book:
- Xander has convinced himself that he's weak and useless in the face of so much pain and death. It's why he left Anya at the altar (because he was certain he would end up failing her), it's why he froze when he saw the gun, and it's why he's had trouble fully growing up despite being gainfully employed and having a long resume filled with accomplishments toward saving the world. He just never quite got over those years of feeling powerless while his parents fought or while he was being picked on at school and struggling to keep up academically or while his friends got superpowers and he got only courage and love. The whole two-part finale is book-ended by Zander's greatest gift - his beautiful soul, concluding with the saving of the world. Again! All because he wouldn't let Willow destroy herself without telling her that he still loved her. That "I love you!" sequence still brings a tear to my eye...but then, I always was a Xander partisan. :)
- Willow, too, has yet to overcome her lack of self-belief. The magic has always been a cover for her insecurities - this is why it always seems to have dark roots and always leads to negative outcomes for Willow. She's not drawing from a place of love - just from a place of power and rage, as Giles puts it best. Magic is, of course, a metaphor for ambition, IMHO. Behind every politician and CEO and Doctor there is great ambition - some get their will to succeed or to gain influence from a place of love, truly hoping to make a difference in the world and accepting no reward beyond minimal personal gains for their efforts. Others get their desire from a place of power and rage (or lust, as has been the case with Spike), seeking to control things that no one person should or truly could control. Behind every power-hungry person is an insecure and spiritually hollow soul. 7th-season Willow will start over and seek a healthier bond with her ambition, but this Willow must be destroyed - and destroy her, they do. She isn't just grieving for Tara on that bluff...she's grieving for the lost, helpless girl that remains when the magic is gone.
- The difference between Jonathan and Andrew is striking here, as well. Andrew - no doubt a bit in love with Warren (for some unknown reason), refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or his complicity with an evil man. He hasn't grown up...Jonathan is just starting to realize his own potential and rather bluntly informs Andrew that he needs to catch up (and grow up!). Indeed, Jonathan. It's just a shame that you didn't catch on earlier in life.
- And then...there's Spike. Mistakenly, he believes he wants to destroy the Slayer and get his demonic power back. What he really wants is what all of us want - to be loved in the eyes of our fellow men and to be made whole. He fights through fire and insect attack and bloody beating to get what he really wants - his soul. Because that truly is the only way he'll ever find peace. Next, he'll have to grapple with the guilt over the horrible things he's done.
So morally and from the standpoint of characterization, this sixth-season finale is perfect. Right down to Buffy's big breakthrough regarding how she must interact with Dawn. I have no reservations on that front. It's just the sometimes cheesy cinematography and overdone acting that throws me off and keeps this episode from being a feature.
The script is great...except for the parts that seem to have been rushed or poorly planned. The dialogue ranges from brilliant to bizarre, but the characters pop as well as they ever have and the pacing for the episode is about right.
I have to give this one a bit of a clank on the acting front. Alyson Hannigan wasn't very convincing as EVIL!Willow, and some of the reaction takes during the supposedly "epic" fights were...cheesy is probably being charitable.
See above analysis for the full explanation. Bottom line..their heart was most assuredly in the right place.