Covering from “After Life” to “All the Way,” in which there’s some trial, and also some error.
My cogent and insightful assessment: These episodes are perfectly middling. Some of them introduce storylines that show themselves to be obviously ill-suited to Buffy before the episode is even over, some of them have interesting elements that will go on to get fumbled big time, and some of them feature things I loathe already. On the whole, though, they’re neither great nor terrible. They sort of just are in a way that wasn’t exactly uncommon in the early parts of a season, even if they are a bit more sloppy that usual.
“After Life,” for example, is a fine and creepy little horror tale, with the added twist that our protagonists, or at least the Resurrection Four are the cause of the horror, as when they pulled Buffy’s soul into the earth dimension, something else came along as well. It’s a creepy little thing, but as ramifications of meddling with the primal forces of existence go, it’s a bit lacking since functionally it’s basically just a possessing ghost that’s extra reproachful and aggressive. Oh and hey, Anya finally says that she should have said something about how bad of an idea it was to bring Buffy back, but she didn’t. This doesn’t exactly address my issues with “Bargaining,” as much as it just admits they had to rely on some contrivance.
Of course, the hitchhiker isn’t the only consequence, since we find out at the end of the episode that Buffy was, despite all of Willow’s grounded and evidence based insistences, not in a hell dimension but a heaven dimension. It’s an interesting enough idea, but as Buffy herself admits, she isn’t a theologian, and she might as well say the same for Buffy. As provocative and fascinating as the idea may be, it’s just too esoteric, and it never seems to get much above the level of depression. And depression is not exactly a great look on Buffy.
Something the show is also less than well equipped to handle is a story of practical matters and concerns—specifically Buffy’s financial woes. Buffy’s out of money, you see, and similar to how the story of Joyce’s brain tumor had a lot of the beats of medical drama but couldn’t quite make them ring true, Buffy worrying about bills uses a lot of the right words, but doesn’t track all that well. For one, it basically tries to avoid making Joyce look like the one who is to blame for the dire financial straits by mentioning her as little as possible, and then only in response to her lengthy hospital stays, which weren’t all that lengthy, and throws in something about a triple mortgage to keep Buffy from doing the obvious and selling the house. Anyway, Buffy has to go to the bank and ask for a loan…
A loan for fucking what? A Pay My Bills loan? You can get one of those, but you don’t dress up nice, rehearse your pitch, and go to a bank, you go to a sketchy pay day loan place in a strip mall and hand over a pay stub from a job, which Buffy does not have! Sorry. That’s sort of what this attempt at a grounded storyline does to you—the inconsistencies and inauthenticities start driving you over the edge. Anyway, after “Flooded,” Buffy tries to get a job, or at least explores the options for her future in “Life Serial” (those options include going back to college, which won’t help the financial question much), which is funny nonsense, but only the retail portion feels particularly inspired.
And through these two we find, huge sigh, the Trio. I detest the Trio, and we’ll have plenty of time to get into why later, for now suffice to say they rival Glory in tediousness and lack of amusement. Certainly, they couldn’t just raise the power level of the bad guy yet again after they went all the way to god with Glory, but I don’t think gathering some semi-familiar faces, having them be super obnoxious, and then extending them across the season where previously they’d occupy an episode was not a good plan (and yes, I know, technically there’s another grand antagonist in the waiting, sort of). Few of their jokes land, and they don’t feel like affectionate tweakings of geek peccadillos as much as mean mockery. They’re like Ford in that scene where we all wanted to throttle him, except they’ve extended that scene across the whole season.
There are two unusual threads, however, that work fine…for the moment, at least. First, Buffy pulls toward Spike, as she finds him the only person she can still relate to. As a consequence of her resurrection, this actually works fine, especially since it makes her depression something more tangible in the form of alienation, and it’s also clearly something of a bad sign, but left to simmer. The other, however, has been left to simmer for even longer, and it’s Willow’s growing recklessness over her power. While Tara only begins raising the issue in these episodes, Willow putting on showy displays of magic for fairly menial tasks has been going on for several seasons, it’s just coming to a head now. Both of these threads feel much more like modern, incremental storytelling techniques than the sort of rocketship pace and escalation of seasons past, and right now they’re working (they won’t so much later…spoiler alert).
The strangest of these, however, is the last one, “All the Way,” which is an odd thing to say because it’s so obviously a retro throwback (if we can consider the days of season 3 “retro”), focused mainly on Dawn and an until-now unseen and probably unmentioned friend getting tangled up with some cool boys who happen to be vampires, seemingly a classic Buffy set-up. At the same time, it plays out around Xander and Anya’s engagement announcement. This would have also made for a classic Buffy set-up—a feelings about a major life event, worked through with the aid of some complementing supernatural wackiness (or wackness).Yet, this doesn’t happen. Which isn’t a problem, exactly, though it does rob the supernatural world of some of the relevance it held. And that, for sure, is a bad sign.