Covering “Once More with Feeling,” in which help me, Dr. Zaius.
If ever there was an episode destined to be instantly beloved as a classic, it’s “Once More with Feeling.” Our beloved cast singing and dancing and being goofy? Geek standard bearer Buffy the Vampire Slayer, encompassing horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and comics, now embraces the last geek jewel in the crown and does a musical? It was eagerly anticipated and instantly embraced—for some, it even offered hope, a sign that, even if there were some stutters and sputters in the early stretch, the show still had it. For a great many Buff-ites, this is their favorite episode, and for a great many people, it’s probably all of Buffy they’ve seen. The summer after it aired, at that same convention where I played Oz poorly, there was a “Once More with Feeling” sing-along, which I bet was a ton of fun.
I, however, am not in a convention sing-along, taking in “Once More with Feeling” as a solitary experience—I’m taking this in holistically, and with no particular love for musicals. And holistically, I have issues.
So yeah, get ready for me to be contrary.
Upfront, I should say that even though I don’t have much affection for musicals, even I can acknowledge this is a pretty good one. The music, which, you know, should probably be the spine of a musical, is pretty great—it’s probably been at least 10 years since I last saw this episode, and I still knew more than one of these songs word for word. Everyone’s having a great time, too, even if they don’t all have vocal training, and it’s fun seeing how they all do. Anthony Head is great, but we all knew this, season 4’s “Where the Wild Things Are” exists primarily to let him sing, but Amber Benson demolishes it as well. SMG is perhaps not of their caliber, but she’s good enough to anchor it all. Marsters and Caulfield carry their shouty rock bits great, and did you know she’s a dancer? If you’ve seen her morphology, the answer should be “Yes.” Brendan gets through mostly by hurling himself into things heedlessly, and Trachtenberg’s voice is weak, but hey, she did it. Hannigan is the odd one out, who only sang two lines for some reason. The opening number, “Going Through the Motions” I assume, is a lot of fun, and the showstopper, the real one, not the one the demon Sweet mistakenly says is the showstopper, which I believe must be called “Walk Through the Fire,” rules.
What’s the issue, then?
Well, for one, the idea of a musical demon might just be silly enough to utterly wreck the supernatural world. It’s just so meta and ridiculous, you definitely don’t want to dwell or ruminate on it too much. Mostly, though, it’s in the attempt to build stakes. The main threat Sweet represents, except for something about dancing and burning up from all the overwrought emotions the dancing represents, I dunno, he doesn’t enunciate in his song very well, anyway, beyond that, it’s the idea that no one can hide their feelings and accordingly their secrets, since their feelings inevitably burst out in song (basically, the whole episode is meant to get Buffy to tell everyone she was in heaven). Which is a funny idea, but, come on, these are some of the most emotionally naked characters out there. Even under normal circumstances they can barely hide what they’re feeling. There will be a chance to dig deeper into the big Xander and Anya number later, but consider for now how it’s a song about how they both have petty irritations and larger issues. It’s not a revelation that Anya has doubts stemming from her millennium-spanning history dealing with wrecked relationships—that’s been a central character trait since her second/third appearance in “The Prom,” but also the idea that either of them, Anya especially, are able to hide the things that irritate them simply doesn’t align with what we know and have seen. Spike’s big song, dedicated to his love/hate feelings toward Buffy is also not a stunning revelation, but also seems to fit where he was somewhere in season 5 rather than where he and Buffy stand in season 6, which rather than push and pull has been all pull pull pull right up until the final moment of this episode.
As an aside, because I thought it came up here, but it actually came up earlier and I missed it, but Buffy says when she was in heaven, she knew everyone she cared about was safe. This isn’t true at all, Buffy, in fact as we might recall from that charming scene when she rejoins her friends, they were moments away from being gruesomely violated to death. Anyway.
But the most out of line has to be Giles’ song, which reflect larger issues with his and the season’s story—so large, it’s astounding no one seems to have noticed. As was said before, Head wanted more time back home in London, which necessitated doing something with Giles. Starting here we see that something is to having Giles also return to England, as he worries that Buffy’s reliance upon him is hindering her maturation.
There are so many reasons this is fucking dumb.
While the Scoobs have become increasingly divorced from specific ages, the fact remains that at this point, Buffy is twenty years old, her mother has died, she’s inherited an apparently insolvent home, she’s acting as guardian to her teenage sister, she quit school, she has no income, and almost no solid support. It’s not exactly like she’s got a degree and is pushing thirty still living in Giles’ basement, she actually needs someone to rely on pretty badly. But also they aren’t characters like their network peers on Felicity or Gilmore Girls or whatever, and Giles isn’t just a kindly elder teacher figure, he’s Watcher to the Slayer, who fights on the front lines of a nightly war against demonic, supernatural Evil, one which isn’t ending any time soon, and he’s abandoning her for fear of a check for home repairs? She’s averted four or five apocalypses, but unless she accepts the responsibilities of parenting her adolescent sister the sixth might not go so well? Further furthermore, Buffy needs to grow up? The girl who gutted her lover at 17 to save the world needs to mature? “I wish I could be the father” he sings. Apparently he wasn’t paying attention through seasons 2, 3, or 5.
It’s bullshit, and it’s annoying that the episode wastes the cast’s best vocalist on it.
Which just means “Once More with Feeling” is probably best appreciated at a convention sing-along, in a room full of people who know all the lyrics, and are watching the episode as itself, and digging it’s singular and real joys. Giles says Buffy needs backup, meaning dancers in this case. Tara’s song and its reprise, which works for as many reasons as Giles’ doesn’t. “It’s still funny, dear,” Anya says, unprompted, of Xander reappropriating a bit of Magnolia to be about breakfast pastries.
My favorite bit, though, is the Scooby gang joining together to sing “To the end we’ll see it through/ It’s what we’re always here to do.” Would have been nice if the show remembered that.