Covering “Grave,” in which the show celebrates the end of season 6 by going full on Final Fantasy.
My favorite bit in this episode, and it might be my favorite bit in several episodes, comes early on, when fucking finally Giles has returned, and has Willow restrained. Buffy is relieved and grateful so of course, she hugs him, and he comments on her haircut. Awkward as always, Anya slidles up and says she got dyed blond. Again. But Giles says he noticed and brings her in on the hug. It’s a brief, sweet moment that reminded me why I like these characters.
Less good is when Buffy explains what’s been going on to Giles and he bursts out laughing. It’s never a good sign when your characters are laughing at your story.
Which just goes to show how Giles’ return is both a relief, and a further frustration. As one of the show’s strongest characters, it’s great he’s back, but on seeing him you can’t help but wish he’d been around the whole time. He tells Buffy he should never have left, and that sometimes being an adult means knowing when to ask for help, which, yeah, no shit Giles, I think I said something similar episodes ago. Even more so, though, is how once Willow and Giles square off, you see how this magic story should have gone.
Basically, all that petty bitterness and shade that evil Willow was flinging around that felt so random and out of place last episode feels completely in place when Willow is directing it at Giles, mocking him that when he left she was the learner, but now she is the master. Their conflict feels potent and resonant, and it really only circles around a single conversation they had in, hell, maybe “Flooded,” and, of course, the years and years of history between these two, which goes almost entirely untapped. I’ve said I don’t much care for the rewriting school of criticism because it’s just far too speculative and counterfactual and, you know, there’s no guarantee the changes to the story won’t also suck, but man, once you start thinking on it, it’s impossible to stop yourself. I mean, the conflict between Willow and Giles over magic hearkens back to the revelations of “The Dark Age,” and Giles lost Jenny played no small part in Willow taking up the practice of magic. That’s deep, deep stuff that should have formed much of the pathos of Willow’s turn.
It’s not to be, though. We get another case study in how pointless it’s been to make Anya a vengeance demon when she tells Willow that vengeance demons are immune to mind control, and then gets mind controlled anyway. Willow escapes, the magic fight happens, she sends a fireball to seek out Jonathan and Andrew and kill them along with Dawn and Xander, which Buffy has to chase after, and I’ve come to realize how busy this finale is, in the busy work sense. No one’s really serving a purpose, they’re just being given things occupy them. This is especially true of Buffy, who gets stuck in a hole with Dawn after the fireball explodes (failing to kill anyone, especially Jonathan and Andrew), and then has a literally manufactured fight. Willow knowing Buffy needs a fight at the end of the world is a pretty good little bit, but it still reeks of giving Buffy busywork, even if it does lead to her deciding not to be a mope-machine anymore for Dawn’s sake.
Among my friends, we would often joke about the Square Villain Thinking Error, which is a shockingly common affliction found in antagonists of video games made by Squaresoft and its successor Square-Enix. It’s the nexus where the villain’s dorm-room philosophy, belief in their moral rightness, and evil plans converge into a laughable motivation for bringing about the apocalypse—“To live is to suffer, and yet people hate to suffer. Therefore, I must kill all people, it’s what they want.” Willow gets SVTE really bad here, as the energy she drains from the defeated Giles somehow makes her sense how sad everyone in the world is, so she decides to destroy the world. According to Anya, she will do so by absorbing all the Earth’s energy, sucking it through a Satanic temple that was consumed by an earthquake in the 30s’, and then redirecting that energy to burn the world.
First of all, I checked, and this was not the same earthquake that trapped the Master. That was an entirely different earthquake that swallowed a church of pure evil. Is there any reason it should have been the Master’s church? Not really, except then we’d be talking about something we already knew about, instead of getting a bunch of new information dumped on us pretty damn late in the game.
Second of all, this is some real Final Fantasy ass shit here. Sephiroth (who did not suffer from SVTE) would nod approvingly at Willow’s plan. To boot, Xander saves the day with the power of love.
Despite my contemptuous phrasing, I don’t actually hate this, but I don’t think it works at all, either. Like a lot, or perhaps all of the season, it needs more work. Everything hinges on Willow and Xander’s friendship, but even though they are friends, that friendship hasn’t been a prominent part of the show in a long, long time. It’s just not enough. Xander should do something more. He should, somehow, help Willow process Tara’s loss, he should have used his decency, candor, and perceptiveness to channel the grief that threatens the world (holy shit, that’s a story, huh?), except that this season has largely forgotten Xander is any of those things. Willow breaking down in tears implies that she is dealing with the loss, but Willow has been plenty emotional over Tara’s death (here again, just if it were me, making Willow all superego rather than id would have really helped things).
Instead, we get the surest sign of a wonky Buffy episode—the explanation after the crisis is averted. It’s something about a kernel of humanity hidden in the power Willow stole from Giles that got tapped zzzzzz…
But Buffy finales have always featured a lot of mystic hoo-ha and nonsense, some might say. I’d say, though, looking at the best finales—“Becoming,” “Graduation Day,” and yes, even “Restless”—they are first of all very locked in on where the characters are and are going emotionally, and their mystic hoo-ha is ordered and established, further twists and reveals serve a purpose. We know in act 1 that Angel is going to raise Acathla and that the Mayor will turn into a giant snake, not in act 4. But “Grave” is just a mess, and a real bummer accordingly.
But, hey, Spike’s mystic quest gets his soul back. I guess that’s what he meant about “giving the bitch what she deserves.” Maybe if he hadn’t said it so venomously so much, people wouldn’t wonder to this day if that was his plan all along.
Apex Episode: Intellectually, I know I should say “Once More with Feeling,” but my trolling fingers keep wanting to type “After Life.” Of course, if they really wanted to troll, they’d say “Doublemeat Palace.”
Nadir Episode: Well, between “Hell’s Bells,” “Normal Again,” and “Entropy” I dubbed “Normal Again” the worst, but you know, in a way, they’re all winners. And on reflection, perhaps “Seeing Red” ought be the nadir, assuming it’s not too paradoxical to have a nadir that is not the worst.
Season 4 Costuming Theory Check In: Nothing stands out as bad as season 4, though it was funny to notice that Anya’s outfits seem to be shrinking while Xander’s keep expanding.