Synopsis: Buffy bursts into song about how numb she feels. The Scoobies agree to research the problem and theorise in chorus. The problem is spreading around Sunnydale with everyone spilling their guts in song. Tara sings of her love for Willow, Spike of his frustration with Buffy’s interest in him and Anya and Xander of their relationship fears. Before Dawn can sing of her loneliness she is abducted by the demon responsible for all this. He explains that once people have expressed all their emotion in song they will spontaneously combust. Buffy has to come to her rescue before the Demon makes her his Queen.
The Good: I’ve been waiting so long to write this review and not that it’s hear I don’t know where to begin. A cliché I know but the Rewatch has given me a different perspective on the show and although that doesn’t change the praise I plan on heaping it does leave me confused as how best to express it.
I suppose the key point is that this episode just would not be the same if it didn’t have six episodes and the conclusion of last season leading up to it. Clearly Joss Whedon has the talent to put together a musical episode without such epic back-story and I’m sure it would have been very good. But with all the seasons major story arcs coming to a head this turned into something far beyond normal television. Those plots added the emotion and sense of consequence which blew away any potential thoughts about characters singing and dancing being a dumb idea.
And that would be the necessary second point to make. Could anything seem less believable, less organic and less serious than actors lip synching to songs that they are being ‘possessed’ to perform? No. To overcome that and create something that feels not only like an important story within the Buffy narrative but one of the best episodes of television ever made is an astounding achievement.
Back to the arc stories though and they really pay off supremely well. Something that struck me for the first time on this rewatch was that for me this was the best use of Tara ever and one of the better uses of Anya. So long just an appendage to Willow, and her whole song underlines that, Tara bursts to life here. It helps that she has a great singing voice of course but her performance rose to the challenge. She was glowing in her princess outfit and communicated her devotion to Willow and then heartbreak at being betrayed really well. Even the jokey line about being “cured” and wanting to chase boys allowed her a rare moment of spontaneous humour. “I’m Under Your Spell” of course had a double meaning which captured perfectly her two major storylines. It was a terrific choice of song to show us the utter joy Willow’s love brings her to drive home the darkness of the betrayal.
Anya meanwhile got to payoff two years of bizarre references to Bunny’s by launching into a mad song rant about them. Her duet with Xander was really strong, again giving us the kind of insight into her personality that we rarely get. We already knew he was afraid but to hear them both lay out all the concerns they have about their future was very rewarding and captured something of what every couple must feel in a most unexpected way.
Spike is a character who is so cool and so flexible that it was hardly a stretch to see him mix anger and passion into a song aimed at Buffy. Their simmering affection is brought to the boil by first his understandable resentment of her getting his hopes up and then once again being there to help her in a way her friends can’t (telling her to keep on living). The comfort she finds in him finally finds a sexual expression in a way that felt believable which is remarkable when you think back to “Crush” (514).
Meanwhile Giles fully expresses his fears about what’s happening to Buffy. He believes he is “Standing in the Way” of her being the woman she needs to be and moving on from her resurrection. It was pretty moving stuff as he sings his desire to be her father and slay demons for her. This all leads to the revelation of course when Buffy tells them all that she was in heaven much to their chagrin and tears from Willow. Dawn whose own loneliness can’t even find proper expression (as she is interrupted) reminds Buffy of her own comforting words before she died “The hardest thing in this life is to live in it.” To connect that moment to this so directly but without feeling contrived shows a mastery of storytelling that is deeply impressive.
And that’s just the overall story arc. The plot of the episode itself was handled with ease and a great deal of humour. Buffy’s opening song was the ultimate send-up of the show as vampires and demons become the chorus as Buffy slashes them to pieces. It was a surreal sequence only to be topped by the residents of Sunnydale making brief cameos to croon about the laundry or a parking ticket. Naturally there is a demon to vanquish and he was superbly cast and presented to seem creepy, powerful and pleasing to the ear. He also seemed totally unafraid of Buffy and the gang which added a different dynamic. The concept of people singing their hearts out until they burst into flame is a typically creative and ingenious way to create a threat and justify the existence of a musical episode of the show.
Those are all the bare bones of why this was so good but they can’t express all the joyous moments within it. I love that within “I’ve Got a Theory” the music and writing are so strong that we can tangent multiple times without losing the thread. I got goosebumps multiple times while watching and one of them was Buffy asking “what does it matter” in the middle of the song. There’s something doubly affecting about it. Of course on the surface she is rallying them all and encouraging them to overcome yet another demon but the choice of words also makes me think of her resigned attitude to life. We got about as explicit a sexual scene as we’ve ever had when Willow begins making love to Tara (off screen) mid song which was daring. The Anya-Xander back and forth was terrifically scripted with so many little witty lines and a terrific conclusion where they both sing about how they’ll “never tell” of all their doubts to conclude a song where they just revealed all. Spike was superb as you would expect seeming as lovelorn and intense as ever even when simply pulling the door open to get Buffy out. Has exposition ever been as fun as when “Sweet” does it? That’s the name seemingly given to the demon though he doesn’t seem to need one. His song was excellent including a lovely riff on the great fire of Rome when it was rumoured the Emperor Nero played the Fiddle while watching. The chorus effortlessly blending all the previous songs together always impresses me including a great shot of two fire trucks speeding off to more combusting victims.
The final song from Buffy once more brought me to worship at the altar of Sarah Michelle Gellar. It’s hard to think of another show that has asked so much from their leading actor, at least in variety of performance. Once more Gellar is equal to it and manages to make dancing look natural and attractive without changing facial expression which is still communicating determination and depression. There is a flatness to her voice which far from marring the episode makes it seem more authentic and reflective of her state of being. To bring the character to a point where she can literally cry out “Give me something to sing about” and have it too reflect double meanings both literal and figurative is just tremendous. To work “Once more with feeling” into Sweet’s farewell, still with double meaning, is the cherry on top.
The musical numbers are really impressive. I don’t think there’s a dud amongst them and the way they vary in style, blend together and match the personalities of the characters is amazing. Light and poppy for Tara, dark and rocky for Spike, a proper musical number for Anya\Xander, a ballad for Giles and an emotional outburst for Buffy. The majority of this written by Joss Whedon who has no music background!
I’m sure there are a dozen lines one could highlight but I picked out a few that struck me on this particular Rewatch. “I’ve been making shows of trading blows just hoping no one knows” - quite brilliant economy and rhyme. “The name I made I’ll trade for his” - ditto. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear, that doesn’t make it real” - haunting. The rhyming of “possessed” with “breast” with “guessed” with “chest” and “unimpressed” is so simple that it makes you want to sing it over and over again (I may have done that). “Your stalwart, standing fast” - beautiful. “The torch I bear is scorching me” - evocative. Buffy’s whole final song is a masterpiece summing up her whole story and bringing it up to the present.
The Bad: It’s certainly odd that Xander would think summoning a demon of any kind was a good idea even if it would help him overcome his fears about commitment.
The Unknown: Do night time funerals in graveyards really happen? Giles suggesting that Buffy go alone to fight “Sweet” didn’t make a lot of sense. Seeing how quickly the Scoobies then followed her it was obviously a contrivance to allow her to enter the Bronze alone.
Best Moment: Oh wow, hardest choice ever. You could pick any one of thirty and I’d be happy with it. But the first time I watched Buffy I was less enamoured of the Buffy character than I am now. On Rewatch her role as selfless hero has really embedded itself in me. So I will go for her begging Sweet to “Please give me something to sing about.” It’s the culmination of so many episodes of struggle to reduce our hero to asking for a reason to go on living.
The Bottom Line: You could highlight the comedy, the drama, the emotion, the characterisation, the songs, the choreography or the storytelling and talk about what an astounding achievement this episode is. But I think it’s a monument to writing. Months upon months of careful editing to craft something that at once feels like a huge effort and equally effortless. To make an organic piece of episodic television out of the highly contrived and surreal medium of musical theatre is hard. Really really hard. This stands as one of the greatest episodes of television ever made and a fitting tribute to Joss Whedon’s awesome writing skills. It’s easy to forget that it also just pivoted the whole season sending Giles and Tara away (we assume) and exposing Buffy and Willow’s darkness.