Posted by: thebuffyrewatch | August 22, 2013

Robin’s Review: S6, E17 – Normal Again

Synopsis: Buffy searches for the Trio and when she gets close they call a demon to fight her. The demon injects her with a serum which causes a hallucination that she is in a mental institution. As Willow and Xander search for an antidote Buffy meets her parents in her delusion who with her doctor advise her to destroy her friends and return to reality. Spike tells Buffy that she needs to tell her friends about their time together or he will. Buffy ties her friends up in the basement and plans to let the demon kill them.

The Good: One of the great joys of science fiction is to explore alternate scenarios for an established reality. Science fiction TV series will often take this style and attempt to play with their own universe to create memorable one-off episodes. Buffy of course is no stranger to this with “The Wish” being a particularly successful examples. But there’s something different about “Normal Again.” I didn’t feel much tension on Rewatch but it certainly felt serious. The tone was dark and by the end deeply sad. Once more we have to credit the writers who managed to craft this.

Instead of choosing a random moment within the show’s narrative to play the “what if” game they picked their spot very nicely. Buffy’s life has been so hard since she returned from the dead that the idea that none of it is real is actually appealing. Not in a joyful way at all but a mournful state of self pity. Life would clearly be no better after six years in a mental institution but perhaps it would offer a release. A release from the crushing burden of being the Slayer and of feeling depressed. And like almost all great Buffy stories it ties back to her immense selflessness. The thought that all her epic struggles and sacrifices are a fiction is in itself so depressing that she is tempted to give in to that suggestion and escape her reality.

Instead Joyce’s pep talk about how much strength Buffy has convinces her to stay. Seeing the love and faith her parents had in her reminds her of who she is. It helps her access the sense of self that has been obscured all season by a fog of detachment. Like many stories in our culture (The Lion King, Harry Potter, Lost) it is the reassurance from a figure beyond the grave that helps our hero rediscover who they are.

And of course the producers decided to have their cake and eat it too. The final shot of the episode is the delicious suggestion that perhaps Buffy really was trapped in a delusion and what we are watching is her fantasy of heroism. On my first watch when my investment was in the soap opera of the story I found this ambiguity annoying. The suggestion that what I was watching didn’t count or that the Angel spinoff was equally fabricated annoyed me. It’s a testament to the show’s quality that my bond to it felt betrayed by that idea. On Rewatch I feel differently. This time I was struck by how clever and evocative the suggestion was.

Within our reality Joyce’s speech was a pep talk to the Slayer. It was her creator telling her not to give up and be true to herself. But with the knowledge that maybe Buffy was in the mental institution Joyce’s words were heartbreaking. They were the salve to a wound that Buffy had just bravely reopened. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a fantastical fiction, we know that. To suggest that Buffy might be a real person outside of that whose mind collapsed into a heroic delusion is somehow such an earth shaking concept that I appreciated the audacity of its invention. It gives the episode a gravitas, a hint of something greater than it is and no longer bothers me or affects my enjoyment of the narrative. There’s just something about the idea that our great hero might actually be conjuring all this suffering just so she can save the world that moves me.

In terms of dynamics I thought the episode benefitted from excellent pacing. It built very slowly toward revealing the threat which the delusion presented. But once Buffy chose to destroy her friends it was quite gripping. The idea that Buffy might use her strength on humans has always intrigued. To see her attack Xander and Dawn was almost disturbing. She is not only their friend and sister but their protector and comforter. Her transformation into a stalker was played with dead eyed sadness by the ever amazing SMG.

As I mentioned the writing got all the details just right. The introduction of Buffy’s first visit to a clinic sounded entirely plausible even though it was invented for this episode. Her death was described as a time when she was temporarily lucid until the friends in her mind dragged her back to their reality. And the introduction of Dawn was considered a destabilising influence which had led to the Scoobies being less comforting than they used to be and her enemies reduced in status to the Trio (all nicely fitting the arc of Season Six).

Spike’s attitude to Buffy seemed truer to character than his politeness at the wedding (616). He tries to win her back through the suggestion that if her friends knew about them then they would come to accept it and she could be happy. But it’s no friendly advice, it’s an ultimatum that he hopes will force her hand. Meanwhile I liked the Trio’s strenuous efforts not to be seen (though I suppose they could have skipped town) and the tension which Jonathan’s conscience continues to cause between them.

The Bad: Once more Dawn made Buffy’s crisis about her. It’s such a self-regarding response that it continues to clash badly with Buffy’s selfless teenage years. A lot of Dawn’s whining about how Buffy doesn’t want her around would make a lot more sense if it had come after the events of this episode!

The Unknown: Why did Tara come round to the house? I suppose to talk to Willow about the earlier miscommunication at college. But I liked how it functioned to reinforce the idea that this was all in Buffy’s head. After all here was another of her super powered friends coming to pull her back in.

Where has Anya gone? Xander’s backtracking clearly won’t go down well with her. His reasoning is understandable (being with her was not the problem, but what the future might hold) but boy did he need to think that all through six months ago.

Best Moment: Joyce’s speech was very moving with two completely different possible interpretations. To play with the hero’s story and make it simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking was quite a feat.

The Bottom Line: I didn’t expect to admire this as much as I now do. That’s one of the joys of this Rewatch. I feel like this works better on a second viewing though. Detached from needing to know where the plot is headed I was able to see the beauty in the two sides to this story and marvel once more at how much I care about the fictional story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all her supportive, super powered friends.

79/100

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