7.2 Beneath You
7.3 Same Time, Same Place
Follow along in Bite Me!, pp. 310-318.
4.1 Deep Down
4.2 Ground State
4.3 The House Always Wins
Follow along in Once Bitten, pp. 245-253.
"Button, button, who's got the button, my money's on the WITCH!" (Seriously, I say that all the time. Every time my kids lose a button off a coat or ask me to button up their coat, I say it. I think by now they're convinced mom's a loon.)
And with that we move to season 7. I was going to talk about the major themes of the upcoming season (I cover it off pretty thoroughly in my book; my season 7 entries are longer than the ones preceding it, because I wrote season 7 a couple of years after my previous edition had come out, and by then I’d moved to a longer episode guide style) but our guest this week has that covered, and I don’t want to repeat what she is going to say.
But I do want to point out the one scene that stands above all of them in this week’s episode: the end of “Beneath You.” The first time we saw it, my husband and I sat there silent and then turned to stare at each other, shocked by it. James Marsters will put in a tour de force performance this season, and that scene is the best of it for me. To this day I can’t watch it without my eyes welling up with tears as he says, “Can we rest now, Buffy? Can we rest?” while draping himself over a cross and beginning to smoulder. The look on Buffy’s face in the background as she realizes with horror that he’s been re-ensouled and is dealing with the guilt of 120 years of slaughter is what makes the scene even more incredible.
I had the pleasure of meeting James Marsters a few months after this episode aired. We’d both been invited as guests to the big Posting Board Party that was put on every year by members of The Bronze, the online posting board where Buffy and Angel fans would meet and discuss the shows (and where several actors and writers – including Joss – would often drop by). Because I was a guest I was downstairs in the VIP area, where other actors were. It was largely an Angel cast party, but there were a few Buffy actors there – the Troika, Faith, Clem!!, and Joss himself. And, of course, James Marsters. He had been put off into another room where he was half-sitting on a table and people were lined up to see him, and it was mostly, “Oh my god you are so gorgeous can I have my picture taken with you?!” kind of stuff happening at the front of the lineup. I jumped into the line figuring I’d chat with him now before he went upstairs – where the larger crowds were. I got to the front, and held out the most recent edition of my book (the one that went up to Season 6) and I told him that I’d written the book and would he mind signing it? He looked at me, then the book, then back at me, and a big smile broke out on his face and he said, “You WROTE this? Really?” and he began flipping through it. Then he signed it, “Bite ME! James Marsters.” “Gladly,” I thought. And then he said, “What have you thought of season 7 so far?” I told him that I loved it, but that my favourite scene of the season at that point was when he draped himself over the cross. I told him the entire scene, from the setting to the way he played it in that moment, felt Shakespearean, and almost transcended the rest of the episode. He got all excited (many fans can tell you that James Marsters doesn’t play it cool and shows how excited he is) and said, “Wow, really? That’s what I was going for!” I got my picture with him and went to leave, and he grabbed my arm and I turned back, and he said, “Stay for a bit.” And that’s when I dissolved into a pile of goo on the floor. Amidst the scowls on the faces of the next people in line, we chatted about past Spike episodes and he asked me what I thought of them (he avoided “Seeing Red”) and we discussed Shakespeare before I said I should go (I was starting to get worried about the increasingly annoyed people in the line behind me and whether they were planning to attack me later). And I floated out of the room. We were married the next day. In my mind.
But all of that is to say that when I was facing him, that was the scene I wanted to ask him about, and he told me it was his favourite scene he’d ever done. Oh, and also to brag that I have totally touched James Marsters’ cheekbones. Oh yeah, baby.
Now, to discuss the beginning of season 7 in context is Elizabeth Rambo, our resident season 6 and 7 expert, back to give us a non-spoilery look at how the beginning of season 7 holds up. Take it away, Elizabeth!
First, the shameless self-promotion: not only did I co-edit (with Lynne Edwards & James South) Buffy Goes Dark, including my essay that totally explains why season six is brilliant despite being all about things falling apart (“Yeats’s Entropic Gyre and Season Six”), I also wrote an essay about how to read season seven, “‘Lessons’ for Season Seven”, as did my co-editor James South. James’s essay, ”On the Philosophical Consistency of Season Seven: or ‘It’s not about right, not about wrong…’” is partly a response to mine, and also much deeper, because he’s a philosopher. In short, between us, James and I pretty much have season seven sewn up (kidding!), but if you’re watching Buffy for the first time, you should wait to read these essays until the end, as they’re full of spoilers.
So most of what I have to say about “Lessons” comes from the non-spoilery parts of my Slayage essay, which also serves as a general introduction to season seven. Then I’ll discuss “Beneath You” and “Same Time, Same Place” very briefly.
From “‘Lessons’ for Season Seven’”: (originally published at Slayage: the Online International Journal of Buffy Studies)
Two themes stated for Season Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by series creator and executive producer Joss Whedon were “Back to the beginning” (“Watch”) and “coming to terms with power and sharing it and enjoying it” (Whedon, Interview “Ending”). It is worth noting that these themes were announced in Spring and Summer of 2002, before or just as filming for Season Seven began: The “back to the beginning” quote comes from an April news story, and at Mutant Enemy’s “Buffy Behind the Scenes” event in June 2002, which was intended to show off the musical episode “Once More with Feeling” (6.7) to potential Emmy voters, a fan who attended the event reported that Whedon announced “it was time to get back to what he said was the real theme of the series: the joy of female empowerment and the sharing of that power” (Tague). In an interview with the New York Times just before the final episode of Season Seven aired, Whedon stated:
After seven years your mission statement may have changed. Ours remained pretty much the same, or rather came full circle. We looked at the idea of power; the girl who had power that nobody understood, living in high school and how hard that was. We came back to that girl and that concept very strongly in the seventh season on purpose because we knew it was our last. (“10 Questions”)
All these comments seem to indicate, first, that Season Seven’s major themes were clearly conceptualized by the writers well-ahead of any definite statements that Season Seven would be the last season or that Sarah Michelle Gellar would be leaving the series, and secondly, that the themes of Season Seven were highly compatible with a final season, and may have been deliberately chosen with that possibility in mind. What follows is a fairly straightforward (some might say old fashioned) “close reading” of “Lessons,” considering some ways in which this first episode may be viewed as a kind of template for the entire final season of Buffy.
It was always very likely that the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be the show’s last. Buffy had moved from the WB network to UPN in 2001 with a two year contract, and Joss Whedon told TV Guide in October 2002, “I’m beginning to suspect that it may be [Buffy’s] last season [. . .]. Nothing’s official, but it’s starting to feel possible. The way people are talking, there’s a finality to it” (“Buh-Bye”). In addition, rumors arose that Sarah Michelle Gellar might not renew her contract at the end of that second year, and who could seriously imagine Buffy without Buffy? [UPN executives and Whedon apparently entertained the possibility of a “Vampire Slayer” series “without Gellar and Buffy at its center” as early as July of 2002 (Bianculli), and perhaps for some time afterward, but this concept seems to have evaporated, at least in the near-term, for a variety of reasons.] The stakes for Season Seven, therefore, were as high if not higher than the stakes for Season Five, the show’s last season on the WB network, which ended with Buffy’s spectacular second death (“The Gift,” 5.22), and fan expectations were thus somewhat overwrought, perhaps unreasonably so. Many were already displeased or distressed by directions the show had taken in Season Six, particularly Buffy’s lengthy depression following her reluctant resurrection, Buffy’s dysfunctional relationship with Spike, the “Three Stooges” of villainy (Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew), and especially the death of Tara, which provoked enormous controversy as soon as it was “spoiled,” long before “Seeing Red” (6.19) actually aired.
Whedon, though famous for having said, “Don't give people what they want, give them what they need” (Interview, Tasha Robinson), seems to have felt that fans both needed and wanted assurance that Season Seven would be “lighter” than Season Six (“Watch”), although he had previously defended his and Marti Noxon’s Season Six story arc, which he acknowledged had been fairly grim: “I told Marti, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking, and I think next year we should go back to, like…that very positive message that we had at the very beginning of the show, and really see Buffy empowered again, instead of seeing her at the mercy of her life’” (Lee). The first episode of Season Seven, “Lessons,” seems to epitomize these promises, but Whedon also jokingly credited himself with “a thing I have personally devised called a ‘plot twist’” (Wright). Those who geared up happily for a season of Dawn, Kit, and Carlos as bouncy junior Scoobies dealing with various metaphorical teen monsters-of-the-week, aided by counselor/Slayer Buffy at newly rebuilt Hellmouth High may have been disappointed again when Season Seven rapidly turned nearly as grim as Season Six. Much like Buffy startled by newly ensouled Spike in the high school basement, after six years with Joss Whedon’s team of writers, viewers should know to be ready to duck when he says things will be fine. The lessons of “Lessons” turn out to be stated quite plainly—virtually hitting us on the head—but it will take the entire season to learn them.
Two important elements of Season Seven which “Lessons” illustrates are the vital necessity of listening carefully to words, which will often have more than one meaning, and the need to watch carefully for visual clues and references. In the course of the episode, several points are made regarding listening and watching, each of which is echoed or reflected in various ways as the season continues, culminating in the series finale, “Chosen” (7.22), an objective that influenced the intervening episodes, according to Whedon (Interview, “The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator”). In addition, “Lessons” signals that Season Seven may be about new beginnings, but it will also be very much about the past, the history of the entire series and its invented back-story. Buffy is a show that from at least its second season has increasingly rewarded the attentive viewer with intertextual and metatextual references, and often baffled the casual channel-surfer, and perhaps never more than in Season Seven, which continually alluded to past seasons and episodes and gave false clues about where it was going.… Though some details along the way may have been altered by circumstances or other considerations, the essential elements of the final episode seem never to have been in question, and “Lessons” provides a remarkable number of clues as to what signposts to watch for and when the viewer, [like Buffy encountering Spike in the school basement], should have ducked.
Since the complete essay spoils later episodes by connecting them to clues in “Lessons,” I’ll just list the key “Lessons” for season seven, in addition to “listen for double meanings” and “watch carefully”:
• “Back to the beginning”—stated by the “morphing evil thing” at the end of the episode, which means we’re coming full circle, but not necessarily in the obvious ways. Or, as T.S. Eliot writes, “In my beginning is my end./…/In my end is my beginning” (“East Coker” lines 1, 209).
• “It’s about power…Who’s got it, who knows how to use it.”—As the season progresses, some who seem to have power will be proven less than effective, while some who feel powerless will discover their power(s) and how to use them. And some will learn that power can be or should be used in new ways.
• “It’s all connected”—learning what & who is connected, and how to make and keep connections; “connecting” is also about power, in some ways.
• “We all are who we are”—of course, figuring out just who the Scoobies are has been a continuing occupation throughout the past six seasons, so it’s about time.
• “There’s always a talisman”—some talismans are more significant and powerful than others. Remember Anya’s vengeance demon necklace that created the “Wishverse”? The charm that called up Sweet the musical demon? It’s the final season, there’s a final talisman. Or so.
• Mother issues—almost everyone has them, starting with Buffy.
I would like to say a lot more about episode two, “Beneath You,” but I think I’ve taken up most of my space already. The episode follows my pattern of double meanings and misdirection in that the devouring worm from underground produced by one of Anya’s vengeance spells both is and is not the answer to Buffy’s dreamed phrase, “From beneath you it devours.” The episode title, of course, also recalls Spike/William’s humiliation by Cecily in season five’s “Fool for Love,” in which she rejected his love with “You’re beneath me,” words echoed by Buffy in the same episode, after he’s told her she has a death wish. Those who’ve been watching Angel as well know that after he got his soul back it took him about a century to get over it and find a reason to live like a man again by championing & loving Buffy. No wonder Spike has been in torment for months. But something else seems to be working on him as well, as we saw at the end of “Lessons,” another voice inside his head. Still, that scene in the chapel at the end is unforgettable. Writing credit for “Beneath You” goes to Doug Petrie, but word is that Joss wrote that final scene.
And now what can I say about “Same Time, Same Place”? Finally, Willow is back in Sunnydale. Only she’s not. Or is she? The Gnarl is one of the most grotesque monsters-of-the-week ever, but I think everyone who hated Dawn enjoyed seeing her briefly turned into a giant pose-able “Skipper” doll (Barbie’s little sister, for those who are younger than Methuselah, er, me). Dawn really improves over this season, so everyone should try to forgive her…at least after episode 6, (in which almost everyone, with the possible exception of Spike, behaves badly). On the other hand, Spike’s fans hated seeing him turned into a blood-hound, however briefly. But he’s so good at it! And what happens in the end? See—it’s all about Willow & Buffy sharing power through connecting.
Bianculli, David. “UPN’s Stake in ‘Vampire Slayer’ Is Bigger than Buffy.” New York Daily News 16 July 2002. Newspaper Source. EBSCOhost. Web. 2 December 2003.
“Buh-Bye Buffy?” TV Guide Online. 25 October 2002. Web. 7 May 2003.
Lee, Patrick. “The Creators of Buffy Head into Season Seven with a Lighter Heart.” Interview. SciFi.com. Web. 27 May 2003.
“Watch with Wanda.” E!Online. 22 April 2002. Web. 12 June 2003.
Whedon, Joss. “10 Quesions For. . .” New York Times 16 May 2003. Web. 27 May 2003.
___. Interview. “The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator discusses his career.” Ken P. IGN.com. 23-28 June 2003. Web. 27 June 2003.
___. Interview. “Ending Buffy.” Fred Topel. About.com: Action-Adventure Movies. 19 April 2003. Web. 1 June 2003.
___. Interview. Tasha Robinson. The Onion A.V. Club 37.31 (5 September 2001). Web. 30 November 2003.
Wright, Nancy G. “Last Night’s Panel [Buffy Behind the Scenes]—additional impressions.” Online posting. 19 June 2002. SunnydaleU. 7 July 2003.