I’ve complained for four seasons in a row now that Buffy can’t seem to manage a decent season premiere. While I’ve highlighted some specific problems, it wasn’t until I rewatched “Bargaining” that I understood the general flaw that has kept all these episodes from working. Each season begins by asking the question, “Is Buffy still Buffy?” The question’s uninteresting because we already know the answer; of course Buffy’s going to reject Dracula, triumph over the big vamp on campus, lead the worker’s revolution, and stop being a bitca. We also knew the answer in “Welcome to the Hellmouth / The Harvest” but it worked because we didn’t exactly know what it meant. Since then we’ve known what the series’ status quo is and the premieres always felt like needless reintroductions to it.
Season six’s premiere succeeds because it dares to give the “Is Buffy still Buffy?” question some weight. Yes, her name’s still on the marquee, but Buffy died the last time we saw her and, even in a world of vampires, ghosts, and zombies, death still means something. It’s actually more meaningful in such a world (at least from a narrative perspective) as we can’t be sure what its consequences are. Far from being a mere journey back to the status quo, this episode plays with our uncertainty,keeping us far removed from the Buffy we know and love and leaving all our doubts to fester as the credits roll.
The cold open is a masterpiece of confusion. The sight of a vampire running through a graveyard is one we’re familiar with, but not one we were expecting in the wake of Buffy’s death. Then we see that he’s being chased by… Spike? Ok, I guess. He’s killed vamps in the cemetery before. But he’s being backed up by… Tara? Has she ever patrolled before? Bringing up the rear is a huffing and puffing Giles, proving why he generally operates in a supervisory capacity. Speaking of supervisory, Willow appears to be the one calling the shots and her telepathic interruptions are nearly as disorienting for the Scoobies as they are for the audience. They finally figure out that they need to drive him “left,” right into the waiting fist of… Buffy?!?
Of course, it isn’t actually Buffy but we’re left wondering what the hell is going on until after the extended fight scene. “Buffy” is on screen only briefly before being knocked down by the vampire and we cut over to Anya and Xander, further distancing us from an explanation. We aren’t given a good look at this Buffy who, apparently, isn’t the fighter she used to be. The answer finally comes in the form of the “pie plate” nonsense, although learning that this the Buffy-Bot only slightly decreases our bewilderment in a scene that ends with the line “If we want her to be exactly she’ll never be exactly I know the only really real Buffy is really Buffy and she’s gone’ who?”
The use of the Buffy-Bot introduces one of this seasons major themes, that Buffy isn’t herself. Past premiers have introduced us to a Buffy who’s removed from where she ought to be, but this one doesn’t more than pay lip service to the idea. She’s so far removed from her calling that she’s not even on screen and the not-Buffy we’re given is one that’s incapable to the type of renewal we expect from these premieres; she can only respond to Willow’s programming and the best of that isn’t enough to bring her anywhere close to the real thing.
We don’t get to see the real Buffy until the mid-point of this two-parter and her return to the world is far from triumphant. She awakes alone in her grave to frantically claw her way out. From there it’s a dissociative walk through her hometown turned warzone and, in a clear metaphor for what’s going to happen to the character and the series, her image being torn asunder. The “non-Buffiness” escalates as wandering turns to running and Buffy flees from the Hellions.
Of course, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is still what’s written on the marquee and we all know what to expect when our girl gets cornered in an alley. The beatdown we wanted happens and, note for note, it’s almost identical to the ones in the last three premieres; the villain’s moment of triumph is undercut by Buffy proving she’s not as vulnerable as they’d assumed, but the aftermath is far different. Rather than reclaiming what she’s lost by killing the demons, she only seems more confused and frightened by the violence. Xander’s assumption that a little ass-kicking would bring Buffy back to herself can be forgiven; it’s worked in every other premiere.
Where saving her friends through violence was insufficient to bring Buffy back to herself, we might assume that saving Dawn without it would. Their scene atop the tower from “The Gift” repeats itself, albeit with Buffy needing to live this time around. She does, once again choosing to save Dawn rather than give up. Again, we’re meant to think that this is enough to bring Buffy back to herself, but whatever solace she might find in heroism is temporary. Dawn’s “You’re home” assertion proves as hollow as Xander’s when spoken over Buffy’s thousand yard stare. Our Slayer’s gone through all the usual motions to reclaim her place, and they haven’t worked. This episode leaves us wondering what comes next and that’s what makes it so effective as a premiere.
There are a lot of other elements to this episode that distance it from the Buffy norm, the worst of which is the departure of Giles as a regular. Leaving makes some sense for the character, and was necessary for the story they wanted to tell this season, but the show was weaker without him.
More on the “things aren’t quite right” front: the gang conceals a major decision from Giles. Historically, this has been a bad decision done only when they know what they’re doing is wrong.
I really enjoyed Spike’s relationship with Dawn here.
Gellar’s stare at the end of this episode reminded me of Patrick Stewart’s at the end of “The Best of Both World Part 2.” Sure they both returned from the dead to save the day, but that’s not enough to erase the damage that’s been done.
The Hellions made for interesting villains. I like the idea that Buffy’s mere presence serves as a deterrent to demon activity in Sunnydale.
Note: “Bargaining” parts one and two were aired as a single episode, and presented this way on the DVD. As such, I wrote them up as a single review and I’ll be skipping next week’s Buffy in order to keep things in line with Angel.