Can Buffy go home again? I now know the answer but, eleven years ago, the possibilities of a rebuilt Sunnydale High intrigued me. A few growing pains aside, I always thought that the series weathered the transition from high school relatively well. But while change was (mostly) good for the series, the high school years did feel a bit abbreviated, ending when they did only because Buffy started in her sophomore year and not because they’d run out of stories to tell. With so much fresh powder left behind, it’s not unreasonable for the series to try to revisit the “high school is hell” metaphor. That said, it’s still weird for a show that has always looked forward to now focus on its past.
Was that a neutral enough introduction? I have some strong feelings about season seven and I’m trying very hard not to let them colour my reviews of individual episodes, but I must still acknowledge that “Lesson” is a problematic episode. I can’t decide whether it’s recycling efforts are deeply flawed or deeply meta. The trip down memory lane is not unwelcome; we all love Buffy’s early years, and having those years directly referenced holds a certain satisfaction, but I can’t escape the feeling that this is all threadbare fan service. Hyena people, and invisible girls, and principals, oh my! There doesn’t seem to be much here to actually threaten Buffy. But then, maybe that’s the point. Her own comment that high school “seems smaller” may be a solid indicator that all this is deliberate but that the reason high school isn’t scary this time is because she’s grown passed it. The issue is that this doesn’t give us a lot to care about.
Of course, Buffy doesn’t seem to particularly care about what’s going on either. She’s committed to saving Dawn (obviously) but she shows no guilt over these souls she was unable to save. That’s not a problem in itself as it makes for a refreshing break from the tired “put the ghosts to rest” plot and has the added effect of getting Buffy back to her roots of being the girl with no patience for being in a horror movie, but I also reduces the plot to nothing more than “save Dawn” and I don’t think that anyone was waiting for another one of those.
Without a compelling narrative to tie things together, this episode is reduce to nothing more than an interesting intellectual exercise. Buffy’s exploration of genre is probably the single biggest reason I love the show and, given my love for meta-stories, adding itself to that exploration would seem to make for an episode tailored to my tastes, but I’m just not digging it this time around. Buffy’s not just about exploring interesting ideas, it’s about doing so within a story. If we can’t have that, we might as well have just read an easy on the subject.
As implied, I (like many Buffy fans) have some negative feelings about season seven. I’m trying to come at things with an open mind, but part of me is dreading these reviews. There’s significant drudgery in writing up a series you’re not 100% into (see House of Cards) and I don’t want that to happen to Buffy. That said, there’s still a lot of good to be had in season seven and I’m going to try to latch onto to that even as the series lurches across the finish line.
While “Lessons” may stumble as an episode, it succeeds as a premiere by making some intriguing promises about what’s to come. Clunky “something’s coming!” exposition aside, the cycle of villains at the conclusion was pretty sweet and one bad outing, by itself, isn’t enough to completely kill my interest in the return to Sunnydale High.
Spike’s another turn this epsidoe gets right as the crazy-basement routine makes for a good reintroduction to the character. The Big Bad’s taunting at the end adds some weight to the fact that getting a soul does not automatically make you a better man.