Mon
Jul 22 2013 1:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: Joss Writes the Songs that Makes the Scoobies Cry

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling

“Once More, With Feeling,” by Joss Whedon

I have to admit, folks, the musical episode of BtVS presents a bit of a challenge on rewatch. I knew going in that I had seen it enough times that one more viewing was unlikely to yield new insights. It’s an exceptionally strong and delightful piece, easily the high point of S6... and, honestly, these outstanding episodes lend themselves less well to the mocking. It’s sad to say, but I get more comedy mileage out of the Knights who Say Key than “Once More with Feeling” is likely to yield.

It’s also the lesser-quality scripts and the things with bigtime “Huh?” moments that really give us all a lot of scope to get into “If only they’d done it this way!” (Though we’ll get lots of chances in S6 to play backseat writer after this episode.)

And I don’t want to treat you all to five hundred words of. “Squee! Oh, and squee this too!”

Though there will be some of that, of course.

For example, the cameos! Marti Noxon sings the traditional lament of the entitled, car-owning, parking pariah. David Fury is filled with joy at the prospect of clean laundry. How can you not absolutely love that?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling David Fury

What is “Once More, with Feeling” when we strip out the wonderful singing and dancing? In a sense, it’s a musical interrogation of the Scoobies. The arrival of the demon Sweet (Sweet! Played so very well by Hinton Battle! Squee!) in Sunnydale causes all the main players in the Buffyverse to spontaneously start confessing. For the first time this season, they get intimate, examining where they’re at, both as individuals and in their key relationships. They navel gaze, they communicate, and in the wake of all this coming clean, many of them arrive at the conclusion that they’re stuck, in one way or another. Some even decide they’re going to do something about it.

Mostly, they fail.

Take Spike, for example. When the singing breaks out, he retreats to the crypt in a desperate bid to protect his dignity and his secrets. He’s realized—well, probably he’s known for awhile—that the time he’s been spending with Buffy isn’t a good or healthy thing for either of them. She’s using him as a means of avoiding her friends, in part because she doesn’t want them to realize the truth about her resurrection. Spike has become her confidante simply because she doesn’t truly care for him. It doesn’t bother her if he sees her suffering.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Spike

In “Rest in Peace,” he tries to blow her off.  He tells her he knows what she’s up to and says it’s gotta stop. It’s a generous and caring move, and probably the best thing for him, too. Perhaps unfortunately, this wholesome message is sauced up with a serious dose of bad boy sexy™. The overall thrust is “Leave me alone! By the way, I’m incredibly hot and can’t resist you. Rawr.”

Giles and Tara make out somewhat better. Like Spike, they both realize they’re on the verge of becoming serious enablers. Buffy has decided to let Giles take total responsibility for the gang, the slaying and Dawn. Tara learns that Willow brain-wiped her to avoid the argument that’s been brewing between them over Willow’s increasing use of magical power.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Tara

Of the Scoobies, Tara and Giles make out best on attempting to change. And it’s because these two love so deeply that they’re able to start breaking the holding patterns they’re in. “Standing” and “Under your Spell” affirm how powerfully attached to Buffy and Willow (respectively) each of these characters is... and we hear them both decide that, though they wish they could stay, they can’t. It’s interesting in light of how the season ends: they both go because they’re hoping to force the object of their affections to choose a better path. Did either of them succeed, really?

Willow hears Tara’s love song to her—she’s singing it directly, and they’re interacting (and interacting in a suggestive romantic fashion at that!) Buffy, though, doesn’t hear what Giles is saying. His fears and distress slide right past her.

This brings us to XandAnya.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Xander Anya

“I’ll Never Tell” is an awesome, delightful, fun and thoroughly weird song. Xander and Anya are singing together, they’re dancing, and they’re confiding their deep and thoroughly natural fears about marriage. Later, when they’re arguing about the song and telling Giles about what happened, they’re bickering about the small details within the lyrics: “My toes are not hairy!”

So it’s obvious we don’t have a “Standing”-style case of character deafness here.

But the thing is, they never tackle the revelations. Xander’s fear of failing Anya and her worries about aging and mortality seem to get aired, heard, and then brushed under the rug until their wedding explodes on them.

If they’d just brooded, or even confided in their friends, this wouldn’t seem odd to me. But they actually are forced to the point of revealing their fears to each other, and then they stop short of working it out. And at the end, we learn that Xander was the one who summoned Sweet. If this is true then we have to see his having summoned the demon as an act of desperation.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Sweet

(I waited until the very end of the BtVS for a retcon on this, for either Dawn or Willow or even depressed Buffy to admit that Xander had taken the blame for them. It all seemed so improbable. Xander did a spell that big? Xander is responsible for flash frying Sunnydale civilians, yet nobody says boo? This is one of those places where I just want canon to be other.) 

The upshot is that Xander’s fears triggered the singing, the dancing, and the revelations. In one sense, Sweet’s arrival is all about him. “I’ll Never Tell” is all about XandAnya. Then they still didn’t sort out the relationship issues until the big marital kaboom.

Okay, I know. Musicals and logic don’t always play well together. Still!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Anya

Willow and Dawn barely sing. My understanding is that Joss Whedon wrote songs for the actors who were comfortable with singing, and Alyson Hannigan and Michelle Trachtenberg just weren’t keen. It’s appropriate, though. Dawn has no plans to stop stealing, and the situation she’s stuck in is being a junior Scooby and being in high school. She’s relatively powerless where changing her lot in life is concerned—her role is to be the Slayer’s sister, and getting taken hostage just affirms that.

Willow, as we know, has no real interest in changing. What could she possibly reveal at this point? Anything she came out with would probably be world-shattering.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Xander, Willow, Tara, Anya

In “Once More With Feeling,” it’s the big group sings that show how the genuinely loving Scooby family, with the ties it has forged over the course of multiple battles, has become an unfortunately dysfunctional mess. Buffy opens with “Going through the Motions,” a study of her current depressed state, and in “If We’re Together,” she literally goes through the motions of being the team’s leader. She’s offering her friends what they want to hear—the idea that as long as they work as a group to fight evil, they’ll prevail. It’s what has worked for them before, but she doesn’t believe it. In fact, she resents having been dragged back into the whole Together thing.

If she’d been honest at that point, she’d have sung “You all fight the evil, guys—I’mma go to Maui.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Tara Anya

Later, in “Walk through the Fire,” Giles makes a first attempt to push her out of her lethargy, insisting she go alone to face Sweet and save Dawn. But by now, the whole gang is in a big state of fail. Buffy can’t find the fire, the thrill of living that she so desperately wants to rekindle. Giles can’t bring himself to sit out the battle. Spike can’t stick to his stay away from me guns.

So, after a brief wrangle, the group falls into its default pattern, hurrying to join the fray. But this isn’t a business as usual Scoobies Assemble. They don’t really believe Buffy can carry the day without them. They can all see that something is terribly wrong with their slayer, and their rush to her aid is not the act of a unified team in pursuit of the win. Instead, it’s a panicked rush, by a group of troubled people with no real plan of attack.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Dawn, Giles, Xander, Anya, Tara

They’ve lost faith.

And rightly so, because, as it turns out, Buffy does need help. Sweet defeats her entirely, prying out the terrible truth about her exile from so-called ‘Heaven,’ and nearly succeeding in setting her inexpensive but stylish boogie shoes afire.

After Spike saves her, Sweet goes, leaving the Scoobies reeling as they ponder “Where do we go from here?” Meanwhile Buffy and Spike make out in the alley and Spuffy shippers scream for joy all across the internets.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Once More With Feeling Spike

Next: What this gang needs is a reboot!


A.M. Dellamonica has tons of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second Gale, story too—“The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)

Or if you like, check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

30 comments
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
"Hey, wait they're all singing!" is what I recall as my reaction at the time. It was wonderful, shattering, fun and lovely.
Nathan Martin
2. lerris
I moved in with roommates who were watching the show weekly, and this episode was my introduction to the series.

I recognized the brilliance and was immediately hooked. I religiously recorded the daily reruns on Space ( Canada's sci-fi channel ) when their cycle was at the beginning of the series, and was caught up in a matter of months.
Chris Nelly
3. Aeryl
That wonderful moment, where Buffy pleads/sings, with tears in her eyes, to give her something to sing about.

Summary of the whole season, right there.
Marie Veek
4. SlackerSpice
And moar meta: http://gabrielleabelle.livejournal.com/139256.html

I should also mention that the posts are tagged "buffy came back wrong", so if you wanna read ahead, feel free.
Marty Beck
5. martytargaryen
As a latecomer to Buffy fandom, I knew well the popularity of OMWF. So I resisted loving it...and failed miserably!
Alyx Dellamonica
6. AMDellamonica
Lerris, what a cool way to discover the series. Lucky you!
Rob Rater
7. Quasarmodo
Favorite episode of the series for me!

(Unless something major comes alone in the last 15 episodes I have yet to watch)
Sean Dowell
8. qbe_64
Best parts of the episode are how exasperated Spike looks when he starts to sing, and his quick progression through resignation and acceptance.
Also, when the dummy lackey comes in, with the crescendo of background music and then just delivers a monotone talking speech.

Love it.
Gardner Dozois
9. Gardner Dozois
Certainly one of the five best BUFFY episodes of all time (especially when set in the middle of the vaguely disappointing Season Six), and an argument could be make for picking it as the best BUFFY episode ever, only really given any run for its money by "Hush" and "The Body." I've never had more fun watching a TV show than I did watching this the first time I saw it.

I could quibble about this and that--but nah, I'm not going to.
Gardner Dozois
10. GarrettC
By far the best episode of season 6, and one of the best episodes of the series. And while SMG's auto-tune is sometimes distracting, my only actual complaint in this one is the weird eww gay is icky ending.

Which, in and of itself, isn't really that bad. We can assume that Sweet is just a straight demon and has no interest in a male bride. The complaint I have is that it's played for comedy, adding the moment to a long line of lolgay punchlines on TV.

My suspicion is that Xander cast the spell more because, from a writing perspective, he sells the joke than that he's as desperate as Giles or Buffy from a narrative perspective.

But I do almost feel bad criticising the episode. Though, as Alyx suggests, criticisms are more interesting in general to dig into than straight gush. Obviously, it's a great piece of writing, directing, production, and acting across the board.

Also, I know there are problems with Giles's decision to leave, but he breaks my heart in this episode.

Lord, these captchas are impossible. Sixth times a charm?
Risha Jorgensen
11. RishaBree
Unfortunately, Giles' decision to leave (as lovely and well-sung a tune it is), is one of the worst ideas he has during the entire run of BTVS. There's a difference between someone who is unhappy and wants to abdicate some responsibility, and someone who is deeply clinically depressed and failing to keep her head entirely above water. It is somewhat realistic, I suppose - if you've never been there, it can be tough to understand just how you might be physically incapable of thinking clearly or making good decisions.

(Tara's decision to leave, of course, is entirely correct - your SO erases your memory to skip a minor fight, leave, do not pass Go or collect $200 dollars.)
Gardner Dozois
12. Gardner Dozois
Of course, in the real world, the decision was not Giles's at all, but rather that of Anthony Head, who wanted to leave the show. It was up to the writers at that point to come up with a rationale (albeit a rather weak one) why the character felt he needed to leave, in spite of Buffy's desperate condition.
Chris Nelly
13. Aeryl
Writing him out to go do stuff for the Council could have worked better, along with sending another Watcher*, just for shits and giggles.

Giles left for these reasons, because this was what the writers wanted to say with his absence. Which works, I just wish this had been called out in text as the bad decision it was.

Instead, we just have an uneasy relationship between Buffy and Giles ALL through S7, culminating in his betrayal in LMPTM, and then we're supposed to accept that last offhand "The Earth Is Doomed" in Chosen as a healing of the rift. That just bugged me.

Where it goes in the comics is even worse, cuz again what Giles does is not called out as the ASSHOLE move it was, so honestly, I'm not surprised he's not on Buffy's mind much anymore, which I know has been a contentious topic among the comic readers.
Chris Nelly
14. Aeryl
*And speaking of Watchers, WHY was THAT never done? Were they not informed that Giles took off, because they seemed pretty aware that Buffy was on her own in S7.

WHY wouldn't they at least TRY to send someone around, putting out feelers to see if Buffy would like their help or expertise? I'd have rather had THAT episode, than 3 dealing with Buffy and Willow's bad coping skills.
Gardner Dozois
15. Dianthus
Ok, I have to take contention (just because) with the idea that Buffy can confide in Spike 'cuz "she doesn't truly care for him." She does care for him (IMO), despite the dysfunction of their relationship. We'll see that later in Tabula Rasa when they automatically pair up, despite the loss of their memories ("Stay away from Randy!"). She doesn't hate Spike. She hates herself, and she's scared of her attraction to him.
OTOH, I totally agree that the worst thing about all this is, after all the confessing, nothing really comes of it. You'd think they would have to deal with all the sh!t that came up during this ep. It would've provided plenty of plotty goodness on any other show. Bleah!
I'm not entirely sure what's going on with Buffy. How she feels about her calling seems to swing wildly throughout the series. Maybe this is more about s6 life in general, but she's always seemed (to an extent) to be 'going through the motions' when it comes to slaying. She does it 'cuz it needs doing, but she bemoans the situation often enough that it seems like more of a burden to her than anything else.
Xander's stated reason for calling Sweet was to bring the fun in. He was trying to cheer everybody up.

Something Build6 said in last week's discussion got me thinking (always dangerous). I can recall exactly one instance of Spike's chip firing in s5 (Family), and only one instance of his chip firing in s6. Can we agree that the chip is pretty much irrelevant at this point? It started something, no question, but it's done it's job.

Slightly OT: I once participated in a OMWF karaoke-style sing-along. I sang Going Through the Motions and, as a bonus, Wind Beneath My Wings. It was fun.

More OT: This is Whedon's response to a question re: Wonder Woman.
He wouldn’t return to his Wonder Woman script if the studio asked him to, saying, “It’s not a total no, but it would be very hard. She’s a tough one to crack. I don’t like to go back to things, so much, and I also feel like there’s plenty of room for a new icon. So let’s look to the future.”
Sour Grapes?
Meanwhile, over at The MarySue, there's a video featuring one Mr. Alan Kistler, who makes a strong counter arguement. He points out that there's plenty of Greek mythology to play with and a terrific coming-of-age story here, and other good stuff as well.
I really don't get this stuff about WW being so hard. You've got a young woman who's lived a sheltered/privileged life venturing out into the world for the first time. Shocked by the injustice she finds, and moved by suffering it causes, she sets out to right a few wrongs.
As for her bf, they could be Buffy and Spike w/o the dysfunction. Maybe he's a cocky guy (pilots usually are, no?) who's forced to question his assumptions and re-examine his life.
What is so fcking hard about that?!? C'mon, people, step it up.
Chris Nelly
16. Aeryl
I agree about WW,(not all of everything else, OF COURSE) Dianthus, but I disagree that it's sour grapes. A)WTF does Joss Whedon have to be sour about? and B) I think he's saying it'd be hard for him to crack, because it would need to be a new story, not what he had written 10 years ago. The world has changed and that story wouldn't be valid anymore.

That's all I'm seeing there, in re Joss and I completely agree that WW can be done, and should be. There was even a guy in the comments of that Mary Sue story who had a pretty good idea to line it up more with the sci-fi aspects of the DCCU.

I will say that while the chip doesn't go off, that's because its done its job and Spike is conditioned. As soon as he thinks its broken, he tries to kill again. So it's not fair to say it's irrelevant, IMO.

While Buffy comes to care for Spike, I don't think she there yet, so it's still a fair observation to say that her honesty with Spike comes from her lack of care of his opinion. The converse of that, is that very openness and honesty is what causes Buffy to begin to care for Spike.
Gardner Dozois
17. Athreeren
For once, I couldn't resist rewatching the episode. A few things I didn't remember from my last viewings:

"But your power's shown
Brighter than any of I've known." ? Definitely some foreshadowing there.

"Mayhem caused. Monsters certainly not involved, officials say."
Is there one episode that focuses mainly on the mascarade that's going on in Sunnydale? Because each and every one of those background moments of "certainly not monsters" are hilarious.

Why are these guys attending a burial in the middle of the night? IN SUNNYDALE??
Gardner Dozois
18. Dianthus
@16. Buffy can confide in Spike because he listens, understands and doesn't judge. Deep down, she cares for him. To her, vampires are "animals." Spike, OTOH, has ventured into actual personhood territory, and she doesn't know how to deal with this. Objectifying him works for a time, but then she can't even do that anymore (AYW).
Yes, he does try to go after that woman, thinking the chip isn't working. Just listen to him psyche himself up for it first, though. It's dangerously close to "I'm big enough, I'm bad enough, And, doggone it, people fear me." (I wish I could take credit for that line, but somebody beat me to it.)
Anyway, he doesn't just go for her throat, as he would've done in the (big) bad old days. She even suggests that he can't be that bad, and he's all "Am too!" Not the best example, perhaps, but he is changing.
That's the one occurance I was referring to, but I can't remember the name of the ep. The chip really is becoming less and less of an influence on him and his behavior.
As for WW, the script might be outdated, but she is not. I still say shame on him for suggesting otherwise. I'm all for new icons, but we don't have so many we can afford to lose one.

@17. Yes, an outdoor funeral, at night, in Sunnydale! Genius! What could possibly go wrong?
Chris Nelly
19. Aeryl
The ep is Smashed.

I just think the part where he is psyching himself up to be a moment that plays inversely to the erectile dysfunction joke that occurs when the chip activates, not that we are supposed to feel he's any less a danger.

Watching that ep for the first time, you FEEL Spike is a danger, and even when you learn that everyone but Buffy is safe, you FEEL like Buffy is in danger.

It's harder for us to capture that understanding, having seen all these episodes before. We know NOW that the chip has affected Spikes behavior on a permanent level, but that is not clear at this time.
Gardner Dozois
20. Dianthus
@19. Since when does a vampire need to talk himself into killing someone? Obviously, we're meant to think Spike could be a threat again, and he would try to test his limits. We (and he) are quickly disabused of the notion.

In retrospect, this is pretty much the deathknell of Spike's BigBad persona.

Furthermore, it's telling that Buffy doesn't initiate the sexual phase of their relationship until she realizes he can fight back. Is it b/c she wants him to hurt her, or b/c he's more her equal?
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
@20, Since when is a vampire "Neutered"? It's playing a moment of true fear, for laughs. Just as it did when Willow comforted Spike with "We can wait a bit, and try again, if you want?"

It was levity, but that doesn't mean that the moment isn't serious.

In addition, Spike wanted to kill her, and why he had to psych himself, was because he knew that if he did, it was the END of his hopes for a relationship with Buffy. He had to confront THAT reality, not his own moral compass.
Jason Parker
22. tarbis
@20 They may have wanted to make it clear that Spike and Buffy could hurt each other to level out the power dynamic and keep the heroine of the series from looking like a rapist.
-
Speaking of I'm going to bring up the part of Once More With Feeling that once I saw I could not unsee and it ruined the episode for me. We have a woman whose ability to grant consent as been impaired by a magical spell engaging in sex with the sober, clear-headed, and aware person who cast the spell. This sex was filmed as beautiful and romantic. Essentially an act of acquaintance rape was made to look like a happy thing.

Then the rape is never mentioned again. Even when Willow becomes self-aware enough to realize the things she did to Tara, that act never comes up. It's a huge event that makes it damn near impossible to like Willow for the rest of the series.

It is possible that Whedon didn't realize that he was writing and filming a rape scene. If he wasn't aware then his lack of awareness is a serious hit to his feminist street cred. Especially since he becomes tone deaf to his own rape metaphor from earlier in the season during the series finale. (Ranting about that can wait until we get there.)
Jack Flynn
23. JackofMidworld
After watching this ep when it first aired, as soon as they did a rerun, I recorded it on my "VCR" (for all you young'ns, that's an antiquated system once used by cavepersons to relive cool television moments before DVRs and youtube made it so much easier) and then I learned how to hook up my stereo surround system for the sole purpose of recording all the music from the ep onto a "cassette" (oh, just look it up on wiki, people, this ain't no history lesson!) so I could listen to it in my car.

And if you don't already have it, may I highly recommend Music for Elevators? Good god, that man can sing.
Chris Nelly
24. Aeryl
@22, I agree it's HIGHLY problematic. And the trouble is, it was the first sex scene for the lesbian characters on screen as well, so to call it out for what it IS, rape, detracts from the specialness of the occasion.

But to ignore it is, is it's own problem. And I don't know that it's ignored, Tara's body language reads to me of someone who feels not only mentally violated, but physically as well. But it's never mentioned as a specific act in the show, and that's bothersome, especially since next epsiode would have been a perfect time for Tara to spell it out.
Milton Pope
25. MiltonPope
I've been waiting for months to comment on this episode, and I missed it yesterday because I was recovering from surgery. So, a few belated comments:

A few episodes later, when the Trio makes Buffy invisible, she gaslights the social services worker at her office. On the way out, Buffy is whistling a tune. I'm pretty sure I recognized "Going Through the Motions".

In addition to the complexity inherent in this episode, Joss did a few things the hard way. I think he really wanted to impress us with this one:

- After "I'll Never Tell", Xander, Anya and Giles walk for a block. Xander and Anya both talk at once. The action pauses for Marni Noxon to try to sing her way out of a ticket, then continues. This is all done in a single shot, a full minute long. Amazing.

- In "Walk Through the Fire", the gang sings "we will walk through the fire, and let it -- ". Several times, other singers interrupt them. At the climax, they sing "...and let it BURN". At that exact fraction of a second, a fire truck enters the frame from the left. It's perfect, and probably took some real preparation to make it work. Again, harder than it had to be.
Andrew Love
26. Andy Love
- In "Walk Through the Fire", the gang sings "we will walk through the fire, and let it -- ". Several times, other singers interrupt them. At the climax, they sing "...and let it BURN".
The repeated interruptions build up a lot of tension in the listener - making the final resolution of the line very satisfying (or at least I found it so). Also "Dawn's in trouble - must be Tuesday."
Gardner Dozois
27. Dianthus
@21. However you interpret that scene, the writing's been on the wall for a long time. There's no going back (sound familiar?) for Spike.

@22. Yeah, the power imbalance btwn Buffy and Spike needed to be addressed, but, as it is, she still had "hand" in their relationship.
There's a lot of disturbing stuff in s6, as far as issues of consensual relations go. It's a pity so much of it goes under the radar. Seems like all you ever hear about is the AR. There's that double standard again.
Chris Nelly
28. Aeryl
Absolutely. Going forward from here, able to establish physical intimacy in addition to a relationship of total honesty, it's easy to see why Buffy begins to care deeply for Spike.

Spike himself is changed as well, but he still HAS to learn that there is no chance so long as he's soulless. Buffy can't overcome that, and it's unfair to expect her to, IMO.
Gardner Dozois
29. Dianthus
@28. But his soulless state didn't stop her from taking advantage of him. Still, in a way, it's a backhanded (subtextual) recognition of how he's changed. She certainly wouldn't be sexing up any other soulless vampire, or even a pre-chip Spike.
OTOH, he gets very little credit (in text) for acting against his own vampiric nature, and doing so with no reward commensurate to the chip's punishment.
Last night I remembered another instance when Spike's chip fires in s5. In neither case is he doing anything that could be considered wrong. In fact, he deliberately acts, knowing that a chip headache is at least possible, if not guauranteed.
Hitting Tara would be wrong if he did so just to cause her pain, but he's only doing it to prove whether or not she's a demon. Fool for love that he is, he doesn't want to see Willow and Tara separated.
Chuk Goodin
30. Chuk
I am not a fan of musicals. This was the best TV episode of any series ever.

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