“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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
(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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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”!)