Once More, With Feeling
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Obviously, this response is full of spoilers for those that haven’t seen the show.
Once More, With Feeling, the seventh episode of the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer — the famous musical episode — is the pop culture key I turn to now most often to make sense of my world.
Consequently, I tend to think of folks who don’t “get it” as clueless philistines.
But I was one of those once.
Back in the 90s, when I thought that musicals were for fairies and queens who wore sweaters, that only fuzzed-out guitars, xeroxed zines and alt-country had anything to offer me, I passed on watching this particular episode of my favorite TV show, purely on objecting to the genre it referenced.
But, I grew up.
Now, I know all the words to the songs (Sorry, Stephanie Zacharek, that proves the songs are memorable.) and I’m moved as the characters move through this story, rather clueless, expecting no one to find out what everybody else already knows or suspects. Pretending to feel, be and know things that are rather, secrets and lies, painful truths. For me, with only a short time left, each time I watch is both a new thing and a familiar thing. That’s why they call it timeless, I guess.
Yet it’s still uplifting. And that’s because it’s pretentious and its theme is how people with character use pretense to hide, yes, but also to become and join something bigger than themselves.
The pretense begins with the production itself. Writer, creator and director Joss Whedon had never written a musical before. He can’t sing. He can’t play the piano. James Marsters, the actor who plays the vampire Spike, chided him and said, “The songs sounded really cheesy and horrible” and that Whedon was ruining their careers. Whedon proved him both right and wrong and uses that tension to not only critique the genre itself and Whedon’s use of it — Anya, the ex-demon getting ready to marry Xander, derides one of her duets with her future husband as a “ditty” and “retro pastiche that will never be a breakaway pop hit’ and also chatters about one wall in their apartment becoming a “fourth wall” thereby referencing Brecht and Frank Tashlin all in one clever aside — but also demonstrates the generic, storytelling power of conventions and forms, or, “book numbers,” as Anya says, nailing it again.
Whedon knows he’s reaching, but builds his own trepidations into his story and into the characters’. During a crucial group sing made up of the overlapping songs of most the characters, Willow, played by the actor Alyson Hannigan who also happens to be the actor who didn’t want to sing in the show at all, sings this, while scrunching up her face in mockery and distaste: “I think this line’s mostly filler”. Self-reflexivity is how this show rolls.
(For my aside, if your only objection to musicals is to its formal properties, you really don’t have an argument. You have a dismissal. Musicals point out, maybe more than any other genre, that’s it’s all artifice, even and maybe even especially naturalistic styles and genres. It’s just musicals are a lot more honest about it. But, anyway, artifice is grand!)
The supernatural premise of the show is that all of Sunnydale, not just Buffy’s gang, is under the influence of dancing demon named Sweet. So everyone, regardless of their singing and dancing ability, bursts into song over trivial things (When Buffy’s sister, Dawn, is asked what she sang about at school, she replies glumly, “Math.”) but these songs and performances also become pivotal points in much broader character arcs.
But the show has always been about people pretending to be something they’re not. Teenagers pretending to be the saviors of the world, but referred to, first by fans, and then by the show itself, The Scoobies. Buffy pretending to be an ordinary teenager and not the “warrior of the people” with supernatural powers. Willow pretending not be in love with Xander. The same-sex relationship that develops between Willow and Tara was initially disparaged because many felt it was going to be another “lesbian kiss” moment and that the show would discard the premise: Was Willow just pretending to be lesbian? That’s an accusation leveled at many bisexual women when they cross the line. Whedon proved them wrong again when that relationship became powerful emotional fuel for additional story arcs.
Amber Benson’s well-praised solo in this show as Tara, Willow’s girlfriend — its cunnilingus finale is the dirtiest thing Whedon ever wrote, he says — manages to celebrate a celebrated relationship while at the same time ironically pointing out the deception beneath the so-great-together surface. The joyful chorus of this song become something much darker in another scene.
Finally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a television show pretending to be just another genre exercise dabbling in B-movie tropes, but it became one of the most loved and so much more than that.
Probably because, as these characters pretended, they changed themselves. They anticipate and engender their own efficacy in the world. That’s what makes them heroes, sometimes tragic ones.
That must be where my affection for this show comes from: an irony that isn’t distant but rather, alive. This episode’s title is ironic but somehow a joyful one.
The ironies of Buffy’s character and plotlines are central to how everyone else’s plays out. She’s recently been brought back from the dead, again, (“Hey, I’ve died twice!” Buffy sings, making her mentor Giles smile.) by her friends, particularly the powerful witch, Willow, whose addition to magic is brought to the fore in this ep, with serious consequences later on. They assume, from Buffy’s behavior, that they pulled her from “an untold hell dimension,” when, in fact, she thinks she was in heaven, and at rest. Compassionately, she’s hid this from her friends, but confessed it to Spike: “They can never know.”
The primary effect of this “musical extravaganza” demon is to make the characters reveal their secrets. In OMWF, Buffy is forced to tell hers: “There was no pain/No fear, no doubt/When they pulled me out/Of heaven/So please, give me something to sing about,” she wrenches out of herself in one of the series’ best performances by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was also afraid of what she’d look like singing and dancing.
The answer to that is: Like a hero, the subject of graduate theses, pop culture courses, idol to millions of fans, and a heroic character who is also an ordinary girl, but one who’s very, very tired of life. In the opening shot, Buffy’s alarm rings after a sleepless night and instead of turning it off, she simply picks it up and stares at it blankly as all the other characters in the house get ready, quite happily, for work and life. That’s a funny and effective metaphor.
Buffy and Spike finally do get together at the end, compounding ironies — vampire slayer snogging with a vampire, two dead people who just want to feel. Then we hear the crescendo of the final song: “Where do we go/From here?” A big red superimposed THE END appears, styled after Hollywood cinema codas.
But there’s one final point in this musical teleplay: The curtain doesn’t fall, it closes.
Roll credits. Cue fanfare. Grr. Argh.
Note: Here’s an interesting take on someone watching it who didn’t get it until later, too.