On Twitter I was asked by Snow Bird: In “All right” you dissed Angel S4 a lot (validly) but you love Buffy S6 which I feel has basically the same problems. How come?
You’d first have to tell me which AS4 and BS6 problems are the same. To me, they seem mostly very different.
I’ll try. Much of this is based on your last top 10. Bleak feeling (fun=dirty word). Characters (Cordy, Willow from power to drug addict.) Weak villains and focus. You mentioned, “your inner fanboy"really liking the season which also surprises me. It seems just relentlessly depressing to me. And you criticized the harsh "team breakdown” in Angel which was in full force in B6. It wallowed in misery for forever. As for Buffy in Season 6, I buy her being really depressed but I couldn’t buy her getting with Spike like that. Seemed forced. I’m not a huge fan of AS4 either but there are interesting parallels and quite a few shared problems I think.
So the usual disclaimers apply here. I’m going to try and justify something which ultimately comes back to straight up personal preference. Nothing I say has any basis in real fact. This is simply why one works for me and the other doesn’t. This might get long.
Both seasons are very bleak. In fact, I think B6 is far darker than A4. Even Buffy’s comic relief episodes in that season end with what feels like the hard return of thundering agony. Once More With Feeling has Buffy’s ‘I was in heaven’ refrain with Willow weeping and the instant the magic wears off in Tabula Rasa every character feels as though they’re executing a hungover walk of shame.
In contrast, Spin the Bottle feels like purer relief, and not only that but once Cordelia is mercifully put into a coma the Jasmine storyline comes along and balances some scary hive mind shenanigans (UNITY!!!1) with ACTUAL situational humor that doesn’t have the stink of the cheap laughs we got from the Trio (I despise the Trio - more on that soon.)
Both seasons also have an insufferable child character in Dawn and Conner, and I’ve said I hated Conner so much that an episode with him getting beat up made one of my Top 10s. There are a few distinctions I would make here. First, while Dawn is a drawback to Season 5 for me, she almost becomes toomuch of a background character in Season 6. Conner is a centerpiece to A4. They both suck the life off the screen but Conner is given much more free reign to do it.
I think also I end up giving Dawn more latitude because her shortcomings make sense to me. Whenever she acts out and does something particularly frustrating (Get out, GET out, GET OUT) I tend to think to myself, “Meh, she’s 14.” And typically she supplies SOME kind of mea culpa. Conner is regularly provided with EVIDENCE that he is in the wrong and doggedly maintains his idiotic courses of action.
There is also what their characters represent. Dawn is a part of Buffy. She is a loved one, family, and Buffy’s ties to innocence and idealism (at least in 5.) The two of them share one of the best moments in the series on the top of the tower, and the moment Dawn realizes what Buffy is thinking (Buffy…no) my heart splits in two. We SHARE that moment with her. It’s probably Trachtenberg’s finest bit of acting in the series and it earns Dawn some future indulgence with me.
On the other hand, Conner very VERY rarely earns love. He is shown as pitiable but not identifiable for so regularly making terrible (and in some cases, vile) decisions, and never attempting amends. There is never a moment of reckoning or catharsis for Angel and him. I’ve heard some people point to Season 5 when his memories have been restored and he and Angel fight side by side. But that isn’t Season 4 Conner restored. That is the Conner that has the placid magical memories of childhood AND Season 4 Conner’s memories. It isn’t the same character.
Buffy Season 6
Season 6 is my favorite season of the show but I think it easily has the most issues, especially when compared to the VERY clean Season 3. The first and most obvious is the Trio. Whedon stated in the DVD commentary for Innocence that at all times he wanted to juxtapose the drama in the series with humor, which helped keep it all afloat. Buffy is in a fight with the newly released Angelus beneath a dramatic storm of falling water, and we cut to a shot of Oz: “Uhm…arm.”
Thing is, the Trio’s humor doesn’t work in tandem with the rest of the season, it works AGAINST it. Most of the humor in the previous seasons was a manifestation of the character’s personalities. They’re all smart, quippy, and sharp individuals who fall back on gallows humor whenever things are at their worst. But in Season 6 they all are suffering and this time, can’t find something to sing about. So the Trio is brought in as a counterbalance.
But the Trio…well…suck. Really. With the exception of Jonathan, none of them have any sort of interesting backstory. In fact that’s the joke with Andrew (Tucker’s brother.) Not only that but what is supposed to make them funny is for me offensive: Haha, nerds. They don’t present us nerdy humor, they present us humor because they’re nerds. I despise that chintzy ‘Big Bang Theory’ approach to people who are passionate about media (HAHA, He speaks Klingon. What a dummy.)
Willow’s arc is well-traveled territory at this point. I’m in the camp that believes the magic=drugs idea isn’t well set up (Giles actively encourages her magical pursuits early on…was he pushing heroin on her?) and then was just a sledgehammer when they execute it. People say she behaves as a different character in Season 6 (don’t piss me off Giles) but I’m not certain that true. I’ve done my best to highlight her issues with consent in preparation for this season, notably her casting the de-lusting spell on Xander without his knowledge. Also, the one thing that “she is not herself in 6” doesn’t account for is that these characters DEVELOP. They change over time and, like us, not always for the better. I didn’t experience my worst period of depression until I was in my 30s. For me, the signs were always there.
And as much as I cherish the underpinnings of the Dark Willow story and tried to distil it’s best parts in my last Top 10, the bulk of her dialogue is mildly cringe-inducing. Once she saps Rack for his last bit of power she becomes a bad guy from Roadhouse, “You really need to have every square inch of your ass kicked.” Dark Willow shouldn’t play like a Bond villain.
I’m not even going to get into Seeing Red. Too polarizing. An article unto its own.
Angel Season 4
It is common for these shows to have turning points in their seasons but Angel Season 4 feels like two entirely different seasons taped together. One of them I like very much. The other I can’t stand. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to decouple them, as the one I like only represents 5 episodes in total.
The Beast half of the season is utterly humorless, drab, and depressing. It opens with the team shattered and remains unrelenting. The beating heart of Angel investigations is absent because she for no adquate reason became an angel. Angel is at the bottom of the ocean famished and going mad. And his attacker, his own son, is working with his friends. We get Cordelia back but not really because without her memory she is the antithesis of the fiery passionate character we’ve always known. We get Angel back, relegating Conner to a, “What the hell do we do with this guy?” position. Then Gunn kills a man, an act from which he never really recovers. He and Fred break up. Cordy leaves Angel and takes shelter with Conner. And then Cordy and Conner sleep together.
And THEN, things get worse.
The stretch from there to Jasmine could have been great and includes MANY fun details. But there is a constant shadow over it all because of what happened to Cordelia. We might’ve been able to recover from the amnesia storyline but from the moment she and Conner slept together, the whole plot line became, for me, vile. The self-evidently disgusting aspects of incest aside, what made it so much worse is watching a character I had learned to love and admire being dragged into this cesspool. I spoke at length about it in the top 10. Here is a link to, “The Assassination of Cordelia Chase.”
It isn’t until nearly the halfway point of that season that Cordy is revealed to be “possessed” but dear god was that far too late. After they’d dragged her through the mud and dropped no hints as to what MIGHT be going on, the reveal of her as the bad guy felt cheap and not worth the bath in slop we’d endured to get to it. This was the moment I was just waiting for the season to be over. But then, the demon baby is born (Angel is definitely not a feminist show) and things turned around. Leading to one of my favorite Seasons of both Buffy and Angel, Season 5.
So what’s the difference?
Here we come to the purely subjective aspect of it. The difference for me is in the meaning. The ‘why’ of it. Yes, both seasons are oppressive. But Buffy Season 6 has something to SAY about it all. The gang suffers mightily but their suffering is a model for aspects of the human experience. I’ve known many people who watch that season and find comfort because they’re watching characters going through something they’ve PERSONALLY experienced in their own lives. The existential void. As I said in the first Top 10, profound depression isn’t necessarily measured by how bad you feel but by how little you feel, as Buffy expresses throughout that season. Give me something to sing about. Using Spike to hurt herself, because she’d rather hurt than feel nothing. And then finding the courage to pull HERSELF out of that darkness.
And whatever you think of the magic=drugs scenario or the monologuing Dark Willow, the arc itself is understandable and grounded in Willow’s previous actions in other seasons. Who wouldn’t be tempted to use magic selfishly? Especially someone who had at times in previous seasons, acted demonstrably selfish, even potentially capable of wrath (Wild at Heart.) As for her driving grief, I feel that on a profound level. Tara’s death was painful, and present for me at all times during the Dark Willow arc. When Xander’s love finally opens the door for her to let her grief in, I crumble. With the exception of Warren’s gun in Seeing Red, most of the season is driven by strengths and the weakness of characters I love and cherish, and feel like I UNDERSTAND.
Angel’s fourth season feels driven completely by the motivations of its own plot rather than the motivations of its characters. Plot driven shows are not necessarily a bad thing, but I never felt the WHY of it until Jasmine. WHY am I being dragged through this experience? What is the redemption? The meaning? The purpose? These characters are being violated or abused. To what end? Mostly they DON’T overcome their circumstances. Angelus does. Angelus kills the beast and then Faith (not an Angel character) captures Angelus. Evil Cordy is enabled by a frustrating painful-to-watch character in Conner. And I never really found a lifeline to grab onto.
Now there are two exceptions to this. The first is Jasmine. Jasmine’s ‘peace versus free will’ philosophical questions are delectable and the whole plot line finally brought some levity. The other exception is Wesley and his descent. But neither feature adequate enough screen time to provide a counterbalance to everything else I’ve talked about here.
On close examination of either season, you can see major frustrating issues. I guess the difference for me is, when I pull back from Buffy Season 6, those issues fade into the tapestry of something I find very beautiful and moving. When I pull back from Angel Season 4 I see a dryer on spin cycle.