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BtVS Top 10: #2-- Once More, with Feeling

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  • BtVS Top 10: #2-- Once More, with Feeling

    There's a good reason why this episode makes so many people's favorite lists: It's entertaining from almost every angle. Note that I said "entertaining," not "flawless"? you can spot the imperfections if you look at it right, but it has so much depth and shine that you'll buy it anyway. And the 90% that it gets right is around 10 times more than most shows will ever achieve. It's a stunning display, and justification, of Joss Whedon's confidence in himself, his employees, and his audience.

    Like Buffy, we're thrown into the music with no advance explanation. Perhaps the most remarkable feat that it pulls off is not losing us the instant Buffy breaks into song, no matter what the music sounds like. Sarah Michelle Gellar is astonishing, not in her (very ordinary) voice, but in her ability to create perfect emotional continuity between episodes. When she sings "Going Through the Motions," she gives it such a naked emotional emptiness that, even with dancing demons and vamp-dust swirling away to music, it can't cross into camp: That would require a zest that Buffy no longer has.

    Luckily, we have the most emotionally available vampire of all time to add some energy. Spike throws down sentimental poetry, somersaults of a coffin, ogles Buffy's crotch, sneers, leers, and bares his heart in a song thats true counterpoint is the choreography: While the music allows for irony, it does not seem to allow for effective lying, and so we (and Buffy) hear his demands to "let me rest in peace!" in contrast to his following her everywhere she goes. It's not surprising, then, that he delivers the most ironic lines of the ensemble piece "Walk Through the Fire": "I hope she fries, I'm free if that bitch dies!/I'd better help her out."

    Irony also plays an obvious role in Tara's big number, "Under Your Spell," as well as its minor-key reprise. Being under Willow's figurative spell is a happy and wholesome concept; being under a literal spell is a horrific violation of personal autonomy. It's interesting that Whedon chose to make so many truths come out in the same episode, even where music is not involved in their discovery, as is the case with Tara and Willow's spell of forgetfulness. In the case of "Standing in Your Way," Giles's confession of his belief that he's enabling Buffy's emotional immaturity, only the audience, and possibly Tara, get the message: Buffy's increasing emotional isolation means that she barely notices he might have said something.

    Alyson Hannigan somehow got away without singing much, but her face when confronted by Buffy's description of her resurrection, and the darkness behind her simple but Sweet-frightening line, "Get out," earn her her payday. From a rational perspective, it would seem that Willow and Sweet both think she has the advantage over him and that she could nullify his claim to Dawn; unfortunately, the Scoobies are well past rational thought at this point. Only Spike retains the focus to even stop Buffy from dancing out her pain to the point of self-immolation.

    The "dance ?til you burn" plot point is intriguing, not just as a means of creating suspense, but because it leaves open the question of whether or not Sweet's explanation ("All these melodies, they go on way too long") is sufficient. After all, not all the people who sing or dance, even the ones who do it hard, come close to combusting. See above about Spike doing gymnastics on a coffin? he still doesn't start to smoke. While we don't know the deep feelings of Sweet's random victims, we do know that Buffy approaches the point of combustion during "Give Me Something to Sing About," in which she confesses her disillusionment with life and longing for Heaven. I headcanon that self-immolation is a result of throwing oneself into the musical expression of suicidal desires, rather than being a universal inevitability for those under Sweet's influence. Recall that when Tara sang about her passion for Willow, they either teleported themselves (something Tara would, based on her comments in other episodes, probably consider a misuse of magic) or were teleported by Sweet's magic into their bedroom. Dawn sings, "Does anybody even notice/Does anybody even care," right before coming face to face with Sweet, who definitely notices her; although her putting on the amulet might account for it, he had been summoned by the spellcaster before the strangeness started.

    It's such a good episode that I feel churlish for pointing out my quibbles, but I'm gonna do it anyway, because that's the kind of fan I am.

    Sure, "I'll Never Tell" is funny, and Joss Whedon probably got a kick out of having a character say "penis" in prime time. Still, other songs are just as funny, or augmented by funny visuals, while providing much more insight into the characters' secrets. I don't think that Xander's beady eyes or Anya's hairy toes have much to do with their real relationship issues. This would've been a great time to address some of Xander's anxieties about whether his upbringing prepared him to be a decent husband to anyone.

    I also have a "huh?" reaction to S6 Xander deliberately casting a spell for "songs and games" without any investigation into its consequences. He did the irresponsible-magic thing in S2′s "Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered," and expressed genuine regret. Further, I think he's brave enough and confident enough at this point in the show to admit his mistake earlier than he does. I've seen people try to make a case that he never performed the spell and is lying to protect Dawn, but I disagree. If you listen to his sleepy muttering on the recliner in his "Selfless" flashback, which takes place during Sweet's period of influence on Sunnydale, it's a bunch of excuses for performing the summoning. It was him, and he found out that fact well before the showdown at the Bronze. It's kind of typical of his behavior throughout this season, but it's also typical of why I think he's badly written in the last two seasons. He's there to occasionally provide a plot point or illustrate a moral, not to develop organically like the show's favored characters.

    OK? The Scoobies and Dawn? WTF? The Scoobies won't even let her read one of the books kept in the first-floor shelves that are available to the buying public? I get that the writers are pushing overprotective!Buffy to make Dawn's coming-of-age scene in "Grave" more dramatic, but it would've made more sense to show the Scoobies keeping her out of the not-for-sale books, like the one marked Darkest Magicks that Willow uses in "Tough Love." We still would've gotten the impression that they had a double standard about minors learning dangerous magic, instead of the impression that they were all flat-out nuts.

    Dawn's song is lame TBH. IIRC, Michelle Trachtenberg asked Joss Whedon to let her dance (which she does quite well) more than she sang, but her few lines don't tell us anything that isn't already obvious to anyone even vaguely interested in Dawn, in-universe or out. I would've like to to have seen her drop a couple of lines about what her compulsion feels like. After all, it's her reference point for appreciating Buffy's secrecy about banging Spike in "Entropy," so I'm doubting that it was a shame-free habit for her. This episode is full of reveals; why isn't Dawn's kleptomania one of them?

    I'm always distracted by Tara's skirt in the "You make me come-plete!" scene. The camera angle allows us to see the upper portion of it, and it's perfectly smooth. If Willow is doing anything down there, you'd expect some rumpling or lumpiness. I can't figure out what they could be doing that would not involve moving the fabric at least a little. Am I overthinking it? Yeah, probably? but the problem would have been so easily avoided by just pointing the camera a little higher.
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