Nice beat, easy to stake to – I give it an eight, Rob.
There are screeds to be written, screeds that have been written, about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many of its episodes. Legitimate, thoughtful, insightful screeds1 about a show that told many wonderful stories in many fabulously inventive ways over its seven year run.
I can’t write one of those screeds without tying myself in circular knots of narration and digression, so instead, five awesome things – things worth noting, celebrating, maybe even singing from the rooftops2 – about Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s season 6, episode 7, ‘Once More, With Feeling’:
1) It all fits!
Aside from the 50s-Hollywood opening credits, ‘Once More With Feeling’ doesn’t scream ‘Musical!!’ at the top. There’s a little bit of emphasis in how people move during the dialogue-free opening montage, but it could just be an illustrative sequence – remember, this is the show that got an Emmy nomination for writing for an episode containing only 17 minutes of dialog…
So when Sarah Michelle Gellar idly wanders through a graveyard and begins singing ‘I’m going through the motions…’ it just feels like part of the story. Whedon – who wrote and scored the entire episode – did a solid job of matching song styles and builds to the characters and their places in the plot at that point in time. But beyond the lyrics and tone, all sorts of extant bits of the show were hung on musical tropes and structures. Witness the climax of her song where the dust of a recently vanquished vampire/closeup of slayer’s face that we’ve seen a hundred times becomes a swirls of fairy sparkles right out of a Disney movie.3
And then, in typical Buffy fashion, the normalcy of abnormality isn’t ignored: “So… last night… did anyone else… burst into song?” our heroine asks. The confessions/descriptions of the characters’ previous evening that follow are Whedon-wonderful and the rest of the episode piled on ways to make this a musical episode of Buffy, as opposed to Buffy does a musical.
2) Under Your Spell
Some people point to this song, and episode, as a crucial moment in Tara and Willow’s relationship. Some point out how Buffy put a lesbian relationship front-and-center during primetime and drove it home unapologetically with this love ballad. Some point out how sneakily erotic – Whedon actually called it pornographic – the song and its staging are. I just say that this song made me see Tara as something other than the slightly-older more-maternal version of wallflower-Willow she’d played since her introduction. Amber Benson’s voice is beautiful, and her presence through this song made many sit up and take notice.
3) Moving on.
Whedon is known for his dialogue and Buffy always showcased a wry wit, generally showing instead of telling. Just, sometimes, with… words. You know what I mean. From the tiny piece of the presumably showstopping “They got the mustard out!” to lines like “I was able to examine the body while police were taking witness arias.” this episode is chock-full of strikes, beats, and asides that are delightfully not commented upon as the story trips forward.
And sometimes that sparseness of dialogue spoke volumes. When Buffy finally confronts the main demon he smiles “I love a good entrance.” Her deadpan reply: “How are you with death scenes?” There’s a casual coldness to Buffy in that line – a bit of Faith in her – that subtly nailed where the character was right then.
Speaking of the main demon:
4) How sweet Sweet is.
Three-time Tony-winner Hinton Battle was the high-stepping demonic glue that brought ‘Once More With Feeling’s conceit together. He’s so deliciously on point he dominates my memory of this episode; before rewatching I would have guessed he’s in half of it, but it turns out that’s not even close. Battle has about 11 minutes of screen time as the zoot-suit clad cockeyed demon prince Sweet, featuring just one song and its reprise. But this is definitely a case of quality over quantity – he’s slick, he’s cold, he’s spicy, and he’s evil, getting to sing the episode’s title as well as make lines like “I can bring whole cities to ruin/and still have time to get a soft-shoe in.”4 land both musically and character-wise. Absolutely one of my all-time favorite TV characters.
5) The right side of saccharine.
Buffy dealt with plenty of very big and very heavy issues in and amongst the humor and the camp and the giant serpent monster ruining graduation. Characters had strong emotions and weren’t afraid to share them (although sometimes they were quipped away). Yet a show that simultaneously parodied and embraced the emo soap opera-ness of all shows about high schoolers was constantly at risk of serving up squee-bait that would alienate other viewers.
Enter the secrets-laid-bare-via-song curse that Sweet brought with him to Sunnydale. Buffy zinging off the one liner above helps you get in her head. Buffy singing ‘Give me something to sing about…’ lays out all the hollowness she’s feeling at that moment; if she spent as much time talking, even shouting, about that same hollowness, she’d come off as mopey.
Sometimes music is the only medium to use – ‘Once More With Feeling’ shook up a number of relationships all at once5 yet all of those reveals could have (probably would have) come out at some point via dialogue. But I don’t think here was another way – certainly not a better way – to have Buffy reveal to her friends the epically sad fact that they pulled her out of heaven instead of rescuing her from hell.
- Although plenty do go a biiiit far down the rabbit hole. ↵
- There was no rooftop-singing in this episode I suddenly realize. ↵
- With SMG’s vocals matching that feel as well. ↵
- Say ‘ruin’ as a two syllable word. Eh? Eh? ↵
- Though in some ways it’s actually a thin episode – the song and dance numbers triple the length of what normally zippy dialog would cover, even with the 8 extra minutes the episode got. A lot of storylines advance, but they all advance a (critical) foot. ↵