"Lessons"/"Beneath You" S2002 / E1 & 2
- B+ Community Grade
Well, gang, here we are. The end of the line for Buffy. The oft-maligned, only sparsely defended seventh season. As always, I’m going into this with an open mind. Given the generally low opinion of the last Buffy season, there’s a strong likelihood that I could be pleasantly surprised from week to week. Or I could be drumming my fingers, waiting for Angel. I’m mainly looking for some high adventure, some moments of levity, and a chance to bid a fond farewell to some characters I love.
But hey, I won’t say no to a little globe-hopping either, as in:
Istanbul! Where a young woman flees through the night, pursued by creepy men in hooded robes. She slips down an alley and climbs onto a roof, but one of her pursuers is already there. He shoves her down to the street, where his cohorts stab her with a knife.
England! Where Willow is rehabilitating with Giles and his coven, learning that the magic is an inextricable part of her—not “a hobby or an addiction”—and that she needs to respect how all the energies of the world are connected if she’s going to wield that power responsibly. But Willow’s not sure she’s worthy of redemption. “I killed people, Giles,” she says. “I haven’t forgotten,” Giles responds, quickly and coldly. He asks, “Do you want to be punished?” She reponds, weakly, “I want to be Willow.”
Sunnydale! Where the high school has finally been rebuilt, which is good news, but on the same old Hellmouth site, which is terrible news. Even worse: Dawn’s now a student there, which is worrying Buffy to no end, even though Xander’s around the school doing construction work, and can protect her sister. As it turns out, Buffy’s worries are well-founded. No sooner do she and Dawn set foot on school grounds than terrifying, zombie-looking, ghost-like creatures begin to plague them.
Buffy’s seventh season opener doesn’t waste a lot of time on reintroductions; it throws our heroes back into the mix fairly quick. And though “Lessons” is vague about what major threat Buffy will be facing this year, we do know that is major. “Something’s rising,” Halfrek says at one point. “This is a bad time to be a good guy.”
Anyway, there’s no real time to introduce the main characters when there are new characters to bring in. First up: Principal Robin Wood (played by D.B. Woodside), who seems nice, but is a little suspicious because he already knows about the Summers girls, and because he has his office where Giles’ library used to be (a.k.a. the locus point of the Hellmouth). We also meet one of Dawn’s new teachers, Mr. Lonegrin, and two of her classmates: Kit Holburn (played by Alex Breckenridge) and Carlos Trejo (played by David Zepeda). Since none of the latter three have Wikipedia entries, I’m going to assume that we’ll either never see them again, or that they’ll mainly be background types, not integral to the ongoing plot. But for this episode at least, Kit and Carlos matter, as they join Dawn and Buffy in being able to see the weird apparitions—the ones who look at Buffy and hiss, “You didn’t save me.”
So the kids head into the basement—even though there is a sign which clearly states: “No Student Access”—and Buffy heads after them. There, behind the apparitions, Buffy is surprised to find Spike, looking very un-Spike-y. His hair is shaggy and un-dyed. His chest is all sliced up. And he’s babbling like a lunatic. Spike does pull it together long enough to explain to Buffy that the things she’s seeing aren’t ghosts (or zombies), but “manifest spirits.” This means two things: they can be physically harmed, and they can be eliminated if someone destroys the talisman that conjured them. Buffy gets Dawn to work on the former—Dawn fashions a crude weapon out of bricks and a bag—and Xander to work on the latter. Soon, the day is saved, Carlos and Kit are gushing that Buffy’s the coolest mom ever, and Principal Wood is offering Buffy a low-paying part-time job as a counselor for the school’s wayward youth.
I wouldn’t call “Lessons” one of the best Buffy episodes ever, but it’s a solid start to the season, helped along by a snappy Joss Whedon script and provocative intimations about what’s coming this year. We’re apparently going to wrap up Buffy by contemplating being stuck, with the heroine back at Sunnydale High and repeating herself to some degree. (See also: the opening scene of the episode, which has a vampire unable to pull himself out of his grave.) And we’re going to be dealing with old evils, coming back up from the ground. (Again: that opening vampire, proving himself to be both amusing and thematically useful.)
And I guess we’re not done with Spike, who has the most emotionally powerful moments in “Lessons” (aside from perhaps the Giles/Willow scene) when he babbles to himself after Buffy leaves about how, “I had a speech…,” clearly chastening himself for not coming back to Sunnydale as the newly re-ensouled superman that he’d hoped to be for her. Unless he’s hallucinating, it’s Spike who gets the first glimpse of what might be this season’s Big Bad: a shape-shifting thing that takes the form of previous Buffy baddies, including Warren, Glory, Adam, The Mayor, Drusilla and The Master. Most disturbingly, this thing ends by taking the form of Buffy herself, echoing a line from the beginning of the episode: “It's about power.”
Will the ultimate villain of this final Buffy season be the title character?
Frankfurt! Where a young woman who looks a little like Franka Potente in Run Lola Run… well, runs. She flees the robed assassins from “Lessons,” while Run Lola Run-style techno music blares on the soundtrack. Then she too is felled by the robed ones, and as she dies from her puncture wounds, she sputters, “From beneath you, it devours.”
England! Where Willow, who has sensed the brewing trouble back in Sunnydale, is terrified of what will become of her when she returns home to join the fight. Will she turn evil again? Will she be useless? Will her friends turn her away? Giles reassures her: “You may not be wanted, but you will be needed.”
Sunnydale! Where the remaining Scoobies investigate a lost dog.
Well, that’s putting it a little mildly. Xander encounters Sunnydale newcomer Nancy (who also doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, so I’m not going to take her flirtation with Xander too seriously), and learns that her little dog has been eaten by a giant worm. From beneath her, it devoured. Xander takes her to Buffy and Dawn, even though Nancy asks, “Shouldn’t we call the police or something?” They’re also joined by Spike, who’s been properly re-Spiked, hair and all. His presence annoys Xander and angers Dawn (who’s mainly mad that Buffy didn’t mention that she met Spike in the basement of Sunnydale High), while leaving Buffy in cautious mode. Spike seems okay—“Make use of me if you want,” he says, as he helps Buffy check out the trail of the worm—but Buffy keeps flashing back to his attempted rape, and isn’t ready to trust any kindly overtures.
Buffy is right to be unsure. While Xander’s interrogating Nancy, he finds out that she has an abusive ex-boyfriend named Ronny, and that she may have gotten help with her Ronny problem from Anya. When Buffy, Spike, Nancy and Xander go to see Anya at The Bronze (where she’s busy trying to be a good vengeance demon), Anya admits that she turned Ronny into a monster—a Sluggoth, to be exact—and that she may have overshot the mark. Then Anya notices that Spike has a soul, and is about to spill the beans when he suddenly gets violent, throws her around, and undoes any goodwill he may have briefly built up with Buffy and the rest of the group.
I didn’t find “Beneath You” as easily likable as “Lessons,” though it had some nice moments of levity, and a good bit of derring-do when Buffy swings in on a rope and saves Nancy from Sluggoth Ronny in a back alley. The worm-scenes would’ve been better if the special effects weren’t so cruddy—honestly, the creature almost looks like a cut-and-paste from an old monster movie—but I dug the idea of extending the theme of evil rising by making it literal. (And the fact that the evil is actually some dude, not a demon per se, is another nice touch.) I also liked the way that Spike skewers the Sluggoth, but only seconds after Anya changes it back to Ronny, which further messes with Spike’s fragile mind.
My main hesitation when it comes to “Beneath You” is that so much of the episode is rooted in the behavior of Spike, and I’m not yet out of wait-and-see mode on that character. Like Buffy, I don’t want to get emotionally invested in Spike and then get burned again. So I watched the big final scene—with a raving Spike pacing around a church while Buffy watches—with some impatience, especially as it began to drag on.
That said, there’s a lot of real heartbreak in those moments, as Spike sputters that putting on his Spike “costume” didn’t help, and as he wanders through the shadows of the sanctuary before draping himself over a cross, which burns his skin. Such a powerful image: a symbol of salvation, bringing excruciating pain.
- When asked by Willow if there’s anything he doesn’t know everything about, he replies, “Synchronized swimming. Complete mystery to me.”
- Buffy gives Dawn her most important weapon: a cell phone.
- Loved Buffy’s maternal banter with Dawn in “Lessons,” from her urging her sister to eat breakfast by saying, “Go talk with your mouth full!” to her warning Dawn, “Stay away from hyena-people, lizardy-type athletes… and if you see anyone invisible….” To all that Dawn mutters, “I know. You never see it coming, the stake is not the power, To Serve Man is a cookbook. I love you. Go away.”
- Actually, Dawn’s very likable throughout “Lessons,” even when she’s giving a smart-ass introductory speech to her classmates in which says: “I love to dance, I like music. I’m very into Britney Spears’ early work, y’know, before she sold out. So mostly her finger-painting, macaroni art. Very underrated. Favorite activities include not ever having to do this again.”
- Dawn, guessing at the strengths and weaknesses of the vampire rising in front of her eyes: “He might not know all those fancy martial arts skills that they inevitably seem to pick up?”
- Also in “Lessons,” Anya and Halfrek suffer through some coffeeshop folk so that Anya can hear about how her fellow vengeance demons have started to call her “Ms. Soft Serve.” Hallie also reminds Anya of her previous reigns of terror, including what she did for “Mrs. Czolgosz.” Is that the wife of William McKinley’s assassin, and the man responsible for one of my favorite Stephen Sondheim songs?
- Xander, talking up Sunnydale to Nancy: “Come for the food, stay for the dismemberment.” Nancy: “There’s good food?”
- Nancy, trying to get a handle on the relationships between the Scoobies: “Is there anyone here who hasn’t slept together?”
- Dawn tries to make herself feel better by saying, “I’m command central!” But she’s actually stuck at the house doing homework while everyone else faces the Sluggoth danger.
- The sound quality seems especially bad on these S7 discs. I may have try switching to Netflix next week.
- Also next week: Angel’s back in the mix. The air order for these two seasons is really funky; just warning you in advance. Check here to follow along.