So, what does resurrection mean, exactly?
“Bargaining” wrestles with that question on multiple levels, including a meta one. Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s sixth season was its first on a new network, UPN, and even though the continued existence of the show was never really in doubt when Buffy and the WB parted ways—at least according to what I’ve read about the situation—there’s still an element of rebirth in play here. For one thing, in 2001, not everybody had access to both the WB and UPN. (The main reason I missed Buffy the first time around was that I didn’t live in a place with the WB until 1999.) So Whedon and company entered the season knowing that they’d be losing longtime viewers and playing to new ones. Add in the way Season Five ended, with the death of the show’s protagonist, and there’s a real sense that Buffy is starting fresh as this episode begins. Buffy’s back from the dead. But is it the same?
One of the things I appreciated most about the double-length “Bargaining” is that while in many ways it feels like a Buffy episode—it’s funny, and emotionally resonant, and frequently holds to that hushed tone that makes Buffy so unlike other genre shows—it also acknowledges, from start to finish, how out-of-synch everything has become.
On the surface, all seems reasonably well. In Buffy’s absence, the Scoobies are still patrolling, with Willow telepathically guiding Spike, Tara, Giles, Xander and Anya from above as they track and stake demons. But mistakes do get made. When Tara tries to confuse a portly vampire by blowing powdered Sobri root at him, it just makes him peppy. (“Do you think he was taking prescription medication?” she asks. “Good God, what if he attempts to operate heavy machinery?” Giles deadpans in reply.) And what should be the gang’s secret weapon—the Buffy-bot—isn’t responding as well as it should to Willow’s programming. That is, unless Willow wanted the bot to treat the bad guys to snappy banter like, “That’ll put marzipan in your pie-plate, Bingo.”
The glitchiness of the Buffy-bot exemplifies what I liked about this episode. The bot looks like Buffy. In some ways she’s better than Buffy. She’s loyal, and helpful, and much less angsty. She makes cute, comical errors. But her very presence seems to make everyone around her sad. Spike has demanded that Willow deprogram all of the bot’s previous affections for him, while Willow is both protective of and exasperated by the thing. (When B-bot tries to answer the phone, Willow suggest that she let the machine—“the other machine”—take it.) Only Dawn seems not to mind having a walking, talking, life-size model of her sister around; she actually snuggles up with the Buffy-bot at night.
Given how conflicted everyone feels about the robot version of Buffy, maybe that should be a sign that they shouldn’t do what they’re secretly planning to do: Raise Buffy from the dead.
But no. Willow’s been assembling what she needs for the spell—including an Urn Of Osiris, which Anya gets off eBay—and when Xander expresses some trepidation, Willow snaps, “Nobody’s changing their minds. Period.” When Xander asks, “Who made you the boss of the group?” Anya reminds him, “You did… you said ‘let’s vote’ and it was unanimous.” (Tara: “You made her that little plaque that says ‘Boss Of Us.’”) But Xander’s right to be cautious. Later we see Willow call forth a cute baby deer, and then gut it. And when the Scoobies are actually putting the resurrection spell into action, Willow’s skin erupts with tiny cuts, and a snake comes out of her mouth. When Xander sees how dark the magic they’re all involved with has become, he’s pissed.
How are they able to cast such a powerful, inadvisable spell in the first place? Blame Giles, who has been feeling morose and useless in the wake of Buffy’s death, even as he acknowledges that all slayer/watcher relationships end this way, and that, technically, “I did my job.” He’s heading back to England, and only after the gang sees him off at the airport—from back in the days when security allowed you to hang out at the gate even when you weren’t flying—do they assemble to attempt to resurrection. (And without Spike and Dawn’s input, I might add… something that I imagine will be significant in the weeks to come.)
The first half of “Bargaining” is a lot stronger than the second. Around the midpoint, Willow’s spell is interrupted by a demon biker gang named The Hellions—led by a mountainous, pierced beast named Razor—who’ve come to Sunnydale to wreak havoc, having gotten word that the home of The Hellmouth is now only protected by a mechanical version of The Slayer. I do like the Romero-esque quality of a well-laid-plan being undone by random hoodlums, but the scenes of mayhem felt prolonged to me, as though the Buffy writers (Marti Noxon and David Fury, as credited) really only had enough story for an episode-and-a-half.
That said, there’s a lot to like about “Bargaining, Pt. 2,” including the actual return of our undead heroine. Although Willow’s spell gets cut off when The Hellions run over the Urn Of Osiris, Buffy’s soul does re-enter her body—her rotting body, inside its casket. The body quickly gets restored to its pre-death state (though the hair’s a little longer), but since the Scoobies have been scattered by The Hellions, Buffy’s left to scratch her way out of the coffin and dig her way out of the grave all by herself. Then she stumbles, in a daze, through a Sunnydale that’s been smashed and torched by the bikers. Finally she comes across The Hellions, in the process of ripping the Buffy-bot apart. It’s no wonder that at the end of the episode Buffy asks the most obvious question: “Is this Hell?”
Before that happens though, Buffy has business to take care of. She eventually snaps out of her catatonia, tells The Hellions that she doesn’t recognize their bullshit MC, and kicks their asses, with her friends’ help. And then she runs off, and finds the scaffolding where she leapt to her death in “The Gift.” Dawn climbs up after her, and tries to convince her not to kill herself again, in a replay of the S5 finale. (One that drags on a bit too long, in my opinion.) Eventually, before the structure collapses, Buffy grabs Dawn and a nearby cable and swings down to safety, while Dawn sobs, “You’re alive and you’re home!” But there’s no happy epilogue with everybody eating snacks and laughing in the Summers’ kitchen. Instead, we close on a shot of Buffy’s face, completely blank. Yikes.
I wouldn’t put it past the Buffy writers to turn something triumphant—a rebirth!—into a curse that haunts our heroes for weeks on end, or maybe even to the end of the season, or to the end of the series. Unlike a lot of TV shows, Buffy tends to weigh all the possible impacts of a decision and then pursue the one that’s the most devastating. Not for nothing does Tara suggest to Willow that maybe The Hellions arrived because the spell wasn’t supposed to work. (And back on that meta level, I have to wonder if that reflects the feelings of the Buffy writers, talking amongst themselves about the show coming back.)
But at the same time, if you’re not alive and in this world, then what are you? What’s the alternative? I think my favorite scene in “Bargaining” is when Spike and Dawn find the poor, dismembered Buffy-bot and the machine jolts to life long enough to ask, “Where did I go?” She’s asking about the real Buffy, whom she saw before getting destroyed. But the bot could just as easily be talking about herself, after the demolition. Where did she go?
Stay tuned. I’m curious to know the answer to that question myself.
-I urge you to be gentle with me as I make my way through Buffy S6. I know it’s a divisive season. Some of you hate it; some love it. It’s my pal Scott Tobias’ favorite Buffy season, and since Scott and I tend to have similar tastes in such things, I’m coming into this very optimistic. But outside of a few rough plot details, I don’t know what’s coming, so if I like an episode a lot more—or less—than you, try not to hold it against me. We’re all friends here, right?
-Credits report: Anthony Stewart Head is now just a special guest star. Amber Benson still doesn’t make the opening.
-Spike imagines how it would go if Giles’ life flashed before his eyes: “Cuppa tea, cuppa tea, almost got shagged, cuppa tea.”
-Buffy-bot, unwilling to let a knock-knock joke go: “If we want her to be exactly she’ll never be exactly I know the only really real Buffy is really Buffy and she’s gone who?”
-The B-bot’s uncomprehending earnestness makes her interactions with Dawn’s teachers painful to watch, but other parents misinterpret her comments as germane, so it all turns out okay.
-I love the nuances of Spike’s interactions with Dawn in this episode. He takes care of her—almost obsessively—and tries to impart a little wisdom when he tells Dawn that the educational system is all about turning children into automatons, but that she should go to school anyway because Buffy would’ve wanted her to. But Spike also clearly resents Dawn a little, since she’s ultimately responsible for Buffy’s demise. That’s partly why he watches her so close. Since Buffy died for Dawn, Spike’s damn well going to make sure that Dawn doesn’t waste her life, even if Dawn timidly insists, “I’m not The Key… or if I am, I don’t open anything anymore.”
-Before Tara gives Giles the monster finger puppet, she does the Mutant Enemy growl.
-“I happen to be a very powerful Manwich myself.”
-Tara axes Razor. Her first kill!
-“Some of my boys have some anatomical incompatibilities that tend to tear up little girls.”
-Some good comic business as Anya keeps looking for a chance to announce her engagement to Xander, to brighten everyone’s mood. She never does find the right time—at least according to Xander, who keeps stopping her.
-Love the shot of Spike on a motorcycle with the football-helmeted Dawn riding behind. Iconic stuff.
-Any significance to the proliferation of number-shirts in this episode? Willow wore 11, Xander’s 13, and Dawn is 7. (Yes, Daaawn is seven. Daaaaawn is seven! This monkey’s… etc.)
-Next week: Angel, “That Old Gang Of Mine” and Buffy, “After Life.”