Writing the “Best Episode Ever” column isn’t always going to be easy. Before I launched it, I had to be sure I had at least a few aces in my back pocket so I could meet my deadlines. In future weeks, I may have to do research or rewatch some of my TV on DVD collections to double check my candidates. For this week, I’m sticking with something easy.
At least it’s easy for me. Most fans of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” probably each have their own personal favorite episode. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe the one I’ve chosen is universally considered hands down the best episode ever. It surely is a popular choice so I’m not being very controversial.
Joss Whedon broke a lot of new ground on “Buffy” and a lot of individual episodes stand out. He did the mostly silent episode “Hush,” the very real dealing with real death in “The Body,” and “Conversations with Dead People” was like the movie Magnolia done in the world of “Buffy.” “Innocence” may have been the moment we saw what Whedon was really doing, using Angel’s post-coital transformation as a metaphor for the very real horrors of teenage love.
Luckily, Whedon made this very easy for me by creating the single greatest hour ever produced on television. The Best Episode Ever of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” is “Once More with Feeling,” the musical episode. I mean, come on.
Remember, this was back when saying “Let’s do a musical episode” was a joke, or a sign that your show was jumping the shark. “Cop Rock” was still the laughing stock of television. Not only did Whedon show that you could do a musical episode organically in a series, but he wrote a totally awesome musical that stood alone too.
Now I will say something very controversial in “Buffy” circles, and that is that season six is actually my favorite season of the show. With Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) back from the dead and not happy about it, and her season-long nemesis being The Trio, fans of the first five years didn’t care for the nihilism, and felt the gang of geeks were an unworthy foe.
Perhaps being in my early ‘20s at the time, I very much related. This was really the first time Buffy dealt with being an adult in the supernatural milieu. They’d approached it with season four in college and season five dealing with familial relationships, but season six is about when you’re out on your own, it’s not fun anymore and there’s no one to help you. Worse, the people who are trying to help you actually make things harder.
As for the Trio, I always found incompetence scarier than evil. With evil, you know where you stand and how to fight them. Idiots are unpredictable, and the deadly nature of their screwing around was validated when Warren (Adam Busch) pulled a gun.
Season Six also calls us out too. Buffy really does deserve to be done. She’s done enough for the world in five seasons, yet we’re selfish. We want two more years of “Buffy” awesomeness (more, frankly, but we got two more) so we need to own up to demanding more. I accept your challenge, Season Six, and I will take responsibility for a depressed Buffy, and later a scary Willow (Alyson Hannigan).
Buffy was essentially dealing with depression, but rather than a clinical diagnosis, the show gave us a poignant metaphor. Having died in the season 5 finale, Buffy’s well meaning friends brought her back from the dead. You’d think that’s a good thing, but it’s revealed that they pulled her out of heaven. People with clinical depression have to fight their own brain chemicals that are telling them to be sad when there’s really no reason to be. If you’ve actually been to heaven, it’s kind of hard to perk up and enjoy life.
“Once More with Feeling” fits into this story arc beautifully. It didn’t even have to fit for me to consider it the best episode and best hour of television ever. It would be enough to just make a standalone musical that rocks and moves you. Using it to forward these profound themes and shake the character relationships to their cores is extra credit.
The music is basically rock n’ roll, but of the classic rock variety where every song builds to something musically, let alone narratively. I wish there were songwriters making music this layered in general. The compatible overlapping of Giles (Anthony Stewart Head)’ “Standing in the Way” and Tara (Amber Benson)’s “Under Your Spell” reprise harmonizes beautifully and you can understand the words of each song happening simultaneously.
“Going Through the Motions” brilliantly satirizes call and response format both verbally and melodically. “Walk Through the Fire” is a battle cry that should play in rotation at every gym. Finally, “Where Do We Go From Here” builds to such a powerful crescendo, the greatest tragedy is that they cut the song off to go to a dialogue scene. How has no one demanded the full version of “Where Do We Go From Here” in the last 12 years? Also the songs rhyme, except when it’s funnier not to.