Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Seven Review
Warning: This review will attempt to divulge as few spoilers for Season 7 as possible, but assumes that you have already seen up to the end of Season 6.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show I discovered relatively late in its lifespan. I had seen a few episodes on TV here and there over the years, but it was not until the middle of Season 6 that I started watching it regularly. Within the space of a couple of months I had worked my way through the DVD sets of the first five seasons, thoroughly enjoying it overall. The show never had a massive audience, but it gained a small yet intensely loyal following over the years. Fans appreciated its clever use of metaphor and employment of storylines and plot twists that most TV shows would never touch in a million years. At the end of virtually every season it ran the risk of being cancelled, and so it perhaps didn’t come as too much of a surprise when it was announced that the seventh season would be the last. After dealing with many mature themes and showing excellent overall judgment (despite the generally derided and admittedly foolhardy decisions made during Season 6), expectations were unsurprisingly high for the show’s writers to deliver a knock-out final season. The results, however, were not quite what a lot of people expected.
The season starts off optimistically enough, with Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) training her sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) in the ways of the Slayer. Xander (Nicholas Brendon) is now a successful manager in his construction company, Anya (Emma Caulfield) is once again a vengeance demon, albeit not a very happy one, and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) is in England with Giles (Anthony Head), “studying how to not kill people”. But their (supposedly) most formidable foe yet soon rears its ugly head in the form of the First Evil, a non-corporeal force that has the ability to assume the identity of any dead creatures… which includes, among other characters, vampires, as well as Buffy, who as we all know was six feet under this time last year. The First’s servants are rampaging across the world, killing potential Slayers and their Watchers. Eventually Giles shows up at the Summers residence with a rag-tag bunch of possible Slayers in tow, and tasks Buffy with both training them and defeating the First.
That’s the theory, at least. In reality, the First turns out to be a rather pathetic villain: it can’t touch anyone, it can’t really do anything at all without the help of its servants. Early on in the season, when no-one knows what it is, it is set up as a powerful force, for example appearing to Willow and coming close to convincing her to commit suicide. As the season progresses, however, it becomes clear that it is little more than a gloating force, an irritant that hangs about and makes snide remarks while assuming various identities. The real danger, it would seem, comes from the Ubervampires that are ready to spill out of the Hellmouth, and when Buffy and co actually come face to face with this army, you end up wondering what all the fuss was about, considering that they seem to die even more easily than regular Vampires.
It would seem that neither Joss Whedon nor Marti Noxon were particularly active when it came to calling the shots (Whedon was off supervising his short-lived pet project Firefly, and Noxon wisely chose to downplay her involvement in the show after bearing the brunt of the blame for the Season 6 debacle), leaving the four co-executive producers (count ’em) to effectively run the show with no real consensus of direction between them. All too often the writers seem to force the story in an unnatural direction, rather than allowing it to go the way dictated by the characters. As a result, the narrative meanders, plot points established in one episode are abandoned in the next one (just look at the inconsistency of having the episode Him immediately after Selfless), and characters act with conflicting motives. Despite a promising start with some excellent episodes, throughout the rest of the season, the plot crashes and burns with the aforementioned inconsistencies, and the baffling sidelining of a number of the show’s mainstays in favour of bland or clichéd new additions. The character arc of Xander, for instance, is completely non-existent, with the writers seemingly having given up attempting to develop him in any way after they turned him into a selfish idiot towards the end of Season 6. The new Xander gets nothing to do except look smug and give pep-talks, which makes the introduction of Andrew into the Scooby Gang completely baffling, as he is essentially an exaggeration of Xander. Giles, too, behaves in a completely out of character way, turning into a stuffy, “by the book” Watcher – something which completely undermines all his character development from Seasons 1 to 5 and the first episodes of Season 6.
The worst of these new characters is Kennedy (Iyari Limon), a one-note personality who is paired up with Willow (supposedly despite Alyson Hannigan’s protests). Watching Hannigan act alongside Limon is a painful experience, as Limon’s abilities are decidedly limited and the pair have absolutely no chemistry. Worse still, the legacy of Tara (Amber Benson – a vastly superior actor) is unceremoniously tossed aside and forgotten, to the extent that the woman whose death last season caused Willow to go on a rampage to destroy the world is not even mentioned beyond the episode in which Willow and Kennedy fall in “love”. Perhaps I’m just being bitter, but if Whedon and co.’s intention was to make audiences forget the phenomenally bad idea of killing off Tara (which was itself merely a plot device and a pathetic attempt to inject some life into what had become a thoroughly tedious season), then they failed miserably. She was pretty much the only character in Season 6 who didn’t digress into a self-pitying, drooling cipher, and her presence is sorely missed her. The story goes that Amber Benson (wisely) refused to return as an evil incarnation of Tara, so Whedon’s response was to craft the “anti-Tara” – which presumably extends to character depth and acting ability. The result is that Kennedy is more an insult than anything else.
With bland new characters taking screen time away from the original gang, the show essentially becomes “The Adventures of Buffy and Spike”, as they are the only members of the core group to get anything resembling a real storyline. Unfortunately, the treatment of Spike’s character is something of a cop-out. As most people know by now, Season 6 ended with his soul being returned to him. The story of the soulless vampire who was able to overcome his base instincts was an original and well-handled one, and the decision to ensoul him seems to make a mockery of his previous character development. I feel that having him remain an unsouled vampire would have created a much more powerful message, but clearly the Powers That Be didn’t agree. Add to that the fact that souled Spike doesn’t seem any different from unsouled Spike in terms of personality and behaviour, and you have to wonder what the point of the whole thing was, except to drive home the rather dubious message of “evil can’t be changed”.
The much talked-about final episode ends up being something of an anticlimax when compared to those of previous seasons. While impressive on a technical level, the plot is vapid and quite unfulfilling, and it commits the cardinal sin of hitting the continued metaphor of female empowerment with all the subtlety of a blundering rhinoceros. The season (and the series) does manage to end on a reasonably high note; it’s just a shame that the final stages of the journey are so laboured and disappointing. It is a sad fact that, despite all the good intentions of the final episode, the majority of the episodes that preceded it are so average, not to mention out of character, that the sense of triumph is lessened.
So is there anything good in this Season? Yes, actually. The acting of the regulars is, for the most part, as good as ever, although Sarah Michelle Gellar continues the same somewhat distanced performance she gave in Season 6, and manages to be become quite annoying indeed by the end of the Season – although, to be fair, this is as much to do with the way her character is written as anything. The show’s supporting cast has always been excellent, to the extent that supposedly “lesser” characters often upstaged its heroine. In particular, Alyson Hannigan, James Marsters (evil vampire gone good Spike) and Anthony Head can always be relied on to deliver heartfelt and believable performances. As a character, Marsters’ Spike gets a great deal of screen time this season, and while opinion remains very divided on the decision to make him a regular, his story arc throughout the years is, in my opinion, one of the show’s most intriguing and well-handled (at least until Season 7 - and even so he still manages to be a thoroughly interesting character). It’s also a pleasure to see the wonderful Eliza Dushku reprising her role as the feisty rogue slayer Faith for the final few episodes, even if much of her previous character development ends up being shot to pieces. I would also argue that many of the season’s initial episodes show a lot of promise, suggesting a return to more light-hearted “monster of the week” antics after the morbidity of Season 6. It’s just a shame this doesn’t last long.
It seems to be almost universally agreed that, after Season 5, the show suffered a massive drop in quality. Season 6 at least had Once More with Feeling and something in the region of 10-12 reasonable episodes before moroseness truly set in. Season 7, in contrast, has perhaps 7 or 8 decent episodes and at least 16 clunkers. People may tear into Season 6 as the show’s darkest hour, but as far as I’m concerned it comes out the winner when stacked against what followed.
Nonetheless, Season 7 of Buffy remains somewhat better than almost every other TV show. This isn’t so much praise of Season 7 as in indictment of TV in general, but the fact remains that it was still able to hold my attention, albeit on a sporadic basis. There is part of me that wonders if it would have been better to have ended Buffy with Season 5, before the show sank into mediocrity, but when I think about it, I don’t think I would trade these two often dull but occasionally brilliant seasons for anything. I would urge fans to complete their collection and decide this season’s merits for themselves, but I am in no doubt that Buffy the Vampire Slayer took a nose-dive during the final two seasons – at about the same time that creator Joss Whedon seemingly lost interest in the show and turned his attention to other projects. Make of that what you will.
All 22 episodes are presented anamorphically in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This is supposedly not the show’s correct aspect ratio (it is meant to be viewed in 1.33:1), and at one point I even considered giving this aspect of the review a big fat zero, but it is in fact a little more complicated than that. Although creator Joss Whedon prefers the fullscreen versions (in fact I don’t think he has ever actually seen the widescreen versions), the show seems to have been shot in widescreen in order to make it HDTV-compatible. The result of this is that one day the show will be broadcast in this ratio, regardless of Whedon’s wishes, so it stands to reason that the show was shot to ensure that it would work in widescreen, although obviously no important information would be missing if viewed in a 4x3 ratio. The end result is that the widescreen ratio rarely causes any problems, and under most circumstances actually looks better, at least in my opinion. I realize that this is an area full of debate, however, so I think viewers will have to make up their own minds whether they want to buy a widescreen version or wait for the fullscreen US release, which should be out later this year.
Image quality is pretty much on par with that of Season 6: not perfect, but surprisingly good for a TV show. The level of detail is mostly fine, with a tad too much edge enhancement for my tastes, but pretty acceptable overall. (Some episodes look slightly worse: The Killer in Me and Lies My Parents Told Me, for example, have excessive edge enhancement.) The image is surprisingly grainy, resulting in a hard-edged, film-like look. Overall it doesn’t have the smoothness or level of detail that the R1 release of Angel Season 3 has, but on the other hand the American DVDs of Buffy and Angel are far more filtered and less film-like than their European and Australian counterparts. The colour palette this season is decidedly earthy, with a lot of browns and reds, which is maintained well with these transfers. Compression artefacts are a non-issue. Shadow detail is not always very good, but bearing in mind that this is a TV show, the results are often quite impressive.
The only sound mix provided is a Dolby Surround 2.0 track, preserving the audio format of the original TV broadcasts. It’s actually pretty good, with decent depth and bass. There is little in terms of rear channel effects, besides backing up the music, but watching the battle scenes in the final episodes results in a surprisingly enveloping experience.
The score this season is by Robert Duncan, replacing the unfortunately named Thomas Wanker, who composed the previous two seasons. The emphasis is definitely on the dramatic this time round, and especially in the final episode, it reaches decidedly epic heights.
Subtitles are provided in English and English for the hard of hearing but, for some reason, Nordic subtitles are missing this time round.
The menus are very nicely designed and quite easy to navigate, conforming more to the look of the Season 5 menus than those of Season 6. The use of Robert Duncan’s bombastic score from the final episode on every single menu screen does get a bit repetitive, however.
Season 7 uses the same kind of packaging used for the UK box sets from Season 2 onward: an elegant, book-style affair inside a cardboard slip cover.
The Buffy DVD sets have tended to be quite variable in the area of extras, but by Season 6 there was a decidedly marked improvement over the earliest offerings. Season 7 doesn’t have quite the level of quality or quantity reached with the previous set, but nonetheless it has some interesting material to offer.
First up are audio commentaries on seven episodes, featuring a range of speakers, including writers, director and actors. This is the first time any of the cast has featured in the commentaries for Buffy DVDs, and I approached this with some trepidation, since in my experience actors tend to be some of the most vacuous and uninteresting commentators out there.
Lessons - Creator/writer/executive producer Joss Whedon and director/co-executive producer David Solomon team up for a rather laid-back affair. Some interesting titbits are imparted, but overall neither speaker sounds particularly interested in what they’re talking about. This is definitely the worst of the commentaries that the usually informative Whedon has contributed to.
Selfless - This commentary features writer Drew Goddard and director/co-executive producer David Solomon. This episode seems to be a fan favourite but I must confess I find it somewhat overrated (its highlight, for me, is Emma Caulfield speaking fluent Swedish for the opening five minutes), although the two speakers do manage to highlight a lot of these reasons for it being so popular. Goddard in particular brings an interesting slant to the proceedings, since it was the first episode he ever wrote, of any show. One especially interesting thing is that he finally confirms that the character Halfrek is indeed the same as Cecily, the 18th century woman with whom Spike was obsessed in the flashbacks in Season 5’s Fool For Love – a subject that has been intensely debated by many fans.
Conversations with Dead People - My personal favourite episode of the season, the participants here are director Nick Marck, writer/co-executive producer Jane Espenson, writer Drew Goddard and actors Danny Strong (Jonathan) and Tom Lenk (Andrew). This is a lively track, with all the speakers chipping in with lots of anecdotes. Some interesting trivia revealed includes the fact that there were actually four writers: Jane Espenson wrote the Dawn scenes, Drew Goddard handled Jonathan and Andrew, Joss Whedon wrote Buffy and Marti Noxon wrote Willow. They also discuss Amber Benson’s non-presence in the episode (she was supposed to have the role that eventually went to Azura Skye), although predictably they gloss over the actual reason for this.
The Killer in Me - Writer/story editor Drew Z. Greenberg and director/co-executive producer David Solomon provide a relatively informative but nonetheless average commentary on what I consider one of the worst episodes of the season and the show as a whole for a number of reasons.
Lies my Parents Told Me - Featuring writer/co-executive producer/director David Fury, writer Drew Goddard and actors James Marsters (Spike) and DB Woodside (Principal Wood), I expected this to be one of the more entertaining commentaries, given the participants involved. Sadly, it let me down badly. This is definitely the most boring commentary on the disc, with all the speakers seeming quite lethargic and/or nervous. Even the normally verbose Marsters says very little.
Dirty Girls - Without a doubt the funniest commentary in the set, writer Drew Goddard and actor Nicholas Brendon (Xander) provide an often self-mocking overview of both the episode and the show, often throwing in some very interesting information (Goddard, for example, points out that at one point a spin-off featuring Spike and Faith was planned – too bad it didn’t work out). Occasionally the two speakers run out of things to say, but overall this remains my favourite commentary of Season 7, since it has an energy that the other tracks fail to match.
Chosen - Whedon returns for the final commentary on the final episode, sounding a little disinterested but with a reasonable amount of things to say. He makes half-hearted attempts to address some of the criticism levelled against the finale (such as why the likes of Anya and Dawn are able to easily kill several Ubervamps when, earlier in the season, Buffy spent the course of two episodes trying to kill just one), but generally brushes it under the carpet with a statement that the message of the show is more important than consistency (too bad the message was botched, then).
Next up is a collection of featurettes:
Buffy: It’s Always Been About the Fans - Various fans discuss what they liked about the show and the extent to which they supported it, including web rings and conventions with members of the cast and crew as guests.
Buffy: Full Circle - This is the usual overview of the entire season, featuring extensive discussions by several key members of the cast and crew of the major story arcs for the season. Reasonably interesting, but a lot of this material is somewhat redundant assuming you’ve already watched the episodes.
Buffy 101: Studying the Slayer - This featurette takes a more academic look at the show, with a number of professors and lecturers discussing some of the deeper themes and asserting its legitimacy as a text to be studied in a serious way. I found this to be a very interesting feature, and wish it had gone into more detail.
Generation S - Members of the crew discuss the oft-disparaged Potentials, discussing their supposed importance in the show, interspersed with comments from a number of the actors on what it was like to appear in the show. It’s a shame this featurette essentially ignores the overwhelming level of criticism levelled against these characters.
The Last Sundown - Here, Joss Whedon gives various anecdotes about what the show meant to him and runs through his top 10 favourite episodes of all time (incidentally, all but one are episodes he personally wrote and directed).
Outtakes Reel - A behind the scenes look at cast members flubbing their lines and goofing around. Not particularly informative or funny, but still worth a watch.
Buffy Wraps - This featurette focuses on the wrap party that took place after the final episode was completed, and includes anecdotes from a number of the cast (Sarah Michelle Gellar is, as usual, nowhere to be seen), as well as an extremely drunk (or stoned?) Joss Whedon. Quite amusing and, in many ways, more than a little poignant.
Trailers for Buffy Seasons 2-6 and Angel Seasons 1-3, as well as the Chaos Bleeds video game, the Slayer Collection DVD compilations, and the original Buffy movie are also included.
English subtitles are included for all the featurettes and commentaries.
The way the show concludes is definitely a disappointment, in my opinion, but I’m sure fans will want to complete their collections. The set is a very well-produced affair, both in terms of disc content and packaging. That said, the pricing of the set (RRP £79.99, although it can be purchased for around £55 at many online stores) is still incredibly steep, and is not justified by Fox’s claims of the packaging being expensive to produce.