WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS:
The transition from season 5 into season 6 is the best of the entire series. After the season 5 finale, with its tear jerking “The Gift,” we slam right in with the two hour “Bargaining,” and it’s more or less continuation “After Life.” I’ve never managed to not watch all three of these together because until the end of the third hour things are so unsettled you just have to keep going.
Season 6 is dark, and in my opinion the seven seasons would be ranked 5,6,3,4,2,1,7. With all but 7 being fantastic, and five and six very close. Six is a bit darker, but I’ll give the edge to five just because I like Glory so much and the whole villain bit is more cohesive. But both five and six have almost no “one off” episodes, even those that technically have a monster of the week like “After Life,” or “Hell’s Bells,” are fundamentally crucial to the larger plot. And episode seven of season six is “Once More, With Feeling,” arguably, along with season 5’s “The Body,” the best episode of the entire series.
“Once More, With Feeling” is just mind bogglingly brilliant. Not only is it a musical, sung entirely by the cast and written and scored by Joss Whedon, but it’s a darn good musical. If you are new to Buffy, don’t watch this episode and expect to be wowed — I mean if you like musicals you might like it — but you have to see it in context of the series to really appreciate it. I’ve watched it no less than eight times, and I’ve been spell bound ever time. Plus I hate musicals. First there is the sheer audacity of it: to just up and write a musical episode, complete with MGM musical style titles in the middle of a long running dramatic series. I even own the soundtrack. But then, much more importantly, is how this episode is actually the most central to the season, the one in which everything comes to a head. It has the most plot, the most climax, of any Buffy episode. Nearly every character is pivoting here — and the music makes it happen. Sheer unadulterated genius.
After “Once More, With Feeling,” things grow really dark. This season our nominal villains are the Trio, three geeks who have ganged up to be super villains. They’re pretty funny, although not nearly as menacing as the mayor or Glory. They do have some tremendous lines like “episode one bad?” But really, their villainy is trumped by none other than the best friend. In the middle of this season Buffy herself struggles with Nihilism, and a career in fast food. But Willow… Her magic addiction threatens to destroy her relationship, her life, and ultimately the world. Lots of other stuff is self destructing here. Giles leaves, Dawn suffers teen angst, Anya and Xander implode, and Buffy turns to down and dirty sex to validate her dark self. This is good stuff, almost too dark.
Nearing the end we have the very emotional “Seeing Red,” and then the high speed tripple whammy of Willow’s vengeful meltdown. The end is good too, just not as deeply felt as “The Gift.”
If only season 7 could have stayed this good.