Wednesday, August 27, 2008

If You're Going To Sing, There'd Better Be A Damn Good Reason

I've been watching Once More With Feeling again. And reading my OMWF scriptbook (it was a gift, okay?). And I've been thinking about things I've learned from the works of Joss Whedon. I've got a list, y'know. No, I really have.

Anyway, what I was reading in my scriptbook was that Joss had wanted to do a musical episode for a while, but hadn't wanted to just stick one in gratuitously. He figured a lot of sitcoms had been doing them, and the songs had just been stuck in for entertainment--they hadn't meant much or explained anything or moved the plot along. In OMWF, he moved along the character arc for pretty much every character, and also the story arc for the whole season. In brief:

Going Through The Motions: the opening number. Buffy sings that since she was brought back from the dead, she's felt as if she's "going through the motions, walking through the part" of being the Slayer, and indeed the sister and friend she's always been. She desperately wants to feel alive again.

Under Your Spell: Tara's love song to Willow. The least obvious of the numbers in terms of subtext...well, apart from all the innuendo at the end. But what Tara's singing is that it's Willow, and her magic, that have brought Tara out. "I'm under your spell, how else could it be anyone would notice me?" The only reason she's feeling so happy and in love is because of her magical girlfriend. But we know Willow's been using too much magic, and she and Tara have rowed about it...and Willow has cast a spell on her girlfriend to make her forget the row. Viewed like this, it's kind of bittersweet that Tara's only so happy because of the one thing that's driving her and Willow apart. In the next episode, Tara leaves Willow, who becomes over-reliant on her magic and spirals into self destruction (note to writers: yes, we get it, Willow's on drugs).

I'll Never Tell: a retro pastiche by Anya and Xander, who are getting married soon. The song exposes their doubts about each other, and about their relationship as a whole: "Am I crazy/Am I dreaming?/Am I marrying a demon?". Is Sunnydale's sparkiest couple going to be able to live happily ever after when they're so riddled with doubt? sure enough, later in the season Xander walks out on the wedding.

Rest In Peace: Spike's Billy Idol-type rock song. Tired of Buffy continually coming to tell him all her problems, without ever considering him to be a friend, Spike tells her to give in to her darker urges or just leave him alone. It exposes the conundrum at the heart of Spike: that he's a soulless, murderous Slayer-killer of a vampire, in love with the one woman who poses a serious threat to his unlife ("There's a traitor here beneath my breast, and it hurts me more than you've ever guessed"). He wants her, but deep down he knows that if she ever gives in, it'll be a betrayal of everything she stands for--everything he loves her for.

Standing: Giles watches Buffy training, and knows he'll have to leave her soon, or she'll never be able to stand on her own two feet and face the world. It's a wonderful description of his fatherly love for Buffy ("I wish I could lay your arms down and let you rest at last, wish I could slay your demons, but now that time is past"), but also his increasing realisation that by protecting her, he's just holding her back. This leads to:

Under Your Spell/Standing Reprise: one of the loveliest numbers, and in fact one of the loveliest duets I can think of. Short and very bittersweet, it reprises Giles and Tara's numbers as they both know they'll have to leave. Tara has just discovered that Willow's been ensorcelling her to forget about their fights--which hurts a great deal as Tara's mind has already been messed with recently, by the evil god Glory ("You know I've been through hell; Willow don't you see, there'll be nothing left of me?"). Giles sings, "Believe me, I don't want to go, and it'll grieve me 'cause I love you so." At the end of this number, we know that Giles isn't going to help Buffy any more, and that Tara isn't going to let Willow use her magic much more, and that both of them are going to have to leave while they still can.

Walk Through The Fire: the 'Tonight' quintet (only, er, there are really four parts: Buffy, Spike, Sweet and the rest of the Scoobies taking turns). After Giles refuses to help Buffy when she learns her sister Dawn has been kidnapped, she walks off by herself. Spike offers to help, but Buffy embarrasses him by mentioning his song, and his humiliating crush on her, so he rescinds his offer.

Buffy still can't seem to feel anything, but she knows she still has to save her sister, even if she dies in the process: "To save the day, or maybe melt away: I guess it's all the same." Spike is incensed that Buffy has walked away from him, and vows to kill her...but can't follow through: "I hope she fries, I'm free if that bitch dies...I'd better help her out." Giles is torn: "Will this do a thing to save her? Am I leaving Dawn in danger? Is my Slayer too far gone to care?" They all know the inevitability of coming together to fight: "We'll see it through, it's what we're always here to do," even if they don't want to.

Something To Sing About: Such a world of explanations in one song! To start with, Buffy, still feeling numb, begs, "Don't give me songs—give me something to sing about." The force of Sweet's demon musical spell (don't ask) compels her to spill her biggest secret, one only Spike knows. When her friends resurrected her, they expected they'd rescued her from a hell dimension. But, "I live in hell, 'cause I've been expelled from Heaven," she tells them, and they're appalled. No wonder she's been so nihilistic lately.

Buffy nearly dances herself to death (cf the Red Shoes), but it's Spike who saves her. Yes, Spike, and he'll continue to save her, physically and spiritually, until the series finally ends. "Life's not a song, life isn't bliss, life is just this: it's living."

Where Do We Go From Here: The gang have all revealed things they didn't want to, and now they're all appalled by what their friends and family know about them. "The curtains close on a kiss, God knows, we can tell the end is near." Nobody really knows where to go, except for Spike who gets sick of the whole singing thing and escapes before he does something really embarrassing. But he's too late: Buffy catches up to him, and while she sings, "This isn't real, but I just want to feel," he replies, "I died so many years ago, but you can make me feel," and then...well, then they both make each other feel something, and finally kiss.

But while some fans (like me) were jumping up and down screaming happily, Buffy and Spike weren't quite riding off into the sunset. Because their physical relationship is just about feeling something, killing the numbness, it's hardly healthy. both of them eventually come to realise that their relationship is destroying Buffy, and Spike has even sung, "You're scared, ashamed of what you feel." Because he's a vampire, and soulless, and she can't let herself love him. And because he's a soulless beast, when she ends it Spike can't really let her go, which is where the attempted rape comes in, and...

Okay, now I've veered off into another lesson. We'll call that one I Love You, But... and it can be all about conflict.

The point about OMWF is this: that while it's spectacular and entertaining, it's also very important in the story arc. Take it away, and you've lost a lot of the impetus of season six, and indeed seven. And a lot of the things that five was building to. So...the lesson for writing? Don't put set pieces in to make things more shiny. You'll end up like the Transformers movie, which I watched last night, and I still haven't figured out why the big set piece ending was in a city centre (you're hiding a MacGuffin you know these gigantic destructive robots are after, and you're on the Nevada/Arizona border. You're surrounded by nothing. So what do you do? Take it to the middle of the desert, of which there is a local abundance, or to a heavily populated area where the gigantic robots can destroy buildings and kill people?). The only possible reason is that it's really spectacular in a city. Sand isn't so exciting.

Gratuitous scenes are...well, pointless. Look at all those books leaping on the erotic romance bandwagon. All that sex crammed between the can take most of it out and the story is unchanged. And that might as well be porn. The sex should alter the relationship, the character development, it shouldn't just be there to titilate. Same goes for the sort of conflict that relies on a Big Mis--can it be solved by a simple explanation? Yes? Then why can't you explain? The reason why...that's your conflict. If there is no reason why, then there's no conflict at all.

See, back on conflict again. Bad Kate. Save it for another day.


  1. Hurrah! My all time favourite episode - why wasn't it everybody's? And - ahem - such an insightful post...

  2. I loved BTVS but haven't watched of seen any of it since the series finished - now I want to go and look for old episodes on sky...

    Great blog Kate,


  3. OK, I wont go on about OMWF cause, well, cause I'd go on and on and on and on and on...

    But I will refer to your Transformers comment. I too, wondered about taking the All-Spark (can you tell I'm a fan?) to a city instead of the zero-population, no risk to human lives desert. This is what I came up with, and I have to admit, it's pretty lame, but the Transformers fan/geek in me had to had to had to find an excuse for such contrived plot action. Ready?

    They took the All-Spark to the city hoping all the power usage in such a densely populated area would camoflauge (yes, I can't spell that word. Sorry) the power the cube generated.

    See? Told you it was a lame excuse.