What I Don’t Like About Season 6 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

WillowLately I’ve been re-watching Season 6 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer on my tablet. Previously, I’ve re-watched Seasons 1-5 and Season 7, some episodes many times, but I’ve tended to skip Season 6 even though I like re-watching the shows in order.

Despite being a rabid Buffy fan, I never liked Season 6 as much as the other years. That wasn’t because Season 6 focused on dark issues faced by Buffy and her friends. I love it when characters confront the dark side.

I did find Buffy’s sexual relationship with Spike shocking, but in a good way. Buffy always had a stressful life — taking on the responsibility of saving the world at 15 is a hell of a burden — and in season 6 she is also coping with being dragged back into the messy real world and confronting major adult responsibilities. Transgressive sex is a reasonable reaction.

Nor did I object to Willow’s ventures into the dark side of magic. That set up not just the powerful ending for Season 6, but the amazing series finale in Season 7.

It was the equating of Willow’s struggle with magic to drug addiction that bothered me. And still bothers me.

Part of the reason I don’t like it is that much of the view of drug use and abuse is not particularly accurate. A recent New York Times piece on the research by Dr. Carl Hart  discusses the idea that drugs are not as irresistible as they’ve been painted:

“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.”

In Season 6, Willow mirrors the popular caricature. She’s blissed out, she has withdrawal symptoms, and she lies to her friends. The lying is relevant to the plot, but the other parts detract from the core story. Because what Willow is really struggling with is not addiction to the pleasure she gets from magic, but how to handle her incredible power.

I’m not just rewriting the story because I’d like it better another way. I think the drug metaphor detracts from the power story, which is a crucial part of both the ending of Season 6 and the series outcome in Season 7.

Willow, a very bright young woman with a lot of insecurities, is a very powerful witch. She has worked hard to develop her skills, with minimal guidance. Buffy had to confront the same problem when coming into her superhero skills, but Buffy had guidance from Giles. Faith had much less guidance; her struggles with her slayer power in earlier seasons foreshadow Willow’s issues in Season 6.

In both cases, we have young women realizing just how much power they have. Neither has been raised to know how to handle power. The story of a “good girl” trying to get a handle on her power is much more interesting than any equation of magic overuse with drug addiction, particularly in a world in which powerful women are still seen as a joke.

And power does always have a dark side. I suspect abuse of power — whether strong or petty — is much more common than abuse of drugs.

I’m going to finish out my re-watch, because the ending of Season 6 is something to behold. And because Buffy, the Vampire Slayer really is great television. Joss Whedon is a master of serial storytelling; each episode is part of both a season and the series, but works on its own.

But even good works often have flaws. Over the seven years of Buffy, I have trouble with the drug metaphors and a few weak episodes. Given how great the series is, that’s not much to complain about.



What I Don’t Like About Season 6 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer — 8 Comments

  1. I totally agree with you on this! I loved Buffy’s season 6, but I hated the magic=crack plotline. With most TV shows, when the writers do something stupid, you shrug and move on. But BtVS was so mind-bendingly great that it’s hard to accept the big mistakes, even all these years later.

  2. I completely agree about that aspect of season six. And I think it represents my problem with some of Joss’s story arcs: Willow loses almost all her complexity and brains in order to force her into the comic version of drug addiction. Five years of interesting and complicated development of the character made me wonder who this cardboard cutout was wearing Willow’s name.

    • You’re right about Willow losing her complexity and brains. It’s a common feature of most TV shows to have a character do something completely out of context for the sake of an individual episode. Joss doesn’t usually do that, which is why this bothers me so much.

  3. I hope I can carve some time out to finally watch this series. Ironically, I saw the first season, and then the next was the night I had an evening class. I never have had the time to go back again–I finally gave up taping.

    But so many people loved it, I know I have to get to it eventually.

    • Yes, you really should. Despite my criticism in this post, I think Buffy is the best example I’ve ever seen of a TV show that tells a story that works on the individual episode level, the season level, and the entire series level. Joss Whedon understands how to tell a serial story better than anyone else in television. I’m not much for vampires, but I got completely hooked. Back when it was on TV, I used to watch every week and then dissect it in email exchanges with several other writers.

      BTW, the Austin public library has DVDs of the TV show available for checkout. Be sure to watch it in order and don’t get the movie by mistake (the movie isn’t nearly as good).

  4. I’ve watched the series twice through, both times on my boxed DVD set because I didn’t watch the broadcasts. The first time through — about ten years ago — I came away feeling that Season 6 was the weakest season other than Season 4, despite the glorious “Once More with Feeling” musical episode. The second time through, about three years ago, I came away thinking it was a pretty good season. Not the best, but certainly at least in the middle. The main complaint I had, which was true the first time through and remained true the second time, was that ridiculous triumvirate of inept villains — Jonathan, Andrew, and Mr. Flayed Alive.

  5. Deborah and I will forever associate Buffy with the smell of exotic fruit: we used to sit on the couch watching it while peeling and preparing persimmons, strawberry guavas, kiwis and the like for preserves and wine. Great series; this problem got by me, but memory suggest you’re right on. Large parts of popular culture just can’t deal with powerful women.