Season Six, Episode Three

One dawn thing after another.

Afterlife: The Review

Inside the Outside

Afterlife begins the serialization of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its sixth season. It avoids the most perilous deficiency of the serial drama, the lack of a self-contained story, however, deriving its plot, the defeat of a thaumagenic demon, from the actions of the previous episode, Bargaining. In addition, it exploits the serial's primary motive, the emotional state of its characters, without histrionics. James Marsters' and Sarah Michelle Gellar's excellent performances as Spike and Buffy are quiet and restrained, and all the more dynamic for it. Spike especially dominates the hour.

From the first, only Spike has any sensitivity for Buffy's vulnerability. The others all want to exercise their proprietary rights over her. It is he who understands how her hands were injured and who tries to comfort her quietly. Significantly, he rushes from the house when Willow, Anya, Tara, and Xander arrive, leaving Dawn to control the sensory assault upon Buffy. The Scoobies surround her again with a smothering insensitivity, as they did in the alley in Bargaining, bombarding her with questions, urging her to be happy, to show, in effect, her gratitude. The claustrophobic camera angle from Buffy's point of view conveys the feeling of an animal in a trap. In a rare display of empathy with Buffy, only Dawn has the sense to order them to back off. Willow's growing perception that she might have gone too far is demonstrated by the increasing emphasis that she places upon the necessity for Buffy to validate with overt elation Willow's presumption in bringing her back.

On the outside, the viewers are almost spies on Spike's weeping, as the framing of the shot places him in the dark, behind a tree on the edge of the shot in the foreground. Xander and Anya are cleverly set up in the background as the apparent subjects of the shot as they emerge the Summers' house. The concision of the shot is remarkable. The viewers are placed in the position to be the judges between Spike and Xander, with the scales weighted in favor of Spike. Certainly, the viewers are being led to sympathize with Spike and to feel that there is more to him than any of the Scooby gang are willing to credit. Whether he is crying out of joy or pain at having been excluded, the viewer is moved. His warning that magic always has consequences sets the tone for later developments. One might almost say that as magic has consequences, powerful magic has powerful consequences. His assessment of Willow's deviousness is another warning sign of things to come.

Willow darkens.

Willow's doubtful motives are plumbed in the long scene in which Tara attempts to draw out Willow on the subject of her doubts about the returned Buffy. At bottom, Buffy's ingratitude arouses the deepest emotions in Willow, for it indicates that not all is right with Willow's assessment of Buffy's condition prior to her resurrection. Unwilling to face this, Willow prefers to suspect that there is something wrong with Buffy, and it is this idea of Buffy's "wrongness" that she wishes others to accept. Even Willow's protestations that Buffy is all right have the effect of engendering a doubt of wrongness. Willow's sedated suspicion of her own fallibility is rudely awakened when the first consequence of her magic is visited upon the household.

Demonic abortion.

The demonic visitation, in Buffy's own form, is a material denunciation of Willow's misbehavior. The anger expressed by the demon might be perceived to be that of Buffy herself, or as a manifestation of Willow's guilt, but more patently it is the indignation of the universe at Willow's temerity. Accused of performing the blood ritual, Willow feigns ignorance of the demon's meaning. That she has delved too deeply into the black arts and with too little understanding becomes all too evident. That she is ashamed to admit her error to Tara, who has offered her an unconditional pardon of love, seals her error.

The thaumagenic demon that was created by the spell of resurrection is, in effect, the child of Willow, Tara, Xander, and Anya. For it to live, Buffy must die again. The demon is described by Anya as a gift with purchase, but Willow describes it as the price they must pay for Buffy's life. However it is viewed, it is an ironic foil to the Slayer's gift. To insure her own life, a life that she did not desire to resume, Buffy must kill the demon that was created by her friends in the process of bringing her to life. It is a peculiarly sororicidal struggle into which Buffy is thrown. While Buffy can kill the demon, she cannot kill the many truths, the fears and doubts of those it briefly possessed, to which it gave voice.

Alone with Spike.

Spike emerges as the most compelling character in the episode during Buffy's visit to his crypt, when he reveals his own sense of failure and guilt, and speaks of his attempt to make some reparation through his continuing protection of Dawn. This is a surprising turn for a vampire, and it leaves the viewer to ask how such apparent feelings of remorse and penitential suffering are possible. Is he merely fulfilling his own self-image as an unconventional being, or does the human emotion that the Judge detected in him simply render him poor raw material for a vampire? If Giles' experience with monsters is any guide, then Spike, because he can love, does retain the desire to be redeemed. His emotion certainly appears genuine. The fact that Mutant Enemy steadfastly refuse to allow Spike to characterize himself from his own mouth makes him all the more interesting. When Spike does speak of himself, it is always patent posturing.

In the end, Buffy herself is shown as taking the place of the Buffybot, as, in a scene that refers back to Bargaining, she gives Dawn her lunch. Even the summery dress and the bright morning light are the same. Buffy, after being urged yet again to be happy, does her duty and thanks Willow for restoring her. It is only when she is alone with Spike, that she can confess that she thinks that she had been in heaven and that, relatively speaking, has now been dragged into Hell. Spike, mutely, steals the scene, as Buffy speaks of something that he cannot, as a demon, comprehend, but which moves him visibly. The interaction of the two characters is most profound in this scene. It is only to Spike that she can reveal her true feelings. In this, she is a step ahead of Willow, who has none to whom she will confess her deepest fears.

In Sum

Afterlife completes the establishment of the primary themes raised in Bargaining: Buffy's feeling of despair with her life, which she can share only with Spike, and Willow's cancerous guilt, which she seeks to anesthetize with magic. Obvious by his absence is Giles, whose ability to reflect maturely on the situation is greatly missed. Without him, Buffy has none in whom she can confide and from whom she can seek counsel, leaving her upon Spike's crypt step to find substitutes. Buffy's desire to protect her friends from knowledge of her true experience after death, while generous, imposes additional emotional and psychological burdens upon her when she is least able to bear them, and is ultimately mistaken, for it permits Willow to bury her own secret self-arraignment under a false sense of justification. Above all, Afterlife establishes Spike as the most fascinating, because elusive, character in the show. The only weakness in the episode is in the reestablishment of the primary themes raised in Bargaining, for it affirms the limitations of the show's potential to surprise in the coming episodes. The conflicts are set, as is the manner of treatment. There is little scope for the sudden elucidation of the unexpected viewpoint that leaves the viewer amazed at the dexterity of the writers. One has the feeling that the sense of excitement is missing.

Horace LaBadie

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