Season Seven, Premiere

Power trips.

Lessons: The Review

Root and branch.

Lessons, the seventh season premiere of BtVS, is filled with earthy ramifications. Everything is connected, the viewers are assured, an assurance that one supposes is meant to comfort those who are uncomfortable with enigmatic teases, involved hints of impending doom, and dangling promises of future explanation. Take Gaia theory, Wicca, Primal Evil, Lucasian Force, Manichean duality, psychiatric personality disorders, smart dialogue, a long and convoluted internal mythology, and a congenial wink and nod to the viewers, and one has the threads of a coherent, though episodic, tale that will stretch into the next Spring: that is the promise.

The teaser is problematic, and so meant. Who might be the young woman, running in terror through the night darkened maze of streets of Istanbul, pursued by black-robed figures? Who are the pursuers? The Knights of Byzantium, Glory's inveterate enemies from the fifth season, spring to mind. When they capture their quarry, does the downward slash of a captor's knife end her life? Who is that fair-haired person, briefly glimpsed behind a closing door? Is it Spike? What has any of this to do with Buffy and Sunnydale? It's a teaser for the season, one can only assume, because it has nothing to do with the episode itself.

Buffy, having crawled from the grave yet again in the last episode of sixth season to greet the dawn of a new existence full of hope and inspirational music, has taken on the task of motherhood. "It's all about power," says Buffy, as she teaches Dawn the basics of Slaying. The cat-and-mouse training of the kitten by the mother cat is played out faithfully. All that's missing is Marlin Perkins or Marty Stouffer doing the voiceover narration. The vampire who has the power, however, is stuck in the ground, his foot caught on a root. After politely asking for some help, Buffy obliges, plucking him bodily from the ground like a weed, and setting him on her sister for practice. The mouse roars briefly, but he has no chance. In a replay of the flashback in Angel, Dawn misses the heart in her first attempt to channel the power. (The vamp in All the Way, one must assume, doesn't count for her first attempt.) Buffy does in the mouse, and Dawn has learned the lesson. "It's always real." The Earth gives birth to monsters, and far away in England, Willow is making connections.

James Burke redux.

Willow's power draws a flower through the Earth from Paraguay, for all is connected—roots, molecules, all. But, Willow feels in a burst of psycho-sexual imagery, Mother has teeth, and the Goddess that gave birth will swallow them. Mother occasionally eats her own children. This declaration of belief in a toothy, devouring Mom, the primordial Joan Crawford or Sarlacc of Carkoon as it were, is juxtaposed with a jagged, rather toothy looking rent in the bathroom floor of the new Sunnydale High, into which Dawn and her new acquaintance, Kit, have just been sucked. The ambiguous giver of life and death, beyond good and evil, the source of power is working under their feet.

Willow has moved beyond addiction, Giles informs the viewers: the magic is now part of her, both destructive and constructive magicks, and even the coven that are instructing her are afraid of the power in her. Willow is in a strange place. She expected death, damnation, and eternal torment, and she found herself in England. Recollecting that Warren had taken his shot at Buffy and Tara, and had planted an ax in Willow's back, the viewers must be satisfied that England is a fitting punishment. Trial by coven is, after all, trial by a jury of Willow's peers. Temporary insanity is a defense. Rehabilitation is the goal.

Anya's situation is only briefly visited. The quality of her work has declined. Granting a woman's wish that her husband be turned into a frog, Anya made him French. (Anya evinced her disdain of the French in Tough Love. "And you know what else is un-American? French people.") D'Hoffryn is not pleased. The lower orders are feeling the heat of some great evil looming, and it is a bad time to be a good guy. Thanks for the update. The broken relationship between Anya and Xander is merely mentioned; which side of the coming conflict Anya will land upon appears to be the big question for her.

The new principal, Robin Wood, is personable, not "aged", and he likes Buffy. Something must be wrong with him. He knows Buffy's school record in some detail, a lot of reading about a student who graduated three years earlier. Instead of barring her from the premises, based on that record, he invites her to participate on campus as part of the community outreach program, counseling students. He has some of the qualities of a politician, some of qualities of an educator. Most telling is the fact that his office has been constructed on the former site of the Library, i.e., Hellmouth Lobby. He might or might not be evil, in other words.

The big moment comes when Buffy finds Spike in the basement of the new school, which, he says, has always been his home. Spike has his own lessons to learn, having reacquired his soul. Presently, he is a raving loony, in the throes of schizophrenia—hallucinations and all. Multiple personality disorder also seems high on the list of his problems. His demon and his soul have not integrated. Spike also has connections, his being to the dark side of Mom. Presumably, this is the stage of Angel's struggle that was only hinted for the viewers in Amends, the initial conflict between the soul-fortified personality and the demonic predator. It took Buffy to pull Angel out of his suicidal depression. What amount of energy will Buffy expend to help Spike?

The dark side of Mom, the First Evil, last seen in Amends, presents itself to Spike, presumably through his demon, as the villains of past years. Only Angelus himself is missing from the parade, a rather awkward omission. Interestingly, the last manifestation is of Buffy herself, repeating the first line of the episode, "It's about power." How many times has the show told the viewers that Buffy's power has a dark component? Faith's movement to the Dark Side of the Force cemented in the show's mythology the connection between the power of the Slayer and that of Evil. Dracula, King of the Vampires, attempted to seduce Buffy by giving her a taste of that dark power, akin to her own. Spike himself has repeatedly invited Buffy to join him in the darkness. It's always been about power and the potential for great evil that power provides.

Spike's connections prove helpful, in any case, for it is he who identifies the apparitions as manifest spirits, summoned by a talisman, harking back to the Chumash spirit that arose from the foundations of the new college building in And Spike must be given credit for "Duck." Buffy, in search of Dawn in peril, has time to slip into a Marx brothers routine. Go figure.

We have the technology...

Buffy as Dawn's mother has been a weird science/magic project since the fifth season, when Buffy put the pieces together on the visceral level in Forever. To Dawn's "Nobody's asking you to be Mom, " Buffy replied, "Well, who's going to be if I'm not?". From there it was only a short leap to the final statement in The Gift, that the Monks had made Dawn from her. Whether or not Buffy is biologically Dawn's mother is irrelevant: the show has assumed the position that Buffy will be the Mom. The objective is the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, comparing and contrasting that of Joyce and Buffy and that of Buffy and Dawn. Certain features can be repeated, others varied.

Thus, Dawn's first episode in the new high school parallels the events of WttH. Joyce delivers Buffy to school, giving her the conventional speech about making friends and fitting in, spiked with the injunction to try not to get kicked out. Joyce then dashes off to her business, leaving Buffy to sink or swim, never meeting the principal or becoming acquainted with the faculty. Dawn is delivered to school by Xander and Buffy. Significantly, Xander has become the surrogate father, or the father figure, in contrast to Buffy's absent father. Buffy gives her variation of the encouraging speech, one filled with cautions and specific hazards to be avoided, but then Buffy takes the extra step and decides to inspect the new school. She meets, perhaps only by chance, the new principal, and the Mom issue is raised for the first time explicitly by him. Buffy becomes involved in Dawn's education. The lessons of the past season, when Buffy was following her mother's example, paying attention to her "business" and the material requirements of parenthood while neglecting personal involvement in her daughter's life, have been learned. Buffy's occupation and her family are being interwoven. Buffy is becoming Supermom, but it remains to be seen if she will tend to become the devouring Mom, another Catherine Madison (The Witch), who tries to consume her daughter's life and make it her own.

Dawn herself is being rebuilt. The deliberately high-pitched whine has been toned down, and she is given a chance to show some intelligence, when she adapts Kit's bag as a weapon. The fundamental problem with Dawn is never addressed, however. Having spent so much time showing how much she doesn't belong in the show, her presence is accepted on sufferance alone. A cleverly justified soap opera improbability, the offspring who arrives out of nowhere without pedigree, she has outlived her potential. She serves to remind one only of the fact that she doesn't matter, and, by inference, that the present story itself does not matter. There are a multitude of universes in which all possible variations of the theme are being played out, thereby depriving the story of its cogency. The visitation of Buffy's past through the vehicle of Dawn is not sufficiently compelling as a dramatic motive for her retention. Conceptually, the story has interest, but the theoretical and the real are different. Dawn is transparently a device, not a person, despite the asseverations of the characters. The Buffybot and Aprilbot were both more likable and more empathetical, in fact were more vital, than Dawn. The show's acknowledgement that Dawn is a device doesn't diminish the damage that her presence continues to inflict on the show's integrity. The attempt to render Dawn human is still in progress. The success that the show has had humanizing such an unsympathetic character as Anya gives evidence that the task is not insurmountable. The feat was accomplished through the infusion of humor, self-analysis, and compassion. It might not be possible to make the viewers forget that Dawn represents an inherent weakness, but it should be possible to make them care about her.

In Sum.

As a return to the fundamentals of the show, Lessons is partially successful. The show has accumulated enough internal history that self-reference has now merged into the use of stock material from the teen soap and horror genres as one tenet of the show. Its own history is now matter for parody. The ability to self-criticize has always been a strength of the writing. If the show can take self-criticism and use it for self-correction, then the season can be a success. One hopeful sign is that the episode has a self-contained story, with interludes for Willow and Anya as accessories. This is an improvement over the frequently incoherent episodes of the previous season, that relied upon the periodically inconclusive and unsatisfactory serial format. The interludes, however, are still distracting, as the loose ends disrupt the flow of the story and diffuse the energy of the plot.

Horace LaBadie

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