Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Buffy Season Eight

It's been a while since this originally came out, which means that I finally found copies that were sufficiently discounted that I could pick up the missing volumes and read the whole thing. And now that I finally caught up to the season behind the season that just finished, what do I think? (Oh, spoilers for a years-old comic book series ahead...)

The first thing I noticed is the same thing I noticed after Seasons Four, Five, Six and Seven: Joss Whedon has really had to reinvent the series a lot ever since Season Three ended. The central concept of 'Buffy', the idea that everything else grew out of, is that high school is hell. The series took the metaphor and made it literal, with the demons of adolescence transformed into actual demons and killed by a girl who grew into a woman. 'Graduation Day', where Buffy told the Watchers where to shove it and became an confident adult, was the culmination of everything that had gone before.

And without that central concept, the series has had to completely remake itself with a new core premise, time and time and time again. 'The Freshman', 'Buffy vs Dracula', 'Bargaining' and 'Lessons' all function as pilots for an entirely new series featuring the same characters (and some function better than others...) And likewise, Season Eight is a whole new, completely different series where Buffy runs a team of paramlitary Slayers that travel the world and fight evil monsters wherever they may go. It's the sort of epic, ambitious storyline that really could only be attempted in comics. Whatever else you might say about it, Whedon really tried to use the medium to its fullest extent.

Unfortunately, "whatever else you might say about it" is that it never really gels as a concept, and it's just not as much fun as the previous seasons, and it eventually devolves into a series of plot kludges designed to get us to the next reinvention of the series for Season Nine. (Which is, weirdly, what you can say about Seasons Seven, Six, Five, and arguably even Four.)

The first problem is that while there are some great moments to be had in making a big, globe-trotting epic with a Slayer cast of thousands, the concept really does get too far away from what made 'Buffy' good. The characters and their relationships get lost in the noise, and they feel like pale shadows of themselves in a lot of ways. Worse, the moments they do get all feel like rehashes of the stuff we've already seen; Buffy is still worried about getting her friends killed, Willow is still agonizing over magic abuse, and Xander is still trying to figure out what it's all about to be a grown-up. Oh, and Dawn is still metatextually complaining about her utter irrelevance to the story save as a replacement peril monkey for Willow now that she's competent, and Andrew is still nothing more than a vehicle for all the lazy "geek culture" jokes that the writers want to stick into the story. There were the same anchors that got hung around the characters' necks in Seasons Five through Seven, and they're still just as depressing and mopey as they once were. It'd be nice to change that up with a little, I Just a titch? Reading comic books shouldn't make me want to cheer myself up by helping out at food shelters.

The second problem is that the whole thing doesn't really feel like it makes any sense. The identity of Twilight, while it's a pretty good reveal, never has legs because nobody seems to know why he's doing anything he's doing. There are no less than three conflicting explanations given in the final two books--either Angel is running a con on Buffy's enemies by tricking them into letting him lead them, or he's been possessed by a baby-universe-to-be called Twilight who wants to bootstrap itself into existence by tricking Angel and Buffy into sexing each other up in the longest, dullest sex sequence committed to paper (for which I don't blame Brad Meltzer one bit--he got the absofreakinglutely nightmare brief for his arc). Or he's secretly helping Whistler with some other even more devious plan that involves tricking Twilight into making Buffy and Angel sex it into being so that reasons.

And the ending...ugh. The last two books involve Giles suddenly remembering an ancient prophecy that came directly from his butt, a mystical artifact that's just all of a sudden the most important thing in the universe and everybody wants to do stuff and things to it for reasons (because corks and bottles and other metaphors--like letting the air out of a balloon!), a baby universe as a bad guy who's possessing Angel and making him do more things for other reasons and it's bad because of its badnessness, the return of the Master because why the heck not at this point, and finally Buffy just literally gets sick of all this garbage and breaks the plot device and goes home. And that works because reasons too.

The only thing that really felt like it actually gelled, happily enough, was the epilogue, where Buffy is now living in San Francisco and slaying vampires. That whole idea of a "vampire slayer", which had gotten utterly lost by the end of the tangled mess of gibberish that was Season Eight's final moments, feels like it at least was part of a process to get Buffy back to where she should be. And while I'm aware that it's almost certainly not going to be that simple, it did give me at least a little optimism that this could be a series I might be able to get into again someday unequivocally.


CalvinPitt said...

The only part of Season 8 I bought was the second arc, the BKV-penned bit where Faith and Giles team-up. I really liked that story, but after that it was back to Buffy and I bailed (I've always preferred Faith to Buffy)

LurkerWithout said...

I quit on Season 8 before it got to the Angel reveal as everything after getting to Oz irritated me. On the other hand "Wolves at the Gates" is awesome an worth getting even if you never touch the rest of Season 8...

Jason said...

Buffy season 8 was bad enough I didn't touch season 9.

Buffy was about female empowerment, but he started making it so every time a female got more empowered things went to shit.

Not a good message

Tales of the Boojum said...

My reaction to Season Eight was almost the opposite. That first issue with a team of slayers being airlifted into battle while Xander coordinates with their sorceresses from a castle headquarters was exciting and full of promise. Buffy says it herself on page one: "The thing about changing the world is that everything changes." There were new settings, new characters, and old characters were off all over the place with new responsibilities. They had a couple of Buffy decoys running around because the Slayer organization was apparently high enough profile to need it. There was Xander's troubled and tragic love life (Has anyone else noticed that every girl he's dated has been impaled at some point? Even though most of them survived, I gotta assume that Dawn's a little bit nervous.) and his strange friendship with Dracula. Vampire Harmony's sudden celebrity was hilarious and also a disturbing metacommentary on what passes for fame these days. Even the Dawn sub-plot with her under some mysterious spell that made her giant-sized that she fell under while at her freshman year at UC Berkeley was interesting to me.

It was a new chapter and a virtual switchyard of story-telling engines.

Then the whole thing ran off the rails about halfway through. (See what I did there?) They decide the best way to deal with the threat of Twilight and the military is to go into hiding and not be Slayers. They had an army of magic users and super-soldiers and bases all over the world including a castle and a freaking submarine, yet somehow this is the wisest course of action. There's an empowering message to women everywhere. Men too for that matter.

By time the big reveal came around, I was just slogging through in vain hope that the promise from page one hadn't been comepletely broken. (And how did
that work anyway? Weren't these events supposed to be going on at the same time as the last season of Angel?) And the shocking death of a beloved character at the end? Yeah, that'll last.

So, you saw Season Eight as getting Buffy back to where she belongs; I saw it as yet another comic book big event where everything changes but then doesn't. Instead of a new chapter, it ends up back in the old chapter with Buffy stalking alleys using the same M.O. she's used since high school. I say this without having cracked Season 9 and it would be cool if I was wrong.

(It's kind of like how Star Trek movie writers kept finding excuses to bust Kirk back down to captain. Make him an admiral, put him in command of two or three ships and send them off to boldly go where no one's gone before; it's their damn mission statement. Ditto for Picard.)

I was onboard with the promise of Season Eight, but then again, I was onboard with the idea of Ben Reilly as the new Spider-man. I should be used to disappointment.