Every single verse can make it that much worse

In which I revisit Season 6 once more, with feeling.

It’s been a little over a month since I wrote about the Buffy and Angel rewatch I had embarked on with my boyfriend — or, more specifically, since I wrote about my least favorite episodes of the show, inspired by our rewatch — and now we are somehow nearing the end. We’re on Season 7 of Buffy and Season 4 of Angel, which is, to be totally candid, not a great place to be. (Some words of warning: I am about to say critical things about at least one of these shows, so if you worked on either or are otherwise sensitive about them, which I completely understand, you should probably stop reading now so I don’t feel bad later. Thanks.) Rather than attempt to write about the flaws in these two seasons while we’re only halfway through, I wanted to write a little about the preceding seasons — Buffy Season 6 and Angel Season 3 — and why one fails where the other succeeds.

Think back, if you can, to the 2001-2002 television season. Buffy and Angel were on different networks at this point, and the occasional crossovers that had peppered the prior two seasons were suddenly verboten. (The closest thing we got here was Angel learning Buffy had been resurrected, and the two agreeing to meet somewhere between Sunnydale and Los Angeles, which is like, I don’t know, Valencia?) But in watching these two seasons side-by-side, which I’d actually never done before, I discovered some surprising commonalities: more serialized storytelling, a marked increase in darkness, beloved characters’ falls from grace, and the lack of a consistent Big Bad. Most of which, it’s worth noting, wasn’t really new to Angel, but felt like a rather jarring departure for Buffy. That might be the root of the problem.

It’s not that Buffy, whose characters were a few years out of high school at this point, shouldn’t have been allowed to play in Angel’s sandbox, but that Buffy hadn’t figured out how to do so effectively. The result is a season that feels scattered, unnecessarily bleak, and dragged down by inconsistent characterization. There are, to its credit, some high highs — “Once More, With Feeling” remains one of the show’s greatest achievements — and even a weaker season of Buffy is pretty damn good. But while I thought rewatching Season 6 would reveal it to be underrated, as so many fans claim, rewatching it alongside Angel Season 3 only served to further expose its weaknesses.

Angel has an unfair advantage here: The areas where Season 6 of Buffy falls flat were basically built into Angel’s DNA, particularly the darkness that characterized Angel from its inception. It’s not that Buffy never got dark, but that it had never — up until Season 6, that is — delved into the level of trauma and despair that was inflicted on fans. An episode like “Dead Things,” probably the most challenging Season 6 episode to rewatch next to “Seeing Red,” feels notably out of place on Buffy, a failed experiment in seeing how low every character can sink. Watching Buffy and Xander and Willow hit their respective rock bottoms in Season 6 is frankly unpleasant, not because Buffy was never a show where bad things happened, but because the bad things never happened so relentlessly. Even so, it’s less where the show arrives and more how it gets there. Here again, the comparison to Angel Season 3 is unflattering.

There were some really lovely arcs on Buffy over the years, and I don’t want to take away from that, but on the whole, Angel was stronger when it came to serialized storytelling. (On the flip side, Angel has fewer memorable standout episodes, so nyah, take that.) This really comes through when you consider the respective downward spirals of two characters on both shows: Willow and Wesley, the bookish, brainy, mostly well-behaved members of the team. Season 3 of Angel presents a compelling case for Wesley’s betrayal, and the fallout that sees him estranged from his friends and sleeping with the enemy. Season 6 of Buffy, on the other hand, turns Willow into a hardcore magic junkie over the span of two episodes. Yes, the seeds of Willow using too much magic had been planted long before then, but the abrupt shift to Willow as a literal addict — one of my biggest issues with the season — is enough to give you whiplash.

There are also, of course, parallels between Wesley/Lilah and Buffy/Spike, though I don’t think the latter’s severely toxic relationship is necessarily a mark against Season 6. It feels like both the natural conclusion of years of sexual tension and a symptom of Buffy’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. The problem comes in “Seeing Red,” when things take a sudden and nauseating turn. Here, again, the issue seems to be the show’s failure to lay the groundwork for another character’s rock bottom, and an inability to place the moment within the context of a larger arc with more cohesive characterization. It’s not so much that idea that Spike could never inflict sexual violence, but that it doesn’t really gibe with the Spike the show had been building up as a flawed demon vying for antihero status, and certainly not with his Season 7 redemption arc.

Sometimes the characters on these shows, even the “good guys,” do unforgivable things. But we do move past Angel trying to smother Wesley with a pillow in the hospital, despite how heinous that is. Spike’s sexual assault of Buffy, however, is obviously in another category, and as such it’s something the show as a whole struggles to contextualize and ultimately brushes under the rug (much like Jaime’s out-of-character rape of Cersei on Game of Thrones). It becomes just another shocking, terrible, unbelievably upsetting thing that happens in Season 6 — dark for the sake of being dark.

I realize that I am being awfully hard on Buffy, but that’s because I’m more passionate about the missteps of something I care deeply about. Buffy remains my favorite show of all time — yes, above Angel, which I also love a lot. And I think my frustration with Season 6 is that so much of it actually does look good to me on paper. There’s a version of that story that comes closer to Angel’s stunning execution of Season 3: painful and sometimes challenging but thematically rich and cathartic. And I do think, for what it’s worth, that one of Buffy Season 6’s most effective moments is thematically rich and cathartic — Buffy climbing out of the grave in the finale, with Dawn at her side. In fact, I’ll take that over glowy Cordelia floating into the heavens. Point: Buffy.

Photo via 20th Television.