Slay Miserables


The high point in “Once More, With Feeling”—last year’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer mini-musical episode—was “Under Your Spell,” Tara’s beautiful love song to her partner Willow, devotional and thanksgiving and erotic, a Wiccan hymn from one witch to the power of another. Amber Benson generally plays Tara as somewhat passively insecure, so the unexpected clarity and strength of her song-voice, transported by devotion, swept you up into its ecstatic self. It was only gradually that the deep-buried resentment of a line like “you make me complete” emerged, with its tacit admission of dependency—at which point your shock discovery of potential darkness and fracture in something you love of course mirrors Tara’s. At this point in the series, midway through season six, Willow, the cute-sweet-smart comadre of times gone by (she’s probably always been the most popular character) had become a spell maker of terrifying power—she just raised Buffy herself from the dead. Everyone feared Willow, though no one would admit it, except through indirect anger, the barely registered micro-dissonance in the edge-shadow of Tara’s song. So—we suddenly saw Tara wondering—is this love real, or is her mind being controlled? What if this togetherness is a lie? Which, in microcosm, is the question the entire musical asks, with tremendous, intricate force, at every level: Are the feelings induced by art—magic or music or motion picture—real, or an artifact? And real or artifact, which is preferable? The motor of the episode is that its scenes are being transformed by the week’s demon to be vanquished, a soft-shoe smoothie named Sweet, into song-and-dance numbers—and if Sweet’s victims let their feelings fully ignite within this newfound means of expression, they burst into flame and die.

An unbothered Valley Girl life is impossible for a Slayer, and—by this episode—the risen Buffy is bone tired and unforgivingly angry at the endlessness of her evil-fighting. She and her friends find themselves in a new world—the old one, choreographed—in which you can’t but reveal more perilous truths about your feelings, in particular the rage or doubt that creeps in behind your muscles, the subtle little repetitive strain injuries brought less by the inequities of a demon-harried world and more by the inequities of being in a gang dedicated to vanquishing these demons—the repressive hypocrisies so familiar to anyone who ever involved themselves with a movement. The demon’s spell forces inner protests to emerge from the numbing effects of repetition—the work-never-done repetition of the politically active, always forced to return to the fray, or the repetition of a cult TV drama in which the heroine, released to easeful death at the close of season five, is struggling to accept being forced back to duty. And of course Buffy’s disgusted exhaustion with the trials of life runs counter to ours: We wanted her back, we love exactly the patterns, the jokes, the routines that she’s hating.

It’s classic TV plot-work to comment by contrast alone, to run the contours of one relationship hard against another, and Buffy has been athletically deft at this, contrasting by montage how protector and mentor Giles treats Slayer versus how Willow treats Tara versus how Buffy treats her little sister Dawn versus how everyone treats the semi-domesticated vampire Spike. “OMWF” took this to another level: By inverting scripted-TV-drama daily bread into song and dance, by contrasting itself in the most exposed way with the popular weekly series that’s been momentarily suspended to allow it, by risking humiliation (its rivals aren’t Sondheim or Lloyd Webber, but Buffy puppetmaster Joss Whedon himself, who wrote the words and music for every song) and daring revelation, it laid quietly bare the tricks of its own settled form, and worried at the forms it was briefly adopting. These were numbers where the norms of performance collided with classic Buffy-gang doubt, resistance, and flip sarcasm: When a sudden burst of ensemble harmony—”It’s getting eerie/what’s this cheery singing all about?”—wonders at the idea of itself as an event in the story, it’s also wondering about the oddness of harmony-as-convention arriving in any music ever (and ditto in any relationship ever . . . ).

No mere interlude or indulgence, “OMWF” realized its song-lines and ensemble dance moves with terrific semi-amateur verve. Some were affectingly wobbly, to be sure—but in combination with the sheer guilelessness of the music, mostly light Broadway rock, this shakiness ambushed characters with the sincerity of their own buried emotions, things about themselves they didn’t know they knew. The unfamiliar mode of expression forced the story sideways psychologically: Tropes overworked in spoken TV drama were de-emphasized; less obvious possibilities were thrown to the fore. In the excitement—but also the nervous fragility—of a gesture or a phrase translated into a different set of techniques and instincts, a subtly different species of feelings, beliefs, comfort, and doubt could be elicited. (Of course some of this is lost when frozen onto an image-free soundtrack CD, though I’m not sure that the sense of something missing doesn’t itself make the same point another way . . . )

Even when it’s just a kid posing with a tennis racket in a mirror, all music is an intuitive declaration about the state of community, what works, what doesn’t, what we—which may or may not include the audience—will transform, with our belief in each other and what it is we do together. The global omnipresence of the rock band—as imported from and by the culture that has ostensibly committed itself most evangelically to the ideal of radical individualism—is the most widespread manifestation of the collective as stubborn knot of refusal to atomize. A rock band’s ideals are the unspoken sinews of its particular community, from “help our sound top the charts” to “let’s all save the world.” As much as the most committed rock band—and far more than most collectives or ensembles as portrayed on TV—the vamp-busting Buffy gang is a crusading unity arrayed against a World of Bad. But here’s the thing: By staying true to the storyline so far—the ethos as embodied by the motion habits of the various players—the music in “OMWF” strengthens and complicates itself, by waltzing us through the internal stresses and unspoken refusals of this particular gang. Rock bands rail against everything, except they never look within, where the most difficult fault lines may lie. “OMWF,” commenting by contrast alone on how different art strategies—the cult TV drama, the musical, the rock-band-as-gang, genres and ideas adopted almost as ready-mades—cohere (or don’t). “OMWF” cracks open collectivity as an unexamined piety, in a way that no one genre, policed inside its own conventions of group dynamics, can.

In “OMWF,” the outcome is honesty, albeit demon inspired; it’s also awfully bleak and resigned and broken, triumphing more in desolation than in celebration. Tara will leave Willow; Giles will leave Sunnydale; Dawn declares her isolation; Xander and Anya—the most exhilaratingly cartoonish characters, just about to be married—each unscroll a fabulous public list of the other’s faults, in the guise of a retro-pastiche song about never telling. In effect, song after song registered suspicion at the consonances and gestures being imposed by the demon causing the mayhem and also at the pat sentiments given to them to sing: “What can’t we face if we’re together?” What are the shared values by which a professional ensemble—a rock band, a drama troupe—englamours one another? What if our minds are being controlled, by them, by our needy selves? What if solidarity is the most crippling of our delusions? Fellowships always fail—and it’s because they act to deny this, to extend companionship into a bad, unchanging infinity, that the undead are considered demons not people.