Why do we value great tragedy in our entertainment? I find life can be profoundly numbing. As David Foster Wallace said in his Kenyon college commencement speech, “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult life that nobody talks about in speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.” Contemporary western society is predicated on comfort and consumption. And there’s nothing wrong with these things but I’ve noticed they have the effect in my own life of muting the highs and lows. Working the same job, celebrating the same holiday’s, bbqs and birthdays day after week after month after year it becomes easy to slip into a zombie undead half consciousness, from which I awake time to time and realize a whole month has gone by and I didn’t even notice. Part of the way I think we become numb to the bounty of joys in our own lives is we are so insulated from loss. I think then, that our capacity to experience joy might be directly related to our capacity for grief. And the thing about these capacities is they are in a constant state of flux, expanding the more frequently we allow ourselves to feel, and contracting the more we prevent it.
There was even a time in my life when I experienced a loss that hit so hard, my emotional meter broke. And I stopped feeling anything for quite awhile, other than anxiety that something was wrong and I didn’t know how to fix it. But without any emotion I couldn’t find the motivation to move in one direction or another, and became utterly stagnant and frozen in time, disconnected from any of life’s meaning. Profound depression isn’t necessarily measured by how bad you feel, but rather how little you feel.
And it was around then that I discovered, Buffy and Angel. If you’re feeling numb, there are no better shows to properly reintroduce you to your emotions. And Buffy’s 6th season seemed like a dramatic interpretation of what I’d been going through for several months, as I think an argument can be made that the big bad for the sixth season is depression itself, and how we deal with it through self medication, or self destruction.
But the thing I value so much about both shows is they aren’t just tearjerkers, a succession of hollow emotional payoffs devoid of any intent other than selling boxes of tissue. The Buffyverse writers have thought about the human heart and are writing about it with purpose and perspective.
Eventually we will be talking about each of these moments, and have a much more meaningful discussion of that perspective. But for the channel’s 50th video, I thought it would be fun to share with you my list of favorite payoffs.
So here are My Top 10 Buffy or Angel episodes to pair with wine and a good cry. Massive uber insane Buffy and Angel spoilers to follow. If you haven’t finished BOTH shows, stop watching now.
I know some people really enjoy Buffy’s first season but it was a mighty struggle for me to get through, personally. Other than some funny lines here or there I was struggling to find something to really attach to or identify with. The Master was a bit cheesy and there was a whole lot of camp, something I never really developed a taste for. But Prophecy Girl was the first glimmer of the shows potential that got me really excited. Giles has discovered a prophecy that says…
The resulting scene is probably primarily responsible for my greatest television addiction. Of course we all understand the metaphor of the series at this part but this scene specifically relates to the realization that part of growing old, is our own eventual end. In this case literally the role of Slayer bringing about Buffy’s death the next day. But metaphors be damned. None of that would have mattered if Sarah Michelle Gellar and Anthony Stewart Head hadn’t given SUCH beautiful performances in this scene as the terrified daughter and the father wishing to protect her from the horrors of the world.
Season 7 has many problems but perhaps one of the main ones is how good every scene between Buffy and Spike is. For example, Spike’s monologue from one knee near the end of the season is perhaps one of the greatest monologues on love I’ve ever heard.
But this scene between them in the church might give me a greater case of the sniffles as Buffy discovers the reason for Spike’s crazy behavior this season is because he got his soul back. There’s a reason the gypsies considered resouling Angel to be a curse for a vampire and in this scene we get to see why as Spike is tortured by the shame and regret of his actions, including his actions from Seeing Red.
“To be the kind of man that would never ever…”
The elephant in the room as viewers and what GREATLY determines whether you enjoy this scene or not – or for that matter a lot of Season 7 – is how you feel about Seeing Red. I know many people despise Spike and I’m not one to tell a person they aren’t allowed their feelings. I’ll simply say that I often look to Buffy in all things. And Buffy’s empathy is always unparalleled, as is her capacity for forgiveness.
Faith’s appearance in Angel is the highlight for me of that first season. After recovering from her coma and leaving Sunnydale she’s hired by Wolfram & Hart to assassinate Angel. To that end she captures and tortures Wesley in order to bait Angel towards her. In the scenes between them, it’s hard to tell which of them is starting to suffer more. As well holds strong Faith looks sickly pale and lost, in the midst of a spiral of evil deeds she doesn’t know how to recover from. The choreography of the final battle with Angel is significant in that he never ever takes the offensive. Angel doesn’t allow her the suicide by cop she’s looking for, rather letting Faith’s sea of inner turmoil pound against him relentlessly until her anger has dried up…leaving nothing but grief. It’s the same act of kindness Buffy showed him Buffy Season 1, when he tried to get Buffy to end him as well. The final shot in the alley is haunting. Not a single stitch of music. Just the rain, the clatter of the knife signifying the end of the violence, and Faith sobbing against Angel. Two kindred souls.
Throughout Passion, Angelus gradually increases his harassment of Buffy even going so far as to terrorize Willow. Throughout, Giles warns her to keep a level head and to not let Angelus pull her in. But then Angelus discovers that Jenny Calendar is trying to resoul him and murders her, leaving an agonizing tableau – perhaps one of the most stunning scenes in the series. Giles’ goes after Angelus and it is Buffy who has to save him from being consumed by his own Passions.
“I can’t do this without you.”
The scene in the alleyway as Buffy embraces him for the first time I can remember, cemented their relationship as father and daughter.
Season 2 is in our recent memory of course so I won’t spend too much time on this one. You can watch my review if you’d like a more full discussion. But the gist of the final battle, one of the best finales in the series is spoken by Angelus himself.
“So that’s everything…no friends…no weapons…no hope. Take all of that away and what’s left?”
It reminds me very much of one my favorite scenes in any movie – Valerie’s letter from V for Vendetta. Our integrity sells for so little but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us. It is the one thing that can’t be taken away. And as Buffy reclaims hers Willow’s spell succeeds and Angel is resouled. But it’s too late. On first run through of the series I thought that this scene was a bit of an unnecessary knife twist. A way of heightening the final scene for a truly agonizing emotional gut punch. But I think I’ve developed a different perspective throughout my rewatches.
I believe this scene to be a kindness that Whedon shows for Buffy. So often loved ones are taken from us without warning. And he gives her a we we don’t always get. The chance to say goodbye.
“Close your eyes.”
I’m pretty sure Alyson Hannigan has the greatest ability of anyone on the show to reduce me to a puddle, which is REALLY saying something. The story goes that Seth Green had a movie offer outside the show that he badly wanted to take and so the producers let him leave. But Oz was such a great loss for the show. A grounding thoughtful force that offered so much balance to both Willow and the fiction itself. The departure was foreshadowed the whole season – significantly in Fear Itself where the gang’s greatest fears come to pass. Oz finds himself unable to control the wolf side of him, fearing he would lose control and hurt Willow. And Willow feared that he’d leave her.
“Oz don’t leave me.”
And in Beer Bad we meet Veruca and sense a connection between Oz and her. Throughout the Wolf storylines the wolf itself is a symbol for our animal nature. Our id or shadow self. Marti Noxon says in the DVD commentary for this episode: The wolf is to me, the part that both men and women have that can destroy relationships, even when two people love each other.”
And that I think ultimately, that is the aspect of this final scene that is most shattering. That a relationship between two great people who still love each other deeply, can fall apart.
“Oz. Don’t you love me?”
This may come as a shocker but I almost didn’t include the Body on this list, though I knew even if I didn’t I would’ve had to explain why. The Body is absolutely, art. But it’s also completely unique among all episodes of the show. One thing the episodes on this list have in common is that they all share a certain degree of romance or theatricality to them. It’s hard for me to describe except to say that they feel more safe.
But the first 15 minutes of the Body are merciless. The absolute distillation of agony and loss. No music. Very few cuts. I find myself holding my breath when I watch it. And while watching it is an experience I value, it isn’t one I often have the desire to repeat as it is just unredeemable pain.
Except a friend of mine reminded of the following scene between Willow and Tara. Willow is furiously obsessing over the minute details of what outfit she’s going to wear to the hospital. The mind trying to feed on whatever it can rather than having to just sit with the everpresent agony of the moment. And when she’s in danger of spinning completely out of control Tara reaches out and catches her, in a lovely moment. It’s easy to forget that Tara and Willow have never kissed on the show before. Never shown affection so directly. The WB was too uncomfortable with it so Whedon had to bury it as subtext to even have it included. So much so that he even made a joke about it in the finale of Season 4, Restless.
“Sometimes when I think about two women doing a spell, I do a spell by myself.”
But on the Body, beneath the thunderous downpour of the rest of the episode their kiss seems quiet. A private moment between two people who love each other dearly. From the larger cultural standpoint of the show, it is unbelievably unfair that the moment should have to be SO finely crafted when…
Still, I can’t help but appreciate it for how finely crafted it is – one of the most genuine moments of intimacy in the entire series.
One day. Wesley and Fred got one freakin day. And then bam. Fred’s death was one of the most supremely final in the entire Buffyverse. Even Joyce was on the verge of coming back after the body. But in the process of being hollowed out and turned into Illyria Fred’s soul is burned up and destroyed. Her character also has one of the most dramatic exits from the series, as over the course of the episode she is painfully, achingly, maddeningly killed off while Angel and Spike try and rescue her in the deeper well. And through it all, Wesley who has demonstrably had feelings for her since the first season she appeared, is made to watch. The whole business had such potential lapse far into the melodramatic but Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof give these intimate performances that ache with sorrow.
And as Spike and Angel stand over the deeper well, and Angel realizes he’s not going to be able to save her…
“There’s a hole in the world. Seems like we’ve ought to have know.”
All the times they’ve saved the world. All the good they’ve done. And they can’t save her. There are times in life when intentions and honor and courage and bravery, simply can’t prevent evil. A hole in the world.
“Wesley, why can’t I stay…”
The Gift is my favorite season finale from both series, and a strong dividing line in Buffy as a show. Whedon’s original premise for the show was how does a child pass through adolescence and become an adult – and all the monster business was just a metaphor for impediments to that process. Season 5 is the end of that process. And what makes the Gift even more stunning is how it’s plot works simultaneously with a fairly complex metaphor.
The season is loaded with split personalities. Xander’s two halves. Glory and Ben. And while Dawn herself works on more than a few levels, the one of primary significance Buffy states outright in this episode.
“She’s me. The monks made her out of me.”
Glory is a vision of the Slayer power unchecked. Earlier in the season when a monster tried to split Buffy into Slayer half and human half Riley inadvertently described Glory pretty accurately:
The Replacement: “The slayer half would be like Slayer concentrate. Pretty unkillable.”
And when the spirit guide very cryptically tells Buffy that, “Death is her gift,” or rather death is the ultimate Slayer power she fears that she is doomed to become that cold hard person.
“I don’t know how to live in this world, if everything just gets stripped away. If these are the choices. I don’t see the point.”
Season 5 is the first season that created a constant and unyielding sense of dread. Glory was a terrifying unstoppable force. Relentless in her pursuit of Dawn throughout the Season and infinitely more powerful than Buffy herself. And by the end of the season we could see the weight of the battle wearing endlessly on Buffy.
It isn’t until the tower that she manages to put everything together. That Glory and Dawn are two halves of herself, her inner child – and her cold potential future. And as we watch the rising sun hit her face and the realization Dawn (get it) on her we can feel her relief, her understanding. And in the leap from the tower she saves one from other.
While I tend to end up on the side of Buffy when picking between the two series, the Illyria storyline was my favorite in the Buffyverse, and Wesley had the best character arc in arguably either series.
And almost from the beginning of Angel, Wesley foreshadowed his own death.
“Angel’s cut off. Death doesn’t bother him because there’s nothing in life he wants. It’s our desires that make us human.”
No other character so systematically has everything stripped away from him, and is forced over and again to choose the side of good. You could say his undoing started from the very beginning with a disapproving father and the rampant insecurities that created. And his experience with fathers no doubt had an influence on his decision to try and steal Conner from Angel in Season 3. Leading to his near death at the end of that season, expulsion from the group, and Angel’s terrible rage. This pushes him into the grey.
“What happened to you man?” – “I had my throat cut, and all my friends abandon me.”
Now apparently having nothing to lose actually seems to free him up to pursue Fred, the other defining relationship in his life besides the one with his father. And he eventually finds his way back to the group again. With Conner out of the picture in Season 4 and everyone’s memories of him wiped away Wesley seems restored to full status in the group. And with the appearance of his father in Lineage, and being forced to choose between his father and Fred Wesley is finally forced to break free of that relationship, both metaphorically and literally. Regardless of the fact that it ends up being a cyborg, he has freed himself from that relationship through his choices and faced up to his lifelong tormentor.
And then the last piece is taken away. Wesley taking on Illyria brings him new purpose, and his unwillingness to let her take on Fred’s form shows him desperately trying to deal with her death. But perhaps it’s too late. After Angel tells the group to take the night off and do whatever they want, Illyria points out to Wesley.
“I am not what you want.”
“There is no perfect day for me Illyria. There is nothing that I want.”
“Angel’s cut off. Death doesn’t bother him because there’s nothing in life he wants. It’s our desires that make us human.”
And here, in his last moments, Wesley finally is allowed peace. He loves, and is loved back.
So Video #50. Those are my picks for Top 10 Buffy or Angel moments to pair with Wine and a good cry. When i was assembling this I came up with a list of over 20 potentials. Which ones did I leave out that really get you? Would you have any interest in other top 10s going forward? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for watching.