Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of Susan Omand's favourite TV series. But even she wasn't prepared for quite how affecting season 6, episode 7 was going to be. It really was "Once More, With Feeling"....
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: (because you'll need a catch up)
Spike (the Vampire) and Buffy Summers (the Vampire Slayer) have been growing closer since Spike has been fighting demons rather than humans, after having a chip implanted in his head by the Initiative in season 4. He tells Buffy that he loves her but she isn't so keen at this point, having been brought back from the dead at the start of season 6 by Willow (the witch) who is growing ever more powerful magically. Buffy confided in Spike earlier in season 6 that she thinks she had been torn out of Heaven rather than brought back from an Eternity of Hell but that the rest of the gang can't know. Dawn (Buffy's sister who really isn't her sister because she only appeared at the start of season 5 as "The Key" but everyone's memories have been altered to believe she has always been there) is shoplifting and attention-seeking and, after Dawn had a clandestine date that went a bit wrong at Halloween, Buffy thinks that Giles (Rupert Giles, Buffy's Watcher) should be "taking care of it". Anya (an ex vengeance demon) and Xander (he's just Xander - he, Buffy and Willow - founders of The Scoobie Gang - have been friends since they were at school) are getting married. Tara (another wicca and Willow's girlfriend) is unhappy that Willow is using too much magic and they argue, prompting Willow to concoct a forgetting spell using a flower to make Tara forget their fight.
Got all that? Good. Roll credits
The titles roll and you know from the off (had you not realised already from the huge hype that surrounded this episode at the time) that this one is going to be "different". Instead of the usual white writing and heavy guitar/drum/rock theme tune by Nerf Herder that we're all so familiar with (and some of us may have as a phone ring tone) we're treated to a light orchestral version over a credit sequence so cheesy that it could have come straight off a Gene Kelly film.
Early morning bustle ensues as the alarm clock goes off and everyone, apart from Buffy who is still sleeping, gets ready for their day. Tara finds a flower (yes, that one) under her pillow and wears it, then it's just another normal day at the magic box - Willow and Tara poring over books, Anya and Xander - well, Anya - poring over a wedding magazine, Dawn being sent to school and Buffy going off to train with Giles. Nothing new so far, apart from the light background music and no dialogue.
Cut to Buffy's night patrol in the cemetery and... she starts singing. Singing that she's just "going through the motions", jaded and no longer feeling alive. Even the demons that she fights with acknowledge the fact that she has lost her edge - with a very natty song and dance routine of their own.
Buffy checks if it's just the Scoobies (the Scoobie Gang - keep up!) that are affected and opens the door to discover a full production number in the street about dry cleaning. Nope, it's affecting everyone and Dawn comes back in from school all excited that people have been singing and dancing about Maths. While the others are discussing it and Willow and Tara are making excuses to go back to the house to "check on volume-y texts there," Dawn slips a necklace from the counter into her pocket.
As Willow and Tara walk home through the park in the sun, Tara sings one of the most beautiful songs in the whole show about how Willow completes her, "I'm Under Your Spell". The scene shifts to the bedroom where a lot is left to the imagination but you know exactly what is going on. An abrupt cut to Xander and Buffy back at the shop where he says "I bet they're not even working" and the mood is broken. Just as well, because it's getting a bit emotional here.
As Dawn says "Songs, dancing around. What's going to be wrong with that?" Ummm... people tap-dancing so hard they spontaneously combust is what's wrong with that. And with that vivid image of a burning corpse at the feet of the demon (yes, it was a demon all along) we meet Sweet, the villain of the piece - a suave, sophisticated demon rather than the usual Buffy fighting fare of ugly, less intelligent creatures.
A new day, a new song. This time, Anya and Xander sing about their worries about getting married and the things that irritate them about each other. It's a real Doris Day of a song, light comedy as they dance around the sitting room in their nightwear. Cut to them walking to the Magic Box with Giles complaining about the fact that they say things that they didn't mean to say a lot of the things that came out, although Anya seems to be more worried that it was a "retro pastiche " of a song and is never going to be a breakaway pop hit.
Giles explains about the spontaneous combustion aspect of the as yet unknown to them demon and explains that he was able to examine the body while the police were taking "witness arias". They also talk about Buffy and how she still seems a bit off, although Xander explains it as her easing back into it after being torn out of an untold hell dimension. Little does he know.
Buffy, meanwhile, has gone to see Spike to try and find out what could be causing the singing and dancing plague. Spike, although he claims to be immune, channels some Billy Idol and starts singing about his feelings for her and how, if she doesn't love him, she should leave him be, hijacking a night-time funeral to dance on the coffin lid and they almost "have a moment" until Buffy runs off.
Back at the house, Dawn is sorting homework as Tara tells her that they may have a lead on the demon. Dawn says she's happy that Willow and Tara made up after their fight, leading Tara to wonder how she didn't remember about it and discover the forgetting spell, leaving Dawn on her own at the house to go and confront Willow. Dawn puts on the necklace she stole and starts to sing about how she is being ignored, just before getting kidnapped by the demon's henchmen.
Dawn wakes up to find herself on the pool table in local nightclub The Bronze. Cue some interpretive dance, reminiscent of the dream ballet sequences in musical films of the 1940's and 50's, as she tries to get away from the three henchmen and is thrown at the feet of Sweet who starts a soft shoe shuffle to introduce himself.
It turns out the necklace that she stole is the talisman to invoke the demon and he has now come to claim her as his queen in the underworld. Dawn lets slip, in song of course, that her sister is the Slayer and Sweet sends his henchmen to go and get her.
In the meantime, Buffy is training with Giles, although she is concerned that it may turn into an 80's movie training montage with all the singing and dancing going on. They talk about Dawn and the date incident at Halloween and Buffy says she thought Giles took care of it, making Giles realise that he's being too over-protective. As Buffy trains, in slow motion, he starts singing about how he wishes he could stay and be the protective father-figure but that he's standing in her way. At the same time, Tara searches the books in The Magic Box to discover the forgetting spell and sings about having to break up with Willow. This leads to a beautiful harmonised duet between Giles and Tara, both lamenting the fact they have to leave their respective loves.
The shop door opens and in walks Spike with one of the demon's henchmen, who tells all about Dawn's kidnap before escaping. Buffy asks the Scoobies what the plan is and Xander says they should "mount up" and all go but Giles stops them, saying Buffy should go herself. Spike offers to help but a sarcastic put-down from Buffy turns him away. Buffy goes out alone.
As she walks through the night streets, past dancing groups and flaming barrels, she sings about "walking through the fire" or doing her job as a Slayer because that's all that she can do. Elsewhere in the city, Spike sings of his love for Buffy and decides to go and help her. The demon, Sweet, joins in the song from his lair at The Bronze, summoning Buffy "through the fire" to get her sister. Back at The Magic Box, Giles worries whether he has done the right thing by making Buffy go alone. Anya and Xander convince him that they should all go after her. Lots of walking and a multi-part vocal that pulls stories and characters together, gets them all to The Bronze.
Buffy has got there first though, kicks the door in and offers Sweet a deal that, if she doesn't beat him in the fight he can take her, rather than Dawn, back to the underworld. He asks what happens if he kills her and Buffy replies cynically that it won't matter, then sings about how futile it is trying to be her and how she has "nothing to sing about" as she fights with the henchmen again. Cue the cheesiest line in the show as the Scoobies arrive mid-song and Giles asks Anya and Tara to give Buffy some backup, so she gets backing vocals and dancing from the girls. As the song continues, Buffy lets slip how she believes she was taken back from heaven, much to the shock of all of them.
Under the influence of the demon, Buffy starts to dance faster and faster, smoke starts to appear and she is only stopped and saved by Spike who walks in at that moment and grabs her, singing about how she has to go on living for them "so one of us is living". The song finishes and Dawn's voice cuts the silence "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it".
I always have to stop the DVD for a bit at that point, as it breaks my heart every single time.
Continuing, and Sweet applauds the song, saying that he and Dawn should be leaving because she was the one who summoned him. Dawn denies it and Xander owns up that it was him just to make sure he and Anya had "a happy ending" and did that mean he had to go and be Queen of the Underworld instead? Sweet decides to waive the clause about taking the summoner as his queen and leaves, asking them to say truthfully whether they're happy now all their innermost secrets are out, "Once More With Feeling".
Awkward silence and confusion follows as each tries to take in everything that has happened and try to work out where they go from here, in song of course. Spike joins in the group singing for a short while until he comes to his senses and leaves. Buffy comes out to the alley to join him. They both realise.... big smooch, big finale crescendo in the music, big Hollywood titles, "The End".
Yes, it's a musical. Yes, it's kitschy, cheesy and even a bit ropey in parts, but I'm not ashamed to say I love this episode. It has everything. A roller-coaster of emotions, laughter and tears. The vocal performances vary in strength but notable are Tara (Amber Benson) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). The songs themselves hit the perfect tone between humour and pathos and there's such a mix of styles that there is something for everyone. Dance-wise you can tell the trained and the not so trained but Dawn's (Michelle Trachtenberg) balletic sequence was sublime. Plot-wise it wasn't superfluous either, marking a pivotal turning point in the relationship between Buffy and Spike as well as between Willow and Amber.
If you've never seen this episode, watch it. If you have, watch it again... just Once More, With Feeling.
Cover image from Amazon, other images from buffymusical.com