In Not Guilty, we look at movies and TV shows that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should give a second look — "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time around, we turn our attention to the divisive sixth season of hit series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Ask any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan what their favorite season is and they’ll usually have a firm answer. Out of the show’s seven possible seasons, though, its sixth has earned one of the most controversial reputations among fans. Even Marti Noxon, who worked on the show first as a writer and later took over showrunning duties from creator Joss Whedon in that year, recently expressed some regrets over the season having gone “too far,” with lead character Buffy being pushed “into some categories that almost felt sadistic.”
Recent years have seen audiences more willing to reevaluate their initial opinions of Season 6, to revisit what is arguably one of the darkest points in series history and to distinguish the good from the bad (don’t get us wrong, there is still definitely some bad). But today, we think it’s past time to acknowledge what made Buffy’s penultimate season so great.It’s unflinchingly honest about its messier parts
Life can be convoluted, even for a Slayer — especially when that Slayer has been to Heaven and back. When Buffy made her return after dying in Season 5, it wasn’t until the end of the show’s third episode that she confessed to Spike that she’d been magically wrenched out of what she believed to be a happy afterlife and back into the “hard, bright, and violent” hell of reality. It was a devastating reveal, not just for what Buffy had lost but what it signaled for the course of the season.
Indeed, much of Season 6 followed the realistic, at times brutal struggles of its characters, usually paired with a supernatural twist in the spirit of the show. Buffy was forced to face the harshness of real life while also navigating problems with finances and how to comfortably provide for her sister, Dawn, all while continuing to fulfill her duties as a Slayer. Willow’s dependency on magic took a turn for the worse and drove a wedge between her healthy relationship with Tara as well as with the rest of her friends. Xander had his doubts about whether or not he was ready to get married to Anya after proposing to her the season before. In seasons past, we’d seen the Scooby Gang navigate the real world within the comfortable borders of high school — and later, college, for a brief time — and while Season 5 presented several tough obstacles for Buffy and her friends to overcome (like the death of Buffy and Dawn’s mother, Joyce), it was only a precursor to what they would have to face the following year. In addition to character struggles, Season 6 would tackle themes of addiction, depression, and toxic masculinity, among others, which plunged the show into darker places but also some of its most relatable moments.
It acknowledges the hardships of adulthood and the value of learning from them
Season 6 of Buffy understands that adulting is tough. But it’s not afraid to showcase its lead character in the most distressing of circumstances — and show her figuring out how to cope with them. When Buffy was forced to take a part-time job halfway through the season at the Doublemeat Palace, it was a moment that was partly played for comedy (and fast food-related grossness), but subsequent episodes saw her adjusting to the monotony and burger smells of her rather thankless gig and finding ways to make the best of her current situation. An unexpected visit from her ex-boyfriend Riley (and his new wife) would eventually force Buffy to acknowledge the other, unhealthier aspects of her life (like how she’d only been using Spike in a sexual relationship for cold comfort), but also accept the truth that she wasn’t less of a person just because she’d had to sling burgers for money.
The importance of intervention and subsequent revelation, whether casual or otherwise, is a message that plays out for not just Buffy but for others around her. On a more extreme level, towards the end of the season when Willow’s heavy reliance on magic descends into full-on addiction after Tara’s murder, it’s only Xander who is able to get through to her once she’s succumbed to the height of her dark power, saving not just Willow but also the world through the power of friendship. His repeated insistence to Willow that he’ll always love her no matter what turns out to be the thing that can break down her walls and help her start the process of healing.
It’s home to some of the show’s best episodes
You can’t think about Season 6 without recalling one of its most complex and entertaining episodes, not just within the season itself but in the show as a whole. “Once More, With Feeling” is a landmark Buffy episode as well as one of the most memorable in television history. With character-driven musical numbers, delightful choreography, and an entire soundtrack of earworms, “Once More, With Feeling” went on to influence the landscape of the small screen in terms of its format, leading to other shows like Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy incorporating musical episodes in later years. While the episode can certainly be watched as a standalone experience, it also works within the context of the full season, continuing several important plotlines that would continue after the musical’s final reprise.
Beyond the musical, there are other episodes that play on some familiar storytelling tropes to create some terrific stories. “Tabula Rasa” makes use of an amnesia spell, which eventually leads to the entire Scooby Gang forgetting their own identities as well as their relationship to one another. (The “Randy Giles” gag alone is worth the price of admission.) “Normal Again,” while much less comedic, finds daring ways to question the fantastical nature of the show itself when a demon’s venom causes Buffy to believe that her entire existence as the Slayer has been one grand hallucination. “All the Way,” which serves as the season’s Halloween episode, tricks the audience into thinking that Dawn and her friends are in danger from a neighborly old man — when in truth, it’s Dawn’s date Justin who is revealed to be a vampire.It’s Buffy’s phoenix season
After sinking into the depths, sometimes all you can do is burn it all down and ascend from the ashes. The sixth season bears some of the most contentious storylines in series history — among them the complicated (and, at times, toxic) relationship between Buffy and Spike, which, towards the end of the season, plummets to a new low when Spike attempts to rape Buffy in “Seeing Red.” That episode, in particular, is also home to the death of Tara, made even more devastating by the fact that she and Willow had newly reconciled; it was a moment that would send Willow further into a spiral of black magic, vowing vengeance on her girlfriend’s killer for the remainder of the season. Fans were and are still understandably divided on the decision for the show to seemingly punish Buffy via an attempted rape from her on-again, off-again sexual partner, as well as kill off the recently-returned Tara with a stray bullet in what could be considered one of television’s earliest examples of the “Bury Your Gays” trope.
It can be argued, though, that Season 6’s fall is what inevitably allows for Buffy and the Scoobies to experience an important rebirth in the show’s next and final season. Season 7, while not often earning a spot as a favorite on many fans’ lists, nevertheless represents a different kind of renewal for the show’s core cast of characters. Buffy returns to her old stomping grounds of Sunnydale High in a position of authority as the school’s guidance counselor. Willow continues to recover from her addiction and eventually learns how to control her magic in a way that enables her to perform her most powerful spell yet, activating every Slayer around the world. Xander, who frequently experienced his own struggles with masculinity over the course of the show, becomes a caregiver to the group of Potential Slayers Buffy hosts in her home, and even comes to a reconciliation with Anya after leaving her at the altar the previous season. A newly ensouled Spike sacrifices himself in the final fight in order to close the Hellmouth once and for all. At the end of it all, when the surviving Scooby Gang is staring out at a devastated Sunnydale, the last shot of the series is of Buffy’s smile.
There’s an oft-quoted notion that says the darkest hour is just before the dawn. When you take into account the scope of what our characters have had to go through to get to that final moment of Season 7, it casts everything in a different light. While there have been many debates about Buffy's sixth season (and there will likely be many more to come), its unabashed truths about the hells of growing up are why it's actually a profound, Not Guilty pleasure.