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Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a drama about a young girl who inherits the powers to fight the demons that threaten the Earth. She lives in Sunnydale, California which happens to be the Hellmouth and must learn to master her powers while also trying to have some semblance of a normal life. The WB 1997 - 2001. UPN 2002-03.

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Episode 17 - Normal Again

28 August 2017

Buffy in the assylum

Synopsis: Buffy searches for the Trio and when she gets close they call a demon to fight her. The demon injects her with a serum which causes a hallucination that she is in a mental institution. As Willow and Xander search for an antidote Buffy meets her parents in her delusion who with her doctor advise her to destroy her friends and return to reality. Spike tells Buffy that she needs to tell her friends about their time together or he will. Buffy ties her friends up in the basement and plans to let the demon kill them.

The Good: One of the great joys of science fiction is to explore alternate scenarios for an established reality. Science fiction TV series will often take this style and attempt to play with their own universe to create memorable one-off episodes. Buffy of course is no stranger to this with "The Wish" being a particularly successful examples. But there's something different about "Normal Again." I didn't feel much tension on Rewatch but it certainly felt serious. The tone was dark and by the end deeply sad. Once more we have to credit the writers who managed to craft this.

Instead of choosing a random moment within the show's narrative to play the "what if" game they picked their spot very nicely. Buffy's life has been so hard since she returned from the dead that the idea that none of it is real is actually appealing. Not in a joyful way at all but a mournful state of self pity. Life would clearly be no better after six years in a mental institution but perhaps it would offer a release. A release from the crushing burden of being the Slayer and of feeling depressed. And like almost all great Buffy stories it ties back to her immense selflessness. The thought that all her epic struggles and sacrifices are a fiction is in itself so depressing that she is tempted to give in to that suggestion and escape her reality.

Instead Joyce's pep talk about how much strength Buffy has convinces her to stay. Seeing the love and faith her parents had in her reminds her of who she is. It helps her access the sense of self that has been obscured all season by a fog of detachment. Like many stories in our culture (The Lion King, Harry Potter, Lost) it is the reassurance from a figure beyond the grave that helps our hero rediscover who they are.

And of course the producers decided to have their cake and eat it too. The final shot of the episode is the delicious suggestion that perhaps Buffy really was trapped in a delusion and what we are watching is her fantasy of heroism. On my first watch when my investment was in the soap opera of the story I found this ambiguity annoying. The suggestion that what I was watching didn't count or that the Angel spinoff was equally fabricated annoyed me. It's a testament to the show's quality that my bond to it felt betrayed by that idea. On Rewatch I feel differently. This time I was struck by how clever and evocative the suggestion was.

Within our reality Joyce's speech was a pep talk to the Slayer. It was her creator telling her not to give up and be true to herself. But with the knowledge that maybe Buffy was in the mental institution Joyce's words were heartbreaking. They were the salve to a wound that Buffy had just bravely reopened. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a fantastical fiction, we know that. To suggest that Buffy might be a real person outside of that whose mind collapsed into a heroic delusion is somehow such an earth shaking concept that I appreciated the audacity of its invention. It gives the episode a gravitas, a hint of something greater than it is and no longer bothers me or affects my enjoyment of the narrative. There's just something about the idea that our great hero might actually be conjuring all this suffering just so she can save the world that moves me.

In terms of dynamics I thought the episode benefitted from excellent pacing. It built very slowly toward revealing the threat which the delusion presented. But once Buffy chose to destroy her friends it was quite gripping. The idea that Buffy might use her strength on humans has always intrigued. To see her attack Xander and Dawn was almost disturbing. She is not only their friend and sister but their protector and comforter. Her transformation into a stalker was played with dead eyed sadness by the ever amazing SMG.

As I mentioned the writing got all the details just right. The introduction of Buffy's first visit to a clinic sounded entirely plausible even though it was invented for this episode. Her death was described as a time when she was temporarily lucid until the friends in her mind dragged her back to their reality. And the introduction of Dawn was considered a destabilising influence which had led to the Scoobies being less comforting than they used to be and her enemies reduced in status to the Trio (all nicely fitting the arc of Season Six). 

Spike's attitude to Buffy seemed truer to character than his politeness at the wedding (616). He tries to win her back through the suggestion that if her friends knew about them then they would come to accept it and she could be happy. But it's no friendly advice, it's an ultimatum that he hopes will force her hand. Meanwhile I liked the Trio's strenuous efforts not to be seen (though I suppose they could have skipped town) and the tension which Jonathan's conscience continues to cause between them.

The Bad: Once more Dawn made Buffy's crisis about her. It's such a self-regarding response that it continues to clash badly with Buffy's selfless teenage years. A lot of Dawn's whining about how Buffy doesn't want her around would make a lot more sense if it had come after the events of this episode!

The Unknown: Why did Tara come round to the house? I suppose to talk to Willow about the earlier miscommunication at college. But I liked how it functioned to reinforce the idea that this was all in Buffy's head. After all here was another of her super powered friends coming to pull her back in.

Where has Anya gone? Xander's backtracking clearly won't go down well with her. His reasoning is understandable (being with her was not the problem, but what the future might hold) but boy did he need to think that all through six months ago.

Best Moment: Joyce's speech was very moving with two completely different possible interpretations. To play with the hero's story and make it simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking was quite a feat.

The Bottom Line: I didn't expect to admire this as much as I now do. That's one of the joys of this Rewatch. I feel like this works better on a second viewing though. Detached from needing to know where the plot is headed I was able to see the beauty in the two sides to this story and marvel once more at how much I care about the fictional story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all her supportive, super powered friends.


 

Cordia’s Second Look
Normal Again
Season 6, Episode 17

Original airing: March 12, 2002
 

My Rating: 91

The Good: I adore this episode for the questions it asks and the possibilities it presents. I’m in the camp of believing that the mental institution and Sunnydale as we know it are two different universes which most likely diverged at the point when Buffy was first incarcerated after burning down her old school gym. To me, the existence of one of these universes does not detract from the existence of the other. In fact, it heightens the strength Buffy displays by choosing to be where she is most needed.

Buffy’s resurrection at the beginning of the season was the choice of her friends; her decision to stay in Sunnydale is most definitely her choice. This single decision allows her to stand up and reaccept who she is and her destiny to protect others. It reminds me of the moment in Season 3, Episode 1 Anne where she tells the demon she’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I think the show did a great job of bringing the season to this point and wrapping the two universes together. In their own ways, both are completely believable. It’s impressive for the show to create the institution universe in one fell swoop and get people believing it is real. I’m honestly impressed.

I really liked the loop in the story where Spike unintentionally convinces Buffy to “get healthy” in the ward universe and then Joyce unintentionally convinces Buffy to stay in “Sunnydale”. Both think they are serving their own purposes, but they are truly serving Buffy. Spike’s ultimatium to reveal his relationship with Buffy causes her to want to run away. She chooses to accept the ward, even though it means the pain of killing her friends in Sunnydale. It’s when Joyce reminds Buffy how strong she is that Buffy can finally accept it and do the right thing. I like that Buffy’s mother redirected her to her moral compass.

The Bad: I have no real complaints about this episode.

Favorite Moment: Buffy hiding under the stairs while the demon attacks her friends is poignantly cast against her terror in the institution. Her mother attempts to calm her while all she can see are her friends and family being beaten to death. The fact that she found a way to kill her friends and free herself of the potential hallucination while also torturing herself with the visuals speaks highly of her personality. She’s the Slayer. She could have easily snapped everyone’s necks. But she feels guilty about it all, even when she believes it isn’t real.

The Bottom Line: This is a turning point episode where Buffy finally and truly comes back to herself. I’m glad to see it finally happen and I hope it continues on from her. It’s time for the Slayer to kick some ass.

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Comments

  • I hate to disagree, but this episode made me stop watching the series. Buffy has been through so much, I had so much invested in the character and to find that it's all the hallucination of a pathetic, catatonic mental patient. Just too much. In my view, the end scene of her in the mental hospital is not a flash from her normal life, it is an omniscient look at what's going on. I found it pathetic and depressing. I couldn't continue the series. In fact, all of season 6 that I saw was depressing. I don't need to invest in fictional characters to feel like s**t, I'm quite capable on my own. Very disappointing escapism.

    Viewer score: 20 / 100

    Posted by Paul Weeks, 28/08/2017 1:10am (23 days ago)

  • I have to give it up to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have seen the "it's not real" episode at least 10 times before, which is why I can't go higher than a 70, but it was still entertaining. Both parts of my psyche were engaged: the "ooh is she just nuts?" side, and the "oh boo hoo super powers are so stressful!" side. I wonder how many of us daydream about having the ability to help others... It seems appropriate that Buffy would wonder what it would be like to shed her responsibilities. Thankfully she came to her senses.

    Viewer score: 70 / 100

    Posted by Matt E., 19/11/2013 2:22am (4 years ago)

  • This is one of my favorite episodes. When I first saw it my mouth was left open and I couldn't stop thinking about it for several days because it messed with my head so much.
    I can really relate to Buffy in this episode. As a guy who had a job just like Buffy's, was going through a depression and whose love life was on the rocks a few years ago I can totally see the appeal of living a different life even if the other life is a lie.
    That being said now that I'm older I do have a few problems with this episode.
    1. The ending. While sad and shocking if the hospital is the "real world" that means everything that happened in Sunnydale is a lie and it's kind of a middle finger to the audience.
    2. Dawn. Once again she makes Buffy's problem all about her. Logically if Buffy's Sunnydale world is just a bad dream then it makes sense that Dawn doesn't exist. Dawn shouldn't be a bitka about it.
    3. The "Is this world real or is this a dream" episode is such a cliché episode in fantasy and sci-fi TV shows and almost all have done it. Xena, Hercules, Stargate SG1, Stargate Atlantis, Angel, all Star Treks, Smallville and countless others have done a dream episode. I'm not saying it's a bad thing but I am saying that it's not the most original although Buffy is the only show I can think that has ended with the dream world being the real world.
    Other than those small things I love this episode.

    Viewer score: 85 / 100

    Posted by Andrew the Geek, 07/08/2013 9:21pm (4 years ago)

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