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Like There Were Only Three Walls

17 March, 2017 (18:36) | Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dead Water, Sense8 | By: Ian Burdon

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Once More With Feeling, the magnificent 6th season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve been asked a couple of times since then why I like the episode so much, and this is my explanation.

Soliloquies in Song

Off the top of my head, I can only think of three TV dramas in which the characters sing where it has worked: the communal singing of The Pogues’ The Body of An American at funerals in The Wire; the cast singing of 4-Non Blondes What’s Up in Sense8; and Once More With Feeling. The common factor in all three is that the singing was integral to plot and character.

Of these, Once More With Feeling is the greatest.

All the world's a stage...

All the world’s a stage…

If characters are to be more than cyphers, they must have depth and an inner life, and it is the inner life that has to be conveyed to the audience. There are many accepted ways of doing this, from “show don’t tell” techniques, to characters saying what they think out loud or into diaries or letters, to characters giving insights into each other.

In theatre a character may well break into a soliloquy, speaking directly to the audience. Life’s a show and we all play our parts, sings Buffy, echoing As You Like It (All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…)/and when the music starts, we open up our hearts… So we are dealing with theatre, and soliloquy.

In Once More With Feeling the core McGuffin is that a demon forces characters to reveal their innermost secrets and fears as soliloquies in song. The genius of the script is that it takes the undercurrents of previous episodes and, through the cathartic and involuntary revelation of painful truths, triggers the unfolding of the remaining episodes of season 6, rippling through into season 7.

Once More With Feeling is not a novelty musical interlude: it is the pivot on which season 6 turns in terms of character and plot. And it isn’t forced; within the mythos of the Buffyverse, the McGuffin makes sense. The characters realise what is happening and react against it; “That was disturbing, says Xander after I’ve Got a Feeling/Bunnies/If We’re Together.” “I’m just worried this whole session is going to turn into a training montage from an eighties movie,” says Buffy; “Well, if we hear any inspirational power chords we’ll just lie down until they go away,” replies Giles. “It’s getting eerie, what’s this cheery singing all about?” sing Willow, Tara and Anya.

Soliloquies are a device to breach the divide between character and audience, something else not lost on the script:  “And you can sing along,” sings Buffy, looking knowingly through the camera at the audience; “I felt like we were being watched, like a wall was missing from our apartment, like there were only three walls, no fourth wall,” says Anya, going all meta on us.

Songs and Characters

Of course the songs have to work, and they do. They cover a lot of styles, but lyrically and musically they are beautifully constructed, even if they use a few old tricks, such as “Walk Through The Fire” having the characters musing in a minor key (Dm) before transitioning to the relative major (F) for the power-chorus. It pulls a similar move with the bridge, hitting the major chords and a three chord trick for the emotional resolution ((C) We’ll see this through, it’s what we’re (Bb) always here to do, and we will (F) walk (C) through the (Bb) fire). “Something to Sing About” pedals from Bm to Bm(dim), a deliberately unsettling motif for Buffy’s big reveal.

And the songs intersect lyrically, sometimes reversing what you think the initial meaning is (the ambiguity of Under Your Spell) or commenting on inner turmoil: What can’t we do if we’re together, sings Tara in the harmonies of Walk Through The Fire, throwing Buffy’s own words back at her, as does Dawn later, repeating a line from the season 5 closing episode; Going through the motions, walking through the part, sings Buffy in the same song, repeating words from her opening number.

Because each song is in essence a soliloquy, except for the first part of I’ve Got a Theory, it must tie to and reveal aspects of the character performing it. Every single song hits the mark in this respect.

Secrets and lies

Secrets and lies

A final word on Sarah Michelle Gellar. A lot is made in commentary on this episode of the strength of, particularly, Amber Benson and Anthony Stewart Head’s voices (Emma Caulfield should be added to that list as well I think). I agree. What is less often noted is that SMG had to deliver 4 key songs (Going Through the Motions, If We’re Together, Walk Through the Fire, and Something to Sing About). She lands every one with the force and precision of Buffy kicking down a door. SMG’s performance in this episode is astonishing; she had a hard time with the episode because she never held herself out to be a singer or dancer. It doesn’t matter, because we don’t hear the voice of SMG in the songs, we hear the authentic voice of Buffy Anne Summers.

And that performance, to carry the episode, is the catalyst that raises it into the ranks of the extraordinary.