Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.
"We're going to sit down and have a real dinner"¦someday"¦" -Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar)
And then there was Dawn. At the beginning of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show introduced a new little sister for Buffy, played by Michelle Trachtenberg. At first it seemed like a Cousin Oliver-esque gimmick from a show that was starting to get on in years and was fumbling after it spent most of its fourth season lost in the woods. Eventually, however, Dawn's purpose in the show's narrative became clear, and she became an integral part of the fifth season's narrative (I'll avoid discussing particulars since none of it is too relevant to the episode at hand). Yet the fifth season ended, and Buffy did not. Season Six of the show is by far the darkest, trailing into bleak nihilism for much of its run as the characters we have come to know and love realize how difficult it is to be an adult.
The one character who feels most out of place in this season is Dawn, something that works for the show in theory but is often incredibly annoying in practice. Dawn, you see, isn't really supposed to be there, and so when she feels annoyingly out of place, it sort of makes sense in a way. Unfortunately that doesn't keep her from feeling annoyingly out of place. For a show that expertly handled the trials and tribulations of high school students during its first three seasons, Buffy very frequently mishandles Dawn, turning her into a caricature of teen angst and abandonment issues, many of which come to a head in this week's episode, "Older and Far Away."
Before we get to that though, a bit of explanation for this episode's existence. Earlier in season six, the show had done the now famous musical episode, "Once More With Feeling." The episode took nearly two months to rehearse and shoot and was a complete budget buster for the show. As a result, many subsequent episodes of the season are scaled down (even the season's Big Bads are actually just three nerds with delusions of grandeur), none more so than "Older and Far Away," which with the exception of one scene in Dawn's high school is filmed entirely on established sets, and with very few special effects.
The set up for the episode is very straightforward. The gang is all coming over to celebrate Buffy's birthday (a very dangerous event, as Spike alludes to, asking Buffy if she's ever considered not celebrating her birthday), and after Dawn accidentally makes a wish that the people in her life stop going away, they are all trapped in the house. Considering all of the character conflicts that simmer beneath the surface of Buffy's sixth season, this is really enough to guarantee a solid episode of the show.
Unfortunately the episode, written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Michael Gershman, squanders most of that dramatic potential in several ways. First, it introduces a completely unnecessary demon into the mix in the form of a creature that can disappear into solid objects and is trapped in a sword Buffy brings into the house after a comically brief fight scene early in the episode (this was supposed to be a budget saver after all). The demon is released during efforts to free the group from the curse, and spends the rest of the episode hiding in the walls, popping out occasionally to fight Buffy, injure people, and create added tension the episode really doesn't need.
Second, it brings in several guest characters, for some obvious reasons both thematic and narrative, but doesn't do a whole lot with any of them. There's Clem (James C. Leary) a great recurring demon and friend of Spike's who manages to be the strongest of the outsiders, Sophie (Laura Roth), a friend of Buffy's from work, and Richard (Ryan Browning), a colleague of Xander's he brings along to set up with Buffy (Amber Benson as Tara is also technically a guest star, but is a recurring member of the group and doesn't really count). In a narrative sense, I understand why these characters are necessary to increase tension"”we know none of our regulars will die, so these people need to be there to raise the stakes. When Richard gets stabbed by the demon, we're supposed to worry for his safety and want the group to get out of the situation. Yet we know they'll make it out by episode's end, so that doesn't really do much.
Thematically, the inclusion of these characters works much better, though again, that doesn't make them feel any more necessary. One of the big arcs of season six is the main characters distance from one another and the problems this causes, so it makes perfect sense that they would want to have friends at the party to distract them from dealing with each other. I understand and appreciate that, but one of the points of a bottle episode is generally to deal with the conflict between characters, and in that respect, "Older and Far Away" really punts.
There is plenty of conflict for the show to deal with. Willow and Tara have broken up due to Willow's abuse of magic, and are still awkward around each other. Trapping them together should lead to some excellent confrontations, but instead just leads to fleeting progress (the two do have some nice moments together, from their awkward hello to Tara standing up for Willow when she refuses to do magic). Xander and Anya are preparing to get married and both terrified of the prospect. Instead of addressing this (which the show would deal with in one of my least favorite plot turns a few weeks later in "Hells Bells"), the episode just reminds us that Anya lacks tact, but Xander loves her anyway. Buffy and Spike have been secretly banging for most of the season, a fact only Tara knows. This is a great time to reveal that fact, or to at least let Buffy and Spike work out some of their issues, but their one brief fight is aborted by the discovery of the curse. And finally, Dawn feels abandoned by everyone around her and has taken to shoplifting in an effort to be noticed (its every bit as aggravating a subplot as it sounds).
This last conflict is the only one that is fully addressed in this episode, as Dawn and Buffy talk about her feelings of abandonment and her shoplifting is revealed. Everyone in the cast now knows that Dawn needs more of their attention than they've given her, and she will begin to make amends for her shoplifting by working at The Magic Box.
The episode's resolution is pretty nicely handled, to be fair. When Buffy, with a little help from Anya, surmises that Dawn made a wish to a vengeance demon, Anya summons her friend Halfrek (Kali Rocha, who is always great in the role and has an excellent in-joke moment with Spike) down to break the curse. Halfrek demurs, pointing out that Dawn's suffering was so strong it called her to the town and yet no one in her life even noticed. In a chilling condemnation that actually does land emotionally, Halfrek states her intent to leave them all there to die. "All you have now is time, and each other," she says before attempting to leave. And attempting it again. And realizing she is stuck by her own curse and forced to lift it and let everyone free. Its especially fitting that the episode's villain, much like the heroes she aims to punish, is trapped by circumstances of her own creation.
The episode ends with everyone finally free of the curse and fleeing outside, amazed by the stars, the grass, and the feeling of freedom. It's a moment that should be powerful, but actually feels a little overdone (they've only been trapped inside for two days, after all). The final shot retains the intended power, though. As everyone else flees back to the catastrophes of their lives, Buffy stays behind with Dawn, closing the door and leaving the two of them to deal with the serious issues in their relationship.
Season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has its problems, many of which I've alluded to here. Yet "Older and Far Away" fails not because of the weaknesses of the season (which I have come to like much more after re-watching it a few times), but because of weaknesses in ambition. At the point in the season where it falls, it is actually a perfectly placed bottle episode. There has been plenty of time to let conflicts percolate and to understand where everyone stands going into the episode. But by failing to fully address all of the honestly compelling conflicts these characters bring in to the episode, and by focusing instead on the conflicts that matter the least, the episode leaves most of the potential meat on the plate, with all the juiciest bits trickled out over the remainder of the season.
A bottle episode is the perfect way to address conflicts that characters are keeping hidden deep inside of themselves by throwing them together, ratcheting up the tension, and forcing them to confront difficult truths. "Older and Far Away" gets two of those elements just right, but fails to land the third. What we got was a Dawn episode. What we needed was a fully formed confrontation of the problems plaguing every one of the characters on the show, and hopefully, some tentative progress toward a lasting solution. Not every bottle episode can be a winner; sometimes you open one and find out it's gone flat.Read more Bottle Up and Explode here
Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:
11/6: "17 People," The West Wing
11/20: "A Night In," Porridge
12/4:"The One Where No One's Ready," Friends
12/18: "Pine Barrens," The Sopranos