“The Hardest Thing in This World is To Live in It” and Sometimes to Sing in It Too: Innovation and Buffy’s “Once More, With Feeling” Episode

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a revolutionary show, one which continues to influence the form and content of modern television. In addition to its famous characters and innovative plot, the show is often credited as creating what we now recognize as the ‘musical episode’, a convention which shows like the updated Sabrina, Supernatural, and Batman (to name just a few) have utilized. It was not the first musical television episode, but it left an overwhelming impression on TV audiences.

Ask any fan which episode of Buffy is their favourite, and they will no doubt mention the famous “Once More, With Feeling”. It’s an incredible episode for multiple reasons, as it greatly impacted pop culture, but also introduced and wrapped up huge storylines. It’s additionally relevant for the way it frames anxiety and depression through musical theater, as although it pokes fun at musicals, it also uses the genre to highlight uncomfortable issues which the characters would not normally talk about. And, like many other horror musicals, the episode suggests that musicals are inherently sinister and constitute a form of possession. The characters are forced to sing against their will, and too much singing and dancing leads to a gruesome death. This implies that dancing around issues in your life will eventually have disastrous results, and that bottling things up never works. As such, both the subject matter in the songs and the very format of the musical highlight the character’s conflicted emotional states. The act of singing represents a form of emotional transgression, where what was inside and suppressed suddenly externalizes and has immediate consequences.

“I Gave Birth to a Pterodactyl”
“Oh my god, did it sing?”

Buffy had already cultivated a devoted fan base by the time this season 6 episode aired. The show appealed to a variety of backgrounds, particularly fans of the horror genre. The show actively rejects the passive victim archetype in horror, the typical screaming blonde love interest who is either terrorized or butchered. The horror genre is especially guilty of this characterization, as it often focuses on the female body in a sexual, voyeuristic, or violent manner. Sometimes a combination of these. Although horror also created the final girl archetype, where the girl fights back against her oppressor, this figure still represents a type of victimhood. To be a final girl, the protagonist has to be victimized in some way, either stalked by a killer or forced to defend herself after all her friends have died.

Buffy introduces a different version of the final girl, one who seeks out evil and protects random civilians, her hometown, and the entire world. Buffy is forced into this final girl position because she is the chosen one, but the show reconsiders the victimhood associated with this role. Rather than becoming a victim, Buffy faces her responsibilities. She sacrifices a great deal throughout the show, but primarily, she sacrifices her normal life. As such, she represents a new version of the final girl, not someone defined by the death around her, but by the death she causes and prevents.

 “I was able to examine the body while police were taking witness arias”

“Once More, With Feeling” made a huge impact on television because it demonstrates the narrative potential of a musical episode. Musicals run on the suspension of disbelief, more so than a traditional narrative. If you can get away with singing and dancing in your show, you can also make atypical character decisions. So, while a musical episode is an easy way to attract more audiences, and to take advantage of your cast’s other skills, it is also a way for your character to have a sudden soliloquy which would normally not happen. Musicals thus offer creative freedom, and Buffy is great example of that narrative freedom. Was there any narrative freedom behind the scenes, given what has recently come to light about Joss Whedon’s abusive behaviour on set? No, but noting that important contextual detail, I will be focusing on what the episode itself does narratively speaking, and what that went on to influence.

There are two ways to incorporate a musical into your show, and I would argue that Buffy does the better option. The first is for your cast to break into song, and then to immediately return to the narrative as if nothing had happened. This is also when the song communicates something which the audience already knows, so it just sort of repeats things. Take Glee. Even though it’s a musical series, it often returns to this model. In a typical episode, stuff happens to characters and then they sing about how that event impacted them, generally with a recognizable song which the audience already knows. The song rarely moves the plot, rather, it happens beside the plot. It is even rarer for events to happen while the characters are singing. The songs are restricted to the events in that episode, and to the events which happen just before. The characters might come to a new conclusion after they finish singing, but the song is unnecessary for that decision to be made. In other words, the episode would have the same plot even if no one sung.

 Buffy does something different, as the songs have actual consequences and reveal information which both characters and audience did not know. For instance, we find out that Giles is leaving the Scooby gang, that Xander and Anya are having some second thoughts about marriage (which foreshadows Xander eventually leaving Anya at the alter), and that Buffy was sent to Heaven instead of Hell, which the audience knew, but none of the characters did. Buffy’s confession has monumental repercussions, and its arguably the driving force for the rest of season 6. The fact that it happens in song illustrates that the episode’s musical format is not just a way to talk about emotions, it’s a tool used to forward its plot and character development.

“I bet they’re [notices Dawn] …singing. They’re probably singing right now”

The episode similarly introduces new storylines and milestones through singing, like Buffy and Spike’s blooming relationship and the destruction of Willow and Tara’s. It does so by making the singing involuntary and slightly dangerous. This way, the show can justify why characters are making huge revelations which they would normally keep secret. Having a musical episode is a creative way to bypass the emotional walls built by each character, which additionally explains why so many figures confess things in the episode. It is the only time the show could justify all its characters being open and vulnerable simultaneously.

There is so much concealment going on in these character’s lives, and this episode challenges that concealment and changes each character’s motivation. The final number, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, is a group number for a reason. No one has any idea how to move forward after everything they have said and heard. The song is also directed at the audience, as it signals that something new has started, and that the characters are beginning new plot lines and ending other ones. It is no coincidence that the very next episode is called “Tabula Rasa”, or blank slate. This ensuing episode informs the audience that the musical episode reset the plot, and that the characters are now dealing with a blank slate, an open-ended and unclear trajectory.

“Well, if we hear any inspirational power chords, we’ll just lie down until they go away

“Once More, With Feeling” is particularly effective in the way it juxtaposes silly musical theater with sincere drama. We get a few very strange and funny songs in the episode, like “The Mustard” and “The Parking Ticket”. What makes these moments entertaining is that they juxtapose a mundane task with the gravity and ludicrousness of a musical. We see random civilians dancing around on the sidewalk for no apparent reason. Things which could easily be talked about are sung. These things make absolutely no sense, especially when compared to Buffy’s traditional storytelling model. It’s strange and sinister to picture a musical in the real world, especially if that world is as violent as the Buffy universe.

The blend between musical and horror is violent in “Once More, With Feeling”, as each song invades the scene very suddenly, even when the characters try to avoid them. No one can escape from the songs, and they only regain control after they finish their performance. Anya describes this as, “we were arguing and then everything rhymed and there were harmonies, and a dance with coconuts”, which we have seen before in musicals, but in the context of Buffy, is horrifying. During a musical, a character will take a beat during a discussion, start rhyming everything, and then the scene will descend into a song. This might be perfectly normal in the confine of a musical, but it violently clashes with our expectations of Buffy. The music isn’t simply invading the character’s personal lives, an entirely new genre with different expectations is invading the Buffy universe.

Much of the comedy in the episode comes from the characters feeling dislocated in this new musical world, like when Buffy goes to attack the big bad and starts singing. The characters feel disjointed, as does the audience. This means that everything in the episode takes on a double meaning. For instance, if someone says battle, the scene could become a dance battle. When Giles yells “she needs backup” during the big fight, Tara and Anya step forward and start singing backup for Buffy. Technically it’s backup, just not the kind Giles had in mind.

Buffy similarly negotiates with these double meanings throughout the episode, and this relates to her current emotional state. She feels like she has to manage her anxiety and depression while also managing everyone else and pretending to be ok. She occupies a middle space, caught between her ordinary life before and the life she had in heaven. It is one of the reasons that Buffy’s confession to her friends perfectly suits the episode, as she is physically caught between singing and fighting, just as she is emotionally caught between earth and heaven. The only way to fix this doubled environment, where fighting and dancing are the same thing, is to stop denying her emotional trauma and to confess to her friends. Simply put, Buffy must stop her doubled life in order for the universe/show to stop mixing genres.

“The day you suss out what you do want, there’ll probably be a parade”

Just as Buffy deals with the repercussions of suppressing her emotional state, combining two genres has physical consequences on the characters in Buffy. If they sing or dance for too long, they burst into flames. This implies that the musical genre is too incompatible with the world in Buffy, and that you can’t sing your way through life’s problems like they do in musicals. The crux of the episode is thus learning to deal with your issues rather than suppressing them. If you keep burying yourself, you will eventually suffocate.

Buffy might have to fight against a singing demon in the episode, but he is never a major threat. We know that Buffy will continue after this episode, and without all the singing. The real conflict is Buffy’s anxiety and depression, or her trouble communicating with people and engaging with the world. This tone contrasts the way most people think of musical theater. On Broadway, people sing about their problems and eventually everything is resolved, and the characters live happily ever after (at least in the classic/golden age of musical theater). I am talking about shows like My Fair Lady and Music Man, the kind where a problem gets introduced but is easily fixed by the end of the narrative. The issues Buffy and the other characters face are too complex to be fixed by the end of the episode, and so the cheery musical theater tone, and the assumptions we have about it, are intentionally jarring in “Once More, With Feeling”.

Each character deals with this musical invasion in a different way, but ultimately each realizes that their problems are not nearly as tidy as those in a classic musical. Xander initially summons the demon because he assumes that singing will make their problems go away. It doesn’t, it just makes their problems catchier. The songs are never escapist because they are too bogged down with the character’s personal lives.

Even the musical arrangement in these songs says something about the character’s state of mind, as many of the songs are either solos or feature prolonged solos. During the first few group numbers, characters primarily sing about themselves and their thoughts rather than working together as a group. For instance, in “I’ve Got a Theory”, each character sings about their theory, but there is no unifying consensus. At the end of the song, Buffy leads everyone in a chorus of “what can’t we face when we’re together”, but the song ends with Anya’s quiet interruption- “except for bunnies”. This signals that although the characters are singing together, they are still not on the same page, something which continues throughout the episode.

It’s only in the episode’s second half that character begin to sing together, especially in “Where Do We Go From Here?”. We see a bit of this group mentality in “Walk Through The Fire”, at the end of the song, but this demonstrates that although the characters are still on different pages, they will walk together towards danger. The final two songs in the episode suggest that something has changed, and the characters are coming together, at least momentarily. This is especially evident in Buffy and Spike’s short duet, where they combine the lyrics from their previous solos into one song, essentially mixing their depression and anger into one another. It is left unclear whether this unification is a good thing or not, as we now know that Tara and Willow’s relationship will never be the same and that Giles has decided to leave everyone. This kiss is the final demonstration of this uncertainty, as we don’t know if the two will continue to work together, or if their relationship will always be a product of this blended anxiety and anger. As a singing demon once said, “Big smiles, everyone. You beat the bad guy”, but the battle continues.