Meta-Stakes: Buffy’s Take On The Time Loop
“Life Serial” is one of Buffy’s most meta episodes, a commentary on the series as a whole.
Nineteen years after it ended, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is more popular than ever, with streaming audiences rediscovering in the series the kind of layered storytelling that was a hallmark of Peak TV. The show has plenty to offer on second viewing (and third-viewings – and fourth, firth, etc.), with season-long arcs that tied together monster-of-the-week plots, generally along rich thematic lines.
Yet Buffy also proved the formula along which low fantasy would later proliferate: supernatural premises are malleable concepts, allowing writers to tell a variety of creative and engaging stories (which need only loose connections to the forces of darkness that drive the show). Time loops are not exactly a convention of the vampire subgenre, but “Life Serial” used the device so effectively that it became a viable construct for future magic-based shows to emulate.
The sixth season of Buffy is probably the series’ darkest between Buffy’s post-death identity crisis and Willow’s magic addiction – not to mention the multiple embodiments of toxicity that antagonize Buffy from all sides. When Spike is not attempting to seduce Buffy into embracing the possibility that she is no longer human, the Trio is waging a campaign to make her life a living hell (dimension), for their own amusement. It is hard to say which of these storylines is more sinister: Spike’s actions bear all of the classic characteristics of an abusive boyfriend, but the Trio’s war on the Slayer is as relentlessly cruel as online harassment. Yet these two conflicts form only a part of Season 6’s narrative foundation – it is Buffy’s other antagonist that takes center stage in “Life Serial.”
Season 6 was also a watershed for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, finally closing the door on Buffy’s childhood and envisioning the character as both Slayer and fully functioning adult. The internal conflict that drove her in the early seasons – between her duties as Slayer and her desire to be a “normal girl” – is heightened by the responsibilities that come with being ‘normal’ in adulthood; Buffy needs to be able to hold down a job, pay bills, and take care of her sister. Her failed employment opportunities in “Life Serial” mirror the (frankly, depressing) serial plot of the season, as Buffy juggles her duty to slay with various jobs. The entire episode, in fact, acts as a microcosm of Buffy’s awkward transition – the Trio only exacerbates what is already a major issue in her life.
“Life Serial” is a play in four acts – four vignettes, each with its own antagonist. First, Warren foils her attempt to return to college by interfering with the passage of time. This is the shortest act because it essentially recaps the first four seasons, and the viewer already knows how it will end: Buffy’s work as a Slayer is incompatible with the attendance she needs to succeed in school, regardless of Warren’s interference.
Next, Buffy shadow’s Xander at his construction job, a role in which she is more than physically capable. This time, Andrew’s demons appear and wreck her site, and Buffy is held responsible for the damage (Xander displays his usual sensitivity as he proclaims, “Not at my job; that’s your job”) What follows is Jonathan’s time loop, which turns Buffy’s work at the Magic Box into a retail nightmare as she repeatedly attempts to satisfy a customer. After a series of frustrations, she is finally able to fulfill the customer’s requests – but she (understandably) forgets to charge shipping, which marks her as unfit to continue in the job.
And then there is Spike. No matter what job Buffy is working – no matter how hard she is trying to achieve ordinariness – Spike is always there in Season 6, whispering to her that ordinary is impossible… because she is a demon at heart. In the fourth act of “Life Serial”, Buffy is on the verge of finally yielding to his seduction and accepting this lie as the forecast for her future. Yet even her foray into the demon lifestyle (paying poker for kittens) proves unsatisfying, as Buffy drunkenly points out to Spike that his lifestyle is lame. Having failed to find an expedient to “fix her life”, she goes home; the demons have won this round, and Buffy is defeated. Moreover, the Trio has confirmed that they are capable of taking on the Slayer — emboldened by their victory, they can begin the transition from semi-potent nuisances to earnest villainy.
There is no silver lining in “Life Serial”. Buffy’s financial woes are solved in the coda, and only for the short term, by Giles stepping in to cover her expenses – but his face in the final shot tells the viewer what Buffy does not yet know, that Giles will not “always be around” to help her bridge the gap between slaying and surviving. Buffy begins the episode with optimism; at her construction site, she delivers a monologue that effervesces positivity, breaking the viewer’s heart with its irony. She ends the episode very near despair, held back from the brink only by the tenuous grasp of her Watcher. Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeds in delivering a poignent penultimate season by offering Buffy no respite from her unending struggle for balance – but it is a hard season to watch. No demon (or wannabe evil mastermind) is as formidable as the show’s first and ongoing conflict, to give Buffy the normalcy that she so desperately craves.
Original article at Game Rant.
This article has been reproduced for archive purposes.