Every time I think I've blogged everything remotely Classical in Buffy the Vampire Slayer I find something else! And I haven't even read Season 8 yet...
I was reminded of this episode because for my 29th birthday, thanks to a competition run by Cineworld and SFX, I went to the SFX Weekender (i.e. a giant geekfest at Pontins). The weekend included a screening of 'Once More With Feeling', the Buffy musical episode that somehow managed to get to No.13 in Channel 4's viewer-voted run-down of the 100 Greatest Musicals back in 2003 (it's a great episode, but a better musical than Les Miserables, Cabaret and The Phantom of the Opera? Come on!). I love this episode, but I haven't seen it in years, partly because I ignore everything that happened in Season 6 after 'Tabula Rasa'. So one thing this did was remind me just how good it was. I was also reminded that there's more to the Classical references than that one shout-out to Xena: Warrior Princess.
During an early scene, Xander exclaims 'Merciful Zeus!' in the middle of an intense discussion of why everyone's singing and dancing. This is because part of the inspiration for this episode was Xena: Warrior Princess's early musical episode, 'The Bitter Suite'. Some quick internet-based research reveals that Xena was not, in fact, the first show to do a musical episode (there seems to have been an I Love Lucy one). It may, however, have been the first to incorporate a traditional, everyone-bursts-into-song-for-no-apparent-reason musical into a non-musical TV show, rather than the sort of musical where there's a reason for the singing, like a talent show or in-show performance (as in the later Xena episode, 'Lyre, Lyre Hearts on Fire'. I was going to say 'proper musical', but it seems silly to suggest that Cabaret, in which all the songs are performed in-universe and only 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' takes place off-stage, isn't a 'proper' musical). Perhaps more importantly (and I haven't seen it yet, so I'm relying on the internet to tell me this) the writers of 'The Bitter Suite' also ensured that the episode wasn't just a random moment of singing never to be spoken of again, but incorporated important character development into the story, which was one of the guiding principles behind the Buffy musical.
So, Xander's sudden affinity for Classical mythology is more to do with Xena's place in popular culture than ancient Greece. But, having been initially inspired by Xena, Whedon seems to have gone with a mythological feel and theme for the story as a whole. There are demons all over the place in Buffy, and more than a few references to Hell-dimensions. But Hinton Battle's demon Sweet seems to emphasize the idea that he's been summoned from below more than most, implying a Classical-Hades-type origin more than a sci-fi-style alternate dimension. More importantly, he insists that he is entitled to take Dawn back with him as his bride.
The show gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of the child bride taken away to the underworld, best known from the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone (it wouldn't surprise me if there were similar myths from other cultures, though none spring to mind at the moment). Among other things, it gets a good couple of laughs out of the idea. I like Anya's observation that she's 'seen some of these underworld child-bride deals and they never end well. Maybe once', which made me smile, though I don't read it as a reference to Persephone and Hades in particular (I always get the impression Persephone is pretty unhappy with the whole thing, or she'd have just told her mother not to worry about it a lot sooner). And of course the whole concept is hilariously subverted when it turns out it was Xander who summoned Sweet and the demon lets them all off because he doesn't fancy Xander.
But the show really plays into the incredibly creepy side of such a story too. Quite apart from the inherent creepiness of the MacGuffin Whedon came up with for the musical, in which he brilliantly makes the very nature of musicals the source of the danger (musicals blow up emotions into huge spectacles, so if all of life becomes a musical, people are overwhelmed and burst into flames), the idea of this older male demon insisting on taking Dawn away to a dark place underground to make her his bride is played in a genuinely unsettling way. The show doesn't directly address the full consequences of such an action, but you get the gist and it's made threatening and spooky (courtesy of the underworld aspect) without drifting wholesale into areas which might be a bit too dark for the overall tone of the episode.
Having said that, the overall tone of the episode is pretty dark. The story arc for the first half of season 6 was mostly focused on Buffy slowly adjusting to the fact that her friends pulled her out of Heaven. Back in the second episode of the season, when Buffy had just crawled out of her grave, she asked Dawn if she was in hell, because that's what the world seemed like to her (and, er, because there were demons and random fires everywhere). This is the other reason for building a plot partly around the Persephone/Hades myth. The realm of Hades (rightly or wrongly) tends to be associated with Hell and this is the episode in which Buffy reveals to her friends just why she's been so depressed since she returned. Just as Sweet wants to take Dawn down to the underworld against her will, Buffy has been wrenched out of Heaven and dragged down to a world that feels like Hell, and this episode reinforces how awful that was for her (it also shows her looking for something to tie her to this underworld through a romantic/sexual relationship which is either really clever or a little disturbing. Maybe both!).
I don't think I really need to say how great 'Once More With Feeling' is at this point, do I? After ten years, I think it's been pretty well established as one of the all-time great episodes of television. Without having seen the Xena one, I suspect it's also the most effective TV musical* - I love Scrubs' and Community's musical episodes, but even in those shows, which are pretty out there, it seems slightly weird that everyone is singing and dancing (I could never quite buy Scrubs' excuse that the patient was seeing it all in her head. Just - how would that work? Was everyone just standing there for minutes at a time while she imagined them singing?). Personally, if I was writing a musical episode of a non-sci-fi show, I'd make it a dream or a Cabaret-style in-show musical. But in fantasy, you can get away with a lot more, and Buffy makes this work perfectly. (I'm now trying to picture True Blood: The Musical. Maybe inspired by the Rocky Horror Picture Show?) If you haven't seen it, where have you been all this time?! Rent it immediately.
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*In non-musical shows, that is. Glee and Flight of the Conchords don't count. Nor The Simpsons, which plays with the format all the time and has done several musicals.