Written by Diego Gutierrez
Directed by Rick Rosenthal
Buffy is walking down the sidewalk after dark, looking at a list of new rentals, most of which are crossed out. Cut to the Trio. Warren shoots Jonathan with a squirt gun because he fell asleep on his watch. They’ve been extremely careful to avoid being caught by Buffy since the last time we saw them, but now, she’s right outside, looking for a way into their current lair. They see her coming on the monitors, so Andrew plays a giant weird flute thing and summons a demon, which leaps a fence to attack Buffy. It looks very waxy. Ew. Halfway through the fight, it stabs Buffy with a bone needle thing in its hand, and then we cut to Buffy in a mental hospital, getting sedated by doctors via a needle in the same spot on her arm. Oh dear.
Buffy wakes up about where she was when she fought that demon, but now it’s gone. She’s a bit disoriented as she walks away.
The next day at UC Sunnydale, Willow is rehearsing possible conversation openers for Tara, but then she sees Tara greet another girl with cheek kisses, assumes the worst, and bails. Tara sees her leaving and seems confused.
Buffy’s at the Doublemeat, filling orders and still disoriented. Her manager tries to get her attention, but she switches to the mental hospital again, where her doctor wants to give her some drugs. Then she’s back at Doublemeat, more confused than ever. She dumps out the latest batch of fries, which are mostly burned.
At home, Buffy and Willow discuss Xander in the dining room. He hasn’t contacted anyone yet. Also, Willow is still bummed about Tara possibly having moved on. Willow isn’t entirely sure what she saw, and Buffy thinks it’s unlikely Tara would’ve moved on from Willow so quickly.
Xander arrives! They hug him. He wants to talk to Anya, but she’s gone from their apartment—and the Magic Box is closed, which is even more ominous. All the girls know is that Anya left a couple days ago, a sobbing mess. He feels like crap. He didn’t mean he wanted to break up with Anya, he just wanted to press pause for a while on the actual wedding and marriage stuff. Ever since he ran off, he’s mostly just been missing her.
That evening, Spike is bringing groceries back to his crypt when he encounters Buffy on patrol. He wants to know if she cried during the wedding. He still doesn’t know it didn’t happen. She fills him in. He’s surprised. Then he, of course, makes the conversation about him and Buffy. She doesn’t appreciate that. Here come Willow and Xander. Buffy pretends she was only talking to Spike to find out what kind of shady black market stuff he’s dealing now, and he vents his irritation directly at Xander. Willow tries to talk them down, but Xander is fine with having a punching bag that can’t punch back.
Buffy slips back into the mental hospital reality, where she’s getting a visit from a doctor. He tells her that she’s been there for six years, and that Sunnydale has been all in her head. Back to Sunnydale! And then to the mental hospital. Where both her parents are there to see her. They’re excited to find her lucid, but she’s too stunned to handle it. She slips back to Sunnydale, where Willow and Xander are very concerned about her and Spike is trying to offer his crypt as a good spot for her to recover from whatever this is. Willow and Xander take her home, leaving Spike to go back to his crypt alone with his groceries.
At home, Buffy tells Willow, Xander, and Dawn about the mental institution hallucinations and getting stung by the waxy demon. She tells them about happily married Hank and Joyce being there. Willow perceives a serious danger in these hallucinations and gets everyone up to go research.
While she’s giving out assignments, Buffy slips back into the mental institution. She’s with the doctor and her parents, and they’re talking about being able to take her home if she recovers from her schizophrenia. The doctor explains that Buffy’s identity as the Slayer is her central delusion, and she’s supported it by imagining a group of friends and a variety of enemies. They’re talking about Buffy like she isn’t there. Buffy starts talking about the Trio, and then about Dawn. In this reality, Buffy is an only child; Hank and Joyce only know Dawn as one of the newer characters in Buffy’s delusions. The doctor thinks Dawn is the reason Buffy’s delusions have gotten less grand in scope, since she required a lot of retconning and made the whole thing less comfortable. Buffy used to invent master vampires and hell-gods to be her villains, and now it’s just three dweebs from high school.
Cut to said dweebs. Andrew and Warren seem to be keeping secrets from Jonathan. They got packages without involving him, and they refuse to tell him what’s in them. He tries to leave to go run some errands of his own, but Warren won’t let him. He reminds him that they’re a team and they’re in all of this together.
Still in Sunnydale, Buffy is sitting on the couch, looking at a picture of her with her parents as a little girl. Willow comes in with a picture of the demon. Good news! The demon carries an antidote to its own poison. Buffy doesn’t seem very excited about that. She tells Willow about feeling really detached no matter how hard she tries not to be, and how that’s been going on for a while. Also, apparently back when Buffy first became the Slayer, her parents sent her to a clinic for a couple of weeks. She’s terrified now that maybe she never actually left, and she really has spent the last six years there. Willow promises her they’ll get her the antidote.
Which is what Spike and Xander are currently working on. Spike thinks it’s rather arrogant of Buffy to believe she imagined all of them, and he doesn’t appreciate her imagining him getting chipped and falling for her. He keeps rambling, almost spilling the beans about his and Buffy’s tryst, but Xander has his mental image of Buffy too firmly fixed in his head to be dislodged by stray comments from Spike. Then Spike starts with the taunts about Xander leaving Anya at the altar, but before Xander can punch him again, the waxy demon shows up. And...wait a second, what the crap is going on here? There’s only one demon, so why are Xander and Spike staring in different directions?
Spike isn’t happy to be dealing with this particular breed of demon, which doesn’t react to the tranq dart Xander shoots it with. Spike fights it, and Xander shoots it again. It finally goes down.
Dawn visits Buffy with a cup of tea. She check’s Buffy’s head; she has a fever. Buffy says Dawn needs to try harder with her grades, her chores, and not being a klepto. Dawn doesn’t appreciate this. Cut to the mental institution, where Joyce is telling Buffy she doesn’t have a sister. She gets Buffy to say she has no sister, because she and Hank want to take her home. Cut to Sunnydale. Buffy actually said that. Dawn is crying. She thinks this means Buffy’s ideal reality doesn’t include her, and she storms out. Wait, seriously? Dawn thinks Buffy’s idea of an ideal reality is having spent six years in a mental institution? I’m pretty sure she could do better than that.
Spike and Xander try to chain the demon up to a pillar in Buffy’s basement. Xander gets knocked around a lot, but they manage to get it subdued so Willow can break off its stinger. She sends Xander to the Magic Box for the rest of the ingredients to the antidote. Spike stays for guard duty on the demon.
The next day, Buffy wakes Buffy up with a fresh batch of antidote. Buffy needs to drink it once it’s cool. Spike comes in and Willow has him make sure Buffy drinks it. Maybe he’s not the best person to convince her this life is better than the other. He tells her he thinks she’s addicted to misery, and that she’s too twisted to actually try for happiness. He gives her an ultimatum: tell the Scoobies about them or he will. This is a fantastic pep talk. So fantastic that Buffy dumps the antidote out into a trashcan.
In the mental institution, Buffy tells the doctor and her parents that she doesn’t want to go back to Sunnydale. She wants to stay here and go home. They’re thrilled! If this is what she really wants, then she’s going to have to rid herself of her delusion’s support system. She has to get rid of everything keeping her there. Everyone.
In Sunnydale, Buffy’s awake, and she pretends to have drunk the antidote. Willow tells her they’ve still got the demon chained up in the basement in case they need another dose. She offers to make Buffy some food. Xander shows up, but nobody seems to be there. That’s ominous. He finds Buffy in the kitchen. He starts talking about Spike and Spike’s obvious delusions about Buffy, to which Buffy responds with a frying pan to the face. She knocks him out and drags him to the basement, where Willow is already bound and gagged.
Buffy goes back upstairs, locking the basement door behind her. Then she goes looking for Dawn. She finds her packing an overnight bag for Janice’s because she’s still all huffy about how Buffy “doesn’t want her around.” *eye roll* Buffy tries to grab Dawn, but Dawn already knows something’s wrong, so she tries to run away. She hides in the bathroom and tries to convince Buffy that this is reality. Buffy kicks the door open. Dawn keeps trying to convince her this is real. Buffy is pretty sure this urban fantasy universe is clearly the fake one. She corners Dawn and forces her down to the basement with the other two. They’re all tied up.
The doctor tells Buffy to make it as easy for herself as possible, so instead of actually killing them herself, she just unchains the demon and then stands back. Xander yells for her help, and she’s obviously struggling.
Tara arrives at the house! In the basement, Xander manages to get free of his restraints, and he’s keeping the demon at bay so far. In the mental institution, Buffy is extremely agitated Joyce keeps reminding her that none of the Sunnydale people are real. So Buffy sits down instead of helping Xander fight. Tara comes into the basement and uses magic to undo Willow’s and Dawn’s ropes, then crash a set of shelves into the demon. But Buffy trips her down the stairs.
In the mental institution, Buffy is losing her resolve. Joyce tells her she can do this. In the basement, she’s torn as she watches Xander and Dawn get hurt by the demon. Willow tries to attack it with a baseball bat, but then it goes for her. Joyce keeps telling her she can do this. People love her and believe in her, and she’s strong. She just needs to believe in herself. Buffy looks at Joyce, tells her she’s right, thanks her, and says goodbye.
She’s back in Sunnydale! She gets up and attacks the demon. She kills it. The others are more or less okay. She apologizes to them. She wants the antidote now, before anything else happens.
In the mental reaction, the doctor flashes a light in Buffy’s eyes, but she’s completely catatonic. Joyce and Hank hug each other and cry.
Like “As You Were,” “Normal Again” is one of those episodes that is really depressing for a majority of the time, but eventually becomes inspiring. I mean, if you subscribe to the idea that Sunnydale is Buffy’s true reality. Which I do, wholeheartedly. Unlike with the ambiguous ending of Inception, I feel like there’s a great deal of support for the Sunnydale reality. Specifically, Angel. Hallucinations do not have spinoff series. And they particularly don’t have spinoff series that last a full season after the end of the parent show. One thing that annoys me is that the presence of Hank Summers in the mental institution reality suggests that they did actually have access to the actor who plays him, which means they perhaps could have done a story arc involving him causing problems for Buffy and Dawn, but they chose not to because they thought their plan for the season was better. But that’s not a problem with “Normal Again,” which is actually pretty self-aware about the weaknesses of S6 (particularly impressive considering that this is Diego Gutierrez’s one and only writing credit for the entire series). As difficult as it is to watch Buffy go through so many ups and downs (mostly downs), it does feel more realistic. You don’t just beat depression once and for all; it’s a continuous battle, and you have to keep finding the strength to keep fighting.
Six seasons is a long time for us to have never heard about Buffy’s fortnight in a mental clinic when she was fifteen. And the idea that her parents just “forgot” about it is preposterous. That should’ve been something she and Joyce talked about after Joyce learned the truth about Buffy’s sacred calling. Joyce should’ve broken down crying, wracked with guilt over treating Buffy like she was lying or crazy when she could’ve helped her so much more just by trusting her. Also, I have a hard time believing that Angel, who was already watching over Buffy at that point, would’ve just let her get put in a clinic by her parents. I kind of think he either would’ve tried to break her out or he would’ve flashed his fangs at Joyce and Hank until they accepted that vampires are real and Buffy isn’t crazy. And what about Buffy’s first Watcher, Merrick? Surely he would’ve noticed if his brand new Slayer got whisked off to a psych ward. Why would the Watchers’ Council let that happen? So! My headcanon, to absolve the characters of the flaws and inconsistencies created by this retcon, is that Buffy’s stay in the clinic didn’t actually happen; it’s merely one of the extra memories she ended up with when the monks made Dawn. Possibly, in those memories, Dawn ratted Buffy out to their parents when she came home from a night of slaying in her first couple of weeks after being called, and that resulted in the whole ordeal. Anyway, about Buffy’s characterization in the episode, I find it really interesting how she reacts to the different characters trying to keep her grounded in the Sunnydale reality. She wants to try for the sake of Willow, Xander, and Dawn, but as soon as Spike talks to her, she remembers all the sucky things she’s been struggling with in her life and decides she’d rather be a crazy girl in an institution. I love how she gets the inspiration she needs to try facing all her problems from her hallucination of Joyce. Is this the emotional epiphany Buffy needed to become reengaged with her life?
If Xander didn’t want to actually break up with Anya and just wanted to hold off on getting married, then maybe he shouldn't have skipped town for a couple of days after telling Anya something she could easily have interpreted as him wanting to break up. Also, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Xander has Buffy on some pedestal. That was a problem back when she was with Angel, because Xander arbitrarily hates Angel, but it made him a solid source of support and encouragement in S4 and S5. In S6, however, it’s becoming a problem, because it’s blinding him to the fact that Buffy is very much not okay, and acting like she couldn’t possibly go wrong is only making her feel worse.
Dawn is back to being somewhat irritating with her melodramatic egocentric interpretations of things. Fun. I really don’t like it when she lashes out at Buffy by pointedly going to Janice’s without asking permission. Does she ever actually hang out with Janice when she’s not angsty about her home life? Is that entire friendship propped up by the days when she’s upset with Buffy? Seriously, though, the writers have been far more negligent with Dawn in season six than Buffy has. She’s not just a satellite of Buffy, who exists only to add drama to Buffy’s life. If 90% of what we see of her is when she’s creating problems for Buffy, it makes Dawn seem like a horrible little brat, even if that's only about 5% of her total behavior. Also, Buffy totally let slip to Dawn that she slept with Spike, and Dawn didn’t react to that at all. Is the next episode going to address that?
Spike spent one episode being respectful of Buffy’s feelings (well, sort of—only after he got confirmation that he succeeded in making her jealous by bringing a date to the wedding), and now he’s not bothering to hide how bitter he feels about her ending things. He thinks what they had was a “good thing” and that Buffy’s blind about that, he picks fights with Xander, and he gives Buffy ultimatums. Now that he clearly won’t be able to pull her away from her friends anymore, does he think that forcing Buffy to tell them about what she was doing with him will legitimize it and make her feel more like going back to him? Or is he hoping the whole gang will reject her and then she’ll come crying to him?
Now that Willow is the one (out of her, Xander, and Buffy) who has her life most together, she has to start focusing on her friends’ problems more. Good! I kind of wish she and Buffy wouldn’t be so soft with Xander about leaving Anya at the altar, though, because that was a really crummy thing to do. This seems like the first time Willow has noticed how much Buffy is struggling. Well, she noticed at the beginning of the season, but back then she wanted Buffy to be okay so that she’d be retroactively justified in doing the resurrection spell. Now, she actually cares about how Buffy’s doing. This is good. At the beginning of the season, I was really worried I’d end up hating Willow by the end of it, which I really didn’t want, because I loved her so much in the first four seasons.
“What, you think this isn’t real just because of all the vampires and demons and ex-vengeance demons and the sister that used to be a big ball of universe-destroying energy?”
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The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.