TV Spotlight: The Bottle Episode

By: Glynis Neely

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Older and Far Away

Season 6, Episode 14

Dir. By: Michael Gershman

Written By: Drew Greenberg

If it wasn’t clear from my body of work already, I watch a lot of television. I’ve been avidly watching TV and movies since I was around 8 years old. There is one TV gimmick that I love more than most: the “bottle episode.” The term is short for “ship-in-a-bottle,” a phrase coined by the cast of Star Trek in response to the studio need some episodes’ budgets to pass through a “bottleneck,” for as little money as possible, so they could spend the big bucks on the more action heavy and special effects-laden plots. While saving was the bottom line, the format has created a space for writers to develop character-driven narrative that relies more on tightly written dialogue rather than special effects. Ultimately, the writing needs to stand on its own, which can make or break an episode.

My introduction to quality written television began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a snarky, pop-culture treasure trove that blended genres seamlessly and focused in on the horrors of adolescence through a fun, supernatural lens. From horror to soap and comedy and back, Buffy’s stellar writing was its strength from the start; the show’s brand of dialogue is still unique in television history. The show had an incredible run, but only got around to the bottle episode gimmick once in its seven-season run. This is partly because Joss and the Buffy writing team didn’t need the constrained format to save money and still create effective storytelling.

Season six of Buffy is a contentious one; I am not a personal fan of all the creative choices, but I happen to like a lot of the material. There are some standout episodes, the one-two punch of Once More With Feeling and Tabula Rasa come immediately to mind, but Older and Far Away is one of the gems hidden among the weeds – and it happens to be a fun example of a bottle episode. Per the traditional structure, the cast is largely relegated to one location for the majority of its running time, setting the stage for conflict between characters by wringing humor and pathos out of the claustrophobic situation.

As the gang comes upon Buffy’s birthday, they decide to throw a party at the Summers’ residence. The party unites the characters and keeps them together in a way they haven’t been for most of the season. Greenberg’s script strays a bit from the normal episode format in that it adds more characters to the proceedings than just the Scooby gang. Spike shows up with his demon friend Clem; Buffy invites her co-worker Sophie; Xander invites his co-worker Richard as a set up for Buffy. Ultimately, the new faces are just background to the main conflicts that inevitably take center stage.

At this point in the season, tensions have been simmering between some of the Scoobies and they have all been preoccupied with their individual drama. Buffy has been working long hours at the Doublemeat Palace and spending all of her free time with Spike, while still trying to keep their tryst secret. Willow is recovering in the wake of her breakup with Tara and getting involved with an AA group for the magically addicted. Dawn, mourning her mother and dealing with her sister’s death and subsequent reanimation, has felt neglected by Buffy so she is acting out and stealing, desperately calling for attention.

On the morning of the party, Dawn is pulled out of class to speak to a guidance counselor who prods her with questions about her difficult home life. Dawn tries to play it off like she’s fine, but she cracks ever so slightly under the woman’s gaze and wishes that people would just stop leaving her. Later, after everyone has arrived for the party, the guidance counselor secretly appears in demonic form to grant Dawn’s wish; now, no one can leave the house. The group parties on with no knowledge of the spell, but there is no lack of conflict on Revello Drive.

Spike crashes the party, per his style, and seems instantly miffed by Richard’s presence, so he takes to teasing Buffy about him. Then he corners Buffy in the hallway and tries to seduce her, but Tara walks in on them, causing Buffy to bolt. Spike tries to explain Buffy was just helping him with a cramp, but Tara knowingly retorts and walks away, brilliantly bringing it up later in a sly dig in front of everyone. Buffy is torn between wanting Spike’s brand of dark and twisted comfort and not wanting her friends to judge her for needing him. Buffy has felt so lost ever since she came back from the dead and its been increasingly hard to express that to her friends, especially Willow. So it’s no surprise she feels close to spike and felt like the only person she could tell her true feelings to was Tara. Tara, bless her heart, understands and supports her while keeping it to herself because she knows how the group might react.

Despite everyone together, Dawn is in a petulant mood. She is anxious for presents to be opened and when Buffy sees her gifted leather jacket, she is momentarily stunned until she notices the security tag still attached. But before she has a chance to protest, Xander distracts her as he wheels forth a homemade weapons chest, and she no longer pays Dawn any attention. As the party rages on, she starts to warm up to everyone’s company, seemingly glad that everyone is spending more time with her.

The gang continues to mingle with the guests, playing rounds of cards and games of monopoly all through the night. As the sun comes up, the group realizes they have places to be but can’t seem to leave the house. Once they realize they are trapped, they get to work solving the problem. The group blames Dawn for the issue, because her attitude of late could’ve caused something supernatural to happen, but she screams at them to leave her alone. Anya rummages through Dawn’s room looking for a clue but only stumbles upon her collection of stolen Magic Box trinkets. The disappointment on Buffy’s face when she realizes the jacket was clearly stolen is heartbreaking.

Nothing seems to work, and they all start to become anxious and stir-crazy. When Anya can’t take it anymore, she tries to guilt Willow into doing some magic to save them, but Willow refuses. Anya continues to prod, but Tara steps in to stand up for Willow and effectively shuts her down. The proud glance they share at that small accomplishment is the first step in mending their relationship. Tara performs a spell in her place to release everyone from the house, but instead it releases a demon that immediately attacks and then disappears into the walls, coming out when it wants. Throughout the episode, we slowly see them warming back up to what they were like in season 4 when their relationship first began.

Ultimately, Dawn reveals her meeting with the guidance counselor and her accidental wish and Anya determines it is her friend Halfrek, a vengeance demon in town for her wedding. Only Halfrek can undue her own spell, so Anya summons her and she comes immediately but stabbed by the demon. Buffy reacts and successfully kills the demon, but when they go to steal Halfrek’s pendant she stands up quickly, unharmed and protecting her power source. At first, she wants to let them rot for making Dawn feel so awful, but she realizes she’s trapped by her own spell and is forced to lift it. After everything is back to normal and the crowd files out of the house, Dawn still looks disappointed that people are leaving. As Buffy shuts the door behind them, Dawn’s smile is radiant as she realizes this time Buffy is going to stay.

MVP: Tara

During this episode, Tara is at times snarky, brave, protective and headstrong and does it all with the utmost grace. When I was younger and watching this show, I didn’t realize how much I valued Buffy and Tara’s friendship. For most of her screen time, Tara was defined by her relationship with Willow and it eclipsed her other friendships with the Scoobies. Yet here, even Xander expresses to Willow how much it would mean to Buffy that Tara could come to her party. But on two occasions now Tara has comforted Buffy when no one else could help her. She is supportive of Buffy and stands up for her when Spike pushes too far and she even takes it one step further and teases him in front of everyone. In fact, her interactions with Spike are easily some of the highlights of the episode. Case in point: 

Tara: How’s that cramp, Spike? Still bothering you?

Spike: What? Oh, yeah.

Tara: Maybe you, uh, wanna put some ice on it.

The relationship between Tara and Willow is so important to fans of Buffy and in this episode, Willow and Tara interact for the longest time since their brake-up. At first their conversation is awkward as they tentatively catch up, but as the tumult rises around them, they become more confident in themselves and each other. When there is palpable danger, Tara stands up for Willow when she says she won’t do magic and then steps up to the task in her place. This is the first episode where I think I fell for Tara, because she was finally showing initiative and speaking up for herself, something that has been rare in her character up to this point. And when you know what is about to happen in only a few episodes, it absolutely breaks your heart.

Highlights:

  • After Xander is injured by the demon, he is visibly more concerned with Anya’s well-being than his own, which is quite telling at this point in their relationship. We haven’t seen much affection between these two in a long time and they are getting married in a couple of episodes, so it really stands out as a true moment of compassion between them before the storm that inevitably follows.
  • Even though Buffy’s birthday has been celebrated every year on the show up to this point, there is no longer a mention of it after this episode in the rest of the show’s run.

               Spike: So you ever think about not celebrating your birthday? Just to try it, I   mean?

  • I personally love Halfrek and the moment between her and Spike when they are introduced is a brilliant forth wall break, something the show does not do often. Kali Rocha, the actress who portrays Halfrek, also played Cecily, the love interest of Spike’s human counterpart William.

                Halfrek: We prefer justice demon.

  • Clem: “Good Party.” James C. Leary’s line reading of this line at the end as he leaves the house is absolutely gold. We don’t get to see much of him this episode, but Clem is so great.

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