A trend exists, which may or may not be new, in which fans, bloggers and critics will dismiss an episode like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer's "No Place Like Home" for establishing the season's arc and not much else. I used to read LOST message boards during the heydey of the show in which fans responded to an episode about establishing the arc with a couple of sentences of mild praise or enthused praise or mild disappointment or sarcastic 'well glad that's out the way so we can move on to what matters' or some such nonsense. TVD message boards aren't any different. I assume any message board for a genre show follows the same pattern of discussion for episode. It might be unfair to cast "No Place Like Home" in the same light as other arc-building episodes and the kinds of reaction they receive. The episode accomplishes a whole lot in 43+ minutes: the Dawn mystery is revealed and Glory is introduced. The episode's not just worthwhile for the Dawn reveal and the introduction of Glory; it's worthwhile for the story about how Dawn came into Buffy's life out of, literally, nowhere.
Doug Petrie responded to fan reaction to the episode on October 25, 2000. Fan opinion differed in wild ways. There were fans angered by the absence of Tara. Others wondered about the lack of Spike and Riley, to which Petrie assured the fans that all three characters (Tara, Spike, Riley) would have their time in the sunshine. Petrie wanted to know what people thought about the Dawn reveal, seemed even excited about the fans' reaction to it, but the only comment he responds to is one by a fan who expressed disappointment in the Dawn story. So it seems Buffy fans weren't any different from today's more vocal fans of genre shows. They always look ahead to the next episode instead of focusing on and appreciating the episode they just watched. Perhaps fans wrote that "No Place Like Home" was cool and all, cool because they found out about Dawn, and boy are they curious about the Joyce sickness, but as a whole it was a bit disappointing, and they wanted more Tara and Spike. So, "No Place Like Home" seems like a fine entry into Whedonverse Classic, the series of posts in which I'll write about the more overlooked/ignored/forgotten episodes in the 12 seasons of Buffy and ANGEL combined.
Season 5 of Buffy is full of famous and beloved episodes: "Fool For Love," "The Body," "The Gift," and so on. I think season five is the second best season of the show, with season three winning the prize, and season two a close third. I watched season five for the first time in under a month in the summer of 2004, and "No Place Like Home" blew me away. Glory's powerful introduction didn't blow me away nor did Buffy's magic trip or the reveal of Dawn as the key, because much of Buffy had been spoiled for me by a fellow named Mr. K who used to work on the Schwoe fanzine with me and, also, tell me all about generic Canadian rock groups. The scene between Buffy and the monk outside of the factory blew me away because of the emotion of the scene. "No Place Like Home" isn't about Buffy's frantic search to discover what the key is, because she doesn't know about the key; rather, it's about Buffy's frantic search to find a reason for her mother's blinding headaches and overall poor health. It's about a daughter's need to know why her mother's unwell, and the insane places she'll go to find out the truth. These places include physically confronting her sister and accusing her of being someone dangerous, a supernatural villain who's around to hurt the slayer through her mother.
Buffy's magic trip is one of the coolest scenes in the series as is Giles' explanation of the strain magic leaves whenever it's used on earth. I love the structure of the episode and how it's set-up to punch the viewer in the face in the penultimate scene of the episode just like it punches Buffy in the face. I made a major mistake last week in arguing that Wes meant to bring Connor to Holtz when in fact he meant to take Connor away but made the mistake of trusting Justine. I re-watched season five a number of times and now I think of "No Place Like Home" as the episode that begins the Glory/Dawn/Key arc; but the episode is meant to trick the viewer into thinking it is a typical Buffy episode. The writers tricked the viewer by introducing the dagon sphere, having Buffy think Joyce is ill with something mystical, as well as through the trailer in which the monks hide a great ball of light, which precedes the discovery of the sphere and Giles' identifying it as something mystical because "it's so shiny!" A security guard gone mad from apparently touching the shiny ball warns Buffy they'll get you through her family. Joss always said a story wouldn't be broken until he and the writers figured out the emotional problem. So it seems like Glory's around for the sphere, and that the mystery of Joyce's illness will be resolved by the end of the episode, but things become complicated when Buffy learns about the key, Dawn, and then fights the impressively strong Glory.
Buffy got it all wrong. The Dagon Sphere is a powerful mystical crystal ball that repels ancient primordial evil. Glory is not a fan of the Sphere, but Glory wants the key. The Key is Dawn Summers, created two months ago by the monks, who also built the memories of all those who know and love her. Buffy's magic trip led her to the discovery of Dawn's essential element, which is magic, as she disappeared from view, as her room did, and as her photograph did in the pictures with Buffy and Joyce. Buffy questions the monk about what Dawn is. The monk explains that Dawn is an innocent. Buffy angrily says, after she learns about the built memories and about what the key does, which is open a portal to a bad, bad place, 'Dawn's not my sister," to which the monk confirms yes she is but "she doesn't know that." A personal episode thus becomes more personal, and the main arc of the season becomes intensely personal, because the monks used Buffy's blood to create Dawn, so, in fact, they are sisters even though she wasn't until two months, but she is and she's blood, and she needs to be protected from the fashionably-dressed but wicked hell-god Glorificus.
"No Place Like Home" comes together beautifully. I didn't even notice the lack of Tara nor did I mind the one scene Spike had nor the two scenes Riley had. The B story is wonderful, too, because it's a welcomed reprieve from the intense drama of the A story. Joss and co. probably wanted the viewer to be unsettled by the end of the episode. The structure rug is pulled from the feet of the viewer in that nothing will be resolved by the end of the episode. The most unsettling aspect of the episode isn't the key revelation or the presence of a hell-god in Sunnydale. No, no; indeed, the most unsettling aspect is the last two lines of the episode, as Buffy strokes her little sister's hair. Dawn asks, "Buffy, what's wrong with mom?" Buffy answers, "I don't know." Because Buffy can fight and stop magic, but she can't stop this.
The last scene is what makes Buffy a series that continues to be discussed and written about nine years after it ended. The monsters and the vampires and the demons and hell-gods were great and were part of amazingly told stories, but Buffy always aimed for the heart. The Buffy/Dawn scene is so short but so perfect because it expresses the terrifying prospect of an unwell parent and the helplessness a child feels in the face of that. It captures how unsettling and scary that prospect, of the parent not improving or heal, is, and the lasting image, of Dawn and Buffy sitting together, is very, very moving. I've never been more scared in my life than I was when my father was really, really sick and the doctor's words got worse each time I went to visit him in the hospital. My brother, my one sister, and I would talk late into the night about it, but I don't think I expressed the quiet panic I experienced when I thought of a world without him (life without him seemed so unnatural and impossible to me). We were like Buffy and Dawn, there for each other but unable to say anything that made sense of it. He was dying, and we couldn't stop it. "No Place Like Home" put Buffy in this familiar situation--figure out how magic or a demon is making her mother sick and then stop it so everything returns to normal--and then puts her in the most unfamiliar spot, because it's not a glowing orb or new Big Bad doing this, it's life. That's why Buffy's still worth writing about after all these years.
Next week I’ll write about an ANGEL episode. From what season? You’ll have to bookmark the blog and return next week to find out!