Buffy Episode Reviews – “Family” (5×06)
BUFFY: So, what’d you get her?
BUFFY: Tara. You said you got a present already.
XANDER: Yeah, that was a tangled web of lies, sweetie. I’m not really sure what kind of thing she’d…I mean, I don’t really know her that well.
BUFFY: I know.
XANDER: I mean, she’s nice!
BUFFY: Yeah, yeah, nice…nice. I-it’s just, I-I sort of…
XANDER: I don’t necessarily get her…but she’s real nice.
BUFFY: Yeah. There’s just that thing.
XANDER: That thing.
BUFFY: That thing of not understanding—
XANDER: —half of what she says?
So far it’s been a major theme for this season. Each episode has drifted from character to character, focusing on their role in the show. “Buffy vs. Dracula” (5×01) was about Buffy and the true nature of being a Slayer. In “Real Me” (5×02) we followed the newly instated Dawn. “The Replacement” (5×03) asserted Xander’s confidence. “Out of My Mind” (5×04) dealt with Riley’s feelings of inadequacy in a world of vampires, demons, Slayers, and witches. “No Place Like Home” (5×05) returned to Dawn and Buffy again, handing the Slayer a new task while revealing Dawn’s backstory, albeit not the whole thing.
Now in the sixth episode of Season Five, the spotlight shines on Tara, and in a meta sense it’s the perfect time: just as the characters don’t know that much about Tara (and say as much), neither do we, the audience. She has been around since “Hush” (4×10) but with a lack of information presented to us, we only have enough to accept a face and a presence, not a ‘personality.’
This is a bold direction for the season to go. One would assume the next portrait would be for Joyce, or Anya, or Spike (the latter will be “Fool For Love,” the next episode.) After all, all those characters have been on the show much longer than Tara.
The difference, though, is that those other characters are now, more-or-less, recognized as an accepted part of the group. Although Spike remains loathed by everyone, Buffy and the other Scobies haven’t motioned to exterminate him, and he is an etched-in-stone fan favorite.
Plus, with Tara and Dawn bonding as outsiders in “The Real Me,” this had to happen sooner or later. Better sooner than later.
Here is what we know about Tara thus far: she is a witch with a powerful gift, though she’s shown an understanding that magic should be handled delicately; her friendship with Willow has quickly evolved into a lesbian love affair, mostly expressed through metaphors, as that was all the WB would allow in 2000; and she has issues with confidence and self-expression, which has mostly been fizzled out through the Willow relationship.
Beyond that, no one knows what to get Tara for her birthday—no one except Giles, though the verdict is debatable on that one.
“Family” is about just that: Tara’s ‘two’ families. There’s her circle of friends, who will officially accept her as one of their own by episode’s end; and then there’s her biological family, a group of misogynistic traditional torch carriers. Outside of Buffy, in the ‘real world,’ they would likely be fundamentalist evangelicals. But Buffy always deals in metaphors and stand-ins, not literal representations.
The clan, consisting here of a cold-eyed patriarch, bumbling brother Billy, and condescending Cousin Beth,show up on the eve of Tara’s 19th birthday. Tara hasn’t had contact with them for months; who could blame her? Demanding daddy hoped Tara would give up witchcraft and magic when she went to college, because their bloodline has a peculiar problem: all the women in the family are demons, and that monstrous side emerges on or around their 19th birthdays…
…Except not. The long-held belief is actually a lie perpetuated to keep the women powerless and obedient. In Tara’s biological circle, she’s even less accepted than in the Scooby Gang, where the only problems there are her feelings of awkwardness and displacement.
“Family” gives us a good example of the “show, don’t tell principle.” It’s evident that growing up with this fun bunch was a less-than-stellar experience for Tara through one subtle touch: when Billy and Mr. Maclay enter The Magic Box, Tara’s stutter, absent long enough to barely be remembered, suddenly returns. Her constant and frightened addressing of Mr. Maclay as “sir” adds an air of submissiveness and servitude that wasn’t present even when shy, sheepish Tara was first introduced to us.
I’d actually planned to stick the “demon myth” portion of the story into the “Stuff I Didn’t Like” category due to its vagueness, but I’ve since changed my mind. The vagueness is a strength, not a weakness. We’re never told how Tara’s mother died and how Mr. Maclay has shoehorned in the demon myth story to serve as an explanation. It’s never explained how Tara has continued to believe the myth her whole life without ever witnessing it herself, since the story is, at episode’s end, revealed to be a lie. But none of that matters. What we see is how quickly Tara falls to pieces around her father. With Mr. Maclay’s dominating presence, it’s no wonder that Tara so easily buys into the lie that she is a demon.
One of Tara’s aforementioned characteristics becomes important here: her delicate treatment of magic. She’s so frightened by the prospect of what she could become, so indoctrinated by the family myth, that she performs a spell to make her ‘demon side’ invisible to her friends, inadvertently putting them all in danger when a bunch of demon assassins become invisible to the Scoobies instead. After the spell is broken and the demons are dispatched, one might think the almost immediate forgiving of Tara is contrived (seeing as how there are only a few minutes left in the episode at this point.) But again, it works. It shows a gentleness, not to mention open-mindedness to the Scoobies that the Maclay clan simply does not possess. And it is her friends’ willingness to take a stand with their humanity that finally enables Tara to send her blood kin packing.
So what have we learned about Tara through all this? She has broken free of her final bonds. The best concluding shot in this episode isn’t the Floating Dance (see “Stuff I Didn’t Like” below) but the knowing smile that breaks out on her face when the Maclay family takes a hike. Tara Maclay has had her “Zeppo” (3×13) and “Replacement” moment. She has found her place. And she is no longer a stranger, either to us or the Scoobies.
Stuff I Liked:
Poor Spike – His weird hate/sex obsession with Buffy continues to be explored, and rather cleverly at that. I’d completely forgotten about the “I’m coming right now!” dream sequence and I am shocked that made it onto the WB.
Poor Riley, Part Infinity - When Buffy confesses the truth about Dawn to Giles, she decides not to tell the others…unfortunately, the ‘others’ include Riley, and onward goes his downward spiral. Xander and Tara may have found their footing, but Riley is quickly losing his. The decision to have him flirt with darkness by hanging out in Willy’s Place was a good one. It will only get worse…
Standing up For Tara – I remembered this scene feeling cheesy when I first saw this episode. It had reminded me way too much of Fellowship of the Ring (“You have my sword!” “And my bow!” “And my axe!”) but upon revisiting “Family,” I gotta confess: this brought a little tear to my eye, and it takes a very well-done scene to do that to me nowadays. Kudos, Joss.
Stuff I Didn’t Like:
The Floating Dance – Honestly, the grin was enough. It would have been fine if that moment had been moved to bookend the episode after the party. But the whole ‘magical lesbianism’ thing is getting tedious. Affection is totally fine; I just don’t understand why there has to be a spell involved every time.
The Final Word:
Similar to how I felt about “Out of My Mind,” “Family” came off as just a tad boring, if only because the next episode is so much grander in comparison. Still, “Family” definitely has its place and needed to happen.