March Madness: Uncovering The “What If” In Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Normal Again

I’m a big fan of the whole “what if” concept in pop culture. For comics fans, what ifs are found in the Marvel series of the same name, often in the DC line of Elseworld stories and sometimes, as in the magnificent Age of Apocalypse Marvel series, in the run of a regular series (though that, much like House of M, features timelines altered, I would still count both in the overall umbrellas).

A few week’s ago, Grey’s Anatomy did a great what if episode that envisioned all sorts of strange possibilities – Meredith engaged to Alex; Derek and Addison still together (and pregnant); Meredith’s mom still alive and with the Chief; and so much more. In a season of strong storytelling, I thought this was a standout episode.

Then there’s one of my all-time favourite series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, that had a few what if episodes throughout it’s seven season run. Sure, there’s the obvious one, The Wish, where Cordelia wish Buffy never came to Sunnydale. But for the purposes of March Madness, there’s another standout episode I wanted to mention. It’s called Normal Again.

Normal Again: A synoposis

Normal Again is the sixteenth episode in season 6 of the series, a season that’s always left fans on the fence. Buffy is reluctantly back from heaven, adjusting to life without her mother. She’s embarked upon a numbing sexual relationship with vampire Spike and is dealing with her allienation with her friends. The big bads in this season are three nerds – Warren, Andrew and Jonathan – who refer to themselves as The Trio and who all have their reasons for going after the Slayer. In Normal Again, The Trio unleash a demon whose venom causes Buffy to hallucinate that her life as a vampire slayer has been a delusion and that’s she’s actually be in a mental institution for the past six years.

Throughout the course of the episode, Buffy’s life flashes from Sunnydale to the institution, where her parents and doctor are trying to convince her that she’s actually schizophrenic. The episode veers from real life to Buffy’s what if world, a world that could consume her if she willingly gets rid of her ties to Sunnydale – specifically Willow, Xander and Dawn. Ultimately, Buffy’s will and determination wins out and she takes a cure for the demon’s venom. All seems well. And then there’s the final scene, back in the hospital, where Buffy is seen catatonic her parents are told she has succumbed to her illness.

So, what if the asylum was the story?

In the world of television storytelling, it would be safe to assume that the final moments of Normal Again are just the sort of tease that Buffy creator Joss Whedon would love to throw the fans. It’s the sort of moment that will always have fans debating it long after the episode and the series go into the tv archives (or syndication, if you’d like). And it has.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on the episode and you’ll see that Normal Again has been the subject of much debate amongst fans, most of who agree that those final moments, let alone the entire asylum sequences, couldn’t be the real world. However, there are others who speculate that the final episode of Buffy, Chosen, suggests that, having conquered her fears and demons in Sunnydale, that the real Buffy in the asylum is now cured of her own disease.

To each their own, I say.

Final thoughts:

In a series like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there are episodes that are hailed as classics by virtually every fan. Then there are the ones that fly under the radar – I think that Normal Again is one of those. While it’s not as momentous as The Gift, The Body or Chosen, it does have a solid performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar and an ending that manages to put a question mark on the entire series. The most maddening thing about that – those that wonder what the truth is will never find their answer.

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