There are numerous complaints leveled at Buffy's seventh season, but one of them that isn't hugely important but probably impacts my annoyance with the latter half of the year is that episodes really started to blur together around this point. Ordinarily, this was something the show never had a problem with. Even in the deeper story arc-driven episodes in seasons three or five, each individual hour is memorable for one reason or another, the writers able to find self-contained elements within the serialized format -- making them easier to watch and better to stick in your memory. Around this time, that concept sort of faded away, resulting in a run of episodes that struggle to have much of an individual identity. Never Leave Me is fine, but it's the first of that type that struggle to be anything more, where the season's pursuit of thematic intensity starts spiraling out of control -- characters pondering over how bad everything is without the show actually depicting it very well on-screen.
The episode takes its emotional momentum from the continued woes of Buffy and Spike. It's been better explored before (and will be better explored in the future), but the concept of a soul and how it changes you is intriguingly depicted here, with Spike commenting on how much pain he's in as a result of having a soul, compared to the monster he used to be. It's something that strikes a chord with Buffy, especially after her self-loathing last year. But it also brings into question how important a soul actually is. Buffy remarks that she's seen Spike being noble and protective and heroic, all of that occurring when he was still pretty soulless. So are being soulless and being heroic two mutually exclusive deals? Can the chip really factor into every one of Spike's heroic choices over the last couple of seasons? It's interesting, a story that probably bleeds plotholes at every opportunity, but is pretty successfully depicted right now. Plus James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar have always been spectacular together, so there's that.
Elsewhere, Never Leave Me is full of strong moments. Andrew, while still annoying when corresponding with Warren, is actually a lot of fun during his scenes with Xander and Anya, while Buffy using him as a battering ram is a genius visual gag. The Watcher's Council exploding in a fiery ball of plot twist is also pretty awesome, another indication of the season striving to up-end expectations. It's additionally nice to finally put a name to the big bad, identified as the First Evil when Buffy encounters it's literally cross-eyed hitmen.
But extra attention should be given to the term 'strong moments', since it's something that plagues almost every episode from here. Gone are the days when Buffy was consistently absorbing, the final season now stumbling into an area where only certain ideas or scenes are particularly strong. It's disappointing, but still enough to make everything pretty watchable. B-
Guest stars Danny Strong (Jonathan Levinson); Adam Busch (Warren Meers); Tom Lenk (Andrew Wells); Cynthia LaMontagne (Lydia); Oliver Muirhead (Philip); Kris Iyer (Nigel); Harris Yulin (Quentin Travers); DB Woodside (Principal Robin Wood)
Writer Drew Goddard Director David Solomon