(For the record, I’m breaking my pattern of going chronologically through the show. So if you’re watching along for the first time, this won’t make much sense and will spoil lots of moments to come. Consider yourself warned.)
For almost any show that makes it past the first season, regardless of the size of its fan base, it ultimately has to face the question: when did it “jump the shark”? I’m not sure that moment is locatable in Buffy, and I’d like to think it doesn’t happen at all (although, unlike Josh, I just can’t get on board with season 7). I do know, though, that a lot of people think that it happens in the beginning of season 5 when Dawn is brought on board, thus essentially invalidating 88 episodes of previous narrative.
(More on "Amends" and the psyche of serials after the break)
Dawn has never bothered me, though—I really like how her arrival gives Tara’s character previously unseen depth, and there’s an admirable chutzpah in Joss Whedon’s willingness to rewrite the narrative so brazenly. So it’s strange that I’m so bothered by “Amends,” which participates in the same retconning dynamic. As those of you know who have seen the entire series, the seemingly one-off bad guy the First Evil returns as the major threat in season 7. What gets me about “Amends” is that, besides setting the stage for what will be the show’s most disappointing season by far and giving us way too much of David Boreanaz’s execrable Irish accent, the episode breaks the narrative’s established rules for the nature of the First Evil as a villain. One of the big plot points in season 7 is that the First Evil can’t assume corporeal form, but there’s Jenny Calendar, back from the dead and getting seriously handsy with Angel.
So I was watching this with Our Very Own Ben Owen last weekend and he pointed out something I hadn’t considered before: why is it that I get upset with this episode instead of frustrated with the later ones for not following the rules set out here? If there’s an oversight, it’s happening when the First Evil gets reintroduced, not here, but this is the episode that gets the brunt of my negative reaction. I find myself laying the blame for later problems here, and the episode becomes a kind of originary trauma that preordains and explains the crappiness of season seven.
I doubt my reaction is typical (since it does seem so backwards once I think about it), but it’s revealing to me in terms of the way that serials work, at least when I've watched them while they were first released. Perhaps it’s because the story got so enmeshed with the rhythms of my daily life, but I understand the disconnect between earlier and later episodes through the retrospective logic of autobiography (and psychoanalysis) instead of the presumably preplanned logic of fiction (and gamesmanship). In other words, the explanation for problems lies in the story’s past, not its present, in the same way that neurotic symptoms can (we always wish) be explained by some original trauma. The story, it seems, has gained a life and an unconscious of its own.
This is the serial’s dirty secret, I think: long-form narratives can’t really be planned in advance, as much as we’d like to think they are. As crazy as the finale of Battlestar Galactica makes me, I’ve always really appreciated the way that Ron Moore refuses the pose that so many writers insist upon (from Dickens to Lindelof and Cuse), that they’d had everything planned from the first episode on. Serials evolve like life does—it was supposed to be Oz who gets killed in season six, for instance, but Seth Green wanted to do movies. And because of that, Alyson Hanigan is a lesbian icon and Amber Benson thinks she will have a singing career one day. The final chapter of the first installment of Our Mutual Friend was too long, so Dickens moved it to the next month and introduced Silas Wegg, who ultimately reveals the novel’s central mystery. Libby was (maybe) the piece that held the puzzle together on LOST before Cynthia Watros and Michelle Rodriguez got caught drunk driving. As in life, circumstances change the course of the story.
So, if I think about it, what I find so disconcerting about “Amends” isn’t its specific problems, really, as much as it is the way that it exposes the lie of a coherent, preplanned story. As in life, I get a certain comfort from the illusion that there’s some kind of grand design behind everything, even though I know this can’t possibly be the case. More than anything, I think the episode bothers me because it makes me disappointed in the predictability of my own reactions: I should by all rights welcome this development. I celebrate contingent meaning, right? I revel in chaos! I’ve staked my whole dissertation on the idea that serials push us to reevaluate truth through their changeability and openness to revision (by their fans as well as their own futures). But when I’m faced with this example of the instability of narrative reality, I find it deflating and sad.
Fortunately, “Amends” is followed by “Gingerbread” and “The Zeppo” which both remind me that old stories can always provide new meanings, even when the reactions they evoke keep looking familiar.
 Besides, that is, the profound nerdiness of my obsessive attachment to continuity. The saddest realization I’ve had in the process of the Great Buffy Rewatch is how much I’m like Comic Book Guy, zoning in on the ways that the story contradicts itself, and keeping my eye out for places where—what?—I’ve outsmarted the show?