“It’s about power.” Those words open Season 7 and close Lessons, and so it is about power – Season 7, I mean. Not in the sense we understood it in Checkpoint (where we hear Buffy say these very words to Quentin Travers), nor in the sense that something similar was said in TTG and in Grave, but in a very different way entirely. The whole point of S7 is to explore what the show means by “power”.
Buffy tells Dawn in the teaser that “the stake is not the power”. That’s easy to see. But there’s an important aspect of the lesson Buffy gives Dawn which contains a clue to what Buffy will realize about power in the finale.
We next see Willow talking to Giles in England, and Willow tells us that “it’s all connected”. She said something very similar in Grave: “It's like I, I'm connected to everything.” Again, though, it’s clear that we’re to interpret this in a fundamentally different way. There, her sense of being connected came from a dark power, like Jesse after he’d been vamped in The Harvest: “I feel good, Xander! I feel strong! I'm connected, man, to everything!” Here, the fact that everything is connected gives Willow a form of power, in this case to bring forth a flower. I think this scene is important for the season as well.
Lessons opens Season 7 much like Buffy v. Dracula opened S5. By this I mean that the key moment in BvD came in the final scene, which introduced Dawn. The final scene of Lessons should be just as challenging and lead to similar questions: who or what was/were that in the room with Spike?
More questions: Joss said before that season that the theme would be “back to the beginning”, but what is “the true beginning” we’re going back to according to the Master? What is it about power that’s so important? Who was that girl in the teaser and what’s her connection, if any, to anything else? I’ll give one clue about the unidentified girl: Joss: “this is absolutely the primal scene for me, because it's everything that I made 'Buffy' to get rid of. Was the girl who couldn’t get through it.”
Setting up the season isn’t the only purpose of Lessons, of course. There’s a new high school in town, which Dawn is starting just as we saw Buffy start in WttH, and it’s terrifying to the kids. But Buffy’s an adult now so it “seems smaller”. The “manifest spirits” – I think they represent Buffy’s fears that she won’t be able to protect Dawn in high school – turn out to pose little real challenge. She can confidently tell Dawn, Kit, and Carlos that “You guys are gonna be OK. School is intense, but you'll do all right as long as you're careful.”
There is, by the way, a huge clue to the identity of the season’s Big Bad in Spike’s conversation with Buffy. He told Buffy that her “ghosts” were “manifest spirits raised by a talisman”. His wording here references a previous episode, and I’ll make the connection explicit when we get to Never Leave Me.
Spike’s story in S7 follows the metaphor of a pretty well-laid-out path for recovery from addiction. Here in Lessons, we see Spike in what we might call the DTs, alone by himself in the basement and acting delusional. Keep this in mind and I’ll note the steps as we go through the season.
In Buffy v. Dracula we heard Dracula tell Buffy that her power was rooted in darkness. Here we see that the same is true of Willow. She may want to have the magic “just taken from her”, but as Giles tells her, “You're connected to a great power, whether you feel it or not. … This isn't a hobby or an addiction. It's inside you now, this magic. You’re responsible for it.” This is the final nail in the coffin of the magic/drugs metaphor; the best part about this is that we eliminate the distraction and get to see how Willow responds to the challenge that Buffy faces every day.
Lessons also contains perhaps my personal favorite line in the entire series: “In the end, we all are who we are, no matter how much we may appear to have changed.” Note, by the way, that the camera then jump cuts to Xander, dressed, unusually, in a suit. Giles spoke the line to Willow, but the jump cut tells us that it also applies to Xander.
I think Lessons is one of the best season openers.
Trivia notes: There are many more references to previous seasons in S7, so lots of trivia: (1) Like every season opener beginning with When She Was Bad, Lessons opens in a graveyard. (2) Buffy did indeed miss the heart her first time, as we were shown in Becoming 1. (3) The scenes in England were shot at ASH’s home there. (4) When Giles tells Willow the magic is inside her, this also hearkens back to Becoming 1, where he told her “channeling... such potent magicks through yourself, it could open a door that you may not be able to close.” (5) Dawn called Xander “Double-0 Xander”, a reference to James Bond. (6) Xander mentioned that the last two principals of Sunnydale High were eaten: Principal Flutie in The Pack and Principal Snyder in Graduation Day 2. (7) Buffy’s warnings to Dawn about high school included references to The Pack, Go Fish, and Out of Mind, Out of Sight. (8) The new principal introduced himself as Robin Wood. Robin Wood is the name of a famous horror film analyst with a strong feminist bent. (9) As Dawn went into the school without Buffy, she said “to serve man is a cookbook”. To Serve Man was a Twilight Zone episode based on the short story of the same title by Damon Knight. (10) The song in the coffee house is “So High” by Strange Radio. (11) Hallie said the song was “happy, shiny crap”. That’s a reference to the song “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M. (12) The reference to Mrs. Czolgosz in the conversation between Anya and Hallie is an obscure joke on Jane Espenson growing out of her reference to the McKinley assassination in Superstar. Leon Czolgosz was McKinley’s assassin. (13) Anya made someone’s boyfriend French, although she wished him to be a frog, because the English historically called the French “frogs”. (14) Buffy called the spirits “resentful dead guys”, a play on the Grateful Dead. (15) Principal Wood used the phrase “curiouser and curiouser”, which is from Alice in Wonderland. (16) It’s a truly awful pun when Warren says that he’s “more than flesh”. (17) Adam called Spike “Number 17”, a reference back to the Initiative (and to The Prisoner), which called Spike “Hostile 17”. (18) Because the show had been evicted from Torrance (see trivia notes on Graduation Day), they found a new location for the high school in Northridge, CA.