Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5

07/16/2012

I know it’s been a while since my last Buffy journal, but rest assured that I still plan on finishing the series. I just, you know, occasionally have to do things besides watching and writing about television. Life’s a drag, I know. Anyway, to reiterate the basic points of these intros, this is a reflection more than a review so naturally there will be a few spoilers. Proceed with caution (by which I mean for the love of God, don’t read it unless you’ve watched it! I don’t want to be responsible for ruining this for anyone.

Season 5

Way back in season 2, I observed that the best episodes of Buffy are the ones that force the audience to consider their darkest implications without derailing the essential tone and structure of the show. At the time I was referring to an offbeat monster of the week entry, Killed by Death. In many ways that episode — in which Buffy becomes entangled in the plight of children dying in the hospital, and as I put it, “is relieved when the cause turns out to be a Freddy Krueger-esque demon and not, say, cancer” — foreshadows the major developments that do alter the very tone and structure of the series in season 5. Back in season 2 it still had to be a monster. Every problem in life was transferrable to some kind of supernatural baddie who Buffy could put a cathartic beat down on until the audience felt a little better. But everyone who’s seen this year’s centerpiece — and arguably the series’ most acclaimed episode — The Body, knows that the presence of a monster doesn’t necessarily bring a whole lot of solace; especially in the face of something like actual cancer.

And so we come to what I believe is Buffy’s best season. At times it’s a serialized swords and sorcery epic, far more absurd than anything the Scoobies have faced to this point. But sometimes it’s a painfully direct meditation on love and loss in a dark, seemingly meaningless universe. “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” Buffy tells Dawn before jumping to a sacrificial death in the finale The Gift. That’s always been a central theme of the Buffy mythos, along with the notion that the intensity of feeling and purpose seemingly relegated to bedtime stories and ancient myths can be a legitimate reality if we only wish it so. Thus there are two seemingly contradicting stories being told here. One is about a vampire slayer who is given a mystical key in the form of a sister, and who must protect her from evil gods and dark knights and “hobbits with leprosy”; while the other is an intimate memoir of a twenty year old girl struggling against numbness and apathy in the wake of her mother’s death.

As I understand it, this season was supposed to be the show’s last. Hence the overt splintering of tones, hence the big recap of overarching themes, and hence Buffy’s demise with the final shot of her tombstone that reads, “She saved the world. A lot.” And in many ways this is the series finale. I realize there are two full seasons that follow, and despite reservations I heartily defend season 6 and at least the first half of season 7 — but they essentially function as a postscript. Maybe an encore or post-credits scene. This is the last note of whatever tune Whedon began playing back in season 1. Sure Buffy was always a feminist icon. Sure, prior to season 5 the show was structured around school years and the general idea of what it means to be an American teenager. But Whedon also knew that all of that only worked as fragments of a bigger picture of life and what it means to be alive; not just living, but truly alive.

Ultimately that’s what Buffy the series is about, and this is a masterful season-long deconstruction: from Xander’s realization of the many possibilities that lie within his single persona in comically brilliant The Replacement, to the sobering depiction of death and its aftermath in The Body, to Spike describing how he undid two previous slayers by exploiting their “death wish” in Fool for Love, to Buffy going catatonic after failing to rescue Dawn from Glory in The Weight of the World. And then there’s Buffy’s declaration to Giles that caps it all off: “I don’t know how to live in this world if these are the choices; if everything just gets stripped away,” a sentiment she confirms later when she finds herself watching the world burn, bewildered and unable to move as she believes the only way to stop it is to kill her sister. What’s the point of continuing life if to do so she must give up those things she truly lives for?

Of course she is given a single way out: the words of the original slayer, “Death is your gift.” She can sacrifice herself to save Dawn. And thus a bit of wisdom received during a spirit quest allows the hero to storm the castle and defeat the evil god and her minions and fulfill the role of a Christ figure to save her sister (who is fittingly dressed as a princess), while simultaneously she makes peace with an even greater pain that has nothing to do with monsters or spells of any kind.

What Doesn’t Work

Alright, let’s get this one out of the way first again. Practically everything that happens this season works, but I’ve managed to scrape together a few minor gripes. The refocus on Buffy takes the spotlight away from the central cast, meaning that Xander and Willow and Giles and Tara and Anya are once again relegated to role players while newly-minted sister/hell key Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) takes over second billing. This almost isn’t a problem at all. Seriously. I actually like Dawn and think that everyone in the main cast gets some pretty awesome solo episodes (The Replacement for Xander, Family for Tara, Triangle for Anya and Willow, and Fool for Love for Spike) but some of their big moments feel a bit, well, unearned maybe? Particularly I’m talking about Giles murdering Ben in The Gift. I totally buy that Giles would do that — heck, I would do that — but it’s a moment that would have probably paid off more if it had been integrated into the discussion earlier than that single episode. Similarly Willow’s ascent to confidence and leadership is an arc her character has been undergoing since day 1, but because of her decreased screen time this season, I wasn’t quite as invested in her plight taking over the group during Buffy’s “departure” as I might have been.

And Dawn can be annoying. I mean, I think they explain away most of her problems pretty well with the whole “She’s not really a teenage girl. She’s the creation of monks who implanted her with their idea of the memories and behaviors a teenage girl should have” card, but I also know the character was originally written to be much younger and some of her inconsistencies might not be intentional. The worst offenses occur during Forever, the followup episode to The Body. The conclusion to that episode is incredible, more than worth the trouble, but Dawn’s complete lack of understanding at what anyone is telling her makes her difficult to watch. I imagine this is the major complaint people have about the character throughout that season, but it only really bothered me during that specific episode.

And let’s talk about Joyce’s death. As Joyce is Buffy’s mother, that moment is as heartbreaking a thing as ever happened on the show. But as she was a side character who basically disappeared during the whole of season 4, I wasn’t nearly as affected by her death as I would have been at the death of Giles or Xander. (btw, thank God the trigger happy Joss never killed Giles or Xander!) Yes, it’s arguably the most powerful moment on the show. Yes, it has no place sitting in a section titled “What Doesn’t Work.” But sometimes I felt like the show was relying on a general idea of a mother and daughter more than the actual relationship between Buffy and Joyce to power some of these moments. I just wish we’d been able to spend more time with her before being expected to feel the same way Buffy does about losing her.

Also, there are a few rather silly or uneventful episodes this season. It’s definitely not as compact as, say, seasons 2 and 3. There’s not an episode that I’d say I hate, or even strongly dislike, but Buffy vs. Dracula, Real Me, Out of My Mind, and I Was Made to Love You just don’t zip the way I’ve come to expect from the show. Also the Glory plot, Spike’s doomed romance, and Joyce’s cancer dominate this season and absorb a lot of episodes along the way. Real Me, No Place Like Home, Shadow, Listening to Fear, Into the Woods, Forever, Tough Love, and The Weight of the World don’t really stand on their own as much as they just fill a role in a larger story. I haven’t decided yet if that’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely not something I’m used to with this show; typically the episodes can fill a larger role in the story and still work as standalone adventures too.

And Ben is quite underdeveloped as well. I kind of felt like he wasn’t supposed to be developed — he works better as a symbol than an actual character — but his battle with Glory in The Weight of the World doesn’t really pay off as well as it might have if we’d been given more time with him. But again, in a season this packed it’s all about priorities. I’m not sure what I’d get rid of to make room for more Ben time. The same goes for the nights who basically make the story feel more medieval and give Glory something to obliterate in Spiral. Yes it’s awesome to see Buffy fighting off horse riders with a mace on top of a Winnebago, but they felt like an incredibly random element thrown in at the last second.

What Works

This is one of the gutsiest, most intense, most compelling seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Having a character die from cancer? Completely abandoning the school-centric structure that the whole series had previously been build around? Randomly giving Buffy a pre-teen sister? Making Spike fall in love with Buffy? These aren’t just gutsy; they’re big decisions that could upset the core of what viewers loved about the show in the first place. But one by one they all start to pay off and make this season something truly special. As it turns out, Dawn is exactly the relationship Buffy needs to advance her story. And Joyce’s death is the perfect counterpoint to Angel’s demise in season 2.

And Spike. Gosh I love Spike! This season belongs to him. Marsters is such a seductive and powerful force that Whedon couldn’t even put him in The Body because he would have overshadowed everything else. Spike has always been a mirror to Buffy. She’s an unlikely slayer because of her ties to the world; he’s an unlikely vampire for the same reason. He can kill slayers for the exact reason she can kill so many vampires, so its natural that their two destines would become intertwined. Doomed romances are always fascinating (hence why Riley never worked as well as Angel) but because of Spike’s history and his fascinating presence, he’s a lot more than just a doomed romance. He’s a character who can win the audience over to the point where they root for him more than the good guys. I could watch a whole season of him giving sage, if somewhat skewed, advice to Dawn, and I’m especially a fan of the way he programmed the Buffy Bot in Intervention: “I wanna hurt you, but I can’t resist the sinister attraction of your cold and muscular body!” “Hi Anya. How is your money?” “Angel’s lame. His hair goes straight up and he’s bloody stupid.”

Anya also ups her game this season. I love her interactions with Xander (“I for one didn’t want to start my day with a slaughter, which really just shows how much I’ve grown”), the way Willow reacts to their relationship (“I need her!” “…Really?”) as well as her relationship with Giles (“Are you stupid or something?” “Allow me to answer that question with a firing.”) Bringing them together after he buys the Magic Box and she has a capitalist awakening was pure genius. But her moment in The Body is what really takes the cake. Like Spike, I feared that she might be a bit too “other worldly” to work in such a subdued episode, but leave it to Joss to utilize that very quality for arguably the episode’s most powerful moment.

And the other side characters are all great too. I even loved Dawn and Riley’s arcs. Riley’s biggest problem was always that he was too normal. His Midwestern blandness could have been played more for laughs (like in season 4’s Who Are You when vampires attack a church and Riley shows up at the scene because he actually goes to church) but instead he mostly just played the generic love interest at face value. In season 5 he gets a bit more interesting conflict (like feeling he’s losing Buffy emotionally and taking to having vampires suck his blood for the kinkiness of it) and some of his more distinct traits shine a little more brightly. When he sees the two Xanders in The Replacement, he quips, “Doesn’t it make everyone want to lock them in separate rooms and do experiments on them? …Just me huh.” By the time he left I was actually sad he was leaving, even though I was totally rooting for Spike and Buffy to get together back in season 2.

As for Dawn, I like Michelle Trachtenberg a lot more in seasons 6 and 7 but she’s still likable here. There are a million ways to do the pre-teen accomplice horribly, and less than a handful of ways to get it right. She’s mostly the right ones, and I think a lot of care was put into making her interesting and giving her things to do besides being annoying and idealistic all the time.

As for the villains this season, Glory isn’t quite as awesome as Spike or the Mayor, but she does have her moments. And her minions are hilarious. Their exultant compliments become more and more complex as the season goes on, to the point where they’re calling her, “Oh sweaty naughty feelings-causing one.” And I think Glory does create a palpable atmosphere of dread too. She needs to be scary enough to substitute for the idea of death, but she also needs to be funny and compelling because we just expect that from our Buffy villains. All things considered, I think she pulls it off quite well.

And the finale! Man that finale! I could just watch that finale over and over again every day until I die. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious and heart-poundingly exciting. The score is particularly poignant (Joss rightfully said that it felt like it added a hundred million dollars to the budget) especially when mixed with the campy dark blue and orange cinematography and stop motion storm effects reminiscent of 80’s adventure films like Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. I know Buffy was made for the small screen, but I would love to watch this episode in a theater. I cannot think of a single action film that packs on so much excitement and emotion, much less an episode of television. It’s a masterpiece of television drama that caps a much larger masterpiece of serialized storytelling.

BEST EPISODE
The Gift

WORST EPISODE
I Was Made to Love You

CLASSIC EPISODES
The Replacement
Fool for Love
The Body
Intervention
Spiral

NEARLY CLASSIC
Family
Into the Woods
Checkpoint
Crush

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