Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Five

Season five is the best season of Buffy. It’s the show at its most confident and most assured, taking the strongest elements from previous seasons – the darkness and stakes of season two, the consistency of season three and the character development of four, and working them into a perfect television combination. With the transitional season four out the way way, the writers are free to push their characters into bleak and exciting places and craft 22 solid, excellent episodes which sum up everything about the show. Five was initially intended to be Buffy’s final season and its clear Whedon and his team threw everything they had into it, giving audiences a rousing and tragic last year. The show was of course picked up for another two problematic seasons but that doesn’t take away from the power of five – it’s a brilliant moment of television and the best season the show has to offer.b58After the science-fiction elements of season four, we openly purely in the realm of the supernatural, with the funny and tongue-in-cheek ‘Buffy V.s Dracula’ which leads to the great introduction of Buffy’s sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). This is an excellent example of Buffy taking standard, clichéd television tropes – in this case, the new sibling – and using them in clever new ways; the show handles Dawn brilliantly, refusing to explain who she is until episode five – as far as the characters are concerned, Dawn has always been there, and the reveal of her creation – she’s The Key, a source of mystical energy, distilled into human form and given memories – is fantastic. This is Buffy playing with its own universe by altering its own history and crucially, this isn’t a gimmicky idea, as Dawn is added to alter the dynamic of the show, essentially giving Buffy a more personal level of responsibility, which allows her to mature into an adult. We lose the carefree Buffy of previous seasons here, and instead get a grown-up big sister character, an interesting but fitting development. b53Dawn gets a lot of complaints from fans who find her whiny or irritating but she works, particularly within this season, as Buffy’s annoying sister and Trachtenberg for her age is a remarkable actress, hitting emotional notes the rest of the cast didn’t touch until they were far older. In true Buffy fashion, the reveal of her existence is handled as an adoption metaphor and Trachtenberg’s line delivery – ‘is this blood?’ as she cuts herself is haunting. Her and Gellar also have remarkable chemistry and feel like siblings – with all the turmoil, love and bitterness that comes with familial closeness – and the two actresses, with the help of the writing team, manage to complete sell years of character backstory which the audience has never seen. It’s very impressive that Buffy took what in lesser hands would have been a shark-jumping moment and yet handles it utterly convincingly – within a few episodes of season five the audience feel like Dawn really has always been there. b512Dawn strengthens the season by adding a more human risk too. She’s directly involved in Glory’s masterplan and so the threat of the season hits far closer to home – Buffy’s sister is in direct danger throughout the year and the stakes are high; surpassing the evil Angel levels of the second season. And after the dampness of Adam, it’s great to have a truly excellent villain again. Glory (Claire Kramer) is an unhinged and ultra powerful-god, stronger than Buffy and almost impossible to stop, she’s utterly threatening – the scene in which she visits Buffy’s house is very very tense for example; Glory works with a Terminator-like persistence and is the greatest threat the Scoobies have ever faced. She does represent however one of the weaker changes of the show, something which will become apparent in the final seasons, where the Big Bad becomes the one who can throw Buffy the furthest across a room – but Glory manages to be an interesting character despite her strength – we’ve never seen a god on the show, and her dismissal of human life and selfish need to return to her own dimension is both frightening and very funny.b59What works especially with Glory is that she represents the same things that Buffy herself once did – a dumb Valley girl who happens to be extremely strong and should never be underestimated; it’s fitting that Buffy herself, who has moved into a fully developed character and not just a representation of a concept, initially dismisses Glory, and the line later in the season from Buffy, ‘I’ve had it with super-strong little women who aren’t me’ is both funny and fitting. It could be argued that the writers make Glory too powerful – we see her rip walls off buildings, what’s to stop her marching to the Magic Shop and murdering everyone until she finds the Key? Glory herself poses these questions but it’s her ego which stops her; she considers humans, and vampire slayers, to be essentially ants and not worthy of her time; it’s a hassle for her. The writers do keep Glory’s threat levels consistently to the surface however and she’s far more involved in the overall story arc than previous villains. b52The arc in five is the strongest yet, with the season following year three by working as one giant episode. Four was all over the place, full of monster-of-the-week and concept driven plotlines, and whilst that wasn’t a bad thing, five goes in the opposite direction. Every episode in season five is excellent and all of them work to strengthen the characters or push forward the plot; it’s fitting that even throw-away moments like ‘Triangle’ become pivotal at the season finale. An early highlight is the Spike-centric ‘Fool for Love,’ which delves into the mythology of the show in ways only hinted at before. The season benefits from a fixed exposition centre – the Magic Box – which holds everything together in a way not seen since the library – there’s a solidity to everything here which really helps as things get bleaker. b57And things do get bleak in season five, particular when we hit ‘The Body.’ ‘The Body’ is not only the greatest episode of the show, it’s one of the greatest hours ever filmed for television. It’s an incredibly brave look at the loss of a loved one – in this case, Buffy’s mother – and utterly heart-wrenching to watch. It’s amazing to think that the show would ever make an episode like this – watching through the season again, noticing the bubble-gum pop style of the first season, it seems almost impossible to think that such a small genre show would create something so profound. Joyce Summers has been a background light in the show since its inception and the audience feel close to her – losing her, especially to non-supernatural means, is extremely powerful, and the episode has a whole is remarkable feat of directing, editing and acting. The episode features no incidental music and is left to play out naturally, with numerous raw quirks relateable for anyone who has lost a loved one – Buffy hears children playing in the street (though the camera never lets us leave the house, locking us into the trauma) illustrating that the rest of the world still ticks by despite her tragedy. There’s a cruel but fitting scene where Joyce is saved, yet this turns out to be a fantasy of Buffy’s shell-shock, with masterful editing dropping us back into the room. b513All of the cast give their best here – from Gellar’s utter breakdown when faced with the death of her mother, the most powerful work Gellar has ever done, utterly raw and painful to watch, and a harsh reminder that when it comes to family, Buffy is still human. Trachtenberg’s breakdown is also intensely powerful, contrasted with a brilliant before scene where she laments the trivial horrors of high-school, and Whedon shoots the breakdown at a distance, behind a window; we can’t truly be involved in it, yet it remains visceral. Hannigan’s stresses over finding the right shirt to wear and Caulfield’s stunning speech about death from a demon point of view are some of the strongest moments of the entire show. It’s interesting too that within the trauma Whedon was able to fit in the show’s (and one of television’s) first gay kisses between Willow and Tara, and even more interesting to note that most people don’t notice it what with the rest of the episode. Anyone who has ever lost a love one will find something that speaks to them in ‘The Body,’ a fascinating and traumatic look at loss – particularly, in the mundaneness and the almost boring nature of grief, and the contrast between ‘being there,’ and being a body, being nothing empty space. This is a visceral, painful and incomprehensible – incomprehensible in the way death is – look into loss and makes for  amazing television. b55Another season highlight is the finale – ‘The Gift,’ what was originally the last episode of the show, and of course, the episode in which Buffy dies. The episode has a great sense of finality to it – opening with a previously on which recaptures every episode of the show, before bringing us back to Buffy, just a girl, in an alley fighting a vampire – it’s the original mission statement, where the show begun, and a nice nod as the show draws to a close. The episode as a whole is very tense and dramatic, bringing together everything from the season, with a great sense of scale and impending doom, topped off with Buffy’s tragic and final last moments and brilliant speech about life. The whole show has been building towards Buffy’s death – first mentioned in late season three, the time 7.30 on a clock in Buffy’s dream (730 is two years in days – the time is mentioned again in ‘Restless,’ but this time, the clock is ‘all wrong’ as we’re closer to the last date) here we finally see the slayer fall, and of course, it’s crushing and tragic to see a much loved television character die. Spike’s reaction and breakdown over Buffy’s body is especially powerful. ‘The Gift,’ was written as the final episode and is a much stronger finale than the actual finale in season seven. b56Buffy’s death plays into an important element of her character, and this is an important season for the slayer. Buffy, spurred on by ‘Restless,’ seeks to explore her heritage in season five, and episodes such as ‘Fool for Love,’ and ‘Intervention’ highlight the notion that all slayers have a death wish. Throughout five, Buffy loses her ties to the world – Riley leaves her, her mother dies, and the slayer element of her personality becomes stronger. Yet her death is not tragic, more, as the title suggests, a gift to the world. It’s her last great shining moment, illustrating her bravery, determination to help others, and strength; she dies for Dawn, for the world, and her death is almost celebratory – it’s an offering and very a powerful one. This is where the character has been moving to for some time. The rest of the characters also get great development in five – Giles finds his role again as Buffy’s mentor, and we see hints of his previous darkness throughout, especially in the cold moment where he murders Ben/Glory. Xander grows up, with a real job, home and girlfriend, the excellent Anya, who though still played for comic relief becomes an integral part of the Scooby dynamic. Willow and Tara’s relationship remains the strongest in the show, but episodes like ‘Tough Love,’ serve as great foreshadowing for season six, as Willow has become too powerful now. b511In terms of themes, five is primarily about family – the issues relating to Buffy, her mother and Dawn, the family unit of the Scooby Gang themselves – and this makes a nice contrast to the crazy college times of season four. Here we have group strength, and love, and despite the darkness of season five, this theme shines through as a strong saving grace. Yet the season is also about loss, death, and the harshness of the adult world, which never quite plays fair. It’s a mature and complex season and the first primarily aimed at adults; the growing up has happened, this is adulthood, and sometimes adulthood is hard. b50Five is the strongest season of the series. It’s consistent and dark, with the stakes raised high, and would have been an amazing final year for the Scooby Gang. Things change after season five – the show gets renewed and it can be argued that the writers struggled with where to take it. Season six is an interesting season, riding the wave of five’s loss and grief, and easily the darkest yet.

Season six is here.


7 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Five

  1. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Four | Some Films and Stuff

  2. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Six | Some Films and Stuff

  3. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season One | Some Films and Stuff

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