Death is Your Gift – In Praise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Fifth Season
I don’t intend to write about TV too often here, as the volume of serious television criticism on the internet is close to saturation point and I’m not sure what I could bring to the table. However, I’ve decided to to briefly diverge from my usual film-talk to champion a TV series that ended nine years ago and has such a huge cult following that no one really needs to talk about it anymore. When people talk about great seasons of US drama you tend to get the usual suspects time and time again: season one of The Sopranos, season two of Deadwood, season three of Breaking Bad, season four of The Wire, etc. One television season that I rarely see standing alongside those giants, though, season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
There are plenty of reasons why Buffy doesn’t often get recognised as the masterpiece of a show that it was. All the really great television series of the last fifteen years or so have been serious, downright worthy affairs and critics have taken them very seriously in turn. Buffy took itself very seriously indeed too, but there was always a deliberate, inherent silliness in it central premise that turns many people off before they even give it a chance. Furthermore, my belief that it’s one of the greatest shows of all time doesn’t mean I’m not fully aware that it has its fair share of dud episodes – such is the curse of the 22 episode season and the way the show figured itself out as it went along.
But its strengths are strengths that none of the other big US dramas have. For one, the flexibility of its form meant that it could be any kind of show it wanted: one week it’s a goofy comedy, the next its a frightening fairy tale, the week after its an all-singing all-dancing musical. It was clearly the work of a team of writers, too, and when I was young and watching it for the first time it was the first time I really started to learn how TV was constructed – I got a thrill from seeing who had written each episode and guessing at what kind of episode it was going to be by who wrote it. Above all, though, the thing that Buffy has in spades that most shows lack, and the aspect of the show that season five best showcases, is emotion. Even at its most laid back, Buffy is a show spilling over with emotion, and its this that gives the potentially goofy premise of show its weight. Whedon et. al. were absolute masters at making us really care about their characters, and every audacious plot contrivance was easily swallowed when viewed through the lens of the real, human emotion that they would imbue it with.
Take, for example, season five’s biggest plot contrivance – Dawn’s sudden appearance as Buffy’s sister. She’s never been mentioned or seen before, everyone’s acting as if he’s been there all along, and aside from one crazy tramp seething at her that she doesn’t belong here, we the audience aren’t given many clues as to who or what she is for six entire episodes. When we do find out what she is – a mystical key sent to Buffy and her friends to protect, complete with fabricated memories so she’d love her deeply like a sister – it doesn’t come easy, and doesn’t make things any less complicated. Many people call Dawn the albatross of the season, but while her character becomes much more problematic later on the series’ run, I think she works beautifully in this season. Moments like the one where Joyce realises what Dawn is and loves her anyway, or when Buffy talks to her about how they share the same blood, are some of the most beautifully drawn and tender moments the series ever produced, and she hadn’t been there the show would have been drained of all its agency.
If I was going to pin the blame on any character for dragging down the season in its early episodes, it would be Riley. From the outset of the season its clear that the writers don’t really know what to do with him now that the Initiative business from Season Four is done and dusted, but they take an awfully long time to get rid of him. I’m sure that the plotline in which his insecurities at no longer being a superman lead to him going to some kind of vampire sucking den for cheap thrills looked good on paper, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in a season that’s otherwise thematically harmonious. In a season that’s more about confronting the hard-edged reality that our heroes ignore by fighting monsters, this slightly hysterical flight-of-fancy just doesn’t work.
That’s a small quibble, though, when you’re faced with a season of television that’s otherwise so thematically rich and intricate. All the themes and motifs of the series – family, power, blood, death, the toll being a slayer takes on Buffy’s loved ones – all bounce off one another in constantly fascinating ways.
Take, for example, the season opener, “Buffy vs. Dracula”. At first glance it’s a fun, punchy, exciting opening to the season, but in retrospect it kicks into gear a lot of what season five is trying to do. To begin with, there’s a renewed focus on Buffy’s blood as something powerful and life-giving, an idea that is teased throughout the season but doesn’t come to fruition till its final moments. Most importantly though, it ups the stakes and deepens the mythology significantly. Season Four’s closer “Restless” did a great job of connecting the slayer to a deep and ancient power, but it’s in “Buffy vs. Dracula” that she sets out to learn what that means, tasting the darker side of her power and asking Giles to help her harness it.
Perhaps that why this season feels so different to what came before it. Everything feels grander, more important, like the writers are making the show they’ve been preparing for all this time. They have more confidence than ever in the story they want to tell – early on in the season they drop the college as the show’s hub, instead centering on Buffy’s two families: her mother and sister at home, and her friends at the Magic Shop. It results in the season being far more streamlined and the overarching plot having far more prominence – there are few episodes that have no connection to what’s going on with Glory and Dawn, and even the most inconsequential-seeming episodes – “Triangle” and “I Was Made to Love You” – have things in them that become important later. Many people miss the one-off, monster-of-the-week aspect of the show from season five onwards, but I always found that Buffy worked best when it was dealing with more long-form, character-based storytelling, and season five’s arc has to be its strongest.
Not that some of the individual episodes aren’t fantastic in their own right. An early standout is the Joss Whedon penned and directed “Family”, that is is some ways the whole season in microcosm. Tara’s family (including a young Amy Adams!) come looking for her, insisting that once she turns eighteen she’ll turn into a demon and only they can look after her. Not only does Tara’s using magic turn into a graceful metaphor for her lesbianism, it also lays out the main theme of the season – hell, its right there in the title. Early in the episode, Buffy and Xander talk about how they don’t know what to get Tara for her birthday, how they like her, but don’t know her that well or really ‘get’ her. But at the end of the episode, when her father says to Buffy, “We are her blood kin. Who the hell are you?” she replies “We’re family.” It’s not the people who you share a surname with or even the people you love deeply that are your family, but the people who you choose to care about and embrace as part of your life. All Joss Whedon shows and films are about people forming ad-hoc families to overcome obstacles in one way or another, but never is it clearer, or more affecting than here.
And then there’s “The Body”. To say that “The Body” is a great episode of television would be an understatement. It’s one of the most ambitious, devastating, daring and powerful things ever committed to the small screen, saying more about death and grief in one episode than Six Feet Under managed in its entire run and looking and feeling unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since – including any other episode of Buffy. Using no non-diagetic music and limiting each act to just one scene, Whedon tracks Buffy’s loss of her mother with stark, hyper-realist immediacy. People are quick to criticise Sarah Michelle Gellar’s acting ability, but she does great work here, and her journey from blind panic and fear to numb, empty grief is devastating to watch. So many tiny moments stand out from the episode’s first act alone – Buffy rearranging her mother’s skirt before the paramedics enter; the strange, unclear way she says “She’s at the house” to Giles on the phone; the moment when she opens her backdoor and peers out into bright sunlight and the world still going on outside – but the episode’s best moment is the scene where Buffy’s friends each go through their own grief. Willow frets about what clothes she should wear while Tara comforts her (with what was their first on-screen kiss despite them having been a couple for over a year), Xander punches a hole through the wall, and Anya asks a lot of questions. Anya’s recently-mortal status has been a bottomless well of comedy since she became a regular cast member, but here she surprises everyone and gives a speech that’s unbearably sad: “She’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.” The gang have faced all kinds of insurmountable odds, but when faces with the cold hard reality of death, none of them have the answers.
The best thing about “The Body”, and the thing that shows how far Buffy had come by this point, is how it trusts its characters and its writing enough to abandon its central premise. There is a vampire in “The Body”, but only one, and while it’s a dirty, naked struggle of a fight, he’s not a real threat. By now, the characters are so strong that they can stand on their own, and that’s what makes this season so powerful. Whedon’s character writing has never been particularly psychologically complex, but he’s a genius when it comes to writing broad, instantly recognisable characters that are easy to understand and easy to care about, that grow and develop and feel like real humans. That’s why season five works so well – it makes you care. The final four or five episodes are some of the most emotionally involving television ever made, from Tara’s brain being sucked out, to Spike telling Buffy she makes him feel like a man, to Xander proposing to Anya, to Buffy’s quiet, resigned talk with Giles where she confesses how much she misses her mum. The season’s climax is also the the series’ climax – Whedon et. al. had intended to finish the series here, and regardless of whether you feel they should continued have or not (I for one think there’s enough interesting stuff going on in Seasons 6 and 7 to justify their existence), it’s hard to argue against Buffy’s sacrifice being the defining moment of the series.
So, while conventional wisdom will cast season 3 as Buffy’s finest year, and many will cite Season 2’s Angel-turns-evil plotline as the show’s most operatic, emotional arc, I respectfully disagree. Season 3 is terrific fun, and Angel’s transformation is as sensational and rewarding a plot twist as they come, but Season 5 has both four years of history behind it and a committed drive to produce something more daring and ambitious than ever before. Its influence is still being felt now: without Buffy, there’d be no Lost, no 24, no new Doctor Who, and yet none of its many protégées has ever come close to the emotional gut-punch of Buffy jumping off that ledge. If you’re ever left wondering why Buffy the Vampire Slayer has such a huge cult following a decade later, if you’re baffled by why someone would bother to write 2,000 words about it in 2012, mark my words: you are missing out.