And now we finally get to the best one of all. The true peak of Buffy. The Season where it truly was at its finest hour.
After a shaky Season Four, Buffy returned in style for its fifth season, constructing 22 episodes full of strong characters, a brilliant arc, heartbreaking moments and some of the best hours that the show ever produced. Whilst all the previous Seasons of Buffy had numerous good qualities, it’s fifth just seemed to have everything. From the intense, gripping story-arc of Season Two, to the consistently brilliant episodes of Season Three, to the superb stand-alone hours of Season Four, Season Five is an example of a show at full throttle. It’s brimming with confidence, it knows exactly where it’s taking the story – and explores new routes for our characters that we didn’t even think we’d see.
So, what makes Season Five so great? Well, let’s take a look.
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) would seem to never have been happier. She’s in a stable relationship with an ordinary army bloke Riley (Marc Blucas), she’s about to start her second year at College, she’s kicking absolute arse as a Slayer – yep, Buffy would seem to have it made. However, underneath it all, there’s something not quite right with her. After a brush with famous Vampire Dracula (Rudolf Martin), she becomes obsessed with discovering the secret history of Slayers, becoming more and more detached from Riley and, surprisingly, seeking the assistance of still-chipped Spike (James Marsters). Things are only made worse when her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) becomes seriously ill – and, out of nowhere, she suddenly has a little sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) to look after. Just to make things even more awkward, her most dangerous enemy yet, Glory (Claire Kramer) soon turns up in Sunnydale, making short work of Buffy and looking everywhere for her mysterious Key.
Buffy’s sis Dawn Summers appears literally out of the blue – and yet it seems that everyone remembers her as though she’s always been there. A 14 year old girl, Dawn herself seems to have no inclination that, just months previously, she did not exist. Buffy eventually discovers the shocking truth – Dawn is Glory’s Key in human form. Glory needs her to return to the Hell dimension she came from (where she ruled as a God) – a process that would destroy the Universe as we know it. To prevent this, some monks turned the Key human and altered reality. They made the Key the Slayer’s little sister, thus ensuring that Buffy would protect her with her life if need be. And it works. Despite the fact that looking after Dawn makes Buffy very, very annoyed at times – she is utterly devoted to keeping her safe. Even after learning who she really is.
Thus, the Scoobies, including Spike, need to figure out a way to defeat Glory whilst making sure she never discovers the truth about Dawn. That, unfortunately, is going to take more than a smile, as Glory is much stronger than Buffy, can literally punch through steel – and is completely, utterly insane. As things get more and more bleak, and Glory all the stronger, Buffy must come to terms with what it truly means to be a Slayer, and, as the Season goes on, a mother. Even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice.
I’ll come out and say it – this is one hell of a season of television. It really does have it all, fixing a lot of the mistakes Season Four made, continually expanding its mythology and giving each of its main characters strong, long-lasting development. Not since Season Two has the cast gone through such a transition in 22 episodes. And it’s an incredible treat from start to finish.
Washing its hands of the rather poorly thought out Initiative plot, Season Five instead gives us an entirely new Big Bad, in the form of Glory. An uber-powerful God that can destroy Buffy with one punch, Glory is the scariest threat the gang have ever faced. However, she is not without her weaknesses, being forced to inhabit the body of a vain young woman whilst in this dimension – and in need of feeding on human brains in order to survive. There is also the slight issue that she spends half of her time as a human male Ben (Charlie Weber) only able to assume her form every now and again. In her full on Glory suit, she is invincible, but as Ben, she can be killed. Thus, she does everything she can to hide this from her enemies, casting a memory charm on everyone who witnesses the transition.
The sad new for poor Ben is that he is just a normal guy, who just wants to live a normal existence as a doctor and help people. Unfortunately, he’s spent his entire life cleaning up after Glory’s mess, and being unable to keep her at bay. This means that while Ben is a nice guy, he is prepared to do very nasty things in order to protect his own existence. And thus, we have an extremely interesting dynamic. It helps that both actors rise beautifully to the occasion. Kramer in particular is perfect as Glory, playing her as a bratty, over privileged woman who can be a whining annoyance one minute, and utterly terrifying the next. It’s interesting to see Buffy come up against an enemy she truly fears, someone who she knows she cannot beat. It’s not so much fear for herself that makes Buffy so weary of Glory. It’s fear for someone else. Glory’s desperately sought Key.
There is one big complaint that seems to be thrown at Season Five, one that, for many, does let it down slightly. It is something that I can slightly sympathise with, even if I do slightly disagree. For some fans, Dawn can be, at times, an exceedingly annoying character. She plays the role of pain in the arse little sister extremely well, which can wind the audience up as much as it does her big sister. And yet, I personally don’t have much of an issue with her. Dawn is a young girl who, at least in her mind, grew up in the shadow of a Slayer. She feels lonely and ignored, and completely underestimated by all around her (pretty much like most 14 year olds). As such, Dawn feels real. Despite her supernatural origins, Dawn could well be any young woman thrust into Buffy’s crazy world. As such the writers, and Trachtenberg, deserve credit for that at least.
What Dawn does provide is a completely new character arc for Buffy – that of having to take care of someone who isn’t herself. By now, Buffy has become a fiercely independent and strong woman, and certainly doesn’t need anyone looking after her. It’s something that Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) notices with pride, and decides to return to his old life in England – until Buffy asks him to stay. The logical step forward for her character at this point was to introduce someone she had to watch out for. Thankfully, the writers chose not to make her pregnant with Riley’s baby (thank the Gods). What they do come up with is much more interesting. Dawn’s insertion into Buffy’s life is not just an intriguing story – it’s an intriguing look at Buffy’s psychosis.
See, in Buffy’s mind, Dawn has always been there. Fabricated memories are inserted into her brain and stay for good, even after Buffy realises who she really is. But, subconsciously, Buffy feels from the start that she’s no longer the only child. Dawn seems to get under her skin more than she ever has when she first turns up, because, of course, she’s not been there before. Buffy now has to take Dawn into account with every decision she makes, whether it’s helping her mother out or fighting Vampires. This is only furthered later in the Season, when the tragic death of their mother (more on that later) puts Buffy firmly in charge of Dawn’s welfare. At a very young age herself, Buffy finds herself in a parental role, over someone who isn’t that much younger than her (at least mentally). And it’s something that she feels she cannot handle. Something that makes her, essentially, give up completely.
Then there was Riley. Another marmite character who is extremely important to Buffy’s development. For his part, Riley is utterly in love with Buffy. And Buffy – just doesn’t feel the same way. Sure, she cares for Riley – but she always keeps him at arm’s length. A lot of it is down to who she is – the Slayer. Slayers of old lived short, lonely lives, not able to get close to anyone either romantically or otherwise. Although Buffy has her friends to ground her, at the end of the day, she’s still the Slayer. She’s the one who has to save the world, and fight the forces of darkness. As Riley’s old army chum Graham (Bailey Chase) cleverly observes to him – “you used to have a mission. What are you now? The mission’s boyfriend?”
Thus, utterly depressed, Riley turns to other methods to try and understand Buffy, and why Angel (David Boreanaz) seemed to get her attention in ways he never can. This, for some strange reason, involves him allowing Vampires to feed off him whilst under the influence of a mystical drug. They both get a nice high out of it, but, of course, it does little to make him feel better. It is therefore of no surprise when he decides to leave town when the army comes knocking once again, leaving Buffy alone and a little bit devastated. The sad truth is that she does care for Riley – but never quite enough for what he needs. And so, Riley departs the show ten episodes into the season. And depressed Buffy makes a sad return.
That’s not to say Buffy doesn’t get plenty of other male attention this year.
Ah Spike. What a year this is for him. Starting it out still en-chipped, trying to do anything he can to be rid of it, Spike eventually realises that his continued obsession with killing Buffy, and why he always kept coming back to Sunnydale, was down to one simple fact. He is completely in love with her. Unfortunately, he knows he has absolutely no chance with her, so instead proceeds to, well, stalk her. He’s bitterly horrible to his actual girlfriend Harmony (Mercedes McNab), pays uber-nerd Warren (Adam Busch – soon to become a very important character) to create a robot version of Buffy for him to, urm, play with, and continually breaks into her house to steal her underwear. It isn’t a particularly endearing time for Spike, but the one thing that he does end up doing, at first purely for Buffy’s attention, is to actually become her ally.
Despite the fact that Spike is, essentially, evil, he does ironically maintain a nice relationship with Buffy’s family – Joyce and Dawn. Joyce and Spike have always gotten on well, despite her knowing what he is, and Dawn looks up to him almost like a cool, mysterious older brother. As the Season goes on, it becomes pretty clear that Spike’s actions, whilst predominantly focused on Buffy, start to take differing meanings. He seems to genuinely care when Joyce tragically dies, and seems prepared to put himself at great risk to keep Dawn safe. Indeed, when he is actually captured by Glory at one point, and can reveal Dawn’s true identity (something he and Dawn discover quite by accident), he doesn’t do, admitting he couldn’t do such a horrible thing to Buffy. It’s something Buffy never forgets, and something that helps her to truly value Spike as a potential ally – and even friend. His love for Buffy may be based on lust, and is rather gross at times, but it is a driving force that slowly starts to turn Spike to the side of good. By the end of the Season, we are presented with a very different Spike to the one from Season Two. He is prepared to kill Drusilla (Juliet Landau) when she blows into town fresh from LA (see Angel Season Two), and seems to want to fight on the side of good.
There’s plenty more to come with Spike in Seasons Six and Seven. But the groundwork is firmly laid here.
Talking of some beautiful character development – man, is this a good season for Willow (Alyson Hannigan). No more is she the shy, meek girl of old. This is a Willow who is fully self-confident, completely in love with her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) – and a Willow who is becoming an incredibly powerful witch. Indeed, as the season goes on, Willow truly becomes a force to be reckoned with, being the only person besides Buffy who actually manages to knock Glory down – something that even Spike struggles with.
And then there’s Tara. Being with Willow does wonders for her, as does her growing friendship with the rest of the Scoobies. This is further evident when her family blow into town, trying to force her to come back home with them. It turns out that they have peddled a lie to the women in their family for generations – that their natural talent for magic is the sign of an inner demonic presence, and that they must be controlled to prevent them hurting other people. However, Willow and her friends stand by Tara, with even Spike offering his assistance (by punching her in the nose to set his chip off, proving that she is human after all). The Willow and Tara romance is such a delight that it’s horrifying when Glory takes her sanity – and very satisfying to see Willow take her sweet revenge on her for doing so. Willow eventually discovers how to bring Tara back, seriously weakening Glory and helping Buffy eventually defeat her in their final fight.
If Willow revels in her self-confidence this year, Xander (Nicolas Brendon) does a damn good job finding his. Deciding very early in the season that this is the year he’s going to sort himself out, Xander does exactly that. He gets himself a good job, and even earns a promotion. He moves out of his parent’s basement and into a lovely flat. He decides to completely commit himself to Anya (Emma Caulfield), and their hilarious relationship truly is an absolute treat. From now on, we never really hear Xander lament about his lack of worth to the team anymore. He’s the guy that keeps everyone grounded – and the guy who fixes the windows.
Meanwhile, Anya continues to be brilliant in every scene that she’s in. Her struggles with normal, day-to-day tasks, including how to talk to her boss Giles, are so satisfying, as she literally says whatever the hell she wants. Xander and Anya truly love each other, which is a nice contrast to Buffy not being able to truly be satisfied in any relationship. All the growing up Xander does this year leads to his proposal at the end of the season – something Anya happily (if rather violently) accepts. Unfortunately, despite the progress Xander makes here, he’s absolutely not ready for that just yet – but we’ll get to that in Season Six.
Talking of people who find a new purpose, Giles starts the year prepared to go home, but stays in town when Buffy asks him to help her discover the ancient history of the Slayers. So, to keep himself occupied, Giles buys the local magic store the Magic Box – and actually makes a damn good job of running it (even if he sells Glory some powerful magic at one point without realising it). By this point, the relationship between him and Buffy truly is that of a father and a daughter. Buffy needs Giles in her life a damn sight more than Riley, with Giles being the first (and only) person she tells when she discovers the truth about Dawn – and the first person she calls when she finds her mother’s body. To her, he’s the guy with all the answers, the one who will always help solve the problems. It’s something that will actually drive them apart in Season Six – but more on that later.
Another thing that Season Five shows us is a dark side to Giles’ character only glimpsed up until now – the fact that he is prepared to do some very bad things for the greater good. Indeed, it’s Giles who actually kills Glory in the end, by suffocating her human counterpart Ben, knowing full well that Glory will never stop if he doesn’t. It’s Giles who is prepared to actually kill Dawn to prevent Glory using her blood to open the portals – something Buffy freely admits she would kill him for if he tries. Even when Giles is actually reinstated as her official Watcher (following Buffy’s demand to the Council), he is never really the boss of Buffy again.
And as for Buffy – well, this is the season that infamously kills off its main character right at the end. It’s not something that comes out of nowhere, either. See, even as far back as Season Three, the show has been hinting that Buffy is slowly heading towards a heroic death, and Season Five builds upon this by exploring the ultimate tragedy of a Slayer. The sad and unmistakable fact that each and every one of them has a death wish. As Spike so clearly explains, Slayers are never defeated in battle. The only time they truly lose is when they just don’t want to win anymore. Buffy goes through so much this year – losing Riley, losing her mother and having to care for Dawn that in the end, she decides that she would rather give her life for Dawn’s than face the harsh reality of life. Death is her final gift to her sister – and its a truly beautiful, haunting end to this incredible character.
Well – except it’s not quite the end. But we’ll talk about that next time.
Now, this is tricky. In a season as solid as this one, it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint its true low point. So, I’m going to be controversial – and talk about what, for me, is a bitter disappointment. Buffy’s interaction, battle and defeat of Dracula.
To be honest, I’m not sure what I quite expected from Buffy vs Dracula, an idea that, to me, sounds completely ridiculous anyway. Buffy by this point has completely moved on from traditional Vampire lore, and shoving the traditional Dracula from popular culture in there just seems a little, well, stupid. And alas – that is exactly what it ends up being. Instead of giving us a Dracula designed and written to correspond with the established Buffyverse mythology, it gives us a poor impression of traditional Dracula. A Dracula that can turn into animals and can survive being staked in the heart. And who Buffy ends up defeating far, far too easily. Not a terrible episode, and entertaining at times, but not that great either.
Okay, in fifth place I’m going to cheat a little and say Checkpoint. In this one, Buffy and co, who are pretty freaked out by Glory at this point and have no idea how to defeat her, receive an extremely unwelcome visit from the Watcher’s Council. They claim to have valuable information in regards to Glory – but will only provide it if Buffy passes their tests. Basically, they’re a bit miffed that Buffy no longer takes orders from them, and want to show her who’s boss. Unfortunately for them, no one makes a fool out of Buffy. Putting them right in their place, she demands not only do they provide the information they have, but that they also reinstate Giles as her watcher (and retroactively pay him for all the months that have transpired since his sacking). Maybe not the best episode, but damn watchable. And, as it turns out, the first episode of this incredible show I ever saw.
In fourth – we have No Place Like Home. This is a very important episode, as Buffy discovers who Dawn is five episodes into the Season, that up until now has just literally shoved her in there with no prior explanation. Featuring a truly haunting performance by Geller, alongside a brilliant entrance for uber-scary Glory, this is a definite treat, showing us that Buffy’s world has completely changed. Forever.
Now we come to the hardest episode to write about – The Body. See, in these best episode lists, I mention hours of Buffy that I can watch time and again, and enjoy the hell out of. This episode I find painful to watch, and dread it every time. But it deserves it’s place on this list for one simple fact – it’s an absolutely incredible hour of television. Poor 20 year old Buffy comes home one day, to find her beloved mother Joyce dead on the couch. It’s not a monster that killed her. It’s not a Vampire or a Demon. It’s complications from brain surgery. Natural causes. Everything about what is presented here is simply stunning, from the shocked, differing reactions from each of our characters, to the claustrophobic direction, to the absolutely perfect capturing of how it feels to lose someone so suddenly. Writer/director Joss Whedon based the episode on his own personal reactions to the death of his mother, and boy does it show. Truly, and completely, a masterpiece.
In second place, we have a fan favourite hour – Fool for Love. When Buffy gets a little too cocky, and ends up getting hurt fighting an average Joe Vampire, she turns to the one person she knows who was alive to witness the deaths of not one but two Slayers – by his own hand – Spike. Thus, we get an episode devoted entirely to Spike’s backstory, showing us how he was initially turned by Drusilla, how he killed both of the Slayers he fought (one in China, one in New York – that one will return to bite him later!), his historic interactions with Angel and Darla (Julie Benz) and how he realised the terrible truth about Slayers and their death wish. This is simply dripping with great lines, showing us a fantastic look at the mentally of Slayers and giving us an hilarious, and very intriguing, 42 minutes of time watching Spike and Buffy’s interactions. It also nicely crosses over with Angel Season Two’s Darla – another masterpiece that re-visits several of the scenes displayed here, but from Darla and Angel’s point of view. More on that in the upcoming Angel Season Two review.
And in first – well, if you’re gonna kill off your main character, you better craft a damn good episode to make it work. Thankfully, this is exactly what the Season Final is – a damn good episode. In The Gift, which is coincidentally the show’s 100th episode, the Scoobies are utterly battered. Glory has her Key, she’s ready to open the portals, and it seems the only way to stop her is to kill Dawn – something that Buffy is having none of. This episode just presents so much to us, from Xander’s lovely proposal to Anya, to Buffy’s decision to truly and finally trust Spike, to Willow seriously weakening Glory to save Tara, to Giles taking matters into his own hands and killing a helpless Ben, to Buffy’s haunting speech to Giles about how she cannot continue to live in a world where the only solution is to kill her sister (and how she desperately misses her mother) – to the final, devastating moment when she decides to sacrifice herself to save Dawn. There’s no skirting around it – by the episode’s end, Buffy is dead. Just a little bit of a cliffhanger to set up Season Six. This is, by far, the best Season Final that Buffy ever produced.
Despite the Dawn misgivings, Season Five has it all. There is so much to enjoy, so much to appreciate, and it really is a peak that the show never truly find again. Hilarious, moving, full of life lessons and hosting a very intriguing story-arc, this is simply a classic. Bravo.