Tuesday, December 30, 2008
**Warning- contains spoilers**
Why didn't I rate this season higher when I first watched it? I never had a problem with Dawn, I didn't hate Glory; since those are the only two complaints ever leveled at this season, why didn't I count it amongst my favorites? Whatever the reason, as I sped through it a second time, I've come to regard this as perhaps "Buffy's" finest season.
Opening with the so-damn-bad-it's-kind-of-hilarious "Buffy vs. Dracula," the fifth season doesn't exactly instill confidence and almost leaves one wondering if "Restless" was one last fluke on the slide into mediocrity. But a funny thing happens at the very end of the episode that demands your attention: Buffy's sister Dawn appears.
"Who?" Yeah, that's just about the only reaction you can have to the situation. Buffy has a sister named Dawn, and she's always been there. I wonder how flummoxed people were when they watched it as it happened. The mystery continues for a few episodes until we learn the truth: Dawn is actually "The Key," a ball of energy that unlocks the boundaries between dimensions. She was made human by a group of monks who wished to hide the key from a god named Glorificus (or Glory, as everyone calls her), who is trapped on Earth and will destroy the universe by using the Key to get back to her dimension.
Glory is the most subversive Big Bad of the show; she's vapid, vain, and nearly invulnerable. She's annoying, but then that's the point: Glory is Joss' tongue-in-cheek image of what a god might actually be like. Of course a being that inspires unwavering worship would have a massive ego, and Claire Kramer plays up Glory's vanity and her insanity for a killer combination of creeps and laughs.
Apart from Glory's quest to find the Key and Buffy's attempts to protect Dawn, we get a slew of fascinating subplots. Perhaps as a result of the strain of added memories, Joyce develops a brain tumor and requires surgery. Riley comes to realize that Buffy views him more as a rebound and a convenience than a serious partner, and starts visiting vampire brothels to be fed upon out of a perverse desire to be "dark" enough for Buffy. Eventually their relationship crumbles, and the ashes are stomped out under the steps of my joyous dancing.
Some people say that "In the Woods," the episode in which Buffy and Riley's relationship ends, is a bit too sudden, and the notion of Riley returning to the military after what they've done to him, even as some bizarre resentful message to Buffy, is a bit senseless. To them I caution the dangers of looking gift horses in their mouths. I don't care if the Scoobies got lost on an island, or if they ran into the actual Scooby gang and conversed with a dog; if it means Riley leaves, Buffy could literally jump over a shark for 42 minutes and I'd pass out cigars like I just had a child.
Meanwhile, Giles, still jobless and still trying to ween Buffy of her dependence on him, opens a store selling mystical trinkets, called The Magic Box. Along with hiring Anya (and thus setting up no end to the hilarious exchanges between the two), it allows him to exert some independence of his own and brings back a bit of the feel of the first three seasons, even though those relatively halcyon days are shortly coming to an end.
But the biggest development is Spike's crush on Buffy. In the absolutely excellent "Fool For Love," we see how a lovesick lad named William was sired by Drusilla, and how he eventually evolved his persona into the Spike know and love. We also learn in these flashbacks that Drusilla, a psychic, could see this coming and threw Spike out because she knew long before he ever did that he was in love. At this stage, his crush is both hilarious and oddly endearing; it took a whole season, but they finally justified keeping Spike around for reasons other than "because he's awesome."
As the season progresses it seems to just get better and better. Starting exactly at the halfway mark with the episode "Checkpoint," the pathos involved with Dawn coming to terms with the fact that she is a fabrication sends the emotional levels into the red, and it just keeps ramping up. At the end of the surprisingly moving "I Was Made to Love You," we see Buffy come home to find her mother dead on the couch. The resultant trauma spills out in perhaps the most brutal episode in TV history, "The Body."
Filmed with crushing realism with only the occasional diegetic music as a soundtrack, "The Body" is the most honest portrayal of death ever put on the small screen. Wisely, it leaves out Giles' and Spike's grieving, because the episode is about youth coming to terms with the deaths of a loved one. I think I cried even harder when I watched it a second time. Particularly devastating is Anya's monologue in which she states that, as a former demon, she simply doesn't understand this sort of death.
Joyce's death launched the final part of the Buffy saga, one significantly darker than even the material that preceded it. From here on out, there would be no hanging out on campus (especially since Buffy had to quit college to support Dawn), no happy sitcom endings. No, things would never be the same for Buffy, and many fans have yet to cope with it.
The last episodes in which Glory chases down and captures Dawn and the Scoobies mount an all-scale assault to rescue her are uniformly excellent, with the possible exception of "Spiral," which features the moronic Knights of Byzantium, a religious sect sworn to destroy the Key at all costs (though considering how the Key was a collection of pure energy until a few months ago, I don't understand why there's a medieval group after it).
It all leads up to the astonishing finale "The Gift," one of the best episodes of the series. It's action packed, hilarious, and emotionally devastating in a way that only the second season's "Becoming Pt. 2" could top. The fight with Glory is both personal and epic, and Buffy's sacrifice at the end wins almost as many tears as "The Body."
The character development of this season is off the charts. Buffy deals with the knowledge that her annoying little sister isn't real and in turn comes to treat her like a human more than ever before. When her mother dies, Buffy suddenly has to grow up and support her sister. They took everything from her this season, and when she leaps into the portal to seal the dimensions at the end, part of me thinks it's because she can't take it anymore as much as it is because Dawn is the only thing she has left and Buffy couldn't lose her too.
Meanwhile, Spike gets a solid foundation this season, laying the grounds for the most interesting character arc of the show. His crush on Buffy will lead to some horrifying lows in the next season, but here it's pitiable. Also moving forward are Willow with her burgeoning reliance on magic and Anya, who goes from the hilarious sex kitten to the layered, innocent hilarious sex kitten. Her relationship with Xander grows into one of the most tender in the Whedonverse, and frankly I don't trust anyone who doesn't love her.
There are those who despise Dawn, and she's usually referred to as the "jumping the shark moment." However, I think the writers made her work and, frankly, she's the most realistic character on the show. Anyone who has a younger sister knows Dawn is just as she should be; yes, she can be annoying and self-centered, but then what teenager isn't? Personally, I think she inspired more character growth in Buffy than ever before (even above the Angelus predicament), and she's fleshed out enough in her own right to make her a great character. Eff the haters.
When you get right down to it this is the best season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." It mixes the consistency of the third season with the emotional impact of the latter half of the second season and the character development of the fourth season. My favorite is still the sixth for its darkness and its unparalleled character growth, but this moves into an incredibly close second. The finale is so epic and beautiful that, when Buffy returned next season and everyone plunged into depression and addiction, many fans said they it should have ended here.*
*They're wrong, by the way.