Death is your art. Every slayer has a death wish. Even you. Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Five
Buffy stumbled in Season Four. Despite a couple of stand-out classics, and a few strong enough episodes, it was overall a lacklustre season that made a number of fundamental mistakes. If it repeated them in Season Five then I suspect the show would have been facing cancellation. Indeed, by the end of the season, it was scrabbling around to find a new home. If it had underperformed, it may well not have found one.
However, thankfully that didn’t happen. Because Season Five was a glorious (arf) return to form. For many it is the best season of the show (I’m afraid s3 just nudges it for me, for reason explained elsewhere) but it’s an incredibly powerful season and one of the best of the show’s history. Certainly it has perhaps one of the best arcs and for me the second best season finale of the whole run.
A complaint that’s often levelled at Steven Moffat by the M***-M***s is that he doesn’t listen to feedback. What they really mean is that he’s not making the show exactly the way they want it to be but I’d say as a showrunner he’s been incredibly open and accommodating. People didn’t like the convoluted story arcs, so we got ‘movie of the week’. People didn’t like the overly clever stuff, so it clearly got dialled back. Moffat, in both Sherlock and Who, is a man who not only listens to his critics, and to his fans, but reacts to them as well.
The same is true of Joss Whedon, I think. Certainly it was not unusual for him to make an appearance on both The Bronze message board and later on Whedonesque.com. Here was a showrunner who embraced the internet and the fan community before it became the Thing that it is now. Basically, he listened.
And we can see it in Season Five. Giles drifting along aimlessly not working? Fine, let’s put him in the Magic Shop to give him a surrogate library and somewhere to give the Scoobies a focus. Buffy’s perfect boyfriend not enthusing? Fine, let’s give her an angsty, dysfunctional relationship with a vampire. Scoobies too fragmented? Cool, let’s re-emphasise the bonds between them. Big Bad a bit underwhelming? Here, have a Sandra Berhardt-esque bee-atch Goddess. Just about everything that went awry with s4 was more or less put right for this season.
But, of course, there were still problems to take care of. The Scoobies were all getting a bit old now and no longer hitting that crucial young teen target market. Hence we get Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister, cunningly ret-conned into the show’s mythology. Now, you’ll not find a lot of love for Dawn out there and she is incredibly annoying. (Although I have to admit I found her less so on this rewatch). Michelle Trachtenberg has a pretty thankless task as the petulant, screechy, pipsqueak who’s always needing rescued. She’s Scrappy-Doo to the other Scoobies basically.
But aside from Dawn, some of the newer faces introduced (or re-introduced) last season get to step up and shine. After her unorthodox wooing of Xander in s4, Anya gets to become a Scooby proper, essentially taking the role vacated by Cordelia and not properly filled in s4. And Emma Caulfield is wonderful. From here on in, she’ll do amazing work.
Similarly, Tara becomes a true Scooby. Family is an often overlooked episode but I’d say it’s one of the strongest stories of the whole show. This completes the rescue work done in Restless in bringing the Scoobies back together, making them the unit that will all contribute to the eventual defeat of Glory. But its main purpose is consolidating Tara as a key figure in the gang. This is important for what Glory does to her later. It wouldn’t work if she was somehow considered a female version of Riley.
And what about Riley? His whole good ol’ boy schtick just wasn’t working. And this is no reflection on Marc Blucas, who I think was great. And this was clearly recognised as they tried to make him a bit darker too. But this I think didn’t really work and seemed almost a betrayal of the character they’d already built up. Part of me thinks they should have just stuck to their guns and kept him light and wholesome, perhaps until he realised that he and Buffy just weren’t compatible.
So on to Spike. This is the beginning of the Spuffy character arc (sorry @Pedant) and is to me more satisfying than the Bangel variation. Firstly because James Marsters is given more to play with (so to speak) and secondly because he’s just a more capable actor than David Boreanaz. Here we’re in stalker-phase Spike. We’ll move on from this in subsequent years to some very interesting places but that’s a discussion for another time.
Fool For Love (and its Angel s2 companion piece Darla) are also pivotal episodes. It’s the first time we really start to see who Spike truly is, the Romantic with a capital R, the wounded poet, the mother’s boy. The leather coat, the punkish bad-boy act are his armour. And from here on in we start to see Spike’s slow transformation, his slow road to a redemption that you might argue outshines Angel’s. But in Fool For Love, we’re told clearly who old Spike is and what he stands for:
Sooner or later, you’re gonna want it. And the second — the second— that happens, you know I’ll be there. I’ll slip in, have myself a real good day
And, of course, by the end of The Gift he’s got his wish and he’s devastated. He’s changed and will continue to do so. We’ll see a different Spike in s6.
The Gift really is a doozy of a finale. Personally, I think the end of s6 trumps it slightly but not by much. It’s near perfect and indeed if the show had not been picked up by UPN, it would have been a fine note to end upon. Every main character gets their moment of redemption. Xander brings in the big guns to help defeat Glory. Willow uses her magic powers. Spike is faced with a moment of real loss. Anya joins the fight at last. And Giles has possibly his darkest Ripper moment. It would have been a satisfying ending to the show if it had ended there. If more than a little bleak.
But there are a couple of things that don’t quite work, I think. Glory’s minions were just a bit too rubbish and comedic, and undermined her as a Big Bad. I just couldn’t believe that she would actually have put up with them for an instant. They veered too much into Monty Python territory for my liking. As did the Knights of Byzantium. I kept expecting them to say Nii!
And there’s one problem I keep having with s5. Mrs Fish profoundly disagrees with me on this so maybe I’m just being too sensitive. But I just feel that the attitude to mental health in this season veers a little towards the Victorian. Something that smites you and can quickly be remedied just by killing the bad guy. It’s not something I can put my finger on and I’m probably wrong but there’s something about it that nags at me. I find myself asking would we ever had Glory healing herself by giving her victims cancer, say.
But compared to the seasons preceding it, s5 doesn’t really have any really duff episodes. The Weight of the World is essentially a lightweight retread of Restless and I Was Made to Love You didn’t really gel, I think. It does have some nice funny moments, introduces a pivotal future character and leaves you with that gut-wrenching final image.
I’ve left The Body till last because it’s a truly astounding piece of TV. Not just within the context of Buffy, because it is pretty unrepresentative of the show at large, but it’s probably one of the best hours of TV ever. Full stop. Whenever I hear someone say they don’t like Whedon because he’s not a good writer, or his characters are all just smart-alec ciphers, I point to The Body and that shuts them the hell up. Or at least it should. Because as far as I’m concerned the discussion is over. It’s 50-odd moments of profound emotion, with great stand-out moments from (especially) Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan and Emma Caulfield. It’s a piece of TV history — part of three Buffy episodes that are key moments in pop cultural TV history. We’ve now had two and there’s one more to go. But I’d say that The Body stands out as the best of them.
Season Five finishes on what seems like a moment of absolute finality. There’s no cliffhanger, there’s no walk off to the sunset. The theme of this season has been Death, reaching its most naked point in The Body, but ending with the death of the show’s central character. There was nowhere left to go.
As ever, leave your thoughts and comments below. But only on Buffy season one to five, and Angel Season One.