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 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.

Was there?

As ever, leave your thoughts and comments below. But only on Buffy season one to five, and Angel Season One.


  1. @pedant

    There is no perfectly valid use for deconstructionism.

    No, I think you’re wrong, I’m afraid. It can provide valid perspectives. Derrida himself provided some useful insights. It’s hardly his fault if he’s been jumped upon by idiots who can barely string a cogent thought together. The thing about deconstruction is that it’s now been seized upon by critics Critical Theory as shorthand for everything that they don’t like — not helped by idiots like Butler who come across as parodic and wrong-headed at the best of times. But to write off a whole approach is both unhelpful and incorrect. Also not sure you can call it a philosophy. It’s an approach that sometimes yields results and sometimes doesn’t.  It’s the blanket application of it in everything from literature to movies to science to architecture by modish buffoons in academia that has largely been the problem. It’s like having a toolbox that contains nothing but a philips screwdriver.

    And PoMo has been extraordinarily damaging to science over the past 15 years or so

    It hasn’t really. It’s probably muddied the waters of discussion of science as a subject with its cultural relativism bollocks and the Humanities’ inferiority complex to the hard sciences but proper grown-up scientists know enough to just ignore them and get on with the business of clear-sighted empirical analysis. Plus people like Pinker, Sokal etc. have been very helpful in putting the pomo buffoons in their place when they start sticking their nose into science.

    The anti-vax movement in the States is a logical outcome

    There’s nothing logical about it whatsoever. It’s just ignorance and medievalism dressed up in fancy clothes. If these idiots hadn’t found a justification in critical texts they would have probably just gone rooting about the Bible or something until they found one.


    Buffy did get some criticisms — is Buffy a white supremacist narrative with Buffy and her white, middle-class vigilantes roaming the suburbs exterminating anything that could be construed as ‘Other’.

    First of all, I’m not saying that was my view — I’m really quite ambivalent to statements like that, although I’m hesitate to write them off as ‘that’s just all bollocks’. But I was trying to point out that there’s been more than one commentator who has brought up this criticism over the year and there was possibly enough weight behind it that the showrunners of both Buffy and Angel to address it as they went along. But it should also be pointed out that writers of such critiques have a political axe to grind. They’re not that interested in Buffy as such — merely in latching onto it to hang their pet theories on. They’ll have moved on to The Hunger Games or Fifty Shades or whatever will get them into print now.

    Secondly, no one’s saying it was conscious intention either. No one’s saying that Joss is a cheerleader for the Clan. He’s clearly a highly progressive writer and you’re right that Buffy did make lots of comment and positive action on issues like race and sexuality. And it’s whole mission statement is one of critiquing the gender roles and latent misogyny of traditional horror tropes, so no one’s saying it’s some kind of reactionary narrative.

    And that quote above is not just talking about race. It’s talking about the Other. All too often that can mean race but it can also mean class, it can mean socio-economic status and so on. The only specific I think you can take from it is that to begin with Buffy was about a maintenance of the status quo and that the forces that threatened that were not be engaged with or examined, merely destroyed. I’d argue that Angel challenged that idea — for the most part Angel and his crew are The Other — and their more nuanced approach eventually fed back into the parent show. But unintentionally I think it is a (slight) criticism that could initially be levelled at Buffy, although it has been wildly overstated by some critics, as above.

  2. @JimtheFish

    Buffy did get some criticisms — is Buffy a white supremacist narrative with Buffy and her white, middle-class vigilantes roaming the suburbs exterminating anything that could be construed as ‘Other’.

    First of all, I’m not saying that was my view

    Apologies, I tried very hard not to associate that quote to anyone at the DW Forum. However, without re-posting the quote, my post about ‘race in BtVS’ was confusing and didn’t make any sense like Purofilion said. So I re-posted the quote, but of course people will look to see where it came from, and then it would be associated with your post, and thus ruining my intentions to not associate the quote to anyone. So I understand the need for your response and explanation, since it was my bad form that caused all the confusion.

    I should have re-posted the quote at the top of my ‘race in BtVS post’, and explained how it was from your post – but also stating that it never was your quote originally (you were quoting someone else to make a completely different point) and therefore I should have also said that it was taken completely out of context.

    No one’s saying that Joss is a cheerleader for the Clan.

    True; the quote is not “saying” anything. It is a loaded or complex question. Within the question, the unwarranted assumption, that Buffy and her white, middle-class vigilantes are white supremacists, has already been made.

    Buffy is already presumed to be a white supremacist narrative regardless of what “Other” is, which just happens to be “anything that could be construed as other”. Wow that really could be anything.

    It’s true that no one’s saying that Joss is a cheerleader for the Clan. The quote is just asking “is Buffy a white supremacist narrative”. So it is way too early for asking questions about Joss (the cheerleader of the narrative), besides “the Clan” is far too specific. And in the spirit of complete unfairness, the quote is leaving it up to the reader to answer that “white supremacist narrative” question, first, before making any other unwarranted assumptions.

    [Joss] He’s clearly a highly progressive writer and you’re right that Buffy did make lots of comment and positive action on issues like race and sexuality. And its whole mission statement is one of critiquing the gender roles and latent misogyny of traditional horror tropes.

    Yes I agree, that’s lots of evidence that Joss Whedon does not write white supremacist narratives (not even unintentionally imo).

    Not to be rude but I’m not taking anything from that quote. The quote is total BS.

  3. @barnable–

    I don’t think it’s BS. It’s just a somewhat prosaic point that Buffy is essentially about the Scoobies preserving the hegemonic status quo and being set in California in the 90s, (I believe David Greenwalt cites Santa Barbara as the model for Sunnydale) that status quo is that of white, middle-class Americana. That’s not to say it’s racist or otherwise, or some kind supremacist narrative (of any hue).

    But it’s core narrative structure is one of maintaining the current cultural status quo (holding back the forces of darkness – i.e. anything that isn’t that status quo, which is just another way of saying the poncey academic term The Other). All that quote says is that this potentially presented some tricky questions that the longer the show went on, it eventually had to answer — and did so in arcs like Spike’s and Willow’s.

    Angel’s narrative core is precisely the opposite. It’s about questioning the status quo, defeating its injustice, finding a place for the misfits and the rejected. I won’t expand on this much more here as I think it’s something to talk about in the next Angel blogs.

    But I think that’s all you can really say about that quote without digging out the essay in question to look at it further and I’m not sure I can really be arsed. But I’m also not sure it can just be summarily dismissed — if for no other reason than the makers of both shows were uncomfortable enough with it and aware of the criticism that they clearly felt the need to engage with it.

  4. @JimTheFish

    holding back the forces of darkness – i.e. anything that isn’t that status quo

    There’s a teensy weensy flaw in the logic there. Begs the huge question that ‘forces of darkness’ = ‘anything against the status quo’. There are many things not of the status quo that do not involve wholesale slaughter of innocent by-standers, especially school-age ones.


  5. @pedant — yeah, not expressed terribly well, as are a lot of my ramblings on this particular thread. This whole topic has actually become a bit fraught. But I’m hoping people can see what I’m floundering towards. Status quo in this case meaning ‘people not having to live with monsters and by extension question what it actually means to be/not be a monster’.


  6. @JimTheFish

    It’s just a somewhat prosaic point that Buffy is essentially about the Scoobies preserving the hegemonic status quo

    Buffy is only about preserving the hegemonic status quo if you ignore the increasingly desperate attempts of said hegemonic status quo to control a girl who grows into a strong, independent female.

    The ‘High School is Hell’ metaphor is being used in a feminist narrative. Buffy starts by buying into the status quo (she wants to be a cheerleader), but can’t because she’s ‘special’. However, a good little girl needs to hide her specialness. Etcetera.

    Look how many of the demons are part of the status quo. Even the bad boys (Spike and Angel) turn out to be poster boys for ‘middle class rebel’. 😉

  7. @bluesqueakpip — all true and I totally concur. But with regards to Angel and Spike, I’m not sure they’re ever really part of the status quo. Angel is essentially forced to leave Sunnydale and no one, save Buffy, is particularly sorry to see him go, and even she recognises the necessity of it. And Spike’s acceptance by the Scoobies, er, probably can’t be properly discussed until after s7. They’re tolerated, you might even argue domesticated, but I’m not sure they’re ever really truly a part of it.

    And it’s interesting that Buffy and the Scoobies initially operated within institutional structures — school, college, workplace. And when they don’t — as in s6, they seem to instantly fall apart.

    But I have to say the more I argue this case, the more I seem to be talking myself out of it. I’ve got no firm answers to any of this stuff, probably never will. But I do think the questions are valid and are worth putting out there.

  8. @pedant

    I think the Magic Box provided a structure in s5 — the workplace where they all congregated. That and the home, another sanctuary with established and codified conventions. Until Joyce’s death, at least. Parents provide structure too and the three ‘parents’ of Buffy — Joyce, Giles and Tara — were all stripped away pretty early on in s6, leaving pretty much all the Scoobies floundering.

    That and, as you say, the leader having fallen.

  9. Great discussion going on here, thanks everyone.

    Not a lot to add that hasn’t been said except –

    @Cathannabel Excellent parenting skills indeed. Hi five!

    @pedant your comment ” ‘Knights who slay Key’ ” deserves a second highlighting (even tho it destroyed (yet another) keyboard thro spluttered coffee 🙂 )


  10. @jimthefish @pedant @cathannabel and any other interested parties. I’m typing this for Mum. OK.

    Mum was re-reading some of these comments to me today.  Most went over  my head!

    The mental illness, discussed in the Blog above, @jimthefish could be interpreted as part of a primal fear. I agree that it’s not structuralism or deconstructionism @pedant -in case we’re at THAT tipping point. 🙂

    It’s about blood and mind. What better way to control and dominate the forces of nature? To question the one ‘true’ thing we believe? The mind collates its experiences and so we rely on our individual ego born from a collective matrix. This is why I think the crushing mental illness depicted in the latter part of this season, and exemplified in Tara, was so important. By removing the mind, as it were, there was no ‘truthful’, trustworthy or direct knowledge of reality beyond itself. All of meaning was rendered and given scope by the mind.

    At any point one can’t connect to the world when the very object of association -the mind – is soaked in the depths of its own confusion or nature. It’s a double bind. There’s an ontological and epistemological fragmentation between the mind and the self in this season -a focus on blood and family; pain and endurance and the fear of death -from which Buffy is eventually liberated.

    I also believe that the season draws on something more than ego; or primal impulses, but a primordial structure of the entire psyche -an immersion into (Freudian) depth psychotherapy which Glory understood. She was a god, after all and would familiarise herself  with the modern, scientific and philosophical world view of the time -still very much a Freudian one from her perspective.

    The brain is a difficult structure to analyse and I suppose the mind, inherited in part from genes and nurture, is another symbol for the appearance of Dawn -the coming one, the ‘one’ who inherits; who rises from the depths of the unconscious. To me it’s no small coincidence that mental hijacking (or mental illness) or alienation was part of a complex trinity of ‘blood as sacrifice and family’ together with Dawn’s ‘key of inheritance.’

    Further, by removing the mind, Glory’s victims could never be certain about the actual world let alone the ‘mythic’ one Glory inhabited. By instituting a ‘god’ in Glory, Whedon could be said to teeter his characters on the precipice of a violent spiritual and psychological alienation with no light, no Gift in sight (in fact we saw that demonic or psychological eruption near the end of The Gift). Finally though, as @jimthefish points out, each character re- discovers their position with sudden insight; moving together to effect solace, compassion and ultimately a regeneration at the beginning of Season 6. And another at the end of Season 6.

    Torn and strained, each person works together, as one. In our present time, with individualism and social uncertainty, this season warrants more substantial analysis.

    And…. it was mighty fine. 🙂


    Thank you -from Thane and Puro.


  11. @Thane15

     To question the one ‘true’ thing we believe? The mind collates its experiences and so we rely on our individual ego born from a collective matrix. This is why I think the crushing mental illness depicted in the latter part of this season, and exemplified in Tara, was so important.

    “I’m under your spell,

    God how can this be?

    Playing with my memory.

    I know I’ve been through hell,

    Willow Can’t you see?

    There’ll be nothing left of me.”

  12. @thane and @pedant — yes, it’s very much the idea that the self is the accretion of memory and experience, the creation of a comforting and reliable frame of reference. Call the memories into doubt, or remove them altogether and the self crumbles.

    I’ m reminded of an anecdote in Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea when he was talking to a neurosurgeon who was stimulating specific areas of a patient’s brain, and who told him that one such stimulation ignited a memory of their favourite AC/DC song. Dennett asked if that meant that specific memories had specific physical locations on the brain and the scientist said he didn’t know and couldn’t find out. Dennett asked him why and the surgeon answered ‘Because I don’t like rock music.’

  13. @pedant

    indeed (Puro here: reading thru the blur!).

    “there’ll be nothing left of me.”

    Yes, perfect.

    My reference to Freud wasn’t a spectacularly surprising one but I felt that this particular period of time (1992-1997) saw a radical re-conversion to the dialectic as deconstructionism gained momentum.  You and I both know that these ‘movements’ underwrote ideas claiming, ‘no text contains official, decisive authority; there’s no cogency to a ‘cohered’ text within which there’s only a dry plurality of (contradictory) meanings.

    Whedon, perhaps via Jung (though I don’t know this f’sure), returned the text to the Author where language and metaphor were privileged – explicitly and implicitly -by connection to the truth.

    Above, I’m not knocking Freudian understanding but I feel that this specific form of depth-psychology -and its ratification in the Arts leads to an alienating, even debilitating anxiety.

    Tara was disoriented and frightened -in this she mimics much of the Buffyverse but also our own Real World. Incoherent, Tara isn’t on firm ground (and on the stage, neither is Buffy in The Gift ). I felt that this concept contained a hint of Jungian resurgence. Don’t quote me on this but I think he reasoned that: “Doesn’t the individual know that with others he is the make-weight which tips the scales?”

    Whedon created a show which, during an enormous upheaval in learning and thinking, added necessary clarity, vision and depth. His economical writing proved him to be “also a poet and a reader of riddles and…a way to new dawns.” Which, ironically wasn’t what Nietzsche had in mind! 🙂

    The lines you posted saw a confident writer lacking in conceit who merged “memory”; “spell” and “can’t you see?” with Mind simultaneously articulating  “nothing left of me” as a convergence with ‘blood’ and family -Tara as part of the Scoobies and Buffy as The Gift.


  14. @jimthefish @pedant

    Dennett asked if that meant that specific memories had specific physical locations on the brain and the scientist said he didn’t know and couldn’t find out. Dennett asked him why and the surgeon answered ‘Because I don’t like rock music.’

    Yes! I read this too!

    The human being remakes the world through the frame of reference with which it’s approached. Without it, we stumble like Dante in the wasteland of confusion and misery.

    Whedon proved that the mind and its references held sway providing it was led by authentic characters held together by family (blood) and love (friendship and sacrifice). All with layers of humour, joy, experiences of high-school or the mundanity of household finances (but not really mundane at all – a colourful fabric of Real Life).


  15. @jimthefish @pedant

    Mum bloomin’ weighed in too. But you, know “nicer” (copyrighted word from Sherlock).

    Actually some of those comments about Buffy being just “fluff” were dealt with summarily and mum says with “aplomb” (nother word I do not know!).

    Google and Bing -what would I do without them (and synonym functions).

    Still, it aint SO  complicated 🙂

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