Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 5) Review
Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the series at its most confident. While season 3 is usually the most consistent in quality in many series, season 5 is usually the point where the show becomes successful enough or the showrunners become knowledgeable enough to experiment with new elements in exciting and ambitious ways. Joss Whedon has reached his fifth year running his first TV series, and he’s experienced enough about the identity of the series and the inner workings of a TV production to know what he can and can’t do, therefore allowing him to finally introduce the Prince of Darkness (Dracula, not Ozzy) in the Buffyverse during the first episode of the season, Buffy vs. Dracula. Joss even deftly included a new recurring character in a clever way that makes it seems like she’s been around all along. It involves ancient monks implanting memories in the Summers’ mind and transforming a power source into a 14 year old girl named Dawn Summers (often referred to in the season as “The Key”), neither of which feels out of place in a world full of demons, zombies, ghosts and even sentient robots.
Whereas season 4 had to deal with Buffy Summers leaving high school and moving to college (with the writers figuring out what this transition means for her as a character), season 5 now has the freedom to move past all those student issues and tackle more mature issues of existentialism, mental health, terminal illnesses and death. However, it’s still very much rooted in its teenage drama elements, exploring family themes and the true meaning of love. Appropriately, this means less of the schoolground backdrop and more of Summers-home (and Giles’ newly acquired magic shop). It’s not quite the bleak “being an adult sucks” despondency yet as we still have fun and silly episodes like The Replacement, Triangle, Crush, and I Was Made to Love You, but from what I’ve heard about the depressing season 6, we’ll get there.
Speaking of the magic shop, aptly named “The Magic Box”, it is probably one of the clearest examples of the show’s focus. Much like the library in the first three seasons, The Magic Box serves as Buffy’s new center for discussions of all things supernatural and hazardous to Sunnydale. Unlike the troubled production of season 4, season 5 has regained its concentration and has more consistency with its seasonal arc. The first three episodes are lighter in content as the writers get the momentum going with Dawn’s arrival, but Buffy vs. Dracula does begin the first plotline of season 5: Buffy’s exploration of her Slayer heritage. From Out of My Mind onwards, the arc really takes off by building up three other important plotlines: Riley’s departure, Spike’s affection for Buffy and Joyce’s brain tumor. One episode later, No Place Like Home introduces a fourth plotline: the seasonal villain (or the “big bad”), Glorificus (or just ‘Glory’) the Hell Goddess. Rather than meandering around random monster-of-the-week episodes with no direction, most of season 5’s episodes revolve around these five plotlines that gel together quite nicely thematically speaking. The big throughline connecting this season is family, but more specifically, a surrogate family.
While Riley’s arc is probably the weakest part of the season, it serves its purpose (along with Joyce’s arc) in reflecting the loss of relationships that just happens in adulthood beyond one’s control, whether it’s due to emotional disconnection between your friends and lover or cruel tragedies that literally take away your loved ones from this world. Giles too had almost returned to England in Buffy vs. Dracula if not for Buffy expressing her need for him as a mentor (and perhaps a surrogate father figure). Spike’s arc, on the other hand, serves as the kind of unorthodox relationships one might find in times of grief, with the vampire eventually becoming part of the nontraditional family that’s the Scoobies. Even the big bad herself plays into this theme, with Ben Wilkinson (the fleshly vessel that entraps Glory’s subconsciousness) showing that just because a person is connected to you by blood or even sharing the same body, it doesn’t necessarily mean you would become a tight-knit family. Dawn’s character is the most evident in representing this message, being literally unrelated to Buffy by blood, and yet becoming as close to her as Joyce like a real family. Her character arc has been compared by others as a metaphor for adopted children struggling to bond with their surrogate family. Willow Rosenberg’s girlfriend, Tara Maclay, also contributes significantly to this theme in Family, where her own family persecutes her for practicing witchcraft (accusing her of being a “demon”), but eventually, along with the vengeance demon Anya Jenkins, she too found a special place among the Scooby family.
Such a consistent theme focusing on things that are not directly related to the big bad unfortunately means that Glory doesn’t get as much spotlight in season 5 as the previous big bads do in their respective seasons. While Angel, Spike, Faith and the Mayor have played major roles in the first three seasons as both side characters and villains, Glory, on the other hand, is often sidelined as she complains to her minions about not finding The Key. Even when she does confront Buffy mid-season, she would either underestimate her or simply couldn’t be bothered about her petty existence to pose any further threat against the Summers family. This results in a pretty anticlimactic villain with the power of a goddess but the significance of a generic demon Buffy has beaten countless times. Buffy’s eventual “defeat” this season isn’t even directly caused by the villain, but another minor demon simply referred to as “Doc” (Joel Grey) whose actions in the season finale leads to an apocalyptic event that threatens all human life… much like the past two or five events in the series that posed similar threats. In other words, Glory is largely insignificant ‘till the final stretch of the series.
In her defense, Glory’s sole desire is merely to return home to her own dimension, not conquer or destroy humanity like past big bads, and a goddess with the maturity of a prissy drama queen like pre-season 3 Cordelia (minus the charm and sharp wit) and such an unconventional motivation should be an interesting concept on paper. She’s more like a force of nature that wants to move on from Earth, no more malevolent than a tornado or a tsunami (albeit just as destructive), or heck, Death personified. And yet, in execution, Glory’s unique traits just don’t get played around with in any interesting manner. There’s no ambiguity in Buffy’s perception of Glory. She’s just the latest obstacle in the way of humanity’s lifespan that needs to be stopped. And with Glory being a goddess powerful beyond measure, the writers have to come up with these convoluted ways to ensure she doesn’t kill the titular character of the series, and Buffy couldn’t beat her ‘till the last episode, leaving the big bad stuck in this perpetual role that’s non-threatening or remotely engaging. Why didn’t Buffy just use the Dagon Sphere she’s had since No Place Like Home? That Chekhov’s gun has been sitting there for 17 episodes! The entire threat of the big bad relies on the Scoobies not trying out what the Dagon Sphere does to her!
But perhaps it’s not such a major storytelling problem. After all, the time spent ignoring Glory was focused on exploring intricate character development and relationships. The bigger focus here on the Scooby family and Joyce’s tumor means that season 5 is more intimate and personal than the previous seasons. Rather than just have another grandiose bad guy to fight again or even fight against your shadow self (AKA Faith), this season spends more time exploring the more mundane, spiritual and less fantastical problems in life like the feeling of insignificance or the randomness of death. Joyce’s big moment in The Body was definitely a hallmark of television drama that’s rarely seen before, an episode that explores the many ways one deals with death, how one grieves and even become detached from the horrible reality. Its mature subject matter feels distinctly different from the more romantic (albeit tragic) elements of having your true love (Angel) or close friend (Faith) become your worst enemy. It’s not a plotline that’s unimaginable in everyday life, perhaps even hitting too close to home for some audiences. Meanwhile, Spike’s twisted love for Buffy is equally amusing and fascinating, further expanding the Buffyverse universe by asking whether if a neutered vampire could feel true love without a proper soul. In spite of what some might feel about “Spuffy” as a relationship, Spike’s character arc in season 5 was an essential one that deepens the vampire lore.
So while I fancy as much as the next Buffy fan a poetic battle against a supervillain like Angelus or the Mayor featuring loads of guerilla tactics and tormenting the good guys’ loved ones, I don’t really mind the more down-to-earth tone of season 5. Perhaps it’s unbefitting for fans who expect a certain level of high-octane action that they’re used to in a vampire-killing gothic drama, but season 5 marked a change in the series where it’s gradually shifting towards darker and more depressing elements that one simply couldn’t punch her way out of, Slayer strength or not. It’s a bit of a downer surely, for a once bright and campy monster-of-the-week series (with a demon robot and a killer ventriloquist’s dummy) to now thrust heavy topics of addiction and the inevitable silence of death onto its audience, and there’s definitely a mood whiplash at work. But perhaps, at the risk of sounding pretentious, that’s life. Whedon has always intended for Buffy (and all his shows really) to reflect life and all its facets. With Buffy, it’s about growing up, and with Buffy season 5, the young bright-eyed girl has entered adulthood, where such unpleasant issues must be inevitably dealt with.
What I think most fans would come to miss about these darker elements, however, and perhaps the entirety of the following season, is that there’s usually a bright spot at the end of it, even if it results in the death of your beloved characters. These stories are not necessarily about the darkness themselves, but overcoming darkness. In the season finale, The Gift, Buffy said one of the most memorable and probably one of my favorite lines of the series: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” I feel like the ambiguity of such a line, not fully knowing whether if Buffy was optimistic or pessimistic saying it, says a lot about the similarly ambiguous perception towards the darkness of the show. This final episode of the season is mostly viewed as tragic, even by myself, but I feel that there’s light in Buffy’s actions and there’s strength in her integrity to do what’s right in the face of Armageddon. While Buffy the Vampire Slayer might very well end up as a tragic tale too depressing to stomach, I still see the hope burning within Buffy, the hope that life could always become better, that darkness will always end with dawn.
Final Rating: 8.5/10