Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Five

To be honest, I think we're rather past the point of introductions here, with this season's opener marking the seventy-ninth episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you've gotten this far, I think you're moving on, and I think you should be prepared for some SPOILERS, for there certainly are a few in this review. If you're new to my blog, here's a brief catch up, namely my views on the first, second, third, and fourth seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the first season of Angel thrown in for good measure. All of that brings us here, to the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which, in marked contrast to the largely aimless and often lackluster fourth season, is focused, dominated by an overarching plot to perhaps the greatest extent of any season yet, and is also, I should mention, rather excellent.

So, the center of a good plot is a good villain, right? Well, evidently not. Now, I know I might be in the minority here. The Buffy enthusiasts in my viewing group were about as ecstatic at the entrance of Clare Kramer's Gloria (Glory, for short) as I've ever seen them. But Glory's just not that interesting. The problem isn't her backstory, mind you. She's  the pure-evil god of an entire, demonic dimension, exiled to Earth and requiring a supernatural Key to get back. But all that's just in the background. Glory is fashionable, prissy, and really, really strong, but none of that force of arms translates into anywhere near as powerful a character as Spike or as brightly, dangerously charming as the Mayor. She just doesn't feel like much at all, an even less interesting (if rather smaller and slimmer) version of the hard-hitting and hard to drop Adam of the prior season. Fight scenes with her are devoid of any particularly interesting mechanics, and her own strength ends up playing against the interest of the fight, as we simply know that none of Buffy's punches or kicks will carry the day, leaving us just waiting for the trick our heroes use to get out alive.

Silly? Of course not!
Glory brings a host of characters with her, not only the aforementioned Key, but also a group of goblin-like henchmen that are always quite amusing and a force of knights dedicated to stopping her and destroying the Key. Those knights prove rather less amusing, and note that, when I say knights, I am not being in any way facetious: these fellows ride horses en masse down suburban streets, wearing chain mail and wielding swords. The spectacle's every bit as silly as it sounds. Where their numbers are coming from (who on earth would join such an order?), why they don't use any weapon developed since the tenth century, and what they hope to accomplish against a foe that is unfazed by their slashes and stabs are all good questions left unanswered. Thankfully, these renaissance fair runaways aren't all that prevalent outside of a few near-parody moments.

As I've just panned the villain and much of the supporting cast, you might be wondering why I started off speaking so highly of this plotline. The answer begins with the Key, made into human form by a few monk dudes we briefly see at the beginning. The result? When Buffy gets back from the busy slaying of the first episode, she's a sister sitting in her home, Michelle Trachtenberg's Dawn, and every character acts like they've known her all along. The episodes that follow exude WTFery in a fashion seldom, if ever, equaled in anything I've seen. Things get interesting, and Dawn more than a bewildering wrench in the works, before too long, as the other characters gradually realize what she is. All of that culminates in the absolutely fantastic Blood Ties, where Dawn herself learns that her life and memories are a lie, that she's scarcely weeks old, and that she's only debatably human. The episode is one of existential horror, of questions of who we are and what our purpose is, and is filled with beautiful and terrible moments. There are other Buffy episodes that are more exciting, for sure, but I think this might be the forty-four minutes that hit me the hardest in the show's entire run.

Tied with it is the season's ability to explore tragedy. Now, there's always been loss in Buffy before, but it's rarely been of a permanent variety, nor has it often been to those closest to our heroes. No longer. Behind the excitement, action, and drama of the season's first half or so lurks a persistent and oppressive sub plot, a tumor in Buffy's mother's head. And then, after all seems well, Joyce Summers dies a pointless, meaningless, and sudden death. The episode that follows, The Body, is another high water mark for the show, a creation that drags and staggers forward, lengthy and torturous as the characters, without anything to fight, are left with nothing but the utter emptiness that follows Joyce's transformation from human, from mother, to nothing but a still body. Despite the death they've seen and dealt, our protagonists are still human, are still young, and are still vulnerable.

Bye! Don't hurry back...
Through the season, Buffy's left trying to balance her shift to adulthood and her duties as a Slayer, two things that are obviously incompatible and only seem to grow more so. Of course, that's not exactly a new conflict; it's pretty much been the center of the character from the beginning, and some of the explorations of it here falls rather flat. When Buffy, anxious to figure out the true meaning of her position, does a rather fancy and far off ritual to speak to the First Slayer we saw running around during the last season's closer (Relentless), she's shocked when she's told that death is your gift. As, by this point, she's spent nearly a hundred episodes stabbing people with bits of sharpened wood, I'm not particularly sure why this is such a surprise, but anyway. Some things of interest do come out of this plotline, for it's the divide between her Slayer side and her regular life that causes Buffy to lose Riley. Though I – and, it seems, most Buffy fans – can't really claim to have ever loved the guy, he always did come off as kind and well intentioned, and his departure is well done.

Furthermore, Buffy's character arc grows immeasurably more powerful with the death of her mother. Sarah Michelle Geller is an adequate actor when playing a happy, excited, and carefree Buffy, but she's an absolutely magnificent one when Buffy is depressed, distraught, and otherwise emotionally destroyed. Besides the Body, the key episode of Buffy and Dawn's loss, and Buffy's maturity, seems to be Forever, where Dawn tries to, against all warnings and advice, resurrect Buffy's mother, and the two of them have to face the divide between what's comforting but ultimately damaging and what may be right but is also brutally difficult.

But none of those are the best arc of the season. No, that's Spike's. After being a badass of unquestionable and unmatchable style and strength in the second season and then faffing about for most of the next two, he suddenly decides to go from snazzy villain to fully fledged character. After an attempt early in the season to remove the chip that prevents him from harming any living thing, Spike essentially resigns himself to his existence. The details of his past are soon after explored in the episode Fool for Love, and, much as a flashback episode setting out to demystify a character seems like a good awful idea, the thing's a huge success. Along with it comes Spikes' realization of the terrifying truth: that he's been in love with Buffy for a damn long time. It's a revelation that could have felt hackneyed, but not with James Marsters behind the helm, bringing enough desperation, longing, and manic violence to the task to get just about anyone on his side. Though Buffy spurns him, he doesn't turn away, nearly dying for her in Intervention, and, though his love's disturbing as hell, it's also rather fantastic.

Due to the season's focused arc, the rest of the cast doesn't get as much of a chance to shine, but the exposure that they do get is meaningful and avoids the aimlessness of the last season. Giles is now the proprietor of the town's main magic shop, the Magic Box, and Anya soon gravitates over to help him. Xander's main episode here is The Replacement which, like the Zeppo, focuses on how he might seem to be the outsider, the regular guy in their group, even the bumbler, but shows that he's inner strength and ability to match the others. Tara, meanwhile, is integrated into the group after Family, where her oppressive and misogynistic father and family come to retrieve her from college, Willow, and all those around her. It's a great moment when the gang all steps up to defend her, though I do have to wonder how she, now without any sort of family support, intends to continue paying for college. (Actually, on that note, how exactly does Buffy expect to not starve to death, what with her utter lack of income?)

Quick! Look busy!
Though this is such a plot driven season, there are other items of interest. The alien threat in Listening to Fear is a byproduct of events in the mean plot, but is by no means in it, and while its extraterrestrial nature may be a bit silly, it does lead to some fantastically creepy scenes. Also of note is the Watchers Council's appearance in Checkpoint, where they try to regain control of Buffy and, not too surprisingly, fail. One of the main things I was left thinking about afterwards was what the hell the purpose of this organization is, as they are – as Buffy says – useless without her. Since there's only one Slayer at a time, why on earth do they need so many Watchers, what do the rest of them get up to all useless day, why do they have so much political power yet never seem to use it for anything important, and why on earth did all the other Watchers disrespect Giles, if he was the only one who was in any sense employed in doing something useful? But that's drifting from the point.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fifth season is one of the show's strongest. The character arcs are fantastic here, and, even if the villain herself isn't too awe inspiring at times, by the season's end, the tension's built up to an incredible point, and the climax is excellent. There are a few missteps here and there, but this season proves that Buffy is not a show stumbling on past its prime (much as aspects of the last might have suggested that very thing), but is rather still growing, still evolving, and still powerful.

Standout episodes: Blood Ties, The Body, Fool for Love


  1. Interesting tidbit to keep in my mind, that Fool for Love has a companion episode with Angel's 2nd season, "Darla" that aired on the same night, and uses different perspectives on the same scenes.

    Glory. Oh Glory, how do I love you.

    There is an interesting observation to make about Buffy's womanly nemeses. I am including nemeses that were only temporary or mundane in this list so bear with. But Cordelia, Kendra, Faith, Tuesday and especially Glory are all mirrors of Buffy.

    Cordelia is what Buffy would have been if she hadn't been tempered by her responsibility.

    Kendra and Faith are what Buffy would have been if she hadn't been tempered by her friends and privileged upbringing.

    Tuesday is what Buffy would have been had she ever been turned.

    And Glory is the epitome of what Buffy could have been, superpowered, vain, dingy, and materialistic. She is a superpowered Cordelia without the humbling experiences Cordelia had in Buffy S3 and Angel S1(and beyond don't want give too much away).

    Which is why she is perfect as the Big Bad in what was to have been the penultimate season of Buffy. (Others will tell you the next two are nowhere as good as the WB years. Don't listen to them, Seasons 6 & 7 are not without their faults, but finer television you will find nowhere, beginning with Bargaining part 1&2, the best season opener is 7 years of Buffy, though Buff vs Drac was hilarious, IMO).

    But forcing Buffy to face her dark mirror, to save her "child", was a beautiful way to go out.

    But thankfully Buffy didn't have to go out, as UPN came to rescue and gave her a new lease on life. Season 6 will get muddled a bit in the middle, after Once More With Feeling, but caps it all off in that heartwrenching way you come to expect. Just remember that the characters are not reliable narrarators and that just because THEY believe something to be true, doesn't mean it is.

    And have fun!

  2. That is a really interesting observation about the show's women. I'm not sure that Buffy could ever have reached the depths that Glory did, but it is quite fascinating.

  3. Honestly, I think Buffy should have ended at Season 5. There were some gems in the final UPN seasons, but overall the quality wasn't the same.