Monday 31 March 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5

After the weirdness that was the season 4 finale set entirely in the characters' dreams, season five opens with a pretty fun and relatively fluffy episode, in which Buffy comes face to face with Dracula himself. And boy, does he look out of place in the Buffyverse! This Dracula looks like he's wandered off the set of Interview with the Vampire, maybe even from the Volturi of Twilight, and it just felt wrong. I enjoyed seeing the allusions to the original novel, especially poor Xander filling the Renfield role, but overall it was a pretty average episode - right until the end, when we meet Buffy's younger sister, Dawn.

But Buffy doesn't have a sister.

It's not just that we've never seen her or heard her name mentioned. This isn't just a bad-soap retcon; things Buffy says in the next few episodes contradict what we have seen on screen. "It's not like she hasn't grown up in this house!" Buffy grumbled in episode two; but she hasn't. Buffy herself was surprised to see her, for a moment, when she first appeared. I wondered if the Jonathan-centred episode of season 4, "Superstar" was a practice run for season 5's storyline, in which we, with Buffy and her friends, are plunged into an alternative universe without being told, and left to figure it out for ourselves.

Actually, though the Dawn storyline runs through the entire season, we get answers a lot earlier than I had expected; once more Joss Whedon and his team of writers defy the rules of storytelling to bring us something exciting and new. We learn quite early on why Dawn has always been there... but wasn't always there last week. She is a "key" made of "energy" into the form of a human who will be protected by the strongest woman in the world: Buffy Summers, to prevent the season's Big Bad, Glory, from opening up all doors between parallel dimensions and causing another apocalypse. It kind of makes sense in context. Kind of.

I wasn't thrilled to see that Buffy's boyfriend Riley is still around, and still in the title credits. How come he's in the title credits but Tara is still only listed as a guest star? He was okay, but dull, for season four, but now he's outstayed his welcome. After my last review, Laura queried my assessment of him as "nice." Even in the last season he had some unfortunate character traits that reared their heads occasionally: he could be too persistant, a bit needy, and whatever he might say, he didn't really like that Buffy could take care of herself instead of letting him be the big strong protector. In season five, we see these insecurities grow until they overshadow everything likable about Riley, to the point where I was shouting "JUST GO!" every time I saw him. It took him too long, but I have never been so pleased to see such an indifferent character leave. My friend arrived at my house one day to find me shrieking "YES YES HE'S REALLY GONE!" Good riddance, and please don't come back.

And then there's Spike! I liked Spike from the moment he screeched his car into Sunnydale back in season two, and now we get to see another side to his character. In season five, he comes to realise that he has a crush on Buffy.


We've seen Spike as a formidable, quick-witted foe, and we've seen him as a whiny, powerless villain who
no one takes seriously. Now we get to see Spike in love. It is a strange, unsettling story to follow. Certainly Buffy and Spike have chemistry, and are very entertaining to watch together as they fight (and do they ever meet without fighting?) Spike's infatuation made me think of the Phantom of the Opera: simultaneously pitiful and creepy. Sometimes his obsession brings out his better side (even if he is usually only trying to impress Buffy) and sometimes it drives him to disturbing extremes - Buffybot anyone? The two sides of his character do not sit comfortably together; I think we like to be sure whether we feel sorry for a character or are repulsed by them, and Spike evokes both reactions.

We also get to see some of Spike's backstory: as an angsty would-be poet in Victorian England. At first, I thought he could not be more unlike the Spike we've come to know, but as the series progressed and as I thought about it some more, I came to realise that the change was not as great as I'd first thought - and not as great as it should be. This is the change of someone who has lived for over a hundred years, not the change of someone who has had his entire being replaced with that of a monster. Spike seems to be very human, and becoming more so.

For the first time, another character expresses the same reservations I've been having about Willow's use of magic. Her girlfriend, Tara, is a more experienced witch, and as such, has a better understanding of what the limits are. Willow gives Dawn a bit of help in her attempt to do a very dubious spell, and later faces Glory with some terrifying magic. I think it's safe to say that any magic that turns your eyes black is best left alone. But I predict Willow has only just begun and this story will get worse before it gets better.

This season has been all about family: Dawn being inserted into the Summers family and being accepted as one of their own, and the Scooby gang as a family. In the middle of the season is a story revolving more around the Summers women than anything supernatural, when Buffy's mother, Joyce, discovers she has a brain tumour, has surgery, recovers, and then dies from an aneurysm. I'll be honest: I was expecting this since Buffy quipped in season four that she hoped her mother would have a "funny aneurysm" when she saw the cost of her college textbooks. I've lost many hours of my life to the website TvTropes, and I was familiar with the "Funny Aneurysm Moment" trope in which a joke or light-hearted comment is echoed by a far more serious turn of events later on. I didn't know at the time that the page namer came from Buffy, but as soon as she spoke the line, I knew Joyce was doomed. I had not expected the story to be so drawn-out, however, covering several, very well-done episodes, and culminating in "The Body." "The Body" is an extraordinary episode which portrays the shock of grief like nothing else I've ever seen. I realised while watching it that the reason everything seemed so still and silent was that there was no music, no soundtrack, nothing to ease the tension. A very powerful episode indeed, probably the best yet.

In the season five finale, Buffy becomes much darker than ever before, when the Scoobies realise that there is no way they can defeat Glory, and try to make a run for it. Glory has tormented Tara, who is lost and confused within her own mind, and Giles is wounded by a spear through the windscreen of Spike's camper-van (causing Serenity flashbacks: WHY WHEDON, WHY?) Buffy calls Ben, the handsome medical intern she befriended in the hospital when her mother was ill, little knowing that he shares his body with Glory herself. Instead of a glorious (sorry) climactic battle between Buffy and Glory, the villain meets her end at the hands of Giles, while in the form of "Ben." It is chilling to watch as the nice, polite, English librarian kills Ben in cold blood with his bare hands. We've heard before that Giles has a dark past, but this is the first time we really see what that means.

Ben: She could have killed me. Giles: No, she couldn't. Never. And sooner or later Glory will re-emerge, and make Buffy pay for that mercy. And the world with her. Buffy even knows that...and still she couldn't take a human life. She's a hero, you see. She's not like us.Ben: Us?
But even destroying Glory via Ben is not enough to save the world. Only Buffy can do that, by making the greatest sacrifice: her own life. Compare her calm decision with that of the sixteen-year-old at the end of season one, desperate not to die. She's changed a lot: become more serious and grown up, but losing her witty humour. The Slayer's life has not been an easy one, and here it is, cut short. Apparently season five was written to be a potential series finale, and it certainly feels like one. The "previouslies" at the beginning go right back to the very first episode, showing everything that has led up to this point. This finale is darker and more epic than before. All the same, I'm glad that there are still to seasons to come. What a note to end it on!

Best episodes: (It would be misleading to use the word "favourite.)

6. Family: In which we find out a lot more about Tara. The episode end with Spike punching her in the face - which is not usually a thing that one would find heartwarming, but in context is rather lovely.
7. Fool for Love: Showing Spike's backstory. Introducing: William the Bloody (terrible).
10. Into the Woods: I'm only including this because we see the back of Riley. The episode itself is infuriating.
12. Checkpoint: Buffy vs. the Watchers' Council.
13. Blood Ties: In which Dawn discovers her life has been a lie.
15. I Was Made To Love You: A remarkably average robot-girlfriend-of-the-week episode, with a shocking ending. "Mom... Mom?... Mommy?"
16. The Body: "But I don't understand! I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore! It's stupid! It's mortal and stupid! And, and Xander's crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she'll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why."
17. Forever: Dawn tries to bring her mom back from the dead. Thank goodness we don't get to see the results.
18. Intervention: Spike creates a Buffy-bot. Time to get off the ship. This is not boyfriend material.
19. Tough Love: Willow and Tara have their first quarrel, with tragic results.
22. The Gift: The darkest and most epic finale yet.

1 comment:

  1. I almost (ALMOST) wish that it had been the series finale, because seriously, how fucking epic would that be? I think it's really rare to let a hero die at the end of a show, and that would have been really brave. (But, I'm kind of glad that season 6 exists. And... Parts of season 7. Which is all I will say.)

    I had never realised before that Buffy says she hopes her mum has a funny aneurysm, but OMG. So horrible. I actually think that's the kind of thing that happens in life though, or at least when someone dies, you go back and think 'omg I said something like this and now it's happened and waaaaaaah.' But yeah, it's definitely happened on TV a LOT.

    THE BODY, is pretty much the best episode of TV I've ever seen. It's just so... Accurate. It's absolutely the way grief works. And then you've got Anya who used to be immortal having her first experience of death and just not getting it and you realise how weird a thing it is to have to accept and and and the parts where Buffy blanks out and imagines that things went a different way and ugh. Literally everything about it is perfect, and also makes me sob my heart out. I don't even think I could watch it at the moment, to be honest.


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