Another season of slayage is through, and the subplots have finally come to eclipse the main plot. This year’s Big Bad was bigger and, well, worse. On the other hand, several of the smaller stories that wove through this season were riveting, and resulted in some of the best scenes and episodes ever.
1) There are, of course, lots of different themes running through any given season of Buffy, but if I had to pick one for this season, it would be family. Buffy lives in a family context this season more than she ever has, even going back to the high school years. College scenes are conspicuous by their absence, and several of them have to do with things like Buffy moving out or Buffy dropping her classes. She’s closer than ever to Joyce throughout, which of course serves to make Joyce’s death even more of a loss for her. Alongside that, the addition of Dawn, and of Buffy’s shifting feelings about her, allows the show to explore some really fruitful territory, opening up the question of what exactly constitutes family, and how we can choose to create family even without genetic connections. The episode that’s most overt about this is, unsurprisingly, Family. I’m always interested in stories about families of choice colliding with genetic families, so this episode really resonated with me. I loved seeing that the gang completely embraces, accepts, and loves Tara, even when they don’t fully understand her. That’s what family ought to do. Meanwhile, Spike finds himself on the other side of the coin — the gang rejects him without fully understanding him. They understand enough, of course, that their rejection is completely justified. It’s not until Buffy’s kiss in The Intervention that Spike is officially inducted into the Scooby gang, whose bonds to each other continue to deepen — Anya and Xander, Willow and Tara, Buffy and Giles. Her affirmation of Giles in Buffy vs. Dracula and his injury in Spiral highlighted their connection particularly well. All this closeness underscores Riley’s outsider status, especially during Joyce’s illness. When he exits the show, it’s to return to his real family: the military.
2) Dawn. Injecting Dawn seemed like a real Poochie moment, and I was really worried that the show had just jumped the shark (if I may speak in nothing but Internet TV lingo for a moment). Most irritating was the fact that she seemed to be the Buffy equivalent of Cable.
A word of explanation here for non-comic-book-geeks. My favorite comic growing up was called The New Mutants. This team, as you might guess from the name, was a sort of junior X-Men squad, adolescent mutants who were attending Xavier’s school to learn how to handle their powers. They weren’t meant to fight crime, but managed to get into plenty of scraps through wrongheadedness and bad luck. The first 54 issues were written by Chris Claremont, who basically created the modern X-Men that Marvel has been milking for the last 20-some years. It was a great comic during his run, especially for the period when Bill Sienkiewicz was doing the art. Anyway, after Claremont left, the book took a serious nosedive, and reached its nadir with the introduction of Cable. Cable was the creation of Rob Liefeld, the artist who joined the book at issue #86. The most annoying thing about Cable (and this is a highly competitive category) was the way he was introduced. Everybody suddenly seemed to know this guy. He was a brand new character, but people like Wolverine were giving him a familiar nod and casually referencing history with him going back years and years. My reaction to this was (and is): WHAT??? I call foul when a story suddenly pretends that somebody who’s brand new to the readers has been around forever. It makes me feel like the story hasn’t been playing fair with me from the beginning, and that it’s pointless to pay attention, since major events are being concealed for no good reason.
The parallel with Dawn is clear, I hope. Once it was revealed that in fact the whole thing was a big mindfuck, I felt a little better, but I’m still not sure the show came out better for having added this character. I guess as the Scoobies get stronger, Buffy needs somebody else to protect and somebody else to make her vulnerable. Even more so once Joyce is gone. Still, Dawn seems like kind of a one-note character at this point, which is especially bad when the note is “clumsy, annoying, stupid, and vulnerable”. Then again, I thought Cordelia was a one-noter for a good long while too. I’ll give it time, I guess. Also, I feel that not enough time is spent on the fact that this is an absolutely horrific thing to do to a person’s life and mind — the lives and minds of many people, really. I would expect somebody to feel really violated and to have some emotions about that. They certainly made a point of this in Superstar, so why not in a situation where the whole season is like one big non-comedic version of Superstar? Well, I guess Dawn herself does have a major meltdown when she finds out (quite understandable), but what about everybody else whose lives and memories have been altered?
3) The Harmony subplot is very funny, and the payoff in Angel is great.
4) Riley. Parts of Shadow are very telling in the way Buffy handles Riley. She doesn’t call him for support. She gestures for him to stay seated as she gets the news from the doctor. She waves away his sensible concern about doing a spell to save Joyce. It’s as if she groups him with Dawn in her mind in the “things I have to protect and who are occasional obstacles for me” category, which is reinforced by the fact that she keeps putting them together. Now, this attitude on her part is certainly understandable, but does not a balanced relationship make. How can a partnership survive when one partner believes she has 100% of the competence and 100% of the responsibility? I was highly annoyed at Riley’s flirtation with the dark side the first time I watched this episode, but on seeing it again, I’m more sympathetic. It’s still intensely stupid, but I’m more sympathetic, especially when it comes on the heels of the conversation in Family where he can clearly see that she’s withholding information from him. This storyline brings up an interesting question: what does it mean for the Slayer to have a relationship with a “normal”? Or, in more general terms, is it even possible for a superhero to have a healthy, functional relationship with a non-superhero?
Spike makes the point in Fool For Love that Buffy has only lasted as long as she has because of her ties to the world: “your mum, your brat kid sister, the Scoobies.” Riley is noticeably missing from that list (or at the very least, he’s lumped into the Scoobies, which is telling in itself.) Of course, the source is completely biased, but I think Spike is correct that Riley isn’t really one of Buffy’s ties to the world, at least not in a capacity separate from the rest of her friends. He’s not family, and he’s not really a friend. He’s supposed to be her partner, but how could he be such a thing? How could any non-supernatural entity really be Buffy’s equal?
Riley asks himself this very question in Out Of My Mind, and Buffy strenuously objects. In a way, they’re both wrong. Riley is certainly being irrational in wanting to hold onto his superhuman power even as it’s about to kill him. Even if he wasn’t in danger from it, getting into a competition with Buffy is a terrible idea — whether he wins or loses, he loses. However, Buffy is wrong too. “Do you think that I spent the last year with you because you had super powers?” she asks, and the answer is: that’s not the point. As Riley becomes more normal, Buffy distances herself from him. No, she doesn’t leave the relationship, but she leaves the partnership, becoming more protector than partner.
So is it possible for Super and Normal to live happily ever after? I think it might be, but two conditions need to be met. First, Normal must be very secure indeed, and leave ego out of the relationship. Competition is poison, jealousy is poison, and neediness is poison. An entirely separate line of work is probably a good idea. This, clearly, is not Riley. He’s young, insecure, and accustomed to being in charge. Also, demon-fighting is all he knows and apparently all he wants to do. It’s not like we see him pursuing his graduate degree in psychiatry or anything. How could he possibly tolerate being Buffy’s “save the world sidekick”? The second condition is that both partners, but especially Super, must clearly understand and acknowledge the different but equally important roles that both people play within and outside the relationship. Even though there will always be a huge discrepancy in physical power, the two can meet as equals if Normal has value in the world and isn’t treated as a liability or a nuisance by Super. Super has to allow Normal the space to be important, to be competent, and to be supportive. This, clearly, is not Buffy. As Xander quite rightly points out, she treats Riley as a convenience, and when she needs support, he is an afterthought.
Ah, I see we’re about out of time. Five cents, please.
5) I really appreciate that Tara is kind of odd-looking. Sometimes this show seems a little too full of beautiful people.
6) The Body. My god, what a masterpiece. Everything about it was unbelievably good, including its placement in the season. I had a bad premonition when Buffy told Joyce the truth about Dawn in Listening To Fear, but was lulled when she seemed to pull through okay, which made The Body all the more devastating. Not to mention that the character had been in place from the beginning — the beauty of continuity at work again. Watching the episode, I felt like I had lost someone I knew, and that people I loved were grieving. The entire episode was just brilliant. I suppose I’d have to go back and watch When She Was Bad and Hush again to be sure, but I think this is the best episode of Buffy I’ve ever seen. (It seems that all my favorite episodes are written and directed by Whedon. Fancy that.) I agree with kansasjenny that Anya’s confusion is piercing, but I think the part that got to me most was Willow’s panic about what to wear. It just perfectly captured that helpless feeling when a friend is going through a major trauma. No wait, it’s the horribly cruel but utterly perfect fantasy sequence with the paramedics. Or maybe Buffy’s exchange with the 911 dispatcher: “The body is cold?” “No, my mom!” But what about Tara saying, “It’s always sudden.”? Or the fact that Joyce is killed by nothing supernatural, and nothing Buffy can fight? I can’t choose what moved me the most.
7) Glory. I dunno, I was just pretty underwhelmed by her. The “wicked nasty in an unassuming guise” bit was done earlier and better with the Mayor, and in fact much of the Big Bad arc this season seemed a lot like a retread of season three, with the volume turned up. Season three had a wonderful sense of building menace as the Ascension neared, and I think the same thing was supposed to be happening here, but there was a Keystone Kops quality to the way Glory seemed so totally unable to identify the Key, only stumbling upon it through pure blind luck rather than deductive prowess in the end. In addition, the whole process seems rather fragile — dependent on a particular time, a particular ritual, etc. Maybe that’s not so different from season three, but I spent that season feeling certain that the Mayor would succeed, and this season I spent incredulous that Glory could even come close to succeeding. For all her godly power, she seems to spend the vast majority of the season screwing up and relying on comically bumbling minions. Where the Mayor was efficient, cunning, and crazy, Glory seems to be just crazy. Consequently, her plot thread repeatedly felt like a mere distraction from the other stories unfolding.
On the plus side, I did enjoy the running gag of all the various appellations Glory’s minions gave her. I also appreciated seeing Buffy so totally outmatched physically, forced into a situation where she couldn’t just beat up the enemy. (Though in a way I suppose that’s what she ended up doing after all.) I thought The Gift had a very interactive fiction-ish quality — inventory items and NPCs were cunningly leveraged to solve a variety of endgame puzzles, and Buffy’s final action would work perfectly as the climactic move of an adventure game.
Okay, let’s talk about that ending for a minute. Once again, I find I lack the expected emotion due to the fact that I’m watching these on DVD. Similar to when Angel kicked it in season two, I just can’t get too invested in the idea of Buffy’s death, knowing that there are two more seasons of the show left to go. Also, I just didn’t think the story made a compelling case for her to do this. Dawn offers to sacrifice herself, but why does Buffy’s offer outrank Dawn’s? They’re both innocents, and Buffy is crucially important to the world, as we saw way back in The Wish from season three. I was totally unmoved by Buffy’s final speech, and felt annoyed that she’d been killed off for such flimsy reasoning. Not too annoyed, though, since I know she comes back.
All that being said, I’m sure if I had actually seen this show air as the season finale, I would have been FREAKING OUT.
8) I thought that Giles getting skewered by the spear in Spiral was eerily reminiscent of Wash’s death in Serenity. I suppose I’m in the minority in having seen Serenity before I watched season five of Buffy. Was anybody else reminded of this moment while watching the movie?
9) The Weight Of The World — I’m a sucker for stories that literalize the mental landscape (going back to New Mutants 26-28, and probably before), especially when there’s a telepathic healer involved, so I loved that entire section of this episode. In general, I really dug the way Willow took charge of everything once Buffy and Giles were incapacitated. I also thought the set for Buffy’s mindscape was really well done — familiar and strange at once.
- Family: Tara’s father — “We are her blood kin! Who the hell are you?” Buffy: “We’re family.” God, what a great moment.
- Family: Willow and Tara dancing, floating six inches off the floor. A beautiful image.
- Fool For Love: I quite enjoyed the “Billy Idol vs. Foxy Brown” Spike-Slayer subway car fight. Also, pre-vamp Spike. Hee hee.
- Fool For Love: Spike/Dru’s awkward moment with the antler demon. “Okay, you guys obviously have a thing going on here…”
- Listening To Fear: Willow — “Oh, I feel just like Santa Claus, except thinner and younger and female and, well, Jewish.”
- Listening to Fear: Buffy finally allowing herself to cry, doing dishes with fiesta music on the radio. The fact that this scene also fits into the plot, preventing her from hearing the Queller fight, is an excellent bonus.
- Listening to Fear: Buffy revealing the truth about Dawn to Joyce
- Into The Woods: Best. Xander scene. Ever. In general, I really loved the dialogue in this episode, even more than usual.
- Checkpoint: Buffy’s no-look sword throw, and “I’m fairly certain I said no interruptions.” Also the Scoobies’ enthusiasm after that moment. The Scoobies, especially Xander, are our stand-ins in the Buffyverse, and I love the way this moment made that explicit. Plus, as Xander says, it was excellent.
- Blood Ties: Dawn’s “Is this blood?” scene was stunning.
- Crush: Harmony’s Buffy imitation
- Crush: Buffy — “Spike, the only chance you had with me was when I was unconscious.”
- I Was Made To Love You: Tara tryin’ a little spicy talk
- I Was Made To Love You: The zoom on Warren before he announces that April is a robot
- I Was Made To Love You: The swingset scene was poignant, and the way April’s lifeless body foreshadows that of Joyce is chilling.
- Forever: Overall I wasn’t too crazy about this episode (though really, The Body is a tough act to follow), but I loved loved loved Angel showing up after Joyce’s funeral, being there for Buffy. I especially loved the tight shot on Buffy’s hand, suddenly grasping his. I think the scene between them, sitting at the graveside, is the most loving interaction I’ve ever seen them have.
- Intervention: The look exchanged between Buffy and Spike as he realizes she’s not a robot. It’s both a great fakeout and a real moment of growth between the characters.
- The Gift: Not really a moment, but I enjoyed the way this episode brought in strands from a bunch of other parts of the season — the Dagon Sphere, the Buffybot, the troll’s hammer, etc.
- The Gift: Giles suffocating Ben, his speech beforehand, and the way the moment calls back to his earlier “I’ve sworn to protect this sorry world” speech.
Least favorite moments:
- Fool For Love: “I’d rather have a railroad SPIKE through my head…” Way to HAMMER home the point. Get it? Hammer?
- Intervention: Buffy says, “You guys couldn’t tell me apart from a robot?” and I quite agree. I know everybody’s shaken up, but they’re so slow on the uptake it becomes implausible, especially in light of the joke in I Was Made To Love You, where everyone immediately understands that April is a robot.
- The Gift: Suddenly saying that the troll from Triangle was a god and therefore his hammer has godly powers is kind of a lame retcon.
- The Gift: Xander is not only pretty good with the wrecking ball, he apparently has x-ray vision or something. I can’t quite believe that he and Buffy worked out the timing of everything down to such a precise level that he could swing a wrecking ball through a wall at the exact right moment, so it has to be x-ray vision.
- The Body
Least favorite episode:
- Buffy vs. Dracula. This was just extremely silly. It felt more like a fanfic than a legit episode. I liked the callback to “Restless”, but otherwise, feh. Also, the reveal on Dawn made me groan very loudly. (Well, not really, because there was a baby asleep upstairs. But, you know — on the inside.)
Angel comments will follow just as soon as I can get them written up.