Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 5: Transcendence in storytelling

As I’m spending the holiday weekend with my family, it is only natural that I would do anything possible to not actually spend time with them but that at least confines me inside the same four walls — just to trick them into thinking I am. And one of those activities includes locking myself in my room and… watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you nasties! Though, I did watch the Angel finale before Buffy and I was so confused.

Ah ha ha… no. I’m totally kidding. Guys, I got this. I’m watching both shows correctly. Don’t worry! But thanks for the concern.

Just a few short days ago, I mentioned that the first 14 episodes of season five were absolutely A+ fantastic. Season five is such an amazing piece of work. And it really, seriously, and literally is one of my favorite seasons of anything I’ve seen. This is right there with Chuck season two and Friends season eight, guys. Admittedly, I don’t always see seasons as a whole as something to be admired as one unit. Of course, I can tell you something like 30 Rock season seven is much more enjoyable than season six. But where it differentiates for me is that Buffy season five is a wonderfully crafted cohesive whole. And you most likely can’t appreciate it as it should be appreciated if you don’t watch it in… well, I would even go as far as to say one sitting. Anyone got 16 hours to just sit around and watch Buffy all day? (That sound I heard was a bajillion fans saying yes.)

Going into the finale, and beyond for Buffy, of this season, every episode leading up to it was crucial to move on to the next step and to set up everyone’s journey. It’s quite astounding. If you thought Anya and Willow fighting a troll was going to be just a funny one-shot episode, think again. If Spike’s Buffy Sex Robot craze seemed quite a bit superfluous, it wasn’t. And that’s part of what makes season five every bit as amazing as I can’t even fathom to articulate.

On season 5 as a whole:

Nothing worth doing is ever easy, they say. It rings true for Buffy. Season one and several episodes throughout are so wretch that you may think it’s too difficult or could never achieve the pinnacle of season five. But part of what makes season five the sensory experience it is is the fact that you’ve put in work of the previous four seasons. I watched “The Body,” which I’ll talk about more later, the other day and wanted to scream from the mountaintops about how much I loved it. I needed other people in my life to understand the great achievement in storytelling it was. I even wanted to sit my sister down and show her the episode (I recently did that with a Parks and Recreation episode. Am I the only one who does this?). Then I realized that “The Body” isn’t just the acme of this series[*] because it’s an amazingly written, directed, and acted episode — though it is all of those things. “The Body” is the result of having spent the previous 93 episodes building up to that moment.

[*] Some may not agree, but “The Body” is my favorite episode of the series thus far. And I actually don’t think any episode thereafter will claim that title. It’s undoubtedly the absolute best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Most of season five is the exact same. If you ever wondered how or why Buffy could allow The Master to take a bite, it’s answered in season five. If you wondered just how powerful Willow could become since she flirted with magic in season two, it takes off in season five. Even the fact that Willow is sort of “okay” with dark magic when it comes to payback for (or because of) the people she loves is displayed in early season four, but doesn’t have payoff until a season and a half later. If you think Giles can’t possibly be as dark as to murder someone, uh… did you forget season two? If it doesn’t make sense to you that Dawn could be added to the universe, then you obviously didn’t watch “Superstar.” The list goes on. Because while season five is fantastic on its own merits, it’s really about having taken the time to be with these characters for this long and understanding who they are as fully dimensional people.

But mostly, it’s the fact that this series understands that it takes time to finally enjoy these arcs. Willow didn’t go from a normal human to full-on witch in a couple of episodes… not even a couple of seasons. She didn’t just go off because she had the ability. All of it culminated in a believable amount of time… and sometimes that makes the result that much more satisfying.

And since we’re on the subject of them being actual people, the other factor that makes season five an absolute joy to watch is that everyone has very clear motivations. In previous seasons, sometimes characters walked around aimlessly, reacting to whatever popped up. Previous villains had no other endgame other than to be evil. Of course, that was a true problem with villains of the past, but the other part was that they were wholly unlikable. Villains aren’t supposed to be “likable,” I guess. But we’re at least supposed to love hating them, right? No other season-long villain was as charismatic and a joy to watch as season five’s Glory. (Other than Angelus, yes. But even Angelus got annoying at times, like whenever he was cooped up with Dru and talking about her private parts in innuendo.) And while some might think it’s a dumbing down of storytelling, it really isn’t. Glory’s motivation was simple: she wants to get back to her dimension. Why does it matter? Because she needs The Key, which Buffy has. That’s it. It’s not dumbing it down, it’s making it clearly defined.

I mean, look at The Avengers. The problem in that film is that something is going to destroy the world. But who cares? (I want moooooooore! The Master/Little Mermaid reference.) The story isn’t about that. It’s the journey our hero takes to accomplish his or her goal(s). And when it comes to season five, the journey is transcendent.

On Buffy’s journey:

As we’ve known her, Buffy is someone whose task of being the slayer pulls her in all of these different directions — she wants out, she wants to do her job well, she wants to protect her friends and family, she needs their help, but she thinks she’d be better in isolation. Mostly, though, she wishes for the day that it could all be over. A large part of season five is about that, down to the very final moments when Buffy’s consciousness reveals that she would greatly appreciate the weight of the world being lifted off her shoulders. It’s just another reason why Glory was such a fantastic villain. The writers added her this season to give Buffy an insurmountable obstacle, one that would test her limits and finally convince herself that she’s not capable of winning.

And so when Buffy takes the literal leap after Dawn has opened the gates to hell and beyond, it’s not just selfless. Though what Buffy did for Dawn is an act of love and admiration of her kid sister, it’s not just about that. It’s about finally allowing Buffy to be free from having to be responsible anymore. Her mother has just died. Demons come left and right. Her sister’s life hangs in the balance. But Buffy knows that once she dies, another slayer is around the corner. She’s not leaving the world without a slayer — she’s just transferring the duties, and the core of her would rather be dead than suffer another day fighting an uphill battle (especially when her mind has made up she’s going to lose). (Update: Yes, I know, Faith is in prison. But she still exists.) Maybe that’s part of the reason the slayers crave death so much, because they know that in some fucked up universal way, they’re sort of expendable. It’s their duty, sure. But it’s not only theirs to bear. Once they’re gone, it’s someone else’s. And it would be so easy for it all to stop.

Meanwhile, a large part of season five is also about how Buffy has darkness within her. Once again, the level at which the storyline takes to mature astounds me. I have a slight quip: we haven’t really gotten to see much of Buffy craving darkness. But I know that it isn’t over. That’s part of what makes Buffy so great: that storyline you thought they forgot is only going to be delved into later on. And now that Buffy has died and will be resurrected (I can only assume that’s going to happen), it should be headed towards that direction fiercely.

I know that this review has sort of gotten long, but we need to talk about…

“The Body:”

Because I can’t let this post end without mentioning a few words about one of the greatest 44 minutes of television ever, the following stream of consciousness needs to be stated.

I watched “The Body” during the one hour this entire month no one else was home with me. It was quiet. Actually, more than that. It was absolutely silent. It was as if the stars aligned, thanks to the television gods, and allowed me to enjoy every second of this magnificent piece. As you may or may not know (I believe I’ve mentioned it a few times during these reviews/recaps), I’m somewhat dead inside. Television and film doesn’t exactly “move” me as I assume it does for other people.

Well it all changed during “The Body.” I can’t even begin to understand how that happened. But “The Body” commanded it from me. It took me by surprise and it didn’t let go until the credits began to roll. I was mesmerized. I knew that Joyce was going to die, but it didn’t prepare me for the utter brilliance of this episode. In short (and embarrassingly so): it made me blubber like a little child. I don’t kid when I tell you that that is an amazing feat. “The Body” made me feel like I had just lost someone. “The Body” made me one of the people in these characters’ lives. “The Body” allowed me to mourn in silence. “The Body” let me watch as all of these people lived through extremely vulnerable events.

I can’t thank it enough. “The Body” is without a doubt one of the finest hours of television in history. I can go on watching every hour that has ever broadcast, and will broadcast, for eternity and still commend “The Body” as such. It’s a beautiful, uncomfortable piece of work. It’s as gut-wrenching as real life. And as someone who, thankfully, has not lost anyone close to me the way Buffy did, it still sparks vast emotion.

It’s a mixture of everything, of course. The writing allows us to view the nothingness after someone dies. (“She’s cold.” “The body is cold?”) The directing keeps you trapped inside the confines of the episode’s events. My particular favorite director moment, aside from the tracking one-shots, is the handheld shakiness of the camera when Buffy lunges for the phone. And the acting — oh, goodness — is absolutely spectacular. I could go one by one commending every single person that acted during this episode, but I would have to say that the MVP here is Alyson Hannigan. Hannigan’s scene is where I finally lost it. She played it so wonderfully and her scene was written so true to life that I honestly felt like it was happening in front of me. Sarah Michelle Gellar, obviously, was perfect. And Emma Caulfield’s scene was a pleasure to watch; her speech was the exact root of the issue, something only her character could actually say without feeling too blunt.

Part of what makes “The Body” great is its ability to be a unique unit, but a lot of it is having spent time with Joyce for the past four and a half seasons. Joyce was someone I grew to love so much, mainly during season four when she really played up the sympathy card (but I wholeheartedly agreed with her). And season five was just cruel. Joyce was given and ultimate test of mortality by getting a tumor in her brain…and after months of the tunnel seemingly dark forever, she finally found hope. She could live again. She was in the clear. And then just like that: she’s not. And worse, for Buffy, there was nothing she could do.

It wasn’t Glory. It wasn’t a vampire. It wasn’t a demon. Because for all that Buffy can do, and all the ways she can keep her family safe from supernatural forces, there’s simply nothing she can do when the natural order of things decides the clock stops ticking. It may be the one and only time Buffy feels absolutely helpless. Sure, Buffy thought that she couldn’t defeat Glory, but those were just thoughts. She couldn’t defeat an aneurism. And ironically, so, no? She’s spent years doing everything to protect her loved ones and it turns out they can be ripped away in an instant. “There was probably nothing you can do,” the doctor says. And now Buffy has to live with the idea of feeling powerless and the notion that there could possibly have been minor tweaks to events leading up to Joyce’s death she could have done differently.

It’s also now Buffy’s time to grow up. There’s no one for her to lean on always in the way her mother only could.

And with that, I’ll conclude this post. But not before I mention the following once again: season five is awe-inspring. I simply cannot compute how more did not praise or commend “The Body” or this season as a whole (I’m looking at you, Emmys). I’m glad I was able to experience season five for everything it was — entertainment, storytelling, and a piercing experience.

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About the author: Michael Collado
Michael Collado
Mike's a television junkie located in Miami, where he spends all of his time watching TV with his best friends couch and cable access.

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  • InvestedInYourFuture

    Agreed on The Body being THE best episode of entire show – no matter how many times I see it, it still has the same effect. The character did not just \”die\”. The show showed on HOW that death actually affected everyone and it continued to do so till the final moments of Season Five and after that.

    Can you believe that The Body and overall BTVS in S5 has been COMPLETELY ignored by EMMY\’s?

    Agreed about the whole cause-and-consequence writing – its hilarious on just how far the character motivations go back all the way to a very first season(for example how Willow handles having actual power)

    As for Buffy\’s final jump? Agreed. far too many people just write it off as JUST \”saving the world via selflessness\”, ignoring the whole build up of Buffy\’s depression of her just wanting it all to be over.

    Buffy has been a death-seeker for most of her Slayer-life, but having all those friends who look up to her, having this nice illusion of hope for normal life, illusion that she is making difference and that she IS a hero of her own story and not just another lost flawed human, was what made her able to go on. And S5 showcased on just how easily it all can fall apart.

    Buffy is stripped of that certainty and is forced to look at reality where she is not some main character superman hero person – where she is just another cog in a well oiled machine known as universe and where bad things happen, no matter what she will either do.

    So Buffy thrown through so much suffering and loss does something that any normal flawed human would think of in such situation – forfeits her own life, seeking peace and death, seeking escape. She does so in a way that would allow Dawn, someone whom Buffy herself sees as her own normal past, to live on and have life Buffy never was capable of leading – normal life.

    It might be a painful tragedy for Scoobies, Giles, Dawn, Spike, etc, but Death was a \”gift\” for Buffy – a final reward for all the tragedies and sacrifices in her life. She \”did not know how to live in this world\” and she finally got a chance to not to.

    As for Glory? Yeah, for me she is amongst most awesome, but Season Six badguy beats her out of the water in terms of writing quality ;]

    • InvestedInYourFuture

      Also:

      Another crazy bit of planning?

      Remember Faith Saying \”miles to go, little miss muffet counting down to 7 – 3 – 0\” in S3 finale when Buffy said she has \”something left to do\”?

      Remember how that number came up in Restless and it was said that the number is completely wrong now?

      730 days is real-life time between the airing of Season three finale and season five finale, The Gift.

      Adding to that, 1630 Revello Drive, is supposed Address of where Buffy and her family lives in Sunnydale.

      • http://nowhitenoise.com/ Mike

        Yes yes yes, I\’ve read up on this. It just makes this show THAT much better that Joss and the others had this planned out for that long.

    • lala

      How can you say that on this show death is final and you cant undo it, if buffy was revived twice?!!!

      Other than that I agree with everything you said!

      • InvestedInYourFuture

        The first death does not really count since its no more of a death than a patient getting resuscitated after his heart has stopped for few seconds. It IS a death psychologically for her, hence her going off the rails afterward and being conflicted about being alive(for example her asking about \”thanking xander for saving her life\” and her tone in that statement), not to mention new slayer being called, but in a grand scheme of things its not a real death and more of an \”progress of dying being interrupted midway\”

        The second death is an exception that proves the rule, considering just how much of the rest of S6 and S7 is based upon it and just what a shitstorm it causes for each character involved in it, as well as the price everyone involved and not involved pays for it even happening. The show established already that death is final and that everything surrounding any sort of attempt at undoing it is wrong twisted and never ends well. This case proves it.

  • http://twitter.com/drewgoodreads Drew\’s Goodreads

    \”I needed other people in my life to understand the great achievement in storytelling it was. I even wanted to sit my sister down and show her the episode (I recently did that with a Parks and Recreation episode. Am I the only one who does this?)\”

    No, you aren\’t the only one who does this. Thank you for articulating it. I did this once with a rather dark episode of x-files (\”Irresistible\”) for a friend who needed cheering up. It actually just freaked them out that I thought that would improve their mood, lol. Obviously, they didn\’t get it. :)

    • http://nowhitenoise.com/ Mike

      YES!!!! I ended up showing it to my sister anyway. And now she basically joins in whenever I\’m watching Buffy and she has free time. :D

  • M

    \”Because while season five is fantastic on its own merits, it’s really about having taken the time to be with these characters for this long and understanding who they are as fully dimensional people.\”

    …You\’re one of us now.

    It makes me feel like a crazy person when I try to describe my love for this show. It gets you right in the ol\’ ticker and doesn\’t let up.

    PS. Almost finished with Chuck S5. Such a good life choice to watch this show too.

    • http://nowhitenoise.com/ Mike

      Have I talked about my love for Chuck before in these posts? Because it\’s my favorite show evaaah. I\’m glad you\’re watching. I\’ve gotten two others in my life to watch recently, too :D