DVD Review: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season”
When CJ and I sat down to watch these 22 episodes, which premiered in 2000-2001, we wondered if they would make any sense to viewers who hadn’t been watching the show for four years. Xander (Nicholas Brendon) had gone from a goofy, Buffy-worshipping slacker to a very grown-up construction worker. Willow (Alyson Hannigan), a loveless computer geek back in 1997, was now a hardened magician and cheerful lesbian. Rupert Giles (Anthony Head), a stuffy librarian/trainer in season one, was now a tortured father figure with no job. And Buffy, crushed by a seasons 2-3 relationship with the studly vampire Angel, is now dating the lunky ex-spook Riley Finn. When the season begins, the new cast is living it up at the beach, tossing around a football and eating hamburgers cooked by Xander and his girlfriend, Anya (Emma Caulfield). Watching them like this was just … weird. In five years of Seinfeld, the characters had changed hairstyles and George had gotten a new job. In five years of The West Wing, President Martin Sheen had been re-elected. In five years of Buffy the characters had really grown up.
The show’s producers realized this, of course. They had finished with the “high school is like hell” metaphor a while ago, and spent one year letting their characters taste freedom. At the end of the season five premiere, they revealed that Buffy had a 14-year old sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg, who really does look like she could be related to Sarah Michelle Gellar). But Dawn had never existed until now. She was a plot conceit – to hide away a key that would destroy the barriers between dimensions and allow hell to bleed onto earth, monks had transformed it into the kid sister of the most powerful human being they could think of. Buffy was an unwilling participant in a plot to keep the world safe from Glory (Clare Kramer), an exiled hellgod who was killing anything in her way to finding the key.
But that was just the plot device. As with everything on Buffy, Dawn meant a whole lot more. She grounded the slayer who was just getting a sense of independence. Since the monks had created Dawn with fake internal and external memories (as we see later in the season, Buffy even remembers her coming home from the hospital 14 years ago), she had a calibrating effect on the entire cast. She crushed on Xander, treated Willow and her girlfriend, Tara (Amber Benson), like aunts, and made Giles even more of a father figure. And as the season went on, she was one more person grieving when Joyce Summers, Buffy’s mom, got a brain tumor. The result was the saddest season of the show to date. Nearly every episode involved some cast member crying. By the end, Buffy was so overloaded with tragedy that she became catatonic (Willow went into a trance to snap her out of it). This set the tenor for the rest of the series, which hemmorhaged fans and depressed critics. But how else could the series continue? Buffy had come into her twenties. The crackerjack box stress of high school was over. Buffy and her friends were in the real world, and it was terrifying.
CJ and I watched the season in three marathon sessons, devouring 8 episodes at a time. That made the medicine go down more smoothly – with a couple exceptions, season five was never as fun as one, three, and four (season two had funnier episodes but ended with the death of Angel). Marti Noxon, who had handled the heartbreaking Willow/Oz and Willow/Tara episodes in season four, comes roaring back with emotionally devastating episodes about Riley, Joyce, and, uh, Dracula. Joss Whedon turned out the two saddest episodes of the whole series (“The Body” and “The Gift”). Even Spike gets pathos. But because the first four years had driven such a great foundation, the season as a whole worked. I’ve seen chunks of seasons six and seven, and I’d have to admit that this is the last great year of Buffy.
EPISODES (the five best are bolded):
1 – “Buffy vs. Dracula.” Dracula comes to Sunnydale, hoping to turn the slayer into one of his own via patented sexy methods. Xander becomes his emissary; even Willow kind of gets a crush on him. 8/10
2 – “The Real Me.” Fallen-from-grace high school queen Harmony, who’d been vamped in the season three finale, forms a gang to take down the slayer. Also, Giles takes over a magic shop. 7/10
3 – “The Replacement.” A demon splits Xander in two – responsible “Mr. Harris” and goofy Xander. There’s great writing, but a so-so plot and resolution. However, we find that Riley thinks his relationship is doomed. 7/10
4 – “Out of My Mind.” Riley needs heart surgery, and Spike wants the domesticating computer chip out of his head. 7/10
5 – “No Place Like Home.” Buffy meets Glory and finds out, via a very cool spell, that Dawn is not her sister (she sees reality shift in and out – Dawn fades out of pictures and her bedroom fades into a storage room). Good on its own, the episode’s themes won’t be fulfilled for months. 7/10
6 – “Family.” Tara gets her own episode and it’s merely ok. Her family had abused her and claimed she was a demon – the gang proves she isn’t, and take her into their arms. There’s wonderful acting by all concerned, but not much of a plot. 7/10
7 – “Fool for Love.” Buffy wonders what actually hapens in those battles that take a slayer’s life. Spike, who’s killed two slayers, fills her in. Absolutely one of the best episodes of the series – funny, pathetic, revealing, and deep. 10/10
8 – “Shadow.” Glory sends an emissary to find the identity of the key, and Joyce has a brain tumor. A menacing episode that suffers from a silly rubber villain. 6/10
9 – “Listening to Fear.” A “snot monster from outer space” arrives to murder mental patients, and Joyce is on the hit list. Bad villain, scary episode. 7/10
10 – “Into the Woods.” Riley, who has been paying vampires to feed on him, gives Buffy an ultimatum – come to the place where the military is re-recruiting him or he’ll leave. She arrives too late. 8/10
11 – “Triangle.” Willow and Anya bond when they accidentally summon a troll god. The funniest episode of the season, with big emotional highs (Xander almost dies saving them both). 10/10
12 – “Checkpoint.” Everything piles on Buffy’s head, including a returned Watcher’s Council. She realizes that everyone needs her, but she doesn’t need them. 9/10
13 – “Blood Ties.” Dawn finds out what she is, and after cutting herself with a kitchen knife and burning her diaries, she runs to the hospital and is caught by Glory (who doesn’t know what she is). An incredible fight scene, a stunning revelation (Glory is trapped in the body of Ben, who’s befriended Dawn and Buffy) fine acting by Trachtenberg, and the emotional high of the season thus far. 10/10
14 – “Crush.” Spike is in love with Buffy, and kidnaps her (and Drusilla) to prove it. Weird but affecting. 9/10
15 – “I Was Made to Love You.” Warren Mears built a robotic girlfriend for himself, then tired of her and tried to leave her. What could have been an idiotic episode is saved by good writing and forshadowing. 9/10
16 – “The Body.” Buffy finds her mother dead, and the team reacts. Try watching this and then explaining why the “West Wing” actors deserve to win Emmys. 10/10
17 – “Forever.” Dawn tries to resurrect her mother. A necessary plot, well-acted and scary. 10/10
18 – “Intervention.” Spike has had Warren build a Buffy robot, thus losing all of the esteem of Buffy’s friends. But Glory tortures him to find out who the key is, and he doesn’t tell. Buffy rewards him with a kiss. Awesome melodrama. 9/10
19 – “Tough Love.” Glory zeroes in on Tara as the key, and when she comes up empty, she steals Tara’s sanity as payback. Willow goes shithouse and confronts Glory at her HQ. Corny, but thrilling. 9/10
20 – “Spiral.” The team goes on the run and hides in an abandoned gas station from the encroaching forces that want to kill Dawn. A suprisingly exciting chase episode. 9/10
21 – “The Weight of the World.” Willow pulls Buffy out of her coma, and we get an explanation of just what Buffy is feeling during the hellishness of this year. 9/10
22 – “The Gift.” Willow steals back Tara’s mind from Glory. Xander proposes to Anya. Giles murders Ben because Buffy can’t. Spike sacrifices himself (but doesn’t die) to save Dawn. Buffy sacrifices herself to save the world. 10/10