"Do you know what a Slayer is?"
Season 4 of THE WIRE. Season 2 of JUSTIFIED. Season 1 of VERONICA MARS. Season 2 of ALIAS. These are some examples of legendary seasons of great TV show, in which top-notch stories and top-notch storytelling elevate the series and the medium of television itself. (Yes, that's hyperbolic, but come on: season 4 of THE WIRE!)
But for me, the best season of television of all just might be season 5 of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
I originally intended to discuss the episodes of the series as I rewatch them, without talking about things that happen later, but it's practically impossible to talk about season 5 of BUFFY, and its greatness, without talking about the two earth-shattering events that happen later in the season. And looking back, 14 years later and knowing what's to come, I also wanted to think about how well the first part of the season holds up. (So, on the off chance you're reading this and you don't know what happens in season 5, either stop reading now or brace yourself for spoilers.)
Season 5 is about death, and features the deaths of two key characters: Buffy's mom Joyce and Buffy herself. Buffy's death had been foreshadowed since late in season 3 (and, really, it's built into the premise of the show), and knowing that it's coming makes the early allusions to it in season 5 more resonant.
Throughout the first third of the season, here are some of the key (HA!) themes and developments.
1. The source of the Slayer's power.
Season 5 opens with the terrific "Buffy vs. Dracula". It's easily the best of the show's seven season premieres, but that's due as much to the relative weakness of the other six as it is to this episode's greatness. "Buffy vs. Dracula" is funny (particularly Xander under Dracula's thrall) and creepy, but its best feature is how it sets up the key theme of season five: what, really, does it mean to be a Slayer? I remember watching this episode in 2000, and thinking "Ok, I know what this season's going to be about." And the show doesn't let me down. Dracula tells Buffy "Your power is rooted in darkness. You must feel it." On one level, the key conflict of season 5 is within Buffy: can she turn the darkness of her gift into light?
As Buffy explores her Slayer-ness more fully, she becomes close again with Giles. (Season 4 was about the Scoobies branching out; season 5 brings them back together.) And just thinking about a couple of Giles scenes later in the season is already giving me the feelings.
The big plot development at the beginning of season 5 is, of course, the sudden-and-without-explanation appearance of Buffy's younger sister Dawn. "Real Me" and "No Place Like Home" do a great job of introducing Dawn and establishing a fun younger/older sister dynamic between her and Buffy. Gellar's delivery of the line "Oh you know you did too!" is full of older sibling frustration and perfect.
There's also some good misdirection in Dawn's introduction. Until Buffy's chat with the monk near the end of "No Place Like Home", we think Dawn might be evil - but she's not. She's completely innocent - the key (some pure white energy hooziwhatsit thingamabob mcguffin) made fully human - and it's Buffy's job to protect her. We also briefly meet the Big Bad of the season, Glory, though we don't yet know her name or her full backstory. I'm probably in the minority on this, but I love Glory. From her first appearance, she's an immense threat (she kicks Buffy's ass in their first fight), and her fashionista wardrobe gives her a different vibe than the show's other great female villain, Drusilla. (And it gives us Buffy's great line "She's kinda like Cordelia, actually.")
Meanwhile, Joyce is sick with headaches, fainting, memory loss. This becomes an important aspect of the story as the season progresses - but with this development and with the appearance of Dawn, we're already seeing a shift in Buffy from child to parent. (And "The Body" is still nine episodes away, but I'm already sniffling.)
3. Xander manning up.
Willow doesn't get much to do in the first third of season 5, but Xander has a couple of showcases. Dracula, hilariously, finds Xander "strange and off-putting", then turns him into a "spider-eating man bitch". And Xander gets split into two parts in "The Replacement", though he (and we) think that a demon is impersonating the more adult, confident him.
Xander drifted through most of season 4, which made sense in a post-graduation no-college what-to-do-with-my-life sort of way. Season 5 finds him becoming more mature and responsible. His hijinks in "The Replacement" didn't fully work for me, because the Xander whose perspective we see (the immature one) wasn't much different than the Xander of "Buffy vs. Dracula". I do love Anya's threesome gag at the end of the episode, though.
4. Riley's out; Tara's in.
One of my favorite episodes from the first half of the season is "Family", the episode that finally fully integrates Tara into the Scoobies. Remember when Tara messed up the spell with Willow in season 4? Tara did that because she thought she was a demon. I remember an interview with Joss in which he talked about his initial plan: Tara was a demon, but a harmless one. But the solution he came up with (Tara's family told her she was a demon, as a way to keep "the ladies in check" (to quote Spike) ) is far more elegant, and far more satisfying. (Writing tip: keep your options open until you're sure you know what you want to do. Stay away from flash-forwards unless you know EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT TO DO WITH THEM.) (Take note, Vince Gilligan.) (Apparently I'm still bitter.)
And while Riley's not gone yet, he's becoming more and more marginalized. (Also notable: he's missing from the "We're family" shot at the end of "Family".) Riley does realize, in his speech to Xander at the end of "The Replacement", that Buffy doesn't love him as much as he loves her. I'm still not a huge fan of the big lug, but I do like his self-awareness.
5. Spike wuvs Buffy.
This story gets a lot (A LOT) murkier later. For now, it's played for laughs, and it mostly works. From the moment he was introduced, Spike was a lovesick fool; now that he's decided he loves Buffy, he's as helpless around her as he is in a fight against humans. "Fool for Love", the flashback-heavy Spike episode is a great episode, and an important one: though Spike's not yet fully integrated into the Scoobies (although he is in the "We're family" shot), this episode helps fully incorporate the character's story into the larger narrative of the series. (Plus, more Drusilla!)
Spike's also killed two Slayers, and his speech about how he did it remains one of my favorites of the series: "How many of my kind reckon you've done? And we just keep coming. But you can kill a hundred, a thousand, a thousand thousand and the enemies of Hell besides and all we need is for one of us - just one - sooner or later to have the thing we're all hoping for. One... good... day."
So, yes, I've clearly increased the pace of the rewatch. The next update will discuss episodes 8-15.
"Buffy vs. Dracula": A
"Real Me": A-
"The Replacement": B-
"Out of My Mind": C
"No Place Like Home": A
"Fool For Love": A