"So here's how it's gonna work. You're gonna tell me everything you know. Then you're gonna go away."
Let's check in with some key characters of this part of season 5.
So, we find out that Glory's a god. And that she is sharing a body with Cute Intern Ben. Glory's trying to find the Key to use it to open a portal to hell. Ben's cleaning up her messes. The Knights of Byzantium want to find and destroy the Key to stop Glory. There's a lot going on.
In "Shadow", Glory sends a snake monster to Buffy to try to find the Key. When the snake bursts into the magic shop and sees Dawn, it's genuinely horrifying (though not as horrifying as a bigger Key-revealing incident, which I'll get to later). Buffy's desperation as she tries to catch up to and destroy the snake monster is palpable. Part of the power of season five is knowing how desperate Buffy is, and how powerful she knows the Big Bad is. We can tell that Buffy's thinking: "How can I possibly beat her?"
And the beans are spilled regarding Dawn's nature. Dawn herself finds out in the terrific "Blood Ties", and Trachtenberg is really good in her big "Is this blood?" scene. Trachtenberg is terrific throughout the season. (I'll be curious to see how I feel about Dawn in seasons 6 and 7. I remember her being a much more extraneous character there.)
Anya has often provided great comic relief, and she gets some great moments in these episodes. From her second appearance back in "Doppelgangland" (which was Anya's first major appearance), Emma Caulfield excelled at playing Anya's frustrations at being human, being a young woman, and being smitten with Xander. Her excitement over capitalism in season 5 was a wonderful development (as was, in general, Giles' purchase of the magic shop). And she's still capable of surprising, effective innocence, like the scene in "The Body" where... No. Wait. I'm not ready for that yet.
Though "Into The Woods" is primarily about the final Buffy/Riley split and Riley's departure (bye, Riley!), it's the final scene between Xander and Anya that lingers. Xander, continuing to grow up, tells Anya just how "powerfully, painfully in love" with her he is. It's a great moment, and Caulfield's close-up is a great reaction.
"Triangle" is the first real Anya showcase, and it's a winner. It's also as much as a Willow episode as we get in the first two thirds of season five. (But that's ok. Willow had more to do than Xander did in season 4, and she'll play a key role in the final episodes of the season.) "Triangle" features Jerry from ER (Abraham Benrubi has been in lots of things, but he'll always be Jerry from ER) as Olaf the Troll God (Anyanka's ex-boyfriend, hee), whom Willow accidentally summons when a spell goes awry. Hijinks ensue. (Clearly, it's a Jane Espenson script.)
"Checkpoint" features what is probably my favorite Anya moment (at least, my favorite non-bunny Anya moment). The Watchers Council is back in Sunnydale, and they're interviewing Buffy and her friends. Anya's worried about keeping the secret of her demon past, and she may have overdone it: "Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins, twenty years old. Born on the fourth of July, and don't think there weren't jokes about that my whole life, mister, 'cause there were! 'Who's our little patriot?' they'd say, when I was younger, and therefore smaller and shorter than I am now."
"Checkpoint" is a knockout, the best episode of this bunch. "It's about power", as the episode reminds us. I'll come back to this in season 7, but I wish the show had had the chance to delve more into the history of the Watchers Council. We've seen them enough to know they're power-hungry jack-holes, but I wanted more!
And, yes, "I'm fairly certain I said 'No interruptions'." is still completely awesome.
Drusilla returns to Sunnydale in the disappointing "Crush". You'd think an episode about Spike's lovesick nature - and an episode that features both Drusilla and Harmony - would be better than "Crush" is. "I Was Made To Love You" is another episodes about people questioning their romantic decisions (here, Buffy), and it's ok, but it's easily forgotten when you remember the episode's brief final scene. The episode does introduce Warren, whom we'll see more regularly in season 6 of course, but is that a good thing? It also introduces the idea of Spike asking Warren to create the Buffybot, so it can't be all bad.
And, of course, Joyce's illness, surgery, and apparent recovery was a big element of these episodes. Her deteriorating condition, and Buffy's and Dawn's difficulties in dealing with it, saved "Listening To Fear", because that episode's "killer snot monster from outer space" was kind of ridiculous.
One thing that doesn't quite work in season 5 is the apparent nature of Joyce's illness. Whedon has said (I wish I could find the source!) that he wanted Joyce's illness to be completely un-supernatural. Unfortunately, Joyce's illness is tied up with Dawn's arrival in the Summers house - in Joyce's first major incident, she stares at Dawn, says "Who are you?", and passes out - making it seem like Joyce's tumor is a result of the monks' world-altering work. I've always liked this idea, that Joyce's illness and death is the cost of making the key safe; then again, I also like the idea that Joyce's illness and death is completely unrelated to it. I just wish the show had found a way of making this clearer.
In "I Was Made To Love You", Joyce seems to be back to normal. She's healthy, joking, going on a date. So, of course, the ending is that much more devastating. "Mom? Mom? ... Mommy?"
Nope, I'm not ready for what's next.
"Listening To Fear": B-
"Into the Woods": B
"Blood Ties": A
"I Was Made To Love You": B-