The Good: Stories, Camp value, Acting, Character, Serialization of plots
The Bad: Some character ignorance, Weird rewriting of the series
The Basics: A nice escape from reality, the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer finds the heroes combating a mortal enemy it cannot hope to defeat, while still clinging to its fun, campy roots.
The first four seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer establish the Buffyverse (as it is called by fans - The Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, which now comprises the fictional places and events encapsulated in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, for those who are not fans of the series) as a place where evil is very much alive on Earth in the form of demons and other malevolent creatures kept in check by small groups of heroes who understand the truth about all that surrounds them. These heroes frequently have their butts kicked, their hearts ripped out and are put in physically and morally compromising positions. In short, the heroes in the Buffyverse take more in the first four seasons than most people do in a lifetime and they keep kicking. Season five, then, finds the writers and producers of Buffy The Vampire Slayer inventing new ways to torment the heroes in order to keep the stories edgy.
Buffy's world takes a turn for the weird when her younger sister, Dawn appears in Sunnydale. The thing is, reality has been affected such that - despite the fact that Buffy never had a younger sister - everyone's memories are altered to recall events that preceded these episodes with Dawn in them. It doesn't take long before Buffy learns the truth about Dawn; she is not her sister, she is not even human. She is The Key, a mystical object personified to prevent the new villain, Glory, from being able to unleash hell on Earth. Glory, it is soon revealed, is more than a simple manifestation of evil, she is easily the most powerful creature to cross Buffy's path and when - halfway through the season - her nature is revealed, everything changes.
The fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer finds the show significantly evolved from where it began. Indeed, the fifth season attempts to rewrite the entire series up until now through the addition of Dawn. This is probably the biggest leap that the series asks the viewers to take and it is well explained and surprisingly well-conceived, but it is still problematic and asking us to swallow quite a lot. Far more impressive would have been to begin the series with Dawn present and then, in this fifth season, come to realize why she was worthwhile or important at all. Regardless, her nature as The Key is pretty intriguing and if it had to happen, it is executed thoughtfully enough.
One of the nice shakes of the season is the villain. Glory is a refreshingly impressive villain following the fourth season's somewhat lackluster conflicts. The entire Glory (and Key) arc instills a nice serialized sense to the show that continually builds up the menace of who and what she is. She is wonderfully played with crazy, disturbing mood swings by Clare Kramer.
The only other serious flaw in the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is in the camp aspects of it. Episodes like "Triangle" where a ridiculous troll former lover of Anya's sets about bashing Sunnydale, which plays entirely off the series' ability to do decent kitsch, seem woefully out of place. With a villain as impressively badass as Glory, with characters experiencing genuine adult emotions of loss (Buffy loses big this season), responsibility and love (Willow and Tara take significant steps here), such goofy camp seems like a throwback. In short, this could have been the season where Buffy The Vampire Slayer evolved into impressive drama, save that it insisted on staying where it was with a more playful mindset of quirky fun.
That said, the Glory plotline is one of the series' better ones and it has a deep impact on the characters. The arcs of the characters in season five look like this:
Tara - Overcomes her family's curse, grows as a witch and professes her love for Willow in some very real ways,
Riley - Takes a trip to the dark side following his experiences with the Initiative, which forces him to leave Sunnydale (and Buffy) behind,
Dawn - Appears in Sunnydale and wrestles with being the Key and all that could mean,
Anya - Becomes a first-class capitalist and forms a genuine relationship with Xander,
Spike - Wrestles with his feelings of love for Buffy after he finds himself left essentially defenseless by the Initiative,
Xander - Seems the most grown up here, with a job and a life, now struggling to make ends meet, save the world and develop a relationship with Anya,
Willow - Progresses as a witch in leaps and bounds in this season, all the while developing a deep, deep love for Tara,
Giles - Fired from the Watcher Council, he finds himself feeling as if he lacks a purpose until Buffy convinces him to teach him all he can about the past Slayers and train him to defeat Glory,
Buffy - Learns to deal with the truth about Dawn (who she believes has been around all along), loses Riley whom she loved possible as much as she loved Angel, comes to understand that the fight against Glory might be a losing battle and takes another profound personal loss that ushers in her adulthood.
The redeeming thing about Buffy The Vampire Slayer's quasi-camp quality is that, at the end of the day, it has likable characters who it is easy to root for. Moreover, these are dynamic characters. The ease with which Buffy finds herself slaying vampires in the season premiere ("Buffy vs. Dracula," if you can believe it!) clearly illustrates that the childhood demons are no longer the real problem. If one is to look at the show from a strictly metaphorical interpretation, there is clear growth in the protagonist in that her childhood demons no longer hold serious menace over her.
But Buffy is not the only one. Once carefree and the conduit for snappy one-liners, Xander has evolved into someone surprisingly responsible by this point in the series. And the characters wrestle with more profound issues of loss, the nature of love and attraction, and adult responsibilities.
The nice thing about season five is that it does all of that while still being fun to watch. The series has fun twisted episodes like one where Xander is split into two distinct Xanders that represent different aspects of his personality ("The Replacement," which harkens back to the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"), mixing it with episodes that are outright challenges to the characters ("Checkpoint") and surprising the viewers with the way characters (like Willow) stand up for what they believe in ("Tough Love"). At the worst, the episodes in this season are entertaining. Moreover, now - away from the hype that comes from a series when it is actually producing new episodes - some of the episodes are actually surprising, especially the resolution to the season finale.
What started as a piece of the most sickly-sweet candy (perhaps sea foam?) has evolved and continues to evolve in the fifth season as something a little more substantial. By this point, the series is some form of fudge with nuts; it is usually still sweet (campy and entertaining), but there is a lot more substance now (genuine drama). It's unfortunate that they did not use this season to push it into granola territory. Still, it's worth the investment of time and money. After all, how often do you get to see a show where a vampire makes love with a wisecracking android replica of the woman who has spent over three years trying to kill him?
Only in the Buffyverse. There are less fun places to be.
For other works by Joss Whedon, please check out:
Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Eight: Twilight
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
For other television set reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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