Our reviews of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season (published February 5th, 2002), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Second Season (published August 7th, 2002), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season (published January 27th, 2003), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 10th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Sixth Season (published November 10th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seventh Season (published December 8th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 8 (Blu-Ray) (published January 17th, 2011), and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992) (published September 4th, 2001) are also available.
Spirit Guide: "You are full of love, you love with all your soul. It's brighter than the fire…blinding…that's why you pull away from it."
Buffy: "I'm full of love? I'm not losing it?"
Spirit Guide: "Only if you reject it. Love is pain, and the Slayer forges strength from pain. Love…give…forgive. Risk the pain, it is your nature. Love will bring you your gift."
America's Slayheart is back for a fifth year of vamp-whacking hijinks! Many fans consider this season the high water mark of the series; others say it's the year Buffy finally jumped the shark. Is Season Five all it's cracked up to be, or has the series, like Riley, overstayed its welcome? More importantly, is there anyone left in Sunnydale to kill?
Facts of the Case
After a tumultuous, transitional fourth season, in which Buffy and Willow went off to college, Xander got a job, and ex-Watcher Giles…cleaned his apartment, Season Five finds Buffy and friends settling into their lives. If the fourth season was all about the kids finding their place in the world post-high school, the fifth season turns the focus inward, the Scoobies growing and facing tough questions about who they really are.
Buffy: The responsibilities of being a Slayer have never been easy for her to bear, and this year is no exception. Buffy must delve deep into her psyche and confront the darkness at the heart of her Slayer identity. Adding to her worries is the arrival of Dawn, which forces Buffy to take on the roles of sister and parent in addition to Savior of Humanity. Is it any wonder she's a bit glum? And as if that weren't enough, a devastating loss strikes at the heart of Buffy's world, making this the most trying year of her life.
Willow: Last year, we saw glimpses of Willow's incipient magical abilities; this year, those powers have blossomed—as has Willow herself. Out of the closet and deeply in love, Willow's never been happier or more secure in herself. Once the shy wallflower of the group, here we see the witch-in-training taking charge as never before.
Xander: The perennial slacker who spent most of Season Four floundering in a succession of dead-end jobs is no more. He's moved out of his parents' basement, gotten himself into a career, and has managed to keep his relationship with Anya alive and kicking. Once a ne'er-do-well who was good at making wisecracks and not much else, Xander is growing up and taking control of his life.
Giles: As the season opens, Giles is preparing to return to England; after spending the past year spinning his wheels, the ex-Watcher has surrendered to his own sense of irrelevance. But when Buffy comes to him needing his guidance as she pursues her Slayer vision quest, Giles is given a new purpose in life—he is a Watcher again.
It's a busy year for the rest of the gang as well: Spike is once again love's bitch as he falls fang over heels for about the last person (or the first?) you'd expect; painfully shy Tara comes out of her shell—a little, anyway—and begins to establish herself as a member of the family; Riley continues to agonize over being the weaker partner in his relationship with Buffy. And Anya…is Anya.
Season Five features one of the series' more interesting Big Bads: Glory, a goddess from the Hell dimensions banished into our world in the form of—what else?—a hot chick. Speaking of evil bimbos, Harmony is back in Sunnydale to wreak her uniquely ditzy form of havoc; and our favorite insane vampiress Drusilla makes an appearance as well.
At the time Joss Whedon was cranking out this set of episodes, Buffy was coming to the end of its tenure on the WB network, and it was not a sure bet that it would be picked up elsewhere, so this season has a distinct "this could be it" quality to it, with Whedon and company throwing their whole bag of tricks into the mix. Between rampaging hell gods, trampy vampires, and robotic girlfriends, it's a busy year for Buffy and gang, one that will bring them closer than ever as a family—and tear them apart as never before.
Note: This section contains major spoilers for the fifth season. If you want to remain unspoiled, skip to the Rebuttal Witnesses below.
In a season of risky moves, possibly the boldest was introducing a new character—who was not only Buffy's sister but had, apparently, always been on the show—with no explanation whatsoever. Fans howled and accusations of shark-jumping were flung, and Dawn remains one of the more controversial additions to the Buffy cast. Count me in as one of those who welcomed Dawn's introduction. While her entrance was indeed jarring, she represented a youthful counterpoint to the maturing characters, who hearkened back to the early seasons of the show when Buffy, Willow, and Xander were still just kids trying to figure it all out.
Another major turn this season was Spike's transformation—evolution, really—from badass villain to lovestruck hero. While we were set up for this last year, when Spike was planted with his chip and essentially de-fanged, it was still a little startling to see the former ruthless killer mooning over Buffy and protecting her family instead of terrorizing them. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this development. I've always enjoyed Spike as the series' antagonistic comic relief, but part of what made his character so entertaining was the absurd incongruity between his flamboyantly evil attitude and the often mundane situations he'd fall into. (The single funniest moment of the entire series, for me, is the shot of Spike sitting with Joyce in her living room, making awkward small talk, in Season Two's "Becoming.") To turn Spike into a sympathetic hero takes some of the bite out of that hilarious dichotomy. Luckily, however, Whedon stays true to Spike's character and doesn't turn him into Riley with teeth. Whatever may befall Spike and Buffy in the sixth season, their dismally unromantic anti-courtship throughout Season Five is pure comedy gold, culminating in the creation of the infamous Buffybot.
Speaking of Riley, this season also marks his departure from Buffy's life, which couldn't have come sooner as far as I'm concerned. I actually grew to like the guy this season, but his square, Clark Kent demeanor just didn't mesh with the snarky crew. Buffy is a show about misfits, and while in the real world being a handsome regular Joe is a plus, here it's just off-putting. Riley's walk on the wild side in "Shadow" only underscored how wrong this character was for Buffy and the series. On the other hand, Buffy has always featured storylines reflecting real-life issues, and Buffy and Riley's relationship was interesting in the way it explored the difficulties of male-female relationships in which the woman is the stronger partner. After all, isn't Riley essentially the househusband to Buffy's wage earner? I'm not sure what it says about such relationships that Riley was unable to overcome his wounded pride, and his abrupt departure from the series felt like a bit of a cop-out, but I doubt that I was the only Buffy viewer to breathe a sigh of relief when he was finally out of the picture.
The high point of Season Five, and possibly the series itself, was "The Body." This episode, written and directed by Whedon, is an absolute stunner, technically and artistically. Centering around the death of Buffy's mother, "The Body" takes place in its direct aftermath and is told in real time, in a series of long takes, without music. Whedon wanted to capture the tedium of dealing with a death in the family, and the long, sometimes awkwardly framed scenes are marked by silence and stasis, but there's not a second of the episode that isn't absolutely riveting. I have not seen death treated with this kind of stark honesty in fictional, episodic television before. There are no bathetic "Very Special Episode" flourishes, no attempts at poetry or manufactured sentiment; just the very real, mundane horror of losing a loved one. Whedon isn't trying to evoke emotional responses, but to be true to his characters, and he succeeds magnificently.
To see death treated this way on Buffy, a show that features piles of horrifically killed bodies every week, is startling and ironic, as is the fact that Joyce Summers is done in by completely un-supernatural forces, not by a vampire or demon, but her own body. It's a grim reminder that, at their core, supernatural horror stories are a way of making sense of death. How much more comforting is it, in a sense, to believe that people are killed by demons and zombies than that death can be completely random and the product of something that cannot be staked or banished? In some ways, "The Body" is the most profoundly horrifying episode of the series. It's certainly the most painful; while I consider it the best work Whedon has ever done, I don't know if I'd want to revisit it.
Finally, the season roars to a close with "The Gift" and another major death—this time, Buffy's. It's what the year has been leading up to ever since Buffy began her vision quest, and at last we find out what her Spirit Guide meant when she told her that "death is [Buffy's] gift." Knowing, of course, that the show goes on and that Buffy will inevitably return, her death doesn't have anything like the impact that Joyce's does—nor is it meant to—but it's a wonderfully moving capper to the season, and as absurd as this sounds, Buffy dying represents an important step in the development of her character; it is her final, complete acceptance of being a Slayer and the enormous responsibility it entails.
Visually, this season of Buffy is about the same as Season Four, which is to say not bad, but not great either. There's a considerable amount of grain throughout the images, most noticeable during scenes shot in low light. Sharpness varies slightly from episode to episode but is generally consistent. There is also some shimmering in more detailed and/or active compositions. While this might be a problem in a feature film, by TV series standards it's perfectly acceptable, albeit unspectacular. Audio fares better, with a clean and clear Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track that features a lively surround field and represents ambient sounds and swooshy effects well.
Special features this time around are weighted more in favor of featurettes than audio commentaries, although we do get four commentaries in this set. "Real Me" features director David Grossman and writer David Fury and is chatty and informative if not especially riveting. "Fool for Love" has writer Doug Petrie offering his comments, and is one of the more entertaining commentaries of the lot. Writer Jane Espenson chimes in on "I Was Made to Love You," an entertaining but largely throwaway episode that nonetheless sets up some major events in Season Six; Espenson provides a solid track that gives as much info as you might want on this episode. Rounding out the commentaries is Joss Whedon, speaking on "The Body," and it's the best commentary of the lot—don't miss it. Whedon, in great detail, discusses the technical and creative choices that went into this episode, such as the long takes, sequential filming, and behind-the-scenes insights into the actors' performances. This was obviously a very personal story for Whedon, and his commentary reflects that significance.
Discs three and six are a feast of featurettes! Kicking things off on disc three is "Buffy Abroad," which features Whedon and members of the cast and crew talking about Buffy's international appeal (apparently the show is especially big in France, although I'm not sure whether or not that changed after Anya's rant about "French old people" in "Tough Love"). "Demonology: A Slayer's Guide" is a surprisingly funny look (hosted by the series' "Jonathan"—Danny Strong—in his only appearance on this set) at, naturally, the demons of Sunnydale. "Casting Buffy" has Whedon and casting director Marcia Shulman talking briefly about how Buffy's actors were cast. "Action Heroes! The Stunts of Buffy" is, as you might have guessed, about the stunt work on the show, and it's interesting to see the various stunt doubles for Buffy, Spike, Riley, and the rest. Also on this disc, look for some amusing outtakes (my favorite features the obese demon Balthazar from the third season). On disc six, a "Season Five Overview" touches on highlights of the season. "Natural Causes" and "Spotlight on Dawn" focus on Joyce's death and Dawn, respectively, and largely repeat information from the commentaries for "The Body" and "Real Me."
Rounding out the extras are scripts for "The Replacement," "Fool for Love," "Into the Woods," and "Checkpoint," spread out through the set; a gallery of still photos, and a trailer for the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds" video game. There's also a "Buffy Demon Guide" DVD-ROM feature, but as I was 0 for 2 in successfully running it, I leave it to the diligent reader to discover.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Season Five stands out as one of the best years of Buffy, it's not without its flaws. Glory and her bumpy-headed band of leprous hobbits provide no end of yuks, what with her insane "I'm just a nice gal who loves to torture and kill!" bubbliness and the hobbits' over-the-top sycophancy ("Your creamy coolness has honored me by speaking my name!") but Glory is no Mayor Wilkins. She's simply too dumb to be an effective villain; her indestructibility is pretty much the only reason she isn't dispatched within a single episode, and the subplot involving Ben never amounts to much.
On the box set itself, I have one ongoing complaint: the supplements contain far too many spoilers. Whedon and the other series creators obviously assume that viewers have seen the show on TV and are already familiar with later seasons, so they're fairly liberal about dropping references to events, not just within the season itself, but the sixth season and beyond. Certainly many, if not most, of the people purchasing this set will be longtime fans who have seen every episode during its original broadcast, but a fair number are people who are watching the series for the first time on DVD. If you're one of those people, and you want to remain unspoiled, it's probably best to avoid watching any of these supplements until you've seen the entire series.
In a word: wow. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, there isn't a dull moment in this set of episodes. Whedon and company continue to amuse and enthrall with this fifth season of one of the best series ever to air on television.
The Scooby Gang is found not guilty, and the court will take a several month recess from Buffy while it prepares for the inevitable letdown of Season Six.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer David Fury and Director David Grossman on "Real Me"
Review content copyright © 2004 Bryan Byun; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.