Sep 10, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 5

After the defeat of Adam and the disbanding of the Initiative, Buffy's life seems to be looking up. She is doing well in college, Riley is always by her side, and it's like Evil has decided to cut her some slack. But then a strange young woman named Glory (Clare Kramer) arrives in Sunnydale, looking for something, and Buffy barely survives her first encounter with her. And if an incredibly powerful creature of unknown origins and goals isn't enough, now the Slayer has to deal with her mother's health deteriorating... as well as with her bratty teen sister.

Starting with the ending of the very first episode, Season 5 introduces a twist in the finest traditions of Olympian shark-jumping - Buffy's younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). But Joss Whedon wouldn't be the genius that he is if he hadn't a couple of Aces hidden in his sleeve. The first five episodes of the season are well and truly into the realm of nail-biting frustration, as the whole cast acts like the Slayer has always had a kid sister. Everyone knows her, everyone is behaving completely normal around her, and Dawn herself seems to be as ordinary - and annoying - as is humanly possible. And yet, it all makes sense after a short while, turning this into the best introduction of a new relative in television. Opinions on Dawn vary, and as is the case with most teen-heroes in TV shows, there was a lot of hate directed her way. Being bratty, slightly hysterical and having identity issues, Dawn didn't really make it easy for viewers to like her, but Michelle Trachtenberg did a fantastic job of portraying a completely ordinary girl in a completely unnatural situation, and the season is filled with great moments in terms of her performance.

Season 5's main storyline is all about responsibility. Buffy's, obviously, is central to the arc, and by the end of it she is near the point of snapping, especially after the events of The Body episode (reviewed earlier this week). However, it is not only her. Giles is increasingly taking up the role of a father figure in her life, thus acquiring both a renewed sense of purpose, and an uncertainty as to how much help he should provide to someone who desperately need to learn to rely on herself. This is the season that sees Xander becoming more adult than all of his friends. Having to deal with the reality of being a "loser", he ends up as someone who learns to provide for himself and enters the role of the responsible one who sees truths that the others don't. Although not central to the plot in any way, Willow also features in the season's theme. It is here that her unhealthy obsession with magic begins. Particularly in Forever, where we see clearly the difference between a Wiccan and a witch. While Tara is aware of her place in the natural cycle of life, death, order and chaos, for Will magic is a game, a thrilling new frontier to be explored, conquered and experimented with. And while she is getting more and more powerful, it is uncertain where this power will take her.

Responsibility plays a part in Riley's storyline too, which - sadly - finishes in the middle of the season. Feeling Buffy becoming more and more distant, he can't accept the fact that she doesn't need him, and won't let him in. In the end, it proves too much for someone who is used to others depending on him. I was sad to see him leave, as I think Buffy's healthy and completely normal relationship provided a perfect counterpoint for the madness that rages all around her. However, the character who deserves true praise in Season 5 is Spike. His dark obsession with the Slayer finally reaches its obvious conclusion, much to Buffy's utter disgust, but in the end, it provides for a tremendous growth. James Marsters does the transition as smoothly as he handles everything else in Spike's role, and there are a couple of scenes with him toward the end of the season, that are truly heart-breaking.

The main storyline is perhaps the most ambitious one in the show so far. Glory is unlike anything the Slayer has ever faced before, and there is almost no episode - even among the completely stand-alone ones - that doesn't involve her in some way. Clare Kramer is gorgeous as the skanky, sexy and egomaniacally self-obsessed... no, I'm not saying, you'll find out what she is for yourself. Suffice to say she makes early Cordelia look like a caring soft-spoken altruist. Action is of the galore in Season 5, in a magnitude unseen in the show before. There are fights on moving cars, explosions, demolition and a crusade in this one, kids! And the beautifully shot, gorgeously soundtracked ending is the most powerful of any Buffy season, save perhaps the final one. At the time of its airing people were in so much shock (especially considering the fact that it was at that point that the show changed channels), that Joss Whedon had to issue a statement to calm things down.

As Buffy The Vampire Slayer matures, its focus toward responsibility and morale leads to some heavy treading into Gloomsville. It is difficult for me to compare Season 5's quality to that of previous seasons. It is obviously a lot stronger than Seasons 1, 2 and 4, but it is so drastically different from Season 3, that it's hard to say whether it's better or worse. The main storyline is strong, but at times feels dragging and aimless, while apart from the devastating masterpiece The Body, stand-alones don't offer jewels like previous season's Hush, Superstar or Restless. At the same time though, the cast is now absolutely comfortable in their roles, and most of them give their best performances to date. And the overall quality of both drama and comedy is, I think, higher than that of any of the prior seasons.

Writer Jane Espenson is one of the hidden stars of Season 5. She does an amazing job of tackling important issues and presenting them in light-hearted context with an amazing sense of comedy. Her episodes include the absolutely fantastic The Replacement, where Xander is accidentally split into two separate copies, each possessing half of his personality traits; I Was Made to Love You, dealing with male obsessions over the perfect woman - this time in the form of a... well, girlfriendbot - and last but not least, the gorgeous Intervention, which is both a hilarious comedy, a Spike-driven heart-wrenching drama, and a Glory action all at once. Kudos to one of the most important members of the Whedon crew.

A few other episodes deserve recognition. Fool for Love is among the best in the entire show, and tells us the story of how Spike was sired by Drusilla (try not to faint with laughter at the reason he was known as William the Bloody prior to becoming a vampire), and his subsequent triumphs over not one, but two Slayers. Crush has Drusilla return to Sunnydale in an attempt to get Spike back on his feet, while his brainless girlfriend Harmony gets fed up with being treated like garbage, and it is the episode where Buffy learns of his feelings for her. It's a great exploration of obsession and the intricately illogical female mind, as well as having a few priceless moments both in terms of comedy and drama. And even though I already reviewed The Body, I can't emphasize strongly enough how brilliant that episode is. It is a little sad that one can't appreciate it fully without seeing everything up to that point before that.

No matter where you put it in your personal chart, Buffy Season 5 is one of the best in the show. It is bold and aggressive, features amazing performances from everyone in its cast, is choke-full of action and comedy, and gives us arguably the best drama ever seen on television. Not bad for half a year's work, eh?


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