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August 09 2012

Death is your gift - in praise of Buffy's fifth season. The Blank Projector looks at why Season 5 is among the greats.

I have to say for an article saying it's about how season 5 is the best season, it spent a lot of time saying negatives things and trying to immediately defend itself. Season 5 is great wish it focused more on that.
I concur with the idea that season 2 contains the most "operatic, emotional arc". I think both Seasons 3 and 5 are rich and complete. It's hard to compare them.

I'm glad "Family" was recognized. This is one of my favorite episodes of the whole series. That second to last scene in the Magic Box just gets me every time. Spike: "Yeah? You're welcome." *laughter through tears*

"The Body" is, of course, the standout episode in the series, summarized perfectly here as "one of the most ambitious, devastating, daring and powerful things ever committed to the small screen".

I disagree about the vampire in that episode being "not a threat". I feel threatened watching Buffy and Dawn alone in there with him. He was naked, growling, cold and ugly creature. Like the death of Joyce, the vamp was an violent and intrusive violation. It supported the tone of the episode perfectly.

I do think Season 5 upped the stakes. Around the last several episodes, the danger of Glory and the vulnerability of Dawn is utterly overwhelming. The last three episodes are just breathtaking.
I think season 3 is the best, but 5 is my second favorite. If Glory had interested me a little more as a Villain, season 5 would take the top spot. Hm, thinking about this makes me want to rank all the Buffy seasons.
Season 5 was the first time I cried. It just all became together and it shattered my heart to pieces!

Never was the same after that.
Every time I read a commentary on a Buffy season, I get a swell of emotion threatening to overwhelm me. The show is so much a part of me that seeing that somebody else 'gets' it makes me feel all warm and belonging to something magical - as if we are a family. As the writer of this piece suggests that is the strength in Joss's writing, I would have to say therefore, mission accomplished Mr Whedon!
Structural comment: Joss always had a plan ready to end the show, and always had another season in mind regardless.

(Just thought of something- this could be one reason the comics are numbered how thye are. By strict choronology, the S-8 comics should've been S9 with S-8 occurring off-screen*. But they're probaly dealing, well, in a way, with Joss's original ideas for those seasons if the show had lasted that long.)

(like I call my 2026 fic stories "Season 30." :-))
For me, Season 5 was near perfect. There wasn't really a single episode I did not like. The same can be said with season 3.

Season 2 though, I felt the first half of it just kinda dragged a bit and that does take some points away from it for me, but the Angelus arc in the second half of the season was brilliant, I just felt the first half was too...meh.

I know that season 6 is a very polarizing season, but for me it was definitely up there as. It was very emotional and hit me in so many different ways, and I could appreciate the journey. I felt that while it did not always have the greatest single episodes (though it did have some, and the episodes were by no means bad for the most,) it was more than the sum of it's parts, it was the overall arc that made that season to me. It's like the opposite of Season 4.

Season 4 had outstanding single episodes, but the overall arc was fairly weak, though it pulled together at the very end.

And season 7 I felt was REALLY good, not great, but never bad. Had a good arc, and good episodes. I happen to love it.

If I had to rank them, it'd look like this....kind of?

Season 5 was the best season in quality. Best musical score, best writing/structure. Very strong pacing, tight scripts, and strong emotional resonance. I have a few favorite seasons, and favorite episodes spanning most of them, but I consider season 5 to be the best.

One thing that sets this season apart from the others is the way the musical score is woven into each episode, starting with soft sad notes of family and loss, then progressing to dramatic crescendo in The Gift, and along the way calling back to past events. The Buffy/Angel love theme blending into 'Sacrifice' in The Gift, the beginning soft refrains of 'Sacrifice' being added to the Buffy/Dawn theme in an early episode. It's really impressive. I've always loved that about season 5.
I agree. If I had to pick a fave, it would be S5. Truly an emotional powerhouse.

Fortunately, I don't have to pick a fave.
I have to say for an article saying it's about how season 5 is the best season, it spent a lot of time saying negatives things and trying to immediately defend itself

Really? About the only negative I saw was about Riley's arc; and it's hard to argue with that. Riley getting all pouty about Buffy not having time for him when her mother is dying of a brain tumor is one of the weirder missteps of the series.

I think this is a pretty excellent analysis of S5, but, personally, I think there are more serious flaws in the season than are recognized here which, for me, place it a little lower on the "favorite season" list that 2, 3 or 4 (yes, the much-criticized 4!). For one thing, the writers just weren't careful enough in working out the mythology behind the "key." The whole reason for being so desperate to hide the key from Glory is that it's meant to irreversibly destroy all the boundaries between all the universes. Which makes sense. If Glory is desperate to leave our world it would seem as if the very last thing we ought to do is hinder her in any way; the only reason we have a motive to do so is because the key is a one-way operation.

But then the writers came up with this cool "Buffy will sacrifice herself for Dawn" idea, and threw the one-way-key idea out the window. And that's fine in itself--except that now you're left wondering "why didn't the monks just make the key into a gerbil--and let Glory go back to her universe at the cost of the life of a gerbil?" (And that leaves aside all the usual objections like "why didn't they make the key into a single grain of sand on the bottom of the ocean?" or "if the ritual needs blood, why not make the key into something without blood" and so forth--the plan of making the key into a vulnerable human girl, even with Slayer protection, seems kinda nuts).

But leaving that aside, one of my biggest problems with S5 is actually the last few episodes, which this writer finds so magisterial. The whole "Knights of Byzantium" bit, for example. I just find them hopelessly silly--like they've charged in out of a Monty Python skit. The scene with the RV and the knights is just ridiculous--and they, of course, raise a new plot problem with the key: apparently all the monks had to do was turn it into an ant and then squish it: problem solved.

And then we have the late rediscovery of the Dagon sphere--which for some inexplicable reason the Buffybot just hands to Glory so she can crush it. And the troll hammer that becomes "the weapon of a god(?!?)" and capable of delivering crushing blows to Glory, despite having had no obviously supernatural effect on the humans who got hit with it when the troll was wielding it--etc. etc.

Don't get me wrong. There's an awful lot in those final eps that works really well (I actually love "The Weight of the World" which a lot of fans don't), but from the point of view of coherence and continuity they're more rickety than Dawn's death-tower.
I think any season of Buffy can be nit-picked on those grounds. The reason why I can overlook it is because the story works emotionally. I can suspend my disbelief about a lot of things when there's a story with beautiful character writing and great acting and can relate to it on an emotional level. Throughout its run, Buffy had that in spades. I can see all your points,Yoink (great name!), but I think it still plays like it makes sense.
"If you’re ever left wondering why Buffy the Vampire Slayer has such a huge cult following a decade later, if you’re baffled by why someone would bother to write 2,000 words about it in 2012, mark my words: you are missing out."

But - will Season 5 ever be a contender for the Republican Vice Presidential candidacy?
barboo, I think Season 3 has more political experience because of the mayor, and therefore more qualified to take over the job as President. I'd rather have season 7 though. Especially with that ending. I love having more women in charge. :)
I think I saw Season 1 behind the counter at that burger place ...
I think any season of Buffy can be nit-picked on those grounds.

Yeah, to an extent. In fact, sci-fi and fantasy writing in general tends to quickly get into "but wait, how would that work, exactly?" territory. Where, I think S5 falls down--for me--is that it brings these logical lapses too sharply into focus. An extraordinary amount of time in those last few eps of S5 is devoted to exposition (if you go read the TVWOP recaps they get pretty hilarious on that subject)--we're asked to really pay attention to the problem of Dawn's "key"-ness and then they just completely discard everything we've rather painstakingly learned.

Of course, we all have different points where our willingness to suspend disbelief collapses, but I do think it's important for writers in these kinds of genres to maintain some deliberate blurriness about how their MacGuffins are supposed to work. A certain amount of mystery and uncertainty lets the mind just latch onto whatever plot point or philosophical idea is being served and not fret about the "hang does this even make sense?" parts of the problem.

I have a similar problem, actually with Serenity and its treatment of the Reavers. I adore Firefly and the Reavers are a big part of what makes the Firefly universe so compelling. But in Serenity we suddenly have to swallow a detailed explanation of how the Reavers came to be--and it just doesn't make a lick of sense: they're these complete and utter loonies who are totally past caring whether they live or die and who engage in frenzied, random attacks with no rhyme or reason...and yet somehow they've maintained a staggeringly large population quite successfully in a truly vast fleet of spaceships for years since the destruction of Miranda, and they manage to crew, navigate and fly these ships to and from the outer planets without substantial losses of personnel, materiel etc. etc.

And, of course, once you start worrying about stuff like that it tends to cascade (why does Serenity have to fly through a tightly bunch group of Reaver ships? All the spaceships in the entire 'verse couldn't form a sphere of that density around the whole damn planet; how on earth could the sudden death of almost everyone on Miranda be "hushed up"? People on Miranda would have family and friends and business associates scattered throughout the system--not to mention all the pilots and crews of all the ships that would have been visiting or would have arrived shortly after the first deaths started occurring, or would have taken off just as they started etc. And then why on earth do they have to physically transport the recording that they find on Miranda to Mr. Universe? They have an open and secure transmission channel to him (so they think)--why not just transmit it?

And what's so annoying is that the fix is so easy: don't have the Reavers be related to Miranda (far better to just leave them as the existentialist nightmares that they are in Firefly and don't have Miranda be somehow "mindwiped" from everyone's memory ("Say, didn't we used to deliver cargo to an entire thriving planet of millions of people, Jim? Whatever happened to that place?" "Oh, that's just crazy talk!") but have the Big Lie be that the people on the planet died because of a massive Reaver attack with ships turned into nuclear weapons that rendered it uninhabitable or that some bizarre geological cataclysm related to the terraforming killed everyone or what have you (again, the fewer details the better).

Same with Dawn--just keep it simple: if Glory gets the key, bad; if she doesn't, good. Keep it a fight between Glory and her minions and the Scoobies. Bringing in the Knights of Byzantium is just a silly distraction from the real story. And then don't get the slayer story all confused with the key mythos (the whole "they made you out of me" oddness): there's lots of ways to have Buffy give her life to save Dawn without having to needlessly complicate the question of how the key was supposed to function and whether or not letting Glory have the key in some form would have been a good idea.
S5 and S3 have always been my favorites. I do think the Riley arc in S5 is massively problematic--I'm in the minority of fans who really liked Riley in S4, and liked Riley and Buffy as a couple.

But overall, I've always thought it was one of the strongest seasons. The Dawn-key story made sense to me, as did Buffy being able to substitute herself for Dawn, and I like the Knights of Byzantium as well. Different things work for different people, I reckon. :-)
Different things work for different people

That, indeed, is a great truth that applies to all art forms!

Oh, and I'm happy to join you in the "Riley worked well in S4" by the way. That's part of the reason I find his story arc in S5 so unsatisfying. It feels so weirdly out of keeping for the character we'd got to know in S4.
Hmm! Look, first of all, this didn't really offer a lot of insights for me, although I think the writer was admirably sincere in his/her admiration for the season. Although I think it's a pretty futile endeavour to try and sum up my thoughts on a 22 episode season of television in a few lines, I'll have a go at it anyways.

For me, Season 5 is about the struggle between the battles you can fight and the battles you cannot. Season 3, although an equally great season of Buffy (and of television) is really only about the former. This doesn't lesson its value. Rather, it merely places it in a more appropriately idealistic and youthful context. Even Faith's darkness is offset by her ultimately hopeful connection to the Mayor.

Now to the ranty bit. The one thing the article offered that I simply cannot accept is the assertion that "Whedon’s character writing has never been particularly psychologically complex".

Excuse me?! One only has to look at the complexities of Wesley's entire character arc to see how nonsensical an assertion this is. In fact, forget his whole arc, and just focus only on the factors that influenced his decision to kidnap Conor and keep his plan to himself. Hardly simple! Even if we limit the discussion to aspects of BTVS Season 5, I would say one need only look at Spike's development or the simply brilliant conversation between Buffy and Xander just prior to Riley's departure for examples of complex psychological character development.

Without that assertion, I'd have enjoyed the article, as I like any article that reminds me of just how enduringly powerful an episode like "The Body" really is. But with it, this article raised my hackles somewhat!
I couldn't rank the Buffy seasons, as for me, every season had something that another didn't, which made them all special in their own ways.

I still don't understand the hate for S6/7, but specifically S7, as I thought that season was fantastic, the doom and gloom atmosphere was just amazing, you could really tell something big was coming.
Looking back at S5, there were a lot of changes made to Buffy as a character that given what's happened since... maybe it wasn't such a good idea. It started with the introduction of Dawn, which recast Buffy as the impatient disgruntled older sister. Up until that point, yes, Buffy had Joyce - who was almost always out of the slaying loop, but none of the other characters on the show had any visible recurring family members. They were almost deliberately pushed into the backdrop so that the sense of family was always around the Scoobies. Dawn changed that - and having active, present "real" family began to drive a wedge into the Scoobies. It started subtly with Willow and Xander occasionally sympathizing with Dawn rather than Buffy. Then Joyce died and suddenly Buffy was thrust into the responsibility of acting as a mother. Buffy and her friends are no longer peers at this point - they weren't single parents. They didn't feel her burden - and that's a theme that only amplifies and ties into the slayer/chosen one gig from that point onward to present day S9. We also see Buffy struggling under the weight of her responsibilities as a single parent and failing to put her own life together - also a theme that has carried forward. It all culminates with Buffy saying that she'd sacrifice the whole world including her friends to protect her sister - a 180 reversal from everything Buffy had ever stood for. And then Buffy dies... and we know the can of worms that opens in S6.

And my point here isn't to begrudge Buffy growing into an adult, but it was done so abruptly in such an overwhelming way that it sucked a lot of the life (literally and figuratively) out of the character while heavily impacting on all her relationships. Buffy is much more isolated post S5 and quite frankly, far less fun to be around. From a good television standpoint, S5 had some of the high point of the series - notably "The Body", but given the direction it set the show and character on, I can't say it's one of my favorite seasons. I'd argue the character has never found her balance again from that point onward.

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