October 12th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
As you may well have noticed, the conclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season within the Cultural Catchup Project has been a bit of an anti-climax, if only because of the long delays as we moved towards the finale. In fact, it was a good thing that the Netflix episodes had the “Previously On” segments intact, because I think there would have been some details (like, for example, the “Knights that say Key”) which would have been initially befuddling.
I think, though, that it’s also partially the fact that the fifth season doesn’t exactly follow a logical narrative pattern. I want to talk about both “Spiral” and “The Weight of the World,” but I will likely spend more time on “The Gift” due to its climactic qualities, or its somewhat sudden climactic qualities. I like Glory just fine, and think the season as a whole was quite effective, but we cannot deny that the overarching plot of the season sort of sat still for the back nine or so. Mind you, that was the period where Buffy was preoccupied with her mother’s death, so it’s not as if the show was boring or uninteresting during that period, but it sort of made the conclusion seem a bit sudden (although it does develop over the course of the last few episodes).
In other words, the challenge of “The Gift” (and the episodes before it) was bringing the seasonal arc to its conclusion in a way which ties it to the characters’ personal journeys over the course of that season, overcoming the sense that Glory’s story arc did not necessarily follow a traditional rising action pattern. And while I think that it lacks the sense of climax prevalent in “Becoming” or “Graduation Day,” I think the fifth season finale lives up to this task: it may not be the perfect conclusion to the season, or the perfect note for these characters, but it delivers a meaningful hour of television which demonstrates the complexity (or, depending on your point of view, the flaws) of the series’post-high school structure.
The fifth season, as a whole, is about addition and subtraction: the most substantial events, after all, are the introduction of Dawn (made possible as part of the seasonal arc) and the death of Joyce (which has no connection to that seasonal arc), and if you’re going to add a third you’d probably include Spike continuing his narrative addition to the Scoobies as we know them (perhaps confirmed in “Spiral,” when Buffy insists that he come along). You’ll notice that, outside of Dawn being part of her arrival, Glory is by and large a transient figure, lost in this world rather than purposefully invading it. Whereas most previous villains had plans for Earth, it’s almost a coincidence that Glory ended up on Earth, and that her plans for escaping this mortal plane and returning to her godly dimension also opens a sort of inter-dimensional hellmouth – that’s just a side effect, by and large, of a character’s efforts to do what we would expect them to do. More than any other villain in the show’s history, Glory was not defined by a desire to destroy or take over the world, instead focusing on self-realization.
Now, you could argue that the Mayor operates in a similar fashion, but I think what separates them is the idea that Glory desires to escape – she wants to return to her own world, and if she happens to leave behind some part of hell to torment humanity then good riddance. I don’t mean to suggest that she is less of a villain than previous antagonists, but I would argue that even with Dawn at the center of the conflict it never seems like a particularly strong feud. Glory is too flighty, dealing with Buffy as an annoyance more than a real threat – it defines the character, but it also means that there is very little urgency to Glory, mostly so that she can disappear for long stretches without any major concern.
It does give the character, and to some respect the season, a sense of transience which could make it seem inconsequential, but I think that “The Gift” does two things which help with this. The first is that we see Ben start to bleed into Glory, thus humanizing her in ways that actually fit with some of her previous behaviour. She is more annoyed by humanity than she desires to kill them, so to see her have to deal with that was actually quite intriguing and added some depth to the character (moreso than the somewhat silly, but hilarious, reveal about Ben and Glory’s connection, which I’ll get to below). The other element, of course, is that Buffy literally dies in order to stop the world from ending as a result of Glory’s plan. It’s almost a little cheap, having Buffy dying for the cause like this, suggesting that even if Glory was only around for part of the season and seemed to be just passing through to some respect she still matters because your protagonist was killed.
Of course, I know that Buffy lives (and sort of knew that she would have to die again sometime soon, considering the line in “Once More, With Feeling”), but I think that her death does work as a conclusion to the season, especially paired with Giles suffocating Ben to ensure that Glory can never return. Death was clearly central to this season, with “The Body” standing out as its strongest individual hour, but the idea that Buffy’s role is to kill herself, and that Giles’ role is to get his hands dirty doing what Buffy could not, says a whole lot about the role our heroes play in this world. Before, there was always a sense that they were stopping an evil mastermind, or a giant snake, or a half-monster, half-robot, half-man creature. However, here it ends with defenseless Ben promising he’ll keep Glory at bay, hearkening back to similar situations with love interests with plenty of gray area (which, of course, includes Angel, Spike, and Riley), and asking Buffy and Giles to make some difficult decisions.
I almost forgot about Riley until Buffy started talking about it, to be honest – it seems like so long ago that he made his less than graceful exit, and I certainly wouldn’t say I miss him. However, it ties in nicely with the sense that Buffy has had a very bad year, and that if anything her choice to sacrifice herself reflects upon the sense that she is still sort of searching for her purpose; while she may be the Slayer, the world seems to have punished her for that this year, burdening her with things that she doesn’t feel she is able to take on (protecting Dawn, dealing with her mother’s death, etc.). And yet in many ways it allows her to turn to others, like Spike, for help when she needs it, and the lesson the show seems to suggest she learned with Riley was being more open about her feelings. And so for her to make that decision after looking inside herself and interpreting the spirit guide’s question (a process which was nicely built into “The Weight of the World” as Willow journeys into Buffy’s head) seems like a nice way to reflect back on the season and the lessons learned: although Glory’s arc didn’t feel like it had much rising action, Buffy’s personal journey was swimming in it, which ensured that “The Gift” held substantial meaning for the series as a whole.
Watching the season as I did, there are some arcs that probably lost their impact. It seems like forever ago that Xander and Anya bought their apartment, but that storyline still works thanks to my affection for Anya as a character and for Whedon’s deft hand dealing with those sorts of romantic matters; also, their scene in the basement where Xander proposes includes both that fantastic moment where Anya’s fear of rabbits returns and the fact that they were fitting in a quickie right beforehand, which is just a really fun series of events in which to work in a pre-apocalypse marriage proposal. With Tara and Willow, Tara’s condition remained compelling to watch in both “Spiral” and “The Weight of the World,” but since I knew it was going to get reversed there wasn’t much suspense or real dramatic weight to Willow’s plan to reverse the effects. The episode also doesn’t get any time to allow Tara a chance to get her own scene, sort of focusing solely on Willow’s efforts to restore her mind and thus robbing us of a moment where Tara’s seasonal arc (integrating into the group) enters the conversation.
However, “The Gift” very clearly establishes what the conversation should be. This is a very simple action climax in many ways: with “Spiral” building the action, and “The Weight of the World” offering a more psychological perspective on the issue, all that’s left is for the two parties to meet. As a result, the episode focuses on action beats (Buffy and Glory’s fight up the scaffolding, for example), bait and switches (Robot Buffy being brought into the fray for the eagle eyed), and eventually the shocking conclusion. Buffy’s sacrifice brings the series back to what being the Slayer represents, and it shows to some degree how far we’ve come – look no further than Spike, breaking down entirely, for evidence that things have changed.
My one lingering question is whether or not we fully understand why Buffy would sacrifice herself for her imaginary sister. I say this facetiously, as I think Dawn become a real person as the season went on, but did she become a real person that we are willing to see live in favour of Buffy? When Buffy so vehemently refuses to accept that they may need to kill Dawn should the ritual be started, I didn’t feel as if her reasoning was purely emotional: she was protecting her based on principle as much as emotional connection, at least as far as I was reading the scene, working against the notion that she would be responsible for bringing death to those around her. I do think they share a bond, and that she obviously wouldn’t want to kill her sister, but her stubbornness spoke to something more. And so I have to wonder whether we personally feel that this sacrifice was worth it, and whether the show introduced Dawn in such a way which made her seem like part of this world. Personally, I look back to “The Body” and see a very real character whose grief was as visceral as her sister’s. However, I still have to wonder whether the character’s importance was inflated by her connection to the serial arc, and so I’m curious to see how she is defined outside of that next season now that the threat to her life has more or less passed.
What is clear to me, at least, is that even with all of this upheaval this is still very recognizably the same show. I felt the tragedy of “The Gift” as I should, but I also found the comedy of “The Weight of the World” as those cryptic comments confused over the connection between Ben and Glory that I’ve been getting for months finally started to make sense (thanks for keeping me in the dark – no, really!). What struck me about the fifth season as a whole is that, if anything, the somewhat limited role of Glory placed a lot more focus on the characters and their ability to adapt to the changes that would be natural around this point in their lives. Although the season made quite a few changes (like abandoning the university setting, for example) which seem somewhat sudden, I thought there were good reasons for most of those changes within the story, and that the primarily human focus of the season was preferable to Season Four’s awkward arc which didn’t leave as much room for character development independent of that arc.
As far as finales go, “The Gift” felt a bit “small”: it lacked scale compared to “Graduation Day” and intimacy compared with “Becoming,” which sort of made it just a big action sequence. Still, I liked the return of Joel Grey’s Doc, and thought that the pace of the fight was actually quite well organized even if the set felt pretty generic (and cheap, as the money seems to go towards the CGI on the inter-dimensional hellmouth). Still, even though it may not have been perfect as an episode, it fit the season pretty well: it didn’t try to suggest that Glory was a more consistent presence than she was, it built nicely with the episodes which preceded it (going back to “Tough Love”), and it created plenty of story for the show to deal with in the season ahead.
And while I don’t think the season was perfect, I think that “The Gift” was a fitting conclusion, and makes me very curious to see where the show goes from here.
- I’ll admit to thinking that bringing back the robot is a bit hokey – how did they program it for this specific purpose, for example? I may be misremembering the robot’s episode, but I thought it would require more time than they had. Still, I think it was worth it for Glory’s great “Did you all know she was a robot?” moment.
- On a related note, I quite liked Glory – sure, the character never quite came together, but it offered consistent comic relief and managed to mix that with some interesting questions of identity as it related to her relationship to Ben. That’s perhaps why I was so concerned when the Ben/Glory connection turned into a punchline, but Kramer (and, to a lesser extent, Charlie Weber) brought it to life in the conversations with Dawn.
- I’ll admit to finding the Knights a bit silly on the whole, but the “RV vs. Horse” sequence was fun enough to overcome its ridiculousness.
- I watched these episodes on Netflix, since the Season 6 menus are particularly odious and I like my new toy, and while the widescreen is nice in some circumstances there are moments where you remember that it was never meant to be seen in that form – see, for example, a decidedly non-medieval person appearing in a shot towards the beginning of “Spiral.”
- I don’t know when I’ll be getting to the end of Angel’s second season (which I was told to hold off on until I concluded this, probably because news of Buffy’s death resonates in the finale?), but I do know that I likely won’t be starting Season 6 for a while, perhaps not until December. Thanks for being patient in the interim, folks – the project will likely return to its original scheduling next summer to finish off both series (I expect I’ll be done Season 6/Season 3 by that point, in piecemeal fashion).