Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5

Things seem to be going well: Buffy and Willow are thriving at university, Buffy is enjoying a healthy relationship with an ordinary, living guy and Giles has found an exciting new job. A combination of family illness and the arrival of mysterious new threat in town soon leaves Buffy on the back foot and relying on her friends and family more than ever....even her little sister, Dawn.

The fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting set of episodes. After the slightly mundane Season 4, the fifth season sets up a much more formidable villain in the shape of Glory, a hell-demon who was once a goddess, ruling an entire dimension of pain and suffering. Trapped in our world, she is plotting her return home, which would be fine if it the process wasn't going to destroy Earth along the way. Buffy and her friends conspire to stop the apocalypse. So far, so standard.

However, the season wrong-foots the audience and upends expectations almost straight away. The first episode sets up none other than Dracula himself as a nemesis for Buffy, to the point where the audience might be expecting him to be the season's big bad, but instead he turns out to be a bit of comic relief, one and done. Then we get our first real shock: Buffy has a 14-year-old sister, played with considerable charm by Michelle Trachtenberg. Of course, we know that Buffy doesn't have a sister but every character in the show reacts as if she's always been there. Unravelling this puzzle takes a few episodes, but so well does Trachtenberg fit in that you sometimes forget she hasn't been around all along.

The battle against Glory is fun, although perhaps a little too low-key: the threat recedes for several episodes in the back half of the season and the show struggles to explain why Glory - show to be effortlessly superior to Buffy in combat  - doesn't simply kill Buffy when it would be logical to do so.

The show balances the supernatural threat against a much more mundane one, a non-magical illness that strikes one of our regular characters. This is dealt with realistically and with grace, culminating in The Body, which is not only the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but one of the greatest episodes of television ever written, a searing and beautifully-acted deep dive into grief, shock and loss that is genuinely upsetting to watch. Unlike one of the other all-time great episodes of the series, like say Hush or Once More With Feeling, this one isn't going to be getting lots of repeat airings because it is quite raw to watch, but it may be the show and director Joss Whedon's finest hour.

Season 5 (****½, except The Body which is clearly *****) has some weaker moments and episodes that don't gel quite as well as they should, but overall it contains a strong arc, the best individual episode of the series and a striking, shocking ending. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).

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