Season 4 (1999-2000)
I had huge hopes for Season Four, I really did. I got into Buffy around the time that Season Three ended, and after that high note, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen from there. Predictably, all of the surviving main cast would go on to attend college, and we’d continue on as always in a slightly new venue.
Except, this wasn’t to be. Giles got relegated to hanging out in his apartment (lame), Xander didn’t get into college and went into construction, and Buffy herself found that college wasn’t up her alley. Therefore, U.C. Sunnydale got very little feature time after the fourth season.
Angel, Cordelia and Wesley moved to L.A. (spawning the sister show “Angel”), leaving a void that would be filled with Buffy’s new love interest Riley, a modified Spike (implanted with a chip that makes it impossible to attack humans), a secret government organization, and a few blossoming female characters in Anya and Tara.
My growing discontent with this season initially is stemmed in my strong resistance to change. I hate seeing characters I love leave, change or grow into something different. Whedon started to take on other projects at this time, including “Angel”, which divided his time. Although the episodes were fairly good, the new Initiative plotline seemed hokey (elite government agents doubling as college kids?) and the characters now lacked any one location to bind them all together. I reserve my strongest protest for the evolution of Willow’s character — who goes from lovable geek to scary lesbian witch over the course of a couple seasons. I liked the geeky Willow, and the fact that her greatest power was her mind was a huge appeal to me — magic and the like seemed like a cop-out. The ending of Oz’s stay on Buffy just about broke my heart, although the continuation of Anya kept me going.
Still, there’s a lot to like here, and that’s why I haven’t tossed Season Four in with the “discount bargain bin” Seasons Five through Seven. The episode “Hush”, about a group of creepy-looking demons who steal all sound from Sunnydale, garnered an Emmy nomination and is up there in the top 10 Buffy episodes on my list. The twist on Spike’s character gives the Scoobies both a new ally and someone they all sort of revile (yet, he’s pretty funny, and we forgive a lot for that). Anya’s “speak her mind” ex-demon is often quite hilarious, Tara a lovable newcomer, and the Big Bad is pretty nifty in a Terminator-esque fashion. There’s even an awesome Halloween episode to boot.
It’s an odd season in that the finale is the second-to-last episode, with the last being a sort of prologue to the final three seasons of the show.
Season 5 (2000-01)
With some shows, it’s hard to know when, exactly, they jumped the shark and turned from a good show to a past-it’s-expiration-date show. Some shows avoid the shark moment by ending before that point, and some shows meander for so long (“X-Files”, exhibit one) that you can’t even remember the last time they were good.
Not so for Buffy. Buffy’s “jump the shark” moment came at the end of Season Five, Episode One, right as Buffy goes into her room, and a previously-unseen, unheard-of sister pops out of nowhere. The second you hear “Mom!” screech from the Summers sisters, you should slowly start unplugging your fandom of the show before you get seriously hurt.
Dawn, Buffy’s new sister, was brute-forced into the storyline as a created teenager who doubled as a “Key.” Her appearance also altered the memories of everyone in the Buffyverse, retconning it in such a way that she always was around. Except that eventually, everyone learns the truth. Unfortunately, Buffy’s still stuck with a newly minted sister, who is both annoying and pointless. Instead of moving on into adulthood, it’s as if the show wanted to pull us back into a twisted family sitcom of sorts.
I shouldn’t be terribly harsh on Dawn — the character got a few good moments later on in the show, but the jarring shift of the show that happened when she appeared started things to slide more rapidly downhill. If a show could suddenly throw in a new character, but pretend as if the character was always there, how does that make its viewing audience any more secure?
Season Five also suffered from a below-average Big Bad (a vain god) and a stretched-out arc that included Buffy trying to figure out how all the little pieces and prophecies fit together to stop the oncoming end of the world (again). While the finale is up there with the best that Buffy’s had to offer, the journey itself was far more rocky and less fun than it previously had been.
Still, with Xander’s quips, Anya’s appalling bluntness and Spike’s grumpy sarcasm, things kept going better than they had any right to be. Xander gets a great episode where he’s split into two people — Dorky Xander and Suave Xander (actor Nicholas Brendon’s twin brother helped stand in as the double). Riley finally leaves (hooray!), Spike gets a soul (huh?), Willow and Tara continue being all moony over each other, and a new gang lair is established: a magic store run by Giles and Anya.
What stands out in this season is perhaps Buffy’s greatest episode ever, entitled “The Body”. (Major spoilers ahead, but I feel justified) As the episode opens, Buffy’s returned home victorious to see her mother lying on the couch at a weird angle, with eyes wide open. As the hour progresses, music-free, we get a heartbreaking essay on death and grief in a show that’s touched on both, but never in such a poignant way. This episode marks the biggest turning point in Buffy’s life, when the last bit of parental support is taken away, and she is forced to mature into an adult in her own right.
By the 100th episode, “The Gift”, Buffy is almost out of options on how to protect Dawn and defeat Glory. A spectacular ending to a mixed, uncertain season leaves the show without its titular character (but, for how long?).
Season 6 (2001-02)
More and more Buffy delved, dove and dug its way into blacker situations and bleaker outlooks. An unwritten mandate that “No character should ever remain happy for long” became the show’s law: likable characters were killed or left town, relationships were shattered, and the lines between “good” and “evil” were blurred so much as to leave Ambiguity as the director of the show.
Fans were wondering how long you could keep a show’s main character deceased, and the answer to that was, “one episode”. In a disgusting magical rite, Willow pulls Buffy back from the great beyond to once again take up the mantle of “put-upon Slayer”. However, this action has dire consequences: Willow’s brush with dark magic begins to corrupt her, and Buffy is not the same girl she used to be. She’s hollow and filled with pain, which drives her to seek out a twisted relationship with Spike just so that she can feel something. At this point in the show, Whedon left the day-to-day running of the series up to his underlings, and Buffy began to fracture because of it. There’s just no real hope in this season, nothing much to root for or to keep us going.
Spike and Buffy’s relationship is so demeaning (as they use each other selfishly for their own needs) and graphic (ever want to see Buffy getting it from Spike at a rave? I didn’t.) that even Gellar noted this as the low point of the show. Two romances — Xander and Anya, Willow and Tara — are terminated in different ways, leaving those parties rolling around in agony. Fun! Dawn starts stealing (little brat), and Giles leaves to return to England (boo!). And to top everything off, the “Big Bad” of the season was three geeky dorks, one of whom we actually came to like very much in previous seasons as a good guy. So, I ask you, what’s there to keep me watching?
I guess that would be “Once More With Feeling”, the infamous musical episode of the show’s run. A long-running dream of Whedon, he returned to cleverly transform one episode into a tribute to his love of musicals. A kooky demon has come to Sunnydale, casting a spell that makes everyone burst into song at random moments, although everyone thinks it’s a lot stranger than the blasι attitudes that musical characters typically exhibit. The songs range from forgettable to quite good, and a strong following for the soundtrack CD followed the broadcast. It’s definitely the brightest gem in an otherwise dismal season.
And although “The Trio” of geeky wunderkinds weren’t an especially threatening group of villains, the damage they cause ends up transforming a major character into an unstoppable killing machine capable of apocalyptic power. The final two episodes are right up there with any Buffy finale, culminating in a showdown where none other than the show’s one non-gifted, non-magical, non-super character has the ability to put things right.
I… gah, I just wish that either the show had ended earlier, or that Joss had returned to give Buffy his undivided attention during these dark episodes. Buffy, be better!
Season 7 (2002-03)
I wish I could say that after the horrid shabbiness of Season Six, the seventh and last season of TV Buffy set things right and brought us back to the old ways. I need to stop wishing, I suppose.
Known as “The Season Where Grumpy Buffy Makes Many Boring Speeches”, Season Seven puts some things right while further damaging the franchise elsewhere. In many ways, it was a “getting back to the basics” notion of a small, underfunded group of friends battling world-ending forces. The Scooby HQ moved into Buffy’s house for the remainder of their efforts, Sunnydale High was rebuilt (with scary plumbing), and Faith happily returns for a good handful of episodes to keep us going. There’s even a frightening preacher (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion, who took Joss up on the offer of Buffy after Firefly tanked) and the Biggest Bad of them all — “The First”, a shape-shifting ultra-powerful… thingie. I dunno. It’s been a long week here.
The problem is that the entire season feels like a 22-episode finale for the series, drawing everything out so much that no character has the chance to get back into their normal swing of things. Everyone seems poised for this final fight, but because it’s 21 episodes from now, there’s a lot of waiting and half-hearted demons to keep them occupied. To make things worse, the gang rounds up “Potential Slayers” – girls who have the potential to become the next Slayer if Buffy died – and trains them as an army. Cool idea, but this ultimately results in a group of scared, whiny and forgettable faces that muddle things up. Buffy progressively gets more annoying, preferring to verbally bully people around and launch into horribly long, stupid speeches that are supposed to sound inspiring, but then she just doesn’t do anything.
The Buffy and Spike saga stutters to a close, Xander and Anya seem split up for good, and Willow makes an attempt at re-entering the dating scene (where’s OZ, darn it!) but it’s just not the same. What’s the worst thing is that there are GREAT ideas in this season which are completely wasted. It’s only in the final few episodes when the characters seem to shake off the apathy of the last couple seasons and we’re able to see the Scooby Gang as it once was: a vibrant, mouthy fighting force for all things good. The final episode, “Chosen”, was penned and directed by Whedon, and is not only a wonderful cap to the series, but brings things back around in a full circle by setting the final fight in the high school.
When Buffy ended, I remember having strong, positive emotions at the time. Buffy had been one of the only shows I watched for a three-year period religiously, and even with the crappy last few seasons, kept me interested and involved up to the bittersweet end.
My Top 10 Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes
1. “Surprise/Innocence” (Season 2)
2. “The Wish” (Season 3)
3. “Graduation Day pt 1 & 2” (Season 3)
4. “Hush” (Season 4)
5. “Superstar” (Season 4)
6. “The Replacement” (Season 5)
7. “The Body” (Season 5)
8. “Once More With Feeling” (Season 6)
9. “Tabula Rasa” (Season 6)
10. “Chosen” (Season 7)