All year long, cultofwhatever is taking a look back at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV series that best exemplifies what it means to be a “cult” favorite. It was never a monster ratings-grabber, it barely attracted new fans during its initial run on television, and the network that aired it frequently teased pulling the plug and ending it. What it had going for it, on the inside, was a staff of top-notch writers, led by Joss Whedon at the prime of his life, as well as a huge cast of stars and semi-regulars who never failed to rise to the occasion whenever the spotlight shined their way. What it had going for it, on the outside, was a diehard following of fans who, while small compared to those of other TV shows, sung its praises and extolled its greatness during and long after its time on TV was done.
Already we have broken down the show’s first four seasons. Click HERE for a link to the previous articles.
In summary: Buffy’s first year was a show still figuring itself out, still learning how to tell the kinds of stories its writers—namely Whedon—wanted, and still fine-tuning the balance between silly and serious, a balance that started somewhere in the 90% silly/10% serious range before settling down to a healthy 75% silly/25% serious ratio for the epic season one finale.
I say “epic” in comparison to the episodes before it. In every way, however, Buffy’s second season would outdo its first. It was bolder, more confident, more risky, more audacious, more dramatic, and more silly than anything that came in year one. This was the season, in particular the two-parter “Surprise/Innocence,” that figured out the groove that the show would run in for the remainder of its time on television.
But that’s not to say the show ever got stale. On the contrary, while the formula was perfected, Joss and co. refused to rest on their laurels, and instead blew up (literally) the primary setting for the show at the end of year three. After a high-stakes season that saw the introduction of a new Slayer (on account of Buffy temporarily dying in the season one finale), and the advent of a monstrous demon prepped to consume the entire high school graduation, Buffy and pals saved the day by slaying the monster and exploding the school into a million and one pieces. With the premise of the show built around the phrase “high school is hell…literally,” and with your heroine graduating from said high school…where do you go from here?
To college, apparently. Buffy and the gang stayed in town but shifted to the world of higher education. Unfortunately, as we noted in our season four review, this was the year where the show proved its excellent writers were not always able to spin straw into gold. The college setting failed to provide as much creative fuel as being in high school, and other than a few moments here and there (and not all of them good; see “beer bad”), year four saw the writers realize they couldn’t make college work. To their credit, they didn’t try to force it, either. They didn’t go so far as to blow up the university, but they did shift the storytelling focus to the interpersonal drama, which was always Buffy’s strong suit anyway. The only setback in that regard was the character of Riley, and the storyline-of-boredom known as “The Initiative.” Riley offered Buffy Summers a stable, normal relationship. It was intentionally boring and safe, but that only made the boyfriend at the center of it come off as boring and safe (not to mention hokey to a fault whenever forced to spew the ‘pretend army’ dialogue he was hamstrung with). While the writers were in top form whenever free to let their creativity run wild, the season was regularly held back by the Riley/Initiative storyline. The result is a fourth season that has some of the absolute best standalone episodes in the series, while being saddled with the weakest season-long arc in all of Buffy.
As the writers headed into year five they did so with a few things dangling in front of them. First, was the challenge to fix the mistakes made in the fourth season. Second, was the fact that the five-year contract, that most of the key figures involved in the show had signed when it began, was coming to an end. As we’ve noted in previous articles, Buffy had the grim reaper hanging over it every spring as the final episode of each season hit the airwaves. Most big network shows were renewed long before the season finale aired, but WB regularly made Joss and co. wait until the eleventh hour to renew the show for a new season. Because of that, Joss made sure each finale worked as a potential “final episode ever,” just in case the network ended up passing on the show after filming was done.
Season one ended with Buffy embracing her destiny and becoming the Slayer she was always meant to be. If that had been the end, it would have been a neat and tidy bow on a fun little half-season. Season two ended with Buffy killing her beloved to save the world and then leaving to start a new life. Had that been the end, it would have been a poignant close to a show about sacrifice and loss and the price we pay to be a hero. Season three ended, as said, with the newly graduated Buffy blowing up the school and saying goodbye to many of her friends as they went their separate ways. Of all of them, this would have been the most fitting “series finale,” had it come to that. Even the helter-skelter season four ended with the sublime and surreal “Restless,” an episode that explored the dreams of the show’s four most important characters, and ended with the vague promise that Buffy’s most important days were still ahead of her. Had that been the end, well it would have been a blue baller of a finish, but it would have left us wondering the way many final chapters often do.
Now we come to season five and never has there been a year where “this might be our last” was more contemplated. The need to tie up loose ends is all over this year’s batch of episodes, as is the need to go out (potentially) with a bang, and bring some sort of closure to the journey the show had been on for the past half-decade. It’s no spoiler now, a quarter-century later, to say that Buffy will in fact get another season (two, actually), but that was not known at the time, and the result is a season that works, much like season three, as the closing of a chapter, and a fitting end to the story of Buffy Summers…