Maybe what I love most about the episode is how well it works on multiple levels. In particular, consider the climax: Dawn has been kidnapped by Sweet’s minions and Giles sends Buffy off to rescue her. This is standard operating procedure except for the fact that this time, Giles insists she go alone.
From Giles’ perspective, Buffy has become too dependent on others to fight her battles. He especially senses her dependence on him and since he is planning on returning to England (which Buffy does not know), he needs her to grow up and stand more solidly on her own two feet. What Giles doesn’t seem to grasp is that Buffy is depressed. And why would he grasp that? He doesn’t yet know that they pulled her out of Heaven at the beginning of the season. He’s harboring his secrets. Buffy is harboring hers.
Later, Giles has a change of heart and rounds up the Scoobies to go aid Buffy (set to the song Walk Through the Fire, one of the most goosebump-inducing sequences in the series). The best part, however, has nothing to do with the Scoobies, because it’s not the Scoobies that help Buffy.
Had no one gone to help Buffy, she would have gone alone, and what was her plan? She told the demon Sweet to exchange her life for Dawn’s. She was willing to go to Hell (or whatever demon dimension Sweet was from) and, in fact, seemed almost eager to get her life over with. She just wants to feel something, anything, again, even if the feeling is torturous.
Thus, even when the Scoobies arrive, Buffy does her big Something to Sing About number (which, holy cow those lyrics are heartbreaking) and finally confesses that they pulled her out of Heaven (Willow’s reaction to the song is devastating; there’s so much emotion in that one reaction shot I can’t even describe it). Once the truth is out, Buffy starts dancing. She starts dancing and smoking, knowing it will kill her (as per Sweet’s cursed magic). She wants to die, in other words. She wants to get this life over with…and no one can stop her.
Until Spike does.
During the Walk through the Fire montage, Spike is shown separated from the Scoobies. He’s not led by Giles out of the Magic Shop. He goes on his own. He decides to help Buffy on his own, in other words. It is he who stops her from dancing, while the others stare in stunned silence at the scene. It is he who tells her the only way to help herself is to keep on living because ending your life doesn’t solve anything.
In my opinion, this scene is one of the most beautiful expressions of suicide prevention ever depicted on TV.
And even though the episode ends with Buffy singing to Spike that she just wants to feel and that their kiss isn’t real (while Spike, the fool in love he is, just sings that her kiss can make him feel), the point is she chooses Spike over death, and while that’s morbid and sad in its own way (and has its own consequences as the season progresses), it’s still preferable to her ending her own life.
Spike gives Buffy a stay of execution, in a sense. He gives her a chance to crawl out of her depression. It’s something he could offer her that Giles and the rest of the gang could not. It’s a beautiful, poignant ending to a beautiful and poignant episode, and, in large part, is the reason I cannot but place it at the top of the list.
Buffy’s confession is only one of several hints into the inner thoughts of the heroes. Some of these thoughts are shared between them, forced out through involuntary melody, and sometimes they are sung in private, for only the audience to discover. In both cases, the songs serve to plant the seeds that Joss and co. will water as this dark and depression-fueled season continues.