The premiere of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire serves as something of a microcosm for the entire season. "Buffy vs. Dracula" is, for the vast majority of the episode, is an occasionally weird, occasionally funny episode with a few character quirks. Then, at the end, the show pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet:
Joyce Summers: "Buffy, if you're going out, can you take your sister with you?"
Buffy & Dawn, in unison: "MOM!?!"
This is one of the most audacious plot twists in television history. Prior to this moment, Buffy was an only child. Suddenly, she has fully formed younger sister, and a properly improper familial relationship with the sister. The show seems entirely comfortable with this new state of affairs, leaving the viewers completely confused.
Unfortunately, the ambition of the plot twist isn't matched by its implementation. The biggest problem is the younger sister, Dawn. She's, well, annoying. Part of it is that, as a little sister, she should be annoying. Sadly, Dawn succeed mightily at being a bother, and doesn't add anything else to the show at all for most of the season. It takes until much later in the season, the episode "The Body," for Dawn to become at all sympathetic.
Dawn's presence often has potential, as she shares the history of the show without actually having been in it (akin to Jonathan's presence from season four's "Superstar.") For example, during an episode with a robot, the season two episode "Ted," which also with a robot is mentioned. This opens a an interesting door: if Dawn had been around during "Ted," would she have sided with Buffy in seeing him as evil? How can the new Dawn-based continuity not affect the "real" continuity we've seen? This could be played for laughs, or played for drama, or both, yet it's virtually never brought up.
The other major issue dragging down the first 2/3s of the season is Buffy's love life. Following the fourth season, Buffy's relationship with soldier boy Riley seems fairly secure and straightforward. That may be nice for Buffy, but it's bad for storytelling. Riley, never the strongest character on the show (although perhaps not deserving of the vitriol he receives from Angel fans), is suddenly saddled with massive insecurities leading him to take more and more self-destructive actions. At the same time, the formerly bad-ass vampire Spike realizes that his obsession with the Slayer isn't hatred, but rather love. Spike's new-found crush leads him to show Buffy Riley's self-destructive behavior, then try to take her for himself.
This string of episodes are almost uniformly weak, thanks both to the speed with which Riley and Spike change their behavior, as well as them generally being weak episodes. A major exception is the superb episode "Fool for Love," in which Buffy speaks to Spike about the Slayers he's killed. This episode works well for two reasons. First, its flashbacks pair well with the Angel episode which followed. Both show the vampire gang of Angel, Spike, Darla and Drusilla all together for the first time, adding depth to the characters and the universe. More directly, Spike's depiction of the Slayers he kills superbly foreshadows the chief emotional arc of the season. Spike describes how the Slayers just seemed to give up. A part of them was disconnected from the rest of the world, and realized it would be easier to let him win. This, he tells Buffy, is unlikely with her, because she is directly connected to the world thanks to her friends, her mother, and her boyfriend.
In that sense, and in many others, the first fifteen episodes of the season lead up to the sixteenth and most famous, "The Body." Buffy's mother, diagnosed with, and apparently cured of, a tumor earlier in the season, suddenly dies, and Buffy must deal with the body in both a metaphorical and literal sense. Everything that the show had meandered incompetently around in the first 2/3s of the season suddenly work, no doubt in large part because show creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed it.
"The Body" succeeds on its own due to its superb direction, an experimental style which intentionally disorients the viewer from normal television perspective in order to simulate the viewpoint of the suddenly shattered main character. All the major characters are at their strongest, weakest, or both. Giles steps in superbly as a father figure. Xander and Willow panic, not knowing how to help. Dawn acts as the child a Slayer's little sister would be expected to be, alternately disbelieving, scared, disobedient, helpful, and finally, likeable. Tara and Anya, who rarely had a role other than girlfriend or comic relief, respectively, put in perhaps their greatest moments. Tara acts as the voice of sanity and reason, situating her as the show's emotional center. Anya, on the other hand, panics, completely unable to understand her emotions and how she's supposed to behave. Her social awkwardness, usually played for laughs, suddenly becomes the heartbreaking. "The Body" somehow takes a mediocre season of Buffy and turns it into something bigger, better, and amazing.
Virtually every episode after "The Body" is stronger than those which preceded it, and the season proceeds to finish its main plot with reckless abandon after two episodes which consolidate what went before. In "Forever," the emotional death of Joyce Summers causes Angel's first return since the end of Season Four, and Dawn attempts to resurrect her mother, further humanizing her. Then, in "Intervention," the Spike crush storyline suddenly moves from annoying to emotionally involving, no doubt thanks to the writing of Jane Espenson, traditionally Buffy's best non-Whedon writer.
The main plot of the season involves a hell-Goddess named Glory, who seeks a mysterious "Key" to return to her home dimension. A group of monks opposing this transmogrify the Key into a form guaranteed to be protected by Earth's champion, the Slayer, thus Dawn is created. Dawn is both fully human and the mystical object sought by the invincible Glory. Glory is a fairly effective Big Bad, but compared to the wholesome evil of Season Three's Mayor, or the emotional connection to the Angel-Spike-Dru combination of Season Two, she's sorely lacking. She does, however, provide an excellent sense of threat. She could, and does, drive characters mad or simply kill them.
Glory's storyline suffers, like most of the others, during the lull in the middle of the season. Once Dawn's nature is revealed in the fifth episode, the main storyline simply spins its wheels while the Riley and Spike arcs are dealt with. Her storyline also suffers from the presence of her human host on Earth, a fairly normal fellow named Ben, whom Buffy encounters interning at the hospital. Ben's relationship to Glory slowly becomes clear - he is her human form, which she can occasionally take control of. Anyone who witnesses this, however, forgets it soon after. The story suffers, however, with its inconsistent characterization of Ben. One episode he's a perfectly nice guy, then he's a mass murderer working with Glory, then he's nice again, then he'll do anything to defend Dawn even at his expense, then he'll do anything to save his skin. It's the weakest part of an otherwise strong set of episodes at the end of the season.
The strongest part is Buffy's resolution. Early in the season, Spike gave her a list of reasons she would maintain her resolve. But first she loses her boyfriend. Then her mother. Her sister is revealed to be a construct. When her friends are attacked and Glory learns Dawn's nature, Buffy's only response is to run. And when Glory finds them and takes Dawn, Buffy simply stops. She finally has found something which makes her simply surrender. Of course, Buffy has one more thing attaching her to the world - her friends - who drag her out of her funk. A newly accepting Buffy finally confronts Glory, defeating her, but not before Dawn's sacrifice threatens to destroy the world. Buffy refuses to stop the ritual by killing Dawn, and instead sacrifices herself to save the world.
This was initially supposed to be the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was certainly effective and touching, although not quite at the level of Babylon 5's tearjerker, but certainly not at the laughable level of Battlestar Galactica. The final shot, of Buffy's tombstone with a line at the bottom saying "SHE SAVED THE WORLD. A LOT" is an almost perfect summation of the series, being funny, precious, and sad, all at once. It also caps Buffy as a character, who was often overlooked based on the sheer charm of her sidekicks, but really was the greatest character on the show.
However, a great ending does not a fantastic season make. Compared with the emotional punch of Season Two, the wall-to-wall quality of Season Three, or even the excellent standalone episodes of Season Four, the fifth season falls a little bit flat. Yet it's only just behind, and "The Body" is probably the best Buffy episode ever, and one of the best ever on television.
1. "The Body" - What more can I say? This hour of television is the reason people think Joss Whedon is King Of All Nerds.
2. "Fool for Love" - Spike walks Buffy through the real perils of being a Slayer. The "Spikeification" hasn't pulled his teeth totally. It might be the last time we see Spike as a bad ass, as unable to compete with Buffy physically, he gets to her mentally by telling her the truth.
3. "The Gift" - The finale may be most notable for its ending and Buffy's death, but its opening, a throwback in which a single vampire chases a scared young man into an alley, calls back to the first episodes of the series. Buffy's workmanlike quipping and dispatching of the vampire, followed by her world-weary response to the kid she saves, are pitch-perfect. It's the same show, but so very different.
4. "Intervention" - Buffy becomes the last of the big three characters to get a doppelganger, after Willow's vampire and Xander's clone. Hers is a robot, or more accurately, a sex-bot for Spike's pleasure. Hilarity begins to ensue, but is quickly ruined by Buffy being told that "Death is her gift" by the First Slayer and Glory attacking and capturing Spike, who knows Dawn is the Key. Writer Jane Espenson seems to know how to make Spike, even lovelorn Spike, work as a character, and it shows in this episode, as he's likeable for the first time since his crush was revealed.
5. "Triangle" - With Riley gone, Buffy is an emotional wreck, and dedicates herself to saving Xander and Anya's relationship. Anya's tension with Willow leads to the summoning of a pissed off troll-god. What sounds like a soap opera with monsters in the ways that Buffy can occasionally grate, but it's turned into gold by the deft touch of Espenson.