Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Buffy Rewatch (Season 5a)

<--Season 4b  Season 5b-->

Season five of Buffy is an improvement over the drop that was season four. It does not rise to seasons two and three levels of entertainment value, but it has an even higher level of things to say about life and spiritual matters. (Which is why this season will merit 3 or 4 entries instead of two.) As always, check out the reviews over at Nik at Night.

The writers get away from both the tired college storylines and the out of place science fiction emphasis. This season, we get to see real life explored more deeply (sometimes too deeply and too real as we will see in the second half of the season.) There is also a complicated philosophical game played with very creative storytelling. The viewer is asked to make some leaps in plot lines where a lot of trust is given to the writers right from the first episode. Thankfully, they have their story under control and know what they are doing.

The main themes this season are identity and death. Instead of merely addressing life issues, the show delves deeper into the meaning of life and, not surprisingly death has a lot to teach Buffy about what is important. Also the main enemy this season is no mere vampire or demon, but a “hell god.” However, the show stays consistently ambiguous and only deals with a very limited level of supernatural forces. Even the gods in the Buffy-verse are limited, almost human beings more along the lines of the glorified creatures of Greek or Roman mythology.

To begin with, here is a look at episodes 1, 2, 3 and 5:

Episode 1. “Buffy vs. Dracula”

It took nearly 80 episodes, but the Buffy-verse finally addresses the most famous vampire himself, Dracula. The myth is played with very creatively, and most the popular elements are addressed. Some of the more important ones are not touched on however.

The idea of the “Community of Belief” is huge in the novel, but hardly ever dealt with in all the popular culture uses of Dracula. Here it is surprising that the dynamic between Buffy and all the Scoobies is not dealt with that way, but that may be due to the fact that they have explored this concept deeply already, most deeply at the end of season four in fact. Perhaps they did not need to develop that anymore just yet. They will go back to it again and again, which is something that makes Buffy (and made Dracula) better than your average vampire fiction.

The issue they do take advantage of here to develop, and that will be explored throughout the whole season is Buffy’s nature as the slayer—her identity. Beyond being a superhero fighting evil, what is the slayer? Where did the whole thing get started and what does it really mean to be one?

Finally, at the end of the episode we get one of the all time greatest moments in creative television writing. Sure we have been watching for four seasons, but we just now find out: Buffy has a sister!?

We have seen sloppy personnel changes in television before. The Cunninghams lost a whole child between seasons one and two of Happy Days, and we were just supposed to think it had never happened. Here, however, it is not a case of sloppy production or the writers changing their minds about something. It is a part of a plan that has been in place and even hinted at since late in the third season.

Episodes 2. “Real Me” and 5. “No Place Like Home”

After revealing the shocker last episode that Buffy suddenly has a sister, the show spends an episode getting us accustom to this new reality. Dawn is roughly the age that Buffy was when she was made aware of her destiny. It is quickly clear that everyone thinks she has been around forever; everyone has slipped into the new reality the way they did in “Superstar” last season. Hints that we haven’t simply been asleep for the past four years: an insane man on the street tells Dawn that she doesn’t belong, and Dawn herself writes in her diary that Buffy is in for a surprise regarding her. That is a cheat, though, because as far as Dawn knows, she is really Buffy’s sister. For now her identity is what everyone including her has been told—she is the 14 year old member of the Summers family.

In episode 5 it is revealed that she is an energy sought out by a supernaturally powerful, evil woman. And suddenly we have our Big Bad for the season. This is a break from the pattern we saw in seasons 2,3, 4, and will again see in 6. Instead of a smaller threat for the first half of the season giving way to the main threat in the second half, we will deal with this major threat throughout this time.

Episode 3. “The Replacement”

Xander is hit with a spell designed to split Buffy into two parts: normal girl and slayer essence. Instead, it turns him into the best possible and worst possible halves. One side is thoughtful, responsible and insightful—all things we have seen Xander be. The other is a helpless, spaz of a boy, unable to pull himself together—also something, especially of late—of which Xander is fully capable.

This is a particularly good episode in the sub-genre of “evil doppelganger” stories. We are never sure which half is the real Xander and which is the imposter, something that makes more sense as the episode progresses. It is a huge turning point for Xander’s character, as it serves as a wake-up call that ushers him into adulthood. He finally begins to take responsibility for his life and becomes the character we saw hints of in the High School years—most of the time, anyway. From this point on in the series, he will serve as the perceptive voice of wisdom next to Giles’ knowledge.

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