Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Buffy Season Five

Buffy vs Dracula written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Could Buffy really have the nerve to try and pull off Dracula?

The Chosen One: Marti Noxon wastes no time whatsoever laying down the seeds for this years major themes and the pre-titles sequences sees Buffy leaving the comfort and security of her bed (and Riley) to get her vicarious thrills from hunting and staking a vampire. Keep this in mind as we work our way through the first handful of episodes. Highlighting the theme of family this year Joyce is given immediate prominence (she only turned up three times last year) and it is marvellous to see her enjoying some time with her daughter before things turn first domestic and then very dark. Dracula makes a very good point that Buffy’s power (to kill) is rooted in darkness and this is something that would be explored (in perhaps a little too much depth next year) a great deal. Its definitely an angle worth taking because it gives the potential bubblegum cheerleader character a great deal of depth and dramatic possibility.

Ripper: Without being self pitying Giles has come to the conclusion that Buffy doesn’t need him any more and so he has spent the summer cataloguing everything so they have as much information at their fingertips when he returns to England where he belongs. I cannot imagine this show without Giles as one of its central figures and this season pleasingly defers that departure by giving Giles a dominant role in Buffy’s life. Its season six where we discover how losing Giles from the Scooby Gang equals pain and misery. Nobody falls down quite like Giles but at least this time he gets groped all over by a bunch of slavering vampire girls for his trouble. Anthony Head tries to look like he is struggling but he is clearly relaxing into this part of his role very well. The scene where Buffy reaches out to Giles and admits that she needs him is beautifully played by both actors. We lost a lot of the Gellar/Head chemistry last year because the writers were so invested in pulling them apart but now it looks as though they are going to be closer than ever. I really like how their feelings are reciprocated here – Giles needs to hear more than ever that Buffy needs him and Buffy has come to realise just how badly she still needs his guidance and training. It made me go all fuzzy…but then this season does that an awful lot. The look on Giles’ face when Buffy tells him the thing he most wants to hear (that she needs him) is one of the most understated and touching moments in this shows entire run.

Sexy Blond: Delightfully Spike harps on about how he and Dracula are old foes (its all hyperbole, Dracula barely has any time for him) and how he leaked so many vampiric secrets through his glory hunting.

Witchy Willow: Willow is flaunting some formidable magic now, a thread that has slowly gained dominance and would continue to do so until the end of the series. For now it is igniting barbecues on the beach but soon it will be all about flaying men alive. She’s so techno-literate just call her the computer whisperer. Its painful watching Willow try and make Giles feel as useful as possible.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is comforted by the fact that he lacks the ability to build a fire on the beach, a skill available to the simplest of cavemen. Xander is very open to hearing naughty secrets about Willow and Tara…he’s only human after all! Its lovely to see Xander shoehorned into the role of comedy stooge again. Season four was so obsessed with ostracising the character that we lost plenty of his natural charm but fed a few delightful lines and given the role of Dracula’s butt monkey he is simply a joy to be around. I don’t know if Nicky Brendon is the best actor in the world but he has a bucketload of charm and it is more than enough to scrape him a pass in my eyes.

Vengeance Demon: Anya is a terrible old name dropper and slips in that she and Dracula hung a couple of times during her demon days.

College Boy: Now that the Initiative plot has been put to rest Riley is surplus to requirements and this episode agonisingly points that out from the off. Buffy is getting her thrills elsewhere (not like that), he’s jealous on a whim and he ponders on the glories days of how the Initiative could have had the Dracula problem sown up in an instant. He’s a bit pathetic if I’m honest and its going to be quite interesting to explore that because at the same time he is a really nice guy. Jealousy really isn’t an appealing feature of any character (the only time I ever saw it pulled off with any great subtlety and poignancy on television was DS9’s Odo and some examples – Rose from Doctor Who, Neelix from Voyager – were character assassination) and Riley’s irrational fear that Buffy will fall under Dracula’s thrall because she is transferring her feelings from Angel to the Dark Master is especially lame.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I think we’ve just put our finger on why we’re the sidekicks…’
‘I am Dracula…’ ‘Get out!’
‘No poo-fing!’
‘How do you like my darkness now?’
‘You think I don’t watch your movies…you always come back!’ – thank goodness somebody pays attention to the conventions!

The Good: James Marsters and Emma Caulfield are both now listed in the credits. This is a good thing (although I wish Amber Benson had the recognition she deserves too). Its always lovely to see Buffy and her chums hanging out on the beach (its such a rare occasion I actually forget that Sunnydale is a seaside town) but given past form on this show of horror following happiness it is usually the precursor to something horrendous. Only a show like Buffy would dare to shove a previously unseen gothic castle in its town and pretend that it has always been there. And if you think that that is the only example of that kind of cheek then wait until you see the end of the episode. The effects deployed to suggest the movement of Dracula (the rapid camera movement taking flight as he turns into a bat, fog rolling into Buffy’s bedroom) are subtle but more effective for it. Buffy often attempts to go for the jugular when it comes to its monsters and winds up falling flat on its face (the hideous werewolf costume for Oz, the rubbery snake that appears late this season) so its nice to see the show expressing some restraint and menace. Who hasn’t wanted to shove their other half in a closet when they have been spouting off like Xander does with Anya here?

The Bad: Buffy and her friends are so sarcastic in the face of Dracula it almost threatens to spill over into a dreadful parody at times. It would be nice if they could at least pretend to be a little scared of a man who has laid waste to so many laughs. If they can’t take him seriously, how can we (although Xander’s Sesame Street impression is hilarious)?

Moment to Watch Out For: Buffy stakes Dracula. Let me say that again just so it sinks in for me…Buffy stakes Dracula! No, I still don’t quite believe it.

Fashion Statement: I have never bought into the white shade of pale sexiness of vampires (Robert Pattinson does nothing for me) but there is something undoubtedly seductive about Rudolf Martin’s interpretation of Dracula. It might be his calm confidence, his magnetic purring or his penetrating eyes. I could see precisely why Buffy was drawn to him. Everybody has a new look this year which for the most part is an improvement. Xander’s hair is freakishly long but somehow he fails to look like a complete girl, Anya sports a new blond cut which suits her just fine, Riley has gone for quite a severe cut too (I preferred the curtains but then I am a child of the 90s) and Buffy has never looked quite this laid back in her image (come season six she is severe-o girl). Spike is less about the leather jackets and more about tight black t-shirts these days. It’s a move in his favour.

Orchestra: Immediately the loss of Christophe Beck is felt and his replacement Thomas Wanker (snigger), whilst offering a perfectly reasonable score in of itself, is easing himself in to the show. I think my problem is that the music is suddenly to apparent and melodramatic (although in an episode that features Dracula perhaps that is unavoidable) but to be fair to Wanker at no point is it ever actually bad. Its just different and I know for a fact that I adjusted because I can still remember the score for certain season five and six episodes that really stood out. And to be fair to Wanker the climactic moment when Buffy sucks Dracula’s blood is gorgeously scored.

Foreboding: Hang on a minute…Buffy has a sister? Since when?

Result: ‘You think you know what you are, what’s to come, you haven’t even begun…’ Its not the wham bang thank you ma’am that you would imagine of a season opener (but then Buffy never bowed to popular form in that respect, preferring instead to play quieter games as it eases you into each season) but Buffy vs Dracula is still my favourite opening episode of the entire seven year run. It’s a fun standalone adventure that wants nothing more than to entertain you for 45 minutes before the show becomes more serialised than ever. Along with Fool for Love and The Body it is the only episode that can be held in isolation this year. At the same time Noxon (who is given the rare honour to script the opener) slips in plenty of moments that in hindsight turn out to be the beginning of very important character arcs (Buffy’s dissatisfaction with Riley, Riley’s obsolescence, Giles’ desire to return home) this year. For gothic horror purists it might seem obscene to see Buffy smart mouthing in the face of the greatest literary vampire (anyone who suggests that it is Edward Cullen can leave now) but in all honesty this was never going to be a slavish tribute to Dracula. Instead Noxon picks up on themes and characters from the story and develops fun ways for them to be injected into the Buffyverse (Xander becomes a hilarious toadying sidekick). Its not the fastest paced episode of all time and we probably should have reached the one-episode-wonder castle a lot sooner than we do but this is such a lovingly written and amiable piece of work where everybody gets fun stuff to do I can’t find it in my heart to be too critical. And the final scene is a belter: 8/10

Real Me written by David Fury and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: She still thinks I’m little Miss Nobody. Just her dumb little sister. Boy is she in for a surprise…’

The Chosen One: Suddenly through Dawn’s eyes Buffy is a miserable, funless older sister who thinks she has this all-important role in society when really she just stabs at vampires with pointy sticks. There is something very natural about the chemistry between Buffy and Dawn (or rather Gellar and Trachtenberg) that speaks of the writer and actors knowing what it is like to have a testing older/younger sibling. How much lecturing can one person offer? Get used to this whiny tone of Buffy’s as its something we will hear an awful lot of over the next three seasons. But she’s kind of fun with it, Gellar playing it very loosely.

Ripper: ‘How bored were you last year?’ ‘I watched Passions with Spike…’ Suddenly Giles embraces parental figure role, telling off Dawn all the time and fulfilling the role of Buffy’s absent father. I love the idea of him travelling around he streets of Sunnydale in his fruity new sports car, trying to educate the people of America with classical music and spot people he knows he can show it off to. Buying up the magic Shop as a place foe everybody to hang, to increase his resources and to have somewhere for Buffy to train is a win/win/win situation.

Ebony & Ivory: ‘When you try to be bad…you suck’ Harmony doesn’t show up until halfway through this episode and she’s such an ineffectual villainess (that’s part of her charm) that your reaction to this episode really isn’t going to affected too greatly by her presence. I, on the other hand, think that she is a delightful character, played with real brio by Mercedes McNab who is willing to make herself look stupid in order to get the best laughs. She’s the sort of baddie that has minions, uses books to point out plans for town domination (world domination would be a little beyond her) and needs gifts of cheap porcelain statuary from people who treated her badly in the past to boost her self esteem. When Xander almost gags with laughter at the idea of a terrifying Harmony gang that was pretty much my reaction too. Its almost as though Harmony is a test drive for a potential long running villainess that parodies Buffy. Its no co-incidence that in a few episodes time another blonde bombshell crashes into the series with terrifying strength and a destiny of her own. Harmony is such a loser that she can’t even keep hold of this ragtag bunch of imbeciles and starts seeking out therapy from her captive!

Witchy Willow: As usual Willow is the most fun character to be around, and through Dawn’s eyes she is the coolest Aunt in town with her witchcraft and her girlfriend. Even more importantly the inclusion of Dawn gives Tara a vital role in the series (and trust me I am all too aware of how a child can bring a family closer together like this, Simon’s niece has given me a massive role now within his family) and one that is expanded exponentially over the next two years. When Dawn is sent outside when Buffy and the Scoobies investigate the latest murder Tara has the understanding to sit outside with her and not make her feel completely out of the loop.

Gorgeous Geek: Gone is the loser who lives in the basement last season, now Xander is the coolest guy in town (as far as Dawn is concerned); funny, sexy and treating everybody as an equal. Whether they deserve it or not.

The Key: The truth is I have made more than a few disparaging remarks about Dawn in the past when I have needed an example of a particularly whiny child character in a TV show. The truth of the matter is that I am actually rather fond of Dawn and there are only a few isolated incidents where she threatens to fall ill with ‘irritating younger sister syndrome’ (and they are mostly confined to season six where she is constantly acting up to her sister). Michelle Trachtenberg is a genuine find, a child actress that can mine the character for all of the subtle nuances expected of her, that looks natural on screen and cope with tough dialogue and who can slip in with the regular cast effortlessly as though she has always been there (which is rather the point, had that failed then this season would have severe problems). Dawn might drive Buffy nuts but she provides a refreshing new view point on all of the regulars which rather secures their fate this season since so much of it is about her. When Dawn goes on about the fact that nobody knows who she is really it is a very clever piece of writing because it could just be teenage self-centred examination or it could be the thoughts of an opponent that has slipped under the radar with Buffy and her friends. That pretence is kept up right until the last moment (and next week continues the seasons run as though Dawn has always been there and there is nothing suspicious about it at all).

College Boy: Riley is given a slight reprieve as we get to see him from Dawn’s perspective. He is a powerful figure, but a gross one who is always sticking his tongue in Buffy’s mouth.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s going to be far less time for the sort of flighty, frivolous –‘ ‘Hey there’s Willow and Tara!’ ‘Ooh, they haven’t seen my new car!’
‘I told mom once I wish they’d teach me some of the things they do together…and then she got really quiet and made me go upstairs. Huh, I guess her generation isn’t cool with witchcraft’ – very funny and naughty at the same time.
‘When are we going to do it?’ ‘Eww! That’s rude! I barely know you…and you’re a minion!’
‘Can I trade in the children for more cash?’ – this is where society is heading…
‘I’ve been doing my research, reading books and stuff’ ‘What? Evil for Dummies?
‘Touch me and my sister’s gonna kill you’ (Sarcastic finger in chest) POUF! ‘Can’t say she didn’t warn him…’

The Good: Let’s take a moment to step back and consider what Joss Whedon has had the nerve to do here. He’s written a character in to the series that has never been seen before (but has been alluded to in a very around and about way) but who the characters believe they have known all of their lives. He’s changed the fundamental structure of the series in a very profound way, giving Buffy a brand new focus and making other character superfluous to requirements (with Dawn representing Buffy’s personal life, Joyce is now on borrowed time). And he’s done it all without bothering to explain what is going on for three episodes, expecting the audience to just go with it and treat this mystery as something that will be dealt with later. Its remarkably cheeky, undeniably radical and unheard in any other show. Bravo. I remember simultaneously scratching my head and clapping my hands with delight when this episode initially aired because was confused by the situation and pleased by the developments. Dawn referencing events that she wasn’t even involved in (Xander going undercover to expose Dracula) is very clever. The sleight of hand is so devious that if you squint, Dawn was involved in last weeks gothic shenanigans. Some part of me always giggles when Buffy stakes Mort with the horn of a merry go round pony.

The Bad: Bizarrely the Magic Shop appears to be about ten times the size than it was the last time we visited. This is either because the old owner did some renovations because it is such a popular trade or because this is the new central location for the series and they want plenty of space, nooks and crannies to tell the stories in. There’s a terrifyingly obvious boom mike in shot during the scene at Willow and Tara’s room.

Moment to Watch Out For: I kind decide which of two Harmony scenes is funnier – the one where she calls Buffy out and Xander rips the piss out of her or her badass confrontation with Buffy at the end (‘So Slayer, at last we meet!’ ‘We’ve met Harmony you halfwit!’).

Fashion Statement: Amber Benson really is beautiful. I’m not into girls but if I was given a chance to kiss those lips I think I might just avail myself of the opportunity.

Orchestra: Oh Wanker you genius. Real Me offers an intriguing new approach to music on Buffy, dropping the overdone melodrama from the first episode of the season and developing something a lot more subtle and ethereal.

Foreboding: ‘Curds and whey’ says the crazy old man who confronts Dawn on the street, making the connection between Dawn and Faith’s ‘Little Miss Muffet’ statement in Restless (although you have to be a real fan to make this connection, to the average viewer it would slip right over their heads).

Result: A unique episode that offers a fresh perspective on all of the regular cast and brings the mystery of Dawn Summers up close and personal whilst continuing the feeling of creating an inward looking, intimate feel to the series that was lacking last year. Giles and Buffy cracking down on her training and his purchase of the Magic Shop are both essential innovations that see the show getting back on track (especially the latter, its lovely to have a central location again after always hanging out at Giles’ house last season). David Fury’s dialogue is witty, thoughtful and natural and offers a gentle easing in of Dawn with the gormless (but hysterical) return of Harmony. She is proof that rubbish villains can really be made to work. Joss Whedon has basically rebooted the entire series into something very different (less ambitious but more intimate) and by pretending that this is how it has always been he actually gets away with it too. The emphasis is on family all the way (the theme for this season) with Buffy and Dawn at each others throats like real sisters, Joyce disapproving, Giles teaching, Xander babysitting, Anya washing up and Willow and Tara hanging by on the sidelines like the coolest aunts ever. As a standalone episode not a lot actually happens in Real Me but as a subtle re-branding of a series that I thought I knew inside out it is a agreeable and thoughtful piece of whimsy that makes sure that there are plenty of questions that still need to be answered: 8/10

The Replacement written by Jane Espenson and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Two Xanders? Has somebody been reading my wish list?

The Chosen One: Buffy only watches kung-fu movies so she can criticise the ineptly choreographed fighting sequences. She’s fine saying that now but if she had to watch back some of those season one moves she might be singing a different tune (remember oh-so-cute fists bunched by the chest pose?).

Ripper: Giles’ attempts to conjure something out his box of magic trinkets to take on the veiny demon that has appeared in front of him and then using a fertility statue to club him over the head made me howl. Anthony Stewart Head should be used more for comedy in this show, like A New Man last year he has a natural flair for it.

Sexy Blond: I don’t know what’s worse; Spike creating a dummy of Buffy (complete with a fetching blonde wig) to beat up or later in the season when he starts to have other feelings towards it. At the moment he feels like he is coasting and needs a new focus. Fortunately that is just around the corner.

Gorgeous Geek: Its only when you think of how far back it has been since we enjoyed a Xander-centric episode (The Zeppo over a season and a half ago) that you realise how little screen time he had in season four. Xander is as clueless about renting a flat as I would be and thinks that doing a funny voice down the phone is adequate as a reference and then you move in. Thank goodness we never ended up together. The writers are prepared to make Xander look as pathetic as possible so he can rises from the ashes of his own ineptitude, it’s a typical Joss Whedon approach (knock ‘em down, watch them fight to get back up) that is always being used because it works. A struggle against adversity (especially when it is your own character) and triumph is always great to watch. Could it get much lower for Xander to wake up in a garbage dump (and even more galling the smell makes him think he is at home until he opens his eyes), his friends having forgotten about him and being replaced by a funnier, more successful version of himself? The truth of the matter is that Xander did a first rate job at the construction site and was going to be offered more work and he can afford to give Anya the things she desires. He just has such low self esteem that he convinces himself he isn’t capable of doing anything.

Vengeance Demon: It makes perfect sense that Anya would suddenly feel as if time is ticking away. After thousands of years of punishing men she is now mortal and living a continuous life so naturally she is in a hurry to get things done. On her list is getting a puppy, a kid, a car and a boat. By the end of the episode Anya is anticipating many years of life excepting disease and airbag failiure. Boy has she got it all wrong.

College Boy: Desperately thinking of how he can please and protect Buffy and always thinking in black and white…when is Riley leaving? He worked in season four because he had this whole other life (and narrative) away from Buffy. Now everything centres around her and that just makes him a desperate hanger on. Riley’s admission that he knows that Buffy doesn’t love him comes completely out of left field but shows he is more astute than I gave him credit.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Its an evil robot constructed from evil parts that look like me designed to do evil!’ I hear those are the worst kind.
‘But I never help. I get in trouble and Buffy saves me’ ‘That’s not true! Sometimes we all help to save you!’
‘You can’t promise you’ll be with me when I’m wrinkly and my teeth are artifical and stuck into my wrinkly mouth with an adhesive!’
‘He’s clearly a bad influence on himself.’
‘Buffy has super strength so why don’t we just load her up like one of those little horses?’

The Good: Apparently incompetently dubbed kung-fu is China’s most valuable exports…personally I would say it is wealth of exquisite cuisine but each to their own. The apartment that Xander and Anya rent (after arguing about it because the rent is too high and Anya, naturally, comes out on top. To be fair I wouldn’t want to take a tour of beautiful that I couldn’t have either) is another awesome location for season five to luxuriate in. The couch is the longest I have ever seen committed to film. Usually comic pratfalls are the last resort of the desperate but Nicky Brendon is just so good at it you can see why they included so many. I laughed every time (‘Harris, where’s your hard hat?’). Also smirk-worthy is the moment when Xander hugs onto himself for protection.

The Bad: The whole element of the shiny coin being flashed in peoples faces is completely pointless. It rather drives the point home too much when Xander is trapped out in the rain as his friends talk about hunting him down. Espenson is usually a lot more subtle than this.

Moment to Watch Out For: Xander attacking himself with a big girly scream and pansy ass moves. Its hilarious. And the Snoopy dance had me wetting myself.

Fashion Statement: Rain-lashed, sticky hair Xander makes my belly go funny. Two Nicky Brendon’s has the same effect. Anya is clearly having the same thoughts and that’s why I like her so much.

Orchestra: I have nothing to say about Thomas Wanker this week. Except he has an amusing name.

Foreboding: Buffy inverts the premise of this episode in season seven’s Same Time, Same Place. Instead of there being two Willow’s there is no Willow and shenanigans involving flesh eating demons ensue. They feels quite similar in tone (both written by Jane Espenson) but The Replacement is definitely the weaker of the two. Joyce is having headaches…be warned.

Result: ‘If Xander kills himself he’s dead…’ Whilst I always enjoy poking fun at Xander and watching him prove how capable he is, The Replacement is really the point where the season should have introduced the new Big Bad. The material is agreeable so its not a total loss but this is Buffy cruising until we can pick up the Glory and Dawn storyline again. After kicking him down into the dirt last season this is the point where Xander gets to dust himself down, take stock of his life and realise that things aren’t as bad as he thought they were. He has a lovely (slightly psychotic) girlfriend, a good job, great friends and job that he is good at. Before he can reach that conclusion about himself he gets knocked down one last time and shown just how successful he could be if brought all of his best qualities to the surface. The doppelganger material isn’t as funny or clever as it was in Dopplegangland and there never feels like either Xander is in that much danger. But it is occasionally laugh out loud funny (Espenson has an ear for writing humorous dialogue for these characters) and the pleasurable interaction between the regulars always makes this show worth watching. Not the most enthralling episode of Buffy ever told, nor the most inventive but it gets by with just enough charm to scrap a pass: 6/10

Out of My Mind written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Riley is in danger…

The Chosen One: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her sidekick Riley doesn’t quite have the same ring to it and Out of My Mind proves why Buffy patrols alone. Riley isn’t as fast, as strong or as able. Frankly he’s in the way in more ways than one. When Spike turns up to help out as well it is a subtle piece of foreshadowing for later in the season when the two men in her life fight for her attention. Buffy is back to moaning about being all work and no play but this is self inflicted so she doesn’t drive the point home (thank goodness, I had had more than enough of that in seasons two and three). She’s doing extremely well academically which makes her upcoming forced departure from school all the more gutting. I love that Buffy is geeky enough to know that there is a Q in Bond and Star Trek. There’s hope for her yet! Joyce’s fall is a shocking moment because she has always been such a strong character. For once this feels like something very dangerous is encroaching on the Summers family. Sarah Michelle Gellar injects such emotion into her admission to Riley about needing him. I don’t think the material deserves it and I don’t think the character entirely means what she is saying. She’s convinced herself that she needs Riley but he’s just too bland for her.

The Key: Astonishingly this is the second episode since the introduction of Dawn to practically ignore her presence in the show with all of the characters behaving as though she has always been there. I remember thinking at the time that this was either an astonishingly thoughtless piece of shifting continuity that they were hoping we wouldn’t notice if they forgot about it for long enough or it was part of a much larger arc storyline that was on a slow burn progress. Fortunately it turned out to be the latter but the fact that I had pause for thought showed the series was walking on dangerous ground. 

Sexy Blond: Spike tastes his own nose blood…that’s the most disgusting thing I have ever seen outside of The X-Files’ episode Home. Spike’s getting in on the comedy pratfalls this week, with perfectly timing falling into an open grave. I want to hate it that this show is going for such lowbrow comedy but I laugh every time. 

College Boy: Riley is the only character I know that when he tries to be a bad boy he comes off looking even more ridiculous than his usual whiter than white self. Even Xander managed to pull it off in The Wish. Riley has deep issues about Angel and not matching up and how strong Buffy is becoming. Its not so much an ego thing but an ‘I’m out of your league’ thing. Which is understandable but a little whiny. When he needs her the most, Buffy heads off to be with her mum. It takes Graham to spell it out that Riley is wasting his life in Sunnydale when he has real potential out in the real world.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She wont give up until she’s killed me dead!’ and ‘Didn’t you hear? I’m totally her arch nemesis!’ ‘I must have missed the memo’ ‘There was a memo?’ and ‘You’ve taken up smoking now?’ ‘I am a villain Spike, hello’ Harmony should have a full time placement on this show, she’s just so much fun.

The Good: The set design for the magic shop and Buffy’s training is something special and gets appropriate exposure in this episode (although the shop has definitely become dimensionally transcendental). The Riley/Harmony bitch fight is actually terrific fun, far more visually appealing than watch Buffy and Spike do the rounds again.

The Bad: Bailey Chase is awful in a way that very actors are on this show. He cannot make a single line of dialogue sound convincing, especially not the kind of dialogue he is being asked to speak in this episode. Somebody really should knock down the derelict Sunnydale High, it just seems to harbour fugitives these days.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘She’s haunting me!’ Out of My Mind is justly famous for its cliffhanging scene that reveals that Spike’s feelings for Buffy are so intense that he has gone from wanting her dead to falling desperately in love with her. It’s the most tragic thing that could happen to the character because it is just unthinkable at this stage and it’s the only way they can hurt the character even more than they have by putting him on such a tight leash. It gives Spike a reason to appear on the show, sniffing around after the Slayer like a lost puppy which he has desperately needed for over a year now (the last time the show actually needed Spike was the way they used to him to introduce the idea of the Initiative). Now he can hang around to his hearts content and I wont complain because there is a motive for character to do so. Before now I wondered why he kept wasting his time on a town where his plans go so spectacularly wrong all the time. And it looks like a fun idea to play about with.

Fashion Statement: Has Spike been working out? Because James Marsters’ body is so taut you could eat your dinner from it. The eye candy has definitely been of the male variety this year…is Joss Whedon busy over at Angel and the ladies (Espenson, Noxon, Kirshner) are having their wicked way?

Foreboding: Isn’t it wonderful how Ben makes his first appearance before we have ever heard of Glory. There is absolutely no reason to link the two character which makes the eventual twist so much more satisfying. Buffy is very good at this sort of sly plotting in its arcs.

Result: Everything feels as though it is starting to cohere but there is a distinct lack of substance to the last two episodes that is disturbing me a little. Spike’s secret is finally out, Riley is proving to be a massive pain in Buffy’s butt, Dawn’s mysterious appearance is called into question, Joyce is unwell, Willow’s magical ability is getting stronger, the Magic Shop is set up and ready to roll and Anya and Tara have a real presence on the show. The only thing missing now all the characters have formed into an effective unit again are some decent stories. The Riley in danger plot feels like a hangover from season four that should have been dealt with already and its clear from his lack of presence (and I don’t mean lack of screen time) on the show that he is on the way out. The question now is how long is it going to take him to realise that he has to leave? And besides didn't we do all this with Riley in Goodbye Iowa last year? The regular cast are really bringing their A-game here and I’m not sure the episode deserves it but it’s important to note how they have matured into such an effective ensemble cast that compliment each other. When season five picks up its feet this would be its most essential asset. Whenever Out of My Mind focuses on Spike it is excellent, otherwise fast forward most of the other bits: 5/10

No Place Like Home written by Doug Petrie and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: ‘You just have no idea how much I wish I was an only child these days…’

The Chosen One: Its horrible knowing what is going to happen to Joyce and watching the scenes where she tells her children that she is still suffering from headaches. If it was mild worry the first time I watched this season, its pure discomfort with foresight. Its rather sweet to see how jealous Buffy is of Dawn and Joyce’s relationship and it’s a perfectly natural feeling to have towards your fellow sibling. Its very natural for Buffy to think that a supernatural force is making her mother ill and its something the show would suggest for a little while before the ugly truth dawns on them all.

The Key: Dawn has that exceptional ability that little brother/sisters have to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. On purpose. It’s a gift. The identity of those who secreted Dawn into the Summers house is revealed and it’s not as nasty as you might suspect. For a moment Petrie tries to suggest that she is a malevolent presence (there’s a wonderful moment when Buffy looks over her shoulder to find Dawn with her arms folded listening to her on the phone). The reason this works so well is that Dawn herself has no idea that she isn’t real. It gives Buffy a reason to protect her like a big sister should. And there are plenty of surprises still to come as they discover how their memories have been altered. The final scene between Buffy and Dawn is gorgeous, beautifully played by Gellar and Trachtenberg and marks the first step in this very special relationship.   

Ripper: Giles dressed up as the campest wizard known to mankind in the middle of an empty Magic Shop on its opening day is both spectacularly funny and very sad at the same time. I’m really glad things pick up for him, I would have hated for this enterprise of selecting a new location for the show to have been a waste of time.

Sexy Blond: Its only when Buffy pulls Spike out from behind a tree that I realised I had forgotten all about him and his newfound obsession. Clearly this episode had me absorbed to a certain degree because last weeks cliffhanger was a real doozy. Suddenly Spike is hanging around outside Buffy’s house and its okay because there is a good reason. That’s all I’ve been asking for.

Goddess: ‘I could crap a better existence than this…’ Whilst there are other factors involved, a lot of your opinion of season five is going to depend on your reaction to the seasons Big Bad – Glory. I know a friend who condemned this season as the worst of the lot because he couldn’t get his head around the character and another who declares this as her favourite year because she absolutely loved her. I think I had reservations initially but it didn’t take me long before I fell squarely in the latter category. I might not think season five is Buffy’s best year ever (but it certainly ranks in my top three) but I think Clare Kramer was an inspired piece of casting to take on the role of the blonde bombshell who dogs Buffy’s footsteps this year. She’s just so unlike any other villainess that this show has ever attempted; smarter than Harmony, crazier than Drusilla, sexier than Sunday and when she’s got her head on far scarier than Faith. Glory works as a counterpoint to Buffy; an insanely powerful blonde with superpowers and a destiny of her own. She has all the best lines (speaking like Buffy did in season one before she went and grew up), talking like a character that has popped out of Clueless for a day break and the bizarre visual of her apparently innocuous appearance and her terrifying strength and viciousness really makes her one to watch. I can’t wait to see where this season takes her. The fact that she is called ‘the Beast’, is smashing her way through an iron door and the monk is clutching his crucifix and clearly terrified leads you to believe that something pretty damn frightening is about to make its entrance. I wouldn’t even say that Kramer is the most sophisticated of performers (although she is more than capable of upping her game as she proves as the season progresses) but with the part as written she doesn’t have to be. That’s the point. Glory is selfish, petulant, outrageously stylish and street wise kid that just so happens to be an awesomely powerful God (although we don’t know that yet). Stripped of her omnipotence, shoved down to Earth to exist amongst the insects and desperate to get back, she suddenly snaps the season into focus as every one and thing (Joyce aside) starts to revolve around her storyline. I love the fact that she completely ignores the protests of the security guard that she has chained up as a snack (he’s trying to tell her he has a wife and kid that need him) – he’s irrelevant to her. And her mad rant before she sucks her brains out is great because it shows just how dangerously unpredictable and psychotic she is. 

Vengeance Demon: We’ve reached a point now where even when Anya is far from the centre of what the episode is about, she makes me laugh out loud at least once every week. If she is supposed to be a Cordelia replacement she has blown her predecessor out the water. Emma Caulfield is so likable in the part I just want to be around her all the time. Telling a customer to leave and not giving a damn whether they have a nice day because she has their money is pure Anya. And I love her for it.

College Boy: Riley should be far more bothered than he is about being described as kittenish. Kittens are strong, independent, resourceful and moody. He should be described as puppyish. They are soppy, excitable and desperate for attention.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘My boyfriend. Go away!’
‘Five words or less’ ‘Out. For. A. Walk. Bitch.’
‘I’m President. You can be the janitor.’

The Good: Finally something has started happening. Monks on the run, spilling treasures, magic curses, doors blowing off their hinges and flame dressed blondes dishing out horrible death. This is more like it! Almost to point out that this should have taken place before the introduction of Dawn (but then would kind of give away everything about her before she showed up) a caption flashes up informing us that Glory caught up with the monks two months ago. The dusting effects are much better this year with the vamps dusting off a layer to reveal the skeleton underneath and then that floating into the wind as well. We’ve never seen Buffy beaten up quite like this before. Glory swats her aside like she is a fly. It looks like this might be a season of bitch fights that will make the Buffy/Faith confrontation look like kids in a playground. I rather love the fact that the all-powerful Glory gets sidetracked by a broken heel enabling Buffy to escape. I always said those things were more trouble than their worth. Powerful energy which is termed a key turned humanoid? Has somebody been watching The Armageddon Factor? In a small but vital role, Ravil Isyanov gives a fantastic performance as the monk.

The Bad: One thing I have really noticed this year is how economic the first batch of episodes has been. Season four boasted some outrageously expensive looking sets (the Initiative) and action sequences but so far this year the show has been contained to sets we already know or tarted versions of ones we have already seen (the Magic Shop). Either the budget has been cut (perhaps that’s why the show has been serialised?) or they are saving the money for something special coming up.

Moment to Watch Out For: I love the subtle effects that are used during Buffy’s vision quest. The grainy quality of the picture, the soft pulsing of Dawn in the family pictures and how her room transforms from a teenage bedroom to a storage room in the blink of an eye. Make no mistake this is fantastic visual storytelling because you don’t need a single word to inform you of what is being pointed out. Forgive the pun but the scene where Glory tiptoes up behind Buffy and is clearly loving every second of it is…glorious.

Orchestra: Wanker’s music during the ritual is terrific, mystical and spooky with a little touch of tinkling magic.

Foreboding: The show continues to sneak clues under the radar with both Ben and the crazies turning up in what appears to be a completely innocent scene about Buffy getting Joyce’s medicine. Very clever.

Result: In one way No Place Like Home is as plotless as the previous episode but there are several differences that make this stand out as something far more important. Firstly it introduces Glory to the mix, the evil harpy that will prove to have a profound effect on Buffy’s life before the season is over. For good or for ill (I would definitely say the former) Clare Kramer makes an instant impression in the role and if nothing else the answers to her mystery (What is the Key? Why are the monks so frightened of her? How has she invaded the Summers house?) are appetite whetting. Joyce’s storyline is perturbing to watch especially with the foreknowledge of what is to come but the standout material in this installment focuses on Buffy’s trip into psychedelia and exposing Dawn as a fraudulent sibling. Part of me is surprised it took this long to explain her presence and another part me feels as though the mystery has been sown up too quickly. All of me is intrigued to see how she is linked to the Glory plot, how Buffy is going to handle the secret and whether the character will be integrated into the show for good. Whilst season five might not be throwing as many surprises at you as last year, it has one walloping great mystery at its heart which has changed everything. It was a bold move and it’s already paying off. The opening of the Magic Shop is superfluous material but just watch the interaction between the regulars – they are an awesome functioning unit at this point. One thing is clear about season five – standalone episodes are out the window from now on and its serialised storytelling all the way. If this is any indication of the story that is going to be told, sign me up. Its bizarre because I know this isn’t one of the better episodes of Buffy (Dawn, Joyce and Glory’s plots would all be given better airings later in the season) but I was really involved in it anyway. Man, I would give No Place Like Home this mark just for the moment Glory tippy toes up behind Buffy: 8/10

Family written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Tara’s family turn up to drag her back home…

The Chosen One: Since discovering the truth about Dawn, Buffy has switched to over protection mode and is dogging her every step and barely letting her leave her sight.

The Key: Buffy only shares the secret about Dawn with Giles which at this stage is probably a wise move. All she needs is Xander or Anya acting all wiggy around her. Buffy’s memories have been changed to such an extent that she knows that Dawn wasn’t a part of her life two months ago but she can still remember the most painful and vivid memories about her reacting to their fathers departure badly.

Goddess: ‘Please don’t tell me I was fighting a Vampire Slayer…how unbelievably common !If I had friends and they heard about this…’  Glory is going to come for Dawn and Buffy, that part is made abundantly clear. She’s so much fun, tying up the Lei-Ach demon in her closet amongst the feather boas and tossing high heels at his face until he wakes up!

Sexy Blond: In what might be the rudest action sequence known to mankind, Spike winds up with Buffy’s legs wrapped around his neck with her screaming ‘I’m coming right now!’ and we cut to Spike and Harmony in bed and realise where Spike has been the entire time he has been making love to her. Its hysterical, naughty and I kind of feel really bad for Harm. He turns up to see Buffy get killed but thanks to his newfound affection for her jumps into the fray and tries to save her. He gets a bloody nose for his trouble.

Witchy Willow: The three way relationship between Willow, Tara and Miss Kitty Fantastico continues to be the cutest thing on television in a million square miles without ever once wanting me to reach for the sick bucket. How Whedon has achieved this is beyond me. Tara doesn’t feel useful in the gang and its time to find out where that self doubt springs from. There’s a moment when Tara tries to choose her moment to say something cool in a scene where she has been otherwise completely quiet and it goes down like a cup of cold sick. I can remember moments with my other halves family like in our first few years together, coming at that point where you don’t quite know where you fit in and suffer crushing embarrassment because they don’t quite know how to take to you either. When she is around her family, Tara’s stutter is at its worst which reveals how uncomfortable she is and they have a nasty habit of putting her down. Tara has one moment of not being able to cope with Willow and her friends but it’s the first time she has ever had to tell her girlfriend no and she clearly feels very bad about it. I’ve heard it said that people find the revelation that Tara’s isn’t a demon quite a disappointment but I had quite a different reaction. The thought that the McClay family have been convincing the women in the family that they have demon blood to keep them press ganged and under control is actually rather frightening. Thanks goodness Tara has Willow and her friends because if she was still the meek slip of a girl we met last year she wouldn’t have had a hope in the face of her family. Watch how Willow goes from treating Tara so gently to angrily spitting at her father, Alyson Hannigan can turn convincingly on a sixpence. Tara is so nice that even when the truth is revealed that she isn’t a demon she tells her father to go without condemning him. I wouldn’t have been so kind.

College Boy: In Joss Whedon’s hands Riley is suddenly a real character again, tussling with Xander during Buffy’s move and generally behaving like a human being and not a walking automaton. He’s starting to realise that he really is the puppy that comes running every time Buffy slaps her knees (although he’s getting hyper whiny about it). Riley is propositioned by a vampire at Willy’s Bar in what appears to be a throwaway scene. It is becoming ever clearer to me that there aren’t any throwaway scenes in season five, everything has significance later on even if you don’t realise it at the time. It looks like Buffy and Riley might have resolved their differences at the episodes end but its just putting a plaster over a seeping wound without dealing with the root cause.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Am I late? Did I miss any exposition?’ I love how Buffy’s dialogue jumps straight to the point, practically shoving a foot through the TV screen to shatter the fourth wall.

The Good: This weeks demon of choice is rather chilling with his gross forked tongue, bleeding pustules on his face and matted hair. Much of the character is really well observed. Recently I tried to introduce a new friend into my closest group of friends and it went down about as well as the treatment that Tara received. There have been many a moment like the one between Buffy and Xander discussing how they fit in with the group and how nobody really knows them (its basically criticising Tara whilst constantly counterpointing that with compliments). It’s always interesting when you add a new element to a functioning group of friends, it usually goes one of two ways. Post-Enchanted it is weird to see Amy Adams in such a tiny role but she works wonders with the little screen time she has turning cousin Beth into somebody who is poisonous to be around whilst pretending to be sugar and spice. There’s something quite chilling about the way she wants to encourage Tara into a life of servitude to her father and brother. Buffy confirms this years theme during the conclusion, stating categorically that they are a family now. Strangely enough it works here whereas the million and one times Janeway mentioned the same fact on Voyager I just wanted to reach for the sick bucket. Very different dynamics. Showing that the chip has legs beyond de-fanging Spike, he punches Tara in the face to prove that she isn’t a demon. Clever and funny (‘he hurt my nose…’). Look at those party scenes, everybody is so happy! A world of pain must be on the way for Joss Whedon to let his characters smile this much.

The Bad: Thanks goodness Buffy has the ‘previously on…’ sequence at the beginning of every episode now otherwise it would be easy to forget about the clue that not all is right with Tara that was slipped in during the middle of last season. I had forgotten all about it. It shows forward thinking but boy did they wait a long time to pull her up on that.

Moment to Watch Out For: Joss Whedon is thinking outside the box again and conjuring up new ways to sell familiar scenes. This week he has Tara put a glamour on the Scoobies so they cannot see any demons and sets a pack ravening beasts on them in a sequence that sees them wrestling with nothing. But the fight isn’t where the rewards are to be found in Family but in the emotional fireworks that come afterwards. Willow gets to affirm her love for Tara in the face of her family and Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies stand up for her and refuse to allow them to take her. It’s once of those moments in Buffy when you need somebody around to cuddle. If there’s no-one about and you can’t drag somebody in off the streets, use a cushion. It’s lovely.

Fashion Statement: ‘This earns you big favours. There could be outfits.’ The camera pans away from Ben just as he is taking his draw string pants off (after exposing his rather impressive chest). I realise that an important plot point is being concealed but I still shouted ‘no fair!’ at the television. Whedon brilliantly slips the secret that Glory and Ben are the same person right under our noses and snatches it away again before we can realise. Xander has a great look this year too, the one year where his life is together and he represents the most stable character on the show. The last scene with Willow and Tara floating on a cloud in the middle of the dance floor is so achingly romantic I think I started purring.

Result: Let’s get one thing straight, this is no Hush or Restless but it is still very good and a vital episode for the continuing exploration and settlement of Tara. Not every story written and directed by Joss Whedon can be a revolutionary classic but Family does show that even with regards to the nuts’n’bolts tales he is offering something a bit more special than the norm (in comparison to his early season openers for instance). Tara has fast become one of my favourite characters on this show and Family goes to some lengths to show how she has been quietly integrated into the Scoobies without anybody bothering to really get to know her. Like Willow said about Dawn last week I have so much involuntary empathy for Tara because she is a bit of a spaz, because she is awkward around people she doesn’t know and because it is revealed in this episode that she suffers the same curse as me – her immediate family (barring a few exceptions in my case) are just ghastly. It’s a slow burn episode that doesn’t seem to be in a rush to get anywhere fast and provide anything but decent character moments until the last ten minutes when Buffy and her friends do something rather wonderful for Tara and affirm this seasons family theme in a particularly heart-warming conclusion. Its so lovely I had to grab my better half and squeeze him for about ten minutes. As usual at this point in season five the plotting is almost non-existent but compensating in spades is the character work which is absolutely excellent: 8/10

Fool For Love written by Doug Petrie and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: Spike and how he killed two Slayers...

The Chosen One: We’ve never seen Buffy bleed quite like this before, or look as scared and it really drives home the point that despite her sarcastic quips and attitude that she is fighting a dangerous game. I think somewhere along the line (with the additional of the latest Big Bad) we forgot that vampires can actually be scary. There’s no smart lines of dialogue when Riley rushes in to save the day, she simply collapses into his arms in a bloody state. She even has the humility to admit that he was one a pretty ordinary sort of vampire and that it was as simple as he beat her. She’s only being honest when she says that each Slayer comes with an expiration date on the package (she almost passed her sell-by date in season one and would come face to face with the same issue at the end of this season). Her first lesson is that a Slayer must always reach for her weapon because a vampire always has his. I think Spike is right when he suggests that Buffy has gotten so good that she is starting to think she is immortal. I think the audience has fallen into the same trap so this is a healthy  reminder that it isn’t the case. Is Buffy a little bit in love with the idea of dying or is it something she fears? The only reason Buffy has lasted as long as she has is because she has ties to the world. Those ties are being tested as Joyce heads off for a CAT scan, a real world horror invading her life.

The Key: ‘Come one, who’s the man?’ ‘You are. A very short, annoying man.’ Dawn proves that she isn’t just a whiny teen but can be useful in some Joyce-related cover ups. It might be the first time she hasn’t deliberately been portrayed as a pain in Buffy’s butt.

Sexy Blond: It’s a fabulous premise for an episode to have Buffy so badly injured during a mundane fight that she needs to turn to Spike to find out what weaknesses the other Slayers had that he murdered. It’s by far the best use of Spike in this show since the beginning of season four (he has to be involved in this one and that hasn’t always been the case in the past year) and fills in a lot of rich detail about his past that I have always wondered about. It also subtly continues the ‘Spike loves Buffy’ storyline with him gently agreeing to help her out where a few years back he would have fed her a pack of lies, probably so he could dispatch her himself. How he turns her education into a twisted version of a date is great. It was a bold move to suggest that one the coolest characters ever seen on television began his life as a bumbling, awkward, shy boy who would rather scribble down poetry than express his feelings. James Marsters is a delight in these scenes and clearly relishes the chance to play something completely different. To be fair to those who mock him effulgent is not a word that should turn up in any poem. Or anything. It’s gorgeous to spend some time with Drusilla again and to be reminded of what a smoking hot couple she and Spike were. She was always nuttier than a squirrels shit after he has been overdosing on macadamias and Petrie fills her scenes with mouth wateringly loopy lines (‘the King of cups expects a picnic…but this is not his birthday!’). We’ve never seen a siring quite like this before with William proving a wimp until the last, screaming ‘ow!’ over and over as Drusilla sinks her teeth into his neck. He was such an awkward thing that putting him down was probably a kindness. After his first Slayer and his taste of her rich blood you can see what he came after Buffy, its like an addiction. Drusilla is so batty she is horny as hell after Spike has bagged his first Slayer and makes love to Spike whilst the blood is still hot on his lips. The look on Angelus’ face when he is told that Spike has bagged his first Slayer could be read as simple jealousy but you have to watch the accompanying Angel episode to understand that that isn’t the case at all. Cutting from the best night of Spike’s life at the Boxer Rebellion to the current day where he is hanging out in a kids nightclub with a Slayer shows you how far he has fallen since then. Taking the leather jacket from Nikki is not only an awesomely cool moment but also explains why he always seems to be wearing it. At the climax Spike goes from wanting to kill Buffy to comforting her and Marsters makes that transformation looked utterly convincing.

College Boy: Without a doubt Riley’s finest hour since season four and proof that if the writers went quite so obsessed with writing him out of the show he could be made to work. I’ve heard people bemoan that he manages to kill a vampire that almost dispatched Buffy but that is only because he thinks in such black and white terms. She’s all about the fun of the fight and the witty quips. He turns up with a hand grenade and blows the crypt that his gang are hiding in to smithereens. I think I punched the air as he walked away from the explosion of dusty death.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They call him William the Bloody because of his bloody awful poetry!’
‘Every day you wake up to the same question that haunts you…is today the day I die?
‘Death is your art. You make it with your hands day after day. That final gasp. That look of peace. Part of you is desperate to know what’s it like? Where does it lead you? You see, that’s the secret. Not the punches you throw or that kicks that you land. She nearly wanted it. Every Slayer has a death wish. Even you.’

The Good: Its very clever how Doug Petrie throws the least convincing looking vampire at the audience (what is up with that hair?) to deliberately throw us off balance and think on this as a casual late night dusting. He turns that completely on its head and make this the vampire that finally gets the better of Buffy and manages to stab her in the gut with a stake. It’s the most eye opening pre-titles sequence in a while, taking a trope of this show and subverting it with shocking style. The whole sequence of Riley patrolling and being saddled with the GAP kids club (otherwise known as Willow, Xander and Anya chomping on chips and wearing really inappropriate clothing) had me hooting. How gorgeous do the flashback sequences look, giving the show a spanking new set of locations beyond the usual Sunnydale schlock. England is represented as cobbled lanes, horses clip-clopping along and well dressed ladies and gentlemen drifting past the camera. The scenes set in and around the Boxer Rebellion look as though they have sprung from a Hollywood movie. Atmospherically lit, filled with extras and with and with a sense of space that this show usually shuns, its impossible not to be impressed as you drink in these impressive visuals. Perhaps this is where the budget all went. Spike’s fight with the Chinese Slayer is simply one of the finest pieces of action you will see on this show, set in a beautiful location, exposed from many cameras and cut rapidly with the end result offering the one thing this show has to avoid usually – the death of a Slayer. The shot of the four vampires strolling in slow motion away from the chaos of the Rebellion with flames reaching up into the sky behind them is one of Buffy’s most enduring images. I have a bit of a love affair with trains (is it a boy thing or a geek thing or just a me thing?) and so immediately got excited as we jumped onto a graffiti strewn New York subway train as Spike combats wit Nikki. Awesomely some of the shots are filmed from outside the train looking in as it screams along the tracks. Intercutting the past and the present with Spike fighting both Nikki and Buffy is exceptionally done, really giving the climax a sense of energy. Catching up with Spike and Dru post-Becoming fills in an essential piece of missing continuity and shows that Spike had an unhealthy obsession with Buffy before he even realised it.

The Bad: As one myself (although I find the term rather endearing), I take exception to Spike’s mis-pronunciation of poofter.

Moment to Watch Out For: This episode builds to the incredible moment when Spike spells out that Buffy has a death wish and leans in to take advantage of her. Her reaction, and how she tears the ground away from beneath him by tossing money at him, is extraordinary. We’ve never seen Spike go from such a climactic high to a pathetic low in a heartbeat. ‘You’re beneath me.’

Fashion Statement: Willow’s hat in the cemetery. So cute I want to gobble her up. 80s punk Spike is hot in a very wrong way.

Orchestra: I think I had really underestimated what Thomas Wanker brought to this show. Whilst he isn’t in the same league as Christophe Beck (mostly because his music is a little samey whereas Beck could give each episode its own unique identity) I have identified a great deal of very good music already in season five. He lends the China sequences a more hard hitting, kung-fu pace and the scenes set in New York sound as headache inducing and as in-yer-face as the worst excesses of 80s rock music.

Foreboding: Introducing Kali Rocha as Cecily, and later Halfrek. She has such immediate screen presence it is easy to see how see why she was brought back. How they retro-actively decide to make Cecily and Halfrek the same person just like Anya/Anyanka was inspired cheek of the kind only Buffy can get away with. As a counterpoint to this episode check out the phenomenal season seven episode Lies My Parents Told Me which fills in the gaps with regards to William’s mother.

Result: A rich exploration of Spike’s mythology, a shocking reminder that vampires are supposed to be scary, a memorable return for Darla, Drusilla and Angel, some genuinely funny comedy and an expensive production filled with memorable imagery – there isn’t one part of Fool For Love that isn’t firing on all cylinders. It’s one of those episodes that feels like it was written and directed by Joss Whedon because it is just a notch above all the really good episodes and has had extra care poured into it so it’s surprising that it was last week’s quieter character affair (which was still very good) that he actually helmed. Doug Petrie writes what is probably his best script with some valuable insights into some of the most popular characters this show has produced and the direction courtesy of newbie Nick Marck is a thing of beauty. If he had something to prove coming onto Buffy then he has achieved his goal and then some. Proof that he has taken over as top dog in Sunnydale Spike is afforded the sort of gripping flashbacks that Angel enjoyed back in seasons two/three and it’s an invaluable charting of his life from meek poet to grungy bad boy. Fool For Love cements James Marsters’ position as one of the best performers on this show, effortlessly taking us on a journey through different stages of Spike’s life and convincing in every one (unlike Boreanaz who is still struggling with his hideous Irish accent). The last ten minutes are some of Buffy’s finest material, some gorgeous observations are made about Buffy and Slayers in general and these scenes expose a chemistry between Gellar and Marsters that the show is really about to start capitalising on. Even the ending is perfect, the silent reaction shots as Spike tries to comfort Buffy as she realises that her mom could be very ill indeed. Fool For Love is an essential episode of Buffy, a top ten classic and something to be savoured: 10/10

Shadow written by David Fury and directed by Dan Atlas

What’s it about: Glory ups her game in her hunt for the Key…

The Chosen One: I find the scenes where Joyce is alone in the hospital room having her CAT scan and wondering if she is going to die very disturbing because of my foreknowledge of her fate. These scenes were unsettling the first time around but now they are unbearable. Waiting for something horrendous to happen to a character you love is very disquieting. When a shadow is discovered Joyce does what every good parent would do in her situation, thinks about the reaction her children will have to the news and attempts to buoy their spirits. She is such a trooper. The direction when Buffy discovers the news that her mother has a brain tumour is excellent, the dialogue drowning out as she watches the Doctor intently without taking in a single word beyond the news of a life threatening illness. Buffy telling her mom she looks beautiful broke my heart.

The Key: Dawn has jettisoned her annoying teen persona and is now just a child trying to cope with the fact that she might lose her mother. Buffy chooses to hold off from telling Dawn the truth about her mum for as long as possible, not because she is afraid to do so but because she wants her to live in a world where her mother might not be snatched away from her at any minute for as long as possible. The story of Dawn, Buffy and Joyce riding the carousel over and over when they first moved to Sunnydale and she hadn’t made any friends yet to invite to her birthday party is gorgeous. It shows what a fantastic job those monks did.

Goddess: Ben is gaining increasing prominence on the show simply because he keeps appearing in Buffy’s frequent trips to the hospital. It looks like he is being set up as Riley’s replacement as a romantic interest the way he gently handles her when she receives terrible news about her mother and the show does go down that route temporarily before yanking the character in a whole other direction. It’s season five thinking ahead again, laying seeds for some great surprises in its second half. How Glory’s ritual is interrupted by a beating that she effortlessly turns the tables on Buffy is terrifically played by Kramer, she walks away from the fight as though having her head smashed against a wall is only the smallest of inconveniences. Glory has such a smiley insouciance about everything she does I just love spending time with her.

Sexy Blond: Just when we thought Spike couldn’t get any more pathetic he is caught sniffing Buffy’s sweater and getting off on it and tries to pretend that it is so he can hunt her scent in out in the future. Bless him, he really needs to deal with this new obsession.

Witchy Willow: Now Buffy and her friends have proven their loyalty to Tara there is a subtle shift in Amber Benson’s performance that shows her burgeoning confidence in their presence. This pleases me no end.

Gorgeous Geek: What has happened to Xander? Since The Replacement he has been showing consistent maturity and insight. Our boy is growing up. He can see what is happening behind the scenes between Riley and Buffy when everybody else is ignorant.

College Boy: Riley is already in a bad place when it comes to his life and his relationship with Buffy so it doesn’t take much prodding from Spike to bring all his anxieties (that she doesn’t need him, that he is more invested in their relationship than he is) to the surface. In the face of Joyce’s illness, Riley is completely impotent. It’s not selfish of him to want to protect Buffy and Dawn but it is selfish when he starts to consider his feelings a priority over what they are going through. Riley considers it a slight on his character that Buffy cries a lot less with him than she did with Angel but from and this audience members point of view it is infinitely preferable. That final shot of Riley being shut out of the hospital room where the Summers women are sharing their personal grief. You’re not long for this show, Finn.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I for one did not want to start my day with a slaughter. Which really goes to show how much I’ve grown!’ – scene stealing Anya in full force.
‘How did she get away with this bad mojo stuff?’ ‘Giles sold it to her.’
‘Can nobody appreciate that I’m on a schedule here? Tick-tock, Dreg! Tick fricking tock!’

The Good: Toadying minions are always fun and this set of scabby demons who worship Glory are a particularly appealing lot. I had no idea that Dreg was played by Kevin Wiseman (one of the standout features of JJ Abrams’ Alias) and he gives a superb comic performance. Only in Buffy could you have a detail as seemingly innocuous as Giles putting an advert in the newspaper becoming an important plot point. To then have your central villain turn up at his shop and buy the ingredients she needs for her spell that will sniff out Dawn right under the noses of all of your heroes takes some nerve. Which this show has in abundance and somehow always gets away with it! ‘She could be anywhere’ says Giles, immediately after serving Glory, ‘but I imagine it wont be long before she makes herself known.’ Anya’s realisation of how stupid they have been (‘hey…hey…HEY!’) made me crack up. They than guiltily have to fess up to Buffy and they would gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for that pesky Anya.

The Bad: The CGI snake goes to show how far they’ve come since the days of the Mayor’s ascension (it is far more fluidic and generally more convincing looking) but the physical prop is so unbelievably stiff and crappy you have to wonder why they bothered. Buffy rising on its back made me inwardly cringe and I haven’t really experienced that since the early days of seasons one and two. At this stage of the game they should know what they can pull off and what they can’t. The snake bursting into the magic shop in an explosion of CGI destruction is okay, the puppet clunking into shot in the church and its stiff tail vanishing behind a pew is not. The only point when the relentless misery became too much for me was the montage in the last third which points out with some determination how depressed every character on this show is right now. Compounding the problem there is a whacking great shot of what is obvious not Sarah Michelle Gellar but a stunt double running after the snake once it crashes through the fence. They try all kinds of tricks (POV shots, fast editing, glimpses of parts of its body) but the end result reminds me of the Myrka from Doctor Who’s Warriors of the Deep – they’ve paid for the bloody thing so it has to have some exposure.

Moment to Watch Out For: I thought we were long past the point where Riley could surprise me but that’s precisely what happened when he picked up a vampire in a bar, let her drag him down a dark alley and suck his blood and then staked her. This is really dark stuff and has potentially riveting consequences.

Orchestra: This is the first time I thought Wanker’s music was a little too inconspicuous for the material. I’m not saying that scarier music would improve the realisation of the snake but it would have certainly have given me something else to focus on.

Result: Another apparently plot-free episode in itself but a vital part of the overall picture of the season, Shadow is a dark episode that is enlivened by the continuing presence of Glory. Anywhere else this might be a bit too depressing but Buffy has a way of adding touches of humour to any situation because its regulars are naturally funny characters (Anya is especially imperative in this regard). I can understand if over the next handful of episodes people got weary with all the high drama but I had the opposite reaction because it is so beautifully written and performed for the most part and proves that this show can be made to work even as a melancholic character serial. The difference between this and a run of episodes on another show that wallow in a tone as black as Dracula’s heart is that I really care about the characters on this show and will stick with them because I want to make sure that they get through the difficult periods in their lives (season six tested me a little in this respect but we still made it through relatively intact). What’s interesting about season five is that the writers have managed to subvert everything we know about some of the core characters (after being useless for a year and a half Giles is now a vital mentor again, Spike has become a lovesick puppy, Riley is a bit of a bad boy who enjoys the hit of being sucked on by vampires, Buffy now has a sister that she never had before) and what’s great is that they have made it work. The thing that drags Shadow down is an effects disaster of real magnitude. You’ve got two version of a giant cobra, a CGI one (not bad) and a physical costume (utterly dreadful). Did Doctor Who never teach you that you shouldn’t be too ambitious on a shoestring? Buffy punching the rubbery snake in the head might be a new low for the series: 6/10

Listening to Fear written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: An outer space demon?

The Chosen One: The opening scenes feature the three Summers women waiting it out in the hospital until Joyce’s surgery comes around and reveals what an effective little team they are together. It’s a crying shame that we didn’t get to see this play out over a longer period but I completely understand the reason for removing Joyce from the show (to give Dawn prominence and because she now fulfils the domestic role previously held by Buffy’s mother…and that has rather been exhausted of dramatic possibilities over the past four seasons). It is a massive ask of Kristine Sutherland to take on the less desirable side effects of suffering a brain tumour and to her credit she plays it to the hilt, turning fluffy mom Joyce into a twisted, unpredictable version of the same character. Suddenly she is forced into the position of acting like the child; irrational, opinionated and wanting everything her way. Buffy trying to do something as mundane as wash up whilst her mum is falling to pieces upstairs manages to be one of the most heartbreaking moments of the year so far. She is trying to remain strong for her Joyce and Dawn but inside she is dying and she finally has to let go off a little of that personal grief. Gellar is magnificent. Before her death Joyce does come to realise that Dawn isn’t her child and something has sneaked her into their lives. In the same breath she affirms what Buffy has already concluded, that she is a part of their family now and she has to be protected. When Joyce tells Buffy that no matter what happens and if she doesn’t make it through the surgery she has to promise to protect Dawn no matter what the cost she is practically signing her own death warrant. Dawn feels like a part of their family and that she always has been. Season five strikes the right chord of family warmth again.

The Key: It is becoming increasingly clear that the spate of crazies that has polluted Sunnydale of late can see Dawn for what she really is. Everybody keeps telling her that she isn’t real and Dawn is beginning to notice. The way she slowly discovers the truth about herself is one of season five’s greatest triumphs.

Sexy Blond: As Spike obsesses more about Buffy and prowls around her house it seems to bring him nothing but pain. And I’m not talking about the emotional kind. The Quellor attacks him unawares in a scene that had me laughing out loud. It was the last thing that he (or anybody) would expect to be visiting Buffy’s house.

Witchy Willow: Willow is thrilled that she managed to dust two vampires but the overall effect of her, Giles and Xander taking on a small nest of the undead is that they aren’t very good at it. Willow and Tara are still in the early stages of their relationship, the months where you head out to the roof a building and stare up at the stars together. This is desperately cute material (which is much needed in such a bleak episode) but also serves to cleverly introduce the presence of the meteor crashing down to Earth. 

College Boy: Riley is hooked on having his blood sucked now, and it’s all taking place in the dankest, dirtiest building a set designer has ever had to create. At the moment it just looks like he is acting out for the hell of it, because he feels his needs aren’t being met but I hope we get some kind of explanation for this transformation soon. He still has ties with the government and when he thinks the danger is out of the Scoobies’ league he doesn’t hesitate in bringing them in.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The girl who can break things just by looking at them now has a book to teach her to break things just by looking at them?’
‘Because it’s a killer snot monster from outer space. I did not just say that…’

The Good: It has long been a wish of mine for Buffy to ditch the supernatural for one week and take a stab at the extraterrestrial and Listening to Fear ticks that box very well indeed. Not only is the Queller demon extremely well designed (in sharp contrast to last weeks rubbery snake) but the director goes to some lengths to make it stand out from the crowd with some disorienting POV shots and its terrifying ability to climb the walls and hang from the ceiling. It’s quite disgusting, with a scabby carapace and a face full of spiky teeth that explode outwards as it gobs thick mucus all over your face. It is one of those creatures that looks utterly inhuman and fascinates me because of it. That poor security guard has really suffered this season, first having his brain sucked out by Glory and now walking into the path of the Quellor and being vomited on and killed. It again shows how clever the strategy is in this season of Buffy, introducing this guy in No Place Like Home, bringing him back as a mental patient and having the Quellor drawn to him so we can make the link about mental patients and Joyce being its potential next victim. The director has very cleverly built floors to look like ceilings and has the Quellor crawling across them and then inserts them into the appropriate scenes. It’s a simple but very effective (although I was constantly screaming at characters to look up!). The location work out in the mist swathed woods by the lake is unusual and atmospheric. I love the scene where the mental patients are tucked in and tied down for a nights rest and the Quellor leaps up and vomits in their faces. The director paces this brilliantly and it feels like it could have sprung from a good video nasty. Like a good horror movie heroine Buffy goes for the largest carving knife in the set as she patrols the eerily silent house for the intruder. Spike leaps out in a particularly well timed fright. After she stabs the Quellor in the back several times it dies in her arms looking for all the world like it is giving her a hug. After all the horrors they have faced from the demon from outer space the best scare comes at the end of the episode when Joyce heads off for surgery. It’s make or break time.

The Bad: I’m sure it is perfectly possible that the symptoms that Joyce exhibits could manifest themselves as quickly as they do but the way her headaches started, her tumour was exposed and now suddenly she is experiencing the mood swings and irrational behaviour feels contrived. It feels as if the symptoms have had to wait until the tumour was exposed in the last episode in case they spoilt the surprise. I also find it a little peculiar that they chose to deal with dark-Joyce for one episode only. This is ripe for further drama. Little did I know that I was being led up the garden path with her recovery. Buffy’s choice of washing up music is truly atrocious.

Moment to Watch Out For: The Quellor attacking Joyce, straddling her on her bed and puking in her face is half gross horror and half high camp. Either way I was lapping it up. How many more indignities can this woman suffer?

Fashion Statement: Is there a new designer this season? What is it with all these retro eighties looking vampires?

Orchestra: Thomas Wanker sure knows how to create an unsettling mood when he wants to with discordant stings being the order of the day. His music makes an already unsettling episode even creepier. There’s a glorious moment when Joyce descends the stairs from the POV of the Quellor that feels like a throwback to the days of Psycho with a really effect scream effect playing in the music.

Foreboding: In a moment that caught me completely unawares when I first watched this season one of Glory’s minions catches up with Ben and suggests a connection between the two characters. This has been so well concealed until this point it left me wondering what other clues I had missed out on. It also ties a neat bow around the Quellor plot, explaining why he was summoned. ‘I’m cleaning up Glory’s mess, just like I’ve done my whole damn life…’

Result: Is this the only Buffy episode to feature a creature from outer space? If so they should have pulled off that trick more often because the Quellor Demon is the most memorably grisly nasty we have seen on this show in an age. It feels like Buffy’s first stab at outright horror since Hush with both visceral (the icky Demon puking in peoples faces and crawling into shot in the corner of your eye) and psychological (Joyce’s descent into madness) horror being explored. The net result is a very strong creep fest that serves as both a standalone installment (we’ll never hear from the Quellor again, unfortunately) and a vital piece of this seasons storytelling (Joyce’s symptoms, Riley’s defection, several crazies realising Dawn’s true nature). With helicopters sweeping into scenes, wide open locations and the army patrolling we’re back in cinematic territory and it’s the most refreshing change of pace after nearly half a seasons worth of intimate character tales. Joyce’s horrific symptoms are so effectively played by Kristine Sutherland (and I liked how the regulars were written out of this plot so it was a very personal nightmare for the Summers girls) but I do have an issue with how her condition has been structured across the last couple of episodes. Rather than an illness that has struck an individual it feels as though it is part of a larger dramatic masterplan. However the performances are so effective it almost renders that complaint moot because I was so involved with Joyce’s nightmare on a moment by moment basis. For it’s sinister direction and bizarre but disturbing demon of the week, Listening to Fears earns a mini horror movie: 8/10

Into The Woods written and directed by Marti Noxon

What’s it about: Goodbye, Riley Finn.

The Chosen One: Interestingly Buffy’s reaction to Riley’s ‘affair’ isn’t to publicly declare him a dawg but to take out the nest of vamps that he has been attracted to. It’s as though she is embarrassed that he has to get his kicks elsewhere and doesn’t want to admit that to her friends.

Sexy Blond: Spike only shows Buffy Riley’s dark path because he wants to drive a wedge between them but there is something rather pathetic about doing that and knowing that you wont be able to fill that hole. It might be a case of if I can’t have her then nobody can but I like to think there is still a fraction of evil in Spike left that revels in create emotional pain even when he can’t revel in physical pain. Ultimately the conversations between Riley and Spike are the most honest this episode gets. He knows why Riley is getting suck jobs and why he is never going to be bad enough for Buffy. They can share a bottle of wine and discuss how each has what the other wants (Spike wants Buffy and Riley wants to be a bad boy) and under different circumstances they would have killed each other long ago.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander knows why Buffy is so upset about the vampire den, that’s why he mentions Riley to gauge her reaction. He’s become impressively insightful this year and takes on an important role in Into the Woods as the voice of reason. The one who lays out bare all of the options in a horrible situation.

Vengeance Demon: There’s a lovely thread that runs through this episode where Anya shows how she bumbles and blusters her way through this new mortal life she has found herself in, usually getting it totally wrong (babysitting Dawn and suggesting gambling and drinking and her appalled reaction when she realises that they wont be having loud, obnoxious sex). It is all leading up to that phenomenal final scene where Xander establishes how much he is in love with her and how he would never want her to change who she is. Somewhere along the line the two least conventional relationships on the show (Willow & Tara and Xander & Anya) have become the strongest. 

College Boy: ‘Why? What’s he got here in Sunnydale that’s so special?’ This is Riley’s big departure story but if I’m honest the wheels have been set in motion in that regard since Buffy vs Dracula. Ever since the beginning of season five (post the Initiative) Riley hasn’t had a place in the show (neither did Angel either, always existing on the periphery of the Scoobies) anymore and has simply been lolloping around after Buffy during the biggest emotional crisis in her life. Before things get very serious we are allowed to enjoy one last candlelit night with the twosome and it’s clear to see why this break up was inevitable. Whilst they get on really well when he is acting like a selfish git and only thinking of himself and she isn’t acting like a selfish cow and only thinking of herself…nobody wants to see Buffy and her fella getting on really well. It’s actually pretty dull. Especially when the man is Riley. In comparison with the sparks that are to come with Spike, it’s a pretty tame relationship. You only have to compare the way the way she makes love to the two men to see why one relationship was never going to last. With Riley it is steady, passionless, functional and if you check out next seasons Smashed you’ll see Buffy and Spike finally surrender to their feelings in a sexual embrace that borders on the violently passionate (the literally attack each other their desire is so strong). Riley has gotten to this stage where Buffy is such a central figure in his life and when she doesn’t need him to wipe every tear he takes that as a personal slight. You can look at it how you like, I consider ‘I’m leaving unless you give me a reason to stay’ as an ultimatum. In that respect I am behind Buffy 100%

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘No longer a victim of crass holiday commercialisation. I’m a purveyor of it.’
‘I dislike that Anya, she’s newly human and strangely literal’ ‘I don’t say that. No-one says that. No-one talks that way’ – the tension between Willow and Anya has only been represented by the odd fleeting look of disapproval but now they are starting to admit their feelings. Yay.
‘That girl needs some monster in her man and that’s not in your nature.’
‘I’ve got to say something because I don’t think I’ve made it clear. I’m in love with you. Powerfully, painfully in love. The things you do, the way you think, the way you move…I get excited every time I am about to see you. You make me feel like I’ve never felt before in my life…like a man’ – Xander’s finest hour.

The Good: It says something about the way I feel about these characters that I am willing to wait in the pre-titles sequence whilst nothing happens beyond Buffy and the Scoobies hanging out at the hospital and waiting for news about Joyce’s operation. Not giving us the easy way out, Noxon cuts to the credits as Buffy looks on hopefully as the Doctor approaches without giving us any answers. If they were looking for a new spin-off for Buffy (which wasn’t an English based supernatural drama called Ripper) they should have looked no further than the military outfit that has emerged in the last two episodes. We could head off around the world with this bunch (although the characterisation of the regulars would have to be a little cheerier than this bunch and Graham would have to go), tackling demonic incursions with all manner of epic government resources. When some shows try and rough up their image a bit it can wind up looking a bit forced (check out Doctor Who’s Paradise Towers or Voyager’s The Chute) but Buffy really embraces this approach taking us to the seediest areas of town where vampires prey on needy humans amongst filthy litter, dirty needles, cracked baths, mouldy mattresses and ripped open sofas. It’s a horrible place to hang out, everything creature comfort stripped away and Noxon never shies away from that. There’s some tough discussion about how the people who head to these vampire dens to have their blood sucked being willing victims and perhaps Buffy’s efforts are better spent elsewhere helping who don’t deliberately walk into the lions den. When Buffy and riley finally have it out the truth becomes clear…they are both too wrapped up in themselves to be together and they have been hiding that truth from each other for too long. It’s a great scene, powerfully written with both characters finally telling the other some home truths. The den of vampires have really chosen the worse time to try and overwhelm Buffy. She probably could have taken the lot of them down on a normal day but today she is pissed. What a terrific fight sequence and at least you can’t say she didn’t warn them. I love how she dusts six in less than a minute and then almost let’s the vampire that Riley indulged in go before tossing the stake like a javelin and taking her out from a distance. Even the fight sequences are loaded with nuances. God I love that ending with Buffy running after Riley, Noxon has whipped me up into an emotional state by this point and it’s the perfect lack of closure that this relationship needed to stick in the viewers mind. I especially like the devious little trick with the audience thinking Riley has spotted Buffy coming over the rise only for that to not be the case as he slumps into the helicopter and off to his new life.

The Bad: Lumping Dracula and Angel into the same bracket as the men who have so much power over Buffy is weird. One character was the love of Buffy’s life for over three seasons and the other was a one bite wonder in a standalone episode. It’s giving Dracula far too much credit whilst doing Angel a disservice.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘If he’s not the guy, if what he needs from you just isn’t there…let him go. Break his heart and make it a clean break. But if you really think you can love this guy, I’m talking scary, messy, no emotions barred need… If you’re ready for that, then think about what you’re going to lose…’ Any scene with Xander. Nicky Brendon does some of his best ever work in Buffy in Into the Woods, finally written as a fully fleshed out mature character and not just a comedy goofball. He’s not a genius, just observant and he’s watched their relationship crumbled over the last couple of months. Like a good friend he tells Buffy a few home truths and she really doesn’t want to hear it. Naturally Buffy tries to turn the tables on him and insult his relationship with Anya but he keeps her own track and boils it down to the fact that if she doesn’t get over herself she might lose the one man who loves her more than anybody in this world.

Fashion Statement: I think I may have become a little aroused when Riley burst into Spike’s crypt, slammed him against the wall and shoved a stake into him. Unfortunately I am talking literally and not in metaphor but the testosterone on display is overwhelming. Spike’s reaction (shock, pain, then surprise that he isn’t a pile of dust) made me howl.

Orchestra: Earlier I compared the intensity of the sexual encounters of Buffy and Riley and Buffy and Spike and the differences extend to the soundtracks too. When the former couple make love in Into the Woods the music is gentle, safe and unpredictable but when the latter destroy a house as Spike penetrates Buffy in Wrecked the music is destructive, violent and intense before switching a gear to something angelic. It’s easy to see why Buffy (and the writers) progressed from one to the other. His music when Buffy decides to run after Riley is so stirring it really caught me up in the moment.

Result: It’s one of only two episodes of Buffy that is both written and directed by Marti Noxon so I guess it is the ultimate expression of what she thinks the approach to the show should be about. It’s also an extremely good character drama, an unforgettable departure for one of the most cardboard characters this show has produced, a moody exploration of the seedier aspects to Sunnydale and an affirmation that Xander has emerged as one of the shows most observant characters. If the Riley storyline has been a little drawn out over the past half season it has at least been handled in a realistic leisurely pace and he is written out with a great deal of care (unlike Tara’s whose departure from the show is deliberately swift and devastating). Noxon’s dialogue aims for the jugular and scores, it’s tough and revealing and real. The interactions and relationships between these characters are so mature now it is a far cry from some of the more facile and shallow characterisation I suffered in the early years and if that means we have to get down in the dirt with these characters to reach it then so be it. Blucas and Gellar save their best work for last and there is some extraordinary acting from Nicholas Brendon too (a performer I have often underrated). The last five minutes are probably my favourite moments from season five yet with Buffy failing to get over herself in time and Xander breaking my heart when he tells Anya how much he loves her. They’ve successfully taken Buffy to some very dark places in the last handful of episodes but can we get back to having some fun now? Memorably dramatic, and all the better for being so understated: 9/10

Triangle written by Jane Espenson and directed by Christopher Hibler

What’s it about: The ballad of Anya and Willow and the destructive troll they release…

The Chosen One: Buffy is becoming something of a realist, accepting that people breaking up and moving on is a natural course of life. She understands this process because she has already suffered it with Angel. It’s when somebody is snatched away unfairly with no warning or justification when it really hits home as Buffy is soon to discover. Actually I’m a little frightened at how well Buffy is dealing with her break up. She so often reaches for tears and sympathy that this new pro-active, deal with it myself Buffy is a real shot in the arm. Jane Espenson characterises her magnificently, a young lady who can see her part in Riley’s departure and no longer holds any bad feelings towards him. I wish all break ups could be handled like this. As far as I recall this is the first time we have ever seen Buffy and Tara alone together (barring when Faith was in the driving seat in Who Are You) and there’s rather nice chemistry between them. It’s not a friendship that the writers abuse but it does come into play at a vital point in season six. Tears do come into play but they are played for laughs which is much more enjoyable.

Sexy Blond: James Marsters is just on form this season. He’s always good but ever since he has been given a new direction with the character he has run with it admirably. Somehow he makes the scene where Spike has an argument with the Buffy doll utterly pathetic, sweet and very funny (‘oh I’ll insult him if I want to…’) all at the same time before hilariously beating it into pieces.

Witchy Willow & Vengeance Demon: Willow doesn’t understand why Anya is so inflexible and always plays by the rules. All she wants to do is help Buffy out in future altercations with vampires. Anya is annoyed that Willow is helping herself to supplies that she hasn’t paid for and is taking advantage of Giles’ absence from the Magic Shop. When Xander wont take either of there sides Willow tries to get Tara to bat for her but she makes a wise retreat. Willow thinks that Xander is strangled by Anya and doesn’t step out of line but if she had been around last week she would have heard precisely why he cares about her so much. She thinks that Anya is going to hurt him because hurting men is what her life has been about for thousands of years but Anya re-iterates that she would never hurt Xander. I like that Anya brings up Willow’s roving tongue and the fact that it helped break Xander and Cordelia up. Anya has a good reason not to trust Willow because she is scared that the same thing will happen again. I like that this isn’t a bitchy relationship just for the sake of it, Espenson has put some real though in to why these women don’t like each other. Anya proves herself to Willow by offering herself to Olaf so that Xander can live.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander makes the very smart move of hiding behind Tara when the two women in his life start snarling at each other. Willow is his best friend and he really values her opinion but Anya is his girlfriend…and, well, she always has to be right (trust me I have a husband who always has to let me be right or suffer the consequences).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I have finesse! I have finesse coming out of my bottom!’
‘I like money better than people! People can so rarely be exchanged for goods and/or services’ – Willow’s Anya impression.
‘Willow says things always happen for a reason’ ‘You ever notice how people only say that about bad things?’ 
‘I will make merry sport with your more attractive daughters!’
‘We can have something to eat’ ‘Can it be babies?’
‘I wish Buffy was here’ ‘I’m here!’ ‘I wish I had a million dollars…’
‘You dated a troll?’ ‘And we’re what…surprised by this?’
‘You want credit for not feeding off bleeding disaster victims?’ ‘Well, yeah.’
‘Well hello – gay now!’

The Good: Season four was the year that dealt with massive shifts in show that we recognised. So it is interesting that the departure of the character introduced in that year is what provokes the biggest reaction in our regular cast about the nature of change and how it affects them. Xander feels as if something is missing because he didn’t get any closure from Riley’s departure, Anya (typically selfishly) considers how she wants to be handled if Xander ever decides to leave her and Buffy deals with the loss by transferring all of her mixed emotions on to her friends. And there is some very natural discussion that perhaps Riley isn’t entirely to blame and the fact that two men have walked out of her life might be Buffy’s fault. The sheer destruction that Olaf wrecks upon the Magic Shop, the Bronze and Sunnydale in general is very impressive. He can barely walk past anything without lifting his oversized (is he compensating for something?) hammer and smashing it to bits! Just when we never thought we would ever laugh in Sunnydale again (seriously, after the last few episodes I thought I had taken a wrong diversion into Angel) Anya and Willow are racing the streets in Giles’ sports car on the trail of a comedy troll wielding a destructive hammer. It’s good to smile again. Benrubi is having so much fun with the role (I would say too much fun but this really isn’t the type of episode where you ca underplay anything) and I found it impossible not to be charmed by his full blooded performance. Delving further into Anya’s backstory is something I heartily approve of and the story of turning Olaf being the act that secured her the vengeance demon gig in the first place gives this story a little more substance than it would otherwise have had. Tearing down the Bronze has to be seen to be believed. Mind it was in desperate need of a re-vamp. The vanishing till during the climax might just be the most brilliantly understated moments of comedy I have ever witnessed – it makes me howl every time I see it. Proof that this was only ever a pleasant diversion, the final gets straight back into Glory-talk and features Dawn overhearing that she is a vital element to her masterplan. Intriguing…

The Bad: The gag of Buffy joining a convent to get over her split with Riley is a good one but is hardly realised with any kind of subtlety (the nun with the massive curl of blonde hair sticking out of her wimple). Actually there probably is a very funny episode to be had out Buffy going undercover at a convent, Sister Act style. The simulated sunlight idea is so strong it is a crying shame that we never saw that come to pass (there’s something similar that tears through the army in Chosen but not what they are discussing here).

Moment to Watch Out For: Without realising it Xander has been manoeuvred into the impossible position of having to choose which of his two favourite women has to die. I’m not surprised that the episode chickens out of making him choose, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with either answer.

Foreboding: Giles is heading off to England to speak to the Watcher’s Council and find out what he can about Glory. This sets up the next episode when he returns with them nicely and gives Anthony Stewart Head some time off to get on with some other work. Buffy suggests that Riley might come back one day and she can say all the things that she wants to. I think she was thinking short term but reaching forward he does eventually visit his old stomping ground in As You Were. We’ll look further into the relationship of Olaf and Anya in season sevens Selfless.

Result: Triangle provides some much needed levity from a run of episodes that has been mired in pain. Finally the Willow and Anya conflict bubbles to the surface and I especially like the way that the audience is made to understand both women’s point of view. Willow is right; Anya is rude, literal minded and selfish. Anya is right; Willow is indelicate, patronising and alienating. And yet they are both so likable it is impossible not to want them both to come out on top. It’s a great relationship and the writers would continue to exploit it until the shows last breath. Much like every other season five episode there are season long threads weaving their way through (Joyce’s recovery, dealing with Riley’s departure, the approach of the Watcher’s Council) but this is about as close to a standalone as you are going to get, and it’s a pretty funny one too. Most of that humour comes either from the aforementioned Anya/Willow bitching but also from Abraham Benrubi’s unforgettable turn as Olaf the troll (his beef is with vengeance demons and witches which gives this episode its Sophie’s Choice moment) casting a path of destruction through Sunnydale and enjoying his sport. There have been funnier episodes of Buffy (Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Dopplegangland) and there will be funnier episodes after it (Intervention, Storyteller) but as a pleasant mid-season pause before the Glory kicks into high gear arc (about damn time) Triangle is a sunny piece that has no ambition but to put a smile on your face with its gentle (or not so gentle when Olaf raises his hammer) comedy. It succeeds in that aim admirably: 8/10

Checkpoint written by Doug Petrie & Jane Espenson and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: The Watcher’s Council comes to town…

The Chosen One: Buffy isn’t just frightened of the Council coming to Sunnydale, she refuses to work with them and considering the last time they called they tortured her emotionally and physically that is hardly a surprise. Why is it that college/university lecturers have a way of making you feel smaller than anybody else in your life? It’s a true gift, almost as though they go to a special school for the denigration of youth. Buffy must suspect that Spike has feelings for her (he leant in to kiss her in Fool For Love, he was stealing pictures from her house) otherwise she wouldn’t conscript him for the all important task of looking after Joyce and Dawn, two of the most precious people in her life. Buffy succinctly points out that the Council were only going to ask her questions that they know she wont be answer because they like making her jump through hoops she cannot reach. Somehow it makes the feel superior. She’s finally figured out why people have been lining up and telling her how unimportant she is of late…because she has power and they don’t. She gives the Council members’ jobs and lives some semblance of meaning and now she understands that. 

Ripper: They’ve really gotten a handle on Giles again this year, giving him a real focus and position of authority in the show again. When the Council turn up to threaten that he stands between them and Buffy and refuses to allow them to put her through another of their insane tests. I love it when Anthony Head plays Giles against type (angry, sexy or funny) because he always seems to relish the task. The upside of Buffy and Giles having their backs against the wall like this is that their relationship is stronger than ever (‘they picked the perfect thing…I can’t lose you’). In her tirade against the Council Buffy manages to get Giles re-hired and paid retroactively from the day he was fired. Good on her.

Witchy Willow: Tara has this bizarre impression that English people are gentler than normal people which must mean she’s never spent a great deal of time in my home town. At least she has the balls to look embarrassed by the statement.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander’s Dick Van Dyke impressions is the worst fake British accent since…well Dick Van Dyke.  

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘All stand around and look sombre. Good job.’
‘Our relationship?’ ‘We’re friends’ ‘Good friends’ ‘Girlfriends, actually’ ‘Yes, we’re girlfriends’ ‘We’re in love. We’re lovers. Lesbian gay type lovers’ ‘I meant your relationship with the Slayer’ ‘Oh’ ‘Just good friends.’
‘I’ll kill your mom. I’ll kill your friends. And I’ll make you watch while I do.’
‘I love what you’ve neglected to do with the place.’
‘Glory isn’t a demon’ ‘What is she?’ ‘She’s a God’ ‘Oh.’

The Good: We’re not eased back into the Glory plot but dropped into it head first dramatically as she lies on the floor in a sweaty mess waiting for a brain to suck. Her minions continue to be delightful characters, especially with Troy T. Blendell taking his place in the season as Jinx who proves to be the most hilarious toady since DS9’s Weyoun (in fact they share a great deal in common – his gentle tone, his sarcasm and unashamed butt licking - which might be why I love the character so much). Hurrah for the return of Haris Yulin, one of the greatest character actors to skip the Atlantic and turn up in many glorious roles in American TV shows. Travers brings with him the biggest bunch of stuff shirts and bureaucratic nasties ever to step out of a British institution and it is impossible to feel anything but disdain for the chosen Council members on this mission because they are just so horrid to Buffy and her friends. They walk into their lives and start examining every aspect of it under the mis-apprehension that they have the right to do so (ultimately the scrap of information they have his vital but it’s only a snippet that tells them how powerful Glory is, not how to defeat her). For Buffy (who has realised citizens of the British Isles in a very mixed way – Spike, Dru and Giles, great, Wesley and Gwendolyn Post, not so much) this is a good representation of arrogant British superiority without ever going over the top (although there is far more tweed on display than is ever acceptable). They are at least terribly polite whilst taking over their lives and attempting to moderate them. Giles’ appalling Japanese translations whilst Buffy is trying to fight is very funny (and it comes again in season seven as he tries to communicate with a Japanese Potential). Love the axe in the dummy’s throat with the Council member trapped underneath (it’s just a shame the dummy was in the way). Just when you think the episode is going to give Buffy some respite, Glory turns up at her house in a brilliantly played sequence where they finally get to talk without Buffy being tossed around like a rag doll. Dawn and Glory come face to face for the first time in a moment of such understated tension it quite took my breath away (I guess that’s what half a seasons build up does to you). Shoving in the Knight’s of Byzantium at the crucial point when Buffy needs to prove herself to the Council is brilliantly timed. She has far too many complications in her life right now to deal with another but at the same time I was rubbing my hands with glee. It’s a great action sequence with spinning metal poles glinting in the night and Buffy taking on people for a change.

Moment to Watch Out For: The hilarious cross cutting of interviews between the Watcher’s Council and the Scoobies. I have seen this sort of thing done before and since but never played with such a sunny disposition. Anya’s nerves make her more literal than ever, Tara and Willow confuse the practicicing of magic and lesbianism and Xander is embarrassed that he has no special skills or powers. The interactions between the actors are gorgeous and Willow’s sudden Tara stutter always gives me the giggles.

Foreboding: The knight promises that an entire army will follow to take Buffy down. Surely they wouldn’t be able to pull that off?

Result: Sharp, amusing and re-formatting series five in a very positive way, Checkpoint sees Buffy at the top of its game. It has a great many things to achieve (pushing Glory to the forefront of the show, giving the Council a good arse kicking, inching Dawn closer to the truth about herself, filling in the Scoobies on the gaps in the arc plot they have missed) and it does all of them whilst handing great lines to everybody, indulging in some very funny comedy and allowing for terrific action sequences and confrontations. Bringing back Quentin Travers and his sinister bunch of British bureaucrats was a stroke of genius and gives the Glory plot a greater sense of gravity and deals with some plot threads that have been left hanging since series three. Much of the pleasure of this episode comes from Buffy and her friends reacting in a very guilty fashion in the face of the Watcher’s Councils examination and trying to hide the fact that they all have a secret of some kind. The outcome of which is that they have nothing to be ashamed of and they are proud of their relationship with a demon (Xander), a flirtation with magic (Willow) and an obsession with the shows central character (Spike). In the awesome final speech Buffy affirms that they are tighter than they have ever been before and they are ready to take on anything that Glory, the Council or anything else throws at them. You’ll never find these characters at a point when their belief in themselves is so high again and it’s a glorious feeling. Buffy gets no rest in this episode, threatened by the Council, Glory and the Knights of Byzantium but she overcomes them all and has rarely been as powerful as she is in the final scene. Season five is hitting a run of form that isn’t losing momentum. If it keeps this up it could be the best year yet: 8/10

Blood Ties written by Steven S. DeKnight and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Dawn investigates…

The Chosen One: Buffy’s birthdays have been notoriously hideous affairs and this year looks set to be no different. In season two she almost lost Angel, season three she was put through a series of torturous tests and season four she nearly killed Giles! What fresh Hell can the writers descend upon a celebratory Ms Summers this year? Buffy’s mates do have a right to be angry, she’s always keeping them out of the loop about something (remember when Angel returned from Hell)? It’s very clever how the emphasis of this series has shifted from Buffy to Dawn almost imperceptibly. It’s also telling that when Buffy isn’t the focus all the time she is a hell of a lot more likable. The look on Joyce’s face when Dawn tells her that she isn’t her mother is one of pure pain and I’m sure it’s something that every mother has experienced at some point in bringing up their (occasionally ungrateful) children. The fact that she still wants to protect her (made up) daughter regardless of how she is being treated is the sign of a fantastic mom, and one that will be sorely missed because of it shortly. I loved the moment where Joyce tells Buffy that Dawn needs her sister and not the Slayer, it’s an adult discussion and far cry from the spats they used to have over Buffy’s calling in previous seasons. Buffy takes a injury to protect Dawn here, proving how much she cares about her and why they are from the same stock. It’s another very touching moment between the two characters. Anyone who questions the choice to bring Dawn onto this show I say piffle. The proof of its success is there on screen.

The Key: I find that children are so perceptive of shifts in peoples behaviour or in spotting when something feels wrong that you should send one into every social setting ahead of you to check it out before you enter. This is definitely the case with Dawn who notices the sly looks everybody is giving her, how suddenly everybody is treating her with kid gloves or seems to be a little nervous in her presence. It would only be more obvious if she looked up and saw a flashing neon sign above her head that said THE KEY with a big arrow pointing downwards. Dawn’s birthday present for Buffy (a photograph of the two of them from before she was conjured into existence) manages to be really sweet and very disturbing (it prompts a memory in Buffy that never happened). How many kids feel what Dawn is going through for real here? That there is something wrong with their lives and that they have been dropped in on the wrong family? The way this season taps into that sense of displacement is superb and Trachtenberg plays this material with consummate skill. Dawn’s reaction to being told that she has only been alive for six months made me well up, she’s simply doesn’t have the emotional ability to cope with this kind of bombshell. Simple things like Dawn looking at her diary (shrewdly introduced in Real Me) and exposing the lie of it make an impact.

Goddess: Immortal, invulnerable and insane – that’s our Glory! It’s terrific to finally learn some of her backstory but this is a character that just keeps on giving until the season is over, snippets turning up in the most surprising of ways. She absorbs the energy that binds peoples minds together leaving behind a string of crazies. If only the Goddess would stop and listen to some of those people who are all pointing the finger at Dawn she would have found her Key, unlocked her portal and been home ages ago. There’s a lesson in hubris for you. Awesomely, Glory gets beating from Buffy, a cross bolt from Giles and a crowbar to the head by Xander and she doesn’t even break a sweat.

Sexy Blond: The Dawn/Spike interaction is made out of pure win in the same way that putting together two opposing characters always produces magic (think Quark/Odo on DS9 or Spock/McCoy on TOS). The pair of them sneaking off to the Magic Shop to steal stuff together is great fun (and goes to show how this show develops its characters…it’s a far cry from the Spike who threatened Buffy so back in School Hard, now he’s babysitting her made up sister!). Buffy’s natural reaction to Dawn’s discovery is to blame Spike but he pleasingly throws her accusations back in her face by reminding her that he wasn’t kept in the loop and she wasn’t told by the people that care about her. Both good points, which Buffy accepts.  Watching men being beaten up by women for comic effect is always amusing (if the emphasis was different I would find it disturbing but its all played out in a fantasy world here where you know Spike will dust himself down) and Spike gets a good hiding by Glory that had me chuckling after he suggested she was weak.

Vengeance Demon: Anya has absolutely no sense of charade about her when it comes to hiding the fact that she knows Dawn is the Key but considering that she has never subscribed to the value of pretence oddly she is the one that gets away with it the most. Just by being honest. And a bit loopy.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s blood. It’s Summers blood. It’s just like mine.’

Dreadful Dialogue: It’s Dawn’s first ‘get out get out GET OUT!’ but she’s just found out that she’s not real so I’ll let her have that one.

The Good: Thousands of demon dimensions all pushing on the edge of our reality and trying to get in – that’s every nasty they visits this town explained away in future then! With knights fighting scabby little hobbits in a moonlit location it feels like we have been transported away from the Buffy we know and love into some fantasy based dimension where Merlin and The Lord of the Rings clash. It’s so different to anything that we have ever seen before I found the tone rather refreshing (also as a fight it’s quite exciting…especially with the minions looking as offensive as Ewoks). Glory is so inoffensive looking that the litter of corpses she leaves behind is all the more shocking. It’s a small thing but check out the lighting during the sequences where Dawn and Spike raid the Magic Shop, it’s really moodily lit from lots of angles (the shelves glow, the candles, the lamps from above).The overall effect is a set that is brimming with atmosphere. This episode takes many avenues to explore the idea of unreliable memories, it’s a concept that I have long been fascinated by and rarely have I seen it dealt with so thoroughly and emotively in fiction. If Dawn needed any more proof then the super creepy scene where Glory’s cast off crazies react to her presence is the clincher. The whole emphasis of the season has now changed…its moved on from the danger of Dawn discovering the truth about herself to the fresh danger of Glory discovering the truth about Dawn. The mileage in the Glory/Dawn/Ben identity mystery is astonishing. Somebody has finally asked what the Key is supposed to unlock, a mystery that can wait for another day. What a great visual gag Glory being teleported above Sunnydale is.

The Bad: The whole ‘I’ve forgotten that Ben is Glory’ notion seems convenient here but its later used to incredible dramatic and comic effect. Nothing is included without a reason this season.

Moment to Watch Out For: Dawn crashing Buffy’s party having cut herself with a carving knife is so disturbing it made me shiver. Also the brilliantly timed reveal that Ben and Glory are the same person. Foreshadowed discreetly (Family) with the emphasis on a tortured sibling relationship (as is suggested her just before the reveal) and given half a seasons worth of build up, this is a twist that really hits its mark. Bravo. Not only a ‘what the…?’ moment but also an ‘oh shit…’ moment when you realise (after getting over the shock) the danger that Dawn is now in. Great stuff.

Fashion Statement: Dawn is wearing a T-shirt that says LITTE MISS DRAMA. Well, I laughed. Xander and Anya’s role-play extends to firemen (okay) and shepherds (weird).

Orchestra: This one’s for Mike. Wanker continues to spume and his music themes for the episode are starting to take on real resonance. Glory has her own sinister theme when she is close to discovering the truth about Dawn and the mystical glitterings that sing around Dawn throughout this piece suggest her mystical nature. Oh and I really love the melodramatic stings every time Buffy and Glory fight (embarrassing I kind of find myself singing along…). I really thought I would miss Christophe Beck more than I am but clearly I underrated that Wanker’s abilities.

Foreboding: The first sign that Willow is playing about with magic that she can’t cope with.

Result: Another superb episode. Blood Ties focuses squarely on Dawn finding out about her true identity and in doing so she puts herself in real danger. I love that this is a show that doesn’t have to dump the surprise on her but she can spend 45 minutes taking in everybody’s behaviour, reading material about the Key and fitting it around incidents that have occurred to her in the last half season to come to the conclusion herself. It makes Dawn less of a whiny teen that needs protecting (although there is a five minute period in the heart of this episode that gives Dawn an excuse to be a spoilt brat – eek!) and more of a pro-active, intelligent young lady that can figure things out for herself. The way she prods the lion by probing Glory about her nature without actually giving herself away sees her bravely taking the scariest option to fill in her backstory. Blood Ties is an episode that is obsessed with this seasons arc story so your response to it will depend on your reaction to the story that is playing out. I am loving the grand narrative that is unfolding so I was entranced by the developments and at this stage this has become the most involving, all encompassing story arc that Buffy has ever told. They’ve gone to the lengths of forgoing standalone episodes so those of us that are willing to watch every chapter will be compensated generously. Blood Ties shows that the apparently plotless, meandering first half of season five has been putting all the key (hohoho) elements in place so everything can fit together in the second half and flourish. Michelle Trachtenberg has already proven that she can hold up an episode (Real Me) but she’s given tougher material to work with here and she’s just as good. Dawn’s relationship with Spike is very rich and I hope we’ll see more of that soon and her scenes with Glory are loaded with understated tension (aided by a string of episodes that has suggested that never the twain should meet). Clare Kramer improves in each episode as well, catching on to the fact that it’s time for her to get more sinister (in a great shudder/gasp moment she snaps somebody’s neck simply because they interrupted her). Glory is a character I could hang around with any day (a far cry from last seasons Adam). As you can tell I am thoroughly enjoying this year, it’s proving that Buffy has learnt its lessons from the past and is dishing out both character work that shines and a densely plotted season arc that rewards. No complaints from me: 9/10

Crush written by David Fury and directed by Dan Atlas

What’s it about: Drusilla is back in town to tempt Spike back into the fold…

The Chosen One: Buffy is an odd one alright. She’s the sort of person who thinks that punching Spike in the face ad nauseum and refusing to allow him to socialise with her is fine but she can dump her mom on him when she needs protecting and use him to find her sister when she goes missing. Buffy always seems so righteous when she pushes him away and yet seems equally blameless when she needs his help. It’s a perplexing paradox and one the show needs to resolve if I am to start believing that she believes that she has a consistency of character (that resolution will come as soon as Intervention). In fact all of the Scoobies have gotten used to Spike being around in a crisis of late but nobody wants him around when there’s a quiet day in Sunnydale. Spike and Joyce are only brought together every now and again so we don’t get too used to it and stop enjoying it and as such their interaction is always a delight. It means that his reaction to her upcoming demise (I’m still preparing myself for that) feels very real. How many people have suffered that moment when somebody points out that somebody that you know is desperately in love with you and haven’t even noticed. I’ve been on been in all three positions at some point in me life (the one who was blissfully unaware for somebody’s feelings, the one who has deeply fallen for somebody who hasn’t noticed and the one who is jealous because I fancy the person who fancies someone else) and none of them are especially enjoyable. When Dawn pulls the wool from Buffy’s eyes suddenly she is seeing things in Spike’s behaviour that she never noticed before (that is beautifully observed because I had a similar encounter with the chick who dug me!).

The Key: More Dawn/Spike interaction is welcome. She’s the only one who treats him with any respect and likes to be with him and it’s because he’s real and talks to her like a person and not a mystical ball of energy or an annoying teenager. The ‘campfire’ scene where Spike is telling Dawn a scary story about one of his kills is fantastic because it exposes how much children love to be frightened (but in a safe way) and how ‘adults’ (like funless Buffy who comes in to spoil their good time) try and protect them too much. Dawn spelling out that Spike is in love with Buffy made my heart sing because it revealed that not is she more observant than anybody gives her credit (kids usually are) but also that Buffy can’t see what is blatantly going on under her own nose.

Goddess: There’s a nice gag where Glory is coined ‘she who will not be named…’ and Buffy plucks the first person that she spots as a replacement name, which just happens to be Ben. I honestly did not remember Ben having such a large role in this season beyond helping out at the hospital in the early installments when Joyce is in critical care. I don’t think there’s been a single episode that he hasn’t appeared in. Maybe it’s because he is such a subtle compared to Glory. You’re bound to recall everything that Glory does (whether you love her or hate her) because she’s just so good and loopy. Ben on the other hand only really comes into his own in the later episodes when he makes some bad choices. He reminds me of a less bland Riley, a nice guy that has some baggage in his life that he cannot shake (and therefore makes a relationship with Buffy impossible). Although I would say that I find Charlie Weber’s performances far less cardboard than Marc Blucas’. He has a much more naturalistic flair with dialogue.

Sexy Blond: James Marsters continue to prove his worth on this show and has by now completely revolutionised his character into something very different from where he started. It’s clear that the writers had a swift direction in mind for Spike this season – it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t lovelorn for Buffy but the truth of the matter is he was the same vicious Spike from School Hard at the beginning of this season – and the only reason it has worked out as well as it has (it could have completely alienated the audience) is because Marsters has made the transition so effortless. He has tapped into a seam of sympathy for the character that was never really there before and toned down the comedy a little so he comes across as more of a real person and less of a villain. This is why it’s deliriously enjoyable to throw Drusilla into the mix to expose just how far he has come in such a short space of time because she remembers the old Spike and is horrified to discover what has become of him since they have parted. The truth dawns on both the audience and Spike just how much Spike digs Buffy now because not even the appearance of Drusilla (once the love of his life) can tempt him away. Spike is willing to dust her for Buffy (and I love how she laughs at the thought of it like the idea of dying at last amuses her greatly). In Spike’s twisted little head bringing the two women in his life (he doesn’t even bother with Harmony as she’s so irrelevant to him, she just crashes the party anyway) and threatening to kill one or have her kill the other if Buffy doesn’t admit she feels something is actually working out their relationship problems. I would hate to see this guy get a job as a counsellor!

Ebony & Ivory: ‘You forget about me again! The actual girlfriend?’ Bless Harmony, making her dress up as Buffy (in her sweater and everything) and pretend to be out patrolling so he can jump her bones is such an insult to her. Spike treats Harmony no differently than that dummy of his, or the Buffybot. He’s abusing her in exactly the same way that Buffy is abusing Spike (they are perfect for each other in that respect). When he tosses her against the wall in favour of Drusilla you can’t help but feel for her. She’s has been completely under his spell and he’s thought of her as little more than a wank aid with legs and blonde hair. It’s tragic.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander too, was more than happy to discuss his feelings with regards the Willow/Anya brawling in Triangle but when he needs some company he’s just rude. It was long past time to address this.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Eww’ ‘It’s not blood, it’s bourbon’ ‘Eww…
‘You’re like a serial killer in prison!’
‘I lie awake every night!’ ‘You sleep during the day!’
‘Tin soldiers put funny little nick-nacks in your brain. Can’t hurt. Can’t hunt. Can’t kill’ – I’ve missed Drusilla’s whacko dialogue.
‘Honey did you somehow unintentionally lead him on in anyway? Send him signals?’ ‘I do beat him up a lot. For Spike that’s like third base.’
‘Oh we can, you know. We can love quite well. If not wisely.’

The Good: Awww…everybody is dancing and laughing and being happy. Pain is on the way. It was about time a troll destroyed the Bronze with a mystical hammer because it was starting to feel a little stale but thanks to a hefty re-design the place looks spanking new again. I don’t know I would have taken the re-design even further though, to something a bit more chrome, glass and neon but this is still a refreshing new look for the place. I meant to mention this earlier in the year but it kind of slipped away from me – I am really enjoying how the university campus is a setting that the characters can use every now again without feeling like the show is obsessed with the place. We barely left campus in season four and lots of the characters missed opportunities (deliberately so I might add) as a consequence. Things are on a much more even keel now we can flit between Buffy’s house, Xander’s flat, the university, Spike’s crypt and the Magic Shop. We’ve now seen Sunnydale’s shipyard (Surprise), beach (Go Fish, Buffy vs Dracula) and train station…but bizarrely these are locations that we are drip fed slowly over the years. The geography of the town seems to shift every time they want to tell a new story which works for me. We meet the gayest couple of vampires in town, flicking through CDs, cooking up some popcorn and running away like a pair of Nancy’s when Buffy comes calling. For those of you who miss the Buffy of old then the sequence at the Bronze featuring Spike and Drusilla oozing sexuality on the dance floor, picking out victims and dancing to a great tune should appease you a little. The lyrics scream ‘Let me out!’ as Spike has to choose whether to be a good boy or give in to temptation and suck on the throbbing jugular that has been dished up to him. How creepy is the shrine to Buffy? Spike has let his obsession go way too far. When Buffy wakes up chained up I thought this might take a dark turn into Misery territory. Oh come on…a three way bitch fight with Spike pretty much just getting in the way. Too cool.

Moment to Watch Out For: Subtlety seems to be the key this year to getting everything right this year (compare and contrast to season six which is patent and in-yer-face to the nth degree) and the teaser on the train might just be one of the most subtly scary things the show has ever dished up. The last thing you would expect upon entering a train carriage is to find a massacre where everybody arranged as though they would be when enjoying the journey, blood spilled in their laps. The POV shot of the nasty that approaches the conductor is dramatic and I love the swing past the door on the platform as he tries to escape and is dragged inside to his death. Very creepy and beautifully directed. Drusilla couldn’t have asked for a finer homecoming. Also Marsters’ final ranting speech during the conclusion which shows the depth of character he can mine. He’s awesome. The look on his face as he realises he has been shut out of Buffy’s house is heartbreaking. It says more than a thousand words.

Result: ‘What the bleeding hell is wrong with you bloody women? What does it take? Why do you bitches torture me?’ What a curse Buffy suffers. I’m talking about the only weak point in this otherwise stellar episode. During the climax of Crush, Spike, Drusilla and Harmony are all in the same cave and it feels like one of them should be killed (especially considering Harm and Dru wont be having a role in this series anymore…although we don’t know that yet). It needs some kind of climax for these great characters that have been brought together. The curse comes in the fact that Buffy features villains so strong that it would be crime to bump them off – they are such memorable creations that just the thought of them never appearing again would end this episode on a bum note. It’s a Catch-22, Crush needed to kill one of them off and yet it can’t. Aside from that niggle this is absolute perfection from a season that has by now delivered the longest string of knockout episodes in a row. David Fury has great fun with his assembled group of nasties and makes sure that the dialogue is smoking hot for the occasion. Spike is excellently characterised throughout and the reveal that he has feelings for Buffy is handled extremely deftly. It’s one gem of a scene after another (the trailer train massacre, Harmony dressing up as Buffy, the campfire scene) on the road to Spike’s ousting, leading up to the extreme bitch-off when he chains up and slags off all of the women in his life. James Marsters is fantastic at showing Spike at a crossroads in his life and it’s wonderful to have Drusilla back to tempt him to the dark side. This is a necessary character episode that tosses out all the old girlfriends in Spike’s life so the show can concentrate on his burgeoning (as much as she hates to admit it) relationship with Buffy. The series isn’t ready for Buffy to love Spike yet (indeed it would take nearly another season for them to get it together) but every episode from now on is taking a baby step closer in that direction. Crush is addictive viewing and the most fun and sexy Buffy has been in an age: 9/10

I Was Made to Love you written by Jane Espenson and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Introducing Warren and his sex bot…and an exit from Joyce.

The Chosen One: Cruel, cruel, cruel Joss Whedon! Offering as a recovered and more gorgeous than ever Joyce before snatching her away from us. You’ve never seen Joyce, Buffy and Dawn so happy together than you have in this episode which should have automatically have set my warning bells off but at the time I was just so glad that their domestic horror was over I was completely thrown off my game. Buffy’s attempts to laugh at Ben’s jokes are cringe-worthy (but in a good way). They get the whole ‘will Buffy date Ben?’ angle over and done with in this episode (it’s basically ignored after this because of what comes next) which is good because considering his true nature it’s hardly a relationship that has legs. 

Ripper: Giles baby-sits Dawn and is forced to listen to music by people chosen for their ability to dance, eat cookie dough and talk about boys. He had a torturous experience but this sounds like a great night in to me! Giles tries to escape as soon as possible before Joyce can start talking about boys too…but there is probably a deeper reason behind that. Giles gets to be quietly menacing in this episode and that’s always fun and his advice to Spike (‘get over it…’) are wise words.

Sexy Blond: Has any man been so beaten up by women as Spike has this year? First Buffy, then Glory, then Harmony and now April! He should just turn gay…although they would probably start beating him up too.

Witchy Willow: There’s a very sweet look on Willow’s face when she is caught checking out April. Her and Tara remain the cutest lesbian couple on TV.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is still proving to be a great friend and dishing out wonderful advice, this time about Buffy’s inability to find the right man. Unfortunately for him this is the day she chooses to hug him and he is wearing his puffy sumo suit. It’s the first instance of Xander complaining about having to repair things after Buffy has destroyed in a fight. Get used to it mate, you’ll be doing this until the series is out from now on.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ve had precisely two boyfriends and they both left. Really left. Left town left.’
‘I go online sometimes but everyone’s spelling is really bad. It’s depressing.’
‘Just trying a little spicy talk…’

The Good: I love the fact that the general consensus about April is immediate and unmistakable – she is a robot. It’s as though Espenson wants to avoid the disappointment that the audience felt when watching Ted and so gets this surprise out of the way as early as possible so the episode can run with the idea. Funnier is that everybody agrees that April must be some kind of sex bot, except Giles who is too stuffy to ever think such a thing. Glory turns into Ben in a nicely filmed sequence that waits to pull the gag that he is wearing her smoking red dress until the last minute. Nicely done. Adam Busch isn’t the strongest actor the world has ever seen but he is more than up to the task of playing a giant wedge of sleaze that has built the sex bot. He seems to embody that nasty misogynist side of geekdom which if you prod hard enough you can see genuinely does exist – he’s the sort of guy who obsesses over Lara Croft’s curves and enjoys making her obey his will whilst never actually going out there and trying to meet a real woman (because they cannot be controlled or lusted after so blatantly). If that sounds like a horrific cliché then head to local Games Workshop. You’ll see some perfectly normal, adjusted individuals but you’ll also see a handful of Warren’s as well. I promise. April is an extension of that uncomfortable misogyny, an actualisation of a socially retarded geeks failiure with women. In the same way I bet certain guys have genuine relationships with the busty babes from video games…at least in their heads. The fact that she is dumped the second Warren is lucky enough to catch a break says everything you need to know about his character. Check out the POV shots from April and the hilarious sub folders and routines that she has ready to activate (including kissing, four programmes for sex, three programmes for fetishes and numerous programmes for positions). April’s termination is played well and like much of season five is all the better for being so modest.

The Bad: Technically April should be the most frightening opponent that Buffy has ever faced because she is motivated  by the strongest of emotions – love. It’s an obsession that can turn people into monsters. But it’s when April gets nasty that this episode doesn’t work. There is something unconvincing about those moments of seriousness that are smothered in this episodes gooey goodness. And the growl is pathetic.

Moment to Watch Out For: The trio of great scenes at the end of this episode that promise interesting developments in the future. Glory discovering that Ben has tried to make a date with the Slayer, Spike putting in order for a sex bot and…well the cliffhanger is in a league of its own. Agonisingly well directed so Joyce is visible out of focus before Buffy discovers her and the growing realisation that something is very, very wrong. ‘Mom…mom…mommy?’

Fashion Statement: Puffy Xander is possibly the cutest his character has ever been and you can’t help but feel for him as Buffy takes out her wrath on him in reaction to Spike’s feelings for her. Joyce all dressed up for her date with Brian isn’t mom-ish at all, in fact it’s the most sexy and full of life she has ever looked.

Foreboding: You wouldn’t be able to tell from this episode but Warren will return in a central role in season six. Was it a case of setting things up early (because that is some pre-thinking!) or liking the character and the actor after he had appeared in a one-off and deciding to bring him back. My money’s on the latter. Warren would go on to take part in two of the most disturbing Buffy scenes ever filmed. Go figure. Katrina appears here too but doesn’t make that much of an impression, but she’ll make one hell of an impression next year.

Result: The flimsiest episode in an age but in no way a stinker, I Was Made To Love You is automatically lifted by three consecutive scenes at the conclusion which promise interesting things of the future. I’ve often read that season five is a hot bed of unrelenting misery and whilst there is a higher quota of that than usual I think there is an argument to be made that there is also a great deal of warmth and levity in this season too. Buffy vs,. Dracula, Real Me, The Replacement, Triangle, Checkpoint, Crush and I Was Made to Love You are all packed full of comedy and the warmth that is exuded from the characters in Family, Into the Woods and Blood Ties offsets the serious stuff going on elsewhere. This is probably the lightest episode of season five and whilst it is enjoyable it is also probably the slightest too, with a plot that is as considerable as a sigh. It mixes character comedy and touching moments to create what is probably the easiest episode of the year to watch and forget about. April (by her very nature) is a vacuous character but her scenes have an infectious, fairytale atmosphere to them because she has such a smiley outlook on the world. The dialogue and interaction between all the regulars is all warm cosy and it doesn’t get any darker than throwing Spike through a window. I think the thing that is lacking is substance but because the rest of year has been overloaded with the stuff this short break from it is no bad thing. A light, likable episode with a cruel shocker of an ending: 7/10

The Body written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Joyce has died and we witness how everybody copes.

The Chosen One: In the face of the dreadful shock that her mother is dead, Buffy reverts back to an almost catatonic, childlike state where she doesn’t know how to cope with anything and calls her ‘mommy.’ Gellar plays that first sequence entirely on her own and is absolutely superb, the best she has ever been in the series. Her panic, her juvenile confusion on the phone to the emergency services, her petulant insistence that she is called mom and not ‘the body’, Gellar (and Whedon) capture that sense of unreal, trance-like state that you retreat into when something shocking happens that you can’t cope with something that has been presented to you. It’s like Buffy is taking in every detail that is going on around her but actually isn’t taking in anything at all. Straightening her mothers skirt before the paramedics reach the house is such a natural reaction, Buffy wants her mom to look her best in the face of strangers. Look at the look on Gellar’s face when she is told that her mother is definitively dead and there was nothing she could do, it’s a look of young lady whose entire world has been turned upside down and there is nothing she can do about it. The look of shock on Buffy’s face when she screams at Giles not to move her mothers body, at once realising that she is really dead and that she has accepted the fact, haunts me every time I see it. Buffy’s quiet acceptance of Anya’s (awkward) comfort is a really lovely moment.

The Key: This is the stage when you realise that not only is Dawn here to stay but that you have completely accepted her as a member of this ensemble almost as though she has always been there. Cleverly Whedon cuts to Dawn crying as though she has already been told about her mom but we soon realise it is tears about something as vacuous as a boy calling her freaky. It’s horrific to know about Joyce’s death before Dawn and being able to watch her last few minutes as she is blissfully unaware of the state of affairs and that her world is about to be upended. It’s the most uncomfortable foreknowledge…and the thought that I was intrigued to see how she would react to the news made me question my own reaction to this drama.

Ripper: Giles automatically assumes a parental role with Joyce out of the picture. But then he has always been her surrogate dad.

Witchy Willow: Some people cope with tragedy by focusing on something trivial and Willow’s obsession with what to wear to the hospital feel very natural. Tara is hanging back, trying to be supportive and when the time comes she steps in and kisses her girlfriend to calm her down. It strikes me as a good move to wait for the first onscreen kiss between these two characters to come in such an honest episode. There is so much else to focus on that it practically slips by unnoticed. That Anya/Willow rivalry bubbles over again when Willow reacts very badly to her constant questions of how to deal with grief and whether they will see the body. It’s also very real to start mistreating those around you when you are hurting. Tara’s admission that she has lost her mother comes out of the blue.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is desperate for somebody to blame – Glory, Doctors, anybody so long as he doesn’t have to accept that it was just a pointless accident. Punching the wall is probably how I would cope, I have been known to lash out when I don’t know how to react to something (but never at a person I might add).

Vengeance Demon: After hundreds of years of maiming and killing people Anya finally comes up close and personal to mortality in a way that has never affected her before and she simply doesn’t understand the concept. Oddly Anya and Giles’ comedy cuddle is one of the most touching moments in the episode.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Things don’t happen. I mean they don’t just happen.’
‘But I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens, how we go through this. I mean I knew her and there’s just a body and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead anymore – it’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid. And Xander’s crying and not talking and I was having fruit punch and I thought well Joyce will never have anymore fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs or yawn or brush her hair, not ever and no-one will explain to me why.’
‘It’s not her. It’s not her. She’s gone.’

The Good: Massive kudos to Kristine Sutherland who has the thankless task of playing a corpse through this episode and with her bland, lifeless eyes staring out of the screen the episode offers some of the most chilling imagery I have ever seen committed to film. None of that Joyce warmth is present, every time we cut to her it is a shocking reminder that she really has gone for good. The show pulls off the most awful trick imaginable by having Buffy return home to find her mom dead on the sofa. It’s one of the most frightening moments in television because although it has been heavily foreshadowed earlier in the season and touted as possibility you never really believed that they would go through with bumping somebody like Joyce off in such a realistic way. Buffy has always been about as out there as genre television comes so to wrench the audience out of that fantasy and to so cruelly dump them in reality at for this one hour is extremely jarring and painful. The series even went to some lengths to suggest that Joyce’s condition might be the work of this years Big Bad, Glory. So to suddenly, without warning, confirm that it was nothing of the kind and just a horribly real blood clot on the brain is a nauseating tug into reality. I know a friend who has returned home and found her flatmate dead and by all accounts it is horrific a situation as you would imagine. The thought of this ever happening to me with my husband fills me with dread. Cutting to a sequence at Christmas filled with warmth and joy is possibly the most unkind place that Whedon could take us, remembering the good times before painfully wrenching us back to the present where the person that brought everybody together has departed this mortal coil. Whedon ensures that we never get anything less than 100% exposure of the pain his characters are feeling, the camera following them around from room to room as they try and cope with this impossible situation. Who wouldn’t play out the scenario that Joyce is alive and well and thanking them for reaching her in time. It’s another horrendously malicious trick on Whedon’s part but one that feels like a very natural reaction to the situation so he completely gets away with it. Choosing the shoot Dawn’s reaction to the news from the near-silent POV of her classmates was a sublime move, seeing the horror unfold from a dispassionate distance. I honestly don’t know if I could have taken another in-your-face reaction shot at this point. There is a very impressive tracking shot that follows the Doctor from Joyce’s body in the mortuary all the way along the corridors to Buffy and her friends, a look of regret on his face as he has to discuss the arrangements with her. Whether he is telling the truth or just trying to comfort her, the Doctor tells Buffy that even had she been there by Joyce’s side there was nothing she could have done. It would have a swift and (mostly) painless. It’s not a great comfort but it’s what I would need to here to prevent me from blaming myself. The crisp, cool lighting as Dawn enters the morgue is just perfect, really highlighting the sense of unreality and reality colliding. I’ve heard complaints that this episode didn’t need a vampire to appear at the end and that it should have stood alone as a piece without any fictional nasties present but I genuinely feel that without that bridging between this painfully real human drama and the Buffy we know and love the sudden yank back to normal in the next episode would give the viewer whiplash. We needed to be reminded that life does go on, there are still enemies that can be fought and that this show will survive without Joyce. Played in absolute silence, it is by far the most chilling vampire attack that either Buffy or Angel has ever dished up. Listen to how savage and desperate Sarah Michelle Gellar’s sounds, like Buffy really needed something to fight. The shot of Buffy and Dawn looking on their mother on the mortuary slab took my breath away, it’s so unnerving. Dawn is what is known as a mystical ball of energy so the cliffhanger to this episode when she reaches out to touch her mother is one of the tensest ones yet. Will she be able to bring her back to life with on touch? So many little details jump out that make this episode so unusually direct and personal and impacting; the cracked rib, the lost focus on the telephone dialling pad, the tinkling chimes, Buffy’s vomit, the sweat glowing on her forehead as she is bleached in the unreal sunlight, charcoal running down a board, the blue top on the chair, the parking ticket and the awkward moment when Buffy apologises to Tara for having to go through all this.

The Bad: I perhaps would have dispensed with the theme music for this episode. It just feels completely out of place in what is essentially the most honest piece of character drama you are ever likely to see. ‘We’re not drawing the object…we’re drawing the negative space around the object…’ What the fuck sort of hippy shit are they teaching kids at school these days? I can remember when this episode first aired I was working with a man who was the most vacuous, bitchy, shallow and self-centred human being it has probably ever been my misfortunate to know (this is the man who filmed himself having sex with his ex and sent it to his current boyfriend as a way of splitting up with him…that’s how low he was prepared to sink and revel in it). I was still reeling from this drama and he came into work declaring it was the most boring thing he had ever seen and ‘nothing happened!’ I took that as a massive compliment in The Body’s favour.

Moment to Watch Out For: Basically the whole episode but if I was forced at gunpoint to choose one moment it would be Anya’s speech about not understanding. Usually it is Willow who breaks my heart with moments like this but Emma Caulfield seizes this moment and provides us with a heartbreaking and chilling monologue that proves that Anya is far more than just a collection of witty quips.

Orchestra: Whether Whedon thought Wanker was up to the task or not, the decision to remove the music from this episode is vital to it's success. The silence gives the characters actions and reactions so much more meaning.

Fashion Statement: That red sweater of Buffy’s is one of my most enduring memories of this episode. I hope we never see it again or it will just bring back all these memories.

Result: One of the most painful hours of television I have ever had to sit through and yet consequently one of the most beautiful too, watching The Body is like having your heart ripped out of your chest and crushed before your eyes. It’s the point where these characters go beyond a fun, quirky ensemble into real people that you want to reach into the television and comfort. Sarah Michelle Gellar gives the performance of her career in this episode and the rest of the ensemble perform wonders too but the person that makes the biggest impression is Joss Whedon who has clearly poured so much of himself into this disquieting, shocking piece of television. Clearly a personal piece of work, he has never allowed us this close to himself and the characters and his use of silences is disquieting in the extreme. Removing Joyce from the show was something that nobody wanted but I can understand the reasons why in storytelling terms and in order to push the audience to the limits of what they can feel about these people. The Body is a cornerstone moment in Buffy and one of those game changing episodes that affects everything that comes afterwards. That a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer could produce something as hauntingly real as this is a fantastic achievement. It is quite simply one of the finest episodes of television ever broadcast and most shows couldn’t come anywhere near to claiming something as bold as that: 10/10

Forever written and directed by Marti Noxon

What’s it about: Joyce’s funeral and the consequences of it…

The Chosen One: So many people don’t have that conversation about what they would like when they die and whoever is left behind has to try and cope with the choices as best as they can. It pleases me that Joyce left Buffy in no doubt that she didn’t want a wake. Suddenly Buffy’s life has taken a massive new direction. She’s no longer sister Buffy but has to step into the role of surrogate mom Buffy and that’s something she hadn’t prepared herself for. The moment Buffy and Angel kiss and it doesn’t set either of their worlds on fire, it is just a moment of release for both of them really drives home the point that they are now the firmest of friends.

The Key: Holding back death has long been a fascination in fiction (and reality if you look into things) and Dawn’s preposterous proposal to try and bring her mother back from the dead isn’t that unreasonable given the amount of hurt she must be feeling. Especially given what she has learnt about herself recently and knowing a pair of increasingly powerful witches. She probably thinks it is a perfectly rational request and one that would be easy to put into practice.

Goddess: The Glory arc returns to the show in fine form as Ben lets slip to Jinx that the Key might be a person and an innocent at that. He’s willing to go to any lengths to stop Glory from finding out and so practically guts her minion at his place of work. How far is he willing to go? Could Dawn be in danger from him in a very different way than she is from Glory?

Ripper: I love the completely superfluous but far reaching moment when Giles sits alone and listens to the same song he and Joyce enjoyed as teenagers in Band Candy and has a drink. It says a thousand things without anyone uttering a word. Was he in love with her? Did he long to take that role as Buffy’s father? Does he regret not taking things further with Joyce?

Sexy Blond: Sweetly, Spike wants to leave flowers for Joyce and when confronted by an irrational Xander (who is hurting so I’ll forgive him no matter how much of an asshole he is being) he explains the reasons why he liked her so much. She was friendly, always had a cuppa for him and never put on any airs around him. All this is very true.

Witchy Willow: It’s amazing how something like a friend losing a loved one can make you realise how much you take yours for granted. It’s like a whopping great reminder that the people in your life are special regardless of how much they drive you nuts. There’s a very interesting shift between Willow and Tara in Forever where for the first time ever the latter has had to say no forcefully to something (Dawn’s plan to mess with life an death) whereas Willow clearly has mixed feelings about the whole idea. This is a clash of ideologies that will develop over the next season and lead to some explosive consequences for the couple. Willow thinks she is doing the right thing by pointing Dawn in the right direction and this curse of thinking she knows what is best for people is only going to get worse as she gets more powerful. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You make a place for her in your heart. It’s sort of like she becomes a part of you.’

The Good: We’ve seen Buffy prowling around funeral homes before looking for the last vampires to stake so the opening scene is quite cleverly played except this time she is there for the very real horror of having to choose the coffin for her mother. There’s a heartbreaking pan along the upper level of the Summers household as both Buffy and Dawn sit in their respective rooms in silence and the house seems devoid of life and warmth without their mothers presence. I’ve seen funeral scenes that really try and gut the audience and wind trying to push the sentiment too far but Noxon is more truthful to the characters than that, filming the sequence in a series of quick reaction shots and capturing the beauty of the moment of so many people coming together to pay respect to an incredible woman. I love the conceit of everybody slowly leaving the graveside and Buffy remaining behind, right up until the sun goes down. It might seem like the oddest observation but the cemetery that Joyce is laid to rest is really pretty. You can’t help but scream at Dawn to stop whatever dark spell she is about to conjure up whilst at the same time completely understand why she is doing it. Joel Grey automatically adds a touch of class to any TV drama and provides a wonderful performance as Doc, at this stage just a creepy old man who has access to some dark knowledge.

The Bad: It is probably the only time after he leaves where Angel’s presence is actually needed but David Boreanaz’s delivery is so somnambulistic that he sounds like he would rather be anywhere else. I’ve seen worse demon puppets on Buffy than the Gora demon but I’ve seen better ones too. I was cringing with embarrassment but then I wasn’t that impressed either. It fulfils its purpose.

Moment to Watch Out For: The last five minutes of Forever make this exercise in despair more than worthwhile as Buffy and Dawn’s feelings finally burst forth and the they admit how lost they are and how much they need each other. Add in the chilling cuts to Joyce stumbling towards the house across the graveyard and her shadow silhouetted against the curtains and you have material so powerful it quite took my breath away. It’s Buffy that surprised me most here, first when she slapped Dawn (I probably would have done the same but I would have never have expected it of Buffy) and when she ran to the door to greet her mom excitedly. The net result is Buffy admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing to her sister and that she doesn’t know who is going to take care of them now which feels so real. Dawn finally gets to take care of Buffy, breaking the spell and holding her as she breaks down. It's especially great that Buffy remembers that it is the things that you don't see that are scarier and the suggestions of Joyce are far more frightening than anything they could have shown us. 

Orchestra: Thomas Wanker provides a delicate and respectful piano score to lead us through the funeral. There is even a little nod to the Buffy/Angel theme when they kiss afterwards. Also the sinister music as Dawn prepares and performs the spell to resurrect Joyce subtly enhances the error of what she is doing.

Result: In many ways this is just as dark and heart wrenching as The Body but then Joss Whedon’s masterpiece of human drama was so out of the ordinary I think a leap straight back into the normal action packed, wittily played Buffy would have felt jarring. We needed Forever which was a mixture of the two tones to ease as back into the show as it normally is and to deal with the messy aftermath of Joyce’s death before the show can move on and get back to the Glory arc (it’s telling that the name isn’t mentioned after halfway through the episode after the funeral). I love the atmosphere that pervades the latter half of Forever, taking Buffy into the realm of dark fantasy as Dawn seeks out the help of a creepy wizard and has to steal the egg of a ravenous demon in order to bring her mother back to life. The fact that the end result of her labours is so utterly unsettling is what sells the piece and the final scenes take Buffy into a new area of understated horror. It’s not perfect, the pace is painfully slow at times and it’s true that at this point I am desperate to have a laugh with these characters again but there is no part of Forever that I could point at and say doesn’t work either. In fact when the shadowy visage of zombie Joyce approaches her two daughters it is clear that Noxon has tapped into something truly chilling the likes of which Buffy doesn’t usually dare to approach. Joyce’s death has been beautifully and sensitively handled and the show has shifted a gear as a result. Now let’s get back to the fun. Hauntingly brought to life by Noxon behind the camera: 8/10

Intervention written by Jane Espenson and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Spike has had a Buffy sex robot built…

The Chosen One: Immediately the tone is different with the interaction between the characters more light, the humour is back and nobody is wallowing in self pity anymore. She’s starting to feel like being the Slayer was turning her to stone in a way that even she didn’t like. She recognises that she wasn’t there for Riley and she was cruel to Dawn and she doesn’t want that hanging over her anymore. Buffy feels that being the perfect Slayer means being too hard to love at all and that’s not something she can cop with. In the end, when the show presents it’s most epic threat (the First in season seven) Buffy does have to be cold to the point of rejecting her social life and committing totally to the job, even if that makes her completely unlikable. So she does have a point here. Her ‘weird love’ moment with both Giles and Dawn sees a more amiable Buffy than we have seen in a while (before the misery of coping with the death of her mother she was being unerringly horrible to Spike, Riley and Dawn). In the hands of Espenson, Buffy is at her most good-natured. Add to the nicer than normal Buffy the Buffybot and Sarah Michelle Gellar is forced to smile more in one episode than she manages in some whole seasons! It’s lovely to see. A good friend of mine doesn’t exactly rate Gellar as an actress (citing Alyson Hannigan as the main acting draw for this show) but it’s when you are confronted with a perky, vacuous version of Buffy (to be fair to my friend there isn’t a great deal of difference between the robot and Buffy of season one, which shows how far Gellar has come as an actress with the role) like the robot when you see just how nuanced her normal performances are in comparison. Buffy shows some ingenuity by pretending to be the robot to find out what Spike has told Glory and then pleasingly rewards him for taking such a thrashing for a member of her family.

Goddess: ‘How is a vampire who wont talk like an apple? Think I can do you in one long strip?’ Glory is so often treated as a comedy character (she works so well that way) but it’s during those moments when she dishes out a whole world of pain to Buffy and her friends that she makes the biggest impact. We’ve spent a season getting very close to Spike and so to see him being tortured so casually by Glory tugs at the heartstrings and the final image of him battered, bruised and bloody is quite horrific. Spike often bounces back from the punches Buffy and her mates throw at him but this is a beating that he wont forget in a hurry. It’s an important that reminder that beneath that clueless exterior, Glory is a dangerously unpredictable and powerful child. Only Glory would feed you a glass of water and then smash it into your face. We don’t need to see at this point that Glory punishes her minions when they return to tell her that they have failed to bring back Spike. An off screen scream of pain is all that is required to know that they are suffering badly.

Sexy Blond: How Spike ever thought he would get away with the Buffybot and manage to keep it a secret when the Scoobies recurrently break into his crypt to accuse him of something or enlist is help is beyond me.  If you are a twisted soul (some days I think I might be) then you may consider the idea of a sex robot in the shape of a celebrity that you really fancy a good idea. When you break it down it is spectacularly creepy but ultimately it’s no different from Riker or Janeway over in the Star Trek universe creating their ultimate fantasies on the Holodeck and that rarely seems to get frowned upon. 

Vengeance Demon: It’s lovely that literal minded Anya enjoys the company of the literal minded Buffy bot far more than she does the usual dour Buffy she has to contend with.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I know this ritual! The ancient shamans were next called upon to do the hokey pokey and turn themselves around’ ‘Go quest’ ‘…and that’s what it’s all about.’
‘It’s Spike! And he’s wearing a coat!’ – not a great line in itself, but the delivery is priceless and the same goes for ‘Angel’s lame. His hair goes straight up and his hair’s bloody stupid’ although that is a pretty cool line in its own right.
‘Spike is strong and mysterious and somewhat compact but well muscled’ ‘I am not having sex with Spike…but I’m starting to think that you might be.’
‘You guys couldn’t tell me apart from a robot?’
‘Gyles? Spike didn’t even bother to programme my name properly!’
‘It is not Bob Barker scabby morons! The Key is new to this world…and Bob Barker is as old as writ’ – the whole guess who is the Key sequence is pure sitcom.
‘That thing, it wasn’t even real. What you did for me and Dawn…that was real. It wont forget it.’

The Good: The Buffy bot is technically a really bad idea creatively, threatening to take the show into sleazy areas that it is best avoiding. And yet somehow they manage to grasp hold of the concept and squeeze it for every laugh and sweet moment that it’s worth. A sports car in a vast, bleached out desert…not the usual sort of visual that this show sports and more effective because of it. For a show that has been as self-contained and claustrophobic for a season it is refreshing to get into some wide open spaces and there is a shot of Buffy approaching the endless wastes of the desert which is being kissed by the tangerine sun for the last time before it disappears for the evening that was quite beautiful. The robot POV shots are back and Espenson has great fun with some descriptive passages for each character (Anya: LIKES MONEY, Willow: GAY (1999-PRESENT). Nothing could have quite prepared me for the shot of the Buffy bot straddling Spike in the graveyard and crying out ‘you’re the Big Bad!’ so goodness knows how Xander felt! In a sequence worthy of Shakespeare the Scoobies send the Buffybot (thinking that it is Buffy) to get changed and our Buffy returns home and they pick up their conversation with her not being able to tell the difference between the two. I was just waiting for the bot to come back… Love Xander’s assertion that they are both Buffy, as a reference back to what he went through in The Replacement. Our Buffy repeating the Gyles gag makes me laugh every time. Spike escaping down the lift shaft is marvellously directed with the camera cutting back and forth to different POV shots.

Moment to Watch Out For: The beautiful final scene which achieves a great many things. One, we get to see just how strong an actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is by slipping so convincingly between the Buffybot and our Buffy. Two, it’s superbly written to bring the truth out of Spike before rewarding him for his loyalty. Three, it suggests there is hope for a Buffy/Spike relationship yet which coming at the end of an episode that sees him showing off a sex robot in her image was the last thing I was expecting. I remember season five was the first year that my mum really got into this show and it was after this episode that she declared that it was now her favourite show on television (at the time). Touchingly performed, how the gorgeous character drama springs from such an absurd situation is the icing on the cake.

Fashion Statement: With his messed up, bleached blond hair Spike has never looked more like he belongs in a boy band. They have really softened the character this year and that has extended to his look now and he has never looked this edible before.

Orchestra: Wanker suggests the aching loneliness of the desert as Buffy searches for her spirit guide.

Foreboding: Dawn’s kleptomania is first spotted in Intervention. I forget how early Buffy kick starts its little character arcs, it would take an entire season before this would be revealed. The First Slayer’s announcement that death is Buffy’s gift foreshadows the season finale beautifully.  Whoever thought that the Buffybot would return to take a vital role at the end of season five/the beginning of series six.

Result: ‘Death is your gift…’ A lovely comedy of errors and another great Spike episode, Intervention is precisely what the series needed at this point – a healthy reminder that these characters can still be terrific fun to be around. There is a wonderful moment when Glory’s minions barge in on Xander and Spike arguing over his taking advantage of Buffy in this where two long running narratives collide (let’s call them the Glory and Spike arcs) and the resulting consequences that play out are massively rewarding. Glory thinks Spike knows who the Key is and beats him up bloody and raw to persuade him to share the information and thus he gets to prove to Buffy just how far he will go to protect her and her family. Whilst this is playing out there is all manner of hilarious comedy surrounding the Buffybot who is brilliantly played by Sarah Michelle Gellar and is finally freed from the shackles of misery that she has been forced to endure for practically the entire season. The Scoobies reactions to the idea of Buffy bonking Spike and then their subsequent humiliation when they have to admit to the real Buffy that they couldn’t tell her apart from a robot are played for all they worth. The season is back on track and we are edging ever closer to some kind of culmination to the Glory/Dawn storyline. I’m pretty darn excited to see where it leads us after all this fantastic build up. Intervention is delightful to watch and has a winner of a final scene that suggests massive development for Spike and Buffy. This is the tenth episode in a row I have given a 7 (and that was only one episode) or above to which gives season five the strongest consecutive run of episodes yet: 8/10

Tough Love written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Tara is stolen by Glory and Willow seeks revenge…

The Chosen One: Buffy is struggling in the role of mom and cannot find a way of punishing Dawn for acting out. In a moment of inspiration she asks Giles to be the person who tells her off and it’s interesting to this narrative thread appear so early before it becomes a real problem in the first half of season six where she relies on him too much. Here Giles gently refuses but next year he would literally have to abandon her to force her to stand on her own two feet. Unfortunately she takes discipline to mean acting like the educational Nazi (whereas Willow’s fun approach to Dawn’s homework yields much better results). These scenes are a little awkward because they are trying to show the audience how wrong she is getting it but in the face of Willow’s suggestions Buffy just comes across as being obstinate and irrational.

The Key: Not only is Dawn stealing, she’s also been skipping school and she has a ready made excuse in the death of her mother. Sometimes all you need is a good slap around the face (in the metaphorical sense) to make you see how badly you are behaving (trust me I’ve had plenty of those from friends, family and Simon before) and Dawn being told if she doesn’t buck her ideas up then she will be taken into care is just the ticket. Watch Michelle Trachtenberg when she gives her speech about being something horrible to cause so much pain in everyone around her. That is not an easy speech for a young actress to make but she imbues it with a real sense of delicacy and emotion. When they shy away from the irritating teen persona, Trachtenberg really is something special.

Goddess: What fun the writers are having with Ben and Glory existing in the same body. Or at least fun on Glory’s part who is taking great delight in tearing Ben’s world apart piece by piece. Unlike Dawn’s arrival and Joyce’s illness and subsequent death this is something that has managed to slip under the radar and be teased at and only revealed when the season is ready to deal with the consequences. I am with Glory when she says there are a lot of sucky things in this dimension but bubble baths are not one of them…I love bubble baths (anyone who doesn’t is strange and must be banished to the hell dimension where there is no shrimp). Especially when you have scabby minions blindfolded and holding up boxes of chocolates and luxurious drinks.

Ripper: This is a great episode for Giles who gets to dish out very good advice to both Buffy and Willow (if Gabriel Byrne wants to hang up his coat there is a couch with Anthony Head’s name on it) and gets to show his rarely seen but always exciting dark side when he tortures one of Glory’s minions off-screen.

Sexy Blond: Glory describes Spike as ‘follicley fried.’ That really tickled me. Spike is still bruised and cut up from his beating last week which was a nice touch.

Witchy Willow: ‘You’re the only woman I’ve ever fallen in love with so how on Earth could you possibly take me seriously…’ It’s Willow and Tara’s first proper fight and it’s not something that I ever wanted to see (they just work so well together as a couple) so I was bound to have an allergic reaction to this material. Kirshner has a fair stab at showing how a perfectly reasonable conversation can develop into a full blown argument when both parties are a little too relaxed in each others company but I found the whole idea of Willow being jealous because she hasn’t lost her mom a little disconcerting. That jealousy extends to Tara’s sexuality and affinity with witchcraft and how she has been exploring these aspects of her life for much longer than Willow. It’s one of those conversations where whatever one party says (Tara), the other party takes it completely the wrong way (Willow). The best thing to do in these situations is to walk away for an hour or two. You’ll find that the time apart with your thoughts will soon make you miss the other person and suddenly what made you mad doesn’t matter anymore. Hannigan unveils a dark streak to her character that we really haven’t seen before, speaking in a low, flat tone and accusing Tara with her burning eyes. It’s uncomfortable but perhaps that is just because it’s so unusual. If Amber Benson doesn’t entirely convince when she is being threatened by Glory then she works wonders after her brain suck, offering up a child-like Tara who is disconnected from the world. Willow makes some great points about when it is the time to take the fight to Glory. The Scoobies might be there to back Buffy up but they are capable of making their own choices and if she is hurting then Willow is damn well going to do something about the cause of that pain. This is pretty much played out in verbatim at this point next season but far more dramatically. The gulf between Buffy and Willow is tiny here but soon there will be an ocean of resentment raging between them. 

Vengeance Demon: Anya’s sudden patriotism is the first time I have felt that her quirkiness is foisted upon her rather than a natural part of her character. It feels like there was a lot of empty spaces in the script to be filled so this was added to gobble up some running time. When she starts going on about French old people being not only Un-American but bottom of the barrel I thought I had lost the plot.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Then all of a sudden it was all doom and gloom and the outlawing of human triangles.’
‘Well I took psyche 101. I mean I took it from an evil government scientist who was skewered by her Frankenstein-like creation before the final but I know what a Freudian slip is’ – only Alyson Hannigan could take a hold of a mouthful of dialogue like this and make it work this well.
‘Maybe I’m not evil…but I don’t think I can be good.’
‘Did anybody order an Apocalypse?’ – I love how Glory is unfazed by anything.
‘What’s that, a bag of tricks?’ ‘No, a bag of knives.’

The Good: Boy when Glory’s scabby minions get it wrong, they get it really wrong. I like the conceit of them thinking that Tara is the Key though and the way the script tries to make you believe that Glory has discovered that it is Dawn. Tough Love’s best moments comes when the minions are prowling around just out of shot and the moment when Giles opens the door whilst giving romance advice to Willow and smashes one in the head with it came as such a surprise I howled with laughter.

The Bad: Perhaps this is one of those budget saver episodes (although I personally feel that all the money was being poured into the effects heavy conclusion) but the cultural affair has clearly only been partly built and as such the director cannot use a wide angle to give it any sense of scope. As such it feels like a bunch of extras grouped together in shot and a few stalls taking place behind Tara. Cutting to Willow in the Magic Shop and then somebody delicately taking Tara’s hand rather ruins the surprise that it isn’t her (plus Glory’s head is visibly in shot before the camera does the dramatic reveal). The sequence where Glory squeezes Tara’s hand until blood comes and she brain sucks her is shot head on and Amber Benson looks more awkward than terrified.  It’s bizarrely ineffective in a way that the Glory scenes really haven’t been this year so far. Willow trying to break through the non existent crowd and being stopped by a Chinese dragon doesn’t work at all. It feels like people are deliberately throwing obstacles in her way and the pacing is way off.

Moment to Watch Out For: Willow turning up at Glory’s apartment with an apocalypse of pain in her wake. She glides through the door with jet black eyes and unleashes a storm on the She-God. She’s a formidable force but not something for a God of Glory’s strength to worry about and she’s soon tossing the furniture at her and combating her party tricks. It’s five minutes of great effects, bitch fighting and lustful action. Colour me excited. The last scene is fantastic for whetting the appetite – Tara spills the beans about Dawn and Glory stands triumphant in the face of her Key. Extra points for the way she sweeps aside a wall with such careless abandon. Glory rocks. 

Result: I simply cannot predict David Grossman as a director. He is capable of producing works that are as good as Buffy comes (Wild at Heart, Superstar, Tabula Rasa) but he is also capable of struggling if the script is a little unwieldy or lacking in substance (Out of My Mind, Bargaining). With Tough Love he sets out to prove that both cases can manifest themselves in one episode because it is full great moments that really work (such as vengeful Willow attacking Glory and awesome final scene) and other moments that feel oddly flat and really shouldn’t (Tara being attacked by Glory at the fair). Rebecca Rand Kirshner is this years Tracey Forbes (only much more skilled in the art of writing Buffy) and this is her middling script (it’s nowhere near as vacuous as Out of My Mind but it doesn’t quite hit the creepy heights of Listening to Fear either) and it exposes her terrific handling of dialogue and love of a big dramatic climax but it does take a little while and goes through some awkward characterisation of Willow and Tara that doesn’t always ring true to get there. Giles gets some good moments although it would appear Buffy’s comfortable turn in the last episode was a refreshing one-off because she’s back to playing the fuhrer here. Strangle enough it’s Glory’s scabby minions that provide some of the more enjoyable moments and it’s a shame they were confined to one season. There’s so much that does work in Tough Love that it’s a shame that I should have to punish the piece for some poor directional choices and a little uncomfortable characterisation but thems the breaks when it comes to reviewing a series. It would be a 5 if it weren’t for the first glimpse of evil witch bitch Willow and the appetite-whetting dramatic climax: 6/10

Spiral written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: It’s time for Buffy to take on the Knights of Byzantium en masse…

The Chosen One: Finally Buffy has realised just dangerous Glory is and decides to go on the run. It might not be the bravest course of action but when you are dealing with a pissed off Hell God from another dimension it is definitely the most sensible one (I loved the little dig at Adam and how easy he was defeat in comparison – this show never shies away from bringing up its mistakes). Buffy admits that she cannot take much more because the pain keeps coming (Glory, Tara, Riley and her mom) and it’s clear that she needs some kind of release from it all. In hindsight you can see where all this is leading but when watching for the first time I could never foresee that the writers would be looking to offer Buffy the ultimate release. To be fair to Buffy I would have given up at the climax too. How much more can one person take?

The Key: More wonderful moments between Buffy and Dawn where she gives her the succour she needs to continue the fight. I had always thought season five was Buffy and Dawn at each others throats (and there has been a fair amount of that too) but there has been an equal amount of gentle moments between them as their relationship has deepened that has really helped to sell their love for each other (there are similar moments in No Place Like Home, Blood Ties and The Body). Dawn was created to open the gate which separates the dimensions and Glory will use her to return home and seize control of the Hell she was banished from. The walls separating reality will crumble , dimensions will bleed into each other, order will be overthrown and the universe will be thrown into chaos. Gulp.

Goddess: Something that was hinted at previously is now being led towards for real…could Ben kill Dawn to prevent Glory from obtaining her Key and returning home? His thread throughout the season is another element that has been superbly handled and plotted. As I have mentioned before I don’t remember him appearing as much this season as he had (mind you it has been years since I last re-watched this show back-to-back like this and due to the serial nature of this season it is one I rarely select one episode at random from because it has so few standalones) but I’m pleased to have re-discovered his importance to this arc, how sneakily his body switch with Glory was dealt with, how it was played for laughs, how it is suggested that he might be Buffy’s next boy toy and now this dark moral dilemma facing him. It pains me to think of Charlie Weber being shackled to as vacuous as 90210 when he has been so impressively understated here (although if his role in the teen drama involved him getting his shirt off a lot I might even be tempted to tune in one week). Spiral offers another dilemma surrounding Ben but looking at the problem from the other side…kill the man half of the She-God and Glory dies. Can Buffy bring herself to murder Ben? ‘Hey, it’s Gregor’ declares Glory when she materialises inside Buffy’s sanctuary before picking up a hub cap and sliding it into his stomach. She’s so cool.

Ripper: At a point where she desperately needs it Giles tells Buffy how proud he is of her.

Sexy Blond: Spike takes another wound for Buffy. Surely he has done enough to be welcomed into the Scoobies by now? Xander helping him out with his cigarette lighter offers hope in that direction.

Witchy Willow: Although it isn’t the focus, Tara’s condition has not been forgotten and she’s cleverly used as a portent of doom whenever things get too quiet (which isn’t often in this installment). Amber Benson continues

Vengeance Demon: Before she got heavily involved with Xander running away was Anya’s method of choice so of everybody she is the one who is most behind Buffy’s idea to flee. Because it was either that or throw a piano on her head and I don’t know if that would work and it would be a waste of a good piano.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Weapons?’ ‘Hello you’re driving one!’ ‘Don’t hit the horsies!’ Worth mentioning because that is exactly what Simon shouted out when watching…he has a bizarre fascination with not enjoying watching animals getting hurt on television but human beings are fair game.

The Good: Spiral opens with an action sequence so awesome that the episodes surrounding it don’t really have much of a chance in comparison. Glory knows who the Key is now and she is going to hound Buffy until the ends of the Earth until she gets her hands on Dawnie. It’s everything that the season has been building in its complexly structured way and so some payoff in such a destructive fashion is extremely welcome. So here we have Buffy diving through a Willows college door (literally obliterating it because opening it wouldn’t be her style at all), Glory being tossed aside by a spell of Willow’s, her bursting through a wall in pursuit and running after them through the campus Superman-style, coming face to face with a massive oil tanker and then destroying a car roof as she penetrates it and quick as a flash transforming into Ben. It’s superbly directed by James A. Contner (he is far better than David Soloman at directing this show on the move) who wastes an entire episodes budget on about four minutes of footage…but what an opening. A massive round of applause for Lily Knight as Gronx, the only female scabby minion that we have seen and one of the most agreeable yet. They have all been well cast and played and stood out as one of the most enjoyable aspects of season five. It’s not very Buffy (which is normally a very sexy show) for them to head off in something as battered and functional as the beaten up old RV but it adds a great deal of character to this episode as a result (it feels more like the sort of getaway vehicle the Doctor would choose). In that respect it also feels like a TARDIS because the interior is absolutely massive, a studio space as opposed to being shot on location. Unlike the usual gang of four or five people masquerading as vampires the Knights of Byzantium are genuinely represented by what looks like a real army, the camera ascending above the trees to fill the screen full of extras. We cut from the Knights to the Scoobies to the crazies in the hospital to the scabby minions – it’s very satisfying to feel everything cohering like this and gaining momentum. Just when you think there is a moment to breathe flaming arrows start tearing through their shelter! It is unrelenting, this episode! Isn’t it wonderful to see the old Doctor Who base under siege genre kicking into operation (okay it isn’t limited to Doctor Who but that is where I have seen used most effectively) with Buffy and her friends holed up in an abandoned gas station in the desert under siege from an army of psychopathic knights? While we’re talking about Doctor Who Spiral borrows another of its tropes: creating expensive backstory with words (it was a case of having to with Who because they didn’t have the budget to afford big, cinematic flashbacks). General Gregor’s tale of Glory laying waste to the dimension that she came from is gripping and it doesn’t require anything more than two actors giving it their all. Buffy asking Ben to come visit their hidey hole to help Giles is one of those marvellous oh shit moments that works because its leading up to the moment when the heroes twig what they have done. We’re a few steps ahead but in a very electrifying way.

The Bad: Karim Prince is embarrassingly melodramatic as Dante (he really loves shouting ‘clerics!’) but that is more than made up for by Wade Williams’ memorable turn as the General.

Moment to Watch Out For: I can still vividly remember the moment when my husband went from being curious about Buffy the Vampire Slayer to actually becoming a fan of the show and it was during this episode. I can’t remember whether he first switched on at the beginning of series five or halfway through (I hope it wasn’t at the point of The Body because that would have given a really misguided view of what the show was about!) but during the sequence on camper van when Buffy fights hordes of knights he turned to me and exclaimed excitedly ‘why did you never get me to watch this show before?’ From this point on he never missed an episode on transmission. I’m trying to pinpoint what it might have been about that sequence (beyond the fact that it is ridiculously exciting and maybe that is enough) but all I can think of is he has long wanted to tour America in a creaky old wagon like this (I am continually trying to discourage this notion but it persists) and he has a massive hard on for anything Arthurian and steeped in mythology. Buffy has never offered up visuals like this before; knights on horseback riding along an RV and showering it with arrows, Buffy atop swinging a sword and knocking people to their deaths and Giles getting a pike to the gut and flipping the RV onto its side in a cloud of dust. Plus full marks for Anya hitting a knight repeatedly over the head with a frying pan (see, it really does pay to watch cartoons!).

Orchestra: Wanker has really woken up with this action packed story and fills it full of chest thumping music that adds wonders to the atmosphere. I particularly like the marching army theme when the knights attack the RV.

Foreboding: It’s all pretty much foreboding at this point. Can Ben kill Dawn? Can Buffy kill Ben? Will Glory activate the Key and destroy the world? Will Tara be a vegetable forever? So many interesting possibilities and it all comes down to how Joss Whedon handles and concludes them in The Gift. Watch this space.

Result: Spiral (and possibly Villains/Two to Go next year) is the closest Buffy has ever come to offering up a big cinematic action spectacular and rather than feeling completely out of place it proves to be one of the more successful episodes in the closing run of season five (the only point where I feel it stutters slightly). Everything that has been seeded in the season feels as though it is finally bearing fruit and cross pollinating coming together (the Knights of Byzantium, the purpose of the Key, Glory’s crazies and backstory, Ben’s dilemma, Buffy’s desperation in the face of overwhelming odds finally catching up with her) but they do so in an episode that is skilfully paced to provide as much visceral entertainment as possible. From the first second to the last the action is non-stop and James A. Contner proves he is the perfect director to handle this kind of adrenaline fuelled piece, offering college-bound, on the road and holed up action sequences that get progressively more exciting and murderous. Have they been saving up the budget for this episode because it looks as though it is eating away through about half a seasons money? Buffy usually involves whatever nasties arrive in Sunnydale invading their lives and becoming a part of their stories but by this stage of season five we have upped sticks from the Scoobies affairs and they have been plunged headlong into the world of Glory and the Knight’s of Byzantium. It is completely disconnected from reality (which Buffy rarely is) but as a result it proves to about as gripping as this show comes as escapist television. I like how Buffy’s friends are hurt during this fight (Spike, Giles) and how desperate the performances are to drive home the tension (the usually unflappable Buffy and Willow are particularly panic-stricken) but what I especially appreciate is how much Glory has come into her own know as a formidable force. She cuts through all the hand to hand nonsense at the climax by committing mass murder and achieves everything she has been aiming for this season. Yes that’s right folks, this is the one episode where the villain(ess) wins and it leaves poor Buffy who has simply had too much thrown at her of late in a catatonic state. All this and it fills in much of the backstory that we have been missing this year (who Glory is, why she was banished and what the consequences of Dawn’s activation would be). Exhilarating, gorgeously shot and cohering this season in a very dynamic way, Spiral is a top notch episode of Buffy that might just take your breath away. There is no other Buffy episode quite like this and that is why I like it so much: 9/10

The Weight of the World written by Doug Petrie and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Buffy is catatonic and Dawn has been kidnapped…

The Chosen One: Alexandra Lee is a terrifyingly authentic match for Sarah Michelle Gellar as the young Buffy. She even gets the voice inflections right.

Goddess: ‘So tell me why aren’t I popping your head like a zit right now?’ Just as she has been a pain in Ben’s backside, he is now starting to infect hers as their transitions get closer together and his morality and goodness is starting to seep into her veins. It forces her to wrestle with her conscience, to battle with her inner demons and question whether sacrificing a child to her aims is decent idea. Clare Kramer’s performance has become far less pantomime in the last few episodes and now she is playing this character in a much darker place, making the scenes between Glory and Dawn really count. Ben's choice to sacrifice Dawn in order to survive is this episodes only real shock and even that doesn't come as a massive surprise given the alternative for him. 

Sexy Blond: Amazing how Spike has now slipped alongside the Scoobies almost invisibly in the wake of the latest developments. About damn time. I really chuckled when he slapped Xander (and thus himself).

Witchy Willow: Willow is using her powers to break up Spike and Xander when they brawl and its one of the first signs that she is using her powers to inflict her will upon others. Even though she does this for the best of reasons (they did need a good telling off at this point), Alyson Hannigan plays in a very dark way that suggests a menacing future for the character. My how things change on this show. Just half a season ago Willow and Anya were at each others throats but now the former is trusting the latter with the most precious thing in her life. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This body…it’s just a rental, Dawnie. Being human is just a costume party for girls like you and me.’
‘Is this what the poets go on about? This?
‘And you wanted out for one second. So what?’

The Good: Buffy and Dawn are both disconnected from reality in the pre-titles sequences but in very different ways. I like how both scenes feature many characters talking and end with the focus on one of the Summer’s women hidden at the periphery, lost in their own thoughts at how things have played out. It’s surprising that the nature of the Ben/Glory transformation amnesia is only revealed at this point but I’m pleased that it was given some form of explanation and that it was played for laughs. For Spike to be the rational person in a conversation is terrifying and his insistence that they are one and the same person in the face of the Scoobies amnesia is very funny (‘is everybody here very stoned?’). I wondered where all those crazies were going in Spiral when they knocked out the nurse and stomped away chanting like Buddhist monks. This has been another cleverly woven narrative (brilliantly exposed when the same crazy that confronted Dawn in Real Me is the first seen here working on Glory’s magnificent construction) in season five that was introduced early and is yielding great results. In telling a sustained narrative over an entire season this has been one of the best plotted that I have ever come across. Spike discovering Ben’s little hidey hole in Glory’s apartment crosses off the question of where he lived when she was tucked away inside of him. It’s a design representation of their schizophrenic personality as he walks from the decadence of her apartment to the squalor and simplicity of his. I’m torn about the Buffy dream sequences because this feels like the point where the season should be gaining some forward momentum as we race towards the climax and yet it pauses for long gaps as Willow reaches inside Buffy’s mind and offers her some extended therapy. These scenes take too long to get to their point of Willow telling Buffy to snap out of it. On the other hand it is lovely to be able to get a peek at Buffy’s childhood home and the sequences are imbued with a certain blissful calm that you could imagine Buffy retreating into from all the pain she experiencing in the real world. I also love the idea of seeing first hand some of false memories that the monks squirreled away in Buffy’s head, the moment when Dawn came home from the hospital as a baby and was presented to her. The dream sequences aren’t as in your face as usual (compare to the complexity and weirdness of Restless) but that just means that images like Joyce’s graveside turning up in Dawn’s bedroom and Buffy smothering her sister with a pillow so calmly make more of an impact because they have one foot in reality. It's lovely to see Kristine Sutherland again too. 

The Bad: When Joel Gray allowed to menace through his performance as Doc, his character is very creepy but the effects work is a little cartoony and pantomimic for my tastes (a tongue that whips out of his mouth?). The minions seem to be walking about the streets of Sunnydale completely unnoticed by the people around them. I think I would make a fuss if I saw such leprous creatures wandering about. I’m not sure I follow Buffy’s train of thought from wanting the conflict to be over to her murdering Dawn. It’s quite a leap for the character to make and one that doesn’t make a lot of sense given how protective she has been of her sister all year. We have subconscious thoughts like that because we’re human. It’s not what we really want, its just a possible outcome for a second, a consideration, perhaps a wish in a moment of darkness. To drown in guilt over a stray thought like that is really self indulgent. It’s clear from the way the last scene suddenly picks up the central narrative that was paused at the end of Spiral that this has been nothing but a 45 minute deferral of the finale. It feels like the show has held its breath for an entire episode.

Moment to Watch Out For: How long must the sequence where Ben and Glory have an argument with themselves have taken to film? It was worth it and it stands out as one of the most impressive scenes for both characters as they lay their ambitions bare and tussle against one another in the same body.

Foreboding: A reminder of the First Slayer’s advice that death is Buffy’s gift. The Weight of the World is basically taking the audience down a massive blind alley in trying to convince us that the death that she was referring to was Dawn’s. It’s a well played red herring because everybody has been so fixated on Dawn this year that the real interpretation of the prophecy is hidden whilst hiding in plain sight.

Result: Less of an episode in its own right and more an extended prelude to The Gift, The Weight of the World is an piece of the puzzle that I haven’t had much time for in the past but watching it again there is a wealth of decent material nestled away in this quiet pause before the intensity of the finale. The Buffy dream sequences are more worthy than I initially thought, offering us a decent metaphorical visualisation of the turmoil she is facing inside but at the same time they play out for too long and don’t come to any great conclusions beyond Willow’s ‘get over it.’ The Glory/Ben material is much better and beautifully played by both actors (especially the sequence where they talk to each other). I like the re-introduction of Doc, the comedy surrounding the Scoobies amnesia with regards to the Ben/Glory transformation and the increased appearances of the scabby minions. It’s all good stuff, but it isn’t gripping enough to make me forget that all The Weight of the World is doing is filling in a couple of blanks (where does Ben sleep when he isn’t Glory?) and postponing the climax to the season. Now the central dilemma that Buffy has to face is whether she can kill Dawn to save the world? That’s where this season has been heading all along and I can’t wait to see how she handles it. It’s such a shame that the run up to the finale has been a bit hit and miss because the season has been in fine shape right up until Tough Love. The Weight of the World feels like this show holding its breath for 45 minutes but having a couple of profound thoughts whilst doing so: 5/10

The Gift written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: The end of the world?

The Chosen One: Suggesting the rift that would develop between them next season, Buffy makes it emphatically clear that if Giles tries to hurt Dawn then she will stop him. It’s a pointed statement in a scene that is loaded with mutual affection between the two characters. If Dawn dies then Buffy is going to turn her back on her calling because she cannot lose anything else to this gig. Buffy admits in a quiet moment that she wishes her mother was here because she needs her strength right now. When Buffy goes at Glory with the hammer over and over you get a sense that she is releasing an awful lot of tension that has developed over this year.

The Key: Dawn has got an awful lot of therapy to get through after the events of this episode. That’s all I’m going to say. Bizarrely where the focus has been all about Dawn throughout the season, it shifts to Buffy at the last minute as it always should have because this isn’t called Dawn the Vampire Slayer.

Goddess: Ben has made his choice, he’s sold Dawn out but at least he isn’t pretending that he hasn’t made that choice or trying to hide from it. You have to have some grudging respect for somebody who goes through with their choices, no matter how twisted they are. It’s Ben’s influence over Glory that has kept her on a leash this year, explaining why she always goes for the hurt rather than the kill (some part of me can’t help but wonder if that is Whedon fighting the tide of complaints about Glory being a God and how she should have torn them all apart already).

Ripper: In a scene loaded with tension Giles finally explodes at Buffy, forcing her to accept that the situation is either killing Dawn or the end of the world. There is only so long he can let her bury her head in the sand. Harshly he reminds Buffy that Dawn isn’t her sister to which she fires a response that even he can’t respond to. Giles killing Ben…just wow. I never saw that coming and the way it is played so quietly that it chilled my blood.

Sexy Blond: Another demonstration on how this show evolves so quickly (and yet so naturalistically) is Buffy inviting Spike into her house without a second thought when just ten or so episodes ago she forced him out permanently. When he tells Buffy he knows that she will never love him but she treats him like a man broke my heart. I cannot believe what a journey he has been on throughout season five. It was worth all that embarrassment for the character because he has come out of it with more dignity than ever before. Spike being tossed from the top of the scaffold is a real shocker – how much more pain can this man suffer protecting Buffy’s sister? It’s his tears that affect me the most at the climax, we’ve never seen Spike so devastated by anything before.

Witchy Willow: That cute, shy Willow makes a brief re-appearance when Buffy suggests that she is the strongest one amongst them (chiefly because she is the only person who has ever hurt Glory). She might regret feeding her ego after the events of this episode because it leads to all kinds of complications.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander makes the appalling suggestion that they could kill a regular guy (Ben) as opposed to a God (Glory) and suddenly realises what he is suggesting. It’s something that becomes a very real choice later in the episode.

Vengeance Demon: Anya really is growing because her natural instinct is to flee and yet when everybody is fighting amongst themselves she’s right in there trying to fire up suggestions and get people motivated. Giles angrily suggests she has nothing of value to contribute and she immediately comes up with something of value. Stick that in your eye, Ripper. When did the Anya and Xander relationship become the most stable one in this show? Had you told me that at the beginning of season four I would have laughed so hard I might have peed a little. His proposal to her in this episode feels partly a moment of release in an impossibly tense situation and partly where their relationship was heading anyway. I didn’t think that anybody could have topped Marti Noxon’s glorious affirmation of their relationship at the end of Into the Woods but Whedon has a damn good stab here. Nicholas Brendon and Emma Caulfield deserve a great deal of credit for taking a relationship that on the surface looked as though it would never last and taking it to some unexpectedly deep places. Anya’s natural reaction is to slap Xander when he proposes to her but then she melts when he explains why. Her decision to accept the ring after the world doesn’t end is a smart one.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Blood is life. It’s what makes you warm, it’s what makes you hard, it makes you other than dead.’
‘She’s me. The monks made her out of me.’
‘Oh sweaty naughty feelings causing one’ – come on that has to be the best one yet.
‘She’s a hero you know. She’s not like us.’
‘Dawn, the hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it.’

The Good: Has there ever been a more incident packed ‘previously on…’ for an episode of Buffy. It’s really fun to randomly pause the flashes through every episode in the past five years to see what you get (my two pauses were the fish man bursting out of Wentworth Miller from Go Fish and Anya walking along the street in a bunny costume from Fear Itself!). It shows you how much ground this show has covered and speeds up to such a degree that it hurls you into the episode running. This is clearly going to be something quite special. It’s fascinating to think of how far we have come from vampires being the major the threat on this show, especially in the last three seasons. Even Buffy walks through the door and is surprised that it’s only a vampire – it’s almost as if the show has become so blasé about them that it has made them safe (although they did have a good stab at trying to inject some blood back into the premise in Fool For Love, if you’ll pardon the pun). In the first episode Xander’s world was turned upside down by the news that vampires exist, in The Gift he merely says ‘oh’ after she has dealt with one. There’s no ‘you’re just a girl’ about this show anymore, If Whedon wanted to hand a show over to a strong female protagonist and show how it could flourish then he has succeeded in spades. That works for the actress too, I don’t think there are that many avid TV watchers who don’t know who Sarah Michelle Gellar is now. Watch as the Scoobies (especially Anya) plunder the previous seasons worth of stories to tool themselves up to fight Glory (the Dagon’s Sphere, Olaf’s enchanted hammer, the Buffybot, Xander’s building equipment) and marvel at the way this season has been plotted to incorporate these elements so they are of use to our heroes now. The giant scaffolding that the crazies and minions have been building certainly lives up to the climactic promise of this finale. If you were going to set a final apocalyptic nightmare in motion it makes sense for it take place right above the town where they have all featured. A ticking clock always helps and this is a climax that could have only have taken place at this point (it was ordained, you know) and the idea is to keep Glory busy so she misses her slot. Besting Glory is one of the most satisfying things this show has ever done and I don’t know what is more delectable – her reaction to the Buffybot when she knocks its head off, Buffy smacking her around the head with the troll hammer or Xander sending her flying with his wrecking ball. She gets beaten up good and proper but its more than she deserved after the hell she has put them all through this year. The scaffold was a great place to stage one of Buffy’s most dynamic fight sequences yet. Doc turning up like a magician atop the scaffold to bleed Dawn is a fantastically scary moment, Joel Gray is just too good at calm menace. I never thought that Whedon would dare to try and realise an apocalypse on this scale (okay it’s hardly cinematic but for a television budget it is far more than you can expect). Dimensions rip through the air, buildings turn black, lightning flails, , the ground splits, demons break through…it’s all very exciting and end of the world. Compared to the end of Graduation Day, this is high art.

Moment to Watch Out For: I love everything about Buffy’s sacrifice. How it suddenly makes sense of so much in the season, her inner calm at being set free from all the pain that has built up recently, how right it feels that she should give up her life for a sister that she never should have had. It’s gorgeously directed too with the poetic touch of the sun coming up, the slow motion leap and the cut to the devastating reaction shots of her friends. The final shot of the series is a slow pan towards Buffy’s grave and it was massively brave to end the season (and possibly the series) on this note. Both uplifting and devastating. It gave me goosebumps.

Orchestra: If I were Thomas Wanker I would be mightily pissed that I had given myself to a show for an entire year and was suddenly superseded at the climax by the person I took over from. Whedon wisely chose to excise Wanker from the show during The Body because that was an episode that required silences as part and parcel of the story he was telling but to hand over the reigns during his latest piece suggests that he doesn’t quite trust the musician to do his material justice. And yet Wanker is back again next year…it’s quite baffling. Regardless, of course it’s delightful to have Christophe Beck back in the fold for one final episode and he more than lives up to his reputation of creating beautiful soundtracks. Although I have to say I did miss Wanker’s Buffy/Glory fight music that I had become so accustomed to throughout the season when they had their last punch up. His theme for Buffy’s sacrifice is one of the best things he has ever written. It captures the moment perfectly.

Foreboding: Technically this could have been the final episode so it is worth taking a look at where the characters are at the end of the episode and whether it would have been a satisfying place to leave them if another channel hadn’t picked up the show.

Result: As gorgeously written and directed as The Body was but in a very different way, Joss Whedon has really come into his own during season five and proven what a skilful storyteller he is behind the typewriter and the camera. The first half of The Gift is one awesome character scene after another, everything from people making tough choices to people accepted the ones they have already made, proposals being made and relationships being affirmed. The way that Whedon plunders the season for all manner of expertly hidden elements to create some kind of a force that can take down Glory is phenomenal and shows just how well thought through this year really was. A lot was riding on this finale because never before has a season of Buffy held back its conclusion to a story for so long (Buffy has never been serialised quite like season five before – only season seven would match it in that respect). In essence, The Gift has had 23 episodes worth of build up and so the way it approaches its end game is to make the build up to the conclusion of this episode as long and as tense as possible. The when the fight comes it is everything you could have hoped for and more with Glory getting her ass whooped good and proper before Giles unexpectedly makes the move that nobody else had the guts to do. Whedon has struck upon a brilliant course that has only been pulled off once before (at the end of season two); the way to stop the monster isn’t to find their weakness, the way to stop it is for Buffy to lose something that is precious to her. In a coup that tops even the (apparent) death of Angel, Buffy spares Dawn from being sacrifices and gives up the only life she has ever had the right to. The way this dawns on Buffy and the audience at the same time is beautifully done, and suddenly the entire season locks into one long flawlessly formed narrative with a perfect ending. We’ve always been heading here, right from the beginning. This could have been the end for the show (we were lucky enough to get two more seasons on another network) and had that been the case it would have been a very impressive one: 10/10


James Matthews said...

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I am loving these reviews.

Can not wait to see what you think of the rest of the season especially The Body and the finale.

Great work


Doc Oho said...

Really pleased you are enjoying them, James. I'm having greAt fun working my way through the series! :-)

James Matthews said...

Amazing review of The Body Joe,absolutely amazing. I lost my mum just under two years ago and every time I watch this episode I cry as it is so real to life and so correct in how death effects everyone. I can't watch it often as the episode brings all the feelings back into very sharp focus.


Doc Oho said...

Thanks James, and I'm so sorry to hear about your mum. What a fantastic achievement this episode is.