Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like any show, had its fair share of ups and downs. From the moment that Buffy sacrificed Angel to save the world in season two to the show-stopping musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” in season six, Joss Whedon’s ability to blend pain with wit was truly masterful. There is a lot of debate over which Buffy episode reigns supreme, but it’s hard to deny that the season five finale, “The Gift,” is anything short of a masterwork, perfectly encapsulating everything that made the series great. In the opening scene, Buffy fights a vampire in an alley, and for once, the lore of the slayer doesn’t precede her. Right before delivering the killing stake, a telling exchange takes place between the two.
“You’re just a girl.”
“That’s what I keep saying.”
The fact that Buffy was just a girl (while at the same time more than that) is one of the hallmarks of the series: her humanity is what gives her power, but also what makes her vulnerable. As she makes life and death decisions regarding the fate of the world and her relationships, “The Gift” is still lauded as one of the best episodes of the series run fifteen years after it originally aired.
Every season of Buffy has had its devastating moments, but season five’s “The Body” takes the cake. In a show that saw a lot of supernatural death, the passing of her mother, Joyce, was a profoundly human one. Left adrift without a familial anchor, Buffy is left to deal with Dawn on her own. After the realization that Dawn is the key to Glory’s dominion and that only her death could save the world from total annihilation, Buffy is left to sort out how to save Dawn and the rest of the world at the same time.
“The Gift” is pivotal in her transition from teenager to adult. After a season of fighting with Dawn and avoiding extra responsibility, Buffy realizes that it was her job to keep Dawn safe all along, with or without Joyce. Sarah Michelle Gellar puts in a beautifully resolute performance, capturing Buffy’s love for Dawn despite their differences.
Complex Relationship Development
The relationship between Buffy and Giles evolved greatly in the later seasons of the show, beyond Slayer and Watcher into something more equal. However, the changes were not without pain and the bond does start to crack in season five. While he understands Buffy’s unwillingness to take the life of her sister to save the world, Giles, as usual, has his eyes fixed on the bigger picture. However, Giles realizes that her conscience is critical to her role as Slayer, and because of that, he is the one to take the life of Ben, Glory’s human host.
“Still, she couldn’t take a human life. She’s a hero, you see. Not like us.”
Giles’ willingness to take on the weight of a human death proves his loyalty to Buffy and her cause (while also acknowledging his past). The ugly work still needs to be done, but the hero can’t do it every time. While he may leave as a regular the following season, Anthony Head’s work as Giles was never more nuanced than it was in “The Gift.”
On the other hand, Spike will always be a problematic character, thanks to the Buffy bot and that awful attempted rape, but that doesn’t make his complicated relationship with Buffy any less important or real. In “The Gift,” we are still with pre-soul Spike, but his long ignored humanity still comes out to play in a big way. Stemming from his love of Buffy, he’s willing to put himself on the line to defend Dawn tooth and nail, showing that he’s come a long way from his all-consuming self-interest in season four. He’s one of the only ones who understand the importance of blood (vampire, and all that), and if you aren’t moved by “I know you’ll never love me. I know that I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man,” you are a stronger person than I.
The End Of The World
After season four’s nonsense with Adam and the Initiative, the weirdness of Glory (“Ben is Glory!”) was a breath of fresh air. All of the best Buffy seasons ended with an impending apocalypse. While the first season quip “If the apocalypse comes, beep me” is delivered as a joke, Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang really do spend an inordinate amount of time-saving the world, or at least Sunnydale, from ultimate destruction. Still, with Glory, it was something different. This wasn’t the Hellmouth; this was a god. A Hellmouth they could handle, but an actual deity was something else altogether.
It became pretty obvious early in the season that Buffy was never going to overcome Glory with physical strength. Even with her massive troll hammer and Willow’s burgeoning magic, this wasn’t going to be a clean fight. Buffy punched and stabbed her way out of plenty of situations, but once that portal was opened with Summers blood, only Summers blood could close it.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer has never shied away from bringing actual harm and heartache to its heroine. To have her give her life (again) to save the world was just the latest in the cavalcade of pain thrown at Buffy, but the ripple effect of her death is seen throughout the rest of the series. As devastating as the death of Buffy was, when she is resurrected in the following season, it is even more of a blow. As much as the Scoobies wanted her around and as much as the world needed her (she did save the world a lot), Buffy comes back a much darker Slayer than before. While it may seem like her death is the ultimate sacrifice, coming back to Earth after being ripped out of heaven is even worse. Throwing herself into the energy portal was just the beginning.