[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 05/22/2001]
Here we are, another mind-bogglingly good season finale from Joss Whedon. From the reflective opening scene to the shocking, tear-inducing final act “The Gift” doesn’t hold back. It would be naive to say that the season was built for this. The entire series up to this point was built for this. What a capper to an amazing five-year journey we’ve been through with the Scoobies. Buffy is full-on dead, and not in the do-a-little-CPR way. We’re talking full-on, buried in the ground, dead. This is something that never happens on television and yet here it is — the main character of the show dies to prevail. From the sad to the sublime, my goal is to discuss what exactly happened that drove Buffy to this kind of sacrifice. So here I go!
More than the first half of “The Gift” gives us a set of defining character moments of which I’ll discuss one at a time. The last part of the episode lets all the pieces be set into motion and is essentially one frantic, excellently executed, action scene that ends with some unbelievably poignant drama. Due to this clean split in episode content this review will be fairly chronological in nature.
Everything begins with a superb scene of reflection as a run-of-the-mill vampire attacks a guy behind the Magic Box. Buffy pops her head out and finds herself surprised the vamp doesn’t know who she is. This entire scene, including how the gang shrugs off the attack, is meant to remind us of where the show came from, of a time when one vampire fight was considered a big deal. For a brief moment Buffy is able to relive the earlier days which, while complicated-seeming back then, are now greatly missed. The guy she saves tells her, “How’d you do that? You’re just a girl!” Buffy aptly replies, “That’s what I keep saying.” This whole season and, most recently, “The Weight of the World” [5×21] , we have been frequently reminded of Buffy’s desire to just be “a girl,” nothing more. Poor Buffy is not a girl anymore as she is quickly realizing.
As the gang is debating what to do inside, Xander asks the question “Why blood?” Spike, speaking from obvious experience, answers “Blood is life, lackbrain. Why do you think we eat it? It’s what keeps you going, makes you warm, makes you hard, makes you other than dead. ‘Course it’s her blood.” This conversation brings the season back full circle as the idea of blood as life was also brought up in “Buffy vs. Dracula” [5×01] . Several other episodes also brought attention to the subject, most notably “Fool for Love” [5×07] and “Blood Ties” [5×13] .
This same conversation eventually works it way to the grim reality of the situation and is represented in some potent dialogue. If the ritual begins, killing Dawn is the only way to close the tear in dimensions. Buffy blatantly says “We are not talking about this!” This is when the Watcher in Giles fully seeps out as he yells back “Yes we bloody well are! If Glory begins the ritual… If we can’t stop her…” To support his case he reminds Buffy that Dawn isn’t really her sister to which Buffy claims “She’s more than that. She’s me. The Monks made her out of me. I hold her and I feel closer to her than… It’s not just the memories they built, it’s physical. Dawn is a part of me. The only part that I…” The end of this sentence is “have left.” This is the first hint that Buffy would show no sadness in dying for Dawn, because in her mind she will live on through Dawn.
From the enormity of the unwavering devotion of protecting Dawn to the simplicity of stroking her hair, Buffy quickly establishes a mother-like bond to Dawn in many ways. This is why what Buffy speaks of her so closely parallels how many parents feel about their children… almost a sense of immortality through them. A little later on there’s this scene of terrific mutual resolve in the training room as Giles tells Buffy he’s going to try to kill Dawn if that’s their only remaining option and Buffy tells Giles she’ll kill him if he tries (along with anyone else if they try as well). They both realize what each other must do and are at an unusual peace with it. This is a very unique scene that brings out some vital self reflection from Buffy.
“I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much… but I knew. What was right. I don’t have that any more. I don’t understand. I don’t know how to live in this world, if these are the choices, if everything just gets stripped away. I don’t see the point. I just wish… I just wish my mom was here.” Buffy says a lot of important stuff there. In her past it was always clear what needed to be done, no matter how painful it may have been. From facing temporary death at the hands of the Master in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] to killing Angel in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] to offering herself to heal Angel in “Graduation Day Pt. 2” [3×22] , Buffy has taken the difficult path and faced her fears. But if Dawn were to die here, the last piece Buffy has left, after all that has been taken away from her this season, would be lost and she’d be truly dead inside.
This speech also is a huge thematic tie-in to “Fool for Love” [5×07] , where Spike told Buffy that slayers have a death wish and the only reason she’s lasted so long is her “ties to the world,” specifically mentioning her “mum” and “brat kit sister.” Buffy’s lost a lot this season which is the reason why everything is so unbearable, and the last thing she’s got left, Dawn, is being threatened. This is why, had Dawn died, Buffy truly would have that death wish. At this point in the episode she’s almost there, with only Dawn’s life keeping her from passing through the veil of death.
During this solemn scene is where Christophe Beck’s score for “The Gift” really kicks in, and I must say it is stunningly beautiful and really pulls at the heart. What an affecting piece of music! Its reprise at the pivotal moment in the end is also a wonderful tie in theme to what Buffy realized in this scene. More on that in a bit though. Although “The Gift” is one of the defining moments of the entire series for Buffy, the other characters get serious attention as well.
First up is Xander and Anya. Their relationship has been getting stronger and stronger this entire season with the major change in their relationship coming during Xander’s beautiful speech to Anya at the end of “Into the Woods” [5×10] . Overall it’s been a steady progression of them getting closer and closer so now feels like a completely natural time for a marriage proposal. Here in “The Gift” they have inappropiately timed sex as a method to relieve the tension before a battle where there’s a decent chance either of them could die. After Anya hilarious freaks out over the stuffed bunny, Xander actually proposes to her! Wow! Instead of being a cheap “oh God, more melodrama” moment, this feels completely earned and true. Also fascinating is Anya slapping him and telling him he’s only doing this because he they’re going to die. Xander tells her otherwise, and I really think he means it. It’s just obvious that this decision wasn’t something Xander put a ton of thought into. His reactions about their future together seen in S6 prove this.
“Give it to me when the world doesn’t end.” Xander loves Anya a ton and feels that’s enough. Unfortunately, other things often obstruct ‘true love’ from succeeding in the long run. One of the biggest of these things is family, and we all know the kinds of issues Xander has with his family. For the moment, though, Xander’s proposal is genuine and touching. Also, because of their love, Anya is facing an apocolypse and doesn’t skip town like she did in “Graduation Day Pt. 1” [3×21] . This is some great continuity and development. It’s important to note that Anya isn’t staying and fighting because of her own desire to save humanity or to do what’s right, but rather for Xander and their love. This is the difference between her stand here and the one in “Chosen” [7×22] .
Another huge character moment is when Buffy invites Spike back into her home. This is a huge deal to Spike and Buffy knows it, which makes it all the more powerful. After Buffy puts her trust in Spike to protect Dawn “‘Til the end of the world,” he tenderly tells her “I know you’ll never love me. I know that I’m a monster. But you treat me like a man, and that’s…” That’s an amazing piece of growth from both of these characters, that’s what it is! A couple important things to take note of here. First is Buffy pointing out they’re not all going to make it. It’s sure surprising that she’s the only one that doesn’t make it! The other thing worth pointing out is Buffy’s position on the staircase when Spike tells her what he thinks. This is the same place she’s standing in “After Life” [6×03] when Spike first sees her back from the literal grave, which binds these episodes together. Their relationship picks up right where it left off only with Buffy being in a significantly darker state.
Finally, all the characters have had their moments (although Willow’s moment involves taking action towards the end). It’s showtime! The group uses Tara to find where Glory is and on their way out the door she points at Giles and yells “you’re a killer!” This, of course, foreshadows Giles murdering Ben in just a little while. All this leads to the phenomenal giant fight sequence that is the rest of the episode. There’s a lot of really cool moments in which the Scoobies throw all kinds of #### at Glory: the BuffyBot from “Intervention” [5×18] , the Dagon Sphere from “No Place Like Home” [5×05] , Willow tearing Tara’s mind out of Glory, the opposite of which happened in “Tough Love” [5×19] , and back into Tara, Xander’s wrecking ball gained from his construction job he got a promotion at in “The Replacement” [5×03] , and then finally Buffy herself with Olaf’s hammer in hand from “Triangle” [5×11] with an awesome ‘whack’ sound effect. This is how you use elements from throughout the season in tandem to end a season! Simply mesmorizing.
It’s amazing that it takes this much force to knock Glory down. I so adore Whedon for not using some cheap trick to stop Glory like a lesser show would do. The greatness doesn’t stop there though! After Buffy continues to beat the #### out of Glory with the hammer, Glory transforms back into Ben therefore giving Buffy a chance to kill her once and for all. But she doesn’t do it. Buffy will not take human life unless being directly attacked by it and left with no other option but self defense. Ben wasn’t attacking Buffy, Glory was. So she lets him live and heads up to the tower to help Dawn.
Just when you think that the villain is being set up for a later return, Giles comes over and does something that is both shocking and completely in character: he suffocates Ben to death. Right before said act Ben tells Giles “she could have killed me.” Giles responds, solemnly, “No she couldn’t. Never. And sooner or later, Glory will re-emerge and make Buffy pay for that mercy, and the world with her. Buffy even knows that, and still she couldn’t take a human life. She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” Giles puts himself on the same level of Ben, the man he’s killing. What that says about Giles’ duty and life is truly dark and paints a moral landscape that is very messy and utterly fascinating to contemplate. Consider me blown away, again. Wow.
Even with all this indescribable greatness, the most shocking and heart-breaking moment is yet to come. Even in the most dire of circumstances Whedon slips in laugh-out-loud humor in the magical way only he can do. With Buffy at the top of the tower walking up to the Doc, who just threw Spike off, he tells her “this should be interesting.” Buffy’s response? Shove. Pure hilarity! Immediately after this Dawn’s blood opens the portal and the two of them are left on the tower with decisions to make. I really want to take this moment to say I love Dawn in this season and I feel she was an excellent addition to the cast. The moment that clinches this for me is when Dawn is willing to do what Ben could not: sacrifice herself for the world. How can you not love this girl right now? Shame on you if you don’t!
It’s not Dawn’s time to die, though, as she deserves a shot at life like the rest of us. As has been repeated in several places, “it doesn’t matter much how you got here.” Buffy wants Dawn to have a long life, the piece of life that is the only thing Buffy hasn’t lost of herself. Dawn’s comments about blood spark an amazing realization for Buffy. Everything just hits her all at once: blood being irrevocably tied to life, Buffy’s blood connection to Dawn, and the Spirit Guide’s true meaning. Death, here, now, is Buffy’s gift of love to Dawn, her friends, and the world. Pure, undiluted love. Spike told her back in “Fool for Love” [5×07] that if everything got stripped away like it has, she’d want to die. I can’t help but think that even at this point death is a little bit of a relief to her, but this moment isn’t the way Spike envisioned it at all. Buffy’s motivation here is purely that which she’s done throughout the series time and time again, whether it’s the daily grind or the big moments.
The instant Buffy realizes what the Spirit Guide’s message is the screen flashes to a shot of her eyes with instant recognition of what her calling as the Slayer means. The shot of the sun rising over the horizon beautifully symbolizes Buffy’s newfound understanding and imminent entry to her first ‘day’ in life after death. “Tell Giles… Tell Giles I figured it out. And… I’m okay.” This is such a beautiful moment I am without words to describe it and I will openly admit it easily brings me to tears every time I see it alone. The Slayer is not just a killer, but if used wisely is an instrument of love; a hardened fighter who is blinded by the very love she is full of — the gift she gives to the world.
Buffy tells Dawn, “Listen. I love you. I will always love you. This is the work I have to do … Give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now — you have to take care of each other. You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. That is one of the most profound and truthful phrases I have ever heard in my life. Coming from Buffy, with everything we’ve seen her go through… no, with everything we’ve been through with her thanks to Joss Whedon, it means even more.
As Buffy turns to the portal in slow-motion and dashes forward to her death, Dawn is not the only one crying. Buffy dives into the portal in a completely earned crucifix-like pose and it is very clear that she’s in tremendous pain when inside the energy, just as Jesus Christ was when nailed to the crucifix. Two figures who are aligned by sacrificing themselves out of the love of others. It is also clear that she dies before completely passing through it proving that she did, in fact, die a mystical death which of course plays a vital role in “Bargaining Pt. 1” [6×01] . As the Scoobies gather around Buffy’s body we can see Giles and Willow both sobbing while Spike is a complete wreck. Still in tears myself, the camera pans over Buffy’s tombstone that shows what is arguably the most painful thing in the entire series.
BUFFY ANNE SUMMERS
1981 – 2001
SHE SAVED THE WORLD
Whedon managing to still pull a tearful chuckle in the midst of pure grief is astonishing. But that’s the way Buffy would want people to remember her and this story of her life. I emplore all of us to live by Buffy’s final words: “Be brave. Live. For me.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Anya actually coming up with great suggestions when put on the spot.
+ Buffy telling Willow she’s the strongest one there.
+ Glory expects Buffy will only show up to kill Dawn, which is also what Giles is trying to convince her to do if necessary.
+ Willow asking for a little courage so Spike pulls out his flask of bourbon and offers it to her.
+ Willow’s brain-suck revesal. Cool effect, go Willow!
+ Awesome use of the BuffyBot.
+ The Doc is really creepy, but where in the world did he come from? Teleportation?
+ Willow and Tara joining hands again, a throwback to “Hush” [4×10] , to gain the extra power needed to split the group of minions so Spike can reach Dawn.
+ The Doc out maneuvering Spike.
+ Special effects for the portal. And, hey! Dragon! I wonder if that’s the same dragon we see in “Not Fade Away” (AtS 5×22).
+ The cryptic “countdown to 7-3-0” from “Graduation Day Pt. 2” [3×22] leading to a worthy event.
– The confusion over Buffy and Dawn’s blood connection. This could have been much more clearly explained.