Posted on May 20, 2023
On the 20th anniversary of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer finale, I find myself returning to a central question about that series that I’ve come back around to every now and then since.
Was the season 5 finale better than the one in season 7?
First, let’s sum up the differences. Season 5 ended with Buffy sacrificing her life to save her sister and the world. “It just wants Summers blood,” she says to Dawn before leaping into a hell portal opening in the air next to a trash tower (a sentence one can only say with a straight face if one is into genre fiction).
And then that was it. At least for a few months that summer we didn’t know if Buffy was going to come back. The WB had cooled on their once prized show. Eventually, the production company signed a deal for two more seasons on the struggling UPN — which everyone knows was an acronym for “Uh…Paramount has a Network?”
At the end of season 7, Buffy and Willow activate the potential slayers around the world like vampire staking sleeper cells in their fight to defeat the first evil. After their victory, Buffy smiles enigmatically into a future where she well never again fight alone, but as one of many.
Originally, I thought the obvious choice for better finale was season 7 for the simple reason that we got two more seasons, one pretty good and the other extremely good.
But after a couple of decades of seeing this story on repeat in dozens, if not hundreds, of other books, films, and shows, I’ve grown extremely weary of chosen one stories. And that weariness has changed my mind about which finale I prefer.
Because, even though season 7 relieves Buffy of her mantle as Chosen One, those extra two seasons commit a story foul that has become more and more grating to me: The negation of a profound sacrifice.
Bringing Buffy back from the dead was the first time I noticed the after effect of this kind of thing, so at the time, I was just glad to see her again. I didn’t even stop to think that the most intensely emotional act on television I’d ever seen had just been yoinked back like a bad animaniacs punchline.
Since then, we’ve seen this crime committed repeatedly in genre entertainment. Star Trek is probably the worst perpetrator, often not even waiting for another season to undo a character’s powerful sacrifice. But Star Wars also has its ridiculous Force Ghosts and, more recently, the idea that Boba Fett could just climb out of a Sarlacc pit.
I guess this unhallowed tradition goes back to comic books killing off Superman and Batman every so often only to have them show up again with a reboot, retcon, or ridiculous off screen escape. Maybe it goes back further to the movie serials so beloved by Lucas and Spielberg, but I never noticed it before because I was never that emotionally involved.
When Spock gave his life to “sacrifice the few for the many,” I got seriously choked up, but Star Trek was pastime to me, not a religion. So when we started seeing articles pop up in EW a year later implying the next movie in the franchise would bring him back, I was fine with it. I liked Spock. Why not have more Spock?
It wasn’t until later when this kind of thing started happening with alarming frequency that I realized bringing him back negated the sacrifice he made. It literally undoes the most important moment in that film.
I can’t help but think most of this is driven by financial concerns. Killing off a beloved character can damage the fanbase. And we can’t have that, not until every last dollar has been drained from the corpse.
So, nowadays, I lean more toward the fifth season ending. If Buffy had ended on a sacrifice, freeing herself from the burden of being “the one” though her own action, and leaving the audience emotionally bereft, it would have been one for the ages. One that would probably never be repeated.