A lot of people hate season 6 of Buffy.
You know, that’s fine. I get it, I really do. I’m a huge Buffy fan, but there are definitely things that grind my gears: Riley Finn, “Beer Bad”, and the disappearance of Miss Kitty Fantastico, to name a few. There are also some popularly hated aspects that I love, like the appearance of Dawn and “Doublemeat Palace”. Season 6 was bitter, depressing, and graphic, especially from episode 9 (“Smashed”) on. It’s not my favorite season by a long shot - that honor belongs to its predecessor, 5.
5 is a perfect, happy, lovely season. Sure, it’s got loads of death, mayhem, and heartbreak, but in the end all of the characters fulfill their seasonal arcs in a very satisfying way. Season 6 is about the breaking of that, the undoing of all that is season 5, and that’s not a bad thing, at least not in my book. Change is inevitable, and good characters can never be static.
I find that watching Season 5 after Season 6 is quite interesting and rewarding. Season 6 is where the characters break; season 5 is where they were built. Neither one undermines their essential characterization, but instead shows a new side, a darkness to every light and vice versa. Season 6 is an essential counterpart to Season 5, and I want to take that character by character.
Buffy: Buffy’s season 5 arc is layered, as a main character’s should be. At the surface, she is discovering what it means to be a Slayer, as is evident from the first episode (“Buffy vs. Dracula”) of the season, where she is told that her “power is rooted in darkness”. Instead of accepting this at face value, she reinstates Giles as her Watcher in order to investigate her roots. At the same time, she must cope with her new sister, Dawn, and the role she takes as sibling and, eventually, guardian/surrogate mother. Buffy is learning how to be Buffy, how to be a Slayer and a sister, a killer and a caretaker. Eventually, her duties converge and she sacrifices herself to save her sister and the world.
In season 6, that all goes to hell - literally. After being pulled out of heaven, the world becomes Buffy’s hell. She is unable to connect to the sister she gave her life for. Slaying gives her little joy, because she is in the world but not part of it. Desperate, she turns to the underworld, flirting with death by way of sexcapades with Spike. At times, she even lets go of her duties and responsibilities as both Buffy Summers and the Chosen One because they have become meaningless to her. Buffy willingly gives up again and again what she fought for tooth and nail in season 5, because in light of what happened to her, those things don’t really matter.
Buffy reacts again and again to the changes in season 6, like Willow and Tara moving in to the Summers’ residence, Giles leaving, and the Xander and Anya drama. She is perhaps the most aware of these changes, and she is affected by each and every one of them. Her world in season 5: protecting Dawn, the Slayer-Watcher relationship, the Scoobies, school, Riley (until “Into the Woods”), her mom (until “I Was Made To Love You”); all of this been broken down. She starts out season 6 alone. She no longer needs to protect Dawn, and Spike seems to have assumed that duty, anyway. Giles has left for England, and although he comes back, it is only temporary. The Scoobies are having their own problems, covered below. When she tries to return to school, she finds out she’s in over her head.
"I’ve got power," Buffy had said in "Checkpoint" (5x12). This simple phrase could honestly describe her entire character arc in season 5. She learns the source of her Slayer power, and discovers what it means to be a sister, friend, lover, mother, and savior. She faces up against a god - and wins. She has the power.
What is Buffy’s season 6 mantra? “I don’t know.” She has lost her place in the world, in her family, and in her friend group. Her physical power remains, but her drive to slay is gone. Everyone expects things from her that she cannot provide. Each cast member expects their “ideal Buffy”, but that is exactly what she is unable to be. In “Smashed” (6x9), Spike calls her a “little lost girl”. Indeed.
Buffy learned to be the best Slayer who ever lived in season 5. In season 6, Buffy learned to be Buffy. This is the only season where Buffy does not save the world - instead, Buffy learns how to save herself.
Note: More on the way! I plan to examine every main character (that is, each character in the main credits in season 5).