Fifteen years ago this month, a brave Vampire Slayer saved the world, again, and died…again. May 22 marks the anniversary of Buffy Summers’ graceful swan dive into oblivion — and by oblivion, we mean interdimensional portal — in the final moments of “The Gift,” the fifth season finale of The WB’s signature cult hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also happened to mark the show’s 100th episode. Written and directed by series creator (and geek icon) Joss Whedon, “The Gift” functions not just as a season, but also a series finale, which it proved to be for Buffy’s WB incarnation. A month before the episode aired, news broke that the show would be making the move from The WB to UPN when it returned in the fall, which took some of the finality (but, fortunately, none of the emotion) out of Buffy’s heroic sacrifice.
The Slayer’s UPN resurrection wasn’t as smooth as anticipated, thanks to its sharp turn into darker, more adult content. Season 6, in particular, remains hugely divisive, with such storylines as Tara’s death (and the accompanying “Dark Willow” arc) and Buffy’s sexual relationship with Spike (ending with an attempted rape) splitting fandom down the middle. (One thing that everyone can agree on about Season 6? Whedon’s pioneering musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” rocks.) Opinions are equally mixed on the Slayerette-dominated Season 7, which ends with the show’s actual series finale, “Chosen,” a decent send-off that nevertheless feels anticlimactic. Speaking with Yahoo TV last year, Buffy super-fan and series finale expert Paul Scheer summed up the big problem with “Chosen”: “There are some cool moments, but the season didn’t build to any of that [effectively]. I just don’t think that final season or that final episode were as good as the show was [at its best].”
“The Gift,” on the other hand, still does represent Buffy at its best. Seen 15 years later, it’s a finale that effectively finishes up both the specific season-long arc — which pitted Buffy against the shape-shifting, hell-spawned demoness, Glory (Claire Kramer), as well as her own grief over the sudden death of her mother (which inspired one of Buffy’s best-ever episodes, “The Body”) — while also bringing the Slayer’s series-long journey to a meaningful close. For its anniversary, here are 15 reasons why “The Gift” remains a great episode of Buffy…and, arguably, the show’s ideal series finale.
It Begins In a Dark Alley
As Whedon has often remarked over the years, the genesis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer lay in inverting the classic horror movie trope of a blonde waif wandering down a dark alley and getting killed by a vampire/werewolf/serial killer/whatever. Whedon’s big idea was to have that blonde waif kill the monster rather than the other way round. “The Gift” acknowledges that origin story with a cold open in which Buffy wanders into an alley and rescues a vampire attack victim. “You’re just a girl,” the lucky guy says, less-than-diplomatically. “That’s what I keep saying,” Buffy replies as she exits, speaking to her longtime struggle separating her Slayer duties from her personal life.
It Gives Good Scooby Gang
Where other Slayers had to work alone, Buffy was always fortunate to have her Scoobies by her side. Founding members Willow and Xander were mainstays (as was Watcher Rupert Giles until he decamped for England), and the group’s ranks also included folks like Oz, Cordelia, Anya and Tara over the years. Facing yet another apocalyptic threat in “The Gift,” specifically Glory’s master plan to literally bring Hell to Earth, the Scoobies remain united and undeterred. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case going forward: both Season 6 and 7 fractured the core unit, often causing them to fight amongst themselves. And while they managed to come back together just in time, their bond never felt as strong later on as it did in this finale.
The Ben/Glory Morph
Season 5’s Big Bad took a little while to firmly establish her menace. But Glory got much more interesting when it was revealed midway through the season that she was inhabiting the body of kindly medical intern, Ben, and would switch places with him Jekyll and Hyde-style, allowing for cool morphing moments like this.
Great comic relief, and hopelessly devoted to their demonic mistress, Glory’s minions are the stealth scene-stealers of both “The Gift” and Season 5 in general.
Spike Crosses Buffy’s Threshold
The Spike/Buffy romance in future seasons was always problematic, even before the soulless vampire attempted to force himself on her. But the scene in “The Gift” where she invites him into her home is beautifully acted and acknowledges the obvious chemistry between Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters. “I know that I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man,” Spike says, a line that reads as terminally emo on paper, but sounds like poetry coming out of his mouth.
The Return of the Buffybot
Dug out of storage and switched back on, the fan-favorite Buffybot serves as the Slayer’s decoy in battle, at least until Glory separates the ‘bot’s head from her body with one swift kick. (Don’t worry, her head is reattached in time for the sixth season premiere, at least until she’s torn to shreds by a vampire gang. We told you Season 6 was dark!)
The Tower Battle
With the Buffybot down, Buffy goes one-on-one with Glory while also attempting to scale the tower where her sister Dawn — who also happens to be the key that will open the Hell portal — waits. It’s a great piece of action choreography that, frankly, is more exciting than the big Sunnydale High brawl in “Chosen.”
It can’t be overstated how much the loss of Anthony Stewart Head as a full-time cast member following Season 5 significantly impacted both Buffy and the show. Scenes like the one that Giles and his Slayer share before the climactic battle — when she pours her heart out about her mother’s loss and general self-doubt — illustrate why.
Giles rarely liked to discuss his scandalous pre-Watcher past. But that Rupert still bubbled to the surface on occasion. It’s no accident that he’s the one who smothers Ben before he can revert back to Glory, with the chilling words: “She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.”
If you thought the Cabaret Oscar-winner was creepy as a Weimar-era emcee, just wait until you see him as a knife-wielding demon.
Buffy’s Indiana Jones Moment
Out of all of Indiana Jones’s death-defying stunts, the archeologist adventurer’s most crowd-pleasing moment remains his decision to shoot the sword-wielding warrior in Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than cross blades with him. Whedon clearly had Raiders on the brain when he had Buffy simply shove Grey’s Doc off the gangplank without having to throw a single punch.
Buffy’s Lost in Translation Moment
Two years before Bill Murray whispered… well, something in Scarlett Johansson’s ear at the end of Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed film, Whedon made the bold choice to keep the viewer from hearing Buffy’s farewell to Dawn, allowing that to be a private moment between sisters. (Although, unlike Lost in Translation, “The Gift” doesn’t keep her words a complete mystery. We hear them in voiceover as she leaps to her death.)
“Death Is Your Gift”
Those cryptic words have haunted Buffy since her hallucinatory encounter with the First Slayer in the Season 4 finale, “Restless.” (Another all-time great Buffy episode.) She’s assumed all along that her predecessor meant to say, “Killing is your gift.” But in the closing moments of “The Gift,” the First Slayer’s true message hits home, and Gellar beautifully captures her dawning realization that accepting death is Buffy’s gift to her sister, her friends and the world at large. It’s also, frankly, a gift to herself given the heavy toll being a Slayer has taken on her. That makes her deep sadness, and even rage, at being resurrected by her friends in Season 6 all the more tragic. Buffy’s first death, at the hands of the Master back in Season 1, was a prophecy she fought against. Here, she heroically rushes headlong to meet it.
That Swan Dive
We still give it a 10.0.
“She Saved the World. A Lot.”
Truer words were never engraved, and fewer finales have as beautiful a final image.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is streaming on Netflix