It was the spring of 2001. I lived in Honolulu, in a house high in the mountains. From our front yard you could see all the way from (gesture) Diamond Head to (gesture) Pearl Harbor. I telecommuted to the DC literary agency that had employed me through grad school, starting work at seven in the morning and kicking off most afternoons around two, when everyone on the East Coast had gone home. We had gotten a puppy at the Honolulu Humane Society, a test case for children one day: If we could keep her alive, perhaps we would do the same with kids. So far she had chewed through her rope and escaped a dozen times; smashed geckos flat with her paws; torn the upholstery off our couch in great strips; consumed a pair of eyeglasses and a roach motel. She was still alive. That was the year that I watched so much Buffy, and the season-five finale, “The Gift,” was the ecstatic peak of my fandom.
“The Gift” isn’t the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever. It’s maybe in the top 20. It’s not the best season finale (that’s “Graduation Day,” I’m pretty sure) or even the best episode in its season (that’s “The Body,” obviously). But living as we were in a fever pitch of Buffy obsession, the season finale seemed enormous.
The show was about to move from The WB to UPN, a move that presaged the network-defections of other great (and not-so-great) shows later in the decade, from Project Runway to Scrubs. These days, if you happen to be a fan of Scrubs, its switch to ABC has relatively little effect on you: Your DVR will find it just fine, and life will continue on its merry way. But back in 2001 the network change-and the threat of series cancellation under which it happened-were huge. Plus, it seemed like Buffy was maybe gonna die.
It had all happened very fast. My wife had been watching Buffy for a while, and it had become one of those Shows You Should Watch-friends and neighbors and friggin’ Entertainment Weekly couldn’t shut up about how great it was. I watched the season-five premiere, and before I could even catch my breath, I was watching every week and reading Ace and Sep’s recaps and buying videotapes by the score so we could record the previous four seasons-not yet out on DVD-as they aired in sequence on FX. (One episode in the morning, another at night. You could fit six on a tape in SLP. It was the first and only time I learned to program a VCR.)
God help me, I gave my wife the Buffy board game for Christmas. Her brother landed in Hawai’i in the spring after a post-collegiate Asia tour and crashed on our couch for months; he and I watched recorded Buffy episodes every afternoon.
What was it that was going on in Season Five? Even having just rewatched “The Gift,” I can’t quite remember it all. There was a thing with some monks, and Dawn was the Key, and Glory and Ben, and “Death is your gift,” but the details are foggy. No matter. There is lot that is terrific about “The Gift”: Buffy’s threat to kill anyone who goes near Dawn (“Not exactly the St. Crispin’s Day speech, was it?” Giles asks tartly); Tara’s return to Willow; Spike being allowed back in Buffy’s house; the cheesy-looking dragon on which the show clearly spent its entire effects budget; Giles saying, quietly, “She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us”; Buffy’s final sacrifice. Her gravestone, you may recall, captures the mix of melodrama and irreverence in which the series, at its best, specialized.
As it turned out, the episode was the beginning of the end for the series. Seasons Six and Seven deteriorated in quality, yielding just one great episode (the musical, duh) and a lot of irritating narrative cul-de-sacs. Buffy never again attained the heights of cultural relevance it had at that moment, and Joss Whedon-despite a decade spent creating much-loved cult objects like Angel, Firefly and Serenity, Dr. Horrible, Dollhouse -is further from stardom now than he was that night in 2001. The series came out on DVD and we bought all seven seasons; skipping through DVD menus was much easier than fast-forwarding through a six-episode videotape, so needless to say we watched Buffy much less.
We moved to New York. I escaped careers for which I was unsuited and got jobs writing about culture, even as my energy for keeping up with culture flagged. We had two wonderful daughters and moved to the suburbs. (Our dog remains alive.) Now I listen to “Let It Be” and Dan Zanes over and over, but have no idea what Wavves sound like. Yes, I lined up for Lord of the Rings tickets and obsessively analyzed The Wire. Yes, I sent my daughter to her grandparents’ for the weekend so I could read the final Harry Potter book uninterrupted by actual children. But never again would a cultural artifact make me feel the way I did on May 22, 2001.
I’d spent all day avoiding spoilers on the Internet-infuriatingly, people on the East Coast would learn Buffy’s fate six hours before I did-and calling my wife on the phone to ask her what she thought would happen. That night, as we settled down on the ripped and tattered couch with my brother-in-law and our still-alive dog, I felt a great and awful excitement, like a child’s unbearable anticipation on Christmas morning. To this day I have never felt anything like it. There was this thing, this story, and I wanted it so much, yet I didn’t want it to end, and I didn’t want to be disappointed, and I was terrified and thrilled at the same time. I had invested 99 hours of my life in watching this show, and countless more talking about it, thinking about it, reading about it, and it was all leading up to this. My stomach hurt.
If you watch “The Gift” on DVD, it starts with, you know, the pre-credits teaser, where Buffy saves a guy in an alley. But that night, as the episode aired, it started, as episodes always did, with Giles’s familiar voice saying “Previously, on Buffy.” And then the next thing happened, and I lost my shit.