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The Buffy Episode That Changed Everything

The portal that led to a whole new era of Buffy. Photo: The WB Television Network

In the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is a Before and there is an After. I am talking, of course, about “The Gift” — the pivotal, superb hour of television that closed out season five, in which Buffy sacrifices herself for the greater good, plummeting off a tower into the hellish portal beneath. When the episode was written by now-maligned creator Joss Whedon and aired in May 2001, it was intended as the series finale; after five years on the WB, the acclaimed but low-rated show was left in limbo before eventually moving to UPN for its final two years. That end-all potential is evident not just in the myriad loose ends wrapped up in “The Gift” but in the shifts seen in each character’s arc: Spike from foe to ally; Giles from teacher to peer; Buffy from distracted, morally bound teenager to somber, world-weary adult.

If, as originally intended, the series had ended with this finale, it would’ve gone out on an indisputable high note. The previous year is often hailed as one of the series’ finest seasons, with its inspired deepening of Spike’s backstory, award-worthy work from star Sarah Michelle Gellar, and inclusion of “The Body,” the best TV episode about grief ever made. But alas, Buffy didn’t end with season five, instead using “The Gift” as a springboard for many of the biggest changes the show would undergo during its run — for better and for worse.

Today, the colossal impact of this episode is clearer, and more impressive, than ever. So 20 years after we were given “The Gift,” let’s take a walk into the Hellmouth and examine all the ways it would shape the rest of Buffy, shall we?

It marked a tonal shift that lasted for the remainder of the show

Unlike the cringeworthy movie that inspired it, Buffy was never intended to be light entertainment. Under its ’90s pop-culture references and ever-quotable Buffyspeak, the series was ultimately about power, love, and death, with enough genuine thrills to occasionally rival an episode of ER. But to call it a straight drama in its first five seasons would’ve felt like a stretch; in this era of Buffy, there was no challenge that the Scooby Gang couldn’t eventually overcome through the force of their will and some sarcastic comments. The only exception was the death of Joyce Summers midway through season five, but the gravity of that episode was meant to feel like an anomaly for the show up until that point, its unsettling quiet emphasizing its abnormality.

“The Gift,” however, was intended to usher in an entirely new stage of Buffy, one in which the rote vampire-slaying and magic spells lived alongside abuse, rape, and misogyny. Standing up on that scaffolding, staring at a bleeding Dawn and a Hellmouth beneath her, Buffy realizes that the world as she’s known it is permanently gone. No more can she rely on her mother for comfort, or Giles for protection, or even school for a distraction — all she has left is herself, and with that comes the full, oppressive weight of her one-in-a-generation position. When “death is your gift,” as the spirit guide tells her, it’s difficult to see your job as anything but a curse. When Buffy sacrifices herself into the portal, it’s not with fear but with relief.

And when she is revived, early on in the next season, her horror over being pulled out of what her friends eventually learn was Heaven, not hell, leads her to become enmeshed in a spiral of depression and self-loathing, mirroring Willow’s increasing darkness and Giles’s growing detachment. Much has been said about whether season six went too far in its gloom — even Marti Noxon, the future Sharp Objects creator who was the showrunner for Buffy’s final two years, has said that she questions controversial choices like killing Tara — but few can deny that it was time for the series to take a turn. Buffy had spent five seasons as a teenager living in a world that was, by and large, kind and fair. Through the events of “The Gift,” she became living proof that that was not so and was forced to live with the consequences.

It introduced a new, human(ish) Spike

Although Spike had become a regular presence in the Scooby Gang’s lives prior to this episode, “The Gift” signifies a major change in his role, from a tolerated danger to a complicated ally. His commitment to protecting Dawn may be directly correlated with his love for Buffy, but it’s real nonetheless, as is the gratitude in his voice when he tells Buffy that she treats him like a man, not a monster. It marks serious growth from the Spike of previous seasons, and it only gets deeper from there, as the vampire spends the next two years grappling first with love and then, once he has received his soul, the full spectrum of pain and passion that comes with humanity.

It previewed the darkness living in Willow

The introduction of Dark Willow is one of Buffy’s most enduringly contentious plotlines, and even those in favor can still probably understand the queasiness it provokes (try getting the image of a flayed Warren out of your head). While the full extent of a Willow imbued with black magic and a grief-fueled thirst for revenge doesn’t arise until season six, “The Gift” is the clearest sign yet that the character once known for her endearing dorkiness and fuzzy sweaters is capable of such horror. To save Tara and damage Glory, Willow invokes the strongest powers she has yet, later topping that with the telepathy she uses to communicate with Spike. At this point, it’s in the name of protecting others, but Willow’s deepening understanding of her own abilities, combined with her innate desire to rise above her ranks, mean it’s not long before she is experimenting with magic so dark it nearly leads to the end of the world itself.

It brought on the end of Giles, Watcher

Like with Willow, “The Gift” showcased a darker side of Giles than viewers had previously seen, or knew the mild-mannered librarian to possess. Knowing that Buffy, with her Slayer-set sense of morality, would be incapable of killing Ben, Glory’s human form, Giles takes on the deed himself. “She’s a hero, you see. Not like us,” he says as he suffocates Ben, the even tone of his voice as chilling as the ease of his actions.

Giles is not inherently an evil, or even a truly corrupt, character; he kills Ben not out of malice but of an understanding that it is in his role as Watcher to do what Buffy cannot, to be her proxy when her conscience keeps her at bay. Yet it’s this understanding that also leads Giles to step back following “The Gift,” returning to England to ruminate over his difficult role in Buffy’s life — and supposed death. For years, he has been her guardian, far surpassing the duties of his Watchership to give her support and guidance at every turn. As he later admits in “Once More, With Feeling,” Giles’s love for Buffy has clouded his judgment, giving him an identity that’s somewhere between friend and father. And so he removes himself from her life, returning only when most needed and even then at a distance that pains him nearly as much as it does a confused, wounded Buffy.

It turned Dawn into one of TV’s most grating teens

Turns out that when you don’t have to be the Key anymore, you’re just a typical annoying, self-centered kleptomaniac teen. After Buffy’s self-sacrifice closes the portal, Dawn becomes a true human rather than a mystical being created to unlock dimensions. And that true human is … a lot. Dawn’s adolescent angst made for some of Buffy’s most tiresome story lines, like her predictable bad-boy crushes and brief forays into dark magic to deal with her abandonment issues. By the show’s final season, she gets a bit more tolerable, aiding the Gang as a pseudo-Watcher during Giles’s absence, but her teenage attitude and lack of powers forever keep her from fully meshing with the group.

It showcased Sarah Michelle Gellar’s formidable talent

Anyone who doubted Gellar’s acting capabilities only had to watch her work in “The Body” — in which she played Buffy’s grief over Joyce’s death with haunting realness — to be convinced otherwise. On the off chance they weren’t, though, Gellar delivered a performance in “The Gift” so exquisitely nuanced that her lack of an Emmy nomination, at the very least, feels like an affront. From her heartbreaking conversation with Giles about the cost of living to the expression on her face — a harrowing mixture of grief and steely resolve — as she makes the decision to jump into the portal, the actress proved she was capable of far more than just delivering action-hero kicks and quippy one-liners. In the seasons that followed, Gellar would continue to bring her A game, most notably in the beloved musical “Once More, With Feeling” and the brutal “Seeing Red.”

It’s unfortunate that in the years post-Buffy, Gellar hasn’t found a worthy vehicle for her considerable talents (her best effort, the Robin Williams co-starrer The Crazy Ones, lasted only one season). She’s better than she gets credit for.

It gave us a mantra for the ages

“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” Buffy tells Dawn as she is on top of the tower, about to jump off. And with that, “The Gift” sparked a conversation about depression, determination, and purpose that expanded far past Buffy’s remaining seasons and into the lives of its viewers. As one of the show’s most defining quotes, it’s been tattooed on fans’ bodies, engraved on necklaces, and utilized as a mantra for fighting inner demons and staying alive. Of all the many contributions of “The Gift,” it’s perhaps this line, and the agonizing grit behind it, that’s had the most staying power of all.

The Buffy Episode That Changed Everything