For a show that has plenty of dark moments Buffy had never spent a full season in that darkness, until season six. Season six is, by far, the darkest year of the show as the divide between reality and fantasy is at its thinnest. I know, it’s a weird thing to say about the season with the musical episode, but season six uses the show’s fantasy elements to explore one of the darkest themes the show has tackled: mental illness.
This is shown through Buffy’s arc throughout the season but can be traced back to season five. Season five pulled Buffy as a character in two opposing directions. One, her wanting to becoming a better slayer, and exploring what that means, was her own choice. The second direction was her new-found familial responsibilities due to her mother’s illness and a new sister to protect. Throughout season five Buffy closes herself off from her own needs, jettisoning her relationship with Riley (although that wasn’t exactly her choice either), and having to give up college for the foreseeable future. Riley and college where two of the things that made Buffy feel like she had a normalish life in season four.
With the death of Joyce, and a damning prophesy of death being Buffy’s “gift”, Buffy was afraid that being the Slayer was making her colder, but the responsibilities she had to her family and her calling stretched her too thin. That is why her sacrifice at the end of “The Gift” can be read as Buffy committing suicide. That by one last world saving gesture, her sister safe, and her friends proven warriors, Buffy was safe in the knowledge that her time in the good fight was over.
Of course it wasn’t over, as Buffy was brought back to life by her friends. Like many fantasy shows that explore complex themes, Buffy explores mental illness in a fantastical way. Buffy’s disconnection from those around her comes from the fact that she was ripped out of heaven, but it could easily be seen as one of the symptoms of depression that many people suffer from. Her relationship with Spike, the only other person in her vicinity that has died and come back to life; with their connection cemented the moment he recognises the wounds on Buffy’s hands that where caused by digging herself out of her own grave.
Let’s take Buffy’s death from the point of view of the episode “Normal Again”, where Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew send a demon after Buffy that make her think she is in a mental hospital and that her friends and life is a delusion. This is the most obvious case of the show exploring mental illness but it has a better effect when taken in the context of the full season. In this reality Buffy’s death was actually a period of time in which she came out of her delusion. While I’m not saying that Buffy has been schizophrenic all this time, it’s interesting to look at Buffy and her mental health plotline.
Buffy’s belief in this “reality” is less about a place without monsters than a place without responsibility. She isn’t the slayer in this world, there is no Dawn to take care of, no toxic relationship with Spike that makes her question her humanity. It’s a place in which her mother is alive, and her father stayed around, a place without pain. Buffy’s death represents her time in that hospital, and vice versa, and the season as a whole is about her, not only trying to feel human again, but coming to terms with the responsibilities that she has been returned too. For many people that have mental health disorders, triggers can come from being overwhelmed with their lives, where suicide, or a hospital stay is preferable than continuing this way. What Season six does, by showing Buffy’s death/awakening is that in order for Buffy to come to terms with her own pain, and to move past it, she must reconnect with her support system and the responsibilities she has.
This is shown in the final episodes of the season, when grief-stricken Willow goes dark after the death of Tara at the hands of Warren, and the attempted murder of Buffy. The horror here is that the danger was realistic. This wasn’t Buffy fighting a demon in a graveyard at night. This was a human coming into her home and shooting her in broad daylight. Buffy once again feels like a hero in these episodes as she does everything to stop her friend from becoming a killer and fighting for her and Dawn’s survival.
Season six is the darkest season because of the realism built into the fantasy. Buffy’s journey back to herself, in a season where most of the characters had to do the same, showed that even the darkest parts of ourselves can be saved, that the night will end.