There's no denying the end of Season 5 was a fitting finale for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Had the cult hit series wrapped up its run there, fans would've certainly been pleased and the series would've gone out on one of its highest notes with "The Gift." Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, and the episode was pretty much a masterpiece — ending Buffy's story with some sad poeticism while providing some fleeting glimpses of redemption for Spike and a general sense of hope all around.
But, after a whole lot of corporate wrangling and a failed deal with The WB, UPN stepped in to keep Buffy alive (or, you know, bring her back to life) for a two-season deal that would become the show's awkward, adult-tinged coda. Though most fans agree that Seasons 1-5 of the show are a masterpiece, opinions become a whole lot more fierce when the focus turns to the UPN era. But really, though, Buffy's final two seasons are essential chapters in her journey from valley girl to literal world-saving hero. For a few reasons, actually.
Whedon's original pitch for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was to flip the cheerleader victim trope on its head, but the show moved far beyond that once it hit Seasons 4-5. You can only keep kids in high school for so long, so those two seasons moved the action to U-C Sunnydale, trading in the high school analogies for slightly more adult ones as the gang grappled with dorm life and the challenges of the workforce. However, the action was still firmly planted in that high school-adjacent spirit, which was a true part of what made Buffy so great in the first place. It tackled everything from literal demons to personal ones, all filtered thorough the lens of a swim team that turns into fish monsters or a class trip that accidentally unleashes an evil mummy.
Seasons 6-7 finally forced Buffy and the Scooby Gang to become adults. Much like in real life, the results were messy. Buffy has to face the fact that slaying vampires doesn't pay the bills and enters the fast-food workforce to make ends meet (of course, a customer turns out to be a man-eating demon). Apart from the demon, that's a story fans who have grown up with the show can connect with. Willow's magic use also spirals into a dangerous addiction that pits her against the team, which is a critical chapter in her development as a character.
It was a more adult story that would've been at odds with the library and classrooms of Sunnydale High, but following that path of addiction became a critical and heartbreaking storyline that defined the final two seasons. The final two seasons also showed that it's possible to grow beyond who you were in high school, as Xander arguably becomes the most well-adjusted and successful member of the gang as an adult thanks to his construction career. High school isn't everything, and it's a lesson we got to learn alongside the Scooby Gang. More than that, we got to see Buffy and the gang rise above and still save the world when the time came. Heck, Buffy even leads an army. Not bad for a burger-flipper, right?
Buffy arguably had the hardest transition of anyone into adulthood, and that makes for compelling drama in these final two years. After her mother dies, he father figure struggles with how to teach her independence, making some brutal decisions in the process. Her Romeo and Juliet-ish high school relationship ended with Angel jumping ship for his own spin-off series in Los Angeles, so she finds love in the arms of a very different vampire via Spike. Now, the message here tends to get a bit muddled, as the show barreled into a story about an emotionally damaged relationship while also trying to balance it with Spike's own mission of atonement.
Did it get a bit (okay, very) icky and offensive along the way? Oh yeah. Sadly, that can be real life, too, at times. But we got to see a four-year journey that turned Spike into a bona fide hero as he struggled and stumbled every step of the way. There's no doubt that Buffy and pretty much everyone else in the Scooby Gang has some emotional issues seven seasons in, but after everything they've been through, wouldn't you? Just, you know, it's a shame not everyone's abusive ex goes off to find a soul and help save the world. Hey, it can't all be darkness, you know.
Then, obviously, there are the episodes themselves: Seasons 6-7 gave us a few of the greatest Buffy episodes ever dreamed up in Whedon's mind. Season 6 featured the seminal musical "Once More, with Feeling," while Season 7 granted us "Conversations with Dead People." A risky proposition at the time (Whedon famously apologized in advance of the airing, warning fans "it just might suck"), Buffy's musical is revered to this day as one of the most ambitious and creative stories ever told on television. It's also inspired more than a few imitators (with The Flash and Supergirl taking a crack at the concept later this month).
As for "Conversations with Dead People," it’s basically a taut stage play framed as an episode of television. It was a tour de force for the cast to show off their acting chops, and it laid raw some true emotion that had been bubbling under the surface for years. There's no doubt these two can stand proudly alongside acclaimed episodes like "Hush" and "The Gift."
The sixth and seventh seasons may not have been the Buffy that all fans wanted, but it told some of the hardest and most emotionally painful stories the show ever tackled — and that's saying a lot. For a generation of fans, we got to watch our heroes move into adulthood with us and struggle just like they did. That was well worth the eye-rolls required to tolerate the Nerds of Doom.