I can’t say I was surprised that the strong winner of “favorite Season 5 episode that isn’t The Body, The Gift, or Fool for Love” was Intervention — because Intervention was my own pick. But at first consideration it might be an odd choice. It seems like the deep introspection and thematic heavy-lifting of Buffy’s spirit quest in the desert shouldn’t combine so well with the giddy comedy of the Buffybot’s first appearance — but it does.
I think this is because the two halves of the story reflect on each other. Just as Buffy is coping with the accumulated emotional weight of grief and combat fatigue, the ‘bot appears — a pseudo-Buffy good enough to fool her friends and slay a few vampires, but eternally sunny and angst-free. With her mother so recently dead, the ‘bot’s cheery disposition strikes her friends as odd, but they put her strange behavior — including her romantic relationship with Spike — down to an idiosyncratic part of the mourning process.
Much has been made of the Buffy depression story arc in Season 6, but it begins here, in the latter part of Season 5, and it begins as grief. Our cultural awareness of depression as a treatable psychological disorder leads us sometimes to ignore its link with mourning and grief, which we still consider a natural part of life (not a disorder, in other words). But guidelines for depression diagnosis are careful to point out that the normal and expected response to bereavement may strongly resemble a depressive episode and has many elements in common. And, something that starts as grief can become depression when it is compounded by other symptoms.
Grief is expected to get better on its own, eventually — but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it seems that people don’t want it to. Queen Victoria famously reigned for forty years as a widow. My own grandmother spent the last twenty years of her life in mourning for my grandfather, stubbornly it seemed to me — she didn’t want to get over his death, and so she didn’t. She refused to forgive the universe for taking him away.
On the opposite end of coping strategies, people who are depressed or grieving often put on an “I’m Fine” mask when they deal with the world. Sometimes this mask is brittle and fragile and false-seeming, while other times it’s so effective that nobody notices it’s a mask. Sometimes it seems that people ought to notice it’s false, but they don’t — maybe because they don’t want to. The I’m Fine mask exists for the comfort of other people, after all. One way to regard the ‘bot is that she is Buffy’s I’m Fine mask. That’s why she appears when the real Buffy has removed herself in an attempt to deal with her emotional turmoil.
This part of her role becomes more apparent in the ‘bot’s second major episode, Bargaining Part 1. The real Buffy is literally dead — there is no Buffy except for the ‘bot, the I’m Fine mask, carrying on to satisfy the needs of others. The ‘bot is an imperfect Buffy substitute in many ways — literal-minded, predictable, and fragile. Perhaps most significantly, she is not a leader. The ‘bot has to be told what to do.
None of Buffy’s close friends and family think, at the beginning of Season 6, that they’re better off with the ‘bot — that’s why they’re willing to risk the powerful magic it will take to bring back the real Buffy. But, as Season 6 plays out, we will see the many ways in which people are inconvenienced by the complexities and needs of the real Buffy, so different from her comically uncomplicated robot doppelganger.
The Buffybot is a big hit at the parent-teacher conference; real Buffy is in danger of losing Dawn to a judgmental social worker. The Buffybot is always there for Dawn; real Buffy goes off on her own so much that Dawn feels neglected and lonely. The Buffybot is a domestic powerhouse who won’t stop making sandwiches; real Buffy doesn’t spend much time at home. Willow, who puts the most effort into reviving the real Buffy, is disappointed she isn’t happy about that — unlike the Buffybot, who is indefatigably cheerful. We never see the Watcher’s Council interact with the Buffybot, but throughout the series they have made it clear she fits their ideal model for a Slayer: a superhuman vampire-killing machine with no will to challenge their authority. Not surprisingly, the demons also get what they want from the Buffybot — a physically vulnerable Slayer who isn’t much of a threat compared to real Buffy.
Ironically Spike, the person who wanted the Buffybot in the first place, is the one who ends up getting more of what he wants from real Buffy — possibly emphasizing Spike’s role during Season 6 in helping Buffy heal emotionally.
After real Buffy is revived, her I’m Fine mask is destroyed when the Buffybot is literally ripped to pieces in front of her. And we, the audience, are sad to see her go — because we also got something we wanted out of the Buffybot: pure entertainment.