Many things to like about this three-part finale, but I think the end comes up short of the series' first finale (The Gift) - certain decisions felt a bit forced, and there wasn't time to explore the bits that really mattered.
PART I - With Buffy forced out, Faith struggles to unite the girls behind a banner of leadership, but her plan to attack an armory on the outskirts of town backfires when she leads the wanna-slay brigade into an ambush. Meanwhile, Spike goes searching for Buffy after discovering the group's treachery, and when he finds her, spends the night comforting her and giving her the strength of his faith in her and the encouragement she needs to acquire the Slayer Scythe after a few tense moments ducking blows from Caleb.
PART II - Buffy races to the aid of Faith and her team and, using her potent new killing machine, dusts three ubervamps instanter. The group retreats and, while Giles and Kennedy tend to the wounded, Dawn, Willow and Buffy do research on the Scythe. Eventually, they realize that it is connected to Sunnydale's precolonial history and Buffy enters a heretofore undiscovered crypt in the graveyard to gain further insight from a seer - the last of her kind. Caleb kills the seer, leading to a battle royale. Caleb, as Buffy humorously puts it, finds the need to "split" after his proper introduction to the Scythe. The fight goes this well, in part, because Angel arrives at a crucial moment and stuns Caleb just as he's about to kill Buffy. The two kiss and then discuss exactly why that kiss was just a hello and not something more. Spike, unfortunately, sees the kiss.
PART III - Angel has more than just helpful fists - he comes bearing a talisman acquired in Los Angeles and related to the hellmouth. He thinks he should wear it (since the wearer must have a soul but be more than human), but Buffy would rather give it to Spike and send Angel back to LA to form a second front in case she fails. Meanwhile, she has concocted a plan - she intends to storm the hellmouth while Willow taps into the mystical energy of the Scythe to disperse the power of the slayer to all potentials the world over. She leads her team of potentials into the hellmouth to face a horde of ubervamps while Giles and Principal Wood, Xander and Dawn, and Anya and Andrew take positions to block the impending escape of this army and Kennedy and Willow work the funky mojo. The spell works, just in the nick of time and Willow, rather than going dark under the influence of such power, transcends the black magicks entirely and becomes pure life-giving white. Meanwhile, Buffy's champion (Spike) says his farewell before being incinerated by the sunlight as the hellmouth collapses, destroying the First's entire army (minus a few would-be escapees). Sunnydale collapses into a crater as the team escapes - almost entirely intact (though several slayers do meet their death in the final battle, including Rona. Giles notes that there is another hellmouth in Cleveland (heh) - the new army of slayers will have work to do after they recover in the comic book series that follows this franchise.
The basic decisions that formed the core of this final story arc are largely sound. I like most of what they chose to focus on in the quieter moments between battles. Some of the highlights include:
- Spike's role as Buffy's soul-mate, without the need for gratuitous sex (that was unfortunately emphasized in other scenes which I did find a tad gratuitous - especially the desperate attempt to recapture the magic of Willow and Tara by giving Kennedy some of the same lines to read before the girl on girl action commenced - which...I won't lie...I found much hotter as an immature college kid than I do now).
- The hospital scene in which Anya laments the stupidity of warfare among humans (and our lack of uniting causes or immortality), but then goes on to extoll the virtues that come with our flaws - our tendency to come together when it really mattered and fight for good, our inner strength, and our refusal to give up in the worst of circumstances. I couldn't have said it better myself.
- The famous "cookies" speech - this was Buffy *finally* getting it right when it comes to relationships. She's spent her whole seven-year character arc worrying that she wasn't good enough to make a relationship work and only now realizes that it isn't up to her to "make it work" - she has to be ready for a relationship to flourish, and she now understands that she won't be ready until she is fully matured. This world would be a better place if parents would spend a bit more time sending this message to their teenagers and a bit less time preaching "NO NO NO!!" at them or enabling them with condoms and idiot compassion.
- The decision to show that magic (as always, a metaphor, generally for ambition and power) can be transcendentally glorious and unequivocally good as well as truly evil (and the stark contrast between the Willow that was always willing and eager to grab for the black arts when she needed confidence, and the one that was begging Kennedy to be at the ready to kill her if she failed and clinging to loved ones while, almost unwillingly, striving for this incredible power is impressive both visually and thematically).
- Andrew almost hoping for death, and when not actually killed, looking genuinely lost - I wish I could see more of his story.
- Wood calling Faith out for her indefensibly stupid and self-destructive isolationism when it comes to men and sexuality. Someone had to pimp-slap her - might as well be the best looking guy Buffy has ever showcased (sorry, Boreanez...you are a dead man compared to this guy...you too Marsters!).
- The bloomin' onion conversation...because it was just awesome. :)
- The final tableau of the "core four" as they prepared to stop another apocalypse, concluding with Giles' infamous "The world is truly doomed." Just that one more moment recapturing that intimate and quirky group dynamic- beautiful!
I could go on, but you get my point. You can tell they really pulled out all the stops to leave the fans as happy as possible, tell a rewarding story, and give themselves room for spin-offs, should the desire arise. But...and here's where I may be getting a bit nit-picky, but I gotta say it anyway...they covered WAY too much ground for WAY too many people, IMHO. Certain plot elements needed better foreshadowing (like the oracle lady who somehow survived to be thousands of years old...um...where'd THAT come from and why didn't Buffy notice that crypt before??) or explanation, certain things we could have done without entirely. It's stupid to make Kennedy the focus of Willow's power-grab in the finale - that relationship never worked because it was foisted on us unnaturally...it should have been one of the core four...preferably Xander. Dropping Faith into the picture provided for some interesting moments, but...it didn't really do much for Faith's overall character arc and we had a lot of things to get to in a very short period of time. We did NOT need Angel either...and frankly, the stupid jealousy parts weren't funny to me given the short schedule we were on...they just annoyed me. Angel sucked...I was never a fan...he's a mediocre actor, and his character arc with Buffy has been outshone by later work. Principal Wood's character was potentially more interesting - better him than the actor made of wood. I won't repeat my annoyance with the show's creators writing in a religious figurehead for Buffy to fight (Caleb) - the unpunchable first evil is way scarier than a guy quoting bible verses between misogynistic slurs. I'd say the army of super-vamps is plenty scary enough that we don't need Caleb, but you already know that.
A simpler story that focused more on the struggles of the core four was needed. Giles struggling with the loss of the trust of his pupil, Buffy struggling to come to terms with her destiny and her role as leader, Xander struggling to stay optimistic after his war injury (which he could have come by another way) and especially Willow struggling to find the confidence and faith she needs to reach for power without pulling back darkness. The other elements needed to be sidelights, not main focal points. This is the end of an era - thus the main themes of the era should be reflected upon and admired.
There are plot holes big enough to drive a mac truck through, there are clumsy dialogue exchanges that feel like they belong in the second season, and not the series finale, and there is WAY too much going on to feel like you can get emotionally invested the way that you should.
That said, the acting is top notch for almost everyone involved (with the exception of Boreanez, who always was good at ruining an acting rating, and who, this time around, played it way too cool for the high emotional stakes) and carries you through glued to the screen even after repeated viewings.
The enduring nature of love to provide real strength and resist evil is explored thoroughly here - it's what humanity has that no demon can match. The reverence for the parts of the series that worked should also be applauded. It's not to see that the writers cared about making their fans happy.