I feel like the reason that Buffy holds the relationship she had with Angel on such a high pedestal is because when she was with him it was a very happy period in her life, free of the complications brought on by… well, life. When she thinks of their love and her life back then, it looks so happy and beautiful. She was a young girl who ran around with rose colored glasses on. But life kicked the shit out of her in every way for the last three seasons of Buffy and the world wasn’t so beautiful anymore. And even in season four she has trouble adjusting to college and so begins her battle with self hatred. In the high school years (when she was with Angel) she didn’t hate herself- because she had him there loving her just as much as she loved him.
So when she looks back on that time all she sees is how despite all the chaos, she had Angel to help make sense of it and make it all okay. When he left her all of that stability went away and she never really did get that back- until the end of season 7. But even with Spike, she can’t allow herself to love him because she’s always holding on to her idea of that perfect, innocent first love that she had with Angel. She and Angel are completely different people by the end of BTVS and she still clings to him and kisses him when she sees him because for a moment she gets to feel like she used to before, she doesn’t think about how if they started things back up they’d find that they probably wouldn’t even be very compatible at that point. They aren’t a part of each other’s lives any more- not really. He is her past, he reminds her of the golden days. He reminds her of the time before her friends could get to the point where they’d kick her out of her own house.
But Buffy is strong and independent now. She’s a grown up. She doesn’t need the past, in fact holding on to the past is preventing her from finding happiness in the present. I wish Buffy could’ve realized that earlier in season seven. In season seven, Buffy and Spike were at a point where they could’ve found true happiness. She and Spike were in very similar places at that point and helped one another to see that there still was beauty in this world. I feel like by the end they were at that place, that’s why she’s capable of telling him she loves him. Because in that moment she sees a man who went from finding joy in the destruction of the world to finding peace in the saving of it. She finally opens her eyes and sees Spike, and what she see’s is beautiful.
Buffy is about a girl who becomes a woman, a woman that faces all the struggles life has to offer and gets back up again- a woman that literally comes back from the dead. And not just in the literal way either, being brought back wasn’t her own choice- in fact it was her choice being taken away. Buffy comes back from being emotionally and spiritually dead. She takes on the very real struggle of depression and even if she’s still unhappy on some levels, by the end of season 6 she is living again. Spending one night with Spike rejuvenates Buffy, it helps her forgive her friends- and in turn she realizes that the only way she’s going to win this is by relying on them. Just like the golden days when she was young and happy.
People always talk about how Buffy makes Spike a better man, how he got his soul for her. They aren’t wrong. But really, Spike and Buffy heal one another. Spike makes Buffy better, he makes her strong and he gives her something to believe in when she’s about ready to give up on people all together. He’s the most human non-human in the entire series. Spike shows Buffy the beauty of humanity and of life without even being alive himself. In season seven, while her friends are doing some of the ugliest things a person can do (Empty Places, I’m talking about you), Buffy is able to find the beauty of life by watching Spike fight the darkness within himself and overcoming that darkness.
So when Buffy says her last line “Spike,” she’s not just saying that Spike saved the world and she’s proud of him. She’s finally at peace. Spike didn’t just save the world- he showed her life. He showed her what she was fighting for, that it was worth it. She was brought back for a reason, certainly to save the world. But she was also brought back to live. And Spike showed her that, he gave her back life. She stands there looking down into the crater that is Sunnydale with her friends and family around her, some of them didn’t make survive the battle, but those that did are here. And they’re alive and beautiful. They saved the world. So when Dawn asks Buffy what they’re gonna do now, she smiles because she knows the answer.
“I came to think of Sarah as my little sister, who you love very much but frustrates the heck out of you sometimes, to the point where when we were paired as a romantic couple, I was worried about that, ‘cause I’m like ‘Oh my god, I’m kissing my sister.’, you know. So I spent a lot of time trying to fall in love with her in that way that you do when you’re paired with somebody, not really fall in love, but find something in them that you find lovable. And I couldn’t get over this feeling that she was my sister. There’s a lot that’s lovable about her, but it’s just, I just was always in this box in my mind. And then I show up to set one day and we were filming this episode where Buffy just came back from heaven, she got ripped back down to, essentially, hell, and she’s got this sister she’s gotta take care of, she’s now a mom, basically, and she’s working in this burger….this chicken burger thing? She’s got this ridiculous hat on, and she’s not whining. You know, Buffy is still perky and she’s at the drive through trying to do the job well, even though she can’t really do it very well… And I just thought: ‘That’s it. Sarah can remain my little sister, but it’s Buffy that I’m in love with’, and that’s why. It’s because she won’t give up. And I was looking at her with this grin on my face. And I’m just looking at her like this (smiles, does classic Spike head-tilt) and I’m so happy that I finally found my answer and she goes: ‘WHAT?! It’s the HAT, huh!? People have been making fun of me all day in this hat. YOU TOO? I DIDN’T EXPECT IT FROM YOU!’ (flaps arms, pretending to run away) And I never told her what it really was about her, because I fell in love with her in that moment.”
“when i say i love you, it’s not because i want you, or because i can’t have you. it has nothing to do with me. i love what you are, what you do, how you try. i’ve seen your kindness and your strength. i’ve seen the best and the worst of you. and i understand with perfect clarity what you are. you’re a hell of a woman.”
“This is not a good-bye, my darling, this is a thank-you.”
And you have stupid hair!