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The scoop on this week's ''Buffy'' finale

Kristen Baldwin tells what creator Joss Whedon has in store for fans

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The scoop on this week’s ”Buffy” finale

This has been a strange season for ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” After a slightly rocky start, the series rapidly found its footing with the introduction of the Initiative, the secret government-sponsored demon-fighting group of commandos. Once Buffy fell for Initiative hunk Riley, the series found a real source of creative tension centering around the all too tentative alliance between the Scooby Gang and the army men.

But just as soon as that plotline kicked in, it seemed to sputter out: Riley’s compelling conflict between the two women in his life — Buffy and his Initiative mentor Professor Walsh — ended when Walsh was abruptly killed by her Frankenstein-like creation, Adam. Then Adam, who at first seemed to be the Slayer’s next great foe, dropped out of sight for several episodes at a time, a fact that vastly diminished his strength as a villain.

Still, the show was fine without him; episodes found rich material in Willow’s budding relationship with her now-girlfriend, Tara, and ”Buffy” especially excelled when it spent time on neutered vampire Spike (the superb James Marsters), whose reluctant, ”Clockwork Orange”-like aversion to violence has been hilarious.

So the recent build-up around Adam’s return — armed with some kind of world-domination master plan — was a little out of left field; even more so when the story line concluded last week after just two episodes. I was worried that Adam’s rapid wrap-up would leave tomorrow’s season finale a story line orphan — especially after I saw the teaser, which shows the gang all suffering from bad dreams (a plot that was already covered in 1997’s ”Nightmares”). But having just screened a preview tape of the finale, ”Restless,” however, I stand oh-so-very corrected.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW, STOP NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR NASTY E-MAILS. In perhaps the most bizarre ”Buffy” ever, the gang all falls into a deep sleep after gathering at Joyce’s house for a Blockbuster night. The episode, written and directed by creator Joss Whedon (always a good sign), follows each of their dreams — not so much nightmares as disquieting, complex, and surreal forays into their subconscious fears.

Willow’s involves her anxiety about what her friends and family will think when they discover her ”real” identity; Xander’s disjointed dream exposes how unhappy he is with the perceived aimlessness of his life; Giles’ riotous rock & roll themed segment provides the episode’s exposition; and then comes Buffy, who confronts the question that’s been lingering around the series all season: does she really need the gang anymore, or should she just go it alone?

With ”Restless,” Whedon identifies the one problem he’s had with ”Buffy” this season: keeping the gang realistically integrated now that they’ve all gone to college and begun to lead separate lives. Without the high school setting, it’s clearly harder to contrive situations for the gang to all hang out together — especially since Giles is unemployed and Xander’s not in college with the rest of his pals.

But in ”Restless”, Whedon addresses this subtly by having the characters isolated in their dreams, feeling disconnected from each other; it’s a heartening indication that he’ll be remedying this situation next season. Let’s make a few hopeful predictions: Giles takes a job at the university’s library, Xander enrolls, and they all move into a big off-campus apartment, preferably one with an extra room for Spike.