The words almost fail her. This is most unusual for Sarah Michelle Gellar, because words rarely fail her. They come rushing out of her mouth with enough volume and velocity to give Hoover Dam a year's respite, about any number of subjects -- from reality television (she loves Joe Millionaire and American Idol) to being momentarily convinced that unicorns actually do exist. (Never mind.) But when it finally comes to the topic at hand on this February afternoon in Santa Monica, her voice catches, her eyes well with tears. The words almost fail her. Almost -- and then she says it: ''Buffy, in this incarnation, is over.''
And with that, a stake is driven into the hearts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans everywhere. After seven years -- five on The WB, the last two on UPN -- the young Scooby-Doo star (a.k.a. Mrs. Freddie Prinze Jr.) is leaving the cult pop sensation that made her a household name. Says Dana Walden, president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, which owns Buffy: ''It would be difficult to overemphasize Sarah's value to the show.'' Adds Buffy creator Joss Whedon: ''There've been times that we didn't get along. There have been times when we've palled around. But no matter what, she was the other half of Buffy. In seven years, she never let me down.''
What's fascinating about the decision-making process is how steeped it's been in passive-aggressive ego-sensitive Hollywood politics. The key creative and business players never sat down to discuss how and when to end the series. Instead, they all operated under an unspoken assumption that this seventh season (the second of its two-year UPN contract) might be the last. ''I had the same expectation -- that there would be a big meeting with all the generals, commanders, and lieutenants going 'What's going to happen?''' says executive producer Marti Noxon. ''But instead of a roar, it's been a whimper, or people going 'Maybe....''' Well, with this interview it's official: She's out.
Gellar is moving on, but plans are afoot to keep the lucrative franchise alive. Whedon is developing a spin-off that may involve current Buffy regulars and will be pitched first to UPN. ''It will be a completely different animal,'' he says. The good news for fans: Gellar has promised to make occasional guest appearances on the spin-off. The bad news: The spin-off will not be based around sexy bad-girl slayer Faith, played by Eliza Dushku, who is committed to a Twentieth Century Fox pilot directed by Phillip Noyce.
Buffy will end with a five-part story that will see the return of Faith, some surprise deaths, and in the final episode, an appearance by a certain Angel. ''We're gearing up to tell a fabulous, huge, great arc,'' says Gellar. ''It's going to be pretty spectacular.'' Gellar herself is girding for many tears during production of the last episode. It was tough enough for her to keep a dry eye during this, her first exit interview. Popping chocolate-covered raisins as she spoke to EW in a trailer decorated with fan-drawn Scooby art, Gellar made us a bet: ''Ten bucks says I go home and cry when you leave.''