2.2.09

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy always looked a bit crap. The monsters were corny, the set was cheap, the horror wasn’t ever very scary. So why do I keep watching it? A run through the commentary on the DVD (yes, I am that sad) pointed to an answer. I found out that Buffy is a cleverer show than many give it credit for. On a literal level, Buffy goes to a high school on top of a ‘Hellmouth’, and all sorts of vampires and demons gravitate towards it. She has superpowers, and has to stop them from ushering in the apocalypse. So far, so silly. However, this set-up is in fact a metaphor. High school is a hellish experience for many people, and the show attempts to tackle the anxieties of teenagers by displaying their emotional problems as monsters that need to be defeated...by beating the crap out of them. Thus, in the first season (in ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’) a girl who is persistently ignored by her schoolmates turns invisible, and decides to have her revenge. Willow’s search for love pushes her into meeting someone on the internet, who turns out to be a homicidal robot (in ‘I, Robot...You, Jane’). The writers of the show approach each episode not by thinking up new monsters, but deciding which pertinent issue to address with monsters. It’s a clever little idea, I think.

In which case, the season three finale is probably the show at it’s happiest. The high school that has been the source of so much grief is destroyed, its demons purged. But the show continues. Buffy goes to college, and finds new demons to confront in the campus. Indeed, the central dynamic of the show demands that the characters are always suffering, and in the last three seasons especially, the gloom and despair goes into overdrive. It is in many ways an apocalyptic show. Not only do the characters have to avert at least two a season, the weight of suffering that they have to deal with itself creates an ‘apocalyptic’ feel. Buffy’s mother dies in season five. She then realizes that to save the world, she has to kill her sister. In season six, she is brought back from eternal bliss, and the emptiness she feels leads her into a self-destructive sexual relationship with a soulless monster. Meanwhile, Willow is recklessly using magic (a potent addiction metaphor) and Xander’s engagement breaks up. Character’s are rarely very happy for very long. The show inevitably gets darker and darker, the demons stronger and stronger.

This is somewhat relieved by an always present chirpiness in each episode. The metaphorical aspect at the centre of the show means that as long as the character’s pain is believable, nothing else really has to be. The monsters are symbols, the plots are tools used to construct the particular episode’s theme. This gives the creators of the show great freedom to play around. Firstly, the genre isn’t fixed. Although it’s most overtly a fantasy/horror, elements of romantic comedy, science fiction, noir, western, soap opera, martial arts and even musical theatre (on one memorable occasion) creep in. Second, the dialogue spouted by the characters is not like the banter you have with your friends. It’s much richer -- packed with obscure pop culture references and invented slang (my favourite being ‘happy’ as a noun for ‘orgasm’). Thirdly, the language of the camera is utilized for laughs (check out the battle between Xander and Harmony in ‘The Initiative’, captured in glorious slow-mo) but also as a comment on TV shows. The ending of ‘Lover’s Walk’ looks to be a repeat of that most tired of film conventions -- slow pans and dissolves across all the miserable characters while sad music plays. It is one of the laziest methods of mining an emotional response from the viewer, and it’s undermined beautifully by the last shot of Spike, happy as can be, driving and rocking along to Sid Vicious singing ‘My Way’. These playful elements serve to detract somewhat from the yawning black hole of despair that the show revolves around. It definitely makes the show more watchable, but another factor is even more significant.

A primary element of fantasy (maybe all fiction, maybe even all art!) is wish-fulfillment. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ provides an escape into a better world, or at least, one that allows even such useless creatures as hobbits the chance to be heroes. The film (and, I presume, the book) ‘Atonement’ centers on this idea. The main character, Briony, writes fiction as a way of correcting the mistakes she has made in her life. For her, literature is a form of atonement (hence the title, genius). More broadly, she is trying to square what really happened with what should have happened -- an attempt to achieve something perfect in art when the possibility of perfection in life has been denied. The ‘Buffyverse’ metaphorically reflects the horrors and failings of our own real world, by personifying them as demons and vampires. Its fantasy is in fact reality. Where the fantasy/wish-fulfillment element comes in is that in every episode, Buffy’s friends, who are physically weaker (I’m looking at Xander especially here), never fail in their eagerness to jump into the fray, despite the enormous threat to their safety. Buffy can always rely on this support network, built on ties of unconditional love, to overcome her demons. This is what picks her up out of her feelings of alienation and worthlessness in ‘the Freshmen’ and many other episodes. This dynamic isn’t confined to Buffy alone. Willow overcomes her grief and rage at the world in the season six finale through the affirmation of Xander’s friendship. That bond literally saves the world. Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, tells me in his commentary that Buffy is ultimately about the creation of family, sometimes an alternative family to your biological one. The chance to experience and participate in these very strong bonds of friendship (which are so rare in the real world) is what I think brings so much joy and comfort to the many rabid Buffy fans watching the show, and I count myself among their number.

Now comes my top Buffy episodes, in chronological order:

‘Lie To Me’: The first episode I ever watched is also my favourite. This is the crucial turning point in the series. Before, the show was mildly diverting fun with monsters. This fully demonstrated its potential for genius (a word I’ll be using a lot).

‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’: Hilarious. Does everything ‘American Pie’ does and more.

‘Killed By Death’: Buffy at its creepiest. The monster in the hospital is truly terrifying.

'The Wish': Brilliant. Moves from exploring Cordelia's feelings of betrayal to a meditation on the importance of believing in a better world. This is why Buffy is genius.

‘Amends’: This Christmas episode perfectly encapsulates the family ideas of the show.

‘Hush’: Frequently cited as the greatest Buffy episode of all. I can see that...

‘Who Are You?’: Buffy and Faith switch bodies. Genius.

‘Restless’: More genius, but difficult to get a grasp on for newbies.

‘The Body’: A classic. Deals with bereavement brilliantly.

‘The Gift’: Season five finale. Wraps up a great season.

‘Once More, with Feeling’: The musical episode. Deservedly famous.

‘Normal Again’: Buffy does ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ before ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.

And every episode of season 7. It’s impossible to choose.

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