Buffy The Vampire SlayerLong live Buffy
By Carl Wilson
Friday 30 May 2003, by Webmaster
The network can kill off the ultimate high-school story of friendship and grrl-power, but CARL WILSON predicts the show’s enduring feeling will live on forever in the minds of its fans
If all my gambles crap out and there does turn out to be a God, complete with a St. Peter taking names, I’m not sure how I’ll account for the quantity of my time on Earth I spent watching high-school TV dramas. I’ve succumbed to the sublime (My So-Called Life) and the ridiculous (Dawson’s Creek) — but to one show, about a slight, blond bombshell who cuts classes to fight hell-spawned demons, in particular.
Still, with Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer airing its final hour tonight after seven seasons, I’m not in an apologetic mood. I’ve come not to bury Buffy, who’s died twice already, but to praise her: Once more, as the title of last year’s all-singing-all-dancing episode put it, with feeling.
Because feeling is what it’s about. High school as the crucible of adult feelings, and Buffy as the ultimate walk into that fire. Maybe I can explain, Mr. I’m-a-Saint-and-You’re-So-Not Peter, sir, by describing one random moment, say from last week’s, penultimate, show.
The "sitch," in Buffyspeak, is that prehistoric uber-vampires have wounded a bunch of girls, in fact potential future vampire slayers. Two peripheral members of Buffy’s "Scooby" gang, Anya and Andrew, go to the hospital — abandoned, like the rest of the show’s fictional Californian town, due to the impending apocalypse — to filch medical supplies.
(Like several scenes this year, this looting amid civic chaos eerily parallels events that unfolded in Iraq after the show was shot. Such coincidences aren’t unusual for Buffy, which only indicates how far the show’s Zeitgeist-o-meter goes beyond teen slang and hemlines.)
While they collect thread and gauze, Andrew asks why Anya, a thousand-year-old ex-demon turned human, doesn’t flee the coming carnage. She admits she’s done it before, as we saw at the end of season three. Since then, though, she has gotten to like how "amazingly screwed-up" human beings are, to respect their "insane" will to carry on. The conversation is stilted, the way Buffy is when it tries to discuss philosophy instead of acting it out. Andrew, a boyish nerd who also recently wriggled away from the dark side, says he expects to die in the battle, but he’d like to go "as one of those lame humans, trying to do what’s right."
Long pause. Long enough to make you wonder if the mismatched pair is about to kiss. "So," Andrew finally says. ". . . Wheelchair fight?"
Cut to Anya and Andrew in a wheelchair demolition derby, crashing and making silly siren noises.
The moment is gloriously senseless. Yes, it shows the two are not mature enough to rush back to the injured girls, as they ought to. And it sends up the point about how inane people can be. But really, it’s just dada. So why would the writers include it? Why not: It’s only a TV show.
On most programs, with the core characters in conflict and innocent bystanders dying, a wheelchair fight would be no-go. Indeed, the tonal shift would be out of bounds in most films, literature or theatre. On Buffy, the shifts are the tone. The first rule of the Buffyverse is that there are no rules. Horror slides into humour, psychodrama into the surreal, pop-culture pastiche into thriller, domestic verisimilitude into sexual fantasy, from second to second, line to line.
It all flows from the concept. Creator Whedon’s initial impulse was to flip the script on horror: Instead of a blond virgin who walks down a dark alley and gets slaughtered, the blonde would whirl around and beat the hell out of the monster. Parody, but with a grrl-power message.
But his quirk of genius was to follow the idea through. All the way. The show never forgets its epic-meets-sitcom absurdity. It is wish fulfilment for nerds like Andrew, or Buffy’s friends Willow and Xander — whom I adore too much to sketch in shorthand here — and really for every high-school kid: High school is hell, but what if you had a secret destiny, the power to fight back?
Well, with luck, that’s adulthood. But Whedon also takes the light-fantasy premise seriously — be careful, as every brush with magic in the series reminds, what you wish for. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (cited, I admit, in Friday’s Dawson’s Creek finale): "Dreams come true, not free." Buffy goes ahead into that thicket, a scout, growing up too fast, accumulating a history that, after seven years, has done her profound harm.
Buffy, like most superheroes since at least Spider-Man, has both everyday, modern problems and monstrous, mythic, ancient ones. But for her, the two constantly intersect and mirror and comment on each other. The undead Other that Buffy and her friends face is always also themselves. The Hellmouth that lies beneath the school library is a very leaky lid for the collective adolescent subconscious, and the repressed demons it unleashes have sharp claws.
As Buffy’s mentor Giles says, in an early episode in which John Ritter plays a wife-killing Bluebeard android who almost becomes Buffy’s stepdad: "The subtext is rapidly becoming text."
The payoff, I’ll recklessly venture, is that Buffy is not just any high-school story, finding resonances in particular characters, but the high-school story, finding characters and stories — ones often good enough to love — in the universals.
Some of the comedy comes from this deliberate literalism, but so does the complexity. Uniquely, on Buffy, storytelling and metaphor — the way they make the fantasy and the real, myth and modernity, genre conventions and their subversions bleed into (if you will) and inform each other — is the main supernatural force.
In the musical episode, a demon causes the whole town to sing their unspoken thoughts. In Hush, demons make everyone fall silent. Other episodes are hallucinations, dreams, role reversals at once hideous and hilarious. But in The Body, Buffy’s mother dies, suddenly, terribly, naturally — no ghouls involved. The self-consciousness of it all contains the lesson Buffy taught Andrew as harshly as possible earlier this season: Stories may illuminate or obscure life, but living is not a story. Buffy’s campiness makes sure we mind that gap.
The only comparable TV I can think of is The Sopranos, where the triple layers of the decaying Mafia (mythic) and the bourgeois, dysfunctional American family (modern) and Tony’s unruly psyche (internal Other) interact in a similarly rich, contradictory way — with the psychiatrist’s office replacing both library and Hellmouth.
Sopranos’ logic is inexorably cynical, entropic: Power corrupts, weakness is its handmaiden. But Buffy’s feminine strength both corrupts and enables (we learned this season that it is originally demonic and patriarchally imposed, to many ideologues’ chagrin); her weakness is her salvation, the human part.
It’s not only that we identify with the grey zones Buffy, Giles, Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Oz, Anya, Faith, Dawn, Angel, Spike and the other sometime Scoobies must navigate, using old mystical texts, the Internet, loyalty, dumb luck and a heaping scoop of violence. I think we identify with the show’s grand thought experiment, the way it makes itself up in plain sight. Anyone who follows it gets sucked into its process.
Whedon, like every great artist, has created a monster — a cheaply filmed glimpse of infinity. It can’t be coherent, pretty much by definition, but it can’t be closed off, either. Not even by cancellation.
That’s why the uneven, sometimes dire characterization, pacing and writing — ever since the characters graduated from high school and Whedon got overloaded with other projects — doesn’t matter, even though that’s most of the run. Once Buffy was invented, it couldn’t be unsaid. The endlessly generative Buffyverse lives in our heads, a high-kicking new voice in the chorus of imaginative possibility, a fresh metaphor nourished by a base faith in the worthwhile suffering of friendship and love.
If that’s not enough, Mr. Saint Peter (or if it just doesn’t let me off the hook for the Dawson thing), go on and send me off to some Hell dimension. I figure I’ll have fascinating company. But only after I stop crying at tonight’s Buffy party. Meanwhile, . . . wheelchair fight?