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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Why Buffy Matters

Saturday 23 July 2011, by Webmaster

Following the recent ratings downturn that sci-fi shows have suffered on network television, and in anticipating of the numerous sci-fi series that are none the less premiering in the fall, I have taken it upon myself to defend the genre, and explore in what ways the themes presented in some classic network sci-fi series can be applied to our understanding of the real world today – in other words, why they continue to matter.

This is the first part of my Why sci-fi matters series, and will focus on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I am starting with Buffy because this show was my first love, this was the show that made me care about TV and the characters I watched on fiction shows. Comedies and dramas are all well and good, but ultimately there is not much excitement to be found in shows where you know that each cliffhanger is going to be a) a hookup, b) a breakup, c) a pregnancy or d) an ambiguous car accident (or, in the case of One Tree Hill, all of the above). The stakes need to be raised, we need to be removed from what we know in order to learn something new about the world and ourselves! Buffy provided such an escape, and its characters became so layered and real because of all they experienced.

Joss Whedon, my man, he created the perfect series. Perfect, mind you, despite and because of its imperfections. Looking back at the seven seasons of Buffy, were there things that didn’t work? Absolutely. ‘Go Fish,’ to give an example. ‘Beer Bad.’ Riley. Some would say Dawn. Still, looking above these elements of story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer told the story of a girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders, who only managed to keep it raised above her head with the help of those she loved. The more Buffy suffered, the more vital her friends were to the fate of the world, and the more distant Buffy became from these friends, the bigger her troubles seemed (see: the end of season 2 and the entire season 6). In a very obvious metaphor, Buffy pummelled demons to work out her “real” issues, and in the moments where she was faced with something she could not physically fight, she was helpless, and all she could do was survive. Or, in several cases, not.

There are a lot of reasons why Buffy mattered, the most obvious of these being what it did for feminism and female heroines on TV. But the thing that always struck me most about Buffy, what made it so unique and valuable, was its exploration of the Soul; the concept of a tangible, crucial part of you that was vitally significant for the show’s classification of “good” and “evil.” By introducing vampires who in a way couldn’t be held responsible for their actions because they lacked a human soul, the series set a standard for what it meant to be human. Vampires were evil because they didn’t have a soul, end of story.

But what if a vampire had a soul, as Angel did? Or what if a human did something evil, like Faith did? What did humanity mean to them; what did redemption mean?

The frustratingly implied-but-never-voiced question was always whether Angel deserved, or even needed, forgiveness for actions he had done without his soul. A character like Xander, whose worldview was always limited to what he could hear and see, was unable and unwilling to understand the complexity of Angel’s situation, of paradoxically having the body of an evil monster but the soul of a good human, of not giving into his bodily urges when his conscience was present. Xander was unable to put himself in Angel’s shoes, and I don’t blame him, because it is an insanely complicated moral dilemma. It’s brilliantly imagined, and was explored really well both in Buffy and subsequently in the Angel spinoff. And maybe the reason they never came to a conclusion about Angel’s need for forgiveness was to encourage the ambiguousness, to let the viewers make their own decisions based on their individual moral standpoints.

Of course, the most important character in the show’s exploration of the Soul was Spike, who started doing good things without a soul to aid him – turning the argument that vampires were excused of guilt due to their lack of a soul completely on its head. Spike was Pinocchio without his Jiminy Cricket, if Pinocchio had a thirst for blood and sharp fangs. And in a way, Buffy became Spike’s Jiminy, because she was the reason he tried to be good. Selfish, perhaps, as he was doing it to make her like him, but good none the less. And when Buffy died in season 5, Spike stayed with the Scoobies and helped Dawn because he had promised Buffy that he would. This was something Spike could never receive a reward for, this was in no way a selfish act. So while I think it was a slight cop-out in his development when he got his soul back in season 6, in some ways it was like Pinocchio becoming a real boy. This was the reward, if you can call it that, for his moral transformation, for fighting against his instincts for something as pure as love – something which evidently transcended the boundaries of good vs. evil in the Buffyverse.

We could never have been told a story with as strong a moral message as this without the supernatural elements of the story and the established rules of the Soul (in my opinion, The Vampire Diaries is struggling to pull off a similar redemption story because they haven’t clearly clarified what makes a vampire good or evil – but that’s another argument for another time). The show crafted a unique personification of “evil,” allowing for ultimate villains without cartoonizing the concept in hard blacks and whites. Every classic moral juxtaposition in the show was presented in shades of grey: love versus hate, selfishness versus selflessness, life versus death, guilt and suffering versus the guilt-free existence which soullessness offered.

There were no absolutes on this show, nor any real absolution. Only characters struggling to do the best they could, to fight not for the ultimate good cause but for what they believed to be right. As Angel said on his show: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” That pretty much summed up the moral message of both shows, the message which will always stay relevant, no matter how many years pass.