Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Buffy - a Retrospective
This retrospective was originally written for an entertainment website but it ended up waaaay too long and I had had to edit it to death. I thought it would be nice to post it here so that my hard work might find a home. It's very long but enjoy!
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Into every generation a slayer is born...
From 1997-2004, Buffy Summers, vampire slayer, saved the world. A lot. Born from the unlikely seed of a poorly received teen flick from the
early 90's Joss Whedon refused to give up on his heroine. Instead of
conceding defeat, he kept going and didn't rest until Buffy was given a
new home on the small screen.
Over the years, Buffy has matured and changed, fallen in love with two
vamps and even died...twice, only to prevail as the most profound and
elegant heroine in the history of television. Always fun, balanced with deep levels of darkness and always surpassing expectations, it seemed like Team Whedon could do no wrong. They did all the usual “Jump the Sharks”; going to college, killing off main characters, spin-offs, musical episode, killing and resurrecting he protagonist and the classic, introducing a previously unknown sibling.
No TV show or has ever matched the level of wit and clever use of convention. The use of the ironic segue, however often it is used (e.g.: Buffy: “nothing is going to happen”. Cut to: Willow and Xander walk down the street. Willow: Something’s going to happen”) is delightful and really sets Buffy’s tone. The show uses humour in abundance and it may be argued that humour is Buffy’s power. Language is important to Buffy, her level of wit often mirroring her confidence when facing a foe.
Season One: Buffy Moves to Sunnydale
The first season of Buffy picks up where the film left off. Buffy has been disgraced after burning down her high school and her Mom packs up and moves her to Sunnydale, a small town where nobody knows them. The twelve episodes of the first season are certainly as trite as Buffy gets. It started off simply; it introduces the characters, sets up the main plots for the next few seasons and gives us a lot of fun and evil monsters to play with.
Buffy quickly makes friends with Willow, a nerd and Xander, a goofball. She spurns the attentions of Cordelia, the popular girl and so is, in turn, spurned by the entire popular crowd, thus damned for all eternity to the land of the outsiders. Speaking of outsiders, it isn't long before Buffy finds herself falling for dashing vampire, Angel. But it's ok, because due to an old gypsy curse, Angel has a soul. He lives for eternity in torture, his conscience burning from the evil things he had done in his past. Naturally however, Xander is in love with Buffy ad Willow is in love with Xander. And so it goes, for most of high school.
Soon after her arrival, Buffy meets stuffy British librarian, Giles, who informs her he is her new watcher (Donald Sutherland was her old watcher but met an unfortunate fate in the movie) and that Sunnydale High is built on a Hellmouth, a gateway between dimensions, between Earth and the demon worlds. They have a personality clash due to Buffy's brash, American ways, and Giles' stiff upper lip. But they sort out their differences to some extent and learn to work together. Apart from these little set-ups and introductions, Season One of Buffy was typically focused on stand-alone episodes such as "The Pack" and "I Robot, You Jane". A huge part of the first season was exploring the innocent people who become involved in evil and the human cost of living on a Hellmouth. It also explored Buffy's tried and failed attempts at balancing slayage and a social life (see “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”, “The Witch”). By the end of the season she has accepted her fate, and even died for the first time (oh yes, there are more deaths to come, this is the Buffyverse, after all).
Buffy started as it meant to go on by exploring an over-arching plot throughout the twelve episodes, involving the first of the Big Bads, The Master, who plans to open the gates of the Hellmouth on (you guessed it) junior prom night! Each successive season has a new Big Bad, and several little Bads.
Season Two: Buffy Loses Her Virginity
Ok, so this was where the world started to sit up and pay attention to the little blonde, sharp-tongued slayer. You'd be forgiven for passing the first season off as fun and witty, but not much more. However, once the second season hit, it became apparent that there was a whole lot of dark left for Team Whedon to explore. This season keeps with the high school dilemmas of the first season by dealing with the trauma of losing one's virginity. In the second season, Buffy and Angel take their relationship to the next level on her 16th birthday. Buffy loses her virginity and Angel loses his soul. Unbeknownst to the lovers, the gypsy curse is lifted when Angel enjoys a moment of pure perfect pleasure (e.g. orgasm with someone he truly loves). Enter the new Big Bad, Angelus.
The other big development this season is the introduction of Spike and Drusilla who come to town, all punk and gothy and kill The Anointed One, The Master's young protégé. They are now the biggest baddass vampires in town and aim to take over, with the help of a resurrected demon, The Judge who cannot be killed by any weapon forged. When Angel becomes the evil Angelus, he joins Spike and Drusilla and terrorises Buffy and the Scoobies, including the hideous murder of Giles’ new love Jenny Calendar (a descendant of the gypsies that restored Angel's soul) and the torture of Giles himself.
Other characters introduced this season are Oz, Willow's guitar-playing boyfriend and part-time werewolf, and Kendra, a slayer who was called when Buffy "died" in Season One. Much to Giles' pleasure and Buffy's chagrin, Kendra is a perfect slayer, disciplined and cold. She has no time for friends or softness. Buffy sees a reflection of herself, or how she could be in Kendra and begins to appreciate how her connection to the Scoobies has helped her in her slaying duties.
The grand metaphor of the season, the fear of betrayal after sex, is hard-hitting and dark. Buffy is not afraid to keep it's heart on it's sleeve and go deep and dark in it's emotional torture. Between Buffy's heartbreak and Giles' loss of the first woman he's loved in a long, long time, this season is a rollercoaster. The climax of the season shows Buffy successfully kill The Judge (luckily bazooka's weren't forged in his day) and learning that the only way to thwart Angelus' plan and close the gates of hell is to spill his blood on the gate. Buffy goes head to head with Angelus and finally prepares to kill her true love and send him to live in a hell dimension for all eternity. However at the last minute, Willow's spell to restore his soul works, and Buffy finally sees the man she loves come back to her. However, a slayer's gotta do what a slayer's gotta do and after a passionate kiss and a few tears, she plunges a sword into him and sends him to his demise (this is the Buffy verse remember, there are no limits as to how many times people can die). After killing Kendra, Drusilla and Spike skip town, leaving the cops to blame Buffy for the murder. Along with everything that has happened, Buffy's mom finds out about her daughter’s double life and takes it badly. Unable to deal with the horror her life has become, Buffy runs away to start a new life, away from the heartbreak that Sunnydale has inflicted on her.
Season Three: Growing Up and Leaving High School
The first episode clears up Buffy’s disappearance. She decides to come home and face her life in the very first episode. After that, the rest of the season is concerned with the fear of leaving high school and the need to determine one’s identity before facing the real world. This season’s Big Bad is Sunnydale’s mayor, and his head henchman happens to be Snyder, the slimy little principal of Sunnydale High, who has had it in for Buffy since day one. Having the principal as the villain of the series not only reinforces the metaphor of the nightmare of high school but also makes way for Buffy to obliterate him at the end of the season. Wish fulfilment, anyone?
After the death of Kendra a new slayer, Faith, is called. She arrives in Sunnydale all cocky and full of attitude. She is a loner and a rebel, the complete opposite of Buffy. At first Buffy is in awe of her and they go out on the tear, but it soon becomes apparent that Faith is little more than a cold killer. She and Buffy fall out and Faith turns to the dark side, aiding The Mayor in return for a caring father figure. The character of Faith is a huge part of Buffy’s realisation of who she wants to be and how she feels about her role as the slayer. She begins to appreciate that her power as a slayer needs to be respected and while she appreciates Faith’s bombastic nature, she figures out that her Scoobies are a huge part of why she is such a great slayer.
This season is probably the one with the best set of standalone episodes. Particularly strong are The Wish and Doppelgangland in which a parallel universe in unleashed wherein Buffy doesn’t exist. In The Wish Cordelia wishes Buffy never came to Sunnydale and so the town is overrun by vampires, Willow and Xander are like an evil power couple of vamps and Oz, Giles and co. are the only people fighting the good fight. In the end, normality is restored and all is well. However, in Doppelgangland Willow’s evil other half crosses over to our dimension unleashing havoc and being a wicked, sexy, gothy Willow. Chaos ensues and when all has been wrapped up Willow comments that she thinks evil Willow was “kinda gay”, foreshadowing her change of sexuality in season four. Other episodes of note are The Zeppo, a Xander-centric episode where he goes out on his own and saves Sunnydale from evil zombies, without anyone ever knowing, and another standout, Band Candy, sees the grown-ups turned into teenagers when they become addicted to evil candy. Giles has sex with Buffy’s mom. Everyone feels queasy.
And then, of course, there’s The Prom. This episode starts off the trend, in the last few episodes, of showing a bond between the student body of the graduating class. Buffy finally gets to the prom, after having saved the town from vamps and her peers present her with a surprise award; “Class Protector”. They say they don’t know what she does but that they know she saves them every day. Their graduating class has had the lowest death rate in Sunnydale High history. The season ends with the entire graduating class banding together to save the world from the evil Mayor, who has now turned himself into a giant snake. Teenage rebellion in overdrive!
Season Four: Buffy Goes to College
What typically happens when a TV series is forced to go to college? Every cliché in the book? Correct! As always Buffy challenges the idea of the cliché by embracing them all with open arms and giving them a new spin. Hero feeling lost and alone? Check! Roommate from hell? Check! Disastrous overindulgence in alcohol? Check! Sexual experimentation? Check! The Scoobies go through huge changes, going their seperate ways to a large extent and feeling inadequate out of their comfort zone.
This season’s Big Bad is Adam, a Frankenstein-like monster created by Buffy’s professor Maggie Walsh, part of a military vampire-slaying operative called The Initiative. This group are working for the common good in some ways but are threatened by Buffy and the Scoobies' unorthodox and unruly ways. However, it does introduce Buffy to new love interest, corn-fed Iowa boy, Riley Finn. He is part of The Initiative but believes in Buffy and slowly turns from the corruption of his military friends.
Willow has her heart broken when Oz falls for a fellow werewolf and runs off to the desert to “find himself” and get in touch with his inner wolf. After this heartache, Willow begins practicing witchcraft to a much greater extent and slowly falls in love with her fellow witch, Tara. There are a lot of magic/sexual experimentation metaphors and Willow’s powers as a witch accumulate quickly.
Xander decides not to go to college and works for a while as a barman in the college bar, but then moves into the area of construction instead, all the while keeping up a relationship with reformed vengeance demon Anya, who is slowly learning how to be mortal. A huge development occurs when The Initiative capture Spike and put a chip in his head which prevents him from harming anyone. He is now defenceless, but still as snarky and annoying as ever.
A huge part of going to college is getting used to the politics of being part of such a huge institution. It’s all way bigger and badder than in school and seems frightening at times. This is represented by the introduction of The Initiative, which is connected to the college through Buffy’s professor. Although, essentially, the organisation is trying to do good by ridding the world of vampires, they are more frightening than the vamps themselves because of their cold, regimented ways. Buffy is used to being in charge of her Scoobies and they are Sunnydale’s last word in vampire slaying. The grandiose plans of The Initiative are beyond Buffy’s capability and they are so shadowy that they present her with a foe that she has no idea how to deal with. Thankfully, as the series progresses, the Scoobies find that they must combine their powers to save the day, therefore reuniting them all after their year of doing their own thing.
There are some real standout episodes this season, most notably Hush, an episode in which evil ghoul's "The Gentlemen" come to town and steal eveybodies voices. A chilling epsode and notable not only for its really, realy gross and creepy villains, but also for the fact that for nearly a whle hour, there is no talking, allowing a really accomplished musical score to provide the drama.
Season Five: The Meaning of Life
Quite literally, the fifth season deals with what it means to have a life. In the past Buffy has explored what makes someone human what with Angel’s struggles with his soul, and Spike having to turn into a good guy because of the chip in his head that won’t allow him to harm humans. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be human? This season takes this to a whole new level in a number of ways. First of all, Buffy gets a sister. To the shock of the audience at the end of Buffy vs. Dracula (my 4 year old niece’s favourite episode), Buffy’s sister Dawn is revealed. She is introduced as a character who has always been there and whom everyone is familiar with, as if she has always been Buffy’s sister. It turns out that Dawn is "The Key", a big ball of energy that some monks turned to human form and sent for protection to the slayer, implanting false memories so nobody suspects she’s not real. Evil goddess, Glory, has come to earth searching for her "Key" so she can, you guessed it, open the gates between dimensions and have chaos envelope the earth. Dawn’s revelation that she is not a teenage brat, but rather a ball of energy in human form allows the writers to explore the meaning of love, of family, of the fundamentals of being human.
In further domestic horror, Buffy’s mother Joyce dies. She dies of a plain old brain aneurysm. Nothing evil, nothing gory, she just died of natural causes. Joyce’s corporeal body is examined and considered in the episode The Body. The episode is a harrowing examination of the long, horrible day when Buffy finds her mother dead. The episode has no music, no plot, and no witty banter. It follows the cast as they deal with all the things that must be done after the death of a loved one. Willow frets over what she should wear, Buffy is in denial, regressing to an almost childlike state, and in one particularly moving scene Anya struggles to understand death. Being a new mortal, it’s all a bit foreign to her and she cannot come to terms with someone she cared about just being gone forever. This interlude in the series allows the characters to meditate on life and family and sets up Buffy’s final sacrifice to save the life of her sister. Having been dropped by its network, the creators intended to kill Buffy off. The gates of hell can only be closed by the blood of "The Key" and, in keeping with the theme of family, Buffy decides that her blood is the same that runs through Dawn’s and so she sacrifices her own life for her sister’s.
A seemingly silly episode in which future Big Bad Warren makes a robot girlfriend, questions again the nature of living and being human. The audience learn that Warren is not satisfied by his perfect robot girlfriend and is, in fact, trying to escape her in favour of his flawed human girlfriend. Sympathies deepen for the robot as Buffy has a heart to heart with her. The plot thickens when Spike, realising he’s in love with Buffy, orders Warren to make him a Buffybot.
At the end of the season, Buffy lies dead, the world is saved and the Scoobies are devastated. Luckily, Fox picked up the series from Season Six so the writers had to bring back the heroine. Thank God for the Buffybot…
Season Six: Buffy Resurrected
...Of course Buffy wasn’t a robot for the rest of the show’s run. They did use the Buffybot for slaying duty for a small part of season six, but only until Willow figures out how to raise Buffy from the dead. It wouldn’t be like Joss Whedon to simply give us our hero back. He brought her back, devastated after being pulled from the peace of heaven. Darkness ensues as Buffy comes to terms with being back in this awful world of pain and sadness. She keeps her distress secret from her friends, all except for Spike. She tells him her deep sadness at having been resurrected and they enter into a sordid, destructive sexual relationship, starting in "Smashed" where they literally bring down an entire house with their sexual antics. Buffy finds solace in her relationship with Spike. She clings to the darkness because she feels so detached from her friends. All is revealed however in the musical episode "Once More With Feeling". An evil dancing demon casts a spell on Sunnydale so everyone is forced to sing and dance. Of course, trite and all as it seems the writers took this opportunity to raise issues with all the characters and using the honesty of song as a sort of catharsis. With the words “There was no pain, no fear no doubt til they pulled me out of heaven. So that’s my refrain. I live in hell since I’ve been expelled from heaven” Buffy spills her secret longing to return to her grave. With that Willow bursts into tears, devastated that her actions have actually caused so much pain.
This season boasts two Big Bads, well technically four. The Trio, which consists of nerds Jonathan, Warren and Andrew who push their fanboy geekiness too far by deciding to become super-villains. They use contraptions and hokey magic to try to inflict pain and death on the Scoobies with little motive apart from wanting to be super-villains. Despite their very real threat to humanity, the gang doesn’t really take them seriously. That is, until a stray bullet from their gun aimed at Buffy kills Tara. This event sets off the introduction of the real Big Bad, Willow. Having wrestled with an addiction to magic, Willow was on the mend thanks to Tara’s support and love. Now that Tara has been killed Willow is back with a vengeance…for vengeance. One particularly gruesome scene shows her flaying Warren who is tied between two trees. She is trying to demonstrate to him what it feels like to experience pain. She then goes off on a mission to rid the world of pain and suffering. However, in a world of flawed human beings, there is no way to achieve it. She decides there is too much pain in the world and she can’t stand it so she wants to destroy it. In an unusual turn of events, Xander is the hero of the season. He talks Willow down by unabashedly proclaiming his love for her and reminding her that despite all the pain, there’s also love and friendship. Schmaltzy, but moving.
It is notable that this season is where Fox took over from Warner Bros. and it is well known that Fox are far more lenient on sex, violence and sexual violence than most other networks (HBO and Showtime excluded). This is very apparent in the treatment of Buffy and Spike's relationship and in one harrowing scene where Spike loses control and attempts to rape Buffy. Also, the lesbian relationship is allowed actual physical contact, rather than the metaphorical allusions it had been given before.
A key episode of the series is Normal Again, an episode in which Buffy is given a hallucinogen and hallucinates that she is a normal girl coming in an out of a catatonic state in a hospital. Her parents are there and the doctors are informing them that Buffy has created a whole world in her head where she is a powerful warrior and is surrounded by friends. Her parents try to get her to come out of this state but Buffy chooses her responsibilites in Sunnydale. But is this the hallucination, or is her life as the Slayer the hallucination. This is left unsaid, leaving the audience to form their own opinion. Television á la Whedon!
Season Seven: The Final Battle
This season is probably the weakest of the bunch. It seems to only be concerned with ending itself. The Big Bad of this season is the mysterious First Evil. This is a non-corporeal spirit that can take any form and uses this skill to terrorise Buffy and the gang. Because the First Evil is non-corporeal, they are faced with a problem. They cannot kill it.
The First Evil takes on a sort of corporeal representation in the handsome shape of Caleb, a man of the cloth, played by Whedon’s golden boy, Nathan “Captain Tightpants” Fillion. He becomes a visible foe for Buffy and it soon becomes clear that the First Evil’s master plan is to open the Hellmouth and unleash hell on earth. Since Buffy cannot slay the First Evil, she can only ruin his plans. Throughout the series Buffy and the gang summon all the potential slayers (girls who may be called in the event that the slayer dies) from around the world. In a burst of feminist inspiration, the writers decided that the best way to save the world is to have Willow cast a spell to activate all the Potentials. With all their powers combined they can fight the good fight and storm the Hellmouth, sending the Ubervamps back to hell. They manage to succeed, losing Anya and Spike along the way. The Hellmouth implodes leaving a giant canyon where Sunnydale used to be. The surviving Scoobies stand on the precipice and discuss where to go next. Giles suggests Cleveland because there’s another Hellmouth there.
Apart from the big, epic story, very little happens in the way of an over-arching plot. Willow gets a new love interest, a potential slayer, Kennedy. Xander loses an eye. Dawn is still a brat and Buffy promises Angel she’ll be ready for a relationship some day. Meanwhile she continues her affair with the newly ensouled Spike.
By the end of the series Buffy and her friends have grown from awkward teenagers into superheroes, all of them with their own special powers. Some are more obvious than others. Buffy’s powers, Willow’s witchcraft, Giles’ book-smarts, Angel and Spike’s warrior-like ability to fight and never get killed, and although not so obvious, Xander’s big heart, and bravery. Over the years, Buffy gave its audience humour, trauma, romance, killer action sequences, sexy encounters, wonderful Broadway numbers, and some of the cleverest stand-alone stories in television.
To say Buffy is missed from our screens is an understatement. Luckily Joss Whedon followed through on his promise of Season Eight in comic book form. It’s not perfect but at least we know how things are going for our friends.
It has managed to examine more philosophical subject matter than any other series has even attempted. Hardly an episode goes by that doesn’t deal with, in some manner, an important spiritual or philosophical issue. Much has been written on the subject of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even university classes have been dedicated to it as part of cultural studies courses. There is also a prominent and very interesting online journal called Slayage (http://slayageonline.com/) and there have been numerous international academic conferences on the subject.
So, although the show may be dead and buried, we all know that this does not mean the end on the Buffyverse. Buffy lives on in comic book form, through academic study and of course through re-runs on 3e, FX and Sky One. Thanks be to Whedon!
- Charlene Lydon 8/4/09