Slay it Again, Buffy (1/2)

Slay it Again, Buffy (1/2)


Sometime ago, a rumor started circulating
that Joss Whedon intends to reboot Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the legendary nineties TV
series. Once I was done groaning, I thought that this
could be a good opportunity to revisit the original series, and see how it looks from
today’s perspective, two decades later. I found that the series did age well, and,
more interestingly, gives as a fascinating view into the transformation that liberal
thought, and liberal society, underwent from then until today. Liberalism was fun and triumphant in the nineties,
but now it is battered and bruised. And the grains of what went wrong can already
be found in the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series that began in the
nineties but ended in the post 9/11 world. I am not looking forward to the reboot, but
the original series maintains its power, and the fascinating journey that I went through
when re-watching it, is what I will venture to take you on here. As always, though, I am going to connect the
discussion to a wider context, and discuss the philosophical, cultural and historical
aspects of the show. But mainly, we are going to treat Buffy the
Vampire Slayer as a work of art, and provide a critical analysis. I am naturally going to spoil the whole thing,
so don’t say I didn’t warn you. To achieve all that, and keep it to a reasonable
length, I decided to divide it into two parts, and also to keep a few things out of the discussion. We are not going to discuss Angel, the spinoff
series. We are not going to discuss the so-called
eighth season, which was a comic books series. And I am not going to spend too much time
discussing the virtues of Joss Whedon as a writer and director. Those are well known: fun characters, a good
chemistry and balance between the characters, snappy dialogue, light and dark humor, deep
understanding of nerd culture and pop culture, and more. Those are the things that we expect to find
in a Whedon piece, and we expect them mainly because Buffy has them in abundance. We shall treat those as a given, and look
beyond them, into what makes this one of the first TV series that can be regarded as a
work of art. The nineties was the decade in which TV creators
started to think of their craft as art. So let’s ask: why the nineties, of all decades? Well, let me take you back to when we discussed
the cinema of the nineties, in the video I made about Quentin Tarantino. We talked then about the collapse of the modern
paradigm, and the change that this collapse brought to cinema. In the Modern Age, the idea was that we are
progressing towards the creation of an ideal human society. Modern movies, like Modern plays or books,
tended to treat every character as a different facet of a universal humanity, and the story
was how this universal humanity overcomes its differences and achieves an enlightened
solution. Every part of the movie was supposed to serve
the overall story, and the moral that it conveys. But by the nineteen-eighties, the Modern paradigm
collapsed, and people got tired of this type of movies. We no longer believed in an ideal society,
but realized that today’s society is good enough, and we want movies to tell us interesting
and unique stories. Moviegoers were now clamoring for original
plots, eccentric characters, and dialogue that didn’t necessarily serve the plot but
sounded more like real-life talk. This is what directors like Tarantino gave
us, but movies still have a major disadvantage in attempting to be like real life, as they
are a short piece that can tell only one story. Here is where television suddenly became the
superior art form. Up until the nineties, most TV creators were
still thinking by movie logic. A TV series was usually an episodic thing,
where every episode stood on its own, as a mini-movie. A story would last one episode, maybe two. But TV actually always had a format that had
longer arcs: the so-called soap operas. Here there wasn’t just one plot, but many
intersecting plots running simultaneously, each beginning and ending at different times,
just like real life. Some of these soaps ran for decades, so unlike
the movies, you had no way of knowing when a certain arc would end, when a character
might die, or when a new plot might be presented. But in the modern frame of mind, this wasn’t
seen as very interesting, and the soaps didn’t presume to be works of art; they provided
mainly melodramatic stories aimed at emotional gratification. Once the post-modern mentality took over,
however, this format suddenly looked rife with possibilities. The first to explore these possibilities was
David Lynch. Lynch was one of the first post-modern movie
directors, with his bizarre characters and weird stories. In 1990 he launched Twin Peaks, which is basically
a soap opera about a small town in the north of the US, with beautiful scenery and wholesome
American values. But when you scratch this innocent and pastoral
surface, there is an entire demonic world lurking underneath, twisting the everyday
reality of the town’s folks. Lynch attempted to turn soap into art, but
he couldn’t sustain it for long. The show lost steam by the second season,
and got canceled. It was only with The Sopranos, beginning in
1999, that TV drama achieved its full potential, combining the high production value of Hollywood
cinema with the possibilities of a long running television show. After that, television started to be seen
as a serious art form. But Twin Peaks and the Sopranos bookended
a decade of experimentation, of TV shows that were flawed from an aesthetic point of view,
but which had an exciting novel spirit, and laid the ground for the television that we
have today. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of these
shows. The flaws in the show are so glaringly obvious
that there’s no point in dwelling on them. The plots are full of gaping holes, and it
all stems from the fact that the main premise itself is silly. We are told that there is one girl in the
entire world who gets chosen to be a slayer, and protect the world from evil. She is endowed with some minor super-powers,
enabling her to kill vampires and other demons, and when she dies, another girl is endowed
with these powers and takes her place. Buffy, the current slayer, lives in a small
California town, which she almost never leaves. As the show progresses, we realize that the
entire world is full of demons, many of them hell bent on destroying it. How exactly can one girl, confined to a small
town, stop all of them? It makes no sense, but it doesn’t matter,
because it isn’t about that. What it is, is a coming of age story, and
here is where the advantages of television are manifested in full. Over seven seasons, and one hundred and forty
four episodes each lasting about three-quarters of an hour, the show could take time to explore
and develop the characters of its heroes, and put them through all the tests that they
have to pass before becoming an adult. The demons are actually metaphors, for the
challenges and anxieties one has to face in the process of growing up. And here, on the metaphorical level, is where
the show does make sense. It is just one slayer against a world full
of demons, because it is a story about how teenagers have to grow up against a world
that seems to be against them, and all the personal demons that they have to slay in
the process. When it comes to the growth and development
of the characters, the show is consistent. Everything else in the story is meant to serve
this development. None of this is new, of course, neither the
coming of age stories nor the use of demons as metaphors. Coming of age stories have their roots in
the bildung novels, which came out of German Enlightenment in the late 18th century. By that time, Enlightenment thinkers realized
that most humans are not enlightened enough to live in the rationally perfect societies
that they envisioned. Therefore, they shifted the focus to Man himself,
and how he can develop his consciousness to become more enlightened. The idea now was that enlightenment will be
achieved through historical progress, which will eventually lead to the formation of a
perfect human society. This was the onset of what we call the Modern
Age, and this is also when literature became a serious art form. Since it was capable of portraying Man’s inner
world, it could discuss the different facets of human consciousness and how they could
be reshaped. This is where bildung novels came in, telling
the stories of young people as they grew and learned to become enlightened members of society. Enlightenment perceived the universe as rational,
and aspired to liberate human thought from irrational prejudices. All those supernatural creatures that humans
always believed in, therefore, were relegated to the realm of superstition. But in the early 19th century, at the start
of the Modern Age, they came back. The Romantic Movement, which rose in rebellion
against the Enlightenment, claimed that rationality is insufficient to understand reality, and
that the interesting side of Man is rather his irrational side. Romanticism brought back the supernatural
into art, mainly through what was called the gothic novels. But since we are in an age when the focus
was on Man, the monsters were no longer seen as beings coming from the demonic realm, as
they were in the original gothic era. Now, they tended to be more metaphorical,
manifestations of Man’s many irrational facets. Fast forward to the beginning of the twentieth
century, and the rise of pop culture. In previous videos I’ve divided the Pop Age
into three main periods. The first period, from the mid-1910s to the
mid-1960s, was the transitional period between the Modern Age and the Pop Age, and it is
what I call the Hollywood period. In that period, people were beginning to lose
faith in the Modern project of advancing towards the perfect society, and pop culture provided
an alternative by focusing on how to live in the modern world, how to make the most
out of the here and now. Hollywood, with its star system, provided
movie stars that offered models of existence for common folk to emulate. The horror movies of that period adapted some
of the more famous gothic novels into film, and tried to remain true to their spirit. But the movie audiences wanted idols, so the
monsters, rather than being perceived as metaphors for Man’s dark side, soon became icons of
pop culture. Another medium that became popular in the
Hollywood period were the comic books. Unlike novels, which took time to be written
and published, comic books were quickly produced, and could thus tell serialized stories that
were taking place in the present. One popular genre of comic books was the superhero
comics, and the convention was that the hero keeps their identity a secret, and lives their
everyday life as a regular Joe. Thus, the comics felt like they were taking
place in our world and featured actual events that were happening at the time, but at the
same time allowed as to imagine an entire fantasy world going on below the surface. The mid-1950s were the beginning of what I
call the rock’n’roll period. So between the mid-fifties and the mid-sixties
there was a transitional phase between the Hollywood period and the rock’n’roll period,
and during this transitional phase, Hollywood changed. It was no longer focused on manufacturing
movies that were vehicles for stars, but started to treat cinema as a serious art form. Thus, monsters of horror movies became metaphors
once again. But the rock’n’roll period was when youth
culture took over, and the youth had other values. In the B-movies, those low budget films created
for the rock’n’roll youth, these values could be manifested, and youth horror flicks were
one of the most popular brands of B-movies. Why did youth culture emerge at that time? – Because the post-war youth was no longer
enamored by the idea of working hard to create a perfect society in the future, and rebelled
against it in favor of living a heroic and ecstatic life. And with rock’n’roll music, which was easy
and cheap to make, the youth could express its views within the public sphere, and form
its own culture. A generational gap formed, and youth culture
was permeated with a wish it borrowed from the romantics: the wish to remain forever
young, or even to die young rather than conform to society’s norms and live a boring routine
adult life. Within the horror B-movies, all of these sentiments
could be expressed and explored, and the kids could be faced with the consequences of their
rebellious and adventurous lifestyle. In other words, the idea of “Man”, this entity
that represents all of humanity and is progressing towards full enlightenment, no longer held
sway on the rock’n’roll youth. But since society at large still believed
in it and still tried to impose it, the kids started to feel it as oppressive. Especially oppressive towards those who were
not in the image of this Man, that is, the white European heterosexual male. The rock’n’roll rebellion thus started to
express group identities, of all those groups that felt that this image of Man is stifling
them. Another medium that became prominent in the
rock’n’roll period was science fiction. Before that, science fiction existed mainly
as fantasy literature about other planets, with the occasional philosophical offering
by fine literature authors. Now that we were no longer sure what kind
of world we are marching towards, it opened the field for people to imagine all sorts
of possible futures, and sci-fi became a bona-fide genre for exploring scientific and philosophical
questions. But not all sci-fi was considered cool. The rock’n’roll period was controlled by the
jocks, those who do outdoor stuff, those who play in rock bands, excel in sports, and enjoy
the sexual revolution. Nerds, on the other hand, were considered
very uncool, weakling virgins who remain indoors, read fantasy literature and comic books, and
play video games. So the kind of science fiction that was about
fantasy worlds was mocked, while the sci-fi that was cool dealt with the dangers of the
Modern world, conveying the angst that the youth felt about it and about the future it
is leading us to. Or sci-fi that dealt with aliens and how humans
should react to them, which was also relevant at a time of rising alternative identities. Much of the latter type came in the shape
of horror flicks. This had an effect on comic books as well. In 1954, comics were placed under a restrictive
code, which took the fun out of them for a while. In the decade of transition between the Hollywood
and rock’n’roll periods, comics were a non-factor. But then they started to bounce back, especially
thanks to teenager comics and superhero comics. By the mid-sixties the industry was sizzling
again, but comics were now regarded as a childish fantasy art form, belonging to teenage nerds. Thus, they became uncool, and remained so
throughout the rock’n’roll period. In the late seventies, the punk years, the
Pop Age gained self-awareness, and started to turn its intuitions into serious art. The big budget horror movies, that started
to be made at the time, contained all the elements that previously were relegated to
B-movies. One noticeable change was that the protagonists
were now mainly girls. In the past, women in horror movies were usually
the main target for the monster, and the protagonists were the men who had to save them. Now, horror movies started to reflect the
world as seen through the eyes of the new independent woman. This was perfect for horror, since having
a physically weak protagonist made the fear of the monster all the more palpable, and
compelled our hero to be more cunning. No longer just damsels in distress, these
girls could fend for themselves, and through their fight with the monster, the movies could
show them becoming stronger. Around the same time, youth culture saw the
emergence of the Goth subculture, which took the urban realism of punk and married it with
the old gothic imagery. The Goths are kids who feel that the world
is essentially the dark place that is portrayed in the horror movies, and they use these aesthetics
to construct their identity. In the eighties, thanks to the new horror
flicks and the Goth subculture, supernatural monsters were once again pop icons, part of
our collective psyche. Another medium that emerged in the rock’n’roll
period is television, and it was a perfect medium for portraying life in the present. But television was restricted and compelled
to be more family friendly, so you couldn’t see much horror, nor could you see rebellious
teenagers. Teenager problems would be discussed within
the frame of family shows, and the question was how to educate them and make them outgrow
these problems. Only in the nineties, as the sixties kids
became TV execs, did the rock’n’roll spirit finally take over TV as well, and it started
to produce shows that portrayed the drama of growing up. The youth was shown dealing with its own problems,
because it knows better than the grownups. High-school shows, and other types of teen
dramas, now became prominent. But television was still not taken seriously
as an art form. If you wanted to make a statement, you had
to do it through cinema. Joss Whedon, taking his first steps in the
business, wanted to write a movie with a feminist message. Horror movies already had mainly female protagonists,
but Whedon wanted to take it a step further, and endow his female hero with superpowers,
so that the monsters will be scared of her. Alas, Hollywood took Whedon’s script and did
with it what it often does, turning it into a schlock offering meant for light consumption. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, released in 1992,
is a silly and campy movie, which follows tried and tested formulas of teen horror flicks. Then again, it is reasonably fun, and it does
establish some staples that will be carried on into the series. We meet Buffy, a typical nineties California
girl, the kind of girl that would be better portrayed a couple of years later in the movie
Clueless. She is living in a post-cold-war world, in
an affluent society with well-to-do parents, and she doesn’t have a care in the world. Well, she does, of course. She cares about dating, shopping, and being
the most popular girl in school, and she is actually quite good at these things. She is even the head of the cheerleading squad. Into this good life enters a man called Merrick,
who informs her that vampires are real, and that she is the chosen one, endowed with powers
to fight the vampires. Buffy rejects her calling, but she is haunted
by dreams that show her the past and the future, and she realizes that this is her fate. Merrick becomes her watcher, and trains her
to fight the vampires, and she goes on to defeat the head vampire in Los Angeles. An utterly forgettable movie, and another
example of how the movie industry can destroy an artist’s original vision. But television was on the rise, with many
new cable networks that were looking for original stories that could be turned into hit shows. In the mid-nineties, the term “girl power”
came into vogue in pop culture, signaling a new kind of feminism, one that is not ideological
or confrontational, but is just about girls wanting to have fun, enjoying their freedom
in a liberal society. The Buffy concept was perfect for this fad,
and Whedon was contacted by the fledgling Warner Brothers network, with an offer to
turn it into a TV show. Whedon realized that in TV format he could
do more than just show a powerful female protagonist – he could use the Buffy concept to tell
a coming-of-age story, in which the monsters represent the psychological problems of growing
up. In March 1997, the first season of Buffy the
Vampire Slayer was launched. No one at the time thought that this silly
concept, about a vacuous blonde girl named Buffy who turns into a superhero, had potential
to go far. The show debuted halfway through the television
fall season, so its first season is only twelve episodes long. It also doesn’t have much of a budget, and
it shows. And yet, the magic is there from the start,
right from the intro to the very first episode. We are thrown into a new world right away,
a world quite different from what TV viewers were used to. Horror was hardly a thing on TV shows until
then, and the few horror shows that were made before Buffy were usually anthology series. It was certainly not something you’d expect
on a high-school show. In the first few episodes of Buffy, we learn
that vampires are real, that magic is real, that demons are real, that mystical possession
is real, and that pretty much everything that we ever saw in horror movies is real. But more shocking and subversive is the gender
role reversal. You expect the girl to be the victim here,
but she’s actually the monster. And many of the monsters we meet in season
one are females, who are more powerful than human men. It is a world of female empowerment, and it
has a new type of hero to represent it. Female action heroes were still a rare sight
in 1997. The few that came before were usually quite
masculine, giving up on their femininity to become badasses who can throw it down with
the men. Buffy was a female hero who refused to do
that, and she represented a new kind of femininity. When fighting evil, she is a tough, ass kicking
slayer, who fearlessly stands up to anything, remains cool in the face of danger, and totally
owns her villainous adversaries, just like the best of the male action heroes. But in her daily life she is emotional, soft,
caring, loving, stylish, cutesy and sexy, like a female lead in a romantic comedy. Sarah Michelle Gellar, in her stellar portrayal
of Buffy, makes it work, and convinces us that one personality can encompass it all. The story picks up shortly after the events
of the movie took place. Not everything of the movie lore is kept,
but quite a bit is. Buffy Summers is still a cute, peppy, athletic
blonde, who just wants to have a normal life. She was kicked out of school, getting all
the blame for all the havoc made in her fight with the vampires, so she had to move away
from LA into a town called Sunnydale. Her parents split up, and she is now being
raised by her mother. Buffy hopes that she can start over in her
new high-school, but gets sucked right back into the demonic world. As she goes to the school library, she meets
Giles, the new librarian, who informs her that he is her new watcher, and that Sunnydale
isn’t the quiet pastoral town that it seems. It is actually a center of demonic activity,
a place were big evil is brewing, and it is fate that brought her there. Buffy tries to resist, but quickly realizes
that she doesn’t have that option, since she must be prepared in order to save herself,
and her new friends. She accepts Giles’ tutelage, and is the slayer
again. At the same time, she tries to navigate her
social life. First there’s her mother, Joyce, who is a
strong woman in her own right, trying to balance being a career woman with singlehandedly raising
her troublesome teenage daughter. Buffy really wants to make her mother proud,
which is quite impossible to do while keeping her slayer identity secret. The relationship between them is one of the
emotional lynchpins of the show. In high-school, Buffy is immediately approached
by the queen bee herself, Cordelia, the most popular girl in class. Cordelia is beautiful, rich, spoiled and self-centered,
the type of girl that was immortalized a few years later in the movie ‘Mean Girls’. But for my money, none of the girls in that
movie can hold a candle to Cordelia Chase. Cordelia is mean, but in a deliciously sarcastic
way, and Charisma Carpenter somehow manages to make her loveable. Buffy is happy at first to be accepted into
the popular crowd, but once she realizes how mean Cordelia is, she rotates towards the
outcast kids. Namely, the brainy, dorky and shy Willow,
and her goofy and insecure male friend Xander. Soon enough, Buffy finds herself as an unpopular
outcast. Meanwhile, Willow and Xander find out about
her secret identity, and a team is formed. In the first season, it looked like your regular
episodic TV show. Every week Buffy and her friends fight a new
monster, and this monster is a metaphor for the dangers and problems of growing up. Thus, unpopularity is represented in a girl
who is so unpopular that she becomes invisible, and then exacts her revenge. Teacher-student sexual relations are represented
by a hot female teacher who turns out to be a praying mantis demon, that seduces boys
and eats them. Youth gangs are represented by a group of
kids who get possessed by hyenas and become a predatory pack, and so forth. This monster of the week approach continued
throughout the show, but gradually made way to stories and arcs that go much longer and
deeper. With hindsight, we can already see it in the
first season as well. Just like the following seasons, season one
has several underlying themes. One theme is the question of how kids should
be raised. It is a question that Joyce and Giles constantly
grapple with, as they try to bring Buffy up right. The problem is compounded by the fact that
most people don’t want to face up to the fact that there are powerful irrational forces
controlling our psyche, symbolized by them always forgetting about the vampires and monsters
that they witnessed. In the first episode we meet Principal Flutie,
a liberal who thinks that being lenient and understanding towards kids will lead to good
results. Symbolically, he gets eaten alive before the
season is over. It’s sad, but our sadness soon turns to joviality,
as he is replaced by the unrivalled legend that is Principal Snyder. Snyder, in the delightfully creepy portrayal
of Armin Shimerman, is a misanthropic little man, who hates kids and thinks that only discipline
can set them straight. This caricature of a conservative shows the
liberal bent of the show, but it is not as liberal as to support Flutie’s approach either. It seems to look for a middleground, one that
acknowledges the bad in human heart but wants to develop the good. In the world of the kids themselves, meanwhile,
we are witnessing a cultural shift. After decades in which pop culture was ruled
by the jocks, we are seeing the rise of the nerds. Athletes, rock musicians and cheerleaders
are still walking around like they own the school, but the nerd kids start to feel like
their world is a different kind of cool. Buffy used to be a cheerleader, and belonged
to the world of the jocks. But with her new friends, she is introduced
to the world of the nerds. Giles is a book nerd, who gets excited when
he talks about the paranormal stuff to be found in his books. Xander is a comic book nerd, who draws his
imagery from the comics. And Willow is a science and computers nerd. All of this was considered very uncool before
the nineties. So what happened to change it? Well, the personal computer happened. In the nineties it was still a toy that most
people didn’t have much use for, but towards the end of the decade, the general public
started to learn that there is this thing out there called the Internet. The Internet was still unknown to most people, but was taking over fast, and suddenly, the
nerds started to flex their muscles. This is represented mainly in Willow, who
is a master hacker and uses it to help Buffy. Alyson Hannigan begins to establish herself
as the epitome of the cute nerd girl, an image that will serve her in Hollywood for years
to come. As we can see, though, not all nerds were
happy. Giles, the book nerd, fears the change, introducing
one more of the season’s themes: old vs. new. The British Giles comes from the old world,
appreciates tradition, and is confounded by American kids and their pop culture ways. But the show is against him on this point. We even get a hint that this battle is a feminist
thing. Towards the end of the season we are introduced
to Jenny Calendar, the sexy computer science teacher, and it turns out that she knows about
the demon world. She is a techno pagan, someone who uses new
technology to revive pre-modern and even pre-Christian traditions. Through her we learn that the Internet also
revived tribalism, bringing people from different places to group together online around a shared
interest. And actually, the show itself would fast become
one of those interests, as its followers formed an online tribe. It is one of the first TV shows in which the
creators used the Internet to be in direct contact with the fans. The show isn’t completely up-to-date, though. It is inexplicably missing that other important
technological invention of the period: cellphones. We see Cordelia using one in the first episode,
but then we don’t see them again until the final season. You’d think that Sunnydale of all places would
have them, but I guess that would have messed up the horror factor, so the creators decided
to act like they don’t exist. But even with this omission, it is still fascinating
today to watch how the first days of the Internet felt, and even Giles eventually has to succumb
to this new world and agree to use its powers. Giles has bigger problems, though. The theme of old vs. new is especially prominent
in his relationship with Buffy. All of Giles’ attempts to get Buffy to accept the old ways, the ways which slayers have
been following for thousands of years, are broken against the will of a headstrong teenager,
who insists on remaining a regular American girl. Xander and Willow, too, refuse to stay out
of the slaying business, and Buffy accepts their help. The slayer is supposed to slay alone and stay
away from other humans, but Buffy insists on having friends, and Giles has no choice
but to accept it. This theme is tied to yet another theme, which is fate vs. will. Buffy has to learn to accept that her fate
is to be a slayer, but then finds out that there is another level to it. Giles’ books are full of prophecies, things
that are going to happen no matter what she does, and no matter what she wants to do with
her life. Buffy, a new world girl, refuses to be tied
down by these old prophecies, and her struggle against them runs throughout the season. This underscores the tragedy of Buffy’s life,
giving some weight to even the lighthearted first season. Buffy is a kindhearted girl who wants to do
good, but is doomed to live a life in which she can’t have a boyfriend, lost all her LA
friends, continuously disappoints her loving mother, fears that she might have been responsible
for her parents’ divorce, fails at school, and has no future prospects. The humor covers it up, but every once in
a while her pain seeps through, preparing us for the sorrows to come. Most of the heartache of the first season
comes from unreciprocated love, as our heroes all make their first youthful attempts at
forming romantic relationships. This is part of a bigger theme, one of the
main lessons of the season: to grow up, you have to face your insecurities, fears and
nightmares, and overcome them. All the main characters are put in positions
where they have to muster the courage to do something, from asking someone to a dance
to facing a monster. They usually fail, but they grow and become
stronger through their failures. Xander’s challenges include one more insecurity
to overcome. Unlike Willow, who is a genius, he has nothing
special to offer to the team. And yet, he is still driven by the need to
be the masculine hero. Nicholas Brendon, as Xander, is more than
just the comical character of the show. He also represents the new man, the one who
has to learn how to adjust to a world of female empowerment. At the same time, he is also a beta male trying
to assert himself against the alpha jocks. For the most part, he succeeds. And then there’s the biggest fear of all. In the second episode we learn that Sunnydale
sits on top of a hell-mouth, and if it is opened the world will be overrun by demons. It is a metaphor for the fears of teenagers,
when some things feel like they would be the end of the world. While fighting the monster of the week, our
heroes are always threatened by this deeper fear. By the end of the season we learn that the
hellmouth is located right under the library which they dwell in, right under their consciousness. In every season of the show there is “the
big bad”: the main villain of that season, the one Buffy has to battle in the climactic
final episode. The Big Bad represents all of the themes of
that season, and to defeat it Buffy must put into practice everything that she had learned. In season one, the big bad is an ancient and
powerful vampire called the Master. The Master once tried to open the hellmouth,
but failed and got mystically trapped underground, so he spends the entire season trying to break
the spell and ascend to the surface, an act which would open the hellmouth. The Master comes from the old world and is
big on ritualistic traditions, doing everything by the book. Because of that he is also sure that he will
defeat Buffy, since a prophecy in the book tells him so. He represents the world which our new world
heroes are fighting, and for Buffy he also represents her fate, since the prophecy says
that he will kill her. He is the embodiment of her greatest fears,
trying to break to the surface and open the hellmouth. Mark Metcalf, in his campy portrayal of the
Master, brings together Nosferatu and Neidermeyer, to create an iconic pop culture villain that
is at once terrifying and hilarious, setting a high bar for future Big Bads to contend
with. To defeat the Master, Buffy must apply everything
that she has learned. With the help of Willow’s wiz-kid hacking
abilities, she always remains one step ahead of him, and thwarts his prophecy driven plans. When she learns of the prophecy that he will
kill her, she still musters the courage to face him. He does indeed kill her, but here is where
the advantages of her insistence on keeping friends come in handy, as it is they who are
there to apply CPR and bring her back to life. By that, they also show us that courage and
will are stronger even than fate. Moreover, Buffy finds out that her insistence
on standing up to her fears paid off, and she became stronger after being bit by the
Master, so she is able to face him again and defeat him. The world is saved, and growth is achieved. Thus ends the short first season. It is already a great show, but still quite
a breeze. For one thing, the emotional stuff is handled
in a very shallow way. In the opening two-parter, Xander is forced
to kill his best friend who turned vampire, and on the next day we already see him joking
around as if nothing happened. Also, there isn’t much of an overall arc,
and there is a clear distinction between heroes and villains, as the vampires and monsters
seem to be completely devoid of humanity. It seems like another piece of TV high-school
fluff, but there is already one element in it that hints at what is to come, one element
that is a glimpse at a much more complicated reality. This element has a name: Angel. Angel is first introduced as a tall, dark
and handsome stranger, who mysteriously appears to warn Buffy about upcoming evil. Buffy is beginning to fall for him, until… Turns out that Angel is a vampire, and Buffy
thinks he was leading her on. She almost kills him, but then she learns
that he is a special kind of vampire: he was cursed by gypsies, who restored his soul. He is still possessed by a demon, but also
has the human soul that he had before he was sired, and his humanity keeps the demon in
check. So he is dangerous, but redeemable, which
of course makes him the ultimate female fantasy. Buffy can’t help but fall madly in love, thus
beginning one of the greatest forbidden romances in TV history. Never mind that it is an affair between a
sixteen-year-old girl and a two-hundred-and-forty-year-old man; it is also an affair between a slayer
and a vampire, disregarding every rule in the slayer book. It pays off, as Angel helps her fight evil. But in season two she will have to deal with
the consequences. It was in the second season that Buffy the
Vampire Slayer achieved immortality. Nothing that happened on TV before that could
have prepared us for a high school show suddenly becoming as powerful and moving as a Greek
tragedy. But it took time before it got there. This is the first full season of Buffy, twenty
two episodes, and the first half still feels very much like a continuation of season one. The first two episodes actually seem to be
picking up exactly where we left off, as Buffy is still facing the anointed one, a powerful
vampire in a child’s body, who was the Master’s right hand. But then… In episode three we are introduced to the vampires Spike and Drusilla, and the tone
of the show changes all at once. At the end of the episode, Spike kills the
anointed one, and announces: And fun will be had. With this act, we leave the old world behind,
and from now on we are firmly within the boundaries of pop culture. Spike and Drusilla are both Britons who were
born in the Victorian Age, but they remained forever young, and like other young Brits
of the rock’n’roll period, they take American pop culture and appropriate it in their way. They are both Goth, with Spike sporting a
Billy Idol look and a punk attitude, and Drusilla complementing him with her Morticia Addams
look and weirdo personality. Juliet Landau is spellbinding as Drusilla,
a vampire with psychic powers and a few screws loose, which makes her all the more evil. But it is James Marsters who provides most
of the fun, creating a character instantly beloved by all Buffy viewers. Spike is entertaining in a psychotic sort
of way, but also a dangerous villain who already killed two slayers, and comes to Sunnydale
to make it a hat-trick. They immediately bring a jolt of energy to
the show. In the next episode we are introduced to Oz,
a fellow student who is a guitarist in a high-school rock band. This is still the rock’n’roll period, and
a guitarist is still the coolest thing to be, but we are witnessing the end of the era. With the death of the Modern paradigm, rock’n’roll
no longer meant what it used to, no longer constituted a spiritual liberation from that
paradigm. So rock lost power, and Kids no longer believed
that they were going to change the world through rock’n’roll. Instead, they just did it for the love of
the music, and formed numerous bands that excavated rock’s glorious past. Very few of these bands found fame, but many
of them gained a small following. The show celebrates this alternative rock
scene, and several bands, usually bands that were unsigned to any label, appeared on it
and played at the Bronze, Sunnydale’s only nightclub. Oz, a highly intelligent guy, knows that rock’n’roll
has nothing left to say. Like many nineties rockers, he reacts to it
by adopting a cynical, nihilistic and ultra-cool attitude. Along with Spike, he adds doses of cool to
the show. With all of that going on, the second season
is pure rock’n’roll, still very much within the ethos of the rock’n’roll period. This is the thing that characterized that period: every few years there would be a new
style of popular music, which would make older generations cover their ears and yell: this
is not music! It was music that defied their idea of what
music should be, because contemporary logic could not find any beauty in it. But some young people did connect to it, and
once they did, they were liberated from the old logic and eventually created a new logic. This new logic would eventually be incorporated
by the mainstream, and make society more open-minded and diverse, but in the few intermediary years,
it belonged only to the youth. Thus, the teenagers were basically setting
the rules throughout the rock’n’roll period, defining themselves against the adult world. Youth had its own culture to draw from, made
up mainly of pop culture artifacts. Appropriately, Buffy and her gang, now joined
by Cordelia and Oz, start calling themselves the scoobies. And youth culture also had its own values,
including, of course… This was part of the ethos of the rock’n’roll
period, and the show reflects it well. But Buffy herself is different. While youth culture rebelled against what
it saw as the boring life of the adult world, and looked for a more dangerous and exciting
alternative, Buffy just wants a normal life, and thinks that it is better than the life
of a superhero. Buffy, then, is a transitional figure, into
a new period in the Pop Age. The rock’n’roll period, as I define it, lasted
until the mid-2000s. But in the mid-nineties we already saw the
rise of the new period, which I call the cyber period. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then, runs entirely
within the transitional phase between these two periods, and the transition is reflected
in it. The second season may be well within the ethos
of the rock’n’roll period, but it already contains the seeds of the next period. In the rock’n’roll period, monsters of horror
movies were just antagonists, and our focus was on the human heroes. But with the death of the Modern Age, we stopped
caring so much about the story of humanity’s battle against the world, and started to look
for stories about different worlds. In the first season of Buffy demons were still
just antagonists, but Spike and Drusilla are something else. They are two vampires who are deeply in love,
showing that they have a humane side. Also, we get a hint that they have a shared
history with Angel, and we start to get deeper into the mythology of vampires. In the cyber period, where online communities
form around everything, we witness the rise of alternative universes, which expand the
fantasies created by pop culture and make them into actual spaces, where people spend
considerable time in. With the Buffyverse, you could see the universe
forming while the show was still running. On the show, this dive into the demonic world
coincides with one of the main themes of the season: Buffy has to learn that reality isn’t
black and white. And she will have to grow up and work it out as soon as possible, because the plot thickens
rapidly. As the love between her and Angel grows, so
does his reluctance to get close to her and open up about himself. She finally gets him to tell her why, and
then she wishes she didn’t. She learns that when he was a soulless vampire,
Angel wasn’t just a killer, but also a sadist who would torture his victims. He was the one who drove Drusilla crazy before
he sired her, and now his soul is tortured with guilt about it, and about many other
atrocities he had committed. It is hard to reconcile the kind and loving
Angel with the monster he claims he was, but Buffy must deal with the fact that her loved
one has a very dark history behind him. And while she is still reeling from these
revelations, she is in for an even bigger shock. It turns out that Giles wasn’t always the
tweed-clad dweeb that he pretends to be. In his rock’n’roll youth, he dabbled in dark
magic and summoned a demon, and the demon comes back to haunt him. This is another central theme, which is symbolized
in the many resurrections that we see during the season: you can’t bury your past. You must deal with the bad things that you
did, or they will continue to dog you. From here, Giles will become a more complex
character, giving the excellent Anthony Stewart Head a chance to display his acting chops. So it’s not just that the demons are not purely
evil, but the good guys aren’t purely good either. Turns out that everyone has a dark side, and
everyone hides secrets. Sometimes, you will have a moral dilemma whether
to kill someone or to save them. In the second half of the season, these lessons
are put to the test, is several ways. One of them is the story of Oz, the new member
in our band of scoobies. Shortly after he becomes a scoobie, he learns
that he is a werewolf, who becomes a dangerous killer in nights of full moon. The scoobies decide to find ways to restrain
the werewolf without killing Oz. Giles’ backstory, meanwhile, is just one example
of our introduction to the ignoble side of the nerd world. By now, it is obvious that while the world
still worships the jocks, it is actually the nerds who are in the helm. They are wielding enormous power, by using
either science or magic, and often they are shown failing to accept the responsibility
that comes with it. This theme is relevant mainly to Willow, who
starts to dabble in witchcraft. She now has the powers of both magic and science,
and her growth is dependent on her successfully dealing with the responsibilities that it
entails. This process instils confidence in her, and
we are seeing her growing into a capable and assertive young woman. For Buffy, the theme of responsibility is
tied to the theme of duty. Throughout the season, everyone is demanding
of her to show responsibility. Giles wants her to leave everything else and
focus on her slayer duties, Joyce wants her to do her chores and become a responsible
adult, Xander blames her for neglecting her duty to protect others due to her love of
Angel, and Snyder threatens her that she will be expelled if she fails at school. Worst of all, being the wholesome girl that
she is, Buffy demands all of those things of herself, and has to deal with guilt when
she fails in this impossible balancing act. The theme of responsibility becomes even more
complicated when it clashes with another main theme: love and relationships. After the frustrations of season one, all
of our heroes now find romance, and have to deal with all of the irrational passions that
come with it: lust, devotion, jealousy, heartbreak, guilt. When they collide with the themes of responsibility,
or having to deal with someone’s dark side, they lead to moral dilemmas, and great drama
ensues. Drusilla and Spike have a love affair that
lasted for more than a century, despite being creatures of evil; Buffy and Angel’s forbidden
love blossoms, despite them knowing it’s wrong and trying to resist it; Willow and Oz embark
on a heartwarming relationship, despite his werewolfishness; Giles and Jenny fall in love,
which is put to the test when their dark secrets are revealed; and, hilariously, Xander and
Cordelia start a lusty affair, which they hide from others, and end up falling in love,
which they deny to themselves. Love, we learn, can overcome any boundary. Another theme is discovering and becoming
the best that you can be. You have the potential to be many things,
and as a teenager you should try them out, but eventually you should find your identity. Buffy starts the season still wishing that
she had another life, and she actually gets to experience alternatives, either by herself
or vicariously through other girls who are chosen, until she realizes: When you decide what you are, you must have the courage to accept it and come out to your
peers, whether they accept it or not. Oz learns to accept that he’s a werewolf,
and the rest of gang learns to accept him as such. Cordelia has to accept that she’d rather be
with Xander and the scoobies than with her plastic girl buddies, and stands up to their
mockery. And Larry, their fellow student, learns to
accept that he’s gay, although he remains closeted for now. Midway through the season, Buffy is in for
yet another shock, when it turns out that she is not the only slayer. The rule is that a new slayer is called when
the old one dies, and since Buffy died temporarily, slayer powers were bestowed on another girl. Kendra the vampire slayer hails from the Caribbean
islands, and her people treat slaying as a sacred duty. She takes her slaying very seriously, and
tells Buffy to stop treating it as her job, and realize that it is part of her identity. It’s an advice that Buffy will internalize. But she rejects everything else about Kendra’s
style. Kendra doesn’t have to balance between her
different duties like Buffy does – she is completely focused only on her slayer duties. She has been separated from her family, doesn’t
go to school, doesn’t have friends and isn’t allowed to speak to boys. She does everything by the book, and is confounded
by Buffy’s American ways. Buffy, however, rejects her criticism, especially
when it comes to the question of emotions. Kendra thinks emotions are a weakness, and
believes that she has hers under control. Buffy knows that it isn’t true. One of the themes of the season is people
being helplessly overtaken by something, usually a powerful emotion. Buffy learns to deal with her emotions, to
process them and work them out, and that is how she learns to control them, and develops
resistance. Kendra’s suppression of her emotions actually
means that she has no control over them, and this will eventually be her downfall. All of these themes are introduced in the
first half of the season, and they coexist without clashing too much. It’s all very romantic, funny and endearing. But then… The heat between Buffy and Angel, enhanced
by the ever-growing danger presented by Drusilla and Spike, reaches boiling point, and they
confess their love for each other. At the same time, we learn that Jenny, too,
is more than she seems, and that she is trying to separate the two lovebirds. She fails, and Buffy and Angel, despite knowing
that it’s irresponsible, give in to their passion and have sex. It is all still very romantic, but on the
next morning, Buffy wakes up to find her lover gone. When she finds him again, he is not the loving,
caring and protective Angel that we’ve come to know and love, but a sadistic psychopath,
who begins to emotionally torture her. It is basically a metaphor for the trauma
experienced by a girl when a boy changes on her after they finally had sex, but boy do
they stake this metaphor into our hearts. Buffy soon gets the truth out of Jenny. Turns out that she comes from the gypsy tribe
that cursed Angel, and that the curse is a wicked one. Angel had his soul restored so that he would
eternally suffer, remembering all the bad things that he had done. But if he achieves a moment of true happiness,
he loses his soul again, and that moment was achieved when he slept with his beloved Buffy. Buffy, while having to protect the world against
the trio of Spike, Drusilla and Angelus, is also burdened with the guilt of having essentially
killed her boyfriend. She knows that she must slay Angelus, but
she can’t bring herself to do it, even as his sadistic games become more and more lethal. Jenny, meantime, is torn between her duty
to her people and her responsibility to fight evil, and she decides to try to make amends
and use magic to restore Angel’s soul. At this point, we are still hoping to have
our old Angel back. We are still affected by the light tone that
the show had before, and even a couple of episodes after Angel’s evil turn, we are sure
that it will turn out alright. All the resurrections that we see are part
of a bigger seasonal theme, which is people trying to achieve immortality, and cheat death
in all sorts of ways. So even death isn’t taken very seriously,
and we are awaiting Angel’s resurrection. But Angelus has other plans, and he intercepts
Jenny, chases her down, and… The death of Jenny Calendar hits you like a ton of bricks. Characters rarely died in TV shows, especially
in teenage shows, and definitely not by the hands of a protagonist that we loved. You realize that there is no cheating this
death. Not only is Jenny’s death finite, but we are
not going to get Angel back, and there is no return to the show as we knew it. Angelus is the big bad of this season, made
all the more dangerous since he knows our heroes. As such, he exploits all the themes that we’ve
encountered to destroy Buffy. He knows that she draws strength from her
friends, so he attacks them and exploits their weaknesses. Kendra, since she suppresses her emotions,
did not develop resistance to manipulation, so she falls prey to Drusilla’s hypnotic powers,
and gets killed by her. Giles did not fully work out his anguish over
Jenny, so he too is manipulated by Drusilla. Angelus knows how important it is to Buffy
to succeed in life, so he sees to it that she fails at everything. By the final episode, Buffy is kicked out
of home by her disappointed mom, expelled from school by the delighted Snyder, failing
to protect her friends, and hounded by the police as a suspect in Kendra’s murder. And then, as metaphors go, she is faced with
another end-of-the-world scenario. The two-part season finale is titled ‘Becoming’,
in which the theme of becoming what you are supposed to be reaches its conclusion. We learn that there are stronger powers controlling
our dimension, and that they arranged the meeting between Angel and Buffy, thinking
he could help her stop a dangerous demon that is about to awaken and suck the world into
a hell dimension. But Angel turned evil, and now believes that
his calling is actually to revive this demon and bring on the apocalypse. After destroying Buffy emotionally, and incapacitating
all of her friends, it looks like he will succeed. But Angelus makes two fundamental mistakes. First, he makes the same error that the Master
made, believing that it’s not only his calling but his fate, and that nothing can stop him. One of the consequences of his hubris is that
he becomes too cocky, and this alienates Spike, who decides to turn on him and help Buffy
save the world. Spike, true to his punk attitude, prefers
to live in a human world where he can be a rebel, not in a world run by his fellow demons. It adds yet another layer to his humanity. Angelus’ other mistake is thinking that he
managed to destroy Buffy. He believes that by stripping her of her roles
and her friends he has destroyed her completely, but Buffy, after insisting on going through
everything youth has to offer, has by now succeeded in doing what you are supposed to
do at that age: she developed her own individual character. Roles, duties and responsibilities are only
the things that help build you up, they are not who you are. By now she is her own strong self, which transcends
these external things. Working out her feelings made her more resilient,
and she isn’t crushed by his sadistic mind games. And so we get to the final duel. I know I am repeating myself, but honestly,
nothing made on television before reaches the tragic heights of the apotheosis of Buffy
the Vampire Slayer’s second season. It is even arguable whether it has been replicated
since. Without Buffy’s knowledge, Willow also tries
to defeat Angelus, and she channels powerful magic in order to restore his soul. Angelus manages to awaken the demon, which
means that the only way to save the world now is to kill him and let the demon suck
him into hell instead. Buffy defeats Angelus and is about to finish
the job, when Willow’s magic works, and Angel’s soul is restored. Buffy has her boyfriend back, and they fall
into each other’s arms. But the demon is about to act, so Buffy must
choose between love and duty. It’s an incredible storyline, which requires true true artistry to pull off. You didn’t expect it from TV actors, who were
basically rejects from the movie industry. David Boreanaz is a good example. A virtual unknown before landing the role
of Angel, his acting in the first season is often amateurish. But by season two he grows into the role,
and does a great job of portraying both Angel, the eternally tortured emo vampire, and Angelus,
the psychotic murderer. But what truly makes this story great is the
amazing performance of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who makes you feel every bit of the emotional
rollercoaster that Buffy is going through. Gellar showed that she can handle anything
the writers throw her way, and in the following seasons they would utilize it to great effect. With such talents under his hands, Whedon
could display his full mastery as writer and director, and take the art of television to
new heights. Could there be new heights, after the groundbreaking
second season? – Well… In season three it all came together, and the artistic potential of television was on
full display. You may have noticed that I’ve been saying
“the creators” when talking about the creative power behind the show, because this is another
thing in which TV is different from cinema. While a movie has one director and a handful
of writers, a television series is written by a diverse group of writers, and alternates
directors between episodes. This allows the show to explore different
facets of the characters and the themes, and present them from different angles. Whedon and his team now had a hit show on
their hands, which gave them license to be as creative and daring as they wanted to be. Season two had an amazing storyline, but suffered
from inconsistency, with classic episodes residing side-by-side with some stinkers. In season three, the show hits a consistent
groove, and produces what many consider to be the finest Buffy season. And with that, the value of superhero stories
for television became apparent. Hollywood never knew how to do superheroes,
and the few superhero movies that were made were a trifle, nothing like the complex world
of the comics. For television, however, superheroes are perfect. First, a TV series enables you to develop
a full mythology, and thus imbue the action with deeper meaning. More importantly, it makes the everyday life
stuff more interesting. One problem a present-day TV show has is that
our daily life is usually routine, so it’s hard to make a show that is both authentic
and interesting. The double life that superheroes live allows
the creators to credibly introduce lots of complications into their regular life, and
infuse it with drama. And this is why superhero shows can truly
touch our hearts. This is especially true when it comes to romance. If you want to make the show interesting,
you cannot have love stories be just a tale of two people having a steady relationship. You have to introduce complications, but then
you run the risk of portraying your protagonists as emotionally defective people, who can’t
hold a relationship. One of the most popular TV shows of the nineties
was Friends, which featured the romance of Rachel and Ross. It was an endearing love story at first, but
the creators’ attempts to keep it interesting ended up destroying it. You eventually realize that Rachel doesn’t
love Ross at all, and just wants to possess him. Whenever he would find true love she would
become jealous, pretend that she loves him, and once she got him to dump his girlfriend
for her, she would recant and remember that she actually doesn’t want him. It was ugly to watch, and made me lose any
emotional connection to the characters. In contrast, the double life that superheroes
live allows the creators to destroy their relationships without destroying their character. When Buffy gets her heart broken time and
again, through no fault of her own, you care and feel her pain. Season 3 begins with Buffy running away from
home, away from Sunnydale, the place that so ruined her life. But by the end of the episode she realizes
that she mustn’t run away from problems but deal with them, presenting one of the main
themes of the season. In the third episode we are introduced to
Faith, the new slayer, who comes to Sunnydale because she’s running away from a powerful
vampire. Already we learn that Faith is a girl who
doesn’t deal with her problems. Buffy, witnessing her behavior, is actually
pushed further in the other direction, to open up and deal with her pain and guilt of
killing Angel. By the end of the episode she gets to the
point where she can put him behind her, but then she finds out that her life isn’t entirely
up to her. Angel finds his way back from the hell dimension,
and Buffy is plunged right back into an emotional turmoil. All of the complexities of the Buffy-Angel
love story are fully explored in this season. They are both deeply in love and in lust,
but they know that they cannot consummate it. They try to stay away from each other, but
the fight against evil forces them back together. Moreover, the tragic nature of Angel’s existence
is starting to be explored, and he truly is one of the most tragic figures ever imagined. A good man who has to live with the memories
of the countless atrocities that the demon inside him has committed, trying to make amends
by fighting against evil, while knowing that he can never allow himself to be happy. It is too much for him to handle, but Buffy
fights for her loved one, and the way in which the love story and the redemption story intertwine
produces some unforgettable melodrama. This is one of the themes of this season:
fighting to save souls, even the souls of seemingly irredeemable monsters. The message of season three is that we are fighting evil not to win, but because this
fight is what life is about. Buffy does save Angel, setting up his own
spin-off series, which will further this message. The other emotional axis of the season is
the relationship between Buffy and Faith, and the fight to save Faith’s soul. Faith, played by Eliza Dushku, is drama personified,
and every scene she’s in is fraught with suspense. She’s also pure sex, at a time when the sexual
revolution was taking what turned out to be its final step. The sexual revolution was part and parcel
of the rock’n’roll period, tied to the ethos of living fast and dying young. One of the things that the rock’n’roll youth
dreaded about growing up was the idea of getting into married life, where the thrill is gone
from sex. The idea was that you had a few short years
to live wildly and fulfill your sexual fantasies, before you get old and boring, so you have
to start as early as possible, and experiment with your sexuality. But when the sexual revolution started in
the late fifties, it was strictly a boy thing. Girls were still supposed to act chaste, and
try to get the boys into a steady relationship, which is more about love than sex. A kind of bargain was negotiated: the boys
could have the wild youth, and the girls would play the hunted, but eventually it would be
the boys who were the prey, with a ring around their finger. So sex was a game, a game of liberation. The girls would fight for their chastity,
while the boys would push them into trying new things, and experience the intoxication
of freaky sex. Over the decades, however, girls started to
take active part in this process of liberation, and by the mid-nineties there was no longer
a distinction between a good girl and a slut, and girls could experience all forms of sex
without suffering bad reputation. Faith already represents a full reversal,
as she is a female Don Juan. She uses her appeal to seduce boys when she
feels like getting off, and then, as Xander finds out once she takes his virginity, throws
them after use. An individualistic and rebellious chick, Faith
is using her superpowers to act like a rock’n’roll male. This reflected the change in the zeitgeist. On the same month that we were introduced
to Faith, 16-year-old Britney Spears released ‘…Baby One More Time’, which launched the
era of the pop princesses, teenage girl singers who were cheekier and more sexually outgoing
than what we knew before. It was also reflected in the high-school movies
of 1999, in which the cast of Buffy makes its mark. The signature movie was American Pie, in which
we see the girls being just as sex hungry as the boys. Alyson Hannigan brings her cute nerdy girl
charm to this movie as well, with the addition that she is a sexual freak. Meanwhile, Sarah Michelle Gellar starred in
Cruel Intentions, a high-school adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, De Laclos’ 18th century
tale of debauchery. And Seth Green represented on Austin Powers,
which in 99 became a pop culture phenomenon and made the world more shagadelic. With hindsight, this was the end of the sexual
revolution: once the girls no longer needed to be liberated, the revolution was complete. It was also one of the things that brought
the rock’n’roll period to a close. With boys and girls now having the same attitude
towards sex and relationship, there was no longer much of a distinction between bachelor
youth and married adult life. So Faith is a victim of the late rock’n’roll
period, of the time when its rebelliousness was no longer liberating, and could only result
in nihilism. Buffy, on the other hand, is a healthier product
of the period, combining her sexuality with a romantic heart, and trying to express her
female empowerment without losing her femininity along the way. This puts her at odds with Faith, and the
tension between the two hot slayers is electrifying. Faith gets Buffy to be more rebellious, and
to try to enjoy her superpowers. But secretly, she is jealous of Buffy. Jealous that she has a frame to her life,
jealous that she has family, friends, and a boyfriend. She pretends that her life is great, but without
purpose or meaningful relationships, it is actually hollow. This makes her vulnerable to the dark side,
and Buffy has to fight for her soul, against the other themes which the season presents. One of those other themes is authority, and
we meet authoritarian figures in both the human and the demon world. As Faith drives Buffy to explore her rebellious
side, Buffy learns a valuable lesson about authoritarians: they are addicted to order,
so if you introduce chaos into their system, they can’t handle it. Another theme that is being explored along
with rebellion is the theme of how fun it is to be bad, to break the laws and live without
restrictions. Most of the villains in this seasons relish
in their evilness, and are very fun to watch. As are some of the regular characters. Cordelia, after her breakup with Xander, reverts
to her sarcastic self, but has a lot more depth than in season one. Spike returns for one episode, sad and mopey
about being dumped by Drusilla, but a brush against the scoobies makes him rediscover
his mischievous side, and restores him as an agent of anarchy and chaos. And most of all, we meet vampire Willow, from
an alternative timeline, and she is so much fun. Alyson Hannigan plays her with such gusto
that we realize that there are other sides to her character, and the creators will explore
these sides in the coming seasons. The one who truly embodies this theme is Faith. Unlike Buffy, who treats slaying as a chore,
Faith throws herself into the joy of slaying. But while she helps Buffy lighten up, she
herself loses her way. Her nihilism leaves her adrift, and as a result
she is drawn to authoritarians who can promise her some structure and purpose. We see it early on, as she falls under the
spell of the evil Gwendolyn Post, who pretends to be a watcher and promises Faith to make
her a better slayer if she obeys her strict rule. Because she refuses to process her feelings,
Faith is bound to fall into the same trap again. In this season we learn that Giles is part
of an ancient order of watchers, known as the Council, which is the authority over the
slayers. The Council shows itself mid-season, with
a truly idiotic and pointless test that they devise for Buffy on her eighteenth birthday. Apart from that, they seem to be completely
useless in the battle against evil, and are just a royal pain in Buffy’s ass. When I watched the show the first time around,
I didn’t understand why they need this body to begin with. But now that I am older and wiser, and know
more about feminism, I finally understand what it symbolizes, and why it is necessary
to have it on the show. I mean, think about it. It’s an authoritarian body that sits in some
unknown place, isn’t connected to anything, allegedly has a lot of power but never manifests
that power, and all it does is hold back our female hero. Say it with me everybody: It’s. The. Patriarchy! Actually, no, it’s not the Patriarchy, at
least not at this stage. At this point, the show was liberally minded,
so the Patriarchy theory wasn’t part of its DNA. In liberal feminism, today’s Western society
isn’t seen as inherently patriarchal. Patriarchal attitudes are just remnants of
the past, when reality was harsher and women had to be protected. Today we actually live in a liberal society,
which is wired towards ridding itself of sexist and patriarchal attitudes. The Council is just one of these bodies that
remained stuck in the past, preserving its patriarchal ways, which are antithetical to
today’s liberal society. That’s why our heroes, who grew up in such
a society, rebel against the Council, until buffy eventually announces that she no longer
recognizes its authority. This serves both as a symbol of her becoming
an adult standing on her own, and as another victory for liberal society over the norms
that predated it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a feminist show,
and watching it now highlights the differences between the liberal feminism of the nineties
and the feminism that we know today. The show often displays sexist attitudes by
men and boys, or the bad sides of masculinity, which all get punished by Buffy. But unlike today’s feminism, it doesn’t blame
it all on culture and upbringing. It accepts that it is due in big part to the
flawed human nature. As Faith says, “every man has beast in him”. And throughout the season we see many manifestations
of this beast inside men. To grow up, Buffy and the other girls have
to learn to accept that there are things about boys that cannot be changed, and you have
to learn to love them regardless. Furthermore, we see that girls aren’t perfect
either, but have their own animalistic side. For instance, girls are shown as vengeful,
as embodied in the vengeance demon Anya, who fulfills women’s revenge wishes. Our heroes defeat Anya by taking away her
powers, and she finds herself trapped in the body of teenaged girl, and having to cope. She then has to square between her sexual
desire for boys and her hatred of them, leading to many comical moments. Anya is a parody of a man hating feminist,
and through her we see that sexism goes both ways. One of the main themes of the season is demons
manipulating those animalistic sides of humans, to get them to lose their humanity. Even passions that we think of as good can
be manipulated in this way. In one episode, a demon manipulates the motherly
instinct of the Sunnydale mothers, and turns them into a mob that believes that they have
to burn witches in order to save children. This is just one case in which we see adults
behaving badly, and we realize that those instincts remain part of us even after maturity,
after we learn to control them. We also learn that people who seem nice have
an animalistic side as well, and can even be monsters. In short, all humans are animals, which have
both social and anti-social cravings. They have to learn to control these cravings. Which introduces us to the theme of good parenting. A parent needs to nurture the good sides of
their children, and teach them to overcome their bad sides. If a parent gives no guidance, the bad sides
are allowed to run amuck, and if they are too strict, the good sides are not allowed
to develop. The former sort of bad parenting is represented
by Willow’s parents, who take no interest in their daughter’s life as she becomes an
increasingly powerful Wiccan, tempted to use witchcraft to solve all of her problems. And also in Buffy’s father, who is now completely
absent from her life. The latter is represented in disciplinarians
like Snyder or the Council. The middle way is represented by Giles and
Joyce, who try to guide Buffy and Faith. But the Council disapproves of Giles’ fatherly
approach, and replaces him with a watcher called Wesley. This alienates both slayers, and in Faith’s
case, it has catastrophic results. Good parenting is not enough, though. To become an adult, you must learn to take
personal responsibility and deal with your inner demons. Throughout the season, our teenage heroes
are all ridden with forbidden lust, jealousy, suspicion, guilt, low self-esteem, and other
emotions that threaten to unravel the unity of the group. There are many explosions, but they are learning
to work out their problems and straighten things out. By the end, Cordelia breaks up with Xander
and distances herself from the group, Angel breaks up with Buffy and leaves town because
he realizes that their love is impossible, and Faith becomes a foe. But the rest of the scoobies work things out
and remain tight. Which is what they need to do to defeat the
new big bad. It was a tall order to come up with a villain
that could rival the trio of Angel, Spike and Drusilla, but the creators were up for
the task. At first we are introduced to Mr. Trick, and
we are tricked into believing that he will be the big bad of the season. The question was: what villain could possibly
be cooler than that British scoundrel Spike? – Why, a black vampire, of course. Mr. Trick is dressed like a black pimp, the
height of cool in the late nineties. But as the season progresses, we learn that
he is a red herring. In a season that is all about rebelling against
authoritarians, we need an authority figure as the big bad. Trick soon starts working for the mayor of
Sunnydale, and we gradually realize that the mayor is the enemy that our heroes will have
to defeat. Mayor Wilkins is the epitome of a slimy politician,
who seems nice and caring but is actually hiding a corrupt character. We learn that he is more than a hundred years
old, using black magic to stop aging, and that he built Sunnydale for his purposes. He struck deals with demons, allowing them
to feast on the town’s people, in return for them letting the city function and keeping
him in power. He controls the police and controls Principal
Snyder, using them to restrict the slayers. And this is all part of his masterplan, which
is to achieve ascension, meaning, turn into a demon. The reason why he wants to protect the town
is that he needs to feed on its people during his ascension, which happens to be scheduled
for the graduation day of Buffy’s class. It is a well thought out masterplan, and he
would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddlesome scoobies. Wilkins also represents the bad sides of the
other themes we met. Like other authoritarians, he is obsessed
with order, especially cleanliness, and gets thrown off when things don’t go according
to plan. He does not work out his problems, but uses
political tongue to cover them up, or just sends his goons to eliminate them. And, as a politician, he is very adept in
manipulating people’s weaknesses to have his way with them. Which is how he can get to Faith. The impulsive Faith thinks that being free
means doing what you want, and that having superpowers gives her license to disregard
moral laws. But that actually makes her a slave to her
passions, and she eventually succumbs to her irrational side. After accidentally killing a human, she gets
the taste of blood, and it overtakes her, sending her over the edge. At this point she falls under the charms of
the mayor, who becomes the father figure she so craves. But unlike Giles, Wilkins nurtures Faith’s
bad tendencies, and turns her into a psychotic killer. With a lethal slayer on his side, his road
to ascension seems open. But Buffy is no longer the hapless girl getting
overtaken by events and somehow managing to come out victorious. By now a confident and mature woman, and surrounded
by capable friends, she will hitherto always go into battle with a well devised plan. Because she fought so hard to save souls,
she now has the loyalty of many people, and by displaying her leadership she also gained
their trust. Thus, she is able to form an army to fight
back against the mayor. Meanwhile, his attempts to cover up his weaknesses
only end up exposing them, and Buffy realizes that if she plays on those weaknesses she
can get him to lose control and act irrationally, and then she can manipulate him. And so the plan is set. The closing two-parter of the season is called
‘Graduation’, and it completes Buffy’s growth into a leader. The scenes in which she defeats Faith in an
epic fight and puts her in a coma, organizes her classmates to become an army, and then
lures the demon-mayor into the school and blows it up with him in it, were some of the
most thrilling television ever made up to that point. Today it loses a lot of its effect, partly
because we’ve had TV shows putting a lot more money into battle scenes, and partly due to
the primitive CGI used to depict the demon-mayor. In the week between the two episodes, George
Lucas’ The Phantom Menace came out, taking CGI to a whole new level, and beginning a
new era of movie epics. In comparison, the cheap nineties CGI used
here looks comically bad. I said “the week between the two episodes”,
but actually, Buffy fans had to wait a lot more than a week to see the final episode. Because once again, the show displayed its
uncanny connection to real world events. High school violence was becoming a national
epidemic, and season 3 tried to reflect it. And reflect it it did. In a spine-chilling coincidence, the Columbine
High School massacre happened one day before the planned airing of the episode Earshot,
which deals with high school mass murder. The resulting atmosphere prompted the network
to postpone this episode as well as the final episode, and air them only months later. Surviving high school in America now became
not just a metaphor, but a real concern. The end of season 3 shows the scoobies celebrating
their own survival. But this celebration of survival was also
metaphorical, because this season, as a whole, is a celebration of life. The overall message is that our life in a
liberal society is a good life, a life worth fighting for. Yes, it may have some awful moments, but it
also has many great moments. Even Buffy, in this season, knows moments
of happiness. The democratic system, as represented by the
mayor, may be a flawed system, full of corruption and compromises with evil forces. But we get glimpses into what happens when
someone tries to replace it with something else, and we realize that all the alternatives
are much worse. Our heroes thus learn that even though evil
will never be completely defeated, their struggle still has meaning. They are fighting not to make the world a
perfect place, but to ensure that our world survives and continues to allow its inhabitants
to have the good life that they have now. Which makes the final act into a scary one. Blowing up the school may have been thrilling
at the moment, but it leaves us in a more dangerous and uncertain world. The mayor may have built a town in which demons
can feast, but his presence also ensured that the local demons would not try to bring the
apocalypse. With him gone, Sunnydale is now facing the
unknown. Buffy now stands on her own, with no frame
to obey, and the fate of her world rests on her. She is, in other words, an adult, and from
here on she’ll have to navigate in more treacherous waters. And liberal society, as represented in the
town of Sunnydale, was also entering a new phase, facing new enemies. The first three seasons were an affirmation
and celebration of liberalism. Tune in to the second part, where we will
see it unraveling.

17 thoughts on “Slay it Again, Buffy (1/2)

  1. Right before I go to bed, you sneaky snake. As an aside, I know of a certain Long Man who might be interested to hear this take.

  2. Only somewhat related, but I'm curious of your thoughts on metamodernism. In my opinion, post modernism is very much correlated to the television age, and as we are well into the Internet age, I see metamodernism as the next step. Post modernism has deconstructed everything, but offers nothing new in its place, which had led to a society of apathetic consumerism and nihilism that has no values or meaning.

  3. 51:00 What the F— That is my High School on the right!! No really, I checked when I saw that. I had class in all of the buildings in the background!

  4. I just realised why I didnโ€™t see the season of Buffy with the mayor… I was class of 1999 and studying to try to get into uni.

    Weird having Buffy being supposed to be younger than me but Sara Michelle Gellar is a fair bit older (especially when I was a teen) I had teachers who are the same age as her.

    (Edit: possibly it was that and the lack of a power differential (Angel is a strong smart vampire but Buffy Kills more powerful vamps all the time) that made Buffy X Angel less icky?)

  5. Never understood the appeal of this show. For me the 90s are the most overrated decade of the past century. Both in pop culture and in music.

  6. I tried, but I couldn't make it past the thought exercise of imagining Joss Whedon as a writer with actual talent. Buffy did nothing interesting for the genre, and the only reason he's even still known let alone relevant is that his insistence that he's a feminist trumps his actions in the real world. Whedon is more overrated than KISS.

  7. I wonder if Joss Whedon had this much insight when he set out to make Buffy, or if he was simply caught up with the zeitgeist of the time.

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