Over the weekend I finally wrapped up my first ever run-through of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I started watching the series last summer, I actually came to it with remarkably little information and no preconceptions except that (and obviously I got over this one) it probably wasn’t going to be a hit with me, since vampires — and supernatural / fantasy stories generally — are just not something I gravitate towards. So why did I even bother giving it a try? Well, if enough people whose insights I have learned to trust and respect in other contexts find value in something, I’m usually willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, and often I’m won over. (Exhibit A.) Also, I’ve told people often enough that you don’t have to like horses to enjoy reading Dick Francis, so I figured that perhaps, in a similar way, I could learn to live with vampires as a device for developing plot and character and never mind how silly the concept seemed.
The truth is, in some ways the vampires and other various demons that populate the series never did stop seeming kind of silly. I actually came to like how cheesy the special effects often were, though: it seemed consistent with the show’s care never to take itself entirely seriously. A more realistic patina would have made it harder, I think, to sustain the comic edge, and especially the frequently arch self-consciousness. For me, anyway, the sense that it was not just okay but right to chuckle at some of the scariest monsters helped me relax and just enjoy the show. (This is not to say that there weren’t times when I was wholly engrossed in it emotionally. I cried more than once, including during the final two episodes of S7!) But I also came to understand how often the show’s monsters work as metaphors or projections. Even more important, I realized that the characters’ battles with them (not just Buffy’s battles, but of course especially hers) were also really about much less literal struggles — struggles for independence, for example, for identity, for acceptance, or for empowerment. A lot of these — appropriately, given the age of the main (human) characters — are the classic issues of the Bildungsroman, but they aren’t problems that just disappear as we age, and one thing the vampire characters do is bring out how relentless and universal change and struggle really are.
The full series is a lot of episodes and I watched them over a period many months. I couldn’t begin, then, to write up any kind of comprehensive response. So far I’ve avoided what I know is an extensive body of commentary on it online and in print: I didn’t want my own impressions to get drowned out too fast! But if those of you who are longtime fans have any favorite essays, articles, or interviews, I’d be happy to be pointed in the right direction. (I know Ana has posts on Buffy, and when I’m done writing this up I’m heading over to read those first thing.*) Because I’m so new to the series, I don’t even know what the existing points of contention are or why! So I’m just going to write about the things that are most on my mind now, while the experience of watching the series for the first time is still fresh. One sign that it really is a good show is just how much it makes me want to talk about it, and nobody else in my household watched it with me, so I have a lot of pent up if fairly random thoughts about it! I’m not going to worry about spoilers — so anyone who hasn’t already watched the show, you are forewarned.
1. I’ll start right at the beginning, with the music! The theme song is loud, aggressive, and repetitive — in other words, it’s everything I usually dislike in music, and yet I have come to love it. For one thing, it certainly charges you up at the beginning of an early morning run! But I suspect my response to it is now conditioned by what it heralds, much of which is captured in the title sequences, from the eerie beginning to the iconic images of Buffy’s resolute face at the end. The invitation becomes irresistible: “Come be strong, brave, and defiant with me! Spend an hour staring everything and everybody down!” Especially when other parts of my life were really stressful, it felt great to let the music drive other thoughts out of my head (again, not usually what I like music to do!) and usher me into the Buffyverse.
2. Next, and probably most important, there’s Buffy herself. I was initially annoyed with how insubstantial she seemed. I got that her total ordinariness (besides the whole Slayer thing, of course) was part of the point, and the conflict between her calling and her longing to live a normal life is still potent in S7 (though by then it’s more complex and interesting). Still, for quite a long time I found her anti-intellectualism and general vapidity tedious. Qua high school (and then college) student, she seemed too much the antithesis of my own values. Everyone who told me she grows up a lot over the series was right, though, and her development seemed very believable, because she doesn’t transform so much as fill in the outline we get in the early seasons. Mature Buffy is still more instinctive than reflective, but those instincts get deeper. Also, as her petulance fades, her courage, moral integrity, and resolution make her increasingly admirable, and the increasing complexity of the situations she confronts makes her decisions correspondingly more interesting as well. A game-changing moment for me was her decision to kill Angel at the end of S2. I fully expected the just-in-time return of his soul to give us a pat happy ending, but that choice was much more dramatically interesting, for the plot and also for the development of Buffy’s character. (It was also the first time the show made me cry!) That she has to put her mission first always sets her apart, and it guarantees the fundamental loneliness that gives her both pathos and dignity in the later seasons.
3. That said, I love that every single major victory in the show relies on research! Yay for Willow and Giles, especially, in this context …
4. …which brings me to the Scoobies. Sure, Buffy is the leader, and I warmed to her, but it’s the ensemble makes the show magic. I didn’t love every member of it equally (I didn’t miss Oz when he drove away, for instance, and I thought Tara was always a weak link — but Anya became a favorite, and I even got pretty fond of Andrew by the end) but the core friendships really mattered to me after a while: there’s something so absolute about their love and trust for each other, and so touching about the way they all, given the chance, can rescue each other. It isn’t always Buffy who saves the day, and it’s not Buffy alone who (over and over!) saves the world.
4. Then there’s Angel. I admit, initially I fell for him about as hard as Buffy did — hence the tears at the end of S2! So I was pretty excited when he dropped back (literally) into the show, and sad, again, when he left it again. Reluctantly, though, I came to admit the writers were right: there weren’t any interesting places left for his relationship with Buffy to go, and if he’d stayed he probably would have become a drag on the plot as well as on Buffy’s development. Keeping him just nearby enough to make the occasional guest appearance was smart, but even smarter was making a lot more room for …
5. Spike! I have to say, I did not predict this at all from the early seasons, but Spike became by far the most interesting character on the show. He changed remarkably from S2 to S7, and yet somehow the writers (and James Marsters) managed to make the transformation utterly convincing at every stage from cheeky sociopath to thwarted evil-doer to compelling protagonist. I couldn’t imagine any redemption from him after the attempted rape scene — the show’s darkest moment, I thought, partly because there was nothing cartoonish about it at all — and then they managed even that, by using that scene to mark an absolutely non-negotiable line between a man with and a man without a soul. I thought S7 overall was kind of uneven, but the quiet scene between Spike and Buffy in Episode 20 (“Touched”) seemed pretty perfect to me, both as the pinnacle of his development into a full person and as an important moment for Buffy, as it helps her believe in herself again — “You’re a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy” — and head off to defeat the final incarnation of …
6. … the Big Bad! For me, this aspect of the show was always its biggest weakness. I appreciate the value of a larger plot arc to give each season continuity, but the super-villains always just got so irritating by the end! Worst, I think, was Adam from S4, but S5’s Glory is a close second for sheer flamboyant tedium. I enjoyed the evil Mayor in S3, and I found the Trio pretty funny in S6, though I guess they did kind of trivialize the process. (There wasn’t anything trivial about Willow flaying Warren alive, though!) Bad Angel was really interesting, and Spike was a delightfully gleeful villain in the early years. In S7, I thought some interesting things went on with The First, especially the coming and going as different characters from the past. I was very annoyed, though, by the pendant-ex-machina that brought about The First’s climactic defeat. (And why is it Spike who becomes both hero and martyr — shouldn’t that final victory have belonged to Buffy, or to the newly-minted Slayers collectively? And why didn’t Spike — or Anya! — survive the final battle?!)
That’s hardly everything I could say (I haven’t even mentioned Riley yet, for instance, or Drusilla, or Faith, never mind the show’s feminism, or its constant interweaving of sex and death…) but this post has already gotten pretty long. So I’ll close with a general observation: I can’t think of another series I’ve watched in which, over time, the whole so completely transcended the sum of what are often rather feeble parts. Buffy features some spectacularly bad acting; it has really cheesy special effects; a lot of its plot lines are ridiculous and their crises often get averted by what seem like afterthoughts; there are inconsistencies in things like how much Buffy cares about her mother (a great deal more after she dies than in most of the previous seasons); there’s the whole clumsy interjection of Dawn, though I guess she provided some useful dramatic ballast for Buffy. I could go on listing bits and pieces that seem so inept in themselves that surely they shouldn’t add up to great television. Yet somehow they do.
Why is that? The explanation presumably begins with the show’s counterbalancing strengths: there’s some really good acting in it; there’s the dialogue, always so quick and clever and crammed with allusions; there’s pathos, too, and suspense; there’s a lot of experimentation and variation, so you get episodes like “Hush” or “Once More with Feeling” that really do something different (as well as lots of specific episodes that are just really clever or interesting); above all, there are the characters, who somehow, even surrounded by crazy tentacled monsters and in the midst of near-apocalypses, always manage to be utterly believable, and to form relationships you really come to care deeply about. Another moment near the end that I thought captured something essential about the show was the exchange between Buffy and Xander when she asks him to take Dawn away: “I always thought I’d be beside you at the end,” he says, and doesn’t that sum up what the show is ultimately about? Once again, I could keep on listing specific strengths — except that my point is that for me, the success of the series for me didn’t really turn on anything so specific.
Where did the magic lie, then? Ironically, I’ve been thinking that it might come back to the vampires after all, and to the deep satisfaction of seeing them dusted, over and over, by a slip of a girl. “You love humans!” Andrew taunts Anya near the end, and she somewhat sheepishly admits that she has come to love them because, screwed up as they are, they just keep on trying to do the right thing. Maybe it’s Buffy on patrol, rather than Buffy vs. the Big Bad, that is the real model of heroism, the real inspiration. There’s always another vampire rising from the grave, and Buffy’s always there, ready to take it on — and win. If only in our own daily routines we could be so resolute, so skilled, and so successful!
*Update: Things Ana brings up that I was particularly troubled by / interested in too and would like to hear people’s thoughts about: the show’s “exoticization” and its “complicated and sometimes contradictory ideas about gender and sexuality.”
I’m delighted that you ended up enjoying this so much. It is truly one of my all-time favorite shows, if not my absolute favorite. This past year in particular, Buffy’s final big speech provided me with a tremendous amount of solace as I processed some scary stuff going on around me. So I have a strong emotional reaction to it,
I got into Buffy when season 4 was on the air, and because the network is was on was only intermittently available in my area, season 6 was the first season I was able to watch straight through. And I was semi-involved in fan communities (mostly an e-mail list) at the time. It was a hugely controversial season because it was so dark and many people found the trio so lame and the drug metaphor around Willow too on the nose. Although I think the critics were onto something with that latter point, I adore that season and how it shows what a struggle it is to be a decent person all the time. I especially love that the Big Bads were just people, three regular guys and the (eventually) the enemy within. When the season was running, there was much speculation that the eventual Big Bad would be one of the Scoobies, and it was just a question of whether it would be Willow or Buffy.
And Spike! I loved so much about Spike’s storyline. And although I didn’t think the writers quite knew what to do with him once he was ensouled, I loved his overall journey. One thing that fascinated me when I went back and picked up the early seasons was seeing how much groundwork was laid for his transformation early on, even though it wasn’t in the original plan for the character. Of all the key vampires, he’s the one most capable of love and tenderness and with the least appetite for destruction.
I was sorry to see that you didn’t love Oz as much as I did. He’s one of my favorites. I think that’s partly because I relate to Willow so much, and it was fun to watch him adore her from afar and then be so utterly kind to her throughout their relationship (at least until the end). But he never integrated into the Scoobies to the degree that, Anya, for example, did.
There’s a lot of academic writing about Buffy at http://www.whedonstudies.tv/. I haven’t read anything there in years, but they’ve had some interesting stuff.
I too ended up getting a lot of (for me, unexpected) comfort from this show during some tough times this year. There’s something at the core of it — in amongst all the special effects and shape-shifting and arch-nemesis-es-es 🙂 — that’s somehow really reassuring: we’re in it together, good can take on evil and win, stuff hurts but it gets better …
I didn’t dislike Oz, but I think you may be right about the importance of your feelings for Willow. I liked her a lot but never really identified with her, even though she is the most bookish one (if I identify with anyone in particular, it’s probably [gulp] Giles!). I was surfing some of the DVD special features tonight and in the overview of S4 there was some discussion of Oz that made me see strengths in his character I hadn’t really thought about much before — hazards of a first watching, of course, that you get caught up in events.
I really liked the episode in which we learn Spike’s history. His poetry! Hilarious. And then when his mother turns on him? Yikes.
Spike’s poetry is an authentic imitation of – now I forget who – Ernest Dowson? Francis Thompson? I thought about mentioning this when I was writing about these poets, but I decided it was too arcane a point, and now I have forgotten the details.
The poem returns in a fine moment in the last episode of Angel.
With Spike, you can see how much luck is involved in series television. He was supposed to be killed off early, but it was soon obvious that the combination of actor and role was something special. Marsters was, along with Anthony Stewart Head, the best actor the show ever had.
I enjoyed your overview, which matched my memories. I have not even seen all of the episodes, so I am not that big of a fan, but this is one of my favorite TV shows.
I’ve watched a couple of interviews with James Marsters now and I was SHOCKED at first that he’s not actually English! But of course that’s just one superficial part of the good acting — his entire body language as Spike is completely different, and varies as the character develops.
I rewatch other favorite shows, but while I really enjoy them, I don’t think I usually feel I’m seeing more in them. I think this will be different with BUFFY.
I loved this show back in my twenties, reading this has made me want to watch it again with the chance to think about it more critically. I remember the last few series being quite uneven but what also sticks with me is the humour and how real the relationships between the characters seemed. It certainly felt fresh at the time and sounds like it’s aged well.
The humor is so deft, and so consistent — I don’t think there’s a moment missed when a little quip would make things more fun or interesting.
I remember enjoying this show when it first broadcast, and watching it right to the last series. It was on quite late on Australian TV, so I had a few latish nights because of it. I have not watched it since though. I think the first 4 series are my favourites. It does get more inconsistent after that.
I particularly liked the high school setting of the first 3 seasons. The high school graduation episode in some ways felt like an ending, and they could have easily ended the series there.
I did not watch every episode though. I did not know there was an episode about Spike’s past. I always imagined Spike having been an English soccer hooligan in his past.
I liked the way it returned to the high school for S7.
The consensus seems to be that the show’s biggest overall blind spot is race and intersectionality. That said, there are quite a few posts out there about Whedon’s feminism and Buffy. Those that say he’s not a feminist at all tend to rely on what I view as a misreading of the series.
S6 was also divisive; many viewers wanted the show to stay in the cocoon of high school rather than show the characters growing up, others thought the subplot regarding Willow’s abuse of magic, and the analogy to drug abuse, cheesy and overdone, and the attempted rape was polarizing even among the cast.
The issues around gender and sexuality tend to revolve around a tension between how much the show depicts the world as we want it to be and how much it depicts the world we have. With the exception of the existence of Slayers and the paranormal creatures she hunts, I’d argue that it depicts the world we have, so the show reflects all of the confusion about gender and sexuality extant when it aired and potentially earlier, since Whedon and his writing staff were not high school students when they wrote the series.
In some ways, Buffy is the least interesting person on the show, although she, like most of the other characters, changes and grows over time — one of the show’s most impressive achievements.
I loved Anya, and there are ways in which I’m a lot like her, but I considered Tara the moral center of the show during S6. I don’t know if it helps to think of her as the Fanny Price of Buffy, except she’s less of a prig. Dawn was commonly viewed as an annoying pain in the ass (including by me up until S7), but the end of S5 wouldn’t have worked without her.
Another interesting essay I read compared and contrasted Spike and Angel and concluded that Spike, whose love for Buffy inspired him to choose to acquire a soul, was morally superior to Angel, whose soul (and thus morality) was imposed on him from without. Also, can I say one of the best end-of-season misdirects ever? Just about everyone thought Spike had the chip taken out.
As for good stopping points before S7, which I agree was uneven, I would vote for S5, but then we wouldn’t have some really brilliant episodes and answers to some questions about backstory (more about Spike’s background, the origin of the Slayer).
I think everyone liked the Mayor best of the Big Bads. I would, however, flip your assessment of Glory and the nerd trio. Other than in the way Warren epitomizes the banality of evil, I soon tired of them. (Also, in the end, it is Willow who is the season’s Big Bad; the nerd trio is more of a Little Bad.)
The show is quietly existentialist (Angel the series, with its focus on redemption, is even more open about its existentialism; at one point, Angel says, “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”)
More, and a list of Buffy studies books I own (it’s been too long since I read them to rank them), in an e-mail to follow.
Nice read. One thing I love about the show is how much of it is concerned with, essentially, how to be human. We get this most literally with Anya, but also with Dawn, who struggles to make sense of her existence once she learns about her origin, and with Angel and Spike, neither of whom literally become human (unless it happens during the spinoff show Angel, which I’m only partway through) but whose acquisitions of souls essentially stands in for that. And learning “how to be human” serves as an apt metaphor for the teenage characters becoming grown-ups (in both positive and negative ways), for Faith acquiring a moral sense, for Willow regaining one, and for the Potentials realizing their potential, and for all of the main characters learning to work together as their world and their moral sense becomes more complicated.
That last line should really say something like “as their world becomes more complicated and their moral sense must become more nuanced in order to navigate it”.
You might enjoy Nikki Stafford’s “Great Buffy Rewatch” archive, a yearlong group blogging project from a few years ago in which Buffy scholars and fans put our heads together, sometimes having a bit of fun, sometimes seriously.