Rereading, Nostalgia, and Genre: The Dark Is Rising

On a bit of a whim, I decided to join in with “The Dark Is Reading”: a mass reading of Susan Cooper’s fantasy classic The Dark Is Rising, originally published in 1973. I read The Dark Is Rising often as a child, along with the other books in the series, especially Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch. I don’t have my original copies any longer, but (probably at my urging) my parents gave new copies to Owen for his 10th birthday in 2007. Sadly, I don’t think he ever read them; I found them on Maddie’s bookshelf, but I don’t think she has read them either. I never did quite learn the lesson that my children won’t necessarily share my taste! I’m certainly glad we still had them, though, if only for my own sake.

I hadn’t reread The Dark Is Rising in decades, and one interesting aspect of rereading it now was actually realizing how my own taste has changed–or perhaps it is more accurate to say how my reading habits have changed, as it isn’t that I didn’t like the book so much as I wasn’t quite at ease with its conventions and demands. In fact, I really loved some things about rereading it, starting with how immediately I remembered it. I couldn’t have told you the details of the plot, but as each event unfolded it was vividly familiar, as was the overall atmosphere of the book, which opens on Midwinter’s Eve and is full of wintry beauty and dread comingled. Cooper is really good at taking an ordinary landscape and imbuing it with magic, as when her hero, Will Stanton, looks out of his window to see his usual world transformed by snow:

In the first shining moment he saw the whole strange-familiar world, glistening white; the roofs of the outbuildings mounded into square towers of snow, and beyond them all the fields and hedges buried, merged into one great flat expanse, unbroken white to the horizon’s brim. . . .

His attention is briefly drawn away from the window by a flash of uncanny music; when it fades away, he looks out again and finds it has taken his world with it:

In that flash, everything had changed. The snow was there as it had been a moment before, but not piled now on roofs or stretching flat over lawns and fields. There were no roofs, there were no fields. There were only trees. Will was looking over a great white forest: a forest of massive trees, sturdy as towers and ancient as rock. . . . the only break in that white world of branches was away over to the south, where the Thames ran; he could see the bend in the river marked like a single stilled wave in this white ocean of forest, and the shape of it looked as though the river were wider than it should have been.

The book as a whole turns on such revelations of different worlds somehow coexisting, layered by time but not fixed in it, at least not to those who, like Will, belong to all times.

The Dark Is Rising is the story of Will’s discovery that he himself, like the landscape, is not as he has always seemed, and of the quest his uncovered identity as one of the “Old Ones” imposes on him as part of the ongoing struggle between the elemental forces of Dark and Light. There’s plenty of high drama and some epic confrontations, though I think Cooper does chills better than thrills: she excels at building up a sense of menace through small details, particularly as Will’s new awareness begins to separate him from his merrily innocent family.

Much as I liked revisiting Cooper’s evocative descriptions and enjoyed the familiarity of the story and characters, I found the plot itself somewhat unconvincing–the wrong standard, perhaps, for a fantasy novel, but at the same time, isn’t it a sign of successful fantasy that you give yourself over to it without puzzling over its coherence or internal logic? I don’t know if the mild dissatisfaction I ended up feeling is because I am out of practice at reading fantasy (which, like science fiction, is a genre I have almost never read as an adult) or if it’s because, for all its elegance, The Dark Is Rising is a children’s book, and thus a bit sparse on exposition. Is its world a fully realized one? When I began it, I was relieved not to be plunged into an info-dump of “world building,” but is it possible that’s what I was missing, by the end?

I do think my own recent reading habits account at least in part for my mild disenchantment. Every genre makes its own kind of demands and has its own conventions: my experience learning to read romance on its own terms taught me a broader lesson about that, and (closer to the point here, perhaps) so did my adaptation and then conversion to Buffy. In her very engaging Tolkien lecture Cooper gives a good primer on how fantasy works; her emphasis on its elements as vehicles for more universal ideas and conflicts makes a lot of sense, but it’s just not how I usually read now, or that’s not how the books I currently like best work. It’s interesting to me, though, that I didn’t have or need this kind of conceptual apparatus to enjoy The Dark Is Rising as a child, and in fact I don’t recall ever thinking much about genre as a classifier or about the possible need to read different kinds of books differently–I just read what I liked, which at the time included not just Cooper but Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey alongside historical fiction, mysteries, and everything else.

I never consciously decided not to keep reading fantasy; it just fell away. I think I began (however unfairly) to associate its overt inventiveness–its dragons and sorcerers and improbable made-up worlds–with a kind of childishness, like fairy tales, and never made the further connection that, also like fairy tales, such stories might be a means to deeper ends. Understanding better how a genre works doesn’t of course, mean admiring  or enjoying every example. What I came to love about Buffy is how rich the characterizations are, and how well so much of the story-telling develops them even as (at its best) it explores ideas about good and evil. So far, I haven’t been tempted to try most of the other shows Netflix now recommends for me because I’ve watched Buffy so much: it’s not the genre in general that I have embraced, it’s the specific show. Interesting as I found Cooper’s lecture, and much as I enjoyed some aspects of The Dark Is Rising, I’m not currently inspired to go on a fantasy-reading binge either. For me, the book was most powerful in its nostalgia: it reminded me of the reader I once was, but it didn’t really inspire the reader I now am.

Slaying the Dragon: First Thoughts on Five Seasons of Angel

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“Well, personally I kind of want to slay the dragon.” – Angel (S5 E22, “Not Fade Away”)

I recently finished my first complete run-through of Angel. I can tell that, as has already been the case with Buffy, re-watching will complicate my response to particulars as well as to the show overall. It’s interesting to me, though, that I can already imagine watching it again (though maybe not all of it, especially not the second half of Season 4, which I really did not enjoy). Like Buffy, Angel seems to do things that are worth taking another look at after the dust has settled, after you know the answer to “what happens next?” There are ideas at stake in it, sometimes confused or swamped by the action, but at other times driving it towards moments of real insight. Unlike the other shows I happily rewatch in order to bask in their familiar pleasures, Angel and Buffy are shows that seem to change, and often deepen, when you go back to them.

angelusMy initial thought at this point is that overall, while I like Buffy the series better than Buffy the character, I like Angel the character more than Angel the series. I would happily watch another two or three (or more!) seasons about Angel, despite how dreadful Angel occasionally was, because I find him complicated and fascinating, whereas Buffy (though she does develop over the course of her series) always seems somewhat two-dimensional to me. I suppose this is a version of the age-old artistic problem that virtue is intrinsically less interesting than vice, except that of course with Angel we’ve got the best of both worlds: good and evil in unending tension, Angel and Angelus distinct but never entirely separable. Buffy, on the other hand, has a clear and singular role to play: while she sometimes rebels against it, when things turn bad she always, always, rises to the occasion — which is great and inspiring, because she’s strong and principled and brave and autonomous, but also somewhat predictable.

Angel is quite limited in Buffy, too: I was actually startled, in the early episodes of Angel, to see him laughing and talking and generally interacting with people, and with the world, like a real person, rather than just brooding in his crypt. (I’m not sure I ever saw Angel really smile in Buffy, never mind sing or dance — though I suppose that’s just as well.) I loved the way Angel made a running gag out of his broodiness, rather than romanticizing it,  and I appreciated that the other characters and also many of the plots that unfolded over the series challenged him to think about his life and choices in varied and often quite ethically complicated ways. His role as a “champion” is never as straightforward as Buffy’s, because he carries Angelus with him, with all the baggage of his past sins but also the lurking possibility of reverting to evil. In some ways I think that gives his moral choices more weight than Buffy’s can ever have, because she’s never actually going to do the wrong thing, and when Angel does the right thing (like destroying the Gem of Amara) it’s often at considerable cost to himself.

This is one reason I liked it so much when Spike joins Angel: their different paths to the same place become so mutually illuminating. Spike made a deliberate decision (and went to considerable pain and trouble) to get his soul back, and that heroic quest makes him more noble in some ways than Angel, whose transformation was involuntary. But Spike has nothing like Angel’s experience of repentance. As Spike eventually says to Angel, “I never looked back at the victims,” and in that respect Angel, who has suffered years of tormenting guilt and chosen over and over to seek redemption, has something of a moral lead. “I spent a hundred years trying to come to terms with infinite remorse,” Angel expostulates; “you spent three weeks moaning in a basement and then you were fine.” (Spike’s entrance into the show also, as that line shows, brought back the wonderfully comic quality that Season 4 is mostly missing, and that keeps the show from falling into self-importance. Here’s an entertaining compilation of some funny Angel-and-Spike moments. 🙂 )

I enjoyed the noir atmosphere of the earlier seasons, with its blend of superhero crime fighting and hard-boiled private eye investigations: it’s Batman meets Philip Marlowe. I can see, though, how that genre could lose momentum: while having a vampire as the investigator is initially a cool twist, it could easily have become just a gimmick. So it makes sense that they moved the show away from that episodic approach towards larger arcs in which Angel’s ongoing fight for redemption, and the overarching conflict between good and evil in the world, gave it purpose and depth. (This is how Buffy develops too, with the first season — as others warned me when I first started watching it — following pretty tedious “monster of the day” plots and then later seasons taking on more ambitious unifying themes and story lines.) I know that I’m not alone in feeling that in Angel the result can sometimes be terrible (did I mention that I don’t really want to watch Season 4 again?), but a show with a reach that exceeds its grasp is still preferable in lots of ways to one that doesn’t even try. And even the worst story lines in Angel sometimes yielded great moments. I hated everything about the way Jasmine came into the show, for instance — parts of that plot were truly abhorrent — but the episode in which she finally faces off against Angel was both dramatically satisfying and philosophically significant.

wesleyI didn’t like the Angel ensemble as much as the Scoobies in Buffy, but another thing Angel and Buffy have in common is that they both show individual characters transforming in ways that leave them astonishingly far from where they started but that somehow happen in utterly believable ways. Other long-running shows I’m familiar with put fairly consistent characters into lots of new situations, but what happens with Spike in Buffy happens with both Cordelia and Wesley in Angel. If you’d told me while I was watching Buffy that one day Wesley would make me cry, I would not have believed you! As for Cordelia, I couldn’t possibly do better than Jennifer Crusie at explaining how good her character becomes and how terribly she is ultimately treated. Kudos to the actors, of course, as much as the writers. As for our new friends, Gunn was good; I found Lorne a bit bland and Fred annoying ditsy — until she wasn’t any more.illyria

Since I’ve only seen them all once so far, I can’t really say much in detail about individual episodes, though there are a few that do already stand out in my mind, including “I Will Remember You,” “Epiphany,” “Reprise,” and “You’re Welcome.” (Oh, and “Smile Time,” of course — though I still haven’t decided if it’s awful or brilliant. Maybe it’s both? Ditto “The Girl in Question,” which was almost too hilarious.) I also thought the final episode of Season 5 was quite wonderful: each character chose to have a day that beautifully represented who they were. My favorite bit there was Spike reciting his poem: what a nice return to our love-lorn William. When the season, and the series, was over, I felt satisfied with the way it went out, but also bereft because now there’s nowhere new left for me to go in this imagined universe that, to my surprise, I have ended up enjoying so much.

After I finished watching Buffy I discovered this excellent series of episode guides, which includes a pretty smart one called “Why You should Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I knew from watching that video that if I watched the matching one about “Why You Should Watch Angel” I might inadvertently pick up some spoilers from the illustrative clips he uses, so I didn’t watch it until I’d seen the whole series. I’ve watched it now, and like the Buffy one, I think it makes a pretty good case, as well as offering some insights into the plots, characters, and themes of the show.

Weekend Reading: Dorothy Dunnett via Buffy

ringedcastleA few days ago I picked Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle off my bookshelf to look up a particular scene and ended up not just reading to the end (again) but following up with a reread of the next novel in the Lymond Chronicles, Checkmate.

I didn’t actually read every word — these are books I have read so often and so intensely over the years that I sometimes feel entitled to pick and choose the scenes I focus on. This is not in any way a comment on Dunnett’s prose — it is not a hint that I think the novels somehow do not need to be as long as they are. She’s a wonderful writer: she has spoiled me, really, for most other historical novelists, who with very rare exceptions show little of her style or profundity — of her commitment to making historical fiction much, much more than melodrama in period costumes. It’s more a sign that I have the kind of relationship with the Lymond books that I’ve learned many viewers have with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: there are episodes and sequences that are particularly resonant to me, that immediately remind me, when I turn to them, what it is about these books that has made them magic to me since I first read The Game of Kings in 1979. Just as Buffy afficionados might mention, say, “Becoming Part 2” or “Innocence” or “Graduation Day” as exemplary of what makes the series special, so I might pick out the final scenes with Christian Stewart in Game of Kings, or the chess game in Pawn in Frankincense, or the “Languished Locked in L” improvisation in The Ringed Castle, or the flight across the rooftops of Paris in Checkmate (or almost any other scene involving Philippa, who is hands-down one of my favorite literary characters of all time) and expect other Dunnett lovers to know both what I’m talking about and why I’m talking about it.dunnett

One of the treats of rereading any book, but perhaps especially books you’ve loved for decades, is seeing how they change when you see them in new lights. Middlemarch, for instance, once seemed to me an uplifting story of young love finally triumphing (oh, to be 18 and read it that way again!) — now it seems to me a melancholy lesson in learning to live with disappointment and lowered expectations. The Lymond Chronicles are no exception, though they have changed less for me than many books because my relationship with them has always been intensely personal — I haven’t ever wanted to step back and consider them analytically. I still don’t! But that doesn’t mean my readings are totally static: different things do stand out over time. This time, quite unexpectedly, I found myself thinking about Buffy as I read about Lymond. I say “unexpectedly” because really, can you imagine any two works that superficially have less in common, from the media they were created in to their tone, setting, and overall style? And yet they have at least two things in common.

checkmateFirst, they are both fundamentally about leadership, and particularly the cost it exacts on “the chosen one.” Francis Crawford, of course, is not chosen in the supernatural way that Buffy is — though there are many hints through the novels of forces and purposes beyond the understanding and control of individual human actors, through characters like the Dame de Doubtance and the recurrent appearances of Nostradamus and John Dee bearing astrological charts and prophesies. Even setting aside fate or destiny as factors, though, Dunnett emphasizes that extraordinary gifts such as Lymond’s bring responsibilities: to be both extremely talented and highly charismatic is to invite discipleship, and much of the drama of the series turns on Lymond’s struggles to find the right use of his exceptional self. For him as for Buffy, leadership means isolation, risk, and hard choices — which we watch him make over and over, often amid the burden of other people’s misunderstanding, jealousy, or hatred. Morally, he is a much more complicated figure than Buffy, but beneath his often flamboyant disregard for conventional propriety or morality, there’s an absolute integrity that we come, as readers, to trust as much as Archie Abernethy does. And Archie isn’t the only one: there’s a parade of people across the novels who end up giving Lymond their loyalty, even their love, as they learn to see past the distracting sparkle of his brilliant, ruthless surface. (Did I mention Christian Stewart? That relationship establishes something absolutely vital to the rest of the series.) For Lymond, as never really for Buffy, the question is whether he can remain worthy of his own rather extraordinary Scooby gang, or whether his excesses will finally destroy it, and him.

FullSizeRenderThe other thing I found myself thinking about is how far both series rely on the power of storytelling and especially of great characterization to get us to accept features that might otherwise seem ridiculous. I’ve been watching these very interesting episode guides to Buffy, and one point that gets made repeatedly (and, I think, rightly) is that both the specific monsters and many particular plot points aren’t, if you look at all closely, that convincing. Once you’ve been won over to the series, however, none of that really matters: what does matter is that Joss Whedon and his team (including, of course, the actors who portray them) have created people we utterly believe in and care deeply about. Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn’t have to shrug anything off, whether it’s giant reptile creatures that look completely fake or strangely illogical curses that, when reversed, put homicidal sadists back in business. If you can admit that these are indeed wobbly bits but simply not care, however, that’s surely a sign that something else extraordinary is going on. I think the same is true of the Lymond Chronicles. There are many elements in them that, looked at in the cold analytical light of day, seem a bit … well, let’s just say far out there. The chess game I already mentioned, for instance: really? How stagy and melodramatic is that? But also, how terrifying, and tragic — and also, how apt, as a way to literalize the drawn-out competition between Lymond and Gabriel in which so many people have been used as pawns. The whole family scandal that motivates huge swathes of the plot, especially, finally, in Checkmate: really? How is that secret sufficient to the catastrophes it causes? Yet in the moment I never question that Lymond, or Sybilla, or Marthe, or anyone else would act or feel as they do. (I realize that my care to avoid overt spoilers makes this kind of inside baseball: sorry. But if you haven’t read the Lymond books already, I don’t want you to lose your chance to discover all of their secrets for yourself.) Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-TV-Series

I’m not saying it’s just the people and the stories that matter in either case. Buffy (as those episode guides nicely bring out) has lots going on thematically — mythologically, even, and the Lymond Chronicles are rich with historical and political contexts, and driven by a vision of what it meant to be alive and thinking at a particular moment in time. It does seem to me, though, that a lot of the powerful forward momentum both series have comes from the investment we make in their characters’ lives: it’s not just that we want to know what happens next (in itself, I think suspense is often a cheap device, one that doesn’t stand up to much rereading or rewatching) — it’s that we want to be with these people as it happens to them. The characters Dunnett creates are particularly rewarding to spend time with: they have many facets, they are flawed, they feel deeply, they think hard, and they talk wonderfully. Now that I think of it, that’s a third thing the series have in common — great dialogue!

What do you think: are these comparisons convincing at all? Can you think of other works that achieve greatness, as I’ve argued these do, almost in spite of themselves?

A side note: those are the covers I have on my editions of the Lymond Chronicles. They have so little to do with the novels it’s ridiculous. For starters, there is no blonde woman at all in The Ringed Castle (most of which is set, though you’d never guess it from the illustration, in Russia) and no redhead in Checkmate. Is that supposed to be Mariotta on the cover of Game of Kings? If so, what is she up to? Much as I love my battered old copies, I do sometimes wish for the more elegant Vintage editions.

“You’re the One”: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

buffyOver 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.

Buffy-creatorThe 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.

Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-TV-Series2. 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 …

Scooby_Gang_(Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer)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.

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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 …
370100 05: James Marsters as Spike stars in 20th Century Fox's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer Year 5." (Photo by Online USA)

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 …

glory6. … 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.

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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!

Scoobies

*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.”