Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Meaning of Buffy

My first experience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was when I caught the end of Season 3 in the United States in 1999, and then some of Season 4 when I was back there in 2000. I liked it, but never managed to fully catch up with the plot and characters, and when I came back to New Zealand I wasn't motivated enough to stay in touch with the show as it made its delayed appearance here.

That's all changed, thanks to the DVD collection of my Joss Whedon-fanatic flatmate Noam. After getting Simon and I hooked with the 14 espiodes of the excellent, cruelly cancelled sci-fi/western Firefly, Noam convinced us to dip our toes in the Buffyverse, starting with Season 1, episode 1.

Seven seasons and 145 episodes later, I'm a confirmed Buffy fan and addict, teetering on the border of geekdom. Here's my take on the ups and downs of the series.

After setting the tone with Season 1's breezy, amateurish first twelve episodes, Buffy reached its peak in the classic second and third seasons. If these represent High Buffy, Season 4 is a baroque but enjoyable, and in my view underrated, follow through. Season 5 has one of the strongest narrative arcs of any season, and an extraordinary climax that would have made a fitting end to the series had it been discontinued, as thought possible at the time.

Then to the 'difficult' season six -- which has its passionate defenders, but which I found often slow and painful. Season 7 started out like a return to the lighter spirit of Season 1, but lost its way in mid season and wrapped things up too quickly in the last few episodes. By then I was becoming occasionally frustrated at what I saw as poor decisions and a loss of concentration by the writers -- a sure sign that geekdom is at hand.

This is my ranking of the seven seasons:

1. Season Three
2. Season Two
3. Season Five
4. Season Four
5. Season One
6. season Seven
7. Season Six

So to the long-winded ruminations on theme. Buffy is best known for making a literal conceit out of the idea that 'school is hell' and at the most obvious level is a meditation on growing up.

It's an understatement to say there's a lot more going on. Coming along at just the right time for the Cultural Studies crowd, few TV shows have inspired as much attention from academics. At least six or seven Buffy-inspired books have been published, ranging in genre from philosophy to self-help. There are academic conferences, and even a periodical run by serious scholars, Slayage: the Online Journal of Buffy Studies.

Along with the obvious messages about female empowerment, Whedon and his co-creators send nods and winks in the direction of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, and there's enough intertextuality to keep a literary theorist happy for a lifetime. The show can be interpreted as rampantly pagan or profoundly Christian and has been claimed by just about every point on the political spectrum.

A lot of this is just gleeful pastiche by the writing team. The intertextual references derive mainly from Whedon's own geekish fandom towards popular culture.

But there is a serious core that runs through the series. For me, Buffy is at root about the ongoing struggle to create a moral self out of unreliable raw material. It's portayals of selfhood, morality and freedom are sophisticated, challenging, and at time provocative.

What sets Buffy apart is its subversion of the normal expectations about narrative and character. Most fiction -- especially on TV -- is carried along by stable personalities making largely predictable choices. In the Buffyverse, things are a lot more complicated. For one thing, the Greek version of Fate is an active force . It cannot be changed, although its meaning is not always what it seems.

More interesting, though, is the show's unflinching engagement with postmodern and post-scientific deconstructions of the individual into a vehicle for competing biological and cultural agendas.

The presence of magic is the key means by which these sub-personal forces are explored. Under the influence of spells, charms and curses, characters' behaviour becomes unpredictable and transgressive. Beliefs, desires, abilities, sexual attraction, self-control and even sanity are up for grabs, and no character is spared from committing acts that leave them with shame or remorse.

Yet while these transformations are largely beyond the conscious control of individual characters, the experiences are remembered and become part of their personal histories (unlike, say, in Shakespearean comedy). Bumbling Xander's magical conversion into an elite soldier in an early episode leaves him with partly-controllable abilities that return to him in moments of crisis. Willow's encounter with her vampire doppelganger in Season 2 prefigures some of the latent elements of her character that will emerge later in the series. A crucial moment is during Season 3 when 'good vampire' Angel perfectly imitates his 'soulless' alter ego Angelus in order to set a trap for rogue slayer Faith. His ability to be so convincing forces Buffy into the discomforting recognition that Angel and Angelus are in some way part of the same being, not two entirely separate entities inhabiting the same body.

The show is also daring in its recognition of the importance of physical bodies, and other people's response to them, as determinants of character and identity. Spike's long road to redemption is an internal, personal one, but unthinkable without the chip placed in his head by the Initiative that physically prevents him from causing harm to humans. In a rather disturbing scene in Season 6, Dawn snuggles up with the lifeless, battery-powered Buffybot, drawing comfort from its resemblance to her (at that point) dead sister.

There's a monumental episode in Season 4, when Buffy and Faith swap bodies and Faith's attempt to 'own' Buffy's body by mimicking her speech and actions leads her to actually become more like Buffy. One of my favourite scenes in the whole series sees Faith, who has just taken over Buffy's body, standing in front of a mirror, making pious faces and practising saying: 'Because it's wrong'. At the climax of the episode, when she abandons her getaway to rescue a group of people trapped by vampires in a church, she utters the same phrase with a straight face.

So, Buffy is unusally radical in its recognition of the fragility of the self, the compromised nature of free will, and the non-moral bases of morality. Yet it makes clear that holding oneself together remains the fundamental human task. Moral freedom lies in the ability to evaluate one's strengths, weaknesses, and flaws, and decide what to make of them.

By this rationale, others are not be judged by whether their 'nature' is benign or monstruous, or even what they might have done, but whether there is hope that they might do other than evil (for most of Seasons 4, 5 and 6, the characters grudgingly suffer the presence of Spike because, however soulless, with his chip implanted he is harmless).

For most of its course, the show is pretty clear that you can't expect to definitively win the struggle -- those vampires always keep rising. But you can, as Buffy does, keep fighting the 'demons and the forces of darkness', day in, day out. And hopefully maintain some dignity and decency along the way.

Dark and disturbing as it often is, Buffy ultimately has a humanistic, and optimistic message. Although there will always be times when people will fail to keep a lid on their darker sides, this doesn't undermine the possibility of making things better. And as many have commented, the real glue that holds people's souls together is friendship (romantic love is at best an ambivalent force).

In another one of my favourite scenes, a monk who has been beaten to near-death by the hell-god Glory explains to Buffy that her younger sister Dawn is actually the Key, a ball of magical energy turned into human form and sent to Buffy to protect (the memories of Buffy, her family and friends have been magically altered). Buffy says to the dying monk "She's not my sister?" The monk replies: "She is...innocent". It's not what you are or where you've come from that matters -- but who you can become.

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H said...

So Angel next? I would sum it up as generally terrible but with many moments of sheer brilliance. I'm sure you will come up with something ever so profound, though.

Simon Bidwell said...

They used to show Buffy-4 and Angel-1 episodes back to back when I was in the US in 2000, and I recall liking them about equally (neither was as gripping as the Season 3 Buffy I'd seen previously, though that was around the climax of the season, so hard to compare. And I find Riley more sympathetic now...).

More pertinently, at the moment we only have the DVD of Angel Season 1 :)

Cecilia said...

Simon, are you working on a dissertation we don't know about it? Seems like you have most of it written anyway.

I personally would have put season 2 above season 3....

I am about the biggest Buffy geek of anyone I know. I didn't start watching until season 2 but I was a very hardcore devotee for a number of years. I would get together with my friends Richard and Bryan once a week and we would watch Buffy and Angel (sans commercials - we recorded it). Sort of the highlight of my week during a difficult adjustment period in life as a lowly and somewhat lonely scrivener. We even invented a drink called the Buffy (It has about 12 different things in it, resulting in a blue color.Two would get me utterly hammered). Once the Scooby gang left high school, I started liking Angel better, but even so, Buffy was strong through the end (I also am not so crazy about the last two seasons of Angel). I found the episode where Buffy's mother has died utterly, utterly shocking. It was so unexpected and horribly real. I think (though I may remember incorrectly) that it is the only episode that has no background sound or music. I could go on about the Buffy/Spike dynamic towards the end of the series but that would probably become a dissertation of my own...

Funnily enough, I just started watching Firefly this year as Mark has it on DVD. I like it a lot (and agree it is downright sacrilege to have canceled the show) but I still don't think it can touch Buffy, or the first few seasons of Angel for that matter.

Anyway, enjoy the rest of Angel. I think you have inspired me to run out and buy the complete Buffy series on DVD.

Simon Bidwell said...

Hey Cecilia, yes, I remember you talking about going to watch Buffy and Angel with Richard and Bryan.
But the real question is: are you as much of a geek as these people?