I would be comfortable saying that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the most influential single work made within my lifetime. Genre works in all mediums – television especially, but also films, comic books, and video games – have drawn on its postmodern approach to genre, its soap opera plotting tracking character emotions and relationships, and, God help us, its infinite well of snark. So it shouldn’t astound me to sit down and watch it now and find that not only is it doing things nobody does anymore, it’s doing things so old that they can be traced back through the horror genre all the way to old folk stories. The main difference between, say, Lucifer or Arrow and Buffy is that the former shows use genre elements like laws of physics, while Buffy is very consciously operating in a specific metaphorical headspace. This is a show that is designed, top to bottom, to show teenagers the world as they see it. Buffy being the One who was Chosen to fight vampires represents the way a teenager’s personal values – both in their morality and in their taste genre fiction – can set them apart from both their peers and adults. Angel is so obviously the fantasy of an older boy who projects both danger and a strange vulnerability that I was amused, then annoyed when it started working on me and I swooned over him alongside Buffy. It’s no wonder this show was so popular with teenagers, because it starts with the idea that their entire perception of the world is correct.
The show’s ingenuity is in applying this morality to old-school storytelling. I said it goes back to folk stories, but what I really found myself thinking of all season was EC Horror comics; there’s a consistent formula where Buffy and her friends are living their lives, a monster emerges, it leaves clues as to its true nature behind, and the kids put the clues together, figure out what’s happening, and fight the monster, sometimes ending on an awesome “the monster is dead… OR IS IT?” twist. Of course, the defining aspect of those horror stories was that they were morality plays – someone broke the moral order of things, and the story shows the restoration of the correct moral order. One of the things that stuck with me from my Firefly series was when DJ JD said he disliked the bit where YoSaffBridge recites a Bible verse because she’s not actually reciting anything you can find in the Bible, because it struck me that Whedon had written something that sounds like it could have been from the Bible rather than anything actually specific from it. Buffy’s first season seems like the same kind of instinct – he’s given us something that resembles an EC Horror comic but with an entirely original construction.
It’s a pretty great idea, but the writing isn’t all there yet. The main issue is the pacing of individual episodes; I usually guessed the whole solution to the mystery in the cold open, making the entire episode a tepid rollout of the inevitable. The best episode in this respect is “The Puppet Master”, because it successfully pulls off a bait-and-switch halfway through; it comes to closest to living up to the Charles Dexter Ward principle of the solution being four times bigger than the clues. There are a few positive payoffs to this though. The first is that each episode has at least one really vivid image that sticks in the brain; my favourite is the gruesome fate of the eponymous character in “The Witch”, but I also enjoy things like the robot demon with a gentle HAL-like voice, Xander playing with a puppet while unaware it’s sentient, and the completely non-supernatural horror of a yearbook filled with the phrase “Have a nice summer!”. As an extension to this, there’s that famous Whedon wit that keeps getting funnier as the show goes on.
The other, more important aspect is the characters. wallflower has repeatedly described Whedon characters as cliches who gradually become something strange and unique (one of many reasons I finally came around to the show in the first place, because I go nuts for that shit), and while that hasn’t quite happened yet, they are stereotypes who deliver their cliches with complete emotional sincerity (something else I got nuts for). My favourite character of the season was Giles; he’s an exposition machine that provides Buffy with support that’s both well-meaning enough to help and flawed enough that Buffy has both the tension and triumph of needing to take care of herself, but his arc of slowly developing paterfamilial love for her is so raw and powerful. “Nightmares” mainly plays with generic images of nightmares, but the image of him on his knees at Buffy’s graves hits because it’s a logical extension of everything he’s done and felt so far. As I often do, I chose to watch this at a strangely convenient time, because over the past month I’ve gotten closer to my friends’ kids for the first time, and I found a lot of resonance with how Giles seems confused and awed by this child’s mixture of strength and vulnerability that leaves her either independent of or dependent on him at unexpected moments, and surprised by his own paternal feelings towards a kid he’s not related to and still barely knows.
And there are two episodes where everything seems to click right into gear, which not coincidentally are where the formula is dropped and the series embraces a simple dramatic structure. “Angel” is the first genuinely great episode of the series; there’s exactly one reveal, where Buffy discovers the eponymous character is a vampire and that teenager myth of the dangerous older boy is allowed to play out on exactly the scale teenagers believe their stories happen on. The second is the season finale. If you pull back on a structural level, this is a story that says “this thing is going to happen” at the start and then has it happen at the end, with exactly one episode in the middle that shows supervillain The Master advancing his cause before sitting on his hands waiting for the thing to happen, which I think contributes to the overall sense that this isn’t that great a season; we’re basically waiting to get to the fireworks factory the whole time. But when it hits, it hits hard and forces all the characters to mobilise. Xander was my least favourite character through the series, starting out as an insecure fuckup who found a way to botch things for Buffy in every episode; he slowly improved, and then basically slammed his foot on the accelerator and became greatest dude ever in the finale, not just finally sucking it up and asking Buffy out directly, not just taking rejection relatively in stride (he babbles a bit but ultimately pulls back to brood over it alone), but powering through it when Buffy is in crisis, recognising that Angel and not he is ultimately who can help her, and hardcore owning the vamp into saving the day for them.
This is not the only emotional throughline of the episode. Buffy’s arc has been how her heroism is powered by empathy for other people; in any given situation, she’ll try and see things from the other person’s perspective and work out what will damage the fewest amount of people. Much like Peter Parker, she’s the fantasy of a people-pleaser who wants a win-win situation for everyone; unlike Peter Parker, this season delves more into how that can make someone a willing martyr. The finale shows the end result of that, as Buffy willingly sacrifices her life to save everyone she cares about, and it’s only that very community she’s saving that saves her in return – even Cordelia, the bully who Buffy made a small kind of peace with only one episode before, helps her out in a small way. Like everything that lead up to it, it’s not a particularly original sentiment, but it’s done with enough conviction that it makes me feel. I can already tell that this season has the same relationship with the rest of Buffy that The Shield‘s first season has with the rest of its show – something both hobbled and supported by resembling a more typical genre exercise that will be used as a foundation for greatness when it gets past those simpler thrills.
- What’s really unsettling is that two of my friends’ kids are best friends, and they bear a striking resemblance to Buffy and Willow, both individually and as a dynamic.
- This is actually not my first attempt – I tried sitting down to watch it when I was sixteen in 2007 after already having been a Firefly fan, but found its style an initial bumpiness annoying and gave up about four episodes in. Strange that I had to get older to grasp its teenaged worldview; of course, it wasn’t a power fantasy I could identify with at the time, a need I no longer get from fiction.
- The Master is a real testament to Whedon’s skills. In theory, he’s a generic supervillain, but both his dialogue and Mark Howes Metcalf’s performance meant I was delighted whenever he was onscreen.
- One of the pleasures of this series is seeing how things I loved in Firefly were set up here; Xander in particular strikes me as a young version of Wash, not yet confident enough in himself to take a backseat. I also like how Whedon’s dialogue, a flowery and stylised affectation in a space opera, becomes a nervous teen energy here.
- Speaking of The Shield, I was delighted to see Scott Brazil’s name in the directing credit for “Angel”.
- “Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight” holds the record for unintentional laughs. First, I laughed when I noticed how consistently poorly the teachers of Sunnydale High time their lessons to the bell. Second, I couldn’t help but compare the villain’s “look, listen, learn” message to those “live, laugh, love” signs. Thirdly, the book she reads at the end very obviously contains the lyrics to “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”.
- My favourite scene in the whole season is the opening to “The Puppet Master”, where the kids tease Giles for having to run the talent show. It feels the most-lived in and it earns its sentimentality with a casual joy. The one upside to the formulaic storytelling is that it makes fighting the MOTW feel like the show’s day job, around which warmth is allowed to culminate.
- You know, for a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s weird that less than half the episodes are about vampires, right?