Coming of age near the Hellmouth
Review by David Whitehouse | May 30, 2003 | Page 8
TELEVISION: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon and Anthony Stewart Head
UPN NETWORK executives must have thought that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was good promotional vehicle for their real money makers, "reality" TV shows. Between the segments of last week's farewell episode of Buffy--a series largely about female empowerment--UPN flooded viewers with promotions for a show that pits young women in a ruthless competition to become the next supermodel.
Buffy was more true to life than reality TV will ever be. Of course, the premise of the show is "unreal" enough. Buffy Summers must fight the monsters that are drawn to the Hellmouth--a portal that connects the demon world to ours.
But far from being truly alien, the show's fantastic elements resonate with our everyday emotional life. So, naturally, the Hellmouth belongs under a high school. The difference is that at Sunnydale High, the girl in chemistry class really can be a vampire, the jocks really can be monsters, and the principal really is plotting with the mayor to enslave us all.
Buffy's superpowers conform to conventions of comic books that target young people--who wish to gain mastery of overwhelming situations that involve sex, love and conflict. More than that, the gravity of her mission satisfies those who are ignored and overlooked, the nerds and nobodies who dream of "saving the world" and showing everybody how important they are.
These feelings affect most of the show's characters. Willow, for example, Buffy's self-described "mousy" best friend, is drawn to witchcraft because she's tired of being a sidekick. But the writers weaved in an opposite emotional pull.
Buffy sees her "slaying" tasks as externally imposed adult responsibilities that keep her from a carefree childhood. In case anybody missed the real-world resonance of this point, Buffy has to quit school and take a job at "Double-Meat Palace" after her mother suddenly dies.
Although Buffy was on its surest footing in the first three seasons--in the high school setting--the final four seasons have been well worth watching, especially to see Buffy's growing independence. Along the way, the concepts of good and evil became refined beyond comic-book fare.
The show began with a sharp distinction between good and bad creatures, depending on whether they had a soul or not. The weaknesses and passions of the "good" characters were the source of humor, not the seeds of evil.
At the start, only one character, Angel, bridged the two worlds. For 100 years the cruelest of vampires, Angel is now cursed with a soul that consumes him with remorse. This punishment outdoes even the fate of Sisyphus, since Angel's pain, like much of our own, is inflicted from inside.
But there's also something perverse about a "good" thing--a soul--whose function is to torment us. In another context, Buffy rejects this same--shall we say, Judeo-Christian?--kind of "good" authority that toys with us by testing our virtue with adversity She begins to break with Giles, her "Watcher" and tutor, when he participates in a "test" that exposes her to a vampire without her superpowers.
We learn more about what's really good, and where evil comes from, in the character of Faith, a second slayer who shows up in Season Three. Following a bout of torture at the hands of a vampire, Faith becomes an emotionally detached and self-centered pleasure-seeker who actually enjoys hunting vampires--and then feels no remorse when she starts to kill humans, too.
Faith begins to change later when she briefly trades bodies with Buffy and finds that she envies Buffy's "encumbered" life. Buffy has obligations, of course, but also has a sense of accomplishment, the respect of those around her, and a real, if troubled, emotional connection with her boyfriend. In the end, Faith turns around not because her "soul" fills her with guilt but because "fighting the good fight" makes for a better life.
The concept of evil also comes into sharper focus as the vampire theme is played out in episodes where characters draw their strength by taking it away from others. This includes taking pleasure in others' suffering, as Willow does in a vengeful rampage that nearly destroys the world after her gay lover, Tara, is murdered.
Through these struggles, Buffy and her friends--even some who started out with no souls--begin to choose "the mission" instead of having it chosen for them. By the final episode, the struggle becomes truly collective, and Buffy, though independent, is no longer alone. Not a bad message for a teen-angst dark comedy--that it's up to us to fight for a world free of "vampires," where my well-being doesn't come at your expense.