It’s Thursday afternoon, and I just watched “Chosen,” the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for the fourth time.
I know what you’re thinking. Only four times? Well, I did have to go to work and sleep and stuff, too…
I’m not sure I will be able to encapsulate what Buffy has meant to me, or the dozens of conflicting emotions I’m feeling at its conclusion. This is more about me than about the show, but I’m exposed to a lot of artistic expression on a regular basis. So much, in fact, that as I’ve grown, my buttons have become harder to push, and any movie, album or show that wants a piece of my heart really has to work for it these days. Most things I see and hear are immediately relegated to the “whatever” file, coaxing forth no emotional reaction whatsoever. Some, but less and less as the years go by, entrench themselves in a quiet corner of my being, and are content with the occasional fond thought. A very few set up shop in my soul and proceed to rewrite my life.
For the last year and a half, Buffy has rescripted my whole existence, and all but owned my heart. I quote it more than anything I have ever seen. I view events in my life through the show’s unique prism, and find my point of view has been changed, altered and revised by something as seemingly ludicrous as a television show about vampires and the woman who kills them. No other work of popular culture, least of all a television show, has affected me as deeply and enriched me as fully as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Go ahead. Laugh. I am. I honestly never expected such a reaction from myself to this show. Eighteen months ago, I was just like most of the country – I had, of course, heard of Buffy, and in fact had read numerous articles and reviews about the show’s razor-sharp wit and deep emotional undercurrent, but I’d never gotten around to watching a single episode. One thing that scared me away was the reportedly labyrinthine mythology the show had crafted, rendering casual viewing impossible – you have to start from the beginning. This is absolutely true, by the way.
And here’s where I thank God for Jody Bane. I met Jody in Indiana, and she’s one of those people with such a sweet nature that you immediately start looking for things about which to make fun of her, because you know she’ll take it well. I ragged on her for reading V.C. Andrews books (especially the ones ghost-written long, long after Andrews died), and for her pathological fear of sharks. And I also ragged on her for loving Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And rather than simply saying “piss off,” she lent me her entire Buffy collection, one season at a time, until I was caught up. By that time, of course, I was also just as much of a raving fan as she was.
What is it about Buffy that turned so many people off? At the height of its popularity, the show barely pulled in 5.5 million viewers, and the average for the just-completed seventh and final season was around 3.9 million. The show was always ranked near the bottom of the top 100, and never got a major Emmy award. What kept people away?
Where to start answering that one? First, there’s the silly title. Then there’s the premise – Buffy Summers is a teenage vampire slayer, and her home of Sunnydale, California rests on a Hellmouth, a center of mystical activity used by the writers as an excuse to flood the show with monsters and demons. Buffy fights evil and usually gets home in time to study for mid-terms. Sounds utterly dumb, right? Then mix in the fact that this show never hid from its cheesy elements – rather, it embraced them and flaunted them, usually as a prelude to turning them on their ears. We got giant snake demons, rotting zombies, tacky-looking werewolves, evil gods from hell dimensions, praying mantis demons, talking floating eyeballs, hyena spirits, and demons with squishy, foam-looking shark heads. Oh, and vampires. Lots of vampires.
And yet we also got the most fully rounded, fully realized characters ever created for television. We got layers of metaphor and symbolism – every hellish threat Buffy and her friends faced represented something else, and usually something directly related to the emotional state of the characters. We got characters who grew and changed in ways simply unprecedented on series television. In its best moments, we got the sharpest writing of any show that has ever aired. And best of all, amidst all the unreality of Sunnydale, we got genuine, deeply felt pain and struggle. When that struggle culminated in redemption, as it often did, Buffy earned every second of joy and release with hours and hours of real anguish – and not that Party of Five kind of melodramatic anguish, either, but the kind of pain that cuts right to the soul, every time.
Buffy started out, in the words of creator and all-around genius Joss Whedon, as a way to redeem “that blond girl” in all the horror films. You know the one – she’s cute but kind of dumb, which is why she’s walking around dark alleys at night, just begging for the monsters to kill her. Whedon envisioned that blond girl walking into the same alley, but instead of being afraid of the monster, she’s ready for it, and she trounces it. It’s a simple yet revolutionary concept – most major networks passed on Buffy because a) the feature film (also written by Whedon) was bollocksed up beyond belief, and b) they didn’t think an action show featuring a female hero would work.
Even from the start, though, Buffy has always been more than an action show. Sure, there are big dumb fights in every single one of the show’s 144 episodes, even in ones you kinda wish didn’t have them, but even during the monster-of-the-week years, Buffy was fighting on metaphorical levels. Longer story arcs bore this out and expanded on it. When, for example, the mayor of Sunnydale turned into a giant snake at Buffy’s graduation and tried to devour all the students, it was representative of the real world, waiting to eat you alive once you leave high school.
The series’ most potent metaphor early on came out of Buffy’s relationship with Angel, a brooding vampire with a soul. As a result of a gypsy curse, Angel was given a conscience, forced to remember and regret all of his misdeeds over 200 years as a vampire. However, he must continue to suffer for the curse to stay in effect – one moment of true happiness, and Angel goes stark raving evil once again. That moment arrives in Season Two when Buffy and Angel consummate their relationship, and Angel quickly joins the other side and starts killing Buffy’s friends.
As Whedon said, this is certainly a story about vampires and slayers, but it’s also a story about every teenage girl’s fear – that your boyfriend will change once you give in and sleep with him. The resolution of this arc at the end of Season Two (in a beautiful two-parter written and directed by Whedon) provided the show’s first truly emotional powerhouse.
Whedon also played with television convention throughout Buffy‘s run. His only Emmy nod for writing was for “Hush,” an episode in Season Four that contained a half-hour without dialogue. This episode was Whedon’s breakthrough as a director as well, and remains visually one of the creepiest entries in the Buffy canon, but he matched and surpassed it with “Restless,” the Season Four finale told almost entirely in dream sequences.
Then there’s “The Body,” one of the most wrenching and devastating hours of television ever filmed. It’s a sustained portrait of grief – Buffy’s mother, the ever-wonderful Joyce Summers, succumbed to brain cancer unexpectedly the episode before – that explores the silences between characters during periods of mourning. “The Body” contains no incidental music, and consists almost entirely of muted conversations and perfectly drawn character moments.
And of course, no discussion of Whedon’s many achievements would be complete without mentioning “Once More, With Feeling,” a full-blown musical episode that dances rings around any such stunt attempted on television before. The key to its success is that it wasn’t a stunt – Whedon developed a logical reason for characters to burst into song, and used that device to dramatically shift the ongoing plot of Season Six. He also wrote some amazing songs, ones that revealed his characters in new ways. “Once More” is not a standalone, but an essential piece of the story, and therein lies its brilliance.
In fact, in many ways, therein lies the brilliance of the series as a whole. Buffy utilized television’s capacity for long-form narrative better than any show before it. Over seven years, Whedon allowed his characters to change dramatically, yet logically. Where shows like My So-Called Life developed themes over the course of an episode, Buffy developed them over a season, at least. The full scope of the show’s themes were often only clarified after the season finale, and as they unfurled, the characters developed along with them.
Look at the Core Four characters – Buffy, luckless Xander Harris, shy Willow Rosenberg and stuffy Rupert Giles – in the first two seasons, and then contrast that with later seasons. Buffy is no longer the confident chosen one – she’s become sullen, hard-edged and withdrawn. Willow has overcome her insecurity to become a powerful witch, yet is unaware that the insecurity remains at her core, and that her self-image can shatter like glass. Xander has become a successful carpenter – perhaps the most successful of the four – and has a balance about him that only comes with experience. And Giles has removed himself from his long-treasured role of father figure and grown much more at ease in the process.
And much of the credit must go to the actors and actresses, all of whom flew above and beyond. Alyson Hannigan, for example, took Willow from the meek bookworm of Season One to the confident wicca of Season Five to the fragile addict of Season Six, and finally to the brink of inhumanity and back in that season’s amazing finale. Her work is consistently genuine – you feel Willow’s immense pain, her yearning to be more than she thinks she is, and her intensely powerful nature which she fears she cannot control. She and all the other players brought genuine life to these characters, so much so that they regularly transcend the word characters. These people feel real.
No one did a better job of that than Sarah Michelle Gellar, the slayer herself. I realized some time ago that I take Gellar for granted, and that I hardly ever notice what an incredible job she does each episode. She embodies Buffy so completely that I often forget I’m watching an actress play a role – she simply is Buffy. In many ways, she’s had the most difficult journey – Buffy has had to struggle with the fatal flaw at the center of the slayer power: that it isolates its user and disconnects her from the world. Buffy has grown increasingly harsh throughout the series, and Gellar never flinched from showing us the worst sides of Buffy’s life.
And here I have to talk about Season Six, the most reviled chapter of the Buffy novel. It’s perhaps no secret that Buffy died at the end of Season Five, sacrificing herself to save her pseudo-sister, Dawn. (Which is a whole other can of metaphorical worms…) It should also come as no surprise that Willow and Xander resurrected her at the start of Season Six. But what did surprise most viewers was Whedon’s gutsy decision to make the rest of the season about that resurrection – its consequences, and Buffy’s intense, desperate pain. All of the characters, in fact, spend this season in hell, and the darkness of S6 contrasted beautifully with the balance of light and dark in prior seasons.
That this darkness coincided with the lowest ratings of the show’s run should also be no surprise. Longtime fans defected, mostly because the show wasn’t giving them what they signed on for, and they didn’t want to see beloved characters put through the slow, horrifying wringer week after week. These people missed the transformation of this show from spry yet resonant mythology to unparalleled emotional conduit. S6 connects viscerally like no other season, and it earns its resplendent finale. No other season ender packs quite the punch of “Grave,” anchored by terrific performances by our Core Four.
By comparison, Season Seven has been sloppy and somewhat disappointing, but still some of the best that television has (or has ever had) to offer. Among the highlights this year was “Selfless,” an hilarious and touching look at ex-demon Anya; “Conversations With Dead People,” the creepiest episode this side of “Hush”; “Storyteller,” in which formerly evil geek Andrew presents events from his hysterically skewed point of view; and “Dirty Girls,” a poem of menace and death that concludes with an assault on one of our dearest characters.
And, of course, “Chosen,” Whedon’s final goodbye. I find myself with an internal conflict about this episode, which is easily one of the series’ best. It suffers, unfortunately, from its 42-minute running time, and leaves many questions (Beljoxa’s Eye, what Joyce meant in her ghostly early-season appearances, how the splintering of the Slayer line led to the First Evil’s attack, where the amulet came from, who planted the talisman in “Lessons,” and on and on) unanswered, hanging for eternity. My brain is unsatisfied – it keeps saying, “That’s it? But…but…”
My heart, however, which Buffy has always coveted more, is completely fulfilled. Whedon’s steadfast refusal to say goodbye to his characters, and his decision to underplay virtually every potentially heart-rending moment, somehow gave “Chosen” more resonance than had he gone full-out with the tears. Buffy herself reaches a point in her journey that leaves us with a more complete sense of hope than at any other time in the series, and the genuine, subtle smile on which the show concludes feels like closure.
The scene to which I keep returning, however, is a small one in the grand scheme, and like everything about “Chosen,” it was beautifully subtle. Moments before the big final battle with the First, Buffy joins the rest of the Core Four in the hallway of Sunnydale High, full circle from the show’s beginning. Here, I thought, would be the tears, the emotional reconciliations, and the final goodbyes. The foursome had been torn apart by recent seasons, and nothing had seemed right between them since Joyce’s death. I braced myself for the last conversation.
And they threw it away. Rather than have them address the rifts I was sure had grown between them, the Core Four got together one last time, and they just were. They talked about what they’d do the day after the apocalypse, and made a grand reference to the first episode, but basically, they just were. And it was beautiful. How foolish of me, I thought, to imagine that they would be anything else than perfectly together, and how foolish to think that they would need words to communicate that togetherness to each other. All of the recriminations and pain that have threatened to tear them apart never even got close to the center of this group. The point of that scene was that nothing, nothing will ever break these four. And they said it by not needing to say it.
It’s without a doubt my favorite moment of the series as a whole.
But there are others, countless others. Buffy, like life, is a collection of small moments amid the bigger goings-on, and it’s the small moments that you end up treasuring. Here are a few that I love, in chronological order:
When Angel, embracing her, lets himself be burned by Buffy’s cross necklace in “Angel.”
When Willow first encounters real, sadistic evil in “Prophecy Girl.”
When Buffy and Giles discuss life at the end of “Lie to Me.”
When Angel (the evil version) makes his first cut into Buffy’s heart in “Innocence” – “Love you too. I’ll call you.”
When Buffy whispers “close your eyes” in “Becoming.”
When Giles and Joyce, um, get to know each other in “Band Candy.”
When Buffy finds out about that in “Earshot.”
When Xander, sporting a sly smile, walks right by Cordelia at the end of “The Zeppo.”
When Buffy and Angel share a last dance in “The Prom.”
When Oz panics in “Graduation Day.”
When a neutered Spike tries to feed off of Willow in “The Initiative.”
When Giles chases Professor Walsh in “A New Man.”
When Faith in Buffy’s body repeatedly tries out the phrase, “Because it’s wrong,” in “Who Are You.”
When Willow chooses Tara in “New Moon Rising” – “You have to be with the one you love,” Tara stammers, and Willow replies, “I am.”
When Giles sings “The Exposition Song” in “Restless.”
When Angel and Riley meet in “The Yoko Factor.”
When Willow and Tara dance at the end of “Family.”
When Anya desperately tries to understand loss in “The Body.”
When Dawn and Buffy embrace at the end of “Forever.”
When Buffy delivers her final message to Dawn in “The Gift.”
When Xander and Anya sing “I’ll Never Tell” in “Once More, With Feeling.”
When Tara leaves at the end of “Tabula Rasa.”
When Buffy refuses to believe she didn’t come back “wrong” in “Dead Things.”
When Tara reconciles with Willow in “Entropy” – “It’s a long, complicated process, and can’t we just skip it? Can’t you just be kissing me?”
When Giles enters at the end of “Two to Go.”
When Willow collapses into Xander’s arms at the end of “Grave.”
When Spike reveals his soul in “Beneath You.”
When Buffy offers her strength to Willow in “Same Time Same Place.”
When Anya sings “Mrs.” in “Selfless.”
When Buffy talks with Holden Webster in “Conversations With Dead People.”
When Xander comforts Dawn at the end of “Potential” – “You’re not special. You’re extraordinary.”
When Andrew runs out of stories at the end of “Storyteller.”
When Xander asks Willow not to cry in “Empty Places.”
When Spike declares his love, and Buffy finally listens, in “Touched.”
There are, of course, many more I’ve forgotten, but that’s the way it goes when something rewrites your life. The good parts are just too many to list, and the extraordinary parts don’t translate into words. So how does one say goodbye to something like this? (Well, “Grrr Argh” comes to mind…) I’m not sure. Now that the shape of the series as a whole has become clear, it feels more like an arrival than a departure. Still, one must say goodbye somehow.
There’s a woman who posts under the name Duskfire on one of the message boards, and for all of S7 she has eloquently, insightfully and poetically analyzed the themes and characters. Her signature file perfectly echoes my sentiments, so I hope she doesn’t mind if I reproduce that here: “To the cast and crew of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Thank you could never cover it.”
But in the end, I have to come back to the epitaph the show wrote for itself, back in Season Five. Many have used it in the days since the finale to end articles like this one, but it captures the spirit of the show better than anything I could come up with. So, one last farewell to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
She saved the world. A lot.
See you in line Tuesday morning.