A. The Purpose of This Site
[Updated April 29, 2013]
I originally created this web site for two purposes: to comment on and analyze the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and to post the annotations I’ve made to certain specific references in the text of the transcripts. The second of these goals got modified along the way, mostly because it proved cumbersome. I actually have transcripts, and I’ve annotated them via footnotes and hyperlinks as described below. I ended up not posting them because I don’t own the transcripts I have – I’ve copied them from other sites and I feel a bit uncomfortable about using them. They’re also long and in different formats; cleaning them up to be uniform would be a lot of trouble even if length were no issue.
What I’ve done instead of providing annotated transcripts is add a series of “trivia notes” at the end of each episode post. These are the most interesting of the annotations which I have here on my computer and I’ll refer to them as such below.
Both the essays and the annotations/trivia notes require some explanation about the choices I made when I embarked on this project, so I need to begin by describing how and why I divided the project as I have.
Annotations to any literary work – and I include television and movies as literary works, just like plays – can take many forms. In general, the editor is trying to supply information s/he thinks the reader may need in order to understand the text. The trouble is, the phrase “understand the text” is vague. Understand what about the text, specifically? The meaning of words? Cultural references? Jokes? Metaphors? The author’s intent? How the original audience reacted?
Let me give one example to underscore the difficulty and the choices annotators have to make. The scene is just after the credits in Episode 28, Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered:
“Sunnydale High School …. Cordelia walks up the steps from the street. She sees her friends sitting on a wall and heads over to them. When they see her coming they all stand up and make their way toward the main entrance, [moving quickly].
Cordelia: Wait up. Hey, wait up! (jogs to catch up) Excuse me! Where's the fire sale?”
Consider the dialogue here. “Fire sale” is a reasonably familiar term. It means a sale which takes place after a business suffers a fire. The merchandise may have suffered some damage, but there may be good deals to be had as well. Similarly, the idiomatic expression “where’s the fire?” means that someone is rushing off as if in an emergency. There’s no direct connection between the two expressions, yet it works in this dialogue for the simple reason that we, the viewers, know that Cordelia’s friends are superficial twits; they would never rush off to rescue anyone from a fire, but would elbow their way through a crowd if they thought they could get a good deal on some clothing. The line is funny because the context makes the unique juxtaposition of the phrases appropriate.
Now, imagine that someone tried to explain every witticism in any TV show or other text, particularly one noted for its sophisticated word play (as BtVS is). The annotations would be infinite. Well, at least they’d be extensive; by the count of Emily Dial-Driver and Jesse Stallings there are over 4000 allusions made during the course of the show. I can’t even be sure I caught them all.
Different annotations treat these issues in different ways. A reader of Chaucer probably needs more help with the meaning of words than does a reader of Shakespeare. Both could probably use some help with cultural references, but the editor has to make arbitrary decisions in both cases: which words are more likely to be unfamiliar, and which references no longer resonate? Worse yet, these factors change over time; an annotation made in 1860 would make different choices than an annotation in 2013.
Now to the choices. I adopted a 3-part solution to the problem. First, I decided that analysis takes up too much space to work well with footnotes. The really sophisticated annotations of classical literature – an example would be Charles Singleton’s 6 volume edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy – end up longer than the text itself. Most of the time, people who watch the show don’t want to search through that volume of analysis to find the specific reference they want. They just want to know, for example, what Shakespeare play was the source of the Master’s greeting in The Wish. (He said, “What news on the
?”; the reference is
to The Merchant of Venice, Act III,
Scene 1.) Rialto
My analysis is contained in the episode essay. The trivia notes mention information about the cultural references, whether Shakespeare or Star Wars. I use links much of the time because they’re less disruptive to the reader. Be aware that the link won’t necessarily take you to the precise information – you might have to read the page or make an inference from the information supplied in the link. On rare occasions, when I think some explanation of the text is necessary or when I can’t find a good link, I add the explanation in the notes.
Most of the links go to Wikipedia. That’s not because it’s necessarily the best source, but because it’s the easiest for the reader. Also, I can count on such links being available in the future, which isn’t always the case for smaller sites. I tried to avoid commercial sites for references to specific products – it just seemed tacky to link there.
I tried to use the trivia notes sparingly. With the exceptions mentioned above, they serve as cross-references when the characters refer back to events in an earlier episode. For example, at the beginning of the episode Angel, Xander asks Buffy to dance. She responds, “Rain check?” Xander eventually does get his dance, though not quite the way he expected, in When She Was Bad. These internal references within the show add, I think, to the literary value of the show, and the writers clearly expected the audience to remember the original scenes and relate them to the later ones.
I chose not to annotate word meaning except in cases when I thought an idiom was unusual or peculiarly American, and in that case I hyperlinked in most cases. I did not annotate the many English slang terms used by Giles and Spike – in general they express emotion, so no exact “translation” is necessary to get the idea.
The decision not to annotate meaning may seem odd given the purpose of this site. “Buffyspeak” has always struck viewers as one of the most noteworthy features of the show, and was creative enough to attract the attention of linguists (see Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon and Neologize Much?). Some of the dialogue requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of English. Take, for example, this passage from The Prom:
“Buffy: Then what? What's with the dire?
Angel: It's uh, it's nothing.
Buffy: No, you have 'something' face.
Angel: I think we need to talk, but not now and not here.
Buffy: No. No, if you have something to say, then say it. (silence) Angel, drop the cryptic.”
Angel: It's uh, it's nothing.
Buffy: No, you have 'something' face.
Angel: I think we need to talk, but not now and not here.
Buffy: No. No, if you have something to say, then say it. (silence) Angel, drop the cryptic.”
A footnote wouldn’t really do justice to this passage. Words like “dire” and “cryptic” aren’t given unusual definitions, they’re just used in unusual ways (an adjective as a noun). My judgment is that I can expect native English speakers to understand the dialogue today. If and when that changes in the future, it may be necessary to include explanations of meaning.
I’m fully aware that my distinction between word meaning and cultural reference is artificial. Pretty much all nouns have a real world referent. The distinction I’m drawing (very subjectively) is between those which have long usage and those which refer to more ephemeral things or events which would have been recognized by many viewers at the time of the original broadcast, but are now dated (or carbon dated, to use a Buffyism).
I had to make other judgment calls as well. Take spoilers, for example. If I cross-reference an earlier episode with a later one, I run the risk of disclosing plot points to people reading for the first time. I’ve therefore only cited the earlier episode in the later one and not vice versa. The same holds true in the episode essays (see below) – no spoilers for future episodes.
Words or phrases with multiple meanings also pose a judgment call. This tends to be especially true for titles, where the writers tried to express multiple themes very compactly. What I generally did was link the most unusual meaning and assume the reader would understand the others from the context of the episode. In a few cases I noted a second meaning.
Then there’s the problem of continuity. BtVS ran 7 seasons and each episode built on the previous ones. The writers could reasonably expect the audience to keep track of basic plot points and characterization. For this reason, I’ve noted references to characters or general events only when at least one episode intervened and tried to use common sense on what constitutes a “reference” and what is merely continuity. When the allusion is to a specific statement or event, I note it even if it occurred in the previous episode, but not if it happened in the current one.
Lastly there’s the perhaps related problem of multiple usages of terms. Take the word “Scooby”, for example. It appears in many episodes, often several times in a particular one. Should I annotate only the first time it appears? Only the first time in each episode? I’ve compromised somewhat and adopted the former approach. As Buffy herself would say (and did say), “Life is short.”
Having limited hyperlinks and footnotes this way leaves plenty of room for my third strategy, namely essays and comments on each episode and on the season as a whole. It’s in these essays that I’ll talk about all the other features of BtVS which made it such a powerful and important show. I guess that means I should now explain what I understand to be those features.
B. The Importance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“Buffy remains the most intensely studied television series by television critics and scholars in the history of television. *** Seven years after the final episode of Buffy there seems to be no end in sight of books and essays and academic conferences covering every conceivable aspect of the series. Even critically acclaimed series like The Sopranos and The Wire receive only a small percentage of the critical attention that Buffy [has]. The reason, I believe, lies in this rich subtext undergirding the show. We can say so much about Buffy because it says so much on so many levels.”
Robert Moore, http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/137783-why-a-spotlight-on-joss-whedon/ [Note: PopMatters has taken down its essays from which I’ve quoted and has reissued them as a book. The links were correct originally but aren’t any more.]
Actor James Marsters says, “I am not surprised at all that the show in any form continues to live on. It's a very potent metaphor. I don't want to oversell this but it's the same theme as Catcher in the Rye, it's the same theme as Hamlet; how do you get through adolescence? How do you get through the period from childhood to adulthood when you realize the world is not a perfect place? How do you care about the world, how do you not give up on the world, how do you accept the fact that it is a corrupt environment and still engage it? I think that's an important thing to talk about, I think that artists should go back there more often, and I'm really glad Joss was able to find a metaphor to talk about something that is a serious subject with so much humor.” http://www.411mania.com/movies/columns/228484/411mania-Interviews:-James-Marsters-(Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer,-Angel).htm
We can evaluate the importance of literature (broadly defined to include theater, movies and television) in many ways, e.g., by its theme, its social impact, its subtext, or its creative use of language. I’m going to touch on all these factors in explaining why I wrote the essays. I’ll begin with perhaps the least significant, namely the social impact of the show.
1. Social Impact
There’s no rule that says works of great art or literature need to have any significant impact on the culture of their own day – there are many famous stories of artists unappreciated in their own lifetimes – but it’s certainly a consideration. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a social importance out of proportion to the number of its viewers.
One reason for that was its relation to the internet. The show debuted in March 1997, just as the internet was beginning to come into widespread use. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first TV show to set up its own internet site, complete with a posting board (called, appropriately enough, The Bronze). Fans of the show took full advantage of the internet access; Buffy discussions took on an importance on the net which they probably never had in everyday life. There’s even a book about the show’s internet impact.
In addition, the internet created new options for the genre of “fanfic”. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an author of “fanfic” takes an incident from a book, movie, or TV show and explores an issue which never happened in the original. It might be a character issue, a relationship, or a plot device. While the term “fanfic” is new, the concept is not. A great deal of literature consists of “fanfic”. The Aeneid, for example, is really just “fanfic” on the Iliad. Same with much of Greek tragedy. I don’t mean to suggest that Buffy fanfic rises to this level, I just mean that the basic idea has a long pedigree.
What’s important about Buffy fanfic is the sheer quantity. There’s a web site, http://www.fanfiction.net/tv/, which collects fanfic on every imaginable show. Even today, almost 10 years after the series finale, there’s more Buffy fanfic than there is for any other TV show ever except Glee and Supernatural. Other sites can be found following this link and searching the page for the word “fanfic”. BtVS was also a popular source for songfic.
Buffy impacted popular culture in other important ways as well. My saying this will be controversial among some fans, for reasons I’ll explain in an essay on the episode Seeing Red, but Buffy was a pioneering show in how it handled gay relationships. It’s perhaps too early even now to be sure if the standards it set will be matched by television more generally, but the potential is there.
While these social impacts make the show worthy of consideration, they aren’t the focus of my analysis, though I’ll certainly mention them along the way. I intend to concentrate on literary and thematic analysis. Before I get to that, I first need to back up a minute and talk about the general topic of analyzing literary texts.
2. How do we decide what a TV show is “about”?
I suppose that, by now, it’s a commonplace that every viewer watches a different show. Each viewer processes an episode through the lens of his or her previous life experience. That means a focus on different portions of the episode, a different regard for the various characters, a different understanding of the metaphors, a different take on the morality of a character’s actions. It’s impossible to avoid this problem; I’m not going to pretend that my analysis is “objective”. I am, though, going to pretend that my analysis is thoughtful. I’ve given it a lot of thought, anyway, some might say too much thought (quick, which character have I quoted?). In addition, I’m going to supplement my own analysis with comments from elsewhere on the internet (again, with attribution) so that each essay should reflect different points of view.
Why, someone might ask, am I devoting all this work to a TV show, much less one with the silly title of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Maybe it’s the title, but lots of people dismissed Buffy out of hand without ever watching it (or watching very little). On its surface, the show might appear to be nothing more than a female Steven Seagal movie – the main character uses martial arts to defeat the bad guys. That certainly does describe the show; it’s just not the only way to see it. I don’t insist that my way of seeing the show is the only way, or even the best way. I do think, though, that it’s an important way, one fully justified by the text.
You could also watch Hamlet just for the cool sword fights. That wouldn’t be wrong so much as incomplete. The question with every work of literature is not “what’s the least sophisticated way to understand the work?”, it’s “what’s the most sophisticated way?”. Think of it like this – we don’t judge a composer like Mozart on the basis of his worst composition, but on his greatest. What separates Mozart from the ordinary composer is not his weakest pieces, ones an ordinary composer might even write, but his strongest ones, the ones no other person could have written. That should be the way we judge literature as well.
So, can Buffy be seen as something more than a story about a pretty girl who kicks ass? Obviously I think it can. It’s a story about friendship and family, forgiveness and redemption, and about duty, sacrifice and courage. There’s humor, including brilliant satire on high school, and there’s tragedy. If Buffy really is “about” these themes, and if those themes are handled well, that makes it worth our attention. Worth our attention in the way a novel or play can be? Yes.
3. Why Buffy is Important
In my view, the great art form of the twentieth century was the movie, of which I consider TV a sub-class. This doesn’t mean that it was the only art form; obviously, novels and paintings, plays and sculpture, music and architecture all remained important. It also doesn’t mean that every movie made was great, any more than every canvas painted during the Renaissance was great or all music written during the lifetime of J. S. Bach was great. It does mean that, at their best, movies were artistic masterpieces. If I’m right about this, that means
Los Angeles is an artistic
capital equivalent to Florence or in the 15th
and 16th Centuries. I’m not sure Americans have appreciated the
artistic output of the 20th Century to this extent, but I think we
TV, I’m sorry to say, hasn’t lived up to standard of the movies. There are, I think, some good reasons for this. Many of the most popular TV shows have been sit-coms. This genre simply doesn’t last as long as drama. A great deal of humor derives from the social context. To illustrate with a well-known example, in Shakespeare’s day the words “debt” and “death” were pronounced the same. This allowed Shakespeare to make puns which we no longer hear. Moreover, at that time sexual climax was referred to as a “little death”. Thus, a “small debt” in Shakespeare’s plays might refer not to a small amount of money owed, but to something else entirely (another Buffy reference; recognize it?).
When the cultural context changes, as it has in the case of the Shakespeare example and as it inevitably does, the audience loses the ability to “get” the joke; they need it explained, and then they don’t laugh. In extreme cases, they no longer find it funny even when it is explained. For a good explanation of this process, read Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre.
I don’t mean to write off all television shows. Some of them have been well-done, serious efforts. It’s just that, in general, TV shows have failed to demonstrate the staying power of movies, and I think one important reason for that is the reluctance of the producers to treat serious issues in a sophisticated way. To put it in the language of showbiz, drama, even tragedy, has longer legs than comedy. We can still appreciate the Greek tragedies 2500 years after they were written because the issues they raise still seem familiar today. We can understand that Antigone faces a serious moral dilemma when she must choose between obeying the law of her city and carrying out her family obligation. Though we can still appreciate Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s the tragedies which everyone remembers as his greatest works. Same reason – the serious issues tend to be those which people of all eras recognize.
Critic Robert Moore identifies Buffy as the moment in which TV became art:
“This was the decade in which television became art. So argues Emily Nussbuam in a recent New York Magazine essay, “When TV Became Art”. She certainly makes a strong case that 2000-2009 was a pivotal age for TV and I strongly recommend her essay to anyone interested in the development of television over the past decade. I agree that this was, all in all, the finest decade for great television. Others have argued that TV had arisen as an art form in earlier decades, some (though in dwindling numbers) arguing for the fifties …. But Nussbaum has numbers on her side; it is difficult to argue against the sheer quantity of very fine shows that emerged in the past ten years. The number of truly great series from the past ten years is so substantial that it might surpass the number of great shows from all previous decades combined.
Nonetheless, I want to take issue with Nussbaum. I think that chopping the overall picture up into decade-sized blocks obscures the reality. I believe that one can point at a precise point where TV became art, and that point was the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No one questions the enormous influence that Joss Whedon’s quirky series exerted on other shows, but I do not believe that many people realize the degree to which it altered the TV landscape. TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards. … To be fair, Nussbaum does mention Buffy and Joss Whedon frequently in her essay, obviously crediting both the show and the creator for much of the best that the decade had to offer, but she seems to imply that TV as art was a work in progress as the decade began and it most definitely was not.
Although many realize just how revolutionary Buffy was as a series and the impact that it made on the medium (many TV creators site it as their favorite show while others acknowledge its direct influence), not everyone is aware of how groundbreaking the series was or of the number of concrete changes it wrought on television. It was not merely a great TV series in its own right, it helped redefine what TV could do.”
Let’s consider some of the reasons why Buffy is important.
a. Minor Factors
A good show, like a good play, requires good acting and directing; these days, it needs good quality special effects; and if it includes good music choices, that’s a real plus. I’m not going to discuss these factors at length, but I’ll say a few words here in this Introduction and then leave these alone (mostly) in the individual episode comments. I need to emphasize that I’m not here discussing the interpretive aspects of these factors, but only the general quality of production values.
In my personal opinion – and it can’t be much more than that when it comes to the quality of acting – the actors on BtVS were very good. I thought three of the regular cast members (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, and James Marsters) were outstanding, others very good, and that many of the guest stars contributed very significantly to the quality of the show.
Many of the episodes were innovative. The show made use of unreliable narrators to great effect. One of the best episodes had no dialogue for 35 of the 42 minutes. Another, one of the finest hours of television ever created, deliberately dispensed with the background music which provides the expected emotional cues in order to highlight the struggle of the characters to understand what had happened. A musical episode – often voted the best of the series by fans (a remarkable accomplishment for the 107th episode) – wasn’t a gimmick, but an integral link in the overall story. The mix of humor and horror has no competition in American television or cinema.
In addition, “Buffy reinvented what television could do with genre, breaking down the barriers that separated one form another, blending them all together, and then employing the elements of each as needed. The series was a high school drama, a comedy, a horror/fantasy show, and, in one memorable episode, a musical, all at once. I can’t think of a series before Buffy that would routinely have you laughing your guts out one minute, on the edge of your seat the next, and emotionally devastated soon after within the confines of a ten-minute segment. This fluidity that Buffy introduced has allowed television a degree of flexibility not found on shows of the past.” Moore, supra.
iii. Special Effects
The special effects varied in quality. BtVS generally had a relatively small budget and it often showed in the special effects and other production values, especially in the early years; some fans find Season 1 cheesy, perhaps because it was a mid-season replacement on a shoestring budget, perhaps because the actors were all still “finding” their characters and because so many aspects of the show needed to be explained for future purposes. Some viewers may find the low quality special effects distracting, but for me at least they don’t affect the intrinsic value of the themes presented.
iv. Suspension of Disbelief
Mention of special effects naturally brings up the related issue of the suspension of disbelief. Most movies or plays require this to some extent. BtVS draws on several existing genres and expects that you’ll understand the conventions of those genres when it comes to suspending disbelief. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, explained that the show had its genesis in horror movies:
“Where did the idea [for BtVS] come from? There’s actually an incredibly specific answer to that question. It came from watching a horror movie and seeing the typical ditzy blonde walk into a dark alley and getting killed. I just thought that I would love to see a scene where the ditzy blonde walks into a dark alley, a monster attacks her and she kicks its ass.”
Horror movies do follow certain conventions. People do stupid things which put them in danger. That happens on BtVS too, but as the Whedon quote demonstrates, the show also subverts those conventions. Part of the sophistication and fun of watching it comes from recognizing that you’ve been fooled by those conventions into expecting something very different from what happened. The very first scene in the very first episode subverts your expectations built upon past experience with the horror genre. It tells you what the show intends to do.
In a show starring a superhero like Buffy, which also takes themes from Westerns – she’s the sheriff in town, of course – the laws of physics and experience will be violated on a regular basis: how many shots does a six shooter hold? How many punches does it take to knock that guy out? The truth is, all television (like all movies) uses stylized conventions which are “unreal” and yet evoke an actual event. Take sex scenes, for example. Even in most movies, the actors aren’t actually having sex. We know this, and yet we’re willing to overlook it and say to ourselves “they’re having sex”. Bullets on TV aren’t real, blood isn’t real, surgery isn’t real, courtroom scenes aren’t real. I could add literally hundreds of examples. At some level, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief and allow the story to take us to the thematic or emotional conclusion.
This factor is even more prominent in the superhero genre, where heroes like Superman, Batman, or Buffy regularly do physically impossible things. Characters use witchcraft and super powers. Those will bother some people; they just can’t get past the “unreality” of it. (Of course, the same is equally true of the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet or of the gods in the Iliad ….) This reaction can often be entirely irrational. For example, I’m a lawyer and it drives me crazy to watch courtroom scenes because I immediately spot the flaws, and that can wreck my enjoyment of the scene. But why should I be perfectly content to watch Superman fly – violating the law of gravity – while being angry if he gets the hearsay rule wrong? It makes no sense.
Anyone who wants to appreciate any show needs to be able to put all these issues aside, just as they put aside “unreal” scenes in every movie, and understand that we’re simply to say to ourselves “they’re having sex” or “that’s magic” or “that’s surgery” even if it doesn’t look real. Those who can’t do that probably won’t like the show.
There’s also the issue of how tightly we demand that the writers plot the story. Every narrative leaves out some events. Nobody wants to watch the characters sleeping for 8 hours straight, eating a full meal, etc. Even the most tightly constructed plot lines might be criticized for leaving a gap in the story. This is no less true of Buffy than it is of any other show, and perhaps it’s more true – Joss Whedon has made it clear in interviews that he’s prepared to sacrifice strict plotting in order to reveal an important emotional truth (as all art does). In any case, BtVS does require a willingness to suspend your disbelief, to lay aside niggling plot concerns for the thematic or emotional punch. Here’s how one internet poster expressed the attitude necessary to appreciate not just Buffy, but most literature:
“I'm not really interested in filling (or excavating) plot holes here, because
frankly, this show is myth to me, and if I fell into every plot hole in every
myth, I'd never have time for anything else. I willing[ly] suspend my disbelief in the face of greater revealed truth.”
frankly, this show is myth to me, and if I fell into every plot hole in every
myth, I'd never have time for anything else. I willing[ly] suspend my disbelief in the face of greater revealed truth.”
v. Plot Structure and Continuity
The writing in any work of literature depends not just on cleverness of phrase, but on how well the author develops the themes and characters over time. Buffy meets very high standards on this score. Fans of the show lament how difficult it is to show a new viewer a single episode to get them interested – much of the show’s impact depends on having seen all the previous ones. We may not understand the full import of an episode at the time, because only later do all the implications become apparent.
Quoting Robert Moore again,
“One of the most important changes that Buffy brought about was a new understanding of long story arcs on TV. … For most of the history of television, the format of series was episodic. On almost all shows (excepting soap operas), no matter what happened on one episode of a series, the next week would witness a complete reset….
Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed TV narrative. Unlike the soaps and the Hill Street Blues-type series, it established, beginning with the extraordinary second season, an approach in which a season consisted of a long story arc that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Always leery of cancellation, Whedon structured his arcs in season-long segments, though he also began setting up major events seasons ahead of time. … Buffy made it possible for television to tell a story, as opposed to a bunch of stories, a story that came to a conclusion, as opposed to stories with no end. It still had plenty of standalone episodes, but even in the middle of those, small scenes would move the central arc forward, a technique employed by a host of shows today, from Fringe to Chuck to Dexter. Damon Lindelhof, during the first season of Lost, had his writing team watch Buffy a model of how he wanted to the central narrative of the show to proceed. It is fascinating that a huge number of TV creators and producers have cited Buffy as either a major influence or actually worked under Whedon on one of his shows.”
The writers of Buffy (mostly Joss Whedon) understood this point very consciously and were willing to wait a long time for events to play out for maximum impact. Just to give one example, the key plot point of Episode 13, When She Was Bad, explains Buffy’s actions in Episode 33, Becoming I – one of the great scenes in television history, which most fans can probably quote by heart – and to a great extent explain Xander’s behavior at a key moment in Episode 34, Becoming II. What Xander did was one of the most controversial actions in the show’s history, generating countless debates on the internet (which the writers knew).
Nevertheless, the writers waited 4 full seasons, until episode 127, Selfless, to reference this sequence again. This wasn’t done in any artificial way, with the writers self-consciously knowing of the prior episode and bringing it up for no good reason. It was, to the contrary, something which could have been brought up any number of times in the intervening years, but was held for maximum impact at exactly the right moment. I personally jumped out of my seat and shouted at the television when they finally used it.
Most viewers, I think, considered the music on the show to be outstanding, sometimes inspired (see Music, Sound and Silence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Just for some examples, I can’t think of another show or movie which would choreograph a fight scene to a live Aimee Mann performance or feature “Tales of Brave Ulysses” in two different episodes, one hilariously funny, the other touching and poignant. Or one which would set one of the most shocking and tragic scenes in the history of television to the duet “O soave fanciulla” from Puccini’s “La Boheme”. In addition, the music produced for the show itself by Christophe Beck was consistently outstanding, Beck himself winning an Emmy for his work.
One of the fortunate consequences of a limited budget was that the show made a concerted (pun intended) effort to find lesser known bands from the
club and college scene to play at the Bronze.
This led to some very creative and interesting choices in the music. I’ve
heard, though I can’t confirm, that this practice has been very influential for
other shows and for college radio stations. If so, that adds to Buffy’s cultural influence. Los
Another factor in the show’s use of music is that the lyrics almost always relate directly to the characters shown or the episode themes in some way. This requires a good deal of thought to achieve on a consistent basis.
b. Major Factors
As you can see from my comments about the subsidiary factors, I don’t argue that BtVS is in any sense a perfect show. Nor do the dialogue and metaphor rise to the level of Shakespeare. Over 7 seasons, BtVS aired 144 episodes. Most were very good; perhaps 20 or so were not. Even the good episodes sometimes had their weaker moments, just as even the weaker ones had a good scene or two.
In general, BtVS demonstrated good quality on the basic production values. That makes it eligible to be treated as important, but it doesn’t, by itself, make it important. Now let me get back to those factors which do move the show into that higher category.
- Growing Up
Buffy “brought character development to a new level. Typically on most previous series, characters never really changed, never realistically retained memories of traumas that they had suffered, never truly evolved. On Buffy…, characters changed radically.” Moore, supra.
Glenn Brown described this process in detail:
“Quality and substance in storytelling tend to succumb to the weight of their own seriousness, leaving behind the lighter fare and less morbid cousins of popular culture in order to continue on in their overly serious need to prove that they do indeed have something worthwhile to say. Where the seemingly sillier stories are assumed to reside in that other, more popular world, usually occupied by soap operas and other shallow vessels of mindless fun, there are exceptions that prove the rule. Joss Whedon is one of those exceptions. Pain, sacrifice, and the overwhelming need constantly to grow and change in a way that actually makes us care, are qualities necessarily of neither style, but which when aligned in the focus of Joss Whedon, are made to converge into a glorious melding of allegory, emotion, and maybe even, guilty pleasure.
Regardless of the dynamics of any particular group of characters in a Joss Whedon story, the freedom afforded both the characters and the fictional world to draw upon whatever inspiration makes sense for that character or that moment, and the corresponding ripple effect it might bring to the rest of the story, is a deeply woven ingredient in all the works of Joss Whedon, amounting to a deep and scathing disregard for the status quo. This quality has become one of the most identifiable marks of a Joss story, and has made his fictional worlds seem as fully destructible as the one we live in, with nothing and no one immune from change, or able to escape fully the orbital pull of those around them. His stories exist within a construct that borrows heavily from real life in the sense that, there is a consequence to every action, which requires a constant cycle of consequence and change for people, places, and even, in some cases, objects. This is a theme which remains consistent throughout his works, not only elevating his stories beyond the surface pop-culture reference point of which they are so much a part but also serving to help keep his stories grounded in a reality that reacts and responds very much like the one we experience every day, as sometimes painful and heart-wrenching as it is. Partly because of this, the fantastical worlds of vampires, demons, mind-wiping tech, and post-civil war space adventurers, can become as real, compelling, and believable, as the world we live in today.
For the simple reason that he had more time to fully develop his characters and the world they lived in, due to the seven seasons it was on…, this culture of change is perhaps most recognizable in the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Buffy progressed from the ordinary teenage high school student that she started as (her first words to her Watcher after sucking on her lollipop were a clueless, “Huh?”), to a Vampire Slayer who had no equal (“Apocalypse? We’ve all been there/The same old trips/Why should we care?”), she watched her world become increasingly dangerous while fighting, among other things, personal as well as real demons, transforming herself into almost a completely different person in response to this. Buffy changed, her friends changed, and the world around her changed, and the effect was seen in a slow progression over each season in how she dealt with her enemies and her friends. By the end of the series, almost nothing was as it had been when the show had started….
It is this permanency which has helped make Joss’s stories almost infinitely rewatchable. We feel what the characters are feeling each time through, gaining a deeper understanding of their motivations, and why they react as they do. When something changes in a Joss Whedon story, it usually changes for good with no turning back; there is no magical “reset” button which brings the world or characters back to where they stood before the episode started…. There is no easy escape; the only way out is to continue forward, painful step by painful step. What the characters become as they forge ahead, is a direct response to what it is they are going through, or have gone through. The consequences are displayed in the personality and actions of every character, in every way, requiring them and those around them to change along with it….
Joss Whedon does in fact have something serious to say, serious enough that his stories can be picked apart and debated like any good work of fiction. Through the use of consequence and change, he has fashioned a style of storytelling that manages to strike that elusive chord within us where things that matter find a way to resonate in the same way they do in our own lives. Things like character, story, and most importantly, the common thread of allowing the consequences of actions and events to change substantively his stories and characters. This is a theme that has given his works a foundation that is rare in any medium, and also runs counter to the less honest and adventurous styles. It’s a theme that, more than any other, has come to define what a Joss Whedon story is really all about, even more than his ability with characterization, plotting, or big ideas. And the consequence of this is that he has produced a legacy of works which have impacted pop-culture far more than it would seem they should.” http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/138725-consequence-and-change-in-the-works-of-joss-whedon-and-why-it-matter/
We first meet Buffy in her sophomore year of high school. Buffy gets older, of course. In the seven seasons, she ages from 16 to 22. That means she grows up. We’d expect to see real changes in her during that time, and in fact we do see them. Since Buffy’s the hero of the show – the greatest hero in American literature in my opinion – we’d also expect her to grow up in the right way. As I’ll explain in more detail in the individual essays, the show repeatedly challenges the viewer to think about what it means to “grow up”, to become an adult. What distinguishes a teenager from an adult? Buffy gives us some answers to those questions. Even when it doesn’t give direct answers, it forces us to think about the issues.
In literature, there’s a name for works which describe the growing up process. A novel which explores this theme is called by the German word “bildungsroman”. The reason it’s a German word is that the term was first applied to some works by the great German poet and novelist Goethe. The word means, essentially, “coming of age novel”. BtVS is a bildungsroman.
You don’t need to take my word for the fact that the writers intended to show this progression. Take it straight from Joss Whedon’s mouth (from an AOL live chat, November 10, 2002): “"Buffy" is hard [to write] because it is completely grounded in human experience. Every episode has to be about what, you know, what it feels like to go through a certain period in your life. In the rite of passage that is your life. We can never do an episode that is purely fantastical and exciting because the show is about growing up.” More recently (February 8, 2012) he reiterated this in an interview with USA Today: “"Buffy was always about the arc of a life, and it wasn't ever going to be one of those shows where they were perpetually in high school and never asked why," Whedon says. "It was about change. So there's never a time when Buffy's life isn't relevant."
The dialogue tells us many times that this is happening. Take, for example, this passage from the end of Lie to Me:
“Buffy: Nothing's ever simple anymore. I'm constantly trying to work it out. Who to love or hate. Who to trust. It's just, like, the more I know, the more confused I get.
Giles: I believe that's called growing up.”
Growing up involves choices, making decisions about what kind of person we want to be. Buffy has to make those choices; pretty much every episode presents Buffy with decisions only she can make and the consequences of her decisions. The choices she makes (that we all make) don’t just reveal who she is right now, they shape what she will become in the future. Not only is Buffy “the Chosen One”, the very last episode bears the title “Chosen”, intending both the passive (to be chosen) and active (to choose) meanings of that word. I can’t, obviously, prove this claim here by describing this process for each of 144 episodes, but that’s part of what I’ll be doing in the individual essays.
Placing BtVS into a fancy literary genre doesn’t, by itself, make the show important. The substance of the discussion makes the show important, and I’ll talk more about that. For now, let me move on to the way BtVS tells its story. The significant factor here is metaphor. The extensive use of metaphor on Buffy requires a careful reading of the text in order to fully appreciate the story. “[Creator Joss] Whedon … credits his viewers with a high degree of intelligence and assumes that they are capable of absorbing a considerable degree of detail. He assumes a high level of literacy on the part of viewers, such as making nods to highbrow films and movies.” Robert Moore, http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/137783-why-a-spotlight-on-joss-whedon/P1
A metaphor, in literature, is when a word (or, in the case of television, an image) which literally looks like one thing is used to suggest something else instead. In BtVS the use of metaphor is inherent in the show. Most of the demons Buffy fights are metaphors. If the writers want to show Buffy struggling with lust, they create a lust demon and have Buffy defeat it (that’s an example one of the writers actually gave). The demons are demons of the mind, personal demons that people commonly struggle with.
When I was in college I had a particular English teacher who overdid metaphor. He carried it so far that everything ended up a metaphor. That drove me nuts at the time, and it made me forever cautious about claims to see X as a symbol of Y. Nonetheless, Buffy is a show built on metaphor. Quoting again from Joss Whedon’s AOL interview, “Buffy is made by a bunch of writers who think very, very hard about what they are doing in terms of psychology and methodology. … When somebody says there is a philosophy behind "Buffy" that is the truth. When they say there is symbolism and meaning in what we're doing, that's true too.”
I operate on the assumption that there’s a metaphor in every episode, because that’s the whole point of the show. That means we need to understand the metaphors in every episode, and for the show generally, in order to understand what’s happening. In general the metaphors that I’ll mention are either blatantly obvious or even expressly mentioned by the writers. There are a few episodes where the writers lost me. I’ll do my best to identify the metaphor in those episodes, but I’ll be speculating.
The most important such metaphor is Buffy herself. She’s the hero of the show; we – the audience – are supposed to identify with her. When she feels pain, we should also; when she’s sad, we should feel her sadness. Buffy is us and we are her. That’s what I call the Central Metaphor for the show. When Buffy faces a dilemma, we learn from her experience because we are, in some sense, her. We feel (or should feel) what she feels: joy at her triumphs, grief at her distress, gratitude towards her friends, anger at those who betray her.
This brings up an important, related issue. Buffy’s a girl (duh). She faces many of her issues as a girl. There’s a definite feminist message here – the female as superhero. That doesn’t make her any less “us” than if she were male. Nobody doubts that we should identify with male heroes in literature; the fact that Buffy’s “just a girl” doesn’t change this. The message is universal even if gender can only be particular.
If Buffy is us, and if the demons stand as metaphors for our flaws and our fears, then what do vampires represent? Put another way, why is the show titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than Buffy the Demon Slayer?
To answer this question, we need to consider one of the most basic facts about vampires in the genre: they never age. Vampires are frozen in time. In School Hard, when Angel tells Spike (a vampire) that “things change”, Spike responds angrily, “Not us! Not demons!” Or this from Smashed: “[Vampire]: A man can change. Buffy: You’re not a man.”
Why are they frozen in time? Because they can’t make moral choices. Within the show, vampires lack a soul. According to Joss Whedon, the soul as it’s depicted in the show serves as a “moral compass”. With vampires, that compass is pointing the wrong direction – their choices are governed by selfish motives, so they can’t develop morally.
Think about what this means – that vampires can never grow up. But the whole story of Buffy is, as I said before, about growing up. Being the Slayer allows her to slay demons which are metaphors for her personal demons that might prevent her from growing up. Thus, she slays vampires – those who can’t grow up – as a metaphor for her own path to adulthood.
Vampires also can’t see themselves in the mirror. The mirror test is a measure of self-awareness: “The test gauges self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself.” Since vampires can’t see their reflection, that’s a sign to the viewers that vampires aren’t self-aware. We’re meant to contrast Buffy with the vampires – she is, or at least is becoming (a key word in the show) self-aware.
Vampires also bite; that’s been part of vampire lore since at least Bram Stoker. BtVS adopts this lore, along with other aspects of the tradition (wooden stakes to the heart, holy water, etc.). In this tradition of vampire literature, the vampire’s bite generally serves as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. Vampires reproduce by biting. As Buffy explains in the very first episode, Welcome to the Hellmouth, “To make you a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It's like a whole big sucking thing.” But a vampire’s bite is also just a way to kill you. This means you need to be conscious of which metaphor they’re using. Or, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But do consider the implications of using a stake…
This brings up an important point: metaphors are common on BtVS, but they aren’t universal. Some demons serve no metaphorical purpose (e.g., Clem in Seasons 6-7). Don’t make the mistake my former English teacher made of looking for metaphor in all the wrong damn places (that’s a paraphrase of an S7 character). Do be sensitive, though, to the principal metaphors that I’ve just described.
Buffy herself and the vampires and demons don’t exhaust the list of metaphors on the show. Buffy’s friends, Willow and Xander, and her mentor, Giles, are also metaphors sometimes. Willow is Buffy’s spirit, Xander her heart, Giles her mind. Often this is obvious in a particular episode, but in any case the show made the equation explicit in the episodes Primeval and Restless. As is true with vampires and sex, this is true sometimes but not all the time; you need to evaluate the actions of the characters and think about how they play out as both metaphor and in “real” life.
Using other characters as metaphors for aspects of Buffy herself raises interesting issues. One that gets debated on the internet a lot is whether the show is “all about Buffy”, or whether it’s best seen as an ensemble show with supporting characters who lead independent lives and have their own story lines. (The writers were aware of this debate and even refer to it in the dialogue.) I lean towards the “all about Buffy” side, but really there’s no reason that both can’t be true. To the extent that other characters do function, at times, as metaphors for aspects of Buffy, it’s essential that they demonstrate their own characteristics and develop over time. The best metaphors, after all, work both as metaphor and as straight story. Thus, we can appreciate Xander’s attraction to demon women as part of his own life story, but also see in it a reflection of Buffy’s attraction to “bad boys” (since Xander represents Buffy’s heart). Part of the sophistication of the show is that it forces us to think about these issues and reflect on what we see on-screen. That’s what good literature does.
Magic is a metaphor too, sometimes. Principally so in Seasons 4-5-6, though the metaphor changes during that time (with not always happy results in my view). So is Buffy’s house. Other metaphors get used episodically.
When we think of important works of literature, we expect them to use language in creative ways and to make good use of metaphor. BtVS qualifies on both counts. But the real test for literature is that it communicates an important message. BtVS does that as well.
If I were asked to identify the single most important message communicated by BtVS, my response would be this: accept responsibility. This theme appears early in the very first episode, Welcome to the Hellmouth:
“Buffy: Oh, why can't you people just leave me alone?
Giles: Because you are the Slayer. (comes down the stairs) Into each generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires...”
If Buffy didn’t accept her responsibility as The Slayer, there’d be no story to tell. That’s why the Prologue to every episode in Season 1 recites that “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” (My emphasis.)
Note that word, “alone” and its complements, “One” and “the”. That’s responsibility, all right. There’s nobody who can take her place, no higher power to aid her:
“Buffy: (exhales) You don't have anything useful to tell me, do you? What are you, just some immortal demon sent down to even the score between good and evil?
Whistler: (impressed) Wow. Good guess. (grins)
Buffy: (steps up to him) Well, why don't you try getting off your immortal ass and fighting evil once in a while? 'Cause I'm sick and tired of doing it myself.” Becoming 2.
Buffy stands for the world. Consider what this means in the context of the show’s metaphors. Each time Buffy acts, she’s implicitly telling us how we should act if we face a similar dilemma. If Buffy is us, then by identifying with her, we put ourselves in that same position of having to act to save the world. She’s acting in metaphor; we’re supposed to take that lesson into real life. The show not only forces us to think about how to grow up, it gives us insight into what adult – that is, moral – behavior consists of: We are to act as if the whole world depended on our actions. That’s a boatload of responsibility all right, even if, unlike Buffy, we don’t face more apocalypses than birthdays.
Don’t get the impression that BtVS is an After School Special. Only rarely do the writers fall into the trap of dropping anvils in order to send a message (it does happen a few times). The vast majority of the time they succeed in provoking discussion and reflection, seldom making the mistake of becoming wearyingly pompous like Polonius in Hamlet. And whenever the show runs the risk of being melodramatic, some humor undermines the self-importance: “It's like you've got to have at least one moment that says "No, no, no, no. We're not taking ourselves that seriously." (Joss, Lessons DVD commentary.)
Buffy learns by making creative choices, ones that force the viewer to think. Sometimes she learns by making the wrong choice, sometimes the choice is so difficult that there simply is no obvious answer and the internet erupts in screaming debates. The point of the show is not to drive the message into your head with a railroad spike, it’s to force you to think about the kinds of dilemmas we all might face.
Growing up involves making all sorts of moral decisions. When are we mature enough for sex? Who should our role models be? What mistakes do adults make which we should recognize so that we don’t make the same ones? How should we act in ethical dilemmas? I could go on, but I believe the point is clear. Buffy faces all of these problems and many more on her road to adulthood. She’s telling us how to think about growing up, even if we’re already “adults”. As Xander puts it in The Freshman, “Let me tell you something, when it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?'”
Don’t get me wrong – Buffy has flaws, some of them significant. She would have been boring without them. Joss Whedon put it this way: “The idea was, let’s have a feminist role model for kids. What's interesting is you end up subverting that. If she's just an ironclad hero - "I'm a woman hear me constantly roar" - it gets dull. Finding the weakness and the vanity and the foibles makes it fun.” What fascinates us about the character of Buffy is that she has to struggle to reach the right decision. Just as we all do.
The case for treating BtVS as important literature rests, essentially, on these three grounds: it forces us to think about an important topic and treats important themes via the creative use of language and metaphor.
C. Episode Essays
As I said, I wrote and published all of the following essays on my blog. Many of the S5-7 commentaries were first written as comments to the reviews of Buffy episodes by Noel Murray of the AV Club (his reviews start at [SPOILERS at link] http://origin.avclub.com/tvclub/tvshow/buffy-the-vampire-slayer,45/3/), who not only wrote insightful reviews of every single episode, but tolerated people like me who used his reviews as an excuse for their own commentary. I’ve expanded those comments quite a bit. There are no spoilers in my episode comments unless clearly labeled. I will on occasion quote from the DVD commentaries. Avoid those if you want to remain unspoiled. Many of the commentaries were recorded much later, and the writers often mention subsequent events.
I don’t want you to think that everything I write is original to me. Of course it’s not. I’ve read a huge amount of internet commentary on the show and a number of books as well. Sometimes other people stated more clearly what I already was thinking, sometimes what they said was new to me but I’ve incorporated it into my viewing so thoroughly that I can’t separate it any more. It’s more accurate to say that what I’ve done is synthesize all of that reading.
The majority of discussion I’ve read comes from the forum of a site called All Things Philosophical on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series. It’s still a live board, though not active; I definitely recommend that you read the forum archives and the annotations on the Board itself. Full disclosure: I was one of the posters on that Board, using the name Sophist. I don’t always agree with myself, so if I seem to have changed my mind, that’s because I have.
While I can’t really sort out all the influences on my current thinking, I do need to say that one poster at ATPO did influence me more than any other single person. His name was manwitch and you can read his original posts at the ATPO forum. I don’t always agree with him, but he was responsible for articulating what I call the Central Metaphor of the show, namely that Buffy is us. I had always viewed the show through a Buffy-centric lens, but had never conceptualized it that way until manwitch pointed it out. Any extensions of his insight are my responsibility, not his, of course.