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Thursday, October 4, 2012

After Life

[Updated May 2, 2013]

I want to begin this post with a brief digression into the Hero’s Journey. While Buffy’s been on a “hero’s journey” since S1, I decided that any mention of that before After Life would spoil new viewers about Buffy’s death and resurrection. I think the steps on the Journey from here on out are sufficiently vague that I can talk about them without spoiling anyone.

You can see more at the link, but I’ll walk through a brief explanation of the Hero’s Journey here. Joseph Campbell developed the idea of what he called a “monomyth”. Campbell argued that most myths and legends follow a similar outline. He arrived at his classification from theory based in Jungian psychology. I don’t want to get sidetracked with debates about that, so my description of Campbell’s work will be entirely pragmatic.
What Campbell did was compare various myths and legends across cultures and down the ages. He found that he was able to define similar elements in most, if not all of them. It’s important not to interpret “similar” as “identical”. He didn’t mean that all myths are identical in form or content. Nor did he mean that the creators worked off of a common prompt. The stages he identified might happen in different order in different myths; some myths might leave out a stage altogether. But in general, any story of a hero was likely to incorporate certain basic ideas.
Buffy’s journey is the journey of a Hero – “she’s a Hero, you see” – so I’ll give a quick example of how hers can fit into Campbell’s structure. The first stage of the journey is the Call to Adventure. We see this in the very first episode, when Giles calls her to her Slayer destiny (with a little fudge to account for the movie):
“Buffy:  Oh, why can't you people just leave me alone?
Giles:  Because you are the Slayer. 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…”

The Hero refuses the Call, which Buffy certainly did in Welcome to the Hellmouth, and perhaps (as I argue) during all of S1. In order to answer the Call, the Hero gets supernatural aid, which Angel delivers to her in WttH in the form of a cross. As I mentioned in notes to that first episode essay, Angel’s name comes from the Greek word meaning “messenger” and the supernatural implications of that name in this context are fairly blatant.
After a variety of additional stages, we get to the stage of Apotheosis, a Greek word which means literally “near God”. This usually involves the death of the Hero, hence my postponing of the topic until this episode. Quoting from Wikipedia (all quotes from the link above), “When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.”
When we learned at the end of After Life that Buffy had been pulled out of heaven, that established that she was in the “period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.”
The next two stages consist of the Ultimate Boon and the Refusal of the Return. I mention these stages for the obvious reason that I believe they describe the events of S6 and S7, though in reverse order. Keep them in mind as we watch:
“The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.”

The receipt of the “Ultimate Boon” helps explain the Christ imagery we saw in The Gift. Buffy’s bringing something back with her, something of value to the world, whether she knows it or not. She began her journey to adulthood on her own behalf, but now there’s more at stake.
Before we get there, though, the Hero must be reluctant to return to the world: “Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.”
Note that the “refusal of the return” fits in smoothly with the “stages of grief” metaphor introduced in Bargaining.  After Life serves as the third part of a trilogy with Bargaining 1 and 2, or perhaps a coda to them. In After Life we learn that Buffy isn’t grieving because of impending death, she’s grieving at the loss of her time in heaven. She didn’t ask to return and doesn’t want to. Think about it this way: Buffy gained entry to heaven partly because of the way she lived her life and partly as a result of a moment of grace when she sacrificed herself for her sister. She has no guarantee that she’ll have access to that in the future. No wonder she appears so different to her friends.
Buffy’s reaction isn’t just important to this one episode. The same rule holds true in S6 as in all previous seasons, namely the first three episodes set the themes for the season. Some of those themes are relatively obvious, such as the stages of grief metaphor, the Hero’s Journey sequence, the issue of how Buffy handles her return, and the impact of the events of Bargaining on both her and on her friends. All these appear in the opening trilogy and set the template for S6.
Let’s put some of this in terms of the metaphor of adulthood. One way to interpret what was meant by “bargaining” is that Buffy wants to postpone or delay her adulthood. If I could just have more time….
We now learn that Buffy has been torn out of heaven by her friends. Consistent with what I said about Buffy reaching adulthood in The Gift, IMO what Buffy experienced and has now lost is the sense of euphoria which comes when we first realize that we’ve made it all the way to adulthood, though we can also see it as a period of nostalgia for the childhood she’s left behind:  “I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time ... didn't mean anything ... nothing had form ... but I was still me, you know? And I was warm ... and I was loved ... and I was finished. Complete.” It was the period of rest, peace, and fulfillment before beginning her Return.
We need to imagine how the Hero feels on reaching this point: Success! Completion! Then she’s snapped back to reality, just like the rest of us are when we reach adulthood. It’s depressing when we realize that adulthood is actually hard. She’s now feeling as if she was ripped out of childhood prematurely (hence my quote at the top of the essay).
The title of the episode reinforces this. “After Life” seems like a play on “afterbirth” (though there are multiple meanings to the title, as usual). Taking it this way, Buffy has been reborn as an adult after her life as a child.
The demon – also an “afterbirth” of sorts – I see as a metaphor which could be interpreted a couple of different ways. My preferred reading is that it represents Buffy’s anger, even rage, at the way her friends pulled her back into the responsibilities of adulthood. That’s evident when Buffy sees the pictures of her friends turn to corpses. The demon’s words express that anger, first at her friends:
BUFFY (possessed by the demon): (low hoarse voice) What did you do? Do you know what you did? You're like children. (Willow and Tara sitting up in bed staring in fear) Your hands smell of death. Bitches! Filthy little bitches, rattling the bones. Did you cut the throat? Did you pat its head?
Buffy grabs a crystal ball off a nearby table and throws it at them. Willow and Tara shriek as it smashes on the wall above their heads.
BUFFY: (shouts) The blood dried on your hands, didn't it?
TARA: Oh my god, oh my god.
BUFFY: (shouts) You were stained. You still are. I know what you did! …
DAWN: (low hoarse voice) All of you did it. You stupid children. (the others all staring at her) Did you think the blood wouldn't reach you? I smell the death on you. Look at what you've done!”

Then it turns on Buffy:
DEMON: (whispery voice) You don't belong here.
DEMON: (O.S.) Did they tell you, you belonged here?
DEMON: Did they say this was your home again?
DEMON: Were you offered pretty lies, little girl?
DEMON: Or did they even give you a choice?
DEMON: You're the one who's barely here. Set on this earth like a bubble.

The nature of the demon, I think, reinforces its role as metaphorical anger. It’s temporary and will dissipate in time, just as anger does, unless we give it substance. Buffy’s struggling with her anger when Willow’s spell causes that anger to manifest. That allows Buffy to choke off her anger by beheading the demon, but the unfortunate consequence is that this metaphorically prevents Buffy’s anger from fading away. We could see the beheading of the demon as preventing Buffy from being destroyed by her anger, but it also means cutting off the catharsis that rage might have provided.
Buffy then does in “real life” what she just did in metaphor – she represses her anger by thanking her friends for bringing her back, telling them pretty lies in the process.
When Dawn tells Buffy that the others “just want to see you happy”, Buffy reacts entirely in character: she sacrifices her own feelings for the sake of her friends. It’s incredibly painful. She thought she had made one last sacrifice, but it turns out that life continues to demand more.
Willow continues to hide the details of her spell even from Tara, denying that she understood what the “hitchhiker” said about the spell even as those words described what Willow did with the fawn. Her eyes turned black again when she – not Tara, just Willow – made the demon solid. Not good.
Spike’s angry comment about magic – “there’s always consequences” – seems to refer not to the potential that a spell will go wrong, but to things which happen outside the spell itself, what we might call collateral consequences. Is Spike’s statement consistent with what we’ve seen to date in the show? Not as far as I’m concerned. The only example of “collateral consequences” before this episode was in Superstar (and, arguably, Restless or, very indirectly, Becoming 2).
Marti Noxon said that “On Buffy, we play with the idea of witchcraft or magic, and it’s always about the intention of the person who uses it. Magic per se is not a bad thing. What they do with it is either going to be good or bad.” This strikes me as inconsistent with Spike’s statement, since his word “always” is obviously wrong given what Marti said.
That’s a nitpick at this point. For me, the episode is made in two scenes: “every night I save you”; and the ending with Spike and Buffy. Both are heartbreaking.
Trivia notes: (1) The Mercurochrome Spike wanted to use on Buffy’s hands is an old antiseptic no longer sold in most countries because it contains mercury. (2) Spike’s concern that Buffy might come back wrong no doubt arises from his experience with Doc in Forever, when Doc warned of that possibility. (3) Angel was feral in Beauty and the Beasts. Willow remembers that and uses it to justify Buffy’s behavior to Tara. (4) “Thaumogenesis” is a portmanteau word meaning “originating in magic”. (5) Buffy’s “Those of us who fail history? Doomed to repeat it in summer school” plays off the aphorism by George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”


  1. The next few weeks I have a great deal of RL things to attend to, and s6 has a habit of overtaking my thoughts when I start going, so I probably won't comment for the next few posts. That said, I am enjoying your take so far and your last few posts have been characteristically great. I hope to get back and comment on The Gift, Bargaining and this one in time because I do have some thoughts on all three, but alas.

    1. You know, you should never let stuff like that interfere with the really important things in life like Buffy. :)


    2. I know! My lack of priorities is astonishing. :) Somehow it seems appropriate that real life is taking over as my Big Bad (well, Big Medium really) for me when you get to s6. Anyway, will be back.

  2. You and your brains are being missed at Noel's review of "Objects in Space" today over at AV Club, to explain existentialism.

    1. I'd forgotten he was on that episode today. I'll go check it out.

  3. "Buffy reacts entirely in character: she sacrifices her own feelings for the sake of her friends."

    As you also point out she does in "Dead Man's Party". I hadn't noticed the parallels until finally beginning to read your season 3 posts.


    1. Buffy's fear of isolation, of losing all her friends, is a powerful motivator for her:

      Giles: A, a Slayer slays, a Watcher...


      Giles: Yes. No! (sets down the books) He, he trains her, he, he, he prepares her...

      Buffy: Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends? (WTTH)

      I'll be interested in your take on the S3 posts.

  4. Not to be overly nitpicky, but "Something Blue" is another example of magic having consequences. As is "Doppelgangland", although Spike was not there to witness it.

    Great article, though.

    1. Thanks.

      I didn't treat either of those episodes as involving "collateral" consequences because in each case the result directly followed from the spell. The caster -- Willow, Anya -- just didn't realize how the spell worked.

  5. Something I have not seen commented before on this episode, and which bugged me back then (eish, you know us, non-religious people) was the reference to heaven. And yes, I know they speak of hell before but it was more like parallel words, no?

    Now that I have read your philosophical take on seasons 2 and 3, don't you feel the show is slightly contradictory here? I'm eager to know how do you explain 'After life' 's revelation and its potential consequences on buffyverse's messages? If there is an heaven after death, then that should give meaning to life and it cancels what they were saying before on 'absurdism' and choices - no?
    The only reason it didn't bug me too long and that I enjoyed season 6 a lot is that they brilliantly flipped the traditional image of heaven, as a peaceful place which we can all tend to go after life, with a memory actually haunting Buffy. The show is still subversive but anyway, yes I'd like to know your take on this.

    1. I see it like the soul canon: you can't be a consistent existentialist in a world with souls and heaven (though they're suitably vague on what makes it a "heaven"). I don't have a problem with it because I think Joss is letting his philosophy influence the story, but not control it. He can get across important points -- choice, responsibility -- without sacrificing the story. That's ok with me; as I said in the essay on Amends, he's a storyteller, not a philosopher.