Buffy: Ten Years On

I am fortunate, compared to so many that have fallen deeply down into Buffyverse post original airing, that I mostly watched the series as it unfolded. I had a friend during undergrad in the late 90’s who was very important to me. His mother had MS and was bed-ridden. He insisted I sit down, join in their weekly ritual, and watch Buffy on Tuesday nights with himself and his mother. I had seen one episode prior, S2E4’s “Inca Mummy Girl,” which I have talked about before here. It didn’t stick, and if you watch it now and out of context, you can see why.

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Thus, the first episode I saw on original air date aside from “Inca Mummy Girl,” was S3E8’s “Lover’s Walk.” And in the scope of Buffyverse, it’s a huge episode. Spike returns to Sunnydale and kidnaps Willow, Xander and Willow’s affair is found out by a shattered Oz and Cordelia, Buffy, Spike, and Angel all fight together forecasting things to come, and Cordy (very shockingly) gets impaled. Needless to say I was addicted, and saw every episode in real time from then on.

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To that end, I have personal context in my own life for Buffy. I generally know what was happening in my life “when.” As in, the experience of Buffy somewhat framed my life for that period of time… when I graduated, when I got married to my first husband (and subsequently got divorced, not long after Angel left Sunnydale), when I started working in wine (Buffy started college), when I had certain love affairs, when I moved into apartments that would become important to my history, when my Dad died (“Into the Woods”), when I, when I, when I…

This of course gives Buffy a deep level of resonance for me, but the nostalgia is not what keeps me fascinated or returning to it. At all. The work itself continues to gain credibility as time passes. Buffy not only stands up in all schools of critical theory, it reveals new commentary pertaining to those schools regularly, in a way that few works of art, and especially few TV shows, have been able to. In a very real way the craftsmanship and depth written into Buffy paved the path for shows like, The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Until that time, psychologically aging characters had only been half-heartedly accomplished among any TV series. And no show has so successfully used heavy plot-metaphor and myth to boldly elucidate the universal pains of maturation and living.

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As I sit here, ten years since the last episode, newly graduated with an MFA, miscarrying my third pregnancy in a year, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs (go Pens), and listening to my husband outside mowing the lawn — the doors thrown open and early summer air clouding in, Buffy feels more relevant than ever. I think of things like: the quality of light that meets Buffy’s traumatized expression when she opens the back door in, “The Body” (those windchimes and the sounds of her neighborhood). Or the way the wooden box holding the syringe hits the wall to the right above Giles’ head in “Helpless”…

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What Joss Whedon understands better than anyone else working in TV (and arguably film) and what he portrays, is what’s most important in our experiences: the moments in between; in between finding the body and the arrival of the EMTs. The moment before having to ruthlessly end a friendship (Faith), or maturely and painfully realizing that life has a greater purpose than hedonism (Angel and Buffy and Buffy and Spike). The decisions that are made because we *let* the head or heart win out, and alternately the blinding fear that accompanies trusting our instincts and parenting ourselves.

Whedon’s characters fail time and again in their execution of most decisons, especially where relationships and their own best interests are concerned. They doubt themselves and let their desires win, or worse, let their wishes guide their actions; wishing things were different than they really are and acting as if that were true until they can no longer lie to themselves.

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Ten years ago it was Tuesday, of course. And when the final episode of Buffy ended (“Chosen”), Angel started; the season finale for Angel season 3 “Tomorrow,” where Cordelia is whisked into a divine region and Angel is dropped to the bottom of the ocean.

For me, every Tuesday, and indeed nearly every day for many years consisted of a harrowing, humbling, selfish, and indulgent life, of: waking, writing, working, returning home, yoga, dinner, watching movies/Buffy/Angel, and going out dancing. I knew at the time those were rare, valuable days. They were also extremely hard days of working relentlessly on myself, forcing change and growth, developing disciplines, cornering and conquering fears, and generally using all of my time to craft a larger vision of life. And also  to begin to heal, and tell my truth. I often think of those years as one huge panic attack, fueled by PTSD and panic/anxiety disorder.

While the skills I sought and gained in that time I did not learn from Buffy, I watched it happen for the characters of Buffy, and during the most personally-productive and alienated years of my life, I really was in the best company and that is: the company of very great art, art which retains and compounds its relevance, and facets more deeply  with each passing year.

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Loren: “Power does traditionally corrupt… You get high up enough, and well… the people? They do start to look like ants.” Part 1

Watching through BtVS and Angel, it’s apparent that among the many well-considered and highly developed themes Joss Whedon is keen to explore, that of knowledge (and the human relationship to knowledge), is paramount.

From the least-educated character of Xander, and arguably Buffy, and possibly Gunn,  to the most-highly educated: Professor Walsh, Fred (Winifred Burkle), and Giles, Whedon uses every character as an opportunity to contribute dialogue regarding the tenuous line one must walk in the pursuit of knowledge.

Before exploring individual instances where knowledge becomes a problem or a weapon (often, most readily used against the self), it is important to talk about the contrast Whedon proposes to one’s scholastic learning and pursuit of knowledge and that is: the matter of “heart.”

The character of Xander is often cited as the “heart” of the Scooby gang. In S4E21 “Primeval,” Xander becomes the heart of a spell that unites Giles, Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The “heart” is a role traditionally attributed to female characters in culture and movies. This concept opens a can of worms about Xander and his masculinity, and what that means in terms of both the show and Whedon’s message, i.e. What’s wrong with being the heart? What’s wrong with men donning traditionally “feminine” roles? Why are these roles perceived as weaker than? Why does Xander struggle in his role? etc.

Through the years, Xander never seeks to learn or develop skills, yet he continually protests about being the most vulnerable and unskilled member of the group. He does not learn martial arts, study lore or magic, or even train with Giles to learn basic defense and weapons skills. He subscribes to his own inferiority, never more than when Willow and Buffy head off to college while he (sulkily) takes a blue-collar track.

Additionally, we know Xander is a terrible student in school. His grades are often mocked by himself and he is continually cheered on by Willow to apply himself and study. Xander has no natural skill for school and never pushes himself to learn much of anything. The knowledge that Xander gains is based on his peer group; to be a Scooby, Xander must do research and log “field hours.” Thus, through his peer group, Xander’s education becomes one of emotion, which he sadly takes no pride in or ownership of. He is not proud to be the “heart”. He sees it as a unecessary role in the group, while Whedon presents it as vital. Often, Xander is the only glue keeping the team together, especially in later seasons. In many ways Xander’s battles occur emotionally, but that too is something he has little confidence in and does not relish.

On the other hand, Buffy has natural aptitude for school. Despite her continual struggles to balance her responsibilities, for Buffy, school always loses out to slaying and social life. Buffy’s grades are traditionally a mess, as is her participation and effort. It’s only when the gang get their SAT scores back that we become certain that Buffy has a natural penchant for learning and school. Willow (looking at Buffy’s SAT scores): “Buffy!” You kicked ass!”. We also know that Buffy gets accepted to some stellar schools such as Northwestern. Her SAT scores are good enough for highly respected colleges to look past her shoddy transcripts and problematic record of behavior.

But Buffy never challenges herself scholastically (until she enters college) and she never has to. She was able to dial it in the whole time, which is a surprise even to her. Once Buffy enters college, it becomes quickly apparent that slaying and school will no longer be a balance she can fudge enough to succeed. She tries well enough at first, but once her mother becomes ill and dies (admit it, you just flashed to the image of Joyce’s body on the couch. Ouch, every time), there is no way Buffy can juggle school any longer. She must become mother to herself and her sister, and slaying and the need for income both trump Buffy’s scholastics. In effect, life has happened to Buffy, spoiling her plans and illuminating that education is a gift to be valued, one that one often must make tremendous sacrifices to pursue.

Knowledge of Charles Gunn’s education is based highly on conjecture. In his own words, we know he is from “the streets,” where he runs a gang of young adults and teenagers that clean up vampires from their distressed neighborhoods of origin. Like all characters in Buffyverse, Gunn is a stereotype, one that often becomes uncomfortable because with him, the issue of stereotype and race is raised, but, that is the topic for another essay.

Gunn takes pride in his roots and often flaunts his street smarts and common sense which often manifest as jadedness based on years living in a virtual war zone. As viewers, we imagine that Gunn’s hardships in life regularly trumped the luxury of scholastics and school and his countenance, language, and bearing support this theory. He is regularly identified as the “muscle” of Angel Investigations, becoming a worthy fighter and brawler alongside Angel.

When Angel Investigations takes over the LA branch of the evil Wolfram and Hart Law Firm, Gunn almost immediately makes and takes a deal to have his brain supernaturally   and surgically enhanced to gain comprehensive knowledge of the law and business (and Gilbert & Sullivan musicals). He becomes an uber-lawyer, an elite brain, but through unnatural means. For Gunn, it is literally a short-cut education at any cost, as the price of his unnatural knowledge ends up leading directly to the death of Fred.

While Gunn knows a price will be required for his gain (but not what that price is specifically), he does not hesitate for a moment, elucidating that those who have necessarily gone without education due to socio-economics, circumstance, and access  will sometimes pay nearly any price to obtain it and have a chance to better themselves and their lot.

Next up… Part 2: The trouble with big brains…

“Life is like an onion, which one peels crying.” -French Proverb

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Image: Stephen Mooney – “Angel : Not Fade Away” Comic Book – Issue 2

It is appropriate that this blog should finally take concrete form beginning with the consideration of the character Wesley Wyndham Pryce, as his story and development have concerned me for years. To that end, it has now niggled at me enough that this long overdue blog has been created.

I started watching Buffy regularly in season 3. I had seen one episode prior, trying to get into it; season 2 episode 4’s “Inca Mummy Girl.” In retrospect, I can see precisely why that episode didn’t stick. It’s largely a one-off and to this day, aside from the Willow/Oz storyline taking shape, it falls to the bottom of my consideration. It also focuses primarily upon Xander, a character I have always struggled with.

The series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” spawned “Angel” the series, and Wesley is one of the three (arguably four if Spike is included) characters that managed to live on both shows for an extended period. He is also the character that portrays the strengths of Whedon as a character writer, arguably to the greatest degree.

Joss Whedon began illuminating the gaping hole that existed in entertainment writing when BtVS debuted in 1997. From the series start, Whedon began psychologically aging his characters based on their experiences and the situations and individuals they encountered, in a way that no other TV series had until then (and arguably hasn’t since). Whedon’s characters age in a hyper-real way despite their metaphorical, fantastic experiences, exactly as do we in our own lives. Whedon’s characters are slowly (and sometimes not slowly based on the severity of circumstances) shaped by the life that happens to them, and the life they make happen based on decisions to act, or not.

When Wesley first joins BtVS in season 3, he is little more than a sort of human C3PO, prone to pompous formality and public embarrassment due to false-pride. He is a flawed character for many reasons and is mildly rejected by both the Scoobies and the viewers. Wesley is at first merely tolerated by all, save Cordelia Chase, which serves as a commentary unto itself. Personally, I can remember when Wesley first appeared. At that time I assumed he would only remain for a few episodes, quickly going the way of Gwendolyn Post.

But Wesley becomes the raw nerves in the body of work Whedon creates throughout both shows. The eventual tragedy of Wesley as a character cannot be overstated. While Angel clings to an idea of redemption and Buffy hopes against hope for a “normal” life, Wesley’s deepest want is the love that makes one whole, a brand of love that is about having someone to give love to, which he nearly obtains, very briefly.

Once Wesley made the jump to Angel the series, it was slowly revealed that Wesley’s inflated pride and arrogance thinly blanket a deep self-loathing and terrible emotional scarring. Wesley undergoes a number of attempts at personal reinvention, trying desperately to find where he “fits” and always wanting to be someone other than himself. He is a character that represents all of us in our formative 20’s, but to an Nth degree.

And Whedon wisely knows the only way humans lose their affectation and pretense is through public humiliation and mistake, which we very painfully watch Wesley enact more than once. The Wesley we meet first in BtVS’s ‘Bad Girls’ is so drastically far from the Wesley known in “Angel: After the Fall” (canonical graphic novels), but at no time is that tremendous change unbelievable, due to Whedon’s instinct to psychologically reveal and age characters. Wesley’s attempts at new identity all fail, save the genuine destruction and regrowth that happen naturally after tremendous mistake, broken trusts, and harmed relationships. The Wesley that eventually evolves is one that has happened as a result, not the one he has mindfully crafted. Wesley is a constant, striking reminder that life will have its way with us, not the other way around.

In nearly every way, the most tragic stories through both shows belong to Fred and Wesley. With no character other than Fred does Whedon go through the pains of destroying her very soul from existence, within a language and universe that is so centered around the state of one’s soul, and where even the irredeemable have a long-shot at getting their soul back. And with no character other than Wesley does Whedon force a truly hopeless world upon. Wesley never has much, loses everything, gains something extremely precious to him, and almost immediately loses it in the most painful way. Wesley’s joy is a flash in the pan and then it is gone, reminding us that we as humans inherently deserve nothing, and are not owed anything.

Many generic, modern, pop-cultural minds need to simplify Buffy and Buffyverse as little more than a story about a blonde girl who (impossibly) has great power, and her subsequent adventures. But anyone that has done any remotely real thinking about it (especially in light of Whedon’s other offerings, Dollhouse, Firefly & Serenity, The Cabin in the Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and others) knows that at Whedon’s core is constant, obsessive contemplation of the human tragedy and the portrayal of it, often through farce. Whedon always aims to make an audience forget that what they are watching is as painful as the very worst moments of life itself; he makes a meal of broken glass taste like dinner at Julia Child’s house. In the character of Wesley though, Whedon lets the glass shred our throats and cut our guts, all the way down.

From his early, awkward, embarassing moments, to his final seconds in Angel the series of asking to be lied to (despite being unable to buy the lie for even a moment), Wesley is a painful character to witness because we are reminded that sometimes things always get worse for people that we feel don’t deserve it. Natural justice does not often exist. Sometimes the best we can hope for in life are peppered moments of friendly distraction, fleeting moments of distant hope, and the near-relief of lying to ourselves.