(Un)Bearable Darkness of Buffy, the

Rating: 
4
The (Un)Bearable Darkness of Buffy

by Christopher Wisniewski

Just before Buffy, the vampire slayer, jumped willingly to her death, she told her sister Dawn, "the hardest thing in this world is to live in it."

It's hard to imagine a single line that more powerfully captures the essence of Buffy the series. Buffy, despite its vampires, demons and seven (going on eight) apocalypses, has always been most concerned with capturing the pain, melancholy, and pathos that come with living - and more specifically, growing up. Through its first five seasons, the fantasy elements of the series served as a backdrop, a metaphorical externalization of the angst that comes with being a teenager in high school and college.

All of that changed with Buffy's resurrection in Season Six. With her mother dead and her "Watcher" and surrogate father Giles back in England, Buffy suddenly found herself without adult guidance in her post-adolescent world. The series became increasingly dark as its writers dispensed with the externalized metaphors to give Buffy very literal - and very real - problems: paying bills, raising her sister, grappling with an unhealthy sexual relationship, and overcoming her own depression.

It turns out that the gloom was infectious, as Buffy's best friends Xander and Willow respectively collapsed under the pressure of impending marriage and an addiction to magic. The result was a season loathed by fans and dismissed by critics as too dark and creatively stagnant.

I need to make an admission here: I take Buffy the Vampire Slayer very seriously; there are times when it seems like the one thing pure and good in the cold dark world of network television. And so I take exception to the criticism leveled against Season Six. While it did suffer from a few poorly-timed stumbles that disrupted its flow (see "Doublemeat Palace," in which Buffy gets a job at a fast-food joint only to fall victim to a giant phallic monster growing out of an old woman's head), it also soared dizzying heights.

Most works of pop art take the Friends approach to the 20-something years, fetishizing the possibility and the drift that follow after the structure of school and the guidance of parents fall away. Buffy, though, daringly led its audience in a different direction by portraying the paralysis, isolation and depression that can come when adolescence fades into the responsibilities, choices and consequences of adulthood.

The strongest statement of these themes came in the series' musical episode "Once More with Feeling," written and directed by the show's creator Joss Whedon. Whedon's trick here was to give his characters a reason to sing, a demon's spell that turned intensely felt emotions into the need to spontaneously burst into song. The result was a collection of colorful musical numbers that continually reiterated a fear and desperation that come as a part of adulthood.

In the song "I'll Never Tell," a recently engaged Xander and Anya sang to each other, "I've tried / But there're these fears I can't quell / Is she looking for a pot of gold? / Will I look good when I've gotten old? / Will our lives become too stressful if I'm never that successful?" Meanwhile, Buffy could have been singing for anyone who's ever been caught in the deadening monotony of routine as she belted, "Every single night / the same arrangement ... I've been going through the motions / Walking through the part."

Of course, Buffy had a rather atypical justification for her depression independent of her bills and her role as her sister's caretaker: It turns out that she was quite literally in heaven before her friends resurrected her. Yet the show's writers chose to define this heaven only in contrast to the difficulties of the real world. The point here, as Buffy sang, is that she came from a place where "There was no pain/No fear nor doubt."

Subtly, the series moved from the metaphor of adolescence as life on the Hellmouth to the literal analogy of Buffy's young adult life as a kind of hell, in which our superheroine finds herself overwhelmed by fear, loss and responsibility.

Joss Whedon himself described the theme of Season Six as "Oh, grow up!" Implicit in this theme, Whedon suggested, was the notion of making choices and taking responsibility for one's actions. For Buffy, the monotony of life as an adult without the immediate prospect of change and progression became literalized by a spell that forced her to relive the same work-day over and over again. At a later point in the season, she saw her desire to flee responsibility granted when she was made invisible and thereby given the opportunity to indulge in actions without consequences.

Her depression and her inability to grapple with adult responsibility played out most dramatically and darkly in her relationship with the bleach-blonde vampire Spike. After Giles's departure, she began sleeping with Spike in order to relieve the numbness that overwhelmed her. All the while, Buffy knew that she was using Spike, fueling his tragically (and, in the end, disastrously) violent obsession with her. When she finally ended the relationship, she apologized to him for using him and called him, for the first time, by his human name, "William." In the process, she took perhaps her largest step towards adulthood by treating him as a person rather than as a thing to be used.

Sex, abuse, depression, suicide - it all sounds more like The Hours than a cult teen show. In fact, Buffy broke so far from its exploration of adolescent angst that when the writers did dramatize it in the form of 15 year-old Dawn's kleptomania and cries - or whines - for attention, the results were often as cloying as they were moving.

Unlike many Buffy fans, I don't mind Dawn. The character offers a surprising amount of comic relief as well as a nice teen counter-point to the 20-something perspective of the rest of the Scooby Gang. Still, next to the serious adult issues facing her big sis, Dawn's oh-so-adolescent woes felt deliberately trivial and mundane, and dramatically, they served to highlight Buffy's failure as a caregiver at least as much as they expressed Dawn's pain. Buffy the character had grown up, and the focus of the show grew with her.

To emphasize this shift in tone, the writers also gave Buffy clear foils organized around this theme of growing up and taking ownership of one's life and choices. The Big Bad of Season Six wasn't a vampire or a god, but three "arch nemesises", Warren, Jonathan and Andrew, who dubbed themselves "the Trio." The Trio offered a rich contrast to our beloved Slayer in her struggle towards adulthood. By season's end, the Trio proved to be little more than three post-teen men stuck in a kind of perpetual adolescence; one character even described them as "little men who play with toys."

If Buffy grew into adulthood by painfully learning that she couldn't treat people as things, the Trio's villainy emerged specifically through their tendency to do just that. They fancied themselves as supervillains out of comic books: conjuring spells, building gadgets, and causing mayhem to scoring cash and women, and despite their adolescent nerd-charm, their childish selfishness turned them into thieves, murderers, and rapists.

Where previous seasons offered supernatural Big Bads with metaphorical resonance, all of the villainy in Season Six was born out of genuine human weakness, insecurity, and selfishness. As the Trio's villainy served as a contrast to Buffy's journey into adulthood, it also offered a kind of template for Willow's descent into darkness.

Warren and his compatriots kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and brainwashed her into servitude, an act painfully reminiscent of a memory spell Willow cast on her girlfriend Tara. After Tara left Willow, Willow began to use her magic to toy with people and things for her own benefit and amusement, to kill the pain of a lost relationship. Willow's addiction to magic became a re-enactment of both the Trio's plot to rule Sunnydale and Buffy's sexual addiction. Unable to handle the responsibility and the pain of adulthood, Willow began treating people as things.

In a way, then, it seems fitting that the climax of the season involved Buffy coming to terms with the decisions she had made, her relationship with Spike, and her responsibility to her sister at the same time that Willow came undone by her inability to cope with her addiction to magic. At the very moment that Buffy began to break through her depression and ennui, Willow's addiction, born out of her own insecurity, evolved into an apocalyptic tirade with the murder of Tara.

Certainly, Willow's reign of vengeance transcended the simple theme of "Oh, grow up." But as Season Seven's Willow might say, it's all connected. Buffy responded to the pressures of adult life by disengaging from the world, just as Willow responded by seeking to destroy it. In both cases, Whedon and his writers suggested that as people grow, they experience frustration and loss, but the only way to make one's way in the world is to face one's own personal demons and engage it.

Despite the shift in tone, then, I still think it's fair to say that the sixth season of Buffy ultimately proved quite similar to those that preceded it. The series has always walked a fine line between overwrought melodrama and searing catharsis as it has dramatized the pain of becoming. With the end of its characters' adolescence, Buffy simply needed to reinterpret the nature of that process and venture from the well-trodden world of teen angst to the more ambiguous territory of young adulthood.

While there were times when I, too, found the result repetitive, frivolous or dramatically inert, there were also times when I recognized emotional truths from my own experience that I had never seen portrayed anywhere with such honesty and raw intensity. And I can't think of any higher praise for a work of art than that.

Fanged Films

UK, 1980
The Monster Club
USA, 1973

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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