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See and be Seen: Jeff Looks at Buffy The Vampire Slayer seasons 1-8.

Jeff Lester

Back in late April, I bought the Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Chosen Collection boxed set off Amazon for a pretty good price. In early May, Edi and I started watching the show (I had seen most of the show when it was first aired, Edi hadn’t seen anything) at the rate of an episode or two (almost) every night, and a few weeks ago we finally came to the end. It happened the same day I read the abridged print version of Joss Whedon’s interview with the Onion A.V. Club, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer #5, and it occurred to me I was pretty well situated to talk about the new comic in relation to the show, and maybe kick around some thoughts about both the show and Whedon generally. I cannot guarantee at the outset I’ll get anywhere interesting with it. It’ll include spoilers of the series, and require that you be familiar with the show: I tried writing a sensible overview of the whole phenomena and it couldn’t have been duller or more imbecilic. Also, you’ll notice this essay neatly detours around the significant influence of the other talented writers on BTVS the show, and the writers-to-come for BTVS: Season Eight. Although I think there’s some very interesting material to be explored there, it’ll have to wait for another time. This damn thing is big enough as it is.

As you know, I’m usually most interested in the crunchy subtext, and BTVS is a particularly interesting show for that. In part, this is because Whedon and crew were particularly facile with metaphor and subtext; there’s the initial conceit of the show, of course–high school as a horror movie–but also the subtextual stuff going on in particular stories and arcs, such as the genius twist of Season Two’s “Innocence” where Angel turns evil after sleeping with Buffy. But BTVS is also particularly interesting because that initial conceit gets thrown out after four years, and the show goes on for another three with an official eighth season now turning up in print. Whedon has said in the past he intended to start BTVS, get it established, leave it in capable hands, and then go off and do other stuff. Yet, he continues to return to the character. And why is that? Is it because as long as people are interested in the Buffyverse and willing to be milked of their hard-earned cash, Whedon is interested in showing up every morning with the milking pail?

Well, sure. Whedon is always swinging for the fences of pop culture fame, and I have no doubt he wants Buffy on t-shirts, and lunch boxes, and action figures, and in cartoons. He wants that because he strongly believes Buffy represents a special turning point for the roles of women in heroic literature, and it would be a great thing to have little girls have a strong ass-kicking hero they believe in. He also wants that because, like any other individual who works in Hollywood, he is well and truly aware of how much money those sorts of things make, and how much power is conferred to someone who reaps that cash harvest.

But, interestingly, Whedon is one of those artists for whom material considerations and limitations tend to improve rather than impair his work: If Seth Green wants to leave to pursue movies, it’ll turn out to be the perfect time to move Willow in a completely new direction for her relationships. If Cordelia has to leave to be part of Angel, they’ll bring back Anya. Although he’s complained against needless and stupid changes made by others to his screenplays, Whedon will happily change his own stories in the crafting, break and bend the rules of his own mythology, and the joy he takes in doing so more often than not is experienced by his audience. (I previously wrote very briefly about this ability, which Graeme had quite correctly referred to as cockiness, here.) And although he’s happy to break his own rules, he’s exceptionally faithful to certain storytelling precepts, such as giving the viewers a strongly defined conclusion. One of the things that struck me watching the seasons one after the other is that with the exception of Season Four (the Adam/Initiative arc) and maybe Season Six, one could stop watching after the end of the season and feel satisfied. In the first season, Buffy owns her power. At the end of the second season, Buffy learns the cost of having that power (and runs from it). In the third season, she and the gang graduate from high school. And although I disliked a great chunk of Season Five, I admired the moxie of the ending being both definitive and open-ended. (Considering my memories of seasons six and seven, I was tempted to tell Edi, “Hey, you know, let’s just pretend that was the end of the series.” I’m glad I didn’t.) In some ways, it was this desire to give Buffy a complete arc each season that made it harder and harder to do more things with the character as time went on, and force other characters into the spotlight more and more.

So the idea of Buffy: Season Eight in comics can stem from both Whedon’s desire to make more cash, to give the brand that much more power, and his desire to tell a story, to have something to say that he can best say with Buffy and the characters of the Buffyverse. Or rather, the idea that Season Eight might be a bit of a cash grab won’t stop him from developing a story with something meaningful to say. What should be interesting is seeing if we can tell from the first five issues of Buffy: Season Eight what Whedon might want to say, or what he might end up saying.

As I mentioned, BTVS was built around the “high school as horror movie” conceit it abandoned after three years (although I think the “college is hell” conceit for Season Four works pretty well, too). These conceits are successful in part because the same fears of powerlessness (and, also, a corresponding fear of power) that fuel horror movies are part and parcel of teenage life. As the series goes on, Whedon becomes more interested in that fear of power, and the cost of power, than the fear of powerlessness. Being the Slayer is a terrible responsibility for Buffy: the early seasons show her complaining about how it screws up her chance for a normal life, and the later seasons show exactly how it screws her up. A lot of what I found thought was careless plot hammering in later seasons the first time I watched became clearer on rewatching–even though it bites her on the ass time and time again, Buffy keeps secrets from her friends; she struggles with feelings of superiority and callousness that come from her power; she equates sex with danger; and she is too quick to accept responsibility for things that happen, to the point of defensiveness. Buffy learns lessons and moves forward with each season’s arc, but she doesn’t always become a better person or learn the right lesson–for most of Season Seven, for example, she’s an insufferable ass (although what part of that is weaknesses in Sarah Michelle Gellar’s portrayal–she clearly is ready to leave the show by this point–and what part of that are strident speeches made by Whedon on the price of being a leader, I leave for a smarter viewer than I to suss out). One nice trick in BTVS the TV show is the use of history (the school subject) continually being used as a metaphor for, well, History: at the beginning of the show, it’s the subject Buffy has the most trouble with but as time goes on, her relationship to the subject grows more complex: sometimes people talk as if she’s a natural at the subject, other times the nuances of it elude her. But it’s never a topic she can dismiss: in Whedon’s universe (and in the Whedonverse), history is inescapable. No matter how she tries to run, or what she tries to hide, the history of the Slayer lineage (or what she’s done, or who she’s slept with, or how she’s fighting) is always inescapable.

I suspect, in fact, this is the reason Whedon was never able to break away from Buffy. The struggles of Buffy, one of a long line of vampire slayers, to accept that lineage is something that perhaps struck close to home with Whedon, a third-generation TV writer. Despite his attempts to be a screenwriter and filmmaker, Whedon was through all of Buffy the TV show, only successful in the medium of his father and his grandfather. Like Buffy, he couldn’t escape his lineage and, like Buffy, Whedon grew most powerful embracing it and using the resulting power to exert control over it. (Now that I think about it, like Slayers, television writers are vitally dependent on their watchers. To what extent might Buffy’s complex relationship with the Watchers’ Council–she’s fond of hers, but dismissive of the power the others try to exert on Slayers–mirror Whedon’s relationship with the people who it possible for him to make a living?) I wonder if all the frustration and ambivalence and outright fear Buffy expresses of her power and responsibility are echoes of what Whedon went through during the making of the show (and Angel, and Firefly)–the frustration, ambivalence, and fear of an artist saying: “Yes, this is what I can do well. But is this all I’m going to be able to do?”

In the first four issues of Season Eight–the equivalent of one TV episode–Buffy is the leader of a worldwide group of Slayers, and she’s more comfortable in her power. Xander is the Nick Fury-like organizer of the group, Willow is her powerful back-up, and Giles is her recruiter and diplomat in the supernatural world. In issue five, The Chain, a Buffy decoy dies trying to carry on Buffy’s name, saying, “There is a chain between each and every one of us. And like the man said, you either feel its tug or you ignore it.” Because the Buffy decoy does so, she takes solace even as she dies, saying “You don’t even know who I am. But I do.” While this suggests Whedon is more comfortable with the idea of one’s place in history being irrelevant as long as you know who you are and where you come from, the use of the chain–a symbol of bondage, slavery and oppression–as the connector points to continuing ambivalence. (Or maybe I’m wrong, and the bondage Whedon talks about is his connection to Buffy and the Buffyverse, the possibility of being “the Buffy guy” for the rest of his career?)

In any event, Season Eight suggests that Buffy is more comfortable in her roles as leader and as Slayer, and Whedon more comfortable in his role as “the Buffy guy” and these are both comforts that couldn’t be conveyed on TV, since in this medium Buffy is free of Gellar’s “get me the hell out of here” airs and Whedon is free of his “what the hell am I doing still working in TV?” frustrations. In fact, free seems to be word of the day for Season Eight. Whedon is free of the concerns of a show’s budget and he can deliver visuals as big as he can think of: the first four issues of Buffy have had magical battles, dream sequences, an army of zombies fighting an army of Slayers, dragons, castle raids…the list goes on.

And yet, this freedom may prove to be Season Eight’s biggest weakness: all those scenes in the TV show of Buffy and crew in the library or the magic shop researching their enemy was a clever way to have the characters be proactive without spending more precious money on new sets, new effects, new fights–but it’s also where Whedon and his writers were better able to make us care about the characters. (As I mentioned above, Whedon is one of those artists whose work apparently gets better under material considerations and restrictions.) At five issues in, I can give you a rough idea about what’s happening with all of the above characters, but I can’t recall reading a scene from the books that actually would have made me care in its own right–the emotional impact comes only from the affection I already have for the characters. Whedon points out in that Onion AV interview it’s going to be harder for him to create what he calls “juice”–to create a character in the comics that has any of the appeal of someone on the show–but I think even more challenging may be taking a creator who’s always drawn tremendous amounts of inspiration from his actors (what would BTVS had been like if James Marsters had never read for Spike, originally a one-off villain?) and giving him nothing to bounce off of but his ideas, his editor, and the book’s art. The work on Season Eight so far has been pretty and competent, but more than occasionally rushed and never particularly inspired. Finally, there’s been talk about Season Eight taking place over fifty or sixty issues, which is four to five years of real time. That’s certainly plenty of time to craft a sweeping mega-epic, but is it possibly too much time? (If Season Five had lasted five years, I would’ve bailed and never come back long ago…) In fact, the last three seasons might’ve fared better at twelve or thirteen episodes each instead of twenty-two. Unless Season Eight has well-planned plateaus–areas that feel like climaxes even if they aren’t the arc’s ultimate one–it could take far too long (and cost far too much) for the audience to stay interested.

I think Whedon’s idea for the arc (Buffy may have found peace, but the U.S. military–and maybe the world–is clearly still quite afraid of her power, and, I’m guessing, but just as Season Seven had the uber-vamp, Season Eight will have a Slayer-Slayer) and his enthusiasm for the comics medium will make his run worth reading. I certainly have enough affection for his characters that knowing what’s happening to them next is tremendously appealing. But if Season Eight hits none of the remarkable high notes of the TV series, maybe that shouldn’t be a tremendous surprise: lineage or no, it took Whedon a lot of time to become a master of the TV format. It might be naive to think, despite his considerable talents, he’ll be able to do as much with the comics medium in a much shorter (and yet, thanks to the miracle of publication schedules, much longer) time. Ultimately, what may serve Whedon best may be what he’ll least want to do–take some huge risks with the Buffy characters and the comics medium in the hopes of coming up with something new. If nothing else, taking such risks might help him identify again with the fear of powerlessness, and bring his relationship with Buffy full circle.

I guess like any good set of Watchers, We’ll just have to wait and see.

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