So during April when I moved house twice and was without internet a lot of the time, one of the things I did was finish watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’d basically never watched apart from a little bit of season one and very brief glimpses of seasons 5 and 6 when it was originally broadcast.
I liked it. And for my thoughts beyond that, spoiler warning for basically the whole seven seasons. Also I guess trigger warnings for mentions of blood, death, attempted rape, drug-addiction.
It took me a weirdly long time to start really liking Buffy herself. I never disliked her, I was just a bit indifferent and was more interested in the supporting cast (liked Willow and Giles, found Xander annoying as a human being but fairly watchable as a character, enjoyed Cordelia, thought Angel was dull as dishwater — the usual thing). I can’t remember quite when I started really liking Buffy but I think it was late season three or early season four; and I’m not sure why, except that she seemed to become more real and started reminding me of real people I know and like. Which meant she changed in my mind from a sort of cartoon superhero into an admirable and likeable human being.
So seasons four and five were pretty good for me. No more Angel (yaaaaaaawn)! Interesting new setting! Anya! Tara! Willow coming into her own! Xander showing signs of being someone you might actually want to talk to occasionally! Dawn! Good times.
The whole Initiative storyline was kind of uninspiring, and Riley was annoying (especially after the reveal that he was a vampire-hunter guy and not just a fairly ordinary guy). I’d go along with everything Garland says about Riley, but his annoyingness didn’t diminish my enjoyment of seasons four and five because I felt like the series supported me in disliking Riley, or at least gave me space to not like him — unlike Angel, who was clearly meant to be awesome and whose profound boringness was therefore a real problem for me in the first three seasons. But the fact that I thought the show was okay with me disliking Riley meant I got an unpleasant surprise when it was framed as a Terrible Mistake for Buffy to ditch him.
I also had a lot of trouble with Spike. James Marsters played him brilliantly (accent aside), so it’s understandable that the writers couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of the character, but for my money they made all the wrong decisions with him — starting with the microchip and ending never. He didn’t work as comic relief and he didn’t work as tragic romantic interest (because between the fundamentally evil and the sexbot and the attempted rape how could you have any reaction to that angle except ‘ew no’?) and, most of all, I was immensely irritated by the way the writers handled the ‘no soul’ issue. Having established a very clear bit of canon in the first few seasons that vampires are evil evil eeeevilll except for Angel when and only when he has a soul, they then made Spike far too sympathetic, drew attention to how not-evil he was by having him go round insisting he was evil, and only dealt with the soul problem way too late by giving him his soul, which made absolutely no difference and only further underlined that they’d been writing him as if he had one already.
And speaking of illogical character-writing, what on earth was going on with Giles’ back-story? He was such a great character but his back-story made absolutely no sense. I don’t believe anybody who was the kind of teenager we see in Band candy could get to middle age and be as nervous and hesitant about courting Jenny Calendar as Buffy-era Giles is. And I don’t believe the writers had any clear idea what his much-hinted ‘dark past’ actually consisted of or how it had formed his character: it all just seemed to have been thrown in to give a vague impression of additionally complexity that really wasn’t needed. And the same could be said of Olivia, who, like most of the characters of colour in this whole very white series, seemed to be of no inherent interest to the writers but was just there to inform our view of a white character and / or to get killed.
Since I’ve started ranting, I might as well carry on. Willow’s magic-addiction thing really annoyed me for two reasons. First, drug-addiction is just way over-used in TV drama in general, both in literal depictions and in lazy copyings where you insert something like ‘magic’ in place of ‘drugs’ but leave everything else the same; and although I have no first-hand or second-hand experience of drug-addiction I get the strong impression that very few people who write this kind of thing are any better informed than I am. And the second thing is internal inconsistency again: over the first few seasons the issue of not abusing magic came up from time to time and it was always pretty clear that the reasons you shouldn’t do it were to do with cosmic balance and other mystical stuff, all amounting to ‘terrible things will happen to the fabric of reality’. Nobody ever said that it messes up the person who does it or that it’s physiologically addictive. And yet when it finally happens, it messes up Willow plenty but there’s very little sign of anything bad happening to cosmic balance or the fabric of reality. (Of course bad stuff does happen, but that’s because Willow does bad stuff, which is different. That isn’t ‘don’t abuse magic or there will be unintended consequences’, it’s just ‘don’t use magic to do bad things’.)
But mostly what got me down about the last couple of seasons was this project of making all the main characters as miserable and disheartened and self-doubting as possible. I feel like there’s probably some kind of proper reason why that sort of thing is bad writing and even bad politics but frankly I just found it really sad and upsetting and unnecessary. If they’d got rid of the Willow-the-junkie storyline — which was really the only thing left unresolved at the end of season five — they could have wrapped the whole thing up with season five and spared me a couple of weeks of increasing despondency. I’m tempted to say it would have been ideal, except that the actual ending of season five made no sense. (How can ‘Summers blood’ possibly be the thing that opens and closes the portal? Before the key became embodied as Dawn, it didn’t have any blood, yet it would still presumably have opened the portal. Okay, but Dawn’s blood is still part of Dawn, who is the key, so that still works, right? Except no, because in that case Buffy, who is definitely not in any way made of the energy that makes up the key, wouldn’t be an adequate substitute. She can only be swapped for Dawn because Dawn’s blood is the same as her blood, i.e. Dawn’s blood is made of organic material from the Summers family, not from key energy. In which case it shouldn’t be able to open the portal, and Buffy’s shouldn’t be able to close it. And that’s before we even engage with the fact that Buffy didn’t appear to actually shed any blood while inside the portal. Gaaaah.)
I think really a lot of the trouble I had with the last couple of seasons is the way you could increasingly tell that things were happening because the writers were trying to achieve something, and not because they were things the characters would actually do or things that made any sense in themselves. Yes Xander’s always been kind of a jerk but even so his running out on Anya was seriously under-explained, both at the time and afterwards: it was transparently done because the writers were afraid that a happily married Anya & Xander would make boring television or something. And Tara — I’ve gone back and forth on whether what was done to Tara was fridging. Sometimes I think not, because the classic fridge is the killing of a female character who’s close to a male lead character in order to give that male character motivation, and Willow isn’t a male character, so it lacks that misogynistic element; on the other hand it’s still a female character being treated as disposable, so maybe it is. I don’t know. But I think what really bothers me about it isn’t any kind of social justice angle but just the treatment of the character as disposable in the first place.
I think as audiences we get used to, and get quite good at, working out whether a character is being presented to us as someone we should care about or as someone who just advances the plot. And when a character we’ve been asked to care about, and have agreed to care about, is subsequently disposed of purely to advance the plot, it’s offensive. When real human beings are exploited or treated as tools whose only value is instrumental, it denies their inherent value as people and that offends our sense of justice. Obviously when it happens to a fictional character it isn’t the same thing, but I think it offends in a similar way if that character has been one of the core characters whom we care about for their own sake and not just because of the role they play in the larger drama. I think it’s also a counter-productive thing for a writer to do because it reminds the audience of the artifice of the whole exercise: we know we’re watching fiction, but you’ve invited us to make the imaginative effort of thinking of this particular character, unlike many of the ones we see in a given episode, as an actual person. If you then do something that transparently reduces that character to a narrative device, you remind us that it’s all fake and that actually none of the characters are real people, which seriously imperils our ability to keep believing in or caring about anything that’s happening. If Tara had been killed for reasons that served Tara’s own storyline and therefore respected her integrity as a character rather than just a role, it would have been sad but not offensive. If Tara had been killed because sometimes bad things just randomly happen in this fictional world, that again would have been okay. If Tara had been when she was still just a character who seemed quite nice and who was important to Willow but who wasn’t really important to the audience, that would have been fine because audiences accept that sometimes characters are just devices. (Compare the death of Joyce: she was a very long-running character but it was always clear that she had no real existence or purpose except as part of Buffy’s emotional landscape, so killing her in order to traumatize Buffy didn’t offend in the same way.) But killing Tara purely to trigger a development in Willow’s storyline was, I think, neither fair to the audience nor a good piece of writing.
So yes, I had problems with seasons six and seven. I’m not qualified to pronounce on whether something is feminist or not but given Whedon’s proclamations about how he wanted Buffy to be a strong role-model and a subversion of the ‘girl as victim’ trope I do feel vaguely unnerved by the zeal and thoroughness with which he destroyed her life and her self-confidence and made her spend most of those last seasons in a very victimish place. Oh, and I forgot to mention another bit of internal inconsistency that irritated me: why no new slayer after Buffy’s second death? I’ve thought of various explanations and I’m not satisfied with any of them. It’s just another example of the writing team ignoring established rules and likelihoods to make sure the plot does what they want it to do. But yes, problems with six and seven. There were good things too: I liked the idea of the proto-Slayers (though it would have been nice if any of them except Kennedy and Rona could act, or indeed do whatever accents they were meant to be doing); I liked Robin; I liked the thing of the First appearing as dead people. I’m glad I watched until the bitter end.
And now I can enjoy Buffy Outfits without fear of spoilers. Yay!