The genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is right there in the title.
Genius?. Those unfamiliar with the program might well scoff. With a name that stupid? What, is it supposed to be the story of Wes Craven’s French poodle?
But that’s precisely the point. Because that title, in all its playful juxtaposition, is knowingly, gloriously dumb; a collision of the flippant and arcane encapsulating the quirky undercutting of expectation baked into the sensibility of the entire series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that consistently subverts convention and expectation. With elastic, self-aware dialogue, snappy, subversive plotting, it wrings comedy from cliché and pathos from what should, in theory, be farcical and unsalvageable.
Even a cursory glance at its characters and plot lines reveal a myriad of subverted archetypes. From the young man who becomes a werewolf, not by being savaged in the woods, but by getting a bite on the finger from his toddler nephew, to the ageless, overly literal revenge demon with a crippling phobia of bunnies. In one season, the big bad guy is a germaphobe, Mayberry-style mayor who believes in common courtesy, modesty, minigolf, and turning himself into a gargantuan snake monster. In a particularly fine episode, when the world is literally about to end, the narrative decides to ignore that ominous A-story, and instead follow the giddy B-story nonsense of a bunch of roughhousing zombie jocks. Even when Dracula himself turns up he’s a sleezy celebrity who’s more interested in preening and being worshiped than doing any actual bloodsucking.
Neither straight comedy, nor a simple drama, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pastiche of styles and tones. Part sci-fi, part fantasy, part romance, action, drama, and lovingly schlocky horror, it deftly juggles the sombre and the absurd, the glib and the esoteric, binding them together into a postmodern pop cultural mythos of self-empowerment.
And it’s all already in that title, unseen, unstated, but felt instinctively:
Buffy ...the Vampire Slayer.
It invites you to react.
You either laugh, primed for the genre-mashing meta-fictional smorgasbord that awaits; or you mistake it for some proto-Twilight supercilious dirge, rolling your eyes that anything could sound so stupid and cheesy. But either way, whatever your response, it has already made you dance, and in doing so has revealed just as much about you as it has of the malleable text with which it is primarily concerned.
Do you judge a book by its cover? What preconceptions do you bring into your viewing experience, and are you willing to see them challenged? While you weren’t watching the show, it was already watching you – testing whether you’re in on the joke and intrigued enough to take the ride.
Over the course of its run, Buffy the Vampire Slayer would perform many more such flips of expectation, testing its characters, its conceit and its audience. Can you kill a pivotal character and play out the magnitude of that loss in a handful of stunned vignettes? Is it possible to write a narrative with no dialogue? Is it possible to turn the show into a musical? And it all starts with that title, and the impossible juxtaposition it evokes. It asks us, through this contradiction, to explore our own preconceptions of narrative. Are we fools or fearless? Bunnies or brigadiers? Slaves to our expectations or captains of our own fate? And as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in all its genre-blending splendor goes on to prove – if we’re willing to damn the consequences and just try, we can be all of that at once, and more besides.
It is perhaps no surprise then, that a show so preoccupied with playing on appearances and subverting expectations – of judging the substance of the seen and unseen; that used magic and mythology to literalize the philosophical conflicts of its characters – would eventually offer its own riff on one of the oldest supernatural thought experiments in recorded human history: Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges, and the morally corrupting temptation of invisibility.
* * *
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at its heart, has always been about testing what defines a hero – beneath the trappings of costumes and powers and tragic back-stories.
Originally a film starring Kristy Swanson in 1992, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer concept was given its fullest expression in the television series of the same name which ran on WB/UPN from 1997-2003. Joss Whedon, creator, show runner, principle writer, and executive producer of the series, was said to have been inspired by watching too many movies in which some helpless blonde damsel wandered down a dark back alley to be unceremoniously devoured.
Flipping this cliché on its head, Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead told the story of a popular teenage girl who learns that she has been selected, seemingly by cosmic lottery, to become a ‘Vampire Slayer’ – the latest in a long line of lone superhuman women tasked with defending humanity against all manner of demons. Over the course of several years (now even into an ongoing comic book series) Buffy battled, befriended and bested all manner of paranoias writ large as colorful monsters.
Throughout its run, as its title implied, it continued this perpetual negotiation of expectation. While most other superhero stories center upon the notion of disguise – Batman playing the role of the cavalier billionaire; Peter Parker trying to juggle a love life while swinging through the city streets – Buffy, the Vampire Slayer only ever nodded in passing to the conceit of a dual identity. Sure, she was a teenager who initially had to lie about her night time graveyard patrols and her secret stash of Holy Water, but the show was never very concerned with such a conflict. In fact, it was a running gag in the series that most everyone (aside from her mother in the first two seasons) was well aware of her double life. In a particularly sweet episode she is even awarded a special ‘Class Protector’ prize at prom for always being around ‘whenever there was a problem, or something creepy happened’ to save everyone’s life. (Sunnydale 1999! Lowest mortality rate of any graduating class!)
Instead, Buffy’s struggle was about coming to terms with the new obligations being placed upon her as she grew; an expansive, adaptive metaphor for the burgeoning of adult responsibility. Cursed with power – in her words, compelled to learn the plural for ‘apocalypse’ – her journey is a grand metaphor for adolescence, of being torn from a world of youthful self-involvement and thrust into accepting the responsibilities of adulthood.
Demeaned by teachers, judged and feared by her family, she faces criticism from her peers, mockery from her enemies, and even withering assessment from her guides – initially Giles, her Watcher, questions her focus; later she must outgrow the Watcher’s Council and their stifling critique entirely. And in spite of this stream of dismissal and self-doubt, Buffy feels compelled to do the ‘right’ thing; to embrace her gifts and strive to do what’s right.
It’s a theme that resurfaces across the run of the series: Why does Buffy choose to persevere, to be selfless and virtuous when there seems to be little reward, and often great sacrifice and humiliation for doing so? It’s a question perhaps best articulated in one of the less celebrated episodes of the series, ‘Gone’, in which Buffy, accidentally turned invisible, is finally offered the opportunity to cast that responsibility aside.
The connection between invisibility and a lack of accountability is hardly new. The philosopher Plato in his dialogue The Republic (written around 375 BC) used this superpower as an extreme illustration of abject lawlessness.
Plato had set himself a seemingly impossible task: to explain the true nature of Justice. Not with some pithy (but philosophically empty) catch-phrase like ‘eye for an eye’ or ‘do unto others’; not by gesturing vaguely to some optimistic drivel about ‘people liking you more’ or ‘feeling better about yourself’. No dread warnings of retribution in some afterlife; no cheap promises of good deeds being rewarded. Actual justice. Why it’s good for humanity. Why we should bother with it. Why – even if you could get away with being bad and have there be no negative consequences for you at all – anyone would bother being just.
At the beginning of The Republic, Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates is tasked by his friend Glaucon to explain the nature of Justice, and why it is preferable to chaos. Socrates must prove, Glaucon says, that people would still choose to be good, even if they were able to get away with any criminal or selfish act without being caught, and suffer no negative reprisal. To illustrate his argument that any man free of scrutiny would tumble into vice, Glaucon recounts the Myth of the Ring of Gyges.
In the story, a normal man, Gyges, finds a magic ring that, when he puts it on, turns him invisible. Free to act without restraint – no one can see him, he can come and go as he pleases, take and do what he wants – he immediately starts satisfying his greed and lust and wrath. He seduces the queen, steals the fortune of the land, murders the king, and usurps control of the kingdom.
For Glaucon, this tale illustrates that given the lack of social restraint that being invisible provides, all human beings would act in this manner. Justice, morality, ethics, all are just pacts that we make with other human beings in order to survive in the world. We agree that murder and theft is not allowed because we would not want to have such mistreatment visited upon ourselves, or because we don’t want to suffer the shame of being known as a criminal. But if there were some way to turn disappear and leave all of those negative consequences behind, Glaucon says, anyone would let their base desires roam free, abandoning the social contract, taking and doing and exploiting whatever they want:
‘There is no one, it would commonly be supposed, who would have such iron strength of will as to stick to what is right and keep his hands from taking other people’s property. For he would be able to steal from the market whatever he wanted without fear of detection, to go into any man’s house and seduce anyone he liked, to murder or to release from prison anyone he felt inclined, and generally behave as if he had supernatural powers’ (The Republic, 360b-c).
Socrates’ lengthy counter reply is to walk Glaucon, his brother Adeimantus, and anyone else in earshot, through an elaborate metaphorical thought experiment – the description of a utopian city state – to show that it is goodness, not vice, that lies at the heart of every human soul.
It is a thought experiment that will require a grotesque censorship of the arts, the re-writing of all religion and mythology, the institution of forced breeding programs and a deep dive into some creepy eugenics, so let’s not get into its merits or otherwise here – for our purposes it is enough to just acknowledge that this concept of invisibility inviting a state of amoral freedom has remained entwined with the power ever since, resurfacing again and again in philosophy, literature and popular entertainment.
In The Lord of the Rings it is a ring of invisibility that corrupts people to ruin – binding all of the other rings of power together and allowing Sauron to remould civilization into a tyrannical dictatorship. In G.H. Well’s classic novel The Invisible Man, and its countless film and literary adaptations and derivations, including Kevin Bacon’s six-degrees-of-oh-my-God-is-he-full-frontal-CGI-naked thriller Hollow Man (2000), this freedom from the shackles of social order inevitably leads to the devolution of the afflicted person’s morality.
Just as the original myth suggests, in each of these stories the base nature of the human animal is allowed to roam free, resulting in escalating selfish indulgences. Griffin in The Invisible Man, soon turns to theft, arson, violence, and an eventual scheme to terrorize the nation. In Hollow Man, Kevin Bacon almost immediately becomes an unhinged psychotic once he turns transparent, committing murder, rape, slaughtering a dog, and generally freaking out as only a mid-90s effects-driven gratuitous horror flick can allow. And if all this carnage were not disturbing enough, in Chevy Chase’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) the audience is forced to sit through a Chevy Chase film.
...Suddenly you’re envying that dog Kevin Bacon killed, right?
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer decides to tackle this invisibility trope in its season six episode, ‘Gone’, however, it once again flips its audience’s expectation, turning the narrative not into more proof of some corrupting moral relativity, but rather, as Plato’s Republic ultimately argues, an affirmation of our innate desire to seek for inner harmony and justice.
The show had already explored the metaphor of invisibility in the season one episode ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’. Back then it was a somewhat familiar riff on the Ring of Gyges tale. Played as an extreme fable of alienation, a shy young student, Marcie, ignored by her classmates and teachers, literally disappears, and so decides to punish those who had ostracized her. Although driven by isolation and revenge rather than just intoxicated by her new found freedom, just like her invisible precursors Marcie, too, becomes unhinged by this lack of moral restraint. (And is thus eventually employed by the United States government as a spy. Make of that what you will.)
When the series returns to this concept in ‘Gone’ this ‘gift’ of invisibility is inflicted upon Buffy herself; and although it retains all the initial allure of guiltless indulgence, the episode manages (ironically through the absence of its titular character) to make one of the series’ most definitive statements about who and what Buffy is, and what her place in the world must necessarily be.
* * *
Despite being written and directed by David Fury, one of the principle writers of the series, few people would argue that ‘Gone’ is a classic, must-see episode. Indeed, in many ways it might be one of the weaker offerings of this exceptional series, exhibiting all the hallmarks of a filler episode.
It treads water while larger narrative arcs bubble away in the background. It frets with a forgettable plot line about a social worker threatening to take Dawn away that is so arbitrary even the script itself seems to lose interest halfway through. Unsurprisingly, the show’s principle actor, Sarah Michelle Geller, is not present for a sizable portion of the run time. And the action culminates in a fight that is more gag than cathartic resolution – a scuffle between four invisible people in a video game parlor that has approximately zero dollars of production value.
On a side note: the final fight is actually (one imagines knowingly) reminiscent of an episode of the ‘60s Batman series, ‘The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra’ (1968), in which Batman, Robin and Batgirl likewise have to fight invisible foes. Batman (no doubt in order to save on choreography and filming expenses) eventually ramps up the lunacy by killing the lights and fighting his foes in pitch darkness, with only the ‘POW!’ and ‘WHAM!’ title cards popping up to indicate the punches landing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, too, is knowingly campy and stupid in this ‘climactic’ conflict, with the camera frantically zooming and whip-panning to capture nothingness as imperceptible people throw unseen punches at invisible faces.
But it’s precisely this lack of grandeur that makes ‘Gone’ an intriguing and significant episode. It might not have the flash or the peril of other great offerings, it might not hold up comedically or even thematically to some of the more self-contained episodes with clearer literalized emotional demons to confront, but it does reminisce about the history of the show, sometimes even mournfully, and it lays the groundwork for the enormity of what is still to come.
It’s the episode that ‘reveals’ the villains of the season, as Buffy is finally introduced to her three self-proclaimed ‘arch nemesis-is-ses…’ (ironically also setting up the real big bad, Willow’s relapsed addiction, which will return in a big and devastating way in the finalé). It offers a brief respite of levity – both for character and viewer – in an otherwise melancholic run of episodes. And it tempts Buffy with an absolute freedom she has never tasted before: of lawless abandon and the tranquility of oblivion.
After her death at the end of season five and resurrection at the beginning of season six (a meta-textual reflection of the show’s own ‘demise’ on the WB network and ‘rebirth’ on UPN), Buffy – both as character and text – went through a transformative phase. Rather than simply shrugging off the enormity of her return from the grave (in a show in which it is her principle duty to slay the creatures who do that) the narrative embraced this paradigm shift, exploring the ramifications of such an unnatural, impossible act.
On the character level, at this point in the series, Buffy is mired in a psychological rut. She’s directionless, having flunked out of school and unable to hold down a job. She’s failing as a guardian to her sister – Dawn is getting failing grades, shoplifting, and is repeatedly being placed in life-threatening situations. She’s feeling guilty for not having recognized that her best friend, Willow, was losing herself to magic (played in this context as a metaphor for severe drug addiction). And she has been gladly losing herself in a dysfunctional sexual relationship with Spike, a soulless vampire she despises.
Early in this episode, while she is still visible, Buffy stares into a mirror and despairs at what she sees. She’s so unsettled, in fact (and so revolted by Spike having just called her ‘Goldilocks’), that she immediately starts cutting off her own hair, desperate to make some kind of change in her life, even if only cosmetic.
On a larger, textual scale, Buffy has even been denied the grand purpose of a worthy adversary to fight. In contrast to the villains of the previous seasons – a self-proclaimed ‘Master’ of vampires; a murderous, psychopathic ex-boyfriend; the aforementioned snake-monster mayor; a dispassionate military industrial complex; a literal God – the villains of the sixth season are an intentionally unimpressive menagerie. Instead of larger-than-life monsters, they are merely pathetic, indulged children.
The timid depressive Jonathan, the perpetually overlooked younger-child Andrew, and their leader, the seething, misogynistic narcissist Warren; they are boys playacting as men. (As if this weren’t clear enough, Jonathan calls Warren a ‘penis’ when he fires the invisibility gun at him, and in a later episode they will steal a pair of balls that will give them machismo super strength.) In this episode they refer to themselves as ‘crime lords’ not ‘killers’, and aside from Warren (who would go on in later episodes to prove himself a vicious sociopath) their evil schemes to ‘take over Sunnydale’ barely transcend the villainy of a Super Friends cartoon: freeze rays; bank robberies; magical mischief. Even the invisibility gun they invent is not to commit corporate espionage or murder with impunity, but to peep at naked women.
So in many ways, being turned invisible – the result of her three ‘villains’ squabbling over their invention and accidentally blasting her as she wanders by – strikes Buffy as a blessing. Being unseen means that she is momentarily free of expectation; no one is looking to her to be a role model or protector, because literally no one is looking to her at all. As she says,
‘There may be an upside to no-see me.’
And so, after several seasons of omnipresent apocalyptic danger – the death of her mother, the new responsibilities of her sister’s guardianship, and the growing horror of her resurrection to a life of pain that she had gladly left behind – Buffy gladly starts goofing off. She freaks out her friends. Levitates pretend eyeballs around, makes a skull into a puppet. She goes wandering around getting into mischief, enjoying the fact that for once she is not being looked to for responsibility.
Indeed, as she lets go of her inhibitions, her journey starts to neatly play out the indulgent, morally unencumbered descent Plato describes when discussing the Ring of Gyges myth (The Republic, 360b). Like the man in Plato’s example she starts small, at first stealing a woman’s studded purple hat and hurling it into the trash as a service to fashion, but soon, free from the judgement of society, she starts transgressing all other manner of laws and moral codes.
Plato says that such a person ‘would be able to steal from the market whatever [she] wanted without fear of detection’, and Buffy is shown swiping things, including a parked officer’s car, with impunity. This person, Plato says, would be able ‘to go into any man’s house and seduce anyone [she] liked’, and despite Buffy’s lover being willing, she sleeps with Spike without remorse because no one need ever know about it. Such a person, according to Plato, would eventually ‘murder or ... release from prison anyone [she] felt inclined’, and although Buffy thankfully does not go so far as to commit murder, she does, unconscionably, torment an innocent social worker: an agent of the law.
In an act that is superficially played for comedy, but on closer inspection is really quite spiteful, Buffy hunts down the woman who had earlier in the episode warned her that Dawn will need to be placed into foster care. Despite the fact that this woman is threatening to take Dawn away (a prospect that some fans at this point in the show might cheer for), she is decidedly not an evil person. She is only trying to do what’s right for a young girl in danger. And yet Buffy’s response is to make it appear as though this woman has lost her mind. She moves things around on her desk, gets her rattled by seemingly having a mug tell her to ‘kill, kill, kill…’, and most disturbingly, makes it appear as though she is on her way to a Shining-inspired murder spree by typing ‘All work and no play makes Doris a dull girl’ on an endless loop on her computer screen.
From self-sacrificing savior of the world to terrorizing a bureaucrat. Buffy whistles on her way out of that social worker’s office, but her ‘revenge’ – for a mess that her own apathy had created in the first place – is quite dark, indeed.
Elsewhere, in the episode’s B-plot line, Buffy’s closest friend Willow is likewise experiencing her own version of the thought experiment that Plato, through the voice of Glaucon, proposes. Having only recently almost lost herself to an insatiable magic addiction, Willow is immediately blamed when Buffy disappears. As the gang posit: this must surely be some side effect of another Willow spell!
And this articulates the other half of Glaucon’s question to Socrates: why would anyone choose to be righteous if everyone already though that they were guilty? Or in Willow’s words, when Xander suggests that she is, after all, the most likely culprit:
‘Oh, I see. So now whenever anything nasty happens I get conveniently blamed for it? .... So I guess it wouldn’t matter if I just jump off the wagon completely? Since you already think I’m making pit-stops…’
Just as Glaucon wonders, since she has already been tarnished as corrupted, why should Willow ever bother trying to be just in future? Why not simply embrace this reputation and be free from the burden of trying to be good all the time?
* * *
For Buffy, being finally afforded the opportunity to divest herself of all such responsibility allows her to indulge her worst impulses. In doing so, however, comes to realize that she is not embracing life but fleeing it. It’s a breakthrough best articulated when she reaches her nadir: sleeping with Spike, the still-evil, if blood-suckingly-castrated vampire she knows is besotted with her.
Spike, realizing that Buffy is merely using him, calls her out on her selfishness:
‘This vanishing act’s right liberating for you, innit? Go anywhere you want. Do anything you want. Or any one. ...The only reason you’re here [with me] is that you’re not here.’
Buffy at first defends her new blasé attitude, admitting that she is finally willing to embrace this license to misbehave because:
‘For the first time since [my death] I’m free. Free of rules and reports. Free of this life.’
It’s an admission that Spike unpacks as a grim portent:
‘Free of life? Got another name for that – dead.’
The scene is played as a statement on Buffy’s ongoing malaise, but it also points the way toward her eventual reclamation of self. Here in the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer life is responsibility. Divorcing herself from society and her obligations to her family and friends, does not offer her freedom, but oblivion. To be alive is to be responsible: to oneself, to others, and to one’s own actions.
And so, when Xander – via answering machine message – informs Buffy that this invisibility is killing her, her response is a vaguely non-committal ‘Wow’, as weighs up the implications of just letting go.
Now, some might want to argue at this point that the narrative doesn’t really fulfill the strict criteria of Plato’s thought experiment. Although Buffy is invisible, she is still subject to the judgement of her peers and loved ones. Dawn may not see her sister, but she’s still capable of feeling betrayed and abandoned by her. No one else may learn about Buffy sleeping with Spike, but he’s still offended by the way in which she demeans him. Meanwhile, death as a consequence of this invisibility seems like a pretty steep price to pay when the whole idea was that there are no consequences for your actions. But that is to miss the significance of this moment in Buffy’s personal journey.
Buffy’s freedom is specifically about fleeing from the judgement of those family and friends. She already believes she has failed them, and invisibility is an easy escape. More importantly, at this point, having already died, death is no longer a threat, but a welcome comfort. Only a few episodes prior she had longed to be dead again, free from responsibility, and from herself. Invisibility – the allure of being gone in every conceivable way – is, at this point, all the temptation she could ask for.
Eventually, Plato’s thought experiment leads him to divide his utopian city, and every individual human soul, into three separate but interdependent segments: the mind, the spirit and the appetite. Each, he says, have to be in harmony with the other in order for justice to exist:
‘So justice is produced by establishing in the mind a similar natural relation of control and subordination amongst its constituents, and injustice by establishing an unnatural one.’ (444d)
This is a complicated way of saying that one must be able to reign in one’s own self-destructive impulses, both on a social and personal scale. The corrosive appetites of greed and debauchery, the spirited recklessness of pride and vengeance, even the callousness of an overly dispassionate mind, all have to be tempered, and taught to work in unison with each other. The appetite and spirit must learn to be subordinate to the mind, but the mind must ensure that the spirit and appetite’s needs are always met. In so doing, the human soul, and any city state that is made up of these individual human souls, with be at peace, and able to better pursue justice.
Justice, he reveals, is ultimately a way of living.
And this is where Buffy, her experiment with invisibility having allowed her worst traits free reign, finally finds herself. With the liberty of death looming before her, Buffy discovers, despite herself, that she wants to live, with all of the struggle and obligation that life entails. She confirms later that when she received Xander’s message she was surprised. For the first time in months she once again felt the pull of self-preservation, and realized in that moment that she wanted to reclaim her life, to take her place amongst it again. And in doing so, she begins the long arduous journey, made of innumerable incremental steps, back toward responsibility.
‘Gone’ is an episode that acts as the pivot point for the sixth year of the show. Half way through its run it is an attempt to tie up the emotional and psychological trauma of the first half of the season, and to lay the groundwork for its conclusion. Here, both Buffy and Willow, having each been offered the opportunity to freely embrace their vices, come to see that they would rather strive for inner peace instead, using this experience as a catalyst to return themselves to life.
But as they each learn, echoing Plato before them, it’s a path that will be endless, onerous, and one that will test their resolve every day. Because it’s only through knowing oneself and one’s own failings, that such a journey toward inner harmony – toward justice – can begin:
Willow: So I guess we both made good first steps.
Buffy: I guess.
Willow: Yay for us.