Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Death Is What a Slayer Lives

by Cynthia Fuchs

cover art

Death Is What a Slayer Lives

Creator: Joss Whedon
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendan, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Amber Benson, Eliza Dushku, Charisma Carpenter, D.B. Woodside, Tom Lenk, Iyari Limon, Juliet Landau, Marc Blucas, Seth Green
Regular airtime: [19 May 2003]

([19 May 2003])

You guys are going to have a prom, the kind of prom that everyone should have. I’m going to give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every single person on the face of the earth to do it.
—Buffy, “The Prom” (3-20)

Wherever I was, I was happy. I think I was in heaven. I was torn out of there, by my friends. Everything here is hard and violent. This is hell.
—Buffy, “Flooded” (6-4)

Don’t kid yourselves, you guys. This whole thing is all about death. You think you’re different ‘cause you might be the next Slayer? Death is what a slayer breathes, what a Slayer dreams about when she sleeps. Death is what a Slayer lives.
—Buffy, “Potential” (7-12)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends on May 20th. Many fans mourn its passing, others note the un-Dawson’s-like timeliness of its exit, and still others think the finale is past due, claiming that sundry characters and/or story arcs have long since devolved into irritating, gloomy or just plain uncool incoherence.

However you read the twisty evolution of Buffy, it’s worth remembering, amid the current reevaluating and memorializing, that it has always been about ends, specifically, the ways that young people deal with loss. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has faced and caused death again and again, usually multiple times per episode. Being the Slayer, she is chosen to destroy monsters in the name of goodness. To this end, she spends an ungodly amount of time with creatures more dead than living, from Ampata (Ara Celi) (“Inca Mummy Girl,” 2-4), the prehistoric Bezoar (“Bad Eggs,” 2-12), and Giles as a Fyarl demon (“A New Man,” 4-12), to the Xander-splitting Toth (“The Replacement,” 5-3), the “killing machine” Suvolte Demon (“As You Were,” 6-15), and the grisly Turok-Han (“Bring on the Night” and “Showtime,” 7-10 and 11), not to mention Dark Willow (episodes 20-22 of the sixth season) and, now and forever (at least since the third season), the First.

While some of these monsters are more sympathetic than others, all transgress various moral and social boundaries, crossing between life and death. And in this, they mirror Buffy’s own sense of mission and necessity. They also emphasize the series’ central structure of difference—race. While its foundational joke is based exactly in Buffy’s (and by extension, Sunnydale’s) metaphorical and literal whiteness (she’s been a cheerleader and ice skater, she’s named Buffy), its most serious matter, death, is a function of racial difference, or more precisely, refusals to see past that difference. If this isn’t a potent allegory for life on earth at this moment, I don’t know what is.

As in many fantasy and SF narratives, most of the conflicts are made visible between the so-called human race and others (demon, vampire, troll, rat). This makes the series’ penchant for interracial (or perhaps more accurately, interspecies) romance—Buffy and Angel (David Boreanaz), Buffy and Spike (James Marsters), Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caulfield), Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Oz (Seth Green)—all the more striking, as efforts to cross what would seem to be the show’s originary, bottom-line distinction. The Hellmouth pretty much marks the limit of human existence, threatening to erupt and kill the planet (or at least flood it with evil), every season. And yet, Buffy makes repeated, difficult, and spectacular transgressions of this limit its primary metaphor for young people’s experience.

For all its clever observations and insight into teen angst, the show has drawn particular praise and criticism for its handling of death. When Buffy’s mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) died two years ago, reviewers applauded the sensitive treatment of such trauma (“The Body,” 5-16). But the murder of Willow’s lover Tara (Amber Benson), incited considerable controversy, as it appeared to confirm the costs of visible queerness in a homophobic world (“Seeing Red,” 6-19).

And there are more costs. Dark Willow’s brutal flaying of the murderer Warren (Adam Busch) only made her feel worse: killing the monster who killed Tara didn’t have any sort of cathartic effect. In fact, the ordeal has haunted her as she’s embarked on a relationship with Kennedy (Iyari Limon). In “The Killer In Me,” Willow’s guilt over Tara and Warren’s deaths leads her to absorb Warren, to look like him and begin to think and act like him. When Kennedy pulls her back into herself with a kiss (the same trigger that first turned her into Warren), Willow weeps, “I let her be dead. She’s really dead. And I killed her” (7-13).

While Willow is traumatized by death, Buffy, as she says, lives it. this is perhaps most visible in her relationships with the undead. Consider, early on, the relation between Ampata, the mummy girl who must suck the life out of others to survive, and Buffy, who must kill others by definition. They are, by constitution, mortal enemies, but at the same time share their mixed feelings about being Chosen Ones (they do so in code, as they must keep their transgressive lives “secret”). “She was gypped,” says Buffy. “She was just a girl, and she had her life taken away from her.”

Such empathy, emotional or political, is not unheard of in the series (think also of the Chumash spirits in “Pangs,” 4-8, or Buffy’s chatty ex-classmate/now vampire Holden, in “Conversations with Dead People,” 7-7), but the majority of Buffy’s victims are gruesome creatures or quick-to-dust vampires. With no investment in the objects of her lethal aggression, she tends to talk about slaying as work, thrust upon her. In “What’s My Line, Part 2,” this comes as news to the other Slayer, Kendra (Bianca Lawson): “You talk about slaying like it’s a job. It’s not. It’s who you are.” Buffy concedes, “I guess it’s something I really can’t fight, I’m a freak” (2-10).

Kendra’s brief sojourn in Sunnydale (she’s killed by Drusilla [Juliet Landau]) underlines the Slayer’s precarious status, even with her superpowers. As Buffy and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) discover, Kendra is called to become the Slayer when Buffy drowned to death, even though she was “only gone for a minute”). The only other being with whom Buffy might share her Slayerish concerns is a fluke. Still, they understand their calling differently: Kendra has “flawless” technique and takes her gig seriously (“Emotions are weakness, Buffy. You shouldn’t entertain dem”), Buffy is more intuitive and, as she puts it, “imaginative” (“My emotions give me power. They’re total assets!”).

Kendra’s untimely death appears to reward such “assets,” and establishes a strange continuity between the archetypal suburban white girl and the earnestly undistracted Jamaican Slayer when Buffy inherits Kendra’s favorite weapon, Mr. Pointy. Moreover, the causal relation between Kendra’s appearance and Buffy’s death sets the ground for Faith’s (Eliza Dushku) arrival in “Faith, Hope, & Trick” (3-3). She’s “explained” as the result of Kendra’s death, though she comes to Sunnydale on her own accord, skipping out on her Watcher to take up her “chance to meet the infamous Buff and compare notes.”

The infamous Buff and the seductive Faith have since shared a difficult relationship. Their differences are different than Buffy and Kendra’s, Faith being even more extremely “intuitive,” and disturbingly (to Buffy at least) self-indulgent. The Dark Slayer encourages Buffy to take pleasure in her work (in her skill and superiority, compared to other humans, thus setting the Slayers apart, even as Buffy wants to much to be like her friends).

The line is drawn for Buffy when Faith kills a man by accident, and evinces no remorse: “There is no body. I took it, weighted it, and dumped it. The body doesn’t exist” (“Bad Girls,” 3-14). This reaction, even more than the act, shocks Buffy—the camera holds on her face to register her revulsion. For Buffy, the line crossed is not intention, but regret. Her interpretation is again, intuitive, and it creates the possibility for her relationship with the vampire Angel (formerly, or intermittently, Angelus), who comes with a couple of hundred years worth of murdering humans behind him. But his soul brings him everlasting sorrow and guilt. Buffy can appreciate that.

Her own grappling with the Slayer’s necessary hypocrisy (killing to prevent killing) is sentimental and romantic with Angel (so many sighs, tears, and poignant looks), visceral and ominous with Spike (a.k.a. Hostile 17, according to the Initiative). Both of these interracial relationships (unlike her intraracial relationship with soldier-boy Riley [Marc Blucas]) exacerbate her discontent with what it means to be a Slayer, and complicate her friendships with the living. Xander points out, in “Selfless,” that Buffy’s resolution to kill his lover Anya (who has taken murderous vengeance on a house full of vicious frat boys) is unsound, because she treats the cases of her lovers, Angel and Spike, as if somehow, “it’s different” for them (7-5). Buffy articulates the illogic as her identity, her closeness to death:

It is always different! It’s always complicated. And at some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end, the Slayer is always cut off. There’s no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing council. Human rules don’t apply. There’s only me. I am the law.

Endlessly unhappy and angry with her lot, apart from “human rules,” Buffy resists it, to no avail. And in the last two seasons, death in Buffy has become increasingly difficult. As Buffy and crew have grown older (retaining their signature dark humor), their responsibilities and desires have shifted, and their numbers have expanded: now, in the last season, the Summers house is headquarters not only to the originals (Xander, Willow, and Giles), but also Anya, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), nerdy storyteller Andrew (Tom Lenk), earnest Principal Wood (D.B. Woodside), and the numerous Potential Slayers crowding into the Summers house in anticipation of the big finale with the First.

Buffy’s sense of responsibility for all these lives gnaws at her. Even when the Scoobies (plus the Potentials and “not-in-charge chick” Faith) vote her out of her own house (“Empty Places,” 7-19), she returns to herself in time to find the super-scythe and beat back a slew of UberVamps. When the deaths of several Potentials suggest to Faith that she’s ill-equipped to lead anyone to war with the First, Buffy sets her straight: “People die. War is about death, needless, stupid death.”

For a series so insistently focused on the many ways that death might be experienced and imagined (not least the exhilarating martial arts action, but including tragic forms as well, both quiet and violent), Buffy here makes excruciating the anguish of have to live death. This dilemma was made perversely literal in Buffy’s death at the end of the WB’s season five (“The Gift,” 5-22, where her tombstone read, “She save the world a lot”) and rejuvenation in UPN’s season six (“Bargaining,” 6-1 and 2).

Buffy’s response at the time was reasonably unreasonable. She sought “feeling” in a raucous sexual relationship with Spike. At the end of “Smashed” (6-9), she and Spike literally bring the house down as they seek loss of self in violent intimacy. As she puts it in “Wrecked,” Spike’s place in shambles around them, “When did the building fall down?” (6-10). Their relationship represents their inevitable, mutual guilt and rage. And though William the Bloody Awful Poet ostensibly has a harder time expressing his “emotions,” it is Buffy who can’t yet use he word “love” to describe what she feels for Spike (circulating spoilers for the series finale suggest that she gets up her nerve for just such a declaration, for what it’s worth).

Spike’s erratic transformation over the last two seasons, from leather-jacketed vamp to chip-blocked migraine boy to soul-seeking “fool for love” has bothered some viewers. Jaime J. Weinman writes in Salon that, since Buffy learned that Spike was “killing people again,” in “Conversations With Dead People,” the series has become “about Buffy and Spike. And that’s about all” (13 May 03). But the series has always been about Buffy and Spike—or more accurately, Buffy and death. He’s the immediate incarnation of the problem she faces, relentlessly.

While Buffy is about powerful girls and youthful agency, it has always retained its somber, iconic, and mythic interest in death, the experience of being mortal and conscious of it. Certainly, the series is a fantasy and something of a chick-action thrill-ride. But at this moment of its ending, when war and death color most every news report, when youthful violence and fatality in the name of “goodness” is deemed heroic by all variety of talking heads, Buffy is utterly, and unnervingly, timely.

The last war in the series has both sides—the Good and the First—defining themselves as righteous. Clearly, you side with Buffy against the First’s current representative, the girl-hating, desire-fearing, Bible-quoting Preacher Caleb (Nathan Fillion). He so invites your dislike when he taunts Buffy, declaring her cause, her sense of herself, an illusion: “So you’re the Slayer. You’re the strongest and the fastest. The most aflame with that most precious invention of all mankind, the notion of goodness.” With that, he whomps her across the room, such that Buffy again can come back, the resilient underdog who, like her sundry opponents, must kill to live.

And as if to clarify this likeness, the First takes on Buffy as its apparent favorite form (others include Warren, Wood’s Slayer-mother Nikki [K.D. Aubert], Glory [Clare Kramer], Drusilla, the Mayor [Harry Groener], and the Master [Mark Metcalf]). Being incorporeal and only able to take the shape of dead people, its preference for Buffy means a few things. For one, Caleb’s elaborate “ingestion” of the First looks like demonic sex with it (connecting sex and death, as is the series’ wont). For another, the First/Buffy tends to appear in frame with Buffy (though she can’t see it), while both Buffys converse with Caleb and Spike. The First/Buffy is well defined, of course, more slithery than Buffy/Buffy. But it’s telling that she’s fighting herself, or a force that looks just like her.

The First/Master tells Spike in “Lessons,” “Look at you, trying to do what’s right, just like her. You still don’t get it. It’s not about right, not about wrong…” morphing into the First/Buffy, to finish, “...it’s about power” (7-1). Spike, purveyor of so much death, craving, and trauma, can’t be “like her.” But then, neither can Buffy be quite “like her.” The Slayer is an idea, brilliantly embodied—as Kendra, Buffy, Faith, and the First Slayer (Sharon Ferguson)—but still a “notion of goodness,” compelled to kill, living with contradiction, living death.

While the First and the Shadow Men (whom Buffy confronts in “Get It Done” 7-15) proclaim their existences in abstract terms—“power”—Buffy, the girl who kills, knows better. “It” may be “about power,” but it is also about pain, vulnerability, and loss. It is about ends. While Buffy must defend the “notion of goodness,” she must also question it. The result has been seven seasons of passionate, clever, and energetic tv. And seven seasons of death.

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//Mixed media