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We Could Be Heroes

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])

The finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer marks not only the end of a great series, but also the end of one of the most popular myths of our postmodern times. Its detractors never understood how a show with that title, or that looked so “WB-ish,” might stake such a claim. Yes, at first glance, Buffy with its mix of guys in monster masks running around papier maché caverns and 90210-style teen angst, might be dismissed as teen-targeted escapist nonsense. But all one had to do was stick with an episode—almost any episode—to its end to see how Buffy twisted expectations to reveal its grander resonances for our own seemingly mundane experiences, in television and in life.


If popular entertainment fills any sort of “need” for its viewers (as opposed to its sponsors), it is to provide them with “myths to live by,” to make sense of their own chaotic cravings and experiences. We need to know we are not alone, that the same demon that possessed us has moved through others, and that if it cannot be killed, it can still be resisted.


In the Buffy mythos, a high school crush had the tragic, forceful power of a satanic possession. That insecure feeling of not existing could result in actually becoming invisible. Our worst nightmares could become reality and send you running, naked, down the hall. In the “Buffyverse,” nightmares and dreams were validated, reflected, justified. Best of all, a girl could come to our rescue, kicking the hell out of our inner demons with supernatural dexterity. Gone was the need to defer to some abstract, all mighty patriarchal force from on high. Our faith could be safely placed in a supernaturally empowered, but still vulnerable, feminine ideal. The pagan goddess was here to let the sun shine in.


What kept the show from becoming dull and self-important under the weight of all this was its self-awareness. Series creator Joss Whedon has always been open about his influences—Joseph Campbell and Richard Slotkin, as well as conventional horror films and his own abysmal high school memories. Accordingly, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends are free of that initial “disbelief” that makes some horror films a drag. Under Whedon’s careful creation, the Scoobies enjoy a postmodern self-awareness and understanding of the function and importance of myths.


The finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer marks not only the end of a great series, but also the end of one of the most popular myths of our postmodern times.

At the core of the show is a Jungian investigation of archetypal symbolism, the importance of dreams and symbols as links to a collective unconscious, a place where gods and monsters are real. The magical in Buffy was never shrouded in solemn mystery, à la The X-Files, or mocked into oblivion. It was serious, life-or-death stuff. In its ability to entertain, confirm, and enlighten, Buffy was a veritable Joseph Campbell companion, only with bare midriffs and more jokes.


The intellectual sophistication of the show is substantiated across numerous venues. For academics, Buffy has inspired a website devoted to related articles, theses, and discussions: Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies. Among Christian spiritual thinkers, it has also created some buzz; the group Damaris concedes that, compared with Buffy and other teen-targeted fare (the WB’s Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Charmed, the movie The Craft, and all the Harry Potter products), the Bible may have lost some of its immediacy for many of today’s adolescents.


Campbell often said that Christian doctrine lost touch with the scriptural assertion that “Heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it.” Buffy‘s pagan narrative demonstrates that Hell (for instance, suburban strip-malls and soccer fields) has been unleashed upon the earth and men still cannot see it. But kids can, and always have. Their minds open, their perceptions less constrained by socially sanctioned norms, they see what adults cannot. While parents try to prevent their children from connecting with any “alternate reality,” Buffy slipped in through the cathode rays, offering hope and vision.


But a couple of years ago, even Buffy proved susceptible to the forces of dogmatic thinking. I’ll confess: I stopped watching religiously after season four. Once the gang graduated high school, for me, the show drifted. Buffy seemed out of place in college. She wound up becoming self-righteous, and hooking up with corn-fed frat boy Riley (Marc Blucas). Spike (James Marsters) was losing his cool. Xander (Nicholas Brandon) hunkered down in his mom’s basement to wait it out. Only Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) evolution into lesbian and full-blown witch seemed to expand past familiar boundaries.


Tuning in sporadically this past year, I felt that there was a gulf widening between the show’s still hip sense of humor and a newfound, pious sense of morality. It was the same trap that plagued the final season of The X-Files: soap operatic, ponderous speeches, punctuated by commercial breaks. The show was still smart enough to joke about just this, but the speeches still went on, and on. Buffy seemed to have lost the scent of her archaic roots. Instead of archetypal mythos, the show ran on a self-perpetuating Buffy mythos.


Even so, I still deeply love the show. And I have defended it against pompous circles of dismissive friends and intellectuals. And they still look at me funny, as if a 30-something male has no business watching a show named Buffy. But I say, deeply traumatic memories never age. Whether it was three or 40 years ago, for many of us, high school was just that sort of trauma. As adolescents, we are prisoners of our own hormones and tortured emotions, serving time in an institution where our self-doubts devour us alive on a daily basis. Parents, teachers, and principals rule over us, never understanding what’s going on within us, only issuing ridiculous decrees based on the latest child-raising technique they’ve seen on tv or read in a book.


At the close of season three, Buffy’s biggest achievement ended up being not just that she had once again saved the town, or lived every kid’s fantasy by blowing up her school, but that she had survived high school. For high school survivors everywhere, this was a justification we hitherto had no words to express. We could now realize we had been right: Hell was spread upon the earth, the demons in our mind were real. And as we fought back, we too were mythic. We were heroes just by being alive.

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