Television

The Big Bad Universe: Good and Evil According to Joss Whedon

Most of Joss Whedon's work has been characterized by Big Bads. But the lines separating Good and Evil are more complex than one might expect.

Joss Whedon’s great gift is his ability to extrapolate into the clear blue sky from mundane speculative fiction stereotypes: fairy tales, space travel, mind control. It was this uncanny momentum that lifted Dollhouse’s torpid first season into the sublime second season; that allowed Firefly to dive into Serenity. The most consistent application of this talent was in the crafting of his “Big Bads”. Whedon might not have invented the seasonal arc on television, but he certainly made great strides towards perfecting it; and he did it largely by dancing through shadows.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s most influential cultural product, chronicles the rebellion of a champion. Buffy is the chosen one, strong enough to bear the weight of the world, until she finds a way to scatter and delegate her burden. The superhuman strength is an imposed fate, it is her destiny to be the slayer. Her true skill lies in an ability to forge friendships and build pragmatic alliances; with a little help from her friends, the Scoobies, she helps protect human civilization against the forces of chaos and anarchy. Yet, it is only by breaking ancient laws that she ultimately liberates herself, and the evidence is clear: sometimes you have to break the rules to preserve them. Whether this is an improvement remains to be seen. The Season Eight comics delve into the consequences of creating an army of slayers, but this essay is restricted to Whedon’s work on television.

A lot has been made of in fandom about Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Joseph Campbell’s work. A quick scan of Hero with a Thousand Faces reveals his debt, and certainly the narrative structure of Buffy draws heavily upon the “monomyth” of the hero. I think, however, that the emphasis on Campbell elides more important themes within Whedon’s television, and evades his central cultural point: that evil is an empirical question, not an epistemological one.

Evil is as does, not how it is conceived. Evil is a behavior, not an ineffable Kantian category. Like all behavior, it is mutable and socially constructed. The hero and the devil in the Whedonverse are interdependent, and morality is born in the space between the within and the without. One generation’s savior is another generation’s terrorist, ethical positions exist only in the eye of the beholder. The Initiative’s experimentation upon demons in Buffy is as repellent as the Alliance’s experiments on River in Firefly; the humans who trap demons to fight as gladiators in Angel (“The Ring” 1.16) are as surely villainous as the demons who trap humans for slave labor in Buffy (“Anne” 3.1).

What makes the world run is neither good nor evil, but rather the balance them, the paradox that neither has any meaning without the other. This paradox is at the crux of all Whedon’s television, whether inspired by the tech-heavy future or fantastic pasts. Like all speculative fiction, they are a comment about the here-and-now, not about the far future or a mystical alternate reality. It is true they deploy different modes and tropes; Buffy is epic and Angel tragic; Firefly is satirical and Dollhouse dystopic. But this is typical of Whedon’s holistic conception of human experience, as his prophet, Joseph Campbell, explains:

“The happy ending of the fairytale, the myth, and the divine comedy is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the individual tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift in emphasis within the subject, it is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest–as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos is to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of forms and of our attachment to them; comedy the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible… [together] they constitute the totality of the revelation that is life, and which the individual must know and love if he is to be purged of the contagion of sin and death.. It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy“ (Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 21)...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.