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)…