TV

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image