Of Grimms, Slayers, and Vampires with Souls

Although our heroes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Grimm are initially alone, accepting help, and valuing their found families, is a virtue.

From its beginning, Grimm has invited comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, particularly, Angel. This is partly due to co-creators David Greenwalt’s and Jim Kouf’s previous work on the latter two series, but also to more explicit, if superficial, similarities between the series, including: placing the action in cities where the urban surface hides literal monsters; the introduction of heroes who have been “chosen” to defend the mundane from the monstrous and; in the case of Angel and Grimm, use of the world of detectives and law enforcement to conveniently frame encounters with monsters and their crimes against humanity.

At a deeper level, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are also shows about family, particularly “found” family, or, familial bonds that individuals discover or make for themselves, particularly where ties to biological relations are absent, distant, or ill-fitting, all of which, to varying degrees, apply to the central casts of those earlier shows. While it is established at the beginning of Grimm that these conditions are also true for series lead Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), for the balance of the first two seasons of the show, the parallels with Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer remained superficial.

However, as season two came to a close, Grimm, too, had a family at its core. By the conclusion of that season, Nick’s partners at both work and at home, respectively, Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) and Juliette Silverton (Bitsie Tulloch), were not only made to be aware of the existence of Wesen, a race of human-appearing individuals with an alternate, animalistic or monstrous, nature, but both had effectively become part of Nick’s fight against “bad” Wesen. Nick had previously been joined by Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), a “Blutbad”, more or less a werewolf, and Rosalee Calvert (Bree Turner), a “Fuschbau”, or fox-like Wesen. Season two ends with the group coming together as another in the line of “Scooby Gangs”, to borrow the affectionate nickname for Buffy the Vampire Slayer family.

The centrality of family to the narratives of these shows raises important questions about the relationship of the hero, the “chosen one”, to the un-chosen. All three protagonists are pulled in the direction of alienating themselves from the world, but in all three cases, the hero is not, ultimately, allowed to be isolated. Furthermore, accepting help, and valuing family and friendship, is shown to be a virtue. Still, alone, or virtually alone, is where the three heroes begin their stories.

Buffy, Angel, and Nick are all introduced with guides or mentors who, initially at least, are passive partners, tasked with setting the hero on their path, but by charge or circumstance, not meant to be active participants in the hero’s fight. However, for Buffy and Angel, the ties that they have to Giles and Doyle are quickly multiplied and transformed into wider circles of support, despite an intent to keep their chosen missions in the shadows.

On Buffy the Vampire Slayer the school library provides too many intersections with “civilians” for Buffy’s burden to credibly remain secret, while on Angel part of Doyle’s function was to connect the hero to others, though primarily to those in need, not potential comrades. On Grimm, Nick’s circle of support is given a longer time-frame to come together, in no small measure because his guide, Aunt Marie (Kate Burton) is not only dead by the end of the second episode (“Bears Will Be Bears”), but was herself, like most characters in Grimm, a loner.

Where monsters are meant to be more than metaphors, the possibility that others, and not just the hero, will come face-to-face with that reality is a key source of dramatic tension. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the revelation of vampires and demons is typically greeted with dry wit, and not just on the part of the young and hip. Notably, even Joyce, Buffy’s mom, upon learning of her daughter’s secret life, quips, albeit with some agitation, “I mean, have you tried not being a Slayer?” (“Becoming, Part 2,” season 2). Sunnydale, with its “hellmouth” serving as an attractor of the supernatural, provides a context for the ultimately cool acceptance of monsters by town residents or, at least ready admission that they live in a strange place. By series’ end, as Hell literally starts to break loose, no one in the town is pretending that monsters aren’t real.

Whereas Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses a fictional, supernaturally-charged location as its setting, on Angel, the narrative framing plays with the tropes of southern Californian noir, wherein sun and glamor are masks for corruption. Los Angeles also provides many places for monsters to hide in a more literal sense, sometimes in plain sight. These include: abandoned buildings and hollowed out neighborhoods, extensive sewers, Hollywood, cultural acceptance of “alternative” lifestyles, and the sheer sprawling size of the city and its suburbs. Los Angeles may not be Sunnydale in terms of the concentration of supernatural energy, but it, too, provides a setting where the weird can also be part of the everyday. Furthermore, the series short-circuits the problem of initiation by giving Angel a circle of friends and colleagues who are already in the know from prior experience. The primary exception to this is police detective Kate Lockley.

Kate is introduced as a potential ally, but she’s outside of the realm of the supernatural. After being confronted with the reality of vampires and demons, Kate responds with quick acknowledgment, but takes longer to fully accept such forces as part of her world. Her primary initial reaction is anger (“Somnambulist”, season 1), an anger that is further sparked by grief at seeing her father killed by vampires (“The Prodigal”, season 1). In a series of appearances stretched between episodes in seasons one and two, Kate continues to cross paths with Angel, but as at least an unwilling partner, and sometimes as an adversary. Her anger eventually devolves into depression until she is, effectively, saved from a suicide attempt by Angel (“Epiphany”, season 2). That is the end of the character on TV, outside of being mentioned in conversation, but in the comics, published by IDW, she reappears as a willing and able fighter of demons. In the end, Kate becomes a “Scooby” too, but only after having resisted joining the fight.

Unlike Sunnydale, Grimm’s Portland, Oregon is not (entirely) a fictional place, and unlike Los Angeles, Portland is more a provincial, and less a world, city. Perhaps most importantly, Portland lacks an analog for Hollywood, which not only represents a dominant cultural and economic force in Los Angeles, but also provides a natural home for the weird and fantastic. Given this context, then, it’s not surprising that on Grimm, human-Wesen encounters are shown to be emotionally and psychologically fraught events, and not occasions for snark or just another aspect of the cosmopolitan city.

This is demonstrated most intensely with Nick’s fellow detective, Hank who, in multiple episodes across seasons one and two, is shown suffering from what he thinks are nightmares and hallucinations before having his encounters with monsters and magic affirmed by Nick and Monroe. His response to this affirmation is relief (“Bad Moon Rising” and “Quill”, season 2). Juliette goes through a similar cycle during the course of season two and currently Sergeant Wu (Reggie Lee) is suffering through the trauma of having encountered a Wesen in full form (“Mommy Dearest”, season 3). The extent to which the reality of monsters punctures the staid surface of everyday city life in Portland seems to be another reason why Nick is given a longer time to find his family than are either Buffy or Angel.

Regardless of timing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Grimm all make the case that being a hero does not mean fighting alone; Buffy, Angel and Nick maybe “chosen” by mystical, supernatural, and genetic forces to do battle with monsters, but others can, and will, choose for themselves to join that battle alongside the hero. Furthermore, in all three series, any pretense towards isolation on the part of the hero is scraped away by the introduction of others who have also been “chosen”.

On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s momentary death in season one (“Prophesy Girl”) creates an opening for the writers to introduce a second Slayer to the show’s storyworld. While the first of these, Kendra, is short-lived, the second, Faith, remains part of the ongoing Buffyverse. For Angel, Spike, romantic rival for Buffy and also, eventually, contender for the title of Champion and Vampire with a Soul, serves as a dramatic foil. In the case of Grimm, there are, from the beginning, more than one who are chosen, but Grimms are shown to largely work in isolation, even when in the same immediate family. Besides his Aunt Marie, Nick also has mom, Kelly (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and by the close of last season, Trubel (Jaqueline Toboni), as at least temporary chosen companions.

In contrast with her son, Kelly Burkhardt chose to separate herself from others, feeling that alienation was the best way to keep those she loves safe from the monsters she is fated to fight. This includes having left Nick, at age 12, with Marie, right before an accident during which it appeared that she had been killed. Kelly is shown to be someone whose ability to navigate mainstream society and culture is impaired; she’s sharp, impatient, and resorts to violence or force when faced with a problem. The series has yet to explore, with any depth, what her leaving Nick, and faking her death, means for their relationship, but their reunion also suggests that, perhaps, in the end, no Grimm is an island, no matter how hard they try to be.

Trubel is also a Grimm with few social ties, but like Faith, and unlike Kelly, more from circumstance — grief, loss, abuse — than from choice. Trubel also shares similarities to Dana, a Slayer who suffered from a childhood trauma and was institutionalized before having her powers activated by the spell cast by Willow in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series finalé (“Chosen”, season 7, and “Damage”, Angel season 5). Like Dana, Trubel is bewildered and confused by images of monsters. Trubel additionally finds herself repeatedly attacked by Wesen, who are able to perceive her as a Grimm even as she does not understand who, or what, she is herself. Like Hank, Juliette, and Wu, Trubel assumes she is going insane, but unlike those others, she also has power that she doesn’t understand, power that enables her to fight back, while also making her think she is a murderer and a criminal, as well as crazy. Finding Nick and the Grimm Scoobies helps Trubel to understand who she is and what she can do, but her story is only beginning.

For Buffy, Angel, and Nick, Faith, Spike, and Trubel all represent the possibility of not enacting the role of the chosen one. Faith’s initial appearance in Sunnydale (“Faith, Hope, and Trick”, season 3), poses, especially for Buffy’s mom, the possibility of Buffy not slaying or at least steeping back from her chosen role. In season seven, Buffy is temporarily displaced as the Slayer (“Empty Places”) by Faith, but reassumes her position as head of the family just in time to lead all of her “children”, an army of potential, and then actual, Slayers, into war over the hellmouth.

There’s a certain mercenary attitude in the idea of Faith taking Buffy’s place, at least initially, in the sense that the assumption on the part of Joyce and others is that Buffy has more at risk than Faith; in effect, Buffy’s privilege as a middle class teen, with at least one parent in the home, and a support network of friends and her Watcher, is worth protecting, while Faith’s lack of such privilege makes her more disposable. While Faith takes on the role of antagonist in seasons three and four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and season one of Angel, she is also given a redemptive arc that starts in season four of Angel and continues into Buffy the Vampire Slayer season seven and the comics, particularly Angel & Faith published by Dark Horse. Even so, her traumatic past and troubled teen years mean that she is not Buffy, whatever her powers; not all chosen are made, or become, equal. Buffy remains the primary Slayer.

Angel and Spike present similar contrasts in character to Buffy and Faith, and they are eventually set up to spar over which one of them is the Vampire with a Soul destined to play a pivotal role in the Apocalypse on the side of Good (“Destiny”, season 5). Spike wins this particular fight, but both he and Angel realize that the prophesy is empty. However, prior to the contest with Spike, Angel had already made a conscious choice to remain a vampire, even at the cost of losing his humanity (again) and remaining estranged from Buffy, in order to keep “helping the helpless” (“I will Remember You”, season 1). He does choose to sacrifice himself for another in “The Trial” (season 2), but that would have been a final heroic act rather than a bowing out from the good fight. Like Buffy, Angel does not simply carry out his charge; he actively chooses to play the role of leader and hero.

While Trubel is not immediately regarded as a possible replacement for Nick, the season three finalé (“Blond Ambition”) leaves Nick, first with Juliette, expressing doubts about his Grimm heritage and then, stripped of his powers. Like Faith and Spike, the presence of Trubel serves to raise questions about the hero’s place in the world and whether power alone is enough to be “chosen”. If the narrative of Grimm continues to follow that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Nick will choose to get his abilities restored and he will resume his role as a Grimm. It’s one thing to be chosen. It’s another to accept that responsibility is the greater part of power.

When the heroes of these stories are shown choosing to embrace their fate or inheritance, they are also choosing to embrace family. Neither choice is easy, but these choices are, manifestly and in tandem, meant to be the right choices. Starting with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and running through Angel to Grimm, these series reject strictly individualistic interpretations of the hero’s role. Nick, Angel, and Buffy may get their powers from otherworldly forces, but their found families keep them in and of the world. Their strength as heroes comes as much from that sense of belonging as it does from having been chosen from out of the supernatural ether to be humanity’s champions.

Splash image: Nick Burkhardt and friends in Grimm