It’s one of the most poignant moments of Joss Whedon’s hit television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: standing on a tower over a portal to hell that has just opened, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) looks away from her sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), towards the rising sun, which illuminates her face (“The Gift”). She’s experiencing an epiphany. She finally understands the spirit guide’s cryptic message that “death is [her] gift” (“Intervention”); in sacrificing herself, she can save the world, as well as prevent her sister from taking her own life for the same purpose.
Considering the friends and loved ones whom Buffy has lost, and the sacrifices she’s made throughout her career as a vampire slayer, there’s little wonder why her epiphany manifests in an expression of calm acceptance. Death for Buffy is a welcome release from the cold and impartial demands of living an honest life.
Earlier in the episode, Buffy tells Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), “I don’t know how to live in this world, if these are the choices, if everything just gets stripped away. I don’t see the point.” The choice, of course, is whether to kill her sister to prevent the apocalypse brought on by exiled goddess Glory (Clare Kramer); Dawn’s blood is conceivably the only way to open a portal for Glory’s return to her home dimension.
Buffy’s response to this choice, quoted above, represents her growing sense of nihilism, which would only worsen if she had to kill Dawn in order to save the world. Fortunately, self-sacrifice gives Buffy an alternative to either letting her sister die (or killing her), or letting the portal to a hell dimension remain open long enough for chaos to bleed through and torment countless people.
For a show predicated on making the tough but necessary choice, Whedon’s use of self-sacrifice functions as a deus ex machina, providing the titular heroine with a means of evading a dilemma, the resolution of which would’ve been more pivotal to the patterned development of the character.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a series premised on the hardship of choice, a fact that’s easily clouded by the series premiere’s opening narration: “In every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.” (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”) The use of the word “chosen” connotes the idea that the duties of a slayer were forced upon Buffy. Indeed, Buffy herself is prone to speak of her obligations as the slayer as imposed upon her: “Do you think I chose to be like this?” she asks her mother, in season two’s “Becoming, Part Two”. She continues: “I would love to be upstairs, watching TV, or gossiping about boys… but I have to save the world, again.”
Of course, Buffy’s always been free either to protect the world from the forces of evil or to let evil prevail. She’s only chosen in the sense that she’s been bestowed with the preternatural abilities of a slayer, among which are super strength and prophetic dreams; the use of those abilities is subject to her free will. As she possesses the means to save the world from the supernatural forces of evil, she feels compelled to use them. Her sense of duty, therefore, stems not only from being “chosen”, but also, and ultimately, from a derivative sense of responsibility.
In the season one episode, “Prophecy Girl”, Buffy learns from listening in on Giles’ conversation with Angel (David Boreanaz) that she’s prophesied to face the Master (Mark Metcalf), a powerful vampire, and die. Initially, she reacts by laughing hysterically, tearfully throwing a book at Giles, and renouncing her duties as a slayer. It’s not until she witnesses her best friend Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) appalled reaction towards the murder of their schoolmates by vampires that she’s compelled, despite the prophecy, to confront the Master.
In season two’s “Becoming, Part Two”, she sends her lover Angel to hell to save the world from being sucked into a hell dimension. Season three’s “Graduation Day, Part One” portrays her attempt to kill Faith (Eliza Dushku), the other vampire slayer, to save Angel, and although she expresses little to no reluctance in doing so, we can tell by her adopted matter-of-fact and detached demeanor towards her close friend, Xander (Nicholas Brendan), that killing a human being, even if that person is a slayer, represents a moral challenge for Buffy:
Xander: We’re talking [a fight with Faith] to the death.
Buffy: I can’t play kid games anymore. This is how she wants it.
Xander: I just don’t want to lose you.
Buffy: I won’t get hurt.
Xander: That’s not what I mean.
Buffy: Just get me an address.
In the final season of the series, Buffy wrestles with being responsible for the lives of a squadron of young women (potential vampire slayers), whom she has to prepare for inevitable war; some of her calls as a leader result in both Xander being maimed and the deaths of some of her troops (“Dirty Girls”). What to make, then, of season five’s finalé, “The Gift”, when Whedon affords Buffy the option of suicide before she has to choose between Dawn and the world? Moments before Buffy realizes that her death can prevent her sister from having to die to seal the portal, Dawn attempts to kill herself to save the world. As she runs to jump off of the tower, Buffy stops her.
Can we conclude that in that moment, for the final time, she chooses Dawn over the world? Not so fast. While Dawn tells her that she, herself, has to jump, that the portal will not close unless her blood stops flowing, Buffy gazes at her silently, perhaps helplessly, even. A dragon leaves the portal and flies over them, reminding the two of them what’s at stake. Is Buffy considering, during that silent gaze, letting Dawn jump?
Alas, we are deprived of a clear, explicit choice, for Dawn’s speech reminds Buffy that she and Dawn share the same blood and gives Buffy confidence in the idea that she can jump in Dawn’s place and save the world. Buffy takes a literal leap of faith off of the tower, and it turns out that her reasoning is correct. That she sacrificed herself is noble, but would not choosing with irrefutable clarity whether or not to sacrifice Dawn have adhered to the show’s recurring theme of making the unwanted choice?
In not addressing once and for all whether Buffy would kill Dawn for the world’s sake, we’re deprived of a defining moment for the character, a moment we deserve insofar as the series was largely based on the idea of placing the weight, or responsibility, of the world, on the shoulders of an average and unassuming ex-cheerleader, and testing whether those shoulders would shrug. Choosing to kill or not to kill Dawn would’ve carried that idea to its utmost fulfillment. (This isn’t to say that Buffy shouldn’t have sacrificed herself, but that before her epiphany, we could’ve witnessed her making a decision once and for all regarding Dawn’s fate.)
In season seven’s “Lies My Parents Told Me”, Buffy tells Giles that if faced with the same choice to kill or spare Dawn in order to save the world, she would kill Dawn. For me, that revelation of a change of heart hardly feels won, for the show never clearly marks the transition from the ambiguous Buffy on the tower to the self-sure Buffy two years later. One could surmise that, as Buffy in season seven is now a leader in charge of preparing young women for war, her new position has rendered her more capable of carrying out the soul-exacting demands of heroics. Then again, one surmises where there are gaps, and such a gap in the story of this particular hero’s journey is too large to ignore.
By contrast, the film, Man of Steel, split its audience when it portrayed the eponymous hero (Henry Cavill) snapping Zod’s (Michael Shannon) neck to save civilians from the latter’s deadly eyebeams. A popular argument against the film’s depiction of the hero was that Superman never kills. But what if the film’s producers had given Superman an alternative to killing his foe? What if he were able to keep Zod at bay long enough for a brave soul to usher the innocents out of harm’s way? Would we not have been left with the question, “How far is Superman willing to go to spare his enemy’s life?”
Insofar as a story places the hero in a predicament, we deserve to witness her, or him, not only pushed to the boundaries, but also acting on those boundaries. Should the hero refuse to act on those boundaries, frozen with indecisiveness, he, or she, must afterwards contemplate their failure to act; they must confront self-doubt in realizing that, when it counted, their principles did not render one course of action superior to another.
Ultimately, our choices delineate us, rather than our spoken code, or even our history of conformity to that code. We establish our identity in the moment. Who are we if we don’t choose?
Who was Buffy, standing on the tower, listening to Dawn make a case for her own death, when the dragon flew by?