TV

The Stillness That Slays: Buffy, "The Gift", and the Avoidance of Choice

Suran Parker

Buffy's final action in "The Gift" is both a noble sacrifice and a narrative evasion of the hard choices the series is predicated on.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Trachtenberg, Anthony Stewart Head, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield
Subtitle: "The Gift"
Network: WB/UPN
Air date: 2001-05-22
Amazon

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?

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image