Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Death of Buffy

"I know I come with an expiry date, but I want to last a really long time, like a cheeto." Buffy, when she's feeling happy. 
 "I come from a long line of "fry cooks" who don't live past 25." Buffy Summers, not so happy, talking in code, in public. 

Recently I re-read a web essay by film critic Roger Ebert, an essay about sad movies hard to re-watch. Among the comments, only three were about any TV shows, and of those, all three were about the same episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have the BtVS series on my shelf, gathering dust like an old favorite book. In my heart the beauty survives.

I remember: In the end, just before the landing party beams away, Mr. Sulu is awed by the before-death recording of a lady, a very competent leader. He says he’s sorry she didn’t survive. Captain Kirk, equally struck, replies, “No, Mr. Sulu… Beauty—survives.”

I am forever awed by the beautiful competency of TV executive Joss Whedon’s handling of the death of Buffy Summers. I’m impressed, for example, that I’m not spoiling the plot, for any new viewers, by writing this, since Joss foreshadows her demise right from the first episode. In that one Buffy suffers the little death of quitting the cheerleading squad, and any chance of arm-in-arm friendship with the frivolous empty-headed Cordelia. Buffy takes this path not because cheerleading seems empty—Buffy herself was a cheerleader before becoming the slayer—but because Buffy has no time for it, not if she is to be patrolling for vampires to slay.

For Buffy, being the (definite article) slayer is not just something she “tries on” with, say, an adolescent joking half-focus. No, she’s deadly serious. This is her calling.

The first person to share Buffy’s secret is the school librarian, Giles. Old enough to be her absent father, Giles is her coach, her official “watcher.” Giles accepts responsibility for Buffy’s defense training. He likes her, while knowing slayers always die young. Always. His torment is unavoidable: Should Buffy not be allowed to spend her hours doing happy high school stuff, like going to evening sock hops? Should Buffy not enjoy her brief life? After all, eventually the law of averages will catch up to her. Or, on the other hand, should she try to extend her time on earth by putting her hours into defense training? Giles likes her, and so he mainly opts for training, mainly.

I suppose I would too… In prose, I can only think of two writers who would sometimes kill off the main character before the end of the book. One was Louis L’Amour, who received the Medal of Freedom at the White House: He certainly had the writing chops to pull it off. The other was a post-war writer of young adult novels, Robb White: He was writing for teens who had just lived through the Second World War. Today’s TV audiences, of course, live in a more sheltered time. For us, death is still somewhat controversial: I am reminded of a young man, some years ago, who received a police ticket for an obscene T-shirt: It read F--- Off and Die. In court, the judge let the man go free… after ruling that death was no longer an obscenity in our society!

In other cultures, such as Japan, people live closer to the bone. When anime came to America young fans were both amazed and gratified. As anime exporter Peter Payne of J-List (Dec 14 2011) puts it, “(anime is)… the freedom to create a story using the endearing medium of cell animation in which people actually died in dramatic ways instead of bailing out of the plane at the last minute, as they always did in those lame 80’s cartoons.” He added sarcastically, “I remember the days when TV studios would mix up the episodes of the anime you were watching because why wouldn’t you? There was no reason to show them in order.” Yes, broadcasters assumed anime was like children’s cartoons, with no story arc.

In the US, even live action shows had no story arc. The original Star Trek, for example, was a franchise. Any member of the Writers Guild could request the show’s ‘bible’ and then submit a script. No, the studio wouldn’t mail the tome to any “fan boy.” (Did we have that word then? I don’t think so) In Canada the CBC was showing live action shows from Britain, shows that were made to air in order, but the BBC shows were slower paced, and US broadcasters thought that US audiences would lack the patience for BBC.

This all changed when along came “a fan boy who made good,” a TV executive: JMS. Today J. Michael Straczynski is scripting comic books; long ago he paid his dues with long years in Hollywood, most notably as a writer of mysteries on Murder She Wrote. This writing stood him in good stead for his masterpiece, Babylon-5. For this he did constant clue dropping, foreshadowing, and then a quick payoff. JMS wrote his episodes himself, in order, and he kept faith with the viewers: If someone were shot they would be absent next episode, and reappear with their arm in a sling. Babylon-5 was the very first TV series ever conceived as a five-year novel… The first season, fans hasten to warn me, is normal average sci-fi. But then things really start to pay off: A new (lively eye candy) commander takes over, characters begin to grow or decline, and because viewers know the characters so well their deaths feel so harsh. With the fourth season the novel moves into high climax.

I am sure JMS broke trail for Joss Wedon’s BtVS. I chuckled when some young nerd characters on Buffy had some Babylon-5 collectors plates. (Obviously as a homage, because B-5 never sold plates) Thanks to B-5, BtVS too was written to be aired in order, with, for example, characters processing trauma through several episodes. Another debt to B-5: JMS did something Louis L’Amour and Robb White never did: foreshadowed the death of the main character. Referring to a dead planet, a Buddha figure says, “If you go to Z’ah’adoon, you will die.” But the character goes off because, like Buffy, he is trying to save someone dear. For the death of the B-5 Commander, JMS warned that although normally viewers were always trying to get new people to watch, for this episode they should keep it in the family… He was so right, it was so sad.

As for the episode noted above, “The Body,” people cried. Part of the sheer competence of the episode is how for that one episode Whedon had no music, no score to tell you what to feel. Something else: while music can give emotions, screen credits can screen off emotions. Whedon got the opening credits out the way by opening with a happy flashback; it might have even been scored. Then silence. Then the body. It’s Buffy’s mum… discovered by Buffy… Buffy doesn’t call one of her dear young (by now adult) friends: she calls her father figure, Giles, and they sit in silence.

It was a hard episode but I know it was necessary. I know, having lived through the storms of Vietnam and AIDS, that it is just wrong for a parent to bury her child. Part of the craftsmanship of the show was making sure that Buffy’s mum passed on first. Later, partly because Buffy is so determined, the show makes plain as regards the departed mother what must have been in the show ‘bible’: Death is natural, and so mortals cannot be brought back. Of course this will apply to Buffy, too.

Slayers don’t make it past their twenties. Our determined heroine eventually copes by seeking out survival knowledge from wherever she can; she even consults a vampire who has killed two slayers. The truth is, as was said on the frontier: ‘No one is ever the fastest gun.’ But Buffy has a calling, she returns to facing life’s challenge. Near the end, she is going about with her mouth in a straight line: A pretty blond with no smile. Clearly, to viewers, it’s almost time Buffy was released from her burden. Then, just as she has with her life, and with her calling, Buffy Summers meets her last responsibility… head on, eyes open.

How many of us can say the same?

Sean Crawford
January 2012
“Tell Giles—, Tell Giles I finally figured it out, and I’m OK.”
~Another advantage of a series over a book is more time for the human things. For Oct 10, 2013, "In a Streaming World…" the question of whether one can still recommend Buffy was answered by one fan (Kissing Toad, at 21:39) that he loved how over the years the characters developed and "When Buffy died they didn't forget about it in 2 episodes, it was a big deal, as it should have been."

~Regarding film credits, in a movie “too good for Hollywood,” 12 Monkeys with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, before the story starts, some things that will pay later off have to be shown. Hence the really extended credits (I was irritated until I “got it”) as Willis is walking around in a post-apocalyptic world. Finally the credits stop and the story, for Willis, begins. (Note: My buddy Blair misheard the key line in the last scene- the word is “I'm an” not “I'm in.”)

On Youtube I found what must have been a series of summer promos for the next season of Buffy, sans Buffy.

~As for collector’s plates and other such, B-5 once did an episode to make fun of Star Wars-style merchandizing. Londo comes in angrily brandishing a figurine of his likeness. He is upset it has no, er, anatomically special features. He sputters, “Er- Do I have to spell it out for you?”
Susan Ivanova says, “Ohhh.” Grins. “You mean you’ve been symbolically cast- in a bad light!”

~As for the nerds who bought the plates, I’m still chuckling over the scene where they meet Spike. With his punk hairstyle, and super-obvious English accent, Spike is not one to suffer nerds gladly.
“You’re English, aren’t you?”
“Yes” (with wary disgust)
The nerd, brightly, “I’ve seen every episode of Doctor Who!”… Then, quietly, “I don’t care much for Red Dwarf, though.”

~NOTE: An alternate version of this, specifically focused on TV, and why pre-Buffy characters don't grow, is archived in October 2012, Television Appreciation.

~Roger Ebert link.
Regarding Comments: I have deleted only my own comments, because I was feeling vulnerable and stupid—I keep imagining the anonymous person who was too cold to comment with any more than a sentence fragment (instead of typing a complete sentence with a "please") being too cold to say "thank you," and then snickering at me for innocently caring enough to be helpful.


  1. Link to the Roger ebert article?

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