“Are you going to come back here and go all Dawson on me every time I have a boyfriend?” Buffy speaks these words to her first love, Angel in this week’s series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was preceded by last week’s Dawson’s Creek wrap-up. Building on the success of Beverly Hills 90210, these two shows helped define the 1990s era of TV dramas for and about teenagers.
These two shows were similar in only the most superficial ways. The Creek kids never seemed like teenagers. They spoke, not just in complete sentences, but in complete paragraphs, offering lengthy, psychologically convoluted observations on their own predicaments. They sounded like 40-year-olds inhabiting teenage bodies, with the thin wisdom of characters who had been through divorce and many years of therapy.
In its finale, Creek
mixed a dose of sentimental bathos, in the death of Jen, with a resolution of the Joey Potter torn between lovers drama. Joey chooses Pacey while Dawson, a budding filmmaker since diapers, gets his big chance with Spielberg.
It is a measure of the depths to which the BtVS finale sunk that it played like an episode of Dawson’s Creek. Buffy does not marry either of her lovers and one of them, Spike, dies nobly fending off evil. But the shallow, “liberating” storyline had more the feel of the romantic world of Dawson than the noir world of Buffy. Joss Whedon, the creative brains behind BtVS, has repeatedly said that his ideas for the show come from a dark place. With predictably disastrous results, Whedon tried to visit a happy place for the finale. The entire episode was flat. It had the feel of an early episode in a series, perhaps even a pilot, before writers and actors have developed chemistry and a sense of what the show is really about. The show lacked both memorable dialogue and the pacing characteristic of the great battle episodes in the series. It was nowhere near the level of the finales of the past two years, in the first of which Buffy sacrificed herself to save her sister and in the second of which two of her high-school buddies faced off as Xander took upon himself the wrath of Willow, a witch gone bad in her thirst for vengeance.
In this episode, Buffy just figures it all out. She decides that she can change the rules of the slayer’s game; instead of there being one slayer for every generation, she can distribute her slayer power to any girl who chooses to accept it. When she enacts this option, we see a shot of a young girl prepared to bat in a little-league game. As her eyes gleam, one half expects her to mimic the Sultan of Swat and gesture toward the outfield bleachers.
After liberating the ya-ya slayerhood, Buffy and crew take on a slew of monsters who look remarkably like the Orcs from Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, dark Willow, who had earlier sworn off the magic that had led to her malevolent implosion at the end of last season, manages to consort with even darker magic without any negative consequences. In the process she becomes, in another LOTR rip-off, Willow the White. Admittedly, two characters, Anya and Spike, sacrifice their lives in the battle. But the multiple tensions — between the dueling slayers Faith and Buffy, between Angel and Spike as competitors for Buffy’s affection, and between good and bad Willow — Whedon set up in the weeks leading up to the final episode simply dissolve into thin air.
Whedon even relieves Buffy of the angst and burden of being the only chosen one. In a show where hope has always been at best tentative, Whedon offered up an ending equivalent to a Seinfeld finale featuring a Jerry and Elaine wedding followed by suburban bliss. Creek went that way with the romance of Joey and Pacey but Creek’s angst, which has never transcended junior-high self-absorption, has always been subordinate to an unconvincing romantic optimism.
By contrast, BtVS has always been about unanticipated consequences, about limitations, cost, loss, sacrifice, and atonement. The deeply moral and occasionally religious strains in the show are all connected to the notion of conscience, which distinguishes humans from demons. The characters who most relished violations of conscience were Faith, a renegade slayer, and Spike, the Billy Idol look-alike vampire with an attitude.
One of BtVS’s best seasonal plotlines juxtaposed Buffy with Faith, a renegade slayer who relishes her power over others and delights in killing. When Faith crosses a line and slays an innocent human being, Buffy is aghast. Faith accuses Buffy of being uptight and dismisses any repercussions of the act. The two become enemies. At one point, a spiteful Faith uses a spell to exchange bodies with Buffy. Once she inhabits Buffy’s body and her life, she realizes that Buffy’s goodness and the love and admiration it elicits from others are genuine. Unable to bear this knowledge, she rushes to Angel, curses herself as “nothing, a disgusting, murderous bitch,” and begs Angel to kill her.
Spike, who calls human beings “Happy Meals on legs,” has his tough-guy act thrown off balance by his attraction for Buffy, an attraction that expressed itself last season in a tortuous sadomasochistic affair that culminated in Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy. This year Buffy has kept Spike at a distance, but the season’s final episodes had Spike expressing both in word and action a love for Buffy independent of his own possession of her. How many shows could make dramatically credible the moral regeneration of an attempted rapist?
What contributed to the dramatic credibility was the surprise return of Spike’s soul. For the vampire, lacking a soul or conscience, evil is simple, as Angel explains in one episode. A notoriously vicious vampire himself, Angel regained his soul thanks to a gypsy curse, an effective curse precisely because conscience comes with it. As Angel puts it, “You have no idea what’s like to have done the things that I’ve done and to care.” In an early episode from this season, a disoriented Spike living in an abandoned crypt explains the return of his soul to a deeply skeptical Buffy. He blames his current state of torment on his love for Buffy. The exchange ends with Spike standing in front of a cross saying “…and she shall look upon him with forgiveness and everyone will forgive and love… and he will be loved.” He then drapes himself over the cross which sears his flesh; a teary-eyed Buffy watches as smoke rises from his body.
Whedon certainly lost his touch in the last episode, but that does not diminish the remarkable dramatic achievements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer over seven seasons. To paraphrase the words on Buffy’s grave after her season-ending death two years ago: Buffy the Vampire Slayer saved TV, a lot.”
— Thomas S. Hibbs contributed the essay “Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Feminist Noir” to the recently published book Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, edited by James South. Hibbs previously wrote about Buffy for NRO in May, 2002.