November 19, 2012 by Steven
Four years ago, I began a project. It was just a suggestion at first, but it became a challenge. Four years have passed, and after considerable pain and suffering I can gladly say it is finally over. It took a lot of time, a lot of bargaining, and sacrifices had to be made, but after four long years I have finally finished all seven seasons of Buffy the Vamipre Slayer.
Let me be clear, I am not a marathoner. Liz can watch a season a day and not bat an eye, but I get antsy after sitting through more than one or two episodes of something. I can play video games for days, but without some sort of input and feedback I just seem to get jittery sitting for that long. It’s a skill I don’t possess, but I’ll likely have to learn if I’m to keep with this entertainment writing gig.
So four years of my lovely wife gracefully ramming the show down my gullet later and I have come to learn a few things about not just Joss Whedon’s modus operandi, but about what makes or breaks good stories. Heavy spoilers for Buffy and few other of Whedon’s works follow.
No one gets a speech.
Everyone loves a rousing speech. They ignite passions, motivate troops, and usually are accompanied by some kind of orchestral score. But if Theon Greyjoy can teach us anything it’s that they seldom end well. In Whedon’s world, very few people were presented the opportunity for a monologue or soliloquy. They’d open their mouth, they’d start their impassioned prose, and then something terrible would happen to them mid-sentence because they were flapping their gums and not watching their backs.
Loki learned this lesson the hilarious way in The Avengers. It’s a Whedon staple.
The only slight exception to this rule was Shepherd Book in the Serenity movie, but even he only got a “statement” and not really a speech before he kicked off. He was a slight exception to the “Joss Whedon Kills The Characters You Love Quickly and Suddenly” rule, which we will discuss next.
True death is sudden and senseless
Another Whedon mainstay is the sudden and senseless death. No dramatic battles, no speeches (see above) and no tearful words to their fellows before giving up the ghost. It’s a rare play, and he only employs it a handful of times but when it does it comes completely out of left field. Just ask Wash.
In the case of Buffy, it frequently flies in the face of the generic expectations of a supernatural horror show. The few characters who do die (and who STAY dead) don’t die from the magical fireballs or howling hell beasts that are running around during the bulk of the show. Bullets, broken necks and brain aneurysms take them. They die of natural unnatural causes, death catches them off-guard, they die with a whimper, and they remain dead. None of that Highlander-Dragonball-back-from-the-dead nonsense.
Death is real, and it is irreversible. People die. But that doesn’t mean that the actors who play those people are done. Half the cast of season seven were characters who had died in the previous six!
Redshirts come in all shapes and sizes, but always in the first act.
This is less of a genre thing and more of a TV thing. By the end of season 3, I had begun to figure out who were the episode’s redshirts and NPCs.
A good show, like a good RPG, has a cast made up largely of NPCs (non-player characters, things like shopkeepers, villagers, guards) who contribute to the story world, but usually not to the plot itself. They’re usually called “side characters,” necessary warm bodies that lack the dialog or character significance of a “supporting character” but it was nice to have them around. Characters like Clem, Ben, and the many nameless potential slayers are needed to flesh out the scenes and add heft to a situation.
Redshirts, like redshirts, are dead before the end of the episode. Usually as punishment for them opening their mouth too close to the opening credits.
If you are a non-recurring character on Buffy, and you so much as speak a single word of actual scripted dialog in the first act of the show, there is no way you are going to live to the next episode. Chances are you were either going to summon a demon, get turned into a demon, be eaten by a demon, or somehow meet a grisly fate at the hands of other, more substantial characters of the series.
Yes, you were great. Now die to further James Marster’s acting career. He’s gonna be Piccolo!
At the root of most human evil is people who feel they are doing best.
It must be really hard to be a real estate agent in Sunnydale. Vampires, hellhounds, mystic portals to dimensions of evils and back-alley warlocks peddling narcotic black magics make this an odd place to raise kids. With the evil that abounds on a nightly basis in that quiet corner of Caucasia, it must be second only to Angel Grove. At least giant robots aren’t crashing through buildings on a weekly basis.
But not all the evil is other-worldly. A good number of villains and antagonists are purely human with very human motives. Professor Walsh and The Initiative, Jonathan and Andrew, and most overt non-demonic characters have a goal that they feel is noble, even if it is the result of clearly twisted logic.
Very few of these well-meaning people ever see the error of their ways before they meet their inevitable and ultimate destruction. Those evil who do change aren’t really human anyway (cough*SPIKEANDANGEL*cough) so that doesn’t count. Most of these people take their twisted beliefs all the way to the grave. It can be a tad unsatisfying at times, but it keeps from copping out using one of those ridiculous verbose redemptive justifications for their actions, like murderers pull at the end of every episode of CSI. God those piss me off.
Great stories require great parties.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a good MacGuffin as much as the next guy, but the goal of a serial show should be the characters themselves. In the case of Buffy’s little rag-tag group of reluctant heroes, they are far more flawed than average. Yes, every hero has their hang-ups, but the Scooby Gang has a disability that puts them at near-Avengers levels of dysfunction: they’re teenagers.
You think it sucks to be a teenager? Try being a teenager AND being chased by monsters every night. No wonder half the party in Scooby are druggies!
What really helps is their balance, or lack thereof. Whedon is very, very good at bringing together people who, by all reason, should not get along. Buffy’s friends are a perfect example: Xander is sarcastic and awkward. Willow is shy and unconfident. Giles is snarky and overbearing. Angel makes Edward Cullen look like a motivational speaker at times. Spike would stab you in the face for fun.
Don’t even get me started on Dawn. That girl embodies teenage narcissism.
But even though they have every reason to hate each other and very little in the way of means to keep the others from death, they have a very real and very organic camaraderie that feels like it was built over time. It’s the same sort of brothers-in-arms relationship Whedon builds with the crew in Firefly or even among the party-goers in Cabin in the Woods. Granted, they do all at one point or another attempt to kill each other, but that’s just part of being a teenager.
Destiny is a choice.
I was asked if I liked or disliked the underlying theme of radical, reactionary feminism towards the end of the series. I must have missed all that because I was too busy wincing at Eliza Dushku’s horribly forced urban dialogue.
If there is one theme I did take, it’s that destiny is a choice. Everyone in the show who has some kind of larger prophecy guiding them has at some time in their story rejected fate. They choose not to follow their destiny. From Dawn all the way up to Buffy and then back down to Andrew; when destiny selects them among all people to do great things, they lock the door and pretend they’re not home.
Do they eventually fulfill their destiny? Yes, but when they do it’s quite reluctantly and on their own terms. They may even give up and walk away a few times and refuse to save the day until they see how it might benefit them. Complicating their motives is teenage irrationality. The more a villain tries to stop them, the more determined they become for no reason other than they were told they can’t have something! “But mooooom, everyone is going to be at the gathering of the demonic vampire cult!”
Any world of Joss Whedon’s is nothing if not complex. Buffy was the first in a number of exercises where he attempts to toy with a genre to produce an homage and yet unique. In the case of Buffy he largely succeeds. As far as there being any sort of “theme” I can honestly say the world is so muddy and ever-changing that it’s very hard to pin down. Is it the importance of honest relationships? A story of surrogate families? An argument for violent feminism or perhaps some sort of allegory about the corrupting nature of power?
Buffy is at once all and none of the above. A show like Whedon’s Dollhouse had a clear angle and gimmick, and while Buffy certainly started with one (the classic blond teenage horror victim fighting back) it evolved into a much more complex story. It’s not unique to Buffy of course, any show that runs more than a few seasons will evolve into something new as writers, directors, and fans come and go. But what made Buffy iconic was … hell, I’m still not sure! I’m just pissed they never ended up making Ripper.
Yes, it took me four years, but in my defense it did take seven years on TV so I still almost lapped reality. It’s one of the few TV shows I’ve actually seen beginning to end, and I’m a much better Whedonite for having done so.
And for the record, I am not watching Angel. Call me when they make a show named Spike.