Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Buffy and Harry Potter, Heroics, and why BtVS should have ended at S5

A PREFACE: This is only the first draft of what could be a much longer and much more in-depth essay. My thoughts will be disjointed and I’ll probably repeat myself a few times. I’m an English major—if I wanted, I could probably expand upon my argument here and make it into my senior thesis. I don’t say anything here that I don’t mean, and I hope you’ll bear with me.

I am having many thoughts.

First of all, it must be stated: Buffy Summers and Harry Potter are practically the same person. Not just their missions, their titles—the Chosen One, both—but personality-wise. If Harry had been born a girl, he would have pretty much been Buffy. If Buffy had been a boy… well, then she never would have been the Slayer and there the analogy falls apart, but you get my point. The closer one looks, the more similarities one finds—their tendency to use dry humor, their conflicting desires to depend upon and push away their friends (the obvious Xander/Ron and Willow/Hermione comparisons notwithstanding, but equally convincing), their superiority complexes about which they harbor inferiority complexes and, of course, their ultimate self-sacrifice stemming from an overwhelming feeling of responsibility. They do their jobs not because they were called to, but because they would have chosen them anyway. Even their responses to authority are the same—Buffy and the Watcher’s Council, Harry and the Ministry.

So here’s where I get controversial: I contend that Buffy should have ended at season five.

A Hero’s crowning moment is, I think, when they choose to sacrifice themselves for those they love, without reserve. Buffy for Dawn, Harry for the wizarding world… despite their fears, they faced the darkness and let it take them. They both chose death, serene if not content. Neither expected to come back. And yet, both survived.

Here’s the problem: while Harry’s story persisted for a mere two chapters after his resurrection, Buffy’s lingered for two more SEASONS. Harry was only gone a moment, but Buffy was dead for several months. And most importantly, Harry chose to come back; Buffy was forced. These key differences cause a massive splinter in what, until that point, had been nearly identical stories.

Buffy should not have been brought back.

It doesn’t matter which way you look at it—from within or outside the narrative. First of all, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer itself was up for cancellation. The end of season five was a viable end to the whole series, and if UPN had not bought the show from the WB, it would have been. And as much as I adore Buffy (which is a lot,) I’m not entirely sure the network move wasn’t a curse disguised as a blessing.

But more significantly, Buffy’s resurrection—her second, in fact—caused more harm than good. There is a reason a new Slayer is called when the old one dies: so that you don’t need to keep friggin resurrecting the old one in order to keep the demons at bay! When Buffy died the first time, in season one, Kendra was called. Brought back within a few minutes by Xander, Buffy found herself still endowed with Slayer powers. In fact, she was even stronger than usual, thanks to her connection in death with The Master, which was never truly explained. Her ability to retain her Slayer abilities and status can be excused, if only barely, by the temporary nature of her first death.

When Kendra was later killed, HER Slayer abilities were then passed on to Faith. Buffy felt no shift in power, but clearly the transfer happened nearly instantaneously.

So what, then, of Buffy’s second death?

By my reckoning, this should have gone two ways. Either Buffy’s no longer magically considered the legitimate Slayer, and therefore should not have had her Slayer powers restored after her second resurrection, OR if she’s just as much the Slayer she’s always been (along with, as opposed to instead of, Faith or whomever next carried the line) then yet a THIRD Slayer should have been called after her death at the end of season five. And if the latter were indeed the case, shouldn’t season seven have focused less on finding Potentials, and more on tracking down the other girl who could actually MATCH Buffy and Faith in strength?

But this didn’t happen. It cannot be excused by the secretive nature of the Council, nor the writers’ attempt at hanging a lantern on the problem by having Beljoxa’s Eye assert that Buffy’s resurrection put the Slayer line out of balance. If anything, this only confirms and reinforces their error: that despite what they, and admittedly we as viewers would like to think, Buffy is NO LONGER the legitimate Slayer. That title truly belongs to Faith at this point, whether or not she deserves it.

The result? We had to watch Buffy punish herself by entering into an abusive relationship with Spike and, over two seasons, despite all her fears she would and repeated affirmations that she would not, pull away from those she loves and lose her humanity. All the doubts she voiced to the First Slayer on her vision quest in season five—that she was drifting out of touch with her friends, was too involved in her job and was losing her ability to love—end up coming true. This is proven near the end of season seven when Giles asks if she would be willing to sacrifice Dawn this apocalypse around, despite her previous actions, and she affirms that she would. In a twisted development, the only person she’s not prepared to lose is Spike.

Who IS this girl, and what has she done with Buffy Summers? I thought death was supposed to be her gift; not her mandate.

Which brings us back to Harry Potter. Unlike Buffy, who was brought back to fulfill her duty which was no longer hers, Harry comes back because he knows there can be life BEYOND the duty. He finishes the job he was destined to do, and then retires to a life of quiet obscurity and normality, with a wife and three kids. Buffy never gets this chance. Despite Joss Whedon’s assertions in the DVD commentary of the finale, ending the series on a close up on the beginning of Buffy’s smile doesn’t really end on a sense of hope. It’s too late for that. Buffy has already unlearned her lessons, and grown past her Hero’s status into an anti-hero. Again: at the end of season five, Buffy was willing to let the whole world go to hell so long as she could remain loyal to Dawn. If keeping Dawn alive meant everyone had to die, then “the last thing [Dawn] will see is me protecting her,” Buffy had said.

By the end of season seven, that Buffy is gone. The woman that stands in her place is cold and detached. Everyone tells her she must be a leader, a general, prepared to make sacrifices. That person is no hero. A hero not only will not, but cannot fathom sacrificing anyone but themselves. They honor their friends, and those friends’ choices. They do not make ultimatums or demand anything. They certainly don’t say “I’m prepared to lose you” and offer up the people they’re supposed to love most as cannon fodder—they offer them the choice.

Again with the parallels to Deathly Hallows—Ron and Hermione finally get together, just as Xander proposes to Anya not because he’s certain the world is ending, but because he’s certain it won’t. Just as Neville finally asserts himself and stands up to the Dark Lord, Willow pays Glory back for hurting Tara and is able to rescue her. And just as Buffy refuses to destroy Ben even if it means destroying Glory, because he’s an innocent human, Harry challenges Tom Riddle to show some remorse, and prove that he was something more than a monster.

These stories were over. And yet Buffy carried on. And for what? So we could watch Xander leave Anya at the alter? So we could watch Tara die and Willow try and destroy the world? Or hell, even before that—so we could watch Willow succumb to “magic addiction,” the most desperate, hackneyed and unnecessary plot development EVER?

WHY? What FOR?

What lesson does Buffy learn at the end of season seven that she hadn’t by season five? How did she grow as a person?

It breaks my heart to say it, but… I think the answer is clear: she didn’t.

END NOTE: This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the last two seasons. It has some of my favorite moments, and the acting was superb, and I have just as much trouble letting go of things I love as the rest of you. And, hello, musical! But even so, I’m just not sure it was the right call. Feel free to argue with me on any or all of the points I raise here. Comments are lovely.