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.


  1. Damn it. I was fully ready to climb the walls, weapons at hand, and fight you tooth & nail about this whole thing. Then you went and made well thought out, logical arguments and I'm left finding myself agreeing with you.

    I've told friends for years, by the end of the show, I don't really like Buffy anymore. I'm in love with the Scoobies, the world, the language, but she starts to leave me cold by the end of Season 7. Maybe you're right, maybe I was sensing that her journey was over and it started to grate on me. I don't know anymore.

    Now, all I can do is think about a wildly divergent "what if" world. A world in which two witches, a demon, a neutered vamp, a teenager, a handyman, and their pet robot had to train a new slayer to fight the big bads. Trying their hardest to do the right thing while resenting the new Slayer because she wasn't Buffy. Hell, you could bring back Buffy after a season and deal with the whole "careful what you wish for thing" with her being a regular girl after being a superhero since puberty.

    Damn it. I'm rewatching season 5 now.

  2. I frickin love you. I agree with everything you said.

    Ever since I first watched the series back in February, of this year, and made it to season 6 and 7, the absent "third slayer" drove me insane. So many things just feel apart, and I was only watching for the ever wonderful Joss banter.

    This is why I always find it weird that more people liked the later half of the show, when the show was at it's best while the gang was still in high school.

  3. Why does Buffy have to be Harry Potter? Why does its divergence from DH make it worse?
    I understand that it also diverges from "The Hero's Journey".

    But what's so bad about that?
    My least favorite part about the HP series is the epilogue (maybe it's actually Harry in book 5 but that doesn't help my argument).

    Who wants "fulfills their purpose and then lives 'happily ever after'"?
    That's not how life works. To me it makes more sense that she is willing to sacrifice it all, but things don't always go that way.
    She comes back and she's a different person. And things change.

    But to me that's infinitely more realistic and enjoyable. Maybe that's just my dislike for a cliche "Hero's Journey" arc through and through. And that's honestly why I prefer Buffy to HP. Or at least I think it makes a better decision at the end. I would not like Buffy as much if it had ended on her sacrifice. That would feel unrealistic and hackneyed to me.

    I don't remember about those plot holes but it sounds like that's right and I have no comment beyond what you said. More discussion can follow in scones if you want.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay!

    I agree on most of your points and I too found the gaping plot hole of the lack of a third slayer irritating.
    However, on your other point of Buffy's detachment in seasons 6 and 7, I would argue that while it bothered me in it's own way, Buffy's turn to cold anti-hero made her (in some ways) more relatable to the viewer. We cannot all be heroes, and by holding more of an anti-hero status, Buffy becomes more realistic in her new role - that of soldier and commander. Especially in season 7, Buffy is caught in a war between good and evil. I think it shows a loss of innocence on her part that this warfare with the demonic element creates in her the coldness necessary for warfare.
    A similar transformation can be seen in reverse in the character of Charles Gunn in Angel. When he is first introduced in the series, he and his gang are steeped in constant warfare with the local vampires - creating a cold and ruthless attitude in Gunn. However, once he starts to work full time with Angel Investigations, he becomes increasingly warm and open-minded. I would argue that this transformation is not so much caused by the positive influences of Angel et al, but rather as a result of release from the constant stress of war and sacrifices one must make as a commander.
    As for the comparison with Harry Potter, I fully agree that up to the end of season 5, they follow the same hero's story arc. However, in criticism of Rowling's ending to the Harry Potter series, I thought that it was too perfect. It's nice that Harry could save the world from the Big Bad, marry the girl, and live happily ever after - but it is far from realistic. It is a sanitized to the point of making the costs of war non-existent in the long term.
    On the other hand, BtVS explores the role of the hero beyond the crowning moment of glory. Once Buffy in brought back in season 6, she discovers that her work will never be done: that there won't be a happily ever after. I would argue that she does not grow as a person in terms of heroism or self-sacrifice, but she learns how to teach, how to lead, and that life isn't fair - that the good guys can't come out unscathed. It is through this that she can continue her work, even though both she and the audience know that it will be a long and hard journey yet to come. Up until season 5, few major character deaths in BtVS were permanent in nature (Jenny Calendar being a notable exception), and thus less meaningful. However, through the permanent deaths of characters, it forces the other characters to adapt and grow in ways that are never adequately examined in Harry Potter.
    Harry does not grow from the losses of Cedric or Sirius. He becomes moody, he likes to scream "Cedric's dead" and cry, but I'm hard pressed to find how he grows as a person. Then, in Deathly Hallows, the deaths of beloved characters like Snape, Remus, Tonks, Fred, Dobby, Moody, etc. seem to be skimmed over. Even the death of Dumbledore doesn't seem to inspire much in the way of character growth beyond a bit of wizard angst.
    Contrastingly, in BtVS, the death of Joyce makes Buffy become more mature, the death of Tara results in Evil!Willow and eventually in Willow and the rest of the Scoobies being forced to examine their reliance on magic (useful as in season 7, they will have to find tools besides magic to battle The First), and the death of Spike shows both Spike's full commitment to the side of good and that Buffy will let the man she loves die for the greater good.
    I think seasons 6 and 7 of BtVS could be argued to have deeper themes of tragedy, loss of innocence, and finding strength through loss.

    Wow I rambled. :)

    I loved what absolutemediocrity said about a "what if" world. I think that would have been interesting.

  5. Thank you! UPN Buffy should never have existed. They should have left her in her grave, and let the show die. The Scoobies could easily have reprised their roles on Angel, as guest stars or even series regulars. I'd have traded Willow for Cordelia in a second.

    The whiny Buffy of season 6 irritated me. I hoped after "Once More With Feeling" she would move on, but nooooo. More self-pity, then Giles left? Klepto-Dawn? Magic-addicted Willow? The Trio of losers as the big bad? The only things that I liked from season 6 were, Anya, Tara, the musical, and the magic shop.

    Season 7 was nothing but a disaster. The only things I liked were the sub-plot with Principal Wood wanting to avenge his mother's death at Spike's hands(which was poorly done,) and Captain Malcolm Reynolds wuppin' some slayer ass. All else was garbage. I barely tolerated Buffy's whiny nonsense since her resurrection, but she lost me when she beat on Faith, who had just completely redeemed her character on Angel. I was like, "Buffy, youz a bitch, yo!" Don't even get me started on Andrew...

    They should have let the show die on WB. Sad? Yes, but it would have gone out on top. None of the characters developed any further after that. You noticed that when Spike returned to Angel, his ball grew back, right?

    You don't even want to know what they're doing in Buffy: Season 8 the comic book. Buffy's gone lesbo, Xander is a general over the slayers, Dawn one-night standed some magical dude, and turned first into a Giant, then into a centaur(there's one part where Xander is riding horse-Dawn... ew), and Amy and skinless Warren are lurking. Don't even get me started about Buffy time-traveling to the future. The worst part? Joss wrote every bit of it, right after he wrote some of the best X-men comics ever.

    I like to think he was working on Dollhouse & Dr. Horrible at the time.

  6. I tried to figure out the absence of the third Slayer. I just rewatched seasons five and six, and I'm finishing season seven. I guess there's no third Slayer because, even with Buffy dying again, Dawn was created from Buffy, right? She's like, Buffy's essence or whatever. You know, that whole "we share the same blood" thing in S5. So even though Buffy died a part of her still lived in Dawn, so a third Slayer couldn't be called?

    That's the best I can come up with anyway. I don't know if that is right or not. Just a thought.

    Although, I have to say PRINCIPAL WOOD DROVE ME UP THE WALL! I don't know what it is about him, but I hated him in the last season.