Buffy Rewatch: Random Thoughts

Posted: June 4, 2013 in Critical Hit
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Some thoughts on Buffy, in no particular order.

1.

There’s an alternating pattern to the season finales/big bads that I’ve never noticed before: it switches back and forth between a massive, apocalyptic threat that’s billed as such from the outset, and personal vendettas that slowly develop into something more dangerous. S1 is the Master (apocalypse); S2 starts out as Spike and Dru, but culminates with Angelus (personal); S3 is the Mayor (apocalypse); S4 starts out with Spike, but culminates with Adam and the Initiative (personal); S5 is Glory (apocalypse); S6 starts out with the Trio, but culminates in Dark Willow (personal); and S7 is the First Evil (apocalypse).

And the thing is, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another show that does this. Overwhelmingly, modern TV series seem obsessed with the notion that each successive season finale has to be bigger than the last, which eventually leads to melodrama and the collapse of the show, because you can only go so big before things get ludicrous (the Doctor Who reboot being a case in point). Which isn’t to say that Buffy doesn’t escalate – it does. But it does so gradually, interspersing the big events with more intimate drama, and that’s something I really appreciate about it. Apart from aiding character development, it establishes a strong narrative rhythm and builds the tension season by season without ever making the constant danger feel monotone. I wish more shows did the same thing, or at least mixed it up a bit.

2.

I hate Tara’s family. I hate them with a passion I reserve for few things in the Buffyverse, because for a show that’s all about fighting Evil with a capital E, there’s really a lot of moral ambiguity going on. Should we forgive Angel for the crimes he committed while Angelus on the grounds that he lacked a conscience and was therefore effectively a different person, or do we hold him accountable for everything he ever did? And if we forgive him, do we then forgive Spike his trespasses while unsouled on the same grounds, even though he was capable of enough actual goodness in the same state that he arguably should’ve known better? And so on, and so forth – the point being, however, that Tara’s family are monstrous without the excuse of actually being monsters. They raise her to believe she’s evil and demonic purely as a means of keeping a leash on her; she stutters and cringes around them, and the big reveal as to why they spent nineteen years trying to break her spirit? Then men in her family want her home, to cook and clean and keep house for them, because they’re misogynist, sexist asshats. Which makes me want to STAB ALL THE THINGS.

3.

As a corollary of the above: the episodes I find hardest to watch – the ones that provoke an actual, bodily response in me, so that I have to squinch* away from the television – are all episodes about the abuse, abandonment and gaslighting tactics of friends and family. Ted, Dead Man’s PartyGingerbreadFamily, Hell’s Bells and Seeing Red all squick me in ways that other episodes just don’t. Something I find intolerable both narratively and and in real life is false accusation: people being blamed or framed for something they didn’t do, especially in a situation where their ability to respond or defend themselves is compromised. It makes me physically sick and furious, and so I struggle with these stories. I might well do a fuller examination of them later, especially Dead Man’s Party, which is a special kind of fucked up.

4.

Every single POC character in the show – and it’s not like there are many – is either unlikeable or evil from the outset (Rona, Mr Trick), an ally who’s eventually revealed to be morally ambiguous at best or traitorous at worst (Robin Wood, Forest), or someone whose ethnicity/accent is played for laughs prior to their death (Chao-Ahn, Kendra, Hus) – or sometimes a combination of all three (the Inca Mummy Girl). This is so incredibly shitty, I cannot even. As many others have said before me: Joss Whedon might be great at white feminism, but his racefail is spectacular.

5.

As a character, Dawn is portrayed as annoying, juvenile, awkward and whiny, yet the reason for this is never really addressed. Early in S5, it’s strongly implied that Buffy struggles to get along with Dawn because, despite her false memories of their childhood together, she doesn’t actually have the personal development to go with it: even though she believes in their joint history, emotionally, she’s still at step one. It’s not until she learns that Dawn is the Key that Buffy is able to recognise her own irritation for what it is, and to try to curb it appropriately: the privilege of an only child grating at the sudden and jarring transition to sisterhood. But when Dawn realises what she is, the full ramifications are never addressed: that despite all her memories of growing up as a human girl, she’s still emotionally an infant. By the end of S7, Dawn is only three years old in real time, and so has been on the emotional learning trajectory of a toddler while simultaneously going through all the angst and physical development of early adolescence. This has got to be the suckiest combination ever, and when you add in all the accompanying traumas she experiences in that time – learning her memories are false, the death of her mother, Willow’s magic addiction, Tara’s death, the death and resurrection of Buffy, the threat of removal by child protective services, multiple apocalypses and kidnappings – the fact that she’s even vaguely well-adjusted at the end of it all is a fucking miracle.

So, yeah. Don’t be so hard on Dawn. In a show where pretty much every character gets the absolute shit kicked out of them on a regular basis, she still gets an incredibly raw deal – but unlike everyone else, her pain is regularly dismissed in-show as teenage melodrama, even by characters whose own broken, demon-filled adolescences should’ve left them with more sympathy. And in return, we hate her for it.

More thoughts later!

*Squinch is a word I made up to describe the reaction I have to things that make me uncomfortable. It’s a combination of squirm and flinch.

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Comments
  1. Interesting take on the Big Bads throughout the seasons. I do think that Buffy did escalate with Glory. She’s a god. How do you top that? I believe that was intentional, as Joss originally only had a 5 year plan for the series.

    In regards to Dawn, the character was originally meant to be much younger, but they liked Michelle T. so much that they cast her in the role. They simply failed to adjust the character accordingly. But, I like your take on Dawn’s immaturity. I think the writer’s missed some great opportunities for her character in seasons 6 & 7. We could have gotten some excellent character growth there.

    • Dawn bothered me quite a bit. Not only as a character (as an only child for 7 years, I could relate to how annoying Dawn is, sister-wise xD) but with the fact that once S5 was over, she was “just Dawn”. What happened to her being the Key? Couldn’t there have been some AWESOME storylines tagged to that particular fact of her existence?

  2. T.L. Bodine says:

    I think the show in general would have benefited from ending at season 5. That was the perfect finale and a much stronger ending than the one in season 7. Although some of my favorite episodes are in season 6 (Life Serial, Once More With Feeling, and Tabula Rasa), overall the season is pretty weak and could have been cut without incident.

  3. ERose says:

    The scenes that I think made Dawn’s character worth it were actually in the season 6 finale “Grave” when Buffy has to enlist her help in fighting the earth monsters Willow sends after them. I feel like that’s the time they really became sisters, and that moment of empowerment is the basis for the great character growth Dawn sees in season 7.The whole Dark Willow sequence was – I think – excellently done in that respect for a lot of characters.

    Generally, I love the ways season 6 and 7 take most of the characters to the logical extreme of their deepest flaws and shows them having to face those and grow in order to save the world. The darker introspection made them all seem so much older and eventually stronger- and I always thought it was unrealistic that these really persistent character flaws in all of them never showed up in their demon fights, where arguably they’d be tested pretty strenuously.

  4. I totally agree with you on Dawn and I’ve read analysis pretty close to yours before on the character. Although none have suggested that her troubles might have to do with her actual age vs. remembered age. Something to think about.

    The only character that ever really bothered me on Buffy was Riley. Which leads me to my question… when did Season 4 get a vendetta? I thought the whole reason the initiative was there was because of the Hellmouth, they didn’t even know about Buffy. Did my blinding hatred of Riley casue me to miss that one? Because I just remember Adam killing off the most interesting character (who would have made a much better big bad than him) and wanting to take over and have robot demon hybrids rule or whatnot?
    -Jeremy

  5. Gigi Young says:

    Heh heh, you’re just now realizing race on Buffy is poorly written? Even when I was growing up, as a black teen obsessed with the show (and its spun-off, Angel), I recognized how much Joss & Co bungled their POC. Poor Gunn, portrayed by the delightful J. August Richards, was saddled with some facepalm stuff on Angel when the writers remembered “Oh, yeah, he’s black–gotta include some slang in his dialogue!!”.

    But…as many Whedonites will get upset when Joss is called out on his anti-woman decision to punish Charisma Carpenter for getting pregnant, hardly anyone in the fandom wants to deal with race. After ten odd years, I no longer bother since people get really offended that their “god” is fallible–especially when they don’t care about POC in the fandom/viewership in the first place…

    • fozmeadows says:

      I think I had a vague sense of it, but my younger self was very much with the oblivious white privilege. I try to be better than that now :)

      I could barely watch Inca Mummy Girl. I spent most of that episode either doing something else or out of the room, because the cringe factor was just so massive.

      And as you say, it’s awful that people can’t bear to hear him criticised. I like a lot of what he does, but there are PROBLEMS AHOY in most of it, and the presence of the cool stuff shouldn’t mean we don’t critique the bad.

      • Gigi Young says:

        Ha!

        The resistance to Joss-criticism is a bit worse now, I think, especially now that he’s gone “mainstream” with The Avengers. :/ And possibly because the new generation of Whedonverse fans are inhaling his TV shows in one gulp without the context of time when they were on air–and the new pop culture context is to blindly worship “ur faves”.

  6. I think the one thing that irks me about Buffy, every time I watch it, is how these people, who call themselves her friends, have sort of decided how she must live her life. And the moment she steps out of their carefully constructed vision of Buffyness, they turn on her.

    The episode where Giles is leaving because she is depressed, how Xander reacts when he finds out she’s banging Spike, Willow just living at her house while Buffy is flipping burgers, the whole of them in S7… Those are the times I would happily shoot the lot of them.

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