Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Two posts on the Buffyverse

[At the Nine Worlds Geek Fest last month, I was part of a panel on the feminism in Joss Whedon's work. For that, I went back to a couple of pieces I wrote on Buffy and Angel, but had not widely distributed. In case there's any interest, I reprint them here. The Buffy piece was written in June 2003, about a month after I had seen 'Chosen'. The Angel piece was written in April 2004, immediately after seeing 'Shells', but before seeing any of the remaining Angel episodes (some of which I've still never seen). I haven't revisited the episodes or updated anything.]

What Buffy Season 7 is about

I should point out that this is very much my own personal view.

More than a decade ago, I guess, Joss Whedon was watching a girl being stalked in some slasher/horror, and thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if the girl turned round and beat the crap out of him?' Thus was born Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So I think it's appropriate that, for the final season, Buffy has returned to some of the themes that attended its creation, the refusal of the female to play the role the man expects of her. Because what I think is that Season 7 is full-on Buffy-as-feminist-tract.

Buffy is fighting a war, the terms of which were set by others long ago. The course of action along which Buffy is being led for a long time looks hopeless. But Buffy finally wins, because she changes the rules.

Now you could argue that the message of the season is simply 'make your own rules', as Joss did when bringing his vision to life. Caleb then becomes a warning of what happens when you take such a philosophy too far; you believe that you are god, and hold the power of life and death over others. I'm sure that's part of it, but it's hardly a new message. Buffy has been breaking the rules for seven years - we are surely meant to infer that the secret of her success is her disregard of the Watchers' Council's tradition of keeping 'civilians' like Xander and Willow as far out of the Slayer's activities as possible.

But there is much emphasis in this season on the fact that the parameters of the war have been set by men. This comes out most clearly in 'Chosen', when Buffy says that the rule that there could only be one Slayer was set by men, and that 'this woman' (Willow) is more powerful than any of them. But it's been set up in the previous episode, when Buffy meets the guardian, one of a line of women who have watched over the Slayers ever since being less than impressed with how the Shadow Men created the First Slayer. She gives Buffy a weapon forged by women for the Slayer. But unlike the patriarchal Shadow Men, she does not tell Buffy how to use it - that Buffy has to figure out for herself.

With this in mind one can look anew at Buffy's encounter with the Shadow Men in 7.15 ('Get It Done'). At the time, it looked to me as if Buffy was being merely petulant, rejecting power that might be vitally necessary to defeat the First Evil, simply because she didn't like the way the Shadow Men had created the Slayer. But I now see that for dramatic purposes it was vital that she turn down the power offered her. To have accepted it would have been to continue to be a tool of their patriarchal way of doing things. It is for the same reasons that Giles, father-figure and representative of the patriarchal approach, must be rejected and shown to be wrong, before being accepted back into the fold as an equal. Buffy's allies are mostly women, and in the final battle, only Spike of her male allies (and of whose 'emasculation' Lilian Edwards has spoken elsewhere), fights in the Hellmouth. All the other males are relegated to the lesser struggle in the school - though as Anya and Dawn are also up there, I may be reading too much into this!

Buffy's enemies also reflect this theme. The Übervamps are all male, as are the Bringers. And there is Caleb. I gather there's been a lot of complaining about the lack of originality of Caleb, but to me, with hindsight, he pretty much has to be the way he is. If Season 7 is about women defying the roles men impose on them, such as that of victim, then it is right that Caleb should be the ultimate in men trying to impose themselves on women, a misogynistic murderer of young girls - a typical slasher film villain, in fact. (Season 7 generally draws on the slasher genre far more than any other season.) And this is why he is killed through an extreme act of emasculation. Only The First Evil itself is sexually ambiguous, taking on both male and female forms. But only a male is strong enough to be its 'vessel'.

This being the theme, it is also one of the reasons why Buffy has to live past the end of the season. On some levels, an early death is what seven seasons have led us to expect. Much of the first season is themed around the idea that a Slayer's life is brutal and short. But, not only would Buffy's death be Joss Whedon repeating himself after the end of Season Five, but for Buffy to die would be to send the message that breaking the patriarchal mould carries a heavy price. And that would be the wrong message. (Interestingly, the major characters who do die in the final battle, i.e. not including the Slayer 'cannon-fodder', are the two reformed mass murderers. One wonders if Whedon chose them deliberately because in the end they could only atone for their past crimes through death. But that's another story.)

Instead of dying, Buffy changes the world. She helps all the Potentials achieve their potential, in a way that even those who might have been Chosen would never have done under the patriarchal eye of the, presumably now defunct, Watchers' Council. At the end of the season, the girls have grown up, become women, and control their own destinies.

What of the idea, in wide circulation in Buffy fandom, that the season was about leadership? Well, there's certainly something to be said for that. Buffy learns lessons about leadership - that consensus is better than diktat, that whilst someone always has to lead and take decisions, they have to have the confidence of the people they lead, and that this confidence cannot be taken as a given. In this respect, the much-derided throwing out of Buffy at the end of 7.19 ('Empty Places') is actually a necessary occurrence - her initial style of leadership needs to be rejected, and when she returns she has a new style.

I also think there is in the last episode the message that your teenage gang has to break up eventually. There's a moment where the four who were together at the beginning are stood with each other. First the father figure Giles departs, and then the other three go off as one, but gradually split to go to their own part of the action. Such is life. We all have destinies that take us away from those we grew up with.

So that's what I think Season 7 was about. You might argue that it was done unsubtly, or without inspiration, but that's a value judgment and that isn't what I'm trying to do here. I now await being torn to pieces. Or staked.

The cancellation of Angel ...

 ... or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Warner Brothers executives.

You know, I'm now glad there are only six episodes left.

In the most recent couple of episodes of Angel ('A Hole in the World' and 'Shells'), Fred's body was taken over by Illyria, an ancient demon from before history. Permanently. As in forever. Amy Acker may still be in the show, but it's plain from the elegiac ending of last night's episode, a flashback to her leaving her parents to go to L.A., that Winifred Burkle is gone for good, and we should not entertain any hopes of a miraculous restoration. Fred, if you'll forgive the cliché, is dead.

This has upset me a bit, and you may want to view the following as simply a hurt response. But I think (of course) that there are points to be made.

At any point in a series, the death of a continuing character, especially one as vibrant as Fred, would be traumatic. Coming only three episodes after Cordelia was killed off, it's heart-rending. And for me, it's too far.

It has been suggested to me that Angel might have jumped the shark with the previous episode ('Smile Time'), where Angel was turned into a Muppet. I don't agree - whilst not as funny as it ought to have been, that episode worked. The shark has been jumped, nevertheless.

The first thing is, Joss Whedon is now repeating himself, and not just because it's so recently that a continuing character (albeit one who hadn't appeared regularly this season) had been killed off. In the previous episode to this two-parter, Wes and Fred finally got together. Wes has been in love with Fred for a couple of years - at last he gets the woman of his dreams, only to have her snatched away before the relationship had a chance to bloom. This is not the first time this has happened in Angel. At the end of Season 3, Angel and Cordelia were on the verge of declaring their feelings for one another, but instead Angel got sunk in the sea and Cordy ascended to a higher plane. And it happened in Buffy too - remember Tara and Willow finally getting back together and Amber Benson making the titles at last, only for Tara to be shot dead at the end of the episode? And something similar happened with Giles and Jenny Calendar. This has become a Whedon device, as tired as Stephen King always having someone who's figured out what's going on, only to be bumped off before they can do anything (a device King stole in the first place from Psycho).

It isn't just the repetitiveness. It's the dark, joyless tone events like this give the Buffyverse. At the end of the last episode, Wesley has a speech about how, despite all the pain and misery of the human condition, there's still love, and there's still hope. But the message of Angel these days is that hope is futile. Love, whether it's Wes' for Fred, or Angel's for his son, will always be thwarted.

That's a pretty bitter and twisted view of life. Granted, I may have expressed it myself from time to time, but even then I think I knew it was bitter and twisted. I don't know what's going on inside Joss Whedon's head these days, but I'm glad I don't live there. Of course, maybe he just overdosed on Love Story at a young age, and has never worked it out of his system.

Or perhaps he's trying to say something about what it is to be a champion, the sacrifices you have to make. Perhaps. But the sacrifices seem more like the whims of a capricious fate than something actively forgone. Peter Parker turning away from Mary-Jane at the end of Spider-Man, that's heroic. This? I don't know.

And have you noticed it's always the women who die? Boyfriends tend to survive in the Buffyverse. Sure, Angel and Spike were both killed, but they both came back. Girlfriends, however, have a much harder time; Jenny Calendar, Joyce (okay, marginal as a girlfriend, but still ...), Tara, Anya, all dead, all gone forever. Angel started off by killing a male character, Doyle, but since then it’s been the sacrifice of women again, with Darla and Lilah (who weren't exactly on the side of light themselves, but were involved with people who were), and now Cordy and Fred. What this means, I don't know, other than that the Buffyverse can't deal with functional adult relationships. But I wouldn't hold out much hope for Angel's new werewolf love interest. Nor, for that matter, would I bet on Buffy herself surviving to episode's end, should she ever return.

My friend Simon Hovell once said that up to the end of season 5 Buffy had been like Neighbours, full of bad things happening, but with it all working out in the end, but after that it was like EastEnders, an endless succession of unrelieved misery. Currently, Angel is like EastEnders directed by Ken Loach and with incidental music by Leonard Cohen. All the joy has been taken from it, and that's why I've stopped enjoying the show. No longer is triumph alternated with tragedy, or rather, where once there was personal triumph there is now only the abstract saving-the-world stuff to alleviate the misery. It's depressing, and, frankly, getting boring.

By killing two characters in such swift succession, Whedon has, for this viewer at least, massively overplayed his hand. It's almost as if he's taunting his audience. 'Like this character? Care about them? Well, they're dead. And look, I did it again!' Fair enough then, Joss, I won't care. I no longer wish to care about anyone else in the show, knowing that they have nothing to expect but frustration of their hopes, and that any one could be snatched away without notice. I got hooked on the Buffyverse because the writers had good stories to tell, not because they'd do pointlessly nasty things to characters just because they could.

I doubt the Warner Brothers executives were thinking creatively when they cancelled Angel. But, even if done for the wrong reasons, it's beginning to look to me like a mercy killing.

[In 2013, I am aware that Whedon made the change in Acker's character to allow the actress to show more of her range, but that doesn't, I feel, invalidate the points made above.]