Slain, at Last

The late, great Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy-ed out
Buffy-ed out

Tuesday night marked the end of an era. After seven years on prime time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was vanquished once and for all, like a demon impaled with a wooden stake. For those who’ve loved Buffy through romance and war, through hideously fringed jackets and ridiculously sleek up-dos, through life, death, and not one but two resurrections, the series finale was a dark hour. We said goodbye to a weekly dose of girl power; so long to Buffy-centric e-mail lists; farewell to ritualistic Tuesday night gatherings. But we also breathed a sigh of relief.

This season of Buffy, well, sucked, and I, for one, am glad it’s over. The show should have ended a year ago, when Buffy’s witch-sidekick Willow, overcome by grief when her girlfriend was killed by a bullet meant for Buffy, nearly destroyed the whole world—an appropriately High Romantic ending to a series that revolved, dizzyingly, around the dangers of wielding power. (Willow’s friend Xander, the erstwhile buffoon, managed to talk her out of it at the 25th hour.) Now we’re forever stuck with memories of this last season—a Buffy-verse cluttered with too many new characters, inadequately explained plot twists, and endless, boring chatter. The series finale—an anti-climactic trip to “the Hell-Mouth,” from which Buffy and most of her gang emerged intact—was a one-hour throwaway as poorly scripted as the worst of this season.

In its early days, Buffy was wittier than your average show because it took the premise of every teen drama—life is a living hell—and turned it into allegory. Joss Whedon, the series creator, transformed insensitive jocks and nightmarish roommates into actual demons for Buffy to take down. As Buffy grew up, Whedon’s social critiques grew riskier and more ambitious. In Season 4, Buffy became entangled with The Initiative, a government research project on demons, and the show provided a shrewd commentary on genetic engineering. All along, Buffy sparred with demons of the real-world variety, too—personal trials far more difficult to handle than any evil god or Übervamp. There were the doomed relationships—like many young women, she was drawn to the wrong men—first Angel, a hunky vampire as forbidden to Buffy as Romeo was to Juliet, and then Riley, a pawn of The Initiative. Then there was her mother’s excruciatingly drawn-out death; later, her decision to sacrifice herself (literally) to save her sister.

Of course Buffy was a feminist, too, and her superpowers ensured that she’d always stand up for herself and call the shots. But Buffy’s vulnerability—a quality lacking in other iconic small-screen sirens like, say, Xena the Warrior Princess, or even Wonder Woman—helped the show become a cross-generational hit. When Buffy felt dead inside (after dying the second time), she sought out sex with Spike (one of the undead) in an attempt to feel alive. She regularly shut her friends out—especially in this last season—when she felt they couldn’t understand her. (Not surprisingly, they turned on her.) Blending fantasy with social realism, Whedon made the least-condescending show about young adults to run on prime time in recent memory.

But in Season 7, as Buffy took on The First—as in the first and most evil being ever—the complexity that once differentiated Buffy from Mutant X and other supernatural schlock vanished. A simplistic, apocalyptic, weirdly religious good-versus-evil narrative took over; subplots, aside from those concerning the urgent desire among the supporting characters to have pre-end-of-the-world sex, slipped away. For most of the season, Willow, arguably the show’s best character, was stripped of her impressive powers (lest she attempt to destroy the world again). Buffy, instead of kicking ass, spent long minutes of nearly every episode preparing a gang of young, annoying, potential slayers for battle, with pious sermons about war and leadership that would barely have been tolerable coming from President Bartlet on The West Wing. With the exception of one or two episodes (most notably “Conversations with Dead People”) this season of Buffy was leaden, slow, and overwrought.

And yet like the declining Roman Empire, Buffy’s influence on Western (well, American) civilization as we know it has only grown more ubiquitous in the show’s final days. (The New York Times published an editorial today about the end of the show.) At one end of the pop spectrum, the show is a darling of the cultural studies crowd: Buffy’s interrogation of the ethics of power, violence, and gender (that eternally beloved triad) is explored on Slayage: The On-Line International Journal of Buffy Studies and in more than one essay collection—including, most recently, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy. At the other end, in the bathrooms of young men across America, Buffy has finally been appreciated for, well, its dazzling supply of eye candy; this month, FHM features “The Girls of Buffy” on its cover, focusing not on Buffy’s metaphysical underpinnings but on a more important question: What is Willow’s preferred form of bikini wax?

But Buffy’s legacy will endure beyond the groves of academe or the pages of men’s magazines: The show’s influence can be felt on scores of shows, from ABC’s hit Alias to the canceled Dark Angel and Birds of Prey and the mysteriously enduring Charmed. Before Buffy, the only women who kicked ass on television did so metaphorically, in the courtrooms or in the ER. The showmay have died last night, but its spirit, like its protagonist, will undoubtedly resurrect itself again. Luckily, like the vampires Buffy had yet to slay, the show crawled into its coffin just in time to stay alive in our memory.