Copyright © 2003 Dianne Durante
Why do I feel the Hellmouth is gaping because Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s last episode airs this month? After all, I have no immediate, “practical” reason for watching it. I don’t need lessons in killing demons, or martial arts, or dressing twenty-chic. So what’s the appeal?
Watching a show over one season or several, you get a sense of the issues that matter to its writers, and how the show’s characters typically resolve them. On Buffy, the recurring issue is the battle of good against evil. Evil is unequivocally evil. Villains such as the Master, Glory and the First aim at nothing less than to destroy the world or to enslave (or devour) everyone in it.
Buffy and her friends don’t agonize over demon rights. They don’t debate whether vampires are a misunderstood minority. They don’t compromise with evil or wait, wringing their hands, for someone to rescue them. Instead, the heroes set out to fight evil to the best of their physical and mental abilities.
What abilities do they use, in that bizarre Buffy-world where vampires and other demons congregate at a hellmouth situated under a California high school? Like scientists, Buffy and friends observe the villains, research them, discuss their strengths and weaknesses, then work out ingenious ways to use this knowledge to defeat them. It’s no coincidence that the adult leader of the group is not a football coach, but a librarian. Despite the supernatural setting of the show, the heroes’ reliance on logic, reason, observation and research is thoroughly this-worldly.
But to talk only about how the heroes fight ignores a crucial element: the spirit of the show. What’s refreshing about Buffy is that the heroes treat the villains as, in the long run, much less significant than friends, lovers, family and careers. With efficiency and humor, they annihilate evil so that it no longer threatens what they value. (“Nobody messes with my boyfriend!” shouts Buffy, as she obliterates a bad guy.) Then they return to what matters: enjoying their own lives. This upbeat, positive spirit has darkened somewhat over the last few seasons - and I miss it - yet enough of it lingers to be invigorating.
In a wasteland of utterly trivial TV shows about millionaire bachelors whose survival on a desert island depends on ER surgery by Phoebe’s evil twin Ursula, Buffy’s weekly battle of the good, rational, and cheerful against the vicious makes riveting viewing.
I don’t watch TV dramas to see a slice of ordinary life. For that I could lounge on my front porch and eyeball the neighbors. I don’t watch dramas for instruction. For that I could buy a book or hire a teacher. I don’t watch them to see a character’s emotional traumas set out in excruciating detail. For that I could read a psychologist’s case study.
What I want from a drama is an hour or two when I can become absorbed in the sight of characters I like and respect - rational, courageous, heroic characters - fighting evil and winning, then enjoying their victory and their values.
Perhaps you think such entertainment is of no use in the real world. Think again. In a dark alley with a mugger, would knowledge of martial arts save you if you truly believed that the mugger had a right to your money, or that he was bound to defeat you no matter what you did? You might as well just hand over your wallet.
If you were fighting a war, would an arsenal of SCUD missiles help you win if you weren’t willing to use them? To use them, you need the moral certainty that your cause is just - that, in the long run, the good guys win because the good guys are right about the way the world works – and that the point of the war isn’t to save the bad guys from themselves, but to protect yourself so that you can get on with your life.
I watch Buffy for the sight of such certainty. It helps me remember what values are worth fighting for, and by what means. Any disagreements I have with details of the show are minor compared to the fact that it has provided me with a weekly dose of emotional fuel for seven years.
So long, Buffy – and thanks.