April 20, 2003
New York Times - Getting Buffy's Last Rites Right
By JOYCE MILLMAN
VAMPIRES, hellgods, snake demons I've watched Buffy battle them all.
But they weren't as scary as the knowledge that, very soon, I will no
longer have an excuse to put life on hold every Tuesday night. I admit it:
over the last six years, I've devoted an almost embarrassing amount of
time, energy and thought, both personal and professional, to "Buffy
the Vampire Slayer." Now, with only a few weeks left until the May 20
series finale, I'm facing my "Buffy"-less future by burrowing
into seasons past, trying to imagine a fitting end to the coolest
television coming-of- age horror-fantasy-love story ever told.
It's difficult to predict what Joss Whedon, the show's fiendishly
inventive creator and executive producer, has devised for the final
episode (which he wrote and directed). Mr. Whedon, after all, has already
killed his heroine (twice) and jolted viewers with such unexpected twists
as the death of Buffy's mom, the surprise ensouling of the vampire Spike
and the episode in which everybody sings. Frankly, as long as Mr. Whedon
doesn't try to tell us that the whole series was a figment of Buffy's
imagination, I'll be happy. I'll be even happier if the finale grandly
articulates, one last time, the show's main themes: woman power,
friendship, growing up and sacrifice.
WOMAN POWER On "Buffy," women rule the world and men are
largely watchers. Part of an ancient line of girls imbued with the power
to vanquish demons, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has lived longer
than any of her predecessors. This season, Buffy traveled through a time
portal to the origins of the First Slayer and learned that she was created
by shamen, who mated her with demon energy to keep evil away from the
village. "You violated that girl, made her kill for you because
you're weak, you're pathetic," Buffy sneered. "You're just men." Buffy is
strong enough to save the world (which she did "a lot,"
according to her tombstone at the end of Season 5). But, like that first
slayer, she has been rendered a little less than human by her mission.
She's been emotionally frozen for the past couple of seasons, unable to drop her guard and let love (her adoring former sex partner Spike) in.
Buffy is not the only one who has been blocked from tapping the
positive energy of her better, female, self. Her friend Willow (Alyson
Hannigan), the lovable lesbian witch and computer whiz, proved in last
season's finale that she was strong enough to (almost) destroy the world,
when she went on a vengeful rampage sparked by the murder of her
girlfriend. This season, Willow has been as emotionally frozen as Buffy,
afraid to fully utilize her Wiccan powers, lest they turn destructive
again. We need some healing here. Which is why I think "Buffy"
ought to end with both a Wiccapalooza and the most gargantuan release of
girl power the show's ever attempted.
I want to see Buffy beat on everyone and everything in sight, save the
world again and still find the time to finally admit her feelings for poor
Spike (James Marsters). I want to see Willow get her mojo back. I want to
see Buffy's rival slayer, the self-doubting bad girl Faith (Eliza Dushku),
regain her self-esteem and fight at Buffy's side. I want to see Buffy's
teenage sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), a dormant but powerful
unearthly being, come of age in a flash of glory. I want to see the dozens
of young Slayers in Training, who are wandering aimlessly and namelessly
through the Summerses' house, truly become the "army" Buffy has
been promising us for most of the season, and make a stand against the
current big bad, an incorporeal entity called the First Evil. But most of all, I want to see them thrash that misogynistic preacher
Caleb (Nathan Fillion), an agent of the First Evil, who believes women
were "born dirty." For some intriguing Christian symbolism, let
Buffy's last battle be for the collective soul of womankind, to remove the
biblical taint from the gender.
FRIENDSHIP Buffy's "Scooby gang" Willow, Giles (Anthony
Stewart Head), Dawn, Spike, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma
Caulfield) has always been greater than the sum of its parts. This
pseudo-family of misfits banded together at the climax of each season to save the world. And
they were a formidable blend, with Buffy's super powers, Willow's witchy
energy (and, when she was a teen, research skills), Giles's knowledge of
ancient demonology, Spike's muscle and bravado, Dawn's spunk and Anya's
enjoyment of a good fight.
As for Xander, he's Mr. Whedon's stand-in, the "unremarkable"
guy who lives in the shadow of the gifted heroine. Or does he? Have you
noticed how, time and again, Xander plays a crucial 11th-hour role in
enabling Buffy to prevail? I'd feel cheated if the Xan Man wasn't the unsung hero, again,
in the finale.
But for all their past harmony, the Scoobies have drifted apart of late.
Each member has been battling inner demons: addiction, insecurity,
self-loathing, jealousy, guilt. Like its strength, the gang's weakness is
greater than the sum of its parts. Earlier this season, Buffy dreamed of
her dead mother warning that "evil is always here . . . evil is a
part of us. All of us. It's natural." Maybe the Scoobys have brought
on this latest apocalypse; maybe the First Evil feeds on each character's
psychic fragility, on negativity and unquiet minds. The Scoobys have to
get over themselves. They need to learn to trust one another again in
order to bring "Buffy" back to the point it's been making all
along that friendship, community and love are the greatest weapons of all.
GROWING UP The coming-of-age theme has served "Buffy" well
ever since the show's earliest high school-is-hell metaphor. Buffy and her
pals have grappled with the usual adolescent traumas, as well as the highs and
lows of life as twentysomethings. As the last hour nears, Buffy is fully
entering adulthood she has already lost her mother (her dad was always
absent) and relations are strained between her and her father figure, her
watcher Giles. She is growing more distant, accepting her responsibilities
and preparing to fight the final battle alone. I always believed that "Buffy" was the story of a girl finding her place in the big
bad world. But now I see that the show is not about our heroine growing up
as much as it's about the other characters' maturing enough to let her go.
SACRIFICE Buffy has always been a Christlike figure. She questions her
destiny as the chosen one, doubts her abilities to see the mission
through, yet always fulfills her role as savior. This was never more true
than in the finale of Season 5, when she sacrificed herself to save Dawn
from being killed in an apocalyptic ritual. As a reward, Buffy entered
Paradise, but she was soon ripped back to earth and the grind of fighting
evil by the Scoobys, who used a spell to bring her back to life. She has
since grown battle-weary. She longs to lay down her arms, but the only way
to do that, as her mother foretold in that dream, is to "rest."
The logical end to the saga is for Buffy to get back to Paradise.
Speaking of sacrifice, Spike needs to make one, too. The brash but
sensitive vampire has been a central figure in Buffy's story line; they
were adversaries in Season 4, wary comrades-in-arms in Season 5, punishing
lovers in Season 6. Now, as ex-lovers who've been through hell together,
they've approached something like real love. Spike's devotion to Buffy and
her mission has set him on a path to redemption; he endured torture to win
back his soul for her, then suffered at the hands of the First Evil. But
Buffy has yet to tell him she loves him.
In the finale, I want to see Buffy give Spike the moment of happiness
he's earned. And then I want my heart to be broken, because one thing
"Buffy" does better than any show on television is break your
heart. I want to see Buffy and Spike both make the ultimate sacrifice, and
both be rewarded for it. But they can't be together; it's not in their
destinies. I want Buffy to die and become an immortal god(dess) who rights
the balance of good and evil in the universe. I want Spike to die and be
reborn as a human (and therefore available for a possible spinoff).
I can see the series's last moments now. As Buffy turns immortal, she shines beatifically, and we finally understand the foreshadowing
significance in Spike's puzzling past fondness for the words
"effulgent" and "glowing." Buffy's ascension unleashes
a surge of positive energy that empowers the forces of good. They rise up
as one and drop-kick the First's evil army of gnarled ubervampires back to
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