The Vampire Slayer Calls It Quits?
Though the pivotal episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer this season was named "Innocence," this was the season when Buffy - and the series - lost it. There's really no going back to the kinds of high school jokes about boys in which Buffy and Willow used to indulge occasionally, nor to funny sneaking-around behind the backs of oblivious parents. Maybe her friends can go back to being average high school students, but Buffy's more grown up than any teenager should ever have to be.
In the end, Buffy left Sunnydale with nothing - a lover consigned to Hell by her own hands, a mother who'd thrown her out of the house, a friend who'd betrayed her by not telling her about another friend's plans, a Watcher whom she'd had to save when she most needed him to protect her, a fellow Slayer dead, a town seeking her arrest after she struggled to protect it. There's not much further she can fall. But when Angel told her that she was all alone - no friends, no weapons, no hope - she pointed out that she's still got one thing. Herself.
Buffy is the most awesome woman on TV right now. She may look like a high school student, but she's a grownup in all the ways that matter. It seems as though she spent more time with Giles this season than with her friends, and no wonder: they're terrific too, but they're still kids. Xander's not ready to deal with adult feelings of love...he's not even ready to deal with gay kids in school. Willow's brilliant and increasingly empathetic, but she's still clueless about people a lot of the time. Oz is a bit older and wiser, and his experiences as a werewolf no doubt made him understand what it feels like to be special like Buffy, but she hasn't known him for as long. And Cordelia...well, she grew up enough to date Xander, but she has a long way to go.
Buffy seemed more mature in love than Giles and Jenny Calendar - less tentative, more honest - she knew what she wanted, she wasn't afraid to pursue it despite the knowledge that her lover was an immortal with a very dark past. She paid for her choices, but never complained. Not once recently has she wished her gift on someone else, not even when she explained to her mother in the season finale that she didn't choose it and doesn't value it. Giles is really the only person who understands, but he's had a lot to deal with himself, since he lost Jenny after discovering her own secret background and since his position as Buffy's Watcher has made him a target.
It's been a fun season to watch, since Spike and Drusilla and some of their nefarious friends have twisted senses of humor which allow the audience to share their wry perspective on modern life, but as a result, we haven't always had to focus on the stress placed on Buffy. It's a wonder she didn't get her mother to move away from Sunnydale ages ago, enroll her in a different high school, and let her worry about nothing more than the usual teen angst about not fitting in. We've had ominous indications that the principal and the mayor are in league with the forces of evil in her town; school and legal authorities are frustrating enough to teenagers without also being potential threats to one's friends. Buffy can't even seem to catch a break in terms of the men her mother dates and her friends take up with: there are villains at every turn, both metaphysical and just plain ordinary not-nice people.
This series is two years old, and could use a little shaking up in the domestic department. Buffy made a lot of sense when she demanded to know why her mother had never noticed the blood in her clothes, and all her sneaking around. The people not involved directly with fighting evil are looking oblivious, even stupid; all the parents run the risk of turning into Charlie Brown adults who don't even speak an understandable language. In addition, the Sunnydale law enforcement authorities had better hire some more intelligent cops or the series is going to start suggesting that one is better off taking the law in one's own hands than waiting for the police to show up. People seem darker and more cynical in regions that are not bordering the mouth of Hell than they do in Sunnydale.
There's something ironic about the fact that the WB network moved Buffy into an earlier 8 p.m. time slot this year in order to make room for Dawson's Creek. That show contains language and themes associated with older viewers - the major topics of conversation seem to be virginity, adultery, and masturbation - but the kids on that show are self-absorbed weenies compared to their peers on Buffy. Ally McBeal could learn a thing or two about self-confidence and independence from Buffy, not to mention witty one-liners...and Buffy's got bigger boyfriend problems than Ally can imagine. She's proof that shows about teenagers don't have to make them look insipid, and shows about women don't have to show them compromising to a man's world.
It's hard to imagine where Buffy is going to go next season. Obviously our heroine is going to have to return to Sunnydale, not to face her own demons, but to make the townspeople face theirs. I imagine Giles will have to be the one to bring her back, which ought to be good for him as well - I'm sure he must have thought about packing up and leaving physically after Jenny's death, instead of just doing so mentally by retreating into alcohol. We're going to have to see more focus on him next year if he's not going to start looking one-dimensional next to the Slayer: what keeps him going when he can't take it anymore?
And the rest of Buffy's friends are going to have to grow up if they're going to keep up, which might make the series a little less fun on the teen-angst scale but ironically more apt for real teenagers, who don't just fret about dating crises and obnoxious teachers. In a world with weapons of mass destruction, deadly sexually transmitted diseases, ongoing environmental degradation, and horrific regional violence on the evening news everywhere, nobody needs vampires to feel disempowered and afraid for the future, even if one knows martial arts and can take care of local demons. Buffy's just about a perfect role model, all the more so because she's not perfect herself.
This show does a superlative job balancing humor and pathos while straddling big metaphors about the great terrors of our age - doctors who kill the patients they're supposed to care for, cops who abuse the people they're supposed to protect, teachers who ignore the students they're supposed to educate, parents who turn blind eyes to the kids they're supposed to guide...no wonder Giles prefers the company of teenagers to that of his peers, even when he has a choice. I wonder whether it's possible to maintain that balance without risking frivolity. If I have to choose, I'd rather give up the comic episodes to keep the serious ones. Much as I enjoy Spike and Dru, I don't want to see them back unless something monumental is at stake, and I don't want to see Angel again unless it's in the series finale. But a series in which Buffy dates witty young geniuses or has ongong problems with witty immortals, or where there's too much Hercules-style superhero fighting where the bad-guy body count becomes a joke, is not going to have the same impact as the pressing darkness.