As the DVD releases for TV's greatest show featuring a demon-hunting Valley girl comes to a close, a panel of our judges, led by Judge Brett Cullum, ruminate on the seven years of Joss Whedon's masterpiece.
Our reviews of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season (published February 5th, 2002), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Second Season (published August 7th, 2002), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season (published January 27th, 2003), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 10th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season (published January 5th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Sixth Season (published November 10th, 2004), Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 8 (Blu-Ray) (published January 17th, 2011), and Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992) (published September 4th, 2001) are also available.
Buffy: I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil and I've been chosen to fight it. I wish a whole lot of the time that I hadn't been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn't been either. This isn't about wishes. It's about choices. I believe we can beat this evil. Not when it comes. Now when its army is ready. Now. Tomorrow morning I'm opening the seal. I'm going down into the Hellmouth and I'm finishing this once and for all. Right now you're asking yourself what makes this different. What makes us more than a bunch of girls being picked off one by one? It's true. None of you have the power that Faith and I do. So here's the part where you make a choice…
The last chapter in Buffy the Vampire Slayer brings the burning question before us: I s there more to despise or to admire? Buffy began as a great allegory where teenage problems were replaced with literal demons and one girl fought against them. Every season seemed to have some grand metaphor behind it. The only words that kept repeating in my head watching the Season Seven episodes, though, were "wasted potential." They seemed apt, since the plot revolved around the "potential slayers" facing extinction at the hands of the Season Seven "big bad," known as The First. The irony was not lost on me, and Mutant Enemy had delivered its last metaphor for Buffy. At the same time, I still found myself sucked into the world of Buffy. I rooted for her to go out with a bang, and thankfully she does.
Facts of the Case
Season Seven begins with the reopening of Sunnydale High School, and guess who is really nervous about it? While Dawn enrolls as a student, Buffy gets a job as a guidance counselor so she can keep a watchful eye on the place, which sits over the Hellmouth. Spike reappears with a soul, but he's also mad as a hatter. He's been living in the school's basement and going all Sixth Sense on us by seeing dead people. Everyone starts to sense "something big is coming," so the team reassembles. Willow returns from her magic rehab in England, and soon after Giles appears with mysterious girls in tow that he calls potentials. The Slayer line is in jeopardy, as some group of blind monks is running around the globe killing all of them so that Buffy will have no heir to continue the fight. Things escalate as more people begin seeing dead people, and soon Buffy realizes an old foe from Season Three is back—The First Evil. It is a noncorporeal entity that appears in the form of someone deceased and is hell-bent on permanently opening the Hellmouth and taking over the world. Can Buffy and her Scooby gang save the world one last time?
Six discs come in the expected cardboard folding slipcover case adorned with the beloved cast and carrying the following episodes:
In watching the entire seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again I was comforted by the fact that it seemed better when taken as one long movie instead of being assigned the spotty schedule UPN provided during the broadcast run. It certainly remains the weakest link in the show's seasons, but it has its moments, and DVD helps keep the momentum rolling better. Even bad Buffy episodes seem to have fun lines and references to seasons past that bring a smile. The story starts off staggeringly well. "Conversations with Dead People" is probably one of the scariest episodes of the show ever conceived, and it became the high point for me. It was the event episode of the season, much like the musical "Once More with Feeling" or the silent "Hush" in seasons past. What the producers did was assemble four writers, including Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, and Jane Espenson, to write specific vignettes that would be tied together in the final edit. It involves Buffy, Willow, Dawn, and two of the previous season's nerd troika being visited and psychologically tortured by dead people from their pasts. It is absolutely masterful and breathtaking, and downright scary as hell. This set starts and finishes well, but it's the middle act where things fall apart. Maybe Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy's production team were overwhelmed with keeping three shows on the air (the most they ever had). Plot holes appeared throughout, and often subplots were dropped with no resolution. The potentials were introduced, and it seemed there were too many characters for us to care about.
And what of our core group? Xander (Nicholas Brendon) was given little to do other than cheer up Dawn when she was feeling down or repair the house when it was trashed after a fight. He even doesn't appear in "Conversations with Dead People"—a first for the series. Willow seemed wary of using magic (odd since in a crossover episode with Angel she doesn't hesitate!) and even more wary of beginning to date again after Tara's death. The actress playing Willow, Allyson Hannigan, seemed plain weary herself, merely going through the motions. Once the writers introduced a romantic subplot concerning Willow and one of the potentials we realize how much chemistry she had with Amber Benson (Tara). Her love scenes with Kennedy (Iyari Limon) are absolutely heartless and feel forced. Anyone else notice that in the operatic final shot of the series Kennedy is nowhere to be found? Tara certainly would have been by Willow's side. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) does little other than bring more girls into the house and seems bitter and grumpy to be back. In an odd move, Whedon and company bring in Andrew (Thomas Lenk) from the nefarious nerds of the sixth season, and kill off Jonathan (Danny Strong). Andrew hangs out in the house for the rest of the season as comic relief, but wouldn't Jonathan make more sense filling that role since he knew the gang from the beginning? And with Andrew for comic relief, poor Anya (Emma Caulfield) has very little purpose. She does get her own very strong episode, "Selfless," which reveals her origins, but she fades into the background in many episodes. Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) grows up a little but, like Xander, seems to serve little purpose any more.
Buffy's own arc seems even more troubling and problematic. Sarah Michelle Gellar has to become a leader in this season, and it seems all she really wants to do is leave. Buffy is given these horrible long Patton speeches to show her leadership, and it never seems to gel. Gellar's best turns come when she plays The First and gets to be purely evil for a change. Buffy is redefining herself in this season, going from a loner to a person who defines herself more through community. It makes sense, but it's executed poorly. The journey seems unclear for her. It's hard to tell if Gellar is playing Buffy's weariness with the situation or if this is the actress marking time before departing for bigger things. The character is not as dour or angst-riddled as the previous season, but then she's also not quite as bubbly and fun as she was prior to that. Did Gellar or the writers forget what made Buffy special? Seems like she needs Spike or another member of the supporting cast to remind her in about every other episode what that is. There's little character development for anyone in this season, and that holds it back. When I look at the episodes I liked best I realized they were all about self-revelation for our core group and Buffy. I was wondering where all the whip-smart insights into the mind of a woman finally growing up were. Why was Buffy going through all of this? The show is about growing up and coming to terms with your own power, and it seems like there is no clarity here to help Buffy along that path.
That seems to be the biggest problem for the season—it's unclear why these things are happening and if they have any purpose. If The First is inside everyone already, why does it want to come out and take physical form? Seems rather like when the Mayor in Season Three went from indestructible human to a very easy-to-dispatch snake. Why are its ultimate weapons, the Übervamps or Turok-Hans, seemingly impossible to kill early on and then easily killed by the season's climax? Buffy goes eleven rounds with the first one out of the seal and nearly loses. Yet in the final battle Anya and Andrew dust quite a few without any super powers. Why does Buffy lead the girls in an all-out assault when Spike seems to be the key to the plan (without anyone knowing it)? Seems like a lot of girls could have been spared with knowledge of what the ultimate solution was going to be. Why does The First say things like "She will not choose you" to Dawn and "It's not time for him" in reference to Spike, and then we get no payoff? I could go on, but suffice it to say a lot is left unanswered, which is not usual for this series; it was always respectful of its own mythology until Season Seven. The promise and potential are there; they just never manifest. And is it just me, or do they seem overly fond of The Lord of the Rings references in this season? We get the Übervamps, who look like Orcs, and Gnarl, who seems an imitation of Gollum, and that last battle scene seems lifted out of The Two Towers.
Joss Whedon states that this is the season where he wanted to bring it all around "back to the beginning" and the original mission statement of the show. Yet the Big Bad in this season seems to be the specter of the previous stronger seasons. The First appears as every villain from every season, and as cool as that is it made me miss each villain that seemed superior to this one. When they resort to using Gellar as The First it makes me wonder if she's fighting her old self and the character that was first planted on the Hellmouth seven years ago. The show seems to be fighting its own expectations. The ghosts of seasons past are haunting the crew and reminding them they used to be heroic and funny.
One character from the earlier seasons seems painfully absent: Tara (Amber Benson). It was rumored that she would return this season in a guest spot, or possibly rejoin the cast for the final fight. One proposed sequence early in the season had Buffy earning one wish to alter reality. She would debate whether to bring Joyce back or erase some other terrible tragedy. She would walk into Willow's room with a new pair of shoes and proclaim that was what she wished for. When Willow scoffed she would say "Look behind you," and there would be Tara. At least, that was the rumor. The more real possibility was to have Tara return for "Conversations with Dead People" to talk to Willow as The First. On the commentary it is stated that she had scheduling problems, but Amber Benson said in interviews she did not want to return as a villain. Her reasoning was that she didn't want fans of Tara to see her for the last time psychologically torturing Willow (something Kristine Sutherland as Joyce seemed to relish). I also wondered why they never brought in Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) for a guest spot as The First as they did in Season Three. And I wish Oz (Seth Green) could have returned at some point as well.
Technically, the transfer is the worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer has ever looked on DVD. I can't say it's the transfer's fault, since many sequences are beautifully rendered and look as good as any other offerings in the previous sets. Yet there are some stretches where grain is not only present but overpowering. Were they shooting this show on Super 8 film at some points? It's as bad as the first and second seasons, when the show had no budget. Dark sequences look wretched, and scenes with green screen effects are just as bad. The screen menus that used to have a lot of razzle-dazzle and flash images? No, this time we get a stylized "B" and some music. The sound mix is the old stereo surround bass-heavy mix the show seems so fond of. At least that remains fine and serviceable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all my snark and displeasure, there are still some good things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer—The Complete Seventh Season. Throwing it all to the wind, I will say even bad Buffy is better than most of the television out there. The story does seem unfocused at times, but it provides a logical climax and resolution to the one issue Buffy has faced the entire run. She's always been alone in this fight, and she's always fought her destiny to be the only one who can save the world. She's longed to be able to live normally. She's yearned to grow up and be a woman with choices rather than a tool of fate. And if there is one thing Season Seven achieves, it is her freedom—finally. The last hour of "Chosen" is a landmark episode that finally ties up the struggle once and for all. Sarah Michelle Gellar smiles, and it is both Buffy's and her own relief that the character is finally at peace with herself.
This set has the best commentaries of any of the Buffy season releases. Actors, writers, and producers appear on the best episodes of every disc to explain the show and reflect on what it was like working on Buffy. Joss Whedon, appropriately, provides his last commentary for the finale episode, and it's a touching send-off to his own creation. They certainly didn't skimp this time around on the extras. And you can finally see the "previously on" sequence that preceded Buffy's 100th episode, "The Gift," as an Easter Egg found to the left of "The Last Sundown" featurette. Joss Whedon reveals his favorite ten episodes in that segment, and guess what? He wrote all ten. And finally I get vindication for years of saying that Season Two was the ultimate Buffy, as he names one of those episodes the best.
You have to love the return of the "dark slayer," Faith (Eliza Dushku). Even though she mysteriously talks like she's been watching MTV Raps or American Idol's Randy Jackson too much, she's always a welcome addition to the show. Eliza turned down a proposed Faith spin-off that would have included Spike (she took an offer to do Tru Calling instead). She could have carried that show because Faith always ups the ante when she shows up, and she marks the best part of Season Seven's climax. Also ranking right up there with Faith for adding energy and excitement is a new character, the high school principal Robin Wood (D.B. Woodside). He's a welcome breath of fresh air as a man with a mysterious past who kicks some serious vampire ass when needed.
And how could I not mention James Marsters in his swan song scene-stealing portrayal of Spike? After a dark turn in the last season he continues the arc of his character exquisitely and adds a sense of drama to everything. He came in during the second season and never left much to the pleasure of the fans. He seems honest and real, and always had soul even when he wasn't supposed to. Spike saves the day several times in Season Seven, and he also kept me interested with a textured performance that begged for an Emmy nomination. Angel (David Boreanaz) also makes a brief appearance, but he hardly has the impact of "Captain Peroxide." I love Angel, but he's barely in this season. If Spike is your favorite of the two, this season is for you.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer probably went on a season or two past its prime, but it remains a groundbreaking series. In the end I am not sure exactly what it accomplished for feminists or all the academic types who seem to want to dissect it in terms of its philosophy and religious implications. Honestly, girls have been kicking butt on television for as long as the medium existed! Charlie's Angels,Xena, and Wonder Woman all predated her mid-'90s arrival. To me it was a great genre show that made horror and science fiction funny, smart, and eminently entertaining. It was the most improbable of hit series, and it defied many conventions (but it also subscribed to just as many). It was gleefully simply great television.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer—The Complete Seventh Season is a must-have collection for the fans despite any shortcomings. Episodes like "Conversations with Dead People," "Lies My Parents Told Me," "Selfless," "Storyteller," and "Chosen" are worthy additions to the show and rectify most of the plot holes and chaotic plotting that is Season Seven. They even make up for that Ashanti guest role (you thought I would forget that, huh?). The extras are great and the commentaries are crucial. There is enough here to still admire the magic of Buffy. It's the last sundown, to be sure.
Even though its loaded with enough "grrl power" statements to make the Spice Girls retch, it's still Buffy. It's one last look at all of our favorite characters (minus the notable exceptions—(cough) Tara, (cough) Oz, (cough) Cordelia). Buffy is free to hit that open highway and find herself a new destiny and a new pair of shoes. Whedon and Mutant Enemy are to be praised for providing us with the series for as long as they did. So rarely does quality television come along that you are proud to champion. I'll miss her, but I'll always have the Buffy DVDs. And Season Seven is an important grace note no matter how you slice it. Despite any misgivings, it is the final glimpse of something we will never be able to see again (well…except in endless syndication).
Dawn: Buffy? What are we gonna do now?—Last line of the series
Alyson Hannigan Is Hot: A Haiku Cycle by Appellate Judge Dave Ryan
Of the Buffy cast
Eyes wide as her grin;
Some may know her as
What about Willow?
Foil for Buffy? Nay!
Rescue me, Alyson,
We will walk in fields
But joy dies anon;
Buffy in a Bustle? Some Thoughts on the Slayer's Literary Ancestry by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees
It's well known that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has inspired a wealth of scholarly discussion; academic conferences and critical volumes alike have devoted themselves to analyzing it from different angles. Such serious scholarly attention may seem baffling to some, even those who loved the show: It's entertaining, sure, and it has some cogent points to make about family, relationships, and women's roles, but still…the subject of doctoral dissertations? When we look at it a bit more closely, though, we see that the show offered plenty to tempt the academic mind—particularly a canny exploration of the metaphorical function of vampirism that places the series in the tradition of vampire literature dating back to the start of the 19th century.
At the time that I became a Buffy viewer, I was working on a scholarly study of vampire literature, covering everything from early German Romantic poems to the late-1890s flourishing of vampire fiction that surrounded the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I had, in fact, educated myself on the topic of vampires to the extent that I was mercilessly critical of any entertainment based on the subject, and for almost the entire first two seasons of Buffy I refused to watch the show, assuming it would be as silly as its heroine's name. But the very first episode I saw—a rerun of the powerful two-parter "Surprise" and "Innocence"—showed me that this was a series that knew what it was doing. It wasn't just trotting out the same old screen clichés about pasty-faced men with Eastern European accents in opera cloaks. It got vampires.
This two-part episode from Season Two, as fans will recall, shows Buffy consummating her relationship with Angel, the vampire she loves, and finding him horribly changed as a result. The "explanation," of course, is the gypsy curse that robbed him of his soul when he experienced a moment of pure happiness with the woman he loved. But the implications are hauntingly apparent to viewers: Many a woman (and perhaps more than a few men, too) has experienced a lover's ardor giving way to chilling remoteness once she has given herself to him sexually. Here was a supernatural plot used to portray a real-life horror: the shocking transformation of the man whom a girl trusted completely. As I became a regular viewer of the show, I realized that this kind of metaphoric writing was the underpinning of the entire series. I came to discover what so many viewers already had: that Buffy was adept at using supernatural creatures and circumstances to explore universal struggles and growing pains.
I was all the more impressed because this is almost exactly what so much 19th-century vampire fiction and poetry did. From early works by the English Romantic poets, to the wildly popular 1840s serial Varney the Vampyre, to Sheridan Le Fanu's much-anthologized "Carmilla" (1872), and embracing dozens of other works, vampire literature of the era used the figure of the vampire to embody the dangers that could threaten a young man or woman growing into adulthood. Just as Buffy focuses on the troubled transitional years of high school and college, and landmark events of maturity like sexual initiation, the vampire works of the 19th century presented young protagonists who were about to leave their parents' care and marry. At this time, these writers indicate, as the young man or woman prepares to go out into the world (and become sexually active), he or she is particularly vulnerable. These characters are at an important crossroads: Will they be able to bring inner strength and fortitude to the dangers and temptations ahead—that is, will they survive the vampire's attack—or will they be destroyed? The vampire works of this era provide strong lessons for young adults about appropriate behavior, often using the vampire tale as a thinly cloaked warning about how defying one's proper place in society (or the family) can result in disaster.
At first glance, this may not seem to be very relevant to the world of Buffy, which doesn't contain this overtly proscriptive slant. But the fundamental concern is the same: having to make crucial life (and life-and-death) decisions for oneself, without a parent's guidance; negotiating the minefield of love and sex; discovering, ultimately, one's identity. The vampire of literature is a particularly apt metaphor for explorations of identity, since it presents a duality by its very nature: It has a human form, often acts human, but is a monster inside. One of the brilliant innovations of Buffy was to make this duality overt by showing vampires' facial features alter when their inner monster was in the ascendant, so that the mask of their normal human features dropped and revealed the heavy-browed, animalistic face of their blood lust.
Yet even with this useful device, Buffy and her cohorts frequently had to deal with someone who might not be all they appeared to be; think, for example, of the very first episode, which plays on the seeming innocence of Darla's human face; or the placid banality of Season Three's Mayor, which disguised his serpentine nature; or of the body switching of Faith and Buffy in Season Four. Again we see the metaphorical significance: One of the considerable dangers we will face as we leave our parents' care, we learn, is that we will have to judge for ourselves the characters of those we meet, to draw our own decisions about whether we can trust them. And again and again we are reminded that we cannot trust in appearances. Buffy, like its literary antecedents, is preparing us for life in the world by showing us how we must develop inner resources to defend ourselves against the dangers we will encounter.
The treatment of the individual vampire characters on Buffy also shows an impressive knowledge on the part of Joss Whedon and his writing team of the literary history of vampires. The use of inarticulate, animalistic vampires like the Übervamps in Season Seven takes us back to the days before German and English Romantic poets gave the vampire human intelligence and motivation; before this time (the start of the 19th century) vampires in literature were little more than reanimated corpses, more like zombies than the frequently suave, cunning creatures we have come to know. The publication in 1819 of John Polidori's The Vampyre in particular changed the direction of male vampires by linking them with the dangerous yet aristocratic and seductive figure of Lord Byron. The Byronic vampire, in fact, is the direct literary ancestor of Angel: brooding, with a dark and secret past, and with a potentially destructive sexual allure. Angel's Byronic persona made him one of the show's strongest creations, with the inevitable result that his character was spun off into his own series.
It's also important to note that Angel was a sympathetic character because he was an exception among vampires: He had a soul. In later seasons, Spike would regain his soul and become a heroic character as well. Aside from these two exceptions, however, Buffy broke with recent vampire literature by portraying its vampires as actually being evil. Ever since Jack Palance played Dracula as a romantic underdog in the early '70s (an interpretation that has been inescapable ever since) and Anne Rice began her remarkable Vampire Chronicles, modern writers have tended to make vampires the heroes, not the villains, of their works. When Buffy started its run, the popular conception of the vampire was a romanticized loner, a surrogate for our longings to separate ourselves from the responsibilities inherent in human relationships and our wish to dispense with the restrictions of mortal human behavior. In the 19th century, though, as in the universe of Buffy, vampires stood for all that we ought to be fighting against. Coming into conflict with them crystallized our understanding of own place in society, in our families, in our relationships with the opposite sex. For such a hip show, Buffy was surprising and definitely refreshing in letting vampires be the bad guys once again, and in letting them represent the perils of real life.
The series' only disappointing overt departure from its literary forebears was its depiction of Dracula, which was quite different from the character as Stoker depicted him (as are, it must be said, most screen Draculas). The Eurotrash rock-star incarnation of Dracula that Buffy encountered at the start of Season Five embodied none of the power and menace that made Stoker's character so enduring. The very fact that he could be dispatched in a single episode proved that the series wasn't taking him seriously. However, despite the respect it shows to its 19th-century forebears, Buffy is never anything but modern in its sensibilities, and Stoker's famous vampire arose out of Victorian fears, many of which would be irrelevant and even puzzling as threats in the Buffy universe (such as the fear of foreigners and of female sexuality). Likewise, Stoker's lessons to conform to one's prescribed gender role go against the grrl-power message of the series. It's understandable, then, that the Buffy-verse reimagined the most famous of literary vampires and chose not to focus on him for long.
Ultimately, Buffy was so compelling and so thought-provoking in large part because its combination of the old and new, its use of well-established vampire conventions in fresh and unexpected ways. Its creators learned from the great vampire works of the past, but they came up with something that stood on its own and spoke powerfully to modern audiences. Thanks to Buffy, the tradition of vampire literature has a whole new chapter.
What the Hell Was I Thinking?, by Chief Justice Mike Jackson
At last has come my chance—the opportunity to redeem myself in the eyes of hundreds of Buffy fans.
See, about three years ago I reviewed Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss's movie that started the Buffy phenomenon. I dared to claim that the movie was better than the TV series because…I had never watched the TV series. That would've been around the beginning of the sixth season. Seventy-odd episodes of one of the best series ever, and I had missed them. (Of course, I didn't know what I had missed, as you'll soon see.) Fortunately, I caught a lot of flak for it, both from members of the Verdict staff and from our loyal readers. A few months went by, and a Thanksgiving weekend marathon on FX caught my eye. I figured, what the hell, might as well give it a go.
I do believe the first episode I watched during that marathon was "Hush," that classic fourth season episode that perennially ranks as not just a fave, but the fave among Buffy fans. I liked the movie for its goofy sense of humor, because let's face it, I'm a goofy guy with a goofy sense of humor. But what caught me about this episode was that it was smartly funny—not to mention genuinely creepy and with some smart dialogue (what little of it there is in that ep). I think I watched a few more episodes, and was instantly hooked. Like a vampire turning from human to demon host overnight in its grave, I was transformed into a Buffy-starved fiend. I watched it twice nightly on FX to catch up with the first five seasons. I watched the UPN reruns to catch up with the in-progress sixth season. I read episode guides online to fill in the blanks. I played hooky from work the day the first season hit DVD…okay, so I really was sick, but not so sick I couldn't walk the mile to the store to buy the set, then spent all day watching them. When the sixth season started anew, I didn't miss an episode through the end of the show's run.
If you spent your life in the black-and-white world of Kansas, I suppose you wouldn't mind its grayness. But suddenly, when the Technicolor glory of Oz is laid before your eyes, you realize what you've been missing. I look back and shake my head at that review of Buffy, the movie. I had no idea what I was missing. Granted, the movie had Paul Reubens and a delightfully hammy performance by Rutger Hauer, but my god, it's crap compared to the delightfully wonderful joys of Buffy, the series. It's funny, it's scary, it's sad, it's heartwarming…often all in the same hour. It had scope, with season-encompassing story lines seen in few other series. It had character development, with its heroes learning and growing and evolving constantly. And I thought a movie starring Luke Perry was its superior? What was I thinking? I can't believe I went so long without giving it a chance, and I'm glad I finally did.
So please, forgive the Mike Jackson of 2001 who wrote that review, and embrace the Mike Jackson of 2004, who is a Buffy fanatic in the true sense of the term.
Buffy Ode by Judge Maurice Cobbs
Yeah, she's the Slayer, sure; we all know that—the chosen one. But it's more than that, isn't it? Buffy Summers is probably the first of a new breed of fully realized female asskickers. She's not manipulative, coy, or demure. She's not passive-aggressive; she's the regular kind. She doesn't use her sexuality as a weapon; she prefers wooden stakes and crossbows. Sure, she owes a great debt to the ones who came before, like Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, but make no mistake: Buffy is entirely different. Wonder Woman (in her satin tights, fighting for her rights and the old Red, White, and Blue) was maybe the first TV heroine who wasn't competing with men; she wasn't trying to prove that she could slam evil as well as any man. Really, that was her whole point: Rather than trying to do things as well as men could, she was trying to do them differently—dare I say better?
Which, in the long run, is what Buffy was trying to do, right? But Buffy, in the '90s, was granted a much more aggressive stance in achieving her goals, a level of aggression that Wonder Woman was never afforded in the '70s. Wonder Woman was often bemused or puzzled by the behavior of the men she encountered; Buffy, rather than waxing philosophical about the inequities of the Gender Mindsets, is more likely to tell you where to get off and handle the problem herself. Puzzled though she might be, Wonder Woman was content to let Steve Trevor call the shots, even while she was saving his butt. But Buffy took control when she needed to.
"Are you not used to taking orders?" asked Wesley in his memorable first appearance on the show. Really, she's not. Buffy seems to be of the opinion that letting the cockalorums of the Watcher's Council dictate Official Evil-Smashing Policy is likely to get her killed, and there's a lot of evidence to support that theory. Giles must have known this too; he accepted a great deal of rebellion from Buffy right from the start. Does that make him a bad Watcher, or the greatest one who ever breathed? If results are the standard by which we judge, then the latter is most certainly the case. But the Watcher's Council operates under the Peter Principle: Maintaining the bureaucracy is far more important than achieving the desired results. Wonder Woman might have dealt with a similar situation by shaking her head and saying something to the effect of "silly man's world." But it doesn't take Buffy long to lay down the law: "The council is not welcome here. I have no time for orders. If I need someone to scream like a woman, I'll call you."
You've come a long way, baby.
But it's more than just a naked rebellion against authority, although that was certainly a large part of the first season. Buffy is often wise enough to trust the judgment of the people around her; most of the time she realizes when she needs help and isn't too proud or afraid to accept it. She's an individualist, not a nonconformist. For her to reject everything that Giles tells her to do out of hand would make her a fool. But she chooses for herself what is needed and adjusts her attitude accordingly. She's often the best judge of what she needs, and she's not afraid to assert that fact—and take responsibility when she chooses badly. Because the thing that goes hand in hand with freedom is responsibility, and we actually get to see Buffy learn that over the course of the series.
The show managed to transcend the inherent pulpiness of the premise—something that Wonder Woman couldn't do, and that even a lot of other shows, like Dark Angel, never managed—by giving real substance to its heroine. She can be as amazing as Wonder Woman, but never as cheesy; as brutal as Xena, but never as hard-bitten; as glamorous and sexy as Charlie's Angels, without the sluttiness; and as smart as Velma Dinkley without having to wear glasses. Who could ask for more?
But as complete a character as Buffy is, she never seems inaccessible. That may be the real charm of the character, and what kept her fan base growing and swelling, through the great seasons and the not-so-great ones. She may be superhuman, but there was a very real emphasis on the human part. There's a kind of vulnerability about Buffy that we never got from Wonder Woman or the rest. We always knew that Wonder Woman was going to win the day—not so with Buffy. Victory wasn't assured for the Slayer. She had to work for it.
Sometimes her friends had to save the day. Which is another thing that I loved about the series: The people around her took her job as seriously as she did. Why wouldn't they? The end of the world is one of those things that affects everybody. I'd sure put in a few extra hours at the school library if I thought it would help avert an apocalypse. It's only common sense. Common sense ruled the day with Buffy (as much as teenagers are capable of it, anyway). These teenagers don't go into the dark basement with only a flashlight for comfort. They take axes and crossbows and load up with weapons. They don't act as if nothing can harm them. They act like they're fighting really scary, really dangerous things. And they're capable—they don't have to wait for Buffy to come up with a plan or save they day. If push comes to shove, they can do it themselves. Remember, it was Giles who finally killed the super-powerful Glory. Willow has not only contributed with research (and later magic), but wasn't afraid to get in there with a shovel or a baseball bat and start swinging if she needed to. And when Willow went bad, it was Xander who saved the world (okay, that ending was lame, but I still think it's a valid point). Nobody in Buffy's circle of friends embraced the victim mentality. Cordelia managed to pull her world-saving weight from time to time, and even the whiny Dawn put a cork in it (finally!) and started swinging a sword when the chips were down. The message is clear: Buffy may have super powers, but anyone can be heroic. If Buffy had been the only one who could have saved the day (as Wonder Woman was—you never saw Etta Candy in the field slugging Nazi spies), then it would have implied that normal women (and men) can only be victims or bystanders.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Creator Joss Whedon and Director/Co-Executive Producer David Solomon on "Help"
• The Original Movie Review
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