Why Joss Whedon’s Masterpiece Captivates Us Still
I know I’m not alone here. Everyone I’ve talked to seems to feel the same – we turn on a John Hughes film, and we’re transported back to high school... it’s like our twenties and thirties never happened, and we’re suddenly teenagers again, experiencing that rollercoaster of emotions, embarrassed about our parents and wanting to be in with the cool crowd. And why is that? Because John Hughes captured a time in our lives that all of us went through, for better or for worse. There are things we did in high school that we’d probably chalk up to being the most embarrassing moments of our lives. And there are moments that we cherish. For every memory we have where we swear we’d give a limb just to go back and relive it one more time, there are probably ten memories that remind us we’d never go back to high school if someone paid us.
Over the years, I’ve been asked the same question countless times: What is it about Buffy that makes people love this show so much? We all have our own answers to this question.
For some, it’s that remarkable dialogue or the story arcs that took monsters and made them metaphors for real life. For others, it’s that extraordinary ensemble cast, made up of mostly unknowns, with the exception of a diva from All My Children and that British guy from the coffee commercials. Most often fans point to the veracity of the show as the reason it was so good: it might have been about werewolves, vampires, and the occasional tiny Gachnar, but it was the most realistic show on television. (Try saying that to a non-Buffy fan.)
But for me, the reason Buffy has had such a major impact on my life, and is something that I will always keep coming back to, is that it was set in the teenage years, and began in high school. At no other time in our lives do our emotions run so high. When you’re a teenager, the tiniest provocation can cause your world to come to an end. We love with so much passion we feel our hearts will split in two, and we hate with that same fervour. So many things are happening for the first time – you meet the guy or girl that you completely obsess over. Sometimes it’s requited, but sometimes it isn’t, in which case you have your first experience with writing suicidal poetry. It’s a time when you meet the people who might be your friends for the rest of your life, and when you’re fighting with them, you hate them more than any person on Earth.
When it comes to the old adage, “Write what you know,” high school is a pretty safe topic for any of us. Joss Whedon is clearly no exception. A connoisseur of teen angst, Whedon has been on the front lines, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the perfect medium through which he could recreate the hell of high school and bring it back to life. Just like watching those John Hughes movies, viewing the first three seasons of Buffy will bring back memories for all of us. You’ll realize that you can take the person out of high school, but you can’t take the high school out of the person, when you think back to how you felt watching certain Buffy moments, such as:
• Buffy and Angel’s first kiss, and what happened after.
• The consummation of Buffy and Angel’s relationship... and what happened after.
• Cordelia teasing Willow that she’s seen the softer side of Sears.
• The prom.
• Buffy explaining to Jonathan that every student – from the mathlete to the cheerleader – is filled with pain.
• The talentless show.
• Buffy’s father not taking her to the ice show on her 18th birthday.
• Willow crying in the girl’s bathroom stall after she finds out Xander, the best friend she’s had a crush on since infancy, would rather be with someone he hates than with her.
By beginning his series firmly ensconced in a high school setting, Joss Whedon managed to pull us in and keep us there, week after week, because he had portrayed high school in such a realistic way. Because those years are so deeply imbedded in each of us, we could relate to the show, and it suddenly became about us.
High school was a huge time in our lives, filled with change and firsts: High school is when we have authority figures surrounding us – whether it’s a teacher, a coach, your boss at your first part-time job, or your parents – but we’re also struggling to gain our independence for the first time. High school is where you first stayed out late, often first lied to your parents about where you were going to be, and tested the boundaries of the rules that you had always followed before.
When we were in high school, our personal lives changed. Parents got divorced, and some of us had to deal with meeting mom or dad’s new “friends.” You may have fallen in love for the first time when you were in high school, and probably suffered through your first breakup. Your hormones were raging, so everything seemed more amazing or depressing than it later would.
In high school, we were pressured with preparing ourselves for the rest of our lives. At 17 or 18, we were making decisions that would affect everything we would do from that point on. It’s like that first section in The Game of Life... if you land your tiny car on Teacher and someone else lands on Doctor, you’re pretty much screwed from the outset.
Whedon created all of these scenarios and more. Buffy’s parents are divorced, and she’s being uprooted at the beginning of the series and moving to a new school and town with her mother. Sunnydale High is full of cool kids versus the nerds. It’s hard watching Xander, Willow, and Joyce gang up on Buffy upon her season three return in “Dead Man’s Party,” either because we identify with Buffy and hate seeing her ganged up on, or we sympathize with the others, and feel their pain of betrayal.
Emotions are running high for these high schoolers: just think of the Willow and Oz romance. Willow is the wallflower who was never supposed to get the cool guy, and when HE actually notices HER, our hearts are a-flutter. Buffy, on the other hand, personifies first true love gone terribly, terribly wrong. She discovers the guy she loves is 240 years old, and after sleeping with her he turns into a soulless vampire. But WAY worse than that... he doesn’t call her the next day.
We see characters discover changes in their bodies – Willow finds out she’s a witch, Oz is a werewolf. Buffy balances the pressures of schoolwork with a part-time job, or as she calls it, her “calling.” (I know a lot of people who also referred to their part-time jobs as their calling in high school, but after a few months folding shirts at The Gap, they felt differently.) Xander knows he won’t go to university, and the guy who’s always been part of the gang foresees a day when he will be an outcast, that dude with the technical career and not the intellectual one. Faith embodies the high school rebel, that person who puts up a harsh exterior because inside they’re in so much pain they don’t want anyone to find out. Through it all, the gang loves and tolerates Giles, that adult who is a part of the group that they tease one minute, revere the next.
But the most realistic part of all? The high school was on a hellmouth. Did ANY of us go to a high school that was not?
This theory would suggest that Buffy is only good because of the first three years. But that’s not what I’m saying. It was the first three years that managed to pull us in. By the time season 4 began, we were fully in the grip of Joss Whedon’s world, and the pain and horrors that were to follow were as realistic as the high school setting he’d already established. Just as many of us will carry around the emotional scars and happy memories of high school forever, we also remember those complicated years that followed.
After high school, there’s college or the work force. These years opened us up to new worlds. In college the geeks were in the majority, and a person was actually rewarded for working hard – imagine that! But college is often where we were uprooted for the first time, being forced to live on our own away from our parents. Our family became secondary to our friends and schoolwork, and for many of us, disorientation set in. If high school was where we had to think about adulthood, post–high school is where we had to enter it.
The same was true of Buffy. Just as seasons one through three mirrored the emotional turbulence and pleasures and traumas of high school, seasons four through seven perfectly captured the rollercoaster that was to follow. Season four wobbled and didn’t quite work, as if the writers had decided on a shift, realized they’d made a mistake, and scrambled to fix it. Similarly, when we leave high school and enter our lives, we are perplexed, and the familiarity we once knew is gone. Post–high school, we’re all in a transitional phase, following the decisions we’d made in those crucial years and entering the paths we’d laid out for ourselves. For some, they realize they’ve made a big mistake – “Law school?? Why the hell did I ever want to become a LAWYER??” – and they backtrack, desperate to try new things until they can figure out what they really want to do, and get back on the right path. This description pretty much sums up season 4.
By season five, the show had rediscovered its path, and once again, it reminded us of all those things we once went through as young adults. High school first love gives way to complicated relationships. Buffy and Spike. Anya and Xander. Perfect examples of relationships that weren’t easy to explain. Early adulthood is where we might lose a parent, as Buffy does, or where sibling rivalry turns to closeness. In Xander’s case, it was where he was able to move out and leave the abusive home he’d been living in. College is where some people come out of the closet, as Willow does, sometimes to their own surprise. With our newfound independence, we no longer need our parents in the same way, hence Giles’s departure. Perhaps by losing a family member or a friend, our previous feelings of invincibility give way to a fear of mortality. Buffy dies; the rest of the gang loses a friend. Buffy’s return is not exactly like something we’ve ever experienced, but in a way it’s like a friend of ours leaving for a different college wearing Ralph Lauren and returning in the summer wearing a safety pin through their nose and a Sex Pistols shirt.
There are some Buffy fans who say the series would have been better off ending after season 5, but perhaps that reveals an innate resistance to growing up. Just as life after high school was full of confusion for us, we resist Buffy and the gang changing. Perhaps we wanted Willow to be the consummate wallflower, and not the evil veiny Willow of season 6. Maybe we’d rather see Xander remain the class clown, and not the sad contractor who tells Dawn in season 7 that sometimes he feels like the guy who just fixes the windows every time they’re broken. Giles was no longer a librarian, and instead became the owner of a magic shop, constantly at war with Anya. But these are reflections of real life, and while Joss gave us the doses of reality, he couched them in his incomparable storytelling that kept us glued to our sets. Veiny Willow gave way to goddess Willow. Contractor Xander rejoined the good fight, and lost an eye battling alongside the Slayers. Giles went away, but he returned suddenly at the end of season 6, in my number one favourite moment of the series.
I listed off a bunch of moments from the high school years that made us cringe or laugh or cry, always in sympathy because we remember those years. But the last three years of the series boasted even more powerful moments, because we’d seen the events and changes leading up to them. Moments such as:
• Buffy finding her dead mother on the couch.
• Tara and Willow floating above the dance floor, completely in love.
• Anya’s fruit punch speech.
• Giles singing to Buffy that he’s just standing in her way, and it’s time he step aside so she can become the independent woman she was meant to be.
• Xander conquering wicked Willow by telling her how much he loves her.
• Buffy telling Spike that she’d been in heaven, and refusing to tell her friends what they had done to her.
• Spike telling Buffy how much she’s meant to him after her friends have shunned her for putting them in danger.
Often, during these more difficult and complex story arcs, fans idealized the high school years of the show. But isn’t that like life? Brian K. Vaughan, one of the authors of the new Buffy season 8 comic book series, was asked how he would write the final scene of Buffy if he were given the chance, and he replied, “I always thought it would be kind of poignant to just have Buffy and [her friend] Xander be the last two people left, and have them reminisce about high school. The point being that, while you’re going through high school, it seems like hell, but once you’re old you begin looking at high school like it used to be paradise.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way. We might think we hated high school, but if that were so, we wouldn’t take such pleasure in old John Hughes films and the first three seasons of Buffy. Joss Whedon stuck his high school on a hellmouth to indicate just how awful it was, but seven years later, at the end of the final episode, after they seemed to have grown up and moved on and changed so much... Buffy and the gang end up back in high school. As they stand in the hallway, with the camera circling around them as they discuss what they’re going to do once they’ve conquered the baddies, they momentarily revert back to the gang we’d seen seven years earlier. Buffy wants a new pair of shoes, Willow is eager and excited about a new store in the mall, Xander jokes about mini-golf... and Giles mutters to himself that the kids won’t pay any attention to him, and the earth is definitely doomed. And in this scene, Joss lets us know that no matter what happens in their lives, Buffy and the gang will always be back at that high school, for that was where they became who they are.
Just like we did.