Buffy the Vampire Slayer once seemed attuned to the spirit of Y2K; now it appears to have a finger on the pulse again, with inspiration as we face November 2020.
Of course, there are more proactive things a person could do to address the highway-pileup that is U.S culture right now (including but not limited to the corruption festering in all three branches of federal government, the failure of our representatives to enact legislation that protects our rights and safety, and the pervasive cruelty with which we regard the poor and the marginalized), but even engaged citizens need a break for entertainment, a fresh perspective, and inspiration now and then.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, ran on the WB and UPN from 1997 until 2003, twentyish years ago, but some of its main features feel surprisingly fresh again. Then, as now, something like the apocalypse loomed. Then, said apocalypse seemed geekily concrete, in that we were warned that a programming glitch might bring the world’s computers to a standstill and cast the industrialized world into a dark, silent free-for-all. At the same time, the threat posed by “Y2K” was tantalizingly abstract, because it rested on how computer code was written to handle the change of dates from the 1900s to the 2000s. It was hard to believe that such a seemingly tiny thing could actually throw off the workings of the world as we knew it, but as the millennium’s turn neared, people dutifully stocked water and generators and canned food and wondered whether they would be able to feed themselves if the grid went down. Fortunately, of course, nothing much happened: on December 31, we partied like it was 1999, and on January 1, 2000 (“party over, oops, out of time…”), we woke up with hangovers and pantries full of canned beans. It was, if anticlimactic, a moment of relief. Little did we know that before the year was out, a presidential election would be stolen, and on the heels of that, a cataclysm of a very different sort than we’d imagined would be ignited.
In 2019, the “Big Bad” is percolating again, and the date of its prophesied disgorgement of evil is again clearly marked on the calendar: November 3, 2020.
This time, there are many more tangible signs pointing to the onset of The End of Civilization as We Know It. Currently, in most of the country, summer temperatures are dangerously high, very much as if a pox of Hellmouths were opening up and singeing the very air. “The Master,” revived and flanked by a cohort of accomplices, emerged from the Hellmouth beneath Mar-a-Lago three years ago; he and his minions have since been wreaking havoc throughout the land, abusing whatever power and position they’ve wrangled, a new minion manifesting the face of “The First Evil” for each one cut down in a neverending “whack-a-mole” game of investigation, indictment, and plea-bargaining.
Who can stem the spread of corruption, abuse, and chaos? Who can prevent, even if temporarily, the impending Armageddon? Enter Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a young woman with the power to defeat evil one battle at a time. In the conceit of the TV series, the Slayers — all women — are destined to defend the rest of the human world against the onslaught of primal evil, kicking ass and making dust of vampires, werewolves, demons, zombies, and spirits. In the beginning, Buffy yearns to take her place in Sunnydale as a normal high-school student with an uneventful life, but instead, she accepts the burden of her destiny. She has help, both natural and supernatural, and her companions draw their strength not only from being in league with her, but also from being outsiders and misfits, whether they’re female, dorky, gay, brown, cursed, or in some other way marked as marginal.
What was metaphorically true twenty years ago is still true today: it will take the unified efforts of women and their allies to defeat the Big Bad next November.
As much as we each might like to turn away from the doomsday prophecies and prognostications and take shelter in whatever normality we can, the choice is essentially the same as Buffy’s: turning a blind eye personally spells cataclysm on the grand scale. How can one Slayer face down the First Evil? Fearlessly, and bolstered by allies on every side.
Even the aspects of the show that I now see as shortcomings have application in the current moment. More thoughtful now than I was twenty years ago, I wonder why the savior of humankind needed to be portrayed as a young, hot, blonde white woman (reports assert that there’s a 2019 reboot in the works, with an African-American slayer in the lead and a more diverse production team, but as far as I know, it hasn’t yet dropped). Yet in 2020, the burden does lie on the shoulders of white women (and men!) to rectify the wrongs of 2016. Women of color were already opposing the Big Bad, having seen it for what it was. It’s down to white women to refuse the path of willful ignorance this time, to join forces with the women of color who’ve been battling at the Hellmouth all along, with the socially stigmatized nerds who’ve studied history for insight, and even with the vampires who’ve been cursed with a soul, crossing the line from evil to take up the fight for good.
And that’s another instructive point we can take from Buffy: inasmuch as the broad strokes — good vs. evil — are clear, the everyday, where life happens, is often murky and complicated.
Witches like Willow (Alyson Hannigan) can come into their own, find love, grow powerful, and go too far, almost losing themselves in despair. Slayers, like the thought-provokingly named Faith (Eliza Dushku), can be convinced to change sides and convinced to return to the good. Allies can come from the unexpected ranks of demons and vampires. Allegiance can be messy and unreliable; truces can be negotiated in the service of a compromised-but-greater good for all parties.
I still take issue with it — and with the majority of American cinema and television — over the way in which evil is routed, by physical violence. Although I understand that literal ass-kicking is the easiest way to depict struggle in a visual medium, it also seems to me to propagate the already-violent tendencies of our culture. For now, it seems I’ll have to give it a pass on this point.
Though I did love and loyally watch Buffy in its day, I didn’t idolize it then as the “best show on TV,” and I was bemused by the extensive scholarly attention it generated. It may be that despite what felt, in the early 2000s, like a dark time of right-leaning politics, terrorism, and war, I still didn’t have the sense that we, as a nation, were at the edge of a dire precipice. The Hellmouth and the Big Bad seemed cartoonish, fun and melodramatic images that let us blow off steam and feel better about the real world, which, I still believed, wasn’t as bad as all that. Or I hoped not, anyway.
Now, although I still won’t argue that there might not be better TV shows out there, I will say that, for all its feel-good, goofy elements, Buffy has something to say to us about confronting the reality we’re living in. It’s this:
“From now on, we won’t just face our fears, we will seek them out. We will find them, and cut their hearts out one by one. There is only one thing on earth more powerful than evil, and that’s us.”
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.