I'm Free This Tuesday... Sigh...
OK, I'll admit it: I cried when it was over. I didn't expect to; I'd become cynical, somewhat estranged, my expectations were low. And yet, there I was, watching the final moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and crying.
Sure, the final episode was disappointing. Plot holes almost as big as the one that swallowed Sunnydale abounded (the most irritating, to me, being that a spell that makes every potential Slayer into an actual Slayer seemed to be the easiest thing in the world to find - and yet for the past seven years, it hadn't occurred to anyone). Buffy, whose primary character development over the past two seasons has been turning into one of the least likable characters on the show, didn't get her comeuppance for being self-absorbed and arrogant; instead, she was proven right on every count, and her doubters chastised themselves for daring to, well, doubt. And yet there I was, not just sniffling but outright sobbing at the show's final moments.
I was as surprised at my reaction as The One And Only was, who was watching it with me and didn't quite know how to respond to the fact that I was crying and laughing at myself for crying all at the same time. While I love the early Buffy - by far one of the best-written shows ever to make it to television - the show has for the past few years repeatedly failed to deliver on its earlier promise. Several times last year, during season six, I'd come close to quitting the show. I didn't think I'd be that sad to see it go.
And yet there I was, sobbing. In some ways, it's like any friendship; even if the friend starts to irritate you and eventually becomes someone you only grudgingly hang out with, you still hang onto them, and you're still sad when it finally does end.
But this is about more than just losing a friend. We're losing a world.
When I was about eight or nine years old, I was a huge fan of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, fantasy novels set in a world where breathtakingly beautiful, noble, and intelligent dragons form intimate bonds with humans. Of course I knew that the world she described didn't really exist. But I liked to lose myself in that world anyway, and pretend that it was out there somewhere. And then one night, for some reason, lying under the down blanket in my grandmother's house, what I knew in my mind hit me on a gut level: I will never have a dragon. There are no dragons. I cried myself to sleep that night. It seems awfully silly, now that I'm writing it down decades later. But at the time, it was wrenching.
It's not that I'd expected to ever have a dragon. I'd never thought to myself, "Gosh, maybe when I'm sixteen and have my license, I'll get me one of those dragons." I didn't even believe in God, for cryin' out loud, and there I was crying over the nonexistence of dragons. But I'd been willing, on that gut level, to suspend disbelief, to have an unspoken and fairly unconscious faith that somewhere out there was Pern.
For those of us who read or watch fantasy and science fiction, there's a subtle balance between knowing something isn't true and believing it anyway. Everyone knows there are no Klingons, but folks are out there learning the language anyway. My friends and I know that Buffy is simply a character created by Joss Whedon and played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. As literature instructors, my colleagues and I would be appalled if someone suggested that fictional characters - rather than their authors - somehow have agency. None of that, however, stops any of us from debating whether Buffy made the right decision about her relationship with Spike, from pointing out that Buffy's recent leadership style makes it look like she's taking lessons from George W., or from getting annoyed at Xander for being so obtuse. Sure, we'll also gripe about how particular scenes were written unconvincingly, or about how the writers this season seem to think that lesbians date each other because they're there, and not because they have any real chemistry; but at least part of the time, we treat the characters as if they're real people, distant friends about whom we're sharing gossip and speculations.
And that's how the show's world - the Buffyverse - feels too. It's a place I can get lost in every Tuesday night (or anytime I want, now that the first seasons are out on DVD), a world where the forces of good and evil do battle and exchange snarky repartee, where the Chosen One goes to tryouts but doesn't get chosen to be a cheerleader, where friends stick with each other through demonic possessions, murderous rampages, and sheer pettiness, and where another world exists below the surface of the one we all already know. Where characters greet the revelation that vampires and demons are real with the comment that "that explains a lot, actually." The world isn't always convincing, but it's always cool.
There are many reasons I can give you for liking Buffy. It's about a powerful woman who's not afraid to kick some butt and who can take some punches, too. When it's good, it's got the best dialogue and writing this side of HBO. And when it's good, it's more feminist than most anything you'll see on network TV. It hasn't always been good - sometimes it's been anything but - but I kept watching because it could be, and you never knew when that one brilliant episode would come, even in the midst of a tedious season. Once More, With Feeling, anyone?
Even while it revolves around a single heroine, Buffy's myth is that she's unique because she has the support of friends and family. Collective action, baby - that's what it's all about. The crux of the final episode - turning all the world's potential Slayers into actual Slayers - carries that same message: we may be powerful alone, but we are more powerful together.
And hokey as it sounds, part of what the show does so well is to draw its audience in, to make us feel like we're part of that "we" - we can imagine that it's engaged in creating a powerful community not just on the screen, but off it. The Buffyverse works at the suspension-of-disbelief level in its own world, but it also works in the real world at the level of political idealism, and that's where it really packs a punch. I'm going to miss the feeling that someone out there is trying to change the world for the better, make it a more progressive place, through network television.
I'm not sure if any of this truly explains why watching Buffy come to an end made me feel like I'd been socked in the gut. For what it's worth, I did get over it pretty quickly; and yeah, at the moment, there are many things far more worth crying over than the end of a television program. But the past few Tuesdays, in the evenings, I still feel like something important is missing.
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