How Season 6 of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ destroyed the show — and built something better
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is built from the first moment on a specific joke: What if high school was like,
It’s pretty clever, as jokes go — the kind of high-concept kitsch that assures us we’ll be watching intellectual television, the smart stuff you don’t have to feel too guilty about consuming. But the thing about a joke is that it is a very strictly structured kind of story: That opening question sets up a premise… And then comes the punchline, to knock it down.
The punchline of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” takes the form of its penultimate sixth season, which spends its 22 episodes exploring the very simple real-world fact that
joke — no metaphor, no demon, no hell — could ever be equivalent to the random and arbitrary punches to the gut that precede the lowest moments of human existence. The
is having to be alive, and vulnerable to, the particulars of an unpredictable and often unbearable world.. To realize that even for a girl with very special powers, there will always be forces against which you will be entirely powerless.
RELATED: ‘Fleabag,’ ‘Jessica Jones,’ & the trainwreck heroine: Defined not by problems, but solutions
From the beginning, a major strength of “Buffy” was its willingness to wrestle with real darkness, and — even more bravely — to walk away without having to declare victory over it: To admit that being a superhero is a terrible job, likely to ruin your social life and give you extremely bad PTSD, when it isn’t straight-up killing your friends or family or your self, and still: Someone’s gotta do it.
In the pilot, which premiered twenty years ago Friday (Mar. 10), Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) meets her mentor, librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Head), who tries to explain that it’s his job to train and prepare her for her life as a Slayer: “Prepare me for
” Buffy asks. She’s not entirely new to the game, at this point. “For getting kicked out of school? Losing all my friends? Having to spend all my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because it might ‘endanger’ them? Go ahead.
It’s a move that sets up “Buffy’s” (and Buffy’s) insistence on undermining the power dynamics we usually associate with teenage girls and their father figures — and, well, teenage girls in general. Giles is going to support Buffy: He’ll research the demons she’s going to face, and help her defeat them. But the real answers, to the big questions? He doesn’t have them.
We know from the very first episode that Giles will never be able to save her. And the thing is, nobody else can either. It’s
job to be the savior. That’s her destiny. That’s her fate. She does it so well that when she dies doing it, at the end of the fifth season, her tombstone reads:
The sixth season begins with Buffy’s resurrection — actually, it begins with her still in her grave, three months later. Her family of friends is bereft without her — without their sister, but also without their Slayer. To keep the worst supernatural threats at bay, they’re pretending Buffy is still alive by having a reprogrammed Buffybot — built for sex by a would-be lover in a previous season — patrol the streets at night, walking, talking, and occasionally staking like she’s the real thing: The function of a Buffy, without her personhood, seems equal parts resented and valued by all concerned.
When Buffy is reborn in the episode’s final moments, she is reborn into chaos. The ritual her friends were performing interrupted, they’ve scattered and fled — so she wakes alone, still six feet underground, in her coffin. She has to claw her way to the surface, where her town has been overrun by a demonic motorcycle gang.
Her only line in the entire episode is: “Is this hell?” And the short answer is, yes it is. Buffy spends an awful long time wrestling with the truth — that she wasn’t being tortured in some alternate dimension; in fact, she was at peace. She was in heaven. They brought her back in part to save her — but largely because they still cannot figure out how to save themselves. Even after death, she’s still the only savior anyone can imagine.
Season 6, of course, is notable from the start for the changing tenor of the joke itself: If high school was hell, adulthood is something else entirely; the combination of nature and chance can be just as cruel as a supernatural fate. Her mother dead of natural causes, Buffy — in her early twenties with an unfinished college degree and no work experience to speak of — becomes a single mother to her teenage sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). Midway through the season, Buffy gets a job at a fast-food chain called Doublemeat Palace, where — still stuck in the joke — she becomes convinced the burgers’ secret ingredient is human flesh. In fact, the “secret” is that they’re mostly made of vegetables.
RELATED: ‘Emerald City’ pulls back the curtain on its groundbreaking, revolutionary agenda
your vegetables, in part, but it’s also the key to the secret of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which is that you cannot be both a hero and a person. It will not work.
As every early episode reminds us, “In every generation there is a Chosen One — she alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” Nothing in there about power, just loneliness. And as we see, first in Kendra’s (Bianca Lawson) oblivious careerism and then in Faith’s (Eliza Dushku) Nietzschean explanations about power — and finally, in Giles’s own break with the Watcher’s Council — being Chosen is the opposite of being given a choice.
When, in Season 5’s “Intervention,” the First Slayer Sineya (Sharon Ferguson) tells Buffy that her gift is death, we know what’s coming, because it’s implicit in the story all along: Not giving death, but taking it on. The Slayer dies for us, created as a sacrifice by men too weak to face the darkness themselves.
Buffy spends five seasons trying and failing and trying again to reconcile both identities — but in the sixth, she gives up. She keeps living and she keeps slaying, but she does both rotely and remotely. She starts secretly sleeping with Spike (James Marsters) — the vampire who made the sex robot of her in the first place. Their relationship is somewhere between passionate and compulsive, the kind of broken structure two broken people create for one another: A place that is ugly, and whose ugliness makes them feel safe.
Buffy has spent so long being the Strong Female Character of her own life that she keeps on behaving like one — tough, tough, tough. But she also quietly does something a lot of strong female characters do in real life, too, which is to find someone who will punish her in the ways she cannot admit to believing she deserves to be punished. That’s not what Strong Women do, and Buffy is a Strong Woman. She’s a Chosen Savior —
to be hurt, so others won’t have to be. She has enough people trying to hurt her already; she shouldn’t need another. But she does. She needs it to be personal and specific, and finally under her control, but she can’t watch herself do it, so she outsources her self-harm. She finds someone who is willing to hurt her exactly the way she wants to be hurt, and surrenders.
Representation of this kind is unusual on television, even still. It’s rare to see a season-long exploration of the nuances of a woman’s self-destruction — nothing tremendously sexy or dramatic, just what it looks like when someone burns out and keeps going anyway. And how sometimes the people in her life don’t notice until they’re choking on those ashes.
What other television show could possibly create an entire season about how it had put its lead through something unbearable — and then let us witness what it was really like, day after day after day, when she stopped being able to bear it?
RELATED: Kady & Julia reunite to form ‘The Magicians’ greatest female friendship
Buffy got Chosen, and she got all of our metaphors, all of our demons, on her shoulders when she did. Those of us who grew up watching it grew up with the idea that Buffy was a new kind of hero, and a transgressive one — small and blonde and perky and lethal. “Buffy’s” sixth season feels like an attempt to atone for the cruelty of having Chosen Anyones in the first place — a way of saying to the women who’d grown up watching it: If we have to have heroes, there should be all kinds, yes, but — must we have heroes at all? If you are not behaving like a hero, that’s a story, too — and there are ways to tell it.
Season 6 features some of the show’s most gorgeous set pieces — “Once More With Feeling,” of course, which was nominated for an Emmy; Buffy and Spike having sex so strongly felt that an abandoned house literally collapses around them. If earlier seasons relied diminishingly on kitsch and humor, sex and violence and pathos to move them along, the sixth is consistently unhappy, occasionally disturbing, and genuinely provocative.
In the run of only a very few high-school shows do we get a season like this: The show allowing its characters to admit that their lives have not turned out the way they imagined, and that they are not coping with it well, if at all. They are flawed and f*cked up because
is flawed and f*cked up: It doesn’t need the space of a metaphor, the lift of a joke to do it. The show knows its audience, at this point — knows what we are capable of bearing — so it sets the truth on our shoulders, heavy: It’s your whole
that is the joke, and nobody is going to save you.
, the Summers girls remind each other when they must,
. That’s the punchline to a joke it took five years to tell. And what happens after that? What do we do then?
Well, then we go back to Buffy’s first heartbreak, at Angel’s hands in the Season 2 finale “Becoming,” when he asked her a riddle that
Angelus: No weapons… no friends… no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?
And to the end of it all, series finale “Chosen,” when she’s no longer alone — and presented with the first choice of her life:
And that’s the best answer anyone is ever going to get, so you might as well start practicing now.
“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” turns twenty today. It’s available on Hulu and, for now, Netflix.
Romanoff is the author of "A Song to Take the World Apart" and this year's "Grace & the Fever" from Penguin Random House.