The Death and Life of Buffy

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[Slayed to Rest]

Ladies and gentlemen, you are witnessing an historical moment in Critically Touched history. For the first time since this site’s official inception, an article about Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been published… by someone other than MikeJer.

I will pause while you gasp in astonishment.

Done? Okay. Anyway, the very existence of this article should give you a general idea of just what the Critically Touched Blog entails. With the free range it supplies, I can write about anything that creeps into my cranial cavity – including TV staples of the site that I formerly was not involved in. If I so desire, I can write about Buffy. I can write about Angel. I can write about My Mother the Car, although I have no current plans to. It’s this kind of free range that keeps my mind fresh, active, and – you guessed it – awesome.

You’re probably wondering, though – what’s there for me to write about Buffy? Mike has already written two or three zillion words on that show, to the point that there doesn’t seem to be anything left to add.

Well… the article you’re about to read isn’t a review or a critique, per se. It is meant to offer a new perspective on a certain scene of the series – a scene which, for the most part, has received very little in the way of in-depth analysis.

I’m referring, as the title may suggest, to the scene where Buffy dies. The tragic moment when our favorite Slayer succumbs to the mortal coil. The horrific scene when we believe all is lost for the show’s pivotal character, before Xander rushes into the Master’s lair and brings her back to life with the help of some good old cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Oh… wait. There might be some confusion here. To clarify, I’m not referring to the final minutes of “The Gift”, in which Buffy dies heroically, gets buried beneath a heartfelt yet fittingly humorous tombstone inscription, and is only resurrected several months later by some of Willow’s magical tampering, leading to severe depression for Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies for the majority of Season Six. That death-and-resurrection has been analyzed by many Buffy scholars (Mike included), and there’s little I could add to it. No, I’m referring to Buffy’s “Gotcha!” death at the hands of the Master in the first-season finale, “Prophecy Girl”.

The typical reaction to this scene is to shrug it off as an anticlimactic fake-out. Much of “Prophecy Girl” builds up the concept that Buffy will die, and when she finally does, very little is made of it. She’s simply brought back to life a few minutes later, just in time for the Big Battle.

Now, I can’t deny that, from a storytelling standpoint, Buffy’s “death” is a bit disappointing. Yet due to its ramifications, I find this scene to be one of the most crucial and understated scenes in the entire series.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, Jeremy, we know. Because Buffy quote-unquote died, a new Slayer was called. That’s why the scene was crucial.”

Well, you sarcastically-voiced-yet-lovable reader, while it’s definitely true that Buffy’s death scene was pivotal insofar as to calling the next Slayer, that wasn’t what I was referring to. I’m referring to the way that one scene changed our entire perception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as we know it.

Let’s start with the basics. Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is generally regarded by the fandom with one of two mindsets: Either it’s a cheesy, campy intro season that pales in comparison to its successors, or a fun, cheery horror/action show that’s enjoyable to watch because it lacks the darkness and adultness of some of the later seasons.

However way you slice it, Buffy‘s first season is unquestionably its lightest. Despite occasional flashing signs toward a darker, deeper series to come, a good chunk of the season is focused on hyena people, giant insects, and Internet demons. (I apologize for the bad memories.) The individual episodes are predominantly plot-driven, with sparks of character insight pumping them full of fun. Season Two, however, is significantly more serious, featuring weightier storylines, a more emotionally resonant arc, and plenty of opportunities to understand and sympathize with the various characters, including Buffy herself. Heck, by the time the second season is over, we’re amazed that it even belongs to the same series as the first.

Bearing this in mind, let’s look at “Prophecy Girl”. Before the Season One finale, the show had played things relatively safe. Sure, it would kill off a Jesse here and a Flutie there, but Season One of Buffy generally relied on the status quo to resolve everything when it came to the monster-of-the-week plots it was so fond of. But in “Prophecy Girl”, Buffy dies. Dies. Suddenly, this quasi-campy horror show takes a turn towards the dark and cruel. How can the show – how can any show – walk away from that?

Regardless of how brief and quickly resolved it was, Buffy’s death signals a change in tone for the series. Season Two may not seem visibly affected by the events of “Prophecy Girl” (apart from the PTSD Buffy goes through in “When She Was Bad” and the introduction of Kendra), but it’s plausible that the dark nature of the first season finale has given Joss and Co. the extra push they needed to hit their stride and churn out one of the greatest dramas ever put to television.

This, of course, is all speculative. Buffy’s “death” is an isolated event in the Season One finale, meant to imbue that episode and that episode alone with powerful emotional resonance. Any resemblance to the more serious tone displayed in Season Two on is, in all likeliness, purely coincidental.

But I didn’t come into this article without a genuine argument prepared. And now that I’ve whetted your appetites with the notion that Buffy’s death in “Prophecy Girl” changed the tone of the show for the later seasons, allow me to tell you my theory for why that singular event may be the most slyly and subtly important incident in the entire series.

What I’m about to tell you didn’t actually occur to me until a few months ago, while I was watching the popular fantasy series Supernatural. For the unfamiliar, Supernatural follows the exploits of two brothers as they battle demonic creatures and the forces of darkness, kind of like Buffy, only with more religious subtext and gay jokes. It’s been on the air for a long time – as of this writing, it’s in its tenth season, and has just been picked up for an eleventh.

If there’s one distinctive thing about Supernatural (and perhaps many other shows of its fantasy-themed ilk), it’s the way the series deals with death. To avoid any specific spoilers, the characters on Supernatural die a lot. And then they get resurrected. A lot. (I’ve only seen the first five seasons, but believe me when I say that the characters on Supernatural die and get come back more than the characters on, say, Gilmore Girls.)

The issue with killing off and un-killing off characters – and I don’t peg this on Supernatural in particular – is that after a time, the very prospect of characters dying looks less like an impending threat and more like a cheap joke. Once you introduce the concept of resurrection, and use it numerous times over, you’re essentially making your characters pretty damn near immortal. Even if they are finally laid to rest, their final (genuine) death scene runs a risk of losing emotional impact as the viewer simply waits expectantly for the characters to rise from the grave once more.

Back to Buffy.

Most of us, I’m sure, were more than a little thrown when we first sat down with “Welcome to the Hellmouth”. I mean, if you’ve ever curled up with a nice, B-grade horror film, you know the drill. Cute blonde girl walks into alley at night; cute blonde girl hears noise and turns and screams; cute blonde girl gets killed by Horrible Monster right before we cut to opening credits. Yet on Buffy, the cute blonde girl gets as not-killed as possible. She whoops the Horrible Monster’s hairy backside, and sometimes even takes the time to amusingly ask him if he’s heard of a good deodorant. It’s a complete subversion of the scenario we’re used to seeing.

That was the subversion that Joss capitalized on when he first conceived the series. The basic appeal of the show is all about messing with your expectations. Right down to its campy title, Buffy the Vampire Slayer defied all horror conventions, openly mocking them at every turn.

So as you can probably understand, most of the villains Buffy faces in the first season – the hyena people, the giant insect, and the computer demon – are cheesily lame. Unfortunately, they don’t play out very well onscreen, as the uneven Season One writing unsuccessfully tries to pass them off as serious threats to Buffy and her friends. The whole mood of Season One, while lighthearted, feels unfocused – the writers seem to want us to laugh with the weak plotlines, but it’s just far too easy to laugh at them. Are we seriously supposed to think of someone like Moloch as a credible threat to Buffy’s life? What kind of joke is that? And yet the writers do play up villains like that, in the vain hopes of making them look like convincing menaces.

But then, in “Prophecy Girl”, Buffy faces a villain who does prove to be a credible threat to her life – so much so that he ends it. The scene where the Master drains Buffy and leaves her to drown in a puddle comes as a shock to the system – it can’t be happening, and yet it seemingly is. Buffy is… dead.

At this moment, conscious thought rationalizes the obvious solution. Buffy can’t be dead, we think. The whole show is named after her. Who do they think they’re fooling?

But at a subconscious level, something – some small yet fiercely significant thing – changes. Buffy has died. Sure, she’ll be back on her feet before long, but the point is that the main character of the series has died. And as soon as she does come back, the very idea of death as an impending threat is removed from the show’s equation.

Again, the first season often relies on cheap scares and easy thrills for entertainment. It’s fun, to be sure, but it’s a very low-grade kind of fun. It’s the kind of plot-driven fun that relies on keeping us in suspense over the characters’ well-being instead of the character-driven fun that gets us inside the heads of the characters themselves.

But once Buffy dies and is resurrected, the whole idea of her character working primarily from a plot perspective gets thrown right out the window. From a plotting standpoint, the death was a cop-out, designed only to liven up the proceedings surrounding the finale. And the resurrection makes little to no sense. (CPR? Really?) But from a character perspective, it works wonders. Why? Because no longer are we burdened with the idea of thinking of Buffy as a vessel that only generates sympathy on a live-or-die basis. She has died, and she has returned. Now that we know she can survive literally anything, our minds no longer bother preoccupying themselves with the idea of Buffy the Slayer, and instead focus on the idea of Buffy the Well-Written Character.

This is the ingenuity of the series. From Season Two on, Buffy feels like a more predominantly character-driven show. Can much of this be attributed to the improved writing? Sure. But we should not overlook the important change in the way we viewed the series after that fateful Season One finale event.

In that one moment, Buffy died… and Buffy was born.

Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. In his spare time, he enjoys baseball, football, and bowling. But only when he wins.


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9 thoughts on “The Death and Life of Buffy”

  1. [Note: Accomp785 posted this comment on January 25, 2015.]

    This death was the reason Kendra came into fruition, but it reminds us of the real Vampire Slayer prophecy as stated in the beginning theme song to each episode. I hated the buffy bot near the end of the season. I prefer keeping the character as real as possible. At least when she died, Willows magic ressurrected her right down from her grave, or “Up.” It made us realize she was one tough Vampire Slayer

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  2. [Note: naoss posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    I don’t mean to be rude, but you seem to spend more time telling that scene is important, than telling how it is. It is at least how i read.

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  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    That’s because it’s more fun to tease people along with the notion that it’s important than to straight-up tell them why. 🙂

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  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    Actually, I’m not sure that your central argument gels. I mean… if what you’re saying is that a character dying and then returning from the dead means we can care about them as people and not based on whether they live or die, what does that say about Supernatural? (A show I know you don’t particularly care about in terms of character.)

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  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    (The following post contains vague Supernatural spoilers.)

    I think there’s a fundamental difference. Buffy’s death in “Prophecy Girl” had very little lead-up, and only lasted the duration of a few minutes. It doesn’t have any surface-level importance, outside of the calling of Kendra. Meanwhile, the initial death on Supernatural had a whole season’s worth of buildup, lasted a long while, and had massive repercussions on the mythology of the series.

    Supernatural is a lot more mythology-driven than Buffy, which means death affected the series as a whole in different ways. (Ironically, the more death-and-resurrection there was on Supernatural, the more I came to focus on the mythology over the characters.)

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  6. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    Alright, so if the fanfare death receives on Supernatural figures into the equation, what does that say about Buffy s6?

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  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 26, 2015.]

    Quite a bit, but in a different way.

    Buffy’s death at the end of “The Gift” doesn’t have any mythological ramifications, since it doesn’t affect the Slayer line at all. And since we’ve already seen Buffy get resurrected (albeit under very different circumstances) four years earlier, the “How” of the situation shouldn’t be too big a problem. The only noticeable effects it has are at a character level, whether it be Buffy’s season-long depression, Willow’s growing abuse of magic, or the moodier attitudes of the other Scoobies.

    Buffy’s death-and-life in S5 and S6 is similar to Supernatural‘s first such venture from a storytelling storypoint, but it’s the way each series chooses to focus on the fallout where they differentiate.

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  8. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on February 13, 2015.]

    This article reads like a dream.

    I think you nailed with the importance of the event in relation to heralding the rest of the series: the S1 villains are too cartoonish to pose any credible threat, which instils an almost blasé attitude in the viewer. Buffy topples the majority of these goons with the cavalier approach that befits an artistically-constricted and fundamentally teen-centric work. So when she buys the farm from that season’s Big Bad there’s a shock value reaction that brings the curtain down on the notion of the show as merely a chain of MOTWs. Subsequently unburdened by the pressure of creating baddies to steer the drama, the show then operates on a character-building level that suggests our investment in the Scoobies’ lives is perhaps more important than whether or not those lives survive the series. And of course, it cements the notion of prophecies as inaccurate-yet-true forecasts: The Master does rise, and the Slayer does die.

    “Whaddaya think? 5.1?”

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  9. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 14, 2015.]

    Thanks!

    Yeah, this episode is a trendsetter with Buffyverse prophecies. I actually consider the Angel S1 finale to be a variation on the Buffy S1 finale. Both involve prophecies decreeing the main characters’ deaths, yet both subtly change our mentality toward those respective main characters in entirely different ways.

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