Twenty years ago was the beginning of a love affair I had with a girl.
It’s not like that.
It actually had its genesis twenty-five years ago, when the terrible film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released. Overall it’s an uneven experience. While Paul Reubens and Donald Sutherland give great performances with middling material, Rutger Hauer does himself no favours as the big bad, and Kristy Swanson’s arc as the title character can be generously described as improbable. Buffy creator Joss Whedon, who had written the film script, has never been shy about his disdain of the film, and it is decidedly not canon by his own ruling. But I was fifteen when it was released, the perfect age to be impacted by the nuggets Whedon wove into the fabric of Buffy- a girl on the verge of entering the adult world, unsure of her place, being told what to do, controlled by hormones and trying to fight her way out of constraints put on her by society and her own expectations. The fact is that it could never worked as a two-hour movie. What Whedon wanted to say about teenage girls using the vampire trope was more involved than that medium could allow.
The TV series was a different beast from the start. Whedon dropped Buffy’s age to fifteen from seventeen, moved her into a small California town environment, and created a gang of friends who are a support system that could be relied on when her actual family failed her time and again. It’s a feminist tract that also admits that women make bad choices, particularly when it comes to love and sex. One of the common complaints about Buffy is the reliance on the bad boy as romantic ideal. Angel was broody and sexy from the get go, a vampire with a soul, to be eternally tortured by his past while trying to amend in his present. The turn in the story where he lost his soul after he and Buffy finally had sex and became the asshole his internal demon always was is indeed heavy-handed, but I can tell you there is hardly a woman (and likely quite a few men) who couldn’t tell you a similar story, albeit with less murder and bazookas. Spike was the bad boy trying desperately to be good, but the fact was his obsession with Buffy would cause him to attempt to rape her, another story far too many women are familiar with, and overall the dynamic between the two was unhealthy. The less said about Riley, the better for us all. But the trope exists for a reason. God knows I’ve made really bad choices. I’m living it right now, and I’m almost forty years old. Some of us never learn. I’m a fucking idiot in this department, so I’m not going to pass judgement on Buffy.
Whedon sometimes went overboard with the metaphors, but mostly he was ridiculously clever. “Hush”, with its voiceless victims, is one of the best hours in television history. There are about a fifty different anti-drug storylines, and the brutality of “Earshot”, an episode I would put in my top ten, makes it clear that knowing what other people are thinking of you can really fuck with your head. I’ve seen every episode multiple times except one. “The Body” is near impossible for me to think about, let alone watch again, though I will be attempting it shortly as my daughters and I, Buffy fans all, celebrate the show’s twentieth by re-watching the series yet again. I hope I’ll be able to survive it.
But this is primarily a music blog. I’m not particularly gifted at TV writing.
Whedon is a music fan, and he and his brother Jed are both talented in this milieu. This is the series that created a demon just so they could have a musical episode, and much of the shows continued cult is on the back of “Once More, with Feeling”, an episode that has taken on mythical proportions. The theme song, by nineties one hit wonders Nerf Herder, is equally iconic. Many turn of the century indie bands played the Bronze’s stage, including Cibo Matto and K’s Choice. The songs from those same bands would be woven through episodes, with the occasional classic rock moment for Giles and punk flair for Spike. But there is a few musical moments that will always stick out. Michelle Branch singing “Goodbye To You”. The tragic love story at the centre of “I Only Have Eyes For You”. Aimee Mann’s guest shot. Angel and Buffy dancing to the Sunday’s cover of “Wild Horses” in “The Prom”. But one music cue stands out above all.
The first two seasons of Buffy are wildly uneven. The most die-hard of fans agree with critics on this. Once Angel turns back to Angelus, the show begins to find its true voice. Buffy and her friends suffer a lot in the last half of season two, and the germination of ideas for character development also begin here. By the time “Becoming” begins, the Scoobies are all on edge, tormented by a vampire who in his genuine love for our fair heroine developed a sense of deep-seated self loathing. Angelus was known to torture the objects of his affection to the point of madness. Drusilla would become a vampire, eternally trapped in her flighty fragile mental state, even though being undead could give her fierce physical prowess. Buffy, supernaturally strong physically, but all too human emotionally, drew psychological toughness from the torment Angelus put her through. Once it was clear that Willow’s magic did work and restored his soul, Buffy needed that resilience as she sent him to hell, knowing it was the only way. She saved her breakdown for after, running away to Los Angeles. This set up the single best musical cue the show ever had. Buffy Summers, who saved the world a lot, was expelled from the school she defended, rejected by the mother she adored, wanted by the police who couldn’t keep the town safe, guilt ridden over the death of Kendra, and regretting how she put the people she loved in so much danger, would climb on a bus and leave them without saying a word. The song that plays is Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful and heart-wrenching “Full of Grace”. There could be no song more perfect.
“Full of Grace” is off of McLachlan’s 1997 album Surfacing, her international breakthrough. Nestled at the end of the record, it is such a haunting and fragile song. McLachlan writes songs that I find suit her and her alone. It has much to do with her voice, a vibrato heavy mezzo-soprano that is instantly recognizable. When she uses it properly it evokes emotions that are uncomfortable and necessary. Sitting here now, with it on repeat, feeling as I do, knowing what I know, trying desperately to move past the shattered heart I possess, accepting the damage I have done to the person I love and to myself simply because I couldn’t keep my fucking mouth shut- I feel as I did in 1998. I was in an unhappy relationship, baby on my hip and uncertainty in my heart. I was able to find the strength to escape that, but it took me asking what was best for my child. I never even entered the equation. I didn’t save the entire world. I saved hers as best I could. Watching the end of season two and hearing this song takes me back to that moment where I knew the choice, while difficult, was one that needed to be done. I would have to make the same choice again a few years later, escaping from a more dire situation. I didn’t prevent the apocalypse, but I did identify with Buffy’s choice. Love is meaningless and frivolous in the scope of everything. Sometimes you just need to sacrifice the person you want more than anything to save your world.
One of the aspects I always admired about Buffy is the fact the series ended without Buffy being in a relationship. She didn’t need a man to save her, because she always saved herself. Her purpose was more than being coupled up. A lifetime of being told my purpose was always in the service of others, that my wants and needs mattered not one whit- that left me trying to manouever the world with no real sense of what I needed. All I know is that I am to never get what I desire most in this world- I have failed myself on the one simple thing I wanted. I don’t want to spend my life alone, but when I offered up my love and companionship it was dismissed. The words of friends are of little comfort in those moments. In the end I let him down and myself by being selfish and unworthy. So I have no choice but to learn from the Slayer. Buffy, by the fates, will never really be able to have the life she imagined growing up. Sure, technically with the First being gone and all the potential Slayers called up for duty she doesn’t need to be “on” all the time. Except she is. It’s not that she accepts her status as the chosen one fully- I’m sure that the idea of a husband and children sometimes will cross her mind. Life is a series of choices that also leads to thoughts of what might have beens. Like Buffy I have been saving myself for as long as I can remember. I have always been careful about who I choose to allow into the Scoobies. I failed this time around, being foolish and actually thinking someone would ever love me. It’s time to try to place myself back to where I was before I met him, when I thought I was simply incapable of loving anyone else, that he didn’t exist. He doesn’t want me. I am of little consequence to his life. None of this is his fault. It is what it is. My super power has always been my ability to push down my feelings and memories. If I feel I can’t seem to control it, I have never had that skill naturally. It’s deny and block. The most loving thing I can think of is goodbye forever when I destroy things. Neither of us deserve the destruction I cause.
Sarah says it best I think. “I know I can love you much better than this, it’s better this way.”
I look at the show now and I see what it is. A treatise on girls, their power, their powerlessness. How people fear what women can do and so they diminish us and our achievements. Poor choices get made because there are sometimes no rules, or the rules don’t actually apply. Family fails you. Friends can save you. Love sucks. School is not always the way. Strength is different for everyone. The Rachel is not a good hairstyle so why did we all have it. The power of a great trenchcoat. Loss is not something you ever get over. And everything that feels like the end of the world ultimately isn’t. Until it is. There are so many lessons it taught. It was more than a TV show about a teenage girls killing monsters. It’s about making sure you get through each day, even if you have to destroy an Inca mummy.
Or as the Slayer herself said: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”
Happy birthday, Buffy. And thank you for everything.