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The Vampire Slayer
by Anicka Quin

I'll admit that the premise sounds ridiculous.

Who can take seriously something that bears the B-movie title of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Only those who spent their teen years locked in a basement sweating over a D&D board could find anything remotely appealing about a show featuring hot chicks and monsters.

But I'm throwing down to declare BtVS the most intelligent, brutal and disturbing, life-affirming and hilarious television show on TV today. Make that ever, even, though I know I'm opening the floodgates to angry Trekkies.

On the surface, Joss Whedon's ode to the feminist heroine makes for good Tuesday night TV schlock. High school as hell. Could there be a more literal metaphor as a starting point? An unfortunately named girl with a decent hairstylist takes back the night in her hometown of Sunnydale by kicking some demon ass. Any card-carrying third-wave feminist owes big snaps to the Joss for making grrrl heroes fun again. Plus the whole thing is so damn funny-from tackling the myth of Dracula (no way! says Buffy on her first meeting with the legendary vamp) to creating an entire musical episode for a demon who loves the ditty-the show is full of the camp appropriate to its name.

But, thankfully, there is more to it than that, and that's what makes legions of Buffy-worshippers write PhD theses on the subject and create websites titled All Things Philosophical About Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The monsters in Buffy are thinly veiled devices to explore the demons we battle in real life. That guy who became an asshole after he got you into bed? In Buffy's world he turns into a demon and starts killing your friends. For just beneath our heroine's quips and kicks are sensitive explorations into human nature, and revelations about just how monster-laden we all are.

Buffy is the Chosen One. Her calling as the Vampire Slayer means that she alone has the strength, speed and skill to kill the demons that threaten the world, at least until she dies and another slayer is called. She's got a little more on her plate than the average teenager, but doesn't everyone think they've got special circumstances compared to that mythic kid next door? Slaying takes its toll: her grades suck, the boys she dates get pummeled, the principal hates her, she dies a few times, and worst of all, she's an unsung superhero. Exposing her identity only means the legions of vamps could gang up on her, so she has to keep the whole deal to herself and a few close friends.

But most of all, she craves the normality we all do: to go the prom (she's forced to battle hellbeasts instead), to get out of the small town she lives in (sacred duty keeps her tied to Sunnydale), to date a normal guy (who's not intimidated by her power and doesn't walk with the undead), and to live past the age of 20 (but having a witch for a best friend means dead isn't always the end). One demon, feeding on Buffy's own fears taps into her deepest insecurity: those she loves and trusts will always leave, and the battle to rid the world of evil is pointless in the end. "No matter how hard you fight, you just end up in the same place. I don't see why you bother," he sneers as she struggles with that same question. Even her own mother points out the fruitlessness of Buffy's quest: the vampires will always keep coming, no matter how many Buffy slays. Does good ever really win over evil in the end? Not exactly. Sure, a few apocalypses are averted and some hot celebratory sex is had, but in the end, the battle is never really over. Buffy's search for normality is her struggle to figure out who she is, just as the rest of her friends do. The search for love and long life can't be complete until she wrestles with what true power is. Does it come with lifelong loneliness and an inability to truly connect with someone? Years of slaying have hardened her against love, she worries, just as years of living harden us all.

And that demon called love chews up and spits her out time and time again, just as it has its way with most of the people of Sunnydale. Willow, the shy science geek pines for Xander, who pines for Buffy, who pines for Angel. Willow finds true love for a short time in the form of a three-day-a-month werewolf who sees the cool girl under her awkward exterior, but then Willow discovers she's really a lesbian, only to lose her lover to a gun-toting villain. It's enough to make her want to end the world-with the new villain-skinning uber-witch version of herself almost succeeding.

Xander, the other half of Buffy's two closest friends, gives up on Buffy in time to win and lose the prom queen (the winning being harder to handle than the losing), finds love in the form of a former vengeance demon-turned-human, but abandons her at the alter, leaving the demon to return to her vengeful ways.

And Buffy herself loves the ultimate unattainable guy, Angel (he's a vampire who loses his soul when he gets the happy, sex being the happy). When the right guy comes along, he's a little too right to truly fall for, sending her on to a new wrong guy (another vampire), making it obvious that the right guy really was right after all, except that he went and married some hot girl in army fatigues. Happy endings? Those are for teen flicks and other fantasy shows.

So how do we manage to put up with it all, the show asks? We derive strength from the people around us who love and support us, but even when those are stripped away-as has happened to Buffy more than once through betrayals, shifts in loyalties, or just becoming an adult-it always comes back to strength of self. Answers that were simple in the innocence of youth-to save the world, a teenage Buffy sacrificed her one true love Angel when he became evil-become less so as the characters get older.

When it becomes clear that the latest threat of apocalypse can only be averted by killing her own sister, Buffy opts out of her predestined duties for the first time. The death of one to save many is explored on the show and Buff decides it's never okay-a subtle nod to the horrors of war, when the death of civilians is written off as acceptable collateral damage. "I've always stopped them, I've always won," she says. "I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much, but I knew it was right. I don't have that any more. I don't understand. I don't know how to live in this world, if these are the choices. If everything just gets stripped away, I don't see the point."

And really, the point of life is the great unanswered, but maybe that is the point. When Buffy offers herself in lieu of her sister, her parting words to Dawn that "the hardest thing in this world is to live in it." That thought is tested tenfold when Buffy's friends resurrect her four months later, ripping her from a heaven dimension and back to the harsh light of life. The why of what she does seems even less clear now; if life decisions were tough before, they're even harder when you've seen that things really are easier on the other side-putting the viewer in the uncomfortable position of realizing we wanted our heroine back by all means necessary.

We see a heroine who falters, becomes less likeable, less sure of herself, less happy, and less the stuff that TV is made of. She finds solace in an S&M relationship with a vampire desperately in love with her, who'll take what little she'll give him in return. "When did the house fall down?" she asks, having spent her first night with the vampire Spike in a vicious, house-crashing fight that ended with Buffy hoisting herself upon him, in an attempt to feel something, anything. She came back from the grave "wrong": unfeeling, unfunny, cold to those around her, and sex becomes the one centering force that keeps Buffy from running back.

For BtVS opens wounds and asks questions we wish would stay out of sight, out of mind. Using demons as a device for storytelling means that Whedon has the opportunity to question the human habits we accept as truths. When Buffy's mom dies, the character of Anya, a newly human thousand-year-old vengeance demon takes the role of questioner. While the others are focused on their own hurt, Anya asks tactless questions about how everyone manages to continue forward after the loss of someone so close. "What will we do?" she asks. "What will we be expected to do?" When Willow begs her to stop, she cries back, "I don't understand! I don't understand how we go through this."

That question-how do we go through this?-and Buffy's fight to answer it is what makes me the obsessed Buffy convert that I am. It's an answer that I seek myself; life is hard, we lose people near and dear to us, we love people we shouldn't and don't appreciate the ones who love us back. While vampires aren't a part of my daily reality, I do battle life-draining demons in the lifelong search for the big Why.

Last season ended with Buffy finally coming out from under a year-long cloud of sadness, to recognize she'd been sheltering her sister from the world instead of showing her how wicked it can be. It was eerily Hallmark-ish for a show that spent eight months exploring the darkest side of humanity-with villains that were humans, instead of some hideous and ultimately killable demon-yet the perfect salve. It is hard to be here, but it's possible to be on the winning side. And if you can throw a one-liner at the vamp as he bites the dust, all the better.


Anicka Quin is home preparing for the premiere.

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