Thursday, May 22, 2003

You Can’t Go Home Again

AKA My Obligatory Response to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Series Finale

Warning: this review may contain spoilers for any and all episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It also contains a fairly major casting spoiler for next season's Angel. Quite honestly, I can't imagine how anyone is going to avoid this spoiler all summer, but if you're trying, good for you, and don't read this entry.

I loved it. Whedon struck the perfect note of ending the series, but keeping the franchise alive. Because of this, it didn't feel that much different than any of the previous season finales, all of which could easily have served as series enders (especially "The Gift," the season 5 finale, in which Buffy sacrifices herself to save the world).

The big surprise was that so few people die in this finale. All of the original Scooby Gang survives, although they'll feel the loss of Anya and Spike keenly. But the deaths we got were significant and emblematic for those characters' arcs. Anya's fear of mortality has been a critical part of her personality since she became human. Fear of death drives her to leave Sunnydale rather than fight alongside the Scoobies in "Graduation Day" and it leads to her poignant reaction to Joyce's death in "The Body." In "End of Days" (the second to the last episode), she faces her fear and commits herself to fight to the death. In "Chosen" she does exactly that, redeeming herself for centuries of vengeance by doing her part to save the world. Which is why Spike has to die as well. He’s on the path to redemption as well, but he's the king of the big gesture. Unlike Angel, his soul won't compel him to suffer years of penance and brooding, but it will inspire him to make the ultimate sacrifice, grinning defiantly as the light consumes him.

But the most important death is that of Sunnydale itself. It's the end of an era, and the hole in the ground that used to be Sunnydale is ultimately what differentiates this finale from previous season enders. The Scoobies are still standing, and with any luck, we'll see more of their further adventures, but Sunnydale is gone. Just as the noir mythos of Los Angeles informs Angel and defines the parameters of the series, the bourgeois suburban exterior and the seething Hellmouth beneath it is the core of BTVS. The Scoobies celebrated their high school graduation by blowing up the school, now four years later, when they would be graduating from college, had various supernatural events (guardianship of newly acquired sister, being dead, turning evil, etc.) not intervened, they go one better by blowing up the town.

Sunnydale and BTVS are gone, but Whedon left himself some loose ends to propel the franchise forward. The most obvious one is all those newly activated slayers (and what a gorgeous and moving montage that is). Presumably someone is going to need to locate them and help them harness their power. Will the Scoobies be the genesis for a new and improved Watcher's Council? It's a logical next step in the hero's journey - after you win the revolution, you must find a way to govern without becoming everything that you fought against (Angel will be facing a similar dilemma next season). And speaking of Angel, what about James Marsters joining the cast next season? We all know that dead doesn't necessarily mean gone in the Buffiverse (especially for those Order of Aurelius vamps - they resurrect themselves with amazing regularity), but the big question is how? My pet theory is that he's going to get Angel's shansu. The prophecy didn't specify Angel, just a vampire with a soul, who will play a large part in the apocalypse and be rewarded by becoming mortal - sounds like Spike to me.

Buffy’s love life is both resolved and left open. Whedon refused to satisfy either the Buffy / Angel shippers or the Buffy / Spike ones – while Buffy didn’t completely discourage Angel, her feelings for Spike seem genuine as well. Her “cookie dough” speech to Angel at the beginning of the episode is dead on – she’s spent most of the series convinced that one or another of her boyfriends was The One, and being disillusioned when it didn’t work out (kind of like most teenagers, myself included). It’s refreshing to hear her admit that she’s “not done yet” and until she finds out who she will be, she can’t know who she will want to share that person with. It’s also a sly response to those who criticized the show for focusing too much on Buffy’s relationships and not showing her content to be alone.

The one loose end that I wish had been resolved is Giles’ odd behavior this season. I was convinced he was possessed or evil or someone else in disguise because his actions were so out of character, and I had high hopes that the writers’ fake out (Is Giles really dead? Is he the First Evil?) and the subsequent “reveal” would turn out to be a double cross. I expect something more than “gotcha!” from a plot thread that the writers spent that much time developing.

Overall, though, I’m satisfied. Most of the major story arcs are resolved and the central characters each completed a stage of their journeys, but the story isn’t over yet. It’s the best of all possible worlds for this narrative junkie, and I'll be there 'til Whedon turns off the lights and locks the doors, watching to see where this story goes. Like Spike, "I wanna see how it ends."

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