I am Xander. I mean, I’m not actually that much like Xander. I look nothing like him, I could never keep up with the dude’s quippage quotient, and, believe me I’m aware, he is not real. I am real. And yet… It’s human nature to do this — to latch on to one character or another in the myths we tell each other to put ourselves to sleep at night (and, sometimes, to keep us up at night) and to tell ourselves that they, the mythical constructs, somehow relate to the people we perceive ourselves to be so that we can take the trials we hear or see them go through and ask ourselves what it would mean for us to play the role they play or for the role they play to become a part of us. People have been doing this, I’m sure, for as long as there have been stories, saying “I know Apollo is a god and nothing like me, a simple Athenian subject, but…” The script has changed, but the way we process these stories internally as parables about ourselves has been a constant through the medium shift that’s taken us from the oral stories about Mount Olympus to the Dubba-Dubba-WB of the 1990’s. And so, for me, Buffy becomes a show I can process through the insecure, sarcastic, unlucky-in-love Xander Harris.
To be fair, I could process the show through any number of other great characters (okay any number may be a stretch, considering how small Buffy keeps its recurring cast in its first season, [lots of dead extras though!] and how little I find myself relating to Cordelia and Angel). One of the great things I’ve seen from this show so far is its ability to encapsulate so much of the universal experience of growing up in four characters who spend most of their time talking about old books and bad monsters in a dusty library. It excites me that the consensus is that the show gets better (and then worse, but then better again!) from here, because, while I will agree that the themes could be a little heavy-handed in the very exploratory let’s-see-what-works first season, I’ve fallen for these characters already. Sometimes I am totally there with Giles, sometimes I’m totally there with Willow, and more rarely (though a lot of times in the finale) I’m there with Buffy. The moments I share with these characters have me recognizing aspects of my own life and growth, as well as the lives of the people around me, which goes so much deeper then a critical (“Yes, good.” or “No, bad.”) or academic (“So this thing I’ve detached myself from is happening because… and means…”) approach to this show. It’s a gut feeling, an instinctual attachment to pop culture, one I haven’t felt since Lost left the air, or, really, since the last Harry Potter book came out (though the crazy kooks on Community and the harried kids in the Hunger Games have come close).
A little backstory: I’d had a run-in with this show once before, a little more than two years ago. My roommates were shocked (as they should have been) that I had had no previous exposure to the show, and so, with persistence, they got me to sit down and give it a try. Their first mistake: They’d already shown me the movie. Bad plan. Not a horrible movie, but it’s a campy comedy and a bad indication of what I would have been getting if I’d stuck with watching the show. Don’t get me wrong, the show is FUNNY, but its comedy is grounded in a very different, and much more appealing place (and also in legitimate drama and pathos which the 1992 film simply refuses to take seriously). The television series is funny because the characters are funny people, and they have fun interacting with each other. The movie thinks it is funny because it believes the very concept it is based around (Valley Girl defeats the monsters you expect to eat her) to be hilarious in a ” Can you believe this?!?” kind of way that makes me think Whedon’s anger towards the film is justified. I honestly believe that the film, unfortunately, does not take seriously that a girl could actually do the things Whedon’s script asked Buffy to do, and it suffers for its “Ha, look at us empowering girly-girls!” patronizing attitude. So, I guess, the movie soured me on the concept before I could get truly involved because the movie itself was already soured on its own concept.
So when I watched the pilot as a sophomore in college, post-film, I didn’t give myself a chance to buy it. My focus was on how the title character differed from Kristy Swanson’s portrayal of Buffy, and so I largely ignored what Xander, Willow, and Giles could bring to the table for me. Since I failed to make those connections, all I had to fall back on were dumb looking vampire faces. It’s incredible how something so insignificant can turn you off on a show, but when you’re not connecting, you look for things to release you from a commitment, and for me (and, I feel, for many others who passed on Buffy initially), that thing was *hiss* vampire face. I was offered the second episode. I passed.
A lot has changed since then. I’ve grown up a bit. I’ve had two more years to go through the turbulence of the dating world. I’ve become a sort of back door Whedonite. I’ve seen Nosferatu, and now understand *hiss* vampire face for what it is — a symbol for the faces we hide beneath the ones we present in public, as well as an homage to monsters past, and a good one at that. In 2008, I was in a steady relationship, I was still essentially a high school kid, and I didn’t like the one Whedon TV thing I’d seen, which were the first few episodes of Dollhouse, a show which, admittedly, got off to a slow start. I was also unwilling to admit I was, pop culturally, a nerd. I wasn’t ready for Buffy then. Not in a way that would have let me really connect to the show.
Since then, the time travel season of Lost and the use of the Marvel movies as a gateway to comics fandom have allowed me to admit more openly to you and to myself that I really do love this stuff — I just haven’t been exposed to enough of it. It is not lost on me that Joss Whedon is directing the upcoming Avengers movie. I am aware, and I am quivering with excitement. That’s why I’ve jumped on the bandwagon now. My redo on the abandoned Buffy experiment was inspired by a “getting to know you” reconnaissance mission on Whedon, as well as my overriding feeling that I was dumb for not having watched this series. I was dumb for not having watched this series. I was hooked by the first monster-of-the-week episode. Really, I was hooked by the first Xander quip. Joss Whedon knows he’s hooking guys like me on the emotional roller-coaster Xander goes through. In the very first episode, the stakes a guy like Xander faces (ha, pun) are reflected by the vamping and slaying of his best friend, who is like Xander in every way. Jesse is the prototypical victim in the first story arc because he is, like Xander, vulnerable (he fills the role of the seduced damsel, which you definitely wouldn’t normally see guys in). His death makes Xander stare his own similar traits in the face. We know from there how hairy a situation adolescent guys are in (we know even better when Xander and a popular classmate who is secretly still a virgin are seduced by a praying mantis posing as substitute teacher).
Willow, Buffy and Giles all have similar arcs (though Willow’s and Giles’s are very underplayed until the latter half of the season). They all have character tics and motivations that would attract say, a teenage girl who feels out place in high school, or a parent of three looking to keep their new family safe, and keep them hooked on a show about the occult even if said girl or mom knew nothing about the occult. They exhibit the traits of the best characters in sci-fi/fantasy (really the best characters, period), transcending whatever plot construct is holding them together (alien invasion, monster attack, quest to destroy a ring, plane crash) and make the story about them and not that device. It’s why I didn’t care a lick that some things were left unanswered in Lost’s finale. It wasn’t about the answers. It was about the Man in Black needing to die. It was about the redemption of characters like Sawyer and Sayid and Ben. It was about the end of the line for Jack and his heroic quest, and the beginning of the line for Hurley in his. I didn’t care about the fate of a world the show didn’t ask us to care about, or polar bears, or paradox. I cared about those people. I care about Xander like that. I need to see him do certain things in his time as a part of popular myth like I really needed to see him make the progress he’s made already, and like I needed to feel his pain when that progress was dashed against the rocks in the season finale.
The best scene in the finale is both the least and most harrowing. It is the least harrowing because, unlike every other scene, there is no chance anyone will die. It is the most harrowing because it feels like someone does. Xander sits Buffy down for a talk and finally comes clean about his feelings. He says all the things that must run through every guys’ head as they think about “that girl,” all the winning dogmas that have played through my head when I’m thinking, “Saying thatwill do it!” None of them work. None of them come even close to working. Buffy shoots Xan down hard, and Xander responds by getting mean. And mopey. And I got it. I got the country music, the aggressive tennis ball meets wall catharsis, and the aggressive “I still matter!” irreverence he shows to a vampire who could easily crush him. I got all that because I felt, if I were a better me, but also a me that still kept my identity as an imperfect outsider, that I would have eventually come around to doing the same if put in the same situation. (Though I would have skipped the country music, “the music of pain,” as Xander puts it, and probably listened to Regina Spektor instead. Guilty pleasure.)
It was emotional, character moments like these in this fantastic season finale (such as Willow’s post-trauma cry-session, her rejection of a settling Xander, and Giles’s and Cordelia’s moments of glory when they jumped to the fore and defended what they had, plus the incredible quitting scene and the quiet moment shared between mother and daughter), and not the vampire action, which was a bit of a take-it-or-leave-it thud for me, that lifted Buffy‘s characters to new plateaus I assume they will stay at for seasons to come, since Season 1 seems to be pretty openly criticized. I can see why. It was fairly uneven in tone, which created some surprises (the death by cannibalism of Principle Flutie for instance) and some disappointing moments that really failed to make Sunnydale High School (motto: “The one school on Earth where the PTA doesn’t seem concerned that the murder rate is higher than the school’s grade!”) a truly great character in the story in a way that, say, Hogwarts is a great character. Sunnydale High is an inherently inconsistent place, and while I didn’t hate the most reviled episodes of this season (I actually thought “I Robot, You Jane,” was pleasantly clever if uneven towards the end and that “Puppet Show” was fittingly macabre in a way only matched by certain high-tension moments in “The Pack”… Go ahead, tell me I’m dumb for liking these two, I can take it!), they didn’t add a lot to lending these characters a coherent narrative for their first go-round. But the characters that matter shine through even without one. I’m excited to see the show pick up on some of the narrative beats presented in the finale and go forward creating a suitable, deep universe around these four characters I’ve connected with in the way we connect with our favorite myths. That being said, my visits with this show will probably be a recurring thing. I look forward to sharing my Buffy discoveries with you more in the future as I dive even deeper into the mythology. In the meantime, I’m going to move onto to other discoveries. I’m thinking of taking a crack at Common, Chicago rapper and controversial White House guest, whose been in the news a lot lately. What little I’ve heard of his work (his music work! Not Just Wright!) has been pleasing to my ears (and stimulating for my brain), so I think it’d be worthwhile to take a crack at his music and see what all the fuss coming from the pundits is really about, rather than just taking their word for it.
PS: I said earlier I had trouble relating to Buffy’s character. This largely changed in the finale, where Sarah Michelle Geller really pulled me into that world, but, for me, the jury’s still out, and I look forward to seeing how my feeling’s about the protagonist change in the coming seasons. Most of the season, I had a case of the Neville/Luna’s, which is a feeling I would get a lot in the middle of those long Potter books where the more sympathetic, funnier characters would draw my attention from the petulant teen I was supposed to be paying attention to. Here the periphery characters have stolen my attention to the point that the Buffy/Angel romance seems, like the Harry/Cho fling, to be a distraction from what I really want to see, which is more of how Buff”s presence effects Willow, Xander and Giles. This’ll probably change. Just putting it there as a note for future reference.