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(Meta) "Risk the pain. It is your nature." - Buffy's character development over the series

24th September 2008 (19:59)
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When I read other people's comments and reviews of Buffy seasons, there's one particular complaint I see quite often, which honestly baffles me. Paraphrased, it boils down to "Buffy shows character flaws this season, just like she did in previous seasons, which is boring". Occasionally there's a variant, such as "Buffy is behaving exactly like she did in a previous season. This is lazy writing." Or sometimes, "Buffy is behaving completely differently to how she did in a previous season. This is lazy writing."

And so, after pulling my head off my desk and peeling my palm away from my face, I decided to write this. It's a season-by-season analysis of Buffy's character arc, aimed at showing how she develops from year to year, and how each season builds on the previous one.


Risk the pain. It is your nature.


Season 1: Rejection of responsibility

Buffy wishes she wasn't the Slayer. She hates the way it interferes with her attempts to lead a normal life and have fun with her friends. She would much rather pass the buck and let someone else do the Slaying. In the first episode, she claims to be retired; in the last she announces that she quits; and in between she asks Giles why he can't do it all instead of her.

Effect on her romantic life: When she tries to go on dates with cute boys, Slaying always gets in the way. Even Clark Kent had it better than this.

Resolution: When she goes to kill the Master even knowing she's walking to her death, she finally accepts her responsibilities in full.

"It wasn't our world anymore. They made it theirs. And they had fun. What are we gonna do?"
"What we have to."


Season 2: Resentment of destiny

Buffy has now resigned herself to being the Slayer, but she sees still it as something imposed on her from outside. She hates what it does to her life, and spends a lot of this season sulking and pouting. Magic and the supernatural are usually shown as an external force that intervenes and tries to ruin your life - just ask Ampata or Oz, let alone Angel.

Effect on her romantic life: The great love of her life is ruined by a stupid gypsy curse. Being the Slayer sucks.

Resolution: When she accepts that the strength that comes from being the Slayer is a fundamental part of her that no external force can take away.

"That's everything, huh? No weapons, no friends. No hope. Take all that away and what's left?"
"Me."


Season 3: Rebellion against the rules

Buffy no longer questions her destiny as the Slayer; she even starts to enjoy the power it brings her. However, she feels oppressed by the burden of expectations that other people place on her because of it. So many of this season's stories revolve around authority figures and their attempts to control Buffy's activities - starting with 'Anne' onwards. The Mayor himself is a powerful government official; there's the Watchers' Council, Ms Post and Wesley; there's Principal Snyder; even Giles and Joyce are trying to regiment Buffy's life. As for her, part of her longs to rebel against it all. To revel in the benefits of being a Slayer, just like Faith does. However, her innate sense of responsibility eventually drives her to reject the more nihilistic and selfish side of Faith's approach to Slaying.

Effect on her romantic life: She still wants the romantic dream and a white wedding, but she's embarrassed to discover that the idea of wanting, taking and having turns her on as well.

Resolution: When she rejects both empty rebellion and blind obedience, and determines to forge her own path to the things she believes in. It's no coincidence that the final episode of the season is called 'Graduation Day'.

"Buffy, they're very firm. We're talking about laws that have existed longer than civilisation."
"I'm talking about watching my lover die. I have no clue what you're talking about and I do not care."
"The Council's orders are to --"
"Orders? I don't think I'm gonna be taking any more orders. Not from you. Not from them."


Season 4: Search for identity

Buffy may be determined to lead her own life, but she's still questioning exactly what form it should take. She's an adult now, away from the guidance of parent and Watcher, and she's feeling cast adrift, unsure what sort of a future she really wants. This season's antagonists are a roll-call of people pretending to be something they're not, faking their identity or stealing somebody else's: Kathy, Parker, Riley, Professor Walsh, Veruca, Tara, Faith, Giles (in 'A New Man'), Jonathan... while Adam by contrast is unnaturally certain of his own identity and place in life. Which direction will Buffy choose? (Note: I've written about all this in more detail here.)

Effect on her romantic life: Does she want a nice, normal man to be her safe, unthreatening boyfriend - or a cool monster hunter to be her comrade in arms? She can't decide,which kind of sucks for the guy...

Resolution: When she accepts that she's the Slayer, but not *just* the Slayer. It doesn't mean that she has to be alone; her friends and family are an essential part of her identity, and it's possible to combine the mundane and the supernatural parts of her life.

"The Slayer does not walk in the world."
"I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There's trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don't sleep on a bed of bones. Now give me back my friends!"


Season 5: Death is your gift

Having decided that family and friends are what matters in her life, Buffy now has to face the downside: that opening herself up to others makes her vulnerable. Family can cause problems; family can be taken away from you. There's another, deeper fear, going back to Angel's death but given new strength when Riley leaves and Buffy suspects Glory is behind her mother's illness: that she herself drives people away. That being the Slayer makes her incapable of keeping the relationships she now knows are so important to her; that she is a dangerous person to get close to.

Effect on her romantic life: She pretty much gives up on romance this season. She wants to be self-sufficient, and to concentrate on looking after her family, and perhaps she's afraid of the consequences.

Resolution: When she decides that even if she can't live a normal life in the world, she can still use her Slayer gifts to protect and benefit her loved ones, one last time.

"Dawn, listen to me. Listen. I love you. I'll always love you. But this is the work I have to do. Tell Giles I... I figured it out. And I'm okay. Give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now -- you have to take care of each other. You have to be strong. Dawn. The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me."

(Some people think 'The Gift' was the perfect ending for the series. I think it's exactly the wrong ending, which is why I'm so pleased it wasn't. Buffy decided that she couldn't be part of the world; that her heroic death was the best gift she could give her sister. If the hardest thing in this world is to live in it, Buffy failed that test. Luckily, thanks to Willow, she would have the chance to take a re-sit. In terms of Joseph Campbell's theories, 'The Gift' only marks the end of the second stage of Buffy's initiation as a hero; she still must face the Return From Death. Quite literally, in her case.)


Season 6: Life is the Big Bad

Heroic deaths are fine in fairy tales; in mundane reality, life goes on and there are always consequences. Buffy thought she could best help her friends by her self-sacrifice, by not being part of their lives anymore; but her friends disagree. Coupled with her clinical depression after being torn from heaven, Buffy now finds herself hating and rejecting everything in her life. And because she feels guilty about this, her sense of responsibility only leads to greater self-loathing.

Effect on her romantic life: Buffy turns to Spike because he's as far away from everything in her previous life as she can get. With him, she can forget whom she used to be for a time. Of course, this only feeds her self-disgust and need to punish herself more.

Resolution: When she realises that her life is worth living after all. That she can enjoy the company of her friends and her sister, and that there are things she wants to do to help them that don't involve her dying for them.

"Things have sucked lately, but it's all gonna change - and I want to be there when it does. I want to see my friends happy again. And I want to see you grow up. The woman you're going to become...Because she's going to be beautiful. And she's going to be powerful. I got it so wrong. I don't want to protect you from the world - I want to show it to you."


Season 7: It's about power

Buffy has re-engaged with her life. She's confident in her own power and identity as the Slayer, she's on good terms with her friends again. But that's all put to the test when she's landed with personal responsibility for other people's lives. With no training or experience - and very little support - she has to learn how to lead an 'army' of unwilling and scared teenage girls against an apparently unbeatable foe. So she makes mistakes. She cuts herself off emotionally to avoid being hurt by their inevitable deaths. She becomes hardened and ruthless, because she thinks it's the only way to win.

Effect on her romantic life: Buffy's ruthless pragmatism leads her to accept help from the man who recently almost raped her. While she eventually does come to trust Spike again and to rely on him, this only points up her self-isolation from her other friends and allies.

Resolution: When she accepts that she can't do everything herself, and that to lead other people successfully she has to trust them. She empowers the other Potentials, giving them the strength to make their own independent decisions and take control over their own destinies - which in turn, frees her to take control of her own.

"I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil, and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish, a whole lot of the time, that I hadn't been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn't been either. But this isn't about wishes. This is about choices. I believe we can beat this evil. Not when it comes, not when its army is ready. Now.

"Tomorrow morning I'm opening the Seal. I'm going down into the Hellmouth, and I'm finishing this once and for all. Right now you're asking yourself, 'What makes this different? What makes us anything more than a bunch of girls being picked off one by one?' It's true none of you have the power that Faith and I do. So here's the part where you make a choice.

"What if you could have that power...now? In every generation, one Slayer is born... because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the Scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up.  Slayers... every one of us.

"Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?"


Season 8: She's the general, we're the army

Buffy has learned to share her power and matured into an effective leader. She cares about the welfare of her followers, and in return they view her with a devotion bordering on hero-worship. But that brings its own dangers; Buffy is so focussed on her responsibility to the Slayers she leads she's becoming blinded to other concerns. Because she's convinced of their righteousness, she's coming to believe that anything that threatens her Slayers is bad, and anything that benefits them is good. She's never exactly shied away from ruthless acts or criminal behaviour if she believes it's necessary for the greater good; but now that she commands a loyal and well-equipped army of teenage superheroes, the stakes are far higher. When you're focussed on the big picture you don't care about the individual pixels.

Effect on her romantic life: Buffy is so distanced now from normal everyday people, and so intensely focussed on her responsibilities, that the only person she has room to form a romantic relationship with is a fellow-Slayer.

Resolution: We don't know yet.

"Here's the thing. She's alone. She's vulnerable. And she has the weight of the world on her slender shoulders. [...] You need to remember... she's not like us. She's the general. We're the army. And that's never gonna change. Also, she's not, you know..."
"A dyke?"
"I was gonna say 'friend of Sappho', but okay, whatever the kids are saying these days, I'm hip, I'm with it."

 


In conclusion, I think that Buffy's character shows a steady growth and progression over the seasons, with each development building firmly on those that came before. Of course, some things are consistent in Buffy's personality. She has a huge sense of responsibility; she may resent her duty sometimes, feel the urge to rebel against it, but in the end she'll always do what she thinks is right. She is not afraid to break the rules in order to win. She loves her family and friends, but also feels separated from them by the weight of her destiny.

And she tends to feel that the world and all its problems revolve around her - but considering that the world she lives in is usually called the Buffyverse, she may actually be correct in that belief...

 

Comments

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 24th September 2008 22:56 (UTC)

You've got this as a consequence of Buffy being forced into a leadership position with dozens of Potentials relying on her for survival.
Whereas, I would say that beginning to trust and rely on Spike actually starts before that.


Hmm. I'm sorry if I was unclear there; I don't disagree with your point. I wasn't linking Buffy being in charge of the Potentials to her trusting Spike again as cause and effect. It was just that the fact she did come to trust him shone a big spotlight on her lack of trust for anybody else.


I would say that she "cuts herself off emotionally" before that as well.

Buffy was cutting herself off emotionally in Season 2. It's her standard reaction to stressful situations. It does seem to me, though, that she did it to a much greater extent in Season 7, and that the show made more of a big deal of it. Hence Faith's jibe about her not even learning their names.


As for the Season 8 issue - I think Buffy is getting trapped by her own creation. She gave the Slayers the freedom and power to make their own decisions, and 500 of them chose to become her passionately loyal followers. It's like the scene in Life of Brian when Brian shouts at the crowd "You're all individuals!" and they respond in mass unison "We are all individuals!"

Thanks for the comments!

Posted by: spygrrl76 (spygrrl76)
Posted at: 25th September 2008 03:23 (UTC)

As for the Season 8 issue - I think Buffy is getting trapped by her own creation.

That's a really interesting way to think about Buffy in the comic and I can totally see what you mean by that. I appreciate the fact that you considered the comic in your analysis because I completely disregard it as being connected to the show other than by virture of it being in the same universe. I feel like Joss can't write these characters beyond the age they were when the show ended and has regressed them back to high school in so many ways.

As for the rest I'm really happy you wrote this because a)I don't understand the animosity towards Buffy and this disregard of her as character that can be found in the fandom and b) I think your analysis had some really great merit.

I particularly agree that S5 would have been a terrible ending to the show and I am so glad for how it actually ended. It was a beautiful message and way more true to the heart of the show.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 25th September 2008 21:54 (UTC)

Thank you!

I don't think they're 'regressed back to high school' at all - but I do think that they're closer to their normal, everyday personalities now. Seasons 6 and 7 were times of awful stress, desperation and danger, and that warped them somewhat; they'e a little bit more relaxed and happy now. But they're a lot more mature and accepting of responsibility than they were back in high school.

Posted by: Shapinglight (shapinglight)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 10:11 (UTC)

It was just that the fact she did come to trust him shone a big spotlight on her lack of trust for anybody else.

I'm sorry to butt in, but could you explain this a little better? I don't see Buffy's learning to trust Spike as a bad thing and that's certainly how it comes across the way you've written it. You make their season 7 relationship sound wholly negative in terms of her character arc.

Also, don't forget that Buffy's lack of trust in other people isn't just one-sided. Those people did things to make her not trust them. She didn't just do it willy-nilly.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 10:36 (UTC)
buffy-S8

I don't see Buffy trusting Spike as a bad thing at all. The fact that she was willing to see him as 'a good man', accept him for what he is and support his quest to redefine himself as a Champion is entirely praiseworthy.

However, I think it's clear that she didn't place the same amount of trust in her other friends... since they themselves called her out on that. Frex, her argument that "Spike's the only one watching my back" to which Giles replied heatedly that they were all doing that.

Hence my comment about the 'spotlight' - the fact that Buffy was turning exclusively to Spike for comfort, support and advice (far more than she ever did with Angel or Riley) emphasises that the Scoobies were no longer fulfilling that role for her. Emphasises her self-imposed isolation, in other words. I think Spike has always symbolised the outsider on the show; he was by his own deliberate choice the one standing outside the group making sarcastic comments about it, and just as in season 6, Buffy turning to him in S7 marks her turning away from the rest of the group.

And yes, sure, there were good outside reasons for Buffy moving in that direction; it wasn't her sole decision. But she didn't exactly fight it either: she embraced the role of tough, isolated leader because she saw no alternative.

Posted by: Shapinglight (shapinglight)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 12:06 (UTC)
effulgent

Sorry. This got rather long.

I don't see Buffy trusting Spike as a bad thing at all

I'm sorry but that's the way it comes across in your post, which unfortunately makes the whole Buffy/Spike relationship in season 7 seem a very negative thing for her, as does the phrase about 'ruthless pragmatism' being all that leads her to trust him at all. Since her attempts to help him pre-date any appearance of the Potentials or the First Evil, I don't see how her decision to get him out of the school basement can possibly be based on pragmatism of any kind, unless it's the sort of pragmatism that can't bear to see a creature in pain without wanting to help it.

I wouldn't dispute that once the First Evil does reveal itself and its connection to Spike, this 'ruthless pragmatism' does inform her calculation about whether it's more beneficial to let Spike live and utilise his strength rather than kill him, as he requests. However, that decision is also based on compassion and belief in laying blame where it's due, as I think is clear in what Buffy says about Spike to her friends and how she differentiates her treatment of him to her treatment of Andrew.

However, I think it's clear that she didn't place the same amount of trust in her other friends... since they themselves called her out on that. Frex, her argument that "Spike's the only one watching my back" to which Giles replied heatedly that they were all doing that.

I don't think it's clear at all. With regard to the quote from Giles above, don't forget that just previous to this, he'd conspired with Robin Wood to kill Spike because he didn't trust Buffy's judgement. Not so much 'watching her back' as stabbing her in it. I also think she has plenty of trust in her friends up to around the time of Get It Done, which is actually what that episode is about. Until that point, she'd been very supportive of Willow's reluctance to use her powers etc. It's only when she really needs her friends and they don't pull their weight that the lack of - not so much trust, as faith begins to set in. Worth noting, too, that Spike feels the lash of her tongue in that episode the same as the others do, so I can't see how that shows her trusting him over them.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 12:54 (UTC)

Where I think the pragmatism comes in is in episodes like 'Beneath You' and 'Same Time, Same Place' (and earlier, after 'Seeing Red'). Buffy is still clearly rather freaked out and uncomfortable with Spike - because of his insanity as well as the whole rape business - but she accepts his help because it's useful. I think her telling him to get out of the basement is a mixture of rough compassion and, yes, pragmatism - living there is driving him crazy(/-ier) so he needs to get out.

By the time the First appears, I actually think Buffy's motivations are more about trust and compassion rather than pragmatism, although that's still in there too.


Until that point, she'd been very supportive of Willow's reluctance to use her powers

My reading of it is that she'd been understanding of Willow's reluctance, and willing to support her, out of friendship; but she was also getting increasingly frustrated and angry, because she felt she was being left to do everything herself. All the Potentials, other than Kennedy, sitting around on their arses expecting her to come up with a plan to save them didn't help her frame of mind either. I think that finding Chloe dead in 'Get It Done' was the last straw that caused her frustration to snap, rather than being a big turning point in itself.


And for the record, I'm not trying to paint Buffy/Spike as either positive or negative. I think it was a fascinating storyline which had major effects on the characters involved, some of them positive (from their perspectives) and some of them negative, and either way it was great drama.

Posted by: Shapinglight (shapinglight)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 19:09 (UTC)
effulgent

Where I think the pragmatism comes in is in episodes like 'Beneath You' and 'Same Time, Same Place'

Perhaps in Same Time, Same Place. I'm at a loss how else to interpret the 'let's use the smelly, insane vampire as a bloodhound' scene, but even then, I'd hardly call it ruthless. At this point, Buffy isn't spooked by the attempted rape so much as by the church scene in BY. She's still trying to work out in her head how to deal with Spike. It's also unfortunately the case that the way you've phrased it in the only section of your post where you mention Spike makes it look like this ruthless pragmatism was her only reason for helping him. I actually don't think her pragmatism was ever ruthless. Quite the opposite. Considering their recent history, I think it's about the least ruthless pragmatism I've ever seen.

Her decision to kill Anya in Selfless, which I understand, is what I would call ruthless pragmatism.

And for the record, I'm not trying to paint Buffy/Spike as either positive or negative

I get that. I was just taken aback by your choice of wording, which puts a pretty negative spin on their relationship as regards Buffy's character development, whereas I see the compassion she shows him (the pragmatic compassion) as one of the most obvious signs of how she's grown as a person.

If you're at all interested, I reviewed season 7 several years ago, and my posts are herethough the reviews for Lessons and Beneath You are of an earlier date thatn the others and I had more thoughts about them later, posted here

They're fairly Spike/Spuffy-centric, as I daresay you would expect, so may not be of much interest to you.

Posted by: Shapinglight (shapinglight)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 12:10 (UTC)
forgiveness

Part 2.

I don't dispute your interpretation of Spike as the outsider - though I do dispute that he deliberately isolated himself. It's more that the lack of trust shown in him in early season 6 (for which see his scene with Xander outside Buffy's house in Afterlife) showed him the scoobies would never accept him (and no, I'm not saying they were wrong necessarily, just that that's when he finally realised it). Likewise, his decision to stand to one side in season 7 wasn't based on a desire to be the outsider but on his own feelings of worthlessness, which only supporting Buffy in every way, whether she was right or wrong, alleviated. I also don't dispute that Buffy finding comfort in his company in the last few episodes (and it's really only the last few), because she can't bear to face the thought that her friends and Dawn might die is somewhat of a reprise of it not mattering what you say to a dead man, as in OMWF. However, I don't see that at all as being down to a lack of trust in her friends or a turning away from them in favour of Spike, but more a fear of what will happen to them, which she doesn't want to face. She isolates herself because of her fear, not because she'd made a conscious decision to do that as a leader. I can't otherwise explain her complete shock when the others throw her out of the house in Empty Places.

As it turns out, of course, both sides -Buffy and her friends - were both right and wrong, as is usually the way. They were right to point out she was freezing them out, for whatever reasons (and I maintain her reasons had nothing to do with Spike, though Giles and the other seized on it) and she was right about pretty much everything else, and their coming together again for Chosen - the last ever episode- was supposed to show that they were stronger together, but that now they were grown up they could keep that strength in unity and still go their separate ways. Therefore, Buffy could choose to spend what might be her last night on earth in Spike's company rather than in that of her friends without it being interpreted as her isolating herself from them, and the four original scoobies could enter the school corridor together but then separate and go to their tasks, all grown up and no longer stuck in each other's pockets, yet still friends and comrades in arms.

YMMV of course.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 13:05 (UTC)

I think there's a case to be made that Spike adopted a pose of being the cool, edgy outsider as a deliberate way of distinguishing himself from William (who dreamed about that but could never make the break), but in truth it wasn't what he really wanted.

I don't think Buffy isolating herself was necessarily a conscious decision, at least when it comes to her friends - the Potentials are a different matter. I think it's more a cumulative thing: first Anya starts killing people again, then Willow is too insecure to do anything useful, then Giles betrays her, and so does Robin, and Xander and Dawn are just in the way because they can do nothing to help, and Faith starts leading the Potentials into danger; and it all adds up until Buffy thinks the only person she can really trust is Spike, because she knows where she stands withhim.

I do like your analysis of the splitting-up scene in 'Chosen', and what it symbolised.

Posted by: Shapinglight (shapinglight)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 18:52 (UTC)

I think there's a case to be made that Spike adopted a pose of being the cool, edgy outsider as a deliberate way of distinguishing himself from William (who dreamed about that but could never make the break), but in truth it wasn't what he really wanted.

Oh yes, I agree. However, I think that pose had definitely slipped as we see him at the beginning of season 6. Plus, he's so clearly upset that he could have worked with the scoobies all summer and yet they'd excluded him from their plans. I contend he'd begun to think of himself as part of the group, even if they hadn't.

I think it's more a cumulative thing: first Anya starts killing people again, then Willow is too insecure to do anything useful, then Giles betrays her, and so does Robin, and Xander and Dawn are just in the way because they can do nothing to help, and Faith starts leading the Potentials into danger; and it all adds up until Buffy thinks the only person she can really trust is Spike, because she knows where she stands withhim.

Yes, but when you put it that way, don't you think she possibly had a point?

I think they all needed that big row in Empty Places and what came after - Buffy to see that her friends wouldn't back her up unconditionally and her friends to see that they couldn't manage without her. It was a growing process for all of them, which they got through to come back together by the last episodes, and it was nothing to do with her turning away from her friends in favour of Spike or becoming 'General Buffy.'

I do like your analysis of the splitting-up scene in 'Chosen', and what it symbolised.

Thank you. I must say that it seems bizarre to me that anyone would think Buffy, Willow and Xander (and Giles, I suppose, though increasingly people seem to think he isn't one of the so-called Core Four) should stick to each other like glue for the rest of their lives at the expense of new relationships (which is not what I think you're saying, but I've seen it said). People change and move on. Sometimes that means they grow apart and lose touch, though not always. Sometimes they meet up again down the line and renew their friendships, sometimes not. I thought the scenes of the night before battle and the one in the school hallway showed all that quite nicely.

Posted by: sueworld2003 (sueworld2003)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 13:25 (UTC)
spanking men

Good post, and good points. I have to say you've expressed my thoughts exactly, which saves me having to post. *g*

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