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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?"

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...



Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 12:52 (UTC)

Warren didn't survive 'Villains': he died and was brought back to life. :-)

According to word of Joss, he survived "Villains" in the sense that he was alive at the end of it (seeing as how it takes more than 1/40th of a second, or one second, or four seconds, or sixteen seconds, or whatever the latest bid is) from the scene where Willow kills him to the scene where Amy reads Willow's mind and magics him away at the exact split second Willow incinerates him without anyone noticing Bobby Ewing in the shower etc etc etc and finally until the episode ends).

And I trust you see the difference between something we're actually shown in the comics, and something that we're told at third-hand by a character with a history of being an unreliable narrator?

Unreliable? Yes. Utter complete liar with no concept of reality? Not after "Storyteller". Andrew embellishes, exaggerates, excuses; he doesn't invent.

Now personally, I think that there must be a germ of truth in Andrew's story - that Xander was somehow complicit in the way he ended up with Dracula

Which is exactly what I was arguing. Of course, whether that makes sense for the characters as presented in the TV series is another issue.

It's this evil thing Joss does, of giving us a sprinking of information and letting us make up our own minds

Sure. And believe me, I'm a huge fan of the unreliable narrator when it's done well. But good writers don't just use unreliable narrators so they don't have to come up with an exact story (ie lazy writing ;-) ). They do it to reflect something about the narrator - to make the telling of the story a plot point in itself. (Humbert Humbert's unreliability and constant subterfuge IS the plot of Lolita.) Of course, it's quite possible that it's nothing more than a character moment for Andrew - at least if we're supposed to think that the bare bones of Andrew's story are true. If they're not, then like I said, the scene is pointless.

Plus, of course, it's Stokerverse canon that you only enter Dracula's castle of your own free will. :-)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 18th October 2008 16:33 (UTC)

Warren survived 'Villains' in the sense that characters we've seen being killed and turned by vampires survived their episodes, then, if you want to be pedantic. He died, and came back in another (non-human) form that retained his memories.

Not sure where you're getting all this 'latest bid' stuff from. There was the original dialogue from Warren in 8.04 ("Do you know she had maybe a four-second window after my skin came off before I died of shock alone?") and there was Joss's correction in the letters column of 8.06 after the mistake had been pointed out to him ("He was legally dead for like a second. Amy didn't tell him 'cause she didn't want to upset him. I forgot, okay?!"). That's everything that's been published; the story hasn't changed since then and it works perfectly well.

As for Amy reading Willow's mind: Willow's thoughts were being broadcast so loudly at that point that magically -sensitive people all over town - Anya and Rack as specific examples - knew exactly what she was planning to do.

it's Stokerverse canon that you only enter Dracula's castle of your own free will
True, but Buffy and Xander were already under his thrall when they went there in 5.01...

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 19th October 2008 11:06 (UTC)

He died, and came back in another (non-human) form that retained his memories.

If that's indeed the case and we're supposed to assume that he really is a zombie, how come Joss has been using phrases like "he was legally dead for like a second" and "Warren was dead"? Doesn't that sort of imply that he's no longer "legally dead" after that one second? Why not simply say "the First could look like him for the same reason it could look like Spike: because they're both stone dead. I thought that was obvious"? But like I said, I suppose we'll find out his exact status if one of the good guys re-kill him.

Not sure where you're getting all this 'latest bid' stuff from.

From you, actually. :-)

JOSS: Warren was dead! He was dead for 1/40th of a second, okay?

STORMWREATH: b) Warren isn't dead. :-)

Willow's thoughts were being broadcast so loudly at that point that magically -sensitive people all over town - Anya and Rack as specific examples - knew exactly what she was planning to do.

I don't know about "exactly" - for instance, Rack can't even say WHO it is Willow is grieving for, and according to both Anya and Rack it's not so much a case of knowing as feeling. Empathy =/= telepathy. At no point does anyone say "I know exactly what Willow is thinking of doing at this very split second." And Anya certainly looks as shocked as anyone else when Willow kills Warren and incinerates his body.

True, but Buffy and Xander were already under his thrall when they went there in 5.01...

Good point.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 19th October 2008 19:16 (UTC)

In all honesty, I'm not sure why Warren's exact current status is such a big deal. We know that he's a shambling, dripping skinless horror preserved by Amy's magic after Willow flayed him alive; we know that during the process of getting that way he was legally dead for a very short space of time. Other than that, does it really matter if his current status is classed as alive, undead, or whatever?

After all, the show was pretty inconsistent over remembering that vampires are supposed to be dead too, and often used words like "life" and "alive" and "dying" and "killing" to refer to them.

Okay, I'd forgotten about the Paleyfest comment. :-) But that was clearly a pure off-the-cuff sarcastic remark, not a carefully thought-out amendment to the story.

If you're sceptical of Amy's ability to magically spy on what Willow's doing, how do you explain the fact that in 'The Killer In Me', she already knew that Kennedy was Willow's "big ol' Potential Slayer bodyguard"?

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 20th October 2008 17:25 (UTC)

does it really matter if his current status is classed as alive, undead, or whatever?

I don't know. Does it matter whether Willow murdered him or "just" maimed him - horrifically so, sure, but still not so badly that she couldn't (physically) heal him if she wanted to? Does it matter, in a story where the distinction between Slayers, demons and humans and their respective authorities (power, if you will) seems to be one of the touchstones, whether one of the major villains is a soulless monster or a human being? Did it ever matter in the Buffyverse whether an individual was human or undead, with soul or without? (Ask Angel.) But like I said, maybe we'll find out eventually. Maybe there's even a point to the ambiguity.

that was clearly a pure off-the-cuff sarcastic remark

Agreed. But the issue isn't exactly how long Warren was dead, but what he counts as now; and based on both considered and off-the-cuff remarks, authorial intent seems to be that he's alive.

how do you explain the fact that in 'The Killer In Me', she already knew that Kennedy was Willow's "big ol' Potential Slayer bodyguard"?

Good question. You're right, she could have found out through telepathy - it wouldn't even take nearly the split-second exactness that would be required to utterly trick everyone in "Villains". OTOH, she could also simply have staked out Buffy's house for 5 minutes, eavesdropped on their conversation at the Bronze, or asked any of a thousand demons in Sunnydale who always seem to know what's going on - and there was a lot of "rumbling in the underground" in s7. Sunnydale's not great at keeping secrets if you know where to look, and there are plenty of examples of non-telepaths finding out stuff that was supposed to be secret. If the house is full of potential Slayers and Willow is running around with one of the girls living in the house, I'm sure even Amy could do the math without cheating. But yeah, that's just speculating, and this discussion is getting very hair-splitting, so... :-)

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: 19th October 2008 17:31 (UTC)

[i]"it's Stokerverse canon that you only enter Dracula's castle of your own free will."[/i]
Actually, no, not exactly. Dracula [i]invites[/i] Jonathon Harker to do so, but later in the book we also see him bring a child back into the castle in a burlap sack for the vampire women. The child certainly didn't enter of its own free will, and there's really no reason to think that Dracula couldn't have forced Harker to enter if he'd wished. Probably, it was nothing more than a desire to make sure that Harker complied with his wishes willingly to avoid raising suspicions among Harker's family and associates.

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