“Making Everybody Matter”: A Halloween Journey Through the Buffyverse
By Stuart Mitchner
Feeling blue, in need of a lift, I drive downtown with Abbey Road on the stereo. I’m listening to “Here Comes the Sun,” the song hospitals played to celebrate survivors of the virus and the caregivers who saw them through. In just over three minutes, the Beatles have blitzed the blues. So have various Halloween yardscapes, the usual cobweb-curtained display of skeletons, tombstones, ghosts, witches and ravens, good dark fun, fear dressed up in jack ‘o lantern orange and gold for the kids and the big kids the adults are supposed to be “somewhere deep down inside.”
Halloween has the big kid inside me thinking outlandish thoughts, like a paranormal birthday party for the Born on October 27th Club, featuring a poetry slam with the ghosts of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath; the ghost of Erasmus reading from In Praise of Folly; a lecture on etiquette by the ghost of Emily Post; and a musical remake of Psycho, with the Minister of Silly Walks John Cleese as Norman Bates and the ex-president’s ex Marla Maples as Marion Crane. The problem is the main event, the stabbing in the shower, which surely even Stephen Sondheim couldn’t set to music. There’s only one director who could pull that off, and you’d still have to rewrite the film, put the Slayer in the shower, make Norman a vampire, and have Joss Whedon writing the words and the music, the way he did for “Once More, with Feeling,” the all-singing seventh episode from the sixth season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which is on every list of the best episodes in television history. As far as that goes, Whedon’s Buffy routinely makes similar lists of the greatest television shows ever.
Seeing Is Believing
It’s been a little over a month since I wrote about Buffy. At that time I was barely into season 3 of a 7 season series, a total of 144 episodes. My wife and I entered the Buffyverse doubting that we’d last till the end. At first we were carried along by the anything-can-happen element in a high school built on the Hellmouth, not to mention the witty dialogue, and the lively ambiance created by the “Scooby gang,” Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), plus Buffy’s “watcher,” the deceptively dithery British librarian Giles (Anthony Stewart Head).
It was around episode 6 in which Mr. Flutie, the Sunnydale High principal, is devoured alive in his office by a pack of students that we realized we were in for a long, strange ride. The extremes of the Buffyverse run from the sublimely silly to the totally savage, from homework and the prom to the apocalypse. And it’s fun! Like a thousand Halloweens! There are the inevitable lulls, the occasional cringe-making moments, but once you bond with Buffy and her pals, and later, with vengeful, soulful vampires like Spike (James Marsters) — whose character arc goes from a mama’s boy poet in 1880s London to the most murderous of vampires (the killer of two vampire slayers) to the self-sacrificing savior who goes up in flames after destroying an army of demons and the Hellmouth itself — you’re ready for anything the show’s servers hand out.
Another cosmically indispensable character is Anya, the ex-vengeance demon played with giddy charm by Emma Caulfield, who comes into her own (as do all the others) singing and dancing in “Once More, with Feeling.” Known as Anyanka in her vengeance-demon prime, she hung out with the original Count Dracula in 1579 and played her part at the Salem witch trials; here she is in her own words, which capture the long-range spirit of the series: “For a thousand years I wielded the powers of the wish. I brought ruin to the heads of unfaithful men. I brought forth destruction and chaos for the pleasure of the lower beings. I was feared and worshipped across the mortal globe and now I’m stuck at Sunnydale High! And I’m flunking math.”
The Essence of the Show
Writing about Buffy’s best friend Willow Rosenberg a month ago, I suggested that she was probably the single most impressive of Joss Whedon’s creations, “with a style all her own, mixed with an endearing diffidence, although her abilities as a scholar of the occult inevitably lead to witchcraft.” Having seen all 144 episodes, I realize that what’s most impressive, the essence of the show, isn’t so much the characters as the relationships. Certainly no one goes through changes as spectacular as Willow’s. She may be cast as a shy, timid, out-of-it nerd by her classmates, but from the moment you see her, you know that she’s exceptional. When she smiles, you melt. She’s luminous. And somehow no one else seems to know it but you, Buffy, Xander, and Giles, who relies on her scholarly abilities and eventually on her genius for casting spells. Her soft-spoken timidity makes the impact of her eventual transformations all the more stunning. It’s a joy to see Willow go from the sweet, mousy pushover to the black-leather-skirted, high-heeled femme fatale she becomes in one of the Halloween episodes. And part of the troubling terror of watching her drawn deeper into her witchcraft addiction is your attachment to the original Willow you know is somehow always there.
Xander the Victim
Xander is another seemingly easy-to-read character. For the first few seasons, he plays the fool, the fall guy, the victim of absurd situations. Even so, he delivers his share of zingers and never more than when he and his vain, beautiful adversary Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) trade jibes and insults like the dueling lovers in Much Ado About Nothing.
Xander the Hero
Although Xander brings a white evening-gowned Buffy back to life with CPR on Prom Night, his most significant act of heroism comes when he alone is able to penetrate the maleficent spell that possesses Willow when she goes on a demonic vengeance rampage after her lover Tara (Amber Benson) is killed. No one can stop her, neither Buffy, nor Giles, both of whom she adores when she’s herself and mercilessly zaps as she becomes perhaps the series’ single most awe-inspiring manifestation of evil. And here comes boyish Zander, who has known her from early childhood, her oldest, closest friend, the only person in the world who knows she cried in kindergarten when she broke her yellow crayon and who disarms her with that simple fact, even as she’s shooting lightning bolts from her fingertips, throwing him through the air, knocking him down, slashing his face, ripping his shirt, and he keeps getting up, telling her he loves her. Every “I love you” drains more of her power, until she looks at her hands in disbelief, and finally breaks down in his arms. It may sound ridiculous, but this could be the most touching, not to say consequential love scene in the series.
Now picture a musical tour de force based on these relationships, all in one way or another revolving around Buffy. Imagine the characters you’ve come to know and care about expressing themselves, suddenly, brilliantly, in song. It’s more than moving, it’s amazing.
“Once More, with Feeling”
Richard Harrington begins his July 2, 2002 Washington Post piece by pointing out that once again “one of the best shows on television isn’t getting the respect it deserves, the “Once More, with Feeling” episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer having been “accidentally” left off the Emmy nomination ballots, “another example of the lack of industry respect afforded one of television’s most consistently clever shows.” Harrington surmises that the TV academy was put off by the show’s title, which “lacks the gravitas” of The West Wing or Law & Order. “Or maybe the problem is the show’s fantastical premise, which smartly melds horror, comedy, satire and Gothic romance.” As Harrington observes, basing an episode on the notion that a demon’s spell has the characters singing and dancing while at the same time “revealing their innermost thoughts and darkest secrets in musical rhyme … makes perfect sense in a Buffy universe, where demons’ spells continually undermine order, logic and the laws of nature.”
After three months of voice and dance lessons, the cast “acquitted itself with surprising confidence,” Harrington comments. “It helped that the music was catchy, the lyrics so smart. The effort was equal to the challenge.” In her opening number, “Going Through the Motions,” Buffy dispatches vampires with “flawlessly choreographed kicks and stakings in the Sunnydale graveyard.” Harrington also singles out “I’ll Never Tell,” featuring “former demon Anya and stalwart Xander” as “a wonderfully clever take on a classic Broadway staple, the overlapping he-says/she-says duet: the lovers’ testimony transformed into a laundry list of things each finds annoying about the other.” At the end there’s “a triumphant ensemble number in which the show’s major characters affirm their purpose and rekindle their special bond, as well as a finale more melancholy than triumphant: ‘The battle’s done / and we kind of won / So we sound our victory cheer / Where do we go from here?’ “
“Making Everybody Matter”
In a Hollywood Reporter interview on Buffy’s 20th anniversary, March 10, 2017, Joss Whedon says, “We really set out to make the first science fiction show on television that looked beautiful and not just spooky or campy. I wanted people to take teenagers seriously. There was a certain disregard for what people go through in that time. Speaking to that particular well of pain was important to me. And to make a feminist show that didn’t make people feel like they were being lectured to. There were shows that came before. I don’t want to be a drop of water pretending I’m the whole wave, but where that wave crashes, that’s our beachhead — empowering women and young people, and making everybody matter.”
The Script Book: Once More, with Feeling (Simon & Schuster 2002) includes complete, uncut dialogue, song lyrics, and a full-color photo insert. Originally published as a trade paperback, it was digitally available in January 2018.