Recent episodes have put this question into focus, with both Halloween and The Dark Age spending much of their runtimes with Buffy stripped of her rights and responsibilities as protagonist, and the first part of this story shining a light on the relationship between the Buffy part of the title and the Vampire Slayer part. Of all the possible directions to take in this second season, the show has turned its focus on its own premise (as represented by the title character), and started interrogating itself, forcing itself to justify and re-justify the storytelling choices involved in placing this particular teenage girl at the centre of a narrative world where both emotions and threats are real.
That’s not all that’s at work in the show right now. In this episode we properly meet Kendra the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s successor after her death (nearly) at the hands of the Master in Prophecy Girl. Kendra brings on-stage more of the wider supernatural world. We already knew about the Watchers and the lineage of Slayers – they’ve been part of the mythology from the very beginning – but we’ve never really seen them before, and it’s no coincidence that they materialise now just after Halloween and part one of this story revealed more of a monster society, while Lie To Me and The Dark Age allow glimpses of how humanity at large copes with the existence of magic and monsters. Again, this is the show interrogating itself, extrapolating from its own conceits not to build a coherent and believable world – it doesn’t much care about that – but to add weight to the core structure of Buffy and friends versus monsters.
And it’s no coincidence either that almost all the episodes I just mentioned are from the Halloween-onwards period. I said in that episode write-up that it was the beginning of a fantastic run of episodes, and it’s obvious that the show’s creative team are getting fuel from diving hard into the story they’ve created. They’re engaging with Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the zeal and care of fans who write fanfiction and create video mixes and write lengthy analysis on their blogs, and while their priorities are necessarily different to those fans, there is an obvious deep respect for their own creation that is often absent on such shows. (I hasten to add that this absence of respect in other shows is often due to the frenzied pace of creation and the contradictory pressures of studio higher-ups, not because the writers and producers themselves have contempt for what they are doing.) To me, this ascension of Buffy into excellence is intimately linked to its embrace of the fandom aesthetic.
Returning to the point – what does it mean for Buffy to be a protagonist? Buffy’s uneasy relationship with Kendra can easily be read as her reaction to the existential threat Kendra poses. How can she be the protagonist if her titular role is claimed by another?
The episode spends its time reassuring Buffy of her position. Kendra represents tradition, the accepted and expected way Vampire Slaying should be done, the very approach Buffy spent her first season rejecting. Indeed, her rejection of it was so successful – so moral, in fact – that Giles himself became her biggest champion, and her friend rather than her master. Simply explaining to Kendra about Angel and Buffy indicates the extent to which the show has the rejection of traditional expectations and restraints at its heart. Likewise Buffy’s and Kendra’s argument about emotions – assets or weaknesses? – which, in a narrative world where emotions are real, is
basically asking “are you a central character in this story?”
The implication is that Kendra is not just compromised and limited by her adherence to tradition, but that she is also unable to be a protagonist. She doesn’t have the freedom and initiative to assert herself over a narrative, and so she cannot be a good centre to a story world. (One might imagine that in the future Buffy might encounter the counter-example, a potential usurper who is unable to be a protagonist because she is too committed to freedom and initiative.)
This encounter with Kendra is, in a sense, the ultimate challenge for Buffy, rounding off the process of becoming a Slayer that began with her choice in Prophecy Girl. The demonstration is a charming decision to treat Angel as a damsel in distress – a male damsel is still vanishingly rare in popular culture, and Buffy relishes the chance to rescue him. Buffy emerges from this reinforced in her role, and in fact even more freed from limitation, as Kendra carries the baggage of tradition with her when she walks away.
Buffy is at the peak of her powers. She is confident and together. She defeats Spike, who has emerged as the most significant threat to her so far. At this point, it looks like she will move steadily forward to conquer every obstacle that might be set before her. It’s a high point.
But stories are like rollercoasters, and the high point always comes just before a fall.
* I recall at the time of this episode a lot of geeks proposed a female empowerment methodology: the Watcher’s Council should stop the heart of each new Slayer, then revive her. You get a new Slayer so you haven’t lost anything, and if they survive the heart-stop and stick around like Buffy did, you have a net gain! Sweet! You only have to murder a bunch of innocent teenagers to get there! (At the time this proposal struck me as ridiculous because it was so out of keeping with the storytelling approach in the show, but given what is later told about the Slayer lineage and its origins, I actually think it would be a chillingly plausible plotline for late-period Buffy.)
* Xander and Cordy makeouts. It’s played for comedy – overplayed, probably – but it’s nice to realise that they’ve had a romantic comedy playing out in the margins for the whole season. Contrast with Oz and Willow finally getting together, which is also hilarious but is played for beautiful, beautiful pathos. Oz is just so charming. SO charming. But he’s been set up for so long you know he’s totally genuine underneath the quippy stuff. And his animal crackers monologue is perfect. Apparently most of this dialogue was ad lib by the actors, and Seth Green has said the Monkey Pants line was taken from a dream Alyson Hannigan had.
* The other deadly assassin: a person with a gun. Guns are still pretty much the scariest thing in this world. Also, HOSTAGE JONATHAN!
* I haven’t talked about Spike-and-Dru here. The original plan, I believe, was that Spike was going to die here, but a cured Dru would rise up to become an even more bad-ass foe – the little bad/big bad pattern that this show will return to several times. The show knew Spike was special, though, and spared his life, leading to a very interesting dynamic in the back half of the season.
* Also, Kendra. First significant character of colour in the show – there’s a whole discussion to have about Buffy & race. But that’s for later.