Buffy the Mid-Life Crisis Slayer

What Joss Whedon Taught Me about Dealing with Your Forties, Facing Your Demons, and Living a Full Life, Even if You’re Dead

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Buffy the Mid-Life Crisis Slayer

I’m not nutballs. I mean, it’s not as if I expected getting divorced to be fun. I knew there’d be sad stuff, depressing stuff, angry stuff, scary stuff. I also figured there’d be peace that would go with the separation—relief from internecine bickering, and that Holy Grail, “time to myself.” Counselors and friends who’d been through it agreed that one of the keys to doing it with minimal threat to the kids’ sense of Okay With Stuff was to keep them in our house, and trade off At-Bat Parent time. We rented an apartment that we also traded. I knew this wouldn’t create ideal conditions for the adults, but if it optimized the outlook for the kids, I was all for it. And once I got used to the idea, I kind of looked forward to the guaranteed down-time. The kids would be safe and happy with their other parent, and I could write. Maybe go to a yoga class. See friends I didn’t usually see. Or, wow, movies! I could See A Movie.

Instead, the Department of Hamfisted Irony sent me panic attacks. Back spasms—the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” kind. Eye-gouging migraines that just happened to start Friday night, and go away Monday morning. I couldn’t write. Hell, reading was a fast path to catatonia, or a two-hour crying jag. Movies? Forget anything more challenging than, say, the Bourne trilogy or Harry Potter and the Somethingorother.

I felt … well, I felt dead.

One night I was scrolling listlessly through the suggested viewing list the family Netflix account had coughed up—and there she was. Arms folded, don’t-mess-with-me smirk, provocatively low-cut top, that slightly odd nose. I’d never been a huge fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer ranks with the best episodes of The X-Files, and the first season of Twin Peaks on the list of shows I wish I’d thought of. Joss Whedon’s master conceit—high school is hell; no, literally—was killer, the writing was my favorite kind of dry-clever-hilarious, and that cast sported some pretty brilliant gems. Sure, there were forgettable episodes. There were also moments where Whedon so perfectly conveyed a metaphor that I still remembered it vividly from prime-time.

I watched it again. The whole series. End to end. Two or three episodes a night, every weekend except for the rare occasions that I actually dragged myself out for something social. Hey, if you’re going to have a regressive episode, go big. Especially if going home isn’t an option.

All I wanted was a timeout from my own reality; a break. I wasn’t expecting a breakthrough. But a Joss-curated trip back to growing up showed me some interesting stuff about adulthood. It was also the first step back to my “real” life, or whatever was going to be real from here on out. The first time around, Buffy made me laugh. This time, it made me see.

The Hellmouth Guide to Higher Self
Okay: every high school is a Hellmouth. Even (or, especially?) boutique prep schools like the one I went to. The presence of teenagers simply magnetizes demonic forces. Now, I never burned down the gym (though I considered it every time I was forced to play basketball), but I was definitely the kind of girl you could classify as “feisty.” I had an oversized sense of social justice and a total inability to pick my battles—a one-gal vigilance committee. Choir director overheard spreading gossip about a student’s family? That’d be me, demanding an audience with the Headmaster. Nutsy English teacher making veiled, sexually inappropriate remarks to a student? Cue indignant letter to the Dean. Somebody bullying the kid who smelled funny? The kid who smelled funny was going to be my constant companion even if, yeah, that was a really off-putting smell. Even in the ocean of neurotic, overachieving nerdiness that was my student body, I stood out as … um, intense. I was a performing arts geek who could sing anything Bach to Sondheim to Kate Bush. And did. In the locker hall. I was given to quoting Lord Byron, and dressing like him for good measure. I had a bad case of Jazz Hands and was easily worked up. Shy people found me exhausting. Jocks occasionally elbowed me in the face. (Courtney: I know that was on purpose.) But look—if no one else was going to stand up for Truth and Justice, how was I supposed to stand there and pretend I didn’t notice when Truth and Justice were fielding bony elbows to the jaw, too?

“In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone must stand against the vampires, and the demons, and the forces of evil. She is The Slayer.” Gellar’s character, a painfully perky-clueless yet oddly sullen-hyper-vigilant teen with a beleaguered single mom, is starting at her—what, second? fourth?—high school because she keeps getting expelled for violent behavior of which she doesn’t look remotely capable. She’s faced with the usual new-kid pressures: fitting in, the right outfit, cheerleaders, an Uber-Brit librarian who keeps trying to give her dusty tomes on the paranormal. By lunchtime, a very dead kid has turned up in the locker room with strange neck wounds. And yet this is the one thing that doesn’t faze the new girl. She storms into the library, informs the librarian that she doesn’t care how many vampires there are on campus: she’s retired. Rupert Giles, played brilliantly by Anthony Stuart Head, explains that he is her Watcher and there to “prepare her.”

“Prepare me for what?” Buffy responds. “For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends? For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life, and never getting to tell anyone because it might endanger them? Go ahead. Prepare me.”

I didn’t have a watcher (an arguably overinvolved mother, but that’s another kind of kung fu entirely). , but I understood Buffy—that unfair and unshakable need to kick the ass of anything with non-standard cuspids. The tension between the piercing need to feel known and understood, and the equally strong desire to run screaming from the identity that has chosen you.

Can’t pick your battles? Not to worry, kid—they’ll pick you.

A quarter of a century later, it hit me: Gellar’s little blonde misfit with an axe to grind about having to grind axes instead of going to Prom in a princess dress had annoyed me because she reminded me of myself. Not her wicked roundhouse kick, but her whiny outrage over the fact that she couldn’t have just been someone else. Someone normal who didn’t ruffle feathers and got to lead a happy, boring life. From episode one, you knew her journey would be about reconciling her polarized selves, and accepting her mortality. As a 40-year-old mother of two, with a weird tan line on her left ring finger, I was reminded that, really, that’s everyone’s journey, including mine. This kid didn’t even have cheekbones or stretch marks yet, and she was already so world-weary it hurt. And sure, too much had happened to her at too young an age. Her folks had split up, she’d had to make new friends in new towns over and over, and she really never felt understood, except by evil dead folks, who understood she was someone they needed to attack at every opportunity. Kids with a lot less going on than that have been known to burst into a tantrum and scream “I quit! I don’t want to die!” They can be having that meltdown over a bad hair day and not being the evil-whomping Chosen One, and it’s still perfectly understandable.

And yet … there is no Chosen One for evil-slaying. We are all our own Chosen Ones. And whiny outrage had atrophied every muscle in my body, to the point that I was an adult who let vampires like Stonewalling and Loneliness and Anxiety Disorder and Codependency and Impulse Control Issues run the show. To top it off, I was furious that anyone would expect me to take charge. Hadn’t I been through enough?

No. I hadn’t.

Lesson: Everyone has demons. Get over it.

Letting the Wrong Ones In
Charlaine Harris’ vampire empire, the pulp novels that became HBO’s deliciously disgusting True Blood, made some of its own rules, as all paranormal and occult schtick-lit does. Among the conveniences of her world is a rule where, if your vampire becomes … well, a pain in the neck, you can simply Rescind His Invitation, and he will be bodily hurled from your home, as if by an invisible cosmic bouncer.

This is a facile convenience, folks. Joss Whedon and I both know that once you allow a vampire into your room, there are no takebacks. Let’s say your vampire is a charming gent who seems like the soul of responsibility and self-regulation, and you begin a sexual relationship with him, and the next thing you know he’s off his nut and sucking the freaking life out of you. Home Depot does not sell one single lock that works on this problem, this—this choice that you made. That’s right. The vampire is a vampire. Vampires use charm and seductiveness to get close to you. Now, I admit that you can get dragged into a dark alley on your innocent way home from an innocent study date. It is never your fault that someone else is a sociopathic bloodsucker! But the fact remains that if you blithely allow that guy with the interesting teeth to enter your space—you are colluding. So, know your martial arts (because the demons all do, for some reason). And they only show you their Feeding Face when it’s too late to run.

In therapy, we refer to this tendency to Let Them In as having “porous boundaries,” and you find out why it’s not healthy once your dream-date reveals a violent side, a sadistic streak, or a proclivity for lying or cheating or disappearing into thin air when you need him most. Looking back from my middle-aged vantage point, I realize I was a coveted Vampire VRBO. I was catnip for the messed-up, the emotionally unavailable, the narcissistic and the damned.

And I let it happen.

I could be totally disgusted with a guy and all he ever had to say to me was “you’re just the kind of girl who walks away the minute things get tough,” and, well, no one was going to tell me I didn’t know how to work.

But look, once you’re a vampire, you’re pretty much a vampire, and once you’re a parent, you’re pretty much a parent. Someone made you that, in either case, and that relationship is about as permanent as it gets. There’s no breaking up. Stake them. Heck, stick a sword into them, and cast them into another dimension. It changes nothing: some relationships are disturbingly eternal. There’s nothing for it but to acknowledge: “Yes, I let you in.”

Lesson: Own your bullshit.

Accept Your Power. It Has Already Accepted You.
Like most interesting things, personal power is a paradox. It is both inherent and learned. Cultivating and knowing it is both a solitary discipline, like meditating, and something learned (especially for females) in relationships.

Self-in-Relation theory has been thoroughly fine-tooth combed by feminists and psychologists, so read up on it if you don’t trust me on this—but please trust me on this: besides boobies, the big glaring difference between girls and boys is that girls figure out who they are through their relationships, especially to other girls. In fact, self-in-relation theory is exactly what Whedon is soaking in every time he puts Charisma Carpenter and Alyson Hannigan in the same scene. Mean girls, mean-girl victims, professional bystanders, Vengeance Demons, witches, crusaders? Ladies, you’re a little bit of each, and without getting in touch with that, you’d never locate your truest, highest self.

It turns out that other people’s projections, insecurities and social experimenting are a sort of isometric exercise machine we use to develop our own self-actualizing muscles. Some of us use those muscles for running away or knocking our heads against walls, and some of us use them for kung fu. (I’ve tried both.) It’s also why Nicholas Brendon’s character, Xander Harris, is the late-bloomer of the team. He doesn’t have Power foisted on him like-it-or-not the way Buffy does. He doesn’t request it by taking Unholy Orders as Emma Caulfield does in her effing hilarious tour as Anya, the 1,100-year-old teen demon who punishes philandering men. He doesn’t gain it by studying and learning to connect with it, the way Hannigan does in her transit from caricature-grade Shy Nerdlet, to Good Witch, to Bad Witch, to Sadder But Wiser Witch. Xander accepts his role as hapless sidekick (picture his Season Two riff on Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, as he bounces that tennis ball off the walls of the empty classroom and ponders his loserdom), until almost the end of the series. But even the token Normal of the group gets to save the world a couple of times. He saves his friends from evil&, and he saves his friends from being evil—which is important because, my brethren, we are not playing for kittens.

Lesson: Power is in the eye of the beholder. So notice what’s beholding you and act accordingly.

Some of the Most Alive People You’ll Ever Meet Are Dead
I don’t watch as much TV as some kids, but James Marsters is one of only three television actors I have ever fallen ass-over-teakettle in love with. (David Duchovny and Kyle McLachlan, you may also take a bow.) Whedon never sired a more compulsively watchable character. I say that in full cognizance of the splendor of Anthony Head’s open mic “Behind Blue Eyes” scene, and how adorable Jewel Saite is in Firefly, and the hot-damn suaveness of Alexis Denisov in Much Ado About Nothing.

Ah, Spike. Brutal yet slightly hangdog, Nitwit Brit overlay on Bad Romantic Poet substrate, Slayer-slayer with Mommy issues… (And no, actually, Billy Idol copped his look from Spike, who copped it from a previous Slayer whose signature leather jacket he wanted almost as much as he wanted to snap her neck; and yes, he got the Slayer and the jacket.) An epic yob, yet invariably the one who blurts out the wise, naked truth: Spike was my favorite character from the second that car mowed over the “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign. In the lead-up to the final battle at the series finale, his ferocious pummeling of the punching bag with the sketch of Good Guy Vamp David Boreanaz’s “forehead boy” look tacked to it made me laugh out loud, even the third time I watched it. Never a fraction as debonair, as brooding, as worldly, as penitent-thoughtful as Boreanaz’s character, Angel, Spike was always the character I rooted for. Why? I think he summed it up pretty perfectly in the episode where a chest-thumping scene with Boreanaz yielded an, “Oh yeah? You got your soul back as a curse. I fought for mine.”

That moment hit me surprisingly hard. While Buffy was largely an exploration of female power, Spike’s arc might have been the most spectacular—and it was the cutest by a long mile. Mister Big Bad did that thing we women are all waiting for men to do: it took 150 years, but he grew up. He subjected himself to suffering and sacrifice and grew up. Angel might have ascended to remorse for the destruction he caused—maintaining his sobriety in a sort of Bloodsuckers Anonymous, and trying to compensate for his past by acts of kindness in the present. And good for him. But, ultimately, he wasn’t the last one standing when the world fell apart. Spike was.

I knew a thing or two about being the Identified Monster in the group. If a self-defeating demon like Spike could reclaim his soul? Um, probably it was time for me to work for mine, as well. Time to get the hell off the mat, walk through the fire, admit that needs and “neediness” weren’t the same damned thing, and live. Even if that only meant finally going to the yoga class, or writing three sentences, or not drinking that entire bottle of Grenache—it counted.

Lesson: We all have vampires in our lives. Remember that something bit them, too.

Give Me Something to Sing About
“Once More With Feeling,” the Season Six musical episode guest starring the incredible Hinton Battle as a zoot-suited Jazz Demon—one whose presence causes people to “sing” (think Stool Pigeon meets Idina Menzel) about their deepest fears and secrets and dance until they burst into flames from an overabundance of emotion—might be one of the cleverest damned things I’ve ever seen on TV. Musical theater and I had a close brush with marriage, so maybe that’s why I was so captivated by it, but I think it’s actually because the music is demonically well-crafted and the lyrics complex and funny. The ensemble isn’t 100% triple-threat level—Brendon and Hannigan really can’t sing. But that doesn’t matter since Caulfield and Gellar are remarkably good, and Anthony Head, James Marsters and especially Amber Benson knock it out of the park. (Oh, and, Michelle Trachtenberg’s dance scene with Battle and his minions is utterly fantastic.) Also, it is the actual definition of ensemble—they can do things together that they cannot do alone. Like harmonize. And set boundaries. And save the world. Buffy’s resentment over having been brought back from the dead to pain and doubt and exhaustion smolders through a super-clever meta-song-and-dance in the hilarious opener, where she stakes vampires while singing about how “nothing seems to penetrate my heart.” It bursts into (literal) flames in the final act as she accepts, first reluctantly, then fiercely, that she does want to feel things (like love and friendship and the responsibilities that come with them). Point taken, Joss; you had me at, “Hey, I’ve died twice.

It’s a glorious marathon of onion-layers and quintuple-entendres from the title sequence to the last second where she and Marsters finally (Jesus, finally) go all From Here to Eternity on a resounding cymbal-crash, and that sostenuto last word: alive.

There are approximately 9,856 brilliant moments in this episode, any one of which could be the single best expression of the master conceit of the entire show. I might have to go with the training montage where Giles bemoans Buffy’s inability to Man Up and Take Care of Stuff, while she—she does backflips and dodges hurled daggers. In slow motion, so that you see she’s doing impossible stuff and doing it by rote. Because you know what? Nothing is ever going to make you strong enough, switched-on enough, careful enough, aware enough, for what is coming next. Like … well, like the world and its stupid quotidian evils, such as going to Target for toilet paper and toner cartridges, and its significant evils like being trapped in a job you hate, or having responsibilities you shouldn’t have to shoulder. And its Big Bads—Fear, Doubt, Death, Betrayal,, Failure, Loss of Purpose. Then it segues into a duet with Amber Benson as both of them realize their primary relationships have to end, and—well, wow. And ouch.

Lesson: Anything too stupid or too painful to say can be sung. Nothing underscores your point like an underscore, and nothing brings people together like a really sexy dance number. Also, try and control other people, and you’re pretty much going to end up burned. (Take your pick.)

The Bad News? Love Will Kill You.
Buffy loses her virginity to the Grand Guignol teenage passion of her life. Sex turns Angel back into a demon, and she ends up having to kill him. Not subtle, but you know what, Love Is Dangerous. It is the ultimate power and it builds and destroys as arbitrarily and ruthlessly as a god. We see it over and over. Buffy’s long-suffering yet kinda-cool mother finally gets a boyfriend and he turns out to be a sociopathic robot. Willow’s first love is a werewolf who decamps to Tibet to deal with his inner Animal. Xander’s most stable relationship is with a demon. Parasites. Gypsy curse. Sacrificial lamb. Love Bites. The point? It’s the same point made by everyone from Jesus to Albus Dumbledore. Love is the animating energy of the universe, and without it we are nothing. But then again, the more you love something, or someone, the more you are doomed.

Lesson: Love is a dangerous thing, but it is what separates the humans from the monsters. It will kill you, but refusing it will kill you faster. (It’s a lot like Evil that way.)

The Good News: Love Will Save You.
How do you get out of the Hellmouth?

Do what you’re good at, even when you don’t feel like it, because you won’t feel like it until you’re doing it. Trust. Enlist your friends. Communicate. Stay limber. Don’t hide shit. Accept that hardship and happiness are both transient. And don’t ever fall under the misimpression that an open heart is not your absolute most powerful weapon. Yes, it means vulnerability. Yes, it means sacrifice. Buffy dies (for a few minutes, but its enough to activate a new Slayer, whose subsequent death gives us the great gift of Eliza Dushku) to save the world from a really extra-nasty vampire. Then she does it again to save the world from an evil god from another dimension, only to be resurrected by her buddies, who have now mastered the Dark Arts. (Folks, even Jesus of Nazareth only did it the once.) But people don’t get that story because a lot of the time it’s too subtle, or it’s taught incorrectly. Life in a human body progresses by degrees of sacrifice and surrender—and if you think self-sacrifice is the opposite of fighting, get you some Cliff’s Notes pronto, bud. Parts of you die so new more empowered parts can be born. Have a baby if you don’t believe me. Change is the constant, and the universe(s) is (are) very big and way more powerful than you.

Transform, or die. For real.

The series ending is a bit like the end of The Graduate; it’s a beginning, and an ambiguous one. The survivors know that even though they pretty much decimated the Hellmouth, they will never actually be rid of evil. They know people around them will live their lives completely unaware of what’s really out there. But they have each other, and as is supposed to happen in the real world, shared hardship creates a bond nothing can really break.

Lesson: Apocalypse happens. So do the pushups, hone your senses, learn the arts of Kung Fu and of trust. Get up. Grow up. Accept. And then do it all over again.

School’s Out
Why did I need a cult hit from the 1990s to tell me all this?

I didn’t. By this age, if you don’t already know these things, you are screwed—and you probably know it because you’ve been screwed (sometimes by others and sometimes by your own fears). Whedon just put it in a trope-language that was distanced enough from my own painful reality to make me see it in full color. When the Slayer got up and dusted herself off, season after season, weekend after weekend, it was a clear message that I needed to do the same, or my own hell was going to become permanent. It was time to stand up for myself (and people who depended on me). Stop acting like a zombie, or a robot. Stop letting bad experiences suck the life out of me. Admit that giving up wasn’t a choice.

Getting that message via a kick-ass ensemble cast and incredibly smart writing was actually a lot more constructive and direct than rewinding my childhood in a therapist’s office. I admit it.

At 27, the show made me laugh and applaud its cleverness, and sometimes really wish I’d written it myself.

At 40, I binge-watched it, and it somehow, for a few hours, became my own Watcher.

Dear Department of Hamfisted Irony,

Thank you for your gift of 6,336 minutes (6,512 if you count that I watched the musical episode five times) of tutelage on how to be a grownup. Cleverly packaging it in a story about sub-grownups really helped me slay my monster Defensiveness and hear you out. Delivering it via Joss Whedon’s infernally nerdtastic dialogue and great music was apparently just what the doctor ordered, as well. Sometimes people cave in to the temptation to believe they’ve been singled out for pain and suffering. As it turns out, knowing it’s utterly universal is the closest you will ever get to being free of pain and suffering, because the evil heart of pain is the feeling that no one else can understand what you’re going through. Exploding that truth into a cartoonish, magical, realist, fantasia somehow makes it more real. Let the record show: it got me off the couch. I mean, I didn’t rush out for a crossbow and aikido training, but I reconnected with the portent fact that everyone has demons to kill and no one has time to mope around wishing they could just be Normal.

What the hellmouth is “normal,” anyway?

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