Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new column, TV Rewind As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Chosen One narratives may be a dime a dozen, but rarely are they executed as well as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This particular destined teen, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar, impeccable), is the once-in-a-generation Slayer, whose sole purpose is to quell the forces of darkness. And while, yes, the show is about demons being sent straight back to Hell with one of Buffy’s high kicks, it’s also about her attempting to lead a life of teenage normalcy with her best friends Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander (Nicholas Brendon).
Buffy Summers’ odd existence proves startlingly similar to our current one, since she deals daily with circumstances both mundane and extraordinary. Her inner life reflects ours as well; the Slayer by definition needs to be resilient, but she doesn’t want to lose her emotional vulnerability. Likewise, looking at the world right now, we’re bound to be overwhelmed when considering the death toll of the coronavirus and its larger societal impacts, from rising unemployment to the bleak horror of Zoom funerals. Compartmentalization is partly necessary for our own survival. However, in guarding ourselves, we also risk putting up so many walls that we fail to grieve properly, losing touch with our own humanity. Buffy is the perfect combo of escapism (there’s a whole lot to love between the ‘90s fashion sense and demonic predicaments) and emotional lessons that can sustain us during quarantine.
In the pilot, highschool sophomore Buffy plainly tells her Watcher, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head, creating unrealistic expectations for librarians everywhere), that she is retired from dusting vamps, but soon finds herself hurtled back towards her destiny when bloodsuckers attack Sunnydale High students. This push and pull between wanting a life of normalcy and her duty as the Slayer dogs Buffy throughout the series.
The latter also proves more than just an obligation to her birthright, but to Buffy’s own conscience; fellow Slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) in Season 3 proves that simply being the Chosen One doesn’t mean that your moral compass is always pointed in the right direction. Time and time again, Buffy tries to lead an ordinary life even in the smallest ways, like by joining the cheerleading squad or dating the seemingly benign Midwesterner Riley Finn (Marc Blucas). She’s always thwarted, though, by the fact that life on the Hellmouth isn’t ever going to be as hunky-dory as she’d like it to be. Even in the series finale, Buffy reiterates her inner conflict, telling an army of potential Slayers, “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 … This isn’t about wishes. This is about choices.”
As for ourselves, we’d probably all like to return to some semblance of a pre-COVID life, but the truth is we never can. The novel coronavirus has exposed the cracks in our healthcare system and capitalism as a whole. The demons were always here, but the Big Bad COVID-19 just made them more obvious.
Buffy’s calling also makes for prime exploration of the choices we make and the significance of our existence. In the Season 3 episode “The Wish,” a scorned Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter, living up to her first name) wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. Upon being granted by the vengeance demon Anyanka, the California town is turned into a haven for all kinds of evil-doers. That’s the difference one person can make, especially when that person is the Slayer. It brings to mind all the people whose lives lost to COVID-19 are having a very real impact on our personal narratives and the course of history. Things will never be the same.
At the end of the episode, Giles reverses Cordelia’s wish by smashing Anyanka’s necklace and draining her of her power. The mild-mannered librarian has no idea what the alternate reality will look like, but he takes the chance anyway because their present one is so desperately awful. “How do you know the other world is any better than this?” Anyanka asks, to which he simply replies, “Because it has to be.” If given such a necklace right now, would you smash it? Even bleaker, is there a reality so much worse that they’d be happy to destroy a necklace and end up in ours? As far as hypotheticals go, it’s one of Buffy’s most probing episodes.
Between vanquishing various evils, though, Buffy and her loved ones are still human (well, save for Spike and Angel). Never is this more apparent than in the Season 5 storyline (spoiler) following her mother Joyce’s (Kristine Sutherland) illness and eventual death from a brain tumor. This is not an enemy our heroine can stake or slice; this is human mortality, plain and simple. All she can do is wait in the hospital with the rest of the Scooby Gang as doctors run tests on her mother. This seemingly interminable waiting, and the impotence she feels because of it, are all too relatable right now. Joyce’s arc concludes in “The Body,” the devastating episode in which Buffy discovers her mom dead on the sofa. Here the showrunners make one of their best production choices of the series’ entire run, omitting any music and allowing the silence to highlight the empty space left by Joyce’s death. Buffy’s mother is gone. No plaintive piano is necessary to remind us of the ache of loss.
While Buffy the Vampire Slayer is undoubtedly a product of its time, its enduring appeal is undeniable. The show goes far beyond nostalgia, forcing us to question our own decisions and our leaders’ as well. Our world sure feels like a Hellmouth right now, but there’s no saying that we have just one Slayer this generation. All of us possess the power to change others’ lives—albeit in small ways like wearing masks or staying home—and occasionally spout a pithy line or two.
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Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.
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