One Man’s Myth: How Joss Whedon Showed Me the Crack in the Invisible Wall

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Illustration by Dale Thompson


“My little myth.” Those are the words writer-director Joss Whedon used to describe his beloved series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in November 2011. He was responding to the announcement that a Buffy movie—a “reboot” in current Hollywood parlance—would be going forward without his involvement. Whedon created the character of Buffy, a teenage girl chosen to protect the world from evil, and has remained to this day the primary keeper of her epic tale. Hardcore fans, including me, not to mention writers and actors who worked on the show, were outraged by the mere idea that the story could be taken away from its author and retold only a few years after the final season aired.

Whedon responded to the flap with typical charm and grace. In a statement, he confessed to mixed emotions (“I always hoped that Buffy would live on after my death. But, you know, AFTER”) and poked fun at his own hypocrisy (“This is a sad, sad reflection on our times when people must feed on the carcasses of beloved stories of their youth—just because they can’t think up an original idea of their own, like I did with my Avengers idea, which I made up myself”). He concluded by saying, “I can’t wish people who are passionate about my little myth ill.”

“My little myth”: the phrase struck a dissonant chord in me. What at first glance seems like standard-issue false modesty is, upon reflection, a perfect oxymoron. Two oxymorons, actually. For starters, myths aren’t little. They’re sprawling, grand; their heroes and villains must make room for all of us. More importantly, myths, by definition, cannot belong to an individual. They are passed down from generation to generation, lost, rediscovered, reworked to suit the times—in a word, crowd-sourced.

The prospect of a Buffy reboot continued to bother me, but I found that Whedon’s statement nagged at me even more. That phrase “my little myth” was like a loose thread I couldn’t stop picking. Is Buffy’s story a myth or something more intimate? What does the answer to that question say about me? Am I just a run-of-the-mill super-fan or a true believer?

* * *

I started watching in 2000, Season Five. I knew of the show before then, but I’d never been able to get past the silly title and the glimpses of chintzy special effects I’d caught while flipping channels. It was my roommate at the time who convinced me I had to give it a chance. A taste Nazi, she never hesitated to mock my choice of clothes and music. If she was on board, what was my excuse?

I was caught off guard by how hard I fell for the show. TV had always been my main source of life lessons and self-knowledge. Cheers taught me everything I knew up to that point about love and friendship. The West Wing—my favorite series at the turn of the millennium—showed me what an ideal version of work might look like (saving the world with snappy banter). But my relationship with Buffy was something else entirely. I was so absorbed in the fate of the characters it didn’t even occur to me to put myself in their shoes, to measure my limited experience against theirs.

In this way, I’m different from a lot of Buffy fans. While the show was on the air, the standard argument smart people used to convince their friends to watch went something like this: Don’t get hung up on the monsters and the magic. It’s all just a metaphor for growing up. That’s what’s so brilliant about it! This point is undeniable, as far as it goes. When Buffy loses her virginity to her boyfriend, the cursed vampire Angel, the moment of pure happiness he experiences causes him to lose his soul (damn curse!) and revert to an unfeeling villain. This is a situation many young women can identify with. Similarly, Buffy’s goofy friend Xander often feels like a nobody, so on Halloween night, when a spell brings everyone’s fears to life, he turns invisible. Whedon’s fidelity to the emotional lives of teenagers is, for many fans, the essence of its appeal.

For me, though, the metaphor was never the point. Buffy got so deeply under my skin not because I related to the characters. On the contrary, what moved me was that this adolescent girl, who was otherwise so like me and my friends, was, as a consequence of her mystical birthright, constantly facing death—her own, her loved ones’, everybody’s—not metaphorically but literally. It was this fundamental difference more than any similarity that got to me.

From the beginning, Whedon insisted on confronting the audience with the threat of mortality. In the show’s pilot, he leads us to believe that a boy named Jesse will be a core member of Buffy’s gang, even including him in the opening credit sequence; by the end of the episode, Jesse has been captured and “turned” by vampires—which is to say, murdered. This is a relatively glib trick, but as the series unfolds, Whedon ups the ante. In Season Two, Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles, falls in love with Jenny Calendar, a computer teacher and “cyber-Wicca.” About two-thirds of the way through the season, the newly soulless Angel snaps her neck and Giles becomes deranged with grief.

As disturbing as it is, the death of Jenny Calendar falls well within the conventions of the horror genre—an expendable character is offed to demonstrate the extent of the villain’s depravity. By Season Five, when I started watching, Whedon had outgrown such conventions. The season has two landmark episodes. In “The Body,” Buffy’s mother dies, not at the hands of a monster, but of an undiagnosed brain tumor, and Buffy must accept that it’s not within her power to save her. In “The Gift,” the season finale, Buffy, in order to stave off the apocalypse and preempt the sacrifice of her younger sister, commits suicide, literally martyring herself.

It would be easy now, knowing that the show would go on for two more seasons with a resurrected Buffy at its center, to trivialize “The Gift,” write it off as another trick, a particularly splashy cliffhanger. At the time, it tore me to shreds. And I wasn’t alone. As I recall, the general sentiment among fans was definitely not “I can’t wait for Season Six to find out how Whedon brings her back!” “The Body” had prepared us to accept the death of a beloved character, even Buffy, as final. The announcement that the WB was dropping the show gave credence to our bereavement. When it was subsequently revealed that a rival network, UPN, would come to its rescue, we were guarded; the speculation was that Buffy’s sister Dawn would assume the slayer mantle. It was only when I saw subway posters—a pair of darkly made-up eyes gazing out from a red backdrop with fierce determination, the words “Buffy Lives” suspended above them—that mourning gave way to anticipation.

Whedon couldn’t allow the thrill of Buffy’s return to go uncomplicated. Those final two seasons are all about consequences. Buffy’s best friend Willow, a classic high school nerd who becomes a powerful witch, uses magic to bring her back to life, a reckless move that inflicts intense misery. The raw heart of Season Six is the song “Walk Through the Fire” from the justly revered musical episode “Once More with Feeling.” In it, Buffy sets out once again to save her sister from danger, but this time she acts by rote; being a hero—being alive again—is nothing but an obligation, a burden she has no choice but to shoulder. Meanwhile, her friends are drawn to her side, even though there is little they can do to help her, and trying will likely get them killed. Watching this episode as it aired, it dawned on me that Willow should be at MIT, preparing for a brilliant career. Xander and his fiancé Anya should be picking out furniture for their new home. Giles should be retired to his estate in England, reading or strumming his guitar. Their individual identities have been completely subsumed by their friend’s; her destiny has ruined their lives. For the first time, a TV show made me cry.

By the messy seventh season, the time for growing up has passed and the weight of adult responsibility is crushing. Buffy stares down a lifetime of saving the world, of standing between her loved ones and death, no hope of reprieve, and it makes her brittle, shrill. At times, she resembles her fellow leader George W. Bush, the Decider himself, brow-beating a hesitant coalition of the willing into ill-fated preemptive strikes against the latest axis of evil (a shape-shifting, primordial malevolence called The First, a viciously misogynist Southern preacher named Caleb, and an army of Nieztschean über-vamps). The single most important line in the entire series comes at the end of the second episode of Season Seven, “Beneath You”: Buffy learns that the vampire Spike, her one-time enemy and sometimes lover, has—in a mirror image of Angel’s Season Two transformation—regained his soul in order to prove himself to her. Traumatized by the restoration of his conscience and tormented by the First, he asks her, “Can we rest now, Buffy? Can we rest?” At that moment, the answer is “no, never,” and Buffy is a tragic figure. It is Whedon’s final gift to his hero and the show’s fans that, in the series finale, Willow casts a redemptive spell that changes the answer to “yes.”

* * *

I realize none of this exactly contradicts the just-a-metaphor premise. Coping with the inevitability of death, living up to our obligations, surrendering bits of our hard-won autonomy to the people who are important to us—these are common themes of adulthood, what we get for having the nerve to grow up. My point is that not once in the course of watching or re-watching Buffy did it ever feel to me like the supernatural elements of the story could be explained away as mere stand-ins for everyday experiences, shrunk down to the dimensions of ordinary life. On the contrary, the magic in Buffy gives the story its epic character and that epic-ness has drawn bigger, more deeply lodged emotions from me than any naturalistic drama ever has.

It’s well understood by artists and their most acute critics that we need magic, that our passions are too rowdy, our aspirations too lofty, for the so-called real world to contain. Greil Marcus has returned to this theme repeatedly in his writings about folk music and folk-influenced rock and roll. About Elvis Costello’s ballad “All This Useless Beauty” he says, “It reveals itself as a song about what is missing when a mythic dimension is missing from life—and what’s missing is a sense of being a part of a story that’s bigger than yourself, a story that can take you out of yourself, outside of the pettiness and repetition of your life, circumscribed as it might be by whatever city or town you live in.” About listening to Joan Baez as a young man he says, “It was like waking up as an adult, or nearly so, to discover that all the fairy tales of one’s childhood were true—and that if you wished, you could, instead of the career or the war awaiting you, live them out…she beckoned you toward a crack in the invisible wall around your city.” In Buffy’s suburban hometown of Sunnydale, that crack lies underneath the high school; it’s called the Hellmouth.

The novelist Haruki Murakami has spent his entire career exploring the cracks between the real world and the world of magic. He considers it his responsibility as a storyteller to present his readers with narratives powerful enough to counterbalance the ones imposed on them by corporations, government, and religion. In the introduction to Underground, his nonfiction chronicle of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack, he suggests that the perpetrators—elite scientists and technicians who dropped out of society to join the Aum Shinrikyo cult—“couldn’t help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian gristmill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts—even their own reasons for being—would be fruitlessly ground down.” They turned to Shoko Asahara, the demented founder of Aum, for an alternative narrative. Murakami continues:

“We laughed at him for concocting such ‘utter nonsense’ and we ridiculed the believers who could be attracted to such ‘lunatic fodder’…But were we able to offer ‘them’ a more viable narrative? Did we have a narrative potent enough to chase away Asahara’s ‘utter nonsense’? That was a big task…It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from now on.”

This is the task Joss Whedon, too, whether consciously or unconsciously, has assigned himself. As we watch Buffy take on an authoritarian principal, an ominously wholesome mayor, a covert government initiative that experiments on monsters, a patriarchal Watchers Council that seeks to control her power—each a representative of the established social order and its accompanying storylines—we hear Whedon whispering to us: You don’t have to accept this either. There’s another world, another way. See that crack in the wall?

It’s not a matter of telling us how to live. Whedon is no cult leader, despite what some t-shirt slogans would have you believe. As Murakami cautions:

“A narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not…And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are part. You are real and you are shadow. ‘Storyteller’ and at the same time ‘character.’ It is through such multi-layering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.”

By showing us the crack in the invisible wall around our city, Buffy frees each of us to dream our own dreams, and dreaming our own dreams, paradoxically, heals our loneliness. This empowering of the audience makes for a profound work of art. But does it make for myth?

* * *

The question was still vexing me, so I decided to re-read the most compelling book on Greek mythology I know: Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. An ardent seeker of the crack in the invisible wall, Calasso has traced it not only in the Greek myths but also the Hindu Vedas, the works of Kafka, even the color pink in the paintings of Tiepolo. If anyone could help me tell a true myth from an especially lofty tall tale, it would be him.

It was only a few pages before I started to come across tidbits that support the case for Buffy as myth. “But how did it all begin? If it’s history we want, then it is a history of conflict. And the conflict begins with the abduction of a girl, the sacrifice of a girl.” Ah-ha! Isn’t this exactly how the slayer lineage begins? The ancient shamans known as the Shadow Men abduct a girl and force the power to battle monsters into her (a kind of mystic rape). Then there’s this: “Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture.” Ah-ha again! Both schoolgirl and slayer, Buffy has indeed lived multiple lives—and died multiple deaths. (Her heart stops momentarily in the finale of Season One when she succumbs to a primordial vampire called The Master. Compare this relatively minor blip to her wrenching self-sacrifice in “The Gift”: with each season, Whedon grew more determined to make death hurt.) And what about all the adventures that take place outside the bounds of the TV show, in comic books and cheapie novels, the majority of which are non-canonical, meaning they exist in the gaps between Whedon-ordained plot points? Safe to say she has gone beyond the single gesture.

One more: “With the heroes, man takes his first step beyond the necessary: into the realm of risk, defiance, shrewdness, and art. And with the heroes a new world of love is disclosed. The woman helps the hero slay monsters and capture talismans.” In Buffy, of course, this formula is reversed; the woman is the slayer, the men she loves—Angel, Spike, the black-ops hunk Riley—her helpers. She is a hero for a more democratic age than the ancient Greeks, for all their defiance and shrewdness, could ever imagine.

The idea that Buffy is an honest-to-goodness modern-day myth is seductive. To classify the show and its various offshoots as such is to place it on the level of masterpieces like The Odyssey and the epic of Gilgamesh, a rhetorical move that not only glorifies Whedon’s creation (always a plus for a partisan like me) but also flatters our entire culture. If we have our own Homers, our own heroes for them to sing about, then maybe we’re not doomed to decadence and mediocrity after all.

And yet. As much as the notion of Buffy-as-myth appeals to me, I’m just not buying it. Calasso organizes his exegesis of Greek mythology around the wedding of Cadmus and Harmony because it was the last time the gods sat side by side with man before bowing out of our affairs. Of the current state of the relationship, Calasso says, “The third regime, the modern one, is that of indifference, but with the implication that the gods have already withdrawn, and, hence, if they are indifferent in our regard, we can be indifferent as to their existence or otherwise.” In other words, we are no longer true believers. This is where the rubber meets the road. Belief is the dividing line between a great story and a myth. And as much as Buffy’s story has enthralled me, I have never even for a moment, consciously or unconsciously, believed it was true.

People once needed the Greek myths—the gods and monsters, heroes and magic—to explain their world to them. As centuries passed, the stories were reshaped by each succeeding generation and analyzed from every angle by scholars, even as our belief drained away. It’s possible the opposite will happen with Buffy. The makers of the upcoming reboot could be just the first in an endless line of storytellers to inherit Buffy’s adventures and lend them a new aesthetic; over time, we may come to feel so oppressed by our society’s dominant narratives—by the “war on terror,” the rise and fall of “consumer confidence”—that we will accept those adventures as real. The need to believe may grow so acute that our descendants will bow their heads before graven images of Sarah Michelle Gellar, seek guidance in The Book of Giles.

It’s possible, but I doubt it. I doubt we’ll fall back on belief because we’ve found a different way. That old magic is still here for us when we need it; it’s just migrated from the physical world to the mind. I may not believe there was ever a town called Sunnydale or that a girl named Buffy saved the world from monsters, but her story is alive right now in my imagination. Lines (“Can we rest now, Buffy?”), images (a pair of darkly made-up eyes gazing out from a red backdrop), shards of narrative (the body, the gift, once more with feeling)—they’re always there, the raw materials from which I form my own stories, the ones I use to make sense of myself, my excess emotions, the weird world I live in, and how I live in it.

Buffy Summers turned 30 in 2011, a few years after me. Now that I’m older and have more to lose, death doesn’t feel so remote. Last night, I lay awake, listening to my wife breathe, overwhelmed by how fraught and fragile life can be. Staring up at the ceiling in the dark, I thought I saw a crack. On nights like this, I don’t need myths. I have Buffy. It’s still the bedtime story I tell myself, the vessel into which I pour the dread and wonder. As a first-time viewer, I couldn’t see myself in the slayer; now she’s inside me.

 

Daniel Browne has written nonfiction for The Oxford American, The Believer, PopMatters, The Bygone Bureau, and Identity Theory, among others. His short stories have appeared most recently in 40 Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial and The Pinch.

 

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