“Everyone calls me ma’am these days.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series, was about many things, including being a profoundly human and true coming-of-age story. By the end of season 7, Buffy and her friends were quite far removed from the callow youths of the first seasons. They were true adults, with Xander going to work in a suit and tie, Buffy sitting at a desk as a guidance counselor at the new Sunnydale High and Willow studying in England with Giles and a powerful Coven. Like many people in their early to mid 20s, they were trying to find their place in the world, to establish a profession and an identity. And the show’s creators were also moving on, showing a depth and maturity in the writing and a confidence behind the camera, weaving together music and melodrama with fluidity and ease. The coming of age story seemed like it had come to an end.
But then, as those of us familiar with the show well remember, everything collapsed towards the end of season 7. The adult world in which our favourite characters were finally finding their way collapsed literally into an apocalyptic pit featuring ancient Vampires, brutal Slayer weapons and the Great Battle against the source of all evil in the world. Suddenly, all the skills the characters were building to succeed in a prosaic world are put on hold, as everyone, including Sunnydale’s new Principal Robin Wood, needed to rely on a more ancient set of skills to save the world. Ending with Sunnydale a smouldering ruin, but Buffy at the head of a giant army of Slayers from all over the world, as viewers we were satisfied with the emotional arc, but we also knew that exploring the new challenges Buffy faces would be interesting as well. This is where Buffy Season 8 picks up.
Well, not exactly that instant. When we see Buffy again in the beginning of Season 8, a year has passed since the end of Season 7. There are now at least two thousand Slayers (by Giles’ calculation), around five hundred of whom have been identified and form the Slayer army. Xander, having spent much of the year serving Dracula, now adds a sweater and combat pants to his eye patch and insists on being called “Sgt Fury” as he serves as one of Buffy’s Generals. (The irony is, of course, that Joss Whedon and his collaborators today find themselves more than a little preoccupied with the “real” Nick Fury.) Willow is still a powerful witch, but who recruits and helps to train other witches in the army. Dawn, having supposedly had a romantic encounter with a “thricewise”, has grown into a giant, which makes her relationships with the other characters somewhat creatively strained. Giles operates at arm’s length from the Slayers, sipping tea and offering calm advice, but mostly keeping the big picture in mind, reaching out later in the series to rogue Slayers with the help of the reluctant free agent Faith. And everyone calls Buffy “ma’am” now.
Buffy Season 8 was presented over 40 comic issues in 2007-2009. Those 40 issues are sometimes one-off stories, but often are presented in 4-5 issue story arcs. We will explore the comic series in the context of those arcs, which also provided a useful way to organize the series for publication in trade paperback. The writers are mostly drawn from the staff of the series, and take one arc (or issue) each. Drew Goddard, Stephen DeKnight, Jane Espenson and Joss Whedon all write major arcs, and some stars from the world of comics also contribute scripts, such as Brian K. Vaughn and Brad Meltzer. Pencils throughout are in the capable hands of Georges Jeanty, with Andy Owens and Dave Stewart providing inks and colours. (Karl Moline from Fray guests occasionally.) Jeanty is a perfect choice for a series artist. His style strikes exactly the right tone, with a more or less traditional comic book superhero style but with expressive, moody faces and stylish, tasteful backgrounds.
Whedon writes the opening four issues, forming a story arc titled “The Long Way Home”, which capably reminds us why we love the characters, shows us in their new environment and sets up the key conflicts and themes for the rest of the series. For a veteran TV writer, this is a relatively easy assignment in terms of scripting, and Whedon brings flourishes everywhere. If anything, “The Long Way Home” shows us instantly what is very right and what is not so right with Buffy Season 8.
Freed from the budget and time constraints of a TV series and now able to produce just about any story or image the writers can imagine, Whedon and company sometimes go overboard in this series. (This tendency is fully acknowledged, by the way, at the end of the series and the beginning of Buffy Season 9.) What they choose to do with Dawn’s character is a great example. The story point with Dawn is that she is a little younger than the rest of the characters, not a Slayer, and starting to make some of the same mistakes Buffy and the others made four or five seasons ago. Perhaps it’s an admission on Whedon’s part that Dawn is simply going over already-trodden ground, but the extreme metaphors they choose to portray her struggles (being magically made into a giant, and later a centaur) seem to come from another place from the larger Buffy world. This isn’t a logical point: the universe of Buffy the TV series already contained numerous strange and creative demons, and this was continued in Angel, where even the Muppets had an episode. But somehow those smaller-scale magical transformations worked on TV much more convincingly than in comics. Dawn the giant, who gets some great lines and moments in “The Long Way Home”, nevertheless sticks out as a cartoonish implausibility. (This is even more applicable to Dawn the centaur.) It’s hardly new wisdom to suggest that sometimes constraints are useful in art, but it’s something Whedon and his co-creators were still learning, early in Season 8.
On the other, “evil” side in this first arc is a military investigation of the crater left where Sunnydale used to be. Within that crater, the investigators find Amy the witch (formerly Amy the rat) and a skinless, magically re-animated Warren. The General in charge also has a strange marking on his chest, which Buffy and the Slayers also find on demons and seems to suggest some organizing evil force. This is all compelling material, and particularly when Buffy and Willow go toe-to-toe against Amy and Warren, it makes for exciting reading in the classic Buffy style. But the larger theme is very apt: what authority does the Slayer army hold over the world? The Slayers, after all, were not elected to the position of being the world’s guardians, they were chosen. But as the General points out at the climax of the story, they weren’t chosen by any people or government. As far as the broader world is concerned, Buffy’s army is a threat, and when one steps back from the mythology, this is a very logical and reasonable concern. Then there is the mention of “Twilight”, this season’s “Big Bad”, which features more and more prominently as the series goes on. The choice of the word “twilight” to feature prominently in Buffy’s return to popular culture was a significant one in 2007, when the Twilight series was gaining series cultural momentum. Whedon denied any direct reference, but the writers do toss in a few jabs at the Stephenie Meyer series later in Season 8.
But big monsters, giant teenagers, skinless evil scientists and gothic Scottish castles aside, Buffy’s first observation is the emotional truth of “The Long Way Home” and the rest of Season 8. It does feel odd to be called “ma’am” (or “sir”), especially when one feels so close to a youth. The responsibility of leading the Slayer army, which Buffy struggled under in Season 7 but ultimately met with grim determination, is a wonderful metaphor for someone who succeeds too well, too soon. Buffy is a young, powerful leader before she even had a chance to think about what she wanted to be. She has a talent that she nurtures and it gives her the ability to excel in her “profession”, but mentally and emotionally she desperately wishes the proverbial cup would pass from her lips. The recurrent theme of sexual frustration (which Buffy openly admits but gradually every major character feels) is a great symbol of the basic human needs they have left behind to be “successful”. The metaphor of a wunderkind business executive comes to mind (Buffy would, in a strange way, fit in well at Wolfram and Hart, where Angel was exploring similar emotional territory), but it’s tempting to read some of Whedon’s own sense of his growing power into this. Whedon was still very young (only 33), when he made the original Buffy series in 1997, and ten years later he had seen no less than three TV series (Buffy, Angel and Firefly) come and go and was between projects. (Dr Horrible was produced that year, which started Joss on the road to Dollhouse.) It’s an amazing amount of responsibility and experience to account for and I can’t help hypothesizing that, consciously or unconsciously, Joss was projecting some of himself into Buffy at the beginning of Season 8, if not in Season 7. And this is the powerful emotional through-line that will take us through some very bizarre events in Buffy Season 8.
Next time, we’ll look at the creative one-off “The Chain” before exploring Brian K. Vaughn’s fantastic Faith-meets-Fray storyline, “No Future For You”.