“It’s hard and it’s painful and it’s every day.”
For those of us that grew up watching these two shows, consciously or not, we learned life lessons from them. Over the course of twelve seasons through two series, Joss Whedon’s cult classics Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel are as much a metaphor about growing up as they are about good looking people killing things that go bump in the night.
There are some fairly unsubtle nods to this, acknowledged by the broader fanbase and Joss Whedon himself. The most obvious ones are noticeable in the earliest seasons—after Buffy sleeps with Angel for the first time, he becomes different, making Buffy realize she didn’t really know him at all. Many, many women have found that to be the case after first sleeping with some men. He turns into something mean and manipulative, which, even if not always accurate in real life, can certainly be the viewpoint many take of the lover who deceived and discarded them.
The second, and the most obvious one, is present from the pilot episode, as Giles reveals to Buffy that an entrance to hell can be found in her high school. This was part of Whedon’s original design for the show, which was “high school as a horror story.” The third is in the DNA of the show itself: Buffy developed her powers as a Slayer at the onset of puberty; she often took the role of Slayer as a burden until eventually not only coming to terms with it, but coming out the other side of it as a mature and wise woman.
Even the format of the series generally conformed to that of a school year. Between the hauntings and occasional voice/heart stealing demons, there were looks into the everyday minutiae. The cliques and jocks and cheerleaders, bullies, druggies and nerds were there. There was a social hierarchy, and while it was more literal here than it was in the real world, but in our own high school experiences we definitely made the connections. In most cases these encounters and minor plots never amounted to much except for creating a more grounded viewing to relate to. However, in having these things take place in between immortal snake-demon-politicians, bi-dimensional vampires, werewolves and invasions from hell, we’re given a wink and a nudge letting us know that as bad as high school might seem, these are small problems in the long run; by keeping them in the vicinity of the high school it is also an acknowledgment of how impossible and un-ending these problems can still seem in the moment.
By having season-spanning arcs that led up to Buffy and co. defeating the “big bad” of the season it was always a strange kind of catharsis, especially in those early seasons. Usually the season would end for the summer and the characters too would be on break for the summer before returning for a new school year and a new, bigger problem to solve. Cordelia even asks at the beginning of season 2 if the “Scoobies” killed anyone over summer vacation. Distilled down to that, the course of a season isn’t all that different from a year in high school. There were familiar and recurring themes and places, but the problems we had as freshmen were different than the ones we had as seniors. The problems tended to get bigger, however, the older we became and the closer the burdens of real life came to us. Same for Buffy.
Buffy’s college years weren’t all that much different from the high school seasons that preceded it, but it came with a major shift. Angel, her high school boyfriend, was leaving for Los Angeles. This not only provided fodder for the spinoff series but also added a grounding layer to Buffy and her relationships. They were changing. People move on after high school, often losing contact, and most high school romances, no matter how mythically strong and unique we believed them to be while they were happening, usually turn out the same way: two people, two different directions, and a magnificent amount of awkwardness and unresolved feelings between them both. Their final scene together is indicative of this. Right after the graduation ceremony/climactic battle, Buffy and Angel stare at each other from a distance. There’s no goodbye, not really, because both had come to understand—begrudgingly—that their relationship had runs its course and this was as far as the other could take them.
Though her high school Class Protector trinkets were destroyed by a vampire gang in her first week of college, Buffy wryly comes to the conclusion that “college is turning out to be a lot like high school,” which is probably why the first half of season 4 felt so familiar. The character Parker was little more than a less interesting version of Angel, who changed after sleeping with Buffy. While it could be viewed as Whedon showing us the promiscuous side of college students and how awful men can be, it’s also indicative of Buffy’s still naïve nature. She wants a relationship, she wants someone to count on; she wants something normal and stable right when her world is changing again. Eventually, Buffy dates Riley who is largely bland but filled the quota of normality that Buffy was searching for. He was the stereotypical college boyfriend. All American with a chiseled-jaw line and a hard part haircut. It’s her first adult relationship.
During this time, Willow came out as a lesbian. It had been part of a long arc that began in season 1 when Willow was a nervous, mousy and lacked confidence. She was easily intimidated and self-effacing despite her genius-level intellect. Throughout the first few seasons, Willow developed into a more whole person. She found a certain inner strength that not only allowed her to stand up to Cordelia, but made her more assertive in her speech. She looked people in the eyes more, she spoke in a stronger timbre. She had grown into herself. The fact that her sexuality never became a factor in that initial development was the best move. It inoculated Willow from being looked at as a stereotypical TV angry lesbian. When Willow came out to herself it was just a matter of discovery and wasn’t part of some sudden, massive shift in her character.
While Willow didn’t come out to herself or us the audience until season 4, Buffy itself was given to metaphors about coming out. Characters of the week would at times discover their own supernatural powers or partially demonic heritage or something to that effect. This would lead them often toward fear and self-loathing. They would have to learn that this was just another facet to themselves—something that is innate and relevant and shouldn’t be ignored. Self-hatred was not an option. At times these characters would have to “come out” to friends or family members (particularly Tara when her family found out she was a witch) to mixed reactions. The social undercurrent was never meant to be subtle. It was meant to be overt and clear to an audience whose sexuality was budding at the same time, or those who were older and could easily identify similar struggles. It was saying “It gets better” well before social media but also intimating that it won’t be easy.
Another important landmark in our development involves our parents. We have to move on from them. Buffy’s absentee father was an emotional point Buffy had to deal with quite a few times over the years (and would explain her penchant for older men), but her relationship with her mother was a strong one. Joyce, rather than getting killed off by a vampire, a Chaos demon or one of those guys that looks like a Jem’Hadar, Joyce is killed after a long bout with cancer. This is an unlikely road taken in a fantasy show, but a significant moment just the same. It reminds us of Buffy’s own humanity in that there are things even she couldn’t fight. At some point in our lives we’ve had to watch a loved one die, and more relevant to Buffy’s arc, to take on the responsibilities that Joyce no longer could.
If Buffy had to be distilled down to a single theme in a single word, it would be survival. Buffy has to sacrifice everything for the survival of those around her. Once Joyce dies, Buffy leaves college to take on menial jobs to pay the bills and make sure (the sometimes unfairly maligned) Dawn still has a roof over her head. History is abound with stories like that—the eldest child taking on the responsibilities of the parents who are dead or otherwise negligent. It also sets up a very dark little discovery that Dawn makes: this is what Buffy’s life is going to be. Due to her priorities as a Slayer and as the family breadwinner, Buffy’s own life is secondary. She’ll continue saving the world and no one will ever know. She’ll continue working jobs like Doublemeat Palace despite her own talents and intelligence. It’s easily compared to Xander’s own life—the blue collar worker—as his parents were drunks who couldn’t pay for college and wanted him out. Together, their stories are more in tune with a Bruce Springsteen song than a fantasy adventure series, but that’s what made Buffy such a beloved series—the identifiably human moments.
The often apocryphal final two seasons found the series unable to move on from the high school drama. Part of the problem was that the characters had aged out of that naturally, but were still stuck in a small town setting. Out of necessity and fear, the writers had them return to the high school, now with Dawn as a student. On the scale, the series took us from roughly 15 (as high school sophomores) to 22 (as college grads first making their way into the real world). Explorations of the shocking unpleasantness of adulthood were being examined on Angel, the spinoff.