If you aren’t in the field of literary/popular culture/film and television studies, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that auteur Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, The Avengers) has an entire scholarly group dedicated to the pursuit of studying the texts produced by him and his creative team. Yes, the Whedon Studies Association is a real thing, complete with an online journal, Slayage, and a biennial conference. We’ve been legitimized by MLA indexing and even a question in the latest edition of Trivial Pursuit.
I don’t need to justify this to my fellow members, obviously, but for those with doubts, check out the journal, note the level of scholarship, and realize his stuff is just that good.
The 8th iteration of the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses convened in my hometown last weekend, and–for the first time–I both attended and presented. It was a hallmark experience in my professional and intellectual development. I was among nearly 90 other serious scholars who are also admittedly fans.
Each conference is marked with a banquet, common for any academic gathering. What is uncommon is after the gnoshing, with piano accompaniment, the entire group croons the songs of “Once More with Feeling” along with “The Ballad of Serenity” and “The Hero of Canton” from Firefly and “Mandy” just because Angel butchered his way through a rendition at Caritas. (Since this conference was a skip and a jump from Muscle Shoals, where the Rolling Stones recorded “Wild Horses,” and the Sundays do a particularly moving cover in “The Prom,” there’s talk of adding it to the list for 2020. I fully support this addendum.)
Last Friday as I took my seat, waiting on a delicious meal and sweating profusely at the thought of having to sing in public, a new acquaintance by the name of Elizabeth turned to me and asked the topic of discussion at the table. “So, Stephen Buffy (As I was part of the local arrangements team, I gave out my number to several people in case they needed anything. Elizabeth put me in her phone book as. “Stephen Buffy” and called me that the entire conference, which I loved.), what is your favorite season?”
I heaved a deep breath. “Don’t throw anything at me, but I have to go with six.”
The two other occupants of the table agreed.
“I like dark shit,” said another.
That summed it up for me. I started watching Buffy in the middle of season 3 when I happened to be flipping by and–I know, for all the wrong reasons–couldn’t stop staring at Eliza Dushku.
But I was hooked. I watched every episode thereafter as well as all of Angel when they originally aired. I was vaguely aware that a rabid fanbase was going online to discuss and quibble over each week’s narrative, but I wasn’t really technologically savvy enough to join in the conversation.
I guess better late than never.
I often return to Buffy and do a re-watch over several months. It’s been too long. I’ve also been re-reading Buffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy, edited by Edwards, Rambo, and South.
The conference is over, I still have Buffy on the brain, and I never got my chance to regularly chime in on the series. It’s summer, which means I have no classes to teach. All I’m doing is working on a proposal for a chapter on a book on Dollhouse, prepping for a presentation at the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in early October, trying to wrap up shooting on a documentary I’m producing, and collaborating with a colleague on a paper analyzing Avengers: Infinity War.
I’m kind of bored.
And unlike the others at the banquet, even some of the most die-hard fans found themselves turned off the dark, twisted tone of season 6. As the late, great David Lavery notes in his introduction to Buffy Goes Dark, when the show leapt from WB to UPN, the creators were less tied down by strident censorship. Whereas, for example, much of Willow and Tara’s relationship had to be described in metaphor for the WB (see, for example the spell/”sex scene” in “Hush”), they were now free to show two women kissing and laying in bed together, actions that seem commonplace today but that were quite controversial in 2001.
Unlike the WB, the show also was guaranteed a two-year UPN run, which meant Whedon didn’t have to end season 6 as if it could be the series finale. (He did this for all of the first 5 seasons.) The expected “big bad” is problematic. Is it the Troika, three hapless nerds? As Whedon once remarked “Life?” Or [it should go without saying here that spoilers are going to be rife] Dark Willow, even though she only appears in three episodes?
The narrative structure itself appeared in some sense to spiral out of control. Elizabeth Rambo argues this is deliberate, a narrative choice to mirror the Yatesian gyre from the famous poem “The Second Coming.” Indeed Tara echoes some of the most famous lines in “Entropy”: “Things fall apart, they fall so hard.” Rambo does not note–doubtless only because it’s a unnecessary digression–that the writing staff is intimately familiar with Yeats. In Season 4 of Angel–perhaps the darkest of that series–an episode is titled “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and “Second Coming” references abound.
It’s also worth observing that the show consistently subverted our expectations on. Yes, the most obvious example is in the cold open of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” when Darla, dressed as a helpless blonde schoolgirl, vamps the rough-and-tumble juvenile delinquent who has snuck her into the school. But even the typical season arc is occasionally tooled with. In no way disparaging the wacky but cerebral season 4 finale, “Restless,” it does come off as a bit anti-climactic after the non-stop action of “Primeval.” The Big Bad, Adam, is already defeated, but there was still another episode before the season came to a close. (Angel also does this in Season 4, as “Home” ends the season, but Jasmine is defeated in “Peace Out.”)
Of all the seasons of this unprecedented show, none got my synapses firing like 6, so it only seems fitting to write about it. I do have some original thoughts that I’ve yet to see appear anywhere. (Though they may. There is a daunting amount of Buffy scholarship, and I haven’t read it all. I hate plagiarism the way Anya hates bunnies, and that is not my intention. If anyone sees an observation I’ve made that has already been uttered, please let me know, and I will provide the proper citation.)
I may also take issue with certain scholars’ observations or offer alternative readings, always respectfully because: a. offering alternative readings of a text is what we do, b. I know many of these folks personally, and c. all of them are far more accomplished and intelligent than I.
Most of what I’ve observed isn’t enough for a journal article or a presentation, so I figured adding to the conversation online would be the best outlet.
I’m also aware that some might be fans of the show but not scholars. Not to worry; I won’t strike an academic tone or bog the conversation down with heremeneutical, axiological, or ontological diatribes. OK, I’ll hit on all those points, but without the impenetrable jargon. It’s not a journal article or a conference presentation. I will, however, treat it as I do a survey literature course, attempting to make it accessible but also enlightening and educational.
Finally, when I do make mention criticism, I will provide a rudimentary works cited/bibliography. As Buffy Goes Dark is the seminal text (available on Amazon Kindle for $9.99 and highly recommended), essays from that collection will contain only author and title. Readers should assume it can be found therein. Criticism from other publications will include the full bibliographical information. And, though MLA would dictate I do so, I won’t bother citing the episode under consideration. That should be a given.
So, read or don’t. I welcome comments, but even if I in no way move the discussion, I’ll keep at it until “Grave.” It’s just a pet project, something to keep me from screaming into the viscous soup of an Alabama summer out of crippling boredom. Something to keep me fresh for when I finally do step back into a classroom in late August.
Who knows? I might just keep on plowing ahead through season 7. Maybe even double back and knock out the other five.
All I know is if I’m not actively taking notes and analyzing what most consider escapist entertainment, I’m in no way entertained. Maybe I’ll amuse a few other folks along the way.
Buffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. eds. Edwards, Lynne Y., Elizabeth L. Rambo, and James B. South. Kindle ed. McFarland, 2009.
Lavery, David. “Foreword.”
Rambo, Elizabeth. “Yeats’s Entropic Gyre and Season Six.”