I’ve been re-watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” recently, a generally agreeable show that I first became hooked on back in college (my roommate showed me the musical episode, and the rest was history). At the time, I checked all the DVDs out of the library and watched, rapt, as the story unfolded; in the years since I’ve occasionally caught an episode on a cable rerun, but this is the first time I’ve sat down and started the whole narrative all over again.
And I’ve got some issues with it.
“Buffy” is still a great show, mind you, but it suffers from one major flaw which will always prevent it from unseating “The X-Files” as my favorite show: Our Hero, the titular Slayer, has far too much confidence in her own moral rectitude. Generally, this works, as the show’s “humans good, demons bad” dichotomy is pretty binary. Buffy’s absolute moral calculus plays to great dramatic effect in the show’s second season, when the ensouled vampire Angel loses his soul and Buffy must kill her boyfriend to save the world. But it falls apart when it comes to Faith.
Faith is another Slayer, who comes to Sunnydale in the show’s third season. Buffy is initially skeptical – her character is not one naturally inclined towards sharing – and is only friendly to Faith at the urging of her mother, her friends, and her Watcher. The two finally manage to become friends, and then, in an accident whilst patrolling, Faith kills a man. Her defensiveness and reflexive unwillingness to accept responsibility seemingly confirm Buffy’s early suspicion that Faith isn’t quite right in the head, and Buffy’s aggressive efforts for Faith to accept consequences lead Faith straight into the employ of the bad guy – who winds up becoming a father figure, truly caring for Faith in a fashion that no one in Buffy’s coterie was able to summon.
Faith winds up doing some pretty bad stuff, though Buffy seems to wreak a pretty thorough vengeance by coming to Faith’s apartment to kill her, succeeding in stabbing her in the gut and putting her in a coma. You’d think that putting somebody into a coma would even the score, but not for Buffy – when Faith awakens, Buffy’s moral righteousness is only heightened. The entire Faith storyline winds up being resolved not on “Buffy” but on “Angel,” the spinoff series that navigated a more nuanced moral universe than the small-town/high-school set “Buffy”.
Buffy’s superiority is a product of her exceptionalism: as the Slayer, Buffy isn’t exactly practiced in forgiveness. For the vast majority of the series she’s unwilling to interrogate her own uprightness, to offer any criticism of the values she espouses (compare this to both “The X-Files” as well as “Angel,” where the heroes are mature enough to question the means they employ in their various quests).
It can be narratively satisfying to have a hero operating with such moral clarity, wherein the challenges lie only in executing the hard choices, never in determining what the right course of action actually is. This blindness to other perspectives – the assuredness in one’s own beliefs – is a hallmark of conservative thought. Even after Buffy put Faith into a coma, she remained aggrieved, and hence justified in her continued quest for revenge; similarly, contemporary conservative ideology is inflexible in the face of genuine suffering, defined by preconceptions more than the reality of circumstance and change. Exceptionalism is what allows those on the right to re-craft the Bible as a capitalist treatise; to ignore systemic injustice and structural barriers to security or prosperity; and to justify continued class stratification as a necessary precondition for the exceptionalism of the elite.
Buffy helps people, of course, but always as the Slayer, out of a kind of violent noblesse oblige. It’s not until the show’s seventh season – widely reviled as its worst – that Buffy invites others to participate in the power which she had heretofore wielded only by herself. Narratively, it’s less satisfying, but ethically, it’s the show’s apogee, the moment when exceptionalism is finally transcended and Buffy learns that inclusion is much more powerful than revenge.