Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion is a collection of essays, articles and interviews examining the cultural world of Joss Whedon and his creations, compiled by PopMatters and published by Titan Books.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most formally analysed TV series of all time, even spawning a dedicated academic journal, Slayage. It’s a wonder there is anything left to say about Buffy, but a show so rich on so many levels just keeps people talking.
The first chapters of Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion look at the Buffyverse from different angles in a series of essays and interviews each with something new and insightful to say about Buffy, its cast, characters and creators.
In Part One of this feature review series, Vivid Scribe went through the first half of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer chapter. In Part Two, the remaining Buffy essays are examined. Many of these essays and articles were first published on PopMatters and are now available as excerpts. Links to those excerpts are below, although if you have an interest in the Whedonverse, from academic to casual fandom, I can’t encourage you enough to get your hands on a copy of this terrifically rich book.
Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion – Chapter by Chapter Review
1.08 - The Big Bad Universe: Good and Evil According to Joss Whedon by Nandini Ramachandran
In this essay, lawyer and blogger, Nandini Ramachandran explores the good and evil in Buffy, with references to other Whedon series. This is a discussion not so much of how evil occurs in the respective Big Bad characters, but as good and evil operate as a dichotomy within each character and character pairing – Buffy and Faith, Giles and Ethan Rayne, Angel and Angelus.
Ramachandran builds an excellent discussion of the distinction between the schizophrenic good/evil of Angel and Angelus and then the far less clear distinctions between the de-souled and re-souled Spike. Spike has his most purest moments of the hero when he was a soulless vampire saving Dawn from Glory in Season 5, but then also his most diabolical moment, his attempting to rape Buffy in the same form. Ramachandran questions whether his not having a soul mitigates Spike’s behaviour in this infamous rape scene. The essay then goes onto examine the value of the human soul in the Whedonverse, furthering this by looking at the conflicts of evil and innocence in Angel.
In every Whedon series, the lines of good and evil are consistently muddied, and Ramachandran does well to draw these conflicts out in an essay that isn’t strictly academic, but does read a little dryly and does follow a few too many long-winded tangents from the core theme.
1.09 – Women Who Hate Women: Female Competition in Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Faye Murray and Holly Golding
With its groundbreaking representation of women in both leading and minor screen roles, it’s absolutely no wonder that Buffy has attracted so much attention from gender studies circles. In this essay by television studies commentator and Natural Science graduate, Faye Murray and writer and literature scholar, Holly Golding, Buffy has once again been put under the Women’s Studies gaze, looking at how women in Buffy are oftentimes poised against one another.
This is a refreshing take on the more typical style of Buffy related gender analysis that stops at the obvious female empowerment angle, asking the question – does the fact that there is so much bitchy female competition and rivalry in Buffy complicate its position as a pro-feminist text?
The essay looks at Willow and Buffy, their relationship as hero and sidekick and also as best friends and emotional support base. The overall claim is that Willow and Buffy are only able to be so close as Buffy doesn’t see Willow as a sexual threat as first she’s a non-sexual geek, and then in stable relationship with Oz. It’s when Willow is unattached, and a whole lot sexier in Season 4 that Buffy and Willow as best friends start to drift apart, then reunited as Willow and Tara get together, again removing Willow from the position of sexual threat.
This analysis almost makes sense until one looks at all of the other things happening in Season 4, primarily the major life shift of starting college. Major life alterations force a lot of people to revaluate relationships whether or not sexual competition is an issue or not. There’s never a point in the series that Buffy betrays a feeling of Willow as a sexual threat, it’s actually the opposite when Willow is jealous of Xander’s feelings for the Slayer.
This whole analysis of Willow and Buffy just seems too much like forcing a situation through a theoretical framework in order to prove an overall point. The argument of sexual competition is much better placed on Cordelia and Buffy, Cordelia and Willow, and then Anya and Willow as these dynamics of sexual threat that are all given voice within the series. The analysis of Willow and Anya’s relationship is quite interesting also given Willow and Xander have been best friends since they were kids.
The crux of the argument in this essay is that female friendships in Buffy can only occur when women aren’t competing for men, as such Willow and Buffy’s friendship is an anomaly. It doesn’t sit comfortably with me and seems a little overly general. There is a limited cast, so limited relationship dynamics are forced and as the essay points out, love triangles make for good drama. Besides, this kind of tension between female friends happens in real life, with or without a man thrown into the mix. Further for this argument to work, I’d have to buy the sexual threat argument between Willow and Buffy presented earlier. Faith and Buffy, Faith’s digression into evil aside, do have a strong relationship. Would I call it a friendship? Perhaps a Slayer solidarity. But it’s not in any way affected by a sexual relationship, even when Angel gets involved in Season 3, he’s still Buffy’s. Sure Buffy is jealous of Faith but it’s always focused on the position of “Slayer”, not “Woman”.
At the end of all of this, Buffy’s status as a pro-feminist text is labelled as complicated and not as progressive as one might first believe. Perhaps, but in light of what Buffy has done for representations of women on screen, it’s hardly enough to deny the series from being one of the best and most honest representations of women and their relationships in popular culture. It may be a complicated pro-feminist text, and perhaps even Post-Feminist may be the more accurate term.
1.10 – Coming Out of The Broom Closet: Willow’s Sexuality and Empowerment in Buffy by Jessica Ford
From gender studies to queer theory, this essay by Australian film and media PhD student, Jessica Ford looks at Willow’s sexuality in relation to her empowerment as a witch.
Straight off the bat, Ford claims Willow is empowered by her sexuality as her “journey of sexual discovery is paralleled by her increasing agency within the Scooby gang.”(94) and goes on to state that Willow’s entire character arc is governed by her transitional sexuality – from hopeless geek pining over Xander, to her relationship with Oz, her increasing power and newly discovered homosexuality with Tara, her impotency after Tara’s death, and through to her restoration with Kennedy.
Ford’s entire essay hinges on the assumption that Willow’s heterosexual and then homosexual discovery and magic empowerment are inextricably linked, and I’m not convinced by any of it.
The argument is basically valid on the surface. Yes, Willow evolves from nerdy nothing to superhero goddess, and she also simultaneously evolves sexually, as everyone does as they move towards adulthood (the sexual part, that is, not the superhero goddess thing). But the fact that she ends up a lesbian isn’t the point. Yes, Willow starts dabbling in magic at the same time she starts dabbling with Oz, and yes, Tara helps Willow further her magic strength, but I am not at all convinced that Willow, either magically or metaphorically is empowered by the fact that she discovers girls, even with the suggestive revelation of the “kinda gay” vampire dominatrix Willow from Season 3.
Willow is empowered by herself, by realising that she can be and indeed very much is liked and needed by others. Willow’s transition starts in the very first episode of the series, not from a sexual discovery but from making a new friend, Buffy. Buffy tells Willow to seize the day, and she does, and continues to do so. Having the courage to explore her sexuality is a manifestation of that. Sexuality was an important aspect of Willow’s development but not the sole aspect. An argument could be equally made that Willow’s explorations of fashion are inextricably linked to her growing power as a witch – not a very compelling argument at all, but one that operates on the same insufficient theoretical context as Ford’s.
1.11 – The Darkness of “Passion”: Visuals and Voiceovers, Sound and Shadow by Rhonda V. Wilcox
English professor and President of the Whedon Studies Association, Rhonda V. Wilcox has in this essay given a close reading of ‘Passion’, episode 17 of BTVS Season 2. ‘Passion’ is the episode where Angelus kills Jenny Calendar and was, as Wilcox points out, a turning point for the type of show Buffy was – one that’s not afraid to do away with major and popular characters in bloody and brutal ways.
Wilcox works here from a more technical analysis, looking at the way light and sound as well as other cinematographic aspects work in the episode. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with exploring Buffy in terms of the show’s stories, themes and cultural relevance, it’s refreshing to have a piece look at the show from a technical perspective, to remind us all that Buffy was also a technically accomplished TV show, even in the earlier seasons with their lower budgets.
The analysis touches on classic screen theory, referencing Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1971) and looks at the way Angelus is set up as the point of power from both the position of his gaze and his voice over that runs through the episode.
‘Passion’ is such a poignant and brutal episode, it’s the pinnacle of a sequence dealing with love and building intensities in all relationships in the show and Wilcox places it within the context of the season and the series quite well. This essay deftly explains how the more tangible aspects of the episode work to create that effect at the hands of episode director, Michael E. Gershman.
Usually Buffy analysis will focus on a few core “Great” episodes – typically ‘Hush’ or ‘The Body’ – that have Joss Whedon stamped all over them. This is also an interesting essay in the context of the volume as Joss Whedon isn’t at the center, but rather it focuses on an episode neither written nor directed by Whedon reminding us again that TV is a collaborative creation even when Joss Whedon is at the helm.
1.12 – Returning to the Basement: Excavating the Unconscious in Buffy‘s “Restless” by Laura Berger and Keri Ferencz
Popular Culture scholars Laura Berger and Keri Ferencz here delve into the world of psychoanalysis with a side of gender theory as they dissect the dreams of each Buffy character in ‘Restless’ (Season 4 Episode 22). Each character’s dream is gone through individually and analysed in terms of how it represents the character’s “irreconcilable tension between who one is and who one should be” (115), particularly as that tension relates to the performance of gender roles.
Willow’s dream, the authors explain, is a representation of her fear of regressing from the fully formed sense of “woman” she feels she has reached in season 4, to the nerdy nothing she had grown from. This is tied to Willow’s fear of not being accepted in terms of her sexuality. While I’m wary of readings that look at lesbianism as the be all and end all of Willow’s character development (see reading 1.10 above), Berger and Ferencz’s arguments here are fairly difficult to fault as everything in Willow’s dream does revolve around social acceptance and performance of a role, all stemming from her relationship to Tara in the beginning of the dream. I will add though, each time I have watched this episode (and I have lost count) I have never read this dream to be expressly about Willow’s sexuality, but rather her total transformation, even more in terms of her changing fashion sense than her sexuality. This is something the dream does emphasise with its constant reference to costumes, Willow suddenly wearing her old daggy pinafore, but yes, this does also work metaphorically. Sure, Joss Whedon expressly stating in the DVD commentary that parts of this dream were meant to represent female sexuality (red curtains are meant to be female genitalia, for those interested) does underscore their argument, but again, sexuality is only one aspect of Willow’s complex character arc.
The next dream is Xander’s. In this dream, Xander struggles against his feelings of inferiority as a man. He is seduced by Joyce – perhaps a reference as Berger and Ferencz suggest to Xander’s remaining feelings for Buffy, but perhaps also because Joyce is an older woman and could represent sexual and life experience – and avoids performing, to suddenly find his manhood (yes, a double meaning) under the scrutiny of Initiative scientists. He’s then back in his parents’ basement, which Berger and Ferencz identify as the Freudian subconscious id and Xander’s inability to escape his own inadequacy.
I also might add to all of these dream interpretations that aside from referencing gender roles, confusion of who one should be is a common anxiety for a great many people transitioning into adulthood. Willow and Xander’s dreams contain an idea of the characters moving backwards into a former state – could this simply be a fear of growing up in addition to all of the other complexities Berger and Ferencz examine? This may be a more general analysis, one not so easy to build an essay around, but since it is so obvious, it seems strange that it was not looked at in this essay besides a brief suggestion in Xander’s dream, which was still more focused on his masculinity.
The analysis of Giles’ dream does look at adulthood in that Giles’ is not the adult his punk young self imagined he would be. The fact that Giles’ transition to adulthood is expressly mentioned makes it more curious it wasn’t more explicitly explored with Willow and Xander. Giles’ dream centres on his role as father figure to Buffy and Berger and Ferencz deliver a tight exploration of his struggling against the tensions of being Buffy’s Watcher, being her father-figure and failing at both.
Buffy’s dream moves further into this idea of the slayer and her parental figure, with Buffy dreaming her mother is trapped inside the walls of her college, a representation of the walls Buffy builds between her life as a Slayer and her life with her family. Buffy is not the ideal daughter for her mother, what the authors are describing as a gender role. I accept their analysis of Buffy and Riley’s relationship in terms of the unconscious struggle against gender roles because that was something made entirely obvious quite often in the series. I’m not sure however I buy the argument in terms of the gender role of her being a daughter, only because there isn’t enough analysis on that here to sway me. Theories on Buffy’s gender performance alone could fill an entire book and perhaps the sheer expanse of the subject has prevented this small section from looking at it in more convincing detail.
Overall, there is one point missing from this essay – that this episode occurs after the Season 4 climax, ‘Primeval’ where the Scoobies magic themselves into one Superslayer figure – Xander the heart, Willow the spirit, Giles the brain and Buffy the strength. Each of these dreams is a reference to that role. Berger and Ferencz doe reference Xander and the heart and Giles as the brain of the Scoobies, but not in reference to ‘Primeval.’ While their overall analysis remains tight, the omission of this episode removes ‘Restless’ from an important context. There is also no reference to the episode’s function as a foreshadow for coming events, most specifically the arrival of Dawn and Buffy’s death at the end of the following season. Arguably, having dream as prophecy lessens the impact of psychoanalytical meaning which is perhaps why it was not analysed here.
1.13 – “I’d Very Still” Anthropology of a Lapsed Fan by Lily Rothman
Freelance writer, Lily Rothman here looks at the fan community of Buffy, very much through the eyes of her own experience as a teen Buffy fan, specifically an Oz devotee, in the early years of the show and then later as a lapsed fan when the Season 8 comics hit the stands. Rothman’s teen Buffy fandom was also during the early years of the Internet, and this piece looks at how the Internet came to change fandom into something far more communal and far more accessible than ever before.
The strongest element of this article, perhaps the one that speaks to me most personally, is the exploration of the idea that it is difficult and at times most unfulfilling to be a singular fan without a fan community. It’s next to impossible to get into a good bit of fandom gushing with non-fans, and Rothman relates her personal experience of this nicely, tying it into a bit more of a cultural analysis of the social function of fandom especially on the Internet. What’s most interesting about this article is its focus on the fact that Buffy is a fandom based on an old text – it’s hard to remember sometimes that in the outside world, Buffy isn’t a constant as it is in mine, or other fans’ lives – and the Internet experience of community fandom is really only alive for as long as the technological platform operates.
1.14 – Interview With Jane Espenson by Dr Shathley Q
Here, PopMatters’ comics editor, Shathley Q, talks to Jane Espenson in an interview conducted especially for this book. Every television show, yes even Whedon’s, are collaborative creations. Writer and producer on Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, as well as a contributing writer for the comic series, Jane Espenson has, perhaps more than any other Whedonite not named Joss, made the most impressive and lasting mark on the formation of the Whedonverse.
Espenson isn’t only limited to the Whedonverse, and has had her hand in some of the most successful TV series in recent decades including Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Once Upton A Time and Game of Thrones to name only a few.
This interview cover’s Espenson’s career from her early days as an academic (studying complex theories of language and comprehension), to the first steps towards her dream of TV writing, submitting unsolicited scripts for Star Trek: TNG, and then later onto Buffy. With Joss’ presence often overshadowing the importance of his collaborators this interview gives a great insight into not only a major player in the Whedonverse, but also in popular culture in general.
1.15 – How Buffy Changed Television by Robert Moore
This is Robert Moore’s third instalment in this Buffy chapter, a subject that is touched on in his introduction, analysed in his introductory essays. Buffy had an enormous and multileveled impact on television and this essay shows that while other TV series, such as The Sopranos, have influenced later TV creations in terms of content, Buffy‘s influence was both in form and content, most visually and perhaps most importantly in its representation of the female hero.
I particularly enjoyed Moore’s distinction between the phrase “female hero” and “heroine”, and the insistence on using the former, as a “heroine”, a passive, needs her active hero, and Buffy was very much the active hero. Moore then goes on to explore the powerful female characters that came before Buffy and shows why Buffy was such a tipping-point in the representation of powerful women on TV, yes, even more ground-breaking than Xena.
Buffy was also revolutionary in that it wasn’t afraid to kill of popular and central characters for the sake of narrative (as opposed to contract negotiations, which Moore talks about in relation to Yar’s death in Star Trek: TNG), sometimes killing them twice, and then looks at shows that have since gone on veritable killing sprees of central characters.
As much as a Buffy fan likes to think that the show had an omnipotent power over all following pop culture, one has to wonder though if it was Buffy alone that made this shift possible or whether or not it was the result of some wider shift in what an audience was willing and wanting to watch. Did Joss Whedon really end safe television, or was he playing a part in a far more complex cultural change? Some exploration of these extra-textual ideas would have strengthened this essay (and would no doubt please Ronald Helfrich).
Moore then goes on to explore the ways in which Buffy fits into the history of narrative television as both an episodic show and a serialised continuing story arc. The difference between other serialised story arcs and Buffy, Moore explains, is that Buffy did away with what he calls “narrative waffling” with each arc having a distinct beginning, middle and end within clear designated seasons making Buffy, and Angel, seasons the longest self-contained narratives ever on TV.
Following shows may have looked to the Buffy narratives for guidance, and Moore references a few of these, but I’m struggling to think of one that has done so with such distinction. Perhaps True Blood? Moore does mention Alan Ball, though not specifically True Blood, though I would assume the contained narrative arcs of True Blood have more to do with its adaptation from serialised novels than any distinct influence from Buffy. Again, not saying that Buffy wasn’t hugely influential, I’m just wary of pinpointing the series as the definitive turning point for self contained narrative arcs on television. Buffy has though made the way for extreme character development and shift, as well as an acceptance of genre hybridity. Again though, I’m hesitant to isolate the show as the specific cause of these shifts in TV series, but feel rather more comfortable in situating Buffy as one element, albeit a very significant one, within a wider cultural context.
1.16 – “TV’s Grim Reaper” Why Joss Whedon Continually Kills the Characters We Love by Kristin M. Barton
Kristin Barton is an assistant professor of communications at Dalton State College and in this essay takes on one of the most popular points of Buffy studies, looking at Joss Whedon’s fondness for killing off central characters.
A number of essays in this book have touched on this topic, but Barton jumps right into the death count examining the seemingly nonsensical move, in terms of continuing viewers and revenue, of letting an audience form a bond to a character and then make them watch their beloved character die.Barton centres his discussion on Buffy, but ventures off into other Whedon shows, particularly Angel. The placement of this essay in this volume is a good lead in to the following chapter on Angel.
The most significant question to be asking here isn’t why Whedon kills his darlings, but why it is such a success. Barton’s answer is that it’s a way to show the “gritty” reality the character’s face, and that it motivates characters and drives the narrative forward.
Sure, deaths in Buffy had continuing ramifications, something that Barton highlights as a key point of different between Buffy and other series with killed off characters (that and their deaths are all sudden), but I’m sceptical of putting other Whedon deaths – Ballard in Dollhouse, Wash and Book in Firefly/Serenity – in this same category as Jenny, Joyce, Tara or Anya, simply because their shows didn’t have a chance to explore these ramifications. As heartbreaking as Wash’s death was, it was not as significant as Tara’s or even Jenny’s in terms of narrative affect. Arguably Anya’s death in the Season 7 finale has the same finality as Wash or Ballard, but as the narrative arc continues into comic book form, those characters are still dealing with the ramifications of Anya’s death even though they are in a different media.
Barton points out that deaths in Buffy are dealt with in the non-magic world, that their emotional sphere is entirely human. This is true of Joyce’s, Jenny’s and Anya’s death (bringing in the comic narratives here), but no so much for Tara’s death, to which Willow responds with some serious magic, nor Buffy’s death which was grieved in the human sense but then effectively prevented after the fact, by magic. It’s further assumed that planning to resurrect Buffy would have also lessened the grieving for the Scoobies.
Barton’s discussion of Buffy’s reaction to her newly returned life is one of the strongest parts of this essay as it brings into the equation that not only is Buffy not happy with her return to life, but that the audience is actively prevented from celebrating her resurrection because for her, it is such a terrible thing. This is compared to Spike’s resurrection in Angel after his death in Buffy, a plot device I was never quite happy with – but Angel had it’s fair share of plot problems by that stage anyway. Barton does well to point out that while Buffy’s death sacrifice ended in more misery for her, Spike’s death sacrifice ended up in his own reward.
The essay closes with a discussion on how certain deaths change other characters, Doyle’s death giving Cordelia a character function in Angel, Penny’s death having a profound affect on the would-be super villain Dr Horrible. Barton closes his essay saying that no Joss Whedon character is truly safe from death, even the titular characters.
I have to wonder how much death in Buffy is really the grim face of reality this essay, and Joss Whedon, says it is. The Buffyverse is a fantasy world where death doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in reality. Death can be grim and final, as in the case of Jenny, Joyce, Tara and Anya, but for Buffy, death just another hurdle to live through. Further to this, I wonder if, since main character death is now an expected Whedon trope, if the real surprise will come in the next series when all the characters survive.