Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of those things, like Star Wars or Harry Potter, that, as a nerd, everyone just assumes you’re familiar with. It’s one of our universal reference-points – a language we all speak. But, to my eternal geek shame, I’ve never watched that much of it. When the programme first appeared on UK television I somehow managed to watch the whole of Season 1 (the first series), the whole of Season 7 (the final series), and absolutely nothing in between. For whatever bizarre reason, Buffy just passed me by.
My sister, on the other hand, has seen every episode, read every comic, and (naturally) owns the T-shirt. She also talks about it a lot – which means, at one point or another, I’ve had basically every plot beat explained to me at length. I know who the villains are each series; I know how the heroes beat them; I even know who dies and when. I knew the entire arcs of characters like Tara, Oz and Riley before I’d ever even seen them on screen. There’s basically no surprises for me in Buffy.
Or so I thought…
Last year my fiancée and I eventually got around to borrowing the boxsets off the sister in question. We quickly devoured the first three series (good, super-amazing, and regular-amazing respectively) but lost steam somewhere in the fourth because, as a friend succinctly put it, “the Initiative are shit”. But what I want to talk about happened last week, when my wife and I (it’s been that long) finally reached Season 5.
There is an episode in this series called “The Body”. It’s a major turning point of the entire show, and I’d known it was coming for a very long time. I knew what it was about, I knew what happened in it, and I thought I was prepared. I was not.
My first mistake was that I expected to see the words “The Body” on the DVD menu. When that title came up I would know what horrors awaited inside and I would be able to brace myself for them. Except that the actual event I associated with “The Body” – its first violent emotional gutpunch – hits at the end of the previous episode, “I Was Made to Love You”. That episode is cunningly, cruelly, positioned as the last episode on its disc, so there’s no way of knowing what’s coming next.
Even if I had known, though, I don’t think I would ever have expected what happens in that episode’s closing moments. “I Was Made to Love You” is an episode about a guy who builds himself a sex robot, which goes on a rampage when he abandons it for a real girlfriend – and it’s silly and funny and not remotely serious. For such a light, humorous episode to end the way it does is basically unthinkable so, when it does, it’s a truly shocking moment.
The next few minutes are a bit of a blank. In a horrified daze we must have changed disc and sat back down in silence, eyes fixed on the screen. I assume that’s what happened because, certainly, the next episode started playing and we experienced the most harrowing forty or so minutes of television I’ve ever seen.
The reason it’s such a powerful and upsetting experience really has nothing to do with the events themselves. The inciting incident, if that’s what you want to call it, is a fairly standard trope at this point – Emily actually wrote a piece about that just last month. But the way it’s handled and presented is so stark and honest – so horribly true to life – that it’s genuinely painful to watch.
The moment that hit me hardest was seeing Buffy Summers, the titular Slayer, just making a phone call to her mentor Giles. She tells him completely the wrong information in a way that barely makes sense – and it hurt because I once received a text message exactly like that, for a similar reason, and it kicked off what was probably the worst twenty-four hours of my life.
Because that’s what happens in these situations – your brain all but shuts down and the simplest things become confusing and difficult – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that portrayed as well as it is here. Everything reinforces it, from the weird editing which somehow keeps cutting in the exact wrong place, to the incredible performance from Sarah Michelle Gellar herself. It’s truly brutal, as we watch this wisecracking, unflappable, hyper-capable badass fall completely apart. It’s often easy to forget that Buffy’s barely out of her teens, but this brings it home hard – she’s never seemed so young, or so vulnerable, or so real.
Maybe that’s part of the power of this episode. Buffy has always been about real-world problems but, until now, they’ve always been explored through horror and fantasy metaphors. This series alone deals with substance abuse, adoption, brain-damage, identity-crises, and a whole host of other issues – without ever directly being about those things. Perhaps the best example is the use of witchcraft as a stand-in for homosexuality. Willow and Tara are actually gay, of course, but none of the plots revolve around that – allowing the programme to tell stories about coming to terms with their powers and facing magic-phobia, while treating their actual relationship as no big deal. It’s a stunning example of the show having its cake and eating it.
“The Body” isn’t anything like that, though. There’s no supernatural spin on events; no allegorical menace to face. OK, sure, there is one vampire very briefly at the end, but I’m pretty sure it’s only there because the studio demanded a monster in their monster show. Otherwise the entire episode is just characters reacting to and dealing with what’s happened.
Buffy spends basically the entire episode in shock, Willow freaks out over the smallest, stupidest things, Tara bares her soul in a way we haven’t really seen before, Dawn is in angry denial, Xander in angry frustration, and (perhaps most heartbreaking of all) Anya, the cartoonishly unfeeling ex-demon, breaks down as she struggles to understand mortality. None of these reactions are overplayed – there’s none of the show’s usual melodrama – and that somehow hits harder than any end-of-the-world histrionics ever could. This is Buffy facing a real-life issue head-on, and it’s painfully, achingly human.
Something else that I similarly had spoiled for me (but not by my sister this time) was Game of Thrones. I foolishly read too much of a comments section once, and learned far more than I wanted to about the infamous Red Wedding. But even if I hadn’t, I still knew there was something called “the Red Wedding” on the horizon, and I probably could have worked out the rest from there.
When the wedding in question came, as red as it was, it nevertheless played out exactly as I expected. There was tension there, because it’s a damn good scene, but there was nothing that actually surprised me or had any real kind of impact. I knew what was going to happen and I watched it happen, and that was that. The episode was completely defanged by spoilers – knowing the upcoming events lessened the experience of them.
Meanwhile, while I also knew exactly what was coming in Season 5 of Buffy, it still managed to completely blindside me. It still managed to shock and upset me – to twist at my emotions in unexpected ways. Spoilers mean nothing here, because The Body is such an astounding episode of television, and handles its subject matter in such an unexpected way. In fact, it’s probably the most powerful depiction of that subject matter that I’ve ever seen.
That would be pretty incredible on its own, considering what kind of show this is – but for Buffy to hit you with this on the tail end of the sex-robot episode, and to immediately follow it up with a naff rubber monster in a naff polystyrene cavern (followed by another sex-robot episode) is frankly insane. And yet somehow it all works!
In the end, Buffy‘s ultimate trick is subversion of expectations. Every step of the way, this series surprised me. Whether it’s telling weird, crazy monster stories, dealing with the stark, haunting reality of The Body or, often, contrasting both within the same episode, this programme never does what’s expected. It takes things we think we know – vampire lore, teenage relationship dramas, television conventions, tone, even its own plot spoilers – and turns them into something unexpected, unique and constantly surprising. It is masterful television.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of our universal geek reference-points. Now, after Season 5, I think I finally understand why.