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Smart Pop Classics: Love Saves the World

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. In “Love Saves the World” from Seven Seasons of Buffy, Jean Lorrah argues that the love shared by Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Giles is real and lasting, and constitutes a family more stable and loving than most blood families. And how, at the end of season six, their love saves the world.

There is only one thing on Earth more powerful than evil, and that’s us,” Buffy Summers says at the end of “Bring on the Night” (7-10), verbalizing the theme that has held Buffy the Vampire Slayer together from its inception. Who are “us”? By the end of the series, Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Anya, Dawn, and Spike, with the extended family of the surviving Slayers, Faith, Principal Wood, and even Andrew. The first four have been part of “us” from the beginning, while the others have replaced some of the original members of this odd little self-made family.

In his commentary on “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” (1-1), on the first season DVD release, producer Joss Whedon says: “The idea of this band of . . . outcasts being the heart of the show and . . . creating their own little family is . . . the mission statement of the show.” The theme of a chosen rather than blood-related family develops throughout the first six seasons of the series, until it risks destruction in the final episode of the sixth season, “Grave” (6-22). Yet family is what saves the world at the end of season six and, perhaps more than ever before, the redemptive power of that family is shown in the seventh season events that follow. The final episode even has the title “Chosen” (7-22), as Buffy’s chosen family defeat the final assault of evil in Sunnydale.

At the end of the sixth season, Willow, in a paroxysm of grief over Tara’s senseless death, decides to destroy the world. For the first time, the traditional destructive force comes not from without, but from within the group. Jacqueline Lichtenberg, in her essay “The Power of Becoming,” has addressed the question of why Willow, who may have misused her powers before but was never a deliberate threat to innocent people, reacts in such an unexpected way. What I want to address is why the world is saved this time not by Buffy, not by the team destroying some outside evil, but by the power of love, in this instance represented in Xander. Only Xander, often considered the weakest of Buffy’s cohorts, can reach and persuade Willow, because he and Willow share a lifelong bond that is closer than that of traditional brother and sister.

Xander often articulates the ongoing theme of understanding and forgiveness of anyone who is accepted into this circle of friends. In the fifth-season episode “Into the Woods” (5-10), when Riley is leaving, Xander tells Buffy: “You’ve been treating Riley like the rebound guy” [he means rebound from Angel, of course], “when he’s the one that comes along once in a lifetime. If he’s not the guy, if what he needs from you just isn’t there, let him go. Break his heart, and make it a clean break. But if you really think you can love this guy . . . I’m talking scary, messy, no-emotions-barred need . . . then think about what you’re about to lose.”

Buffy is too late to stop Riley from leaving her life, and when she next meets him in “As You Were” (6-15), he has begun his own family by marrying someone else. That episode only makes sense in light of Riley’s failure to become a part of the nontraditional family at the heart of Buffy. The fact that he consorted with vampires is no reason that he could not be forgiven and restored to grace—look at Angel, at Anya, and, in the seventh season, Willow and Spike.

There is a pattern repeated time and again in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: if someone is a member of Buffy’s family, then it doesn’t matter how far into the dark side that person treads—it is always possible to be forgiven and restored to the family. Only people outside the family do not have that option. Cordelia, hardly the personification of Evil to begin with, was the first to be so redeemed—and look what she has gone on to in the spinoff, Angel. Angel was next, paying with his soul for seducing the underage Buffy—disguised in the text as the curse that would not allow him to be happy, which somehow got that celebration of Buffy’s seventeenth, not eighteenth, birthday past the censors. Note the parallel in Buffy’s relationship with Spike: Angel’s rape of Buffy was statutory; Spike’s attempt, although unsuccessful, was literal. In both cases, what followed was repentance, absolution, penance, redemption, and restoration to the family. Angel then goes off to create his own family, where we see the same pattern of “membership = forgiveness” that we see in Buffy, while in “Chosen” (7-22) Spike becomes a Champion, the conduit for the power that destroys the Sunnydale Hellmouth, a willing sacrifice that we recognize as a transcendence. If Willow becomes a goddess in the series finale, Spike becomes a saint.

Let’s examine this changing but all-important chosen family. When the series opened, Buffy was the daughter of a newly divorced single mother—hardly an unusual situation in the 1990s. However, she has consistently demonstrated her inability to form a traditional romantic relationship with an appropriate partner, being primarily attracted to the very vampires it is her destiny to slay. Her lasting relationships are not romantic ones—it is doubtful that Buffy will ever marry.

Yet Buffy heads a family—one no more dysfunctional than the ones we meet every day. The Scoobies at first consisted of a Slayer, her Watcher, a computer geek, a nerd, and a valley girl. All were human. Soon, though, Angel, the vampire with a soul, became the first nonhuman addition to Buffy’s created family. Then came Spike, the vampire who never could be as evil as he wanted to be (consider from first appearance his gentleness with Drusilla). Spike was thrown onto the mercy of the Scoobies and became one of them when the chip was put in his head. He was joined by Anya, a vengeance demon turned human, and finally Dawn, the innocent creation who had no knowledge that she was not really Buffy’s little sister but a “key” made to gain what each season’s primary villain wants: world power. In the seventh season, extended family are added—sort of aunts, uncles, and cousins—as Principal Wood, Faith, and Andrew join along with the Potential Slayers to form a united front for the final battle.

Dawn is the only member of the family who did not begin as a human—all the vampires once were, and Anya was at one time a woman who wished for the ability to take revenge on men. But Dawn begins as no more a person than the Buffybot: a creature made for a single purpose. By the time the Scoobies work out what Dawn is, the power of their love and acceptance has made Dawn so real that Buffy cannot allow her to be destroyed. And, of course, Buffy’s sacrifice of herself to save Dawn parallels the sacrifice of Christ and other redeemer figures: if Dawn was not “real” before that sacrifice, she certainly becomes so then. Although it has never been articulated this way, I think we can assume that Buffy’s sacrifice provided Dawn with a soul.

It is Dawn who brings Spike into Buffy’s family circle: Dawn trusts him, Spike loves Dawn like a daughter, and Buffy needs him to protect Dawn from both Sunnydale’s usual dangers and the truth about her origins. The death of Buffy’s mother ends the last traditional family blood tie (for Dawn, as explained above, is not really Buffy’s sister, but, like Pinocchio, has been turned into a real person by love). Now everyone in Buffy’s family is there by choice. And while all this is happening, Willow slowly turns from computer wizard into a real wizard—that is, into a dangerously powerful witch, at the same time falling in love with Tara and bringing her into the family in the closest thing the series has seen to a successful marriage.

In the sixth season one theme that has been slowly working its way through the series reaches its culmination: with the departure of Giles, all the former adult authority figures are gone and Buffy is left with the responsibility of caring for Dawn and continuing to save the world while coping with earning a living by flipping burgers, paying taxes, keeping a roof over her own head and her sister’s, and falling into an uneasy relationship with Spike.

The sixth season explores this nontraditional family not only through Buffy’s struggles to be a mother figure, but through the comparison of three relationships: Buffy and Spike, Xander and Anya, and Willow and Tara. Clearly the healthiest relationship is that of Willow and Tara: Buffy’s attraction for Spike culminates in his attempting to rape her when she tries to end it; Xander is only too easily tricked into leaving Anya at the altar (after which Anya only too easily first has rebound sex with Spike and then returns to being a vengeance demon); but when Willow and Tara get back together in “Entropy,” neither has done anything irredeemable and everyone rejoices.

Nevertheless, the family is disintegrating. Angel is gone permanently, Cordelia with him. Oz and Riley never do succeed in becoming family members. Anya and Spike betray the others, and Tara’s death releases Willow’s power in an act of despair. The world threatens to end, just as it does at the end of every season, but this time not only is there no unified family of Scoobies to combat it, but the threat comes from one of their own. Xander’s weakness prevents the marriage that might have become a strong center, leaving Anya so demoralized that she has rebound sex with Spike, who is rebounding from Buffy. Spike’s despair when their discovery prompts Buffy to reject him with no apparent chance of redemption leads him to attempt to rape her—all in a direct line not caused by but made possible by Xander’s leaving Anya at the altar.

But if Xander’s weakness is the efficient if not the material cause of the disintegration of the central Buffy family, his strength begins the restoration through his bond with Willow. While he may not be ready to be a husband, he certainly knows how to be the brother Willow needs to bring her back to humanity. As if to highlight the fact that the central family story of the sixth season is different from anything seen on Buffy before, the season’s villains, a trio of inept nerds, mock the repetitive action structure of the series. Every season there is some new Evil force out to destroy the universe. In the sixth season, it is the comic relief previously responsible for such inventions as the Buffybot and the invisibility ray who attempt to become a major force for Evil. They can’t—they may have high IQ’s, but they have neither common sense nor savoir faire. It is by accident that they unloose the Evil in Willow—Evil from the midst of Buffy’s family.

Buffy is no match for Willow—she can only try, unsuccessfully, to prevent her longtime friend from performing acts that are, in truth, unforgivable—such as torturing Warren and then executing him by skinning him alive. After that, Buffy is preoccupied with trying to save Warren’s two cohorts. Giles acquires special powers with which to attack Willow, but he can only make her emotionally vulnerable to Xander. It is then up to Xander to reach Willow; if he can’t, the world ends.

At the end of “Grave” (6-22), Xander says to Willow, “The first day of kindergarten, you cried because you broke the yellow crayon. And you were too afraid to tell anyone. You’ve come pretty far. Ending the world, not a terrific notion. But the thing is, yeah. I love you. I love crayon-breaking-Willow and I love scary-veiny-Willow. So if I’m going out, it’s here. If you want to kill the world, then start with me. I’ve earned that.” And despite her protests, he keeps repeating, “I love you,” until Willow collapses in tears and returns to herself.

It really shouldn’t surprise us that Xander can reach Willow. It was established early in the series that they are closest of friends, and articulated in the third season, in “Amends” (3-10), when Willow was concerned about her relationship with Xander when she was dating Oz. Buffy told her, “Xander has a piece of you that Oz just can’t touch.” The love between Xander and Willow long predates Buffy’s arrival in Sunnydale. It is agape, true friendship, and this love, not any ass-kicking by Buffy, saves the world.

The seventh season’s villain is a return visit of The First Evil from season three. Why the repetition? Have the writers run out of ideas? I don’t think so; I think they are highlighting themes that have been backgrounded in the past, and showing that what is happening as the characters grow older is also that they grow. The repetition shows us not a circle, but an ascending spiral.

Buffy and her friends have changed drastically over the past few years. Buffy is finally successful and comfortable in her role of mother figure, although she is disconcerted when actually taken for Dawn’s mother. She has been given the job of guidance counselor at Sunnydale High—an adult job. The new principal, instead of considering her either a juvenile delinquent or an enemy, respects her as an equal. The high school is open, although parts of it are still being rebuilt—and Xander, after a long series of dead-end jobs, is now in a position of adult responsibility as the head of the construction crew. Willow returns, but has to earn her place in this family again. Anya does penance for briefly becoming a vengeance demon again. Spike returns half mad with having his soul restored—something The First takes advantage of—but he is restored to sanity and far more by the end of the season. Like Willow, Spike becomes transcendent in the final episode: each transformed in a different way through Buffy’s acceptance, they once again save the world.

The Buffy family reinvents itself, just as at the beginning of the first season Buffy’s own family had been broken, and she had to create a new one. Halfway through the seventh season, Spike redeems himself in Buffy’s eyes—in “Never Leave Me” (7-9) she tells him, “I saw you change. I saw your penance.” He accepts it and then lives up to it—in “Bring on the Night” (7-10), he refuses to return to evil. The First in the form of Drusilla (who does not fool Spike for a moment), asks him what makes him think he can “be any good at all in this world,” and he replies, “She does. Because she believes in me.”

The redemptive power of love is articulated in traditional fashion: Spike’s soul is restored, which makes him once again capable of sin (as opposed to simple evil). He falls prey to The First because he is in a sense innocent, newly reborn, while at the same time he is an experienced adult subject to adult temptation. He kills. His need for human blood is portrayed as an addiction, which he can overcome through withdrawal, unlike Willow’s magic, which is an essential part of her and must be controlled, not left unused. Spike’s redemption is actually easier than Willow’s, but in the end Spike can only be a martyr, while Willow becomes a goddess.

Spike confesses to Buffy. She forgives him. She calls it penance, but actually she grants him absolution—his penance is the withdrawal agony followed by torture by The First. At the end of “Showtime” (7- 11), Spike is indeed restored and Buffy takes him home.

Willow is useful, but is not completely restored to the family until the series finale—both she and others are afraid that her powers could run rampant again. Anya says she, Willow, and the rest of the Buffy family are responsible for the breach in the fabric of the universe caused by their resurrection of Buffy at the beginning of the sixth season— but it was Willow who led them in that venture.

Giles, once a father figure to Buffy’s family, returns with several young Slayers-in-training—but it is Buffy who has to demonstrate that if they work together they can win: “If we all do our part, believe it, we’ll be the ones left standing.” As for Giles, his role has changed drastically. He now treats Buffy as an equal, and until the great betrayal scene in “Empty Places,” he lets her lead the fight against The First while he attempts to find and prepare the young potential slayers.

Buffy, Xander, and Willow remain to the end at the core of the family, with Anya still a trusted member and Dawn increasing in strength and confidence. Spike is restored, and when Angel returns to offer himself as Champion, Buffy reminds him that he has his own front to maintain against evil if hers fails, and sends him back to the family he has created in Los Angeles. All of Buffy’s immediate family take a parental role with the apprentice Slayers. The central characters have moved from being high school kids with parents or parent-figures in the first season, to all taking the role of parent-figures themselves in season seven—just as happens in traditional families, the children evolve into adults, and in return take responsibility for new children.

Xander’s relationship with Willow saved the day at the end of the sixth season, but the series ends with a group effort, the central family of kids who had to grow up too fast in the first two or three seasons dealing with the Potential Slayers who have to grow up even faster.

In the last few episodes Buffy’s chosen family is tested nearly to destruction. The young potential slayers squabble and rebel against authority like any group of teenagers. Faith returns, redeemed in her own way, and is accepted into Buffy’s family only to betray it by undermining Buffy’s authority in “Empty Places.” However, Faith quickly recognizes her inadequacy as a parent figure.

Buffy is compared to King Arthur in the final episodes, from her sending Angel away because it is her fight, not his, right down to pulling the weapon with which to defeat The First out of a stone. However, that weapon on the one hand is not a sword but a scythe, the weapon of the Grim Reaper, and on the other hand is not wielded alone: when Buffy is wounded in battle and thinks she cannot continue, she tosses it to Faith. And there is the crux of the difference between Buffy and Arthur (or any other hero of the monomyth): Buffy defies the tradition that has the hero of the monomyth dying in the final battle by fighting alone or with only a single faithful companion at his side. Like a mother providing for her children, Buffy shares her power and survives.

Arthur’s round table was his family, and Camelot ended when Mordred succeeded in dividing the ranks of that family. Dawn would be the obvious Mordred analogue, but instead Faith is brought back, Buffy’s evil twin, as it were. Faith’s betrayal, though, this time lasts only one night; the very next day she cedes authority back to Buffy, sisterhood is restored, and Buffy resolves the problem in a way that would never have occurred to Arthur: she gives her power to all the potential slayers, thereby changing the very laws of her universe.

The only person with the power to confer such powers is Willow, who has not conjured such power since she almost destroyed the world at the end of season six. A year later she redeems herself and becomes a goddess, transforming all the Potentials into slayers, and making it possible for them to hold back The First until the surviving members of Buffy’s family can escape.

However, the Hellmouth has been irrevocably opened. In the monomyth, the hero dies saving his society. There is no saving Sunnydale, most of whose citizens have left anyway. Only Buffy’s family can be saved, and not without sacrifice. More than half the Potentials die in the fight, as does Anya. But Spike achieves transcendency. If there is any question in the mind of the audience that Spike had redeemed himself (there is plenty in the mind of every character except Buffy), it is dispelled when he becomes the conduit for the energy that destroys the Sunnydale Hellmouth once and for all.

Buffy’s surviving family escape, ironically, in a Sunnydale High school bus, and pause to take stock. Buffy has come full circle in one sense, but spiraled higher in another. She is once more part of a broken family, one that has lost many of its members not to divorce but to the finality of death. The members of that yet again broken family must move on—some of them possibly to Cleveland—and build new families as Buffy built hers in Sunnydale and Angel his in Los Angeles.

But Willow is now a force for Good as powerful as any Evil they have fought in the past seven years, while Buffy, who may not have the sheer power that Willow wields, is the inspirational force whose idea has permanently changed the universe she lives in. Buffy, Willow, Giles, and Xander, the only survivors of the original Buffy family at the beginning of the seventh season, have all survived to fight again. Xander, despite losing an eye, is still the one who sees clearly, and the one who keeps up everyone’s hopes.

Redemption and survival seem to be the final themes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made possible through the creation first of the tightly knit central family, and then the extended family that can even admit and protect a weak link like Andrew.

A highly untraditional family, perhaps, but a successful one because of its bonds of love.

New York Times best-selling author Jean Lorrah is the author of the award-winning vampire romance Blood Will Tell, the award-winning children’s book Nessie and the Living Stone, and the acclaimed Savage Empire series. She is co-author of First Channel, Channel’s Destiny and Zelerod’s Doom, part of the cult classic Sime~Gen series.

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