A while ago, I wrote a Facebook observation about one of the (many) reasons the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is so compelling to me:
Jacob and I are rewatching Buffy and I realized one of my favorite things about the Buffy/Angel universe: Nearly every character is expected to be capable of great things. . . . The show demonstrates over and over again that people are capable of change, of rising to the challenge, of choosing to be the best version of themselves. That's a philosophy not a lot of other TV shows hold, and I think it's one of the reasons this show is as inspiring to me as it is.I wanted to expand a little bit on this. (Definite plot spoilers ahead. If you don't want the show spoiled for you, then you should probably skip this... but then go watch all of both shows and come back and read this. :-P)
As I said, this is true of nearly every character, but I want to concentrate on a few of them.
I've long said that Spike has one of the all-time best character arcs on TV, and I still think that's true. Joss Whedon himself says he feels like Spike is the most fully developed of the show's characters. The changes this guy goes through! He starts off in season two as a ruthless but somehow still very likable villain -- but there's no denying he is the villain. In season four, he's the comedic sidekick; in season five, he's the awkward guy with a crush; in season six, his ruthlessness comes back to haunt him, and in season seven, he's a broken, flawed man desperately trying to be a hero.
While his roles in seasons four and five are kind of thrust upon him, one of the reasons the oft-hated season six is one of my favorites: we see a lot of characters really needing to wrestle with who they are. It was easier for Spike to avoid his vengeful, hot-tempered when he was literally incapable of hurting humans, or when in the giddy throes of infatuation with the one person he could hurt, and he just sort of slid into the "good guy" role... but old habits die hard, and when things got tough, he suddenly found himself reverting to the cruel viciousness of the murderer he was for so many years.
The final episodes of season six and seven, however, showcase this theme that I love about the show. Spike could easily have just gone along with the patterns he was familiar with, distanced himself emotionally from everyone he used to care about, and take the much more straightforward path of anger.
But he wants to be more. He's willing to be tortured, rejected, and killed to be a good person.
He begins the show immature, easily infuriated, abusive, probably even evil -- but he is capable of better.
Admittedly, I wasn't a huge fan of Cordelia on Buffy, but she really came into her own on the spin-off show Angel. Here again, we have a character who ends up drastically different by the end than she was at the beginning,
Cordelia was never truly evil as a character, mostly just shallow and self-centered. Though she spent a lot of time hanging out with the Scoobies and helping them out, especially in season three, she was still flighty, vapid, and mostly uninterested in anything with substance, and there was a sense that she was going to be like that forever.
Angel changed all that. Right from the beginning, Cordelia found herself needing to make adjustments to her regular lifestyle and take charge of her own life. As the show went on, what was narcissism became confidence and boldness, what was flightiness became a refusal to get bogged down in pessimistic murkiness, and what was selfish pushiness became determination that she used not just to further her own ends but to help those around her.
She's not my favorite character on either show, but it was Cordelia's transformation that made me first realize this theme that is so common to this fictional universe. It's less surprising on a nerdy show like this that the nerds would rise to triumph... but it's nice to know there's room for the popular people to be soldiers for good too.
This past weekend, I went to the Wizard World convention in Columbus, Ohio. One of the guests was Emma Caulfield, best known for her work on Buffy, and I got to go to her panel. As people lined up to ask her questions, person after person shared how Anya had inspired them, encouraged them, and been a role model for them in one way or another. As they asked her all sorts of deep questions about her character, one answer kept coming back to them: "I mostly just thought she was funny."
Anya is a big part of the Scooby gang in later seasons, but there's no doubt that her primary purpose is to be the comic relief. One of the amazing things about this show, however, is that characters are never just funny -- or, really, just anything. While the actress may have focused mostly on the comedy, since that's what she played most of the time, the audience picked up on something more, even if it wasn't always explicit.
In Anya, Whedon created a character struggling to make sense of the world around her. If she was less confident or cared more about what the people around her thought, she'd be a much more tragic character than she was, but she was bold, fully convinced of her own awesomeness, and had no problem saying that the human way of doing things was stupid.
The one moment everyone goes to when they talk about Anya as a serious character is her monologue in "The Body," and there's a reason for that. It's the moment when we as an audience (and the rest of the Buffy gang, I think) realize that despite all the funny situations where Anya is frustrated with the way the world works, there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. I have no doubt that a lot of people can relate to that, especially if they struggle socially -- they feel like the rest of the world is operating according to a code that they never learned and can't interpret. Anya's occasional breakdowns make her relatable, while her dogged determination to make sense of the world gives hope.
While Willow, Xander, and Wesley all have a similar transformation, I think Willow's exemplifies this most strongly. She starts off as a shy, conflict-avoiding outcast who's really only ever had one friend in her entire life. As she grows and learns, she discovers she has power -- not only internal power, discovering who she is and what she wants and how to deal with rejection and pain -- but actual tangible power.
She's another reason season six is one of my favorites. While the Buffy characters are all capable of great things, Willow has a period of time where she is capable of great but terrible things. The final few episodes of season six are fascinating to me because while the Big Bad switches from Warren to Willow, their stories are actually very similar. They were both outcasts, both people who found a group, both people who realized they were smarter and more powerful than anyone knew. But while Warren surrounds himself with people who enforce his sense of entitlement and his hatred, Willow's friends are able to bring her back with love.
While so many shows portray geeks and nerds as people stuck in their own patterns forever, good with technology but unable to grow as people, Whedon is fantastic at creating nerdy characters who rise above their labels and discover that they are more.
The Buffyverse is full of unlikely heroes. It may be pessimistic about the impending apocalypse or our chances for living if we choose to fight (we see most of these characters die), but it is incredibly optimistic about redemption, second chances, and hidden depths. Buffy reminds me that everyone has the potential to be or become more than what they seem. Nobody should be dismissed as anything less than that.