Love at Stake
It’s been twenty years since Buffy Summers won the “Class Protector” award at Senior Prom, but her legacy never even slows down. Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997. Every week for the first two seasons the show opened with the words, “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” In those two sentences, notice that the words “one” and “alone” both appear. The Slayer’s life was supposed to be one of isolation. However, both the series itself and the lead character lasted because of strong relationships.
Buffy Summers is a teenage girl who wants to live a normal life. She wants to shop, drive, date, and be a cheerleader. Unfortunately for Buffy, she has been gifted with supernatural powers that allow her to successfully fight and slay all things supernatural. She is the one and only Slayer, and slayers don’t usually live past their teens. Upon her death, another slayer will be called upon to continue the work.
But Buffy has an advantage many past slayers have not had—community. After being expelled from her high school in Los Angeles, Buffy moves to Sunnydale, accompanied by her clueless but loving mother, Joyce. Within days, Buffy has acquired the following: a weird guy named Angel who is very cute but only talks to her to deliver cryptic warnings; a bossy Watcher named Mr. Giles (the Watcher is supposed to train and guide the Slayer); and two best friends, Xander and Willow, who begin by calling themselves “the Slayerettes” but soon switch to the more gender-neutral name, “the Scoobies.” Over seven seasons, the Scoobies grow in number, with Buffy, Xander, and Willow being the core, constant members of the group.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which will henceforth be referred to simply as Buffy, began as a show built on metaphor. For many of us, high school was terrible. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, built the show exploring what it would be like if high school really was, literally, Hell—or, at least, built on a Hellmouth, to which demons and vampires are drawn. Everything that happens in early seasons of Buffy is a metaphor for some aspect of adolescent experience. In later seasons, the show becomes less obviously metaphorical and more about its own mythology, but metaphor always remains an integral part.
The Slayer is always alone and she always dies young. That’s the deal. But Buffy creates her own destiny instead, insisting on as much normalcy as possible and on having friends and even, eventually, having a romantic relationship with a vampire (Angel, and later on, Spike). The series is at its best when her connections to people are strongest and at its worst when she starts to actually believe that maybe she is really alone (see: Season Six). Buffy survives because she has friends and family of both blood and of choice. She survives because she loves romantically and platonically. As Spike puts it in “Fool For Love”:
The only reason you’ve lasted as long as you have is, you’ve got ties to the world. Your Mum. Brat kid sister. Scoobies. They tie you here but you’re just putting off the inevitable.
Of course, we are all just putting off the inevitable. Everyone dies sometime, and in the world of Buffy many people who aren’t slayers die young. But those ties we have on Earth give us a kind of immortality. Jenny Calendar, Joyce, Jonathan, Tara—they affect the Buffy characters they leave behind long after they die, not because of supernatural forces, but because of mundane human memory. And those ties we form on Earth make our struggle possible. It’s not enough to live—we need something to live for, which proves to be the key to Buffy’s survival again and again.
Each of Buffy’s romantic relationships explores love from a different angle that complements the themes of the seasons in which they are featured. Angel, “the vampire with a soul” is the idealized high school boyfriend, and he is Buffy’s primary romantic interest in Seasons One through Three, those of which Buffy is still in the hellscape otherwise known as high school. Buffy adores him in the kind of all-out, all-for-nothing way of first love. Their relationship is melodramatic and often literally life or death. The much, much older Angel often does things that he thinks will be best for Buffy without talking to her first. His time as Angelus (his soulless, murderous persona) and Angel’s eventual departure to Los Angeles leave Buffy with emotional scars that never heal, just like most people carry emotional scars from the the deepest heartbreaks they experience.
Despite the faults of their relationship, Angel brings qualities that Buffy searches for and fails to find again for years. Angel never competes with Buffy. He understands her role as Slayer and is at peace with it. He’s not insecure about the fact that, as the Slayer, she’s even more powerful than he is. And although Buffy is the center of Angel’s world, she’s not the only thing in his world, and he never resents the fact that she has other priorities. Like Buffy, he understands that “the mission is what matters.”
Riley, the college boyfriend, gives the viewer the chance to explore what it means to be “family” in Buffy’s life as a young adult. Riley appears in Season Four, where he represents Buffy’s desire to explore life beyond her high school norms. His involvement in a paramilitary group called The Initiative gives Buffy a chance to try slaying as part of a heavily armed team, but it also causes her to drift away (temporarily) from her high school friends.
The relationship continues into Season Five, where the theme of familial love is most directly explored. In the episode “Family” in which Buffy tells Tara’s father that the Scoobies are “family,” Riley is the only current Scooby who is missing from the scene. Riley is competitive and insecure about Buffy’s fighting capabilities, and as a former soldier he craves stability, discipline, and order, qualities that Buffy and the Scoobies famously lack. Having broken away from The Initiative, he longs for a replacement family but can’t find a place in the chaotic Scooby group.
Buffy clearly cares about Riley, and when he’s in crisis she drops everything to help him. Alas, in Season Five, Buffy is beset with crises including but not limited to a new magical sister, college grades, a sick mom, and a conflict with an actual deity who wants to destroy the world. Therefore, as soon as Buffy has dealt with Riley’s immediate crisis she runs off to handle another one, leaving him drifting. With no mission of his own, Riley can’t accept that no one person will ever be the absolute center of Buffy’s life.
Spike, a vampire, appears in the series as Drusilla’s boyfriend. Spike and Drusilla are clearly deeply attached to each other, but their love is selfish. When Spike drives away with her at the end of Season Two, he’s doing what makes him happy and assuming that this will, eventually, make Drusilla happy. His romantic feelings for Buffy are initially similar. He is capable of empathy and self-sacrifice, but for the most part he wants what’s best for him, not Buffy. Not until the final season is he able to consistently display selflessness—love, empathy, and caring without expectation of return:
When I say, “I love you,” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy.
The romantic relationships on Buffy are legendary, but the core relationships are those between friends, specifically Buffy, Willow, and Xander. Sometimes they work as friends and sometimes they don’t. Periodically they drift apart, or fight. However, they are almost always able to set conflicts aside in the face of crisis and they always share appreciation for one another’s best qualities.
Xander and Willow have their own lives and relationships, but they share Buffy’s sense that “the mission is what matters.” At the same time, they serve as important balancing agents for each other when one or the other goes overboard in service of the big picture or an individual need. Over and over again, the show gives us versions of Buffy without friends (Kendra, Faith, the version of Buffy in “The Wish”). Over and over it is proved that Buffy’s friendships are her greatest superpower. They watch her back in both practical and emotional ways even as they have their own lives and goals.
The show takes pains to demonstrate love in many forms. In the course of the show, we see again and again the importance of love in the sense of self-respect, as in this amazing exchange from “Becoming, Part Two” (Season 2, Ep. 22):
Angel: No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?
Additionally, Buffy is the only character with family stability, and that stability comes from her mother, Joyce. Despite having “read all the parenting books,” Joyce is sometimes a not very good mother, but she’s completely consistent in her love for Buffy, and later for Dawn, Buffy’s magically introduced sister. Joyce’s nurturing gives Buffy a safe haven while the appearance of Dawn gives Buffy someone to take care of. Buffy’s memory of meeting her baby sister for the first time includes her saying “I could be the one to look after her, sometimes.” Her subsequent desire to look after Dawn shapes the rest of the show.
Like any family, either related by blood or by choice, the bonds are sometimes dysfunctional, but they are solid in their support for each other against outside threats, to such a degree that Xander literally saves the world in Season Six by using The Power of Friendship to calm a grief-stricken Willow. Giles is also family by choice, becoming a father figure to Buffy. While Giles is demanding in his expectations, he is also unwavering in his support of Buffy. We should all be so lucky as to get this Dad talk:
Do you want me to wag my finger at you and tell you that you acted rashly? You did. And I can. I know that you loved him. And, he . . . he’s proven more than once that he loved you. You couldn’t have known what would happen. The coming months are, are going to be hard, I suspect on all of us. But if it’s guilt you’re looking for, Buffy, I’m not your man. All you will get from me is my support. And my respect.
At the very end of the series, almost no one is in a romantic relationship. The fact that we can have a happy ending to the show without everyone being paired off is both unusual and important, since it shows that romantic love isn’t the be-all and end-all of existence and that other kinds of relationships have value. But the fact that the characters actively express hope for romantic love shows that romantic love is still a Very Important Thing. It also cements the idea that, for the first time, our characters feel secure about having a future in which they can hope to live for a long time, and they can have more freedom in their choices.
With all that said, though, Buffy is limited in many troublesome ways in its approach to relationships. Despite being revolutionary at the time, the way Willow’s sexuality is portrayed is deeply problematic today, including the omission of bisexuality as an option and the “bury your gays” death of Tara. There’s a lot of slut shaming. People are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted (magically) in ways that are never properly addressed or labeled as rape (for instance, Riley by Faith and Buffy by Dracula and, especially weirdly, Buffy and Riley by a haunted house). These flaws, and others, have been rightfully called out by critics, some at the time of airing and others over the course of the last twenty years which have brought greater awareness of the importance of representation and intersectionality.
However, certain core aspects of the relationships in Buffy stand the test of time. The relationships on the show that are most valued are ones that are selfless (such as Spike’s love for Buffy in Season Seven as contrasted with his selfish obsession with her in earlier seasons), that involve unconditional love (Joyce’s love for her difficult daughters), and that involve partnership and consent (Willow and Tara, after Tara sets clear boundaries with Willow). Above all, Buffy posits that people need people. They don’t need perfect people, just flawed, weird, messy, complicated people who say “I love you,” many times and in many ways.