What ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ can teach us about surviving the apocalypse

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' can help guide us through this tumultuous year. (Photo via YouTube)

Over the course of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seven-season run, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the titular slayer, saves the world at least six times. 

In Buffy, the world is continually at the precipice of demise. Vampires prowl the dance floor at the local nightclub, scouting for perfumed teenage necks. Demons and ghosts lurk around every school hallway, waiting to drag students under the ground. Potential prom dates issue scathing rejections. Buffy loses her virginity to her boyfriend, who subsequently sheds his mortal soul, takes up psychopathy and snaps the neck of her chic computer science teacher (I mourned the outfits, along with the character). 

And, there is the “Hellmouth”: a literal opening to hell underneath the school library that constantly threatens to rear up and engulf the town. 

This summer, I rewatched Buffy. Despite the time passed since its original airing — more than 20 years — Joss Whedon’s show remains almost clinically addictive. The few weeks it took me to finish the series passed in a hot swirl of hyper-focused nostalgia; by the end I was shaky, bleary-eyed and slightly removed from reality. Given the present reality, that was the intention. 

But I didn’t feel better. I’d forgotten how depressing Buffy can be — how each season builds on itself, accumulating into a much darker show than originally seemed possible. The first season is a campy adventure, following Whedon’s initial vision for the movie of the same name. Buffy is a fashion-forward high school student who is the latest in a long line of slayers —  young women protectors tasked with ridding the world of vampires and other supernatural evil. In every generation, there is a Chosen One. 

By season six, Buffy has died and been resurrected twice, and she’s engaged in a mutually abusive relationship with a soulless vampire, whom she belittles and beats senseless at every opportunity. Her mother is dead of an aneurysm, and her best friend, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), is spiraling out of control due to an unchecked addiction (to magic, but an addiction nonetheless). Everyone — including the viewer — is depressed. 

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Whedon is notorious for making his TV characters suffer beyond human capacity. Buffy is a master class in bad things happening to good people. 

Sometimes, it feels like Whedon has been show-running this entire year.

We are as close to an apocalypse as I have ever witnessed in my young life. More than one million people have died of COVID-19 globally. Our president, who recently tested positive, seems to be on a cheerful rampage to infect as many people as possible in his path, even as he fights to breathe

And does anyone even remember when San Francisco residents awoke to blood-red skies last month?

If this was the Buffyverse, we would all be sharpening our spears and grabbing our crossbows. 

In the second-to-last episode of the fifth season of Buffy, titled “The Weight of the World,” Buffy lapses into a catatonic state. It is the eve of the show’s fifth apocalypse, and an evil hell-god named Glory has kidnapped Buffy’s sister, Dawn. 

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Willow magics her way into Buffy’s head and enters a dream sequence, in which Buffy stands at a bookshelf and calmly slides a book into its place, over and over. After a few rounds of this surreal repetition, Buffy pauses, her hand still on the spine of the book. 

“This was when I quit, Will,” she says.

“Just for a second. I remember. I was in the magic shop. I put a book back … And then it hit me. I can’t beat Glory. Glory’s going to win.”

“This is — all of this — it’s too much for me,” Buffy tells her friend. “I just wanted it over.”

Though ostensibly a reaction to a specific apocalypse, this moment is really more about Buffy as a character than anything else. She has saved the world countless times, and yet still, everything is at stake. The world keeps needing to be saved. For a split second, she loses hope. 

I looked up from my screen and around my clothes-strewn room, and wondered if I, too, had lost hope a little. 

My mother spent the entire summer giving me week-by-week updates about the COVID-19 case count.

“Cases are going down in many states,” she’d tell me, and I’d grimace at her fragile optimism. 

“It doesn’t matter,” I’d respond. “It literally doesn’t matter — they’re gonna shoot up again in the fall.” 

I was right. But did it matter? When we quit, do we also surrender our ability to enact change? 

At the end of season five, Buffy dies. She sacrifices herself to save her sister’s life. It’s a perfect ending to a hero’s journey.

And then she comes back to life. For two more seasons. 

Some viewers choose to see the season five finale as the last episode of the series. It doesn’t make sense that Buffy should die a hero’s death and then come back, depressed, only to get a bad haircut

But there’s something about the imperfection of these last two seasons that rings true to life. After the good, there is always more bad. The world doesn’t close on a pitch-perfect series ending. It just keeps happening. So how do we keep saving it?

My favorite moment in season seven is in the series finale. 

At the brink of another apocalypse, the Hellmouth has reopened — Buffy realizes there is only one way to save the world, again. She must instill other girls with the power of the slayer, a power that was once reserved for and forced upon only one. 

“In every generation, one slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule,” Buffy says. 

With the help of Willow’s magic, they manage the feat; every potential slayer inherits the power to defend themselves, and together with some of the new slayers, Buffy stops the end of the world. 

Slayers, of course, are the stuff of TV myth, and there is no opening to hell waiting to swallow D.C.

But there is another small apocalypse approaching — the election. And there is another kind of power that all young adults now possess: the vote. 

I know what Buffy would do.

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