Two years ago, when Buffy the vampire slayer died, the words "She Saved the World a Lot" were carved onto her tombstone. Of course, she got better, and in death and resurrection, she kicked ass, cracked pop-cultural puns, and, most important, found herself at the center of one of the most stylish and, in its own strange way, subversive shows on television. Well-acted, well-written and shot through with some of TV's sharpest dialogue, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ends its seven-season run May 20, was an oasis in prime time.
For those unfamiliar, Buffy, set in Sunnydale, California, a city suspiciously like Orange County, is the story of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a former cheerleader who learns she's next in an ancient line of vampire slayers, one girl in all the world born with, as the character liked to say, "the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil, blah, blah, blah. I've heard it, okay?"
That's the character in a nutshell: brash, sarcastic and heroic. Indeed, much has been made of Buffy as feminist, of a powerful female lead who's both easy for young women to identify with and not overdetermined by her romantic relationships. Good stuff, to be certain. What doesn't get a lot of press, however, is that Buffy is at its best when it's either skewering TV viewer expectations or taking aim square at society's powerful.
Unlike the world Fox News tries to present, Buffy's world was dangerous long before Sept. 11. It's a place where authority cannot be trusted, where violence at best draws a stalemate for the forces of good, and where everyone—no matter how horrible their past—can be redeemed by love. It's a surprisingly charitable theme. But in a world in which we're frequently told to trust authority above individual conscience—that there's better living through violence and that some people are irredeemable—it's also subversive.
Consider some of Buffy's offerings from the past seven years: an outwardly affable mayor who, in his quest for power, was prepared to consume children and destroy the town; U.S. infantry who, intending to "rid the world of evil," produce greater horror; a young lesbian presented as normal human being instead of a sexless Will & Grace inhabitant; a mass-murdering vampire driven by love to reclaim his soul; a grief-filled witch driven to mass destruction by the murder of her lover, pulled back from the abyss by the love of her friends (accompanied by a not-so-subtle Biblical observation from Buffy's sideman, Xander: "You're not the only one with powers, you know. You may be a hopped-up überwitch, but this carpenter can dry-wall you into the next century").
And all conveyed with wit rather than arrogance.
"It's about power," says Buffy at the beginning of this final season. "Who's got it . . . who knows how to use it." But if one thing has been evident, it's that power doesn't come from superstrength, magical abilities, high-powered weapons or political appointments. Power comes from love—love for friends, family, significant others, the world, the kind of love that canmorph monsters or pull people back from self-destruction. The kind of love that, as a Jewish carpenter once tried to point out—and as the self-proclaimed Christians in Washington seem to have forgotten—can save the world. A lot.
The series finale ofBuffy the Vampire Slayer airs on UPN. Tues., 8 p.m.