Did We Have Joss Whedon Wrong From the Get-Go?
A Look At How Whedon’s Work May Never Have Been What We All Thought It Was
Talking with some people I respect a great deal about pop culture, I mentioned my respect for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They told them they’d recently rewatched it and it didn’t hold up nearly as well. Now, they’d given different reactions to the series fairly recently so I thought that this may have been more a case of buyer’s remorse.
Yesterday I read an article about Whedon and how he may have had a negative affect on pop culture and that so much of what we considered great about Whedon at the time and until recently wasn’t as great as we thought. This has led me down a train of thought of my own about some reasonable questions I have had about Whedon and his series over the past couple of years as the record of his sexist and racist behavior towards actors on his set over the past decades has become more and more public. And in turn, it has led me to question whether all of the things I once considered exceptional about Whedon’s series — particularly Buffy and Angel — were actually illustrations of the kind of man he is and the narrowness of his creative abilities.
Now to be clear, I still that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still one of the greatest shows of all time. Regardless of all the problems associated with Whedon the incredible performance of the cast — from Sarah Michelle Gellar all the way down to James Marsters and Julie Benz — were incredible. All of these actors were brilliant, and many of them went on to prove their talent in other ventures. And the overall creativity of so many of the episodes such as the silent movie ‘Hush’, the surreal ‘Restless’, the powerful ‘The Body’ and the unforgettable musical episode ‘Once More With Feeling’ — all written by Whedon — were works of that art that can not and should not be erased from the canon of great television. That said I think there’s an excellent chance we misjudged Whedon’s creativity from the get-go in quite a few ways.
Now as anyone who loved Buffy knows, Whedon said he came up with the idea for the movie that the series was based on by wanting to subvert the horror movie cliché of a teenage girl being stalked and killed by a supernatural creature. He said he wanted to create a world where the girl killed the monster. That’s where Buffy Summers came from, and from that world we got a bevy of strong female characters capable of fighting for themselves, standing up in the face of evil and being bad-asses. Perhaps that’s where we got the now clichéd term ‘strong female protagonist’. It’s certainly the reason that Whedon was considered a ‘male feminist’ and was given an award by Meryl Streep as an ally.
But even if you set aside everything we now know about Whedon as a creative force, how he had affairs with many of the actresses working for him and how he treated Charisma Carpenter when she announced her pregnancy to him just prior to Season 4 of Angel, when one takes a look — not even a close one; it’s pretty obvious just by a glance — at so many of the female characters in Buffy so many of their arcs dealt with them suffering. And I don’t just mean the traditional arcs of how lousy it is to be a teenager. I mean, they went through the kinds of traumas that, if they were viewed on say, one of the other teen shows that were airing on the WB at the time, we would consider them overwrought.
Let’s start with Buffy in Season 5. Her mother Joyce goes through multiple hospitalizations, and is diagnosed with a brain tumor. It is removed, she begins to recover, and then Buffy comes home to find her dead. She then has to begin becoming the legal guardian of her younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) because her father has more or less abandoned them. (He doesn’t even come to their mother’s funeral.) Her ‘normal’ boyfriend Riley leaves her because she doesn’t seem to love him the way she did Angel. In the midst of all of this she is fighting a hell goddess named Glory who wants to find ‘The Key’ (Dawn) and go home, which will destroy the universe. Despite her best efforts Dawn is abducted and she goes into a fugue state after all the trauma she’s gone through. She is told the only way to stop Glory is to kill Dawn, which she refuses to do. In the process of saving her sister the dimensions are opened and Dawn wants to sacrifice herself to close them. Buffy instead jumps into the portal and dies. At the time, it is considered an act of bravery. I always considered an overwhelmed Buffy committing suicide rather than face reality. (We’ll avoid her resurrection and everything else in Season 6 partly because it’s hated by even the most loyal fans of the series and partly because I’ll be dealing with it soon enough.)
And it wasn’t limited to Buffy. During Season 6 Willow (Allyson Hannigan) slowly becomes more and more addicted to magic. Her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) breaks up with her and she sinks deeper into addiction before she seems to come out of it. Just after they reconcile Tara is hit with a stray bullet and dies in Willow’s arms. As a result, Willow goes ‘dark’ , literally skins the man who did it, and becomes so obsessed with revenge that she eventually turns on all of her friends and tries to destroy the world herself. Anya (Emma Caulfield) an ex-vengeance demon who has become Xander’s fiancée is dumped at the altar and becomes a demon again. She has an affair with Spike that is seen by everybody on a video cam. Dawn begins to spiral due to Buffy’s absence and essentially becomes a thief and kleptomaniac.
And less those still dyed-in-the-wool Buffy fans shout out: “But it was Season 6!” these patterns hold up pretty much throughout the entire series. Faith (Eliza Dushku) spends much of Season 3 as being the ‘dark vampire slayer’ and disregarded by ‘The Scoobies’ She eventually works for The Mayor( that seasons ‘Big Bad’ )and Buffy ends up stabbing her nearly mortally. She comes back and is so filled with self-loathing that she switches bodies with Buffy before she eventually does become redeemed. Harmony, a side character, was such a bitchy teenage girl that doesn’t become a better person until she’s killed and turned into a vampire. (Even then, it takes more than four years.) Perhaps the most obvious case of this is Amy Madison. In one of the earliest episodes of the series, her mother uses witchcraft to switch bodies with her and relive her teenage glory days. The next time we see Amy; she not only has learned nothing from the experience but has become a full-fledged witch herself. (The writers thought it would be funny to have her turn herself into a rat and keep her in a cage for three years.)
I realize that is part of the nature of television series to have the characters go through traumatic arcs as part of the plot — drama wouldn’t exist without. And to be fair, there were quite a few male characters that went through similar plots in Whedon’s shows — Angel wouldn’t have existed without it. But there seems to be a substantial disconnect between Whedon being a feminist ally and the untold amounts of suffering he inflicted on the women characters in his series. To be clear this wasn’t just Whedon — the entire writing staff was part of the effort and there were quite a few women writers on the show willing to make the characters suffer.
(Incidentally anybody watch UnReal? You know the Lifetime drama that takes place behind the scenes of a reality show where the producers, mostly female, go out of their way to make the contestants on the show suffer for ratings and are given bonuses for it? One of the creators was Marni Noxon. She wrote for Whedon for both Buffy and Angel and wrote some less than subtle scripts about females being abused. Just saying.)
Now I suppose some people could make the argument that so many of the traumas that these character had to go through in their lives was suppose to serve as a counter-balance to the bigger goals of saving the world, which the casts of both series had to do every season. This actually gets me to my second point — I don’t think Whedon ever considered the world worth saving.
In Angel’s Season 2 episode ‘Reprise’ Angel, who’s been in a spiral for weeks, finally decides to go on a mission to the ‘home office’ of Wolfram & Hart, the demonic law firm that was basically the source of all evil. Angel gets on an elevator (I do love the Muzak that plays all the way down) with Holland Manners, an executive Angel left to be murdered in an earlier episode. (“I’m quite dead. Unfortunately my contract lasts well beyond that.” Manners constantly baits Angel as to what he intends to do when he meets the ‘senior partners’. He tells them they’ve always existed in some form and name checks the Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge. Finally, they arrive — and Angel is right back where he started in LA. And he notices all the horrors that are going on that everyone else ignores. The definition is clear: We’ve been in Hell the whole time.
This is one of the darkest visions that any television writer has ever written about mankind — the next show that went this dark was True Detective. And it almost got completely ignored. Whedon actually would double down on the idea nearly two seasons later. After an epic battle that nearly ended with everybody in the world being a slave, the spirit of Lilah, another Wolfram and Hart employee, comes into Angel’s headquarters… to congratulate them for ‘ending world peace.’ As the senior partners see it — and its pretty clear by now this is Whedon’s vision to — mankind can not survive as an entity unless they completely give over their free will to a completely superior being. (Sound familiar? That’s Loki’s vision for humanity in The Avengers.) In other words all the fighting, all the bloodshed that they have undergone is something that the evil forces of the world wanted were hoping for. As a result Angel and his team are offered ownership of the LA branch of Wolfram & Hart, the entity that they’ve been fighting this whole time. Do they refuse? Are they horrified? Nope, they accept. They all have their reasons, but they accept. They say they’re doing it to try and beat the system from the inside, but by the middle of the final season, they are fundamentally corrupted by being there.
You look very closely at this, and it really makes you wonder what Angel and his friends — and by association, Buffy and the Scoobies — have been fighting for this whole time. (Indeed the fact that one of the things Angel is given is a weapon to help Buffy defeat the great evil she’s been fighting all season drives the point home: the senior partners want the world saved because they want business as usual to continue.) Whedon keeps driving home the fact ‘the fight is all that matters’ — it’s the theme of the final episode. But you get the feeling, as he leads the characters into a battle they will inevitably be killed in, that he doesn’t really believe that.
That’s the thing about Whedon’s work: saving the world is counterproductive. You can actually see in the three major projects he worked on afterward:
Firefly: Takes place nearly five hundred years in the future in outer space. We hear over and over about ‘Earth-That-Was’. Pretty sure that doesn’t mean anything good has happened if they had ever found it.
Dollhouse: A company is erasing the minds of people in order to slowly but surely take over the world. When the series ended abruptly after two seasons, the apocalypse had happened. I’m pretty sure Eliza Dushku didn’t save the world this time.
Cabin in the Woods: Five clichés have to be killed to appease the elder gods or the world ends. One of the ‘victims’ — who has people who love him — decides not to die, because he thinks its time the world be destroyed. The last shot of the movie is of that beginning.
Looking at all of this Whedon looks less like a creative genius and more like a nerd who just wants to write apocalypse fanfic. Now I get why he’d do this — dystopian series are kind of a big deal these days — and I’d honestly rather listen to the dialogue from Buffy then any of the characters on The Walking Dead. But the thing is, at least some of the series involving a dystopia are about our society to an extent. I may loathe The Handmaid’s Tale but I can’t exactly argue that isn’t about themes that don’t exist now. Whedon’s characters may have clever things to say, but all of its about pop culture. There’s nothing deeper to his dialogue than that.
So what’s Whedon’s legacy? I think Buffy gives an idea. In the middle of Season 4, there’s an episode called ‘Superstar’. In this universe, a minor character named Jonathan Levenson (Danny Strong) has somehow become the most important person on Earth. He’s the guy the Scoobies turn to the fight baddies, he’s a movie star, he’s a political a figure — all the women (including lesbians) want to date him and all the men (especially Xander) want to be him. Now this is funny when you learn Jonathan started in The Matrix and invented the Internet, but it’s far less funny when you consider where Buffy herself is.
Detail: Jonathan was a fringe character. His most important moments in Season 3 were ‘Earshot’ where after years of bullying by everybody he’s decided to kill himself before Buffy saves him, and ‘The Prom’ where in one of the great moment in the entire history of the series representing the class, he gives Buffy the award of ‘Class Protector’. In ‘Superstar’, it’s almost casually mentioned that Jonathan has pretty much done everything Buffy did to this point in the series — and that she gave him the Class Protector. In other words, a nerdy white male has superseded all the heroine’s achievements.
Naturally, there’s a spell involved and when it’s reserved Jonathan goes back to normal and Buffy gently chides about what he did and why everybody was angry at him. Lesson learned, right? The next time we see Jonathan, it’s Season 6 and he and two other far less balance nerds have decided, for no real reason, to take over Sunnydale and destroy Buffy. That Jonathan ultimately repents when he learns he’s in too deep is irrelevant. He’s lived in Sunnydale, he knows how dangerous these things are, and he’s decided nevertheless it’s better to be a ‘Big Bad’.
This may be Whedon’s legacy in pop culture. So many of the actors in the series — including Gellar — never did as well again while Whedon despite flop after flop, directed one of the biggest box office hits of all time and conquered medium after medium. All of his flaws — which people like Charisma Carpenter knew about — were either buried or ignored until recently. But unfortunately, the world is now full of showrunners who are still trying to be Joss Whedon. I’d like to think that Peak TV is strictly about The Americans and Atlanta, but it’s just as much about Game of Thrones and The Boys. It’s more about sounding clever than actually being clever, pretending to deal with deep issues rather than actually dealing with them. And if that truly is what television becomes as a result of Whedon, well, to paraphrase a remark he had Giles make at the beginning and end of Buffy, ‘Peak TV is doomed.”