Sunday 29 July 2018

So here’s the part where you make a choice

Art is entirely subjective. The value of a piece of art, to any individual, is derived through a combination of subjective meaning and the talent of the creator. Of course, what constitutes ‘talent’ is, also, entirely subjective. When I use the word ‘art’, I’m talking about any creative output, from a literal piece of art, to a screenplay, to everything in between. The example I’m going to use to demonstrate my argument is from a television show. And yes, I do mean Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, before you groan loudly, roll your eyes, and close this tab, just, calm your farm, and hear me out, because, I’m not really talking a TV show here. I’m using an aspect of it as a metaphor to tell a bigger story about the importance of subjective meaning and why art, the analysis and interpretation of it, is so important to our personal growth and perspective on the world. So, ner.

When it comes to any work of art, inferred meaning is everything. The intended meaning of an artist is interesting, but it’s also somewhat irrelevant. I know some people argue that intended author meaning should be of great importance to the reader/viewer, but, why? When you create something, it has personal meaning, but once it’s out there in the world as an independent text, it’s not yours anymore. I mean, it’s your intellectual property, but you can’t control how any individual will interpret it, that’s on them. Their perspective will be based on everything that they are and everything that they’ve been through, and all of that has nothing to do with you. Sometimes the meaning will be similar, but that’s only because there are so many commonalities to human experience.

The down side of personal inference is that certain toxic ideologies can and will use various works of fiction to reinforce their skewed world view. This always leads to cries of ‘video games are creating serial killers’ and ‘slasher horror is validating sexual violence’ but all of that is just… nonsense, basically. People can, and will, infer anything from anything, the author’s intent is neither here nor there. So you can choose to get outraged if you want, but, unless you want to get all book-burning-Nazi-Germany about it, mostly, it’s better to let it go. You don’t get to define what is art, or, rather, you do, but only what art means to you personally, not what gets to be considered art by the rest of the world.

People with horrible ideologies latching onto ideas that weren’t intended by the creator is part of the cost of art. Once something is created, it’s bigger than the individual that created it. But this is also the magic of art, that people can find meaning in it that is relevant to them. Art allows people to experience, through safe degrees of removal, what life can be for others whose worlds are completely different to their own. This is done through the reader/ viewer/ whatever making a connection between what they are witnessing and their own life story. The more you vicariously experience other people’s perspectives, the more common ground you will find between diversely different people, and the stronger your empathy can grow.

Literally my whole tertiary education was based on the idea that literature can and should be analysed for meaning. The issue I ultimately had with the approach to analysis taught at university was the idea that some interpretations are more valid than others, and that in order to arrive at an interpretation, you had to base that interpretation on existing ones. This annoyed me a great deal, because it defeats the whole purpose of personal connection to creative output. The reason why you can have a feminist reading, a Marxist reading, and a racial reading of the same text and find them all to have validity is because stories are essentially metaphors, and we can apply metaphors to the myriad of life experiences.

The other subjective aspect of art is the perception of talent. Our favourite creators will usually have a degree of talent in their chosen medium that we admire or even envy. When talking about the skills that go into creating a piece of art, there a bazillion things we could discuss, but the one I want to focus on that I feel is highly relevant to our interpretation of text, is the manipulation of perspective. This is the idea that the creator controls what information we are privy to in a story in order to create a particular point of view in the person experiencing it.  

When thinking about manipulation in a story, a few particular examples come to mind, just off the top of my head: City of Glass by Paul Auster, Complicity by Iain Banks (come on, you knew I’d mention him at some point!), various episodes of Black Mirror by Charlie Brooker, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson. In each of these stories, the creator controls not only what information you are privy to via the use of first person narrative, but goes on to alter the perspective to bring you ever closer to, or further away  from, the full facts of the situation. This has the effect of forcing you to consider another point of view, so by the time your perspective shifts, you’ve already empathised with characters than turn out to have been either completely unreliable narrators, or not the person you thought they were. I love this trope because it complicates traditional concepts of good and evil and asks you to look at things from a different perspective. Often, it completely blurs the line between protagonist and antagonist, one of the best examples of this being Chuck Palanuik’s Fight Club. Waking up to realise that your own worst enemy is yourself, this is probably the most powerful metaphor there is when it comes to relating art to your own life.

But what I want to share with you today is my interpretation of the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I really am going to try to avoid spoilers where possible, because if you’ve not seen it, I really do recommend that you do one day. But, similarly, I can’t fully avoid spoilers because without them, this isn’t going to make much sense!

There is so much I could say about the last two-episode arc of Buffy, and the run up to it, there’s probably a thesis in it, just sayin’… not that I’d do that. Probably… probably not. No plans to at this stage, anyway. But I don’t want to put you through that right now, I just want to get to the heart of what the last scene of the show made me feel. To clarify that, I re-watched the last two episodes, and in reflecting on them, I realised that the two character arcs I really wanted to focus on belonged to Buffy and Willow.

Why the first ending wasn’t the end, and why this works – not overthrowing the hero dies trope, but the death doesn’t have to be literal (or, in this case, permanent)

Joss Whedon always says that he wrote two endings for Buffy. The first one came at the end of Season 5, Buffy sacrifices herself to save the world. She did it because there was no other way to prevent the apocalypse. This particular apocalypse anyway (Buffy being the only show that required a plural for apocalypse). This was an especially bad… apocalli? Apocolli?, and she didn’t have a choice.  Or, rather, she did have a choice, she could have sacrificed her sister instead, but, that’s not what heroes do. Also, that’s not what sisters do, as a general rule. Not good ones anyway. Buffy’s realisation at the end of S5 is that her love for her sister is her gift to the world.

This could have been the end of the story, a beautiful and fitting end, the hero dies saving the world, the ultimate sacrifice. But then the show got picked up by another network. This meant that Joss had to bring his hero back from the dead, to keep telling her story. This wasn’t such a difficult prospect in the supernatural Buffyverse as you might think because Buffy follows comic book rules, which is nothing more or less than you’d expect from a comic book nerd’s own storytelling.

Buffy is a show about consequences, and Season 6 was all about consequences. S6 is, just, mucky as fuck. That really is the best way to describe it. The writers break the characters down, with stories about addiction and self-loathing, and the fallout of trauma. It was hard for fans to watch their beloved heroes pull themselves apart, to explore the uglier aspects of themselves, and just generally go about screwing up their own lives and the lives of each other. Willow becomes a more powerful magic user and unlocks some uncomfortable doors that take her to some dark places, and Buffy struggles to reacclimatise to being a human after knowing what waits for her on the other side.

The characters’ respective dives toward rock bottom culminate in the mortal shooting of Willow’s girlfriend, Tara. Tara’s death is not supernatural, therefore Willow can’t bring her back from the dead, and this pushes her entirely off the deep end. In a fit of rage she sets out to resolutely fuck up the world. Xander is the one who manages to stop her in the end, using their lifelong friendship to appeal to her humanity and bring her back from the brink. Buffy, meanwhile, was mostly too distracted with her anxiety over whether life was still worth living to be the hero in that instance. Her final realisation at the end of S5 being that life, for as painful as it can be, is indeed worth living, and she is willing to fight for it again.

As you can imagine from what I described above, S6 was unrelentingly painful to watch at times, not because it was bad storytelling but just because it hurt to see characters I love in that much pain.  I also found it more difficult to relate to this part of the story when I first watched it. I mean, I was 17 at the time, so my extent of understanding of some of those themes was pretty limited. I’d only just started having sex, let alone had a grip on the psychology behind toxic, self-destructive fuck spirals.  But when I look at this season through the perspective I have now, I understand that this was a necessary path of growth for all of those characters. This part of the story smashes apart the idea that ‘evil’ is all about the ‘other’ and that a hero is always going to be ‘good’. Buffy and Willow have to face the darkness in their own hearts, their own mistakes and corruptions, and this is shown as being the hardest fight of all.

If we consider this story arc against the Hero’s Journey, Buffy has died, if not literally, then she has died to the old. What she has experienced has changed her, the same for Willow, as they are both tempted from their paths. Whedon continued with the standard hero tropes, and S6 is kinda like his Empire, this is where he breaks it down, knowing that he has another series to build it up again.

Okay, stuff you kinda need to know before I continue, plot wise: a long time ago, when demons still walked the earth, some shamans kidnapped a girl and cursed her, putting part of a demon into her. This made her strong enough to fight the demons for them. From then onward, into every generation a slayer was born, a reincarnation of that first kidnapped and brutalised girl. It’s an endless cycle, and their death is the only thing that triggers the creation of the next slayer. At the start of S7, lots of ‘potential’ slayers, girls who might be the next chosen one, come to light, and they start to be hunted down and killed by some eye-less monk-looking dudes. Buffy rounds these girls up, at first to protect them, but when they find out that those same eye-less dudes are creating proto-vampires (who look suspiciously Orc like) she decides to train them in an attempt to fight back. As the series progresses, we find out that all of this is the work of an entity known as The First Evil, who has decided to show up in the final act to bring about the apocalypse. But, like, super really this time.  Ah… what else? The Hellmouth is located at Sunnydale high school, and by this point in the story, all other residents of Sunnydale have evacuated except for our heroes.

The smashing of the established tropes – demonstrating character growth through self-awareness

Buffy’s main source of pain throughout the show is the fact that she is alone in her burden of being the slayer. Because there can be only one at any one time. Yes, technically, because Buffy has a habit of dying, there are two, because her (first) passing activated her successor, but the other slayer, Faith, turns evil for an extended period so isn’t really a great deal of help, and even when she is back on the redemptive arc, she’s not really leader material. Buffy always end up being the one to carry that mantel.  

The First Evil is connected to all other demony-things in the world, and it can, and often does, appear to our heroes as incorporeal manifestations of dead people. Usually dead people they know, for extra manipulation. This is, of course, done to play with the emotions of the heroes and undermine them with a barrage of threats and mind games (as Buffy suggests, its nickname should really be the ‘Taunter’). The First often chooses to appear to Buffy as herself, because, as discussed, Buffy has died a couple of times now, and for much of this season, this dark mirror image is quite effective at fanning the flames of her own self-doubt.

The pressure of being the chosen one and leading an army gets to Buffy, and she disappears, leaving her counter-part Faith in charge. Spike finds Buffy, they spend a night together, she has an epiphany, and then she leaves him to return to deal with the consequences of Faith’s (meanwhile) disastrous attack on the First. Buffy then goes to one of the big bad’s strongholds, only to find a scythe stuck in a stone, which she quite literally ‘King Arthurs’ out of it.  

When Spike and Buffy reunite, after much awkward ‘what did last night mean to you? Not that I even care’ business, Spike admits the following:

‘I’ve lived for sodding ever, Buffy. I’ve done everything. I’ve done things with you I can’t spell, but I’ve never been close to anyone, least of all you, until last night. All I did was hold you, watch you sleep, and it was the best night of my life. So, yeah, I’m terrified.’

Later, when Buffy returns to the baddie hold-out to try to find some more information on the scythe, she finds yet another kind of watcher figure, only this time female, who says that they have been protecting that weapon for her for a long time. But in addition to being told that the scythe is super powerful (well, duh), she reminds Buffy that she ‘already has weapons’, HINT HINT, before this character is immediately murdered by another agent of the First.

Angel then turns up just in time to watch Buffy rescue herself, and Whedon does the necessary fan service of having them talk about the possibility of being together again (despite there still being the same vampire-human barriers to a successful long term relationship, but whatever, it’s the finale, yo) Buffy responds with a speech on how she’s ‘cookie dough’, and essentially hasn’t done baking yet. Which is, just, utterly good advice that all young people should follow, but inevitably won’t. I sure as shit didn’t. This speech is a mirror to Spike’s earlier one. The idea that neither Buffy nor Spike feel ready or comfortable with loving or being loved gives a lot of context to their previous actions. It strikes me that falling in love, with somebody else, with yourself, and I mean really in love, could take a lifetime, if ever, and we don’t have more than one of those. Sooner or later, we have to make choices. But an awareness of those underlying drivers, and waking up to how they are directing your perception of reality, is the beginning of change.

After this self-realisation, Buffy stops focusing on how things have been, and starts to think about how they could be. The First appears to her again and taunts her with the fear that has sat on her shoulders for years now, ‘Alone, there’s that word again, what you are, how you’ll die: alone.’ This time, however, Buffy listens to the fear behind the threats, rather than her own fears, and it is implied that in this moment, she has the idea of how to end it. We know this from her turning to Spike and saying 'I just realised something, something that never really occurred to me before - we're gonna win.'

It’s from here on in that Whedon starts messing with what information we are privy to, because Buffy’s plan is not revealed until near the end of the last episode. We are also given some situational set ups that play on our expectations based on past experience of these characters. At the end of the first episode, we are set up to believe that Spike will make another bad decision in the wake of his perceived rejection in favour of Angel, and it’s set up that Buffy will once again disenfranchise her sister by trying to protect her rather than allowing her to make choices for herself. 

Then almost immediately into the next episode, each of those expectations are smashed. Spike and Buffy talk, Dawn takes control and shows up for her sister. These subversions of potential dramatic distractions are dealt with in casual, comedic conversations. The red herrings of what might affect the ending are tied up with the characters’ personal demons, but these characters have changed, they’ve grown, we know they have because we’ve watched them grow. What triggered them before won’t trigger them again, and what this subtly sets up is the expectation that, whatever is going to happen next, will be a subversion of what has come before.

Taking the fight to them: how personal agency is achieved through making choices

We go into the final battle only knowing that Buffy intends to go into the Hellmouth with her army and end the fight with the First once and for all. And we know that whatever is going to happen will involve a lot of magic and that Willow is going to have to perform it. We know this because we’re shown Buffy’s inner circle’s reaction to her plan, without hearing it ourselves. Buffy then shares her plan with the wider group and the potential slayers, and we are shown the first part of her speech:

‘I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there’s evil, and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish a whole lot of the time that I hadn’t been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn’t been either. This isn’t about wishes. It’s about choices. I believe we can beat this evil. Not when it comes, not when it’s army is ready, now. Tomorrow morning, I’m opening the seal. I’m going down into the Hellmouth and I am finishing this once and for all. Right now you’re asking yourself, what makes this different? What makes us anything more than a bunch of girls being picked off one by one? It’s true, none of you have the power that Faith and I have. So here’s the part where you make a choice…’

We’re not shown the second part of her speech until the battle is underway, and we’ve witnessed the slayer and her team beaten down by the army of proto-vamps, and Willow is gearing up her spell. Willow makes a choice here to go back into the very power that corrupted her before. In her own words: ‘the darkest place I’ve ever been, this is what lies beyond it.’ But we are told that in order for the plan to work, she has to do this. The key point is that the Willow doing this now is not the same Willow from before, she’s seen the terrible consequences of her darker half, and has learned from her mistakes. This time, Willow embraces her power and re-frames it, and instead of becoming a black eyed, veiny witch monster, she is enfolded in light, her hair flows white, and with a cry of ‘Oh.. my… God’ we are shown the second part of Buffy’s speech

'So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? Into every generation, one slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman here is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer, will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one. Make your choice, are you ready to be strong?’

As we hear these words, we watch the spell work and the power of the slayer reach not only all of the potentials in the fight, but all the ones they haven’t found yet. Some of the images border on a bit twee or on the nose, but, trust me, the show really did earn that pay-off.

Closing the Hellmouth – it’s the end of the world as she knows it, and she feels fine

Between this and some nifty work with a shiny gem and an en-souled vampire, they defeat the First’s army and the Hellmouth starts to close in on itself, dragging the whole town with it. The surviving characters jump onto a school bus and drive away as fast they can, no Buffy as yet, and Dawn keeps vigil at the back of the bus, staring out of the window, desperately trying to spot her sister in the chaos. Buffy sprints across rooftops and eventually jumps onto the roof of the speeding bus, clinging on as they power out of the fallout zone.

For Buffy, her loneliness drove her to an understanding that she wants to connect, and more than that, she wants to change the circumstances of her situation, to take back control of the destiny put on her. She does that through making a choice, and encouraging others to make their own choices, and the ripple effect of this empowerment changes the world around them.

My favourite scene in all of Buffy is the last one. The thought of that one image and how it made me feel, prompted me to write this blog. Once they’ve driven clear of the damage, and they turn back to survey the black hole where their home used to be, the gang start to ask questions, and gradually they all start to ask of Buffy, what do we do now? They ask Buffy for answers because she’s always been the leader. But Buffy’s not the only one with power anymore, and the focus of her life, from the moment she arrived at Sunnydale, is suddenly gone. As Faith puts it ‘you're not the one and only Chosen anymore. Just gotta live like a person. How's that feel?’ The camera closes in on Buffy’s face, and as the other characters continue to debate the situation behind her, Buffy stares off into the horizon, as a slow smile begins to spread across her face… then it cuts to black. I love this moment, because the question of what happens next is never answered, it never has to be. The question that’s being asked by the viewer, is the same question being asked of the viewer, now that the past is no longer holding you back, what’s next? One choice creates a world of choices, and you can feel that, as the realisation spreads across Buffy’s face.

How much of the above Whedon intended is his own business. My interpretation of this story that I’ve loved for so many years now, is a reflection of my current thinking, and my perception might continue to change as I continue to change. This is why art is so important, why it’s so meaningful, because if a story means enough to you, it almost acts as a barometer of perspective, and you will always come back to it to help you to work out what’s going on with you now.

I always remember my sixth-form English teacher being amused at how my interpretation of Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb changed significantly based on my relationship status. I once over argued that the moral of the poem was evidence that despite our self-destructive tendencies, love is the only thing left in the end that transcends time. To only then later insist that the whole poem was about how love is a lie we keep telling ourselves, and it’s our dogged determination to hold onto the concept that perpetuates it. Which interpretation is correct? Both, or neither, but I could give you a convincing case either way, based on analysis of the text. It’s the personal inference that we take from art, that gives it meaning to us. For me, Buffy has always been about subverting expectations, finding our personal power, while not losing our humanity or our humour. The fact that Whedon went on to write a finale that doesn’t end in death, but in hope that life might have something awesome to bring next, makes it one of my favourite endings of all time, and how I feel about that ending is a reflection of how I’m feeling right now. Finding a metaphor to relate to what I’m going through, is a way of abstractly working through my emotions and perspective, and this is one of the reasons why interpretation of art is so important to us as individuals, because it helps us to make sense of where we have been, and, ultimately, to work out where we’re going.


I’ve included below the Larkin poem I was talking about, leaving it for you to interpret in your own way, if at all. I’m mainly doing this because, personal meaning aside, Larkin was a master at showing how incredible the English language can be at expressing an idea, when in a good pair of hands.

An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends could see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

References: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S7, E21 End of Days, and E22 Chosen.

No comments:

Post a Comment