(Throwback Thursday) Buffy's "Empty Places": Deconstructing Merit, Luck, and Betterment

August 31, 2017

I'm not much for uploading old photographs or videos, but I would like to get all of my blog posts in one place. Thus, "Throwback Thursdays" will be for metas, rants, reviews, and the like that have already been written elsewhere---primarily on tumblr. Due to tumblr's specific culture (well worth discussing at another time) there's often a slight difference in the language and tone of these posts. That is, less "professional teacher" and more "exasperated fangirl." Both are useful in their own right.

 

So, without further ado: 

 

Originally posted: April 8th, 2017 

 

Anyone who’s spent five minutes with me knows that I love ranty metas, and Buffy’s “Empty Places” is something I’ve wanted to tackle since the moment I finished it. However, rather than try to unravel the entirety of that shit-show, I want to focus in on what Anya says near the end of the episode.

 

You really do think you’re better than we are. But we don’t know. We don’t know if you’re actually better. I mean, you came into the world with certain advantages, sure. I mean, that’s the legacy. But you didn’t earn it. You didn’t work for it. You’ve never had anybody come up to you and say you deserve these things more than anyone else. They were just handed to you. So that doesn’t make you better than us. It makes you luckier than us.

 

Here Anya lays out three important questions that I think are crucial to interpreting the Buffyverse.

  • Did Buffy “earn” her power? 

  • Is she “luckier” than her friends? 

  • Is Buffy “better” than her friends? And what exactly does “better” mean in this context?

Honestly, I still stand amazed that Anya can even voice the first two questions among Buffy’s friends and not get immediate, wicked backlash. Admittedly her use of “luckier” could be interpreted to mean “randomly,” but her word choice is still significant. Buffy is by no stretch of the imagination lucky. Does her calling give her purpose? Yes. Does it give her cool superpowers? Absolutely. But none of these benefits are free gifts—they’re balanced, even outweighed, by her responsibilities. This calling means that Buffy has no other options in her life, no career or family as a ‘normal’ person would experience it. Her powers are to keep herself and others safe, not to have fun with. Buffy didn’t win the freaking lottery here, this life was forced on her.

 

Throughout the entirety of the series we see the others’ (realistic) jealousy of Buffy: Cordelia views her as a threat to her popularity, Willow as the ‘cool’ girl she always wished she could be, Xander resents that Buffy always has the power to help, and Faith has a whole plot-line devoted to her jealousy, yet at no point does anyone acknowledge that Buffy is only the “lucky” one when things are going their way. They want to help, but they know she’s the only one who can finish things. Buffy announces that she’s the only one who can finish things… and everyone’s hackles go up. They don’t want her responsibility; they also don’t want to acknowledge that her responsibility makes her different from them. You can’t have it both ways. To say nothing of the fact that the rest of the Scoobies can leave any time they want. They can walk away from this life (as Giles largely did). Buffy can’t. She’s not the lucky one, she’s the one who’s trapped.

 

Now, did Buffy earn her power? Oh boy. Again, I don’t know how Anya can even ask that. Did she earn the power prior to receiving it? Perhaps not, but Buffy has absolutely earned her right to it since. She gave up the social life she desperately craved, a college education, she killed her boyfriend for the greater good, was ready to kill another friend (Anya) if the need arose, Buffy died, twice, and stuck around after she was wrenched out of Heaven to keep fighting the good fight. I honestly wanted to ask in that moment: what more do you expect of this girl?

Furthermore, there’s evidence that Buffy did ‘earn’ the Slayer power right from the start. She was chosen. Why? We don’t know exactly, but out of ALL the other Potential girls in the world Buffy was the one the legacy activated and I personally think she was chosen for a reason. It’s also telling that Season 7 throws Buffy into a houseful of other would-be Slayers and essentially let’s us compare them. One girl runs away. Another commits suicide. The others force out their leader and walk into a trap. Did Buffy make a lot of the same mistakes at their age? Yes, but it’s also worth considering that these girls aren’t ready in the same way she was at fifteen, that some might not possess the fortitude to be the Slayer, that seven years ago the magic chose Buffy for a reason. She was the one most suited for the position.

 

So is she “better” than her friends?

 

After Anya gave her little speech I had one, significant sentence running through my head:

 

Buffy is the only one who hasn’t been corrupted.

 

To lay out just a few examples:

  • Giles rebelled as a teenager by summoning a horrifying demon that eventually killed his friends. Buffy rebelled as a teenager by demanding that she get to go to the prom or out on dates with Angel.

  • Willow takes away the consent of her girlfriend, her friends, nearly kills Dawn, and when she suffers the loss of a loved one immediately seeks revenge, going so far as to try and destroy the entire world (something I think the show let’s her get away with far too easily). Buffy loses her mom and though there’s no person to seek revenge on, she also doesn’t release her anger on other innocents.

  • Years ago Anya happily chose to be a vengeance demon. She spent a thousand years torturing and slaughtering who knows how many. After being left at the alter she immediately turns back to those ways and attempts to seek vengeance on Xander (and please picture for a moment how she might be received if that episode hadn’t been played for humor. If the whole ‘you can’t seek your own vengeance’ rule wasn’t in place and Anya had succeeded in killing Xander). She proceeds to murder a group of college boys before turning back to the good side.

  • Faith’s entire storyline revolves around her going dark. We can come up with endless justifications for her—from a terrible childhood to not fitting in with the Scoobies—but the fact remains that she is a clear foil to Buffy: the ‘bad’ Slayer to Buffy’s ‘good’ one. Ultimately, no one forced her to adopt that role.

  • Andrew very happily goes along with all the tormenting Buffy/killing women/taking over the world stuff, showing not an ounce of true remorse. Despite all his claims of ‘coming over to the light side,’ the only reason we’re given for him joining the gang was because he killed his only friend, was kidnapped by them, and literally had nowhere else to go. He’s not necessarily a ‘good’ guy now, he’s a lonely guy sticking with the only people capable of protecting him.

  • Xander and Cordelia are outliers in that neither ever achieves any real, formidable power (at least not on Buffy), but what power they do accumulate they don’t use well. Xander casts love spells, the magic equivalent of roofying a girl, deliberately falls asleep while he has the responsibility of watching Oz, or lies to Buffy to help get Angel killed. Cordelia uses her social power to harm everyone around her, as often as possible. 

 

What I’m getting at is that most of Buffy’s friends go through the same sequence of events: free will + power = a decision that harms others to an extreme degree. The free choice aspect is important because I there are only three core group members that don’t fit this pattern: Oz—who resists being a wild werewolf, locking himself up so he doesn't harm others—Tara—who carefully controls the type and extent of her magic—and Spike—who never does anything of his own free will, if we buy into the Angel/Angelus dichotomy that the show initially set up (and then admittedly muddled with Spike). But if we go by that lore, everything he did post-vampirism was the demon. The women he killed with his soul was the First’s doing.

 

Notably, none of these people are in the room with Buffy to back her up.

 

Instead she’s surrounded by others who at one point or another are corrupted by the power they’ve attained. Buffy is living with a group of people who have willfully committed heinous deeds---deeds she’s forgiven them for---while they’re more than happy to toss her out the second she makes a mistake with actual consequences. Importantly though, Buffy never goes down the road they did. To my recollection the closest she gets is with Faith—“We are better than them”—but even then all Buffy does is loot a deserted store, playing at the ‘bad girl’ role without ever actually becoming her. Or, as some have argued, she tries to kill Faith, but that's only after Faith fully joins the Big Bad and the group is faced with the threat of a rogue Slayer. Given their abilities, a Slayer should be treated like any other supernatural being on the show, and that's exactly what Buffy does. When Faith threatens humanity Buffy tries to take her out. 

 

Now does she make mistakes over the years? HELL YES, but unlike the others they’re always made with good intentions. Buffy releases Spike because he’s needed and she honestly believes he’s not a threat anymore. She gets some of the Potentials killed because she’s trying to save the world. She pushes everyone away and acts ‘cruel’ because she’s told time and time again that that’s what they need—an unfeeling “general.” At every turn Buffy puts the greater good above her own needs and desires, from the small (dropping out of college) to the unfathomably large (killing Angel, dying twice). Is this ‘realistic’ characterization? Perhaps not, but it’s what makes Buffy the hero of the tale. No matter what she’ll always put others before herself and do whatever is required of her to keep them safe. 

 

Honestly, her friends can’t claim the same. 

 

So yeah, in this respect I’d say Buffy is “better.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload