"[Buffy's] sort of the nexus, the beating heart of everything I have done — or will [do]" — Joss Whedon
With Buffy the Vampire Slayer currently celebrating its 20 year anniversary, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on some of the reasons why it's widely regarded as one of the best television shows of all time. The series attained a colossal level of popular and critical acclaim, and launched #JossWhedon (writer/creator) to stardom. So, what is it about a teenage girl fighting vampires that could be so overwhelmingly successful? It's simple: The show's got wit, smarts and heart. Perhaps most importantly though, it has some of the most well-conceived characters in TV history.
The writers of #BuffyTheVampireSlayer (almost obsessively) developed and redeveloped characters so that they would grow and change over time in a realistic way. Not only did this make for engaging storytelling, it ensured that each re-watch would be a richer experience than the last. To break this down, let's take a look at the theme of duality as it pertains to the way in which characters mirror each other, and the way in which doubles and doppelgängers draw attention to the complexity of identity.
The Mirror Image: Angel/Spike And Buffy/Faith
The dynamic between characters on the show is just as significant as character development itself, largely because it is through these relationships that the characters are able to define their identities. To make this even more interesting, some characters are developed as mirror images of each other. These reflections offer deeper insight into inherent contradictions within their identities, and is most apparent with two pairings: Angel/Spike and Buffy/Faith.
When we first meet #Angel, his soul (restored as part of a curse) is his defining characteristic. It allows him to be one of the good guys, and he quickly becomes a love interest for Buffy. We take it on faith that Angel is good, and we accept that whatever his past holds, doesn't matter anymore. However, this theory is severely disrupted by the arrival of #Spike in Season 2.
Spike represents Angel's violent past. We learn that Angel is Spike's sire (or, at least, his sire-line); therefore, as Spike terrorizes Buffy and Sunnydale, we can assess that Angel's past actions still have a very real effect on the present. Spike's brutality is a reminder of what Angel is capable of, and of what he really is. This comes to the forefront when, in "Innocence," Angel temporarily loses his soul and reverts to his cruel, psychotic, vampire nature. In fact, his brutality proves to far exceed that of Spike's.
Later on in the series, with Angel away, Spike is given his own "curse": a chip. Like Angel, he is tamed against his will. Still, Buffy is not impressed because his chip is only a physical restraint, not a moral obligation, as is Angel's soul. However, Spike shows undeniable signs of compassion and love, anyways, sparking a complicated romance between him and Buffy. Eventually though, he makes the choice to seek penance and have his soul restored.
With their likeness strengthened, both Angel and Spike continue to resent each other, expressing concern that the other threatens their uniqueness. Even their given names — Liam and William — mirror each other (Liam is the Irish equivalence of William). So, it's understandable that Buffy has such strong feelings for both of them. To take this a step further, in Season 10 (as part of the continuing comic series by Whedon and many fellow Buffy TV writers), Buffy learns that in being sired by Angel's line, Spike was actually inhabited by the essence of the same demon that inhabits Angel. To this, she responds, "I literally fell in love with the same guy twice?" In some ways, yes, she has.
In Season 3, we meet #Faith, the other Slayer. Like #Buffy, she likes to do things her own way. However, where Buffy is inclined to think of her Slayer role as a burden, Faith sees it as a gift. She lives for the hunt and is excited by the kill — turned on, even. While Buffy is portrayed as a twist on the final girl archetype — virginal, kind-hearted, emotional — Faith is a twist on the villanness. What begins as a play on the traditional virgin/whore dichotomy, becomes more complicated when Faith suggests Buffy is more like her than she lets on. The season builds a good slayer/bad slayer dynamic, but throughout the series this contrast increasingly blurs (there's even a body swap episode).
Buffy takes pity on Faith, saying that a few bad breaks and it could have been her to turn out that way. Well, a few bad breaks later, and we definitely see Buffy start to channel Faith-like energy. She may not be a murderer, but some of her choices certainly speak to Faith's theory that the violence is part of who they are.
The heavy-handed Season 5 premier tells us that Buffy shares an affinity with Dracula; that they both have darkness inside of them. Later on in the season, she worries that she is beginning to seek out violence, that she is "hunting," rather than patrolling. What was once used as playful language in Season 1, now denotes a serious problem. Fast forward to Season 6, and now that connection she seemed to have with Dracula very clearly plays out with Spike.
He becomes the only person with whom she can connect, share and spend time with. She is drawn to him because he represents death and punishment, and he to her because she represents life and forgiveness (there's that mirror image again!). Buffy's relationship with Spike is built upon all of the things Faith represented: sexual prowess, attraction to violence and an embodiment of the "bad girl" trope. In Season 7, Buffy even echoes Faith's dangerous words, "We are the law" ("Consequences"), saying, "I am the law" ("Selfless").
By the end of the series, like Angel and Spike, Buffy and Faith are very much threatened by each other. Faith wants what Buffy has, and Buffy is afraid she can take it. Ultimately, both must learn to straddle the line between the contradictory nature of being slayers.
Doubles and Doppelgängers: Willow's Dark Side And Xander's Better Half
The theme of duality is most prominent in the use doubles and doppelgängers, giving the audience an opportunity to see what characters could be like if circumstances were different. What's most interesting about these episodes is the truths they reveal. In the Season 3 episodes, "The Wish" and "Doppelgangland" (both among Whedon's own favorite episodes), we are introduced to alternate universe versions of the characters. Significantly, this includes Vampire Willow, who turns out to be a lot like Dark Willow in the Season 6 reality. In "The Replacement," Xander's personality is split in two, giving him insight into his own insecurities and strengths.
In "The Wish," Cordelia wishes Buffy out of Sunnydale, and we get a glimpse of what the city of the Hellmouth would be like if it were left unprotected. As one might guess, it's not a pretty sight. Vampires and demons run everything, and among the Master's minions are Vampire Willow and Vampire Xander. While both appear to enjoy the thrill of violence, Willow completely revels in it, and is especially keen to do some damage. There is something haunting about this Willow, who is so unfamiliar from the one we are used to. The way she moves and speaks and glares — everything about her is disconcerting, and her difference is far more apparent than that of other characters. Even Buffy, who is much rougher around the edges without the love and support of her father-figure watcher and the Scoobies, is still Buffy.
But Vampire Willow is something altogether different. Or is she? The next time we meet this Willow is in "Dopplegangland." This episode feels like a more poignant attempt to tell us something about Willow's duality. Freed from her moral integrity, Vampire Willow is self-motivated. She takes what she wants, and does not let anyone stand in her way. She works on instinct and desire only. It's actually kind of admirable.
Despite being reasonably freaked out by her doppelgänger, Willow expresses a fascination with her. She recognizes herself in this vampire even though they seem entirely different. This is especially apparent when Willow reflects on her vampire-self and says, "I think I'm kinda gay." The use of the word "I" very much speaks to their affinity. And, of course, only one season later, Willow falls in love with Tara.
Despite saying she never wants to be like Vampire Willow, by Season 6, she is. As her magical power grows, she becomes selfish and gets used to simply taking and having. Following Tara's death, she lets her grief take her over and becomes Dark Willow. Vampire Willow's phrase "bored now" is even re-used here to great effect.
Her own unhappiness is enough for her to justify destroying the world; a tragic metaphor, but also a blatant demonstration that Willow has always had the potential to be dangerous. Consequently, she spends all of Season 7 fighting to be the best version of herself.
It seems fair to say that Xander is one of the least complex characters Buffy the Vampire Slayer has to offer. He's immature, petty, passive aggressive, and jealous — especially when it comes to Buffy. He's rude and arrogant to Angel and Spike, and is incredibly patronizing to his own partners, Cordelia and Anya. All that aside, he keeps saving the world. He's brave, and can be a genuinely good friend. Nonetheless, Seasons 4 and 5 are a strange time for Xander, who is having a really difficult time finding his footing outside of high school.
"The Replacement" is one of the few episodes that forces the viewer to take a step back and think about Xander, and why he acts the way he does. What makes this one particularly special is the appearance of his double, which allows the episode to actively explore the two sides to Xander's character: the idiot, and the hero. At the start of the episode, he's feeling stressed and powerless, and pressure from Anya to find a nice apartment isn't helping. When he is split in two without realizing it, his better-half sets out to accomplish all of his goals. Meanwhile, his lesser-half bumbles around town convinced a demon is trying to steal his life.
To make matters worse, this Xander is left feeling all the more useless when he realizes the "demon" is living his life better than he ever was. In fact, better-half Xander is simply living up to his potential because he believes in himself. His qualities — charm, bravery, the ability to lead, the way he cares about Anya — are all very much a part of Xander. His lesser-half — which is insecure, envious, and cynical — just doesn't realize it. That, as it turns out, is what always holds him back.
Learning that better-half Xander is actually a part of himself sets Xander on a healthier, more successful, path. By Season 7, he even drives a fancy car. Like Willow after facing her dark side, he learns that life is about balance; about figuring out who you want to be as much as it is about figuring out who you are.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses the theme of duality repeatedly to teach this lesson. People are messy, complicated, walking contradictions; it's up to us to learn how to make that work in the best way that we can.
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Are there any other themes or mentions of duality that you picked out that we missed above?
(Sources: Entertainment Weekly)