The Chosen One by Emma Theresa Jude

Good and Evil in the Buffyverse

This article contains spoilers for the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. 

I always wanted to save the world.

As a clever, loud, infinitely annoying child, I read nothing but fantasy from the beginning. I dreamed myself Lyra, destined from birth to change the fate of every world in the multiverse. With Lirael, I trod the border of life and death to save both. I waited, sure – so sure – that my letter from Hogwarts would come. I was Lucy Pevensie, I was Alanna, I was Tiffany Aching; I built my entire personality around stories where I was the hero.

(I said I was very annoying.)

As you grow up, the stories get more complicated, and the Chosen One falls away. No universal law or god plucks the protagonists of Joe Abercrombie’s dark The First Law series out of the madding crowd and bestows on them any kind of destiny – they push and bite, scrapping their way to victory or defeat. We always have the sense that we are simply watching, from the beginning, the story of those who happened to make a difference. In fact, adult fantasy novels that do play with a Chosen One narrative either subvert it, or ring pretty hollow to modern ears. Nobody could accuse the Wheel of Time series of feeling blisteringly contemporary.

And most of the time, I’ve left those heroes in my childhood, the occasional nostalgic reread of His Dark Materials notwithstanding. Life doesn’t work that way.

But that’s all changed for me this year. My entire pandemic experience can be summarised in one TV show, played practically on a loop since I first watched episode 1 in March 2020: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s consumed my life in a way no piece of media has ever done before. And recently, I’ve been trying to understand why.

We made jokes about how this was the strangest apocalypse, back at the start when we were all so frightened. But, honestly, we weren’t wrong. This is the closest many of us have come, and it’s not at all what we thought. Instead of battling hordes of zombies on our way to caches of tinned food, or risking life and limb in a post-nuclear hellscape, the only thing most of us did to fight this thing was stay at home.

Did we even fight it? Again, the narrative is couched in the language of heroism. But on an individual level, the reality was one of tiny grey choices; should I stay home, or go out and support my community? Is it really safe yet to see my friends? Every decision we’ve made for the last year has been about deciding on the lesser of two evils, balancing risk without reliable guidance from the government. What was right was never clear.

Even more, we’ll never know if anything we did mattered. I’ve stayed home for a full year, missed babies turning into children, never got a chance to say goodbye to my grandad, dealt with a life-changing diagnosis alone. But I’ll never know if I really did choose the path of least harm. None of us will ever learn whether our decisions this year saved a life, or if we chose wrongly and handed death and disease to another – or if our sacrifices made no difference either way. The cure is community, and the cumulative actions of all; no single one of us ever truly mattered.

And so; Buffy. In every generation there is a Chosen One; she alone will stand against the forces of darkness. The genre-defying cultural touchstone that is BTVS is a classic for good reason; you could just say I got into it because it’s really, really good. It is. But right now, it’s more than that. Buffy, as the titular Slayer, is chosen. She alone matters, and – by definition – she never has to make a morally grey choice.

This is the central thesis of Season 5 of Buffy, particularly its final, triumphant episode The Gift. When Buffy is faced with the possibility of having to sacrifice her sister to save the world, she tells her father-figure Giles, “I don’t know how to live in this world if these are the choices.” She ultimately chooses her own death to escape that decision. Later in the episode, Giles quietly kills an innocent to prevent a potential future disaster; as he does, he tells the man, “She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” It's a choice Buffy never could have made.

Buffy makes hard choices throughout the series, no question. She kills her love when, under evil influence, he opens a portal to hell. Aged sixteen, she walks knowingly to her foretold death. But there’s always a right path, even if the price is high. And she knows exactly how important she is.

While Buffy herself never deals with these murky choices, the other heroes of the Buffyverse occasionally falter. The final season of spin-off series Angel focused thematically on the classic dilemma of adulthood, attempting to “change the system from within”. The characters accept an offer to take over the shadowy antagonist organisation, bright-eyed with ideas on how to turn it to the good. This turns out to have been a slow-burning apocalypse all along, and the steady corruption of our heroes through complex both-sides choices is the villains’ true goal. Again, the only moral solution to the trolley problem is to throw yourself on the tracks; the gang chooses a suicide mission against insurmountable odds, in all likelihood dying seconds after the closing credits, to gain their redemption by righting the wrongs they have let pass all season.

But to build a world in which the right answers are so clear, if not easy, there needs to be a simple right and wrong. Ursula Le Guin warned us about this, in the afterword to A Wizard of Earthsea: You divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life... All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win. Right makes might.” I fantasise about the simple righteousness of Buffy’s battle in the time of COVID, but stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Watch out.

To justify her clear-cut morality when it threatens characters we care about, Buffy invokes her lonely status as the Chosen One, the Slayer: “There’s only me. I am the law.” Pre-ordained moral authority, bestowed on someone by the nature of their existence? Sounds more than a little authoritarian. And yet, it’s exactly that – to know that your decisions matter, and were the right ones – which I’ve been crying out for this last year.

If I’m going to settle into comforting narratives of good and evil right now, I could have done far worse than Buffy. In spite of the toxic legacy of its most famous showrunner, Joss Whedon, it is a timeless masterpiece, deconstructing these tropes even as it assembles them. But the things that comfort us aren't always healthy. Fantasy is both a window and a mirror: it shows us how the world could be different, but also reflects our desires. I need to remember to watch both images at once. 

Emma Theresa Jude is a geologist by day, fine artist by night, living and working in London. You can find her work on Instagram (and talk to her about Buffy) at @emmatheresaartist and on Twitter at @EmmaTheresaJ

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