The Existential Joss Whedon: Evil And Human Freedom in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly And Serenity

Don’t go away!

OK, a reasonable response to this book title might be “How geeky can you get‽” I mean, the pop-culture-plus-intellectual combo inherent in The Existential Joss Whedon: Evil And Human Freedom in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly And Serenity will turn a lot of people off, but any fan of Joss Whedon will find something to enjoy and something to learn by reading this book, especially if you’re a Buffy devotee in particular. I admit that the title sure looks like something written by a philosophy professor and a literature professor, both of whom must be pop-culture fans.

If that’s what it looks like, then that’s what it must be. Between the two authors, J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb, you don’t need to know which is which. Although there’s no sure way to determine who wrote which parts of the book, there are clear differences between various passages. If for any reason you don’t like academic philosophy, just skip over the more philosophical passages.

Here is some context: One of my activities during the endless staying at home during the pandemic is catching up on old episodes of Buffy and Star Trek. Stay tuned for a later post on Star Trek and its surprising connections with Buffy; this post just concerns the aforementioned book. Fortunately, despite the title, there is very little about Firefly and Serenity, so we can just limit ourselves to Buffy and Angel. So what on earth (or under the earth) do these shows say about existentialism? Inquiring minds want to know! And do we care?

Well, I’m not much into existentialism, even though I certainly tried to understand it, going back all the way to age 14, which was way too young. (I’m still too young for Kierkegaard and Heidegger, but no matter.) Even if you know nothing whatsoever about existentialism, you can still read The Existential Joss Whedon, as authors Richardson and Rabb explain everything as they go along. It’s unfortunate that they start off with a chapter relating Buffy to Russian existentialism — which might not be as difficult as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, but it still makes for a daunting beginning. Let’s quote from a couple of easier chapters. First, we’ll look at Chapter Seven, “Willow and Tara: Love, Witchcraft, and Vengeance.” The opening paragraph, though excessively long (stretching for almost a page and a half), is clear. Here is an excerpt, including slightly more than that opening paragraph:

More typical may be the opening three paragraphs of Chapter 3, “Buffy, Faith and Bad Faith: Choosing to be the Chosen One’:

In this chapter and the next we compare the two slayers, Buffy and Faith, in terms of their existential freedom and moral character.  But wait.  How can there be two slayers when the Slayer is the chosen one and is meant to fight evil alone?  As the opening of each of the early episodes forcefully reminds us, “In every generation there is a Chosen One.  She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the Forces of Darkness.  She is the Slayer” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer opening).  Well it turns out that in the Whedon mythology, when one Slayer dies another is chosen.  In the finale to Season One (1.12, “Prophecy Girl”), the Season’s Big Bad, the Master, succeeds in killing Buffy in accordance with an ancient prophecy, leaving her to drown in a pool of water.  Fortunately, she is immediately found and revived by her friend Xander and thus was clinically dead only for a matter of moments (her boyfriend Angel, being a non-respiring vampire, was unable to give her the kiss of life).  Thus the prophecy was both fulfilled and not fulfilled at one and the same time.  This confuses even the evil Master.  When Buffy shows up for their final confrontation, the Master can hardly believe she is still alive and, referring to the prophecy about the death of the Slayer, says in disbelief, “You were destined to die!  It was written!”  Buffy, true to character, replies, “What can I say?  I flunked the written” (1.12, “Prophecy Girl”).  The brief period of Buffy’s technical death is sufficient to allow the activation of a successor Slayer by the name of Kendra.  It is important to note that Buffy is not the “official” Slayer from this moment on.  Kendra is killed at the end of Season Two and is in turn replaced by Faith.  Buffy, however, while not being the official Slayer, still has Slayer power and, more importantly, chooses to use it for the good of humanity: in short, she behaves as though she were still the Slayer, not “merely” a slayer.  Later, when Faith lies in a coma for eight months and afterwards is incarcerated for a number of years, the Watchers’ Council likewise treats Buffy as though she were still the Slayer and thus under its command, though Buffy, as usual, chooses to follow only those “commands” she herself judges worthy.  As we will see, she is not one to be ordered about.  Unlike Faith, however, she does know where her duty lies.

It is useful to use the character of Kendra to facilitate our discussion of Buffy and Faith.  In “Choosing Your Own Mother: Mother-Daughter Conflicts in Buffy,” J.P. Williams has argued that from the perspective of the Watchers’ Council, Kendra is the perfect Slayer, “solemn, respectful, and efficient…possesses more information about slaying than Buffy…[and] employs that knowledge exactly as her superiors instruct” (63).  In fact, when Buffy discovers that Kendra has actually studied the Slayers’ Handbook, Buffy’s response is, “Handbook?  What handbook?  How come I don’t have a handbook?” (2.10, “What’s My Line, Part 2”).  Giles reveals a lot about Buffy’s character by telling her that the handbook “would be of no use in your case.”  As Williams notes, Buffy develops and utilizes experiential knowledge; on the other hand, Kendra, lacking field experience, has an essentially static approach to slaying entirely dependent upon knowledge derived from what others have told her or from what she has learned from print sources such as the Slayer’s Handbook (Williams 63).  One result of this difference is that Buffy is willing to question orders, whereas Kendra clearly is not.  As Jana Riess argues in What Would Buffy Do?:  The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, Kendra makes some progress under Buffy’s guidance and begins to emerge from the restraints of her “by-the-book slaying,” becoming educated rather than merely trained.  Ultimately however, falling victim to the vampire Drusilla’s hypnotic gaze, “Kendra is killed because,” according to Jana Riess, “she has always obeyed without question and has not strengthened her mind and spirit by discovering her own unique path” (70).  As Jessica Prata Miller confirms, “Kendra lacks moral autonomy not because she memorized the handbook and follows the rules, but because she does so unquestioningly” (46).  Insofar as moral integrity is concerned, Kendra’s moral authority is imposed from the outside, and is therefore not autonomous.

The character of Faith clearly exhibits the important ethical distinction between mere freedom and moral autonomy.  If Kendra is hampered by following external discipline originating from the Watchers’ Council, then Faith is handicapped by the total lack of any discipline whatsoever.  Whereas Kendra has been trained to control and never show her emotions, Faith indulges and revels in hers at almost every opportunity.  She enjoys the activity of slaying, happily admitting that it makes her “hungry and horny” (3.3, “Faith, Hope, and Trick”).  When she first arrives in Sunnydale, Faith regales the Scooby Gang with stories of her previous slayage exploits, including wrestling alligators and nude slaying.  Xander in particular is enthralled by her titillating tale of naked slayage, saying, “Wow. They should film that story and show it every Christmas” (3.3).  Faith’s lack of restraint may be refreshing at first, but it soon reveals its darker sides.  Faith, after all, is the Slayer who goes bad.

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV