Monday, January 19, 2009

Joss Whedon and James Marsters, "Spike," Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The new season of Battlestar Galactica just launched, and Lost will soon be found again. There’s even another Flight of the Conchords coming. To prepare, I returned to the source of the new golden age of television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I re-watched season five. After Lost, the pacing seems positively stately, with impossibly long scenes for TV. Buffy's still much better writing about, you know, human beings, but the flab within it, the exchanges that are simply pedestrian means of transporting us onto the next interesting moment, is more visible. And yet, Buffy was a deeper character study than even that of Tony Soprano. The Sopranos was brilliant right to the end, but it stopped seriously developing its characters after the fourth season. By then, we knew all we were going to know; what remained was to watch Tony and his associates come to the same realization.

Buffy creator Joss Whedon and his writers (and actors) not only created truly complex characters, but also truly complex people. There was no end to their "development," because there was no end to their lives (until, of course, there was).The character who interested me most in this regard as I re-watched Season 5 (and parts of the subsequent seasons) was the absurdly vain vampire Spike (James Marsters), a cartoon bad guy to begin with who slowly claws his way out of the grave of cliched villainy. Of course, Spike was created to be the most interesting character; but the first time I saw Buffy, back in re-runs on FX years ago, I resisted. Like most nerdboys, my favorite character was Willow, the nerd-witch; but the most interesting character to me was Tara, her shy, clumsy girlfriend. Spike was just too obvious.

Or so I thought. Now, I think Spike may be the emblematic character of the new golden age of television, a character who simultaneously embodies the limits and the possibilities of sequential drama on a small screen.

In season five, we see Spike becoming more and more infatuated with Buffy. He puts a blonde wig on half a mannequin, dresses it up in a turquoise top, and begins developing a relationship. In episode 11, he buys a box of chocolates and practices presenting them to the mannequin in preparation for an apology to Buffy, for revealing to her that her human boyfriend, Riley, is cheating on her with vamps. He imagines her response, and answers; imagines another response, and snaps at her; again, and he smashes the chocolates over the mannequin’s head.

The scene presents a subtle mockery of Buffy and of television. Spike has no difficulty imagining Buffy’s predictable responses; his angry retorts are those of the show’s writers pushing back at the conventions of TV drama. But they’re also signaling a more interesting development. Spike, the buffoonish bad boy, both understands Buffy well enough to play her part in his mind and hates this impotent knowledge enough to react with psychotic rage. Viewers seeing the episode with no knowledge of the show’s future might have thought, “cute, weird, and foreboding.” And all three adjectives are on the mark, but not as one might expect.

Well, one might expect that Buffy and Spike are bound for romance. And they are. But it’s not going to be as simple as the TV conventions Spike tries to smash. Yes, he makes an effort at being a good vampire, but it never really works. He’s not a good vampire. He’s the bad boy character. Granted, in a less imaginative show — The O.C., for instance -- the bad boy would turn out to be misunderstood and fundamentally noble. But the Buffy/Spike romance will evolve because Spike’s essential wickedness reflects Buffy’s resentment of her responsibility as the slayer and what we are told are the “dark” sources of her powers. Spike is Buffy’s dark side – “the monster in the man” – as Spike tells Riley, the now-displaced good guy boyfriend.

And yet, their romance is real. That’s what makes Buffy, the show, brilliant – Joss Whedon and co. don’t try to defy convention, they dive into it and come out the other side in a weird world where Spike and Buffy can be lovers, a world so strange that it’s more familiar than anything else on television. The Spike and Buffy pairing doesn’t simply mimic emotional truths we all know in greater depth in our own lives, it adds to our store of knowledge about the human condition.

“The human condition,” with its echo of disease, is an especially apt phrase for what drives Spike to woo Buffy and to respond with demonic anger when he fails to win her. It’s not that he’s a caricature, but rather that he’s rusty – it’s been 100 years since he actually was human. Like Anya, the vengeance demon who becomes mortal so she can be with nerdy Xander, Spike is learning how to be human. Not how to feel – he already does that – nor how to crush his feelings into conventional expression, but to express his feelings within the conventions of human behavior, the genre confines of being a person, without reducing them to clichés. The result is a bad boy who, when he finally does make a noble sacrifice at the end of the series, surprises us – astonishes us – with a goodness that was in no way predictable, nor even quite explainable. It’s neither in character nor out of character; it’s the irreducible complexity of free will exerting itself within the structure of a story.

(Counterpoint: Jaime J. Weinman, writing in Salon, thinks Spike ruined the show, by becoming its Fonzie.)