Apocalyptic Apocalypses: The Narrative Eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer


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HUM 3085: Television and Popular Culture

Dr. Perdigao

Spring 2009
From David Lavery’s “Apocalyptic Apocalypses: The Narrative Eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer”:
As Frank Kermode shows in The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, we “make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle” (17). Our fictions record these investments, and in every ending these fictions offer us glimpses of our end and the end. We strive, always, to convert “chronos”—mere “’passing time’ or ‘waiting time’—into “kairos”: “the season, a point in time filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end” (my italics; 47). As I hope to show, that amazing fiction known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer accomplished in its seven television seasons (surely Kermode did not imagine his narratology being applied to television), seasons now come to an end, this apocalyptic conversion with ingenious narratological proficiency. (1)

The end of time, the end of things is not, of course, the only end Buffy offers us. As a television narrative, every episode of Buffy offers us a variety of “little deaths,” mini-apocalypses as well: the distinctly televisual ends, allowing for commercial breaks, that come within the narrative itself; the ending of each episode (my primary concern here); the endings of narrative arcs; the ending of each season. And finally, we have the final narrative eschatology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer itself. (3)

[Frank Kermode’s argument is that all narratives are marked by this desire for the end… Lavery argues BtVS exemplifies this aspect of narrative, on the levels of individual episodes, seasons, and the entire series.]
Since Joss Whedon has stated his basic antipathy for the cliffhanger on several occasions, it should not surprise us that the basic pattern of a Buffy year—established in its first year, in part because Whedon and company were not certain they would be renewed and wanted to finish the story of Buffy’s battle with the Master “well within parameters,” in the twelve episodes available of a partial season—has been to tell the whole story of the Scooby Gang’s battle with and defeat of a new Big Bad. As we will see, in a moment, the cliffhangery nevertheless puts in an appearance. (7)
[Season 1 of BtVS functions as a PTS in a sense that the introduction of the Master in the first episode of Season 1 leads to the ending—her confrontation with him—while the individual episodes seem to be, following Newman’s terms, episodic as well. Seasons 2-5 work in a similar way while 6-7 lead to the final episode, building momentum and perhaps becoming more like the PTS as the entire series arc.]


(34) Before we consider closurey Buffy endings, first allow me to offer a caution. In The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, H. Porter Abbott defines closure as a narrative which “ends in such a way as to satisfy the expectations and answer the questions that it has raised.” “Expectations” and “answers,” Abbott warns, must not be confused. We expect Lear to die by the end of the play—an ending assumed as soon as we recognize the play as tragedy, and we are not disappointed. “But,” Abbott notes, “major questions are raised over the course of the play that for many viewers are not answered by the conclusion” (188). Hence, King Lear offers closure at the level of expectation but does not offer us closure at the level of questions.

Partial Closurey

(35) The endings of numerous Buffy episodes might be thought of as partial-closurey in intent, as resolving (or seemingly resolving) a single story arc at the level of expectation, though not necessarily at the level of questions. With one exception, each season-ending episode offers partial closurey by putting an end to that year’s Big Bad (The Master, Angelus, The Mayor, Adam, Glory, Dark Willow, The First Evil). The exception is, of course, “Primeval” (4021) which closes down—“Burn it down, and salt the Earth”—not only The Initiative but The Initiative story arc of Season Four in the penultimate episode. Other episodes offering partial closurey include “Wild at Heart” (4006), which seems to say goodbye to Oz and to the Oz/Willow relationship, “As You Were” (6015), which puts an end to Buffy and Spike’s sexual relationship, and “Lies My Parents Told Me” (7017), which shuts the door (literally) on seven years of mentoring The Slayer by Giles.

Closurey (at the level of expectation)

(36) Only two episodes can justifiably be called closurey (at the level of expectation), resolving major, multiple plot entanglements. The first, of course, is “The Gift” (5022), putting an end simultaneously to Buffy herself, Season Five, and BtVS’s tenure on the WB. And the other, of course, is “Chosen” (7022), closurey (at the level of expectations) of the war with The First, of Buffy’s vocation as “the one girl in all the world,” of Sunnydale, California, and of seven years of narrative.

[Lavery’s definition here shows two different endings of Season 5—with Buffy’s death (again!) as closurey at the level of expectation and partial closurey with the end of the Big Bad known as Glory.]

Closurey (at the level of questions)

(37) No single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be characterized as closurey (at the level of questions). Indeed, not surprisingly, the final line of the show, spoken by Dawn, is in fact a question.

[Why it has received so much critical attention—and fandom!]

(38) In The Sense of an Ending Kermode observes that there are really only two sorts of fictions: those “which seal off the long perspectives” and those which “move through time to an end, an end,” Kermode explains, that “we must sense, even if we cannot know it.” Now the “sense” with which we come to experience such ends, as Kermode makes clear, is nothing else but the generation of fictions. The fate of the former is to end up, “When the drug wears off,” in “the dump with the other empty bottles” (170).

[Buffy resuscitated, as character and series, by syndication, existence in other forms—graphic novels, fanfiction, games, another BtVS
film?! Like in Peter Pan, clap if you believe in vampires and vampire slayers and Tinkerbell (er, Buffy) will come back to life!]


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