Once More With Feeling

On the afterlife of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what makes a show resonate for two decades, and why we re-watch television. 

Morgan M Page is a trans writer, artist, and pop historian in Montréal. Her...

Josie Torres Barth is a Ph.D candidate and course lecturer in Cultural Studies at McGill...

Lauren McKeon is the former editor of This Magazine...

Sarah Hagi is a writer from Ottawa. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Hairpin...

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt’s senior editor. ...

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a prime-time teen soap about feelings and vampires, premiered twenty years ago this month, and we’re still talking about it. We brought together a group of long-time fans to discuss why the show, despite its problems, still resonates two decades later. 

Haley Cullingham: Why don’t we start by sharing our favourite episode of Buffy and explaining why we love it.

Morgan M Page: My favourite episode of BTVS has got to be “The Body.” I didn’t think too much of this episode, in which Buffy’s mother dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, beyond being emotionally moved when I originally watched it, but a few years after it aired my own mother died of a brain aneurysm. Re-watching that episode over the years has been cathartic to say the least. It’s also one of the episodes in which the writers were pushing at the limits of the supernatural/action formula Buffy was built on. Joyce, Buffy’s mother, doesn’t die because of a vampire, she dies from natural causes. There’s no music. It’s tense, wrenching, and you can’t look away. For all her strength, Buffy is left powerless in the face of overwhelming loss.

Josie Torres Barth: Yeah, that’s where the series really starts to get dark, when it seems like Buffy’s superhero powers aren’t really going to be able to solve every problem. I think in contrast, my favorite (sorry, I’m American) episode probably has to be the finale (“Chosen”), especially in our current political context. I re-watched it recently, and Buffy’s speech at the end, where she explains that her power is going to be split amongst all of the potential slayers of the world and asks the girls if they’re ready to be strong, had me ugly crying. All throughout the series, Buffy’s power has been a burden to her, and incredibly isolating. She’s a superhero, but she’s incredibly alone in that. So, the metaphor at the very end of the series, where every girl with the potential to become a slayer is one, is maybe the best kind of ending for a feminist superhero story.

Lauren McKeon: I think that “Chosen” has to be a close second for me, for all the reasons you stated—it’s uplifting in its own way, and also in a way that most of Season 7 wasn’t. But, my ultimate favourite episode is “Once More With Feeling.” I remember not knowing what to make of the musical episode when I first saw it. This was pre-Internet days (for my house, anyway) and my best friend and I used to call each other during every commercial (like the nerds we still are). We were so confused: Like, are they really going to sing the whole episode? But, as I grew up, this was the episode I kept re-watching. I think there’s something beautiful—well, beautiful and sad—about the idea that some experiences are difficult to express. You have to feel them, sing them, dance them out.

Sarah Hagi: I wish I could have a more original answer to this, but “Hush” is my favourite episode by far. I think this mostly has to do with how I watched it at a very young age when it originally aired. It was the scariest thing in the world to me for years, and it wasn’t even just the monsters, The Gentlemen, but just thinking about how awful it would be to not be able to speak like Tara in that one scene. Watching it again as an older person upon my first full viewing of Buffy, I was blown away by its ambition as an episode. I mean, the message is obviously a heavy handed one about communication, etc. but I think it’s for sure the most scary episode of television I’ve ever seen.

JTB: I was really hoping someone would say “Once More With Feeling.” It’s definitely my favorite stand-alone episode.

MMP: There’s so much to be said about “Once More With Feeling.” Lesbian orgasm songs! The mustard and fire hydrant micro-songs! The fact that it manages to bring in every single theme from the preceding five seasons.

JTB: And it turns out Giles can sing. That made me a little uncomfortable.

LM: I had the most ridiculous crush on Giles after that episode. It still makes me uncomfortable, ha.

MMP: Giles and Tara were the only ones who could really sing, and I guess Spike, too. But didn’t we know Giles could sing already—he’d done the whole musician backstory, coffee house singer thing before, no?

JTB: Yeah, I just didn’t know I’d find it so attractive.

SH: I hated “Once More With Feeling” so much. SO MUCH.

MMP: Oh my God, tell me more.

SH: The songs were stupid and did not age well. None of them could really sing that well… I hate musicals. It was just embarrassing.

JTB: That’s what I was going to ask—if you liked musicals. They’re very much the kind of thing you’re either a fan of or not (as I think we saw with some of the people who got a lot of enjoyment out of hating on La La Land recently), but if you’re not a musical person, I don’t think it’s going to work for you!

SH: I’m not a huge fan of musicals… But I know it’s so dear to everyone’s hearts so I’m not actively a hater, usually.

JTB: I respect you for coming out publicly with such an unpopular opinion.

MMP: Going back to Sarah’s point about “Hush,” though—that is such a stunning episode. The extremely limited dialogue was again one of those attempts by the writers to push against formula. It’s these stand-out episodes that take Buffy out of being just a teen supernatural comedy and situate it as one of the progenitors of the current “diamond age” of television.

JTB: It’s interesting that silence in “Hush” seems to serve a similar purpose to singing in “Once More With Feeling”—it forces the subtext into text. These kinds of genre-bending experimentation aren’t just for their own sake, but they really develop the plot and the characters’ relationships.

LM: Plus, “Hush” was one of the only episodes that genuinely terrified me when I first watched it.

SH: I’ll never forget watching it for the first time with my brother and us being like, “holy shit, these things will kill us one day!” I think they were one of the best demons (they were demons right?). My second favourite scary was the one that only Willow was able to see in Season 7.

JTB: Ooh, that thing that peeled off people’s skin and ate it while singing a sing-song rhyme about peeling off people’s skin and eating it?

SH: YES! I still think about it and my skin crawls. How it slices up Willow’s skin and eats it. So good.

MMP: Everything about Season 7 is my fave. I think it’s the best season of the series, as a whole, and also some of the most thoughtful TV writing of that time period. But yeah, the skin-eating—yikes!

JTB: I’ve really appreciated S7 recently. I’ve started to see the whole battle at the end of the world as a very relevant contemporary metaphor for American politics. I’ve had something of a hair-trigger cry reflex recently, but there’s another speech Buffy gives that had me sobbing at my sink washing dishes. I keep this on my computer desktop and look at it when I’m feeling especially shitty.

LM: I rewatched this episode recently, too. After I got back from the Women’s March on Washington. Chills. It’s also especially eff yes when you consider the context of this part of the season—Buffy is still dealing with Joyce’s death, and Spike’s attempted rape (about which I still have many feelings). It’s really where the show starts to push at what it means to be a superhero, to feel alone, to be vulnerable. And, also, strong.

HC: The attempted rape from that season brings up something I wanted to ask all of you about. A few of you have mentioned elements of the show that kind of aged with you, almost—episodes you didn’t appreciate as much originally and then ended up loving. But I feel like any re-watch of an old TV show reminds you that there are some things that were handled really badly. I think Buffy was always thought of as progressive, but there are a lot of moments that today read as extremely problematic when you re-watch…

JTB: It’s SUPER Orientalist. All of the mystical bad things come from “dark” foreign places, especially in the early seasons.

SH: I think yes, it was so Orientalist. Another thing that bothered me was how WHITE it was. It is so, so white.

MMP: Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest critiques of the show. I mean, we had Kendra—the only major Black character in the beginning, but she was quickly killed off in order to serve the storyline of the white protagonist. And she was also written in a very “exotic” sort of way—she speaks with a Jamaican accent, but if I remember correctly they don’t specify where she’s from.

SH: I don’t necessarily think they would have changed that if it had come out now. TV is still pretty white—I guess it’s just disappointing from a show that was progressive in so many ways. As a Black woman (lol, I knew I’d say this at some point) it made it almost hard to feel as empowered as I see my white friends.

JTB: They got a little diversity in the final season with the potentials, because there were just so many of them, but I don’t see why Sunnydale High wouldn’t have students of color. (It’s in California!) Was this how all TV looked in the ‘90s?

MMP: It’s how all TV looks today, too, though.

LM: Another terrible Buffy episode: Does anybody remember when they did the Thanksgiving episode? It was even lauded at the time for dealing with Indigenous issues, but I couldn’t even make it through re-watching (all the many times I have re-watched the series). I think by “dealing” TV critics maybe meant … extremely racist?

MMP: That episode is definitely hard to watch with today’s eyes. I think the writers thought they were trying to be subversive, but that just meant cracking jokes about genocide. Uncomfortable to say the least.

LM: Yes, it definitely feels like they caricaturized an entire culture.

MMP: On another topic—I don’t know about all of you, but it seems impossible to avoid talking about how powerful Buffy was to watch growing up as a young queer/trans person. Do any of you have feelings about this, or just me?

HC: I think Buffy must have been the first show to introduce me to the concept that sexuality could be fluid, and it was definitely the first show I saw deal with sexuality in a way that wasn’t black and white, if that makes sense. But then … when you re-watch, there are a lot of not-great gay jokes. I don’t know.

MMP: Yeah, I feel like Andrew especially was essentially a running gay joke.

JTB: It’s interesting that you say “fluid” in terms of the show’s portrayal of sexuality, Haley, because the last time I watched it, one of the things that struck me was how Willow emphasized that she was “gay now” so many times, where it almost became a running gag. It almost seems to devalue her relationship with Oz, which felt pretty real to me. Combined with the show’s discomfort with the implication of Faith’s bisexuality—like it was part of what made her bad and mysterious—it’s interesting that they didn’t offer that as a possibility for Willow.

HC: Morgan, can you expand a little on what about it felt powerful to you?

MMP: Well, when Buffy originally aired, it coincided with my whole “coming out” / “transition” process. And then suddenly one of my favourite TV shows had a gay main character, Willow, who was not immediately killed off or written off the show. I remember when Ellen came out on her show so vividly and how it was almost immediately off the air afterwards. But here comes Buffy, where a character can come out, have a relationship, and also be a bad-ass witch and brainiac who is integral to the show. That was a game-changer in terms of TV representations of LGBT people—even if it was done somewhat clumsily with the “gay now” thing as Josie mentioned.

JTB: Although that also seems like a realistic representation of teenage identity formation. She wants people to know! I loved the way that the show used discovery of her magical powers as a metaphor for discovery of her sexuality … which is why it got kind of weird when the metaphor switched, and suddenly magic is … an addictive drug, I guess?

LM: It also felt important at the time that the show really explored how much in love Willow and Tara were, and showed (as much as they could, anyway) what that love looked like. At the time, that was so, so groundbreaking—even if it doesn’t always seem that way when we watch it many years later. It validated teenage me.

JTB: I feel like I should mention at this point that I didn’t watch the show when it was first on the air. I wasn’t allowed to (religious parents), and I’m not sure that I would have … it seemed kind of scary. But I think it wasn’t just the witches and vampires, but also the way that the metaphor allows them to show things like burgeoning queer teenage sexuality that may have scared parents like mine.

MMP: It seems like a lot of people have come to Buffy after the fact, which I guess shows how enduring its metaphors are for many women and LGBT people (the primary demographics of its fandom).

HC: It was really interesting, around the twenty-year anniversary on March 10, to see SO MANY people talking about it. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, but growing up, my sister and I were the only people I knew who watched it. It was definitely more loved than I realized.

LM: The anniversary also took me by surprise. Like, I couldn’t believe that it was already time for it to have an anniversary. I think that’s because I did watch it when it first aired, and I return to it during every crisis moment in my life. Even though it’s so tone deaf in certain episodes now, it sort of parachutes me to a safe mental space. Buffy deals with shit; I deal with shit watching her be bad-ass.

MMP: Maybe we could all talk a bit about Buffy’s legacy—both personally for us, and perhaps also for TV and writing as a whole?

HC: I think, for me, the personal element has a lot to do with metabolizing feelings. Buffy was a show that was really good at depicting the idea that even identifying what you were feeling and expressing it could be challenging, that sometimes (like in the skin-peeling episode) you could feel like you were in a different place than the people around you, not seeing the same thing. I think that’s a big part of why I also return to it during moments of crisis. In terms of the wider legacy, even though the show’s feminism was exclusionary and limited in a lot of ways, it did have an impact in terms of feminist representation, I think. Albeit a narrow one.

JTB: I think what you’re talking about is the way that the show used metaphors so brilliantly. High school feels like being at war! Sometimes when you sleep with someone, he turns into a monster! It could be ridiculous (and I guess at times it was) if it wasn’t so well handled. In terms of the show’s effect overall…I’m in TV studies, and Buffy was one of the shows that really introduced a generation of scholars to taking television seriously. (I heard New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum talk recently, and she said that Buffy got her interested in TV criticism.) And I think it’s pretty under-valued for its contribution to the development of modern TV narrative (what we in the biz call “complex TV”). Buffy was one of the first shows to really get the balance between deep mythology and small character-building storylines right. The X-Files tries this, but usually you get either a monster of the week or plot development in an episode. In Buffy, it’s all happening at the same time.

SH: Yes, speaking of metaphors and Buffy. I just recently found out that “Beer Bad” (which I think we can all agree is the worst episode) was actually written to be funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy which explains a lot.

JTB: That’s hilarious. I’m not surprised that Joss couldn’t find it in him to produce a convincing after-school special about the dangers of drinking.

MMP: Wow, I had no idea.

HC: Feds to studio: you can show three more stabs and an evil department of government officials if you remind the teens that drinking could mean you die in a fire.

JTB: Or else just really, really embarrass yourself with a truly terrible hour of television.

LM: It was such a heavy-handed approach, too, to what the show actually did really well—and what makes me return to it again and again. Which is writing about failure, and particularly women’s failure, well. We see Buffy (and Willow, Cordelia, Anya, etc.) all make truly devastating mistakes, but the show never strayed from showing us that’s what made them (and makes us) human (even when they were actually demons!). It always feels so refreshing to me that Buffy can be strong, but also vulnerable and sometimes so, so wrong. And that the show lets us see her fail and then find her way back to herself again.

JTB: That’s a great point.

HC: I also think Anya is one of the most underappreciated television characters of all time.

JTB: So ridiculous, and so great. Her love of capitalism is my favorite Anya detail.

LM: Bunnies!

JTB: She has some really perceptive thoughts about humanity, though. She’s not just comic relief, Anya really gets us.

LM: She does. And it always breaks my heart a little when they show her trying to connect with the rest of the Scooby gang and they always seem to brush her off.

SH: Anya was underused in a lot of ways and definitely the best addition to the show. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like her at first but I cried so hard at the end.

HC: Between the left-at-the-altar storyline and her death at the end there was definitely a lot of terrible things happening to Anya that didn’t maybe feel totally necessary?

JTB: I was so mad at Xander for leaving her at the altar. Getting married was his effing idea! And then thinking that they could just go back to how things were before he LEFT HER AT THE ALTAR? Grow up, Xander.

MMP: In a way, though, Anya being left at the altar was the only thing that could have happened. She became a vengeance demon after being betrayed by men, spent a thousand years punishing men who betrayed women, and then when she tried to give another man a chance, of course she was betrayed. We don’t want her to be. We root for her. But in the end, this betrayal is the central point of her character. It would’ve been too easy and expected for the writers to give her a happy ending, one in which finally there is a man who treats her well—the lesson here is that women are always betrayed by patriarchy, I guess, and the only way forward is to overthrow it as Buffy does by giving the power of the slayer to all the slayerettes in the world at the end of “Chosen.” Anya has become more and more one of my favourites over the years, especially because of her deep longing to be loved and find a place in the world, and now I tear up when I watch the series finale (I mean, for a lot of reasons, but I truly bawl over Anya).

HC: This is going back to something we talked about at the very beginning, but I wonder if it’s true of all shows that people continue to love like this that a group of people talking about it would each have a different favourite episode? That’s interesting to me, that there’s no consensus with Buffy re: a best episode, best season, best character etc.

JTB: Yeah, that is interesting, because it seems like there are similar shows (Veronica Mars, maybe) where there is One Best Season and everyone agrees what it is. I think it speaks to the way that Buffy is many things to many people.

LM: Yes, I don’t think we all experience it the same way. I think it also goes back a little bit to when we watched it, and how/what we were dealing with at the time. So much of my Buffy watching experience is so connected to my teenage years, and how I was discovering and experiencing a lot of the same self-doubts and stumbling self-growth. Minus literal demons.

JTB: I know that I have experienced the same season differently at different points in my life—as my obsession with S7 here would seem to indicate. I think if you’d asked me what my favorite episode was six months earlier, Haley, I probably would have picked something else. Maybe that’s what gives it such lasting appeal? It’s very much about growing into adulthood, and so each season has a different stage of that growth.

LM: Totally. And, like you, I’ve come to be more and more obsessed with S7 the older I am. There are things I couldn’t connect with when it first aired—the themes of being alone and being connected that the show played with a lot—that now consume more of my thoughts about the political climate, yes, and also my personal feminism.

JTB: Season 7 is about the responsibility of the individual against all the horrible forces in the world. Maybe it’s just about adulthood?

SH: I would love to know if your favourite things about Buffy have changed over the years. I love knowing how the show has evolved with people.

HC: One thing that’s definitely changed for me over the years is that, when I watched as a teen, I was unsurprisingly obsessed with the romantic relationships, and now it’s the non-romantic relationships on the show that I care about most: Buffy and Giles, Buffy and Dawn, Buffy and Joyce, Willow and Xander, Giles and Willow and Anya, both of which were such interesting contrasts to his relationship with Buffy. For me, the most beautiful moments of the Buffy-Joyce dynamic are when Joyce is in the hospital. I thought they did a good job of factoring Dawn in, but also really reminding us about how Joyce and Buffy were a unit of two for so long. And Joyce and Giles’s dynamic is always really great—how they kind of dance around that closeness, resent each other sometimes, have that one episode where they have sex on the hood of a car. They made it exactly as awkward and complicated as it should be, instead of being like “here we are, Team Adult unconventionally united in the raising of Troublesome Teen.” I think the fact that every dynamic on the show is given an element of complexity (I think they lost that a little in later seasons) is really great.

It also always strikes me on re-watch how absolutist my teen sense of right and wrong was. Now, I like that the show has shades of grey. Except for when Dawn agrees to kick Buffy out of the house in Season 7. I think that remains a huge writing mistake that seemed to happen just so Spike and Buffy could have a platonic pull out couch sleepover? Everyone else would totally turn on her but Dawn wouldn’t.

MMP: I actually think Dawn turning on Buffy made a lot of sense—Dawn is a teenager, sibling relationships are always complicated, and if Dawn hadn’t turned on her they never would’ve gotten Buffy out of the house and given her her Dark Night of the Soul.

JTB: I think what has really changed for me is my own level of emotional involvement in the show! As I said before, I didn’t watch Buffy when it aired, and it took me a while even after I first saw it to really get it. I had a boyfriend in university who was a real Whedonite, and he sat me down and basically wrote a syllabus for how we were going to watch Buffy. I think I was kind of resistant to it at the time because it was both really popular but also sort of nerdy, and I wasn’t totally comfortable with that part of myself yet. (I’d just come out of being a real nerd in high school, and I was living in New York and writing a thesis on avant-garde film and trying very hard to be cool and about Serious Art.) It wasn’t until after I started to study popular culture and confront some of my own assumptions about what it meant for a show to be popular, or to have an obsessive fan base (and how those assumptions rely on gendered stereotypes) that Buffy really started to mean something to me. And now I’m writing a dissertation about horror and gender and television. So, David, if you’re out there—you were right.

LM: Definitely in high school I was more invested in the romantic relationships, which don’t hold my interest as much now. (Though I definitely would love to see a modern Buffy shut down a Tinder bro.) Or at least, they’re not why I keep returning to BTVS. Now I connect more to the way the women in the show rise up from falling face first—often literally, but emotionally, personally, too—and just keep fighting. For each other. For the world. For themselves. We could use more of that now, I think. (And definitely less of Buffy’s white girl feminism—because, as we’ve discussed, the show is unforgivably white. I recently re-watched the season with Faith and Buffy and the mayor’s sidekick vampire, Mr. Trick, who’s Black, even makes a joke about it when he arrives in Sunnydale.)

My feelings about Spike seeking (and getting) a soul after he tries to rape Buffy have also changed. Talk about metaphors! I like how they show Buffy working through flashbacks and being unable to truly confront what happened with Spike, whom she trusted. So true to the complex and complicated reaction of a real post-assault experience—there are so many feelings, mental and visceral, to wade through and digest. I like that the show lets us see that, and see that these flashbacks can shatter even the physically strongest of us. I like less that Spike’s redemption becomes a bigger part of the storyline in S7. And that we’re supposed to accept it’s somehow better that he only tried to rape Buffy. (And what about the creepy stuff with him and the Buffy Bot?!) It’s not that I don’t believe redemption is possible. I just don’t think it’s that easy, and that it’s dangerous to tell young women and men that it can be. Now that I’m older, and less invested in ‘shipping Buffy and Spike, I’ll always be uncomfortable with how the show not only kept him as Buffy’s love interest, but positions him as the only one who truly understands her—because he suffered and was alone in that suffering. But he also came back and forced Buffy to basically work with him, the dude who tried to rape her, every day so he could do penance and feel better about himself or whatever. Like, that wouldn’t be a distraction when you’re trying to save the world. So, y’know, why don’t we talk about that?

MMP: Buffy has definitely evolved with me over time—I think in high school I was mostly, like Haley, interested in the romantic relationships, and in the supernatural elements. But as I’ve gotten older, I feel like I get a lot more from Buffy about what it means to have power and what it means to live through and overcome trauma. Buffy and the Scoobies are constantly dealing with extreme trauma, whether from supernatural things like monsters or from all-too-real issues like sexual violence. And the show let you see how painful that is, the ways it impacts your behaviour, and the long term ramifications. And then it showed how you can get through it. Like Lauren said earlier, it’s a show about women failing, but it’s also a show about women clawing their way back to life—even from the literal grave. Moving through my twenties, which were full of traumatic events, I think I revisited Buffy a lot because I needed someone to show me that there was a way through even in the most apocalyptic circumstances. Buffy saved the world a lot—but she also saved a lot of us, as individuals.

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