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No Love Lost

Tuesday 24 June 2014, by Van Quynh

Keywords:  |  angel  |  buffy  |  essay  |

This present musing is about reading Romantic Love in the Buffyverse.

Let’s say it first, yes, it is about drama above all, thus the idea of a carefree successful and stable relationship is contrary to the viability of a show so far as it is still running. For there is indeed from the audience a certain appetite for misery – a generalized trend of sadism you might say and thus drama demands drama – that is to say conflict, unbalance, unrest. It is quite simple really, people just needs something to look forward to and without the low there can’t be no up and one always has to look up.

Thus Love is to be sought, longed for, a set goal – but in the end, no more than a mirage certainly never to be attained or quite simply unattainable.

So mostly love in the Buffyverse appears to be the destination of a serendipitous journey. One sets up for love and ends up somewhere else, on a back road, seemingly a digression from the path but ultimately at a place which transcends even love.

So if you wished for a happy ending, Btvs   offers you a tentative one, not the happily ever after but an ending that is open and filled with promises, that is to say it offers you hope. But if any happiness is there to be found, it does not lie in romantic love. In fact the lack of any romance at the end of Btvs   is evidence of its ultimate irrelevance; even though many times, romantic love has been the selling point of this popular teenage show.

Buffy was intended by her creator (by her God) to be the female pop icon of a generation, however ambitious that was. After all these years, the overall picture that lingers in my mind is that of a strong female figure at peace with herself. If you look at all at Chosen (the final finale) – the blatant conclusion is the empowerment of women which I don’t particularly find thrilling myself because although optimistic and positive it does not fit the reality around – it is a cache-misère at best, a shiny veneer that cracks as soon as it is applied on the not so much ugly but merely trivial reality of life – true, "it is all about power" and women just don’t have it.

But there is Buffy and what strikes is her individual experience, and it is because of it, despite of it, that she manages to transcend and thus pop icon Buffy was born to shine us with her beacon of light – a very successful icon indeed.

So I’ve just brushed the true core of Btvs   and it has little to do with romantic love. But although Btvs   has little to do with love, it also very much does. And that is because Btvs   revolves around its eponymous heroin that is to say Buffy, she is the very articulation of the show and romantic love is indeed a big part of her journey of life.

Let’s say first that Btvs   is the perfect case of Bildungsroman a tale of growing up, of coming of age. From that perspective, Buffy’s journey is marked with symbolism and symbolism is very well reflected in how love is actually staged throughout the series.

It appears that the many forms of romantic love are characterized by Buffy’s successive partners and thus each of them represents a certain type of romantic relationships. From teenage fumbling with Tyler/Scott (even Pike who is central to movie and comics ), to love – true, angsty, impossible with Angel, to nice and safe with Riley, to mistake and betrayal with Parker, to self destructive, self hatred with Spike and let’s not forget Xander who personified the uncomfortable and “let’s be friend” unrequited crush.

None of these affairs are meant to be whole or reflect full blown relationships and paradoxically all of them seem too real because real and dysfunctional relationships which exist in reality are also not whole. In the end, all of these romances taught Buffy, made her grow, affected her, traumatized her and by doing so, empowered her that much.

For all that matters and with hindsight, love in Ats   seems to be an afterthought, the result of putting too many attractive people in the same living space, proof is that it took four years for the subject of love and romance to really arise and soar.
But you may say that Ats   is about Angel and the very reason for his coming in L.A. in the first place was because of love lost. It is true that the issue of his relationship or lack thereof with Buffy crossed over on many occasions but that romance takes root in Btvs   first and is only remotely addressed in Ats  . Love if it is a subject that matters is to be found in Btvs   and most especially in Buffy’s love life.

It is commonly agreed that many men in Buffy’s love life were prolly non entities, the focus of a couple of episodes at the most. Only three seems to stand out and consequently lasted several seasons.

Last contender on the podium is none other than Riley. In his case, the romance was more or less and not so gently dismantled on screen and then thrown to the wind especially when Riley came back happily married to his ideal partner, ideal because different from Buffy on all the points that seem to matter to him, indeed Sam is like him a soldier and a team player, additionally she is strong but not inhumanly stronger than himself.

What went wrong between Buffy and Riley is two fold, the truth of the matter is that Riley was a rebound for Buffy, this relationship in a lot of ways was convenient for her, she didn’t have to put a lot of effort to make it happen and yes she failed altogether to make it last. On the other hand, for Riley, Buffy meant a lot deal more and he invested and sacrificed even jeopardized his own fate for this particular romance. The gap between their feelings was too wide for it to ever work out even if Buffy had been made conscious of her own shortcomings sooner. One is led (by the voice of Xander) to excuse Riley his weakness (in needing the rush from vampire bites), in the end it seems that Buffy’s fault was just bigger. Her little somersault at the end of Into the Woods was too little too late in salvaging a relationship that was doomed from the beginning – for a romantic relationship has to be invested at both ends. But in the end and after everything said and done, yes, Riley is no Angel – i.e. not Love but a rebound from Love.

If we broach on doomed relationships, we have to tackle on the other two wooers on the podium, that is to say Angel and Spike. When you want to stick to the consistency of the show, truth is that both of these relationships are doomed before they even began too – what is more forbidden and impossible than a love story between a Vampire and a Vampire Slayer?

Let’s just add now that it won’t be a play by play contest in which I am going to prove one is more suited for Buffy than the other. What I am trying to do is to discredit both of them not on the grounds of their worth but by showing that they absolutely do not revolve around Buffy at all, that maybe Buffy has been an enabling catalyst in their destiny but that their concerns for life are that much remote from Buffy and that Buffy’s relationship with them reflected more on her own personal journey of life – of Buffy’s learning love.

To do that let’s take a look at The Girl in Question. In this episode of the last season of Ats  , Angel and Spike’s competition over Buffy is parodied into a pursuit, a race for the absentee, for the unreachable, the impossible. Even if you account for the actress’s unavailability, I think Buffy’s character was meant to be this ghostly red flag. For Angel and Spike’s tendency to compete has little to do with Buffy, it is ingrained in them from the very beginning while they were still vampires without souls (see the flashbacks) and the rivalry with Spike is dramatically intended with the very real purpose of destabilizing the character of Angel in the show.

Because the last season of Ats   is a time of test for Angel, a time during which he loses his righteous and moral grounds so hardly gained, a time during which he gets sullied and has to make bad judgments for there are only those remaining around – one action for the good of his son for which he has little choice corners Angel into this uncomfortable leading position of the forces of darkness. And the last season stages his tumbling and falling into hardness and evil which soils him darker than ever and drags him into a despair that he has already experienced but nothing is the same anymore and he is about to drown into black whirlpools.
This situation is made possible because he has lost his ties, his groundings – in losing Cordelia, in losing Connor, in losing Wesley (the real, the true, the broken, the reborn, the resilient, he alone may have been a true support) – indeed Angel has reinvented the world into something that it is not and in doing so he has sold his soul to the demon in a very Faustian way.

Signing away his Shanshu (the promise of regaining his humanity) is a follow up to this particular course, no more clinging to the cliff but free falling without a net. In the end, this ploy of his could be considered as an act of greatness in itself except for what Shanshu had meant for him, because what it looks like is not an act of sacrifice but the move of a desperate man who has nothing to lose anymore.

But in the end, it could not mean renouncing hope and it could not mean losing faith. What it does seem to mean is no less tragic as it means truly and finally embracing the concept that doing good is not meant as a means to any end but is the end in itself.

The heroic lesson that Angel has to learn is to understand that there is no big game, no big apocalypse shadowing in the future, all games are it, the fight has to be fought in all the small things. Paradoxically it is a lesson he had to learn earlier but needed to be reminded again and again, that "when nothing that we do matters, what matters is that we do it" and this lesson takes full meaning again at the the end of Not Fade Away.

Finally in the last shot of the series, Angel stands and time dilates in slow picture leaving a sense of anticipation; notwithstanding the ominous odds, Angel is finally back and standing – side by side with allies sure but alone, responsible for no one but himself – and fighting, no moral dilemma involved – just fighting because if nothing matters, what matters is to fight.

Although Btvs   is a show of growing up, Ats   is one of finding oneself, of redeeming oneself in the sense of recreating oneself. It is true for such a character as Cordelia who literally blossomed on Ats   but it is also very true for Angel who ultimately redefined himself into pure action, into the embodiment of fighting against evil but mainly into a line of flight, into becoming. It seems to be the conclusion of Ats   and it is a message which is consequently devoid of romance and very solipsistic in nature.

On the other side of the other specter, Spike can hardly stand as a true figure of love since he is truly a macho jerk – 90% of what comes out of his mouth is degrading to everybody and particularly to women. Being with him is depicted as a sign of weakness, perversion, wrongness (Harmony, Buffy) – cutting him off/out is synonymous of empowerment (Harmony, Buffy, even Drusilla in a sense). I don’t deny his tender/softer side when he loves, we’ve seen proofs with Drusilla in the beginning and one can hardly deny that he loves Buffy with or without his soul.

The precise issue with Spike is hard to pinpoint but that is because he always had to stand in someone’s else shadow – mostly he has a traditional oedipal complex, the omnipresence of the mother figure in his dealings with people and the world cannot be denied but from what we understand from the flashbacks, his mother was not as castrative as she was a crutch on which he always relied for support, he was hiding behind her, he was hiding in somebody’s else will. William is one of those who never had to stand on his own. He has no purpose of his own but what people projects on him, his only act was into choosing to whom to forfeit his free will.
He was this lone wannabe poet and gentleman but weak almost feminine that his mother made him to be (even if she did it unconsciously). He was remade into Spike spreading his wings as if bulkying to resemble the person that could be part of a couple with Drusilla but in the past he never succeeded in standing against Angelus and it is not gratuitous that he failed in doing so. Why? Because he was playing a role - wearing a Spike suit.

His interactions with Buffy participate of the same pattern, he is what she needs him to be. He is malleable. She needed to be punished so he became her tormentor. Consequently, he needed to have a soul to be her equal and so he got one. He became the warrior Buffy needed in her fight against the First – he was still Buffy’s Spike all along the last season of Btvs  , the same way he supported Drusilla’s illness in the beginning of the show. His relationship with Buffy was nothing out of character.

It is not until he stood apart from these very solid female influences that he was able to find himself. It’s only in coming to Ats   – the show that talks about finding oneself that he was able to make progress although he is far from coming to himself.

His arrival on Ats   marks the first time he manages to beat Angel, it also marks the first time he took stock about the evil he has done, the monster he no longer wants to be but which still exists. It can be argued that he still remains under Angel’s wing but even if he does it is to out shadow the latter. I always believed that for one to advance in life one needs either lines to follow or lines to avoid. Angel is Spike’s parent for a number of reason and in a lot of ways with or without a soul Angel had shown Spike the world but Spike is not following or reacting blindly now and in no way Spike is Angel’s Spike. Also having acquired some independence and being at peace with himself for the first time ever, he does not feel compelled to become subservient under another one’s rule again, that explains why he stayed once he regained his body and did not seek to rejoin Buffy. He as well as all the others on Angel are trying to find oneself and it is a quest fraught with obstacles and maybe as unattainable as romantic love appears to be.

One could argue that the Buffyverse view on life and love looks optimistic for Buffy at the end of Btvs   and the comics do offer opportunities (real or potential) for any match to actualize but it is a dramatic illusion written for the seemingly conclusion of a story – a transitory happy ending truly – it is the silver lining in the clouds or the sun appearing after the storm but we do know it won’t last.

Indeed Joss seems to have left all doors open maybe as a lure in order to least anger any of his fans. He left maybes that potentially could be pursued on some medium. But truth is, although a selling point, Joss has no real intention to ever provide because there is little place for romantic love in his heroic tale (which to this day, he continues to prove in the comics with no subtlety whatsoever but that is mainly to be explained by the medium itself, you don’t tell the same tale on a weekly show than on a graphic novel). Subtle is not for graphics novel, mark my word, I advise you against reading the comics if you are not a comics reader in the first place.

Heroes are meant to be lonely, Joss seems to say, because it is the human condition, that humans have to face life’s challenges on their own. True love and the companionship it brings always seem to be doomed in his universe, no redeeming love story succeeds in resisting fate: Jenny died, Oz went away, Angel went away thrice, first leaving Angelus behind, second in hell, third in LA (somehow synonymous?), Riley left, Tara left and then died, Xander and Anya both destroyed their couple and Anya died making reconciling impossible.

Things are worse in Ats  , Fred and Gunn as a couple is already undermined by the very fact she does not go with Wesley, Cordelia disappears on Angel, a relationship as a potential killed before its very existence and buried six feet under once she comes back amnesiac and ended up sleeping with his son Connor (a thing that can never be overcome), then to put the nails on the coffin, her body is used to channel and give birth to a power with godlike and ancient testament vision, as a result she ends up in a coma and finally dies later.

Where is the love in Lilah and Wesley dirty affair? Even seeing how Fred and Gunn crumbles down invalidates their seemingly genuine and carefree love. The end of season 5 gives us a semblance of an union between Fred and Wesley but it is artificial in its making since both of their memories and their identities had been partially rewritten. But even that smidgen of romantic vibe is to be squashed, indeed a mere stage for Fred’s subsequent annihilation (that of her soul for the rebirth of Illyria) and then the death of Wesley himself in the dramatic finale of Ats  . (Moreover, in the comics, we are to discover that he sold his soul to Wolfram & Hart for eternity - a cruel fate).

So Joss’ vision is cruel but dramatically angsty - a true thing to be cherished.

Buffy, Angel and Spike are prototypes of heroes even if Spike is more of an anti-hero but heroes are fundamentally doomed to hardships. Heroes are lonely creatures because they have to face adversity and prevail alone otherwise they would not be heroes at all but just, well, a bunch of really lucky to be together community or band of people.

Heroes are set apart. Only in fairy tales they are allowed to have a happily ever after but always after the end of the story, for within the story, happy endings are always a far away prospect and only respites are allowed.

Let’s face it heroes are mostly miserable, that’s what makes us keep following their adventure - the drama, the tragic, the heart-wrenching pain of their feelings that as good spectators we experience as ours. If they were remotely happy, we would have switch channels already.

Although, we don’t like our characters broken, we like them to be heroes, brave in misery - that’s the whole point of them being heroes.

If Btvs   is about growing up then there is also a theme of growing up in love. There is a process of learning what is love and becoming an adult who loves and can love. From the sheer intensity of teenage love, the all or nothing, life and death "If I don’t kiss you, I’ll die" love, we have progressed to the experience of the loss of love and the loss of loved ones and in the end while romantic love does not exactly wither, its focus is not so exclusive anymore. In the end, the love of family and friends as well as the development of the self take precedence over romance.

In admitting to Angel (but it could as well be to the world for the romantic scene does not kindle and seems to whimper out) that she was dough not yet baked cookies, Buffy admits to be on a journey of becoming and continuing on this perspective, the end of Chosen opens up a future for her that until then she thought was limited and thus the journey is again at the beginning and everything is yet possible. Life in Sunnydale ends and another life is beginning on a clean slate as characterized by the annihilation of Sunnydale itself.

In the end the same thing applies to love. As an adult, to love romantically is to let go, not to cling to a passion however strong it may be but to accept it all and then to move on. That is adult love, more relative for sure maybe more simply real and thus more significant and powerful for it.

And love is to be vastly experienced in loss that consequently matures the self so one could move on to love again.

This adult way of loving is thus a recurrent theme in the Buffyverse. Buffy sent Angel in Hell, sacrificing him for the greater good, Giles moved on from Jenny’s death, Angel leaves Buffy for her/their own personal development, some years later in the same kind of logic Giles leaves Buffy so that she can face life on her own, Willow has to let Tara go, let go of her grief and let go of her guilt, only in doing that she honored her love. That is what Cordelia tells Angel in Heartthrob just after Buffy’s death. Riley left Buffy because he was adult enough to see she did not love him back and went to find himself a kindred spirit in Sam. Buffy let go of her relationship with Spike because to be able to love is to be able to let go, letting Spike go symbolizes letting go of the shame, the guilt, the despair and the self punishment.

Loving as an adult is to abandon bad, superficial or easy relationships.
One of the sole adult figure is Joyce - the family head of her family, she embodies strength because she stands as a woman divorced from her husband and the stronger for it. She is also Mum, the comfort, the stability, the security, the responsibility, and all that is possible because being adult is letting go of the bad and moving on.

Romantic love in the Buffyverse is not about loving but about being able to love as an adult. And loving is that much more powerful when it extends to family and friends, consequently there is something also about the sense of community and humanity, in other words, to be embracing and accepting of the Other.
For without being surrounded by love and loved ones, Buffy could never have been the protector, consequently Faith’s fate is predictable in Btvs   when she simply fails at accounting for love. Because self-love can only truly happen when one is loved, Faith shifted into the dark side due to Richard Wilkins’s love of her as a daughter at a time of crisis when she could barely looked at herself in a mirror. That love she tried to carry it over to the end of its course but failed to do so because of another show of love - that of Riley for Buffy. She is disarmed and destroyed by genuine love. And she is then salvaged by Angel not because of trust or faith but because Angel loved her for whom she could become. For one so starved for love, Angel is basically telling her that she who is trying to redeem herself is loved by him notwithstanding even the love of his life (i.e. Buffy) - even if it is a compassionate and not a romantic love, it is no wonder she decided to give herself to the police.

Family is the one of the first providers of love and is the main theme of season 5 with the profound and vivid experience of the loss of a parent. Buffy gains a sister in order to stage that much more the loss of her mother, Dawn is used as an enhancer of that loss and will become the last tether to this world for Buffy, the tether might be artificial in the making but no less real because of love.

When one are not able to let go, love goes awry: Willow wanting to destroy the world, Spike’s selfish possession of Buffy leading up to a rape attempt (sans soul), Willow bringing Buffy back to life, Buffy clinging to her memories of Heaven, Willow’s addiction to magic. In Xander and Anya’s case, it is because Xander fails to let go of his past with his bundle of irrational fears and Anya got back on vengeance that their relationship sunk, but ultimately the two have to let go of their painful past and move on, only when doing that, they can meet again later in another place. The fallout of all the more trivial tragedies is simply disastrous and a hardship to overcome – rapidly becoming an everyday fight.

Yes letting go is basically selflessness and selfishness is something to be despised, even small acts of selfishness.

But the ultimate ethic of Btvs   is to be found in sacrifice i.e. letting go in a heroic way. There is nothing random or arbitrary in Buffy accepting her death in Prophecy Girl and again in the Gift, or Buffy’s sacrificing of Angel at the end of season 2, even Cordelia retaining her visions dooming her life at the same time, there is Angel letting Connor go on with another life in which his son would forget about him, or Spike’s soul saving them all in Chosen, or Angel giving up his Shanshu. Sacrifice means knowing what one has to lose, accepting it and letting go of the Self as a gift.

So there lies the conclusion, heroes: Angel, Buffy, the later Cordelia, Spike. All the rest, mere people who don’t know, greedy little humans.

And in this tale of heroes what can be said is that there is no love lost for romance.

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