If the Apocalypse Comes, Watch ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Anthony Head in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). L-R Giles, Dawn, and Buffy stand on a dusty deserted highway, looking off to the left of the frame. They are all looking rather worse for wear – Buffy has a large red cut on her forehead and blood on her blue jeans, but she stands with her arms folded, resolute. Giles, the middle aged man with thinning grey hair and a black overcoat, looks down at the ground, meanwhile Dawn, a slim white girl with light brown hair, holds her head up high.
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“Let us return, then, as we do in times of grief, for the sake of pleasure but mostly for the need for relief, to art.”

― Ling Ma, Severance

Okay, so maybe it’s not the end of the world. But the pandemic has turned everyone’s lives upside down in one way or another. 2020 (and the looming sense of generalised terror that came with it) has been the closest thing to a Buffy-style “apocalypse” that most of us have seen in our lifetime. Many of us have turned to TV to escape this ever-present weirdness and to find some semblance of routine and connection as we grieve, work, isolate, and wonder about what our futures could possibly hold. My sister watched all of RuPaul’s Drag Race, my dad binged Top Chef, my brother tore through Bojack Horseman, friends watched Money Heist, Avatar, Mad Men, and Gossip Girl. All great shows – but I believe one series in particular (which I watched in its entirety between April and June) stands apart as The Chosen One: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d been meaning to fill this gap in my pop-culture knowledge for a while, and, after finishing it, I realised just how fitting it was as a quarantine watch. So, I’m here to convince you why Buffy should be your next quarantine binge- whether you’re watching it for the first time or the 100th time. As Buffy tells us in season one, “if the apocalypse comes, beep me!” Well, if there was ever a time to “beep Buffy” (or watch her show), it’s now. 

For the uninitiated, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the story of a teen girl named Buffy who also happens to be The Chosen One, endowed with vampire-slaying super-strength. As another teen hero famously learns, with this kind of great power comes great responsibility. Buffy’s friends help her shoulder her supernatural burden, and, at the same time, accompany her as together they all navigate the dramas of teenagerdom. This is one of Buffy‘s most beloved qualities – the show weaves together classic coming-of-age moments with big-time supernatural threats, positioning each as a foil for the other. Built on this juxtaposition, the series immerses us in a world of weirdness that’s surprisingly similar to what we’re all facing now. As we navigate our newly restricted environments, either in isolation or alongside family members or friends, we find ourselves catapulting back to a state of adolescent angst. Personally, I can’t stop listening to early 2000s pop punk. And yet, at every turn, our day-to-day life is slashed through with external reminders of apocalyptic chaos (numerous terrifying news stories, governmental incompetence, etc.). This odd interplay between the adolescent and the apocalyptic is precisely where the weirdness of quarantine emerges – and it’s also precisely what gives Buffy the Vampire Slayer its special powers.

James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spike (left) and Buffy (right) appear to be stood in a dimly lit room with low brick arched ceilings. Spike has white blond hair slicked back, and a black leather jacket over a black t-shirt. Buffy, whose blonde hair is up in a neat bun, is wearing a beige shirt with detailing on the shoulders which buttons up to her neck. Both are looking off-centre, intrigued.
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“I’m afraid we have a slight….apocalypse”

S07E10 “Bring on the Night”

So, if we’re living through an apocalypse, why aren’t I recommending The Walking Dead? The Hunger Games? Handmaid’s Tale? Importantly, these are all post-apocalyptic stories. What makes Buffy so special, and so uniquely relevant, is that the show exists in a constant state of apocalypse – not before, during, or after a single event, but rather in a town that just happens to be located on top of a Hellmouth. For Buffy and her friends, the apocalypse is a way of life. Buffy is one of the only horror/fantasy shows out there that frames the apocalypse as a lived experience instead of a post-human state. 

In a lot of stories, world-ending threats render everyday life irrelevant, and the characters dedicate all of their time to surviving and fighting evil. But Buffy represents the ultimate balancing act. Buffy has to live a double life – her prom is attacked by hellhounds, her graduation is taken over by a demonic mayor, and her first boyfriend happens to be a vampire. And throughout the show, no matter how bad things get monster-wise, Buffy always weighs interpersonal issues equally. That’s always been one of the show’s greatest strengths, but it shines through even more now that we’re living in such an unfamiliar world. Buffy got one thing right about the apocalypse: life goes on. Sometimes it feels strange to be worrying about work problems or fights with friends when there’s a global pandemic going on, but Buffy is there to remind us that a cosmic threat doesn’t cancel out our everyday issues. In fact, the two are intertwined in our day-to-day life, feeding off of each other in a mix of hope, fear, guilt, and impending doom. Buffy’s format echoes this concept perfectly – she has monsters to fight, and there’s always a looming apocalypse, but that doesn’t stop her from caring deeply about friends, family, school, work, and everything in between. The supernatural and “natural” elements of a Buffy episode often work together to convey a specific message, lesson, or theme. 

Alyson Hannigan and Bianca Lawson in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). Kendra (left), and Willow (right) are standing at a table laid with artefacts. Kendra, a Black woman with black hair tied up in a tight bun, glamorous makeup, and wearing an olive green tank top and black jeans, is holding a large sword in her hands. She is looking across at Willow, a white woman with straight red hair and wearing a beige floral dress over a mauve long-sleeved top, who is holding a large crystal orb.
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At this point, we have all grown a bit too accustomed to the unique feeling of trying to live our lives despite a looming, terrifying threat. We are gaining experience balancing everyday problems against the backdrop of a high-stakes, world-altering pandemic. So, we can relate to Buffy. “But Clare,” you might say, “plenty of shows are relatable.” That may be true, but this show takes it one step further. As Neil Gaiman, author of many other well-loved horror/fantasy stories, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” This applies to Buffy’s unique power. Not only does the show provide us a uniquely relatable apocalypse/reality mash-up, but it demonstrates, time after time, that we are capable of overcoming adversity. Buffy is actually able to fight and defeat the looming apocalypse time after time, while the current state of the world feels pretty out of our control.

For example, this past spring, high schoolers across the country didn’t get to experience the exact prom night they had imagined. In Buffy, when her prom is threatened by hellhounds, she is determined to stop them. When Buffy’s friends begin to give up, she tells them, “I’m gonna give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every person on the face of the Earth to do it.” And, with far less bloodshed than she suggests, she thwarts the villain and everyone (even Buffy herself) gets a perfect prom. This is even more powerful than watching, for example, a prom scene in a classic teen movie, because she has to fight an impending threat to get there. What Buffy offers us in our current context is a perfect mix of relatability and wish fulfilment. And the wish fulfilment is more than just watching Buffy slay. Nowadays, the bar is much lower. We’re wishing to hang out with our friends without masks on! Watching Buffy, Willow, and Xander party at the Bronze is just about as fantastical as watching a demon disappear in a puff of smoke after getting staked. Wishing you could make the looming terror disappear? Watch Buffy eviscerate some vampires. Wishing life could be normal again? Watch Buffy go to the mall with her mom! 

“Even if you see them coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So, what are we, helpless puppets? Nah. The big moments are gonna come, you can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”

S02E21 “Becoming: Part 1”
Seth Green, Alyson Hannigan, and Nicholas Brendon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). L-R Oz, Xander, and Willow are crouching behind some pumpkins with the tops cut off and the guts scooped out. Oz is a white man with spiky light brown hair and a brown graphic tee on, whilst Xander has slicked back dark brown hair and a red button-up shirt on, holding a knife. Willow has short red hair and a black and white baseball top on. They are all staring at the pumpkin in front of them.
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Buffy herself is the perfect guide through a time like this. Even her name in the title Buffy the Vampire Slayer juxtaposes the fun, the teenage, and the everyday with the dark, the powerful, and the unknown. These words coexist inside her, and the show traces her complicated existence in this in-between space. She is constantly mediating between chaos and regular life; extreme ups and downs are her normal. Buffy can be our guide on our own personal hero’s journey. Every day we’re forced to vacillate between extreme fear and everyday rhythms. She’s the ultimate hero because she, too, is experiencing constant emergencies, but she has the tools and knowledge to make them go away, at least temporarily. Buffy is our blueprint – a survival guide for living a normal life in abnormal circumstances. She validates our deepest fears and, at the same time, promises to vanquish them.

Buffy and her friends embrace the complexities of their world, simply living in the contradictions and rolling with the punches. Or, as Buffy sings in the iconic musical episode, they “walk through the fire, and let it burn.” They don’t make it through these hard times unscathed, or lie and tell us that it’s easy to live through an apocalypse. Sure, Buffy’s cheerful Cher Horowitz demeanour comically offsets her supernatural violent streak, but as the show goes on, she finds her burden harder to bear. The often maligned later seasons, particularly 6 and 7, are much more effective now. No spoilers here, but they explore Buffy’s loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, and difficult journey towards becoming optimistic again. This was once thought to be out of character and unnecessarily gloomy, but now it makes us feel even closer to Buffy, clinching the series’ status as the best quarantine watch. At the end of the day, we’re teenagers again. We’ve been yanked out of our “normal” lives. We’re lonely, unsure of our future, and facing completely unfamiliar challenges. If I’m a teenager again, let me at least slay some vampires. 

So, let’s finish where we started (and wrap up my elaborate ploy to get all my friends to watch my favourite show): why Buffy? Because Buffy’s version of “normal” is a dynamic, supernatural reality that blends the adolescent and the apocalyptic, much like our “new normal” in quarantine. The series allows us to live vicariously through a protagonist who’s well-versed in mediating between cosmic and everyday challenges. Plus, the outfits are iconic! Buffy the character (and Buffy the series) reassure us that we can make it through even the most otherworldly of circumstances. 

Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Buffy Finale. A close-up on Buffy, whose friends stand behind her out of focus. They stand on a highway in front of a yellow school bus, and Buffy smiles slightly off into the distance, defiant. She has a large cut on her forehead and her white blouse is unbuttoned slightly.
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Buffy Episodes Worth a Quarantine (Re)watch

First of all, if you’ve never watched Buffy, I highly recommend just watching it all the way through the start (or from Season 2 onward, I won’t tell). But, for fans and the uninitiated alike, here are some episodes that stood out to me as particularly resonant in the year 2020:

Season 3, Episode 6 “Band Candy”

As a Giles stan, this is one of my personal favourites. A mysterious entity makes all the adults in Sunnydale act like teenagers, validating my quarantine regression to my high school self and even making it seem kind of fun. 

Season 3, Episode 9 “The Wish”

Popular cheerleader Cordelia wishes Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, and her wish comes true. She ends up in an alternate universe that feels much more post-apocalyptic than the one we know and love. We get a chance to see our favourite characters if they were in more of a dystopian situation, which is fun- but it’s also a relief when we return to our reality and learn that it could always be worse. 

Season 3, Episode 12 “Helpless”

In this episode, Buffy loses her super strength and has to learn how to slay without it. She cleverly learns to make due even though her entire life has been altered (wish that were me!). 

Season 3, Episode 20 “The Prom”

I wrote about this earlier but….prom! Romance! Interpersonal drama! Putting the apocalypse on pause for one special night – if only it were that simple. 

Season 4, Episode 4 “Fear, Itself”

Buffy and her friends get trapped in a haunted house and have to confront their worst fears. This one definitely evokes the feeling of being trapped at home with nothing but your thoughts – too real!

Season 4, Episode 10 “Hush”

I’ve watched this silent episode maybe ten times in quarantine. I’m not really sure what about it applies to our current situation – feeling trapped and unable to change anything? The feeling of something as basic and second-nature as speaking being stripped away? I’m not sure. But this episode is simply on another level, and always worth a rewatch.

Season 5, Episode 16 “The Body”

This episode is a piece of art, and a really sad one, so it’s not exactly one to just throw on for a casual rewatch. But it perfectly exemplifies the show’s balance between the natural and supernatural, and how sometimes real-life issues are more affecting than any cosmic threat.

Season 6, Episode 5 “Life Serial”

Buffy’s version of a time loop episode. A lot of people have written about how Palm Springs and Groundhog Day uniquely evoke the repetitive nature of quarantine – this episode doesn’t go as far as most time loop media, but it’s funny, creative, and definitely touches on the same themes to a lesser degree.

Season 6, Episode 7 “Once More with Feeling”

I mean, this should be rewatched constantly under any circumstances, but if my Spotify stats are to be trusted, this famous musical is the perfect emotional support episode for quarantine. The songs are endlessly listenable, but the themes are the emotional core of season 6. Buffy is having trouble staying optimistic about her world and her reality- same, girl. 

Season 6, Episode 14 “Older and Far Away”

This one might be a little too on the nose, but in this episode all of the characters get trapped in Buffy’s house and are unable to leave. It’s a fun concept, and an extremely relatable one. Crazy to think that when they wrote this episode, no one knew how relevant it would be 20 years later!

Season 7, Episode 22 “Chosen”

The Buffy finale is really well done, and gives us a chance to feel like we’re capable of being as powerful as Buffy herself. Thanks for guiding me through this year, Buffy! Wish you were here.

by Clare Reynders

Clare (she/her) majored in Media Studies at Vassar College, before moving to NYC to work as an assistant at NBC like the rom-com protagonist she is. She is also both a teenage film bro who just watched Fight Club and a middle-aged Nancy Meyers completist, depending on the day. Favourite movies include: Scott Pilgrim, Scream, The Social Network, The Princess Bride, Moonstruck, and Down With Love. You can find her on twitter @clarereyy or on letterboxd @clarerey.

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