“Death is your gift,” the First Slayer tells the title character of Joss Whedon’s seminal TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s exactly the kind of counter-cultural sentiment that makes “Buffy” so fascinating. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) dies at the end of the fifth season (from which the above quote is lifted), but the show was picked up for two more by the channel UPN (it originally aired on The WB). The final two seasons (during which Marti Noxon was co-head writer with Whedon) are commonly considered to be among the weakest, but they have one flaw that is rarely mentioned: their contradictory view of the afterlife.
First, it is important to consider the context of the quote above. Buffy’s life collapses during the fifth season; her mother dies suddenly due to a tumor, forcing Buffy to take care of her younger sister (Buffy’s relationship with her father is distant at best). Buffy’s sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), frequently skips school, and their economic situation forces Buffy to drop out of college. Furthermore, she faces a “standard” conflict that a Vampire Slayer must face: stopping a god named Glory (Clare Kramer) from opening a portal that would literally open hell on earth by using Dawn’s blood. Buffy’s sister is actually a ball of mystical energy that was transformed into a living person by monks. (yes, this show is ridiculous; do not confuse ridiculous with stupid). Buffy’s death–sacrificing her life by swan-diving off a building in place of her sister–is a two-part gift. Both an escape from the hell of her life, and a heroic sacrifice to cap it all off.
After being brought back from the dead by her friends at the beginning of season six, Buffy is thrown back into a spiraling depression. She sums up her feelings perfectly in the sixth season’s third episode; “I was happy. Wherever I was, I was happy…at peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was alright…. Time didn’t mean anything. Nothing had form, but I was still me…. I don’t understand theology, or dimensions, any of it really. But I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not.” This is Whedon’s interpretation of heaven: a more comforting version of the existentialist afterlife–formless, and empty, but happy.
Of course, the afterlife also involves vampires–those who are lifeless, and without souls, but who still must roam the earth. They are fundamentally dead, but their punishment is being forced to hunt in order to remain animated, and cognizant. As Spike, one of the show’s major vampire protagonists, puts it; “Blood is life…it’s what keeps you going.” For Spike, the search for blood is his punishment–a constant search to reclaim a pulse, or life, while knowing this is an unachievable goal.
But all people experience a similar struggle–an aspiration for something to make us feel complete. It is, in a simple sense, passion, as described best by Angel (the show’s other vampire protagonist); “Passion. It lies dormant in all of us…rules us…and we obey…. The joy of love, the clarity of hatred…it hurts sometimes more than we can bear…. Without passion, we’d truly be dead.” Vampires, and humans alike experience a constant struggle of passion, the yearning for emotion and, by extension, conflict. Passion does not allow for peace.
Therein lies the logical contradiction of the show’s view of the afterlife: How can heaven still allow for human identity, which includes a yearning for passion, but also allow for a constant state of happiness? As “Buffy” showed throughout its seven seasons, humans have an inclination towards conflict. To feel passion, a feeling “dormant in all of us,” is to yearn for emotion. Emotion is, by extension, a form of conflict. For what is happiness if not the struggle to remain happy? And what is sadness if not the struggle to escape it? This says nothing of the emotions we inflict on each other. Peace, on the other hand, is the absence of conflict. How can Buffy retain her humanity, her sense of passion, and be at peace simultaneously? She cannot; this is a logical contradiction–a plot hole in an otherwise extremely tightly written show.
This is, of course, also one of the logical contradictions of heaven as it is commonly understood in Western, Christian culture. The heaven of the Christian West is widely known as one in which we retain our sense of humanity, and identity, and are surrounded by our deceased loved ones, forever happy, and together. The issue here is similar to the issue with the afterlife of “Buffy”. How are we meant to be forever happy, and surrounded by other people, while still retaining the very tendencies that cause conflict, and unhappiness? According to this idea of Heaven, logically, our lives would be the same as they were when we were alive, albeit without the same finality of death. There would still be war, there would still be pain alongside happiness. Heaven is therefore somewhat counterintuitive, albeit comforting.
The Heaven of “Buffy” is disappointingly similar to the Christian notion, though “Buffy” suggests a more non-corporeal, individualized version. Buffy, as mentioned above, does not interact with other people in the afterlife, nor can she communicate with her loved ones on Earth. Instead, she “senses” they are happy, while she herself exists in a formless state. This is unlike the corporeal state implied by Christian heaven. There is a clear difference in afterlife theories here, but it isn’t very distinguishable. It isn’t the counter-cultural genius of “Death is your gift,” but a slight modification of common beliefs. It is a pity, as Whedon was a master of challenging cultural common sense.
Death, or more specifically Buffy’s death, was a gift to the show–an opportunity to explore the afterlife, which is one of the most fascinating, and mysterious philosophical ideas in human history. Instead, it was used to establish a conflict for the sixth season. No wonder nobody talks about those last two seasons.