Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about many things: Vampires, witches, cheerleaders, death. It’s a swirling amalgam of ’90s culture and the occult. But at its beating heart, it’s a classic coming-of-age tale about what it takes to endure the trials of adolescence and come out the other side alive. Buffy is in good company with shows like Veronica Mars and The OC that offer resonant — albeit heightened — portrayals of almost-adulthood. At least for a while. As its characters aged out of adolescence, so did the show, taking its viewers beyond the high school years into the uncomfortable realities (and occasional creative stumbles) that come with age and experience and portraying that powerful transformation. Where the first four seasons of Buffy are about our heroine accepting her responsibilities as the Slayer, seasons five and six find her realizing what it takes to be an adult, before bringing the show’s journey full circle in its seventh and final season.
Creator Joss Whedon understood the stakes of this shift, expressing his creative mission for Buffy in an interview with The A.V. Club in 2001, shortly before the show’s (somewhat darker) sixth season began. While, yes, Buffy was focused on saving the world from a number of apocalypses and world-enders of various sorts, the fact that she was a relatable teenager was always at the fore.
“Because it’s about adolescence, which is the most important thing people go through in their development, becoming an adult. And it mythologizes it in such a way, such a romantic way — it basically says, ‘Everybody who made it through adolescence is a hero.’ And I think that’s very personal, that people get something from that that’s very real.”
Between leaving the relatively safe space of high school (minus all that slaying and multiple apocalypses) and experiencing true gut-wrenching loss and the crush of a different kind of responsibility, Buffy The Vampire Slayer managed to take the high drama of the Whedonverse and turn it into a smart, affecting portrayal of growing up in seasons five and six.
Between the death of Joyce in season five and Giles stepping away from his official capacity as Watcher in season six, Buffy was left without the adults who acted as shields from whatever she couldn’t handle. According to Whedon’s 2012 Reddit AMA, he considers killing off Joyce Summers his most painful death, and with good reason. By removing Joyce from Buffy’s world, he took away yet another protective barrier. All at once, Buffy had to go from Slayer and college student to provider for her sister, Dawn, and she found herself denied the time to stop and feel her own grief. While she had Giles to help in the beginning, eventually she had to leave the comparatively breezy world of college behind to become Dawn’s de facto parent, sending her off to the likes of Doublemeat Palace and the uncertain working world.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer writer and producer Jane Espenson tells us that that transition was a way to reinvigorate the storylines with a new sense of urgency and that they didn’t want to sacrifice the vitality of Buffy to overly familiar story beats. “That was certainly a concern since high school was an important part of the initial concept,” Espenson says, adding, “but once we got Buffy into the working world, it was pretty easy to come up with things for her to overcome.” While high school brings plenty of trials into the way of the Slayer — like everyone else — that’s nothing compared to the often crippling fear that comes from actually having to be an adult. “Also,” Espenson adds, “by the time this transition took place, we weren’t doing so many ‘monster of the week’ episodes in which the environment provided a challenge that manifested as a demon, but we had more stories coming out of the changing relationships between the characters – and those didn’t depend as much on the immediate environment.”
While “monster of the week” themes played into the horror aspects of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the growing emotional complexity brought about a more realistic fear.
In season six, after dealing with the death of her mother and the reality of her own resurrection following the season-five finale, Buffy flirted with a previously undiscovered darkness. Even Gellar had trouble with Buffy’s travails in season six, remarking at a 2008 Paley Center event, “It was definitely tough for me. It’s so hard to separate myself from her, so it was tough for me to see these situations and say ‘But Buffy wouldn’t do this.'” Yet as Buffy moved from teenage dream to suffering to responsibility, the show admirably managed to stay true to its spirit while altering its focus.
Many fans criticize season six as being too dark, citing Buffy’s complex relationship with Spike and the splintering of the Scooby gang’s unified front as uncharacteristic for the show and the character. After the resurrection of Buffy, it was also frustrating to see her friends push her to be normal again so soon after her trauma. But in reality, the world doesn’t wait for you to get back on your feet before continuing to turn.
In season six’s “Flooded,” the literal flooding of the Summers’ house matched with Buffy’s figurative drowning. According to Espenson, this kind of physical manifestation of Buffy’s struggles was a priority in the writers’ room. “I distinctly remember Doug Petrie in the room, talking about the basement flood. I can’t recall if he had come up with the idea, or if we already had it in place and he was pitching dialogue for the back-and-forth between Buffy and the plumber. Finding things like this – a way to physically represent an emotional state – they’re generally a struggle between what feels right and what’s producible.”
Season six also saw the tonal shift from the primary villains being supernatural to the real world darkness of The Trio. While the season may have ended with Dark Willow and her all-consuming magic, it was Warren (Adam Busch), Jonathan (Danny Stong), and Andrew (Tom Lenk) who acted the catalyst.
In Vulture‘s oral history, writer Drew Z. Greenberg explained that this grounded kind of evil was important to Whedon.
“A lot of what made the Trio so bad for the whole season leading up to Dark Willow was that they wanted so much, and they understood so little, and it’s that lack of understanding that caused so much wanton destruction by these three seemingly harmless nerds. Joss set out to tell a story in which after five years of vampires and demons and gods and so many mystical entities wrecking destruction on our people, what ultimately ends up hurting the most is caused by simple, everyday humans.”
It’s not just the Slayer duties that shape Buffy into adulthood, it’s the world. And that’s relatable because while we may not have a gaggle of murderous nerds attempting to thwart our every move, it’s the everyday pain that makes becoming an adult difficult. Even for the supernatural Buffy Summers, the real-world trials hit even closer to home than the Hellmouth.
Ultimately, Buffy not only had to accept the responsibilities of slaying, but she had to accept the struggles of adulthood. It certainly isn’t fair. No one should have to bear the burden of being the Slayer, but Buffy was never one to shirk her birthright. It was the mundane things like paying bills, having a job, and caring for a family that tended to fall through the cracks. As Buffy struggled to keep everything afloat, it was her failure that rang true to many. No one has ever said that growing up was easy, and that uncomfortable darkness may not have been the most fun story to tell, but it was a natural progression for the show.
However, without the pain of seasons five and six, we wouldn’t have the weird hopefulness of season seven. Even when it looked like the world was about to end at the hands of The First Evil, we saw Buffy finally come to terms with being a leader. As she became a den mother to a pack of untrained potential Slayers, the talented but flighty teenager from season one was no more. The world may have been ending, but Buffy — having grown up before the eyes of viewers who saw in her a reflection of their own problems — was more than ready to face it.