The Sons of the Slayers

The idea of Buffy was simple – a monster stalks a pretty young girl into a dark alley, and she comes out wearing its head as a hat. The point is at least partially the aleatory nature of the act, some random victim becomes some random hero. Neither side knows in advance who they are, who they’ll become in the alley. In the opening scene of the show, Whedon rolls the dice again, with the innocent girl lured into extra-curricular mischief being the monster.

In some ways, the myth of Buffy came to eclipse the myth of the Slayer. In Season 7, when the “potentials” are now known quantities and being eliminated one-by-one, Buffy assumes she is to be the last slain – but it must obviously be Faith, the “current” slayer in light of Buffy’s demise(s). We became invested in her survival, rather than the game-changing concept of the victim turning the tables. Ultimately, Buffy issues the ultimate challenge to the status quo by changing random chance into dead certainty – every girl who could become a slayer, does. Of course, the fact that there were still potentials out there shows how futile the villain’s plan was to begin with: we needn’t have worried, killing Buffy would just be third-time lucky for the forces of evil.

It’s a similar story for Anita Blake, who proves frequently in the early novels that it’s better to be lucky than good, and builds into a world-shaking force. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they emerge into popular culture at the same time, in the mid-1990s, but I can’t quite put my finger on the specific reason for the timing. They were amongst decent handful of strong females surviving various monstrous things, such as Xena [1995], Scream [1996], I Know What You Did Last Summer [1997] and Resident Evil [2001]. This seemed like it should be the starting point for a trend in Urban Fantasies, Horrors and Science Fictions. But of course, they were themselves a generation after Ripley, whose action-hero credentials were seemingly washed away by the swathe of male action heroes that emerged through the 1980s.

Recently, we have seen the emergence of several fictions that seem to pick up where Buffy left off, exploring stories in the landscape of the urban fantasy, of chosen people fighting back against the forces of darkness. The closest relations to Buffy are Grimm and Supernatural.

I’ve posted before about the elder of the two, Supernatural, and how its structure is the obverse of Buffy’s. I casually described the Winchesters as the opposite of Buffy – cut off from society, where she is connected, itinerant, while she is stationary and of course, male, while she is female. What I elided was their manner of selection. Buffy has no choice about her involvement in the world of the Supernatural. She is born to the role, but at the same time, her selection is completely arbitrary. As the show unfolds, we learn of no genealogical connection between Buffy and any other slayer.

Sam and Dean are a little different – the show begins with the importance of family in the destruction of evil. They are two brothers, set on the journey to “Hunting” by the apparently senseless slaughter of their mother. They are trained for this by their father, who was a soldier before being a horror survivor. This is already a structural inversion of Buffy, because the Winchesters follow the monster after it’s left the alley. They avenge the death of the damsel, they rarely prevent it. They are avengers more than rescuers.

At first, we think that Sam and Dean are merely (un)lucky. Their mother is the first victim, an aleatory act of violence that begins their journey. Over the first five seasons, we are progressively shown how wrong that idea would be. Sam is part of a far-ranging plan by one of Lucifer’s children to free him from hell, a plan that encompasses a wide swathe of children picked on an apparently arbitrary basis. We learn, we infer, that actually the basis is very specific – a genetic inheritance. Sam and Dean have the necessary bloodline for heady power-plays. As the show progresses, it explores this inheritance in increasing detail, showing an intricate web of cause-and-effect that have positioned Sam and Dean in the right place to play the important role they do.

Once the whole story is splayed out on the critical dissection table, a range of decisions become apparent that paint a fairly coherent ideological picture built into and around that genetic inheritance. The first thing is that despite a lineage of hunters extending into the past on their mother’s side, it is their father’s blood that makes them special. The importance of lineage is a key masculine concept, defined in the West as father-to-son. Their mother is the first in an incredible string of women who will be found wanting that special quality of inheritance that will ensure their survival. Women exist primarily as sacrifices, and not just mortal women – Lilith, the ancestress of all demons, must be slain in order to free Lucifer, and Anna, the fallen angel, tries to kill the Winchesters on the behest of heaven only to end up being killed by her erstwhile subordinate, Castiel. In all cases, a woman must die in order for a man to reach his latent potential.

The point made by the show over and over again is that this is what destiny looks like: knowledge and power pass through lines of inheritance, they are not random.

Grimm, the youngest of the trio, seems to me to pick up Supernatural‘s idea and expand it. The lead protagonist, Nick Burkhardt, inherits his powers, such as they are. He represents merely one instance of a far larger family tree – the “Grimms”, who are all monster hunters. In Buffy and Supernatural, the monsters are beyond human comprehension and influence – they are beings generally from another plane of existence. Spiritual, in essence. Grimm does for its antagonists what it has done for its protagonist – they are people with a little additional bite.

I see this as a progression, from randomness to predictability. Buffy was a teen drama, loosely structured in season-long arcs around a significant threat to Sunnydale. The monsters she encountered were many and varied, though Vampires were never too far from the action. Supernatural too was varied in its antagonists, but more settled in its episodic structure – Monster of the Week. Grimm is not only Monster of the Week, but it’s also a police procedural, the most predictable and settled genre there is on Television. The metaphor and subtext I discussed with Buffy and Supernatural are now completely sublimated into literally monstrous people – so that the source of variety is mostly a matter of window dressing.

Grimm, also like Supernatural, is strongly oriented toward masculinity. The mantel of Grimm is passed explicitly from Aunt to Nephew, the main antagonists are all men except when a seductive female is needed. I haven’t yet gotten a grasp on the overall mythology of the show, but one season in, it’s mostly harmless. I’m not sure you can say that about the others. Love or hate them, both its predecessors are confrontational shows, making fairly bold statements about destiny, gender politics, the structure of narratives – you name it! They have the necessary complexities and ambiguities that lend themselves to looking for a deeper meaning than simply turning up each week.

One good thing has come out of this structure – the idea of destiny has been submerged one more. The detective is pushed into the world of the supernatural by an accident of birth. He is one of many relations with his peculiar gifts. He is not special, except that he is the focus of the show. We’re not back to the total destabilisation of rolling dice in the alley, but the submersion of the supernatural into the general population levels the playing field considerably.

I do wish though, that Buffy had more daughters.

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One Response to The Sons of the Slayers

  1. Pingback: What Stories Want | My One Contribution To The Internet

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