Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Big Bad Theory, Part 1
By Mark Abraham· May 14, 2013
I had planned on writing something about my ambivalence concerning Silas, the latest Big Bad on The Vampire Diaries, but since Big Bad Theory isn’t really a Diaries-specific complaint I kept, while writing, wanting to refer to Big Bads on other shows, notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So I thought maybe a little Buffy primer now, and then more on Silas once the finale has aired later in the week and we find out if the whole Silas thing is done with or merely done for now or continuing into the next season where the as-yet-mostly-unseen villain will inevitably be recast with a handsome actor who will twitterpate all of our hearts as he does evil things. Because that’s how the world works, children.
If Buffy/Diaries comparisons seem unfair, well: if you’re going to introduce a Big Bad who is immortal and indestructible and all-powerful and who can appear as anybody they want to? To trick people? To taunt them? Of course we’re going to compare Silas to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s First Evil, which is problematic immediately because the First Evil was super-lame. Is Silas symptomatic of the same problems? When Buffy tried to to one-up itself its Big Bads increasingly became the show’s worst enemy, and not really good enemies for the characters on the show. Buffy is therefore instructive because as it attempted to trump itself each season Big Bad-wise, often with no more thought put into it than giving each successive villain a more powerful-sounding job description, it set up a classic arc of Big Bad degradation. So let’s start at the beginning.
The Master: A centuries-old vampire who believed he was fated to destroy Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the Master (Mark Metcalf) was pretty hokey, and the first season of the show was a little too short for him to effectively become a truly menacing antagonist. Still, the outline of a great story was there. The Master was an ancient male vampire devoted to ritual, prophecy, and the order of things, and therefore symbolic of the patriarchy; Buffy Summers was a young woman who balked at authority and who asserted her own free will in the face of the Master’s proscriptions. It was, in essence, a season-long arc that reflected the show’s embedded subversion of tropes about men and women in this kind of genre fiction. Plus, while this early version of the show was often silly and poorly paced and deeply flawed, making the Big Bad of your show about a vampire slayer a veteran vampire seems like a good choice. Plus plus, the Master actually killed Buffy, fulfilling his prophecy and retroactively making all of his sermonizing seem a bit more menacing. Fortunately, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) was around to save Buffy so that she could go kill the Master, but more importantly so that she could fire off a really good quip before doing so.
Angelus: Not older or more nefarious than the Master—by which I mean this is one of only two times where the job description of the present Big Bad seems less impressive on paper than that of the previous Big Bad—but Buffy’s vampire-boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz)—or at least his de-souled version, Angelus—made for a far more personal story. With the delightful Drusilla (Juliet Landau) and Spike (James Marsters)—well, “delightful” before seasons of character development would make both vampires less delightful—in tow, Angelus made a wonderful villain for Buffy’s sophomore hump as the show confidently asserted its vision in a far more effective manner that it had during its first season. Here, Angel becomes Angelus because the night that Buffy gave her virginity to him was so emotional that an ancient Gypsy curse meant to keep him from being happy removed his soul.
This shift transformed the narrative of the show in several fundamental ways: suddenly we were dealing with Buffy’s confusion and sadness, but also her need to protect Angel from her friends and her inability to cope with all of the questions surrounding Angel’s transformation, plus just being a teenager. More importantly, though, Angelus was allowed to be really menacing and threatening. He killed people without remorse, he laughed at Buffy’s shame, and he exploited the bond they had previously shared to manipulate her. He was awful, forcing Buffy to contemplate killing the man she loved. In setting up the story this way, the show effectively tied its characters’ emotions to the season’s plot whilr also highlighted a lesson it would later apparently forget, both with Angel again (subsequent Angelus renderings were never quite so malicious) and, as we will look at in a sec, Willow (Alyson Hannigan): if you want your evil character to be believable, they need to actually do evil things.
The Mayor: The reigning champ of Buffy Big Bads, the Mayor (Harry Groener) was so great because he was an excellent character first: funny, finicky, etiquette-minded, always ready with a quaint anecdote, and disarmingly calm even when he was clearly upset. His evilness, such that it was, was almost mundane. Just…part of the system, really.
Beyond the character, though, the Mayor represented something far enough removed from the lives of typical teenagers that he seemed scary and foreboding—even before we learned of his weird plan to transform into a giant snake demon—but small enough that the threat was real: he lived where the Scoobie Gang lived, and he had even subverted Faith (Eliza Dushku), Buffy’s fellow Slayer, making things personal. Plus, like the Master, he represented all of the subtextual elements that sat at the core of Buffy’s worldview: he was a respected municipal authority figure in a position of power that could wield a variety of institutional powers against Buffy. To defeat him, Buffy would need to subvert the expectations of a gendered, ordered society. She would need to thwart the Mayor’s imperatives. She would need to embrace her own intuition. That’s why the Mayor is the primary reason season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains a fan-favorite.
Adam: Adam (George Hertzberg) was a basically indestructible cyborg with no personality and no particular motivation for anything he did. Season four essentially presented this conundrum: if the Slayer can’t defeat someone in one-on-one combat, what do they do? Which I guess would be an interesting question if it hadn’t already been kind of addressed with the whole The Mayor Is A Giant Snake Demon thing. Similarly, the solution to defeating Adam, which doubled as the lesson of the season, was that Buffy was stronger with her friends, so she would need to work with Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Willow, and Xander. Which is fair enough, but I already kind of thought that was the point of the show. Like, we had already experienced what happened to Slayers like Kendra and Faith who had been pushed into the traditional route of being forced to take on evil by themselves, so we already knew why Buffy was different.
Ehn. Season four was pretty weird, so maybe it isn’t surprising that all of its best parts would have nothing to do with sucky Adam.
Glory: Glory’s an odd duck. Up to this point, all four of the show’s Big Bads—even Adam—could fit into the show’s meta-commentary on gender. And I guess I should say that I don’t think the show was always that great with this commentary, but in broad terms it worked: the Master was symbolic of religion, Angelus of relationships, the Mayor of politics, and Adam of physicality, and these are all realms men have traditionally claimed superiority in. So, y’know, here was Buffy kicking tangible representations of four intangible components of the patriarchy and male privilege.
Glory (Clare Kramer), the show’s first female Big Bad and by far the best of the show’s latter-day Big Bads, was kind of awesome. At the same time, she was overpowered and over-conceptualized to the point that it became hard to take her seriously. Consider: somebody in the writer’s room clearly thought it would be awesome if fashion-obsessed Glory was played by Kramer but all of her servants were pointy-nosed goblin hobbits as a funny visual joke, but it was more weird than funny. Somebody clearly thought it would be cool if Glory was spiritually conjoined to a human vessel, Ben (Charlie Weber), so that OMG if one of the Scoobie Gang was talking to Ben he might turn into Glory at any time, but the whole reasoning behind that was kind of confusing. Somebody clearly thought it would be cool if Glory was eating the brains of humans to stay sane or something, but that whole thing was kind of weird. Like, it was really important at certain times and then other times it didn’t seem to matter until she fucked with Tara (Amber Benson). Counting Glory’s primary bugaboo of wanting the key to get back to her homeworld, that’s like 40 things about Glory that were important to the plot. Which…at least there was stuff to know about her, unlike Adam, but it’s still a lot of kind of confusing and vague stuff.
Plus, if Adam was the pinnacle of hybrid human/demon/vampire technology, invincible and computer-like, somebody decided that Glory should be a God! All of the things Adam was, with the power to manipulate reality too! Glory worked to a point because she was compelling as a personality and because Kramer kind of rocked the role (when she wasn’t hamstrung by the writing). At the same time, Glory was really just an even-more indestructible Big Bad, and Buffy literally had to kill herself to defeat her. And once you’ve had your main character sacrifice herself to defeat a Big Bad, where do you go next?
Dark Willow: Season six is rife with problems, so pinning the blame to Dark Willow alone wouldn’t be fair. Still, she’s a major part of the problem. The set-up is that three nerds—Warren (Adam Busch), Johnathan (Danny Strong), and Andrew (Tom Lenk)—have decided to fuck with Buffy, but they aren’t much more than an annoyance until Warren accidentally shoots Willow’s girlfriend Tara. Meanwhile, Willow has been trying to perform magic beyond her capabilities, so when her girlfriend is shot she embraces all the magic, goes apeshit, and flays Warren alive before surfing on an 18-wheeler and deciding to destroy the world.
Willow’s heel-turn was neutered by her atrocious descent storyline, largely due to the show’s utter lack of consistency about whether the problem was a) Willow being too careless in her desire to wield stronger, more dangerous magic despite the concerns of Tara or Giles or b) Willow being a victim of a horrible addiction. These are incredibly different motivations, and in fluctuating between them—either because the show was hesitant to tarnish Willow too much or because shit was just poorly written—the writers ensured the arc would be kind of a total bust.
When Angel went bad the show made the calculated decision to sacrifice a main character—Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), a teacher to Buffy, Tara, and Xander, and also Giles’s girlfriend—to cement his evilness. When Willow went bad the show decided to have her visit a seedy
drug magic-dealer. Even when she flays Warren…well, Warren was a dick through and through, so while there’s an intellectual argument that Our Willow had Crossed A Line, we weren’t exactly invested emotionally in Warren’s demise. Plus, who cares? Xander talks her down like five minutes later anyways. Which is another huge problem, because Dark Willow barely exists for even the three episodes she’s technically an entity. (Which is why it’s hilarious in season seven when everybody is walking on eggshells about Willow turning into Dark Willow again. Why? Because she’ll growl some more and shoot some lightning, maybe? Like every other Monster of the Week on this show?)
The biggest problem, though, is just that Dark Willow seems like a response to this question: “We did a God last season. What’s next?” A: “One of their own has to turn evil.” Q: “Spike?” A: “Nah. Spike’s good now, isn’t he?”
Season six Spike is a whole ‘nother article.
The First Evil: So, with nowhere left to go, we got the stupidest character ever. It was incorporeal but could appear as any dead person it liked. It had tons of ambitious plans that didn’t make a lick of sense. It had easily beaten minions and an army of super-vampires, all of whose abilities varied largely based on the requirements of the plot. It largely…talked a lot. If Glory was a God and the show was going to move up again, than the First Evil had to be something incomprehensible, primordial, and I guess also resoundingly boring. Because that’s all the First Evil was. Plus, if your Big Bad can pretty much do anything—if there are no limits on its power—than you’re pretty much going to be forced into the corner of sitting around talking about the Big Bad, which means that not only did the First Evil do a lot of talking, but it also created a situation where all of the characters did a lot of talking. About fate. About destiny. But mostly about nothing.
The First Evil is what happens if you keep trying to make your villain seem more menacing than the last villain by virtue of what that villain is, as opposed to what they are trying to do. “This Big Bad will be, like, every evil, past and present, all smushed together as a sentient being.” Cool, but hint: “eventually destroy the world” is never going to work as a plot device.
Anyways, let’s see how Silas pans out…