In “Becoming,” the finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season, Buffy Summers is facing her biggest challenge yet. Angel, her ex—and a vampire—has reverted to his evil, sociopathic ways, planning to open a portal in the fictional Sunnydale, California that will bring forth the apocalypse. As Buffy rushes to prevent the end of the world in time she encounters a lifeless body: Kendra, the other Vampire Slayer, has been murdered in the library of Sunnydale High. The moment is interrupted by a policeman who promptly arrests Buffy, assuming she is the killer. With the cop forcing her hands behind her back as she is simultaneously berated by Principal Snyder—who has always seen her as a liability, that “if there’s trouble, she’s behind it”—and having her Miranda Rights recited, Buffy’s expression transforms from one of frustration into resignation; she knows what she has to do. She breaks free of the cop’s attempt to handcuff her, punches him in the face, and smacks him hard onto the ground, rendering him immobile as she runs down the hallway to fulfill her fate. “Buffy Summers said ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards)— donate to bail funds if you can,” tweeted @slayerfestx98 in June, along with a clip from the episode.
“Buffy Summers said ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards)— donate to bail funds if you can.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a seminal fantasy series that ran from 1997-2003—was radical for its time, not only for its portrayal of the police department as incompetent and dishonest, but in the way Buffy actively despises them. She is a teen in exile, reckoning with the isolation that her fate as the Chosen One affords her, but knows not to turn to the authorities in times of need. Instead she is keenly aware of their hopelessness, and they serve as inconvenient obstructions on her mission to save the world. In the season two episode “What’s My Line,” Career Week at Sunnydale High forces Buffy to take a vocational aptitude test where she’s assigned to law enforcement. Groaning at the prospect of being a cop, Buffy makes her way to the sign-up sheet; as soon as she identifies herself, the police officer at the desk reveals herself to be an undercover assassin sent to kill Buffy, and immediately starts shooting. Buffy survives, of course—it’s one of the first instances where her disdain for firearms is made clear—and it’s an excellent example of the show at its best, where its fantastical properties highlight very real systemic issues.
Buffy’s initial Twitter appearances began in early March, before the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people incited renewed protests across the country in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Until these uprisings, the show was often appropriated into the “2020 as a TV character” meme format, typically featuring Kennedy or Dawn, two of the most insufferable and loathed figures of the Buffyverse. But as protests spread worldwide, Buffy again started circulating the internet, this time as a reminder of how the Slayer has always distrusted the police force.
I have been in my apartment much more than usual for the past four months—as have we all—and my typically mammoth appetite for consuming television content has only grown in its voracity. I have returned to shows that I failed to finish at the time, a byproduct of getting caught up in a routine I no longer have; I am devouring new content in record time. And yet I am most interested in rewatching what I have already seen multiple times over. I’ve been this way ever since I realized, when I was a teenager, that playing Friends on a loop—from season one to ten and back again—was an ambient conversational lullaby that quelled my fear of the dark, an effortless way to put my mind at ease. As I got older a rewatch still offered a great deal of comfort, but it was also a reflective device: an opportunity to critically engage with the material that had once functioned as a balm.
An epic series rewatch holds a different sort of clout in the age of COVID-19, a newfound relevance that makes me like to think that the rest of the world has finally caught up with me. Our abundance of time spent at home, coupled with our collective listlessness, makes nostalgia an even more alluring crutch, its tenets of familiarity and solace acutely desirable. Over the past few months my Twitter feed has indicated that I, along with many others, have watched Buffy during lockdown, a cornerstone text for a subcategory of my generation (see: mainly queers).
Buffy—which, for the woefully uninitiated, follows Buffy and her group of friends fighting Big Bads and other supernatural forces in Sunnydale—is an attractive show to return to for many reasons. Its ability to transcend the fantasy genre establishes a surreal and multifaceted tone from the outset, grounding a relatable bildungsroman narrative within a world where high school, literally, is a hellscape. Its rapid-fire, obscurely referential dialogue set a precedent for other coming-of-age dramedies, Gilmore Girls and The O.C. among them. It features the first lesbian kiss and (albeit incredibly tepid) sex scene aired on primetime television. Structurally, Buffy never shied away from a challenge, and its novelty episodes—from “Hush,” an almost entirely silent episode where all Sunnydale residents lose their voices, to “Once More, With Feeling,” a musical—are revered by fans. The show is enthralling and mystical and clever with a radical quality that underpins the plotlines, a quality that is both heightened and complicated in a rewatch during a year where multiple crises are overlapping and intersecting.
In response to the current moment we are seeing a long-overdue consideration of how cops are portrayed on television. The documentary crime series Cops was pulled from the Paramount Network after running for 32 seasons. Brooklyn Nine-Nine—a show that I’ve never seen, but seems to entertain the oxymoronic concept of loveable police officers—has vowed to “start over.” Actors who currently play cops, or have done so in the past, donated their residual checks to bail funds. “As TV viewers, we are locked inside a police perspective,” Kathryn VanArendonk writes for Vulture, “harnessed to their needs, desires, and daily rhythms.”
Like so many of the most complicated and compelling fantasy narratives, Buffy is interested in complicating the binary of good and evil. Faith, the Vampire Slayer who is called when Kendra dies, turns to the dark side and is a key villain in season three. Her characterization shows us the messier elements of the slayer’s powers and responsibilities, which becomes an ongoing battle for Buffy too: her various pulls to other dimensions render her a liminal figure, mortal but somehow more than, toeing the line between the living and the dead. This often makes for nuanced storylines and complex relationship dynamics—both of Buffy’s main romantic interests, for example, are vampires—and complicating who we consider our ostensible heroes and villains makes for a timely 2020 allegory. But there is still a tendency for the show to indulge in the diametrics of good versus bad: most of the villains are abject monsters, explicitly evil, with a singular mission to destroy the Slayer.
Not only is the terror simple in its presentation, but it is also clearly other: it literally comes from another world, and has an end goal. This type of enemy is attractive in its distinctiveness, and is one of the reasons I, for one, found comfort in Buffy at the beginning of COVID-19: it was soothing to see the evil arrive in Sunnydale and be swiftly vanquished by the Slayer, rather than a hidden virus that seeped into our daily lives. In the face of white supremacy, though, it’s important to be confronted with how systemic racism is an insidious evil, baked in to our everyday. Buffy’s contempt for the police force does feel like a radical act for television, but the prevalent portrayal of villains as clean cut, objective forces of horror indicates how much more progress needs to be made.
In spite of its problems, I will always be a champion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its rich world, smart storytelling, and charming characters has, and will continue to, reel me in many times over. The show is still a balm for me, placating and provocative at once; and perhaps it is a commanding example of a beloved artifact that is not pervasively problematic, but warrants ongoing examination and discussion. During this era of uncertainty and tragedy, Buffy grants us permission to escape, but also has us tuned in to the systemic problems we shouldn’t look away from.