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Slay up, and slay the game! Buffy, Angel, Britain and Ireland.

November 30th, 2008 (03:19 pm)


I wrote this article for my university Doctor Who fanzine back in 2003/4, before the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer finished; I re-present it here for curious readers, unchanged. The cut is a merited one!

Considering the content of some episodes of their productions, Mutant Enemy could do with a production base in the mid-Atlantic. Not only has Buffy the Vampire Slayer included a throwaway reference to The Sun (in 'Amends', 3.10), much of its backstory takes place in the British Isles. Several of its regular and semi-regular characters are of British or Irish origin - to name six, Giles, Angel, Spike, Drusilla, Wesley and presumably also Darla. There is a strong British flavour to the creative staff. Joss Whedon attended Winchester College in his teens. Marti Noxon's father is British. Gareth Davies, credited as producer on all seven series of Buffy, began his career in Britain forty years ago, where he worked in the BBC Drama Group under Sydney Newman, and although he never directed for Newman's pet Saturday afternoon serial Doctor Who, he did work on the strand of single plays at the heart of the Newman project, The Wednesday Play and its post-Newman successor Play for Today. That connection is enough to make Buffy and Angel cousins on the British television drama family tree, albeit grafted onto a Hollywood vine.

The relationship of Buffy with the British Isles has caught the attention of several university teachers and researchers. This article considers two scholarly papers: 'Convents, Claddagh rings, and even The Book of Kells: Representing the Irish in Buffy the Vampire Slayer' by Donna L. Potts of Kansas State University, published in Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 3/2 (May 2003), and '"You Say Tomato": Englishness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer' by Matthew Pateman of the University of Hull, published in Cercles 8 (2003). Potts explores the portrayal of Angel in Buffy and in Angel through a postcolonialist analysis of the depiction of Ireland and the Irish by British writers. Pateman, contributing to a special issue of Cercles on the American television sitcom (Pateman argues plausibly that Buffy,  although presented to the audience as a horror series, is 'generically fluid') looks at Giles, Wesley and Spike as stereotypes of 'British' - or as Pateman states 'English' -behaviour, which 'offer a range of notions of English masculinity that trade upon but also contribute to the store of clichés, stereotypes and models which allow for a discursive notion of the concept in the first place'.

Donna Potts: Angel as Irishman

Potts introduces her argument by mentioning 'Pangs', an episode from Buffy’s third season, which depicts long-dead Chumash Indians as spirits seeking to avenge the decimation of their tribe by settlers in California. The episode acknowledges that their claim has some justice, but 'nonetheless depicts them according to the colonizers' stereotypes as irrational savages unfit for the civilized world' who are eventually defeated by Buffy and her friends in a fashion that restores the status quo ante. Angel, she argues, similarly embodies a stereotype Irishman of the sort used by the British, from the twelfth century onwards but particularly in Victorian times, to justify 'Anglo-Saxon' domination over the Celt.

Potts's argument is hampered by the quality of her sources for cultural stereotypes, some of which are derived from a secondary source (L. Curtis, Nothing but the same old story: the roots of anti-Irish racism, 1984) that appears to be a republican text from the 1980s attempting to associate Ireland's relationship to England and Britain with that of the experience of Britain's nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonies. However valid or invalid this interpretation, it is so widely-disseminated that it is part of political folk culture in many parts of the world, and therefore part of the stock of lore or information that Buffy the Vampire Slayer can expect its viewers to share. Potts is perceptive in emphasising that Angel, as a young human (Liam) in eighteenth-century Galway, 'embodies virtually all the characteristics that the English attributed to the Irish as a means of proving their unfitness for self-governance.' She places less emphasis, however, on the way in which Liam’s characteristics also place him outside eighteenth-century social structures irrespective of his nationality; he is arrogant and outwardly self-satisfied, honours not his father and his mother (ignoring most of the other commandments as well), and lusts after women. His sexual advances towards Darla signify transgressive ambition; a desire to be self-made that makes him evil to the traditional society that is the Ireland of Buffy and Angel, and thus an exceptionally powerful vampire in his own century and continent.

As a vampire, Angelus is obsessed with religious symbolism, which Potts sees as another Victorian English stereotype of the Irish, an obsession which leads him to turn Drusilla into a vampire on the day that she was to take her vows as a nun. Angel's tattoo that Buffy describes as "a bird or something" is actually a winged lion from the Book of Kells, which represents the evangelist Mark. It is held to symbolise the supposed spiritual qualities of the Celt, and within the context of Buffy Angel's conflicted identity - a being cast out of the sight of God, but who seeks to do good. (God is mentioned with the reservation that both Buffy and Angel seek to avoid a narrow identification with the Christian faith.) The most overt sign of Angel's Irishness, however, is the Claddagh ring that he gives to Buffy in 'Surprise' (2.13); it is presented as an assertion of his cultural Irishness as well as of his fidelity to Buffy, and it is that ring which calls Angel back from Hell at the end of 'Faith, Hope, and Trick' (3.3). Just as Angel displays Irish characteristics, so Potts sees his conflict with William/Spike as one between Celt and Saxon. Angel is artistic: as a killer, he is promiscuous and prefers to draw out the agony of his victims. Spike, contrastingly, is direct and practical when he wants to kill, and moderate and restrained in his choice of victims, displaying the supposedly Anglo-Saxon qualities that were held to legitimise British rule in Ireland.

Matthew Pateman: Three Faces from England

Pateman's article on Englishness explores Giles's role as father-figure to Buffy; he suggests that a model for a discussion of the relationship, and for those Buffy has with Wesley and Spike, would be the way in whch some critics see Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as an allegory of the shaping of young America by sophisticated but depraved old Europe. I haven't read Lolita but feel that this parallel leads itself to misinterpretation; Giles, as Pateman emphasises, is very much a father-figure to Buffy in a way that Humbert fails to be to Lolita. Initially he is a collection of clichés about Englishness, asserting at the Bronze nightclub that he would 'much rather be at home with a cup of Bovril and a good book' ('Welcome to the Hellmouth', 1.1) but later becomes more complicated as we learn his occultist past as 'Ripper'.

The other male English Watcher is Wesley, introduced as 'much more closely allied (than Giles) to a bumbling, cowardly, effeminate Brideshead Revisited Edwardian sort of character', his obsession with rules being his way of compensating for his lack of maturity. Both Wesley and Giles, however, are seen by Pateman as belonging to 'a rather idealised notion of the English gentleman-scholar' in a tradition established (for all his supposed French origins) by Star Trek: The Next Generation's Jean-Luc Picard.

Spike is the third English male character discussed by Pateman. He is introduced as 'a version of reasonably recent Englishness as exemplified through youth culture'. Pateman notes that Spike and Drusilla were intended to evoke Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, whose decadent behaviour 'scandalised the British media' in Pateman's words; Pateman seems to have missed that Nancy was American and the drama of their relationship was played out on both sides of the Atlantic, a potential parallel first for the reign of Spike and Drusilla as the lords of the undead in Sunnydale, and later for Spike's psychologically intense sado-masochistic sexual affair with Buffy. Pateman discusses how the characters of Spike and Giles are much closer than they initially appear: in 'Restless' (4.22) both manifest themselves in Buffy's (Xander's?) dream, wearing tweeds and sitting side by side on a set of swings. As discovered early in Buffy’s fifth season, in 'Fool for Love', Spike was once a 'softly spoken, rather effete poet' called William, from the same upper (or perhaps more precisely upper-middle) class background as Giles or Wesley. Pateman discusses at length 'Tabula Rasa', the episode where all the regulars lose their memories: when Spike realises that he is English, after insulting  Giles as effete, Giles responds with 'Welcome to the nancy tribe'.

Flashbacks and faith

My interpretation of the use of Ireland and England by Buffy and Angel is perhaps close to Pateman's. I see both countries as being principally important as representations of the Old World in contrast to the New, and these similarities in the depictions of both countries are more important than their differences. Both countries, as imagined by Buffy and Angel in their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century guises, are depicted as spiritual and observantly Christian, in contrast to the secular and materialist worlds of Sunnydale and Los Angeles. Almost at the very end of Buffy's second season, in 'Becoming, part one' (2.21) we glimpse the end of Angelus's murder of a priest to whom Drusilla was about to make her confession. When in the Angel episode ‘Prodigal’ (1.15) we see Liam's funeral in Galway, about a century earlier, a man in antique clerical garb presides. Even in the twenty-first century it seems that Britain is more attuned to the ancient evils that imperil the world than contemporary Sunnydale and Los Angeles - we learn at the beginning of the seventh season of Buffy that there is a benevolent witches' coven in Devon that helps Willow achieve a workable peace with herself following her attempt to destroy the world at the end of the sixth season.

The 'flashback' sequences set in Europe in previous centuries, however, are more central to the argument, as they are used not only to provide retroactive information about characters but also to validate Buffy's cosmology to the viewer. This cosmology, highly developed by the end of the seventh season, and developing onwards through the continuation of Angel, has its origins in the need to contrast Buffy Summers, the modern Californian teenager, with her vampire slayer heritage, as interpreted to her by the stereotypically stuffy Briton, Rupert Giles. Initially this cosmology was part-anecdotal, as Buffy and her friends received information, usually incomplete in some way, about that week's foe; it was then part-revelatory, as Buffy discovered information through the appearance of the new demon. En route, humour was extracted from the clash between Buffy and her friends, representing the newness of California – Buffy is fashion-conscious, Willow techno-literate, Xander always questioning through his cheerfully-admitted ignorance – and the experienced and knowledgeable but apparently culturally inflexible Giles. There was only one short sequence set in the European past in the first season, at the beginning of 'I Robot… You Jane' where the audience was allowed to see the capture of the demon Moloch and anticipate what would happen to the text in which he was trapped once it was scanned into a computer connected to the internet. As the series became more complex and began to question, in effect, elements of its own narrative (a process that begins round about the episode 'Lie to Me' in the second season) then the flashback sequence was re-adopted as a device to tell viewers, but not the characters themselves, about the prehistory of the fictional universe that was emerging and provide them with a context for the characters' actions.

Most of these sequences involved the vampire characters, including their entries into undeath. Overt attention was given to vampire behaviour and the tensions between Angel, Darla, Drusilla and Spike - beings in a moral universe who had lost their ability to see their way through it. As previously noted the church is present, through the implicit Catholicism of Angel's Irish background, the Master's impersonation of a churchman, and Drusilla's religious vocation; there is also a religious dimension of a sort to William's fall into vampirism, for Drusilla sees Pre-Raphaelite imagery in his mind, and seduces him with the temptation of becoming her Sir Lancelot, an iconic figure of medieval lay spirituality. William/Spike may have been a virgin when seduced by Drusilla - many fans have thought that they did not have sexual relations for nearly two decades after Drusilla sired William's vampire self - in which case William could be seen as Sir Lancelot and Spike as his and Drusilla's offspring, Sir Galahad, who eventually achieves the Holy Grail and, like Spike at the end of the seventh season of Buffy, disappears in a blaze of light.

The depiction of the British and Irish pasts in Buffy and Angel is of questionable  value to anyone hoping to learn a little about history. This is in part the result of budgetary constraints; the flashbacks are usually short and so are reliant on existing studio lots and (I suppose) use few new sets and costumes. The late Victorian London of 'Fool for Love' could easily be somewhere in central Europe. In some ways this setting is appropriate; vampires first became part of English-language culture in the mid-eighteenth century, when the press reported tales of a vampire-hunt in Hungary. The area with the greatest potential to mislead, however, is the depiction of the church. I doubt that either the Church of England men and women who founded the colony of Virginia, or their Catholic neighbours in Maryland, would have entertained someone disguised as a monk to administer the last rites to Darla; in one colony it would have been inconceivable, and in the other they would probably have been risking arrest. Whether it is a Catholic priest or Church of Ireland clergyman who presides over Liam's funeral, it's unlikely that in the eighteenth century that he'd be wearing anything that we would recognise as clerical dress, which was reserved for the higher clergy of the established church. As for Drusilla's religious vocation, recent research has shown that in the 1850s and 1860s it was becoming increasingly common for young Catholic Englishwomen to become nuns, following the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, and the effects of Irish immigration; women were encouraged to take orders to assist in the work of an overstretched priesthood. So, the presentation of Drusilla’s religion is the most credible of the three.

Buffy and Angel show greater respect for the European past as depicted in cinematic horror. Angelus, Darla and the Master are in some respects the successors of the rational sceptics who scoff at Van Helsing and his kind in the Hammer horror films, only to end up either collaborating with the forces of evil or fall prey to them. Old knowledge is to be respected, although it is not put forward through the pervasive but inept church but through a rationalist who does not close his mind against what others dismiss as superstition. Giles is thus an heir to Hammer's Van Helsing, although one who is dependent on the superior physical strength and unorthodox youthful mental agility of the Slayer. The flashbacks in this sense contribute towards placing Buffy and Angel in a tradition of British horror cinema - although the Hammer films in their turn were indebted to the Universal films made in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.


Most importantly, though, Buffy and Angel need their European contexts because the series needed to continue to play on the contrast between the modern and the ancient. From ‘Lie to Me’ onwards, Giles is increasingly absorbed into the modern; as Buffy and her contemporaries learn what it is to be adults Giles, too, learns how to live as an individual in America and also to share his knowledge rather than authoritatively impart it. While Buffy’s narrative becomes more complex the viewer isn’t burdened with much detail about the past of Sunnydale, which continues to play the part of modern America; the series instead develops an exotic, superstitious Europe which doesn’t need more than a slight resemblance to the Europe of history. As one commentator on an earlier draft of this article remarked, ‘It’s no accident that the historical / English scenes are almost all shot in the dark, and either outdoors or in very lavish interiors (like the house at the Christmas parties where we see Angel) – it sets up a deliberate contrast to the bright sunlight and modern classrooms which dominate the visual world of Sunnydale.’

Britain: A Class Joke, with Cruel Intentions?

As Matthew Pateman points out in his article, the British characters in Buffy (less so in Angel) often serve as figures of fun. In the first three seasons of Buffy the old-fashioned lifestyle of Giles is regularly mocked. The addition of Wesley leads to much humour at the expense of all-male boarding schools, particularly during Wesley's fumbling courtship of Cordelia. During 'The Prom' (3.20), Giles and Wesley contrast their education with that of the Sunnydale High School students; they do so in clipped British accents and so the viewer might assume that democratic, relaxed, young America is being contrasted favourably with stuffy, class-bound Britain. Yet the discussion between Giles and Wesley is couched in American language, talking of 'an all-male preparatory' instead of a public school (which of course in American English is a state school). To a British viewer the conversation seems very self-aware, the characters using American terminology to speak to an American television audience, in the full knowledge that the characters' authenticity is being compromised. Although apparently British, this conversation reveals that as characters in an American television series Giles and Wesley are American conceptions; their British accents displace what is effectively a comment on American as well as British class divides.

The most important class divide, though, is that between the Americans and the British. Both Buffy and Angel depict the British as remote authority figures who condescend to other peoples, who they regard as inferiors. Angel, regressed to his eighteenth-century, pre-vampire Liam persona in ‘Spin the Bottle’ (Angel, 4.6) expresses his distrust of Wesley as the representative of an occupying power, but even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries British imperialism walks abroad in slayerdom. Giles’s suspicion of modern technology, foregrounded in the first series, is intermingled with a British reserve that verges on the aloof, and even as late as the fourth season (as Potts notes in her essay) he says he is ‘still trying not to refer to your lot as “bloody colonials”’ (‘Pangs’, Buffy 4.8). The Watcher’s Council, who thinly conceal their brutal management of the slayer lineage under a veneer of benign paternalism, have never devolved power to America; they regard the United States as a British colony. Wesley, when he becomes a ‘rogue demon hunter’ in Los Angeles in the first season of Angel, is treated by the Watcher’s Council in a fashion that is perhaps intended to parallel British treatment of their American colonies in the decades immediately before and after the American War of Independence. As Wesley was expected to assist the Council to recapture Faith in return for a pardon, so Britain’s actions in the second half of the eighteenth century and after, up to the War of 1812, could be interpreted as offering America integration into and advancement within the British Empire. In return, the American colonies had to perform duties for Britain; pay taxes, restrain their westward expansion, and shun ties with European countries other than Britain. All these could be seen as suppression of self-expression, something which Wesley, who during his first few episodes in Angel rapidly sheds his repressed, comic persona, has suffered within the hierarchical, paternalist structure of the Watchers’ Council. In the United States he is at first a free agent, then a member of a commonwealth of like minds (Angel Investigations) and then is elected their leader. Wesley’s progression thus represents both his own liberation from British notions of deference and class, and Buffyverse-America’s independence from a prolonged colonial rule.

Buffy herself eventually is forced to seek an accommodation with the Watchers’ Council, during the fifth season, as depicted in the episode ‘Checkpoint’. There, she and her friends are subjected to exhaustive and intrusive interrogation. Much of the episode is played for laughs, no doubt to defuse what the script reveals as a harrowing process for Buffy and the slayerettes. The process could be interpreted as that of a weakened colonial power attempting to impose the terms by which her stronger former colony is readmitted into international politics, attempting to obscure from the ingenue that she, in fact, is the stronger. Buffy realises the full force of her negotiating position late in the episode, to great dramatic effect; much as the United States, refusing to join the League of Nations after World War One for fear that her distinctiveness would be erased and that her weight would be abused by self-interested European government, found during World War Two that she was able to dictate many of the terms of her involvement in the conflict, and be a decisive voice in the post-war settlement. Discussion of the parallel that might be hypothesised from this argument, that the goddess Glory is an embodiment of the depersonalising forces of Stalinist communism is a topic for another article. However, Buffy’s triumph over her foes is a rejection of glory in the abstract. The Watchers’ Council are smug colonialists who enjoy their little triumphs; Buffy, on the front line, a pioneer in contrast to the directors of colonisation, never glories in victory, and when she comes close to doing so (for example, when in ‘Real Me’, 5.2, she drunkenly dismisses the threat from Harmony, who then invades her house) she stares defeat in the face.

Buffy’s engagement with colonial America is fleeting and uncomfortable. The slayer’s encounter with Chumash Indians in ‘Pangs’ has been mentioned above. The Angel episode ‘Darla’ (2.7) included a brief glimpse of colonial Virginia; its society is barely established and so is scarcely distinguishable from the hierarchical European societies we see elsewhere in Buffy and Angel flashback sequences. Darla herself seems to be perpetually stuck in a dependent role; she is either the satellite of the Master or of Angelus. Although Darla sired Angelus, she is dependent on his physical strength and energised by the youthful exuberance of his killing spree. Without him, she returns to the side of the Master, who originated in medieval Europe; it’s significant that when we first meet Darla she has a ‘Catholic schoolgirl’ look, with echoes of the paternalist America of the 1950s as well as an overt message of submission to a religious hierarchy. Darla might have been an early émigrée, but unlike Wesley she has been unable to properly adapt her European values for American life.

The Giles Question

Giles, in contrast to Darla, is very successful in America. His secret is that his studied Britishness of the first season turns out to be just that. In that season he blends elements of the bumbling and the sinister – the Briton as comic foil and as oppressive colonial administrator. Much is made of his attempts to interact and even integrate with the modern, technologically literate, consumer society of California. These processes in some way always lead to crisis, as seen in ‘I Robot… You Jane’ where the scanning of occult texts unleashes a demon on the internet, or ‘The Puppet Show’ where Giles’s presence as director of the Sunnydale High talent show reveals that the participating students are being cherry-picked by an organ-harvesting demon. However, as his personal history is revealed, Giles is shown to be a powerful occultist, a representative of the old knowledge which America lacks. In contrast to his former friend Ethan Rayne (a name which, to me, is more suggestive of New England than old England, borrowed from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, and thus again suggesting that Britishness in Buffy in part represents class in America) Giles uses that knowledge to help rather than exploit Americans. If the inhabitants of Sunnydale are ignorant of what goes on around them, then Buffy portrays Americans as a nation of innocents, a reading which perhaps suits earlier seasons of the series than the last, where as the ascendancy of the First Evil gathers pace, the inhabitants leave rather than seek a way of fighting. Giles is there at the end to provide what knowledge he can, though at the last this is a new situation where Buffy’s actions will set new precedents not available in Giles’s books; the destruction of the Watchers’ Council and their library confirms the independence and isolation of Buffy as the only power able to stop the First Evil, as the United States appears to have become the world’s only superpower, menaced by elusive forces who come from another moral universe.

Giles remains a valuable resource. His most dramatic intervention as possessor of hidden knowledge and secret traditions from the barely-recorded past comes at the end of the sixth season, when he comes armed with the power that can stop Willow’s orgy of destruction. Significantly, though, the decisive power wielded by Giles is borrowed from a coven of witches in Devon. The power is British, but it is female, and so Giles has in a sense become the representative not just of mature Britishness, but also of mature womanhood against a young American woman who has let grief lead her to self-indulgence. It is a reasonable assumption that the coven are female, while the Watchers’ Council are mainly male, and its female members are through dress, manner or ambition presented as would-be men rather than as comfortable with their female identity.

The Willow Answer

Willow’s career in Buffy provides a commentary on the themes of this essay. Although the relationship between Britain and America has in part been explored through Christian iconography, Willow is Jewish, as we are occasionally reminded through dialogue, and so is part of an older religious tradition than the Christian one regularly invoked in the flashback sequences described above. In the first three seasons of Buffy she is principally characterised by a remarkably swift intellect and especially a facility with computers, enabling her to pluck obscure information from unlikely or classified sources and reach plot-furthering insights that elude Giles. At the climax of the second season, however, Willow discovers an aptitude for magic, and this aspect of her character comes to predominate. This is followed in season four by her realisation of a lesbian sexual identity. Willow thus not only arises from the wellspring of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but is a witch, able to change the natural world by magic. Willow’s lesbian sexual orientation also underlines her embodiment of a distinctive form of womanpower that perpetuates itself without male involvement.

At the start of the seventh season Willow is in the care of Giles in the west of England, and is being taught how to use her gifts by the aforementioned coven of witches in Devon. The scenes shot in England arguably represent the coming together of the American and British sides of the series as well as the assimilation of the ‘other’ into the contemporary. The seventh season shows Willow able to function as witch, as technologically adept genius, and also begin a new sexual relationship. At the end of the season, and of the series, it is Willow’s magic that enables the powers of the Slayer to be shared with every potential slayer and thus create a physical army and surge of goodwill that overwhelm the First Evil. This is a magic innate in her (Jewish=ancient) make-up, and refined in self-consciously modern California and in the mystical landscape of the English west country. Willow’s understanding of the wholeness of the natural world in the end enables her to see that the occult is part of the everyday world and is not something to be feared. The division between the popular kids and the outcasts from high school that was so foregrounded in the first two seasons of Buffy is finally despatched, and with it factionalism and the First Evil. (If there had been no Angel, it might well have been Cordelia, symbol of aggressive, oppressive and insecure cool, who fell fighting in the front line against the Turok-Han in ‘Chosen’, 7.22, and not her shadow Anya).

The conclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thus depicts the acceptance and control of the unknown other, often characterised as British, by the young Californian lead characters. This is not all the story, however, nor its end. Spike has already transferred to Angel where rivalry will resume between the nineteenth-century Englishman and eighteenth-century Irishman in Los Angeles. There will also be a convincing robotic Englishman at one point in the new season, perhaps representing Britons as no more than a programmed set of reactions who lack genuine self-awareness. There will be more flashback sequences. Angel has not stopped exploring and playing with the tensions between America and the British Isles, and between Ireland and Britain-England. The understanding of universal common humanity that the characters of Buffy have achieved has yet to reach Angel; it remains to be seen whether they will do so or whether their backgrounds will continue to divide them.