On Buffy, complex narratives and fandom

Television might be considered the least literary form of all but it is probably the most realistic reflection of contemporary culture and society. Fan engagement with television shows as an expression of cultural preferences and assertion of social values. I want to investigate narratological and cinematic analysis of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (henceforth referred to as Buffy and not to be confused with Buffy, the character), created and written (mostly) by Joss Whedon. Academics have explored characterisation and themes at length in order to ascertain why the show is so popular. The analysis will be related to responses from the Buffyverse fandom to investigate if there is a link between how a show tells its story and the formation of fandoms in response to and support of effective story-telling. “Television techniques” is my term for the conglomeration of narrative and cinematic techniques. These techniques may be separately applied to other text types – film or prose fiction – however, they produce different effects when utilised in the construction of a television series. My essay will move through different aspects narratological theory, beginning with an overview of narratology, then discussing voice, time and diegesis with relation to ‘The Body’ (5.16). This will be followed by an analysis of the character functions in ‘Doppelgangland’ (3.16), leading to an examination of the narrative structures of ‘Hush’ (4.10). The last stage of narratological analysis will combine Mittell’s discussion of narrative complexity with traditional television script-writing plot conventions in relation to ‘Innocence’ (2.14). Each episode’s analysis will be related to fan reviews and discussions focusing on the same narratological details without the technical knowledge of narratology, incorporating aspects of audience theory with a focus on fandom.

Introduction to narratology

The study of narratives may have been touched upon by Aristotle however they did not come into academic application until Russian Formalist theory, spearheaded by Vladimir Propp in his uniform analysis of Russian folktales. The term has applied since 1969 and is a process of defining the events, characters and setting in a narrative and the structure through which these details are presented (Birch 2009). Russian formalism labelled the former as fabula and the latter as sjužet. Narratological analysis seeks to find a common formula of elements within a range of texts. Propp developed a list of thirty-one elements of a narrative that would occur in the same order every time. Some elements were not always essential and others could be combined into a single event within the narrative but they never occurred out of order. He also isolated seven character functions, later refined to six “actants” by Greimas. There is no concern for characterisation or themes in a text and subsequently narratological readings ignore literary techniques. While narratology intentionally neglects analysing literature techniques, we must consider television and cinematic techniques (the visual equivalent) in our exploration of Buffy. Narratological analysis began in literature based on the language used to convey a narrative. A visual medium’s language is its images as much as its words (dialogue). I will endeavour to isolate the narrative uses of television techniques from the thematic and characterising uses in my analysis of Buffy.

Voice, Time and Diegesis

Between Bal and Prince, a narrative breaks down to three main concepts: voice, time and “interdiegetic interaction” (1982). I thought it would be useful to talk about each of these categories in relation to television as a form because television is limited to specific uses of these concepts. When exceptions to these stylistic limitations appear, I will refer to the episode, ‘The Body’ (5.16).

In matters of voice, there are three subcategories. The first is narratorial position, which is the narrator’s position in both space and time (Bal 6-15). Television (and film) is filmed from the writer’s perspective. In the sense of a narrative, the writer’s view through the camera lens should be considered as an omniscient third person point of view, as he has no influence over the actions of the characters within the narrative. This makes the writer’s narratorial position in space largely heterodiegetic and allows the viewer to experience a seemingly impartial experience of the narrative in the most holistic and thus veracious or truest representation of events. On occasion, the writer may slip inside the head of a character, through camera angles purporting to be the character’s perspective or use of voice over, which could be construed as a homodiegetic vocal space. Television is conveyed in present tense, making the writer’s narratorial position in time very “simultaneous” (11). The complicated nature of splicing cuts together and use of flashbacks or flash-forwards will be addressed shortly in the discussion of time.

Prinze encourages the evaluation of the narrator’s person in terms of reliability and knowledge (1982 51-52). With the omniscient narration of a writer, we can assume knowledge is comprehensible. However, changing perspectives from heterodiegetic to homodiegetic narration and showing a character’s fantasy, like Buffy’s fantasy of Joyce being revived by the paramedics in ‘The Body’, could be considered unreliable narration. In Buffy, Whedon corrects any misdirections caused by change in narratorial position after a short tease, shifting the narrator into a mostly reliable role. These misdirections serve a greater purpose in conveying a theme or character development.

The final aspect of narratorial voice to consider is tone; how invested the writer is in the story and his psychological responses. Both seem like far removed concepts when applied to a visual medium, however it is the use of camera angles, lighting, and staging and blocking that can expose the writer’s tone. Close angles suggest an invested interest in the characters’ actions while conveying indifference. Bal mentions arguments against some of this analysis when a heterodiegetic narrator is involved (9-10) however, for posterity, I believe it is necessary to draw out as much of the narrative elements involved in creating television programs.

The second aspect of narration Prinze is interested in is time. Within time, there are two categories to consider, order and speed (Prinze 1982 48; 54). In Buffy, the majority of the story is told in chronological order. Occasionally, flashbacks are interspersed throughout an episode to give a deeper or finer perspective on a character’s present actions, such as the flashback to Christmas dinner with all of Buffy’s family and friends. Whedon uses flashbacks sparingly; most episodes don’t have them and any reference to the past is usually verbal unless it significantly informs the plot. The episodes that do include flashbacks operate in one of two ways. As in ‘Becoming Part Two’ (2.22), the flashbacks are short scenes interspersed throughout the episode spanning the key moments in Angel’s history as a vampire, beginning with the night he was made and ending with his decision to “be somebody” after watching Buffy stake her first vampire (contrasting greatly with his soulless self in present Sunnydale). Some episodes have a lesser focus and flashbacks used literally flash across the screen for a moment. Episodes such as ‘The Body’ (5.16) repeat the last few moments of the previous episode ‘I Was Made To Love You’ (5.15) when Buffy discovers the body of her mother.

Story speed or tempo includes the pace of the narrative but also the ratio of fabula to sjužet (Prinze 1982 50), or story material and how the material is handled. Tempo can be separated into five states: scene, where everything plays out in real time; summary, in which the story is sped up in an attempt to get only certain intended points across; stretch, in which time is spent on minute details of the story; ellipsis, where parts of the story are left out; and pause, where the story might stop and resume (57). The majority of Buffy is told in scenes. However, some scenes are filmed in a single shot for an extended period of time, such as in ‘The Body’ when Buffy first discovers her mother’s body and attempts to deal with it. The camera follows her for over two minutes without cutting once as she calls emergency services and tries to administer CPR. Often we don’t notice a scene is being doctored even slightly through cuts until we are treated to “oners” that highlight the contrast. One could even argue one-shot scenes are a stretch of the story because of the contrast to traditional television narration. A more obvious example of stretch is the use of slow motion, which also occurs in ‘The Body’ when the paramedics try to revive Joyce (it’s not obvious unless watching the episode with Whedon’s commentary). Ellipses are harder to isolate in television. I propose an ellipsis is used when cutting from one scene to another and upon returning to that plot it has progressed off-screen. For example, after Buffy is joined by Giles, we don’t see her drive to Dawn’s school as we’re watching Dawn’s short middle school romance with a nice boy unfold. A pause is much more noticeable when viewing television as it airs. Each act is separated by ad breaks and each episode is separated by a week at minimum or several months over winter hiatus or breaks between seasons. These are pauses in a story-line, especially in serialised television programs such as Buffy, where the entire story of Buffy versus Glory is paused in the wake of Joyce’s death.

Interdiegetic interaction is the last aspect to discuss of Prinze’s and Bal’s theories. The “vocal interaction” of the narrator in television is somewhat controversial, although the best ruling I can make is most television, including Buffy, is told in free direct discourse. The writer, Whedon, tells the story of ‘The Body’ in third person narration and it is clear when an individual character speaks dialogue as more often than not their face is shown and their voice is projected in the audio. For dramatic effect, voices can be muted or characters can recount past events in an example of free indirect discourse within the medium’s free direct discourse. This is shown when Tara recounts, “Giles said that he was gonna go with Joyce and Buffy was going to… to school. To tell Dawn,” (Whedon 2001). Bal and Prinze both discuss focalisation as a matter of non-focalised, internal or external focalisation (Bal 2006 9-10; Prinze 1982 51-53). Prinze describes this as presenting everything “strictly from the outside” without touching on the character’s feelings or thoughts (Prinze 1982 53). At no point in television or Buffy, does the writer tell the viewer how the character is feeling. It is simply shown to us on the screen or remarked upon by the characters and enhanced through television techniques.

Character functions and actants

The study of actants within any story including Buffy is not the study of characterisation but of the functions each of those characters performs. This means a character is not limited to one function or being only actant; Buffy is not always the hero (although more often than not she is). As mentioned above, Propp established seven functions of folktale characters that fit into his thirty-one narrative elements: (1) the hero; (2) the dispatcher, responsible for putting the hero on her path; (3) the princess, not always a person, the “princess” is the hero’s goal; (4) the donor, provides some object or knowledge to contribute to the hero’s quest; (5) the helper, whom actually assists the hero in some physical way; (6) the false hero; and (7) the villain. In the case of the Buffy episode, ‘Doppelgangland’ (3.16), this is one occasion where the hero of the story is not Buffy. The episode is centred on Willow, as the hero, overcoming her reality, the villain, and becoming the person she wants to be, the princess. A series of somewhat insignificant events occur to make Willow aware of how fed up she is with her personality. The subplot of Anya seeking her power source functions as the dispatcher for Willow to take a legitimate step away from herself in the direction towards a magic spell. However, the spell backfires instead of serving Anya’s intentions and returns Vamp Willow from an alternate dimension to this reality, initially unbeknownst to all. Vamp Willow embodies the traits of a false hero, to the point where she even resembles the true hero in appearance and action. Willow is forced to face her issues by her friends who act as secondary dispatchers (Angel and Oz making the others aware of the cadre of vampires holding an entire club hostage), helpers (Buffy, Angel, Xander and Giles fighting the vampires and preventing the harm of innocents), and donors (Anya participating in and Giles conducting the counter spell). Willow is shown the results of her journey when Percy treats her with the respect she deserved. This episode exemplifies how multiple characters embody a single character function or how a character embodies many functions. The significance of these functions is each is fulfilled in the course of the narrative. Take one away and there would be no narrative.

Narrative structures

Propp devised the first narratological structure by which a narrative can be formulated from (1928). However, his structure was large, comprising thirty-one elements and over a hundred possible executions of these elements. Todorov based a very simplified structure on Propp’s work, noting his elements were related purely by “succession” and seeking a structure with more complex relationships (1971 38). Its foundation was on a state of equilibrium, wherein the equilibrium is broken down and re-established over five stages (39). The first stage establishes the equilibrium, the second upsets it, the third identifies the upset, the fourth attempt(s) to repair the upset, and the fifth reinstates the equilibrium. Todorov’s structure contains hierarchical relations through the stages mirroring and opposing one another: “the first element repeats the fifth (the state of equilibrium); and the third is the inversion of one and five. In addition, the second and fourth are symmetrical and inverse.” Let us apply this basic structure to that of the Buffy episode, ‘Hush’.

(1)  Buffy is in college, with a boyfriend, with friends. Things are normal.

(2)  The Gentlemen come to town and steal all the voices so no one can scream when they come to collect seven human hearts (revealed in the nursery rhyme at the beginning of the episode).

(3)  While it is immediately apparent the town is mute due to supernatural (obvious to Buffy and the gang) means, the severity of the threat is not known until the next night when the Gentlemen take their first victim.

(4)  The nature of the victim’s death, his heartless state, alerts the gang to the particular villain and arms Buffy with nearly all the knowledge she needs to defeat the Gentlemen. It’s not until she sees the box and remembers her dream from the beginning of the episode, that it must be smashed to return her voice so she can

(5)  scream to kill all the Gentlemen and their henchmen.

At first glance, this framework fits the episode perfectly. However it does not account for the complex combination of subplots occurring in synchrony with this main plot. Armbrust observes Todorov’s intention of returning to stability as short-sighted when applied to serialised television, where solving one instability could come at the expense of another stability (Armbrust 2011). In the case of this particular Buffy episode, Buffy and Riley’s relationship was already unstable due to an inability to communicate (Whedon 2011). Being rendered speechless by the Gentlemen allowed them to overcome the “small talk” (Whedon 1999) only to find out more than they wanted to know about each other and land them in a new state of instability.

Kafaleno’s model of a television narrative according to Armbrust (2011) allows us to include more details of the particular plotting in ‘Hush’:

A (or a) destabilising event (or revelation that reveals instability)

B                        request that someone alleviate A (or a)

C            decision by C-actant to attempt to alleviate A (or a)

C’           C-actant’s initial act to alleviate A (or a)

D            C-actant is tested

E            C-actant response to test

F            C-actant acquires empowered

G            C-actant arrives at the place or time for H

H            C-actant’s primary action to alleviate A (or A)

I (or Ireg) success (or failure) of H

The following is my analysis of ‘Hush’ according to Kafaleno’s proposed structure.

O ‘Hush’ begins with Buffy’s dream morphs into one of the slayer’s prophetic dreams, a commonly used device to introduce antagonists. This is the destabilisation of equilibrium caused by the arrival of the Gentlemen in Sunnydale. (A)

B Buffy contacts Giles regarding A (destabilisation) unsure whether to treat the dream as a serious threat.

A All the voices are stolen by the box from Buffy’s dream

C Buffy patrols the streets, anticipating chaos from the mass muteness.

D The gentlemen steal the heart of a student.

E/F Giles comes through with identification of the monsters and the subsequent information on what they want and how to defeat them. Of course neglecting the crucial pieces of information on how to regain their voices to scream (the box).

G/H Buffy patrols again locating their base of operations and fighting their flunkies.

I Buffy screams to kill all the monsters

This framework helps to establish the basic outline for the major plot of the episode but does nothing to account for the complexity of interwoven subplots and B-plots apparent in this episode. These subplots are a contributor to the resonance of the series in its fans and this episode in particular.

Narrative complexity: story arcs and subplots

Mittell cites television series as a perfect source for narrative complexity, even identifying Buffy and the aforementioned episode, ‘Hush’, as an example (2006 33). Narrative complexity is not utilised by all or even most of the television-making writers, directors and producers, although it has picked up in popularity since 2006, when Mittell wrote this article. In this section, the episode under scrutiny is ‘Innocence’ (2.14). “In conventional television narratives that feature A and B plots the two stories may offer thematic parallels or provide counterpoint to one another, but they rarely interact at the level of action” (Mittell 2006 34). ‘Innocence’ is the second part of a two-part story. It follows the traditional plotting conventions of Buffy. There is a Big Bad, a villain for the length of the season whom Buffy must investigate and defeat, and a monster-of-the-week. Until this episode, the viewers are under the impression the season’s Big Bad is the couple, Spike and Drusilla, but the events of the preceeding episode, ‘Surprise’ (2.13), cause an about-face in Buffy’s ally and love interest, Angel. He assumes ultimate Big Bad responsibilities for the remainder of the season due in part to his characteristic flair for the art of evil (Whedon 1999). ‘Surprise’ and ‘Innocence’ also feature a monster-of-the-week. The Judge assumes an A-plot position as he is essentially an instrument of the main villains and poses a greater immediate threat of death as opposed to Angelus’s threat of torture and torment. “Complexity […] works against these normal by altering the relationship between multiple plotlines, creating interweaving stories that often collide and coincide” (Mittell 2006 34). So far, there are two established plotlines Whedon is coordinating, that of the season long villains (A) and that of the monster of this week (B). These plots have essentially combined. As a subplot to this battle against evil, we also have the dissolution of Buffy’s relationship with Angel following the peak of having finally consummated their relationship (this consummation causing Angel to lose his soul and revert to his original vampire self, Angelus). Sarantinos differentiates between subplots and B-plots by stating a subplot might supplement the main plot, as Buffy’s relationship supplements the threat of Angelus as a villain. A B-plot can function separately, such as the revelation of Xander and Cordelia’s relationship to Willow which leads to Oz’s development as a love interest for Willow. All of this happens in symphony with the fight against the Judge, particularly as Xander is responsible for coming up with the plan to defeat him, but does not affect the overall progress of the A- or B-plots. After the Judge is defeated, Buffy takes her first opportunity to battle with Angelus. The battle of the hero and the Big Bad is en par with what Mittell describes as the “narrative special effect” (2006 35). Throughout the episode, the new Big Bad evades an actual fight with Buffy until now. The sheer contrast and irony of this fight against the ending of the previous episode allows viewers to marvel at the “operational aesthetic” (35) of how the writers have inverted Buffy’s situation.

Retrospective fandom

Fandom: “the enthusiasms of devoted admirers of a celebrity or public performer (fanatics): fandom typically involves passionate, even obsessive, loyalty and attachment to the object of devotion” (Kuhn & Westwell 2012). Fandoms are fans (of a cultural artefact, celebrity, sport, etc.) that take their engagement one step further in participating in fan communities known as fandoms. Engagement varies in form, frequency, and duration depending on individual preference but can include online discussions, forum participation, reviewing episodes, writing fanfiction, and raising awareness among many others. Social and cultural studies have been interested in what brings fans together to this united force of fandom, especially since the intervention of the Internet on viewer reception and participation. Fandom studies defend and justify the actions of their subjects. However this is unnecessary in this thesis as fandom is the inevitable outcome of the narratological nature of specific television programming, combined with the development of technology uniting disparate individuals and enabling engagement in material that is continually updated.

The Internet has had a particularly notable impact on the Buffy fandom as it facilitates long-term fans in spreading the word of Buffy to newer would-be fans, keeping the entire fandom not only alive but also flourishing. Fan activities and fandom is constantly compared with that of a cult (TV Guide 2014). However, as social and cultural academics will defend, fans engage with cultural products (Harris 1998). A television series such as Buffy was not created in a vacuum and is Whedon’s response to the world around him: “I’d seen a lot of horror movies […] with blond girls getting themselves killed in dark alleys and I just germinated this idea about how much I’d like to see a blond girl go into a dark alley, get attacked by a big monster and then kill it” (Whedon 2012). Fan enthusiasm shows they recognise the lacking space for which Buffy fulfilled a cultural need. In the same way, fans respond to the technical and creative processes by which this cultural phenomenon is delivered. Mittell briefly touches on fandom’s influence over narrative complexity, citing it as one of the circumstances under which narrative complexity in television programs has developed and flourished (2006 31-32). My argument is the opposite of this, that narrative complexity provides a perfect platform for ongoing support of fans. The four episodes chosen for analysis throughout this thesis appear on several web articles ranking most popular, scary or successful episodes of the Buffy series (Peitzman 2013). Below I will provide examples of fans isolating narratological aspects of Buffy and embracing them.

Critically Touched is a fan website with a section devoted to Mikelangelo Marinaro’s retrospective reviews of every television episode of Buffy. In his review of ‘Innocence’, Marinaro recognises the significance of the episode, “We will soon see a string of episodes that follow-through on what ‘Innocence’ started, from ‘Phases’ [2×15] turning Oz into a werewolf to ‘Passion’ [2×17] killing off Jenny to ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ [2×19] forcing characters to confront themselves to all the mayhem in the finale” (2003). This review site enables viewers to comment on Marinaro’s review and contribute their own ideas, such as Emily’s comment:

I just want to point out two contrasting scenes: When Angel and Buffy get out of the sewers and go to his apartment in “Surprise”, it’s pouring rain outside. This is in direct contrast to the scene where the water goes off in the mall and Angelus and Buffy fight. I don’t know if I’m explaining it well, but it was raining the last time they were together as Buffy and Angel, and it was “raining” the first time they fought each other as Buffy and Angelus.

(Marinaro 2003)

This fan has isolated a point of repetition that highlights Mittell’s “narrative special effect” in action. Through this contrast, the fan is able to recognise a narratological progression and ruminate on its implications for coming episodes.

In the Buffy subreddit on forum website Reddit, there are several posts responding to ‘Hush’, as well as other episodes. One such comment included:

This is also a big episode in terms of character arcs and progression

  • Riley learns Buffy is the slayer
  • We have the wonderful introduction of Tara. Willow and Tara (while locked in the laundry room) use their powers and form a kind of bond through Magic. This is really the start of their relationship.
  • We see Olivia’s reaction to be so close to the Scoobies and how it scares her.
  • Buffy and Riley start a romantic relationship
  • This is the first time we see Giles’s graphic drawings. If you re-call, he also draws for potential slayer Chao-Ahn and scares her half to death.

(Buffy Subreddit 2014)

The commenter has isolated A- and B-plot progressions and retrospective reference to future seasons. This supports Steven Johnson’s theory that viewers respond to the “cognitive workout” inherent in narrative complexity (Mittell 2006 32). This is evidence of Kirby-Diaz’s statement that “without the Internet, specifically the virtual community, the Buffyverse might never have spread so wide, so far, so deeply into the realm of the cult TV show, and American industry” (2009 21). This evidence of fandom combined with fandom theory and narratological analysis exemplifies the markings of Whedon’s successful narration through fans responding to direct narratological stimulus.

Conclusion

This thesis has concluded a number of points. Firstly, Buffy exemplifies many aspects of narratological theory. Whedon manages to maintain a complex combination of these features to engage viewers in quality television programming. I have shown viewers respond to complexities in television programming but themes and characterisation remain an integral aspect of Buffy’s composition. Despite my attempts to focus on the narrative, they can never be completely removed from analysis. The narrative is simply the vehicle for the writers to explore themes and characterisation and present their findings to viewers. As to my own questions: is there a link between fandom and audience? I believe there is, although it is a cyclical link in which one feeds the other and vice versa. The solution is to say fandom is very suited to narrative complexity as shown in Buffy. A number of external factors contribute to the formation of a fandom. A writer can only do his part through writing if he successfully manages his plots; creates and maintains ongoing references repeat viewers will recognise and respond to; provides ongoing character development; and knows when to quit when he’s ahead.

Reference list

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Harris, C 1998, Chapter 3 ‘A Sociology of Television Fandom’ in C Harris and A Alexander (eds) Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity, Hampton Press, New Jersey, pp41-52.

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Kafaleno, E 2006, Narrative Causalities, Ohio State, Columbus.

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Kirby-Diaz, M 2009 ‘Buffy, Angel, and the Creation of Virtual Communities’ in M Kirby-Diaz (ed.) Buffy and Angel Conquer the Internet: Essays on Online Fandom, McFarland, Jeffersen, North Carolina, pp18-40.

Kuhn, A & Westwell, G 2014, A Dictionary of Film Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Marinaro, M 2014, ‘2×14: “Innocence”’, Critically Touched Reviews: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, review, posted 25/05/2005, accessed 31/03/2014, <http://www.criticallytouched.com/buffy/&gt;

Mittell, J 2006, ‘Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television’ in The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58, pp29-40.

Peitzman, L 2013, ‘Ranking Every Episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slay”’, BuzzFeed Entertainment, weblog, 15 November, accessed 27/04/2014, <http://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/ranking-every-episode-of-buffy-the-vampire-slayer&gt;

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Propp, V 1968, Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd edn, University of Texas Press for the American Folklore Society and the Indiana University Research Centre for the Language Sciences, Austin, Texas.

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TV Guide Names the Top Cult Shows Ever 2014, TV Guide News, accessed 14/04/2014, <http://www.tvguide.com/news/top-cult-shows-40239.aspx&gt;

Whedon, J 1996-2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and included DVD commentaries), Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC, Los Angeles, California
––––1998 ‘Innocence’ 2.14 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2, January 20
––––1999 ‘Doppelgangland’ 3.16 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 3, February 23
––––1999 ‘Hush’ 4.10 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4, December 14
––––2001 ‘The Body’ 5.16 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5, February 27

Whedon, J 2011, ‘Joss Whedon Explains Buffy’, online video BR260454, 21 April, YouTube, accessed 10/06/2014, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rTmIhtoBac&gt;

Whedon, J 2012 ‘Buffy [Rare] Interview with Joss Whedon and the cast [1998] 1/2’, online video on SunnydaleArchives, 29 March, YouTube, accessed 01/06/2014, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=355AMVyCyIg&gt;

‘Weekly Episode: Episode 33’ (S4 E10): Hush 2014, Buffy Subreddit, comment on Reddit post, 2013, accessed 14/06/2014 <http://www.reddit.com/r/buffy/comments/165c1i/episode_66_s4_e10_hush/&gt;

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