It’s a deceptively simple question: When exactly did ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, the series, end? To some, of course, the answer is, “It didn’t.” Dark Horse Comics has already announced a Season Nine to come after the conclusion of the comics-only Season Eight, and the same people who wrote for the TV series are clearly enjoying the upsides of writing a Buffy series with an unlimited budget and no worries about actor availability. That’s ‘Buffy’ in some form, definitely.
But to others, ‘Buffy’ ended when the series left television. Seven seasons, two networks, 144 episodes, no writing Emmys. Certainly, the facts argue in favor of that interpretation; ‘Buffy’ Season Seven features the same core cast as Season One, the same basic setting, even the same theme music. But Season One was about a teenage girl who was trying to make it through the metaphorical hell of high school while simultaneously trying to stop demons from the literal mouth of Hell, while Season Seven was about…um, a twenty-two year old woman looking for a career, and a bad guy who couldn’t do anything but make vague menacing threats, and Andrew for some damned reason. They’re set in the same place, they feature the same people, but they don’t feel like the same series when set side by side. Only because we watched the transformation as it slowly occurred does it feel seamless to us.
So when did ‘Buffy’, the show that started in 1997 on the WB, end? Did it finish on the WB as well? It’d be hard to argue that, I think; Buffy as protective big sister/single parent to Dawn, working out of the Magic Box to battle demons alongside super-witch Willow and semi-redeemed vampire Spike, feels less like Season One than Season Seven did. (Not to mention Season Five marks the breaking point where the series ceases to be about people growing up and begins to be about people who have grown up and find their life really sucks and it’s not what they thought it’d be in high school and they’d really rather go back and be teenagers again…actually, Seasons Five through Seven really suck the joy out of re-watching Seasons One through Four. “Oh, aren’t Willow and Oz so cute together?” “Yeah, they go through a painful break-up later on, and then she becomes a lesbian and falls in love with this really sweet girl…who gets shot and killed.” One of the big problems with both ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’ was that neither series knew when to stop bumping off supporting characters.)
So it’s Season Four, then. Except…as much as I love Season Four (and I do; I think it’s the last good season, and it’s got some of the best comedy episodes) it’s actually a much bigger break from Season Three than Five is from Four or Six from Five. It’s a change of setting, a big change of supporting cast (gone are Angel, Cordelia, Principal Snyder, Joyce, Jonathan and Oz as regulars, and in comes Riley, Maggie Walsh, Forrest, Graham, Tara, Spike and Anya as regulars) and a change of mission, too. Buffy and her friends aren’t teenagers dealing with teenage problems anymore. They’re grown-ups, learning what it’s like to be out in the wider world.
No, I think that you can safely set aside Seasons One through Three of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ as a seamless whole, an epic story about how we become adults told through a prism of sorcery, horror, kung-fu, and witty quips. All of the themes introduced in the beginning of the series (“high school is hell”, “Buffy’s friends are assets to her Slaying and not liabilities”, “your first love might seem passionate and true and the deepest you’ll ever experience, but they’re not necessarily good for you and passion isn’t enough to sustain a relationship”, “growing up means making decisions for yourself instead of listening to authority figures”, “having true friends that stick with you through thick and thin is better than being powerful”) are wrapped up in dramatic and spectacular fashion in the season finale (the commencement speaker turns into a giant demon snake, Buffy rallies together the entire high school class to defeat it, Angel walks away afterward to let her find someone who can be happy with her, Buffy tells the Watchers to sod off because she doesn’t need a Watcher anymore, and the season ends with everyone together watching the flames and then walking away hand-in-hand.) Heck, the Season Three finale even ends with the suggestion that there’s no need to worry about the Hellmouth anymore: the last line of the episode is, “Why do demons even come here anymore?” What could be more series finale than that?
‘Buffy’, as we finally saw it, is a genuinely great piece of television. But the first three seasons are the true ‘Buffy’ because they’re the execution of the central concept, a great idea turned into a magnificent series that ended just like it needed to. After that, it’s just a matter of following the character around while she lives her life, and frankly that’s not the same thing as telling a story. Buffy might keep fighting evil forever, but ‘Buffy’ ended the day she got her diploma.