The Slayer is back, but the show is heading in a surprising new direction, says Jeff Jensen
James Marsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Credit: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: UPN

Buffy mourns her return from the afterlife

You always have to be careful when a television series offers up ”a big revelation.” Too often, such ploys come off as cheap, arbitrary, and ultimately meaningless — mere gimmickry, evidence of the bankrupt imaginations of people who have no idea how to wring new and genuine drama out a show’s premise and characters. For current examples, please see Scully’s baby on ”The X-Files” or practically any episode of ”E.R.”

But for a textbook example of how to do it right, look no further than Oct. 9’s riveting edition of ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) entitled ”After Life.” Though the network didn’t hype the hour as a Big Revelation episode, it nonetheless contained one: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), recently returned to her mortal coil after sacrificing her life to save the world last season, disclosed to the vampire Spike (James Marsters) that contrary to what she’s led her friends to believe, she didn’t die and go to hell — she went to heaven, and to be honest, she’s bummed that her friends, via a risky spell cast by her best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan), have dragged her back to our cruel and crude world, ”so bright and violent.”

Perhaps none of you found this revelation as surprising as I did. In fact, if ”After Life” failed at anything, it was telegraphing its twist with too much foreshadowing. Too much assuming by Buffy’s friends that she must have gone ”down” instead of ”up;” too many lines like ”Jet lag from hell must be… well, jet lag from hell” (one of Anya’s many zingers, zestfully delivered by Emma Caulfield); too many Buffy replies along the lines of ”Errr. Right. That’s it.”

Nonetheless, her confession had all the impact of the good kind of big revelation. It has given Buffy’s death at the end of last season (which, you have to admit, flirted with gimmickry) an indelible significance: We’ve seen characters go from hell and back before, but how does one bounce back to normal after a prolonged exposure in heaven? This isn’t something you can recover from and forget; this will (or should) haunt her the rest of her life. It also firmly establishes a provocative metaphysical worldview: ”Buffy”’s humans are spiritual creatures who will be rewarded with either damnation or paradise in the life to come. And to think conservative Christians hate this show!

The revelation also changes Buffy’s relationships with her friends — or better yet, it illuminates a relatively unexplored dimension to them that now seems impossible to ignore: Instead of being the light of her life, the Scoobies have become a constant reminder of the darkness that colors a Slayer’s daily existence: the dreadful burden of being responsible for so many lives. In these terms, how selfish it was for the Scoobies to bring her back!

The revelation also promises to dramatically alter some key relationships. Last night’s episode specifically dwelled on Spike. Finally, the show’s writers have come up with a legitimate reason for the Slayer to bond with Spike — perhaps even intimately.

”One thing about magic,” Spike reminded us. ”There’s always consequences. Always!” ”After Life” also reminded us of another important truth. It’s the mark of a truly magical drama that can make the consequences of its characters’ actions count for something truly profound and unforgettable — and ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” certainly qualifies.

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