It is traditional that heroes are unaccountable – heroes that is in the sense of protagonists who perform heroic acts, not just lead characters. A Jane Austen ’heroine’ is certainly held accountable for her actions, but James Bond never is beyond the requirement that he be heroic. Indeed, it could almost be said to be the distinguishing characteristic of a certain type of book, film, comic or whatever, that the hero makes and administers his own justice according to his own lights.
This trait of course travels right back through James Bond, Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond to Robin Hood and I suppose Achilles. A villain can be killed, bullied, ridiculed or robbed; and a villain is whoever the hero declares to be one. The hero does have a code of ethics – a very rigid one – but it is an entirely personal one. An offence can be anything from shooting a gun at the hero to being rude to him, in any and all cases the hero is entitled in the eyes of the audience to take whatever action he chooses. The sense of a greater law, the importance of acknowledging that a society is dependent on its members accepting that personal revenge has to give way to the society’s right to impose its own justice – all of this is directly antithetical to the notion of Hero. And perhaps this is a necessary part of the myth. Literature is after all about finding an outlet for things that cannot be experienced or expressed in real life, and perhaps one of the enduring appeals of the hero archetype is precisely their riding above the strictures of socially imposed justice that we have to acknowledge in real life.
Buffy therefore provides an interesting variation on this theme in that an ongoing topic throughout the show has been the ways in which Buffy’s role as hero is limited. She and the other Slayers cannot administer arbitrary retribution. They may not kill humans. The rule is clear and has been reinforced on numerous occasions. They cannot even kill all demons but have to weigh the balance for each species (’Oh, let him go. I don’t think he falls into the deadly threat to humanity category.’ Enemies.) Clem is another obvious example of a ’permitted’ demon. Or take the example of Oz: a person who clearly counts as both demonic and a threat to humanity, and yet he (and by extension all werewolves) is to be treated with charity and compassion.
But it is important to note that perversely the reverse hold as true: if something is deemed to be evil then Buffy does not just have the right to kill it, she has a positive duty. And it is not even Buffy who is making the decision as to who is and who is not evil. It is not Buffy who has decided that all vampires are a threat but the traditional ’rules’ she has inherited from the slayer line and been inculcated with by the WC. She has several times decided that Spike (or Angel or Harmony for that matter) are to be excused by their actions from the normal slayage – and on almost every occasion she has been made to feel the decision was immoral. Either by the overt criticism of Giles, or the responses of her friends, or the more subtly karmic ’revenge’ of the plotlines.
Oz was assisted in overcoming his nature – by confining him and teaching him to control it. A slayer could very well set out to assist all vampires to overcome their need to kill humans, there are after all large stocks of pigs-blood in the world, and no doubt on the evidence of Harmony, the vampire whores of season 4, and maybe even Holden and Spike himself, there would be at least some willing converts. Yet Buffy does not attempt this – why, because vampires are evil. Not because the hero Buffy has decided so but because the rules of the Jossyverse have.
The rules are firm but they have to be worked at, they are not obvious, and it is thus that the choice is not always either obvious or easy – as the cases of Spike and Anya clearly show. But the choice is there and Buffy has to make it. It is one of the things that I have been enjoying most about this season to date – the increased emphasis on Buffy having to make these difficult decisions.
All of this makes for an increased burden upon Buffy – she is not just a hero in the normal sense of the word, she is a hero who is hedged in by rules and moral responsibilities greater than those normally applied to the hero role. James Bond has a licence to kill, this does impose a responsibility – the responsibility to kill, to carry the day for the good of his country – but that is all. If innocent passers-by get gunned down in the cross-fire then Bond will not be held accountable, nor is he ever required to judge if Stock Henchman #39 likes small animals and is kind to his mother. But Buffy is. She is not just judge, jury and executioner in the way that all literary heroes are, she is judge, jury and executioner who has to read the law library first.
And I applaud this. It is an extension of the hero archetype. An acknowledgment of not just the greater complexity of the real world but also of the growing sense of these issues that we as a culture need to encompass in our narratives. Straight ’biff em and bash em’ heroes may be fine for kids cartoons (a statement that I might well disagree with, incidentally) but for any drama aimed at more than just children it is important to include the question of responsibility. TV shows have for many years displayed the responsibility to be kind to people, Buffy is the first show I am aware of to consider the less pleasant but just as important responsibility to occasionally be harsh.
If the point ever comes where Spike despite his soul has become a threat to humanity again, then just as with the decisions she made about Angel and Anya, Buffy will kill him. She will do it regretfully, with great distress as a way to acknowledge the distress the viewers will also be feeling. But she will do it. I am absolutely positive of the fact, and if the chances for all sequels have departed and the requirements of plot dictate it then I have no doubt it will happen. At a time like the present with the world, and America’s place in it, poised as it is, that such a thing could be believable in a TV show is something I find very comforting.