A Critique of Pure Whedon
On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.
I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut. I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run). The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run). I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through. But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love. One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).
In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.
Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.
In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.
Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:
Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers. A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic. And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him. Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show. Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.
Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.
Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting. Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.
Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.
Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.
Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel. Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.
Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.
Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives. What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.
Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance. In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.
The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.
It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be. Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.
So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life. And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.
I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong. I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.
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