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.

8 thoughts on “A Critique of Pure Whedon

  1. You left out Willow/Tara.

    But you also left out Willow/Oz, and Simon/Kaylee, and (kind of) Mal/Inara, and no doubt others in the stories I haven’t watched or read. There is a degree of cherrypicking in your examples. Which leads to several thoughts.

    One: the characters whose stories didn’t end in PAINDEATHDRAMA possibly escaped it because their show got canceled before it could happen.

    Two: all the memorable stories end in PAINDEATHDRAMA — but this may be tautological, as the PAINDEATHDRAMA makes them memorable.

    Three: what you call Cordy’s character development, I call Cordy’s complete personality transplant, and it annoyed me to no end.

    Four: back on topic, “happily ever after” kind of requires the story to end. Yes, you can have complications; Zoe and Wash did, and so did Xander and Anya. But look at that latter example: they sort of cruised along doing their thing for several years of show. From a narrative standpoint — not a life one! — there’s a strong tendency to want any character relationship, romantic or otherwise, to earn its keep by generating narrative development. Having part of the story tread water doesn’t work indefinitely. So pretty much, either Xander and Anya had to break up, or we were headed for a plotline involving half-ex-demon babies. Which would have the virtue of being different, but I don’t know if it would be good. (My money’s on “no.”)

    It’s not to say PAINDEATHDRAMA is the only option. But Whedon tends to work in a serialized format, which encourages poking otherwise stable things with sticks until they blow up and make plot. If he did more stand-alones — like Dr. Horrible, but without the genre convention straitjacketing it — it would be easier to tell how much of this is him, and how much is the format.

  2. I’m glad someone said it.

    He wavers between “OMG Empowered Woman-child” and “OMG Women in Refrigerators” like nobody’s business.

    Wait, does that make Wash a WiR?

    Anyway, I think a lot of Whedon’s tic’s are actually from the influence of Chris Claremont. And I don’t actually mean that in a negative way – the man invented the modern super-hero drama – but Whedon has gone on the record on how influential he was and how big a fan he was, and those are all tics that Claremont shared. Strong female characters who are consistently unable to have successful relationships because the always end in flames or drama.

    There’s hope. When given the chance to go with form in Scott and Emma’s relationship in Astonishing X-Men instead he actually brought them closer together.

  3. Wash and Angel both get refrigeratored, so to speak, which is why I don’t accuse Whedon too much of standard WiR syndrome. He’s more equal-opportunity, gender-wise; those two balance out, say, Cordy and Fred. (Anya I do not count as a WiR because she didn’t die to motivate Xander into the big battle; her death was structurally positioned as a heroic coda, not a precipitant of action.)

    Penny’s the only one who felt truly refrigerator-like to me, in that her death was entirely random and meaningless except in the context of motivating her love interest. All the examples above had more context to justify them.

  4. Marie,

    I did leave out some examples — though I don’t think it takes much fan-wankery to imagine that Mal-Inara would have ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA. Those two have too much tension to not eventually get together, but they’re both unstable enough that it’d be likely to crash and burn.

    Oz/Willow is a valid point, though I feel like it gets over-written by the intensity of Willow/Tara.

    And Simon/Kaylee is one of the few reasons why I am pleased by Serenity being the end of that timeline (for now) — because I can’t help but think that it’d have gone south as well.

    I agree that you periodically have to poke stable relationships, but Whedon was proving his ability to do so without breaking anyone up with Wash/Zoe. Their conflict over her wanting to have children could have continued on for a while, probably leading to a pregnancy storyline, which would do interesting things for Stone-Cold Killer Zoe, who would have to double-check some of her decisions and lead Wash to amusing levels of protectiveness that would likely result in him arming up to join Mal on a mission.


    For all of his commendable works of feminist literature, he’s still got some gender/relationship issues that are fairly pronounced, eh?

    As for Claremont, I think it might even be a broader issue (no pun intended). If you have strong, well-adjusted female superheroes without major relationship issues, how are they still interesting? It can certainly be done, but there’s a grain of reason in going for the ‘successful professional life can lead to unsuccessful personal life’ narrative mode, which is one that is fairly prevalent for ambitious, 21st century women. (for everyone, really, but I’d say it has more cultural cache for women right now, at least in United Statesia/The West [TM] ).
    I do like what I’ve seen of Whedon’s Scott/Emma. Sadly, that whole relationship is sitting on the Jean Resurrection Time Bomb, and I’m not sure it’s going to fall out the way I’d like it.

  5. but Whedon was proving his ability to do so without breaking anyone up with Wash/Zoe.

    For a whopping fourteen episodes and one movie. I’m too stuffed up with this head cold to do the math myself, but I bet you Willow/Tara had that long even before Glory messed with Tara, and so did Xander/Anya. It’s sort of the Fight Club quote: on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for any relationship drops to zero.

    And, as you say, that was headed for a pregnancy plot. I’d love to find examples anywhere — not just in Whedon — for long-term narratively interesting marriages that don’t involve babies, terminal illnesses or other death threats against one partner, or artificial-seeming interpersonal conflict between the spouses. Which pretty much leaves me looking for natural-seeming interpersonal conflict, I guess; otherwise, it may be that the only remaining possibility is to treat the marriage as a single character unit, and build all its narrative complication externally.

    It would probably be instructive to compare this against soap operas, if I watched them, since they’re kind of the pinnacle of long-running serialized nearrative. I bet you 99.9% of their relationships end in one of two ways: PAINDEATHDRAMA, or the characters leave the show.

  6. So, we’ve proven that Joss Whedon is like any other successful producer of long-term serials.

    This leaves us begging the question, “What about Dollhouse?” Well, taking the example we’ve learned from this little scholarly exercise, have we learned that Dollhouse will end in PAINDEATHDRAMA? Not necessarily, since there’s always the option that it will be cancelled before it gets to that point. What we HAVE conclusively proven is that because Whedon has at his disposal all of the tools which have historically made for interesting stories, Dollhouse will almost certainly be good.

  7. If we agree to discuss Whedon as just one of the producers of long-term serials, which we can, (even though I still think that the concern Kevin, Marie and I share should not be discounted), then we get into a question of aesthetics and dramaturgy, namely:

    How does one maintain dramatic tension in a long-term serial without introducing unreasonable PAINDEATHDRAMA into characters’ storylines? An ongoing story about two people who are happy and never have any problems may be boring, but I don’t see any reason to then leap straight to the conclusion that PAINDEATHDRAMA in the way that Whedon tended to end character relationships is the only way to interject tension into long-term narratives. That thought leaves me dissastisfied as both a viewer and a storyteller, which means I’ll want to think about it further.

    Marie’s comments about searching for narratively interesting long-term relationships (marriages or not) remind me of Lilly and Marshall in How I Met Your Mother. The writers/producers of that show manage to get a great deal of drama/humor out of those characters’ relationship with mundane/natural problems as well as the almost-too-easy PAINDEATHDRAMA and/or Pregnancy/etc. dynamics.

    Not all conflicts have to be big. Sometimes you can set a minor squabble C-plot amidst a big external A-plot and a secondary-character-driven C-plot. The tension of a relationship becomes texture for the overall narrative, so that a relationship doesn’t become stale, but isn’t needlessly jerked around with PAINDEATHDRAMA.

  8. RE: The Jean Bomb,

    I don’t think that’s something that’s ever going to pop while Bendis is still overseeing things at Marvel. He and Fraction have both said that the relationship is sacrosanct. But once upon a time, so were MJ and Peter.

    And in general, I still might make the argument that Wash counts as a WiR, being the stereotypical feminine or ‘soft’ character in that relationship. But only if I wanted to get into a pointless argument with a fan 🙂

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