A New Slayer Could Have Risen
What if Buffy had Stayed Dead?
I was reading recently about all the planning and preparation that went into the death of Buffy Summers in the fifth season of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (oh, and I guess: spoilers). There were apparently little hints and clues that something was coming, that Buffy was headed towards a fate she couldn't escape. In the end she protected her sister (who was also a being of pure light, created and given to the Summers family because Buffy would protect her) by sacrificing herself instead. It was a moment of true heroism for the character and it showed just how far Buffy (who, at one point, was a reluctant heroine trapped fighting vampires when she just wanted to be a normal girl) had come.
Of course, as anyone who has seen the series knows, Buffy doesn't stay dead for long. The very next season her friends pull her from the afterlife, fearing she had been sent to Hell and was suffering for all eternity. This then led to two muddles seasons which had their moments but were never as good as the series at its all time high. I mean, I'd argue that even the fifth season wasn't perfect, and the series really lost a lot of energy after the third season with a series of less interesting villains for Buffy to fight (the Mayor was absolutely the cream of the crop). Still, this moment of true heroism gave Buffy the kind of closure she needed. From that point forward anything could have been done in the universe and Buffy could have been sent off into her own afterlife, having finally earned her rest.
So why didn't the show do that? Well, because the heroine's name was in the series title. While they could have launched any number of spin-offs to pick up the franchise going forward (not just the equally great Angel, which was already running, but maybe a Faith series or the long in the works but never happened Ripper), the safe bet for the suits in control of the network was to continue with the main Buffy show for another season or more. What's interesting is that the production company switched networks for the show after Buffy sacrificed herself, moving the series from the WB, which it had aired five seasons, over to UPN for the final two. Of course, then both of those networks merged to create the CW so that all was moot in the end, but the series for a time was deliberately continued by a new network despite the heroine getting her heroic ending. In the end it was all about money.
Now, it's entirely possible that Whedon and his crew thought they could continue her story on after bringing her back from the dead, that they weren't ruining her ending by continuing it. We did get two more official TV seasons, followed by five more "in continuity" seasons in comic book form, all under the guidance of Whedon himself, so clearly the guy was in love with not just his universe by his character as well. We can argue about the relative merits of the continuations beyond season five but suffice it to say Whedon clearly loved writing in this world and had ore stories to tell.
Still, wouldn't it have been interesting if we could have had a continuation of the universe without a continuation of Buffy? What would the franchise have been like if Buffy hadn't been brought back from the dead, if Buffy had ended after five seasons and the mantle of "Slayer" was picked up by other people? I think that would have been far more interesting than the series we eventually got.
For starters, we have the Scooby gang, as we saw them in sixth season. Without Buffy around, they had to pick up the slack and fight the vampires and other creatures in Sunnydale without a super-powered heroine to back them up. In this version, without Buffy coming back, I'd envision the series morphing into Willow. She was the one that was really showing promise with magic, and she even becomes the Big Bad of sixth season by grace of the death of Tara at the hands of the Super Nerds (the nominal Big Bad right up to the point where they weren't). A Willow series could have kept many of the beats of the sixth season -- Willow and Tara adopt Buffy's sister, Dawn, and continue caring for her; they fight a low-grade villain, the Super Nerds, to let Willow and her team get into the groove, and we can even have the "Willow goes bad" part with Xander saving the day in the end -- while keeping the focus on Willow. Buffy isn't really needed in this version of the story and nothing is really lost.
Okay, yes, one thing doesn't work as well here: "Once More With Feeling", the musical episode (a great episode) that was very focused on Buffy. At the same time, though, we lose a lot of what didn't work in that sixth season. The bad storytelling of "Double Meat Palace", gone. The awful sexual politics of "Dead Things", gone. Buffy and Spike falling into a really awkward relationship, also gone. Frankly, not having Buffy around in sixth season improves a lot of the issues with the season. Sure, the Super Nerds aren't great villains, but if they were going up against new leader Willow instead of seasoned pro Buffy they would seem like a far more reasonable foe for her to take on. Plus, the death of 4ara at the hands of the nerds (Warren specifically) is a shocking moment that pushed Willow's growth far further. It just works.
As for vampire slaying, we could also have had a Faith series. Faith made a few appearances on Angel before finding her own redemption arc. She tried to kill Angel (as she was vaguely villainous at the time) before willingly going to prison for rehabilitation. She only breaks out (which she could have done at any time) when the world needed her. So, maybe, after doing her arc on Angel she could have spent some time getting her head on straight before learning about the looming vampire threat in Sunnydale (see season seven of that series and the Uber Vampires) and she frees herself. She comes in for the last few episodes of Willow, playing backup (while still letting Willow play the lead) and then she goes off to explore the world in her own Faith series, settling in a new locale to fight more vampires and other threats her own way.
Of course there was also Ripper that could have happened. Giles fighting demonic threats over in England sounds like a fantastic series and certainly would have felt like a different series than anything else in the universe. You could even have had Spike end up over there just so two Brits are forced to work together (even as a vampire Spike was never a real villain) to save the Earth from worse threats. And maybe, in this version of the continuity, Angel wouldn't have to end with only five seasons.
Would this have worked in the real world? Eh, probably not, but not because of the stories. I think the issue, alongside corporate greed, is that the fan-base really wanted Buffy. I know from a lot of fans that she was their favorite character. She was the reason they tuned in. Buffy without Buffy, whatever you called it, just wasn't going to be as successful as the prime source material. In the end, realistically, you had to have the Slayer around to run the franchise. Without her it just didn't have the same verve.
But for a brief moment would could dream about what could have been. Buffy gets her big moment, and while the franchise moves on in potentially interesting new directions, that perfect ending didn't have to be ruined.