Invisible Triumphs: the Quieter Heroism of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

by Tess Adair

 

(Warning: if you haven’t seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you should. Also, this will pretty much spoil the episode Anne.)

 

During my recent craft day, I decided to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer running in the background. Even though I’ve seen it so many times I recite the lines under my breath before they tumble from the screen, it’s still my favorite show in the whole wide world.

 

And while I watched the third season opener, Anne, I remembered all the reasons why.

 

Anne is the episode of Buffy where Buffy runs away. I’ll try to summarize without completely spoiling: in the preceding season finale, Buffy suffered the death of a friend, expulsion from school, getting kicked out of the house by her mother, and making the kind of sacrifice no one should ever have to face.

 

After all that, she ran away. She wanted to forget, wanted to stop being herself. In a sense, she wanted to be nobody.

 

What does Buffy find when she wants to be nobody? Well, for starters, a few weirdly mumbling old people who walk into traffic and claim that they are nobody. Oh, and a job as a waitress and a sunny but depressing room to live in. And she’s going by her middle name, Anne. Hence the title.

 

She also runs into someone we’ve seen on the show before: Chanterelle from the season 2 episode Lie to Me, where she dressed all 90s goth and almost got killed by vampires in her naive pursuit to be one. Now she’s hanging around with a similarly rootless boyfriend and calling herself Lily. And of course, she needs to be saved again.

 

Here’s why this episode is great: Chanterelle/Lily is one of Buffy’s greatest success stories, and Buffy never even knows it.

 

The basic plot of the episode is this: Buffy has run away from home and is scratching out a small life in Los Angeles, deliberately interacting with the world around her as little as possible. She runs into Lily, who recognizes her and calls her by her real name. While Buffy tries to rebuff her so she can continue being sad by herself in her sad little room with her fake name, an old man almost knocks them down in his rush to run into the street and get hit by a car. Ever the savior, Buffy saves his life, only to have him repeat at her: “I’m nobody.”

 

So far, so weird. Then Lily’s boyfriend disappears. And try as she might to pretend she’s nobody, Buffy is still a big goddamn hero. She decides to help Lily find her boyfriend--she can’t not. Unfortunately, what she finds is an old corpse--he looks like he’s aged a hundred years, but the tattoo on his arm tells Buffy she can stop her search. It’s him.

 

Of course, just like in her earlier appearance, Lily does not want to hear the truth when Buffy gives it to her. She runs off--right into the (figurative) arms of the creepy pseudo-religious guy who’s been luring in runaways with a vague promise of hope (and maybe sandwiches?). His name is Ken.

 

Like secret demons are wont to do, he makes Lily put on an ugly white slave outfit and pushes her through a weird muddy portal into a hellish dimension. Demons, man.

 

And Buffy goes to save her. Ken doesn’t know who she is, but he figures he knows her well enough: she’s got the same look as the rest of the lost souls he targets. It’s the look of someone who wants to run away from whatever happened to them and become nobody.

 

Fortunately for all the other runaways, all it takes for Buffy to get over that impulse is one gnarly demon actually trying to tell her she’s nobody.

 

Buffy’s moment of awakening comes pretty shortly after they fall down the demon hole. All the humans get lined up in their terrible slave outfits while a giant demon with a giant suppressor weapon takes attendance. He goes to the first guy, tells him he’s nobody, then asks him who he is. The guy gives his name. The demon pulls out his weapon and beats him down.

 

The next guy gets the game a little quicker. When the demon asks who he is, he says, “I’m nobody.” No prompt needed.

 

Then the demon gets to Buffy.

 

“Who are you?”

 

She looks up. Hers is not an expression of submission. She knows exactly who she is.

 

“I’m Buffy. The vampire slayer. And you are?”

 

Cue the headbutt. Our girl is back.

 

That’s the small victory. Truth is, Buffy was always going to pull this off. Buffy saves people from outside threats. It’s what she does. But very rarely does she get to save them from themselves. It’s a much harder thing to do, and pretty difficult to fit into your schedule when you’ve got an apocalypse to worry about every 365 days or so.

 

A prime example: only three episodes later, in Beauty and the Beasts, Buffy deals with a fellow student who won’t give up her boyfriend-abuser, even when Buffy presses home to her that people have already died thanks to her silence. But she won’t budge. When Buffy pushes even harder, the girl breaks into tears and starts rocking back and forth, insisting over and over that her abuser loves her.

 

“I think we broke her,” says Willow.

“I think she was broken before this,” says Buffy.

 

There are some people who cannot be saved. In fact, that’s a theme of Beauty and the Beasts--and, in another part of the storyline, it makes the point that often the difference lies in whether that person wants to be saved. And in this episode, Buffy doesn’t have time to find out. She has to stop the monster before he kills someone else. The abused girl is never saved; she dies by the end.

 

But in Anne, our damsel-in-distress is a girl who wants to be saved. The first awakening belongs to Buffy; the second belongs to Lily.

 

Like usual, Buffy runs around and kicks some demon ass. They’re now in the demons’ dimension, so Buffy is far outnumbered. She rallies the few unbroken humans to run with her, and they do the best they can. But the episode has to fill out 43 minutes, so at some point, Buffy gets caught. A few demons hold her down, and Ken, still the ringleader, starts to give a speech up on a higher deck to remind them all that they are slaves.

 

And just as he starts to talk about the price of rebellion, timid Lily takes one step forward and pushes him off the edge.

 

That, to me, might just be the most important moment of the episode.

 

Of course, Buffy rallies and starts leading the slaves out again. She gets out a few more puns and beats this shit out of Ken, who was unfortunately not killed by his fall. The humans get out, and the portal seals itself behind them.

 

And Buffy decides to go home. She’s learned her lesson, for the most part--she can’t run away from her past because it’s who she is. And she’ll be able to move forward for the exact same reason. Strength is strength because it doesn’t back down.

 

So what about Lily? Well, Buffy talks to her manager and her landlord and basically allows Lily to take over the meek little life she’d made for herself. It’s not much, but it does give Lily just enough of a starting place to take care of herself. It’s more than she’s ever had before.

 

Of course, Buffy gives her a new name to go along with it. At the end of the episode, Lily asks her, “Can I be Anne?”

 

And as far as Buffy knows, that’s the last of it. She saved another girl from another monster, and she knows it’s time to face the music and go back to her monster-hell-hole of a home.

 

But that’s not the last we hear from Anne. Later on, Angel meets her, though he has no knowledge of her past with Buffy. When he meets her, she’s running a homeless shelter for the runaways of LA. Basically, she’s turned herself into the real-world version of Buffy. She’s trying to save kids from the real-world monsters. And maybe themselves.

 

She comes back briefly at the end of Angel, too. All the main characters are given a few hours to spend like it’s their last day on earth. The character Gunn chooses to spend it volunteering for a nearby homeless shelter that helped him out back in the day. Run by his buddy Anne.


Anne is one of my favorite Buffy stories. So many of the one-off characters that Buffy saves (or fails to save) are completely disposable, but not her. She’s the character that Buffy saves from herself, through the simple power of giving her an example to follow.


It’s fitting, of course, that Anne is the name that sticks for her. It’s the one she took the day she decided to take responsibility for herself. The day she found her power.


She is Buffy’s most complete success--a character that Buffy saved from more than bodily harm. She saved her from the slow suicide of passive acceptance. When they went down to the demon dimension, Lily’s first impulse was to accept it--after all, she always knew she’d end up in hell. But Buffy didn’t accept it. Buffy fought the odds, even though they were overwhelming. And so does Anne, running a homeless shelter for teens in a city that needs a hundred times what she can give it.


And Buffy will never know the impact she had on her. But then, when do any of us?