The 20th anniversary of airing of the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will arrive in little more than a month. Since I believe Buffy to be the best TV series ever (with the possible exception of Firefly), I'm celebrating the anniversary by sharing my thoughts on a topic that I believe is central to the Buffy mythos: mentorship.
Lest you think I'm alone in thinking Buffy the Vampire Slayer is worth covering in a business publication, Inc.com has expounded the business wisdom of Buffy in three excellent columns, all of them by Inc.com editors. I might also add that there's an entire cottage industry of scholarly books about Buffy and her creator, Joss Whedon.
When originally introduced in March of 1997, Buffy was an iconoclastic character. In most previous horror movies and TV shows, the blond cheerleader-type was the inevitable victim of the monsters. Buffy flipped that meme around by victimizing the monsters.
That's where Buffy started, but over the seven seasons of the show, she grew from a slightly ditzy teenager to a leader of an army of slayers. During that process, she acquires wisdom and perspective, which add enormously to her power as a character.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer also had another powerful, iconoclastic character: Buffy's best friend Willow. Originally written as just a computer nerd, Willow eventually blossomed into Dark Willow, arguably the single most powerful character in the Buffy universe.
Both Buffy and Willow had the same mentor, Giles. A middle-aged man with considerable power of his own (although that's not clear at first), Giles helps Buffy fulfill her potential, first as a fighter and later as a leader. He also guides Willow as she gradually masters magic.
If Buffy's growth represents Giles's greatest management achievement, Willow's going over to the "dark side" (to borrow from another franchise) as Dark Willow represents Giles's greatest failure.
Significantly, that "victory" and "failure" of mentorship take place almost at the same time. (I use quotes because, as you see, there's more going on than just the outward results of Giles's mentoring.)
The nature of a mentorship relationship is that the student eventually outgrows the mentor. Just as children must become independent of their parents, the student must break free of the guidance of the mentor. At that point, the student must act independently and fly under their own wings, as it were.
In what may be the greatest TV episode ever written ("Once More With Feeling"), Giles finally concludes that his presence is keeping Buffy from becoming independent and showing the leadership qualities he know she has. He therefore decides to return to England.
A few episodes earlier, Giles criticizes Willow for using her magical power unwisely and she reacts with anger and hostility. Willow is clearly chaffing under his mentorship, which she no longer wants or feels that she needs. In fact, Willow's need for guidance has never been greater.
After Giles leaves, both Buffy and Willow struggle to adapt and both make serious mistakes. Buffy becomes involved in an ill-starred relationship with the vampire Spike, while Willow becomes addicted to witchcraft and occult power.
Buffy grows beyond the toxic relationship and into the leadership role that Giles believed she could fulfill. Willow, however, spirals deeper into her addiction so that when she is confronted with personal tragedy, she literally tries to destroy the world.
She almost succeeds but is thwarted when Giles returns from exile with sufficient power to overload her circuits, thereby opening an emotional window through which Willow--the real Willow that's inside Dark Willow--can return to life. Giles then takes a much-chastened Willow to England, where he completes his mentorship of her, so that she can return to Sunnydale in control of herself and her power.
Giles has thus been a good mentor to both Buffy and Willow, withdrawing from the scene so that they can make their own decisions, but still willing to return in order to help both of them when his presence is clearly needed. Like every good mentor he has disentangled himself from the relationship but has not disconnected it.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in Season 3, contains another mentorship triangle that forms an interesting contras: Faith, Wesley and Mayor Wilkins.
If ever there was a girl (or Slayer) in need of strong guidance, it's Faith. Unlike Buffy, whose home life is stable despite her parent's divorce, Faith comes from a highly dysfunctional family and is addicted to the twin thrills of one-night stands and killing vampires.
When she arrives in Sunnydale, she is assigned a different Watcher, Wesley. Wesley, like Giles, is British but is otherwise quite different: formal, pompous and didactic. Rather than focusing on Faith's needs and adapting to them (like a good mentor), he directs most of his attention to one of Faith and Buffy's peers: Cordelia. And not in a good way.
Rather than rising to become a true mentor to Faith, Wesley becomes sexually obsessed with Cordelia. While Cordelia is eighteen at the time and the obsession is shown as mutual, Wesley is breaking the rules for mentorship in a big way. How could Faith possibly respect Wesley (who's in his mid 30s) when he's busy hitting on somebody almost half his age?
By contrast, at no point does Giles express or (apparently) feel the tiniest spark of sexual attraction for either Buffy or Willow.
Which is as it should be. In real life, women at the beginning of their careers often need mentoring by the middle-aged men who hold power and have experience. From what I've observed, the injection of sexual interest (especially when one-sided) into such relationships usually results in career disaster for the younger person.
Faith rejects Wesley's mentorship (such as it is) in favor of a mentor who, though thoroughly evil, acts appropriately: Mayor Wilkins. The moment Faith acts seductively towards him (which she's learned as a coping mechanism), he immediately shuts it down. He has no interest in Faith sexually but is purely interested in developing her an individual.
Under his guidance, Faith does become a force for evil, but that transformation represents personal growth beyond her previous limitations. While she eventually comes to realize that his mentorship was negative, his "faith" in her becomes integrated positively into her self-image.
Later, in a different Whedon series, Angel, Buffy's ex-boyfriend mentors Faith and convinces her to voluntarily go to prison to pay for her crimes. By the end of the Buffy series, Faith has become a leader in her own right: not as wise and powerful as Buffy or Willow, but self-aware enough to know her limitations.
In the final episode, Buffy, Faith and Willow--three powerful women--work together to stop the end of the world. Their victory is theirs alone, but there's no question that they might not have been victorious without the mentorship that helped them discover their potential.
As a final aside, earlier this evening I watched the pilot episode with my 12-year-old son, his first time. As much as I wanted him to love it, he wasn't impressed. "Get rid of the vampire stuff and it could be a teen show on the Disney channel," he said. Ouch.