James Marsters as Spike, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers and Michelle Trachtenberg as Dawn Summers. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
James Marsters as Spike, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers and Michelle Trachtenberg as Dawn Summers. (20th Century Fox)

Friday marks the 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking series “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” This week, I’m looking back at some of the most important elements of the show’s legacy.

The love longtime fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” feel for Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends isn’t the same as the romantic ardor that men such as Angel (David Boreanaz), Riley (Marc Blucas) and Spike (James Marsters) felt for Buffy herself.

Buffy isn’t necessarily everyone’s favorite character. And we all respond to different things in each character’s arc, from Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) nervous humor and slow unfolding as her magic develops; to Xander’s (Nicholas Brendan) slow maturation into a reliable, dependable and capable adult; to vengeance demon Anya’s (Emma Caulfield) blunt, funny perspective on the human world; to Giles’s (Anthony Head) tender, largely unflappable stewardship of Buffy’s abilities.

But Buffy’s most significant relationships do offer fascinating insights into what we responded to about her character and the complicated ways even men who love strong women can react to that strength.

Buffy’s relationship with Angel plays an important role throughout the show’s entire run, but it arguably reaches its apotheosis in the second season, when they have sex for the first time, and Angel, experiencing a moment of true happiness as he holds her afterward, is cursed with the loss of his soul. As a result, Angel is incredibly cruel to Buffy in the days that follow: He abandons her, and when she finds him, tells her both that she was too inexperienced to be any good in bed and shames her for being sexually active at all. (Not to mention, he tries to kill her.)

This arc in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is typically identified as a straight young woman’s worst nightmare: lose your virginity to a guy who seems supportive and loving, only to wake up the next morning to discover that he’s turned into a monster. But Angel’s experiences here — though they took place before Boreanaz would grow into the sensitive, nuanced actor he’s since become — are also a potent expression of fear on behalf of a man who desperately wants to be a decent person. Their experiences in this arc may not be equivalent, but the terror on Angel’s face in his moment of transformation is rending and revealing.

In the first three seasons of the show, Angel and Buffy’s relationship is frequently defined by his desire not to harm her. In the pilot episode of the show, Angel gives Buffy a silver cross, an object that will create physical distance between them. He pulls back from their first kiss and flees rather than put her at risk from his vampiric nature in the first season’s “Angel.” He plays up their age difference in an effort to discourage himself from dating her.

Ultimately, of course, Angel does hurt her. As his vampire alter ego Angelus, he is cruel and psychologically vicious, and they fight repeatedly.

But in two successive season finales on “Buffy,” Buffy proves that she is stronger than Angel believes her to be. At the end of the second season, Buffy proves that she has the emotional fortitude to stab Angel, even knowing that his soul has been restored to him, when it’s necessary to save the world. And in the second part of “Graduation Day,” at the end of the third season, Buffy confronts Angel’s fear of killing her directly, forcing him to drink from her when nothing else will save his life. The worst thing Angel imagines is still something that Buffy can survive.

Though “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” treated Buffy’s strength and abilities as a given from the very beginning of the show, that didn’t necessarily mean that it was easy for viewers to accept that a slip of a teenage girl could be nigh-indestructible. Angel’s anxieties about doing physical and emotional damage to Buffy gave audiences a proxy who shared their fears that she would die, be gravely wounded or end up emotionally destroyed. His growing confidence in her resilience became a proxy for our own, a way of testing just what the Slayer could handle. And it’s no mistake that Angel leaves Sunnydale after Buffy graduates from high school and defeats one of her most formidable enemies yet, Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener). Both we and Angel know what she can manage now, even the pain of his departure.

It’s no mistake that Buffy’s next serious boyfriend, Riley Finn (Blucas), raises a different sort of question for the audience. Now that we know just how tough Buffy is, how far does our admiration for her extend before her abilities start to seem threatening?

Buffy and Riley meet in one of her classes, where he serves as the teaching assistant to Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse); in reality, he’s one of the demon hunters in her paramilitary operation, the Initiative. Though Riley is originally the teacher, and Buffy the student, their roles are quickly reversed. Once they begin fighting together, they enter a realm where Buffy is more experienced and more naturally skilled than Riley. He may be a man with extensive military training, but even that doesn’t beat the Chosen One.

This imbalance ultimately ends their relationship. In the fifth season episode “Out of My Mind,” Riley collapses, and he and Buffy learn that the Initiative’s medical interventions have given him a life-threatening heart condition. He resists medical intervention to correct the problem, both out of fairly well-founded anti-government paranoia and out of fear that without those enhancements, he won’t be able to keep up with Buffy. Those anxieties continue to eat away at him in subsequent episodes, and ultimately Riley leaves when he receives an offer to rejoin the military, where he feels needed. When he returns to Sunnydale in the show’s sixth season, married, he and Buffy have a poignant reunion. Riley is married to another strong, competent demon hunter, but Riley makes a point of letting Buffy know that his wife isn’t as strong as she was. Riley is a good man, and he can handle being with his equal, just not his superior.

Where Angel is a surrogate for a particular set of audience emotions, Riley is ultimately a test: Are you someone who loves Buffy, and the idea of “Buffy,” for all her strengths and independence? Or do you need her to be just a little bit less so you can manage your affection for her? Riley isn’t a bad person, but as “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” moved toward more obviously misogynist villains and more complex feminist arguments, his own emotional needs prevented him from being a true ally to Buffy in the struggle to come.

If Buffy’s two first serious romances were ways of playing with basically supportive men’s reactions to her strength, her third was with a man who initially hated her.

As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Spike is essentially a precursor of the Trio, the group of misogynist magicians who are the Big Bads of the show’s sixth season. As a human, he was a socially and artistically unsuccessful poet, who upon being turned into a vampire made up for years of rejection by reinventing himself as the sort of violent alpha male the Trio longed to be. And he developed a taste for a specific sort of misogynist violence, targeting and killing Slayers who preceded Buffy, making him a parallel of Caleb (Nathan Fillion), the preacher and serial killer of women who becomes an avatar of the First Evil in the show’s final season.

Spike’s evolving relationship to Buffy, as you might expect from that backstory, develops in troubling fits and starts. He is horrified by his attraction to her, and after she initially rejects him, he commissions Warren Meers (Adam Busch) to build a sexbot that resembles her in an effort to slake his desire for her. Unfortunately for Spike, this plan doesn’t work: what attracts him to Buffy is as much moral and intellectual as it is physical. But though Spike makes various gestures at goodness in an effort to win Buffy’s trust, his relationship with her is still defined by entitlement and leads to an ugly and pivotal moment when he attempts to rape her.

The storyline is horrifying; it’s meant to be, and it works on a number of different levels. It’s a stark illustration that Spike’s gestures are not the same as moral reformation. It’s a reminder for the audience that even sympathetic, richly textured characters can do heinous things. It’s a warning to anyone who sees Buffy as an object onto whom they can project their own desires. And it’s the catalyst for a quest that ends with Spike doing what even Angel does not: earning back his soul and sacrificing himself to save the world.

Spike occupies a unique position in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: He commits some of the show’s cruelest acts. But he also works hardest and sacrifices the most in an attempt to atone for his sins. Unlike Angel, Spike actively seeks out the pain that comes with recovering his soul. His story arc is about how men relate to Buffy, but it’s also a journey that encourages us to think about the conditions under which even someone guilty of heinous acts can perform genuine penance and achieve real redemption.

This is part of what makes “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a great and enduring feminist story 20 years after it first debuted, and makes it so important at this moment when sexist threats and feminist energy are both resurgent. The show explored where evil and misogyny come from and urged us to fight them. It set more important models than I’ve discussed here for how men can serve as allies to the women they love. And “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” didn’t stick the men with all the questions: It asked those of us who loved Buffy and identified with her to contemplate grace and forgiveness.