Before the fictional world of Buffy Summers expanded into the larger ‘Buffyverse’ franchise of today – including Angel, the comic book continuations, video games, conventions and various other media spin-offs – the Slayer and her friends resided in a singular, contained microcosm of suburban America known as Sunnydale. In a way, they still do and always will.
Within this bubble existed a number of arenas that each served a designated purpose: the contrasting poles of home and school, the latter of which led to college; the extracurricular respite of The Bronze; the graveyard, home to many a foe; and the library, centre of knowledge, dutiful research and a place to convene with friends outside conventional social circles.
As self-contained as Sunnydale was, it was still fundamentally a reflection of the real world, more than just a mirror image of an archetypal California hometown with a twist. It was the landscape of every burgeoning teenager’s transition into adulthood and the innate trials and tribulations that accompanied their development. Far from just one town, it was the Western world. And due to the placement of the Hellmouth underneath Sunnydale High, it was also world’s end.
In many TV shows – most notably sitcoms – environments are presumed to forever remain the same, moulded around an evolving cast of characters. Towns, apartments and drinking holes have traditionally served as recognisable, comforting backdrops; playgrounds wherein scenarios would unfold and subsequently resolve. But Sunnydale was never content to stay still. It was a character unto itself, perpetually emblematic of the larger world’s fate at stake, while simultaneously changing the stakes itself with the curveballs of each narrative arc.
The amorphous environment of Sunnydale shifted with each season to complement the stages of its inhabitants’ journey. Upon the annihilation of Sunnydale High, the school library was eventually replaced by The Magic Box as a covert rendezvous point. Although reclusive, the otherwise open status of this new meeting spot reflected the townsfolk’s growing awareness of supernatural occurrences in Sunnydale.
This illustrates that the characters’ changing perceptions of the town were effecting its altering impression. Sunnydale was always perceived from the outset as a dangerous place, home to vampires, demons and witches. But as the series progressed and the subtext of adolescent anxieties became further ingrained into the fabric of the protagonists’ adventures, the town gradually became its own beast; an oppressive atmosphere, a cross to bear for Buffy and co.
At the beginning of Season 3, we saw that the trauma of Angel’s betrayal had necessitated a change in environment and identity for Buffy, signifying that the two were intertwined. In Season 6, Buffy reacted to her own resurrection with anger, faulting her friends from placing her back into the hell of Sunnydale. In this season, the true foe of Buffy was life itself, embodied in the deceptively inept antagonists of nerds Warren, Jonathan and Andrew. The tyranny of earthly existence was arguably the one place to turn to after the zenith of an ever-present god in Season 5’s villain, Glory.
As the years bore on, life’s harsh truths grew equally as overbearing as the show’s trademark monsters. Buffy’s home had always been a bedrock of sanctity, secure from the threats outside and guarded by the beneficially benevolent and oblivious maternal figurehead of her mother, Joy. Its safety was exemplified by way of the convenient horror convention that saw vampires refused entry unless personally invited. Still, this safe haven wasn’t always invulnerable to threats; in Season 2 episode ‘Ted’, Buffy’s suspicion of her mother’s partner was confirmed on the realisation that he was, in fact, a demonic robot. In Season 4 episode ‘Pangs’, vengeful spirits from the past threatened to disrupt a Thanksgiving dinner.
With the mysterious introduction of Dawn as Buffy’s sister -seemingly appearing from nowhere – the home immediately transformed from a place of respite and escape into the epicentre of a vast, spiritual battleground. Season 5’s Glory was no vampire, either; her entrance into Buffy’s house demonstrated her omnipotent persona to which no doors were closed. In game-changing episode ‘The Body’, Buffy returned home to find her mother dead on the couch, at which point the series took a drastic tonal shift into something more measured and sombre, and an approach that would continue well into the dark and divisive Season 6. It is at this pivotal watershed moment of ‘The Body’ that the home of Buffy, merely threatened and conversely defended up to this point, finally completed its irreversible transition. No longer a place of comfort managed by her mother, the house abruptly became a hollow, disquieting space completely her own. She now accepted a new responsibility as official guardian to her sister and struggled with financial worries; all of this cemented her inevitable adult status. Stints at Doublemeat Palace and the newly rebuilt Sunnydale High followed, bringing Buffy full circle on her journey. By Season 7, it fell to Buffy to train the next generation of Slayers.
The heaviness of maturation had its thematic groundwork laid in the first few seasons, which saw the Scooby Gang graduate from school to college. In the shaky first season alone, we’re granted prime scenarios such as teacher attraction (“Teacher’s Pet”), parental expectations (“The Witch”) and macho-conformism (“The Pack”). In Season 2, the twin realms of school life and the supernatural collided in the most literal of circumstances: “School Hard” found villain of the year and eventual show stalwart Spike crash Sunnydale High parents evening. But it is in the double-header of “Surprise/Innocence” that the season’s arc reveals its adolescent subtext, wherein Buffy lost her virginity to Angel and thusly caused him to lose his soul and regress into the wicked Angelus. The focus on love, a lost innocence and a sexual awakening is not inherent to high school itself, but it is part of a young adult’s formative years that help shape them into who they eventually become. As with all memory of past milestones, where they were proves just as integral as who they were and what they were doing at the time.
In Season 3, the tie between the students of Sunnydale and the wider town became further enmeshed following the introduction of Mayor Wilkins. Up until now the students rebelled against Principal Snyder as their sole source of authority, but Wilkins was altogether a different animal. He was the classical corrupt politician with his fingers in many pies, a demon who’d sold his soul many eons ago in exchange for eternal life. He enforced vicarious cover-ups through other authority figures like Snyder, and corrupted the youth in the form of a susceptible Faith.
Wilkins’ reign enabled us to learn more of Sunnydale’s history and character, while narratively drawing the schoolkids further out of the insular environment of Sunnydale High. The Mayor’s ascendance and subsequent defeat at the hands of the graduates in Season 3’s finale signified a new awareness of the part of the young graduates. This political enlightenment – never tied to an explicit ideology on creator Joss Whedon’s part – continued in Season 4 in the unfamiliar environment of college. Here, the characters underwent changes and epiphanies native to college experience. They became aware of an entire organisation – the US government funded-Initiative – that had hitherto operated in complete secrecy. Oz came to terms with himself and his desires, leading to Willow discovering her true sexual identity. The transitional phase of college came as a culture shock to the Scooby gang, yet it prepared them for the next, darker step in their lives and indeed the culminating chapter in Sunnydale’s history.
One character who deserves special attention is Spike, bleached punk vampire badass turned lovesick puppy. Upon his arrival in Sunnydale, he’s dry-witted, power-hungry and devoid of empathy. But along the way, his self-imposed categorisation as the villain bore heavy on his (lack of) soul, and – much unlike other TV villains – he became a regular screen presence, with added time in which to consider his own place in the grand scheme of things. The defensive tactics of the Scooby gang and The Initiative caused Spike to become further ostracised until he was utterly humbled and a shadow of the idealised super-villain he once envisioned himself to be.
His growing love for Buffy was a throughline to the entire narrative arc, but it was not the only part of the puzzle. Spike was centrally a misfit in need of a home – as all villains are – and Sunnydale was an unforgiving environment that refused to placate its inhabitants. As much as Spike hastened to admit it, he was forever looking for a place to belong.
I speak of Sunnydale in the past tense, because it is gone in more than one way. It met its demise with the series’ end after seven incredible seasons, and it was also physically obliterated in the final episode. Because of its distinctive hallmarks that harbour everyone’s own ideas of both comfort, security and lurking danger, it is reflective of each town, everywhere. It is part and parcel of growing up that young people configure their own identities, move through educational institutions and into various vocational roles, all the while questioning their place in the wider world. Consequently, their respective demons and saving graces manifest into the fabric of the environment which nurtures their development. They exist in their very own Sunnydale.