Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The Existential Joss Whedon: Evil and Human Freedom in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity
J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb
McFarland, 198 pages

The Existential Joss Whedon
J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb
J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb live in Northwestern Ontario, Canada and work at the Department of English at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

ISFDB Bibliography: J. Michael Richardson
ISFDB Bibliography: J. Douglas Rabb

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

The number of academic texts dealing with Joss Whedon's TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is truly extraordinary. Like most of these books, J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb's monograph combines the perspective of the fan and that of the scholar. Their argument is that Joss Whedon's oeuvre, including Angel, the short-lived science fiction series Firefly and its spin-off movie Serenity, can (and should) be read as narrative explication of a communitarian ethics based on existentialist philosophy. In their introduction, the authors claim that you neither need any knowledge about existentialism nor about Whedon's work to follow their argument -- while I can affirm the former claim, I strongly doubt the truth of the latter one. This book is definitely written for the fans, allowing them to relive the defining storylines of their favourite TV program from a new perspective. However, as a critical study, it is severely flawed.

But first, let's get to the hard facts: The main body of the book consists of eleven chapters; the first one is an introduction to the existentialist ideas of Lev Shestov and Jean-Paul Sartre and their specific relevance to Buffy studies. It is followed by eight chapters that focus on different storylines of the Buffyverse and offer interpretations along the lines drawn out in the first chapter, and one that does the same for Firefly and Serenity; the Firefly content is in fact so slim that it could have just as well been omitted. The closing chapter once again tries to point out how Joss Whedon can be seen as a moral philosopher. Most chapters can stand on their own as essays, which has the negative side effect of making the book a little repetitive. However, Richardson and Rabb do a good job at explaining and applying their basic concepts in a writing style that is not overly academic and, occasionally, even funny. Furthermore, they obviously know their Whedon by heart.

Nevertheless, the book is marred by a flaw that seems typical of such works: even though the authors have nothing but admiration for Whedon's work and claim that they intend to let it speak for itself, they end up using it as nothing more than illustration for their philosophy, which, to make things worse, is presented in a quite dogmatic way. This is most glaringly demonstrated by their constant repetition of the notion that existential freedom is the power "not to admit evil into the world." While this concept certainly rings true with some moments in Buffy and Angel, Richardson and Rabb invoke it so often, and most of the time to so little effect, that the phrase becomes meaningless. Furthermore, there are several instances of pretty cheap symbolism, e.g. the authors claiming that the stakes used to dust vampires are representations of the tree of knowledge -- an arbitrary claim that isn't really corroborated by anything but the fact that it fits with the general argument of the book. Another example of such arbitrary strategies of argumentation is given when the authors claim that Buffy especially speaks to teenagers who have been raised in secular homes (because it provides them with a much needed mythology that incorporates the cultural heritage of Christianity) as well as to teenagers who have been raised in religious homes (because it allows them to embrace the positive aspects of this tradition as well as to rebel against authority). On its own, each of these two notions could be argued, but slapped together like this they appear as nothing more than a cheap attempt of immunisation against any kind of refutation.

For the sake of constructing Whedon's work into a coherent argument in favor of their case, Richardson and Rabb end up levelling a lot of its ambivalence. This is most obvious when, in the final chapter, they try to turn "Pangs," one of the most complex and conflicted episodes of Buffy, into an explication of a straightforward moral system. A similar kind of flattening happens to the philosophical concepts targeted by their critique -- the notions of reason, pragmatism and logic are conflated into each other and, in consequence much too easily dismissed. To give another example of this strategy of oversimplification: "Love is an emotion," the authors claim on page 75, a definition that could be discussed without and within the boundaries of the either the Buffyverse or existentialist philosophy. Instead, Richardson and Rabb simply present their preconception as self-evident.

I may be a little hard on this book because I passionately disagree with its rather simplistic anti-rationalism. Throughout the more theoretical sections of the book, I felt desperate for some of the dialectics of the Frankfurt School, or at least for some Foucault-style wittiness. What I enjoyed about this book was that it took me back into the fictional Universes of Joss Whedon, but in the end, it could have had that by simply re-watching some favourite episodes.

Copyright © 2007 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact ( and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide