Uncertainty in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Glorificus and Black Swans
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Black Swans: Season Five introduced a major existential threat to Sunnyvale in the form of the goddess Glorificus, better known as Glory. Glory might be better categorized a Black Swan than a predictable uncertainty. Although the team had encountered gods before, such as Olaf the Troll God, Glory’s motivation to return to her realm threatened the existence of Buffy’s version of Earth.
Black Swans, popularized by a book of the same title authored by Nasim Nicholas Taleb, represent rare events with high magnitude impact. The housing crisis leading to 2008’s Great Recession, would be considered by some a Black Swan—though systematic indicators leading to the recession might put it into the category of uncertainty convergence. Although Glory was a “god,” her appearance, in terms of scenario practice, would be seen as a Black Swan or “act of God” because although the abstract notion of such an event exists, the actual realization of the event in any one person’s lifetime would prove highly improbable. Real Black Swan examples that equate to Glory include a meteor unexpectedly caught in Earth’s gravity well and brought down with massive, perhaps extinction-level consequences. A global pandemic initiated by the serendipitous mutation of an influenza virus. The catastrophic loss of global communications from a solar mass ejection aimed at Earth with just the right trajectory. Because they are written, they aren’t unseen or unnamed uncertainties, but when an event of sufficient magnitude occurs is highly uncertain. In the Buffyverse, legend clearly states that gods once walk on Earth and that they were later trapped in another dimension. When a Black Swan event occurs, future scenarios necessarily collapse into a new narrative singularity until new uncertainties can be determined and new narratives crafted. Events of this magnitude essentially rewrite the context, rather than just setting allied uncertainties off on new trajectories.
The act itself, like a meteor striking, maybe rather brief. The only way for Glory to return to her hell dimension was to find a key that opens a portal between the Buffyverse and her dimension. Once found, and used, the key becomes the meteor, with destruction emanating from its epicenter.
Given that such an occurrence can be known, strategies get formulated so that the potential future doesn’t become reality. In this case, a group of monks mystically transformed the “key” into a human, creating Buffy’s sister Dawn. The monks employed Buffy’s blood in Dawn’s formulation. This mystical state of a supernatural object being transmuted into a human who becomes the bridge between the destruction of the world and its survival is another example of a Black Swan.
Dawn offers up yet another uncertainty as her creation refashioned reality so that no one could remember a time before Dawn. With Dawn, the world was rebooted and changed forever. The very nature of reality was brought into question. While the real world does not include (as far as we can prove scientifically) mystical beings that can create a life and backfill human experience, questions about reality do exist. A good discussion of alternative reality where the trust of truth becomes questionable can be found on Science Friday’s podcast “The Reality-Distorting Tools of the Future,” which explores a number of digital manipulation technologies, including fake celebrity pornography and a Donald Trump speech modified so it appears he can speak Mandarin. Show guest Aviv Ovadya suggests this information manipulation creates an existential threat to democracy:
“If we can’t believe anything, that’s sort of what a failed state looks like. That’s what happens in conflict regions. And it’s really hard to run a democracy like that…I mean, it’s not going to be quite that much of falling off a cliff that quickly. But I would say that our information system is going to fairly rapidly get worse as this stuff develops and we need to really put stuff in place to help prevent that from accelerating as fast as it might otherwise.”
Glory’s goal in Season 5 is not to reset reality so much as to overwrite it. Once opened, the portal becomes a bi-directional gateway. She can come home, but anything that wants to escape can freely do so as well. While she isn’t really motivated to do anything but get home, her ambivalence toward approach creates the threat nonetheless.
The repatriation of Glory required a rite. The blood of the key would slowly drip, and only when it stopped running, would the portal close. While the portal was open, demons of all kinds could freely move between realms. The Scooby Gang chose to distract Glory as their strategic option. What they did not count on was another Black Swan of sorts in the form of Doc who appeared on the platform constructed for the ritual, initiating the rite. Buffy mortally wounds Glory and her human host dies at the hands of Giles. The character of Doc, however, let’s the ritual play out, because he is much more motivated by revenge and chaos in Buffy’s reality and Glory’s ritual offer a means to his end.
As often happens, a singular focus on one area creates a strategic blindspot in another. We must, as I often admonish those in workshops, pay attention to the world around us.
While real existential threats cannot be quashed in the time consumed by the last minutes of an hour-long television episode, the lesson from a strategic win that ultimately leads to failure offers insight into paying attention to all the variables. One of the key outcomes of scenario planning comes in the form of an uncertainty list. Had the team thought about other players and their motivations, they might have been better prepared for a multi-pronged attack. As many start-ups discover, despite their passion and their energy, their size often proves too diminutive in light of other factors for even the most strategic action to amount to victory. Paying attention to multiple factors, however, can help even the smallest organizations, if not create the wave, better ride out the consequences of confluence.
For a television show, cancelation represents its primary existential threat. Unsure of its future at the end of Season 5, the Buffy team shot the last episode as a series finale.
Thus, to end the ritual and seal the portal between dimensions, Buffy, not Dawn, descends through the portal. She lands as a broken heap among timbers on the ground. The end of the episode pans over Buffy’s gravestone, where the epitaph reads, “She saved the world a lot.” Buffy is dead. We see her grave. End of story.
The opening sequence of the episode presaged the final scene, which essentially summarized the entire series to this point. The WB decided the show was too expensive and attracted too few viewers. Season 5 represented what was widely reported as the show’s last season. While the creators shopped the property around, actress Sarah Michelle Gellar suggested she would not participate if the show changed networks.
The very existence of Buffy’s future became an uncertainty. Cancelation on television is the equivalent of running out of cash in a business. Everyone gets laid off, the assets get sold, and the operations grind to a halt. But like some products that return from a long hiatus (like the recently relaunched Nokia 8110), life may require a reordered reality to offer more favorable conditions. If people fail to actively monitor conditions and the state of the world, then they may well miss their opportunity for resurrection. Whedon and his team were paying attention.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer drawing by Daniel W. Rasmus
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