Breakups are, for a better word, shitty. It’s an almost universally shared experience that we all go through at some point or another, a personal rug pull that throws things off completely. For some, your life revolves around your significant other. Your friends, interests, and even sense of self may be impacted by the person who sleeps in your bed every night. “Selfless”, the fifth episode from the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is less about breakups, and more about the struggle to determine a sense of self once you find yourself alone.
Anya herself is a character that’s fantastical on paper but all too familiar and endearing onscreen thanks to Emma Caulfield’s grounding performance. She’s a former human turned centuries-old vengeance demon; someone who seeks out spurned, hurt women and helps them gain wrathful revenge against the men who wronged them. Turned back into a human in Sunnydale, she loses her community of fellow demons and instead finds herself depressingly, ordinarily human. She quickly enters a relationship with Xander and becomes a friend of the core cast, using her knowledge of demons and magic to aid a group she reluctantly comes to care for. Xander eventually leaves Anya at the altar during their wedding, leaving her heartbroken, lost, and trapped in the painfully human dilemma of not being sure where you stand with your ex’s friend group. Anya’s approached by D’Hoffryn, her old demonic boss, and returns to being a vengeance demon. It’s not as easy as she once remembered.
“Selfless” starts with Anya in a daze, smeared with blood as she sits among a pile of dead frat boys with their hearts ripped out. It’s a classic trope in Buffy, taking an image of what seems to be a woman in peril (like a seemingly defenceless blonde, alone in a graveyard at night), but turning it on its head. Anya herself is responsible for the deaths of these men, and she’s not quite sure how she feels about it. Nonetheless, her actions turn her friend Buffy into an enemy. Buffy, who simply describes herself this episode as “the law”, can’t allow a demon running free and killing people, friend or not.
There’s a minor reveal in Anya’s flashbacks, back when she was formally known as Aud in 880 Sweden. We assumed Anya’s bluntness and lack of social skills to be something that occurred from being a wrathful demon for centuries, but pre-demon Aud was just as matter-of-fact and awkward as she is in the present.
“It’s not my fault, they don’t take kindly to you!” Oleg, Aud’s husband explains condescendingly to her about their fellow villagers. “You speak your mind and are annoying.” Can we really blame Anya for her desire for meaning and partnership? When you really realize how difficult it is to connect with others, you might just accept connection wherever you can get it.
The most impactful moment in the episode comes during a sudden musical number. Buffy and Anya get into a brutal fight, ending with Anya getting a sword speared through her chest. We’re taken to a flashback from the “Once More, With Feeling” incident, where a demon caused everyone to speak their feelings in song. Anya, happily partnered with Xander at the time, observes him as he sleeps before launching into song about her upcoming status as “Mrs. Xander Harris”. She sings:
I’m just lately “Anya”, not very much to the world I know.
All these years with nothing to show:
I’ve boned a troll; I’ve wreaked some wrath,
But on the whole I’ve had no path,
I like to bowl; I’m good with math,
But who am I?
Now I reply:
I’m the missus, I will be his missus.
It’s a silly little song, as we watch Anya skip around the passed out Xander before suddenly quick-changing into her wedding dress. It also highlights Anya’s most enduring problem throughout her life. Skipping from life to life, persona to persona can work. It can be dynamic, exciting, and even comfortable. But you’re still stuck with yourself at the end of the day. And Anya’s struggle, and perhaps even refusal, to define her “self” has gotten her into the chaos of where she stands now with Buffy. She sings the final line “I will be his missus,” over and over in that gorgeous wedding dress, and then…
A sudden cut back to reality, where a seemingly dead Anya has just been impaled by her former friend. No longer close to being a missus, just another demon slain by the title character. A tear falls down her cheek. It’s a stark, bleak little contrast and shows where Anya’s desperation for a title has gotten her.
So what’s the message here? A lack of self, or being “self-less” like the episode’s title suggests, will eventually lead to your destruction? Not necessarily. Anya, being an immortal demon, isn’t actually killed by Buffy’s sword, and they fight a bit longer before D’Hoffryn appears. Anya relents and admits she feels horrible guilt over what she’s done. She asks her old boss to undo the bloody carnage she helped commit, knowing that it could cost her life in return.
D’Hoffryn doesn’t let Anya off so easily. Buffy the Vampire Slayer in general knows that death isn’t much of a punishment. As Buffy said herself, “the hardest thing in this world is living in it,” which very much ends up being Anya’s burden. D’Hoffryn instead summons Halfrek, Anya’s only real friend and confidant who has endured throughout her long life. Halfrek is executed, Anya’s stripped of her powers, and ditched by her demon workforce, leaving her with nothing. She’s left without a job title, friends, or any direction at all.
We accept the labels that life throws at us. For Anya, it’s Aud, Vengeance, or Mrs. Xander Harris. It may seem lazy and insecure to be so flighty, but isn’t it easier sometimes for life to just choose our path? Anya herself says she just clung to whatever came her way, as forging her own path was simply too daunting.
“What if I’m really nobody?” she shakily asks Xander. Finally after thousands of years, Anya has nobody to anchor herself to to give her life definition. Xander offers her a chance to get back with him, forget the chaos that’s occurred, and proposes a new start. Anya finally realizes that its not that simple, and a relationship can’t simply start again with so much hurt and turbulence in its wake. Anya sets off on the opposite path from her ex, walking somewhere else. Anya is finally, for better or for worse, alone. Maybe we should all try being a little more alone too.