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Netflix's Crazyhead is a direct descendant of Buffy, with one major subversion

Netflix / Steffan Hill

Crazyhead, the new British supernatural dramedy that just premiered on Netflix in the US, is usually pitched as Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Misfits. The comparison makes sense: It’s about two Buffy-ish young women fighting demons together, and it’s helmed by Misfits showrunner Howard Overman.

But Crazyhead has a complex relationship with its American forerunner. It’s the kind of show that couldn’t have existed pre-Buffy, and it’s built on the kind of genre and tone mixing that Buffy pioneered. But it also devotes a good chunk of its six episodes to painstakingly deconstructing one of the most beloved romantic tropes in Buffy’s arsenal: the young woman in love with an immortal demon who may or may not be evil. And it does it twice.

Spoilers for Crazyhead follow.

Two of Buffy’s most celebrated storylines were gothic romances

Over the course of Buffy’s seven seasons, Buffy had two great romances. (Sorry, Riley.) They were both with vampires: Angel, cursed with a soul that gave him a conscience, and Spike, rendered harmless by a chip in his brain before he acquired a soul of his own. Both Spike and Angel were hundreds of years old, and Buffy was a teenager when she met them both.

The show mined enormous drama out of Spike and Angel’s shifting loyalties. One of its strongest runs came from Angel’s turn to darkness in the second season, and Spike’s slow and spotty transition to the side of good was one of the most compelling storylines of Buffy’s later years.

Buffy was fairly certain that Buffy’s relationships with both were at least a little unhealthy, so much so that it devoted a third of the immortal episode “Conversations With Dead People” to figuring out why Buffy was so drawn to immortal demons, concluding that it probably had something to do with her father. But the show also gloried in the gothic romance of it all: the swooning tragedy of Buffy telling Angel she loves him just before she has to kill him; the thrilling shock of the house falling down around Buffy and Spike as they have sex for the first time.

Traditionally, part of what’s appealing about the gothic romance is the power play

In its love stories, Buffy was following the long-established tradition of the gothic romance. Pop culture is filled with love stories between young girls and powerful, immortal, morally ambiguous men. In the vampire realm alone, there’s Sookie Stackhouse’s affairs with vampires Bill and Eric on True Blood and The Southern Vampire Mysteries, Elena Gilbert’s love story with the Salvatore brothers on The Vampire Diaries, and Bella and Edward on Twilight.

There’s a lot that’s compelling about these kinds of relationships, but most stories dwell on the power play they create, and especially on the idea that the young woman — by virtue of her beauty or innocence or strength of character — has rendered the powerful and immortal man powerless.

On Buffy, Angel’s vampire pals snort that he’s been “Buffy-whipped” and can’t kill the way he used to because of his love for her. Spike stalks onscreen brandishing a double-barreled shotgun, sees Buffy crying, and immediately drops it. On The Vampire Diaries, Damon uses his mind control powers on nearly every woman he interacts with except Elena, to show that his love for her is true. “I wanted it to be real,” he tells her.

An enormous amount of the gothic romance trope’s appeal lies in this idea that it grants its heroine disproportionate power. She might not be immortal or wealthy or inhuman, but her lover is. She has a mediated access to his power, and the mediation keeps her pure and virtuous and feminine.

Different stories can complicate their use of that power dynamic. Buffy in particular granted its heroine access to both physical and supernatural strength that neither Spike nor Angel ever had. But Buffy also enjoyed the primordial gothic power play. It thought it was romantic and exciting.

Crazyhead, on the other hand, has it doubts about whether that power play is realistically likely to work out in the woman’s favor. On Crazyhead, there are two stories that, at first glance, appear to follow the gothic romance template. And then one after the other, they break the gothic romance apart.

Crazyhead’s first gothic love story is a lot less romantic than it looks at the outset

In Crazyhead’s first two episodes, brash and brilliant demon fighter Raquel (Susan Wokoma) is cowed only when she runs into a man named Sawyer (Luke Allen-Gale). Sawyer is a demon, but he fights on Raquel’s side to protect her, and he and Raquel keep alluding darkly to significant time they’ve spent together. She’s clearly angry with him about something, while he’s fighting for her forgiveness. He looks young and handsome, and he dresses exclusively in a white tank top and black leather jacket, like Angel did on early Buffy. So everyone naturally assumes he is the Angel to Raquel’s Buffy.

“Why don’t you just admit you shagged him?” asks Raquel’s fellow demon fighter Amy (Cara Theobold). Amy knows what kind of show she’s on, and she knows a gothic romance should be in the wings somewhere.

But Sawyer isn’t Raquel’s love interest. He’s her demon father.

Sawyer possessed her father’s body throughout Raquel’s life, she explains. And then when her father died, Sawyer hopped into a younger man’s body. He looks as though he’s Raquel’s age now, but they still think of each other as father and daughter.

What’s simultaneously funny, disturbing, and oddly touching about Raquel and Sawyer’s relationship is that even after we learn its true nature, it still does most of the plot work that a gothic romance is supposed to. Sawyer redeems himself of his demonic ways by dying to protect Raquel, and his death motivates her to try to defeat the demons who killed him. It’s all exactly what you’d expect to see if Raquel and Sawyer were in a romantic gothic love story, complete with intense close-ups and longing gazes.

This subversion of the gothic romance trope works so well in part because it’s making the subtext text. As Buffy recognized in “Conversations With Dead People,” there has always been something vaguely parental about the young woman/powerful older man gothic romance, what with the age gap and the benevolent power disparity. Crazyhead is just dragging that dynamic out into the open and refusing to let it be subliminal.

Crazyhead’s second gothic romance is a misdirect

In Crazyhead’s second half, Raquel starts dating a mysterious young demon hunter named Harry (Charlie Archer). He spends a few episodes following her, but when Raquel finds out about it, Harry insists — in a move straight out of the gothic romance playbook — that he was only doing it for her own good, to protect her. (Cue the Edward Cullen stare.)

Raquel swoons at the romance of it all. “It’s not creepy panty-sniffing following,” she tells Amy. “It’s more sexy stalking.” She gets that she’s in the kind of show where gothic romances happen, and on that kind of show, following someone without their knowledge or consent isn’t a troubling dismissal of boundaries and a major red flag. It’s romantic.

Then at last the truth comes out: Harry is a demon, and he got involved with Raquel on the orders of her nemesis, the demon Callum. Callum plans to use Harry’s betrayal of Raquel to put her in the exact emotional state he needs to get her to open the gates of hell, a plan Harry feels a little bit bad about.

Again, this is standard gothic romance stuff. The dashing gothic hero who convinces the heroine he’s on her side only to betray her, almost against his own will, is a classic of the genre; it was half the plot of last year’s Crimson Peak.

And on Buffy, it was de rigueur for romantic betrayal to lead to apocalypse. Most iconically, after Angel loses his soul in the second season and betrays Buffy, she has to choose between letting the world get sucked into hell and killing the newly re-ensouled Angel. She chooses to save the world, of course, but it’s a choice of nearly unbearable tragedy. The audience feels the full impact of the destruction of the Buffy/Angel love story, and the guilt that will torture Buffy for the rest of the show.

But on Crazyhead, the tragedy isn’t the destruction of a deeply romantic love story. It’s that Raquel got played by a jerk who didn’t deserve her.

That’s why, as Raquel loses control of her powers and almost destroys the world, the show doesn’t reach its emotional crescendo until Amy convinces Raquel to let go of her sense of outraged betrayal:

You’re gonna end the world because of that prick? Screw him! He’s a lying shit. Don’t end the world for his limp dick. You are a strong, independent woman. You’re like Beyoncé. All the ladies, throw your hands up! Raquel, throw your hands up! Throw them! He didn’t care about you. I do. I love you.

For Crazyhead, the love story between Harry and Raquel isn’t tragic or romantic or really even all that emotionally resonant. It’s the relationship between Raquel and Amy — a relationship between equals, of profound platonic friendship — that is vital and important. That’s where the heart of the story lies.

Crazyhead’s anarchic subversion of tropes is part of its playful genius

Crazyhead, in its genre-bending apocalyptic playfulness, is deeply indebted to Buffy and to the tradition it pioneered. But it doesn’t just recreate its predecessor. Instead, it does what all good successors should do: It furthers the genre. It plays with its predecessor’s tropes, takes them apart, and dumps out everything it finds.

And what Crazyhead finds in Buffy’s romantic tropes is a treasure trove of thoughts about gendered power dynamics, about romance and friendships. The way it subverts those tropes and expectations, and messes with the power dynamics they’ve created, is part of what makes Crazyhead so exciting.