What do people want out of television? Not just diversion, not just to be entertained. They want to see stories and characters that will live with them from week to week and year to year, growing as they do, changing with time. The worst of television doesn’t merit description. But the best exploits a medium like no other, with the immediacy of film and the arc of a novel. Transformations that simply aren’t possible in a two-hour spell can occur on TV–like Detective Sipowicz on NYPD Blue going from alcoholic racist thug to caring widower father. Our relationship with these characters is all the more personal because we watch their stories while we’re doing what we normally do–eating dinner, playing with the kids, cuddling in pajamas on the living room sofa. And like literature, good television is a sign of the times in which it is broadcast.

Tuesday marked the end of a really good time. The series finale of Buffy the Vampire SlayerBtVS to devotees–ended seven seasons of highly original cult TV that redefined the vampire genre, advanced the mores of prime-time with two popular lesbian characters and introduced audiences to very smart, fun, ass-kicking feminism. Buffy‘s moment was after Reviving Ophelia and before the first female president. She was charged with facing the very literal demons of youth and bearing the mantle of the slayer–one girl alone in every generation who is born to fight the forces of darkness, forces that happened to be bubbling like sewage out of the hellmouth underneath Sunnydale High School.

Buffy‘s feminist philosophy was not about female emancipation per se, but about protecting human beings from menacing evil, a task the (female) slayer was uniquely equipped for. Given the choice, Buffy would much rather have been a cheerleader or a prom queen, but with all those demons coming after her, and all those special gifts kicking in when she was attacked, she had little choice but to do the job. People might think she’s crazy, she might get kicked out of school and her nightly patrolling might not pay the bills, but hey, life’s tough. With a band of loyal friends who redefined kinship and a benevolent father figure who knew when to stay out of her way, Buffy was a hero on her own terms. She bridled at the loner rebel thing and asked for help when she needed it.

Lest you think I’m overanalyzing a show about vampires, consider that the audience for BtVS goes way beyond sci-fi geeks and Sarah Michelle Geller fans. As noted in The Independent last fall, the show had gained a hard-core fan base among academics who saw in its smart script everything from Faust to D.H. Lawrence to Michel Foucault to Fred Jameson. An academic conference in England last year brought together cultural scholars from various disciplines and nations, and collections of essays are beginning to appear on the lists of academic presses. The show may be over, but Buffy Studies is just beginning.

The local fan base included a crowd that occasionally gathered to watch the show at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center. But these professors and grad students mainly watched for pleasure, taking advantage of the cult TV fellowship and the conference room’s big screen. About 25 people were there last Tuesday to see the finale, but with all the chattering, it felt like 50 people. Wild speculation filled the commercial breaks. The show is full of twists–anything can happen and frequently does; this is a show that’s killed and resurrected its title character twice. So the final outcome and the future plans of show creator Joss Whedon were topics of concern.

At one point in the episode, Buffy is stabbed by a goblin sword. Break to commercial. “She can’t die!” shouted Duke English professor Priscilla Wald. “The amulet will have healing powers.” Another person is delighted, “Buffy dies, the hellmouth opens, Armageddon happens–that’s a season finale.” Others were thinking about the future. “Maybe Spike will have his own show?”

Endings are the hardest part of any story, and it’s especially difficult to come up with a satisfying ending for a show this smart. But BtVS storytellers have never been afraid to upset their fans. When the writers killed off Tara, bringing a brutal end to TV’s sweetest lesbian couple ever, the show’s loyal gay fan base was outraged. But Whedon pointed out that on Buffy, no one is ever happy for long. It would have been wrong to treat that relationship any differently from the others. The story–of love, loss, loneliness and moving on, despite circumstances we don’t choose–is our truest form of liberation.

Last week’s finale delivered on another crucial aspect of Buffy‘s feminist philosophy. The fight against evil may be eternal, and the slayer’s role inevitable, but the rules? Those are negotiable. In other words: We didn’t make this world, but we can make the terms we live by.

Buffy realized that she couldn’t defeat the incorporeal First Evil and its army of goblin vampires all by her lonely slayer self. So as she and her comrades descended into the hellmouth, Willow channeled the slayer power so that every potential slayer in the world would suddenly have it. This strategy leaves the world with thousands of young girls whose powers are just coming alive. We get quick looks at them–a Japanese teenager getting up confusedly from the dinner table, a girl blocking an abuser’s punch, and best of all, the face of a girl up to bat in a little league game is suddenly changed with a flash of bullish confidence. And the troop of potentials under Buffy’s command suddenly come alive to defeat the horde, with the aid of rehabilitated vamp Spike, who got to be a hero at last.

“Slayers are awakening everywhere,” Willow says in the last scene as the Scooby gang faces the dusty pit of what used to be their hometown. “I can feel them.” Now Buffy’s no longer the Chosen One, just a young woman free to become something else of her own making. She–and the show–have done their job.

A few people in the audience admitted to shedding a tear. “I’m in mourning!” one woman exclaimed, only half-joking. EndBlock