Jonathan Levinson, played by Danny Strong—yes, that’s his real name—appears in 28 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 144 episodes as well as in the never-released (though widely bootlegged) pilot. For a minor character, he’s strangely and uniquely ubiquitous. What makes Jonathan’s presence so essential to Buffy’s world?
Despite the frequency of his appearances, in scenes Jonathan hardly looms large (literally: Strong stands at 5’ 2”). His brief appearance in the unaired pilot is representative. In a transitional scene, Buffy waits in line outside The Bronze, Sunnydale’s lone late-night hangout. Jonathan, standing in front of Buffy, eyes her and asks, “Are you the new girl?” “Yeah,” she responds. He nods. Each glances awkwardly away from the other until Xander—who will soon emerge as a member of the show’s central trio, along with Buffy and their friend Willow—appears on the scene. As Buffy and Xander talk, Jonathan hovers at the periphery. His stature embodies his minor-ness: Nicholas Brendon (Xander) and even Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) tower over him at 5’ 11” and 5’4”, respectively. Occasionally, Jonathan’s body can be seen behind Buffy at the outskirts of the shot, dwarfed by “the new girl” who will come to tower over him in a more profound way as well.
Jonathan’s punch line status is more than just a punch line. In The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, scholar Alex Woloch writes:
Minor characters exist as a category, then, only because of their strange centrality to so many texts, perhaps to narrative signification itself. But this is not to say that once we acknowledge the significance of the minor character, he suddenly becomes major, breaking out of his subordinate position in the narrative discourse. This would be to elide the very source through which the minor character signifies—and is made significant to the reader who strangely remembers.
Jonathan signifies through his minor-ness. He appears at the edges of shots, in the midst of bustling high school hallways—a familiar face in the crowd. When he’s singled out, he serves one vital yet undignified function: as a punching bag of the show’s innumerable supernatural villains.
Show creator Joss Whedon describes Buffy’s premise as “horror movies as metaphor for high school.” Though the show eventually develops beyond this premise as its mythology expands and deepens, its basic structure is simple. Sunnydale High is a Californian high school built atop a portal to Hell. As such, it’s a big draw for vampires, demons, witches—you name it—and, as her generation’s chosen Slayer, it’s Buffy’s destiny to defeat them. Especially in its early seasons, Buffy delights in its own archness. Sunnydale is a place where all of the ordinary indignities of teenager-hood are terrifyingly transformed: your domineering principal is in cahoots with a murderous, immortal mayor; when you sleep with your boyfriend, he literally loses his soul.
So Jonathan, the quintessential bullied nerd, must be tormented by monsters as well as his peers. In the season two episode “Inca Mummy Girl,” he’s targeted by the titular undead Incan princess, who, exploiting Jonathan’s romantic inexperience, attempts to seduce him into a kiss in order to feed on his life force. In later episodes, he’s taken hostage by an ancient assassin, possessed by a prehistoric parasite, and menaced by zombies. As Buffy writer/directors David Greenwalt and Marti Noxon relate separately in DVD commentaries on two separate episodes, they called on Strong—and thus on Jonathan—so often because of his good “victim face.” Sunnydale is a city of powerless innocents continually tormented by mysterious powers. Jonathan’s is the face of these countless innocents.
Such a face—and such a victim—is central to the world of Buffy because it’s central to the meaning of Buffy herself. In the show’s early seasons, each episode opens with a voiceover by Anthony Stewart Head (who portrays Rupert Giles, Buffy’s mentor and father figure): “In every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” Unnamed in this framework are the masses on whose behalf the Slayer “stand[s] against […] the forces of darkness.” Without a world of would-be victims, slaying is meaningless. Buffy needs Jonathan.
In the season three episode “The Prom,” Jonathan acknowledges this dynamic. While presenting Buffy with an award, Jonathan reads this message on behalf of the Sunnydale High student body:
We’re not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you. We don’t talk about it much, but it’s no secret that Sunnydale High isn’t really like other high schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here. [...] But whenever there was a problem, or something creepy happened, you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you or helped by you at one time or another. We’re proud to say that the class of ‘99 has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history. And we know at least part of that is because of you. So the senior class offers its thanks and gives you, um, this. It’s from all of us, and it has written here: “Buffy Summers. Class Protector.”
Jonathan names the essential link between the rescued and Buffy, the rescuer. The speech is funny because it acknowledges—and thus closes—a fundamental disconnect between the minor characters of Sunnydale High and the world of Buffy as we viewers know it. The students and faculty rarely acknowledge the litany of horrors to which they are constantly subjected. They explain away obviously fantastical phenomena: a mind-controlling parasite that beckons its victims into the depths of the school’s basement is a gas leak; vampires are pale, oddball intruders; the opening a portal between Earth and Hell is a typical Californian earthquake.
As viewers, of course, we’re privy to the truth. Our viewership is predicated on that privy-ness: we’re here for the monsters and for the core cast—Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, and the others who join the crew they come to call “the Scooby gang”—who deal with those monsters. Buffy is a place where teenagers who feel outcast, as I did, can go to feel closer to the core of a narrative. “Most of the people here have been saved by you,” Jonathan says of himself and his peers. But this is true of the show’s viewers as well.
Buffy reaches out to a certain kind of teenager who longs to belong but struggles to do so. Such a teen will eagerly enter a reality that literalizes the notion that high school is Hell—a radical validation of their lived experience—and offers them safety and solace. For all of its pretensions to outsider-dom—its fascination with its own geeky, unfurling mythology; its wittily allusive writing; its focus on characters who fail to achieve high social status by ordinary high school means—Buffy is essentially a WB teen drama that reifies the hierarchies typical of the genre. What sets the show apart is the way that it allows a certain kind of angst-ridden teen access to those otherwise inaccessible hierarchies.
I was such a teen. I came to the show in middle school, years after it finished airing. I ordered the DVDs one at a time from my parents’ Netflix account—years before Netflix shifted to streaming—and, often slacking off homework and other more pressing adolescent obligations, devoured episodes, sometimes a whole disc's worth in an evening, so I could mail the disc back in exchange for the next one. I watched all seven seasons over the course of a year.
Though an enormously lucky kid, I was often unhappy: I was chubby, reticent, and weird. I fluctuated between incredible self-regard and deep self-loathing. I was awkward, uncomfortable, no fun at parties. I liked reading and writing. I liked music and the Internet. I liked Buffy: in my rotating cast of t-shirts, most bearing the names of bands I’d seen or aspired to, was one with the name of the show in red, vampiric script, and on my iPod was a playlist with songs featured on the show. Buffy refracted my experience; it treated my banal sufferings with deadly seriousness, and then it slayed them. At the time, I saw myself in the characters who saved the day. But when I watch the show now, I see something else. I see Jonathan, like me, sulking on the sidelines, there to be protected again and again and again.
We don’t expect a character as minor and one-dimensional as Jonathan to develop. And yet.
The cast of Buffy fluctuates often. Though the core trio of Buffy, Willow, and Xander remains constant, others appear as one-off allies or villains (the latter facilitated by the “monster of the week” structure that defines the first season and haunts the six that follow, even as the show’s focus shifts to season-long arcs focused on “Big Bads”) only to develop into major players and then—sometimes suddenly—to disappear. The show signals the current narrative hierarchy through the opening credits, which features the main cast for a given episode. Occasionally, the show runners use this partially extra-narrative space to manipulate the viewer. For instance, Willow’s girlfriend Tara—a fan favorite throughout seasons four, five, and six who appears in 47 episodes—makes her opening credits debut in the season six episode in which she dies suddenly and tragically.
The season four episode “Superstar,” in which Jonathan breaks free of his “victim face,” manipulates the viewer’s understanding of the opening credits and their relation to the show’s world to comic effect. Interspersed with the season’s standard credits shots are brief scenes of Jonathan behaving heroically: pointing a crossbow, diffusing a bomb, performing a backflip, raising his fists. The sequence, which ordinarily ends with a Buffy battle shot, concludes with three consecutive shots of Jonathan moodily marching toward the camera like an enigmatic force of justice. Later in the episode, we learn that Jonathan has cast a spell to transform himself into the show’s hero. Throughout the episode, we’re treated to signals that Jonathan has completely—hyperbolically—overtaken the narrative: beyond becoming the protector of Sunnydale, he’s now a film star, a pop icon, and a sex symbol. His likeness graces billboards, book covers, even cereal boxes. The result for the viewer is pleasure not only at the cognitive dissonance of Jonathan occupying these roles, but also at the implication that narrative hierarchies are reconfigurable, that Jonathan might move to the center—and so too might we.
Buffy is the central figure of this world; to become central, Jonathan must displace her. The replacement of Buffy with Jonathan in the final moments of the opening credits and the episode’s title—“Superstar”—suggest a collapse between the hierarchies of importance within the show’s world and in the extra-narrative space of casts of actors playing parts. Notably, Danny Strong’s name doesn’t appear in the credits, as it would if he were truly a member of the core cast. On one level, this signals to viewers that the shift is superficial and temporary. But it suggests, too, that the world of carefully negotiated TV contracts is a hallowed space fully beyond the reach of any creative, purely narrative impulse.
Jonathan immediately and magically alters his narrative station because, within the logic of the show, it seems to be the only way he can break free from his minor-ness. In the world of Buffy, though the protected are necessary, only the protectors truly matter. Jonathan, not satisfied with his role, longs to be otherwise. He knows this is only achievable by fundamentally altering the logic of his world. Watching the show as a teen, I felt a version of this truth: that the protection gained by watching the show wasn’t a solution, but merely an anesthetic. Jonathan’s spell realized my latent longing not just to be saved by the hero, but to be her.
In the world of Buffy, centered as it is on its namesake, to gain power necessarily means to draw power away from Buffy. For the duration of Jonathan’s spell, Buffy is a depleted shadow of herself. Beyond the usurpation of her rightful place in the title sequence, for the duration of the spell, Buffy is an uncharacteristically weak fighter and far from her preternaturally quippy self. In the cold open, she retreats from a nest of vampires she could easily have bested to seek Jonathan’s help; Jonathan, for once, is allowed to be as smooth, clever, and capable as I, watching, wished I could be. Later, after a brief verbal confrontation with the vampire Spike, Buffy falters and demurs when she would otherwise have spat back a quick-witted retort. A script note here reads: “Buffy backs off, not quite the confrontational Slayer we know.” When Buffy begins to suspect that something might be amiss, it’s the dissonance between her behavior and her title that gives her pause: Jonathan “fights better than I do,” she says, “and I’m the Slayer. The Slayer—that’s supposed to mean something, right?”
Ultimately, Jonathan’s plot collapses. But his longing to transcend his station remains. In the sixth season, Jonathan returns with a new plan to rewrite his destiny. Again, his attempt centers on Buffy. This time, instead of reworking the world so that he can overtake her role, he attempts to rise to its level. If he can’t become the Slayer, then he’ll join the other side: the side of “the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness.” In a fitting and subtly humiliating undermining of this project, Jonathan makes this attempt as part of a group (known as the Trio) in which he’s the meekest, most hesitant, and least powerful participant. Even in his attempt to usurp Buffy’s throne, he’s relatively impotent. A running joke of the sixth season, in which Jonathan and his compatriots Warren and Andrew attempt to take over Sunnydale, is that even among these three pitiful maladroit boys, Jonathan is the outcast.
Over the course of the season, the Trio’s plans develop from comically inept hijinks—summoning a demon to rob a bank, magically pranking Buffy, raiding a museum for an enchanted diamond—into truly evil acts that obliterate the rules that ordinarily govern the show’s sense of play in even its darkest moments: the realization of violent misogyny in the attempted rape and murder of Warren’s ex-girlfriend Katrina and a failed shooting attack on Buffy that instead strikes and kills Willow’s girlfriend, Tara.
Buffy defies certain patriarchal narrative tropes, most notably by centering on a woman warrior whose relationship to the vampires and other monsters she encounters is an inversion of the classic horror trope of the powerless female victim. Jonathan—as the epitome of a minor character, as a paradigmatic victim, and as an impotent man—is the inverse of the archetypal male hero whom Buffy displaces. Jonathan’s shift from complacence with his minor-ness in the first three seasons to his desperate effort to alter the narrative world in “Superstar” is an impulse borne of the man’s displacement from the center of power and relegation to the margins in a narrative world constituted as a critique of a world organized around patriarchy. This element of Jonathan’s efforts was lost on me as a teenage viewer. Watching now, as a man still deeply conflicted about the meaning of masculinity and my place in it, I can’t help but wonder whether the pleasure I took in Jonathan’s sudden rise to narrative prominence was tied to my sense of myself as a boy in the process of becoming a man for whom dominant patterns of masculinity held no appeal.
Key to Jonathan’s shift away from complacence with his narrative marginalization is the season three episode “Earshot”—Jonathan’s last appearance before his speech in “The Prom”—in which Buffy gains the ability to hear others’ thoughts. She hears someone in the cafeteria thinking, This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all, and her investigation leads her to believe that Jonathan is planning to shoot up the school in retaliation for his mistreatment by his peers and his deeply miserable high school experience. Throughout the episode, Jonathan thinks and speaks about his misery in relation to Buffy. She doesn’t even know I’m here, Buffy hears him think after she ignores him in the lunch line. Later, when she confronts him as he stands in a courtyard tower holding a rifle, Buffy tries to calm him down, and he lashes out. “Stop saying my name like we’re friends,” he tells her. “We’re not friends. You all think I’m an idiot. A short idiot.”
As it turns out, Jonathan’s plan isn’t to turn his gun on others, but on himself; we learn in a later episode that, after Buffy talks him down, he undergoes counseling, which is where he learns about the spell he’ll cast in “Superstar.” Setting aside the important complexities of mental illness that are likely at play—a move the show facilitates by having Jonathan frame his suicidal wishes without reference to these terms and by relegating the mention of the counseling he attends to an expository anecdote—Jonathan’s expression of his resentments in relation to Buffy and his revealing remark that she must think he’s not only an idiot, but a short idiot, reveal his alienation as tied to insecurity with his masculinity. Though I wouldn’t have named it as such at the time, this was an insecurity that plagued me as a teenage Buffy fan: that the world wouldn’t welcome a man as bookish, emotional, and utterly un-athletic as I was. It’s from his anxiety about masculinity that Jonathan’s attempts to reconfigure the narrative hierarchies of his world—first in “Superstar” and again as a member of the Trio—originate. It’s no surprise, then, that when Jonathan achieves what he thinks he might want—a sense of power, a non-minor place in the world—it takes the form of complicity in misogynistic violence, a brutal reassertion of male dominance, narrative and otherwise.
Once Jonathan begins to understand the horrors he has wrought, he attempts to make the situation right—first by turning on Warren and Andrew, and then, once Warren is beyond help and on his own, by convincing Andrew that they should accept the legal consequences of their actions. Jonathan ultimately flakes on those consequences—revealing the so-called “manliness” he’s asserted to be, at bottom, a kind of cowardice—but he still tries to make things right by returning to Sunnydale in the seventh and final season to warn Buffy about a dark secret tied to the show’s final villain.
In his final appearance as himself—the final villain takes on the likeness of various deceased characters, including Jonathan’s—in the season seven episode “Conversations with Dead People,” he’s made peace with his station. As he and Andrew return to Sunnydale High to dig up an ancient seal, Jonathan reflects on how he misses his high school experience and all those people who ignored him and once drove him to the brink of suicide:
Time goes by—everything drops away. All the cruelty, all the pain, all the humiliation. It all washes away. I miss my friends. I miss my enemies. I miss the people I talked to every day. And I miss the people who never knew I existed. I miss ‘em all. I want to talk to them. You know? I wanna find out how they’re doing. I want to know what’s going on in their lives. [...] I still care about them. That’s why I’m here.
Jonathan accepts his place at the edge of the frame. Every attempt to expand his horizons has failed, so he chooses to embrace his limitations. This is how I related to Buffy, comfortable in my love of it, even if that comfort meant embracing what it was to me: a protector. There’s a dark, cynical current to Jonathan’s words here—his declaration that he misses even those who caused him great pain—but in the context of the episode, they seem heroic: after all he has endured, after all of his mistakes in search of meaning, he turns to acceptance and unconditional love. And in spite of everything, he’d like to do something good by returning to Sunnydale, not as the savior he wishes he could be, but as the minor one he knows he can be.
Jonathan’s speech is tragic, too. Minutes later, he’s murdered, and his blood begins to activate the ancient seal to unleash a new darkness. In a later episode, we learn that his blood couldn’t complete the task: he’s too small and anemic—a final, cruel joke at the expense of his manliness. No good comes of Jonathan’s return to Sunnydale, and no evil comes of the spilling of his blood. He leaves the world of Buffy as he always existed in it: invisible, inconsequential. It’s almost as if he were never there. Jonathan and I needed Buffy, but she never needed us. But, like Jonathan, I still care. That’s why I’m here.
Nathan Goldman is a writer living in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review Online, The Millions, Prairie Schooner, and other publications. He is a blog editor for Full Stop. One of his college roommates was featured as an extra in Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man (2009).