I just returned from Publix. My grocery trips used to be pleasantly mundane stops. At least when alone, my mind would happily wander as I meandered, occasionally chit-chatting with the helpful employees. But now the world has changed. I am so grateful for Publix and all grocery store workers who keep food in our community and on our plates and are smiling, still greeting, and still helping. This shift I’m feeling is not on them. It’s the entry point into our new “Contagion World,” a universe filled with blue tape arrows, yellow social-distancing boxes, and hidden faces.
As a super TV fan, our new reality reminds me of the “alternate universe” storylines of many fictional shows. Piggybacking off of It’s a Wonderful Life, these episodes demonstrate a butterfly effect, in which one detail of a character’s world dramatically alters reality. The result is always the same, as the hero finds a way to return life to “normal,” as no one else recalls that the parallel reality existed.
In “The Wish” (3.9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Cordelia Chase wishes that Buffy (the vampire slayer) had never come to Sunnydale. The town is instantly transformed into a dark version of itself. Most of the students have disappeared from high school, as they were either eaten or turned into vampires after the Hellmouth was opened. The remaining ones face a bleak existence, with daily memorials and restrictions on clothing and venturing out at night.
After showing us all of the ways that hero Buffy changed Sunnydale for the better, the wish-granting amulet is destroyed, undoing the spell.
While we cannot smash the amulet or block the Hellmouth, this episode’s messages do hold new meaning in our pandemic state, offering a sci-fi view on peaking versus a flattened curve. In the regular Buffy reality, the Scooby gang prevents the evils of Sunnydale from rising by regularly combating bouts of malevolent entities before they become unstoppable. Buffy and her friends can thwart the attempts of a steady trickle. However, in the alternate Buffy-free universe, the Hellmouth opens, pouring vampires into Sunnydale on one tragic night. Much like an epidemic peak without adequate resources, the town becomes too far gone that even Buffy cannot reverse its course (when she finally arrives).
If you think this comparison is a stretch, consider it a lesson in available resources/personnel in handling sick people. As we’ve already seen, peaking areas have produced more cases than there is equipment or (amazing) health professionals). On the upside, social distancing measures are flattening the curve, curbing spikes in cases so that the ill can receive treatment.
I like the Buffy parallel though. In thinking of “The Wish” during my Publix bewilderment, I take comfort in its resolution. I can trust that the actions that make me feel distressed and well, distant, are also those that will help jump us back to our reality.