Jonathan Levinson, a background character at Sunnydale High (played by the brilliant actor and screenwriter Danny Strong), made his debut on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a joke. Popular dimwit Harmony refers to him as “just the stallion” Cordelia needs to “mount” after breaking up with nerdy Xander Harris. Jonathan’s small stature and meek demeanor relegate him to the ranks of the bullied, the insignificant, the type of student who just might get fed up and head into a bell tower with a rifle, intending to kill as many of his tormentors as possible. In Season 3’s episode “Earshot,” Buffy finds him in a bell tower with a gun and talks him down. Buffy stops him by explaining to him that everyone he sees and wants to shoot is going through their own garbage, and that he’s likely not even on their emotional radar. He then explains that he intended to kill only himself. This lesson in empathy sends him careening down a very different path.
Written by Jane Espenson, “Superstar” is the 17th episode of Season 4. The Big Bad of the season is Adam, a seemingly indestructible, government-created demon and technology chimera. Buffy and Faith have just swapped bodies, leading Buffy and Riley to a rough patch in their relationship. Xander and Anya are navigating the waters of a human and former demon relationship, and Willow and Tara’s blossoming relationship is new and different. There’s drama everywhere. Then the credits roll, and everything has changed.
Action shots of Jonathan seamlessly blend into the regular action shots of our heroes, the Scooby Gang. Instead of a battle shot of Buffy at the end of the credits, Jonathan’s silhouette in a billowing trench coat slow motions its way toward the viewer.
Throughout the entire series, Buffy struggles with integrating the burden of the Slayer’s power into her body, mind, and life. “She alone has the power…” Of course, she surrounds herself with friends and delegates some of her responsibilities to their willing-yet-not-quite-capable hands. When she and Faith first meet, they agree that being “hot chicks with super powers” is pretty great. It “takes the edge off.” However, even subtle differences in their moral fiber move them miles and miles apart in purpose.
Jonathan, despite his new empathy skills and loads of therapy following his suicide attempt, understands none of this. How could he? He’s always been on the outside of the circle, looking in. He sees Buffy and her friends as some sort of golden circle, and her power and likability as the result of being imbued with power. So he casts a spell, creating a demon in the process, allowing him the power and respect he’s been lacking his entire life. Power and respect he did not earn. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, Jonathan’s life, magically enhanced by power and respect, doesn’t exactly go as planned. There are delightfully funny moments in this episode, like when Buffy and Jonathan are chatting about her relationship with Riley. A fan approaches Jonathan for an autograph. “Sign it to Karen. With a K.” Buffy’s power is dwarfed by Jonathan’s. He’s respected by the military. Anya is obsessed with him. Giles owns his swimsuit calendar. Even in a loving relationship with each other, Willow and Tara fawn over magazine photos of him, making a collage on their wall like schoolgirls with crushes. Buffy goes to him for advice. He’s a beautiful singer, voiced by Brad Kane, who was the singing voice of Aladdin in the Disney animated film.
When the chips are down, everyone in town turns to Jonathan for help. He shows up, mugs for the camera, and quips advice, usually delivering it in clever slogans. He charms the people who are compelled by magic to be charmed anyway. To be fair, he is very charming and very clever.
The problem with the town’s dependence on him comes to a head when the demon, created by Jonathan’s spell through thaumogenesis (which is explored further in Season 6’s “Bargaining, Part 1”), starts attacking people. Buffy figures out something is wrong with Jonathan, and when Jonathan can’t fight the demon aspect of himself, Buffy steps up and does the deed. This renders the town free of the spell. Their memories return to normal, and Jonathan is once again just a guy.
This time, however, he isn’t just ignored, he’s detested by the town. He’s played with their memories. He’s wielded enormous power and failed the people he’s forced to respect him. He had the power to do great things, but his actions were far from the noble path Buffy’s learned to take.
BUFFY: You get why everyone is angry, though, right? It’s not just the monster. People didn’t like being the little actors in your sock puppet theater.
JONATHAN: You weren’t! You weren’t socks. We were friends.
BUFFY: Jonathan, you can’t keep trying to make everything work out with some big gesture all at once. Things are complicated. They take time and work.
Time and work. Vital ingredients for the care and maintenance of power, and two things Jonathan neglected in his thirst for glory.
One hopes that Jonathan learns his lesson, but in Season 6, we’ll see Jonathan again playing with powers accessible to magic practitioners. In “Superstar,” though, his story shows the viewer just how much time and just how much work Buffy has poured into her calling.
Showing the Slayer through the lens of a more powerful character like Jonathan’s augmented self, we see in stark relief how heroic a figure she really is. She’s smarter. She’s stronger. She’s better. Even without singing talent, even without fame, Buffy’s power transcends fisticuffs and monster killing into kindness and compassion for others.
She is the superstar.