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Watching Buffy: s01e05 “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

Dressed

A.k.a. “The One I Forgot About”

I missed this episode on first broadcast, so it was a surprise to me when I saw season one again. It was also a surprise when it came up in this rewatch, because I’d completely forgotten about it. And then it was a surprise again today when I realised I was about to write up this episode and not “The Pack”, because I’d forgotten it again.

But it feels harsh to label this as forgettable, because it is perfectly solid season one Buffy. Archetypal, even. There isn’t much to it, but it finds a nice balance of humour and threat, wooden stakes and emotional stakes. Which is a reminder – it was pointed out to me that I haven’t done a great job putting some context around these blog posts. So how about I do that. I’ll put it in a blockquote:

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think it was an extraordinary piece of television, and is one of the greatest works ever to be produced for the small screen. Not top ten greatest, sure, but I’d put it in the conversation for top twenty. I love it for being funny and smart and just self-aware enough and achingly well-written and, sometimes, emotionally devastating. I love it for changing the conversation about female characters in popular fiction (although sadly that hasn’t led to much actual change, yet). I love it for being a genre piece that unashamedly embraced its genre while making a case that genre isn’t actually a limitation at all.

Writing these posts, I don’t talk about that much. The internet doesn’t need another set of episode reviews that recite the funny lines and celebrate the great plot twists (or mock the stupid ones). I don’t exactly know what I am going to be talking about – it’s a voyage of discovery for us all! – but I think I’m looking for new angles on these episodes, finding stuff that feels fresh to me. And considering I’ve been reading online chat about Buffy since Usenet days… Well. We’ll see how I go.

Aside ends. Back to Never Kill.

This episode completes a gentle shift in the show’s concept: this is where Buffy becomes a geek.

It’s basically a subtle but definite retcon. At launch, a few episodes back, Buffy’s backstory was swiftly but clearly sketched: at her old school, she was popular, and part of the in-crowd, like Cordelia with the bitchiness dialed down a bit. Then she became the Slayer and that ruined her popularity because she had to keep doing antisocial stuff. On arrival at Sunnydale, newly sensitised to the judgment of the popular kids, she veers away from an invite into the social elite and finds common cause with the outcasts. But there was always going to be a tension here. A popular girl choosing to join the outcasts – how genuine could this choice be? Could it hold up under pressure? Isn’t there something a little condescending about it?

In this ep, Buffy is interested in a fellow student called Owen, who states outright that she doesn’t seem “bookwormy”. Giles also comments on her lack of interest in books. This is in line with what has been established about Buffy – a cheerleader and fashionista who belongs in the shallow popular crowd. Also in this general line: she asks Giles if she looks fat in her outfit, and when she approaches Owen in the cafeteria, she makes a bitchy comment about Cordelia’s body.

But just one commercial break later, Buffy tells Giles she’s never been on a date before. This is… not entirely compatible with the prior Buffy we’ve heard about. (This is just one line of dialogue, so maybe she means “my first date at this school” or something, but calling it a “maiden voyage” is a pretty telling metaphor.) Weirder still for a fashionista, she seeks clothing advice from her social outcast friends, and when she and Owen encounter Cordelia at the Bronze, Buffy dissuades Cordy with a very different register – she makes a clear statement with no meanness and no subtext at all. It’s a completely different way of acting to the undermining mean-girliness we’d seen ten minutes earlier. With hindsight, I’d pinpoint this interaction with Cordy as the moment when Buffy is redefined. As of this moment she is revealed as a girl who was popular, but who wasn’t a “popular girl”, whose instincts are not those of a Cordelia, but are in fact much more aligned with Willow and Xander.

This is an interesting choice, because the show does sacrifice something real here. The show had a ready-made source of dramatic conflict in the different social histories of Buffy and Willow/Xander, but as of this scene it throws that potential away. Buffy belongs with Willow and Xander, and she’s happy there. (The show does end up mining these issues with some vigour next season, though – but using a different character.)

It’s clear that this sacrifice is a good thing for the show. It lets season one build a bedrock-strong trust relationship between Buffy, Willow and Xander, one that anchors the entire series. It gives the show a lovely hangout vibe which helps it through its weaker moments. It’s just nice to have Buffy belong in her milieu. But it does have one negative consequence: it pulls the rug out from under Cordelia. She’s a core cast member, and her role in the show is to be Buffy’s dark shadow – the girl who Buffy might have been, had she not been Chosen. Except as of this episode, it becomes clear Buffy was never going to be Cordelia. Buffy was always a geek at heart. So what the hell is Cordelia for, then? I know viewers wondered the same – who is this girl in the opening credits who just says something bitchy and then disappears from the story every week? My guess is, by the time they were writing this episode, Whedon and co. were asking themselves the same question. Before the season is done we’ll see their answer.

This has been long! My original notes for this ep were six short sentences, hah. Anyway, some other notes:

  • This may be the best episode title in all of Buffy. I mean, look at that, it’s perfect.
  • Season one Buffy is fun to hang out with! She’s peppy, funny, and largely free of angst. This doesn’t last. (Because: the problem of Jesse.)
  • The resolution of the episode is about setting up how the Xander/Willow/Giles trio are special – they are careful. Owen isn’t. While I’m thinking about the problem of Jesse, this plays like a justification for why the show can throw threat after threat at these characters without making it traumatic every time.
  • Xander being mean to Buffy because of his jealousy, and then trying to sneak a look at Buffy getting changed, is not cool. Time has not been kind to what comes across as “teenage boy hijinks” and what comes across as creepiness and entitlement. I don’t remember much pushback on this at the time, but it sure seems unpleasant and worthy of comment now.
  • Because it’s putting a twist on the season arc, this ep saves its “Whedon swerve” for the sting: the anointed one is actually the little kid! This is about as exciting as it sounds.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Pearce | November 24, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Re: Buffy never having been on a date before – I don’t think you’re right here. I think she’s just saying that she has not yet been on a date with Owen. Here’s the actual dialogue:

    Giles: Another date? Don’t you ever do anything else?

    Buffy: This is the first date! There’s never been a date, okay? This is my maiden voyage!

    The context is that Giles thinks Buffy went on a date with Owen the previous night, which she didn’t. I think that even with the “maiden voyage” bit, it’s a stretch to assume that it also means that Buffy has never been on a date before.

  2. morgue | November 24, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    You could well be right. With the hammer of my theory about Buffy getting a soft-recon, everything looked like a nail…

  3. Pearce | November 24, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    If you want a retcon: Buffy is supposed to follow on directly from Joss’s script for the movie (as opposed to the movie itself). The script makes it pretty clear that Buffy isn’t a virgin.

  4. morgue | November 24, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m gonna have to review that script, aren’t I.

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