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.
These words have been intoned near the beginning of nearly every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and if the show has any mission at all it is to prove them wrong. Yes, Buffy was chosen – but the more important choice was the one she made herself. And Buffy will not stand alone – her friends are with her, no matter the risks. And yes, she slays vampires and demons, but “the Slayer” label isn’t enough. There’s more to her than that. Right?
One of the principles of this show is a commitment to emotional realism, and this is applied to the nature of Buffy’s heroic identity. “Vampire Slayer” is an iconic role that exists in immediate tension with normal life. In a simpler show, that wouldn’t matter – Buffy wouldn’t need to worry about mundane concerns because her heroic identity would define her completely, the way Michael Knight never had to worry about the real-word costs of having his face shot off then assuming a new name and new identity fighting crime with a talking car as an agent of a mysterious agency with the initials FLAG. Here, though, Buffy is a teenage girl with ordinary emotional concerns, and integrating the business of being a chosen slayer of vampires with her desire to do fun stuff and fit in and have a boyfriend – that’s a challenge. How can you be a Slayer and still fit into the rest of the world?
It’s career day at Sunnydale High. Everyone is prompted to start thinking long-term about how they might enter the world beyond high school, and more simply, about what they want to be. Buffy doesn’t see the point in thinking about it, because as far as she can tell her future is fully booked up with vampire slaying. Giles encourages her to think about finding “gainful employment” but she is unconvinced. Hoping for a normal life seems futile. The comparison is gently made with her naive childhood ambitions to be a figure skater like Dorothy Hamill: “I wanted to *be* her. My parents were fighting all the time, and skating was an escape. I felt safe.”
This confession was made to Angel, in a scene that really gives us a sense of how they make sense as a couple – Buffy relaxes around him, and he becomes less impossibly uptight as well. This episode does a good job of showing their compatibility, with a nice scene later where Buffy reassures Angel that his vampiric look doesn’t upset her, because she still sees that it’s him within; and by rhyming Angel waiting in her bedroom with Buffy going to his apartment and falling asleep in his bed. For the first time the show takes the time to make sure they feel like two people in love.
It is Angel’s thoughtful care for Buffy that points the way out of her frustrating cycle of futility: he offers to take her skating. The scene at the rink is shot with a different emotional rhythm to the rest of the show. It’s a notable breakout from the house style by new director David Solomon. Buffy skates, and we (like Angel) watch, and it’s kind of lovely. This sequence comes directly out of actress Sarah Michelle Gellar’s own life – she was a competitive figure skater with a few placings under her belt. It’s a moment of simplicity, and an indication that the answer to Buffy’s dilemma is to embrace knowingly the idea of escape – she is stuck with her calling, but she can still create moments where she is allowed to be something else. This will be Buffy’s challenge – being able to find peace on her own terms, and enjoy it in the shadow of her responsibilities. (Of course, the show issues a pointed reminder of those when she is attacked at the rink. It’s a short, brutal fight scene, finishing with the skate blade gag you knew was coming.)
That’s a coping strategy, however. It’s important, and it does mark a lesson learned for Buffy, but it doesn’t banish the burden of being the Chosen One. The show has a plan here as well, revealed in the climax, which is a tremendous swerve: one of the mysterious figures stalking Buffy is revealed not to be an assassin after all, but instead claims to be the Slayer. Buffy is not alone after all.
It’s a fittingly momentous end to the first installment of a two-parter, the show’s first proper double. (Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest was conceived and aired as a single double-length episode.) The episode takes care to raise the stakes all over, with the new Slayer locking Angel up to face the rising sun, a strange assassin threatening Xander and Cordelia, and Giles and Willow discovering Spike’s ultimate goal in Sunnydale – the restoration of the clearly damaged Drusilla to full health. This is a proper event episode, and it shows that the Buffy team don’t need a season-ender to shake everything up – in fact they had barely settled into their new status quo. Once again, it’s clear that they have ambitions for this show. If this is the kind of upset we’re seeing in episode nine, then what might be coming down the pike in episode fourteen?
* Co-writer on this episode is Marti Noxon, whose importance to the show will rapidly grow in the seasons to come.
* We get some more neat scenes with Oz, but the show still isn’t ready to pay him off. He even gets his long-awaited meeting with Willow, but the scene cuts away before they even interact. Still, his selection as an exceptional student with the smarts to match Willow, combined with his sense of humour and rocker credentials, not to mention his good taste in being interested in her – all of this does an excellent job in putting him over. In fact, it finally gives me an idea why they’ve put so much effort into giving him point-of-view scenes even though he’s outside the Scooby Gang. Willow’s innocence and emotions make her the exposed nerve of the group, and the audience is highly protective of her – these scenes show us we can trust Oz not to hurt her.
* Speaking of which: “Scooby Gang” is used for the first time here. “Slayerettes” will turn up again I think, but “Scoobies” will soon catch on.
* Back in Halloween, the show started binding its monsters together. No longer just a series of isolated threats to normal life, the monsters now present an alternative society and culture. Spike’s move to call in the “big guns” is the most dramatic example of this so far, giving a sense of scale to this hidden world. Another, bigger, marker of this transition is the arrival of the demon bar, Willy’s Place. The main bad guys of season one and season two both had standing sets, but now the everyday sort of monsters do as well.