Late in 2013, Cal and I began a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rewatch, and it got me thinking. I started making notes. Might as well share them! “Watching Buffy” is intended as a weekly series. That’s the plan anyway. Fair warning: looking at my notes from a year ago, sometimes episode entries might be very short…
Note on spoilers: I’ll be talking about episodes in the context of the entire series. I’ll try and avoid specific spoilers but some will surely sneak in. In other words, if you want a pure Buffy-watching experience, don’t read these until you’ve caught up with all seven seasons.
Let’s talk about Jesse.
In the first BtVS story, told over episode one “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and episode two “The Harvest”, Buffy befriends a close-knit trio on the outer rings of school popularity. Willow, Xander and Jesse appear to have no other friends. They clearly rely on each other for pretty much everything.
Buffy’s arrival coincides with a vampiric eruption in Sunnydale. The vampires seize Jesse, turn him into a vampire, and send him out to kill his friends. After discovering Jesse’s transformation, Xander destroys his best friend. But just a few scenes later, Xander and Willow trade quips with their new friend Buffy and their new mentor Giles, then go laughing into the sunset. And that’s it for Jesse. The emotional fallout from his death is cheerfully waved offscreen, and his place in the group is handed over to Buffy.* Jesse himself is quickly forgotten.** Poor guy.
In series creator Joss Whedon’s original plan, Jesse was going to feature in the opening credits of these episodes alongside Willow and Xander. He would appear to be an equal member of the cast. Jesse’s harsh fate was meant as a signal that in this show, anyone can die. No-one is safe, whether or not their name pops up under the theme tune. Subsequent seasons (and other shows by Whedon) showed this was not an idle promise, and in fact this commitment to real threat does give significant power to the narrative.
That’s not the only source of this show’s power, however. Over time, BtVS did become known for ruthlessness towards its characters, but also for the depth of emotion it gave them. Buffy characters die, and Buffy characters feel.
Put like that, it’s obvious there’s a tension here. If characters die and characters feel, then how do you stop your funny/serious show from being overwhelmed by grief?
So, Jesse. His death is a dramatic reversal, it signals no-one is safe, and it gives Xander and Willow some scenes of confusion and anguish. This is good stuff to make the two-part pilot an exciting tale. But as the establishing moment of an ongoing series, it plays very differently. If you want to dodge the long, heavy spectre of grief, the only way forward is to forget Jesse. He becomes almost instantly just another death, one of a long line that would accumulate over the years. (That said, Jesse does bear the dubious distinction of being the first teenager to die in the whole series.)
But when your show intends to build viewer investment through intensely-realised emotional continuity for its characters, forgetting Jesse is problematic. Two of your three central characters start out with their emotional truth broken into pieces. It’s a mis-step. This is “the problem of Jesse”, i.e. the tension between emotional continuity and genuine threat in a narrative whose tone cannot sustain grief. As I watch the series this time, I’m expecting to see a bunch of attempts to solve this problem. I don’t know if it will ever get solved – maybe it can’t be, not really. Either way, I suspect this is the source of its greatest triumphs and greatest failures, and I’m looking forward to watching the show try.
Jesse’s fate and the lack of emotional fallout doesn’t square with what lies ahead for the series. It’s not alone! There’s plenty of other stuff here that looks weird on a rewatch. Like:
- Buffy is considerably less careful about her secret. She makes numerous verbal slips where she almost talks about vampires. (“I mean, the gym was full of vamp… uh, asbestos.”; “From now on, I’m only hanging out with the living. I – I mean, the lively… people.”) These slips disappear completely after this episode, presumably because they’re only there so slower audience members don’t need to think about subtext, and they do that at the cost of making Buffy a buffoon.
- Giles suggests that Buffy should have the slayer power to sense vampires: “You should know! Even through this mass and this din you should be able to sense them. Try. Reach out with your mind. You have to hone your senses, focus until the energy washes over you, till you can feel every particle of…” If I recall correctly, this Slayer power doesn’t really get mentioned again (although I guess you could assume Buffy’s using a low-level version of it the whole time?)
- Cordelia has a mobile phone! This disappears right away, even though it would be extremely useful on many occasions later. That’s why it disappears too – much easier to get Cordy into trouble if she doesn’t have a cellphone.
- Angel’s dialogue here indicates he’s never seen Buffy before, but later it is revealed he has been watching her for some time – a straightforward retcon.
- Willow’s outfit is… special. Pretty much a caricature of an unwise bookish girl with no fashion sense. From the very next episode her fashion choices are very different, as the show worked out more about what the show needed Willow to be.
Now, these aren’t mistakes (or mis-steps!), just discontinuities. This isn’t unusual for pilot episodes, it is just what happens when a show has to learn what it is as it goes. Even so, there’s enough weirdness that watching these episodes feels off. They aren’t doing it right! (Fanwank: These episodes don’t show what “really happened”. Instead they show one of Buffy’s prophetic dreams. The dream version doesn’t quite match reality, for example, real Jesse wasn’t actually a close friend of Xander and Willow at all. That means his death needn’t haunt the narrative to honour the show’s commitment to emotional continuity. Problem solved?)
Ultimate recommendation: If you want to be introduced to the ideas and ethos and style of BtVS, episodes 1 and 2 are great. But if you want a coherent BtVS experience, pretend these episodes don’t exist, and start with episode 3.
Final note: on this rewatch I’m also expecting to spot a bunch of stuff that relates to rape culture. (That phrase wasn’t in my lexicon the last time I watched the series.) In this episode, note Jesse’s moves on Cordelia – forthright and confident and continual, despite her repeated insistence that she isn’t interested. A sympathetic character acting like this might be telling the audience that no means yes – but this character is the one who turns into a vampire, and likes it. Compare with Xander, whose interest in Buffy shows no expectation of return, and who doesn’t turn into a vampire. Might just be a coincidence, but there’s the germ of something thematic here…
* Not only does Buffy takes Jesse’s place, but she is set up as his inverse: Jesse seeks Cordelia’s approval and is rebuffed, Buffy is gifted Cordelia’s approval but rebuffs her; Jesse is glad to be a vampire while Buffy is unhappy to be the slayer.
** OK, that’s not quite true. Xander’s stubborn distrust of vampires is a character trait that arises, it is implied, from the trauma of Jesse’s death. And there was an aborted sequence in season 7 that would have brought Jesse back, which would’ve been… interesting.
[N.B. Slightly re-edited the “final note” para on 2 November, to make it a bit more sensical.]