Every vampire story is a romance.
That isn’t true, but it comes close these days. As I understand it, while the vampire has always been seductive, the idea of a two-way romance with a bloodsucker emerged via Anne Rice’s swooningly gothic Lestat books, with Coppola’s weirdly magisterial film of Dracula the turning point. “I have crossed oceans of time to find you,” Gary Oldman’s Dracula says to Winona Ryder’s Mina Harker, imbuing the line with both romance and threat, and it’s a straight line from there to Twilight.
In this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel comes into focus as Buffy’s romantic match. The show has of course been setting this up since episode one, primarily by casting David Boreanaz as Angel. What has he done so far?
- Episode 1: He follows Buffy in an alley, freaking her out, then says she has to be careful because of bad stuff happening, and then he gives her a cross on a chain.
- Episode 2: He intercepts Buffy before she goes to face the vampires, and tries to talk her out of going down there. And he refuses to help because, in his words, “I’m afraid”. He does tell her his name at least.
- Episode 3: He isn’t in this one.
- Episode 4: He finds Buffy to warn her about fork vampire, and gives her his leather jacket because she looks cold. Then after fork vampire is dead, he turns up to say “well done”, and says she can keep the jacket. He refuses to tell her anything about himself beyond his name. And voila – Buffy is smitten.
- Episode 5: He interrupts Buffy’s date with Owen, and acts perplexed by the fact she’s on a date.
- Episode 6: He’s not in this one either, but it’s established that Buffy talks with Willow about how she’s into him, and she wears his jacket too.
So as groundwork for romance goes, well, they cast David Boreanaz and put his face in the credit sequence. He does get that one bit where he gives her a jacket. That’s enough, it seems. Basically the show relies on the grammar of television to mark out that Buffy and Angel are going to romance each other – she’s the title character and he’s the mysterious hunk, say no more.
That leaves this episode to do pretty much all the heavy lifting for the romantic storyline. The show doesn’t mess about, putting Buffy in vampiric danger as the precredits cliffhanger, and resolving it with Angel turning up – and getting hurt in the ensuing fight. Buffy takes him home to look after him.
(Side note: this method of getting two characters together is not exactly original, in fact there’s an entire genre of fanfic devoted to making these exact moves.)
Buffy caring for Angel here involves him taking off his top and wincing a few times while they engage in flirtatious banter about whether or not he was actually following her around. There’s some comedic stuff with Joyce, and then Angel gets hidden away in Buffy’s room for the night, where they have that sexually charged discussion about who will sleep on the bed and who will sleep on the floor, you know the one, you’ve seen that movie lots of times. The next day she goes to school and he’s still there when she comes home. And he’s been the perfect gentleman the whole time, but he confesses that he shouldn’t be around her because he just keeps wanting to kiss her, and he’s so much older than her it’s really inappropriate. He doesn’t say how much older when she asks, but his admitting his attraction rivets her attention, and they get close, and then they kiss, and it gets passionate –
– and then Angel pulls away and he has vampface. Buffy discovers he’s a vampire! He leaps out the window and is gone.
So, let’s review:
- Angel is an adult. Buffy is underage.
- He gives her expensive presents (the cross, the jacket).
- He doesn’t admit just how big the age gap between them is, despite being directly asked.
- He knows all about Buffy but doesn’t volunteer any information about himself.
- He follows Buffy around and doesn’t admit it when called on it.
- He tells her he’s attracted to her by saying he can’t control himself around her.
- When they kiss, he does lose control, and goes vamp-face.
These are what’s known in the real-life relationship biz as “red flags”.
That last one is worth some extra consideration, because it’s different to the rest. While the first six points are all things that directly apply to the real world, actual people don’t turn into vampires when they lose control. So what does this moment mean? What aspect of real-world relationships is evoked by the sudden vampire? You get to pick your own meaning, but you’ll struggle to find one that’s not awful.
(This is a hugely important beat, revealing that Angel’s a vampire, and finally putting all the essential dynamics of the show in place. But if I remember things rightly, his sudden vamp-face is never explained directly. We just have to take Angel at his word – he’s so obsessed with Buffy that kissing her is super-intense, and that intensity means he loses his self-control, so because he’s up close to pumping veins the predatory vampiric nature comes out. There’s an interesting parallel here with something that happens in season 2 – yes, that thing, I won’t spoil it here – where the intensity of an experience with Buffy means he loses self-control, but in a different way, for very different plot reasons.)
Anyway. The rest of the episode is Buffy finding out Angel’s history as a vicious killer linked to the vamps lurking under Sunnydale, and Angel showing he’s actually a good guy by killing vampiric badass Darla to save Buffy’s life. (Gypsies made him good.) And then Buffy and Angel smooch some more, despite both of them saying they shouldn’t and it’s a bad idea. Romance!
This show is another in a long tradition of film & TV entertainments that make unpleasant behaviour seem romantic. They do this through the power of editing – careful selection of moments, pointed juxtapositions to establish sympathy between characters, etc. Add in the weight of expectation when your limited cast has only one obvious love interest figure for the leading lady, and viewers are happy to go along with it. It’s a shorthand. It doesn’t actually mean the show thinks the behaviours it depicts are acceptable, and it doesn’t actually mean that the viewers who buy into this romance think that either.
And yet, and yet. This is a show that is starting early on to dig into the dangerous grounds of sexuality. It’s clear the show wants to go to these dark places, and that it thinks it can take these issues on in a responsible way through its “monster metaphor” approach. It wants to do teenage life right, not by depicting it realistically, but by showing its essence via scary creatures with big fangs. And all of those things, the whole reason and purpose of the show, pull in the other direction from that shorthand. If we’re encouraged to read the hyena spirits as a metaphor, then why should we hesitate to read Angel’s behaviour here as a metaphor for a man grooming an underage girl to be his lover? Well, the obvious answer is because the show clearly doesn’t want us to embrace that reading. But it’s there anyway, like it or not.
It could have been done differently. Angel’s relationship with Buffy could have unfolded more slowly, and carefully avoided every one of those red flags. Could have, could have. But it wasn’t, and I wonder how much of Buffy’s future character stems from this. Over the series, Buffy’s romantic choices are increasingly presented as unhealthy – Buffy herself comes to admit it. I think that course gets set right here. Pretty soon Buffy turns into the kind of show that wants to interrogate these issues and the way Angel and Buffy got together doesn’t look too healthy when you give it that kind of scrutiny. This wasn’t the intention – the goal was to get you on board with a swooning relationship – but the shorthand approach dooms Buffy to a twisted romantic future. Like Xander an episode ago, in a way Buffy gets broken here. To the show’s credit, across the next six and a half seasons the show will grapple hard with just what that means.
A few other notes:
- This episode was the low point of my early rewatch notetaking, so all the above is new. My scribbles for this episode, in their entirety: “Buffy has a diary. A DIARY. joyce gets bit!” But on that note:
- Joyce gets chomped by Darla. This is part of a stupidly over-elaborate bad guy plan, but it sure is scary to see Joyce under threat, and even scarier to see the threat realised. Again, the show is showing it’s edge – no-one is safe – by taking the threats to cast regulars further than you would ever expect.
- Buffy keeps a diary! That seems… really out of character.
- The swerve is really minor in this episode, but it is there – it’s when Darla pulls out guns and starts shooting. A vampire with a gun really throws out expectations, as there’s a style/iconography clash that is massively jarring. Guns don’t turn up in this show very often.
- Darla is also the first example of a villain type that Buffy will return to – the little bad, who is a major villain in the first half of the season but who gets killed around the midpoint, usually to launch the big bad on to the scene. She doesn’t perfectly fit the type, but you can see the outline in place.