In the precredits, a new vampire rolls into town and smashes the Sunnydale sign with his arrival. It represents the destructive path he intends for the town – but it’s also a marker that his debut overthrows the current order. Sunnydale stories have been told a certain way, but now there’s a new antagonist in town and all that’s gonna change.
Season two starts in earnest right here. Episode one tidied away the overhang from the first season, then episode two let us catch our breath with the show in default mode. Now, the new era begins. And in a very real sense, that sign getting smashed is also the beginning of Buffy the cultural phenomenon. Across season one we watched the show work itself out and get all its pieces in place. Now the engine is assembled, it puts its foot on the accelerator and starts to race.
Back up a bit. The actual intro for this episode is Buffy being snagged by Principal Snyder and put in charge of parent/teacher night. Snyder marks Buffy as a “bad element”, pairing her with another troublesome student for this chore. This pairing is a weird move, exposing one of the faultlines in the show. Part of the premise of the show is that the teenagers know the truth and the adults don’t – otherwise the adults would take over the whole battle and the show wouldn’t exist any more. To keep Buffy independent, she has to fight in secret, breaking adult rules as she goes. There’s metaphor here of course – teenagers have their important reasons to sneak out of school that boring old people just wouldn’t understand. The trick here is that Buffy’s reasons for sneaking out are laudable and heroic, and if the grown-ups ever did figure that out they would start to appreciate what she’s doing.
And, of course, Sarah Michelle Gellar just doesn’t play Buffy as a troublemaker. Seeing Buffy side-by-side with Sheila just makes it comically obvious how that label is a very unconvincing fit for Buffy. Sure, she skips classes and she burned down a school building or two, but she radiates good sense and consideration. She isn’t a bad kid. It’s obvious. Buffy-as-delinquent is an unsustainable premise, which in turn shines a light on the way that Sunnydale is beset by monsters on a regular basis without anyone noticing. We suspend our disbelief because that’s the way genre storytelling works, but moves like this really rub our noses in it.
But, surprise! Later in this same episode, we find out the show is ahead of the game here. Snyder and the Police Chief discuss a cover story for the vampires, revealing that the town’s authority figures do know the truth, and in fact are actively working to keep the town in the dark. While the show will never really take this conspiracy far enough to absolve us of the need to manage our disbelief – a gang on PCP, that’s the whole cover story? – for the rest of its run the show will give us little handholds like this to make the burden easier. (This also changes the nature of Principal Snyder’s relationship with Buffy. Does he really think she’s just a troublemaker, or does he know the truth about her too? The conspiracy is kept small for now to keep the focus on the high school, but ground continues to be laid for looking at the wider world.)
This doesn’t shore up every aspect of the Buffy-as-unconvincing-troublemaker problem. The same issue was used throughout season one as the basis of conflict between Buffy and her mother. But, surprise! The episode has you covered here too, putting Joyce in the middle of the action and giving her this lovely little speech: “Principal Snyder said you were a troublemaker… And I could care less. I have a daughter who can take care of herself. Who’s brave and resourceful and thinks of others in a crisis. No matter who you hang out with or what dumb teenage stuff you think you need to do, I’m gonna sleep better knowing all that.” In other words, Joyce sees what the viewer does, and sensibly decides that this “troublemaker” label is a very poor fit.
So, what are these monsters that threaten Sunnydale? Our sign-smashing vampire is Spike, and this is the best character intro in the series so far. (It sure beats the way Buffy herself was introduced, also every other regular with the possible exception of Giles.) He steps out of the car, takes a drag from a cigarette, shot from below like a rock star. The show’s visual storytelling has moved up a level – when Spike crashes the Anointed’s gathering the dialogue could be in Swahili and you’d still get every plot beat.
At the end of the episode, Spike casually wipes out the Anointed One. The old way to do bad guys is over. Out goes emotional coldness and ruthless efficiency. In come new villains who are full of emotion, who are driven by their feelings. The Master was all about ironic distance and not really feeling anything any more, but Spike and his crew promise villains who get reckless and wildly out of control. And feeling out of control is something that resonates for teenagers. Now Buffy and her friends have something new to push against, bad guys who are even more messed up and dramatically interesting than they are. In other words: the bad kids.
* There’s a cute scene at the Bronze where Buffy, Xander and Willow dance together. It’s a pointed (and pleasant!) contrast to the dance of cruelty from When She Was Bad.
* Willow rescuing Cordelia is marvellous.
* Back in comments for When She Was Bad, Pearce talked about how a key message from the end of season one was Buffy’s reliance on her friends, which is how she managed to survive. Spike complains about exactly that in this episode: “A Slayer with family and friends. That sure as hell wasn’t in the brochure.”
* This episode’s TV broadcast in NZ infuriated me to the point of writing a letter to the broadcaster. It was screening pre-watershed, and all the violence was being cut from the show, which meant whole sequences became unintelligible. The end of the episode, with the Anointed One being killed by Spike, was impossible to understand and I had to go on to usenet to figure out what the hell was going on. Dumb. I remember getting a reply that seemed to ignore my complaint entirely, which just made me grumpier, but they did change the timeslot for the show a few weeks later.