Watching Buffy: s01e08 “I Robot, You Jane”

wow this show has awesome looking monsters!

um wait what

Buffy has been shaking down its approach for seven episodes now, and it clearly feels good about how it’s going. The Angel reveal is in the bag, and the show is clearly ready to spend the back half of the season showing what it can do!

Naturally, it immediately screws up.

The story in this episode: Willow gets an internet boyfriend who turns out to be a demon. If the self-awareness and fashion choices don’t already tip you off, this storyline dates the show precisely to a few years in the mid/late 90s. There was a very narrow window of time where “mysterious internet boyfriend” was a thing. The internet was starting to become a visual environment and making waves in the wider world, but users still played in a text-only world. It was a good time to be online – hey there SCFBBS alumni – but also a short-lived one.

Anyway, the show figures it can take this core idea and make good Buffy out of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Let’s count some of the ways this episode fluffs it:

One: It fails Willow. The show doesn’t actually have much idea what to do with Willow. As with Cordelia, she’s in the opening credits but what does she actually contribute? She’s Buffy’s best friend, OK, sure – that means she listens to Buffy sigh about Angel. And she’s in unrequited love with Xander, so she gets to sigh at him while he sighs about Buffy. And she’s in the know about fighting evil, so she gets to help out/be captured whenever an extra character is needed to help out/be captured. Oh yeah, she’s a hacker – in the 90s every show had a computer hacker – so she gets to supply crucial plot information whenever the writers need to throw it in. These are all useful things when you’re writing a scene and you need to get on to the interesting stuff, but they sure don’t add up to a character you root for or a character who generates stories and drama.

Just two episodes ago the show had started to figure out what it had in Willow and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, this episode puts her right at the centre and it still has nothing to offer her. She is a lonely wallflower geek, so naturally she gets obsessive about a mysterious internet boyfriend who gives her the attention she craves, but he turns out to be a demon so whoops, and that’s all really. It’s a waste. The show doesn’t even give her the minimal respect this plotline affords – her obsession is sudden and happens offscreen (she goes from “I have a cute boyfriend” to “I’m cutting classes and you don’t understand wooo” literally overnight), she doesn’t get to work out her boyfriend is a demon until he kidnaps her, and oh yeah he kidnaps her. At least she gets to yell at him at the end before he smacks her to the ground, and she lies there while Buffy deals with him! Oh okay that’s no good either. Sigh.

Hindsight gives us some comfort though – as with Cordelia, we know the writers’ll figure out what to do with Willow, and soon.

Two: the metaphor sucks. Yes, sometimes people who claim to be nice on the internet are not actually nice. This is metaphorically represented by making the internet boyfriend a demon. Well, I guess it counts?

Three: the monster sucks. The show has its best-looking monster yet for the demon Moloch – but you only see it briefly in the opening prologue sequence. Then the show has its worst-looking monster yet when Moloch turns into a cyberdemon for the final act. It’s such a misjudged visual, it’s kind of embarrassing. In between, the demon hangs out in a high school intranet and romances Willow while controlling some other people and it just isn’t very interesting or good.

Four: the tone is all over the place. The episode goes from goofy and stupid to really dark and back again like a drunk driver weaving back and forth across the centre line. The demon has one high school boy murder another while faking it as a suicide, which is one of the darkest scenes in the entire series, but then right after there’s a poor graphic of a demon face saying BOO on the library computer and it’s just silly.

Five: the scale is off. This one is an interesting one – it’s a rule that isn’t obvious, so the show could probably only learn it by breaching it. But if you are a show about teenagers in high school facing monstrous representations of teenage life problems, then your scale is high school life and you have to stick with that. In this story, there’s a big factory staffed by dozens of adult workers under the spell of the demon. It’s too big. It violates the high school rule. If there’s all those adults there, then what happens to them? Where are the police? What do they have to do with high school life? It just doesn’t feel right – it’s the wrong sort of show to have that kind of setup. (Now those who know what’s coming know season 3 does step resoundingly outside the high school scale with an enemy who’s part of the wider world – but note that the show has been diligently setting up this move since, well, since the very next episode. You can get there, but you have to lay the groundwork first.)

Six: technology and magic don’t mix. I’m not even really sure why this is, but mixing technology and magic/supernatural stuff just doesn’t seem to combine well in the Buffy aesthetic. This episode tries hard to mix and match, and it just clunks – Giles fretting about the endless damage the demon could do now it is loose on the internet just seems stupid. New character Jenny Calendar is a “techno-pagan” but that mostly comes to mean “pagan who uses the internet sometimes”. Willow is a hacker and (spoiler!) in time she does a little magic but never ties the two together. As the show goes on, it shows little interest in bringing these back together again. (Until season four, of course. We’ll get there.)

So the episode just doesn’t work. But that’s not to say it’s without merit. There is one part of this episode that is worth remembering and celebrating, however: the final scene. It features our core group of friends sitting together discussing their doomed love lives. And they all laugh! And then the laughter fades out into a miserable silence. It’s a great scene that does cool stuff.

It’s a parody of many other shows that liked to close on the cast sharing a joke together, only here they let the laughs die away into silence. Also, note the self-awareness of the trio knowing they’re doomed. Both of these put Buffy firmly in the post-modernist mode of self-aware 90s entertainment, and combined into one scene they come close to breaking the fourth wall and knowing they are characters in a TV show.

But I’m most interested in the specific references to previous episodes: “Hey, did you forget? The one boy I’ve had the hots for since I’ve moved here turned out to be a vampire.” / “Right, and the teacher I had a crush on? Giant praying mantis?” This signals one of the key structural influences on Buffy: comic books, specifically Marvel superhero comics. Casual but obsessive references to past stories like this had a key role in creating “the Marvel universe”, and it’s easy to imagine the caption box that would appear in the corner of the panel here: “Episodes 4 and 7, Slayerettes! – Japin’ Joss”. These references send a message to viewers: this show knows it has a past, and it will use that past to enrich the present. The show isn’t just telling stories – it’s building a world.

Other notes:
* If “Never Kill A Boy On The First Date” is the best episode title in all of Buffy, this one is clearly the worst. The WORST.
* Xander isn’t awful this episode, and there’s a nice bit where Buffy calls him on enjoying being the object of Willow’s unrequited adoration, although she of course lets him off pretty easy.
* Librarians everywhere will snort at the show’s attempt to sell librarians vs. technology opposition to create conflict between Giles and Jenny. Librarians, of course, embrace tech harder than anyone not actually involved in tech. Get-out clause: Giles is not a real librarian.
* Speaking of the show feeling like it knows what it’s about – this episode actually contains a cheeky parody of its own surprise 3/4 swerves, setting up Jenny Calendar to be revealed at the 3/4 mark as a villain (c.f. the zookeeper in The Pack), but then revealing she’s a heroic technopagan. (It was the 90s, we’re all lucky she didn’t call herself a cyberpagan.)
* Jenny is kinda fun, and her flirtation with Giles is cute. I hope they bring her back.

Watching Buffy: s01e07 “Angel”


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.

Watching Buffy: s01e06 “The Pack”

dodgeball 3

Everyone knows the basic genius of Buffy: it made monsters out of the horrors of high school. But if you actually trawl through the episodes, you find there are a lot of Buffy eps that don’t do this, or do it only loosely, or in a roundabout way. There’s no secret as to why: this metaphor monster trick is hard. In season one there are really only three episodes that have a metaphorical monster at their heart. As we’ve seen, Witch flubbed it a bit. Invisible Girl is a few weeks away yet. But in this episode, the show nails it.

The episode features a bunch of mean, popular kids – and Xander – getting possessed by hyena spirits, and turning their cruelty dials all the way up. If you’re in the group, you’re great. If you’re out? You’re meat. The metaphor is plain and strong and central and brutal – but it’s also complex enough that a simple description doesn’t do it justice. The show is talking about power, status, in-groups/out-groups, bullying, and other crucial aspects of the high school experience, and I’m sure every viewer would see their own variation on these themes in the behaviour of the Pack. (Particularly the behaviour of Xander. We’ll get to Xander.) In terms of the general theme, to me the most shocking moment is the Pack devouring Principal Flutie. First, this is obviously another marker that in this show, no-one is safe. Change will happen! Even writing out a minor supporting player like Principal Flutie stands out from the reluctance to upend the status quo that marked most TV at the time. Looking at it now, though, with Buffy‘s reputation for character death well-established, what strikes me is the metaphor. The bullies have amped up their cruelty and they are targeting, not fellow students, but the school institution itself. The message seems to be that institutions are helpless before bullying. If you were in high school, being bullied, and you watched this episode – well, I don’t think you’d find it very comforting. (And from what I understand of bullying response statistics in the US and further afield, perhaps that’s how you should be feeling.)

Okay, Xander. Comments over on Facebook for my last Buffy post were not kind to Xander, and there is nothing in this episode that will turn you around. But this episode does something that I think is quite shocking and potentially brave: it uses the excuse of Xander’s possession to lean all the way into Xander’s creepy nice-guy entitlement that colours his every interaction with Buffy and Willow. He actually grabs and holds Buffy down while he says out loud all the things a “nice guy” says to himself about the girl he desires. He holds her against a wall and forces a kiss on her. It’s an upsetting sequence, even more so because Buffy reclaiming her power (by knocking him out) happens off-screen.

This is an instance of the show recognising that if it wants to talk about the horrors of adolescence, it has to talk about sex, and power, and the abuse of both of those things. There is nothing metaphorical in hyena-Xander’s behaviour towards Buffy – he is sexually assaulting her, and potentially on the way to raping her. And his dialogue indicates this is not an outsider impulse that comes from the demonic possession, but an expression of some genuine thoughts and feelings that he holds and experiences. It would be going to far to say that the episode portrays Xander as a repressed rapist – but the show is definitely showing that his desire isn’t all innocent boyish frustration. There is real darkness in the mix. And, to the extent Xander is intended as the “everyguy” character in the show, it’s a pretty ruthless and damning portrayal of the unpleasant undercurrents in the cultural experiences and assumptions of teenage boys as a class.

Of course, the show lets him off the hook. I don’t know how to feel about it exactly. Buffy, in particular, shrugs it off: he wasn’t himself, you can’t hold that against him! The parallels between hyena spirits and alcoholic spirits pass without remark. And in a sense they have to – this show can’t throw one of its core cast off the cliff in episode 6. If they couldn’t justify Xander staying friendswith Buffy and Willow, then they’d be forced to cut the scene. And I think it’s a good scene, an important one for the show. However, in terms of Xander’s character, it’s a black cloud that he never entirely escapes. Partly it’s mitigated by the fact Xander has to live with the memories of his behaviour, and he is obviously mortified and traumatised by them. Partly, too, there is some relief in Xander’s growing up/redemption plot at the close of this season. Still, to me it feels like these aren’t enough to counterbalance the dark weight of this scene. The show doesn’t want you to hold this moment close, but it’s hard not to feel that Xander won’t ever shake off the unpleasant aspects of his character. The show doesn’t quite know how to deal with the issues of sex and violence it is grappling with here, and it can’t quite address the problems with Xander before they get embedded too deep to change. From now on, he is damaged goods.

But for the show, this is a return to the issues of sex, power and abuse that were treated so lightly in Teacher’s Pet a few weeks ago. The show has a handle on what it’s doing here, and takes it all much more seriously. The challenge it faces is, of course, the Problem of Jesse, which is the difficulty with including both real threat and real emotions without destroying your show. Buffy distinguishes itself here with its willingness to explore sexual threat and sexual violence as a common feature of teenage life, but it can’t yet allow itself to honour the real emotions side of the equation, excusing itself this time with “a hyena did it”. This is just a step along the way of course – so much of season one is the show figuring out what it wants to be – and I find the weak consequences here much easier to accept knowing that the show is learning as it goes, and in future the consequences of this kind of threat will be addressed head-on.

A few other notes:

  • There’s some great silent storytelling in the interactions among the pack. The show’s confidence in non-verbal storytelling grows as it goes on.
  • I remembered this ep as a showcase for Nick Brendan’s Xander, but it actually turns into something of a Willow showcase – she gets a huge punch-the-air moment when she’s dealing with Xander in the cage (and compare that to the equivalent scene in the writer’s draft). But man, this episode also reveals Alyson Hannigan’s secret power: when she has emotions, you feel them. Fairly quickly the show realises what it has here, and Willow starts carrying more and more of the feels.
  • The 3/4 twist here actually comes a little bit after the final commercial break, when you find out the zookeeper was a crazy cultist all along! The actual 3/4 cliffhanger is basically “Willow is suddenly in danger”, and it works like gangbusters, because of Alyson Hannigan’s secret power.
  • Giles realises Xander’s hiding something at the end. This becomes a character trait for Giles, figuring out when people are holding things back. It’s certainly useful as a storytelling tool, because secrets that never come out aren’t much fun. But where the show shines is in how it uses this as a way to communicate Giles’ character. Every time he identifies, and sometimes guesses, a secret, his choice about how to act on the information is pretty much perfect. It’s something the show does consistently well.

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


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.

Watching Buffy: s01e04 “Teacher’s Pet”

1.4 Teacher's Pet

The previous episode Witch was an attempt to do Buffy-by-numbers that pretty much landed. It demonstrates a Buffy-specific approach to self-contained stories that will hold for seven seasons.

Teacher’s Pet is another shot at Buffy-by-numbers, but this one doesn’t work out. As far as I can tell, the popular opinion on this ep is that it’s just a dumb misfire, the kind of thing that every show does when it’s just finding its feet. I think that’s part-way right. In Teacher’s Pet I think you have an episode that actually hits its marks perfectly, but still ends up feeling wrong. Everything in this episode follows on logically and sensibly from the pitch and concept. In a sense it’s a glimpse of a different way to do Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The core problem, of course, is the monster of the week. Miss French is a substitute teacher at the school, but it turns out she’s actually a giant praying mantis in disguise, and she likes to lure virginal high school boys into her basement to mate with them and then kill them. That’s… a pretty broad sort of concept for your monster.

She is unexplained. She’s just a giant praying mantis who can disguise herself as a human woman, no further explanation needed. At this stage of the show’s development, that was just fine, but it is jarring in comparison to the show’s future. Soon, most monsters of the week will be identified as demons giving the show the appearance of a consistent mystical ecology. But Miss French is not a demon. She’s a mantis. It’s weird, and cartoonish, and it feels off.

She is thematically askew. The pitch for Buffy famously suggests that it uses monsters to represent and explore the ordinary horrors of teenage/high school life, and you don’t have to stretch far to make this fit: it’s about the uncontrollable lusts and inappropriate fantasies of teenage boys, or it’s about sexual exploitation and manipulation of teenagers by adults. Except neither of these is really a strong fit for the metaphorical storytelling the show is aiming at. It’s your second regular episode and the best teenage problem you can come up with is “horny teenage boys can get themselves into trouble with older women”? That’s the universal experience you want to explore here? Lusting after a hot teacher is not really part of the horrors of adolescence, guys.

She is icky as hell. She’s a sexual predator who explicitly rapes her victims to death. This is not neutral stuff – this is over-the-line weirdness and it’s a black mark against the show that they’d go there, and in such a casual way. Sexual violence is actually a strong recurring theme in Buffy, but (although there’s one other bit of nastiness in season 1) it comes to be handled with much more maturity and sensitivity pretty damn soon.

That’s enough to make my point – Miss French is just not a good Buffy monster. But, and here’s the crucial thing, if you just heard the pitch from Whedon that gave this show a green light? You would think she’d fit perfectly. The trick is in the details. Nailing down the show’s theme, working out how to incorporate sexual threat into your narratives, building a coherent mythos – that stuff is too precise to get written down in the show bible (Buffy didn’t actually have one of those anyway, but bear with me). They had to try these things to see how they felt on the screen, and each misstep helped them find a better path in future.

It was up to the showrunner (and of course the network) to decide what was a misstep, and what would be a better path. Buffy became the show it did because of Whedon’s sensibility about storytelling details like this, and a different showrunner could have – would have – made different choices. If Whedon had somehow fallen into disfavour and been fired from his fledgling show (1), his replacement might well have seen in this episode a perfectly acceptable way forward. This episode is a glimpse at an alternate reality Buffy, where the monsters are broadly sketched and the metaphors don’t focus on emotional trauma but instead on any old thing that was part of the high school experience. It would be a simpler show, like Eerie, Indiana a little grown up, and it would not have inspired the cult following Buffy enjoys. But it would have still worked for a season. Maybe even two.

So, those details were important. Over the weeks to come I guess I’ll be trying to pay some attention to them…

Other notes:
* There’s also a vampire running around for Buffy to work her slayage on. Again, it’s obviously early days here from the design of the vamp – he’s a scary biker with a big fork, or something. Featured vamps in the future have a lot more personality, and many fewer forks.
* Angel returns! It’s time to get that big romance arc underway, so he gives Buffy his jacket. Such babe.
* Xander gets a lot of focus this episode, and he does a lot of dumb stuff. For now I’m just inclined to shrug and say “grow up Xander”. Others might find him a bit more annoying, and that’s totally understandable.
* The end-of-episode sting, a reveal that OMG THERE ARE EGGS IN THE BUILDING, is straight out of the Twilight Zone playbook. It is totally understandable that an alternate version of Buffy would go for this highly-traditional storytelling move. The Buffy we ended up with, however, had a bunch of different moves to try out, and a finish like this would be almost instantly subverted.


(1) Yup, much of my thinking here was informed by Community season 4, a.k.a. the gas-leak year.

Watching Buffy: s01e03 “Witch”


This episode is basically a shakedown of the BtVS concept, giving pretty much every aspect of the show a workout. You have:

  • Buffy caught between her desire for a normal life and slayer duties with attendant Giles tension on one side and (Buffy’s mother) Joyce tension on the other;
  • the support crew established as a support crew for the first time (Willow tries out the name “Slayerettes”);
  • ongoing romantic tensions are clarified: Xander has a thing for Buffy but she only sees him as a friend, while Willow has a thing for Xander but he only sees her as a friend.
  • Cordy functioning as Buffy’s dark mirror;
  • supernatural shenanigans drawn from a metaphorical high-school problem, in this case, failing to live up to a family reputation.

This is all straight out of the pitch document, Buffy-by-numbers, which is exactly the job of the first regular episode so that’s fine by me. (No Angel this week though!) But there’s something else that comes in with this episode and becomes a real feature of Buffy moving forward: the three-quarter swerve. From the accounts I’ve heard, Joss Whedon kept his writing room focused tight on story-breaking with a really heavy angle on the pre-commercial cliffhangers. In network TV dramas, a big cliffhanger at the 3/4 mark is typical – it’s where you set up your big climax, pumping the viewer for maximum excitement so they’ll finish watching off a nice high. But Whedon pushed the BtVS room into leaning heavily on big reversals of expectation, usually at the 3/4 mark – plot twists that upend all your assumptions and make the final challenge surprising as well as exciting. It’s a great technique, although it’s one the show perhaps came to rely on a bit too much as it went on.

Here, the big swerve is the reveal that Amy is not the witch – Amy’s mum is the witch, and she has swapped bodies with Amy to relive her glory days. Shock and surprise! Except, well, it doesn’t quite work. It sets up Amy as a meek klutz, then shows her doing witchery, then has her revealed by a witch test as a witch, then shows her reacting with shock at the effects of witchery, then shows her stalking around being mean to her mother – this is just an incoherent mess of conflicting data, so the reveal when it comes is muted. It makes sense of some of what has come before, but other bits make no sense – if the mother was in control, why was Amy such a loveable klutz, and why was she horrified by the magic effect?

So, early days for this trick, another sign that a big part of season 1 is Whedon & co. working out how to tell stories their way. The story here doesn’t quite work but you can see what they’re shooting for. I remember seeing this on first run and being excited for the potential of this show. I can see why I liked it.

A few other notes:

  • Joyce, Buffy’s mum, has a job bringing her in close contact with weird figurines from strange foreign cultures. Pretty obviously, this was set up as a potential source of plotlines – strange statues imbued with evil sprits are something of a staple of the horror genre. Thankfully, given the dubious racial/cultural politics of such tales, this is about as prominent as Joyce’s job ever gets.
  • The driver of that big black bus that nearly runs down blind Cordy has the slowest reactions of anyone in the world.
  • The Sunnydale cheer and basketball teams don’t turn up on-screen again, right? They make Sunnydale High feel like a pretty normal high school, a perception that steadily dwindles over the ensuing seasons.
  • Willow, whose dress sense is vastly more reasonable all of a sudden, gets to show off her special skill: computer hacking! Every show in the ’90s had a character who was good at computer hacking. But curiously enough, this episode also has her mixing up her very first potion – and the black-eyed power of dark magic also makes an appearance. Foreshadowing… (at least in hindsight!)

Watching Buffy: s1e01/02 “Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest”


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.]