infinitejest: (buffy: the wind speaks)
[personal profile] infinitejest
Episode Title: "Welcome to the Hellmouth"
Writer: Joss Whedon
Episode Number: 1.1
Notes: This episode is technically a two-parter with "The Harvest" being the second part.

And so Buffy the Vampire Slayer begins its metamorphosis from a one-shot cheesy movie into a multi-faceted, quirky genre-bending television show. This first episode takes Joss' desire to give the Blonde Damsel in Distress walking boots and weapons and shoves it even more into center stage.

By the way, as with my earlier posts, I'm more concerned with discussing mythology, themes, characterization, and relationships here. In my analyses of Buffy episodes, you won't really be finding any summaries or episode reviews. So, if that's the kind of thing you want, it's best not to waste too much time reading these.

Now, on with the show.

Slayer Mythology

Buffy's job description has always bothered me, and I think that's because there's a fundamental conflict between the title (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and what Joss wants her job to be (in order to get a better story out of it). It seems like they tried to get around this fundamental confusion by sticking this cute little opening at the beginning of (every?) first season show:

"In every generation, there is a Chosen One: she alone who will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."

Yet they even acknowledged the confusion of this job description in this, their very first episode, as noted by this humorous exchange between Slayer and Watcher:

Giles: "Because you are the Slayer. Into each generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one, one born with the strength and..."
Buffy: "...with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil blah blah blah. I've heard it, okay?"
Giles: "I really don't understand this attitude. You've accepted your duty. You've slain vampires before."
Buffy: "Yeah, and I've both been there and done that and I'm moving on."
Giles: "what do you know about this town? ... I believe this whole area is a center of mystical energy, that things gravitate towards it that you might not find elsewhere."
Buffy: "Like vampires?"
Giles: "Like zombies, werewolves, incubi, succubi: everything you've ever dreaded was under your bed but told yourself couldn't be by the light of day. They're all real."
Buffy: "What? You like sent away for the Time Life Series?"
Giles: "Oh... yes."
Buffy: "Did you get the free phone?"
Giles: "The calendar."
Buffy: "Cool. But, okay, first of all, I'm a VAMPIRE slayer. And, secondly, I'm retired. Hey, I know! Why don't YOU kill them?"

I'm not sure why I'm so fussed about this. They never call her the "Vampire Slayer" in the show. They simply call her "the Slayer." Yet it cannot be denied that she mainly goes around killing vampires and only gets into other demons when it's necessitated (and these things are usually brought on by vampires). I'm risking getting into elements of the Slayer mythos here that aren't introduced until later seasons... however...supposedly, vampires are here as the last manifestation of the dispossessed full-blooded demons. A full-blooded demon violently mixed his blood with that of a human before perishing from this plane. And so the demons kept a foothold and vampires have flourished, ostensibly trying to find ways to bring the full-blooded demons back (or at least bring our world into alignment with a proper hell dimension). But, as the show progresses, we see that there are other demonic agents flourishing and operating in our world. The ones that threaten the world, Buffy takes down. The ones that generally operate in contained self-interest, Buffy lets alone. It's a confusing state of affairs, which is perfectly fine: that's real life. I just think it muddles the story elements a bit on a very fundamental level.

Buffy's physical prowess is well in evidence in this episode: we see her break open a locked door (tearing part of the frame apart, even) and balance vertically on a pole above an alley long enough for Angel to catch up with her and walk under said pole. But her senses are apparently still lacking-- she couldn't detect Giles sneaking up on her in the library (and, yeah, I know that was for effect. Still, it was inconsistent with her purported abilities.)

In the following exchange concerning Buffy's supposed Slayer-powers, we discover more about those powers and about the type of Slayer Buffy will shape up to be:

Buffy: "I didn't say I'd never slay another vampire. It's not like I have all these fluffy bunny feelings for them, I'm just not going to get way extra-curriculuar with it. You know, if I see one, sure--"
Giles: "... there's so much you don't know about them, about your own powers. A vampire appears to be completely normal until the feed is upon them, only then do they reval their true demonic visage."
Buffy: "You're like a textbook with arms. I know this."
Giles: "The point is that a Slayer should be able to see them anyway, without looking, without thinking. Can you tell me if there's a vampire in this building?"
Buffy: "Maybe."
Giles: "You should know. Even through this mask, this din, you should be able to sense them. Well, try. Reach out with your mind. You have to hone your senses, focus until the energy washes over you, until you feel every particle of, of--"
Buffy: "There's one."
Giles: "Wha--Where? Oh, you don't know."
Buffy: "Oh please, look at his jacket. He's got the sleeves rolled up. And the shirt! Deal with that outfit for a moment."
Giles: "It's dated?"
Buffy: "It's carbon-dated! Trust me, only someone living underground for ten years would think that was still the look."
Giles: "But you didn't...hone."

This exchange reveals several things. Obviously, it intimates more about the extent of a Slayer's powers (an extrasensory component that is not thoroughly explored in these first few seasons, apart from Buffy's dreams). But it also reinforces how Buffy is different and why she's going to actually make a difference in her tenure as Slayer. Her Watcher is waxing on, working up a fine wiser-than-thou educational froth, when Buffy completely undercuts him. She refuses to play his game and allow him to help her "hone," instead going for a fundamentally practical approach. It's this willful disregard of convention that forms one of the supports of Buffy's strength.

Vampire Lore

We are introduced to a major vampire figure in this first episode: The Master, he who is to be the Big Bad of Season 1. The Master is built up as an insanely powerful figure, a vampire who truly has the strength and will to end the world. His lair is within a ruined church that was swallowed by an earthquake at least a century (several?) before. He has several strong vampires attendant upon him, even while he's trapped in a dimensional rift-prison of his own making and unable to leave a confined area (though others are free to come and go through it as though nothing were different about that space). He gets to rise through a pool of blood, all CG and special (I'm guessing he was in a type of torpor before the advent of Season 1 of Buffy. "The Sleeper will wake and the world will bleed" as Luke intones. It's gotta be torpor).

His physical appearance gives us a bit to think about regarding vampire biology. He definitely bears a marked resemblance to a bat, his face showing prominent mutation about the mouth, nose, and ears. He always has his game face on-- either because he's incapable of affecting a human appearance any more or because he scorns it. (This latter fact can also be observed at work in Luke, his main adherent.) But back to the bat-resemblance: as a friend pointed out to me, the older vampires may slowly begin evolving into some sort of demonic hybrid as mounting evidence of their dehumanization. I can buy this.

Apparently The Master is so bad-ass, he gets scripture (of a sort):

Luke: "And like a plague of boils, the race of man covered the earth. But on the third day of the newest light will come the harvest when the blood of men will flow as wine, when the Master will walk among them once more, the earth will belong to the old ones, and hell itself will come to town. Amen."

This obviously references a time before humans were the predominant lifeform on Earth (which we find out more about in the next episode when Giles reveals that Earth actually began as a Hell and not a Paradise). It also confirms that many vampires are all about restoring demons to their former reigning glory, thus bringing about the downfall of our world (or at least the downfall of our World The Way We Like It).

Also, a note on vampire visage: the vampires' demonic faces look much more ghoulish at the beginning of Season 1 than they do at any other time on Buffy. Their faces are whiter and the brow-creasing is much more pronounced. The mouthful of fangs is probably more pronounced too. The faces are scaled back to be more human later because, as Joss said, they needed to breed sympathy for Angel (who often wore a vampire's face) and it was just too time-consuming to apply.

Facial transformations were also definitely in their infancy at the beginning of Season 1. Still, that's not something that really should be fussed over.

Finally, we are also treated to a crash course on how exactly vampires are made:

Giles: "Will he rise again?"
Buffy: "Who?"
Giles: "The boy."
Buffy: "No. He's just dead."
Giles: "Can you be sure?"
Buffy: "To make you a vampire, they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It's like a whole big sucking thing. Mostly, they're just going to kill you. Why am I still talking to you?"

Of course, Buffy's exposition there doesn't really explain how she knows that he's not going to rise as a vampire (unless she checked his mouth for dry, crusty blood, I s'pose). I can buy that she'd be able to sense these things, but I prefer the practical explanation. And can I just mention here that, as an educated viewer, I resent a bit how, over the course of the series, they played fast and loose with how long it took someone to rise? Some didn't rise until after they were buried, some only waited until their visitation, and some couldn't even wait to get off the morgue's examination table. I mean, sheesh! These things need to be regulated!

Oh yeah, and, in Season 1, vampire bodies seem to hit the floor and THEN dust. Along with their clothes and whatever else they happen to have on them at the time (or in them, like stakes). But even that's inconsistent, when it's convenient... sometimes the stake won't disappear, so Buffy or someone can pick it up later and use it on another vamp. And, sometimes, other things will stay, like jewelry, so they can use it as a clue. Argh, my kingdom for consistent dusting! (Joss said that he went with dusting because he didn't want fifteen minutes at the end of every episode dedicated to happy-fun-body-hiding time.)

Characterization

Buffy: Again, Buffy's true nature shines through in spades in this one episode. As Joss says in the commentary, SMG's acting really helps make Buffy an open book (as does Joss' writing and characterization). We see that she is conscientous, beyond shallow, above the average in intelligence, perceptive, take-charge, a smart-ass, potentially vulnerable, and, above all, so not dedicated to her touted desire of being a Normal Girl.

Even though she's supposedly given up slaying, she still carries a stake in her purse. And as soon as Cordelia mentions a dead body being on campus, Buffy abandons all pretense and is all business. She begins interrogating Cordelia and immediately leaves to investigate the scene (not letting anything stand in her way, especially locked doors). Once she's come to her own conclusions, she's off to confront Giles... but, more importantly, to inform him that there are some strange things afoot.

Although not wanting to alienate anyone on her first day at a new school, Buffy is not taken in by Cordelia fishing for another groupie for the superiority clique. She answers her questions nicely enough, but seeks out Willow to be her friend at the first opportunity. Buffy never judges anyone by first appearance here, and only comes to her conclusions about people after observing their actions and attitude.

Even though we were treated to slight glimpses of her vulnerability (being frightened by Luke, her reaction of vitriol to Angel, her initial reaction to Giles and the resurfacing of her destiny, small facial expressions as she tried to adjust to her new school, later interactions with Cordelia, especially after she almost staked her), we also are shown that Buffy has a serious core of strength. She's not "wigged" by the body of that dead boy, and she most certainly doesn't hesitate to go after Willow or take two vampires on in the bargain.

We also see a bit of Buffy's trademark resourcefullness in this episode-- like her breaking a leg off a bar-stool as a make-shift stake.

Willow: Willow's sweetness and vulnerability are what we come to know first... also her doormat-like tendencies. She never stands up to Cordelia in the beginning, instead retreating in the face of Superior Disdain. She's entirely too nice, even denying with absolutely no prompting that Buffy was hanging out with her, Xander, and what's-his-name-the-soon-to-be-dead-guy, trying to protect Buffy's fledgling reputation.

She is a geek through-and-through, complete with absolutely horrible fashion sense and a predilection for helping everyone with their homework. This is why I cannot buy that she didn't recognize Buffy's philosophy as espoused at the Bronze: "seize the day" should hardly be a new concept for someone as widely read as Willow. Please, I definitely knew that phrase before I was 16, and I didn't even need to watch Dead Poet's Society.

Anyway, Joss also reveals why Willow's fashion sense was never as markedly dismal afterward as in this first episode. Apparently, the network execs kept sending him notes insisting that Willow become more fashionable and more hip. This really irritated Joss, but I don't mind that he made Willow's clothes slightly better. She was never entirely fashionable, but it was much better than the geekish profiling Joss was trying to pull in the beginning.

Joss also says some interesting things about how he was always sure that Willow would pull a more rabid fanbase than Buffy because of her vulnerability and because she was so much more accessible. Willow was actually someone you could know, someone you could be, where Buffy always had this unattainable quality because she's such a heroine.

Oh, also, I feel I should point out that Willow's always shown a spark. She had the guts to show up at the Bronze, waiting for a friend that she wasn't even sure would be there. For a 16-year-old geek, that's major bravery right there. That one action, for me, almost eclipses her talking back to that fashion-clueless vamp in the crypt, which is the more obvious display of bravery.

Xander: Xander's main problem is definitely women and always going after the categorically "wrong" ones. His debut on the scene comes when Buffy turns his head and literally causes him to take a dive from his skateboard. It's not the first time he's going to get physically hurt because of her. Man, it's just appropriate that his first sight of Buffy caused him some physical pain.

However, Xander's also always been the one that kind of holds them all together. He's the first to discover Buffy's secret, and he treats it with respect before he even believes it. He trusts in her, and immediately puts his trust in her. We're also aware in this first episode that he's the one doomed to always be the Friend and not just because Angel's already pulling Buffy's attention.

Giles: I like how Anthony Stewart Head portrays Giles. Here is a Watcher who definitely hasn't gotten everything figured out and is still working out how his training as a Watcher reconciles with real life. I'm not sure how they select people for these tasks, and you'd figure there'd be high requirements for a Watcher who was being sent off to actually supervise the acting Slayer of the times, but no... Giles shines through as a bit of a bumbler in these first few episodes. (Thank God they gave him a dark side later and made him less of a cartoon.)

Also, the intensity between Giles and Buffy brings an uncomfortable element to the show. Surely I'm not the only one who noticed the utter inappropriateness present in the way in which Giles interacts with Buffy? Joss certainly goes over it in the commentary, mentioning how he kept having to remind them to tone down the intensity between Giles and Buffy: it's like, c'mon guys, she's a student, and he's manhandling her an awful lot. Six inch rule, guys, c'mon!

Giles clearly violates the six-inch rule when he and Buffy are standing up in that balcony area of the Bronze. He stands uncomfortably close behind her, trying to talk her into resuming her proper role as Slayer. Seeing this scene again after having seen the entire series actually made me even more uncomfortable... it reminds me too much of a similar scene in Season 6, featuring a certain obsessed!Spike and weak!Buffy. Both of them invaded her space and whispered things that she didn't want to know into her ear, and both included the element of "look at them below... they don't even know..."

Cordelia: Cordelia is not entirely the bitch that she seems to be. Sure, she plays the super-bitch queen pretty well, but you can't shake seeing a possible kindness in her. After all, she shared her book with Buffy in class before she ascertained if she was cool enough to associate with. And she always stopped to talk to Buffy, even when Buffy was hanging out with people she considered sub-defectives (to borrow a term from Joan of Arcadia, sorry).

Joyce: Joyce also clearly does not have her life figured out yet, though she's trying to be supportive of Buffy in the meantime. She also clearly does not get Buffy, though this isn't played up in a negative or demonizing way. I like how the adults aren't alienated in this series... Joss is clearly trying to include her, and we're given a glimpse into the rock-solid woman we will come to know and love and who creates the original support beneath the I-Will-Stand-Unsupported-insistent Buffy.

Angel: We really don't find out much about Angel's character in this episode, but I wanted to include a note on how his appearance is similar to Spike's reappearance in Season 7. Both are all about the cryptic messages... well, Angel is intentionally cryptic (and thus annoying). Spike is slightly mad. Anyway, Angel shows up with "You're standing at the Mouth of Hell...and it's about to open." and gives her the cross. Spike comes up with "From beneath you, it devours." They're both referring to the same thing.

Darla: I'm going to have real issues with Darla's character later (like when I properly get into Angel the series), but I'll leave those be for now. In this episode, we discover that Darla is a prime manipulator and works her shtick well. She's another example of Joss reversing roles, taking the Helpless Little Girl motif and giving her fangs. The victim becomes the victimizer, in this case. Beyond that, I'll just say that Darla gets her ass kicked way too easily by Buffy in this episode.

Favorite Quotes

Giles: "Then why are you here?"
Buffy: "To tell you that I don't care. Which I don't, and I have now told you. So bye."

Buffy: "To make you a vampire, they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It's like a whole big sucking thing. Mostly, they're just going to kill you. Why am I still talking to you?"

Buffy: "From now on, I'm only going to hang out with the living."

Buffy: "Seize the moment because tomorrow you might be dead."

Buffy: "I didn't say I'd never slay another vampire. It's not like I have all these fluffy bunny feelings for them, I'm just not going to get way extra-curriculuar with it. You know, if I see one, sure--"
(See, I just find this comment to be so ironic in light of her later extra-curricular activities with the blood-sucking undead...)

Giles: "But you didn't...hone."

Buffy: "Now, we can do this the hard way or... well, actually, there's just the hard way."
Darla: "That's fine with me."
Buffy: "Are you sure? Now this is not gonna be pretty. We're talking violence, strong language, adult content..."

Whew. I cannot keep doing this for EVERY episode. I'm hoping that this post was just so much work because I'm dealing with the set-up. As soon as characterization and patterns are developed, these posts should drop down to something much more manageable.

December 2010

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