Welcome to the Hellmouth

Oh man, I totally forgot how nineties this first season is.  You don’t really notice it as much in later seasons, I feel like, but this first one is nearing Clueless levels of dated.  Probably in a few years aspects of it will feel a little more timeless, but right now it sits there in all it’s 1996/1997 glory.  Which reminds me–does anyone remember when this was filmed?  Series info is telling me it aired in ’97, but I know the whole first season was pre-shot before it aired, so was it actually shot in ’96?  I could probably find this online somewhere, but I’m too lazy to check it out right now.

Let’s talk about Principal Flutie for a minute.  I actually have always really liked Principal Flutie.  I remember being really disappointed when he got killed off (spoilers are fair game, remember!) halfway through the season.  I do think, though, that Principal Snyder is a much better foil to Giles, and knowing that Buffy is going to have Giles and Joyce to support her and be solid adult role models, it makes sense to have someone else in a similar position to Giles who isn’t that kind of upstanding, upright, good guy.  Principal Flutie might be a little too comic, too; too jovial.  He also doesn’t know what’s up in Sunnydale, which could be a problem later on, since the principal of the high school has to deal with some serious crap a season or two down the line.

My attachment to Flutie might also stem from the fact that he’s a lot like the principals and superintendents I knew when I was in high school.  Well meaning, understanding, but unable to fully empathize with his students due to the age gap.  He reminds me of my high school superintendent quite a bit, actually, now that I’m thinking about it–a jolly man who walked the halls doing Donald Duck impersonations and wore bad suits, and who generally disliked having to deal with the unpleasant parts of administration.

In addition to Principal Flutie, this episode also has my favorite near-slip of Buffy’s–the “That gym was full of vampir–asbestos” line.  I have no idea why, but that line has always cracked me up so hard.  I think it’s the absurdity of a teenage girl being that concerned about asbestos poisoning, and the principal buying it.  Not that teenage girls can’t be smart, that’s not my point.  Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the teen comedy femme protagonist archetype that Buffy was created to mimic with the deeply hurt, uncertain, angry, and heroic girl that’s actually underneath the facade.

Interestingly enough, I don’t think Buffy is the only female on this show doing the teen femme protagonist facade.  I think Willow and Cordelia also use variations on this idea of presenting yourself one way but actually being another.  With Willow, it’s not that she’s hiding her intelligence, it’s that her intelligence masks her feelings–her crush on her best friend, her need for female friends, her probably blossoming bisexuality (more on this when it becomes relevant).  Willow isn’t hiding the same way Buffy is.  Her secrets aren’t life and death, necessarily.  And Willow isn’t just hiding from other people, she’s also hiding from herself.

Cordelia is an even more interesting case (to me, anyway) because despite her developing depths as she moves through the two series (and particularly after her move onto Angel), she always retains that bubbly, popular rich girl persona.  It mutates, definitely, but her base elements–the things that make her annoying and rude in this first season of Buffy–end up also being qualities that serve her well later on.  She’s blunt, she’s pushy, she’s extremely good at pretending she isn’t bothered by something, she’s smart (we see this even in this episode, where she’s clearly been following along with the history teacher and taking notes), and she’s got the best character arc as far as growing as a person–Angel season four excluded.  Cordelia comes a long way over six years, and a lot of that is acknowledging that Cordelia Chase is a public persona and allowing herself to give that up and be nicer.  Her characterization is consistent, too, despite her purpose in the story not quite being fully fleshed out and understood at that point.  Actually, I’m not sure Joss was ever sure what to do with Cordelia until he sent her to Angel.

Speaking of Angel, it really strikes me in this episode that Joss had no idea what he was doing with that character, like at all.  It’s been a while since I’ve watched any featurettes, and I know Joss talks about this in one of the ones on the first season DVD, but my DVDs are packed away somewhere right now and I can’t remember what he says specifically.  I know there was always some question as to what he was going to be, if he was human or a vampire, or something else.  It shows here, because his whole “turn up, be mysterious, disappear” shtick has a different flavor here than it does even in the next episode.

Xander, on the other hand, keeps his laid-back, uncool personality, and the weird-kid vibe, but somehow morphs out of being a skater boy and into being more of your typical nerdy guy (but not smart-nerdy, pop culture nerdy) who handles filler knowledge that traditionally smart characters like Willow and Giles don’t know.  His presence also keeps it from being weird that two teenage girls spend that much time with a good looking male teacher.  Xander is pretty much comic relief in this episode, though he is also the first to discover that vampires exist and Buffy is the Slayer.  My point with this being that Xander was designed to have a very specific role and voice, whereas Angel was plopped into the story without a definite idea of who he was, just that there was this delectable young actor who could come in and give exposition and probably eventually turn into a love interest for Buffy, and the idea of him being a vampire with a soul evolved later.  Xander’s evolution was less a changing of his character and more of a changing the window dressing.

It occurs to me that maybe I should have talked about this earlier, when I was discussing Willow, but let’s go back to her now and talk about her relationship with love interests.  Up until Oz, all Willow’s boyfriends try to kill her.  It’s pretty sad.  Moloch, DeBarge Vamp . . . okay, actually, I think it’s only those two.  But then Oz comes along, and he’s great for awhile, but then he also ends up breaking her heart.  The whole Tara situation is pretty screwed up, too.  The only relationship that doesn’t end horribly is her relationship with Kennedy, and my theory is that’s only because Joss didn’t have enough time to ruin it.  What is up with Willow and all her significant others (or potential significant others) ending badly?  Buffy’s dates don’t all try to kill her.  Cordelia dates plenty of boys who don’t end up going psycho or being demons.  Xander has poor luck, too, but he also tends to set his sights unrealistically high.  Willow doesn’t do that.  She’s not trying to achieve the unattainable Dream Guy.  She’s just trying to pursue things with boys (and girls) she thinks like her.  And she gets consistently screwed.  Almost eaten by the Master, almost killed by a demon, cheated on by a werewolf, her girlfriend killed before her eyes . . . the way Willow’s romances turn out seems needlessly violent and brutal, in my opinion.  Why can’t Willow get a happy ending for once?  Why can’t the nice boy take her to the ice cream parlor and buy her a sundae?  Why does it have to end with death or people dropping off the face of the earth?  This occurred to me for the first time today, while watching this episode, and I feel like I should have noticed the pattern sooner.  Is Willow just not allowed to have nice things, or what?

And another thing, what is up with The Bronze?  Do clubs like this actually exist?  Canonically, the bronze serves soda pop, coffee, some minor food items, and alcohol, but you’re not ID’d at the door.  There are bands some nights, DJs others, and they seem to be able to get a wide range of musicians to come play for them.  Teenagers are clearly welcome there, and go in hordes, but adults are also welcome–adults of all ages, too.  Giles can show up without anyone but Buffy blinking an eye; Spike and Angel can show up without being questioned, too.  We never see Joyce there, but I think she’s one of the few exceptions.  And apparently you can also rent it out for parties?  I feel like this is not a place that could exist in reality.  Maybe I’m wrong though?  Maybe I just go to the wrong clubs?

The Bronze does fit in, though, with Joss’s fixation on youth.  I’m not sure if it’s 100% a Joss thing, since the wide variety of vampire canon has this fixation, too, but Joss uses it in a way that makes it normal and reasonable for vampires to be fixing on and spending time with teenagers.  In this episode alone we discover Darla is masquerading as a school girl, the Master wants only young food if possible, DeBarge Vamp is clearly a fairly recent turning and he was turned young, and Buffy herself is presented as barely a sophomore.  And all of these young characters, from Buffy to Darla, are all going to have to deal with growing up and facing adulthood in various ways.  Some of them do it on Angel, but Joss set up this young looking cast really well.  The Bronze plays into this by giving everyone somewhere to interact.  All the various stages of being young can come here, and in that way I think Joss was smart when he created The Bronze.  I just also don’t buy it as a real life club.  I’ll probably come back to this idea of youth obsessed vampires later, since as I recall, this is a theme that carries through both series.

Before I wrap this up and start “The Harvest,” I did want to mention the odd dynamic between Darla, Luke, and the Master.  Well, the Master’s dynamic is not odd in this triangle, since clearly he sired* both Darla and Luke.  The part I found odd is the hierarchy between Luke and Darla.  I might be wrong about this, but I thought I remembered Darla being the Masters oldest childe?  But in this and the next episode, Luke is clearly the higher ranking of the two.  Is this because of Darla’s betrayal of the Master for Angelus?  Is Luke considered better because he’s stayed loyal?  Or was Luke older than Darla?  Darla acts like Luke is an annoying older brother, but Luke acts like he has every right to stake Darla if she doesn’t do as he says.  This might just be another instance of Joss not knowing what he was doing with all his characters at this point, too.  I’m about to see more of this annoying triangle in the next episode, so I’m not going to dwell here too much longer, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Okay, I think that’s it for me for now.  I’m not hoping for much, since I’m mostly doing this for myself, but if anyone wants to discuss any of this in the comments, please go for it!

____

*Since most people in the fandom will know what I mean when I use these terms, and since no one has come up with anything better or different to use, I’ll be using “sire,” “childe,” and various forms thereof to talk about vampiric familial relationships.  Boy, that was a really pretentious way to say “We’re using sire and childe because that’s what fandom does and I don’t have any better words.”

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