Watching ‘Buffy’: Seasons 1–3

As I mentioned previously, my commentaries on Buffy the Vampire Slayer began on Facebook, and, early on, they were more like live-blogging comments more so than reviews. As my interest in the show grew, I started saving my comments until the end of the episode as I began to pull together my thoughts into a slightly longer posts. At that time, I began to tag the posts with the episode number and title. Given their looser form, the earlier comments are hard to pinpoint the episode to which I was referring; thus, they will appear a bit random until the midpoint of season 3, when my interest in the show really began to take. Below is my best effort at wrangling these commentaries together into one post.

Season 1

I’m watching BUFFY for the first time and just finished season 1. Some thoughts:

1. I really felt the show picking up steam in the second half: the writing gets sharper, the characters more compelling.

2. I was quite surprised at how emotionally resonant the S1 finale was (Buffy’s “I’m 16″ speech esp.)

3. What is the consensus on when the show hits it stride? It’s reputation seems to be one of generic deconstruction and formal innovation, bits of which are peeking through in s1, but it still feels tentative at times.

4. Why do the vampires look like Klingons?

5. Aesthetically, the early eps looked like cheesy 80s horror films. A self-aware nod to the genre or just a budget reality?

6. I have a crush on Buffy.

7. Ditto Willow.

Season 2

-Spike calls Angel an “Uncle Tom.” BUFFY, season 2: you have my attention. :)

-Seth Green as brooding alt-rocker. I dunno. Not really buying it. #buffy

-Eyeballs to entrails. #buffy

-”She couldn’t have dressed up like Xena?”

-”You know what? It’s good to be me.” #buffy

-Okay, reference to the Divynals “I Touch Myself.” Safe to say #buffy has shifted gears. No longer the same show as s1.

-This John Ritter episode of BUFFY? Kinda awesome.

-”Please, my boyfriend had a bicentennial.” #buffy

-So why has The Bronze been closed for weeks? What narrative purpose does this serve? Peculiar. #buffy

-”Don’t forget: you’re supposed to be a meek little girly-girl like the rest of us.” #buffy

-If I’m remembering correctly, Xander kills his first vampire in the second half s2, thereby rescuing Buffy. And neither of them acknowledge the occasion?

-”3 days out of the month, I’m not much fun to be around either.” #willow

-Xander’s love spell episode is really fun and a much needed dose of levity. #buffy

-BUFFY, s2e17 (“passion”): suddenly, the show has become effective as horror, with situations and compositions that are legitimately creepy. Even more surprising is how arresting it is emotionally. So I think it is safe to say that I’ve lasted past the season two turning point that everyone mentioned. Y’all win: I’m on board.

-Beginning with “Surprise” in s2, #BUFFY strings together 7 extremely strong episodes before falling down with “Go Fish,” a weak installment about swimmers and steroids. Hoping the season finale two-parter rebounds.

-Angel doing an Irish accent. Convincing.

-And there it is. “Happy meals with legs”. #buffy

-Season 2 finale wasn’t nearly as devastating as, say, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which is perhaps my favorite episode thus far. I’m left somewhat cold.

Season 3

-The aesthetic shift in the 3rd season of BUFFY is quite pronounced when marathoning: 35mm, cranes, streadicam, more expressionistic lighting. It will take me some time to adjust to the slickness. And they recut the theme song too.

-Willow’s bob haircut in s3 of BUFFY totally works.

-Not that I didn’t anticipate it without the hint, but isn’t Angel’s presence and Boreanaz’s credit in the s3 credit sequence a bit of a spoiler? #buffy

-Concerted effort to diversify the ethnicity ofnthe minor characters in s3 of BUFFY.

-Season 3, “Homecoming”: perhaps the most tonally inconsistent episode up to this point, but partially redeemed by the Willow-Xander kiss and some solid one-liners. Nearly every character seemed to break sharply in his or her behavior. Peculiar.

-Giles: “It’s a rite of passage.” Buffy: “Oh, please, can’t they just pierce something or cut something off?”

-In each of the two versions of the #buffy theme song through s3, there is a two-second burst of diegetic sound. Why?

-Xander and Willow playing footsie in study hall is just lovely, turning a bad movie cliche of lust into something quite tender. #buffy

-So Faith’s new watcher has arrived. Why is the council of watchers exclusively comprised of Brits? #BUFFY

#BUFFY – S3e8 – “Lovers Walk”: A remarkable balancing act of tone. Spike is quite pathetic without Dru, and to great humor. Yet the show quickly reminds us that just because he’s brokenhearted doesn’t mean his soul has been restored either. Likewise, Cordy’s gruesome injury undercuts the funny Spike bits, but this is undone by the subsequent narrative misdirection (the funeral). The episode quickly returns to sincerity and tugs on the heartstrings with all the primaries suddenly single. And then this gives way to Spike’s wonderful exit. Which sets up… S3e9 – “The Wish” – What feels at first blush to be a break from the serial progression for a little levity (a la “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” from s2) quickly turns dark with a counterfactual narrative. In this way, it functions a lot like (still) my favorite episode, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” in that roles are reversed and plot dynamics inverted. Hannigan has fun with the vampire role, almost out-catting Landau’s Dru. Interestingly, this episode forces each of the minor characters to do what Buffy had to do earlier: kill their love interest. And even though we *know* this darkest timeline is going to be reversed, to witness Buffy’s death is nonetheless a startling punch to the gut—quite disturbing. The takeaway for me is that the show is daring enough to try just about anything, and when it works, like it does in these two episodes, its undeniably terrific.

#BUFFY – S3e10 – “Ammends”: I hate to resort to the blackjack metaphor, but it seems fitting here. Following the counterfactual stopgap episode in which all of the 1st half of the season’s antagonisms are displaced and then played out in disturbing fashion, the deck had to be reshuffled. The primaries were all divided (including Giles from Buffy), so now they had to be reconciled in order to carry the season onward. Thus, the show double’s down on the earlier threads: Buffy + Angel, Willow + Oz, and Buffy + Xander. In short, the show had exhausted its temporary conflicts and now has to rekindle them. And it feels a bit forced. As a result, the episode is a mixed bag, but a necessary one, I suppose. The good: Buffy’s wonderful line “I wish I wished you dead”; Willow queuing up Barry White; and the highly effective camera and editing which make Ms. Calendar and various other of Angel’s victims appear ubiquitous through jarring spatial mismatches—creepy. The bad: Buffy is twice seen sleeping after Christmas Eve, which means that her big moment with Angel would be taking place on the 26th, yet the show insists on it being Xmas day; The cloying, tinkling piano and swelling strings that accompany the Day the Sun Won’t Shine; Boreanaz. The ugly: Boreanaz’s Irish accent.

-So at what point does Angel get his own show? Does he disappear from BUFFY at that point. Please?

#BUFFY s3e12 – “Helpless”: An important episode for a number of reasons, but something in the execution feels lacking or forced. To my recollection, this is the first time that Buffy is referred to as possessing “powers.” I’d assumed that Buffy was “chosen” but not endowed with supernatural skill—more Batman than Superman, if you will. This seems a hole in the show’s mythology that is hard for me to overcome, but by all means, correct me if I’m wrong on this. It feels, though, like a sleight of hand to get us to the larger issue. Nevertheless, the notion of Buffy and power lets the more striking and interesting matter come to the fore: gender and gender roles. It is interesting that Buffy’s surrogate father (Giles) chemically reduces her faculties, an act not unlike the slipping of a roofie. As a result, Buffy becomes a victim, twice ending up pinned underneath (suddenly) more powerful men, with connotations of rape apparent. Buffy isn’t the only female victimized, for her mother winds up bound and gagged, yet another woman silenced, reduced. And is this the first time we soon Buffy bloody? Her wounds are still being treated the day after the fight. “Helpless,” the episode’s title, seems to be suggesting a critique. A few pointed lines: Bad guy, to Buffy: “I have mother issues. I’m aware of that.” Buffy, to the elder watchman: “Leave before I get my powers back” and “Bite me,” the latter an inversion of a vampire’s favored method.

BUFFY – S3e16 – “Doppelgangland”: My admiration for this show has grown steadily as I began to recognize its daring genre blends, gender politics, and complex mythology, but this one raised the bar. I can without hesitation call it one of the best 45 minutes of television I’ve ever seen: it’s fun, inventive, entertaining, filled with some of the best one-liners and fight sequences to date. And Hannigan is superb in dual roles, which the show complicates by having each of the alter egos perform as the other, casting the whole thing into abyme. I could write pages about what I loved about this episode, but here are the ones that brought me the most delight:

1. Why do academics love this show? Because of lines like this: Willow, to Oz: “You think I’m boring.” Oz: “I think that’s a radical interpretation of the text.”

2. Unfortunately, the show’s reputation has resulted in me knowing a handful of spoilers in advance, so Willow’s line about her alter ego being “kinda gay” is just perfect. Buffy reassures her that one’s vampire self is entirely unlike one’s mortal self, and Angel almost corrects this, but lets it go. Planting narrative seeds…

3. I don’t know if one can credit Whedon alone for this (he wrote and directed this episode), but Boreanaz was loose and *funny* in this episode. Example: “She’s at The Bronze with a cadre of vampires looking to party.” Tortured-soul Angel is annoying, but this Angel I can live with.

4. Having Willow decide not to kill her alter ego and instead return her to the alternate reality, only to have her die seconds later—Man, that’s clever.

5. If the boat is sinking and there’s only one spot left on the life raft, I’m giving my spot to Alyson Hannigan, because dammit, she’s awesome.

BUFFY – s3e17 – “Enemies”: I really took the bait on this one. I earlier wrote that e10 (“Amends”) operates as something of a reset in that the show’s tensions all came to a head, everyone reconciles, and those tensions then are rekindled. Thus, when I saw Angelus return, I immediately thought , “Ah, Whedon’s going back to the well again.” This of course angered me. It felt like a hip pocket narrative move: when all the other antagonisms bog down or run out of steam, we’ve always got the impossible relationship between Buffy and Angel to anchor the show. The timing, after all, works much like it did with “Surprise”/”Innocence” from season 2, with this time a Christmas miracle being followed by Angel again losing his soul. I’d suspect I’m not alone in this regard. The show tempts us into thinking it has resorted to lazy storytelling when, in fact, it was banking on us making such an assumption. All this culminates with the surprising revelation that Buffy and Angel were on to Faith and collaborated to prove it. This of course affects how we read the scene: Buffy, chained, insists that she is a better slayer than Faith, which feels at the time like an attempt to psych out her counterpart by playing to her competitive streak, perhaps even daring Faith to unchain her for a duel to resolve the matter once and for all. The reversal, though, is that Buffy isn’t simply swearing revenge, isn’t arguing what she will do but what she has done, what is right underneath Faith’s nose, as well as ours. Thus, Buffy goes from being a back-to-the-wall, guns blazing in the face of death badass to Columbo-style, one step ahead of everybody badass. It’s riveting stuff to behold. But my favorite moment of the episode is a pair of lines that I read in a particularly meta fashion that almost certainly weren’t intended. Faith claims to be “the world’s best actor,” to which Angel replies, “Second best.” As someone who has been critical of both Boreanaz’s and Dushku’s acting chops, I couldn’t help chuckling at hearing these words come from their mouths. :)

BUFFY – s3e20 – “Prom”: I wasn’t very invested in the prom storyline, but I nevertheless was happy for Buffy and her moment in the spotlight–made me smile. And I used to love that “Wild Horses” cover by The Sundays, so that was a nice surprise. But on to the pressing matter: often, people tell me, “you’ll see more of character X, just wait.” Please, please, please tell me I can expect to see more of Anya. Her situation seems worthy of a spinoff unto itself. My favorite minor character thus far.

BUFFY – s3e21-22 – “Graduation Day”: Aside from the Mayor’s ascended form looking remarkably like the creatures from TREMORS (similar camerawork, to boot), the finale was well-plotted and well-executed, nearly flawless in fact. Every character had a poignant moment (Carpenter’s Cordy was especially good in e22), and there were several inventive plot twists. Most impressive was the Mayor—one of the most unique villans I’ve ever seen—grieving over Faith, which added some much needed gravity to the Faith storyline, which has underwhelmed me from the start. The final battle was Raimi-esque: strange, funny, epic in scale, almost to point of silly, which is the source of its charm. As a whole, this was the best season thus far, with “Doppelgangland,” “Enemies,” and the finale all standing out. That the season was so satisfying despite my lack of investment in Faith indicates just how emotionally resonant the rest of the season’s conflicts were. Hell, I even grew to like Angel by the second half of the season. To reiterate what I’ve been saying lately, the show is highly inventive and at times daring, capable of juggling horror, melodrama, and comedy with near equal effectiveness; and it constantly pushes its own boundaries. In short, it’s just plain fun.

Trip to the comic shop turns into a conversation about BUFFY with the clerk. She tells me I need to finish the show, alternating with ANGEL, then pick up the seasons 7-8 in print, then start ANGEL & FAITH (since its timeline coincides with BUFFY s9), and then I can finish with the SPIKE comic at any time. My head is spinning.

  • Adam Smith

     ”To my recollection, this is the first
    time that Buffy is referred to as possessing “powers.” I’d assumed that Buffy
    was “chosen” but not endowed with supernatural skill—more Batman than Superman,
    if you will. This seems a hole in the show’s mythology that is hard for me to
    overcome, but by all means, correct me if I’m wrong on this.”

     

    No offense, but wasn’t it always
    fairly obvious? Why else can Buffy fight the vampires if she were just a
    regular human? Why not Xander, or Willow, or Oz? etc. She clearly possesses
    strength and skills beyond the abilities of your average 16 year old girl. I’m
    just really surprised you could make it to Helpless without realising that
    Buffy has supernatural powers. Just off the top of my head;

    In Phases she grabs Kane’s rifle
    and bends it with her bare hands as if it’s made of butter, in Welcome to the
    Hellmouth Darla marvels at her strength, in Prophecy Girl The Master drinks
    from her then cries out “the power!”, in Ted she tells the cops she “doesn’t
    bruise easily”, in Becoming we see flashbacks of her first Slaying and she’s
    surprised by her strength and her Watcher tells her “do you see your power?”,
    she’s referred to as a “super hero” in both The Harvest and Dead Man’s Party, in
    Anne she’s strong enough to lift open the gate for the others to escape, in Lie
    to Me Ford concedes that he knows that he’d never be able to overpower Buffy, in
    Out of Mind, Out of Sight she punches a whole through a door, in the Puppet
    Show Sid mistakes Buffy for a demon because he sees her supernatural strength
    when she breaks a padlock with her palm etc.

    Not to mention that for the first
    two seasons, almost every episode of the show began with “Into every generation
    a Slayer is born. She alone will have the STRENGTH and SKILL to stop the
    vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” 

    • justinbhorton

      Adam,

      I think what made me miss the nature of Buffy’s supernatural powers for so long was that these powers required honing (e.g., she trains in martial arts with Giles; she later talks with Faith about being in shape, etc.) And if she were born a chosen one, wouldn’t she have discovered these powers far sooner, like in grade school? And the other members of the Scooby Gang do kill vampires, so clearly mere mortals are capable.

      Again, I’d always assumed that Buffy possessed preternatural strength and skill (i don’t know, like Jason Bourne, maybe), but not necessarily supernatural. But I believe I’m right in that this was the first episode where the notion of Buffy’s powers became a front-and-center topic of discussion.

      This is also my first viewing of the show, so I’m sure I’ve missed some details along the way. If I ever watch through again, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for how this part of the mythology is developed. Thanks for reading and commenting!