The project isn't a set of reviews. Although I value reading reviews that give lots of quotes or pics, it's not my own style. What I've got are a set of observations that inform my reading of the themes of the show as they develop. It's pretty much my write-up of a show that has consumed far too much of my energy over the last several years. I'll often speak of foreshadowing, but that doesn't mean I'm at all committing to the idea that there was some fixed design from the word go -- it's a short hand for talking about the resonances that end up in the text as it unspools.
NOTE: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtVS. If they become relevant I'll spoil through the comics as well. Basically -- if you are a spoiler-phobe and haven't seen or read it all, read further at your own risk.
The first set of notes are below the cut!
Welcome to the Hellmouth does a great job of introducing a lot of the major themes.
1. Nothing is as it seems.
Maggie: In his interview on the season one DVD, that’s what Joss says. It’s incidentally also the opening line for Dollhouse. The game is to overthrow expectations, and that’s exactly what the opening scene does. Twice. The concept for the show was what if the blonde in the opening act of the horror movie turned out to be a blonde superhero who kicked the monster’s ass. So here’s the blonde in the opening act. Except she’s neither the victim who screams and gets eaten nor the superhero. She’s the monster. Surprise.
Oh, and she’s not even just a throwaway monster. The first major character we meet in BtVS is Darla, not Buffy. Darla with Buffy-like hair, in a school girl’s uniform. Darla who is Angel’s sire and centuries-long lover. Darla who is the one who causes Angel to lose his soul for the first time. Darla who is the one with whom Angel tries to lose his soul for a third time. The monster and the heroine have oddly similar effects on Angel. Angel left Buffy so she could have a normal life. But Angel’s the one who gets to have a kid – with Darla. The monster is the monster and the superhero is the superhero, but isn’t it interesting that we get all that blurring in the opening scene of the whole series? The first glimpse we get of Buffy is the twisted distorted mirror of Buffy we find in Darla.
Strudel interjects: It’s interesting, knowing how the character will evolve, to see Darla initially played as a squeaky girl, even when revealed as a vampire. What’s more interesting is that even as she evolves (or is re-written) as a character, and drops a register and become a cooler, more sultry presence, she will continue to be a mirror for Buffy.
2. Buffy is a hero.
Maggie: Though there’s that hint of darkness at Buffy’s introduction, the introduction of Buffy herself lays out the many dimensions along which she is a genuine hero.
Maggie replies: I wouldn't go so far as to call Buffy either unheroic or an anti-hero. Mostly I want to say that she turns out to be more complex than your garden-variety superhero.
Maggie: As Buffy tells Giles, being a slayer means being kicked out of school, losing one’s friends, and having to fight for her life without being able to tell anyone because it might endanger them. What she doesn’t mention is where the season ends up: and that’s with the fact that she’s likely to actually die. Although her (understandable) reaction is to run from all of this, she can’t help but go and investigate when she hears about a dead body. And when she sees Willow in danger, she has to go save her.
The episode illustrates all of these costs. She meets with the principal who wants to be welcoming and forgiving but who immediately distances himself when he sees her actual record. And we get a lot on the social costs. In trying to save Willow, Buffy nearly accidentally slays Cordelia, who promptly spreads the word that Buffy is weird. (Very understated but the near accidental slaying is a nod to the threat slayers pose to civilians, a theme that becomes explicit in season 3; Cordelia is not wrong to be freaked out by it). In the Bronze, Buffy sees Giles up on the balcony, and he calls her attention to the others out there dancing -- she’s separate from them, with a duty to protect them. (The scene gets called back in season six in Dead Things when Spike adds another layer to Buffy’s fundamental separation from others – but it starts here in the very first episode). No doubt, Buffy's 'otherness' as a slayer is to be a theme front and central to the series as a whole.
2. Buffy and the Scoobies. The episode also launches the important theme of the Scoobies and their role in Buffy’s life. Slaying might mean having no friends, and especially not being able to tell others what she does for fear of endangering them. But Xander and Willow immediately learn who and what Buffy is, and become her friends anyway. That, of course, is what makes Buffy different from all the other slayers. The introduction of the scoobies sets the tone for the complexity of Buffy’s interactions with them. On the one hand, one of her major heroic acts in the first episode is to choose the ‘losers’ over Cordelia. This means a great deal to Willow, especially. Buffy is cool in a way that they are not. On the other hand, Buffy needs Xander and Willow. The cool kids really aren’t ever going to be down with the weirdness that’s part of being a slayer. And without the Scoobies Buffy would be alone in the dark. Buffy needs the Scoobies and that’s an important part of their dynamic going forward.
Strudel: All these social pressures highlight one of the huge peculiarities about our hero here: she’s a teenage girl. Classic heroes aren’t cut from this cloth at all, so Buffy – ever the fashion maven – is going to have to chart her own unique course. And a recurring issue in the series are the enormous challenges she will face trying to square two utterly incongruent lives. Much of what I find heroic about this character is how – despite having this heroic burden mystically thrust upon her, and despite having to sacrifice much of what she had been brought up to think was her entitlement to a relatively frivolous, selfish adolescence as a result – she copes with this burden. In other words, I find her struggles with her non-heroic source material to be the most heroic thing about her.
3. A bit of foreshadowing. Finally, the episode ends with Buffy’s life in danger. She overcomes. But the episode also introduces us to the season’s arc about the Master, and in Prophecy Girl, Buffy does not overcome. She really will lose her life. Twice, even. The show does a good job of making real for us just how serious this risk or sacrifice is, even though it’s playing within the bounds of a convention that says that the heroine can’t get killed.
4. Angel. We’re also introduced into Buffy’s other major means of not suffering the total social cost of being a slayer. In the line that segues to the scene where she meets him, Buffy tells her mother that she intends to hang out with the living from now on. Angel is introduced as dark and threatening. The first reversal will be that he’s got a soul and is actually an ally (albeit not a very useful one in season one). The second reversal will be that the soul is detachable and he actually is dark and threatening. (I'm reminded of the line from Dr. Horrible, where Penny says that Captain Hammer is cheesy on the outside, but has a deeper layer, and Billy replies that he's got a third deeper layer that's the same as the first one. Like pie.) For the record the first thing Angel says to Buffy is a lie – he tells her he thought she’d be taller , when in fact he’s already seen her. Angel is cryptic and elusive in the scene, and he plays it to get her intrigued and wanting more. In other words, he starts with manipulation.
Strudel: Speaking of confounding heroes, it’s going to be hard to top Angel for confoundment. For now, suffice to say that on the surface he gets this mystery aura treatment that portends future heroism. But always with Angel, it is important to look closely at the actions underneath the sheen. And as you say, he starts with manipulation. He tells Buffy enough to let her know that he is in the know, but he hides what he is, what he knows and how he knows it.
Once the whole Angel back story is revealed, it raises some very troubling questions about what Angel is trying to accomplish here. In theory, he has been given a chance to redeem himself by helping the Slayer, but his approach in these initial episodes indicates that he hasn’t bought into that yet. He materializes to give her vague warnings and odd clues and then melts into the darkness before doing anything more than unsettling her. Is he really trying to help her, or is he trying first to lure her? Has he even decided yet if he wants to redeem himself? If he has, he seems to show very little clue how to go about it.
And so, in the end, we find yet another reflection back on Buffy’s heroism. She is the teenage girl who accepts her fate, having her powers and her mission dumped on her by the Powers That Be. Angel, too, has had powers thrust upon him (by Darla) and a mission (by Whistler on behalf of the Powers That Be). More than that, he has a reason to want to accomplish that mission (the guilt he suffers thanks to the soul that was thrust upon him). Angel’s recalcitrant, ambivalent acceptance of his fate and embrace of the mission is a stark contrast to Buffy, who, however she complains, manages for the most part to do her job.
6. Random Observation. I love that Buffy’s reaction to a crypt is to joke about how a few throw pillows could make it homey. Spike isn’t a blip on the radar at this point. But the opening episode solidly lays down the idea that expectations are to be overthrown, so it’s not surprising that at some point we’d be introduced to a character who is all about overthrowing expectations.