Standard spoiler warning: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtS. I'll be spoiling 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.
Standard Credits: I've written the material in black; Strudel (aka my Bro) writes in blue; local_max writes in purple. Or at least, that's what they've done when I finish editing and formatting!
Strudel, nodding vigorously: I agree entirely. This episode also brings up another, more prosaic dimension of Buffy’s heroism that I find particularly compelling. In the opening scene we see Buffy dispatching her third vampire of the night, right near the car where Cordelia is busy making out with somebody. This simultaneously reminds of the nice, frivolous teenage life Buffy is giving up in the name of her calling, as well as showing the un-ending nature of her task. She may kill three vampires tonight, but there will be more tomorrow night, and more the night after that. They keep coming and Buffy, all by herself, has to keep up the Sisyphean task of dusting them, one at a time, night after night. There’s no prospect that she’s ever going to win this war and get to retire in comfort. This is her life and she keeps at it. Maggie replies: But do notice the look on her face when she takes out that first vamp. Buffy doesn't entirely hate this gig.
Max: Indeed she doesn't! I think the juxtaposition of Buffy's fight with a random vamp and Cordy's making out with a random guy (who is later given the name Kevin and shown to be flaky before he is summarily killed) is both a compare and contrast. Contrast because (as Strudel points out) Buffy's a hero, risking her life to make the world safer, and Cordy, right now, isn't. But compare, because what are both doing but following their physical instincts and having fun? Buffy and Cordy are both dealing with boys, here, and Buffy's visible pleasure as she gets out the stake reminds me of Faith's (in)famous assertion that slaying makes her hungry and horny. That Cordy and Buffy's worlds are so close together (you can see the car in the shot where Buffy pulls out the stake) represents how Buffy's moving into a period of her life in which her vampire issues and sexuality issues aren't easily separated. Later in the episode, the two worlds get even closer as Cordy's boyfriend is killed by vampires. I'll add that Xander asks, right before the cutaway to Buffy's vamp fight (and Cordy necking), why Buffy isn't at the Bronze. Willow says "the usual," and we see the answer visually: Buffy isn't with Xander, because she's with a vampire.
The other aspect is that she is largely in this on her own. She may have the Scoobies as a team supporting her, but she’s the one on her own in these fights. It’s her neck that’s the most exposed. Her line to Giles highlights the disparity: “I remember the drill. One Slayer dies, next one’s called. Wonder who she is. Will you train her? Or will they send someone else?” Of course, in this episode, we also see her going out of her way to keep it this way, telling Willow to stay inside, and then clobbering Giles to keep him from trying to fight the Master. Her isolation may be in the natural way of things for Slayers, but Buffy does share some of the responsibility for magnifying this condition.
But the episode isn’t just a straight-up answer to the question about protagonists who do heroic things. Buffy’s changed on her resurrection, and the episode that follows this is When She Was Bad. Still, the answer about protagonists who do heroic things is not likely to be (in Buffy’s case) that she’s not a hero, but rather that being a hero doesn’t remotely mean being a saint, and that any human life is too complex to capture with a single word (or refusal to bestow that word). In this last episode Buffy bravely goes to her death and then rises with all the kick-ass quippery, confidence and power walk a hero could want.
I’m not sure there is any coherent explanation of this change at the surface level of the plot (uh, mystically enhanced powers transmitted through the Master’s saliva?), but at the metaphoric level, there is the under-developed hint here – which becomes manifestly clear in When She Was Bad – that while you may gain something by overcoming a failure, you may lose something as well. Buffy gains a layer of armor from this encounter, which helps her kick ass, but it’s hardened her as well.
As an aside, I have a friend who basically couldn't stand this episode because of the lack of coherent explanation for Buffy's greater strength upon resurrection and her easy dispatching of the Master. (It was then that I became concerned that the show might not be for him, considering the plot gymnastics coming up.) Regardless, Buffy does gain strength from her death and resurrection--which marks her as being like a vampire--and she comes out with her soul and essential goodness more or less intact. As she says to the Master, whose outside appearance represents a rejection of human values, she may be dead, but she's still pretty.
As the resident agnostic, I feel a bit weird bringing this up (and worry that I'll get something wrong) but Buffy's death and resurrection (hm...) is also associated with a baptism, as she is dunked under water wearing a pure white dress/robe. There are crosses everywhere in this episode, in particular in the (joking?) shot of the Master's bones at the end, as well as the shot of Xander lying upside down (in the frame) while listening to country music, his arms mildly outstretched. Sometimes oustreteched arms are just outstretched arms, so I might be reading too much into these shots. Considering that even midway through the episode Buffy was still considering quitting, I think the baptism imagery is primarily about the way her willing walk into the Master's lair represents a new commitment to her calling.
Foreshadowing and father figures. If post-resurrection Buffy is marked as The Hero, by many standard dramatic cues, her actual death at the hands of the Master has a darker layer. She goes to meet him in a virginal white dress. When he pulls her in with his thrall, he removes her coat to go in for the bite. (Max: I can't tell coats apart--is this the coat Angel gave her?) Strong overtones here of loss of virginity, which makes this scene serve as foreshadowing for Buffy’s actual loss of her virginity in season Two. The scene between the Master and Buffy is genuinely creepy. The parallel between the Master and Angel is being revisited in season 8, it would seem. At root, Buffy's primary issues deal with her father, and so we have the connection between the father-figure as bwahaha villain, and the father figure as mysterious romantic protective lover. Season 8 is lasering in on this complex which is at the root of Buffy's deeply wounded heart.
Ummm, Maggie? Speaking as your brother here, I hesitate to point out the jarring pivot you make from Buffy’s loss of virginity to the two vampires to their roles as competing father figures. Is there anything we should be talking about, privately? ;) Ha! My problem is I never was Daddy's girl. More seriously, as I walk lightly around the taboo subject matter, let me observe that we did just get Oedipus Rex two episodes ago. And of course Daddy issues shape how a woman approaches her lovers.
Max: Hate to interrupt this family therapy session (joking! :) ), but since we have a gender flip in play, I'll add that Oedipus Rex as foreshadowing for Buffy's Elektra complex makes the appearance of Electro-Gwen in season four AtS (who references the Greek Elektra by way of the Marvel comics Elektra), right before the explicitly Oedipal Connor/Cordelia/Angel triangle, somewhat interesting.
Anyway, there's real emphasis in the episode for the jarring pivot Maggie made. I've already mentioned how making out and a regular vamp fight were connected in the teaser, so a vamp fight to the death as a metaphor for losing one's virginity has basis. Joss is hardly the first to connect sex and death. On the family side of things, note that it's Buffy's mother who gives her the white dress, and Joyce draws a comparison between the Spring Fling and her own homecoming dance, where she met Buffy's father. So I think it's reasonable to say that Buffy's night out in her dress is meant to be the night when she "meets" her own lover/father equivalent. She does meet the Master in person for the first time this night. But I also think (more on this later), this night also changes the way she sees both Xander and Angel. So one could take this as the night that she actually "meets" her new Hank replacement in Angel, and potential closest male friend (platonic or otherwise) in Xander.
To emphasize the coming-of-age elements of the story, Buffy walks into the Master's lair holding hands with a child, and walks out flanked by two romantic suitors. The Master's bite, which kills her, is followed shortly thereafter by Xander's "kiss" (CPR) which brings Buffy back to life. It's interesting to note that the Master's bite is, in a creepy way, more erotically charged than Xander's CPR, which is filmed much more matter-of-factly (though Bander shippers, among others, might disagree on this point). Next year Buffy will famously say to Angel, "When you kiss me, I want to die." But we see in this episode that Xander's kiss has the opposite effect. Whether this implies that Bander is the endgame or not is up in the air, but I think the contrast points out the healthy and important role that the Scoobies and particularly Xander play in Buffy's life, despite all the not-insignificant interpersonal problems that result.
Speaking of Buffy/Angel foreshadowing, how about this exchange early in the episode, shortly after Xander's gedankenexperiment of asking Buffy out turns into a discussion of tagging wild animals mating before they migrate:
Buffy: I can't put it off any longer. I have to meet my terrible fate.
Of course, Buffy is bored and learns nothing from the class. The consequences of her biology (i.e. hormones) are something she can only experience firsthand.
Meanwhile, sticking with the theme of father figures, let’s talk about Giles for a moment. In the same episode where we see the concerned mother thinking she knows what’s troubling her daughter (not getting invited to the dance), we see the daughter thinking her father figure is distracted and uncaring. While he is of course completely distracted, she has no idea that he is distracted precisely by his deep concern for her. Still, despite his shortcomings, he is the one she talks to when she wants to quit. Angel is there, but he is an irrelevancy to her at this moment.
Unfortunately, her father has let her down here. Sure, he didn’t have the Codex until last episode, but Giles has simply not prepared Buffy for the confrontation with the Master. When she goes down there in her white dress, she really is the lamb, the virgin sacrifice. She is not in the least equipped to fight the Master. Oh, and even with the Codex in hand, Giles has misread the Prophecy, as the Master will tell Buffy in that fatal moment.
Angel v. Xander. On the subject of heroism, we get Angel talking the talk (“we’ll figure something out”) but not much walking the walk (when next we see him he’s pacing alone in his apartment). Xander, the rejected suitor, is the one who makes a move to actually figure something out. The contrast is pointed. It’s echoed when Angel observes that Xander is in love with Buffy, and Xander replies “Aren’t you?” We don’t hear an answer from Angel. The two do work together, though, to find and save Buffy, and then stand guard to do battle with stray vampires when Buffy goes to meet the master again. Angel has his game face, but Xander is shown to be his equal. From beginning to end this season, Xander is far more proactive and heroic than Angel.
There’s an interesting line, when Angel tells Xander, “you’re out of your depth, kid.” That turn of phrase sounds like it comes from 1930's potboiler radio detective shows, subtly emphasizing Angel’s age. Also wrapped into that one line is the interesting fact that Angel can, on the one hand, use “kid” as an insult to Xander, even while, on the other hand, he’s got the hots for sixteen year-old Buffy.
Going further, let’s pause on Angel’s apt observation that Xander is out of his depth. This is absolutely true; Xander has not a clue about what he’s up against. This statement, though, highlights the fact that Angel has depths and depths of experience we can only begin to guess at. Already, we have seen he is a guy who knows the Master well, who’s still connected to the demon world rumor mill, and who is able on short notice to put his hands on the Codex. All that knowledge, combined with his formidable superhero strength, would seem to give Angel all the tools necessary to be THE key ally Buffy needs in this final confrontation with the Master. And of course, what has he done? Zilch. That zilchness comes to a deafening roar when you combine everything together: he knows the world is doomed; he knows the Prophecy; he knows the Master’s location and his strengths and weaknesses; he knows this is his chance to redeem himself; and he knows he’s made himself out to be Buffy’s knight. Meanwhile, both Xander and Giles are willing to sacrifice themselves for her sake and Angel has to be coerced into lifting a finger. It’s astounding, really. The guy can’t even muster a puff of breath to do a little CPR.
Let’s take our hats off in amazement at how Joss et. al. can use all the traditional cinematic vocabulary and cues that for generations have told audiences who the heroes are to give this character such a substantial-seeming heroic veneer. Angel will start to earn the veneer at some point, but the baby steps he has taken so far are pathetic – there’s no better word – compared to the tremendous potential he so plainly has. Remove the heroic filter they put over the camera’s lens and Angel is exposed terribly. Put the filter back on and the audience sighs. Meanwhile, you were saying.... Well, before I get to saying what I was saying, let me reply that season 8 has brutally ripped off the filter and is stomping all over it. You and I agreed that Captain Hammer seemed like a take down on Angel. In the upcoming issue #37 we get a page of Angel as Captain Hammer that is even more layered in ironic disdain for the 'hero'.
Now I'll get back to what I was saying...
Xander’s heroism gets a bit of an underline due to the fact that this is also the episode where Buffy definitively rejects Xander. It’s not unlike Chosen in a sense, with Spike going to his heroic death having seen Buffy bask in Angel’s presence in a way she would never bask in his. (Speaking of Xander/Spike parallels, note how he tells Buffy here that he wants to dance with her.) Although Buffy hasn’t said much about Angel in the last several episodes, her reaction on seeing him initially in Prophecy Girl tells us that Buffy is very much still into him, as does her natural gravitation towards him as they all walk out to the prom at the end.
I'll add as a former 16-year-old boy that I have great admiration for the courage Xander showed in asking Buffy out. It's very hard especially at that age to ask out a close friend, the way Xander does here, particularly when you consider his generally low self-esteem and poor home life. I really don't think Xander's lying when he says that this is the first time he's felt this way before, and the risks Xander takes here--alienating a close friend and the person who makes him socially and supernaturally important--are significant. He falters when asking her out at the beginning, but gets across the message unambiguously. It's after Buffy says no that his nasty side comes back, with his accusation about someone needing to be dead to make time with her. And we see a Willow-pining-after-Xander-style pathetic when he says, "Try! I'll wait" in response to Buffy's not having feelings for him. Buffy acquits herself very well, trying hard not to make Xander uncomfortable and showing empathy, trying to sidestep Xander's questions about her feelings for him when, essentially, it comes down to telling him that he's one of the girls.
Anyway. Buffy does have eyes for Angel here. Buffy sees him for the first time since "Angel" in the scene where she learns that she is going to die. "Angel?" she says, all aglow, happy to see him again. But you could still plausibly read it as normal teen infatuation and not the kind of life-or-death obsession that comes next year. Then, she hears that she's going to die, and Angel is present. She later sees him again upon her resurrection. So Angel, even more than he was just by virtue of being dead and a vampire, is associated with both death and the sacrifices she has to make as part of her calling. We later find out in "Becoming" that Angel was present (without Buffy's knowledge) on the day she was called. Giles, Xander, Willow--they are also present for much of this episode. But they're also part of her every day life. Angel is pretty much only associated with death and her calling, here, and I think that, in addition to the standard heroic cues, is what pushes Buffy's feelings for Angel to a new level. As Maggie will point out, Bangel hits the ground running in season two in a way that's a little discontinuous with the story in season one; I think a lot of that has to do with this. People like Xander who are there every day stand little chance.
Note, though, that immediately prior to the exit from the library, we see Xander, Buffy, Cordy and Angel walk in, with Xander and Buffy coming in as one pair and Cordy and Angel coming in as another. (I'll add that, while it may be minor, Buffy says "Xander?" upon her resurrection with some of the same surprise/awe she used in saying Angel when she saw him earlier in the episode, so there's some indication of a change in Buffy's relationship with Xander.) The Cordy/Xander antagonism has gotten a lot of attention this season, and one senses that the original structure was supposed to be C/X and B/A with the intention of switching the partners at some point. I'll add that the structure did get flipped in at least one respect: B/X and A/C were longer-lasting relationships, whether platonic or romantic, than B/A or C/X. If you include season eight for B/X, both B/X and A/C have a period of long friendship followed by romantic feelings developing, which end up unconsummated.
Another quick note on Xander. There’s another little throw-away line that actually signals some interesting trends in the series. At the beginning of the Season, the Scoobies were all social outcasts, and Buffy’s gravitation towards them was seen as a positive sign for her character. In just the last episode, however, we saw that Cordelia, the Enforcer-in-Chief of the social pecking order, is actually a person with depths, and that the Invisible Girl, the Outcast-in-Chief, was the villain. Now, in this episode where Xander still wears the mantle of the oft-rejected loser, we see him go up to an occupied bench and tell the bewildered boy sitting there: “Hey. Leave.” The whole insider/outsider set-up is collapsing around our ears, and Xander in particular will start playing some pretty harsh insider/outsider cards next season. We see a similar bit of insider/outsider set-up collapsing when both Xander and Willow seems reticent about Jenny's presence in the Scooby meeting. Willow is particularly reticent. Not liking another technopagan on the team?
Scoobie Dynamics. While we are on the subject of romance, Xander’s reliance on Willow as supportive friend in his quest for Buffy reminds us of the ironic layer to Xander’s thwarted romantic interest in Buffy. Buffy has no more feelings for Xander than does Xander for Willow. As Willow tells Xander when he asks her to the prom as a substitute for Buffy, he knows why that’s not OK, yet he seems entirely unconcerned about using Willow as a sounding board for his romantic woes with Buffy. Xander’s more of a hero than Angel; but he’s a bit of a dick to Willow. To be fair, Willow is willing to play the role of supportive friend, even though it clearly hurts her. Given the patheticness of her wistfully letting Xander practice his wooing on her (and having to listen to him say “there’s never been anyone else for me but you,” just stomping on everything Willow thinks they have together), it’s somewhat of a surprise that Willow doesn’t grab the rebound and accept his invitation to the dance. Willow sometimes has these moments of emotional clarity that make you think she’s going to turn out just fine. Of course, she tries to go back on this later by calling Xander, but, fortunately for her, she doesn't get through.
Xander is unconcerned too about how Willow would fit in to the dynamic if Xander and Buffy did get together, which is part of the text of his blithe dismissal of Buffy's concerns about her: "Willow's not looking to date you. And if she is, she's playing it pretty close to the chest." (OK, I admit I just wanted an excuse to quote that line; there's another point where Cordy asks why she and Willow even put up with men, and Willow responds, "I hear you.") In any case, if Xander and Buffy did go out, it probably would drive a rift between Buffy and Willow, and I think that Buffy recognizes that.
Post-Angel we went through several episodes that seemed to be rather weak on serialization, most notably in the complete absence of attention to Buffy’s separation from Angel. Prophecy Girl however does continue the evolution in Cordelia’s character. Now that we’ve seen she has depth, we have a conversation between Cordy and Willow that has real elements of human contact in it, followed by Cordy’s chance to play the hero, rescuing Jenny and Willow from the vampires outside the school. And Cordelia uses her car--earlier in the episode used to make out as a contrast to Buffy's nightly slaying--to do it!
I'll add that Willow is gracious with Cordelia here, when Cordelia asks for her help; she rejects Cordy's insincere compliment but agrees immediately to help her erstwhile enemy nonetheless. Given how vindictive Willow is later in the series, it's interesting to compare her friendliness with Cordelia here. I submit that in part, it's that Willow, despite bottling many of her feelings inside, is still at this point fairly content with her lot in life as a misfit: "It's okay, it's the computer age, nerds are in!" she exclaims, after Buffy tells her not to put herself down by calling herself a nerd. This is followed immediately by an insecure, "We're still in, right?" It isn't until the option of not being a nerd is presented to her (in no small part due to Buffy) that the resentment related to her nerd status can actually find any conscious expression. So perhaps Willow's willingness to run errand for Cordelia is part of the same aspect of her personality as her willingness to play Xander's supportive friend. It's one of the many complexities of Willow's character development, the way her genuine growth and empowerment and healthier self-expression is accompanied by the loss of most of her existing mechanisms for coping with emotional distress.
Prophecy, Destiny, and Free Will. Finally, there’s lots to think about with respect to the prophecy. On the main point (Buffy’s death), the letter of the prophecy is met, albeit not the spirit. Strudel, with a couple of textual asides on this point: Joyce tells Buffy that she isn’t trapped by destiny, and she can decide for herself whether and how she goes to the prom (“Says who? Is it written somewhere?”). Then, Buffy confronts the Master, who seemingly can’t go a scene without saying, “it is written.” And of course, what does she say? “I flunked the written.” Buffy lives to fight another day. But she did go through a real death in the sense that we’re instantly told that she’s stronger. It’s subtle here, but the death experience has also marked her – and that forms the subject of the opening episode of season Two. Be that as it may, we get the tension between prophecy/destiny and Buffy’s free will. It’s a subject that will be explored a great deal more going forward.
The letter and spirit of the prophecy were wrong, however, in one respect. The slayer is not supposed to know the anointed one. But Buffy does know him, going to him and letting him lead her to her death. That could just be a plot hole. But if it’s not, then we have to conclude that everyone’s sense that the prophecy must be true is, in fact, simply flat wrong. Not sure what to make of it. I want to say that it, too, is foreshadowing. Buffy doesn’t recognize the cursed one (Angel) and goes through hell as a result of that failure. But it’s faint foreshadowing at best.
We see several attitudes toward prophecy. The Master is a firm believer in prophecy, obviously, as is Angel. Xander is the cheerleader for free will, as he decides that he, a kid as Strudel points out, can avert a prophecy is an act of great bravery or stupidity or both; Giles also tries to defy the prophecy and go in himself. Buffy in the grand scheme of the series subverts prophecies and expectations, but in this episode she doesn't subvert them; she walks into her death, albeit with heroic intentions, and, left to her own devices, would have stayed there. Moreover, Buffy, Angel and the Master all act (or don't act, in the case of Angel) based on concerns about what the world should be; the Master wants it gone and Buffy wants it saved, but that is part of why they so strongly want to play their roles in the global drama. It's particularly complicated in Buffy's case, because it's concern over Willow's experience in the AV room that convinces Buffy of the importance of stopping the Master.
But for Xander it's only personal: he states explicitly that he doesn't care about anything but Buffy, and I think it's the personal (read: unpredictable) element that allows him to subvert the meaning of the prophecy. This prioritization of the personal over the abstract (and Angel always goes for the abstract, so much so that his character in season one is almost entirely abstracted) saves Buffy's life. This particular conflict (personal vs. abstract) gets played out throughout the show, with personal usually winning out. But while I applaud Xander's actions here, I don't know if I feel comfortable with his overall attitude (that nothing but Buffy matters), and I don't think we're necessarily supposed to. This personal vs. abstract needs gets played out most spectacularly in "The Gift," where Buffy decides that she doesn't know how to live in this world if the two are in conflict, and at the end of episode stops doing so.
Can I just say, as a completely random aside, that I still laughed out loud at the Master’s line following the earthquake: “Yes! Yes! Shake Earth! This is a sign! We are in the final days! My time has come! Glory! Glory! ... Whaddaya think? 5.1?” The comic touch in the writing is so very, very good. That's so totally LA. And speaking as a former Angelino, that was more than a 5.1, though admittedly 5.1 might be a bit more impressive if you are smack on top of the epicenter as they are here.
There are few earthquakes near Toronto, so I can't really comment on whether 5.1 is a reasonable guess. But I've always loved that line. On the earthquake, I like how the shots in the teaser showing the library first through the skylight, and then with a bird's eye view, are repeated at the end of the episode in the fight and then when the Master's bones are shown. (There are lots of nifty visual touches in the episode, which is Joss' directorial debut.) The library is the first location where we see any signs of an earthquake, and it seems to suffer by far the most damage, which subtly clues us in that it is indeed at the epicentre of the quake and thus above the Hellmouth. (And how's that for a series metaphor, that the Hellmouth, which represents the unconscious mind and in particular the unconscious fears, is right below the library, the conscious mind.) Anyway, comic writing = yay!
Which makes the shift to the serious all the more impressive. I especially liked Willow’s description of the massacre in the AV room. Everything in the series has been either jokey or hokey in some way, but that scene very effectively changes the tone and announces a seriousness of purpose: “I’m not okay. I knew those guys. I go that room every day. And when I walked in there it ... it wasn’t our world anymore. They made it theirs. And they had fun.” We’ll still get treated to absolutely ridiculous cheeseball stuff (was the demon coming out of the hellmouth the stupidest looking thing ever, or what?), but the writers are telling us there is plenty going on behind the shlock.
I've seen pointed out (I think, though might be wrong, this was in manwitch's episode exegeses on ATPOBTVS, which ran up to Some Assembly Required) that the opening theme in the power power walk, and the later use of a piano cover of the opening theme, are a signal too that season 1 is, essentially, just a teaser for the show that follows.
The door to season two is left open in the closing shot of the master’s skeleton. Vampires are supposed to dust, but Buffy will always be haunted by her encounter with the master. History matters in this world, and we’ve just had our first major event.