At least two things prompted this Buffy re-watch:
1. A challenge from fellow bloggers Nikki Faith and Peter Waldron.
2. A project I hope to be working on, to be named later.
And since today is August 11, I’ll dedicate this project to St. Clare, patron saint of [quality] television.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered March 10, 1997 on the WB with “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” I was living in the LA area at the time. In fact, I’d been living there in 1992 when the original movie came out. Since I viewed SoCal and Los Angeles in particular with some skepticism, I bought the movie tickets on the title alone—Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Hysterical! I was so there! Five years later, when I heard there would be a TV show based on Buffy, I knew I’d at least check it out.
I feel as if I’ve told this story to many friends, students, and fellow Whedon fans since I started getting serious about a show with a wacky name: Generally, I do not watch horror movies. I don’t like being scared. I am not a fan of vampires. But I immediately bought the idea that a little blond cheerleader chick would be “the one girl in all the world” who could slay them. I am a big fan of irony, especially irony on the side of the good guys.
So as I watch “Welcome to the Hellmouth” this time, I’m trying to recall something of what it was like to see it for the first time 12 years ago. For one thing, I probably had no idea what the episode title was. TV Guide didn’t give that kind of info, and the vast array of internet sites dedicated to BtVS information did not exist. Even if they had existed, I didn’t know about them, because I was still ignorant of online fandom.
Since I was not a horror movie fan, the opening scene in which the threat turns out to be the little blonde—vampire!—completely suckered me. Brilliant! Now the opening credits. I can’t help noting that Nicholas Brendon looks much more suave in the credits than Xander will turn out to be. And the dialogue in the first few scenes is definitely Jossian, but seems to be trying a bit too hard. Back in 1997, though, it must have hit my and many other ears like “What!” and “More please!” because it was unlike anything else, except possibly Clueless (1995)*
This pseudo-valley-girl talk is most overpowering in the locker-room scene with “Neg!” “Pos!” “Negly!” but then “Aura” screams and forgets about talking. Yay. By the time Cordelia interrupts Buffy’s “downward mobility” as she is getting to know Willow, Xander, & Jesse, the dialogue starts to snap and we get a run of classic Whedonisms:
Xander–“What’s the sitch”
Cordelia–“Don’t you have an elsewhere to be?” and “Morbid much?”
It’s here that Jesse offers Cordelia a shoulder to lean on, “or even nibble on”—foreshadowing!—but I had no idea at the time, and in fact I’ve never noticed that line before.
Giles explains the hellmouth
Buffy–“Can you vague that up for me?”
Luke’s inverted incantation in the Master’s destroyed church—“Amen!”—the first of many religious parodies or inversions. As Buffy will say later: “Note to self: religion freaky.” (Much more to be said about this, because like most things, it’s much more complicated than that.)
Buffy trying on dresses for the Bronze: “Hi, I’m an enormous slut…Would you like a copy of the Watchtower?” I know I laughed out loud when I first saw this and it still makes me laugh because it perfectly captures how a new kid tries to find the right outfit but nothing works.
Buffy is stalked by a mysterious stranger—again, back in 1997 I had NO clue who this might be—and pulls her first really remarkable slayer stunt on—oh my! who is this tall-dark-and-handsome laid-out-flat on the sidewalk guy? Did I know Angel was a vampire? I cannot recall. Looking at him now, so pale he almost sparkles in the dark (sorry), that Byronic outfit (kudos to the costume dept.), telling Buffy “I don’t bite,” giving her a cross in a box…how could he be anything else? Once we get to the Bronze, in a nice parallel, Jesse is Cordelia’s “stalker”…and meets Darla, who finally tells us her name.
Ooh, thanks to subtitles, I discover that the band at the Bronze is adding yet another layer of subtext to this episode by singing:
What’s inside of me?
I just wanna believe
If my life can have a purpose?
Can you hear me? Can you see me?
Well everyone wants to find the circle
The line of truth that has no end
Because so many lives have the feeling of empty
Buffy has told Giles she doesn’t care about her calling as the Slayer, but in the Bronze, she finds she does care about Willow. Abstractions don’t mean much to her, but the concrete, the personal definitely does. The fight with the two vampires who took Willow and Jesse is already classic Buffy, but she doesn’t know enough yet, and neither do we:
BUFFY: Are you sure? Now, this in not gonna be pretty. We’re talking violence, strong language, adult content… (Thomas attacks, she dusts him) See what happens when you roughhouse?
DARLA: He was young and stupid!
BUFFY: Xander, go!
DARLA: Don’t go far!
(fight) BUFFY: You know, I just wanted to start over. Be like everybody else. Have some friends, y’know, maybe a dog… But, no, you had to come here, you couldn’t go suck on some other town.
DARLA: Who are you?
BUFFY: Don’t you know?
(Luke grabs her by the neck from behind.)
LUKE: I don’t care! (He throws her across the room.)
Part 1 ends with Buffy in a coffin, menaced by the gruesome Luke, TO BE CONTINUED.
And, once more, with commentary. I know I’ve listened to Joss Whedon’s commentary on these two episodes before, but you can always pick up something new. For example: Joss confirms that Buffy’s nightmares in the scene just after the credits are made up mostly of clips from coming episodes because of budget constraints. But of course this worked out great, since the point is that her nightmares are prophetic!
I don’t think I’ve seen this exact quote anywhere before—Joss on Xander, Buffy, and Willow: “The idea of this band of kind of outcasts being the heart of the show and sort of creating their own little family is very much, you know, the mission statement. To me, high school is so much, I think, for almost everyone, that band of, you know, of we few people that nobody really understands exist on a level that they don’t. Your friends seem so terribly real to you and everybody else seems to fake and strange.”
The Library was originally conceived as a labyrinth, but it was too expensive and hard to light, so this is what they got. Wouldn’t that have been a show—Buffy the Vampire Slayer + Jorge Luis Borges?
On Giles and Joyce as adults who are not the enemy, though sometimes clueless: “We didn’t feel like demonizing and alienating the grownups.”
“The idea that Buffy would fall in love with a vampire seemed like a bit of cliche, but it was too good to pass up.” Now, of course, it IS a cliche. Vampire Diaries, anyone?
Joss on the difficulty of putting Buffy in peril: she is the superpowered “hero,” so is rarely in real physical danger, but more and more she will be in emotional peril. And the emotion of it really becomes the appeal, of course. If I just wanted to see vampires get staked and/or burst into flames, I could be watching John Carpenter’s Vampires or Blade. Not tonight.
ETA: Joss identifies the band at the Bronze as Sprung Monkey.
*Another thing I noticed in comparing the Clueless preview to BtVS is the way Clueless satirizes the overuse of mobile phones, which were still primarily toys or tools for the rich and powerful in 1995. No BtVS character is shown using a cell phone until season 3, when a vampire from LA brings one to town. In season 7, the Buffy gives one to Dawn.)