"Welcome to the Hellmouth"
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Charles Martin Smith
We open on the darkened hallways of Sunnydale High School at night, where a very dude-bro type 20-something guy and his blonde, timid-seeming date are now breaking and entering. (If I've never done anything like that on a date before, is it a sign that I've been dating the wrong guys or the right ones?) The first time I watched Buffy, I was a teenager and didn't have much appreciation for subtle things like deliberate genre subversion. Having voraciously consumed whatever urban fantasy show I could find ever since, however, I can see the difference between this and the usual cold-open of shows like Supernatural and Grimm—i.e., hapless humans get brutally slaughtered by the monster-of-the-week. Compared to cold-opens like that, it's kind of cool that in the very first Buffy cold-open, the blonde, timid-seeming date is actually the monster.
The cold-open establishes Plot A: here, there be monsters. Monsters who might look like innocent people. This is not a town in which to drop one's guard.
Then we have the intro sequence! I miss proper intro sequences like this. In it, we catch glimpses of all the major characters, but we don't really learn more than we can guess from the show's title. This is a series about a girl named Buffy who slays vampires.
After the intro sequence comes Buffy's rather cheesy nightmare montage. This is the only moment in the episode in which it's obvious that the show's budget was very small.
Now we arrive at Plot B: Buffy is the New Girl. Will she fit in? Will she succeed academically? These are the major concerns of Plot B, and Plot B wants nothing to do with Plot A. Buffy immediately attracts the attention of a floppy-haired dork on a skateboard, who we recognize from the opening credits. We follow him as he meets up with his two friends, Willow (also in the credits) and Jesse (ominously not in the credits), and we learn that his name is Xander. So far, Buffy's chances of fitting in look promising. Academics, however, are looking less promising. Clearly, being a Slayer and being enrolled in a public school are unmixy things.
To round off the uncomfortable meeting with Principal Flutie, Buffy spills her bag right outside his office door. Xander to the rescue! He hopes very much that this awkward hallway encounter constitutes a meet-cute. On to class! Here, Buffy is very disoriented, but she meets Cordelia, a popular girl who seems very helpful and friendly. (And whoa, if the gossip of fictional teen girls is a reliable source, then apparently James Spader was a heartthrob two decades ago.) Buffy's worries about fitting in are clearly over!
...Or not. They encounter Willow at the drinking fountain, and we learn that Cordelia was only nice to Buffy because she approves of her taste in clothing. Her appeal as a potential friend immediately plummets.
On to the library! Where Plot A is lurking in the form of a British librarian named Mr. Giles. You can forget about a regular high school experience, Buffy, because Mr. Giles is here with his large, leather-bound tomes, and he is determined to remind you of your sacred duty. She isn't interested, but Plot A isn't going to give up so easily, as we discover when the corpse of dude-bro from the cold-open is discovered in a locker!
Buffy flees the library and seeks out Willow instead of Cordelia. She meets Xander and Jesse officially, but before she can make much progress in Plot B with these promising potential friends, Cordelia arrives with contempt and Plot A. Buffy wants neither of those things. She just wants to have friends who aren't evil queen bees and NOT have to fight monsters anymore. Is that really so much to ask?
According to Mr. Giles, yes, that is exactly too much to ask. This is the Call to Adventure, Buffy! Why are you Rejecting the Call? Maybe because it consumed her whole life the last time she accepted, which is why she ended up expelled and friendless. As Refusals of the Call go, this is an especially poignant and sympathetic one. Sarah and Tony do a fantastic job here.
Oh, Buffy, did you really just ask "How bad an evil can there be here?" You do realize that anything that happens after this is all your fault, right?
Cut to Ominous Church/Cavern Set, where fanged people in formal wear are lighting candelabras and an especially large fanged person in formal wear is spouting ominous predictions.
Buffy is not interested. She is going clubbing, dang it! But Plot A isn’t just going to let her. Enter Shadowy Mystery Guy, who isn’t doing a very good job of tailing Buffy without her noticing. He is, however, doing an excellent job of being extremely gorgeous. But those deep brown eyes and broad, broad shoulders aren’t working on Buffy right now. She is still Refusing the Call, so he can just go be gorgeous elsewhere. Undeterred, he gives her a cross, reminds her of her mission, and disappears into the night, but he's bound to show up again soon.
Buffy arrives at the Bronze, where a bunch of decidedly non-rockstar-looking people are playing grunge music and a bunch of teenagers are jumping up and down to it. Willow is there, being exceptionally endearing. This is clearly a wonderful friendship in the making. Unfortunately for Buffy, Mr. Giles is also there, and he is Refusing to Accept Buffy’s Refusal of the Call. He insistently spouts exposition, which Buffy waves away. She isn’t the Audience Stand-In Character; she knows this stuff already.
Plots A and B finally collide in a way that Buffy can’t ignore. Willow is leaving the Bronze with a vampire! Because she's following Buffy’s advice! Buffy has no choice but to begin her adventure now. If it wasn’t already clear that this will mean bad things for her social status, the first thing she does when pursuing the vampire is to nearly stake Cordelia by accident.
Meanwhile, Willow isn’t the only one in danger. Jesse is now trying lame pickup lines on Darla, the vampire from the cold-open. The supernatural plot is certainly not one that will go away if Buffy ignores it, and it won’t even go away if she stakes the vampire targeting Willow. As further evidence of this, we even get a glimpse of the Big Bad: a vampire whose face looks like a bat and whose clothes would look right at home at a Nazi convention, if someone would only be kind enough to supply him with swastika patches.
The vampire from the club is now leading Willow through a cemetery, and her elation over attracting a guy’s interest is now being eclipsed by a growing suspicion that the evening will not end with ice cream, exchanged phone numbers, and maybe a kiss.
Buffy, still searching for her, successfully convinces Xander that Willow is in real danger. Xander has joined The Quest! They catch up to the vampires and their victims (Willow and Jesse) at the cemetery, and we get our first glimpse of Buffy the Slayer, not Buffy the New Girl. As much as she’s been trying to leave this life behind, it’s obvious that she’s good at it. She casually wisecracks, she stakes the club vampire without even looking at him, and she engages Darla enough for her three new friends to escape the mausoleum. She's completely in her element.
…Then again, once the big vampire from the Ominous Church/Cavern Set shows up, it looks like she might be out of her league. He tosses her around like a doll, and the episode ends on a cliffhanger in which Darla and other vampires are closing in on Xander, Willow, and Jesse outside, while Buffy’s trapped in a tomb in the mausoleum and about to be bitten.
This is a very strong first episode. The two plots are effectively intertwined, the characters' personalities are all distinct and interesting, the acting is solid throughout, and we get introduced to four important sets (Buffy's house, the Bronze, the library, and the Master's lair/prison). The music and clothing are very dated, but not distractingly so (this time).
Buffy is already an excellent lead character. She's friendly and kind, and even though she likes fashion, she isn't a snob about it. We see her choosing Willow over Cordelia, even though it will negatively impact her social standing, which indicates that she's a good judge of character and wants real friendship, not empty status. She's generally anxious and uncomfortable in this new school. I love the contrast between what she wants and what she's good at. She wants a thriving social life, but she's good at Slaying. In a lot of urban fantasy, the protagonist is a complete newcomer to the supernatural world, but Buffy is a veteran. She's past trying to learn how to be a Slayer, but she can't seem to escape it entirely. By the end of the first episode, it's already clear that the long-term conflict will involve attempting to balance her duties with the aspects of normal teen life she wants to keep.
Willow is just adorable. I'm very glad Alyson Hannigan got the role after Riff Regan left it. She not only acts the role of shy nerd well; she looks it, and she's so wide-eyed and innocent that you're instantly rooting for her. I also like that despite the treatment she receives from Cordelia, she's very much at ease in the school. She doesn't let the catty comments of popular girls affect her. Even though she's perfectly comfortable with two guys as her best friends, it's obvious that she's as much in need of female friendship as Buffy, and the two complement each other very well.
Xander is a hapless, lovable dork. He's the only one besides Buffy in this episode who moves through the plot in a dynamic fashion, rather than filling a set role, such as being an antagonist (Cordelia), a damsel in distress (Willow), or a mentor figure (Giles). He stumbles into Plot A, rejects it as absurd, but then is forced to reevaluate when Willow gets in trouble. Willow's connection to Buffy is their mutual need for strong female friendship. Giles's connection to Buffy is through their roles in Plot A. Cordelia is Buffy's foil. But this is what connects Xander to Buffy—not his immediate Plot B crush on her, but the fact that he gets swept up in Plot A with her.
Giles, at this stage, isn't much more than the exposition dispenser, but he's so British about it that he's already fun to watch. Exasperated British characters surrounded by American teenagers are almost always fun to watch, but Tony Head is especially good at portraying it.
Cordelia is already a very effective foil for Buffy. At first glance, the two girls seem very similar, but Cordelia differentiates herself quickly, highlighting Buffy's admirable qualities. And while Giles (and Shadowy Mystery Guy) will be attempting to pull Buffy deeper into Plot A than she wants to go, Cordelia will be making life difficult for her in Plot B.
"Yes, but you didn't...hone."
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.