Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “When She Was Bad”

PREVIOUSLY, ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER… all of season one happened, Buffy died, the Master died, Buffy didn’t stay dead, Angel and Giles made some dubious choices about trying to protect Buffy, and it’s all better now, because did we mention dead Master?

PRESENTLY, ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER … If life were “normal” in Sunnydale, is this what Willow and Xander would do? Walk around quoting movies and not quite flirting? (This season’s first appearance of me yelling WILLOW NO came impressively fast.) Buffy’s been AWOL all summer, apart from a few postcards. It was the most boring summer ever, according to Xander.

It the real world, it wasn’t, not really. The summer of 1997 was the summer Princess Diana died, and even when we didn’t want to, we saw her on TV: footage from the accident, footage of those kids, footage of her funeral. Robyn had a hit that summer—a far cry from her hits of today. The Spice Girls were definitely a thing. So was Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch,” which somehow people still quote. The Fifth Element came out at the start of summer ‘97, just as Buffy’s first season was ending. Movies were often very bad (Con Air, Batman & Robin) but we also got Contact, which still has some things going for it. In the UK, readers had just met a young fellow called Harry Potter.

Looking back on pop culture often feels weird because so many things are built to make you remember the big stuff. It’s as if life was one big Remember This Wacky Thing from Before We Existed! post on Buzzfeed. The little stuff was there, too. I listened to That Dog’s Retreat from the Sun incessantly. My mix tapes were full of Jawbreaker, Helium, Velocity Girl. I had already met people from The Internet for the first time—the first few times.

In August of 1997 I moved into an apartment on St. Mark’s Place where I would live for the next five years with a rotating cast of roommates and questionable futon situations. I had not yet officially graduated from college because I had been in no state to finish my required colloquium at the end of senior year. I spent the summer reading books about fairytales, identity, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and I passed, somehow. My memory of that is so faint, like it barely happened. What did I say to those advisors? How did I wrap anything up after the year I’d had?

I didn’t graduate on time because my stepfather had died, suddenly, in November of 1996. I was ten days shy of 21. The story of that year—of years after that—is the story of me, shocked, not knowing how to grieve, or even how to be. I made mistakes. I did very stupid things. I was cruel because I didn’t know how to be anything, needy because I didn’t know how to fill that space.

You can see, maybe, why “When She Was Bad” cemented Buffy as something that was mine.

Season 2, Episode 1, “When She Was Bad
Written and directed by: Joss Whedon
Original airdate: September 15, 1997
Rewatch date: September 15, 2017

“Hi guys. Miss me?”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “When She Was Bad”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Prophecy Girl”

The short version of why this post is happening now, and not in June, when it should’ve happened, is that I am Very Good at procrastination.

The long version is a story I still can’t quite even tell for myself — a story about a hard summer inside and out. Out there, the world tried very hard to catch fire in a variety of ways. Some parts of it, like my home state, literally did. I spent the day after Labor Day in an AirBnB in Chattanooga, reading about which parts of the Columbia Gorge were on fire, who was evacuating, what was destroyed, what might be.

No disaster is more important, more valuable, than another. But home is still a thing.

And here, in the place I call home now — I can say, “My cat died,” like it was a small and acceptable thing, a shift I could live around. But it was a longer story than that, and now I make the bed not because it needs making but because if it is made, there is no chance of my heart mistaking a lump in the blankets for a 17-year-old white cat, purring.

So I didn’t think about Buffy, and about death, and about “Prophecy Girl.” I watched it on the right date, but when it came to writing, I skipped it and I kept skipping. But now it’s time for season two, and I somehow want to write about that and still don’t want to write about “Prophecy Girl,” and there’s nothing for it but to figure out why, or at least write while trying.

Season 1, Episode 12, “Prophecy Girl
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Original airdate: Monday, June 2, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, Jun 2, 2017; Thursday, September 14, 2017

“We saved the world. I say we party.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Prophecy Girl”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”

As previously mentioned, there was a long period of time where it seemed like this episode was always on. Always. Any time I turned on the WB, there was Clea DuVall, awkwardly trying to make conversation with Cordelia and her gang of mild teenage harpies. There was Buffy, going full Jedi on her invisible enemy. There was Cordelia, showing an unexpected soft side before pivoting on a goddamn dime and turning into her old self again.

“Out of Mind, Out of Sight” is a very Cordelia episode for season one—in fact, it opens on Cordy, who loves spring, primarily because it gives her the chance to campaign to be the May Queen. She’s a peculiar genius at making things about herself, from the very turning of the seasons to The Merchant of Venice. “Shylock should get over himself,” she opines, in a glorious moment of obliviousness.

The Shylock moment—brought to us by yet another teacher who will never be seen again—illustrates, on the surface, Cordelia’s apparent lack of sympathy. It introduces the episode’s theme a little more overtly than later Buffy tends to do; the teacher wants to talk about Shylock’s anger at being an outcast from society, and lo! Here is a student with a great deal of anger at being an outcast.

But to bring Shakespeare into it from another angle, the lady doth protest too much. Cordelia works very hard at being the center of society, and what she doesn’t understand is that not everyone is good at it. To her mind, anger is just whining; she probably thinks those who feel outcast aren’t trying hard enough. Not everyone can do what she does, what the end of the episode makes so clear: She can turn her queen bee attitude on and off like a switch. She’s not an airheaded twit; she’s calculated her position and how to maintain it. (She can still be a bitch.) Of course she wind up going to L.A. to be an actress. She’s acting all the time. She cares so much about being the queen that she’ll put on whatever face it calls for—including showing Buffy her gratitude, when it comes right down to it.

Marcie Cross gets a pretty good end in this episode, because she’s not a villain. But neither is Cordelia.

Season 1, Episode 11, “Out of Mind, Out of Sight
Story by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Ashley Gable & Thomas A. Swyden
Directed by: Reza Badiyi
Original airdate: Monday, May 19, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, May 19, 2017
(I can’t wait to do this all on a better schedule for season two.)

“I think I speak for all of us when I say HUH?”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”

Elsewhere in May

Assassins, Pirates, or Dragons: Where to Start With Robin Hobb
I am a completist, so I always want to start at the beginning. But you don’t have to.

Would You Like to Smell Divine? Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s American Gods Scents
Favorite perfumes + favorite book + talking about both with officemates for ages = excellent.

A Story Radiating Across the Stars: C.A. Higgins’ Lightless Series
These books don’t get talked about enough, but they are, for my money, the perfect kind of character-driven science fiction. By the end I had a lot more feelings than I’d bargained for.

You Cannot Sink My Love for Battleship
Seriously. You can’t.

#NOPE
The Circle really was that bad.

Elsewhere in May

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Nightmares”

Of course the episode with the traumatized kid has a story by Joss Whedon. “Nightmares” is one of season one’s stronger entries, though it doesn’t hang together perfectly. It feels a bit like two halves of different sandwiches; they line up, but they still don’t match. (One of those halves is the Master, and the other half is the nightmare plot, in which the Master essentially has a meaningful cameo.) But what matters is the affecting character work “Nightmares” does in between the scenes featuring the eerie child who looks like but definitely is not a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In hindsight, it’s kind of funny how little the Master has to do with this season. He’s as close as it gets to a Big Bad, but he has none of the presence of later Big Bads; he’s more of a lurking shadow than a constant threat. The boogieman is out there! He just can’t get you yet. For an establishing season, this makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to tear out of the gate with super-charismatic villains, and there needs to be room for the ensemble to blend, and for the central characters to establish themselves outside of the primary conflict.

This season’s primary conflict isn’t the Master, anyway. It’s life versus work, fun versus responsibility, doing what you have to versus doing what everyone thinks you’re supposed to. It’s figuring out what your life means for you, even if you have a destiny. The Master’s just a big symbol of all the darkness that destiny can hold.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not scary. “Nightmares” starts with Buffy dreaming that she’s in the sewers, in an outfit that’s a nifty reversal of what she wears when she really goes down to face him: black leather and braids. So practical, yet so not iconic. The hand on her shoulder isn’t the Master, but just Joyce, waking Buffy up for school. Which has its own horrors. So much of this episode is about the power of a child’s fear—which is why the first nightmare, the actual nightmare, is Buffy’s. Her fear is powerful too.

Season 1, Episode 10, “Nightmares
Story by: Joss Whedon
Teleplay by: David Greenwalt
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: Monday, May 12, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, May 12, 2017

“If there’s something bad out there, we’ll find, you’ll slay, we’ll party.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Nightmares”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “The Puppet Show”

“So, we think school events are stupid, and we think authority figures are to be made fun of.” Why, hello, Principal Snyder, clearly no one saw you there. “The Puppet Show” is not one of Buffy’s high points—though it does contain a Buffy high point at the very end—but it does feature the hideously, deliciously authoritarian debut of Armin Shimerman as Sunnydale’s new principal, who has almost as little patience for smug librarians as he does for rebellious students.

Snyder is one of Buffy‘s great unsung villains, simply because he’s the most common kind: a rigid, small-minded man with limited power and delusions of grandeur. His villainy is inescapable for teens and for adults: the malicious control of reverence, rules, schedules, consequences, participation. He’s the steely-eyed team leader who believes in meetings and knows your weak spots. He will have order in the halls, even when order in the halls is the least of anybody’s worries.

And he will make Giles run the talent show, which leads to a delightful opportunity for the Scooby Gang to sit back with poorly hidden gleeful smiles, enjoying his suffering. They’re on the same side—the anti-Snyder side—but they don’t know it yet. Not until Giles gets that same smile on his face as Snyder interrogates the threesome. Three new participants for the talent show. This may be the most notable time we hear Buffy whimper. Demons, fine. Talent show? Less so.

The fact that the entire scene is set to the playing of a very sad tuba is just the icing on the schadenfreude cake.

If only the rest of the episode carried on at this level

Season 1, Episode 9, “The Puppet Show
Written by: Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali
Directed by: Ellen S. Pressman
Original airdate: Monday, May 5, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, May 5, 2017

“That’s the kind of woolly-headed liberal thinking that leads to being eaten.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “The Puppet Show”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “I, Robot … You, Jane”

Even I have to admit that it’s pretty funny that when I sat down to write about Buffy’s famously terribly internet episode… I got distracted by the fact that my website is apparently full of hacker garbage. Where is Willow when I need her?

(I’ll figure it out. By which I mean, I have smart friends. But I think one of the lessons here is Don’t Leave Your Domain Ignored and Sad for More Than Four Years OK.)

“I, Robot… You, Jane”—which I am going to call “IRYJ” from here on our, because it’s easier and it looks like a new Meyers-Briggs type—was never a good episode. Not ever. It was dated from the moment it was written, and on top of that, it contains some of the clunkiest you-don’t-support-my-relationship dialogue ever written.

But I kind of love it. By the time this episode aired, I had already met my first terrifying, possibly murdery Internet People. It’s been more than 20 years since I first got in my dad’s car and went to a cybercafe (they were a thing, I swear) in Portland to meet up with a handful of people I’d been talking to via IRC. I even kissed one of them. (He looked a bit like Riley from later Buffy, were Riley actually attractive to me, and he played XTC in his car and wanted to kiss me because it’d just been a really long time since he kissed anybody. I was very young, ok?)

The internet has brought me a lot of people. From IRC to Diaryland to LiveJournal to oh-hey-now-everyone’s-talking-about-their-lives-on-social-media, and back to tiny, secret pockets again, I’ve found my people. I was finding them even before that when, as a young teen, I submitted my name to the pen pal section of Metal Edge magazine, a thing I can only barely grasp was both ok with my parents and not viewed as totally dangerous. But I lived in rural Oregon, and half the people I wound up spending years writing letters to didn’t even know where my state was.

But in 1995, meeting people from the internet was definitely kinda weird, so I can forgive Buffy her reaction when, two years later, Willow got an internet boyfriend.

Season 1, Episode 8, “I, Robot… You, Jane
Written by: Ashley Gable & Thomas A. Swyden
Directed by: Stephen Posey
Original airdate: Monday, April 28, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, April 28, 2017

“I know our ways are strange to you, but soon you’ll join us in the 20th century—with three whole years to spare!”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “I, Robot … You, Jane”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Angel”

April 21st was a bye week for Buffy, which was handy, as it gave me some extra time to think about “Angel” (and also I was busy making Buffy references in my Magicians season finale review. Do you watch this show? You should. Anyway). The truth of the matter is that I want to blow past “Angel” to get to “I, Robot… You. Jane,” because I have a lot of thoughts about the internet in the ‘90s.

And also because Angel is kind of boring, this time around. I’ve been there for Buffy and Angel, though I never came down firmly on one side of the Angel vs. Spike wars. I’ve sobbed my way through “I Will Remember You”—the Angel episode, not the Sarah McLachlan song—more times than I’m likely to admit. But Angel the person is not as interesting as Angel the symbol, and the purpose he serves in this show.

He complicates the morality. Vampires, as far as Buffy—and Giles, and the whole goddamn Watchers Council—know, are simple. They’re bad. You kill them. Stake, heart, dust. They might’ve been good people once, but they’re demons now, and they just want to kill you anyway, so poof it is. They are bad guys, and bad guys are just bad.

Angel, when it comes right down to it, introduces the complexity that eventually leads the show to season six and the trio and the horrible problem of monsters who are also just people. We’re a long way from that, at this point. But he’s a bug in the system, in the Slayer mythology that says what she does is right and what they do is wrong. He’s helped her and cared about her and sure, been mysterious and annoying, but generally, it’s seemed clear that he’s a good guy.

Just a good guy with fangs.

Season 1, Episode 7, “Angel
Written by: David Greenwalt
Directed by: Scott Brazil
Original airdate: Monday, April 14, 1997
Rewatch date: Monday, April 17, 2017
Blame the lateness on: FAMILY, still. Listen, April 14 was very important this year, ok? I’d only been waiting for it for two years.

“With power comes … responsibility”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Angel”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “The Pack”

Anthony Stewart Head has never gotten the credit he deserves for these early Buffy episodes. In an excellent AV Club interview, James Marsters praised him for being able to be the infodump guy and make it interesting, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I can’t imagine anyone else creating Giles the way he did, from his dry enthusiasm when he first meets Buffy to the moment with Ben in “The Gift” to the moment he walks away from the Scoobies in the empty hallway in “Chosen.” Head built layers on this character with the slightest inflection, as when he has to tell Buffy what happened to Principal Flutie:

“They, uh. Ate him.”

It doesn’t look like much, does it? Three words and an “uh.” But it’s Giles. It says so much.

And in its own very first-season way, “The Pack” is so Buffy. The show didn’t really excel until it stepped out of the “make a high school thing monstrous” zone, but these early episodes do serve as a kind of worldbuilding baseline. You never know what you’re dealing with in Sunnydale. It might just be Cordelia—or it might be a gang of apparent 30-year-olds in the most astonishing ‘90s fashion, possessed by hyena spirits and ready for lunch.

Season 1, Episode 6, “The Pack
Written by: Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: Monday, April 7, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, April 7, 2017
Excuse for late post: FAMILY

“I can’t believe you of all people are trying to Scully me.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “The Pack”