Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: The Dark Age

When I was a teenager, I hated it when adults on teen-focused shows got their own episode-long narrative arcs. I hated it when they just got extra much screen time, like Angela’s dad and his stupid restaurant on My So-Called Life.

In reality, Graham Chase’s culinary dreams probably didn’t really take up that much time. (That’s a show I’ve been afraid to rewatch.) And even back then, I might reluctantly have acknowledged that storylines like that played an important role: they made adults people, and they made them fallible. In so many stories about teens, adults—parents—are perfect or useless, idealized or dead. Their selves, and their missteps, aren’t the point, so they’re irrelevant.

Joyce gets left out too often in early Buffy, which is less than ideal but also understandable from a Slayer perspective; she and Buffy have already had 16 years to try to see each other as people, and we’re picking that up mid-process. The Slayer is busy finding her Slayer footing, and looking to her Watcher for advice and guidance. And she has to come to see her Watcher as a full, flawed human—a human who’s made mistakes, and reinvented himself, and may continue to do both—as well.

Enter Ethan Rayne. Again.

Season 2, Episode 8, “The Dark Age
Written by: Dean Batali & Rob Des Hotel
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: November 10, 1997
Rewatch date: November 10, 2017

“This is what happens when you have school on Saturday.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: The Dark Age

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Lie to Me”

At some point in the last 20 years, I forgot that “Lie to Me” was written and directed by Joss Whedon—just the third such episode, and the last one before “Innocence.”

Back in the Day (by which I mean the ‘90s), we didn’t have 10,472 media outlets telling us, each week, who’d directed an episode, what to expect, how many heart-punches we’d have to endure. We just had previews (“Scenes!” someone would yell, and everyone would rush back to their spot on the futon or the floor, wine glass refilled) and then, at the episode’s start, credits. “Oh god, it’s a Joss episode,” was heard more than once. You roll up your emotional sleeves and you get your tissues.

“Lie to Me” is an odd one. Is Ford’s story sad, or is he a creep? Does Buffy essentially murder him when she leaves him in the club, or does she give him what she wants? Is that the same thing? And, on the nitpicky level, did Spike turn Ford on purpose, to torture Buffy? Or did that little bit of vampire mythology—the whole big sucking thing—get a little handwaved, this time around?

Season 2, Episode 7, “Lie to Me
Written and directed by: Joss Whedon
Original airdate: November 3, 1997
Rewatch date: November 9, 2017
Reason for late rewatch: 11/3 is my wedding anniversary and Thor: Ragnarok came out. I was busy.

“Go. Experience fun. I’ll try not to have a crisis.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Lie to Me”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Halloween”

One of the biggest lessons of Buffy is simple: many dramas could be avoided if we all just had more conversations! Here are some starter topics:

“I was once part of a coven-thing and my past may come back to haunt us.”
“Hey, why were you talking to Cordelia?”
“Has a costume shop every appeared overnight in Sunnydale before?”
“Can you love me even though I’ll never be normal?”
“Do you have any experience with small children?”

Any of these—or all of them—would be helpful in “Halloween,” which is one of those very good, very Buffy episodes that seems like it might be fluff but then most definitely is not.

It’s also the first appearance of Ethan Rayne and Larry, so you know it’s important.

(A note: I skipped “Reptile Boy”—for now. I watched it the week after the Weinstein story broke, and thought about it as more stories rose to the surface, and have been thinking about it ever since. My brain is not ready to process all of that, so rather than let it be a logjam, I’m just going to come back to it later.)

Season 2, Episode 6, “Halloween
Written by: Carl Ellsworth
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: October 27, 1997
Rewatch date: October 27, 2017

“I’ll have you know I have many relaxing hobbies”
“Such as?”
“Well. I’m very fond of cross-referencing”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Halloween”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Inca Mummy Girl”

Over the course of Buffy’s first season, I — sometimes to my own surprise — found redeeming qualities in even some of the least-respected episodes. At the very least, something like “I Robot, You Jane” made me think about the state of the internet circa 1997, which, oddly enough, is something I rarely tire of thinking about.

“Inca Mummy Girl” has very, very little to recommend it. Well, except that I just saved an interesting Smithsonian article about Peruvian mummies to Instapaper for subway reading. And there’s a good line about scones! And Oz turns up! And Willow starts to think about moving past Xander! So that’s something.

For some very simple context, I offer this: “Inca Mummy Girl” was written by the same two men who brought us the similarly culturally troubled “The Pack.” Their IMDb listings tell me that they were both story editors on a dozen or so episodes, but these were the only two the pair actually wrote.

Truly, I cannot imagine why that is.

Season 2, Episode 4, “Inca Mummy Girl
Written by: Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer
Directed by: Ellen S. Pressman
Original airdate: October 6, 1997
Rewatch date: October 6, 2017

“I thought this exchange student thing would be a great deal. But look what I got stuck with. ‘Momento’? ‘Punchy fruity drinky?’ Is Cordelia even from this country?”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Inca Mummy Girl”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “School Hard”

I don’t want to oversell the power of Spike’s arrival, but … holy cats, Spike’s arrival. “School Hard” sits neatly between the flawed “Some Assembly Required” and the hot mess of “Inca Mummy Girl,” and it crackles.

This isn’t all down to Spike; the episode is perfectly shaped around him. Snyder’s furiously frustrated authoritarian is good for contrast and laughs, and Sheila Martini (seriously) was a smart touch: an actual juvenile delinquent who makes Buffy look like she should be winning Most Diligent About Parent-Teacher Night awards. Running parent-teacher night is enough of a damper on Buffy’s other activities; doing it with gangly, impossible Sheila in tow is Example A in why some of us hated group projects in high school.

And then the new threat arrives in a swirl of smoke and minor property damage. That twinkle in Spike’s eye when he surveys Sunnydale: no other vampires have that. Not Angel, sulking guiltily; not the Master, raging with vampiric entitlement; not the many henchmen who are never allowed out of game face. Just Spike, come to trample on everyone’s expectations.

Season 2, Episode 3, “School Hard
Written by: David Greenwalt
Story by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt
Directed by: John T. Kretchmer
Original airdate: September 29, 1997
Rewatch date: September 29, 2017

“From now on, we’re going to have a little less ritual, and a little more fun around here”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “School Hard”

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Some Assembly Required”

Say what you will about a plot involving a science nerd trying to make a Franken-girlfriend for his dead jock brother—”Some Assembly Required” has one thing going for it right off the bat: Giles does the voiceover now! Goodbye, cheesy voiceover guy; we hardly knew ye, we definitely don’t know what your name was, and we’re definitely fine with that.

Buffy, having worked out (some of) her issues, is doing a lot better this week. Now that I’m really watching for it, it will be interesting to see how/if this season remembers the level of trauma it started with. Memory tells me it’s hit or miss but mostly miss, but memory has been faulty before. Memory also thought this episode was terrible, and it’s not. Its plot is terrible, but around the edges there’s some delightful character work and the occasional perfect snappy Buffy dialogue.

To wit: Buffy and Angel’s entire graveyard exchange when he finds her awaiting a newb vampire’s rise. In the span of a few minutes, they flirt, they just about fight, she admits to trying to make him crazy with the dancing last week, he admits it worked. Angel’s Xander jealousy is just stupid, and he knows it, but he explains it in the worst possible way: “He’s just a kid.” A kid who’s the same age as Buffy, whose offense is set aside when she falls in a conveniently located open grave. Hey, look! She found a plot!

(I’ll see myself out.)

Season 2, Episode 2, “Some Assembly Required
Written by: Ty King
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: September 22, 1997
Rewatch date: September 22, 2017

“I think anyone who cuts dead girls into pieces does not get the benefit of any doubt.”

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Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Some Assembly Required”

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