Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

I regret to inform you that “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” despite the title, is one of the most forgettable Buffy episodes. Ever. That title, in fact, might be the most Buffy thing about it, a play on a thing girls aren’t supposed to do, rewritten for a slayer’s lifestyle.

It’s not that it’s a terrible episode (you can pick your own; there are many lists online to help you) or one of the just plain egregious ones that will be truly painful to watch (“Where the Wild Things Are”). Like the random boy Buffy suddenly has a huge crush on, it’s just bland. Plain toast, not quite toasted enough. Rice with one drop of sriracha.

If you are struggling to remember this episode at all, I feel you. I had it mixed up with “Lie to Me,” which, while not stellar, has some heart, at least. (And that guy from Roswell.) “Never Kill a Boy” is a loosey-goosey take on the old “Can a woman have it all?” chestnut, roasted to a fine slayer crisp.

I know. That’s a terrible sentence. Kind of like Owen’s a terrible person for Buffy to have a crush on. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

Season 1, Episode 5, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date
Written by: Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali
Directed by: David Semel
Original airdate: Monday, March 31, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, March 31, 2017

“My calculations are precise.”
“They’re bad calculations! Bad!”

What happens: Buffy has a crush on a tall hunk of flavorless man-candy who reads Emily Dickinson and maybe has a thing for death. Naturally, her duties get in the way of her ever having a normal first date. Did you know many women struggle with balancing life and career? Buffy is here to remind you. Also a whole bus full of people gets killed and there’s a vampire who yells “PORK AND BEANS!” but is not the Anointed One, because the Annoying One is a creepy child.

I may have been slightly harsh on this episode in those introductory paragraphs, as there is one thing it does well, in a roundabout way: it illustrates, though Buffy’s giddy behavior around Owen, the difference between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Buffy the Teenage Girl. With Angel, she’s all wisecracks and sarcasm, eyerolls and confidence. She’s on comfortable turf, she doesn’t know what he’s doing there; she has, in her mind, home team advantage. Who is he, to lurk in her area of expertise? But with Owen—just a normal, boring, misguided teenage boy—Buffy’s someone else. Dating isn’t a world she knows how to navigate. Slaying is.

It’s a very particular sort of work/life balance, and one a sixteen-year-old can hardly be expected to have mastered. But it rings true, even if so much else about this episode is a little hollow. Season one Buffy has an awful lot of male writers, and they make Buffy say things like, “Does this outfit make me look fat?”

Really. Buffy really says this. It is ever so slightly countered by Willow’s delightful observations about sensitive yet manly Owen, who can brood for 40 minutes straight. (She’s clocked him.) Maybe Whedon really does think teenage boys are the worst. This thesis is supported by the moment when Xander, trying to undermine Buffy’s date plans, argues that dates lead to kissing, and if there’s kissing, the whole school will find out how easy Buffy is. Later, he tells Owen Buffy doesn’t like to be kissed or touched. Not cute, Xander. Actually, creepy as hell, Xander.

Anyway, who even is Owen? He read poetry. (“Lots of guys can read.”) Cordelia wants him. Buffy wants him. Xander, naturally, wants him to go away, as he threatens Xander’s position as the least threatening, therefore possibly likable, male around. But in his own way, he’s little better than Xander is, as evidenced by his dismissal of most girls: “I just find most girls pretty frivolous. There’s a lot more important things in life than dating, you know?” Yes, like brooding, apparently.

Owen is a plot device, which could potentially be kind of amusing, given how often girlfriends are plot devices in more pop culture than I care to name. But the whole episode is weirdly awkwardly written. You get the sense they maybe didn’t know what they were trying to do here, besides bring about the Annoying One and make this point about Buffy wanting to have a social life and a slayer life.

And it’s a fine point. A point underscored repeatedly by Buffy’s competence. She not only has to handle the vampire situation, she has to take care of Owen, who doesn’t know enough not to get himself killed. Willow and Xander are at least a little informed; Giles knows how to hide. But the problem is as much Owen trying to fit into Buffy’s world as it is Buffy trying to fit slaying and living into a finite amount of hours. He doesn’t understand her, and when he thinks he does, he gets it all wrong.

“Last night was incredible. I never thought nearly getting killed would make me feel so alive.”
“So that’s why you want to be with me.”
“Absolutely. So when can we do something like that again?”

This is a crusher, or it should be, or would be in a stronger episode. Buffy spends a lot of time arguing with Giles—the adult, the responsible one, the one who clearly has crappy work/life balance—about her ability to have a social life and slay vampires. “This is the ‘90s. The 1990s, in point of fact, and I can do both!” she insists, in one of my favorite yet tragically still relevant moments. But the only way to do both is with someone who understands. She can slay and have friends because Willow and Xander (despite his other failings) adapted. They liked Buffy, they saw what she was dealing with, and they chose it anyway. Not because of the fighting or the danger or the proximity to death, but because of Buffy—and maybe, on a lesser level, because they felt they could help.

But Owen doesn’t get it. Buffy needs him to like her for her, not for the wacky, violent, dangerous life she didn’t choose. She’s bubbly and flirty and goes slaying wearing a giant animal print hoodie, and she’s also smart enough to walk away from that kind of false attraction. “It’s not you, it’s me,” she says, but it is him. He’s too shallow, in a wacky, fake-goth sort of way.

And for all Giles’ doubt, for all his challenges to her desires, he understands.

“I was ten years old when my father told me I was destined to be a Watcher. He was one, and his mother before him. And I was to be next.”
“Were you thrilled beyond all measure?”
“No, I had very definite plans about my future. I was going to be a fighter pilot. Or possibly a grocer.”

Giles didn’t choose this either. It might suit him better—or it might just suit him better now. Giles is in his early 40s; Buffy has no idea what struggles he went through to find peace with his destiny. He has had more time to grow into it, though. How often does a slayer get time to grow into things? (How much would it set her back if one of them got killed on her watch?) How many die before they’ve really chosen their fate—or chosen to fight it? It’s a drastic question, but it has parallels in an ordinary life: How many of us ever find exactly the thing we feel we’re supposed to do? How much does balancing what you must do with what you want to do remain a struggle? Nobody can ever really have it all; I want to have trips to every distant point in the world and have four careers and write nineteen books and maybe have one kid but probably not; I want to learn to fight and do stunts for movies and stay home and read all the books on the groaning to-be-read shelf and drink all the best whiskey in the world. And that’s only scratching the surface. But I can’t do all of that—and I don’t have a destiny to chafe against.

So I’ll listen to Giles.

“We feel our way as we go along. I must say, as a slayer you’re doing pretty well.”

I’m not a slayer, but I’m going to believe I’m doing pretty well.

MISCELLANY

  • At one point, in the library, a book behind Buffy really looks like it’s called Death Beans.
  • “Well, in that case, I won’t wear my button that says I’m a slayer, ask me how!”
  • “Well, we could invite the chess club, but they drink, and start fights.”
  • ”Did you see that? He tried to bite me. What a sissy.” Is this not a very a weird thing for Owen to say?
  • Xander carrying a juicebox, because he is an actual child.

IMPORTANT FIRST APPEARANCE Awww, it’s their first training-in-the-graveyard scene! And I guess also the Annoying One. I mean the Anointed One.
WORST FASHION CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY Satin. Tie-dyed. Crop top.
APPEARING BAND Velvet Chain
DOES BUFFY GET INJURED? Nope.
HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR Fun fact! This director is credited with directing two episodes of the upcoming yet perpetually delayed Star Trek: Discovery. He has also directed a lot of pilot episodes.
UNEXPECTED GIFT FROM THE FUTURE Owen is much more attractive now?

Previously: “Teacher’s Pet” | Next: “The Pack

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *