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.”
Of course, it starts with Xander. What I remember about this episode, what makes me hold it close to my chest, is That Scene: the moment Sarah Michelle Gellar, at the whopping age of something like 19, breaks my heart. But wrapped around That Scene is an episode that wavers in and out of self-awareness. It’s a Very Whedon Episode, and the first he both wrote and directed for the show.
Right. And then there’s that. When the internet shitstorm in which I live (we all have our own, don’t we?) pushed the pause button on politics long enough to talk about the Whedon News, I cursed my procrastinating self even more than usual. I would’ve liked to have thought about “Prophecy Girl” before that, as small a concern as that is, in the grand scheme of things.
But in that grand scheme of things, I was not terribly surprised. Disappointed, yes. After a while it becomes difficult to maintain my specific anger at these men, these men who tell pretty stories out of both sides of their mouths—just some of those stories are much, much better than others. Selfishly, I’m glad that I watched Buffy when it was first on, that I didn’t have the internet to color in all the blanks for me. There are a lot of stories I love that were made by people whose art I no longer care to engage with. We all have those lists, I think.
This one still felt personal.
When I was reading a lot of Buffy’s-20th-anniversary pieces earlier this year, I noticed that few of them were written by my peers. They were written by younger writers, who’d come across Buffy as kids, or not watched it until later. Their perspectives are entirely valid, of course, but I wanted—I almost longed—to read something by someone who’d come to Buffy as I had.
The likelihood of that happening was pretty slim, given how little television I’d watched before The X-Files. I was a very uneducated TV viewer, but I had my favorites: Cheetarah. The sorceress from Thundarr the Barbarian who could make whatever she wanted to happen happen by putting her hands above her head. Princess Leia. Janeway, in the few Voyager episodes I’d seen. Scully. Sarah Connor, who seemed incredibly distant, yet astonishing. (I was too scared of Alien for Ripley to be on this list until later.)
But that handful of women aside—all those memories of trying to run really fast across my grandparents’ deck, trying to imagine what it would like to be a Thundercat, they only went so far —when you’re 21 and you’re me and Buffy appears on your screen, younger than you, fiercer than you, reshaping the language of the things that scare you, it’s like a door opening where you thought there was a wall. I would never be tiny and 16 and superpowered. I would never be a chosen one or a homecoming queen contender or that likely to say that many variants of “wig.”
But the thing about Buffy is that, against the odds, she was going to grow up. And for a little while, I’d get to grow up with her.
So I’m keeping her. I’m not keeping any reverence I once had for Joss Whedon. I already tossed aside any tolerance I had for Xander’s nice-guy shenanigans. But I’m keeping Buffy. I will not let asshole man behavior take her away too.
For all of Xander’s shitty behavior in this episode—practicing his speech on Willow, acting like Buffy owes him something, thinking he can just take Willow to the dance as a consolation prize—there’s still a moment of almost-self-aware male behavior mid-episode. Giles has done the reading, scoured the Codex Angel brought him, figured out that if Buffy faces the Master, she’ll die. Shit is quite simply getting weird: earthquakes, more vamps, the things people on the internet send to Ms. Calendar in their mysterious “global mailings.” Cordelia tolerates a dude. The sink pours blood. Apocalypse stuff.
And then Buffy walks in on two men, two much older men, discussing her fate.
Intentionally or not, this is such a bit of foreshadowing to the whole Slayer origin story: men deciding they know what’s best for the world, for a young woman, for the power she embodies. These men, unlike the men in that unfortunate First Slayer backstory that we’ll get to eventually, love Buffy. They want the best for her, not just to use her as a pawn—but she already is a pawn, with unasked-for power and unwanted responsibilities.
All that, and they’ll still talk about her like they know best. Until Buffy, laughing the saddest, most tragic little laugh, steps out of the doorway and they see her, and know how badly they’ve erred.
I don’t think we ever see this look on Gellar’s face again. It’s such a betrayal, and she’s so, so scared. “Were you even going to tell me?” she asks. Giles goes into protector mode. It’s Angel who makes the fateful mistake: he centers his own feelings. “Do you think I could stand it?” he asks.
That’s not the point, Angel. That is so far beyond the point.
“I don’t care,” she says, eventually, after flinging books at Giles’s head. “I don’t care.” Two different inflections. One is anger. One is loss.
I cry every time I watch this, but I’ve never stopped to think about why. Part of it is just how good Gellar is; how despite all Buffy’s flippant comebacks and wacky jokes and the way she plays down her deadly responsibility, she’s still scared. She deals by joking, but there’s no joking about this—especially when her guide and her immortal love interest are trying to keep it from her. (This is a well-worn trope, but it works, here.) If they’re scared, she’s lost. No one can help her. This is her job. “We’ll find, you’ll slay, we’ll party”—it’s all a group effort except the slaying part.
So she quits. It’s a futile gesture—you can’t stop being chosen—but it’s the only thing left in her power, the only thing she can do besides being afraid. She can be angry. Fear, though, is so much bigger. “I’m sixteen years old,” she says—to Giles, not to Angel. “I don’t wanna die.”
This is why “Prophecy Girl” is the episode it is: not just because it illustrates how prophecies can be bullshit, how your guides can fail you, how Buffy does the ultimate in falling down and getting back up again, and how she does it for and with the people she loves. But because it’s honest about Buffy’s fear. She’s more powerful than us, she’s stronger than us, she’s the hero—and she’s still afraid.
Our heroes so rarely get to be afraid, and especially not for themselves. There’s plenty of fear in movies and TV—cop shows that give you a weekly reason not to go outside; horror movies with ever more elaborate means of murder and torture; documentaries about how much worse the world is getting, not to mention how shitty it already was. But heroes, though they’ve changed in some ways, are often wearing masks, even if they’re not costumed superheroes. They’re James Bond, unruffled; they’re most of the Avengers, stoic, making that calm-determined hero-face; they’re all those movies in which angry men stalk through the streets delivering justice.
Heroes can be afraid for other people. They can worry about their love interests (who are probably doomed, in order to wring some appropriate feeling from the heroes) or children or strangers or nice doggos who just got in the way. But when it comes to themselves, they’re all businesses. Think of the end of Rogue One, if you’ve seen it (if not, skip to the next paragraph). Of all the unbelievable things in that beautiful mess of a movie, the idea that Jyn Erso just sat down on a beach to die made me the angriest. All that fight and all that spirit and all that disinterest in the Rebellion, and you want me to think she’s fine with that ending?
But heroic fear is hard to come by, and especially heroic fear of death. It’s complicated, hard to talk about, hard to fit into the nice box of a TV or movie screen. No one can help with it. No quip is going to change that fear. Instead, more often than not, it’s just avoided. It’s dark, it’s unfixable, you can’t get rid of it with punching. And that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
There are exceptions. Tony Stark has some existential crises and at the very least the movies slightly address his PTSD. The new Spider-Man got genuinely scared. Jessica Jones’s fear of Kilgrave is so intensely well done it’s hard to watch.
And Buffy really doesn’t want to die.
But she has to, because prophecies are dicks—and because the whole thing is a trap. Before fate has its way with her, though, reality intrudes (the good kind of reality) in the form of Buffy’s mom, who has bought her a dress, and who has one of her very best oblivious-mom lines: “Is it written somewhere? You should do what you want.” She’s talking about going to the dance alone, but she’s also offering the opposite of what the Slayer’s patriarchal leadership says and wants and thinks for Buffy. Normal life is not Buffy’s life—but sometimes Joyce is still right.
It’s not an accident that the men talk about what’s expected of Buffy, but it’s the women in her life whose words galvanize her, who give her the power to make her own decision. When Buffy storms out on Giles, she quits. Later, after Willow’s faced the trauma of the AV room, of the vampires storming into their world and making it their own, Buffy leaves again—she walks out of Willow’s room and picks up her destiny back up, dusting it off, reclaiming it. On her own terms.
It’s not because the prophecy says she has to, or because all of Giles’s books say so. It’s because Willow is traumatized and the only thing Buffy can do is try to stop it from happening again. She tells Willow that it’s ok, that she doesn’t have to understand how Willow feels as long as Willow is ok, but Willow isn’t. She can’t be. And it’s such a strong reminder of how differently they move through the world: for Buffy, survival is what matters. Willow needs more safety, and Buffy is maybe the only person who can give that to her.
“What’re we gonna do?”
“What we have to.”
What she has to do includes clocking Giles, who’s determined—not for the last time—to take this trial off Buffy’s plate. Eventually, he will do things Buffy would have struggled with; eventually, he will kill for her, and for the world she tries to protect. But not yet. Now, his older and wiser speech just gets him a fist to the jaw from a very determined slayer.
Meanwhile, Xander hassles Angel into leading him to the Master, and I would like to state for the record that I am very glad this didn’t get continually treated like the love triangle it briefly appears to be, here. While he pouts his way into the sewers, the mini-Watchers Council tries to figure out what the other threat is: Where will the Hellmouth actually open?
(The Hellmouth is so small, here. I guess this was a warmup.)
Buffy’s wearing her spring fling dress because this night, this march-to-certain-doom is what the slayer gets instead of a dance—and because it makes her look like a sacrificial maiden—but let’s be honest, it’s seriously impractical. But then, she’s seriously out of her depth. It always seems too easy, the way the Master lures her in, bites her for a second, then drops her into that convenient pond. But consider what he says:
“Prophecies are tricky creatures. They don’t tell you everything. You’re the one that sets me free. If you hadn’t come, I couldn’t go. Think about that.”
And think about this: if he hadn’t bitten her, would she walk into that second fight with her head high and her attitude cranked? What did that little bit of death do to her powers? She says she feels strong; she’s no longer susceptible to the Master’s hypnosis. Why? Was this part not in the dusty old books? Did some monk leave out the part where if the Slayer survives, she’d face the Master even stronger than before?
I can see a monk thinking that seemed unlikely, but then, maybe monks didn’t give a lot of credit to the slightly creepy obsessive love of a teenage boy.
Xander has to save the day. Bothersome. But he does. Until Buffy saves it even harder. The confidence she walks out of the Master’s creepy church with is astonishing. Cordelia’s biting vampires in the library, Willow’s fighting off a tentacle monster, and Buffy, finding the Master mid-speech, cuts him off, rattles him, pretends to fall under his power—and gets the job done.
“You have fruit punch mouth.”
There’s a lot happening at once in this sequence; it’s a little clunky, but it all fits, and it all makes sense, apart from the apparently fact that no one had previously realized the Master’s church was directly under the high school. And it all ends in time to show us exactly where Buffy’s story is going. Her face, as she looks at the Master’s bones, is like glass: transparent, sheer, a slick wall of trauma.
Quips will get you a little way. Quips and compliments.
“It’s just … been a really weird day.”
“Buffy died and everything.”
“I should’ve known that wouldn’t stop you.”
Buffy composes herself, and shoots one last look at the Master. “He’s not going anywhere. Loser.” It’s the crack that allows everyone to breathe. It’s over. Keep joking. Keep moving forward.
“By the way, I really like your dress”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s a big hit with everyone.”
It’s the Slayer equivalent of walking it off. Heading out to the Bronze—where the apocalypse, this one time, did not happen—with the people she’s kept safe. Including herself. Everybody had a very bad night, but none of them have realized that Buffy’s quick retorts, her ability to be glib in a pinch, aren’t everything. That she’s stronger, but rattled. That she died, yes, but also that people she trusted were keeping things from here, and expecting things of her, and needing and wanting her in ways she wasn’t ready for. It’s a bittersweet win, with so much to process. She goes into battle because of Willow; she comes out of it because of Xander. This season sets up so much that makes Buffy different from other Slayers, and we don’t even need to know those Slayers to understand—they died because they didn’t have people backing them up. But also maybe because they didn’t have people to fight for as well as with.
- “Hey. Leave.” Um, since when does Xander have that kind of social power.
- “I would say the end is pretty seriously nigh.”
- The honesty of the moment between Cordy and Willow, when Cordy pretends to compliment her to ask for help, is a nice bit of power-shifting, and of both of them accepting their reshaped relationship—it leads neatly into Cordy saving the day (temporarily) when Willow and Jenny think the vamps are converging on the Bronze.
- “You think I want to go to the dance with you and watch you wish you were at the dance with her?” YASSS WILLOW
- “On a scale of one to ten? It sucked.” I hate you, Xander, but that was a good line.
- “I’m just gonna go home, lie down, and listen to country music. The music of pain.” Fine, that was too.
- Buffy’s concern about her mom spending money on the dress is a nice gesture toward the sometimes-forgotten question of class in Sunnydale.
I feel like I should have a big finale to end this post with. Like all of these things—the trash fire that is the world; the hours I spent this summer playing Zelda and cuddling the cat; the way the house feels empty and I can’t tear myself away from Twitter even though I want to turn it off; the way Joss Whedon is no more perfect than most of us, and a lot less perfect than some, yet still gave me this angry, wounded, fierce girl who remains a touchstone for me decades later—should add up to something. But they don’t. I read another Jean Rhys book this summer (I’m doling them out to myself, as there are too few) and am reminded of something she said about the end of one of her books:
“A novel must have shape, and real life usually has none.”
It’s been a summer of waiting for the shape, but knowing there’s none to be had.
“When She Was Bad” aired 20 years ago last Friday. That post is up soon.
Previously: “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” | Next: “When She Was Bad”