[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Charles Martin Smith | Aired: 03/10/1997]
Welcome to my analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Without reservation I will say that this is easily my favorite television show, and I hope that you’ll feel my love for it even when I put it under the microscope. For this critic, the elements that are the most exciting in television are great characterization, rich and relatable themes, and strong emotional resonance. It’s these very elements that will be the focus of my evaluation of each episode and season to come. It so happens that they are also what Buffy is the best out there at accomplishing.
You’ve probably noticed that ‘great plots’ aren’t on that list. This is because, in my opinion, plot should be used primarily to service the characters, and not the other way around. As long as a plot serves that end, I won’t care all that much if it’s not all that strong. Inventive and/or structurally daring plots are neat – and will be recognized when they occur – but are ultimately emotionally hollow if they don’t service the characters and themes. This doesn’t mean I will ignore plot problems, but rather that they won’t weigh as heavily as the other elements in my evaluation.
Throughout these reviews I will undoubtedly have some opinions that you don’t agree with. It is my hope that despite this, the arguments I put forth will derive from an accurate reading or interpretation of the text of the show, and will be very clearly reasoned. Even if you don’t agree with me, I genuinely hope that you at least understand where I’m coming from, and how I reached those conclusions. With all that necessary setup out of the way, let’s get this party started!
[Art via Metaphor]
In Buffy‘s early seasons the phrase ‘high school is hell’ is thrown around a lot to describe what Buffy is about. It’s important to take a moment to ask what that means, exactly. I believe that it is alluding to the reality that high school takes place at the end of childhood, and the beginning of adolescence (I’m aware that this can vary a bit per location). The point is that it takes place during a transitional phase in life – a phase where internally, and sometimes even externally, a battle is being waged to shape who you are going to become as an adult.
Buffy is a show that uses the supernatural as metaphor for this very natural journey. When the show looks at the traumas of growing up, it’s rendered with vampires, demons, and various hellish monsters. While these creatures certainly serve as enemies Buffy must defeat within the plot of the show, the subtext is always that she does this to grow up – the monsters are obstacles, or fears, standing in her way of becoming an adult, and the bigger the evil (i.e. the Big Bad), the bigger the obstacle. That is why the Hellmouth itself can be thought of as an obstacle generator. Only when the Hellmouth is closed will Buffy finally be fully self-aware; only then will she finally be an adult. This makes each episode, and each season, a path to that end.
It’s with this framework that we can begin understanding what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer such a special show, and is something to keep in mind when watching every single episode.
Series premieres are a tough cookie, much like (but in most ways less tricky than) series finales. While “Welcome to the Hellmouth” is not the very best series premiere I’ve ever seen, it is still pretty darn good, and certainly better than most out there. The key things the episode does right (in no order) are (1) establish a set of likeable characters with some depth and/or the growth potential, (2) establish its own voice with very fun, snappy dialogue, (3) set up some thematic underpinnings that will fuel the show as a whole for a long time to come, but also more immediately in this inaugural season, and (4) set up the basic framework under which the entire series tells its stories.
Season 1 fits into this paradigm by introducing us to a girl who is still very much a child. Buffy Summers, our beautiful, quirky, good-hearted lead character, is frightened of growing up, and is trying her best to flee the responsibilities and horrors (of adolescence) that await her. Her subconscious keeps warning that she can’t outrun the inevitable in the form of prophetic nightmares, but no matter how much she wants to avoid it, trouble keeps finding her.
When Buffy meets Giles (the librarian at her new school), nearly the very first thing he does is slam a Vampyr book down in front of her. Buffy’s reaction is telling: fearful and fleeing. Later on, Giles even begins lecturing her about responsibility and duty. These are not things that Buffy, the child, wants to hear. She wants to be taken care of, have some fun, and for life to be relatively simple, and being the Slayer feels like an affront to those desires. Beyond the obvious, what does being called as the Slayer represent? It represents being called to grow up and not remain an eternal child (as some people actually do). With this in mind, Season 1 chronicles Buffy’s final days as a child, with the tumultuous winds of adolescence threatening her with increasing frequency throughout the season, and striking the final blow in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12].
No matter how much Buffy wants to stay away from all this slayer stuff, she can’t help but get pulled right back in when she investigates a death on campus. Buffy’s an inherently good person that can’t turn a blind eye when she’s capable of helping people. But that’s not the whole truth, because a part of her is a little enticed by this world and her own power — it makes her different; special; unique. Giles even calls her on this alleged contradiction later, in the library (“then why are you here?”).
The scenes between Buffy and Giles provide a foundation for “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” This is the most evident in their scene on the balcony at the Bronze. After Giles prods her a bit, Buffy admits an envy of the crowd’s ignorance below – they are unaware of the danger that surrounds them. It’s interesting that Buffy is perched above said crowd, thus symbolizing that she also feels superior to them (in both strength and knowledge), even if she doesn’t say it. Being the Slayer leads to an isolation that makes her feel special, which is at odds with her desire for connection. This is why she is envious of the crowd – connection seems simpler for them. But Buffy hasn’t figured any of this out yet, and it will be an internal struggle years in the making to do so (see “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]). Giles is right when he says there is “so much you don’t know about them [vampires], about your own powers.” Buffy has a lot to learn in the coming years, and a lot of growing up to do.
Let’s rewind back to the very first scene of the episode (and the series), because it introduces us to the subversive nature of the show. One would expect – based on both conditioning and the way the characters are acting – that the blond girl is about to be the victim of the ‘bad boy’ who has lured her into the school for mischief. Instead, the girl turns out to be the 400 year-old vampire Darla, who takes him out. The expectation has been subverted, and it won’t be the last time. This scene is a very representative moment of the show, and is a wonderful taste of how it is going to do things on its own terms.
Buffy as a character is defined by subversion. Joss Whedon initially designed her to upend the trope of the helpless blond girl getting slaughtered in horror movies. We see this play out when Giles tells her, amusingly, to “hone” her senses to locate a vampire in the crowd – something that is and will be effective for her down the road. Instead of tapping into some buried supernatural instinct, though, she immediately spots a vampire using a personal instinct instead: recognizing outdated clothing. This conversation gives us a hint of what will make Buffy a unique slayer: she doesn’t generally submit, but rather subverts! She does this using her power – both external and internal – in new and unexpected ways, but almost always for the better.
All this talk about subversion nicely leads us to the villains of the piece. The Master and his followers – while admittedly pretty corny – very much represent ‘the old.’ You see, this group of vampires – the Order of Aurelius – is trying to instigate the return of the old ones. While they wait for their moment, they live below ground and only go up to feed or make more of their kind. Buffy, as a character and as a show, relish reexamining and questioning the validity of the outdated and the old in the myriad of forms they might appear. This is why Buffy will defeat the Master in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], and why Spike will gloriously scorch the Anointed One in “School Hard” [2×03] with a proclamation about less ritual and more fun. Down the road, we also see how this theme ties into the patriarchal nature of the Watcher’s Council and the extent of Giles’ involvement in it. All the seeds are planted right here, in “Welcome to the Hellmouth.”
For me a show is only as good as its characters. This is an area where a lot of other quality shows often end up falling short. Without being able to understand and identify with anyone, it’s difficult to emotionally invest in anything that’s happening. Fortunately, we all know that the core characters of Buffy will evolve into tremendously complex and well-developed adults. What we see here in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” are mere children; children that are completely innocent and ignorant of both the horrors and wonders that lie ahead of them. Although Buffy is quickly established as a three-dimensional character, what about the supporting cast? Well, they sadly don’t get the same treatment that Buffy does, but they are still drawn well enough to keep things interesting. The best thing “Welcome to the Hellmouth” does for them is plant the seeds of future growth. I admit that if that growth had never been capitalized on, it would leave the episode hanging. Thankfully this is not the case!
The introductions to the characters aren’t exactly mind-blowing, but they’re at least entertaining. Take the first conversation between Xander and Willow, which smoothly establishes several interesting characteristics about both of them. We find out that Xander has the hots for Buffy, seems like a decent friend to Willow, but is also bumbling and a little selfish. Willow’s both smart and adorable, yet also unassertive, naïve, and a little too easily influenced by others. The dialogue between the characters – while not quite fully refined yet – is snappy, playful, and fun. Jesse is… there, until he’s not. In all, we get a good amount of background information in a very brief scene. Well done.
Buffy first meets Xander right after meeting Principal Flutie, and it’s telling that his first words to her are “can I have you?” This little statement speaks to early-series Xander quite succinctly, setting up his hopeless romantic pursuit of Buffy throughout Season 1. Giles, by himself, comes off as a little one-dimensional in “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” with a stuffy British stereotype being his defining characteristic. In the early going it’s his interaction with Buffy that keeps him relevant.
Cordelia, even more so than Giles, starts off very one-dimensional, but is connected to Buffy in ways that aren’t initially obvious. Shortly after they meet, Cordelia tells Buffy, “If you stick by me and my kind, you’ll be accepted in no time.” What’s really being said here is that if Buffy wants to “be accepted,” she’ll have to embrace her superficial past. Unfortunately for Cordelia, being the Slayer makes Buffy an outsider, something that pulls her towards more noble and mature pursuits. This, by necessity, alienates her from the popular crowd, and is why Buffy disregards Cordelia’s warning about Willow, befriending her anyway. The takeaway here is that Cordelia is used to show us what Buffy used to be like, and what she can again become if she chooses to be too vain and self-serving. The frequent sacrifices required of the Slayer make going that route highly unlikely though. What all this means is that Cordelia’s in a unique position to give us insight into Buffy that no one else can. Cordelia’s not much of character at this point, but she’ll have increasing value as the show grows.
It’s important to take a moment to say that all the actors do a fabulous job with their roles here (outside of David Boreanaz). Sarah Michelle Gellar is particularly comfortable, largely carrying the episode with an effortless performance and tremendous screen presence. Gellar is a very talented face actor, able to convey genuine emotional depth with her eyes and lips. A few instances aside, Gellar will always have my full attention when she’s on screen, from “Welcome to the Hellmouth” all the way to “Chosen” [7×22].
The plot of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but there’s an aspect to it that I find quite fresh: it ditches the traditional origin story; Buffy enters the show already knowing that she’s the Slayer! I think this is a really clever twist on the conventional genre pilot episode. Normally there’s a big deal made about the lead character finding out they, or those around them, have supernatural powers. On Buffy, though, our introduction is essentially the second chapter of Buffy’s story. It’s not only unusual, but I think it is one big reason why “Welcome to the Hellmouth” is allowed to breathe a bit — why it’s able to explore the character of Buffy with more depth than you’d expect from a premiere. This is not to say doing it this way is always better, as there’s a certain energy that is gained from showing a character’s origin story, but for the kind of show Buffy ends up being, picking character depth over plot energy works quite well.
Unfortunately, as solid as “Welcome to the Hellmouth” is, it isn’t without flaws. The music (score) is just terrible – it’s corny, overly synthesized, and trying way too hard to be surprising and suspenseful, making it neither surprising nor suspenseful in the process. The production values are mediocre at best, the villains are extremely one-note and trite (which becomes a bigger problem in “The Harvest” [1×02]), and all the characters not named Buffy, Willow, and Xander are not given very much depth.
Despite these flaws, which take the episode down a peg, it gets the most important things right. At the end of the day the plot takes a back seat in “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” which is precisely why it works. It launches this wonderful show on the right foot by being fun, having decent thematic relevance, putting its lead character under the microscope, and giving the other core characters some foundation. Funny, likeable characters will take you a long way, and that is certainly true here. This is a very good start to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Let the journey begin!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The first character we see and hear in the entire series is Darla! How funny is that?
+ Principal Flutie ripping up Buffy’s report card only to hilariously tape it back together again, one piece at a time.
+ The library set is quite charming.
+ Buffy and Willow’s brown bag lunch conversation is both useful for introduction purposes, but also quite cute and fun.
+ Buffy breaking into the locker room with brute strength. As she’ll say in “Anne” [3×01]: “Oh, I just suck at undercover.”
+ Xander’s confusion (“what!?”) at learning about Buffy’s world is very much representative of the fact that he is lagging behind her in maturity, and will always be struggling to catch up with her until very late in the show.
+ Buffy’s frustration with the available clothing options for her first appearance at the Bronze.
+ Buffy pinning Cordelia to a wall, thus establishing their rocky friendship to come.
+ Buffy being so calm and casual walking around several vampires at the end of the episode.
– The locker room scream scene features a great scream, but some cringe-worthy dialogue that is dissonant with how people talk after this episode.
– David Boreanaz really can’t act very well at this point; kudos to him for actually improving.
– For someone as shy and bookworm-y as Willow, it doesn’t feel all that realistic for Willow to even want to be at the Bronze. Wouldn’t she rather be at home reading, watching a show, or using the computer (which, to least to me, still sounds like more fun than any kind of club)?
– It’s a shame how pathetic Darla comes across here in light of what’s to come.
– Luke’s exposition-heavy speechifying gets old really fast, but is more of a problem in “The Harvest” [1×02].
– A pretty lame cliffhanger ending. As if the corny Luke is really going to kill the lead character in the first episode! Ha!
* Buffy’s prophetic dream! This dream not only has actual clips from most Season 1 episodes, but is also indicative of a series-wide ability that Buffy will come to rely on.
* Cordelia says “I’d kill to live in L.A.!” Well, after Season 3, she moves there and ends up helping Angel “kill” things to make a living.
* The gift Angel gives Buffy – a cross – is a hint of his vampirism (which shows up in “Angel” [1×07]), will later become a symbol of their upcoming relationship and romance (making an important appearance in “Innocence” [2×14]), and is a persistent representation of her sacrificial burden.
* Buffy’s advice to “seize the moment, ‘cause tomorrow you might be dead” – while understandable at this point — is given to an all-too easily influenced Willow who ends up getting herself into trouble. More importantly, it’s this very advice that causes Buffy to pull the trigger on her relationship with Angel in “Surprise” [2×13], thereby setting off a chain of events that will forever change her life.