[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: John T. Kretchmer | Aired: 03/10/1997]
“Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] succeeded because of its overwhelming focus on establishing the characters and setting up some of the core themes that will fuel the show at large. “The Harvest,” on the other hand, flips the script and spends most of its time going through the motions of wrapping up the opening plot, which wasn’t very interesting to begin with. The best aspects of the episode lie on the margins, in small character moments, evolving group dynamics, and fleeting beats of depth.
An example of something “The Harvest” does right is the early scene in the library. This is a solid scene that establishes the basic interplay of the core cast. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also fairly funny, with some of Whedon’s trademark wit shining through. Giles shows off his knowledge and dedication, Xander shows off his insecurity and loyalty, Willow shows off her naiveté and that she’s willing to bend the rules to help, and Buffy shows off her superiority complex and confidence. How all of these characteristics play off of each other will become a central point of conflict for this group in the future.
Each of these character moments are expanded upon a little later in the episode. We find out that Buffy is capable of accepting responsibility and owning up to when she’s wrong, even though she admittedly has a personal stake (potential friend) in the outcome. Willow goes a little too far defending Buffy from Cordelia’s verbal attack, showing a penchant for vengeance that hints at a lack of discipline and emotional control. Xander improbably finds a way to follow Buffy into the sewers to help out his friend Jesse, which reinforces his loyalty and hints at his role in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]. All of these moments add up to give “The Harvest” some substance.
On the sideline are character moments involving Angel and Joyce. I particularly enjoyed the beat where Buffy asks Angel if he knows what it’s like having friends, only to get an unexpectedly sad non-response. This nicely establishes Angel’s role as an outsider and gets him a bit of sympathy from both Buffy and the viewer, which becomes more important when Buffy begins feeling things for the guy.
Later in “The Harvest,” Joyce becomes the voice of the show by grounding Buffy from going out in the middle of a crisis. Joyce says, “I know. If you don’t go out it’ll be the end of the world. Everything is life or death when you’re a sixteen-year-old girl.” Beyond the amusing irony within the episode itself, it very much speaks to how Buffy uses metaphor and symbolism. Season 1 is a sequence of largely stand-alone stories that toy around with the show’s basic premise (which I talked about in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01]). The problem with this particular season, though, is that the metaphors tend to come across heavy-handed, which is because they are communicated through plot rather than character. I appreciate this early Joyce scene because it gets its point across through character interaction rather than plot machinations, which is a preview of the approach Buffy will stick with after this season.
My favorite scene of “The Harvest” occurs immediately after the disagreement between Buffy and her mom. Buffy reaches into her closet and pulls out a big chest. Once opened, we see that the top layer is filled with various girlie items: a bra, a cat figurine, photos, pink envelopes, and more. Beat. Buffy pulls the top layer off to reveal a hidden area filled with various slayer items: stakes, holy water, crosses, garlic, and more. This is a beautifully subtle moment with some neat symbolic heft. First of all, think about how much this parallels the shot in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] where the camera moves from the sunny surface of the high school, down through the dirt in the ground, and then settles underground to reveal the Master’s lair (itself standing in for Buffy’s subconscious fears). Just as Sunnydale has two faces, Buffy has a complex duality that rages within her – an internal war between, as termed in “The Replacement” [5×03], Buffy-Buffy and Slayer-Buffy — that will take all seven years for her to fully understand.
While these moments of characterization and depth help “The Harvest” maintain some sense of relevancy, the rest of it unfortunately doesn’t hold up as well. One of the largest problems is too many long, poorly paced scenes that are trying way too hard to be suspenseful. Rather than suspenseful, what we end up with is copious amounts of boring. Most of these problem scenes are centered on the villains. I’m simply not invested in the very uncharismatic Luke, the slightly over-the-top Master, and the extremely generic Jesse. Luke, in particular, is talked up as a dangerous vampire, but reality shows that he’s a pathetic fighter and more than a little intellectually challenged. In general, the villains spend way too much time posturing, and the directing actually accentuates the ridiculousness of it all. The back of forth of the villains and the heroes is edited in a way that comes off as really schlocky. The action sequences can be generously described as troubled, being both poorly directed and lifeless. And then, finally, over in the library, we get a whole lot of dry exposition from Giles and Willow.
By the end of “The Harvest” Buffy may have succeeded in stopping the, well, Harvest, but it only serves to delay the inevitable confrontation with the Master. Remember that Buffy didn’t have nightmares about Luke, but rather creatures from the Hellmouth, various demons, and mostly the Master himself. The real challenge lies ahead.
As a whole, “The Harvest” is a sluggish piece of work, and even a chore to get through at times. Thankfully it’s got just enough meat on its bones to be relevant. If it had some more depth or been centered more on character work or had a much stronger plot, I could see myself liking this one a notch more, but as it stands it just barely climbs out of its own grave. It’s no doubt a disappointing conclusion to what “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] started, but at least it helps set up much better times for the show.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Giles explaining the basic history of the Buffyverse. It’s a little exposition-y, but necessary.
+ The irony of an old vampire master being stuck in an old buried church.
+ Willow looking terrified at Giles invading her personal space in the library.
+ Buffy’s neat flip over the gate – albeit, a gate I don’t think we ever see again.
+ The long-haired hippie guy poking his head into frame around Cordelia’s computer monitor. *laughs*
+ Hey, there’s Harmony! It’s quite funny thinking about how she ends up in the final episode of Angel, 11 combined seasons later.
+ Buffy not flinching at all when a rat scurries across her feet.
+ Buffy going bowling with Vampire Jesse.
+ Strange but memorable shot of the vampire pack arriving at the Bronze, all slo-mo and menacing.
+ Buffy’s chipper attitude after crashing the vampire party at the Bronze. She brightens up an otherwise boring sequence.
+ Buffy’s hero shot being covered in blue, which will be a consistent motif that represents the power and isolation of the Slayer, among other things. This will be explored in more detail later.
– The odd editing in the cemetery scene in where Buffy is rescuing Willow and Xander.
– Buffy, all melodramatically, saying “Jesse,” when both she and the viewer barely know the guy.
– It’s still a shame that it takes so long for Cordelia to show any signs of depth, because she’s not very interesting in “The Harvest.”
– David Boreanaz’s acting is simply awful in this episode – stilted and unconvincing.
– Xander’s “heads up” crack during the fight at the Bronze is silly, poorly delivered, and just not funny. It doesn’t help that the characters haven’t yet earned the right to even attempt a joke that goofy.
– The entire end fight scene is such a clunker!
* Luke says to the Master, “taste of this, and be free,” in reference to Buffy’s blood. His proclamation turns out to be quite prophetic come “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]. As does the Master when he says, “I believe she’ll come to us.”
* Willow suggests that Buffy could blow something up as a way to get kicked out of school. Well, come “Graduation Day Pt. 2” [3×22] …