[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali | Director: David Semel | Aired: 03/31/1997]
“You remember when you said I was like two different people? Well, one of them has to go. But the other one is having a really, really good time, and will come back. I promise,” a regretful Buffy tells her date, Owen.
“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” is the initial exploration of Buffy’s double life. It briefly touches on her wants and needs, and the burden of sacrificing said wants and needs to save other peoples’ lives. This makes the episode one of the few in Season 1 that has tangible lasting character relevance. Yet being a good outing for this season doesn’t mean it should be taken as a masterpiece either.
Giles points out that “maintaining a normal social life is problematic at best.” Just how problematic is what the episode then goes on to show us. One of the biggest things driving Buffy as a character in much of the high school years is her desire to have something resembling a ‘normal life.’ Buffy will later learn (e.g. “Earshot” [3×18]) that most people have that same desire – it’s not unique to her life, even if Buffy’s key struggles are larger than life. It’s not really until “Helpless” [3×12] (when she temporarily loses her powers) that Buffy comes to accept – even embrace — the reality of her life with a sense of finality, no longer treating it like a thorn or a job, and that she can make quite a difference in the world by having unique talents, a unique perspective, and a lot of heart. But having to let go of purely self-serving priorities isn’t easy to do, as Buffy finds out with Owen.
The Master says, “There will be a time of crisis, of worlds hanging in the balance. And in this time shall come the Anointed.” The Annoying One, as Spike will so eloquently call him in “School Hard” [2×03], in of himself, is a silly non-character. But he at least serves a thematic purpose: the temptation of eternal childhood in the face of impending adolescence. The Master calls him his greatest threat to the Slayer, and that he will lead her into Hell. This only really makes sense in subtext: if Buffy doesn’t defeat eternal childhood, the Master wins, as Buffy won’t be mature enough to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat him. Just look at Amy’s mom in “Witch” [1×03] – in trying to relive her youth, she ended up trapping herself in a kind of hell.
It’s quite deliberate that Owen pops into the episode right after the Master’s little speech about the Anointed One. Owen serves as a minor “time of crisis” – a preview of the challenging choices ahead — by providing a temptation for Buffy to put her own desires above her other, far less fun, mythic responsibilities. This highlights that Buffy has not accepted her role as the Slayer, thus setting up the larger crisis in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]. Buffy’s frustration over all these ‘roles’ and ‘responsibilities’ is made quite palpable throughout “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” and is something I can really sympathize with. Being the Slayer can be seen as infringing on personal desires, which is expectedly quite frustrating to a teenager who can’t see the bigger picture – who is only living in the ‘now.’ This frustration is evident when Buffy goes on a stake-out with Giles to find the Anointed One, and nothing happens, bringing home just how boring and ordinary sacrifice can be sometimes. It’s not always about big, dramatic moments that save the day, but rather always being ready when the opportunity to help appears, day-in, day-out.
Owen tells Buffy that “there are a lot more important things in life than dating.” Buffy’s reaction to this — a pang of selfish hurt (Owen slighted her desires) with a twinge of guilt (she knows he’s right) — strikes a chord with me. Then Buffy immediately glances at her pager to see if Giles needs her. When Owen says that Buffy seems like two completely different people, he is seeing the two sides of Buffy – never more disparate than they are now: one that wants ‘fun and acceptance,’ and one that lives in ‘sacrifice and isolation,’ which is something he finds quite fascinating about her (as he should!), albeit for all the wrong reasons. It’s great that the episode draws attention to this duality, as it allows us insight into Buffy’s underlying psychology right as it’s beginning to evolve.
Towards the end of the episode, after the eventful evening at the funeral home, Owen still thinks Buffy is cool, but mostly because he’s attracted to the idea that she’s a danger queen. Not only does he want to be around her for the wrong reasons, but Buffy comes to realize that nurturing this interest of his would only lead to getting him killed; Buffy realizes that Owen simply doesn’t belong in her world, and that she can’t indulge her desire to be with him for what are ultimately superficial reasons. This is why the crazy vampire tells Buffy that Owen “was found wanting.” Owen also serves as a parallel to Angel, hinting to us that Angel – as he currently stands — is not good for Buffy romantically. Both Owen and Angel are ultimately distractions to the cause; dangerous distractions standing in the way of Buffy growing into a mature adult. Only as an adult can she make informed relationship decisions that aren’t clouded by a transient psychology and volatile emotions.
This realization allows Giles to beautifully segue into what this episode boils down to: responsibility and sacrifice. Being chosen makes for a unique and difficult life, and this is one of the very first times Buffy comes to understand what that means for her, despite many early attempts to fight it. This scene is a fabulous bonding moment between the two of them, and I appreciate how it resonates with the season finale, “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], in particular. Giles is just so kind and friendly to Buffy here, and it’s wonderful to hear him share a bit about his past to show that he can, at least sometimes, understand her.
An interesting aside is that, in the opening of the episode, Giles chastises Buffy for being a bit too colorful in how she slays. Buffy protests with a sarcastic response that alludes to the fact that, while colorful, she’s getting the job done. This ‘technique versus emotion’ exchange is particularly interesting in light of Kendra (“What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10]) and Faith (“Faith, Hope, and Trick” [3×03]). In the end, balance between the two styles is ideal, although here in Season 1 we can see that Buffy has a ways to go in achieving balance in much of anything. I also like the continuation of the theme from “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] — where she spotted a vampire in a crowd purely from his clothing — that Buffy can also triumph using unconventional and non-traditional skills.
As much as I appreciated the character work for Buffy, and the wonderful thematic touches, not all of “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” is as introspective and relevant. There are some basic problems here that, sadly, really drag on the episode. For one, I have a hard time buying Buffy’s sudden interest in Owen, who seems too quiet and book-wormy for what appear to be her tastes. There is the mystery factor and his looks, both of which he apparently shares with Angel, but it just doesn’t strike me that Buffy would get all excited over him, purely on interest level. Then again, the episode does point out that Buffy’s not really thinking about maturity and non-physical compatibility at this point. So while this interest feels off, it might not be quite as bad as it seems.
Worse, though, is Cordelia suddenly going after Owen at the exact same time, which is way too scripted and forced. Cordelia is artificially inserted into this story to create competition for Buffy, and it doesn’t remotely work. In typical Season 1 fashion, there’s also the problem of characters that show up just for one episode who are given way too much focus and drama considering we never see them again.
The entire sequence at the funeral home fell flat: the vampires are spectacularly lame, the action isn’t remotely exciting, and the fake-out death of Owen is sloppy and unconvincing. I can’t say I was thrilled with the bus sequence either: silly and boring.
While “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” is certainly rough in parts, it has the right intentions. It is a coherently put together episode with a theme that resonates, and contains some solid early character work for Buffy. These points alone bring it above the average Season 1 episode. This is an overall enjoyable step in the right direction for the series in these very early, formative stages. Best of all, this is the very first episode after the premiere where the plot primarily services the characters.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The interplay between Buffy, Owen, and Giles, and how Emily Dickinson binds them together (i.e. death, loss, etc.).
+ Xander’s watch. Wow.
+ Xander getting a little too excited about being in Buffy’s room.
+ Buffy’s “I’ll come back” kiss to Owen, followed by both him and Angel taking solidarity in Buffy’s wondrous strangeness.
– Good soundtrack, but the score still sucks.
– Terrible vampire make-up, and music, in the opening fight. Oh my.
– A rare poorly delivered pun for Buffy in the opening scene.
– Too much heavy-handed exposition!
– Cordelia, quite obnoxiously, being shoe-horned into the episode in several places.
– The Master talks up the Anointed One a lot. It’s a shame that it’s only talk.
* Buffy saying “bite me” right before the camera cuts to “Angel” [1×07].