I am doing a Buffy rewatch.
Now, the particulars of this rewatch are flexible - I am 100% willing to accept feedback on how you might like this to go. I will say that these reviews will not be exhaustive in dealing with all parts of an episode. I can guarantee that, as with anything, I'll be looking at Joss Whedon's storytelling choices, as well as the specifics of the character arcs, especially as they pertain to women and feminism. But there's a lot of Buffy reviewers on Ye Olde Internet, and I'd like to retread as little as possible. Along those lines, I will also be including a commemorative Buffy the Vampire Slayer haiku at the beginning of each episode review, penned by yours truly! They are part of a collection, gifted to my dearest best friend, by me, on her birthday three years ago. They are also collecting dust, and therefore will be paraded out as review companions and also evidence of the nerdiest birthday gift ever created on this planet. But please don't take the haikus too seriously! They are for funsies only.
Without further ado...
There is one Chosen
in every generation.
Buffy, here we go...
1.01: WELCOME TO THE HELLMOUTH
1.02: THE HARVEST
It's fairly common knowledge at this point that the construction of Buffy Summers as a hero is a subversion of horror movie tradition. To quote Joss himself: "The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of 'Buffy: The Movie' was the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of 'Buffy' was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim." But what's great about "Welcome to the Hellmouth" is that it immediately introduces this notion - without even involving Buffy at all.
"Welcome to the Hellmouth" begins with a horror-style trope: a guy and a girl break onto school grounds at night, to fool around. There's a sense of danger being communicated, and the natural assumption is that this girl might be in trouble. The guy's clueless, but the girl is nervous, and the conclusion is this: either this guy is bad news for the girl, or there's third party bad news that this guy is going to be no help fighting off. Either way, it's not looking good for the girl.
But Joss deviates from tradition with a purposeful misdirect: as soon as he's sure we think this blondie's gonna bite it, he drops the reveal. She's the one who's dangerous. This woman is not unassuming, timid, or nervous. She's in complete power of the situation. She has lured this helpless guy into a dark alley. She's the one who kills.
Before we even meet Buffy Summers, we get an instant idea what this show is going to be about. (I mean, besides vampires.) And what's particularly great about it not involving Buffy is that it's a double dose of feminist action. Buffy Summers can exist as a feminist character in a not-necessarily feminist narrative. (For proof, look at nearly every female on Glee.) But by presenting Darla, a villain, as a subversion of the same trope intended for the hero, we can tell that the whole show is meant to be a commentary - and a casual middle finger - to the expectations audiences have for "typical" female characters. It's not just Buffy Summers who's meant to break the mold: it's Darla too, and by extension, we can expect the same sort of thing for Willow, and Cordelia, and Joyce - all of whom make significant appearances in the first two episodes.
Of course, this subversion's application to Buffy herself is also fantastic in its own regard. The character and her presentation not only subvert expectations for a female role, but also for a hero's introduction, regardless of gender. Most hero narratives begin with a glimpse into the hero's life before their "gift" comes to them. We get to see the hero lead a normal life, unfettered with worry about saving people and fighting evil. The thrust of their story is about dealing with the change in lifestyle, and having the audience witness every step of that journey.
But Buffy? When we meet Buffy, she already knows the deal. Vampires, Slayers, Chosen One, blah blah blah. She's got it. She does not want it. She had it, for awhile, and things did not go well. She's trying to retire from it now, and start new. Unfortunately for Buffy, she just so happened to retire to the Hellmouth, and "starting new" really just means "Slaying with an ensemble" now. But this approach is really great storytelling for the Pilot because it allows for two things. One, it enables Buffy to have an interesting back story. We hear snippets of her past, but never the full story, and it hooks the audience. Why did Buffy get kicked out of her last school? How exactly did she burn down the gym? How did she find out she was the Slayer? There are plenty of questions to ask - all of which help subvert the "cute blonde girl" image - and leave for answering later.
Secondly, it removes the element of "things happening" to Buffy from our screens. So often in hero narratives, heroes don't want their powers and responsibilities. It's a burden. They don't really get a choice in the matter - until they do. Basically, Joss & Co. have fast-forwarded to the "until they do" part. Buffy knows the deal. She doesn't like the deal. But before she makes the choice to embrace her role, she could be easily classifiable as a victim. And isn't the whole point of this show to not make Buffy Summers a victim? She's meant to be a strong female hero, and therefore, it's absolutely genius to ensure that Buffy Summers makes her choice in the very first episodes. We don't see Buffy as a victim of being chosen - we hear about it, but we don't see it. We see her make a choice. Strong characters choose. Buffy chooses.
Along those lines, it's easy to wish that there were a stronger moment of choice for Buffy in "Welcome to the Hellmouth" or "The Harvest." It's almost as though Buffy doesn't choose slaying; slaying chooses Buffy. Events spiral out of control, and she gets dragged along with them in order to protect people. But perhaps that is the point - and an issue that's always going to be a central conflict for this character and her place in the story. She cannot choose her destiny because she is chosen. The chosen cannot truly choose. Tapping into that reality right off the bat humanizes Buffy as a reluctant hero, and helps create a gray area in the narrative that many good-vs-evil stories simply make black and white. From the get-go, Buffy Summers is more compelling a hero than a whole slew of her predecessors.
Even though there's not a specific and glorified moment of choice for Buffy, there is still a turning point in the episode, where her attitude shifts from "not my problem" to "entirely my problem." That moment happens when Willow Rosenberg leaves The Bronze with a vampire. It seems like an obvious choice, to put the meekest character in danger, which thereby raises the stakes for the audience. And you could argue that Willow is a stereotypical character to "damsel," which thereby might weaken the decision. But there are several implications of the choice to endanger Willow that I actually really love. Mainly, it necessitates Buffy actually caring about Willow before she's damseled. The easiest option in this scenario would have been to put a man in danger - any man, doesn't matter who - so that Buffy could save him and swiftly hammer in a "Girl Power!" message. It's a clear genderswap, and simple for the audience to grasp. There's no need to build a relationship between Buffy and the person she's saving, as long as he's a man.
But Buffy's a reluctant hero, remember? At this point, she's not going to just save anybody. In that the writers chose Willow's endangerment for Buffy's call to action, they also created the need for a Buffy-Willow bond. Boom. Female friendship intrinsically built-in, and necessary to advance the story. What's further fantastic about this choice is the manner in which Buffy and Willow become friends: Buffy walks up and wants to be friends with her. The writers don't create a scenario to bring these two women together; they just walk Buffy over to Willow and have her say, "Hey. Let's be friends." This friendship is not of convenience, or accident, or circumstance. Buffy chooses it, and the writers even went so far as to have her choose it over friendship with Cordelia. There was an actual clear choice for Buffy, and Buffy chose Willow. So when Willow's in danger? It's more than enough to bring our reluctant hero into action.
Of course, this also introduces the idea that Buffy Summers is a compassionate individual. Buffy's choice to befriend Willow, as well as the choice to chase after vampires because of Willow, tells us a lot about Buffy's character. She's known Willow for what, a week? But try as she might to shirk her duties, Buffy can't because she cares. One simple storytelling decision - damsel Willow - spawned a positive female friendship, an active choice for the main character, and information we can infer about the main character as a result of that choice. Genius, right?
Together, these decisions all add up to paint a portrait of a female lead who subverts stereotype within the narrative but never wanders into exaggeration. Buffy's introduction to the audience is well-balanced, nuanced, and relatable. She presents as upbeat and perky, but has a back story that's clearly embittered her. We have a defined idea of Buffy's strengths as well as the responsibilities that plague her. We see her make choices, make friends, and make jokes. The narrative even makes jokes for her - when Giles implores her to use a kind of mystical sixth sense for finding vampires, she instead identifies one based on what he's wearing. She exists both within the narrative, as well as a construct of it, as a seemingly harmless teenager who also kills vampires for a living. Or is it a girl who kills vampires for a living who happens to be a seemingly harmless teenager?
Regardless, she's the girl who leads the guy following her into a dark alley and takes him by surprise. By the end of "The Harvest," Buffy the Vampire Slayer has done its job introducing our lead. She's not the victim in a horror movie just because she's a cute blonde girl. She's a hero - and a great character. In just two episodes, we have a clear picture of feminist lead in a feminist narrative - with gray area and solid character choices to boot. There's no better way to kick off a story.