“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. That element of surprise, that element of genre busting is very much at the heart of the movie and the series” “– Joss Whedon
Before we dive into season 2, I thought we’d take a week to discuss season 1 in its entirety. Expect this to be a regular feature ““ at the end of every season, there will be a season wrap-up to talk about themes and messages, and how successful the show has been thus far. The great thing about revisiting shows like Buffy, which have already completed their run*, is that you can look at the big picture and not just judge on a week-to-week basis.
*Buffy, of course, lives on in the Season 8 and the upcoming Season 9 comic series. I will be talking about them when we get there and the problems that the continuing story presents to the universe of the show.
To begin, all of the season 1 recaps:
Whedon has been outspoken about his intent to create an explicitly feminist show with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can think of few other writers who have been so blunt about their desires and who deliberately aimed to change the way we look at female characters. Buffy was supposed to be that blonde who gets killed off in horror films, that pretty little slip of a girl who runs and screams and heaves her chest before being killed in a gratuitous and sexual manner. Joss aimed to flip that narrative on its head.
So, 12 episodes in, how effective was he?
Honestly, pretty damn effective. It’s hard to remember how revolutionary this show was when it premiered. Two years earlier, Xena had created a huge ruckus with its action heroine, kicking off the wave of fighting gals that were so popular in the ’90s, but Buffy was different. Sure, she was a fighter too, but she was also a girl that most viewers would recognize. Her school looked like your school. Her problems looked like your problems. Her single parent household was probably familiar. She had dating problems and identity problems and did badly at school and was ostracized from the popular crowd. There were just a few more vampires in her life than there probably were in yours.
You could relate, even if you weren’t the inheritor of legendary mystical powers and the responsibility to save the world from demons.
So while you were relating, you were also getting to see a girl who fought. Who stood up, even when all she really wanted to do was go catch a movie with a cute boy. Buffy was supposed to be that girl that got killed, because that’s what popular culture told you happened to girls. They get killed and some guy gets to seek revenge and her death is ultimately a story about that guy’s power. When Buffy walks down that alley in the first episode, that scene is direct confrontation of this narrative. She doesn’t die; she knocks Angel on his ass, puts her boot in his chest, and demands that he stops stalking her. This isn’t his story. This is her story. And you’re going to respect that she’s the driving force in it.
You want some evidence about how revolutionary this is? 14 years after this scene airs, we have the exact same scenario in one of the most popular and most widely-read book series published this century, except that the heroine doesn’t protect herself or call out her stalker for his creepy behavior; she offers up her throat to him.
The show doesn’t stop with Buffy. It’s one thing to have one empowered, active character. Plenty of shows do that. Especially in the post-Buffy, post-Xena, post-girl power world. Most of them don’t have two, much less an entire roster of well fleshed-out female characters. Willow, of course, becomes the show’s breakout star, and she has a rocky start in the first season. “I Robot,” the first of the Willow-centric episodes, is a weak bit of storytelling, but it has its moments, like Willow catching on to and refusing to be snowed by her internet boyfriend’s suspicious behavior. Cordelia floats around discovering bodies and screaming, but she’s kickass when it comes to it, driving a car through a school to get her not-friends to safety. Jenny Calender has her worldview shaken by demon attacks, takes some time to adjust, and comes back to join the fight.
Over and over again, we just see women on screen. They’re everywhere. They aren’t just relegated to the hot girlfriend roles – they’re computer geeks, working mothers, invisible assassins, slayers, teachers, and prom queens. They pass the Bedschel test, over and over again – in itself, this is not “proof” that the show is feminist, but ask yourself, what’s the last TV show you can name that does this? Every week?
Season 1 isn’t perfect. There’s some problematic storytelling elements, particularly in the treatment of Xander and the episode “The Pack,” which I think the writers would like us to forget ever happens. Once you watch the episode and understand Xander’s attack on Buffy as a sexual assault, it makes accepting him and his friendship in the later years difficult. Particularly because he lies about knowing it happened. Especially because he’s never forced to atone for it – there is no other major show character that goes so unpunished for such a major sin.
What sticks out to me most on this rewatch of the first season is how thin it actually is. Season 1 has never been my favorite – I think most critics would agree that the show really hits its stride in season 2 – but it was good enough to convince me to keep tuning in when it first aired. It dates horribly. 14 years down the line, many things that were fresh and exciting about the series are now almost commonplace on television. But the really good episodes, “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” “The Harvest,” and “Prophecy Girl” showcase some fantastic storytelling and the themes the show will ultimately concern itself with. “Prophecy Girl” in particular is a gem – it is absolutely on par with “The Gift,” “The Body,” or “Becoming, Part 2” as one of the best episodes of the entire run. And her death at the end of it sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in the literal empowerment of a generation of women.
That’s pretty damn awesome, if you ask me.