“Love is a Battlefield”
April 17th, 2010
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“When I said you could slay vampires and have a social life, I didn’t mean at the same time.”
Early in a first season, the goal of any television series is to get viewers interested in the stories unfolding. This sounds really simple at first, but there’s a lot of different ways this goal is achieved: some shows simply keep retelling the same basic story in an effort to draw in new viewers as the season moves forward, while other shows try to tell as many different types of stories as possible in order to convince viewers that unpredictable and expansive are two very important adjectives in judging a new series.
However, what I’m finding really interesting about Buffy is that it seems to be both patient and impatient, willing to spend time on what one would consider “throwaway” episodes in “Witch” and “Teacher’s Pet” but then shifting gears entirely by diving head first into the complexities of the Angel mythos with two of the following episodes (“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” and “Angel”). Rather than these two episodes each feeling like an individual component of the series’ premise being revealed, “Never Kill a Boy…” and “Angel” are really like a two-parter (divided by “The Pack,” which was pretty nondescript and “standalone”): the first establishes the challenges of living a double life, while the second extends that particular theme to a more interesting and thematically complex place.
It’s a place that I know is the starting point for a fairly major component in the rest of the series, but I admit to being a little bit distracted by how its meaning has been altered by new points of reference that have emerged in the thirteen years since the episodes aired.
Intriguingly, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” is arguably the first Buffy-centric episode of the entire series – the Pilot sort of takes Buffy’s character for granted, focusing more on her situation, while “Witch” and “Teacher’s Pet” focused on Amy and Xander, respectively. Buffy was, of course, part of the stories, but for the most part her character remained largely static, or at the very least largely dealing with the same concerns (her reputation preceding her, for example) that we saw in the Pilot. This isn’t really a problem, but it does make “Never Kill a Boy…” really interesting once you realize that this is really the first time the show has gone to this particular well.
What we get is all build into the premise, really: when you have a central protagonist with some sort of double life, whether it’s Chuck on Chuck, or Sydney on Alias, you are eventually going to do an episode about how they are in some way divided, trapped between the normal life they’d like to have and the sense of duty they have to their country (or, in Buffy’s case, to humanity in general). Considering that Buffy is in high school, the challenges of dating seemed like a pretty simple option, and Owen was pretty nondescript as far as characters go, but the way the episode handled the ending is very important: Buffy’s double life doesn’t scare Owen away so much as it makes him want to be with her more, which places the onus on her to step away. If this had been about how being a Slayer is unfair then Buffy could have been rejected; instead, because it’s a story about how being a Slayer is about responsibility as opposed to any sort of social stigma, Buffy is forced to send Owen away for his own safety, the sort of nuanced approach which helps elevate the episode beyond a pretty rote play on the traditional “Girl Meets Boy, Can’t Have Boy” scenario.
Unsurprisingly, “Angel” is a more interesting hour, but it is pretty much telling the same story. Angel lives a sort of double life, but while Buffy is sad about not being able to date cute boys Angel is wracked with intense guilt over the terrible things he did in his past which he, unlike other vampires, is unable to forget. As a Vampire with a soul, he has every urge to drink blood that any other vampire has but with the sense of empathy and compassion which cripples him with guilt. While the episode focuses (for logical reasons I’ll discuss in a moment) on the relationship between Buffy and Angel, it actually goes quite a compelling job of delving into Angel’s side of this story, using Julie Benz’ Darla to great effect before her untimely death. While a lot of Angel’s back story is handled through Giles reading old books, which isn’t exactly the most engaging form of exposition, David Boreanaz gets a number of good opportunities to delve into the “curse” and its effect on Angel as a character.
However, I couldn’t help but watch that romance and get a serious sense of deja vu. It’s hard to put yourself in the mindset of how this would have played in 1997 when we live in a post-Twilight, post-True Blood and post-Vampire Diaries era – while it’s sad and unfortunate that I saw Twilight before I saw Buffy, it nonetheless means that I’m intensely familiar with the basic trajectory here. Girl meets Boy, Boy is more than meets the eye, they share an immediate connection but can’t act on their love, and things go downhill from here. None of this changes the fact that Sarah Michelle Gellar and Boreanaz have some fantastic chemistry, or the fact that “Angel” is probably the most effective episode of the series thus far in terms of visual style (aided by the nice subtlety of Angel’s vampire makeup), but is the sort of thing that may have seemed more surprising or more unpredictable if I had been watching along at the time.
Any sort of negative reaction to the familiarity of the Angel and Buffy relationship, however, is sort of tempered by the other side of the coin in terms of watching late with certain expectations in place: I know that the show only gets more complicated with time, and that eventually Angel (spoiler alert!) gets his own series, so it’s clear that there is something a little bit more complex than your traditional heroine/Other love story going on here. What these episodes accomplish is to remind us that love is, in fact, a battlefield as opposed to something that the show can toy around with: Owen was never going to be a realistic love interest because Buffy’s life is too complicated for her double life to remain a secret within such a partnership, his innocence too dangerous within the life she leads. So while Angel might be complicated and carrying a whole lot of baggage, he nonetheless presents a more realistic relationship for Buffy and the show as a result of his integration with the more complex elements of the series’ narrative which, not coincidentally, returned in these episodes as the Master emerges from hiding as opposed to the one-and-done threats of the previous episodes.
Considering they eventually become eponymous stars of sibling series, these two episodes lay an important foundation by focusing on the fundamental challenges facing Buffy and Angel as characters: their lives, or their souls, are trapped in the battlefield, and any chance of them breaking free has been done in by either the curse of responsibility or, well, a curse. I personally thought they’d have gotten to Buffy earlier in the series, and that they might drag out Angel’s mysterious phase for a bit longer, but creating a thematic connection between the two stories and placing them as two sides of the same coin will make for an interesting journey, and hopefully a launching pad for something considerably more engaging than Edward and Bella.
- I thought Nicholas Brendan did a fine job of handling Hyena Zander in “The Pack,” another episode following in tradition of demonizing traditional high school behaviour. However, I had some serious issues with the episode playing Xander’s lack of memory loss as something light-hearted when it would mean that the other four students would remember eating their High School Principal, which is just all sorts of disturbing.
- Note to self: don’t make blanket statements. After the Pilot: “It’s all about the end of the world!” After the next two episodes: “It’s all about high school.” After “Angel”: “End of the world!” I think I’d argue that the show feels more comfortable and purposeful when it’s dealing with the apocalypse or threat thereof, but I know high school will continue to play a role, and I certainly think those stories are important to the overall world-building and to keep Buffy’s character dynamic.
- There was a real shift in “Never Kill a Boy…” in terms of Buffy’s general level of quippiness: while “Angel” sort of dialed it down, Buffy was suddenly much more talkative and bubbly. I didn’t mind, as the episode was pretty light-hearted until its conclusion and it resulted in some great exasperation from Giles, but it still struck me.
- Someone asked in a previous comment thread if I could write out everything I know about the series, but to be honest I’m trying not to think about it all so that I try to forget as much as possible. However, I will say that Xander and Willow are currently a long way away from where I know they end up sooner or later, so I’m not quite able to enjoy the sort of “Will they, won’t they” cuteness between the two characters as much as I might otherwise.
- I don’t intend on reviewing every episode, honest, but my schedule just isn’t allowing me to marathon the show as I’d like to. I will probably be back later in the weekend with some thoughts on the next couple of episodes (I hear one of them is super terrible, so that’ll be fun), and then I’ll hope to wrap up Season 1 early this week before moving onward with a bit more steam.