The Cultural Catchup Project: Love is a Battlefield (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Love is a Battlefield”

April 17th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.


Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

18 responses to “The Cultural Catchup Project: Love is a Battlefield (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. Dalyn

    Oh, it’s really a shame that you experienced Buffy well into the current vampire mania, though I have the opposite problem: it’s difficult for me to get excited and/or interested in any of the new vampire stuff because everything I see/hear seems like a Buffy rip-off.

    I think, like most shows, the first season is a little rough and inconsistent. As I recall, there are more stand alone episodes and the characters are still caricatures of their future selves (unlike Friends where the characters grew increasingly silly as the series progressed). I have always had problems with Buffy in particular. Even though this is one of my favorite shows (ever), I have always found her insipid and mostly unlikable. She vascillates between quippiness and feeling intensely sorry for herself–like many teenagers, I guess. In fact, it has often been difficult for me to care about the sacrifices she makes for the most part.

    I think Whedon is most successful with this show when he commits to an arc–both in terms of personal relationships and each season’s big bad. Luckily, the swim team type episodes (oh, just you wait) are relatively rare and the mythos is completely engrossing and worth waiting for.

    • JJ

      I don’t disagree with you on any particular point, but two thoughts popped into my head:

      I agree, I have never particularly cared for the character of Buffy — but I don’t hold it against the show, because it is HARD to be, essentially, the straight-man around whom other characters revolve.

      Also, the swim team episode is more than redeemed by the sight of Nick Brendan in a speedo.

  2. jules

    I’ve wondered how it would be to experience Buffy/Angel after Twilight, so please keep posting your reactions. One of the reasons why I love BtVS and loathe Twilight is that BtVS actually explores the gritty and unpleasant complications of falling in love with a vampire (and, arguably, the complications of love in general). Yes, Buffy makes plenty of puppydog eyes at Angel, and spends time obsessing about him (like any other teen girl), but she is also strong enough to make impossibly difficult choices regarding their relationship in a way that Bella is not. It also matters to me that Buffy is a physical match for Angel. As the Slayer, she is not defenseless around him, physically or mentally.

    Season 2 is where Buffy/Angel really picks up (as you may very well know).

    • Tausif Khan

      Apparently Buffy is stronger than Angel which visually I have hard time recognizing in the series.

      • Dalyn

        Buffy’s strength is inconsistent at best. Her abilities seem to depend a lot on the story line, so it’s hard to know when she can hear a vampire coming a mile off and when they’ll successfully ambush her.

        Inconsistent “power” is actually a pet peeve of mine.

  3. shuggie

    Some interesting observations. So hard not to spoil you. Every other line of your post provokes a “wait until you see episode such-and-such”.

    I think you’re right to pick out NKaBotFD. It’s a significant episode because that double-life theme of the responsibility of being the Slayer v just wanting to have a normal life is something that informs the entire show’s run I think. Thankfully unlike Chuck they don’t feel the need to make it explicit in every single frikking episode!

    I can’t say I’m a fan of Angel (the ep, don’t mind the character, or the show) but it is significant again both in terms of those two characters relationship and the evolving vampire mythos of the show.

    Enjoy the final episodes of Season 1. There’s a couple of pretty good ones and the finale is excellent (though try to keep in mind what special effects were possible in 1997 on a low-end TV budget).

    If the “super terrible” episode you’re about to watch is the one I think it is then it’s a guilty pleasure for me. Bad but it has it moments, and even has something to say about Love in the Buffyverse.

  4. I distinctly remember the first time I saw “Angel.” My first response was to ask my friend, whose DVDs I was borrowing, “Is it always like this?” And the answer is yes, plus sometimes 1000. I got used to it, though, and now expect my TV to move as fast and as hard as Buffy plots used to.

  5. Wow! You obviously put a lot of time and thought into this. I am a long time Buffy fan from the very first airing. It almost breaks my heart a bit to think of the show being compared to Twilight. I hadn’t even considered it (and I like Twilight). Your guilty pleasures will continue as you progress through the seasons. The content matures and you will be introduced to characters that you will both champion for and despise (and then champion for again). I hope you continue your Buffy journey.

    • Eldritch

      “It almost breaks my heart a bit to think of the show being compared to Twilight.”

      I second this. Admittedly, I haven’t seen/read Twilight, but I’ve repeatedly seen it described as aimed at 14-year old girls and endlessly agonizing over when to give up virginity. (I guess the Twilight fans can have at me now. [ducking for cover.]).

      I’ve never seen it described as intelligent or inventive, which pretty much makes it the polar opposite of Buffy, which is aimed at adults and deals with quite complex and believable interpersonal relationships.

      • Jaina

        Buffy was my first real foray into the world of vampire mythology and I think will always stand as my pedestal, so to speak. I don’t immediately write off other vampire stories, I do love the Twilight series and have been watching The Vampire Diaries since it started. I guess where it’s different from me is that I look at them separately. I have to admit, I was incredibly confused when I started reading Twilight because of the major vampire rule differences because I learned via Buffy. Once I got the hang of it and later (finally) saw Interview With a Vampire, I was intrigued to see the similarities and differences. I appreciate Twilight for its story, but it is drastically different that Buffy. Is it bad to love both?
        I started watching The Vampire Diaries out of curiosity to see how they would do it. I went in expecting some kind of mix between Buffy and Twilight. I have to say it’s definitely improved as it’s progressed, I really do enjoy it. I find myself analyzing it, comparing it to the rules of Buffy and drawing comparisons (Gem of Amara anyone?) and trying to figure out what’s going on/going to happen in Vampire Diaries based on what I know from Buffy.
        All that to say that I agree that they are different and I don’t see how they can realistically be compared because, as Eldritch pointed out, they are such polar opposites. Their similarity is vampires. Even the rules are opposites.

  6. Eric

    “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.”

    I would argue that being disturbing was part of the reason for it. The other four were a Pack/Gang before the spell, and from Joss’ geek perspective they don’t care about anyone but themselves. In the unlikely event that they reflect back on what happened, they are likely to think, “Cool, we got away with killing the Principal!”

  7. Interestingly, what I find the most interesting in the first two season of the show is how the writing core starts to slowly come into focus.

    “Never Kill A Boy” is by Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batai, who write a number of episodes in the first season and a half before disappearing entirely from the writing staff. They have some good ideas, but we eventually find a more solid core group of Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson and others as we move through the season. Indeed, I’d argue what makes Whedon an effective show runner is his ability to find and cultivate new writing talent.

    • Eldritch

      That’s a very good point.

      In that vein, many people complain that season 7 was too dark. That may relate to Marti Noxon’s taking over as the day to day show runner in season 6. Season 6 was filled with pain. And in season 7, that pain took on a darker more desperate tone. In at least one of the episode commentaries, Whedon described her as the Queen of Pain and attributed many of the darker plot twists to her. For comedy, they went to Jane Espensen.

  8. Bob Kat

    I think the reaction of the “Dode Patrol” in “The PAck” was intended as part of the message. I don’t think they’ll recall “getting away with” killing Principal FLutie as “cool.” The terrified looks on t heir faces when the hyena power leaves them can be attributed to several things, but I think part of it was they had jsut returned to their status as nasty but basically normal humans and realized what they’d done, not just breaking laws but taboos.
    I *do* see where you’re going with the lightheartedness of Giles’s and Xander’s reactions, but you’ll find that’s typical. The show doesn’t really display *all that much* caring for its victims. At times to an unrealistic extent; Willow’s reaction to finding out Jesse, apparently one of her two odlest and closest friends, has died was not beleiveable ina any real-world way. Yes, I understand the TV pacing reasons for it. It’s another aspect of suspension of disbelief, methinks.

  9. JJ

    The Pack was “nondescript”?!?!?!?

    A pig was eaten! A person was eaten! And Xander was super-creepy-sexy!!! And Willow showed yet again that she’s smart and tough under her mousy exterior!

    As for the other pack members, I consider them a sacrifice to the god of procedurals. The show is really good at keeping the continuity of the main characters’ lives, but you can’t completely avoid the “let’s care about the problems of a random peer we’ve never heard of before, and will never hear of again!” episodes.

    • JJ

      Regarding Willow, I suppose the “yet again” is a bit much. This may have been the first time she surprises us by not falling for a line, which may be why I like it so much.

  10. Jaina

    I’m playing catch up on your posts, but I am loving this. You also won major points for the Alias and Chuck references. You have really well thought out points and it’s fascinating to see your thought progression and impressions as you get deeper into the series. I’m very excited that you are blogging this experience. I envy you the first time experience.

  11. Rae

    Am behind in your Buffy posts but just wanted to comment on your blanket statements note. I think there’s room for it to be both. After all, in high schoo everything feels like THE END OF THE WORLD. Things always seemed bigger than life itself because we’re often experiencing them for the first time and really advancing our understanding of social behavior, etc. So I think the show can, at this point, be about how high school is hell AND how it feels like the end of the world.

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