The Cultural Catchup Project: Hellmouth [versus/and/within/without] High School (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Hellmouth [versus/and/within/without] High School

April 20th, 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.

For those who have waited patiently for me to get through the fairly short first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a process which has taken a week longer than it would have under normal circumstances, you’ll have to wait a little bit longer: while I’m about to get to “Prophecy Girl,” which everyone seems to be labeling as the show’s turning point, there’s a few observations I want to make about the show before I get into the finale and trying to contend with what the season is accomplishing.

Like any first season, this was obviously a learning experience for Whedon and his crew of writers – to borrow the ominous message from “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,” Whedon’s job was pretty much to “Look, Learn, Listen” to the effectiveness of these episodes. What struck me about the three stories which lead into the finale (“The Puppet Show,” “Nightmares,” and “Out of Mind…”) is that they all offer subtly different takes on the show’s central premise, each using the Hellmouth (which, yes, I’ve discussed before) as the source of a different kind of phenomenon: while the diversity speaks to the endless potential to the Hellmouth, the varying quality of the episodes indicates that even subtle differences in function can heighten the dramatic interest in a pretty substantial fashion.

And yes, you’ll have to read my thoughts on that before I get to the finale, so long as your patience hasn’t run out already.

“The Puppet Show” has a lot of things working against, not the least of which is that it’s about a sentient, womanizing puppet. However, while Sal isn’t precisely the most subtle or engaging character the show could have come up with, and the distraction over that particular part of the story takes away some of the episode’s danger and replaces it with pure camp, the episode’s real problem is that it isn’t actually that interesting a story. While the premise (that a demon needs to feed on the organs of humans in order to retain his human form) is unquestionably demonic, the actual effect is not that dissimilar from a particularly sadistic serial killer. If it looks like a human, and does stupid magic tricks like a human, and murders not unlike a sick-minded human would, then all the show is doing is transferring a story from Criminal Minds (or a comparative series, understanding the anachronistic nature of this reference) into this demonic environment. Things play out slightly differently, but the Hellmouth is not necessary for stories like this to unfold; rather, it is just a variable which results in some extra makeup work and the bounty hunter who sacrificed his own life in order to eliminate the threat being made out of wood.

The show has always played fast and loose with how the Hellmouth works, largely because it’s afraid to put itself into a particular category. It plays a role in every story, justifying why Buffy is in Sunnydale and why all of these events keep happening, but it can manifest within the high school, against the high school, or completely independent of the high school environment. I’m not suggesting the show should stick to one option, which would be impossible when they’re still testing the waters, but I have to presume that Whedon was learning as he went along which are more effective. “Nightmares” is a fine example of a story which takes a real-life circumstance (an over-zealous Little League coach attacks his star player) and investigates the ways in which the consequences of fear manifest themselves when it happens on top of the Hellmouth. Trapped in an Elm Street-esque coma, young Billy’s fear merges with the cosmic power of the Hellmouth to start blending the two realities together, bringing nightmares to life in a way which doesn’t feel like any other show which follows a similar procedural structure (problem is introduced, problem escalates, problem is solved). It felt like something that was only possible on the Hellmouth, not something which just happens differently in this environment, which is an important distinction to make and something which made the episode quite a strong piece of standalone world building.

“Out of Mind, Out of Sight” (which is an awesome episode title) seems at first like an episode similar to “Teacher’s Pet” or “The Pack,” where traditional high school ideas (the danger of being hot for teacher, or the culture of bullying) are given supernatural twists. However, in the case of those episodes, the transformations were the result of the Hellmouth’s abnormally high volume of demonic activity: the teacher was a demon praying (I went there) on these students, and the evil zookeeper was a twisted sorceror whose quest for vengeance happened to create a conveniently supernatural manifestation of high school clichés like a friend being sucked into the “cool” group at the expense of his existing friendships.

However, the story of Marcie is not the same as those developments, as she became a demon (or what you’d effectively call a demon) as a result of the Hellmouth and its influence; the connection between Hellmouth and high school is not through some sort of demonic action which happens to mirror society, but rather through a common high school occurrence (the “invisible girl” who no one pays attention to) evolving into something dangerous. It moves the “high school and the supernatural are so much alike”  message from the level of the viewer (who is meant to see the parallels more than the characters) to the level of the world itself. The messages Marcie sends (“Look, Listen, Learn”) are never given explicit meaning in the episode, but the really effective scene of Buffy listening in order to track her location is a nice reminder of the fact that the threats of the Hellmouth don’t always “happen to” Buffy or Sunnydale. Going back to the pilot, when Giles stressed the importance of being able to “smell” vampires, you realize that Buffy is being prepared not just to respond to threats but to hunt them out, to go beyond things which are happening to her in order to understand their origins. “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” nicely delves into those questions of perception by emphasizing that the Hellmouth can create demons out of high school just as much as it can allow demons to infilitrate or complicate the high school environment, creating one more potentiality for Buffy to contend with.

In some ways, the Hellmouth feels a little bit like a cheat, a way to keep the audience from questioning how often supernatural things happen to this one high school and in the vicinity of this one girl. However, that “cheat” allows the show to exist, and so long as they use it to their advantage rather than using it as a variable in order to spice up pedestrian stories it will certainly be an important creative force in the series. A lot of the season’s inconsistency (which wasn’t quite as pronounced as I had anticipated) comes from the challenges of conceptualizing the Hellmouth and its influence, and I think these three episodes offered some intriguing images into what works well, what doesn’t work so well, and that potential which may exist in the future for this particular supernatural phenomenon.

Cultural Observations

  • Some in the comments had mentioned that “I, Robot… You, Jane” was a particularly heinous episode, but I actually found it to be a really fascinating glimpse into technophobia and the dangers of the internet – however, it’s the one episode of the season which, based of its dated approach to technology, really does feel like a “period piece” of the 1990s, which does the episode’s robot demon no favours in terms of the camp factor. I don’t think the episode would have played quite so terribly at the time, although I have no real evidence to back this up.
  • The insinuation that the FBI is taking kids who have experienced similar invisibility in the past and turning them into some form of army seems like an interesting precursor to the Dollhouse, and the idea of taking advantage of technology (or in this case the supernatural) for largely selfish reasons. Conveniently, the people who have this condition are crazy enough that infiltration and assassination are cool, but they are very clearly not interested in “fixing” them, much in the same way that the Dollhouse isn’t interested in “fixing” the damaged people who sign up to be dolls but rather taking advantage of their physical bodies.
  • I really liked “Nightmares,” but boy did the show have no idea how to stick that landing: the switch from “really compelling manifestation of nightmares which speak to fear and anxiety within the various characters” to a crime procedural conclusion with absolutely no supernatural element really didn’t work.
  • Interesting, but not unsurprising, to see more “Story by Joss Whedon” credits late in the season – it shows that he’s got a vision, which is always helpful heading into a finale.
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23 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

23 responses to “The Cultural Catchup Project: Hellmouth [versus/and/within/without] High School (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. “I don’t think [“I Robot, You Jane”] would have played quite so terribly at the time, although I have no real evidence to back this up.”

    Will an eyewitness account from someone who watched the episode when it first aired in 1997 do? I can attest that it worked fine. The Internet, e-mail, chat, was still pretty newish to most people (my university started providing broadband in 1994). From a character development perspective, it’s a significant episode not only in what it reveals about Willow, but also in introducing Ms. Calendar.

    • Susan

      I agree. While it’s definitely dated, it advances the characters in some important ways. Not my favorite ep in this season, not by a long shot, but “Puppet Show” is the worst, IMO. Neither am I a fan of “Teacher’s Pet” or “The Pack,” those they both have some important Xander moments.

  2. Susan

    “Interesting, but not unsurprising, to see more “Story by Joss Whedon” credits late in the season – it shows that he’s got a vision, which is always helpful heading into a finale.”

    Probably this has already been mentioned at least once somewhere in here, but Whedon wrote “Prophesy Girl,”–and it’s his first directing credit. As you progress into subsequent seasons, it will be apparent that his vision really coalesced in “Prophesy Girl,” and it’s the point at which he’s got full control of the helm.

    Also, I have to disagree with you about the Hellmouth being a “cheat.” To me, the various and unpredictable (well, to the characters, anyway) ways the Hellmouth works on Sunnydale and its citizens human or otherwise is appropriate to the mythos.

    • I ultimately fall on your side, but on paper the Hellmouth seems like an easy solution to a problem with the premise more than a creative impulse. In execution I’m finding it to be more nuanced than that (hence this post), but the general idea in a vague form is necessary, effective, but ultimately “cheating” to at least some degree.

      But I’m okay with a cheat every now and then if it feels appropriate, and as you point out this one certainly does.

      • Eldritch

        “on paper the Hellmouth seems like an easy solution to a problem with the premise more than a creative impulse. “

        I’m sure you’re watching these episodes on DVD, so you have access to the interviews and commentaries about them. However, I’m guessing your busy schedule may not offer you the time to watch them.

        Whedon says in one of them that his initial pitch to the network did not include the concept of the Hellmouth. However, to his surprise, the network really focused on what was causing all these supernatural phenomena to occur in Sunnydale. They wanted to know why it was happening.

        So in response, Whedon and a collaborator, worked up the Hellmouth as that explanation. Initially, he didn’t consider it all that important, but as he wrote the show, he found himself increasingly relying on it.

        So perhaps it was a solution to a problem.

        • I’m avoiding the commentaries/interviews out of fear of spoilers, but I’m not surprised to hear it was a network note – they do, on occasion, having intelligent things to offer (including to Whedon, despite his lengthy battles with networks later in his career).

  3. Eldritch

    “Like any first season, this was obviously a learning experience for Whedon and his crew of writers.”

    Clearly true. But perhaps more a learning experience for Whedon than his writers. As pointed out in a comment to a previous topic, by mid second season, he replaced his first season writers with a new crew.

    I have to say that according to IMDB, his first season writers went on to write mediocre (in my opinion) shows, while his replacement writers , Noxon, Espensen, et al. when on to write Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men and other more remarkable stuff.

  4. I can’t remember where I read this, but apparently Marcie was the character fans used to ask Whedon & Co. about the most, and it’s a question that have yet to answer. As far as I’m aware, she remains the only one-off guest star to arouse that level of curiosity and speculation. I’m sure it has to do with the ending (a type of story that Whedon comes back to again and again, both in Buffy, and his other works).

    Actually, now that I think about it, he seems to be obsessed with the idea of young bodies being appropriated for government and/or military use. I won’t spoil Angel or Buffy for you, but it comes up in connection with River Tam in Firefly, and again in Dollhouse.

  5. Beth

    Ok, well I really like “The Puppet Show”…I find it very funny and don’t mind that the plot was more “serial killer” like since I focus more on the characters, scenes and dialogue more than the MacGuffin plot device. The Hellmouth, to me, is a device, nothing more, nothing less. If this show were “Fringe” and didn’t focus as much on the characters and their relationships and feelings (not that “Fringe” doesn’t, just that it doesn’t as much as “Buffy”) I would want to understand more about how the Hellmouth/alternate universes/insert-plot-device-here worked, but it’s really just a plot device used to create a reason that they are in Sunnydale and weird things are happening. I’m enjoying reading this commentary – it is a little different since you know certain things that will happen. It seems that might prohibit you from getting too invested in the character arcs, since you know things will change etc…is that happening?

    • Eldritch

      I enjoyed this episode. I guess that includes me in the minority. Granted the “real demon killer” plot was weak. I hope this doesn’t reveal me as shallow and infantile, but I enjoyed the puncturing old trope of the evil ventriloquist dummy. The dummy was the good guy and his raunchiness struck me as funny. [So sue me.] We got to see a new side of Cordelia. We met the new principal, Snyder. What’s not to love?

      So what if it wasn’t a thoroughly great. It’s in good company with most of this season’s other episodes.

      • Jaina

        I have to agree with Eldritch on the likeable parts of this episode. Well…I have to admit that watching it late at night the first time probably wasn’t the best idea we had…but I was okay once we (well, I, my friend had seen it) figured out the puppet was the good guy.

  6. AO

    “but I actually found it to be a really fascinating glimpse into technophobia and the dangers of the internet”

    I’m really glad to hear that. After your last post then I thought of mentioning that plot element in IRYJ, but was pretty tired at the time and worried that I would not make my point very well (and I didn’t want to accidentally spoil anything).

    I was reading of the dangers of Information Overload back in the early 90’s and I was quite pleased to see that Whedon (or someone else influential in the production) thought enough of the topic to address it here.

  7. The interesting thing about IRYJ is that it’s more of a “period piece” in terms of the presentation of computers on TV than on the technology in 1997 per se. I remember watching it at the time and thinking that whilst fun it bore no relation to reality. However it was better than a lot of TV shows/movies of that time and previous to it. Many times computers were seen to be akin to magic (witness “Weird Science” for example) – I think that reflects a lack of general awareness with computers at the time.

    1997 was a transitional time when we were beginning to see a generation of people who routinely used PCs at work and home – but there were still a great many people who had little or no contact with them.

  8. Jack_Kay

    – “I’m enjoying reading this commentary – it is a little different since you know certain things that will happen. It seems that might prohibit you from getting too invested in the character arcs, since you know things will change etc…is that happening?” – from Beth

    I was wondering about this too – how you feel about specific character arcs and to what extent you’re invested in them. I guess at this stage that might still be a little hard to gauge from what is really two handfuls of episodes, but as other posters have echoed, I’ve always found the character relations, journeys and arcs the most engaging and drawing aspect of the series; to want so badly just to see what is happening to the characters each episode and how they will progress from each new encounter they face.

    Also your response to each character individually and who you feel you connect with or relate to?

    Plus your thoughts in regards to a few of the recurring characters who aren’t really a part of the ‘core four’, yet… – i.e. the introduction of techno-pagan Jenny and the gradual transformation of Cordelia into a somewhat more sympathetic and integral character.

    I would be interested if you had time.
    Though perhaps after the Season 1 finale Prophecy Girl would be a more appropriate time to expand on these topics of discussion.
    Thanks,
    Jack

  9. Eldritch

    “Interesting, but not unsurprising, to see more “Story by Joss Whedon” credits late in the season – it shows that he’s got a vision, …”

    Vision is certainly his strong point. He continues writing episodes over several seasons. Typically, he writes season finales and pivotal episodes. His episodes typically seem the best of the series. I guess there’s something to being a third generation writer.

  10. Bob Kat

    The Hellmouth; starting, as this show is, form a rpemise where both magic and demons are realities, a nexus like the Hellmouth is plausible; in fact , it’s more likely such sites do exist than that the supernatural would just be scattered evenly or willy-nilly.

    I agree that the demon in “Puppet Show” could have been conceived better. And I see where you’re getting the parallells between the invisible teens and the Dolls but it’s more tenuous than I feel comfy with.

    All 3 episodes showed again this was something a bit new. Particularly Cordelia; in those days a character like her wouldn’t’ve been rehabiltiated the way she was in these ep.s.

    And, non-spoiler, I’ll give you an (as the old anti-freeze comemrcial said) “advice-sir” on Prophecy Girl;” watch the exec producer’s credit fade at the end of the last scene. One time only effect.

  11. JJ

    Sorry, I’m squarely in the anti-Puppet-Show camp. It was just too cheesy for me, and not in a good way. I didn’t care about the kid or the dummy and the demon-reveal-twist didn’t matter to me either.

    Although, interestingly, there is a similar episode in Angel, and that is one of my favorite episodes ever. Anyone want to write a paper on the evolution of the Buffyverse based on those two eps?

  12. Rae

    Aww, Miles, now you’ll understand my, “I feeling very Marcie today” references! 😉 (I can always tell a Buffy fan by those who know exactly what that phrase means and those who don’t.)

  13. “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,” “Teachers Pet” and “The Puppet Show” are what I always referred to as ‘filler episodes’ because they always felt to me like they were just created to fluff the season up. Funny, I never included the “The Pack” as one of the filler episodes. Possibly because I really liked that episode.

  14. Gill

    “I don’t think the episode would have played quite so terribly at the time, although I have no real evidence to back this up.”

    I watched it in early ’99 when it first showed on free-to-view TV here in Britain, and it worked well for me – and made an interesting discussion point with my children, then aged 11 and 8 – the danger of giving away too much about yourself on the Internet was much less widely recognised then than today.

    In retrospect these are sturdy, workmanlike episodes which establish important characters and relationships, some of which will matter through all the other seasons and in “Angel”. They are not bad, but not yet Joss at his best.

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