Hellmouth [versus/and/within/without] High School
April 20th, 2010
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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.
- 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.