Promise and “Prophecy Girl”
April 21st, 2010
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Going into “Prophecy Girl,” I was expecting something big – everyone had indicated that this episode, as Whedon returns to writing and takes over directing duties, is when the show finally finds itself. Because I know that the series is going to eventually become heavily serialized, and that the first season finale is supposed to be the start of that push towards more complex stories, I expected to have all sorts of new potential to be writing about.
Instead, I’ve discovered that “Prophecy Girl” is ultimately a subtle rather than substantial shift in the series’ trajectory, a question of execution rather than some sort of creative shift. With Whedon behind the camera, the emotional resonance of the episode and its stories is the strongest its been thus far, and there are a couple of pretty key bits of character development which sort of clears the slate heading into the second season. However, produced like many first season finales, you can tell that this was either a beginning or an end depending on if the series was picked up, and so it spends as much time resolving as it does complicating.
The result is that all of my prophecizing and pontificating about earlier episodes is probably more substantial than what I have to offer about “Prophecy Girl”: it was entertaining and emotional, and signals the show is coming into itself quite nicely, but it’s only made me anxious to move on already. However, I made a promise to write about it, so some thoughts on the finale and the first season overall are necessary at this stage in the Cultural Catchup Project.
One of the questions asked in the comments of yesterday’s piece was how I’m managing the characters’ journeys when I know (to some degree) how their journeys operate. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who doesn’t have my knowledge of the franchise, so I’m still going to keep my awareness close to the vest, but I will say that it isn’t really bothering me. Not unlike Lost’s Flash Forward structure, which created a scenario where we were watching characters moving towards a fate that we were already aware of, there is an element of mystery to the story which keeps me engaged. For example, I know about Willow and Xander’s romantic futures (I don’t think that constitutes a spoiler to say that they are not necessarily connected), but it’s not like I spent the entire season looking for clues which would lead me to that conclusion – rather, I spent the season enjoying the ride as it had been written, a fairly straight-forward series of stories about high school archetypes who just happen to live on a Hellmouth.
Conveniently, I think I actually know more about Willow and Xander than I do about Buffy herself (or Angel), so the major arcs of the series remain surprising. And even if that surprise is no longer a factor, as long as the characters remain clever or engaging it isn’t a problem if I know where things end up: I may have known that Xander and Buffy weren’t going to end up as a couple, but it didn’t make Nicholas Brendan’s depiction of Xander’s struggle to deal with that attraction wasn’t enjoyable, or that his sadness following Buffy’s (honest) rejection wasn’t one of those moments which made “Prophecy Girl” resonate more than the episodes beforehand. Part of the challenge of the show’s structure is that it does very clearly (at this point) designate between serialized and procedural storytelling, but the latter is fine so long as we’re enjoying it or gaining some sense of knowledge about the characters or Sunnydale in general. I’m not the kind of viewer who is impatient with a show like this: I know it’s a first season, and I know that it’s not going to have been fully realized at this stage in its development, so why put expectations on the show which it isn’t able to live up to?
In other words, I wasn’t disappointed in “Prophecy Girl” so much as I was surprised, even if I shouldn’t have been: I should have remembered that the entire first season was produced before it aired, and that Whedon wouldn’t have tried to include a blatant cliffhanger when he wasn’t sure of how the show would be received. As a result, the episode focuses on another fiendish plan by the Master to emerge from his quarantine beneath Sunnydale, bringing to light important series themes like Buffy’s struggle between being a 16-year old girl and a Slayer prophecized to die at the Master’s hand, and bringing both Ms. Calendar and Cordelia more directly into the fold. The show gets its kickass finale, complete with multi-headed snake monster emerging from the Hellmouth and the Master meeting his timely end on an overturned piece of library furniture, but it also gets to do so while emphasizing the fact that this group (when working together) can stand in the face of prophecy with a little mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and some quick-thinking.
Those are really the key points of the show, really, and “Prophecy Girl” brought them to the forefront in mostly subtle ways. Sure, it’s a bit suspect that Willow would suddenly become so traumatized over the dead Audio/Visual club kids when she’s been pretty okay with the rest of the demonic activity as of late, but Hannigan is so damn good in that scene that I buy it as something that’s been building up all season even if we weren’t given any hints in that direction. Similarly, Buffy’s balance between teenage girl and vampire slayer was taken for granted in early episodes, but it really came to the forefront here as Sarah Michelle Gellar gets a great scene confronting her inevitable death and, eventually, taking her fate into her own hands for the sake of trying to save humanity. It didn’t necessarily feel like this episode was speaking to the individual episodes which came before, sometimes rushing things to reach a certain point in the story (like Cordelia being willing to speak to Willow and help everyone out), but it all feels thematically linked with what we saw in both serialized and procedural episodes throughout the season.
As for Cordelia, I think that’s the part of the episode which has always been inevitable – when she’s in the credits, and when she always seems to get involved in these cases, it’s been a little weird that she’s never said anything about it in any capacity. There’s a certain suspension of disbelief necessary with the show, like how it is that nobody else seems to have noticed the Hellmouth or the huge hordes of Vampires outside the school, but when it’s actual characters (and not one-dimensional stereotypes, like Principal Snyder) who are ignoring what’s clearly right in front of them it’s a little tough to swallow. Charisma Carpenter is a lot of fun, the character is an interesting foil to all involved, and they did lay some of the groundwork in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” with Cordelia reaching out to the gang – there’s a whole lot of potential to be found here, and so I’m glad that we’re going to see it play out.
However, we’re not going to see it play out yet: while there may be repercussions to Buffy’s sudden burst of energy following her short-term death at the hands of the Master, and while Cordelia as part of the gang will create some interesting tension, and although Angel and Xander are still in love with a girl who they can’t be with or who doesn’t love them back, “Prophecy Girl” is an ending – like the thirteenth (or in this case twelfth) episodes of various other shows with no guarantee of a second season, this could have been a satisfying series finale if the show had been canceled. It brought to fruition many of the key tensions of the first season, allowed the heroine to triumph over the largest threat the show has yet introduced, and did it all within the most emotionally resonant of the series yet.
The problem for me is that I know there’s more to come, and now all I want to do is keep watching so that I can get to it sooner – it’s one thing if what’s waiting is an unknown future full of potential, and it’s another when you know that potential results in a series that so many people are passionate about. While my foreknowledge of certain events is not taking away from my enjoyment of the series, there is still that anxiousness that I’m not yet into the period where the show apparently finds its true purpose. However, anticipation never hurt anyone, and if the first season is only a sliver of the show’s future complexities then this is going to be quite the journey.
- There was a definite no-nonsense attitude to the finale: while they could have gone through a whole scenario where Buffy is lured into the Master’s layer by the anointed one (which, for lack of a better reference would be similar to 1997’s Hercules as Pain and Panic lure the eponymous hero into battle with the Hydra by posing as children), they revealed the child’s identity so all of that complexity was focused in on Buffy making a choice to pursue that path rather than circumstances being out of her control. The episode offers a compelling view into what role Prophecy will play in the series, and it’s clear that owning rather than avoiding those prophecies may be in their best interest.
- I’ve heard through the grapevine that the Season Two premiere isn’t particularly fantastic, and this would make sense: the show would be starting a whole new set of stories, and that’s a pretty substantial burden for any series to be able to handle. That’s the problem with these Episode 13 (12) finales – the same thing happened with Glee in the fall, and their “reboot” felt more repetitive than perhaps it could have with a bit more finesse.
- Will be starting Season 2 tonight, probably, although I may hold off on writing about it until the weekend (since that had always been my intention, and I need to pick up the pace in terms of watching even if it means a little bit less writing).