Promise and “Prophecy Girl”
April 21st, 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.
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).
53 responses to “The Cultural Catchup Project: Promise and “Prophecy Girl” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)”
For me, “Prophecy Girl” wasn’t so much a turning point as it was the first indicator that this show had some balls and could pack a hefty emotional wallop if it so chose.
The real turning point for me, and for most fans of the show, is the two-parter “Surprise” and “Innocence” from the middle of Season Two. That’s when you really sit up and take notice.
“When She Was Bad” (Season 2 opener) isn’t great, but I thought it was a pretty brave opening for the season. I tend to like the emotional tension shows (for example, “Dead Man’s Party” completely redeems the hokey aspects through the character interactions – for me), so I’m willing to forgive some of the weaknesses in WSWB and blatantly unlikeable Buffy.
I think I liked “When She Was Bad” better than “Dead Man’s Party.” I guess I’m not big on zombies. But taken together, I find them significant. For me, these two episodes represent a policy statement by Whedon that he doesn’t use the reset button, that he and his characters are still affected by what’s happened in previous episodes. This resonance of history with the present is another way the series possesses a sense of depth.
I love When She Was Bad. It blew me away when I first saw it, because I had been so accustomed to resets, and so I ultimately realized that the show was speaking *to* that expectation.
On top of that, I think that the episode is a stand-out for a number of reasons, and actually it might be my favorite season opener (with the possible competition coming from S.5). I’m sure there’ll be more to talk about when we get to it. 🙂
I love When She Was Bad, and I think it is probably one of the series’ best season premieres (Buffy does finales much better than premieres). I actually think the show’s turning point comes in Season 2 Episode 8 “Lie to Me.” That’s where the good and evil divide is made much more ambiguous.
I liked how it was willing to avoid the comic strip approach in favor of a pulp-novel one and actually defeat and put down the villain.
Overall, you’ll find the season openers as usually among the less impressive episodes, according to most commentators.
I really like When She Was Bad, because we see Buffy not only struggling with her the repercussions of her destiny, but sometimes losing real ground in that battle. (That’s not a spoiler, is it?) Giles has a nice little line regarding what’s going on with her.
The ep works really well, IMO, in the way that it continues tightly from Prophecy Girl. And with that finale/premiere combo, the metanarrative locks in.
Lots of great eps in season two. A couple of clunkers, but not so many as to get in the way.
One thing I’ve found really fascinating about Whedon is that the seasons have never really ended in cliffhangers, they always play more as series finales because, in almost every case, there was a question over whether or not they were going to get picked up for another season. (I think the 7th season of Buffy was actually the only season of a Whedon show that was guaranteed prior to the creation of the previous season’s finale…now that I think about it, it might have been the 5th season…whatever, you get the point.) What I really like about that, is that it makes every season finale pretty phenomenal, because they really try to send it off on the best note possible and I think it shows how a great season finale shouldn’t have to rely on a cliffhanger to get you interested in the next season.
The downside, however, is that it leaves a lot of wreckage to clean up for the season premiere and thus, many of the premiere are kind of weak and it can even take a few extra episodes to really get into the swing of the new season.*
*That being said, I think your sources on “When She Was Bad” were overstating. I think that episode is actually one of the ones that people have most disagreements over. I’ve know people who absolutely love and absolutely hate it. Given your measured criticism of the show thus far, I think you’ll probably dig it.
Actually, it was pretty well guaranteed in Seasons 2-6 of BtVS (and Seasons 1-4 of AtS) that there would be a next season of the show.
(Season 5 could have been the last season of BtVS if things had really blown up in Fox’s negotiations with the mininets, but even then renewal was nearly certain.)
Joss COULD have safely written cliffhangers for BtVS and AtS, he just usually didn’t.
I read a very recent interview with Whedon where he said that there was only one Buffy season, out of all his shows, that was guaranteed renewal and it because they had been picked up for two years on the previous renewal. Every other time, he said it was touch and go. Sometimes it was more realistic than others, but the perception to the writing staff was that it was entirely possible that they wouldn’t be coming back the next year.
The end of S6 is pretty much the only finale with real elements of cliffhanger in it, and that only with respect to a specific, though important, character. I think UPN guaranteed two years when they bought the show.
I’m with rosengje in thinking “Lie to Me” was probably the first episode to really get my attention and resonate in a way the show would later develop consistently. While the show isn’t as refined following it, (until “Surprise” at least) it moves the show into a much darker and layered place. It also has *such* a good scene at the end.
I think the first episode of season two is fantastic. I think, based on your feelings regarding the first season that you might agree.
I think the second season premiere is a great episode. There’s a lot of development and insight into the character of Buffy and the story itself is very-well executed. It was also written and directed by Whedon.
I also like WSWB. It shows Buffy dealing with serious emotional trauma, the kind a real person would experience in her situation, but that a TV show can’t really dwell on, or the show would be all about Buffy being in therapy and dealing with PTSD. The Buffy-Xander-Willow triangle is handled in a realistic-but-heartbreaking manner, Cordy gets some choice dialogue, and the end of the episode — well, no spoilers, but I like it.
Compare that to Dead Man’s Party in Season Three…… UGH! I can’t stand that ep. I agree with the people above who said that, like WSWB, it shows that Joss is committed to continuity in his character relationships. But Buffy deserved some scolding in WSWB, and in Dead Man’s Party everyone just gangs up on her, without any sympathy for her journey.
As for the rest of Season Two, Lie to Me and Suprise/Innocence are amazing in every way. But really, every episode that season is good, if not great or even stellar (with one notable exception *cough*badeggs*cough*).
the super terrible to end all super terrible episodes has to be Go Fish, coming after ‘i only have eyes for you’ and before the ‘Becoming’ 2 parter it definately is one of the most laugh indusing episodes of the whole series.
Bad Eggs and Go Fish: tied for worst Buffy eps ever. Bad Eggs might get a teensy reprieve because it has a couple of sweet B/A moments. But ooo-wee. What were they thinking?
Okay, I won’t insist that IOHEFY is a “good” episode. I suppose I should add another possible category of “fair to middling.”
But I still think that Bad Eggs is the only truly bad episode of Season Two — ESPECIALLY when you think of watching the season for the first time.
IOHEFY is pretty lame, but it’s at least an original idea (as far as I know) and it reconnects us with the Buffy/Angel love right when we’re losing steam.
I kinda like Becoming, but even if you don’t, there’s a lot of crucial slayer mythology.
And Go Fish has a particular two seconds that make the entire show worthwhile, if you’re attracted to men. (Okay, that’s not an academic defense, but I’m going with it anyway.)
I just think that Bad Eggs is the only one that’s indefensible the first time around.
See, I kind of love Go Fish for showing up exactly where it does.
It’s goofy, but it stops the show from being overwhelmed by the arc. It’s something I think was missing from the show when it got down to the big, megaplot-y backstretches of S5, S6, and S7.
As I always tell BtVS virgins — you first have to get through season one’s Scoobie-Dooedness. Then, with season two, the real ride begins. (Wish I could live that all again for the first time myself.)
Oops. This thread has devolved from a discussion of “Prophecy Girl” to season 2 episodes. In my post above I was seduced by the temptation myself.
Perhaps it would be considerate to give Miles the space to view and write about these episodes before this thread progresses further.
That crossed my mind as well — although, with apologies, it didn’t stop me.
Perhaps we need another forum in which to beat-to-death the merits of the upcoming season? Because this may be an inevitable conversation whenever Myles finishes a season.
p.s. love the name, Eldritch.
Thanks. I’ll tell my mom. 😉
I was thinking the same thing. I’ve started and deleted 3 comments about S2 eps tonight!
If you are only familar with Alyson Hannigan [Willow] through her ventures into comedy; her acting on Buffy will blow you away. When she cries; you cry.
Alyson Hannigan OWNS Season 4. It’s her best work ever.
I love Season 2 🙂 Looking forward to your write-ups.
“but when it’s actual characters (and not one-dimensional stereotypes, like Principal Snyder)”
Hey I love Snyder. Dude’s been picked on his entire life. Wait till you watch “Band Candy” in S3.
WSWB is an awesome ep. Remember a certain dance scene in the Bronz, anyone?
I’m ready to re-watch the series now.
Innocence and Becoming 1 & 2 were the episodes that hooked me for good. I didn’t catch Buffy until FX reruns around 2002. And I’m still hooked today.
I’m really enjoying your observations.
I am thoroughly enjoying this blog. I never had access to the internet way-back-when during my Buffy years, so it’s like a second chance for me to follow the series along (I am re-watching it (yet again)) with other viewers’ thoughts and views.
When I first saw Snyder it took me a while to catch on… thank heavens I have a good ear for voices, and then he was distracting because every time I saw him I thought QUARK!!!! But to be fair he does bring Snyder to life in a very interesting way… he gets better in the next seasons, and I love his final line in the series! 😉
Prophecy Girl felt heartbreaking at moments and played out beautifully, with Buffy ready to sacrifice herself… and the irony of who could save her! That death will have several consequences in seasons 2 and 3… Plus I think I remember you saying you’ve seen Once More With Feeling… I always crack a smile when she belts out “Hey, I’ve died twice!” 🙂
I’m surprised people are saying they don’t much like “When she was bad”. I think it’s a fantastic premiere, one of the show’s best, and I think what they do with Buffy is really well done. The fact that it directly continues the plot of Prophecy Girl is something extremely unexpected. Unless a TV show ends its season on a cliffhanger they tend to start the premiere with something completely different. When she was bad gave notice to the fact that Joss wasn’t just going to do the TV thing. He was going to do something different and I feel it’s hard not to appreciate that. Also the episode itself has both alot of fun and alot of emotion particularly for a premiere (As mentioned previously, Buffy deos finalés so much better than it does premieres).
On a different note, I thought you made some qaulity observations about the episode. However, I’ve felt that season one is a season that is far more enjoyable for a long time fan of the show. So the fact that you’re not completely on board with the show yet is understandable. What is enjoyable about the first season is its nostalga factor. Once you’ve seen the whole series I recommend just taking a day or two and going back and watching the first season again to truly get a sense of how much everything has changed cause, believe me, nothing stays the same…Nothing!
I love When She Was Bad. Whoever told you it wasn’t so great may have a different take on it, but that’s definitely not a consensus view. (Not that mine is either.)
the character of cordelia is there to remind you that the characters in the buffyverse, including snyder, are rarely one note; the girl has layers, as she herself will eventually tell you. her integration into the scooby gang is not merely an inevitability (i would even argue that she was in fact a scooby all along) and actually brings me to my next point.
the people of sunnydale are completely aware that there are crazyinsane things afoot in their town. cordelia is often used by the writers as the damsel, sure, but her willing participation with the gang’s activities is indicative of the need that sunnydale citizens have to do something about their extremely weird community if given the chance and know how to do so.
“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.”
and not only has her breakdown been building up all season, but all of her life. this type of thing has been happening in sunnydale since before willow was born, only now, she’s knows why. the revelation of what exactly is behind the insanity that is sunnydale’s quality of life is central to the character of willow.
Also if I remember correctly (I’m not watching along, so this is strictly from a somewhat distant memory), what horrifies Willow so much is the violation of the school as a safe place. There are certain rules you follow–don’t go out alone at night, don’t leave the club with a sketchy guy you just met, participate in the community, etc. When you follow those rules, you get safety in return. The vamps breaking into the school completely overturns that in a powerful way (because this was back in the early days when vampires were the MOST dangerous creatures on the Hellmouth). The A/V Club kids followed all the rules and still got killed. Everybody has a moment growing up when they realize that this is the truth of life, and for a regimented rule-follower like Willow, it is a horrible thing to discover.
I was thinking that same thing about what the rest of Sunnydale knows when I read Myles’ comments. But he doesn’t have the information we do regarding how “Sunnyhell” residents adapt to the weirdness of their town. I think it’s not until season 3 that we really start to get some “outside” perspective (for example: Larry’s comment in the premiere, Gingerbread, The Prom).
Im a bit of a late-comer to this project, but Im enjoying it immensely so far.
Looking forward to your thoughts on season two.
So, Myles, I gotta ask: are we ruining anything for you yet? How are we doing in the spoiler-control department?
I’m skimming through the comments when they arrive to my email – if things start getting into episode spoilers, I move onto the next comment, but for the most part the discussion is remaining vague enough that I’m certainly not wary of wading in on occasion.
*I’ve heard through the grapevine that the Season Two premiere isn’t particularly fantastic*
In that case I’d say that the grapevine is lying. I’m not gonna claim it’s an awesome episodes, but it does feature some really good scenes and a couple of poignant moments that, just like Prophecy Girl in a way, serves as an appetizer of things to come.
Also, this might have been asked before, and it might also be a bit of jumping the gun too, but do you know in which order you’re planning to watch the shows when they split in two. Cause alternating will not really work all the time as the shows weave into each other at times while at the same time being out of sync episode number wise so that at best you get confused and at worst things get rather spoiled… So do you have some kind of “proper” order that you follow?
Won’t have to worry about this for a few weeks yet, but I think watching Buffy straight through and then Angel works fine (though you might find that you want to re-watch a couple of Buffs); still, if you watch according to air date (which won’t be a simple alternation, as I recall) the crossovers will cohere better. Lots of disc-switching, though.
When I watch the whole thing I usually watch Btvs4 Angel1 Btvs5 Angel2 and so on. For me the disc-switching thing when watching according to air date is to much.
Btvs4 disk one, Angel1 disk one; Btvs4 disk two, Angel1 disk two (ect, ect…) and alternating like that through the rest of both shows works for me during my yearly re-watching.
The crossover episodes really do need to be seen in sync… but there are only a couple in each season. But it’s no trouble at all to alternate discs… 😉
I think there are a very few which need to be watched consecutively – “Harsh Light of Day/In the Dark”, and above all “FFL/Darla”. Most of the rest it doesn’t matter too much as long as one has a vague idea where the other show is chronologically.
All of the critical crossover connections happen in Buffy 4/Angel 1, as far as I’m concerned. There are others in other seasons (good ones!), but none among which the narrative is so tight as in Angel’s first season. This makes sense: the connection between the shows was still very strong, as Buffy fans were following Buffy’s Angel to LA, and Angel the Series hadn’t quite figured itself out yet. The first season of Angel has some of the same growing pains, IMO, that Buffy’s first season experienced–some really groaner eps like “I Fall to Pieces.” Ish.
Anyway, I’d say Harsh Light of Day (B4)/In the Dark (A1), Pangs (B4)/I Will Remember You (A1), and This Year’s Girl (B4)/Who Are You (B4)/Five by Five (A1)/Sanctuary (A1)/The Yoko Factor (B4) (in that order) should be watched in sequence for full effect, really.
And boy is this comment way ahead of the game. Oh well.
“I Will Remember You”
Awww… just thinking about that episode gives me blubbering-mess feelings.
I really must argue for watching “Fool for Love” and “Darla” consecutively too – even more ahead of the game, I know. So much of each informs the other – even that stunning power walk becomes a different thing in the light of further knowledge. Beyond that, I agree, it matters far less, even if knowing where Liz Taylor’s bauble came from might be of use at the end…
“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.”
Unlike many shows, especially of that vintage, events of this episode will resonate far into the future, and themes will be picked up and developed – indeed, WSWB is almost a continuation of this ep than a season premiere. The fact that Buffy has died, for however short a time, is crucial to what comes after.
S1 is fun but flimsy by comparison with later seasons. Personally, I feel the third episode of S2 is a key turning point. I’ll be interested to see what you have to say about it. From mid-season onwards it becomes utterly compelling, however. I almost envy you.
I notice that you refer to stand-alone episodes as procedurals , but I think a procedural is a special kind of stand-alone episode , not just another word stand-alone stories in general. This is what wikipedia says about it:
I believe the correct Buffy term for stand-a-lones is “Monster of the Week”, or MotW. This allows for a more ‘procedural’ type of story at the same time leaving room for the more dramatically serialized aspects of the show.
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