Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Great Buffy Rewatch: Welcome to the Hellmouth, S. 1, E. 1



One of my goals since getting a DVD player (Blu-Ray) and Netflix is the opportunity to rewatch some of my favorite shows, such as Buffy. I should start with my first favorite show, Star Trek, but I'm confident that I can watch that with my children relatively soon. However, I'm pretty that the mature subject matter of Buffy means that I won't be able to watch that with them until at least a decade from now. 

Buffy is the first show after Star Trek that taught me what television could be. And I almost missed it. The title alone is not just a mouthful, but implies a bubbly cheerleader who must happens to slay vampires. It doesn't help that the show was preceded by a movie that received mixed reviews. It didn't sound promising and I had no interest. 

But there must not have been a whole lot on on Mondays, so I ended up watching a few episodes. To my surprise, I liked it. Then I moved to Illinois to live with my best friend. It turns out Buffy was her favorite show. Together we watched the fabulous second season, and I was quickly hooked. 

Why did Buffy make such an impression on me? Well, there's the snappy dialogue, the sharp acting, the mythology. But I think there's more to it, which I hope to explore further during the Great Buffy Rewatch. 

Let's get to it. 

Welcome to the Hellmouth Recap

The show opens at night in a dark high school, one which looks very similar to the one in Beverly Hill 90210 (because it is!). The music is eerie and suspenseful, and a sense of foreboding fills the air. The silence is broken by glass breaking. A former student has brought a naive young girl, supposedly to show her the view from the gym roof.


But she's skittish, and thinks she hears a sound. He soothes her, telling her it will all be alright. Yet, it's clear his plans for her are not in her best interest. She finally says she feels safe. Then it all changes. 



Because the boy is not the monster. The girl is. 


Next morning, a teenage girl is in bed, having a nightmare. She wakes up to a sense of foreboding. It turns out, she's Buffy Summers, and today is her first day of school at Sunnydale High School. Her mother asks her to try not to get kicked out of school. As she walks up the stairs, we meet Xander, who is doing a fine job swerving around the obstacles on his skateboard, until he spots Buffy.


We meet Willow, too. It's clear the two have been friends for a long time. Xander needs her help with math. They agree to meet in the library. 


Buffy meets Principal Flutie, who tears up her transcript. But something catches his eye, and she's then horrified to see him tape it up. Although he's still talking clean slate, he discusses her colorful transcript. It turns out she burned down the high school gym. She protests that he doesn't understand. The gym was full of vampires....asbestos. Oops. 

Buffy bumps into someone when she leaves Flutie's office, and the contents of her bag spill. Xander approaches and helps her gather her belongings. He tries to be witty, but utterly fails. Buffy walks off, leaving behind something. 


Buffy's in history class, and the teacher instructs the students to look at their text books. A surprisingly helpful Cordelia shares hers with Buffy, then offers to escort her to the library where she can find her own textbooks. On the way, Cordelia quizzes Buffy to determine her coolness factor. Buffy passes when she declares that John Tesh is the devil. 




On the way to the library, they run into Willow. Cordelia belittles Willow, telling Buffy that if she wants to succeed at school she needs to know her losers. She invites Buffy to the Bronze. Buffy watches Willow scurry away. 



Buffy meets Giles. When she mentions her name, he says he has just the book she needs. He pulls out an ancient tome titled "Vampyr", the same book she saw in her nightmare. She runs out of the library. 

The young man from the opening scene is found, quite dead. 



Buffy finds Willow at lunch. Willow expects to be bullied, but is pleased that Buffy wants to talk with her. Buffy asks about Giles. Willow reveals he's new, and that she thinks he's cool. 

Xander and Jesse join them, allowing Xander to return Buffy's stake. She explains that everyone in LA has one.  Cordelia comes up, stating she doesn't "want to interrupt your downward mobility", but gym has been canceled because of the corpse found in the locker room. Buffy's interest in this disturbs Cordelia. 

Buffy breaks into the locker room area and finds that the body indeed has two puncture wounds in the neck. She's angry, as she recognizes a vampire bite.She marches to the library to confront Giles. She tells him about the boy, then remarks that she doesn't care. But she stays, and Giles asks her questions about the body. She is angry, deflecting the conversation. She announces that she is the Slayer, and he announces he is her Watcher. But she says she's retired. Giles tells her that things are getting worse, and feels that there are signs of a "crucial mystical upheaval". Frustrated, they leave together. 



It turns out Xander is in the library, having heard the entire conversation.

Now we're underneath Sunnydale, and hear a voice intoning. It is a large vampire with a deep voice. He chants, "The sleeper will awaken. And the world will bleed. Amen."  

Buffy's trying to pick an outfit for the Bronze when her mother comes in. They talk a little, somewhat uncomfortably. Buffy agrees that all their problems are behind her, "I'm only hanging out with the living.  I mean, the lively - people."



As Buffy is walking to the Bronze, she senses someone is following her. A dark, mysterious, handsome man enters an alley. We see Buffy doing a handstand on an overhead pipe. She swings and knocks him down. He refuses to fight, and they talk. He tells her, "I don't bite"  He then adds, "Truth is, I thought you'd be taller. Or bigger." She tells him she wants to be left alone. He says, "You really think that's an option anymore? You're standing at the mouth of Hell. And it's about to open." He gives her a box, telling her she needs to be ready for "The Harvest". He leaves, and she opens the box to find a cross.



Buffy enters the Bronze, and embarrasses herself when she waves to someone waving at another person. She finds Willow, and they talk. Willow admits she has difficulty dating because she has difficulty talking. Buffy encourages her to seize the moment. She then spots Giles on the second floor. She excuses herself.


Giles is horrified at the mass of students at the Bronze, seeing it as a perfect breeding ground for vampires. Buffy mentions her encounter with the mysterious, good-looking man, but Giles doesn't know who he is. He asks her see if she can reach out with her mind and determine who on the dance floor is a vampire. She notes one, not because of an internal feeling, but because his clothes are out of style. She's casual about this, until she notes he's dancing with Willow, who was "Seizing the moment."




Meanwhile, we suffer through a conversation Cordelia is having with her friends. Jesse comes up to ask her to dance, but she treats him horribly.

Buffy fights the crowd to find Willow.  She goes to the alley, and grabs the first person who comes out an exit, pointing a stake at her. Sadly, it's Cordelia, followed by her posse. Cordelia is not interested in where Willow is. Buffy finds Giles and tells him she'll handle it.



Jesse is Bronze, chatting up the woman we say in the opening shot. She's flirting with him. She tells him her name is Darla.



We're now back underground, and the big vampire, Luke, watches as the Master rises from a pool of blood. He is weak. Luke tells him he'll be restored by the upcoming Harvest. He says he needs to eat, requesting something young.

Buffy meets Xander, asking him if he's seen Willow. He's impressed that Willow found a guy at the Bronze. Xander, seeing Buffy's concern, says, "I hope he's not a vampire. 'Cause then you'd have to slay him." He thinks she is delusional or joking. But seeing she's serious, he agrees to help her find Willow.

Willow and the vampire are at a mausoleum. Willow is increasingly nervous. He pushes her into the mausoleum. She announces she's going, but backs up into Darla. Darla's brought Jesse, who's bleeding at the neck. He thinks it's a hickey. Darla and the other vampire let their faces turn into monsters.



Suddenly, Buffy's in the mausoleum, letting off the one-liners she's famous for using when confronting vampires. She almost gracefully dusts the male vampire, startling Xander and Willow. Buffy tells Xander to take the others and go, and proceeds to fight Darla. For whatever reason she doesn't know that Buffy is the Slayer. 



Behind Buffy, Luke appears, grabbing her by the neck. Darla flees and we see Willow, Xander, and Jesse surrounded by vampires. Buffy fights Luke as he quotes his sacred text. He throws her into the crypt, then jumps in on top of her. Buffy's pinned.

TO BE CONTINUED!!!!

About the Episode

Aired on March 10, 1997 - ten years ago??? Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest aired together, but I separated the entries.

My thoughts the first time I watched this: Well, true confessions: I didn't watch this the first time it aired. See my prejudices above. The first time I saw this was when FX aired it. Thus, I knew exactly who Darla was when she broke into the school with her victim. Oh, well. 

My thoughts now: Seeing the high school and listening to the opening credits made my heart sing. How I've missed you, Buffy. 

The opening scene says it all. We've seen it a million times, especially those of us who have seen too many Lifetime movies. The boy is going to have sex with the innocent blond girl. And if she refuses, well, he'll rape her. But as evil as his intentions might be, it turns out he's the innocent, probably never having met a vampire before. The sweet innocent blond turns into a vampire, and drains all the blood out of him. She then stuffs his body into a locker. 

That says just about everything you need to know about Joss Whedon's creation. He wanted to turn the tropes on their head, the tropes in which the pretty young blond is sacrificed to the horror movie villains. In the opening scene, the blond is not the victim but the villain, and a pretty horrible one at that. But even more important to Whedon, another young blond is not a victim either, she's the hero. It's her actions that save herself and her friends (and the world!) many times. Not your typical television or movie fare.

I always expect the first episodes of a series to be rocky as they try to settle on the correct tone, pacing, and characterization. This episode pretty much has all that established. The comedy with the horror are intermixed well, though the pacing a little rocky. The characterization is pretty good. Buffy is the reluctant heroine who just wants to be a regular high school student, while Giles is the stuffy British guy flummoxed by the world of American teenagers. Willow is terrified of her peers and tries to sink into the woodwork. Xander is a self-deprecating jokester.

Some of the special effects are ... well ... not so good. See the Master coming out of the pool of blood as an example. I'm also surprised that neither Darla nor Luke recognize that Buffy is the Slayer. 

The story makes clear how Xander first found out Buffy was a Slayer (and I love that he thought she was delusional or playing a game). Besides Giles, he was her first partner in Slaying, as he eagerly joined her in searching for Willow. I'm surprised she allowed him to help her. 

I did not remember that Cordelia was such a bully. Her treatment of Willow and Jesse is horrifying, and she would now be the poster child for the evils of bullying. I will be curious to see if her transition from horrible mean girl to full-fledged member of the team feels organic or forced. However, she always gets the best lines!

Angel doesn't get much to do, except stand around and look both creepy and mysterious. No evidence of either the brooding for which he is famous or the charisma that has made the actor a leading actor on not one but two shows. I know it'll come!

What we learned about Slaying: Let's quote Giles: "Into each generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil..." Slayers have prophetic dreams and are able to recognize vampires with their enhanced senses. 

What we learned about vampires: To create another vampire, the victim must suck the blood of the vampire. They look completely normal until they are about to feed, when they reveal their demonic visage. Some vampires are religious. Not all vampires recognize the Slayer.

What we learned about Sunnydale: Sunnydale was built on the Hellmouth (thanks Angel, for that bit of information). There's been a steady stream of fairly odd occurrences, according to Giles.

Body Count: Humans:  1 (the boy Darla ate); Vampires: 1, Thomas, dusted by Buffy.

What we learned about our characters:

Buffy was kicked out of her high school for burning down the school gym as she flushed out a vampire nest. She and her mother apparently moved to Sunnydale afterward to start over. Being a Slayer has cost Buffy quite a lot, including losing all her friends and having to fight for her life. Buffy is rather lazy with her Slayer powers, as she is unable to recognize a vampire using her Slayer-sense. Although she claims to be retired from Slaying, she carries a stake in her purse.

Willow and Xander have been friends for a very long time. Willow's feelings for Xander are much more romantic than his for her. Willow's mother apparently buys Willow's clothes for her, and they don't appear to fit very well. She is considered to be one of the smartest girls in the school. Xander, on the other hand, is really good on the skateboard (do we see him on that ever again?) who is not excelling at school and seeks Willow's help. 

Cordelia is the mean girl everyone went to high school with. She initially likes Buffy, mainly because Buffy was from LA, but Cordelia's opinion changed because of Buffy's association with Willow, Xander, and Jesse, Buffy's fascination with the corpse, and then Buffy's attempt to stake her. I really can't blame Cordelia for not wanting to be staked. We also learned that Cordelia's mother stays in bed all day and has been diagnosed with Epstein-Barr (which is not cool enough for Cordelia).

Giles is Buffy's Watcher, and he's new to the school. 

Best quotes:

Buffy: (when Xander returns her stake) Oh. No. That was for self defense. Everyone has them in L.A. Pepper spray is so passe.

Cordelia: I don’t want to interrupt your downward mobility. I just thought I’d tell you that you won’t be
meeting Coach Foster, the woman with chest hair, because gym has been canceled due to the
extreme dead guy in the locker.

Buffy: Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? Losing all my friends? Having to spend
all my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because it might ‘endanger’
them? Go ahead. Prepare me. 

Buffy: Come on. This is Sunnydale. How bad an evil can there be here?

Willow:  I think boys are more interested in a girl who can talk. 
Buffy: You really haven't been dating lately.

Cordelia (after nearly getting staked): God, what is your childhood trauma? 

Buffy (in response to Darla asking who she is): Wow, you mean there’s actually somebody around here who doesn't know already? That’s a relief. I’m telling you, having a secret identity in this town is a job of work.

Fan Alerts:

I may have a special page about the activities of the main cast. Instead, I'll provide fan alerts for  those who are guest stars on the episode on which they first appear.

24 Fan Alert and Six Feet Under Fan Alert - Eric Balfour, Jesse in Buffy, has been around for a long time, and has had many roles. You may remember him as Clare's druggie boyfriend on Six Feet Under and as Milo Pressman in 24.

Dexter Fan Alert and No Ordinary Family Fan Alert (no, no one was a fan of No Ordinary Family, but I did cover it in my blog...once). Julie Benz plays the criminally underused Darla (Whedon recognized this and resurrected Darla on the spin-off, Angel). Benz has has many roles, but I suspect she's most famous as Dexter's tragic wife, Rita. She also played a mom on the horrible No Ordinary Family

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