Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Buffy Rewatch: Welcome to Sunnydale

In the first week of the Buffy Rewatch, we discuss "Welcome to the Hellmouth", "The Harvest", and "Witch."

"People out of high school respond to what's going on in the show, because I don't think you ever get over high school." Joss Whedon

This quote from Joss Whedon (in his DVD commentary for "Welcome to the Hellmouth") really sums up the approach that he and the writers use in the first few seasons of BUFFY. A horror movie as a metaphor for high school - or is it high school as a metaphor for a horror movie?

The first few episodes of any TV show are about establishing the premise of the show, introducing the characters to the viewers (and often to each other), and letting the audience know how the show's makers are going to tell their stories. I think we can discuss the first three episodes of BUFFY in this context: "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" function as a two-part pilot, and "Witch" is the first episode that functions like a regular episode of the series.

Rewatching "Welcome to the Hellmouth", I remain impressed by how well it introduces the characters, and their distinct voices and relationships. Placing the main character in a new environment is a classic setup for a pilot, and it works well here. The principal characters - Buffy, Giles, Willow, Xander, Cordelia - are all sharply drawn. Whedon's gift with dialogue is evident in their first lines, really. I'm so glad that the show introduces Jesse for the sole purpose of killing him an episode later. That's enough Eric Balfour for me.

One scene in "Welcome to the Hellmouth" really stands out for me: the scene with Giles and Buffy in the library, where Giles talks about the Watcher's role of preparing the Slayer. Buffy replies: "Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends? For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them? Go ahead. Prepare me." That scene right there (and Head and Gellar's terrific performances) completely sells me on the series again. But something I hadn't realized before helps explain why that scene is so powerful.

Because BUFFY was a midseason replacement, the entire first season was shot before the pilot aired. In his DVD commentary, Joss talks about reshooting that scene after the entire first season was shot. And I think Gellar's performance in that scene is informed by the journey that Buffy eventually goes on throughout the rest of the season. Tonally, the scene just feels more mature than most of the rest of "Welcome to the Hellmouth." It's a great sign of things to come for the show.

"The Harvest" is a good conclusion for the pilot - Jesse's death lets us know that there are real stakes for these characters. (Holy shit, you guys, no pun intended.) And there's a great scene between Buffy and her mom Joyce. This is one of the central conflicts through the show's early seasons: Buffy trying to keep her Slayer duties from Joyce, while also trying to be a good daughter and not causing Joyce to worry. This is a popular topic of discussion among the queer theory readings of the show, not that I feel particularly well equipped to discuss it in those terms. (But if YOU do, feel free to talk about it in the comments!)

"Witch", meanwhile, gives us our first look at what a regular episode of the series might be like. It also, for me, helps explain why the concept of the Hellmouth as introduced in the pilot is important - the Hellmouth allows the writers to introduce all types of supernatural activity, not just vampires. If the show had just been about vampires, it wouldn't have become the legendary series it became. "Witch" is a solid episode, enhanced by the nice mother/daughter scenes and the unexpected reveal of Amy's mother having taken over Amy's body. Wanting to fit it, wanting to relive lost youth, wanting to connect with your mother - these are some rich themes. And for an early episode, "Witch" does a good job of dealing with them. (Though maybe because I'm thinking of how great the series becomes, I'm underestimating how well "Witch" tells its story.)

Xander has a great scene at the end of "Witch", which highlights Nicholas Brendon's great timing and line delivery. After Amy is back to herself (but before he knows she's innocent), Xander grabs her:

Xander: I got her! I got her! Cut her head off!
Buffy: Xander, what are you doing?
Xander: ... Saving you?
Buffy: Get your hands off her.
Xander: But she's evil.

It doesn't come across in text, but trust me: Brendon delivers those three lines hilariously.

While rewatching these episodes, I kept thinking of the amazing journeys these characters take over the course of the series. Compare where they are now to where they'll be at the end of season 7. I feel very protective of them - especially Buffy and Willow - and I can't wait to go on these journeys with them again.

"Welcome to the Hellmouth": B+
"The Harvest": B
"Witch": B+

What did everyone else think?


  1. Your unintended pun was great.

    I think what strikes me most about these early episodes is how much Joss turns social norms upside down. The hot blonde new girl isn't immediately popular, Eric Balfour is dead quickly after we've been convinced we shld care about him, and the adults aren't portrayed as "the enemy" (except in Witch, but that situation is unique to that episode). Giles and Joyce both have issues letting Buffy be Buffy, and that gets explored more as we go on, but even in the early episodes, we rarely get the feel that the kids are fighting against the man, and for late 90's tv, that's refreshing.

    Glad you're doing this. Can't wait for some of my favorite episodes!

    1. I can't wait for some of my favorite episodes, too! (The first episode that might make my list of favorites is "School Hard", so only a few weeks to go.)

      You're right about Giles and Joyce struggling with letting Buffy be Buffy. Even here, three episodes in, the show has already established these conflicts. The irony, of course, is that Joyce wants Buffy to focus on normal teenage girl things, and Giles does not.

      Interesting point about fighting "the man", because as the series progresses various iterations of "the man" / authority become major antagonists. Buffy's (and the rest of the Scoobies') mistrust of authority will become one of their greatest assets. But they're not out to fight the establishment - unless the establishment just happens to be evil.

      Happy to have you along for the ride!

    2. I agree. I especially like how that plays out in season 5, when Quentin comes into play.

  2. Interesting that they reshot some of the pilot after the season. I noticed that some of the acting and/or representations of the characters seemed a little inconsistent during the episode, and that might explain it! But I might also be having a hard time watching without comparing these early episodes to some of the later seasons.

    I'm already having a hard time not watching ahead (been home sick, so I've had plenty of time!), but maybe I'll add the commentaries to each week to stretch it out!

  3. There's actually a first pilot available on youtube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCKrkB1NbBc with the original Willow, which is interesting to watch. Let's just say Allyson Hannigan was a much better actress. While I do like season one - I am looking forward to season two and more

    How can you use the welcome to sunnydale sign - you are teasing me!