• Buffy’s biggest nightmare is that she’d be stuck in a coffin alive and will have to claw her way out… a nightmare that, unfortunately, comes true in “Bargaining.”
• Similarly, Giles’ nightmare will come true in “The Gift.”
• Xander says in “Out of Mind” that his mom is making her special call for Chinese… there’s much insinuation later in the series that Xander’s home life was rather hellish at this time, but that he kept it hidden. His mom calling for takeout didn’t seem like a major deal at the time, but in retrospect, you wonder if that’s because she didn’t care enough to actually prepare dinner… or that she was drinking or something. We know his father’s an abusive alcoholic, but what of the mother?
• In “Prophecy Girl,” Angel tells Xander that he has no breath, but later we’ll see Spike smoking. I’m pretty sure he’s asked about it at one point and says that vampires simply choose to breathe. Which means Angel could have had breath if he wanted it. A suggestion that perhaps Angel didn’t actually want to save Buffy in this scene? I vote no; I think it was simply a plot point that wasn’t fully thought out, and it was important that Xander be the hero who saves her life here. In season 2 and onwards, Xander’s hatred toward Angel is apparent (and leads to the shocking moment in Becoming when his lie causes Buffy to send Angel to hell) and this gives him more fodder to use against him. Not only is he way older than Buffy, and undead, but when it comes down to it, he can’t save Buffy – only Xander can.
OK, now, as promised, the complete David Kociemba essay!
I first met Nikki at the third Slayage conference and we spent some time sitting on a veranda chatting away with one of the liveliest band of conference-goers you ever did meet. Nikki met my fiancée, Kristen, at the last Slayage in Florida, just before her verbal duel with Matthew Pateman. (And, since he is such a good sport about the ribbing he gets from Nikki (I have NO idea what David's referring to here. —Nik), I want to thank him again for his patience in editing my piece on the opening title sequences of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was a writer lost in the woods, but he let me find myself.) I’m flattered that Nikki likes my writing on the effect of spoilers on readers and I’m eager to delve into her books on Lost before I propose a course on that series for next year.
I teach a seminar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer at Emerson College, along with other courses on media history, digital cultures, fandom and the representation of disability. I’m also the editor of Watcher Junior, a peer-reviewed online journal for undergraduate scholarship on the Whedonverses. (Take a look at the article on Restless or the one on the many faces of Buffy. They’re amazing.) The sixth issue is coming out this winter and we’re currently accepting submissions on Whedon's work outside the Buffyverse. We welcome completed essays and research papers that exhibit familiarity with previously published scholarship in Whedon Studies.
Right now, we’re doing a fascinating study of today’s fans of Joss Whedon, asking them what values are represented in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can find the initial survey here, the survey results summarized here, and the beginning of the summary of the comments here. We can’t wait to do the same survey on each of Whedon’s works.
Previously, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…
The first guest blogger, David Lavery, mentioned that when he encourages people to skip the first season when he introduces people to the wonders of this novelistic television series. I have a great deal of sympathy for his approach. The series tends to face a triple whammy of media prejudice: fantasy is a low culture genre, a lot of people look at melodrama as failed realism and it can be hard not to prejudge the series as Dawson’s Creek with fangs. Twelve episodes is a long time for people to expect people to have faith in a new series. (The fact that Buffy’s outfits seem to be designed to show off her bra is a fourth whammy.) That’s why I’ve taken to showing its best episode to introduce the series, “The Body”, from its fifth season. It’s surprisingly accessible to new viewers.
This will definitely be one of the more spoilerriffic of the early rewatches. I’ll start us off with a very brief look at the first season as a thematic foundation for the series. My reading of “Nightmares” and “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” should have so much whited-out that it will read like experimental poetry to any spoiler virgins in the audience. It’s necessary to delve into narrative construction, however, because, as Roz Kaveney put it, the series’ use of intricate foreshadowing “indicated a real commitment to, and respect for, the intelligence of its viewers.”
The Essential Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The first season was Joss Whedon’s one chance to tell the essential story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Indeed, he anticipated that few people would even watch the midseason replacement series with the cult title on the two-year-old network, let alone expect it would get some of the WB’s top ratings. So what parts are essential to Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Jesse shows us that vampires are sexual predators through his interactions with Cordelia, even more than Darla does. But why taking back the night is foundational, Xander’s interactions with his friend shows that these predators are simultaneously victims, an understanding he comes to long before Buffy will, even if his jealousy and anger prevent him from applying it to other vampires. “The Pack” shows us that cruel humor that inflicts emotional trauma is an essential trait of a great villain, which definitely becomes central characterization techniques in seasons two and three. The bedrock themes of the series reveal themselves in these early episodes: the just use of power; re-imagining families through the biological, vampiric and friendship models; and teaching men new ways of seeing women through Xander. We also see that while the creativity of linguistic playfulness is an essential heroic trait, so is the inability to perform on stage or to pretend to be someone you’re not. And, with Jesse and Principal Flutie, Whedon learned that killing seemingly essential characters increases suspense by undermining the audience’s assumption that everyone will make it out alive and unharmed.
Given these expectations, should we watch the first season with long-term narrative construction in mind? Whedon and his fellow writers knew the overall arc of a season prior to its start. They planned some character deaths as much as two years in advance. But Whedon left room to react to unexpected developments on set. According to Nikki, Robia LaMorte’s chemistry with Anthony Stewart Head upset the initial plan to have Jenny Calendar appear only in “I, Robot… You Jane”. Whedon similarly responded to Julie Benz’ quality performance, upgrading her role during season one. The writers also responded to unexpected developments in their own writing, such as deciding on Calendar’s true identity during the second season. And, of course, fans of the series can’t watch Alyson Hannigan’s performance without looking for clues that Willow is gay. Writer Jane Espenson recalls the first time that plot development was foreshadowed, “In “Doppelgangland”, [Willow] notices that her vampire self is ‘kinda gay.’ When we started plotting the Tara arc in Season Four, Joss said, ‘Were we planning this back then?’ And even he didn’t know for sure…. Some of [the foreshadowing] is conscious and some of it is not conscious, but it is clearly there anyway.”
Such retroactive continuity is an inherent feature of creating complex narratives in a serial format. Rhonda Wilcox observes that these moments are not simply about the momentum a narrative develops as it is created, writing, “… it is possible that the early versions of a pattern are purposeful foreshadowing; it is also possible that they are preliminary explorations or first inklings of an idea which the writers will choose to develop more fully later. Retroactive continuity allows for the effect of foreshadowing…”. For her, these processes are one way that complex narratives develop “…the wonderful quality of much great literature, of seeming both surprising and inevitable.”
“With nudity, it’s a total nightmare!”
“Nightmares” is the first season’s version of two fourth season episodes, “Restless” and “Fear, Itself”. Or, as Giles puts it, “Dreams? That would be a musical comedy version of this.” It’s not quite a dream episode like “Restless”, as the characters manifest their darkest fears as the nightmare of a kid in a coma expands to encompass them. Facing fears is an essential part of all three episodes, however. Each character’s fears are revisited later in the series.
There are a few comic moments from these two episodes that take on some significance during the series’ high school years:
In “Nightmares”, Cordelia fears having bad hair, worse fashion and being dragged off to join the chess club against her will. (Note how Hannigan smiles during Willow’s reaction shot to this event.) Cordelia experiences exactly that kind of downward mobility once she starts dating Xander in the second season.
The gas leak that almost kills Giles, Xander and Willow in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” becomes the comically flimsy excuse Giles uses to explain the memory loss and strange behavior of dozens of Sunnydale citizens in “Bad Eggs” in season two.
Willow asks if Xander’s parents even have a stove, setting up Xander’s Xmas Eve outdoor vigils waiting out his parents’ holiday fights in “Amends” and whose terrible marriage has the more serious effect of fatally undermining his wavering confidence in his relationship with Anya in season six. (The first Slayer takes on the shape of Xander’s father to rip his heart out in the season four dream episode, “Restless”.)
At the end of “Nightmares”, this thematically ripe exchange occurs, Xander confesses to Willow that he found the vampire version of Buffy attractive, saying, “I’m sick. I need help.” Xander’s experience with desiring a vampire, even temporarily, makes his hostility and revulsion to Buffy’s relationships with Angel and especially Spike more complicated.
Earlier in that same episode, Xander finds himself stripped to his boxers in front of the class. The writers love taking advantage of the fact that Nicholas Brendan (who plays Xander) is “way too hunky” to be a nerd, as Joss Whedon put it. He’s stripped to the waist in “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and is dripping wet and in a Speedo in “Go Fish” during the second season.
Xander faces off against the clown of his sixth birthday party. Punching Bozo out, he slams the clown’s act, saying, “You are a lousy clown! Your balloon animals are pathetic! Everyone can make a giraffe!” Xander loses the coveted Sunnydale High Class Clown award to a prop comic wearing a balloon hat. (His fear of being ignored in “Fear, Itself”, even by his friends, perhaps also references that crushing defeat.) More seriously, Xander spends much of the fourth and fifth seasons worrying that he’s a buffoon, not a grown man. Xander’s the first one to face down his nightmarish tormenter in “Nightmares”. One could argue that he’s the first to face the fears revealed in “Restless” as well. Giles never does develop a fulfilling personal life. Willow’s performance anxiety haunts her “Restless” dream and suggests the underlying psychological issues that produce her murderous, suicidal grief at the end of season six. Buffy… well, she has so many justified fears. Xander recognizes his fear of failure while lying in bed with Anya two episodes prior to the dream episode and he’s found a steady construction gig that pays enough for him to afford a new apartment just three episodes into the fifth season. (Note: “Nightmares” does not feature a fear of commitment!)
Giles fears getting lost in the stacks and being unable to read. Willow causes him to go blind in the fourth season episode, “Something Blue”. His dream in “Restless” features his concern that his work as a Watcher means he’s lost out on a fuller life, symbolized through Olivia and her baby carriage. Lastly, Giles fears that he will fail in his duty to protect Buffy as he kneels by her grave. His speech reveals a father’s love and pride only to be accused of being unfeeling in the next episode. Buffy would die in “Prophecy Girl” (and “The Gift”).
Buffy’s nightmare features many elements that get incorporated into the series. Her fear of failing to perform in combat comes true, as the Master hypnotizes her in their first encounter. She takes a history test utterly unprepared, during which time speeds up. (In season six, the Trio make Buffy experience time as going faster and looping in “Life Serial”, co-written by Jane Espenson, a writer who loves to make these kinds of inter-connections.) In a devastating scene, Buffy’s father blames her for his divorce from Joyce, wants to drop his visitation rights and wishes she’d turned out differently. We never see Hank Summers again outside of flashbacks, as he misses Buffy’s 18th birthday and ends up in Spain with his secretary “living the cliché” by the fifth season. Buffy’s transformed into a vampire in “Nightmares”, which foreshadows both Angel and Dracula drinking from her. In “Nightmares”, she fears that the Master will be released, which he is during “Prophecy Girl”, temporarily. The Master serves as her spirit guide in this nightmare, confirming the mystical and psychological sources of the nightmares. Her dream in “Restless” features only characters that were once antagonists or threatened a key relationship: Anya, Joyce, Tara, Riley and Adam. Yet each provides guidance. (Her fear in “Fear, Itself” is that she will be abandoned by her friends.) Finally, the Master buries her alive in “Nightmares”, which foreshadows Buffy clawing her way out of her grave after Willow’s resurrection spell is interrupted in the sixth season’s premiere. (Indeed, Kristen observed on Watcher Junior’s Twitter feed that the second season premiere, “When She Was Bad” neatly encapsulates seasons six and seven, with Buffy’s imperious leadership style and shell shock.)
“Nightmares” reveals two of Willow’s fears: being judged and being noticed. Willow gets dragged backstage, costumed in a kimono, told by the director that there’s an ugly crowd with lots of reviewers, then thrust onstage next to her irked male lead. She doesn’t know the words and squeaks a single note. There are a few things of interest here. Aldo’s first sung line, loosely translated, is the following: “Child, from whose eyes the witchery is shining, now you are all my own.” Willow would begin her study of witchcraft next season. Second, Willow fled the stage during Buffy, Xander and her reading of a dramatic scene from Oedipus Rex in the prior episode, “Puppet Show”. Third, her dream in “Restless” features an extended expansion on this actor’s nightmare: she’s cast in her drama class’ surreal adaptation of Death of a Salesman having never attended a single class. While she never steps on stage, the backstage chaos here bears startling resemblances to the various acts warming up during “Puppet Show”. Buffy’s casting as a 1920s vamp in Willow’s dream play in “Restless” is a call-back to her being a vampire in “Nightmares”, as is Willow’s question about whether the play is Madame Butterfly, “as I have a whole problem with opera.” Buffy takes the role of the director in “Nightmares” here, cheerfully telling her, “The place is packed. Everybody’s here! Your whole family’s in the front row, and they look really angry.” Finally, just before Willow’s opera debut, Xander finds himself semi-nude in front of the classroom. In the library afterward, Willow remarks, “Everyone staring? I’d hate to have everyone paying attention to me like that.” This fear of being seen by hostile viewers seems grounded in her decade of bullying by Harmony and Cordelia, who critiqued her dress and found her boring in the pilot episodes of the series. The final moments of her dream in “Restless” find her back in that very homespun dress and white tights combo giving a book report before a bored and hostile class.
Despite all of this, Willow seems to have some ambivalence about being noticed. In the third season episode “Gingerbread”, her mother hasn’t noticed Willow’s new haircut and boyfriend over the past few months. Willow complains that Sheila Rosenberg listens to her colleagues more than her daughter, claiming that their last in-depth conversation was about the patriarchal bias on the Mr. Rogers Show. Willow shouts, “I’m not your sidekick!” at Buffy during “Fear, Itself”. In “Two to Go” near the end of season six, Willow would reference this moment, saying that after “six years as a side man… now I get to be the Slayer,” meaning the most powerful one, and perhaps suggesting the one that gets the attention. For both Willow and Xander, attention must be paid, to quote Death of a Salesman. And it was, by the viewers.
“My So-Called Life meets The X-Files”
The revelation of Cordelia’s humanity in “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” proves crucial to her character’s evolution in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in Angel. First, her inclusion in the opening title sequences suggests that the creators planned a more complex role for her, as the first ten episodes have her simply a high school society villain. (After all, neither Mark Metcalf, who played the Master, nor its chief love interest, David Boreanaz’ Angel, were listed by name in the opening title sequence.) When she is the “Queen of Mean,” she provides the pleasure of biting sarcasm whose wit indicates her intelligence and social awareness. She’s the first outsider to put it together than Buffy is not what she seems. Whedon makes clear just what a source of power that position can be first, then reveals the costs of holding that power:
Cordelia: Hey! You think I’m never lonely because I’m so cute and popular? I can be surrounded by people and be completely alone. It’s not like any of them really know me. I don’t even know if they like me half the time. People just want to be in a popular zone. Sometimes when I talk, everyone’s so busy agreeing with me, they don’t hear a word I say.
Buffy: Well, if you feel so alone, then why do you work so hard at being popular?
Cordelia: Well, it beats being alone all by yourself.
In this moment, the meaning of Cordelia’s character changes, as Whedon makes her into a person to be understood. He does something more than the fake progressivism of inverting who is positioned as the social Other to be exiled and mocked. Whedon forces viewers to recognize Cordelia’s humanity. The only requirement to join this club of outsiders is a sincere desire to change. Of course, this is not a Very Special Episode, so Cordelia returns to her old habits once she’s observed hanging with losers by her boyfriend and Harmony. (She would do the same thing in “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered” once she realized that dating Xander had bumped her off the top of the social pyramid.) Yet, when people are in danger in “Prophecy Girl”, this epically self-involved girl joins the good fight in spectacular fashion. In the second season, she would slowly start to pitch in during non-apocalyptic situations. Unlike Buffy, Angel or Spike, Cordelia opts for a life well lived without the formal second chance offered by special power or responsibility. That may be what makes her redemption even more remarkable than theirs. In the first season, it is Cordelia who shows what Whedon regarded as essential to his story’s theory of redemption, not Angel. Change is hard, it takes work and there’s always the temptation to fall back into old habits. But anyone can do it if Cordelia can. In a way, she’s the first Spike.
“Out of Mind, Out of Sight” features a precursor to the Initiative, our government’s secret attempt to weaponize and control demons in the fourth season. Once Buffy foils Marcie’s plan to maim Cordelia, FBI agents bust in and place Marcie in their custody. Remembering their earlier presence lurking on campus, Buffy intuits that “This isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s happened at other schools.” They take Marcie to a schoolroom with others like her, where she’s taught assassination and infiltration techniques. It has glass-enclosed rooms like the Initiative cells. The first season even features its own version of Adam, with Moloch the demon cyborg of “I, Robot… You, Jane”. The idea that the government would be interested in the monstrous is a foundational one, which makes sense given its creator’s history. Joss Whedon script-doctored X-Men, later did the Astonishing X-Men comic and once referred to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as “My So-Called Life meets The X-Files.”
“Out of Mind, Out of Sight” is part of a broader project to keep the mix of the fantastic and the contemporary viable. The series adjusts its narrative logic to compensate as it evolves. In “The Harvest,” Giles explains the pandemic of denial in Sunnydale in this way: “People have a tendency to rationalize what they can and forget what they can’t.” During the first season, Principal Snyder crackdown on missing persons and spontaneous cheerleader combustion signals that others in the world know and respond to these things. At the end of “School Hard” in the second season, a cop and Principal Snyder feed reporters the usual story for mayhem: gang-related and involving PCP. As Snyder says, “What’d you have in mind? The truth?” (The sinister way they shoot him with light behind his ears gives him a goofy demonic vibe, foreshadowing his villainy.) By the third season, Mayor Wilkins has been behind it all for decades, down to the demon-friendly extensive sewer system. By the fifth season, government black-ops teams fight a covert war against monsters across the globe. In the sixth season, everybody in Sunnydale knows enough that a rampaging Troll God is unusual and disturbing, but it’s hardly worth a town meeting. As Scott Westerfield puts it, “The fantastic leaves its mark on the world.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents not simply a trespassed world which snaps back to middle class normality, nor an altered world, with its brand names and increasingly familiar bands performing at the Bronze, “but it is a world that, like ours, can be and is changed, for better or worse, by the actions of the people who live in it,” Westerfield observes. From the earliest moments in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon strives to maintain the balance between the monstrous and the ordinary with a variety of explanations ranging from the psychological to the political to the conspiratorial. The Initiative is part of Whedon’s Essential Buffy the Vampire Slayer.