With seven seasons and 144 episodes under its belt, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a surprise cultural phenomenon that went on to inspire one official spin-off series, novels, comics, video games, board games, fan films, parodies, and academic conferences. And now, Jamie Gerber is here to walk us all through it from the first episode to the last.
Come with us now, as we explore the mysteries and empowerment of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer!
High school is a battleground. It certainly was for me anyway and honestly, I’ve never been able to trust those for whom high school was anything less than horrific. Buffy the Vampire Slayer understood this better than perhaps any other show in the history of television. Joss Whedon took the idea that everything feels like it’s life or death in high school and literalized it. Sunnydale High was sitting on top of a Hellmouth, which is a center of mystical convergence that attracts all manner of supernatural elements. This allowed the show to use demons, werewolves, and witches to explore themes of addiction, desire, and female empowerment. Whedon personified all those feelings of isolation, alienation, and demoralization, grounding extraordinary situations in these very real emotions. While incorporating fantastical elements, the world that Whedon created always felt recognizable as our own and that coupled with its completely relatable characters, allowed for easy suspension of disbelief.
The implication of the Hellmouth is clear: Most teenagers feel as though they are entering the mouth of Hell every single day that they attend high school. The show resonates with people of all ages because although we leave those experiences in our wake, they are never truly forgotten. Perhaps this is why my sixteen-year-old self latched onto this show and is still holding tight twenty years later. Taken at face value, BtVS is the story of a girl fighting monsters and saving the world. This alone was groundbreaking for 1997. Underneath its monster movie veneer though, was an allegory about growing up. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t just influence popular culture: It shattered the illusion of what we thought television could do. The show not only subverted expectations but also challenged gender stereotypes and cut a wide swath for the generations of TV that followed.
The funny thing is, Buffy should never have even been a TV show. The 1992 film was not well received by critics and certainly did not accomplish what Whedon had set out to do. The director, Fran Rubel Kuzui, took his feminist horror movie script and turned it into a campy comedy. Whedon jumped at the chance to see his vision fully realized as a television show that he would be able to run. The pilot aired on the WB in 1997. Rather than retread the familiar territory of Buffy’s origin story, Whedon cleverly cut right to the meat of a new one. This isn’t a slayer in training, but rather a slayer attempting to make a clean break from her destiny, after having it dismantle her life piece by piece.
Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not without its problems. It took the actors a while to gel and in certain cases, to learn how to act. Some of that early writing was at times cringe-worthy and the monster of the week formula left little room for growth of the main arc. However, at that point, television was much more episodic than serialized and BtVS is largely responsible for the reversal of that trend. Aside from all that, Whedon had to learn what does and does not work in television. By mid-Season Two, literally all of these problems had been fixed. Whedon turned out to be a master storyteller, most often praised for his brilliant dialogue. The cast became their characters, every single one of them indispensable. While Buffy’s first season is a little shaky, its potential was apparent from the start.
S1E1: “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (Writer: Joss Whedon / Director: Charles Martin Smith)
So, this typical bad boy and a pretty, petite, blonde girl break into a school one night. It’s creepy, dark and deserted. This scene is familiar and anyone who’s seen a horror movie knows exactly how it will play out. Only it doesn’t. While we’re sitting there waiting for this poor chick (Julie Benz, as recurring character Darla) to die, she reveals her true vampire visage and tears out the bad boy’s throat. The thing is, this is no longer shocking. Over twenty years later, this plot development is downright predictable. While Buffy remains thought of as essential television, without historical context, it is easy to overlook its cultural impact.
When the pilot aired in 1997, TV’s only real female hero was Xena and no offense to fans of the Warrior Princess, but she lacked relatability and that show just didn’t have the complex layers that BtVS would later unpack. The point is, that opening scene, however cliché it might seem now, was indicative of Buffy’s entire rai·son d’ê·tre. Joss Whedon had grown tired of watching that helpless girl play victim time and time again. With Buffy, he placed the power in the hands of the small, flaxen-haired damsel, creating a lion where there was once a sacrificial lamb. While this may be a familiar television trope today, it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer that proved that mold breakable.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth” was successful in a myriad of ways. For one thing, it did an excellent job introducing all of our main characters and establishing who they are. When we first meet Buffy Summers, she is struggling to ignore the nightmares that have been plaguing her, both literally and figuratively. Oft-absent mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) is just waiting for her to fail, as is the principal, after glimpsing her “colorful” transcripts. Sarah Michelle Gellar (who initially auditioned for the part of Cordelia) was one of the show’s more experienced actors, having done soap opera work for years prior to landing the part of Buffy Summers. Gellar’s performance is nuanced from the start, playing Buffy as a badass with absolutely no poker face. We can always see what she is feeling, which is part of what makes the character so engaging.
The first person that reaches out to Buffy when she arrives at Sunnydale High is Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia Chase, who shows the most character development throughout Season One. It’s not that the other characters don’t evolve in the first season, but Cordelia is so two-dimensional at the show’s onset that her growth over those initial twelve episodes is the most apparent. There are clear parallels between Cordelia and the girl that Buffy used to be. Before becoming the slayer, Buffy too was shallow, self-obsessed and cared little about life outside of her bubble of popularity. Carpenter (who originally auditioned for Buffy) plays Cordelia with such gusto that it is impossible to imagine anyone else filling those designer pumps. Her single most important function in the pilot is to put Willow on Buffy’s radar by viciously attacking her.
According to Joss Whedon, Willow Rosenberg, Buffy’s soon to be bestie, was the most difficult part to cast and was actually recast after the unaired pilot. He was adamant that Willow wouldn’t be “the supermodel in horn rims that you usually see on a TV show.” Luckily they found Alyson Hannigan, whose quirky performance mingled shy vulnerability with quiet courage, making her possibly the show’s easiest character to love. Early on the writers realized that placing Willow in peril would elicit the most concern from viewers, which is a plotting device they first implement in this very episode. Buffy is immediately drawn to Willow after witnessing Cordelia’s cruelty and their friendship is instantaneous.
Willow is a package deal though. With her as always are Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendan as the show’s requisite everyman) and Jesse Who Cares What His Last Name Is (Eric Balfour, who never gives us much reason to care if he lives or dies). Xander may be a lens for your average dude to view the show through, but by season’s end, he has proven himself essential. Not to mention that by the time the show took its final bow in 2003, he’d saved the world more than once. As earlier stated, it took the actors some time to truly become these characters and by that I mean, learn how to act or at least act together. This brings us to the one guy on the show that already really knew how to do that.
The unofficial fourth member of the team is Rupert Giles. Anthony Stewart Head somehow managed to play Giles as both stuffy and sexy, and was the first actor cast. Rather than writing him as yet another clueless adult, he became the patriarch of this little family, one who both understood and valued his charges. His initial meeting with Buffy is anything but smooth. It turns out, he’s to be her watcher. However, she has no interest in continuing on her hero’s journey. That is, until gym is canceled due to the “extreme dead guy in the locker” (Darla’s victim from the night before). This forces Buffy to accept her destiny as the slayer, as Giles elucidates that Sunnydale is on a Hellmouth. Unbeknownst to them, Xander overhears the conversation. Also, unbeknownst to them, in an underground lair, frighteningly large vampire Luke has brought forth the Master (Mark Metcalf, who always appears to be having more fun than anyone else), an ancient and incredibly powerful vampire king.
The pilot had so much to accomplish. It had to introduce both the Slayer and future Scooby Gang, explain Sunnydale’s supernatural circumstances and acquaint us with the Season’s Big Bad. On top of all this, we needed to meet Buffy’s love interest. So the story goes, an agent discovered David Boreanaz while he was out walking his dog. According to Whedon, it was the reactions of all the women in the room when Boreanaz read for his audition that really won him the role. Impossibly dreamy, Angel is an enigmatic stranger whose motives and allegiances are a complete mystery. Boreanaz too, needed some acting lessons early on and it wasn’t until Season Two that someone thankfully decided to rethink his 90210 hair.
The pilot is a two-parter, so “Welcome to the Hellmouth” ends with our hero in peril. Buffy has to rescue Willow and Jesse, thus proving to Xander that the conversation he overheard doesn’t warrant her a padded cell. She dispatches the first vampire with no trouble, giving us our first taste of what would become her trademark pun and stake style, “Now, this is not gonna be pretty. We’re talking violence, strong language, adult content…” Thankfully, the fight choreography on the show improved greatly with each season, but at this point, they didn’t really have the budget for a proper one. In fact, I hesitate to even call this a fight, because it’s basically just Buffy and Darla trading punches until Luke shows up and pretty much kicks her ass. The episode ends on a cliffhanger of him about to end her. Although Season One was very monster of the week, it did have a larger arc running through it and this initial two-parter was indicative of the serial format that the show would later adopt as its foremost form of storytelling.
S1E2: “The Harvest” (Writer: Joss Whedon / Director: John T Kretchmer)
“The Harvest” begins with Buffy seemingly outmatched by Luke. It is actually the cross that the mysterious Angel gave her when they met that winds up saving her life. We may not know Angel’s true intentions yet, but this is the show’s way of subliminally saying that he is on Buffy’s side. Darla escaped to kill another day, with Jesse in tow. The problem with Jesse is that his life in jeopardy doesn’t mean much because we were never given a reason by the writing or Eric Balfour’s performance to really give a shit about his fate. Darla on the other hand, was supposed to be killed off at the end of this episode, but the decision to keep her around for Angel’s later story arc was a smart one. Julie Benz wound up being so much fun in the role that even after the character’s death, she still showed up in flashbacks and was later resurrected on Angel.
This episode also marks the first of many library exposition scenes that would take place in most every installment. It is a testament to Anthony Stewart Head’s acting ability that these scenes (especially once everyone learned how to act) never became tedious for the viewer. The cast, however, grew to despise filming these scenes above all others. This one was especially dense because aside from figuring out where Jesse was most likely being held, all the vampire lore of the show had to be explained here. The way Buffy treated vampires was comprised of everything the writers knew about them from film and literature, but decisions on what to keep and what to lose had to be made based on what the show could afford to pull off.
Buffy’s mission to rescue Jessie leads to her second meeting with Angel. This time, his affection for her is already apparent, despite his cool veneer. Something else that’s apparent is the chemistry between Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, and this would only grow stronger over time. When he recommends that Buffy leave Jessie to his fate, she responds, “Do you know what it’s like to have a friend?” Silence is the only answer she gets, to which she replies, “That wasn’t supposed to be a stumper.” This scene highlights Angel’s solitude, which will make even more sense once we learn the truth about him.
Another fascinating aspect of the pilot is the almost immediate impact that Buffy has on her relationships. The most obvious change can be seen in Willow. Little more than a timid mouse in “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, she is empowered by her newfound friendship with Buffy and probably by the fact that she was almost killed by a vampire. This gives her the strength to stand up not just for Buffy, but also for herself. The value of being true to yourself can pretty much always be found at the heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In her darkest moments that would follow, it is only when Buffy truly embraces who she is that she is able to triumph over whatever it is that would otherwise simply be too much to bear.
“The Harvest” brings together the Scooby Gang (although they aren’t calling themselves that yet) as Willow helps Giles with the research and Xander follows Buffy down to the sewers to help her rescue Jesse. It seems they’ve succeeded, but for one small problem: the guy they save is no longer Jesse, but a vampire. This episode explains that a vampire is basically a demon with the body and memories of the person they inhabit. So, the real Jesse is gone. Again, this would have more emotional resonance if he were a more engaging character. For example, the pilot does an excellent job of making us care about Willow. When her life is in danger during “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, it actually matters, whereas with Jesse, he dies and you’re kind of like “Oh well.” The same can be said for when Xander accidentally stakes him later in the episode. No one cares but Xander and frankly, for all the attention it warrants in future episodes (none), he couldn’t possibly have cared much either.
Meanwhile, Angel had dropped the word “harvest”, so Giles has to figure out what that means. Thus begins the show’s rich history of what the writers fondly refer to as phlebotinum or “the vague mystical thing”. According to Whedon, fellow writer David Greenwalt coined the phrase by saying, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the phlebotinum in jar C,” while they were trying to work out the episode’s resolution. It turns out, the Master is basically a cork in the bottle that is the Hellmouth. Luke is his vessel and if the Master gets strong enough through Luke feeding, he can bust out, all Hell breaking loose with him. Keeping the Master trapped underground all season was a brilliant choice. It kept the show from the redundancy of the Big Bad just trying to kill Buffy every single episode.
Buffy’s defeat of Luke is one of the pilot’s best moments and begins with a truly iconic shot as she says, “You didn’t think I’d miss this, did you?” She comes at him with everything she’s got, despite the fact that he truly handed her ass to her the last time they fought. This is indicative of Buffy’s indomitable will. Notably, it isn’t even all brawn that wins this fight, but brains as well. It’s a much better match than the earlier one with Darla, but still not at all exemplary of the level of greatness the later fights would achieve. The way she outwits Luke was actually how Buffy killed Paul Reuben’s character in an earlier draft of the BtVS film script.
Despite the near bloodbath at the Bronze, all is copacetic at school the next day. Giles’s summation of the upcoming threats the Scoobies will no doubt face as a result of the Hellouth’s energy is a perfect way to let viewers know that they can expect more than just vampires in Sunnydale. This will be proven in the very next episode. Buffy, Willow, and Xander listen to the watcher’s warning and give it all of a second’s thought before turning the conversation to how Buffy could get herself expelled. This prompts Giles to speak the episode’s final perfect line, “The earth is doomed.”
S1E3: “Witch” (Writer: Dana Reston / Director: Stephen Cragg)
Right out of the gate BtVS uses this episode to prove that vampires aren’t the only villains threatening Sunnydale. Although based on a cool concept from the minds of Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, nothing about the writing or directing here was stellar (this was the only installment with Reston or Cragg behind the scenes). However, “Witch” does explore some fairly complex themes. On the surface, this is a story about a woman trying to relive her glory days through her daughter. However, the deeper point here is that growing up means becoming your own person, rather than the one your parents want you to be. It also introduces us to recurring character Amy. All in all, it’s a good episode.
Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen) wants to be a cheerleader, as do Cordelia and Buffy. It may seem strange that Buffy, who has let go of any desire to be popular, has such a yen to cheer. Buffy may be over popularity, but she hasn’t given up on being normal. The skirt and pom poms mean more to her than any sort of recognition, but rather in her mind, would symbolize her status as a regular high school student. This is a motif continually explored on the show throughout Buffy’s high school career. The problem with tryouts though, is that someone has a little too much school spirit and is knocking out the competition with spontaneous combustion and blindness. Buffy is next on the list and her weird behavior leads Giles to suspect witchcraft. The spell cast on Buffy leaves her with mere hours to live.
Amy, who has taken becoming a cheerleader to anxiety attack inducing proportions, seems the most likely culprit. The thing is, Amy appears to just desperately want to placate her overbearing mother. In sharp contrast of this, is a scene of Buffy saying to her mom, “Well, this just in: I’m not you.” Buffy may long to be just another girl, but her strong sense of self remains intact. Speaking of self, the clever twist of this episode is that Amy turns out to not be Amy at all. Her scary mom switched their bodies so that she can be “Katherine the Great” once more.
“Witch” allows the show to widen its mythology, not only proving that witches do exist in this world, but that they are more than a match for the Slayer. Once again we see Buffy using more than just muscles to vanquish her foe. Giles reverses the spell, but Buffy’s strength is no match for a witch she can’t lay her hands on. She adroitly deflects Katherine’s spell with a very conveniently placed mirror, which unbeknownst to everyone, sends Katherine to reside for all eternity inside her own cheerleading trophy.
Although this is a monster of the week episode, it does help to further establish Willow’s unrequited love for Xander, as well as his for Buffy. Xander looks at Willow and sees a bro, while according to Buffy, Xander is just one of the girls. Apparently, Gellar and Brendon actually pitched a Xander / Buffy romance in a later season, but Whedon felt the characters were better as friends. Agreed. Xander and Buffy as a couple would basically have undermined all the other relationships on the show up until that point.
S1E4: “Teacher’s Pet” (Writer: David Greenwalt/ Director: Bruce Seth Green)
“Teacher’s Pet” was Buffy’s first Xander-centric episode, although not its best. The opening dream sequence is a fun peak into teenage boy wish fulfillment. Dream Xander is basically Buffy, only on top of kicking vampire ass, he can “finish my solo and kiss you like you’ve never been kissed before.” This episode was written by David Greenwalt, who would go on to write some truly great scripts for the show, as well as co-create Buffy spinoff, Angel with Joss Whedon. That means that this episode, while not one of the season’s better installments, does have well-written dialogue. Greenwalt is one of several writers that helped establish the tone of the show early on. Bruce Seth Green, (no relation to Seth Green) who wound up directing several episodes in Season One and Two, does a fine job with the direction.
Biology teacher Dr. Gregory is murdered and found sans head. Unfortunately, he seemed to be the only teacher not intimidated by Buffy’s transcripts. He actually takes an interest in her academic success, so that dude must be killed off immediately. Compounding the mystery is Angel showing up at the Bronze to warn Buffy of danger and then disappearing without explanation. He did loan Buffy his awesome leather jacket though, so we’ll forgive him only showing up when he has bad news.
The looming threat of which Angel spoke, was a vampire, who basically has a fork for a hand. He doesn’t matter though because the real monster of the week here is sexy substitute biology teacher, Miss French. Her pheromones make the guys go gaga, so she must be evil. Turns out, she’s a giant praying mantis! So, that’s what happened to Dr. Gergory’s head. Aside from this being a simple case of hormones, it’s the stark difference between Xander’s daydream relationship with Buffy and his real world one, that drives him right into Miss French’s creepy arms. Buffy figures out that she’s a mantis in woman’s clothing before anyone, but despite her misgivings, Xander is determined to go to the teacher’s home alone, ostensibly to work on a school project.
Xander winds up drugged in Miss French’s basement, along with Blayne, who mocked him earlier in the episode over his dearth of sexual conquests. The joke here is that the mantis is only looking to mate with virgins, meaning Blayne has also never known the touch of a woman. Much of the subtext of “Teacher’s Pet” has to do with teenage boys’ fear of sex. It also explores the difference between fantasy and reality. Sure, it uses a pretty silly giant bug lady to it, but somehow it kind of works.
Much like “Witch”, this installment doesn’t add much to the larger arc of the season, but it definitely helps to build on the series’ character development. It advances the Buffy/Angel relationship and strengthens Buffy’s friendships with Willow and Xander. Plus, the way she hacks that mantis to bits is pretty badass. For some reason, the episode ends with a shot of mantis eggs in Dr. Gregory’s closet. It would seem that the bug lady mated with him before beheading him (as mantis’s do). This is a dangling plot thread, but the subject is never revisited and no one complained because honestly, this episode is no one’s favorite.