Welcome to the Hellmouth

Series Premiere, Part One

Hell is two hours from Neiman-Marcus.

Welcome to the Hellmouth: The Review

The New Kid

Welcome to the Hellmouth (WttH) establishes the foundations on which the series will build. There are these basic premises:

  • Distrust authority.
  • Destiny sucks.
  • Define "real".
  • Choose your friends wisely
  • Wit is its own reward

Buffy Summers, the cute-as-a-button (if buttons had blonde hair, infectious smiles, and were five feet two inches tall) Valley Girl, who has transferred to Sunnydale High from Hemery High in Los Angeles, may look like, if one is incredibly lucky, the 16 year old girl next door, may sound like the girl next door, and may dress like the girl next door, but she is different. Firstly, she's been expelled from Hemery High, having burned down the school's gymnasium. Secondly, her parents are amicably divorced and her mother is on her case. Which, one reasonably might object, is not so different, except that lastly, she has a Destiny, an upper case Destiny — with italics.

The new girl is ever a source of rumor and conversation in school, and Buffy is an artesian source, a well-spring whose effusion is to be examined minutely, if suspiciously. She is patently hip, hot, and has a reputation: all that is decided before she has entered the building. From curbside to front door, various people evaluate her from their own peculiar points of view and tastes. For Xander, it's love at first sight. For Cordelia, it's "my side or outside." For Willow, it's "slow-moving traffic, keep right."

From Buffy's point of view at the objective end of the microscope, the situation, "the sitch", is a confounding lot. She's the émigré, with all of the uncomfortable but unavoidable social tests yet to endure, before she can aspire to acclimatization and acceptance, but Sunnydale is a refuge, away from L.A., the vampires, the demons, the forces of darkness, and, above all, The Watcher. That it is also two hours from the nearest Neiman-Marcus is merely part of the price that she has to pay for that escape back to normalcy which Sunnydale represents. Sunnydale, although a backwater, isn't intolerable, if one discounts the premonitory nightmares that emanate the hell gate.

The viewers, of course, know otherwise.

One man's trash

The very title of the show is a challenge to the preconceptions of the viewers, a proclamation of Whedon's intention to create a parody, but it is parody with a difference. Who, one asks, can take seriously a girl named Buffy, let alone a Buffy, breeze-blown blond, fashionable, and petite, who is, definitively, the vampire slayer? (Unbeckoned, terrific visions of Mr. French and Mrs. Beasley obtrude themselves.) Indeed, who can take a vampire slayer seriously? Like Catherine Morland, no one that had seen Buffy in her infancy would have supposed her born for an hero. Yet, therein lies the difference. Amazing as it might seem at first, the encapsulated concept of this show is this dictum: "be serious about the characters, while taking nothing seriously." Buffy is the counter type hero, beyond reluctant, not male, irreverent, without a mission, yet loyal, determined, and indomitable when roused to the defense of her own.

The viewers, even before they have seen the Slayer, are alerted that the show will avoid no cliché, however hoary. Indeed, the show embraces the well-worn device and the all-too familiar situation. The more trite the conceit, the more tempting, for it is the richer resource. This is creative recycling at its best: the product is entirely new, but the material is recognizable and allusively fertile.

The series begins with the visual announcement in the teaser that it intends to take the commonplaces of horror films and teen soap opera, commingle them, and invert the result.

What could be more typical or generic than the opening scene, in which a boy, obviously "experienced", sneaks his obviously, by her uniform, "innocent" girl friend into the high school, she skittish and protesting feebly, he full of hormones and bravado in search of an outlet? The expectation, raised by every conventional word and gesture, is that the couple will encounter a maniac around the next corner and be murdered. The best for which one can hope in the way of variety is that the boy will turn out to be a vampire. This being BtVS, however, the best is better than any hopes or expectations, for the diffident virgin is well-preserved Darla, favorite of the æonial Master, and the deluded worldly-wise boy, who believes that he is leading a sexual lamb to her moral slaughter, is her meat. Typical is reworked as atypical.

Distrust Authority

"Why can't you people leave me alone?" Buffy asks Giles. She later repeats the question in the form of a declarative complaint to Darla. Clearly, Buffy doesn't see much difference between those who fight vampires and the vampires themselves: indeed, she practically accuses Giles of having set the scene. She wants to be able to do as she pleases, and neither a destiny nor a vampire pleases. Each is an imposition, a curtailment of her freedom. She isn't opposed to the idea of killing the occasional vampire, if one presents itself in the course of "normal" life, but she doesn't think that she has any obligation to make the hunt for vampires the norm of her life.

The quest for normalcy is still Buffy's goal, despite the precocious and peculiar pattern of her life and her unusual skills, despite the inheiritance that sets her apart from other girls. She is the archetype of the teenage freak, the alienated adolescent, who is out of step with both her peers and adults. Nobody understands her. She has a point, although one of the better moments of WttH is that one in the mezzanine of The Bronze, when Giles proves that he does know a little something about her most intimate thoughts: "It's not as though you were having the nightmares," he says pointedly. Buffy's reaction, even without the earlier peek through her mind's eye, would be enough to tell the audience that he speaks with knowledge of his subject.

After that moment of sympathetic insight, Giles is no longer just an interfering, demanding adult, a clueless and uncaring representative of an oppressive adult Society, but rather he is someone to whom she can speak confidentially and from whom she can gain support and self-understanding. She even lets Giles in on one practical means of identifying vampires, as, utilizing her infallible fashion sense, she points out the walking faux pas who is about to pick up Willow.

The other adults in Buffy's life really are without a clue to comprehend her. The platitudes and truisms, by which they attempt to define her and to regulate their own responses to her, are ironical commentaries on the real distance that separates them. Joyce, her mom, is trying to be a single parent according the current best practices, as defined by "the tapes", but she can have no idea what is really happening in Buffy's life. Buffy surmises that it is simply easier to allow Joyce to believe the cliché than to explain the reality. Mr. Flutie, the earnestly insincere principal, also operates according to a theoretical model of educational practice that has no point of contact with reality on the Hellmouth. He, like Joyce, doesn't see Buffy as an individual but rather as a type. Like Joyce, he relies upon a prescribed set of responses, which he dutifully recites with mock earnest. The students are free to call him Bob, but they don't. One might as well expect a computer to rear and educate children. Joyce, at least, loves Buffy, but it is actually Giles who has sensibility enough to know that Buffy cannot be handled by the book.

Company she keeps.

Buffy instinctively takes to certain people, Willow in particular. She has, perhaps, a valid excuse for seeking out Willow's help with her studies, but it seems clear that she does so only on a pretext, having disliked how Cordelia treated the meek girl whose mother picks out her clothes. Indeed, the more hostility that Cordelia shows to a person, the greater is Buffy's inclination to gravitate to that person — Jesse being another case in point. One might justifiably think that her protective instincts are as much an influence on her actions in society as they are in combat. Willow needs her as friend, while Cordelia doesn't, but Cordelia also benefits from her association with Buffy, for it is through Buffy that she is drawn into contact with "reality". Cordelia, a material girl, the quintessential materialist, is necessarily a realist, but her perception is attuned to the artifice of social reality. By natural inclination, Buffy belonged with Cordelia, but she sought out the "losers", even after they had been publicly cut. Xander and Willow attained new qualities by Buffy's association. Willow, for example, found the ability to stand up to Cordelia, to speak when not addressed. Buffy has disrupted the social order, and Cordelia must adapt.

Real life.

Reality in Sunnydale is very basic. The citizens of Sunnydale live in an illusory, or virtual, state, one in which none of the mortal hazards that surround them register as real. As in the "factual" California, where the communal illusion of reality excludes earthquakes, the consensual reality in Sunnydale excludes the extramundane and demoniacal death. The reality with which Buffy deals is, therefore, subterranean, buried beneath the veneer of civilization. Buffy struggles with a unconscious and repressed reality, and, by virtue of their contact with her, those around her also come to comprehend it, and therefore, to comprehend life. Life is comprehension of this reality and one's evanescent place in it. "Seize the moment, 'cause tomorrow you might be dead." Buffy, being the one person most concerned with death, a Slayer, is also the person most concerned with life, with its preservation, with the conquest of death. This definition of life as self-knowledge is a primary theme. It is Buffy who investigates the body of the boy in the girls' locker room. It is Buffy who instigates resistance to the Master, Death personified. Buffy's reality is for the living, not the living undead. The residents of Sunnydale are the living dead, for they exist without knowledge of their reality. It is Buffy who gives them life by giving them knowledge of reality or protection from that knowledge, as necessary.

The vampire in BtVS is evil, and therefore dead, because it is without a soul. The soul is that quality in an human that permits sympathy, empathy, a feeling for the consequences which one's actions have upon others, the quality that defines life in the show's philosophy. To be soulless is to be among the living dead. The vampire, and, by inference, the majority of the citizens of Sunnydale, exists in a world populated by predators and prey, in which the gratification of personal wants and desires, the bending of others to one's will, the remaking of the world in one's own image, is the goal. The effects upon others are inconsequential.

Buffy, in many ways, is fighting an endless war, one that is hopeless, except insofar as she brings one of the living dead into the light. Light destroys the undead or metaphorically cures those whose souls have sickened. Cordelia is the immediate candidate for success in that regard. Cordelia, in WttH, is not without soul, but she is predatory, uncaring, blind to the reality of others. Death means that gym class has been canceled. Buffy, by the simple reaction to the news of death's intrusion, exposes Cordelia to her own narcissism. "What's her problem?" is the question that viewers ask respective Cordelia.

Dangerous wit.

Wit is one factor that makes the show uncommon. It is frequently mordant. Even when it is cruel, it is funny, and double-edged. The "softer side of Sears" insult with which Cordelia attempts to summarize Willow, in fact sums up Cordelia herself, penetrating, frank, but mean-spirited. Her later remark about Buffy's downward mobility is another example of Cordelia's wickedly satiric self-absorption. Willow's answer to Buffy's question, can't she hang out with both Cordelia and Willow, is equally witty and insightful: "Not legally." Willow comments both on her own and Cordelia's places in Sunnydale's Society. Buffy's exchange with Giles about the Time-Life series of books concerning monsters, and his choice between gift phone or calendar, is tossed off with perfect nonchalance. It reduces his didactic attitude, and Willow's previous grand assessment of his personal library, to the pretentious.

In Sum

There are a number of nice touches throughout the episode that should tip off the viewers that Joss Whedon is going to take some care with the story. There are no wasted elements. Buffy's nightmare sequence is specific, and images from it pop up throughout the episode: the Vampyr tome is the first to spook Buffy, when Giles plops it down on the counter in the Library as introduction.

Then there is the first question that Cordelia asks Buffy to test her coolness factor: "Vamp nail polish, in or out?" For Buffy, definitely out, she hopes. Even the gym, which figures so prominently in Buffy's colorful transcript, plays a part in her reimmersion into Slaying, as the body of the dead boy from the teaser pops up in the locker room.

Jesse's off the cuff remarks, the desire to make Buffy feel at home, unless she has a scary home, and willingness to publish her dark and painful secrets, are penetrating because they are written as unconscious, pointing up the contrast between the reality and Jesse's superficial perception of reality. His foreshadowing remark about a shoulder to nibble on is poignant in retrospect.

The complex relationship between Buffy, Xander and Willow is deftly illustrated. Xander is literally knocked off his feet by his first glimpse of Buffy, and he lands at the feet of Willow, who notices that his distraction is contradicted by his words. That he was looking for her might have been true, but that he was looking at Buffy was more to the point. Later, the life-long friendship of Willow and Xander, and Willow's romantic feelings for Xander, is brought up explicitly, when Buffy inquires if they are dating. (Not since he stole her Barbie.) Already, as Buffy tries to ingratiate herself with Willow, she is a threat to the ultimate fulfillment of Willow's hopes.

Equally remarkable is the way that Buffy's philosophy of life immediately has the effect of putting Willow in touch with reality, as she picks exactly the wrong guy to prove that "life is short."

As the introduction to the series, Welcome to the Hellmouth, functions admirably. The second part of the series premeire,The Harvest, completes the picture.

Horace LaBadie

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