We pick up this episode where "Welcome to the Hellmouth" left off, with Luke’s gaping jaws. But — oh no! — he’s burned by the cross that Angel gave Buffy, giving our heroine the chance to escape. This makes Angel’s rather redundant appearance in the previous episode a little more relevance, but he still doesn’t have a great deal to do in this two-parter.
Buffy helps Willow and Xander by fighting off the remaining vampires and learns that Darla has abducted Jesse, leading into the opening credits. The knowledge that someone is in danger and needs to be rescued sets up the rest of the episode very nicely. The fact that it’s a boy needing to be rescued rather than a girl is a bonus. Buffy subverts classic tropes once again!
Now for the Lore
After the credits, it’s time for an info-dump from Giles, but it’s a very interesting one, as it sets up some key principles of Buffy’s lore. First of all, the Christian creation story is dismissed as “popular mythology,” creating a much darker origin for the Earth. It was a demon realm for “untold aeons,” until humans became more powerful. The vampires and demons of the present day are pale shadows of the “Old Ones” who ruled the Earth for millennia.
The idea that Earth was not a paradise links with the notion that darkness is a key part of the human condition. Humans did not begin as pure and happy, they began as a race struggling to survive in a world of monsters. It also links with the show’s absurdist philosophy, the belief that the universe is purposeless and chaotic, but that humans seek to find meaning anyway. A world of demons sounds pretty chaotic to me.
The last demon to leave the Earth, says Giles, infected a human, creating the very first vampire. We learn in the series of comics which follow the end of Buffy Season 7 that this demon was called Maloker. He was imprisoned by magic-wielding humans in the Deeper Well along with the rest of the Old Ones. The Deeper Well, which acts as a burial ground and gaol for the Old Ones, is established in "Angel 5.15: A Hole in the World."
Willow’s reaction to Giles’s lecture is pretty understandable:
Willow: "I need to sit down."
Buffy: "You are sitting down."
Willow: "Oh. Good for me."
Now Jesse is brought to the Master. Darla has already tasted his blood, causing the Master to quip: “I’m your faithful dog, you bring me scraps.”
Mark Metcalf is fantastic as the Master. He’s not physically intimidating like Luke, but his charisma is undeniable, and he manages to walk the fine line between camp and menace.
It could be a bit of an issue that the Master is, by necessity, so passive, because he is trapped underground. However, his influence is felt throughout this episode and the rest of the season, making him a very worthwhile villain.
The Master discovers from his minions that the Slayer is in town, giving him pause for thought…
The Slayer and Isolation
Giles explains the basics of Slayer lore to the gang, she is the “one girl in all the world” who can put a stop to demons and vampires. This idea of “one girl” sets up a crucial theme for the entire series: isolation.
Adult responsibility can make you feel cut off from the people around you, and this is how Buffy feels a lot of the time. However, her friends continually try to connect with her and help her, giving her a point of contact with the world and helping to ease her burden. But sometimes, only Buffy can make the decisions which have to be made in order to save the world. This tension between community and isolation is an important part of Buffy as a show. Buffy is the first slayer to have friends to help her, and this makes her special. We all need a support network of friends and family to navigate the trials and tribulations of adult life.
Guns and Justice in the Buffyverse
Buffy works out that Jesse might still be alive and wants to save him. She tells Willow and Xander that the police couldn’t handle it, because they’d only bring guns, which are pointless against a vampire.
Guns in the Buffyverse are seen as “not helpful,” partly due to the lore of vampires, and partly due to the unearned power they give to people. Buffy has to train and hone her power, but guns can give anyone the power to kill, as explained by Lani Diane Rich of the Dusted podcast. This will be more fully explored in later seasons.
The police are useless in this instance because they deal with human justice. When a human person commits a crime, the police can administer justice. When the supernatural gets involved, they don’t have the tools or knowledge to get the job done. This is Buffy’s job. This clear delineation between what the police do and what Buffy does is an important concept in the show.
The convenient plot device of the computer is important in Buffy’s early seasons. Willow’s incredible hacker skills mean that she can get information that you probably wouldn’t be able to get in real life.
You have to suspend your disbelief a bit when it comes to science in Buffy. Technology is both very dated and 90s-looking but also very advanced when it comes to robotics and hacking.
But in the interests of the plot it’s a good way of using a character’s strengths — in this case, intelligence and technical ability — to help get the information Buffy needs.
In Pursuit of Jesse
After an encounter with Principal Flutie, Buffy jumps over the school gate and runs off to the mausoleum to investigate.
Xander talks to Willow about feeling useless and wanting to help. Willow knows that Buffy will be OK, but does Xander really agree? Does he want to help because he feels emasculated, or is it because he cares about Buffy? It could be both. He did say earlier, “That’s fine. I’m inadequate. I’m less than a man.”
In the mausoleum, Angel pops up, with no new information, just an air of mystery. He tells Buffy his name and implies that he has no friends. As Buffy enters the tunnels, he wishes her luck under his breath.
In the tunnels, a ran runs across Buffy’s feet. Here’s a little insight from Joss Whedon on the merits of rats from the DVD commentary for this episode, just for fun:
"One of my favourite kinds of actors to work with is the one we'll see right now. The rat actor. The rat actor is a good, smart actor; gets it done, knows his lines, hits his mark. We've worked with a lot of rats on this show, and they're always very professional and delightful people to be around."
With a little jump-scare, Xander joins Buffy, saying he, “couldn’t sit home and do nothing.” Brave or stupid? You decide.
Giles learns from an old tome that a ritual called the Harvest is happening “tonight.” The writers on Buffy use the term “Book of Thoth” to describe the book that tells our main characters everything they need to know for the plot to work. Very useful.
Willow’s Got Guts
Now for a little character moment with Willow. Cordelia is dissing Buffy in computer class and Willow speaks up in her defence. Cordelia beats her down, but Willow has her revenge. She gives Cordelia some advice which leads her to delete all her classwork.
While the technology may be dodgy in this scene, I love this peek at bad-ass Willow. Her relationship with Buffy inspires her to become more assertive and explore her own power. This links back to her decision to “seize the day” in Episode 1.
Jesse’s Gone Bad
Xander and Buffy find Jesse chained up in the tunnel. Buffy breaks him out, and the trio are pursued by vampires. At last, Jesse reveals that he’s already been turned by going into vamp-face. He says he’s “connected to everything” — the opposite of what Buffy feels as a lone slayer. Xander has to face the fact that his friend is gone. Thanks to handy vent and some sunlight, Buffy and Xander escape the vampires’ clutches.
The Master is furious that the meddling kids got away and informs his minion that he has “something in his eye” — a wonderfully gross moment.
Meanwhile, Willow has found evidence of a previous Harvest. In every episode of Buffy there is a magical element which makes the story work, which the writers called “phlebotinum.” The term was coined by the writer David Greenwalt, who later went to work on Angel. The phlebotinum is put into action by the Master and Luke, as they form a mystical connection through a Satanic-style ritual.
Xander and Buffy arrive to tell Willow that Jesse has been turned. Xander is angry: “I don’t like vampires. I’m gonna take a stand and say they’re not good.” Jesse’s fate will arguably have a lasting impact on Xander throughout this season.
Giles informs the gang that the Harvest means “the end of the world,” because it is the ritual by which the Master will free himself. Sunnydale is built on a Hellmouth, and the Master wants to open this portal and unleash Hell on Earth. This bit of lore cements the concept that high school is Hell, because it is literally built on the mouth of Hell.
Xander guesses that Jesse will go to the Bronze to feed, so Buffy goes to get supplies.
The conflict between Buffy and her mother, which will continue for the rest of the season, is very apparent in the next scene. Buffy, having gathered her supplies, needs to go and confront Jesse at the Bronze, but her mother, who knows nothing about this, takes it as classic teen behaviour and wants her to stay home.
Sometimes, our parents still think of us as children when we are already grown up. Joyce is treating Buffy like a kid, but she has adult responsibilities to attend to. Joyce doesn’t realise that Buffy is growing up and taking on powerful forces, so she acts as an obstacle to Buffy’s goals.
But she’s not an obstacle for long. Buffy grabs her weapons and escapes through the window.
Cordelia encounters Jesse at the Bronze. His new vampiric confidence makes him a lot more successful with Cordelia than he has been previously. Confidence is often the key to romantic success, but the fact that he tells Cordelia to “shut up” is pretty disturbing – as a vampire should be.
Jesse’s continued interest in Cordelia suggests that some remnant of human Jesse remains despite the fact that his body has been taken over by a demon. Perhaps it’s because Jesse’s memories remain. The relationship between the human and demon aspects of vampires will be explored more fully at a later date.
The rest of the Master’s crew arrives, Luke does his bad-guy monologue, and the killing begins. The bouncer is the first to go. It’s pretty bad that a Black man is the first to die, whether or not it was intentional, because of the Black Dude Dies First trope which runs throughout popular culture.
But it’s Cordelia who is the damsel in distress when Buffy arrives to save the day. She works out that Luke is the Vessel who is powering up the Master and performs some cool acrobatics. She uses a snooker cue and a cymbal to kill a couple of vamps, demonstrating her ingenuity. She also tricks Luke into thinking that he’s in danger of being burned in the sunlight, giving her a chance to surprise him with a staking.
Willow shows her capability too when she uses holy water to save Giles from a vamp.
Xander threatens Jesse but seems unable to dust him. But Jesse’s fate is taken out of his hands when a fleeing woman bumps into him, driving the stake into Jesse’s chest. This is an interesting choice, because Xander isn’t the hero in this case. But if he had staked Jesse, it might have made him a bit too dark, because Jesse was his friend after all.
Angel remarks, “She did it, I’ll be damned.” For those who know Angel’s true identity, this is rather amusing.
The Same but Different
Xander says that “nothing’s ever gonna be the same” — followed by an ironic cut to Sunnydale High looking as glossy and Californian as ever.
The students have conveniently forgotten that vampires were involved, because, according to Giles, “people tend to rationalise what they can and forget what they can’t”. This is another key part of Buffy, because if everyone knew about demons and vampires, Buffy wouldn’t need to keep her identity a secret.
Giles sets up the rest of the season, by telling us that the Master is still around — he’ll be the main villain for the season, the Big Bad. He also says that the next creepy creature they encounter may be “quite different,” setting up next week’s episode.
Buffy, Willow and Xander joke about getting kicked out of school, and Giles says, exasperated, that "The Earth is doomed," an iconic ending to our first Buffy story.