Thursday, June 3, 2010

Buffy 1x02 - "The Harvest"

"Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest" were originally aired on the same night (under the former title), but the DVD and other official episode lists list them separately so I decided to treat them as such. And a good thing too, because after the long review I wrote for the previous episode, breaking them up seems like the only sane thing to do. Another longish review after the jump.

"All right. The Slayer hunts vampires, Buffy is a Slayer, don't tell anyone. Well, I think that's all the vampire information you need."

- Giles

In any case, as much as I said "Welcome to the Hellmouth" was largely setup, this episode resolves the cliffhanger from that episode very quickly and resets itself by bringing us back to the library for some expository dialogue and some breathing room. At this point, Giles delivers a hefty dose of vampire lore that will never be referred to again (or, maybe it's referred to once or twice, but it will never be important). The lore in Buffy is like the flavor text from Magic the Gathering cards: some of it sounds kind of cool but usually it's just window dressing. In fact, the Hellmouth itself was originally conceived as a catch-all hand-waving plot device before WB executives urged Joss to make it more integral to the show. That should give you an idea of how important the mythology of this show really is: we're not supposed to worry too much about why and how vampires exist; our attention should be on what it's like to live in a world where they do.

The library is a lot like the writer's room of the show itself, acting as a springboard for the plot of the episode. Here, ideas are bounced around, plans are drawn, and characters decide what to do about the problem. The library will also be the regular stomping ground for Giles and Willow, especially in the first season, as that's where they're most useful. In this episode, the characters all prove how useful they are, even Xander, who shouldn't be useful on paper but somehow is.

In this episode we get some more David Boreanaz as Angel and my God is his delivery wooden. But once again, he doesn't do much in this episode. He's really just here to set up his importance later in the series and to build tension between him and Buffy. We also get a bit more of Buffy's mother, Joyce, who is played mostly for laughs at this point and utters the irony-laden "I know, if you don't go out, it'll be the end of the world. Everything is life or death when you're a sixteen year old girl." Except of course it is life-or-death, end-of-the-world kind of stuff. This is the first major example of what would become a major motif in the first few years of Buffy: taking a cliche metaphor and rendering it literally.

The turning and death of Jesse is something that should be shocking, becuase Joss did such a good job of making him seem like "one of the gang" in the previous episode, but his absence from the opening credits ruins the surprise that he's not long for this world. Joss wanted to make an alternate version of the credits for the premiere, so he could really trick the audience, but the budget wasn't there. During the rest of The Whedoning we'll see a few more occasions where he actually gets to do this (with varying degrees of success).

The Master is really kind of a lame and generic villain, but Mark Metcalf plays the role with considerable charm and intelligence. However, the character is doomed from the start to come off a bit shticky, particularly when surrounded by other vampires like Luke and Darla who are playing it (mostly) straight. He's not my favorite villain in the show's history by a long shot, but he has his merits, and he's appropriate to the classic-horror-movie ethos of the first season.

Overall, it's a fine adventure, kicking off Buffy in style, but I really don't like the ending scene with the gang recapping what's going on. It seems a bit overwritten, but mostly I blame the cheesy guitar music, which makes everything being said over it seem far too precious. "The Earth is doomed" indeed. I know Joss loves this scene, but I think it's a bit over the top.

Random observations:
  • The computer references have not dated well, have they? In 1997, I was in elementary school, so I don't really know whether the computer ignorance is accurate. Maybe it's generational.
  • Giles tells Xander that Jesse is dead, and that the thing he's talking to is the thing that killed Jesse. The show endorses this view, taking a hard line: vampires are not people. This is a necessary feature of the show: if vampires were people, or at least had the potential to become people again, then Buffy couldn't kill them with a clear conscience, could she? Of course... [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERS] ... a few episodes later the show puts forth Angel as the exception to this rule. And it continues to challenge the rule further and further throughout the run, sometimes ignoring it completely. Vampires are instead viewed as corrupted versions of what they once were (see Spike, Harmony, and Darla in particular). Buffy's sixth season deals with this shift to an extent (particularly regarding Spike), but neither Buffy nor Angel ever really engages with the moral consequences.  Needless to say, this is a topic I intend to continue considering as The Whedoning continues.
  • Once again, the audio commentary on the DVD has spoilers (it was recorded while season five was in production) so stay away form it if you're worried about spoilers. If not, dig in, because it's quite interesting.


  1. Yeah, the whole morality of Slaying really just dawned on me recently. I feel like it should have been at least addressed at some point. I mean, I know it would take a lot of time and effort, but did it never occur to any of the characters to try ensouling vampires instead of just staking them?

  2. I've been thinking along the same lines. I'll probably be writing more on ensoulment later.

  3. COOL!!!! Can't wait to hear it! You're off to an excellent start, my friend! Your daily posts are going to be my new...I dunno what.

  4. I'm not sure it would have been interesting to watch Joss do the morality of dusting vampires, though as I watched the show the first time two major failures of tactical thinking occurred to me: They hardly ever consider non-combat options when it comes to vampires and nobody ever hands Xander a super soaker filled with holy water.

  5. Yeah, it could have been pretty lame if they'd decided to take on the issue directly. It might have veered toward the same ham-fistedness as Willow's addiction to magic. But as it is, it stands out to me as a notable gap.

    Super soaker would be quite useful, though.