Follow by Email

Monday, October 31, 2011

WTTH/The Harvest

I hope lots of people comment here. I’d love the discussion. But when you comment, PLEASE label your spoilers. I wrote these posts specifically so that new viewers could read along without being spoiled. I’m hoping they can safely read the comments also. 

If you’re just starting to read here, my posts will make the most sense if you start with the introductory essay and work forward.
[Updated April 29, 2013]
The opening scene of WTTH demonstrates that BtVS intends to subvert the viewer’s expectations. By all the standards of horror genre, we know that the nervous blonde is destined to be the victim. Darla plays on those expectations, both with her “date” and with the audience, until the reveal that she is actually the vampire.

This scene, like the teaser in every episode, also tells us something important about the episode, whether in plot (early episodes) or in theme (later episodes). In this case, the blonde girl does the opposite of what we expect. That’s the theme of the opening two-parter, but it’s also the theme for the whole series. I quoted this from Joss in the Introduction, but it bears repeating: Where did the idea [for BtVS] come from? There’s actually an incredibly specific answer to that question. It came from watching a horror movie and seeing the typical ditzy blonde walk into a dark alley and getting killed. I just thought that I would love to see a scene where the ditzy blonde walks into a dark alley, a monster attacks her and she kicks its ass.”
I won’t mention it very often, but when you’re watching, always pay particular attention to the teaser.
Note the other metaphor in the very beginning of that first scene: a vampire and her victim break into the science room. Why the science room? To me it represents the intrusion of the bewitched world into our rational, scientific one. Metaphor is critical to the story and it’s established right there at the start.
Much of the early episodes necessarily consists in setting the stage for the show, or at least the events of S1. The audience – most of whom had not seen the movie – needs to learn who Buffy is, why she’s in Sunnydale, the new characters she meets, etc.

What do we learn about Buffy? She’s The Slayer, but she doesn’t want to be. She walks out on Giles at the first mention of vampires, and she tells him straight out why she won’t accept her calling: “Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends? For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them? Go ahead! Prepare me.” 
Being the Slayer isolates Buffy. She’s the Chosen One. Singular, one girl in all the world. We’ll see her sense of isolation as a consistent theme throughout every season. It’s not just Buffy who feels alone, of course. In some sense we all do, notwithstanding friends and family. There’s always a lingering feeling that others don’t fully understand us or realize what we’re going through. This is particularly true of teenagers, who seem to be alienated from just about everyone. Buffy’s isolation may stem from her unique powers, but it’s a feeling we all can identify with.
Buffy rejects the role of Slayer, but Giles challenges her, appealing to her human sense of responsibility: “Then why are you here?” The question has two meanings: why is she in the school, but more significantly, why is she in Sunnydale? Perhaps even more generally, it might mean “what is your purpose in life?”.
When I reframe the question this way, it suggests that the role of Slayer may be seen in part as metaphor, and of course I think it is. In my reading of the show, Buffy’s destiny is to grow up, to become an adult just as all teenagers have to do. In rejecting the role of Slayer, I see Buffy as rejecting the idea of becoming an adult. She wants the adult world – “you people” – to leave her alone.
Buffy doesn’t want to face the question of her purpose in life, so she denies her destiny. She may have been Chosen (passive sense), but she hasn’t yet herself chosen (active sense) that role; Buffy is clear from the beginning that her powers may have been thrust upon her unasked, but she retains the choice to use them “against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness”. That power to choose is what alone makes her free; without it, she’s nothing but a tool in the hands of others.
And she does choose to use her powers. In The Harvest she accepts responsibility for Jesse:
Xander: Except for one thing: how do you kill them?
Buffy: You don't, I do.
Xander: Well, Jesse's my...
Buffy interrupts: Jesse is my responsibility. I let him get taken.
I said in the Introduction that accepting responsibility was the most important theme in the series, so this is a key moment. And it’s not just that she takes the responsibility, she insists that it’s hers alone:
Xander: So, what's the plan? We saddle up, right?
Buffy: There's no 'we', okay? I'm the Slayer, and you're not.

We also learn something else very important about Buffy, namely that she’s a good person. She immediately recognizes Cordelia’s mistreatment of Willow and actively seeks Willow out shortly afterward. It’s that human side of her character to which Giles successfully appeals in getting her to act as the Slayer at least this one time.

In reaching out to Willow, Buffy takes an important step for any new student: she finds new friends. These are friends who, it turns out, can help on her way to accepting the burdens of Slayerhood. Xander helps with his courage when he accompanies her to find Jesse. Giles, it turns out, can help with knowledge. And Willow may be wavering and uncertain, just as Buffy is wavering and uncertain about her destiny, but she wants to help in her own way.
The role of vampires as a metaphor for adolescence is likewise established in these two episodes. Note Darla’s Catholic school girl outfit and Thomas’s dated clothes which tell Buffy that he’s a vampire. “Live in the now”, she tells him. These vampires are frozen in time.
The Master is obviously the most important vampire, so naturally I think he plays a symbolic role in addition to his storyline one. His symbolic role will become clear in the episode Nightmares, so I’ll hold off talking about it until then.
Has Buffy fully and unreservedly committed to being the Slayer (i.e., to growing up) by the end of The Harvest? She did accept responsibility for Willow and Jesse and later for stopping the Harvest, but those were cases where she felt her responsibility was personal. That leaves open the longer term issue of her responsibility to the world. I’ll leave it open at this point whether she’s made that larger commitment or not.
Finally, let’s talk about a literary concept called magical realism. Rather than getting into formal definitions, I’ll use the example of Franz Kafka. In one of Kafka’s novels, The Metamorphosis, a person, Gregor Samsa, turns into a giant bug. This serves as a metaphor for how Samsa thinks the world sees him. In some sense, Samsa causes his own transformation by the way he interprets himself in the world.
How does this apply to Buffy? Giles suggests that she herself is the reason why the vampires have appeared at Sunnydale High: “You think it's coincidence, your being here? That boy was just the beginning…. The influx of the undead, the... supernatural occurrences, it's been building for years. There's a reason why you're here and a reason why it's now!” One way to see the events on screen is that Buffy herself has caused them. The demons are her subconscious fears and weaknesses made manifest on the screen for her to battle as she grows up.

Trivia notes: (1) Principal Flutie mentioned that Buffy had previously attended Hemery High in Los Angeles. Hemery High was the name of the high school Buffy attended in the original movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (2) The classroom lesson will always be related to the theme of the episode. Here, the subject is the Black Death and what are vampires but a plague on humanity? And what is the Harvest but an event which will kill all the humans? Luke even reverses the theme by referring to humans as a “plague of boils”. (3) Just as the classroom lesson will always relate to the episode in some way, so will the music at the Bronze. Here are the lyrics we hear as Buffy enters; they describe her uncertainty regarding her destiny:
“Oh, I just want to believe / Can you hear me? / Can you see me? / What's inside of me? / Oh, I just want to believe / If my life can have a purpose / Help me to believe / Oh, I just want to believe / Can you hear me? / Can you see me? / What's inside of me? / Oh, I just want to believe / If my life can have a purpose / Help me to believe/Everybody wants to find the circle / The line of truth that has no end / Because so many nights I've slept with the feeling of empty / And I say, right now I'm ready to believe”.
Buffy is ready to believe when she realizes what’s happened to Willow. (4) The Master tells his minions “you are all weak”. That same line was spoken by the character Doug Niedermeyer in the movie Animal House. Mark Metcalf, who plays the Master, played Niedermeyer. (5) Joss said that he adopted the traditional methods of slaying vampires, but added the dusting because he didn’t want to have to deal with the bodies all the time. The vamp face makes it easy to tell when Buffy’s dusting someone evil. (6) Why is it Angel who brings her messages? The word “angel” comes from the Greek and means “messenger”.


  1. Thanks so much for reposting these! Though some fixing of the spacing between words would make the reading a bit easier.

  2. Hey, great post. About the bit at the end, where you speculate that the vampires might be in Sunnydale because Buffy is there - isn't the opposite just as likely? That Buffy's been called there because that's where she's needed? I think this could still gel with your metaphorical reading in that, if the vampires are "adulthood," and Buffy is "all of us," well, we are called to face those trials and dilemmas that lead to adulthood just about the same time Buffy is.

  3. Formatting: I'm still learning how to use the blogger editing tools, so my formatting is a bit rough. You should have seen the first version. :)

    Magical realism: I agree that it could go either way. I lean slightly to the "Buffy causes it" because the show hints that way sometimes (it will again in WSWB). In addition, since all the vampires and demons are metaphorical to some degree, there will always be a sense in which they are internal to her.

    The other side of this, of course, is that I can find myself too far down the path of Normal Again (I think that's coy enough to not be a spoiler).

    In short, you could be right, but I thought it deserved discussion.

  4. Some additional thoughts on the magical realism issue. SPOILERS THROUGH S7:

    Here are 3 additional passages which hint at the basic concept:

    From OOM, OOS: "Giles: (hits the table) Of course! (gets up) I've been investigating the mystical causes of invisibility when I, I should have looked at the quantum mechanical! (gets looks from them all) Physics.

    Buffy: I think I speak for everyone here when I say, huh?

    Giles: (gets a book) It's a rudimentary concept that, that reality is shaped, even, even... created by our perception.

    Buffy: And with the Hellmouth below us sending out mystical energy...

    Giles: People perceived Marcie as, as, as invisible, and, and, and, and she became so."

    From WSWB: "Xander: Well, it's been a slow summer. I mean, that's the first vampire
    we've seen since you killed the Master.

    Buffy: It's like they knew I was coming back."

    From Storyteller: "BUFFY (shakes her head) There’s this thing that happens here, in this school, over the hellmouth. Where the way a thing feels—it kind of starts being that way...for real."

  5. Hi, Mark! Long time fan of your posts on Noel's reviews (I lurk).

    I love that you pointed out that the class lessons are always related to the goings on outside of school. One of the great things about the show is that as the decisions for Buffy get harder in later seasons, she no longer has that road map (?) to help her try to work through it. And neither do we.

  6. Hey Mark, just had to mention I kinda agree with Aaron up-thread about the vampires getting Buffy there. Even if they only represent aspects of herself, part of growing up is accepting responsibility, and her responsibility as an adult vampire killer would have brought the her to the hellmouth.

  7. V, that's an excellent point. Thanks.

    Anonymous, I certainly wouldn't insist on the magical realism view, and I don't plan to mention it again except to footnote it here or there. I just think the series does toy with the concept a few times and that it can be read that way. I don't think it at all necessary to see it that way though.

  8. In terms of who came first, the vamps or the slayer (to Sunnydale, that is), I don't think it has to be one or the other. The Hellmouth is there, so it attracts evil. Because there is such a concentration of evil there, the Slayer is pulled towards Sunnydale. Because there's a slayer in Sunnydale, that's where the action is for certain elements who would take on the Slayer. Etc.

    For me it works both logically and metaphorically, and neither case cancels out the other. I've always sort of assumed that Giles was waiting for Buffy in Sunnydale, that he knew she'd be coming because . . . well, because he had ways of knowing such things (via certain councils and covens).

    But metaphorically speaking, being "called" to adulthood happens - puberty, civic responsibility, bills, etc. all force it on us. Yet, at least when one is Buffy's age, that call can bring out the "demon" in anybody, causing us to act out, push limits, date the wrong "guy" (or girl), etc.

    So it seems like the Hellmouth's pull on Buffy and Buffy's pull on evil might coexist in a symbiotic type of relationship. Or something.

  9. The symbiotic relationship makes sense to me.

  10. Just a short late note about the relation of lesson to theme:

    In Herzog's Nosferatu, Dracula's ship brings rats, and the
    rats bring the plague...

    PS I like your magical realism reading—not sure I agree,
    but I will definitely think on it as I join you on this
    repeat through the series (have some catching up to do... )

  11. For some weird reason your comment got caught in "moderation", which shouldn't have happened.

    Interesting point about Nosferatu. I always assume one of the writers knows this stuff, and it may have been a source.

  12. I agree with your take on the metaphorical aspect of the show. I'm reviewing a Tim Minear show called The Inside over on MikeJer's site, and I compare the show to Buffy and some of the stories of the saints in that the reversal of outside and inside reveals the metaphor. For example, in the first episode of The Inside, the lead character, Rebecca, faces a serial killer who kills women who are new in town, as she is. I interpret this as her having to deal with her own internal problems with adjusting to life in a new place and her fears of what that might entail. Buffy's demons are often similar to Rebecca's serial killers: something that comes from her, rather than at her.

    It's true that Buffy's demons were there before she became the slayer, but she and most of the rest of humanity refused to recognize their existence because they couldn't handle it. I see this as representing the fact there there are all sorts of things in this world, fears, problems, and actions, that we refuse to acknowledge, but which come from us even so. Being chosen is like being compelled to acknowledge the evil, and, critically, a metaphor for rebelling against it because of who you are. It's a certain way of experiencing the world. Buffy gets chosen during her parents' divorce, a painful experience that forces her to deal with its effects on her (or the problems that it creates for her, in metaphorical form: vampires). It makes her feel depressed, isolated, and wanting to revert to childhood. She wants to be lied to, and to believe it, that the world is a clear, easy place where nothing bad ever happens. All of us do. The early seasons focus a lot on demons that represent her wish to not accept the reality of the world and the responsibility that that reality places on her; the later seasons often focus on her struggle to fulfill this responsibility without losing herself in the process. In either case, the demons are of her.

    I see the hellmouth as the gateway to the unconscious, except that it works differently. Instead of being a barrier to things entering the conscious mind (dream distortion, denial etc.), it's a projector that projects Buffy's unconscious fears, desires, hopes, and dreams into the visible world and makes them corporeal.

    A trivia note: When Willow and vampire Debarge are walking into the Graveyard together and she's asking him about why she hasn't seen him at school, she asks him if he has Mr. Chomsky for history! This is, of course, an allusion to Noam Chomsky.

    1. I think that's a good take on the metaphor aspects and I agree, both as to Buffy and as to the Hellmouth. MikeJer runs an excellent site, so I'm sure your metaphor takes will be well-received there.

      I did catch the name Chomsky, but wasn't sure it meant Noam because he's a linguist by training and a political analyst/philosopher, but I'm not sure he's ever taught history. Still, I don't know of any other Chomsky so maybe Joss meant him anyway.

    2. I'm guessing that it is Noam because a lot of what he writes about that is often called "politics" is really just modern American history. He's not an historian by title, but he does a better job writing about history than some historians whom I've read.