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Monday, December 5, 2011

Prophecy Girl

[Updated April 29, 2013]

BtVS began as a mid-season replacement show. All 12 episodes of S1 were shot before it aired, giving Joss the chance to go back and change or add scenes. However, he didn’t know until they were done shooting that the show would be renewed for a second season. He therefore made the decision, which he repeated every year until S6 (when he had a 2 year contract), to end the season in such a way that it could serve as a series finale if necessary. He wrote Prophecy Girl, as he wrote all season finales except S6, with that aim in mind.

Because it wrapped up the season so completely, I’m going to discuss both the episode itself and how the whole season led up to it. I’ll begin with what I see as the key scene: Buffy’s power walk to confront the Master. I’ll say right up front that I love this scene, cheesy though it may be. That’s not why I think it’s important, though. It’s important because I see this as highlighting the fact that Buffy has finally committed to her destiny, that is to growing up. That’s why, as I see it, the Buffy theme music plays over her walk; it’s the only time in the whole series where that music is heard during an episode. It signifies that this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The immediate trigger for this commitment was her death. Buffy died in the storyline. In metaphor, though, I see it as the death of her childhood. Not necessarily the child within us – that perhaps never dies – but childhood. When she revived, her newfound strength – “I feel strong” – stems from her now-demonstrated commitment to her destiny. Buffy’s no longer Chosen (passive), she has chosen (active).
The way I see S1, the entire season has led her to this point. Buffy first had to be called to her destiny, which Giles did in WTTH. She started out on the road thanks to her friends, but her steps were halting and uncertain. She had the fear of bad examples to overcome in Catherine Madison and Ms. French, fears that she might become the wrong kind of adult. She had seductive distractions along the way like Owen and Angel, who might keep her trapped in fairytale (i.e., child-like) romance. But she also had good examples, too.
Sid was not just an exemplar in terms of his commitment to killing demons even at the cost of his life, prefiguring Buffy in Prophecy Girl. There’s another metaphor as well, namely that Sid leaves behind his existing state in order to move on to the next one. Indeed, the contrast between Sid, who’s willing to move on, and the demon, who’s trying to stay forever young, couldn’t be stronger. Buffy, by committing to being the Slayer in Prophecy Girl, has committed to growing up. She may feel like she’s trapped by her Slayer identity, controlled by others like Giles. But just as Sid the puppet demonstrated his own freedom from control by others, Buffy’s prepared to make the choice to leave childhood behind and take the necessary steps towards becoming an adult. She has a ways to go, as we’ll see in the remaining seasons, but she’s now on the road.
Just to clean up a point I left open earlier, I mentioned in discussing The Puppet Show that the dramatic reading from Oedipus was deliberate. The key component of that story is that Oedipus, by trying to avoid his fate, actually caused the disastrous sequence in which he fulfilled the prophecy made at his birth, killing his father and marrying his mother. Similarly, in Prophecy Girl (this is no accident, people!) Buffy at first rejected her destiny, but because she had the courage to reconsider her choice and go meet the Anointed One, she avoided what surely would have been a worse fate.
In my post on NKABOTFD, I asked you to think about why the Anointed One was a child. The word “anointed” means “chosen by … divine election.” In other words, the Anointed One is himself a Chosen One. But just as the Master’s “family” was a perverted mirror image of a true human family, so the vampire Chosen One is a perverted mirror image of Buffy. When she tells the Anointed One, “I know who you are”, she’s recognizing Him as her (perverted) destiny – perpetual childhood – if she doesn’t face her fear.
Thus, Buffy had another good example in Billy, who prefigured Buffy’s confrontation of her fear when she faced the Master in his lair. What was that fear? The Master symbolizes everything awful about adulthood. He’s old, he’s wrinkled, he’s controlling. Buffy doesn’t want to be an adult if that’s the consequence; who would? She may be dead, but she’s still pretty.
Her fear was subconscious; that’s why the Master is at the Hellmouth, a metaphor for her subconscious. By facing her fear, though, she was able to master it: “We are defined by the things we fear. (goes to the large cross) This symbol, these two planks of wood, it confounds me. Suffuses me with mortal dread. But fear is in the mind. (puts his hand on the cross and holds on while it burns) Like pain. It can be controlled. (lets go) If I can face my fear, it cannot master me.” When she freed the Master, Buffy took her fear out of her subconscious and into the world where she could and did master it.
For this final step, she needed help from all of her attributes, not just her conscious mind. By recognizing and coming to terms with Cordelia, her shadow, she could, in Jungian terms, create a wholly integrated personality from her conscious mind and her subconscious. She needed Cordelia’s determination and ruthlessness to face and defeat the Master.
Now let’s get to a few details of Prophecy Girl itself. In my view it’s the first great Buffy episode, meaning it’s in my top 20 or so. I’d rate it that high just for the scene when Buffy overhears Giles and Angel talking about the prophecy. Her reaction – “I’m 16 years old; I don’t want to die.” – and SMG’s delivery are like a knife in my gut. But it’s also great because it so wonderfully culminates the season and allows us to understand the meaning and purpose of the preceding 11 episodes.
Another great detail, and a consistent theme for Joss, is Buffy’s moral judgment. Sure, she showed great moral courage overcoming her fear of death. But her reason for acting is even more important. It was Willow who caused her to act. Buffy wasn’t making any grand gesture when she went back to the library after her conversation with Willow. She didn’t necessarily even go to save the world. She went for a much more personal reason: to save Willow. A world without Willow in it just wouldn’t be worth living in. Xander, her metaphorical heart, expresses this same moral sentiment: “Ms. Calendar: Hey! Once the Master gets free, the Hellmouth opens, the demons come to party, and everybody dies. Xander: Uh, uh, I don't care. I'm sorry, I don't. Right now I gotta help Buffy.”
And Xander does help Buffy. While I think he would be wrong for her, I can’t help but feel for him in this episode. He’s a real hero when he puts aside his disappointment to rescue Buffy anyway.
The portents, especially the earthquake, are traditional portents for the end of the world, but if you want to see them as reflecting events in Buffy’s subconscious, I wouldn’t say you were wrong. The religious imagery is also pretty obvious, what with her wearing her virginally white dress; being reborn after baptism; and the Master telling her she’s the lLamb. In addition, Isaiah 11:6 is generally seen in Christian hermeneutics as foretelling the reign of the Messiah:
“By nature the wolf preys upon the lamb, and the leopard upon the kid, and the adder is venomous, and the bear, and the cow, and the lion, and the ox, cannot live together. But if a state of things should arise, where all this hostility would cease; where the wild animals would lay aside their ferocity, and where the feeble and the gentle would be safe; where the adder would cease to be venomous, and where all would be so mild and harmless that a little child would be safe, and could lead even the most ferocious animals, that state would represent the reign of the Messiah.”

To sum up, the entire season is, in my view, a very carefully constructed outline, in metaphor, of the steps a teenager takes along the road to adulthood. If the show had ended here, Joss would have told the story he wanted to tell; it’s a realization, in outline form, of his entire vision. Buffy fans often rate S1 among their least favorite seasons, but I think it’s tightly constructed and that it’s remarkable Joss could accomplish so much in just 12 episodes (Firefly, anyone?). As luck would have it, there will be 6 more seasons for him to elaborate on the themes raised in S1.
Trivia notes: (1) As a resident of Southern California, I can attest that the first thing everyone does after an earthquake is try to guess the magnitude. The scene is hilarious if you’ve experienced this. (2) Xander first asked Buffy to dance in Angel. He asks again here. It’s coming Xander, it’s coming. (3) I have no idea who was fascinated with Cortona, Italy. First IRYJ, now here. (4) Buffy rejected Giles’ offer to face the Master just as Sid rejected Buffy’s offer to kill the last demon. (5) The prophecy read by the Master in NKABOTFD stated, in part “And the Slayer will not know him….” How, then, could Buffy tell the Anointed One, “I know who you are.”? Because the prophecy had already come true in NKABOTFD. Buffy didn’t know Collin then and mistook Andrew Borba for the Anointed One. (6) I probably don’t need to explain Star Trek references to Buffy fans, but Locutus of the Borg is a reference to Star Trek: The Next Generation. (7) The Hellmouth demon has 3 heads, like Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld in Greek mythology. (8) The Master’s line “Where are your jibes now?” is a quote from Hamlet, part of the passage which begins “Alas poor Yorick…” (9) It’s hard to hear, but as the group walks out of the library, Buffy says “I’m hungry. … Is anybody else hungry? … I'm really, really hungry.” Keep this in mind.

31 comments:

  1. I've seen "Prophecy Girl" at least a dozen times, and I don't think I've ever remembered hearing Buffy talk about being hungry in that last scene. Now, I'm REALLY intrigued....

    Excellent stuff, as always, Mark. Keep it coming.

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  2. It's very hard to hear Buffy's words because everyone's talking at once. I first noticed it on the transcript and now I can hear it.

    Thanks.

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  3. really loving your writeups, mark.

    another bit of trivia - i have the shooting script for this episode, and after joss writes the descriptive of the final image - the camera panning back over the crushed skeleton of the master, he ends the script with a final aside:

    loser.

    <3 joss.

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  4. That's very Joss. And very funny.

    Thanks.

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  5. his scripts especially (though as the years went on, most of the writers picked up on the habit as well) are consistently peppered with little asides, that are totally hysterical. it's why i can't part with any of my joss shooting scripts. they're excellent and enjoyable reads.

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  6. I have the shooting scrips through S2, though I've been writing these essays only from the final transcripts. Are there shooting scripts for later years?

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  7. yes. i used to transcribe them for buffyscripts.com, back in the day (before she got her cease and desist letter.) i've sinced moved, and couldn't take all the shooting scripts i'd accumulated thru season 6 with me, but i do still have prophecy girl, becoming 1&2, graduation day 1&2, the gift, a partial script of "who are you" (as joss called it part shooting script, part beat sheet - that one is truly awesome) and the angel episode sanctuary ('cause it's signed to me by tim and joss :) i think that's it - i may have more, but basically i only kept the ones i had that were written by joss.

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  8. It's really a shame they don't publish them, especially after they were so obnoxious with the cease and desist order. In fact, a book of shooting scripts and transcripts would be even better.

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  9. i believe there were script books published at one point - i don't know if they're still available though. i'd be happy to share what i've got - cover my postage, and cost of copying, and i'd be happy to send any of the ones i have to you. :)

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  10. Yeah, they did publish books for the first two seasons, and I bought them way back when. I would like to get copies of GD1/2, The Gift, and WAY, so if you can let me know the cost I'll be happy to reimburse you. Thanks.

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  11. i will figure it out, and let you know. you're in the US, i hope?(would make mailing them much easier, and less expensive, since that's where I am.)

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  12. FYI - just found the first two volumes of season 3 (the only two actually published) available used on amazon. (i'm buying them too.)

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  13. Very cool. Hopefully they have more than one set. :)

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  14. looks like they did :) and if you have amazon prime, you can ship volume 1 for free, which is even better!

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  15. I think Prophecy Girl was the first indicator of how good BTVS could be. I too loved the cheesy theme music as Buffy marched toward the denouement with the Master. But what really got me was the "Giles, I am only 16; I don't want to die" scene. That is really the heart of the show and SMG just completely sold it. I was just devestated.

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  16. mark - i also have the final writers draft of restless, and the shooting draft of hush. if you want i can include those in the tally :)

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  17. hey mark - so the staples near me will copy them for .10/page - it's 291 pages total. they won't all fit in a priority mail hard envelope, but will in a soft - or i can send media mail. i think you get my email address from these comments, so inbox me to work out deets, and i can drop them off on saturday to be copied if you want.
    cheers!

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  18. oh, and i've just reread them all (thanks to you!) and they're such jossy goodness - i'd almost forgotten. lol

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  19. I'm still learning how Blogger works, and I can't get your email. Mine is markefield@aol.com. Send me an email and we can talk details. Thanks.

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  20. and i totally cried reading the end of the gift. (after peals of laughter at random jossy asides - still cried.) he's that good. (okay, gonna stop posting comments now. lol sorry!!)

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  21. Mark, I really admire (and am thankful for) your consistency in getting these posts up. This is a strong reading for S01 - you do a really nice job of teasing out the different narrative and thematic threads of the season and the way they work together.

    In terms of how Buffy fans rank this series, I think you're right that it's pretty low. But I think that has less to do with the overall story than with the feeling that the show was still finding its legs. Speaking for myself, I'd say I have a very strong fondness for S01 - I love getting to know these characters and seeing the formation of inchoate ideas that will really flower later. But from mid-S02 the show just gets so strong (in part, perhaps, because of what S01 has built) that it would be nearly impossible not to rank some of the other seasons higher.

    For example - while I love all the seasons, and will defend 6 and 7 all day - I don't think S01 ever needs defending like those two (and maybe parts of S04) do because nobody really actively dislikes S01. When S07 ends up low on somebody's list, it's because they hate it. When S01 does, it's just because they like other seasons better. Or so it seems to me . . . Thanks again!

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  22. A very fair point. When I see people give rankings of the seaons, S1 is always down near or at the bottom, but you're right about the rationales.

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  23. Following on the "tightly constructed" idea, it occurred to me in this rewatch that all of the symbolic parts of Buffy face their fears in this episode. Just like in "Nightmares," Xander goes first by finally asking Buffy out. Then Buffy herself, of course, decides to face her fear of dying and face the Master. Then Giles faces *his* fear of Buffy dying by trying to take her place. Then Willow immediately goes back to the school -- the place she told Buffy that the vampires had made into "their" world -- even after indicating to Buffy that she would stay home.

    SPOILERS BELOW

    It's really interesting to compare this episode to "The Gift" -- they truly are bookends. Re: Giles, Buffy tells Jenny, "Think of something cool; tell him I said it." In "The Gift," she tells Dawn, "Tell Giles I figured it out." Buffy is starting her journey to adulthood in PG, but doesn't quite understand it yet. In TG, she fully understands.

    Rewatching PG also showed me even more of the depth in Buffy's decision to sacrifice herself. In PG, Giles, who has become the quintessential parental figure, wants to spare Buffy from the terrible consequences she faces, and tells her to "do what you're told for once!" But Buffy is having none of it. She has committed to becoming an adult and there is no other path for her. As you pointed out when I had trouble with TG on my first viewing, Buffy has become the parent to Dawn by the end of S5. So it's natural that she does the same thing that Giles tries to do here; after all, her journey to adulthood has been largely under his guidance. But Dawn, who is still trying to deal with her faux childhood/life, isn't in a position yet to commit to growing up. So she can't overpower Buffy and make the choice to sacrifice herself. Buffy is fighting against the loss of Dawn's (and her own) innocence in the same way that she fights against the loss of Willow's (and her own) in PG. It's all very beautiful.

    Another retrospective thing that clicked for me was your discussion of the use of the theme music in "Prophecy Girl," which to me links back to your analysis of Buffy being stuck in a narrative in S7. This is the moment when Buffy accepts the *narrative* of being Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it affects the course of her whole journey until she's able to transcend it in S7.

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    1. Sorry I just regurgitate your stuff back at you :) :) :)

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    2. Not at all. You're tying together themes in ways that I didn't.

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    3. Your take on this episode is just totally brilliant. I was bothered before by The Master telling Buffy that if she stayed away, he couldn't have gotten out, because it just made me feel so bad that she went through all of this for what could seem like, when taken at face value, nothing. But now I understand that he was just telling her the simple truth. If she wasn't willing to leave behind her childhood, she wouldn't have had to face her fears of adulthood ... but they would have festered in her subconscious and ultimately led to a worse fate, as you say.

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    4. I'm always happy to take credit, but here I think it belongs to Joss.

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