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.