Feb 13 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Big Bad, Version 1.0

“Prophecy Girl”

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer established a pattern that held through all that followed. Each year was a mix that offered some largely stand-alone adventures—a few serious, a few comical—while building up the bits and pieces of a larger arc that would, come the finale, pit the Scooby team against the season’s big villain.

The first of these, of course, was The Master. Leather-clad, old enough that his demonic characteristics had permanently marred his face, and with a kneejerk tendency to kill any minion who failed him, S1’s ubervamp was played with just a touch of campy verve by Mark Metcalf. 

The Master was not what I’d call a master strategist. Trapped under the city after a failed attempt to close the Hellmouth, he’d had the better part of a century to plot his escape, and hadn’t managed it. The most intricate plan he launched against Buffy was an inspiration of Darla’s—the idea of getting Angel to do the job for them. The Master’s homegrown schemes, meanwhile, tended to favor brawn over brain: make, find or hire a big vampire and order him to go get that Slayer, pronto! Buffy put down these proxies—faithful, muscular Luke, for example, and the armored assassins known as The Three—handily. 

Given his track record, it’s something of a surprise when the Master defeats Buffy in their first face-to-face encounter, and with so little in the way of brawling.

(I couldn’t help thinking that the Master’s ability to enthrall Buffy flies under the radar, in part, because the vastly smarter Scooby team isn’t yet the experienced intelligence-gathering machine it will become. They aren’t digging up every scrap of info on him, the way they eventually will on Glory. If the Master had confronted the gang in S5, he’d barely have rated an episode... he might have been toast by the first commercial.)

That isn’t to say the Scoobies do no investigating at all—Giles and Angel go looking for the Codex, after all, and in it there’s nothing but bad news. My favorite scene in this season closer is the one where Buffy overhears Giles and Angel discussing her prophesied death. I love her distress, their general helplessness in the face of all that legitimate anger and grief, and her decision to quit. What’s more, the subsequent scene—when Buffy tries to get Joyce to flee with her—is one of the best mother-daughter encounters of the entire series run.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote briefly about how Giles begins to become active, shedding the passive confines of the Watcher role, as he confronts the inevitablity of Buffy’s death. I also touched on Angel’s peculiar apathy in this episode, his apparent choice to give up on Buffy and the fact that Xander has to all but force him to go looking for The Master on the fateful night of the Spring Fling.

The explanation, of course, is that both men initially fail to see that they’re playing the evil-fighting game by rules that favor the bad guys. Buffy and Xander, on the other hand, are already looking for ways to rig the game.

So Buffy drowns, and Xander resurrects her, and what follows is one of the strangest BtVS confrontations ever. In those initial minutes after she rejoins the living, Buffy is both disconnected and somehow strengthened. She deduces—or senses?—the Master’s whereabouts, tracks him to the Hellmouth, and this time she proves resistant to his mind-control trick. As battles go, it’s a pretty straightforward win...

... or so it seems, anyway, until the next school year shows that there’s been a little fallout after all. But that takes us into S2, and will, therefore, wait until next week.

A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

1. sofrina
i tend to think the big difference btw giles/angel and the kids is age and experience. buffy and xander don't knuckle under because they have yet to come up against something they couldn't beat. unlike giles and angel, who have had fuller lives and learned the consequences of youthful idealism and rebelliousnes, the kids just don't see the walls that the adults do, so they're able to think more flexibly.
2. MRTighe
Just finished re-watching S1 and2. Getting into S3 and find the growth of characters, plot, etc. amazing. Stands up well!
john mullen
3. johntheirishmongol
There may have been bigger big bads but there were few that affected Buffy as much. And he may not have been the worst, but the henchmen included Darla, the best of Angel's gang.
Alyx Dellamonica
4. AMDellamonica
It would have been sad if he were the worst, John. These shows owe it to audiences (and their heroes too!) to somehow pull a bigger villain out of their hat every time!
Andrew Love
5. AndyLove
There may have been bigger big bads but there were few that affected Buffy as much.
The best Buffy villains were always the ones who could get under Buffy's skin, such as the Master, Angelus, and (shudder) Ted. If Professor Walsh had stuck around for more of her season, she would have been another great one, I think.
Alyx Dellamonica
6. AMDellamonica
I agree! The way she drew Buffy in and became a competing mentor figure, for Giles, was really intriguing.
7. moonglum
Just last night my wife and I re-watched 'Once More with Feeling!' (S6,E7). It gets better with every viewing.

Season 6 of Buffy may be some of the greatest television entertainment ever created. It keeps to the formula of the past Buffy seasons, but adds some very gnarly twists, including a surprise big bad villian.
Alyx Dellamonica
8. AMDellamonica
I have my head so far up S2 that I had to think about who you meant, moonglum, but Yes!
9. wiredog
And the Master returned, and killed her again, in The Wish. Which was another great episode.
Tomas Gerst
10. IamnotSpam
Not to be "yes, yes, yes hands up girl" but I thought Master got trapped when he tried to open the Hellmouth not close it. Otherwise I agree almost totally with everything said here already. Buff, Xander power of youth check. Giles, Angel been through to many wars where the good guy doesn't always win. Acceptable losses and all that jazz. I only ever had one problem with the way this season ended and it was the complete disconnect given when Xander saves Buffy because Angel has no breath. Sorry buddy but if your speaking your lungs are still bellowing. Angel may not have any use for the oxygen in the air he is breathing but you have to be able to blow that air through that throat and tongue and teeth if you expect sound to come out as speech. So that one thing always bothers me in an otherwise kick ass story. I can see that Xander needed to be the hero here in some aspect and mouth to mouth is great but a better reason or different one should have been used then what was given as why Angel couldn’t. Even no reason, just that Xander got to her first and started CPR before him or maybe that Angel just did not know how to save someone that way would have been better then that lame excuse.

Oh and she had a great dress, can't forget to mention that.
Alyx Dellamonica
11. AMDellamonica
"I have no breath" was indeed a flimsy bit of hand-waving, I agree, and provably untrue.
12. Gardner Dozois
I had the same thought as IamnotSpam--to talk, you must be able to move air in and out of your mouth, whether you're "breathing" or not. It was particularly funny that Angel said that bit about not breathing while the actor playing him was himself noteably breathing hard from recent activity.

There was something odd about how reluctant Angel was to try to save Buffy; Xander had to shame and practically bully him into even making the attempt, and it's clear that without Xander, Buffy would have died for good. Odd that a high-school student would be less scared to go to Hell on this quest than an immensely more powerful being such as Angel--but then again, perhaps he knew better what to expect. Losing Buffy at this point was something Angel almost seemed reluctantly, glumly resigned to, although he would have become much more passionate about trying to prevent it later in the series.

Buffy herself seems oddly energized when she returns from the dead, even though she's dead for only a couple of minutes, full of bubbly black humor and fighting zeal, all at once supremely confident in her ability to beat the Master and resist his hypnotic power. Not quite sure what was supposed to be going on there. (The Master is also one of only two examples I can think of from the series, Dracula being the other, where vampires manifest a hypnotic ability to bend others to their will, like the "glamour" ability the vampires on TRUE BLOOD have. Usually they just straighforwardly try to kill you, although their first instinct seems usually to punch, when you'd think it would be to leap for the throat.)

Like all the best Buffy Big Bads, including Spike and Angelius, the Master had a flamboyent, over-the-top, chewing the scenery in an amusing and almost satirical way quality; the ones who were just grim and menacing, like Adam, were less entertaining. My favorite Big Bad, for just these reasons, was the Mayor, perhaps the best villain of this sort to ever be on television, rivaled only by Russell Edgenton in the third season of TRUE BLOOD.
Anthony Pero
13. anthonypero
Can't WAIT for S3. The Mayor indeed, TWO slayers (a logical consequence to Buffy's death), Crazy Angel on the Rocks, Prom Night, Cordi gets lampooned (like, for real), etc... But we're not there yet.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
I loooooved the Mayor, Gardner. Loved him! I didn't find Buffy right-after-resurrection to be bubbly, but agree with all the rest. She was confident, and as with Dracula, the thrall had gone out of the relationship with the Master.
Michael Ikeda
15. mikeda
The Master is also one of only two examples I can think of from the
series, Dracula being the other, where vampires manifest a hypnotic
ability to bend others to their will

You're forgetting about Drusilla.
16. Gardner Dozois
You're right about Drusilla--although Drusilla never seem to be able to bend BUFFY to her will, unlike The Master and Dracula.

Perhaps "bubbly" is the wrong word, but the risen Buffy is definitely showing a kind of black-humored snark that the frightened Buffy going into the fight didn't show at all. Aren't her first words to The Master something like, "Hi, honey, you miss me?"
Alyx Dellamonica
17. AMDellamonica
Yes, that's absolutely true. I found it funny but also a little creepy.
18. Gardner Dozois
As I said earlier, one thing I always found interesting about that episode is that the only time in the series Xander ever "kisses" Buffy, something he's surely longed to do from the moment he met her, is when he gives her the kiss of life and blows life back into her. Something interstingly symbolic about that.
Alyx Dellamonica
19. AMDellamonica
Yeah! It's a little surprising, actually, that they never magicked their way into a "Lips of Spike!" situation with Buffy and Xander.
20. Gardner Dozois
They eased back a little on the "Xander is really hot for Buffy" thing after the first season, once he'd settled down to be a loyal Scoobie. The problem with it always was that Xander never made a credible third leg of a Romantic Triangle with Buffy and Angel. There was never the slightest doubt that Buffy would prefer Angel to Xander, it wasn't even close, something Xander even glumly knew himself, which didn't make for much of a Romantic Triangle.

Their best opportunity for a "Lips of Xander!" situation was during the epidode where a spell causes all the women in Sunnydale to throw themselves at Xander, including Buffy, who offers herself to Xander in a "comeon, sailor, let's go!' fashion. Some "Lips of Xander!" action wouldn't have been unreasonable while Buffy was trying to seduce him, but it didn't go that way.
Chad Winters
21. doctorwinters
So someone mentioned the second slayer thing. Did they ever explain why there was never a third slayer after Buffy died again in Season 5?
I never got that part....
Alyx Dellamonica
22. AMDellamonica
Gardner--yes, that's true! And that was some pretty steamy Buffy action! I'll be rewatching it soon. (Just watched the birthday 2-parter.)

Doctorwinters, I believe the answer is that Buffy's Slayer line 'broke' or was fulfilled or somesuch when she died, and that now the only person whose death would call a new slayer was first Kendra and then Faith.
23. Gardner Dozois
It was pretty steamy, yes--but if also seemed to me more like the way a sexually experienced and sexually confident woman might come on to a man than the way an unexperienced and uncertain of herself virgin like Buffy was supposed to be at that point might do it. A later Buffy, after she's spent all that time having Lots and Lots of Sex with Riley, maybe, might do it that way, but it's harder for me to believe that the virginal Buffy does; basically, she just drops all her clothes and says, "How about it?"

Of course, you could always say that she was under a spell...
Anthony Pero
24. anthonypero
@21: Buffy had already died, so the Slayer had already been called. Then Buffy was brought back to life, still with Slayer Powers... but the "Calling" had already passed to Kendra. So, when Kendra died, the calling passed to Faith. When Buffy died AGAIN... her calling had already passed to Kendra after her first death, so there was nothing to pass.

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