The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was promising, entertaining, exciting, fast-paced and funny… but not the show’s finest hour. (Not the show’s finest twelve hours, actually, but who’s counting?) I can say this the more confidently because I’ve just rewatched the whole thing, every frame, praying mantises, invisible girls and all. I had a great time, but I also knew the best had yet to come.
This is a good thing. It would have been terrible if the show had peaked early. But it does mean that S1 of BtVS doesn’t merit a full-on, loving, episode-by-episode examination.
What does command the attention—what about S1 is blog-worthy? First and foremost, I’d say, is the heart of its alternate family, the pivotal characters who became the core of what would be known, in time, as the Scooby Gang. Xander, Willow and Giles were there at the beginning, and they saw the slayage through to the series finale, “Chosen.”
(There’s also the first important phase of the Buffy / Angel romance, and I’ll talk about that next. Finally, there’s the big arc against the S1 Big Bad: Buffy versus the Master, in other words.)
But for now, the First Scoobies:
Let’s open with Rupert Giles. He was on the job, in his way, before Buffy was called, before she was born, really—as a kid he’d already been training as a Watcher, like his father and grandmother before him. It’s an odd sort of calling to imagine: all that prep and schooling, and no guarantee you’ll get the gig. Buffy represents many things for Giles, and one of them is a big chance to realize his destiny. (Remember, in S1 we don’t know yet about his misspent youth as Ripper.)
Season 1 Giles is an authority figure, not quite a stand-in for Buffy’s mostly absent father, not yet someone she can trust. Though the Watcher’s Council hasn’t yet made a formal appearance in the Buffyverse, it is obvious his allegiance often lies more with the job than the girl. The stuffy librarian element of his character is cranked to the max. He’s about tradition and procedure and doing things in the time-honored way.
Fortunately, Giles isn’t unrealistic or entirely hard-assed, even in his early days. We see real flashes of growing affection for Buffy in Giles. In “Witch,” when she’s dying, his concern for her goes bone deep. In “Nightmares,” when they find Buffy’s grave, he confesses that this terrible dream is his. (Talk about your work-themed anxiety dreams! Puts a little perspective on that recurring bad-day-at-the office nightmare, hmmm?)
The first deep crack in Giles’ identity as a loyal, dutiful and above-all obedient Watcher appears in “Prophecy Girl.” Buffy’s understandable fear of her prophesied death touches him; he finds he’s not equipped to send someone he loves to her end, that he’d rather sacrifice himself. For a dad figure, this is a natural response; for a Watcher, it could—and in time would—be argued, this shows catastrophic weakness.
But BtVS is all about the group being stronger than the sum of its parts—about Buffy surviving to fight another day because she’s not alone. Giles quickly begins to shed his Watcher’s detachment and thereby discovers a deeper commitment to the cause. By caring more about his three mentees and less about the rules he’s been raised to obey, he creates the basis for a more equal partnership between them.
Year One Willow, on the other hand, is barely a glimmer of everything she will become. She’s a geekly computer girl, supersmart, shy, and frequently adorable. Alyson Hannigan’s combination of quirkiness and sweetness of character make a nice balance to Buffy’s necessary toughness, and she is the perfect confidante. She’s also a handy target for Cordelia’s nastiness. Willow isn’t quite neglected in the initial season, but her chances to shine come comparatively rarely—the Willow ep in S1 is “I Robot… You Jane,” a lightweight story where she ends up cyberdating a demon.
When we meet Willow, of course, she’s completely hung up on Xander, and the long, painful process of letting go of this crush is an essential part of her growth into a force of nature. She takes a first, crucial baby step in “Prophecy Girl” when she refuses to go to a dance with him, after Buffy has also turned him down. It’s a nice moment, but it is, in a sense, just prelude.
Xander, of course, is nursing a crush too, and it is his unrequited love for Buffy that leads to the key role he plays in the events of “Prophecy Girl.” Loyal, noble, true, hopelessly in love with Buffy despite her obvious interest in Angel, Xander is spotlighted in two S1 episodes: “Teacher’s Pet”—which is about as compelling as “I Robot… You Jane,” alas—and the darker and more intriguing possession episode, “The Pack.”
What is striking about Xander in S1 is that he’s uncluttered by the concerns that hamper Giles and Angel, both of whom are ready, at various points, to surrender Buffy to the necessity of keeping the Master from opening the Hellmouth. Xander doesn’t give a crap that the Codex prophecies are immutable. He’s not all hung up on trying not to love a mortal girl. When he’s possessed, part of him sees it as an exciting opportunity to finally capture the Slayer’s interest. When she’s fated to die, he does everything he can to help her. It’s simple, it’s risky, and ultimately it’s what saves not only Buffy but the world.
As for the other Scoobies… Cordelia and Angel hover on the periphery of season one, and we get a couple glimpses of Jenny Calendar. But in this first story arc Buffy, Giles, Willow and Xander—the “core four,” as they’re sometimes called—create the foundation of a slaying career that expands to encompass so much more than Buffy’s body count. Without any one of them, Sunnydale would have succumbed to at least a couple of its annual apocalypses. And one of the nicest things about season one, perhaps, is the chance we get to see them come together, without all the other admittedly intriguing and often delightful latecomers who join them in subsequent years.
Feel free to post your favorite S1 moments in comments, though, or argue with me!