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.