“You’re not seeing the big picture, here; I mean that gym was full of Vampi—asbestos.”—Buffy, “Welcome to the Hell Mouth”[i]
“Welcome to the Hell Mouth” was not my introduction to Sunnydale, so I lack the context to remember it as a piece of first-look nostalgia. I can, however, recognize it as an excellent, intentional first “hook” for what would come in the series as a whole. This episode is fully aware of its function in the rest of the series, and it gets down to business with the very first scene. The opening shot of “Welcome to the Hell Mouth”, a dark high school hallway framing two students trying to break in a back window, infuses a YA-esque “teenage hijinks” premise with a solid horror aesthetic, effectively telling the audience exactly what we are going to get from the series.
The scene also functions as a little bit of a micro-narrative all by itself: it gives us a clear situation, spends a few minutes setting up a little tension, and then closes out with a genuinely startling reversal when (spoiler alert) the scared, innocent high school girl shows her true face—both literally and figuratively—as the real threat in the room. So, essentially, the idea of “reversal of expected tropes” that the Buffy Summers character is so often praised for shows up in the series long before we get our first look at the title character. Well played, Joss. Very well played.
Speaking of turning expectations inside out, let’s talk about our beloved opening-kill-girl-turned-badass for a minute, shall we? There has been plenty of discussion about the ways that Buffy Summers subverts the frightened blond trope common to many horror films, but far less about the ways that she takes the Chosen one hero/heroine archetype and skews it just off center, making her a slightly new look at an old mold. This shift in characterization stands out in subtle yet sharp definition in the opening episode.
Most chosen one heroes’/heroines’ stories begin with ignorance and enlightenment: Chosen one lives in a miserable state until someone connected to an underground world arrives to inform the hero/heroine of their true fate. Although Buffy is definitely a Chosen One Heroine (as Giles loves to remind us in his “One Girl in All the World” Spiels, two of which show up in this episode), in her case we miss the Enlightenment turning point.
This omission is definitely a feature rather than a flaw. We do not need Buffy’s “you’re a wizard, Harry,”[ii] moment because that is not the story that this series is telling. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the Chosen One Hero/Heroine story after the initial amazement has worn off and the world-weary struggle begins. When we meet her, Buffy Summers knows that she is the Slayer, and she is well acquainted with what that means. She has developed creative but effective methods of recognizing vampires masquerading as human (“Deal with that outfit for a moment…only someone living underground for ten years would think that was still in”), and solid grasp of how they generally operate and replicate themselves. Her war stories for Xander and her performance at the Bronze illustrate that she has been doing this job for a while. If she ever had a wise, possibly bearded mentor who taught her to fight and acquainted her with the Ways of the Slayer before this point, it wasn’t Rupert Giles and it definitely did not happen at Sunnydale High. Buffy Summers is the next chapter of the Chosen One story arc: the experienced warrior trying to balance both her being and her destiny without seeing the one destroyed for the sake of the other. As an access point into this urban gothic fever dream, Buffy is a blend of the both the familiar and the fresh, and her moments of less-than-heroic, flawed humanness make her a welcoming focal point through a flickering stream of light and shadows.
[i] Quotes and references to Buffy: the Vampire Slayer are the intellectual property of Joss Whedon.
[ii] Quote property of J.K. Rowling (please do not sue me, Warner Brothers)