What happens when your heart’s desire conflicts with your responsibilities? Buffy is obviously going to be a series that explores teenage issues, but it can do more than that, because Buffy is the Slayer, and that’s a job and a responsibility, so there is also clearly a springboard for exploring adult issues as well, right from the start. That’s what happens here. Buffy initiates a relationship that conflicts with her job, and in ignoring Giles’ advice she places people she cares for in danger. There is a tough lesson for Buffy to learn this week.
This is also an episode that walks a tightrope, because it comes dangerously close to making Buffy an unsympathetic character. That’s because almost nobody watching is going to be pleased with the idea of Buffy hooking up with Owen. Some viewers might like the idea of a potential Angel/Buffy relationship, but I think at this stage Xander is the one who really matters to the viewer, and we are on his side. He is very much our audience identification character, at least at this early stage in the series. Xander is the normal guy with no special powers, who has stumbled into a world he is ill-prepared to be a part of. He is not a slayer or a watcher, and he isn’t a super-brained computer hacker like Willow. He’s just Xander, and he has fallen for Buffy. That’s where our sympathies lie, with the underdog. Even better, he’s an underdog who is funny.
Contrasted with that, we have the guy who is a little bit too perfect for the viewers to warm to him. So when Giles is placed in danger for the first time, because Buffy puts a date with Owen ahead of her duties, I think we are supposed to react exactly the way I did when I watched this: not to like it one little bit. There are three reasons: (1) Giles’ life has been placed at risk due to Buffy’s decision, (2) Xander is our identification character and he’s being overlooked in favour of a newly introduced character, and probably most importantly (3) Owen is frankly a bit boring.
This is also a learning process for Buffy, and it’s a good idea for the writers to be tackling the conflict between work/duty and a teenage social life so early in the series, because that needed to happen. There was always going to be an issue with that, and exploring Buffy’s feelings about the limitations her calling places on her life was essential to avoid dehumanising her. She goes on quite a journey here, and we are watching her mature emotionally before our eyes. At the start of the episode she is trying to give Giles the brush off so she can go on a date, ignoring his words of wisdom about getting people hurt who she cares about and risking exposing her identity. By the end of the episode, she has learned that lesson the hard way. Owen did find out that Buffy’s life is violent and dangerous and different, and he did nearly get killed, as did Giles. And we see the evidence of Buffy’s emotional growth at the end of the episode, because she is absolutely thrilled that Owen is still interested in her, but lets him go for everyone’s sake, especially his. If she still displays one failing, it’s her inability to join the dots and make a comparison between Owen and Xander. She doesn’t have to love him in the way he wants her to, but it would have been nice to have some acknowledgement of the fact that Xander is actually the more mature and impressive person here. For all Owen’s mysterious brooding nonsense about liking poetry about death, he’s basically just a silly little boy who thinks fights are cool. As Giles points out, Willow and Xander understand Buffy’s world and they are careful. We never get to see that comparison sink in for Buffy in the way it should, and for that reason this feels frustratingly like an idea that hasn’t quite been followed through to where it should be. Doing so might have brought the will-they-won’t-they Xander/Buffy storyline to a premature end, but that’s a waste of time anyway. It’s blatantly obvious that Buffy is never going to be interested in Xander in that way.
There is also a message hidden away here, bubbling just under the surface, about the dangers of superficiality. Owen might seem cool, but Xander is the better man by a mile. That is summed up perfectly in the moment where Owen lends Buffy a fancy fob watch, only for Xander to get watch envy:
There is an important message to learn here. Being drawn to a person who seems cool might just be the biggest mistake anyone can make. Sometimes the guy with the Tweety watch is the better man. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Up until now, I’ve taken Buffy to be a reasonable good, if somewhat silly, comedy. Never Kill a Boy on the First Date is the first episode that just puttered along at a ridiculously slow pace. I mean, I will give it credit for not having that terrible opening monologue but that hardly makes up for other things!
So far, Buffy, the girl, has proven to be pragmatic and a bit aloof with guys, so to have her make a full 180, gawking over Owen (oh, Owen…) is a little disappointing. The opening fight scene between Buffy and Random Vampire might have been ok, if not for the fact that as soon as the vampire was dispatched, Giles pops up from behind a gravestone or something to critique Buffy’s fighting style. I actually had this brief thought that they were in a holodeck before I realized this isn’t Star Trek and yes, we’re supposed to believe that he followed her to critique her style and no other vampire thought to attack him. Meanwhile The Master-Who-Sounds-Like-Eric-Roberts is back being as weak as this episode. He lingers around in a basement without anything to do but wave his hands at the magic barrier that has him captured. Sure, he has a book to read, but based on the amount of dust that billows out of it, this was the first time he picked up that tome in ages!! Then there’s the age old problem from last week: Californians were never taught how to apply brakes on a car.
There are some good things though! After Giles is stuck in the morgue freezer for a while, he comes out very congested; it’s a minor point, but I was impressed by it. That’s the sort of attention to detail that I like! I still found some of the lines enjoyable, including Giles picking on the poetry of “an American”, or Xander saying a bit too loudly, “How’d the slaying go” only to recognize his mistake and say even louder, “I meant, how’d the laying go?” The reaction had me laughing quite a bit! Buffy also gave us “Oh, at this point you’re abusing sarcasm,” which might not be the best line ever, but it did make me laugh. However, the best moment is a visual one: Xander sees the gold pocket watch Owen uses and looks at his own Tweety one somewhat despondently!
I think my problem is that I’m still caught up on “real” storytelling. You can tell a fantasy story in a real way! This whole story centers around finding “the anointed one” which is only revealed at the end but the amount of things that happen that we’re expected to ignore is a bit over the top. And we’ve seen this since the season started with dead kids being left in a locker room until school lets out. Where were the police to investigate anything? Look: you don’t leave the doors of a funeral home unlocked at night. Even if the guy who worked there did forget to lock the doors, wouldn’t someone be concerned about the vandalism (shattered window in the viewing room, a missing corpse, bent iron bars, and the incinerator was used, so that missing corpse might be a bigger concern if the local authorities think kids were playing around.) Vampire and monster stories don’t have to be so real that they can’t be creative, but for goodness sake, I’d expect some form of believable world building. B5 might have had a weak start but it’s nothing compared to this and since I started this with the expectation of it reminding me of B5, this is a letdown. Of course, Na’Grath and Musetta Vander were in an episode together so I’ll be patient.
This one is one weak episode out of 5 good ones so far. The bulk have been enjoyable. Episode 6 marks the half-way point of season 1 so we’ll see how the next one does. I think Never Kill a Boy on the First Date will be the outlier and the next will probably be good, but I’ll watch and determine if it really does join the pack! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Pack