Just like the season 2 opener, this season premiere is about dealing with the emotional fallout of the previous season’s events rather than introducing the themes and characters for season 3 (which only happens in episode 3). But at the same time, some of the themes introduced here do turn out to foreshadow some of the themes and characters that are important later in the season.
There are two separate threads in the episode, and their tone is so different they feel like they barely belong to the same episode. One plays like a comedy and is a look at how Buffy’s friends, family and the people at the Sunnydale High are starting the new school year without Buffy. The other is a drama about what happens to Buffy in L.A. – where she’s been working as a waitress, living in a rented apartment and going by the name of “Anne” (which is her middle name) – that makes her reclaim her identity as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and decide to go back to Sunnydale. It’s one of the storylines that shows Buffy starting in a place of vulnerability and despair and then showing her strength and becoming the hero again.
Is this the BtVS episode that feels most like social commentary or what? Homeless people wondering the streets, saying “I am no one”? Villains posing as a religious organization and recruiting vulnerable young people? Ruthless industrial system using people as slaves, obliterating their identities, chewing them and spitting them out when they’re of no use to it? Buffy starting a rebellion and fighting oppression with hammer and… sickle?
But let’s start from the beginning. The first notable thing about this new season is: THEY FINALLY DITCHED THE OPENING NARRATION! It was high time. The “Into every generation a Slayer is born, ONE girl in all the world…” bit was cheesy and repetitive (we don’t need to be told every time what Buffy is, thank you) and became obsolete halfway through season 2 with the introduction of Kendra, and it would really be absurd to keep it in season 3, for reasons that become obvious a couple of episodes later.
The episode opens in a standard way, on a graveyard, showing a gravestone of someone who’s a little later revealed to be a former student of Sunnydale High (Willow and Xander know that he was on a gymnastics team). As he rises as a vampire, a woman stands over him in a badass Slayery pose – but it’s not Buffy, it’s Willow, and we learn that she, Xander and Oz are trying to slay vampires, with moderate success. Then we cut to L.A. to see Buffy’s life there and a dream sequence with her and Angel.
Seth Green is in opening credits now, and if anyone didn’t know that Angel was coming back, then the opening credits were spoiling it for them, since it was very unlikely that David Boreanaz would be a main cast member who just appeared in dream scenes and flashbacks for the rest of the season.
The Sunnydale scenes are a quick ‘what is everyone doing at the start of the new school year’ overview. We get a glimpse of some new faces, like Larry who’s really excited about the new football season; it’s quickly established that Oz is repeating the senior year despite his intelligence (I didn’t quite get why, except so he could still hang out with the Scoobies), and Cordelia is just back from vacation abroad. She and Xander haven’t been in touch, and they both seem very much in love with the other one (which makes the latter storyline about Xander and Willow all the less plausible) but very insecure and jealous, which leads to some of their classic arguing and insults, and ends in a passionate kiss as they manage to stake the vampire together (or rather, Cordelia pushes the vampire onto Xander’s stake as she jumps on him/them). Since it’s Xander and Cordy, designated comic reliefs (and Xander’s love life is usually the comedy on the show as opposed to the epic and angsty potrayal of Buffy’s relationships), this stereotypically romantic/dramatic moment is accompanied by the same ironically cheesy music that was used when they first kissed in What’s My Line.
But by this time, it’s starting to feel a bit repetitive and lazy.
There’s something bugging me a bit about the Sunnydale parts of the episode. They’re funny and cute, and there are some witty meta lines poking fun at things like the high death count on the show or Buffy’s quipiness as one of her strongest weapons that the Scoobies are trying to emulate. But that’s it, they feel a bit too cutesy and full of BtVS’s typical high school humor it’s like the Scoobies, without Buffy, have become solely comic relief characters. The newly sired vampires are starting seem like a bit of a joke, if you don’t need a Slayer or even an experienced vampire hunter to kill them, just a few of her friends who have picked up on things while helping her for a little over a year. They do mention that half of the vampires are getting away, but if they’re managing to kill half of them, it’s still quite a lot for their level of training and strength.
There’s one serious scene that happens in Sunnydale - the conversation between Joyce and Giles. I like it because it feels more raw and real than similar scenes is most other shows, it’s a cliché to have a person tell someone that the last time they saw X, they were fighting, and then the other person says “You mustn’t blame yourself”, but this is better writing since it subvers expecations and Joyce startles Giles by replying “I don’t. I blame you”. Joyce admits she feels jealous of the role that Giles has played in Buffy’s life – it’s as if he’s taken her daughter away from her, influencing and guiding Buffy in this incredibly important part of her life that her mother didn’t even know about.
But the reason I enjoyed this episode is the story with Buffy in L.A. Our first look of Buffy in season 3 is a dream scene that takes place on a beach in sunset, where Angel joins her. (Buffy sure seems to like beaches – her fantasies tend to take place on a beach, like the one about Gavin Rossdale in Dark Age, and a similar one about Daniel Craig in season 8.) Since it’s Buffy’s romantic fantasy, it’s not surprising that Angel says cheesy things like “If I was blind, I would see you” (which is actually similar to a lot of cheesy romantic lines Angel does say for real). These lines are interesting:
Buffy: Stay with me.
Angel: Forever. That’s the whole point. I’ll never leave... Not even if you kill me.
It’s not uncommon for people to expect and want love to last forever, but “that’s the whole point” is interesting wording – like she thinks that there’s no point to love if it’s not forever – like its purpose is to be this emotional anchor, the one constant that you can always count on in the ever-changing and confusing world. Unlike, say, her parents’ marriage. But this “forever” thing becomes a problem when your boyfriend is dead (or in this case, in hell, which amounts to the same). Buffy is obviously still tormented by killing Angel, and the promise to “never leave” is ominous since it implies that she’s afraid she’ll never get over it – or maybe at the same time she wants not to get over it, having the familiar memory and familiar pain as this emotional constant to rely on. But Dream!Angel’s words are ironic when you know that the season will end with the real Angel literally leaving.
In reality, Buffy has a job as a waitress and lives in a rented apartment , but doesn’t seem to feel much hope or joy. I wonder if Buffy’s emotional state between Becoming
classifies as depression, but she is certainly at a very low place emotionally. It’s not the greatest of jobs, obviously – she has to put up with jerks grabbing her butt, and it hurts to see Buffy not doing anything about it – she would normally kick the guy’s ass and teach him a lesson, but the customer’s always right and you don’t can't allow to lose your job, can you.
Her old life comes to haunt her in the shape of someone who recognizes her from Sunnydale, when a young couple Lily and Rickie come to her restaurant. Actress Julia Lee returns as Lily, who’s actually Chanterelle, one of the vampire wannabes from Lie to Me
that Buffy saved from vampires. Lily and Rickie are kids living on the street, very much in love, with matching tattoos with each other’s names in one half of a heart. Despite her own dreams of forever love, Buffy’s reaction to this is far more down-to-earth – she seems less than delighted with the idea of a putting something like this on your skin permanently (which is pretty much my reaction to such tattoos every time – yeah, now you’re thinking it’s a good idea to tattoo “Winona forever” on your body, but you’ll want to remove it once you break up…), but Rickie echoes her dream saying “Forever. That’s the whole point.” A line that makes a more obvious kind of sense in this case that it did in Buffy’s dream (the whole point of the tattoo is to be permanent, since our love is forever). Like so often on this show, Rickie and Lily’s love is portrayed in both romantic (after Rickie is kidnapped and dies as an old man after the hell factory has finished with him, we learn he still remembered Lily’s name decades after he forgot his own) and subversive way – Lily says that she needs Rickie because he takes care of her, which means that she doesn’t know how to take care of herself. Most of the episode is based on the interaction between the two girls, who are in a similar situation, despite the contrast in their personalities between passive Lily and the much more self-reliant and proactive Buffy. Lily immediately realizes that Buffy also wants to run away from her life, to “lose herself”. But Buffy becomes her old self again when she immediately decides to help Lily find Rickie.
The scenes showing the streets of L.A. and homeless people on it are really haunting – from street kids, to old people who wander about, saying “I am no one”. Here it’s the result of what was done to them in the hell factory, but it makes me think of the homeless people I see in the streets on my city – alcoholic, mentally ill, or without any family and any money (and since it’s a transition country with something that looks more like 19th century capitalism with very poor social security, I’m surprised that there aren’t more homeless people out there).
Lily is a teenage runaway who keeps changing her identity and looking for a replacement family; it’s obvious that she’s from an abusive household that she’s been running away, since her family is something she doesn’t even want to talk about, and we don’t even learn her real name. She admits that she used to be in a cult and call herself “Sister Sunshine” (she went from Sister Sunshine to a vampire wannabe!
) before she joined the Sunset Club vampire worshippers. They were treated as deluded fools in Lie to Me
, and I like that Whedon brought one of them back and treated her in a more serious way, showing the real problems and loneliness that drove them, while still poking gentle fun at Chanterelle/Lily for giving herself what she thought was an “exotic” name, unaware she named herself after a mushroom. She says Rickie named her “Lily” after a song (my guess is it’s “Lily [My One and Only]” by Smashing Pumpkins, from Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness
, which was released in 1997). Becoming one half of a romantic couple was her next attempt at finding love and connection, but, as I said, this “forever love” thing becomes a problem when your boyfriend is dead. But this is not Twilight
, and women can go on living without their boyfriends. At first she is easy prey for an apparently pleasant guy offering her to join his quasi-religious organization that promises to help young people like her, but the captivity in “hell” has crucial character development for her, and she starts fighting back and helps Buffy save the other captives. At the end of the episode, she is starting to learn to take care of herself, and Buffy helps her by giving her her current identity – job, apartment and name tag. (Were Buffy’s bosses confused to see another girl, or maybe they just didn’t care – one blonde is as good as another.) Lily/Chanterelle/Anne has a great mini-arc that spans both shows –she reappears in AtS under the name Anne Steele, running a homeless shelter in L.A. , and makes it to the last episode of AtS, where she’s the character who represents hope and doing the right thing.
The main villain introduces himself as a religious do-gooder – apparently nice and blandly pleasant man called “Ken” (!) and his mask torn and revealing a demonic face feels just like a metaphical “showing his real face”. You gotta love the foreshadowing of the twist in his words: “This is not a good place for a kid to be. You get old fast here.“ The demons in this episode are just metaphors for the ruthless system that uses people as workforce, erases their individuality and rejects them when they’re too old and not needed anymore. (Hm, again something not unfamiliar to people from transition countries.) The place where the humans are brought to work and treated as slaves is a factory/labor camp, but it is also a metaphorical Hell”– and the villain ‘Ken’ is the spokesman for the writer when he says: “What is hell but the total absense of hope?” It feels a bit like the place is an embodiment of Buffy’s and Lily’s fears and despair, especially when ‘Ken’ as he plays on Lily’s deep insecurities, telling her that she always knew she would end up in Hell, and telling Buffy that she finally got what she wanted: “So pathetically determined to run away from whatever it is you used to be. To disappear. Congratulations. You got your wish.”
And this is where Buffy reclaims her identity and fights back, starting a rebellion and freeing the captives/slaves. Maybe more importantly, Lily, regular human, starts fighting back, too. „Humans don’t fight back! This is how it works!“ shouts Ken, shocked. This is how oppression works: most people don’t fight back and just give up.
There are some real moments of awesome
in this episode:
When Buffy breaks into the blood bank, suspecting that they’ve been giving away the files of young street kids who come to give blood for some money, making it easier for the villains to target their victims. When the blood bank doctor asks Buffy what she’s doing, she’s totally unfazed and replies: „Breaking into your office and going through your private files“ and goes on to interrogate the doctor.
The crucial moment of the episode – when the demon guards are forcing the slaves to say „I am no one“ and Buffy replies, smiling defiantly: “I am Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And you are?” and starts fighting.
Buffy fighting the demons with a hammer and something that looks like a sickle (apparently it’s a weapon called hunga munga
) is an iconic moment that was used as the final shot in the opening credits for seasons 3, 4 and 5.
Then there’s also this:
Buffy: Hey Ken, wanna see my impression of Gandhi?
[beats him to death with a club]
Buffy: Well, you know, if he was really pissed-off.
She seems to share Stockley Carmichael’s very smart views on peaceful resistance: it’s all nice and well, but works only under the assumption that the people you’re fighting actually give a $hit about things like human rights. Against real bastards, you gotta use other means; if they use force, fight back.
Most of the best lines are the above mentioned awesome moments and Ken’s description of Hell, and there are also some funny lines poking fun at the show itself, like Larry very seriously saying that Sunnydale High is going to rule this football season if they can “focus, keep discipline, and not have quite as many mysterious deaths“. I liked Giles’ understatement when he told Willow that she and the other Scoobs mustn’t get themselves killed or they’ll make him „cranky“.
Buffy bad liar:
Her cover story for Ken’s organization is the worst attempt at lying ever: “You know, I just - I woke up and I looked in the mirror and I thought, ’Hey, what's with all the sin? I need to change. I'm-I'm dirty, I'm-I'm bad with the sex, and the envy, and that-that loud music us kids listen to nowadays. B-’ Oh, I just suck at undercover.“ What she said.
The horror of industrialization reappears as a theme in The Wish
, where villains are also using humans as expendable meat (in a more literal way). Ken says that Buffy got her wish with this Hell; the alternate universe from The Wish
will be literally Cordy’s wish came true.
Ken’s explanation that time runs faster in the hell dimension where the factory is could also apply to the hell dimension where Angel has been. Rickie’s fate – spending decades in hell and then being thrown out of it back into our world, is similar to what happens with Angel, as we’ll see in a couple of episodes.
Buffy starts the season as a teenage runaway living on her own, which foreshadows the arrival of Faith, who shares Lily’s dysfunctional and abusive background.