Like a vampire lurking in the shadows, this episode almost managed to slip past me. Only when I stumbled across an online list of season 1 special features did I notice Joss Whedon had done a commentary of Buffy’s second episode, ‘The Harvest.’ It initially aired immediately after the series premiere, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth,’ and is a direct continuation of it, so it’s unclear why it doesn’t follow the ‘Part 1-Part 2’ naming scheme that Whedon uses in all the other two-part episodes throughout the series.
Nevertheless, this episode continues to establish information that is vital to the Buffy-verse, which makes it somewhat surprising that Whedon is relatively quiet throughout this commentary. When I say ‘relatively,’ however, I mean relative only to himself. When it comes to DVD commentaries, Whedon still provides x-rays that reveal the structure of the work, while too many other commentators are content with Tinder pics that only show how much they want to bone themselves.
Most horror movies and shows involve a healthy dose of exposition in order to establish the rules of the story–what can and can’t be done, and what consequences will result from those choices. Usually this information is slipped in to a conversation, but perhaps the best–and most famous–example is the explicit list delivered in Scream (1996). It becomes the internal logic of the story, and it’s necessary information in establishing a realistic world.
“We spend a lot of time explaining the rules to people during this show because I wanted them to understand. The rules are very important in a horror movie…,” Whedon says. “You have to have very specific rules so that when you break them, it means something, and the audience always knows on that level what to expect, even if they don’t on a story level” (00:17:25).
Whedon seems to have little regard for films that break the rules that they themselves have established. For example, he takes a shot at Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998), starring Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff, when he says, “You can’t suddenly have Stephen Dorff show up [as a vampire in daylight] cuz he’s wearing sunscreen…” (00:17:25). To be fair, in the scene he’s referring to Dorff is wearing motorcycle leathers and helmet on top of the sunscreen, but Whedon is still right. Though I really enjoyed Blade overall, that scene doesn’t fit. Why is Snipes’ Blade, a half-human vampire who can walk in sunlight, so special if all that’s stopping other vampires from doing the same is a trip to the mall?
When it comes to vampires, there’s no shortage of rules out there. At the time Buffy premiered in 1997, it had been 100 years since the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which itself included previously-established folklore, and countless films and books since then had made their own contributions to vampire lore. That’s a lot, and incorporating it all would have been difficult, if not impossible. Although it was important to Whedon to stay true to the rules he established in Buffy, he felt he had the liberty to adopt—and ignore—certain rules when the show first started.
“We picked and chose our vampire lore based on lots of different myths—Dracula, Lost Boys—everything we’d seen, [and] we sort of took whatever we wanted,” he says. “We kept the idea that a vampire couldn’t come in unless they were invited, and that’s made things very difficult for us, but it’s given us some very interesting plot things to work with” (00:06:40).
Some of these choices were influenced by the realities of running a television show. For example, Whedon and his team quickly decided that the vampires wouldn’t be able to fly simply because they didn’t have enough money to make them look good swooping through the air (00:06:40).
Still, Whedon isn’t opposed to including shortcuts—dare I say ‘cheats’?—with the rules as long as they are consistent. He is the first to admit that the computer at Sunnydale, which Whedon describes as “our lover, our demon, our nemesis, our biggest doofy plot thing” (00:08:00), is one of these.
“We use it all the time to access things that could never be found on a computer back then, let alone now,” he says. “It’s the element of cheese we can’t get around because it just makes life so much easier when you’re designing a plot…to get the information you need on a computer. Coroner’s reports, police reports, maps of the sewer system, things that could never be there—we’re shameless in that respect…because it just makes life easier” (00:08:00).
Two other shortcuts are established in this episode and then used throughout the series. In a show filled with vampires that can’t go out in daylight even if they’re wearing SPF 3000, Whedon knew it’d helpful to have a means for them to get around during the day. Solution? “We knew we were gonna have to get from place to place, so we always indicate that tunnels go everywhere” (00:17:15).
And where can our heroes get the information they need to defeat whatever menace is plaguing dear Sunnydale each week? Within the haystack that is Giles’ library, the most versatile needle is probably The Book of Thoth.
“The Book of Thoth is the book that explains everything,” Whedon says. “Like the computer and the tunnels, [it’s] one of those rote conveniences that are necessary for this kind of show, and Giles spends much of his time with The Book of Thoth” (00:17:55).
These embedded features of Buffy contribute to the show’s distinct feel and focus, which helps to set it apart from other shows that deal with the supernatural. As Whedon explains,
Some shows—X-Files, for example—[are] very much into the realism, the science behind whatever the horror is, explaining it [and] really justifying it in the world. We are so much more about the emotion resulting from this—not why there might actually be vampires, but how you might actually feel in high school if you had to fight them—and as a result, we tend to gloss over the really intense details about how we might go through procedure, how we might find something, how we might kill something, how something might exist. We tend to say, ‘It’s on the computer, and it’s cuz we’re on the Hellmouth,’ and just get away with it. (00:08:25)
It’s a deliberate technique that works because it’s clearly established and consistently followed, and as a result it stays true to the world of the show.
Looking back at the last 1000 words, you might question my sanity when I said Whedon had less to say than usual about this episode, especially when I tell you that there will be a part two to this post. But I swear there were long moments of silence on the commentary track, and for the first couple minutes the silence was so complete that I checked to make sure I’d actually turned on the commentary. It’s just that Whedon punctuated the silence with genuinely interesting remarks, including his approach to The Master’s appearance and actions throughout the season, some of the show’s overarching themes, and how they handle an episode that comes in short, all of which I’ll share with you next time.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 2, ‘The Harvest’ | Directed by John T. Kretchmer | Written by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head | Produced by Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, 20th Century Fox Television
What do you think? Have you noticed any instances where the show broke its own rules? Did Whedon’s ‘shortcuts’ ever get on your nerves? How do you feel about the way the show incorporated/ignored vampire lore? Leave some comments below and let us know!
Images from Buffy the Vampire Slayer used under fair dealing provisions of Canadian copyright law.