In part one of our article on the second episode of season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘The Harvest,’ Joss Whedon explained the importance of establishing the rules in a horror story. Establishing the tone and sources of tension are equally important, which is where we’ll start in this continuation of his excellent commentary.
Although in later seasons Buffy, Willow and Xander playfully refer to themselves as the Scoobie Gang, Whedon carefully avoided any cartoonish comparisons while he was sowing the seeds of the show in the first season. Humour is a big part of Buffy, but Whedon was very aware of the difference between generating intentional and unintentional laughs from the audience. That seems to be a big part of the reason behind his decision to save a direct confrontation between Buffy and The Master for the season’s final episode. In the meantime, The Master was trapped underground by mystical powers and had to send his minions out to do his dirty work.
“The idea that [The Master] was stuck down there was so that he was not out for twelve episodes constantly trying to kill Buffy and failing,” Whedon says. “We knew we wanted them to confront each other in the last episode; we also knew that if, for twelve episodes, he spent every week going, ‘This time I will destroy Buffy!’ and she beat him, people would get tired of it really quickly” (00:05:45).
Not only does this approach prevent The Master from becoming a chattier Wile E. Coyote, but it also builds tension throughout the season leading up to his showdown with Buffy.
And from the beginning, Whedon sets it up to be a big one.
The Master is no ordinary vampire. He is the clear leader of all the others. As the only one bound beneath the church by powerful forces, it’s suggested that he possesses great power and is worthy of special attention. He’s also the ugliest vampire, seen exclusively in ‘vamp-face’ that is more deformed than all the others.
“We decided early on The Master would never be in normal face because he was so old and so far gone we made him more animalistic than other vampires,” Whedon explains. “John Vulich–he’s our make-up guy–does extraordinary work, and his design for The Master was basically a bat. He thought [The Master was] devolving to this very demonic animal state…” (00:07:10).
That suggests that even vampires can change–a fact that is explored in more detail with Angel and Spike throughout the series–even if such changes may take place more gradually, perhaps (or perhaps not) because of their potentially infinite life span.
Likewise, the humans in Whedon’s Buffy-verse are not immune to change, and viewers witness the characters go through some fairly drastic changes throughout the series. Though they may start off in somewhat stereotypical roles, they quickly begin to grow in a very natural manner. This was a very deliberate choice that Whedon made early on. “One of the things I wanted to say with this high school show is we don’t have categories like ‘the nerd,’ ‘the cool guy,’ ‘the popular guy,’” he explains. “Everything is fluid. Everything changes. Alliances change. We’re all cruel, we’re all heroic, we’re all everything” (00:19:10). Whedon points to the fact that Cordelia stops being the evil queen bitch and becomes part of the group illustrates this.
Whedon is known and admired for creating rich and layered characters in all of his work, and his grasp of this is so strong that he is able to convey this depth not just through their actions but through images. A perfect example occurs in ‘The Harvest,’ when Buffy opens a trunk that she keeps in her bedroom. For Whedon, this is
…one of the most primal images, very simple, [but that] says the most about the show, [which] is just the idea that in [the top shelf of] this trunk we see a very normal girl’s life. We see all the things a normal girl might have, and then [on a hidden bottom shelf] we see what lies beneath. And that’s a literal visual metaphor for the way we feel when we’re young. Not that we ever stop feeling like that, but this is adolescence, where it hits us the hardest. (00:30:30)
This visual metaphor can also help to illustrate the previous point about characters growing and changing. Imagine what you think might be included in the top and bottom layers of a similar trunk belonging to each character–not just in Buffy, but in any show–when they are first introduced. The writers for too many shows seem to have characters dump out any new additions to the trunk at the end of each episode, and so the characters are largely unchanged by their experiences. (As much as I love it, Star Trek: The Next Generation generally follows this approach.) Whedon and his team, on the other hand, are careful to remember what the characters have been through–what has accumulated in the two layers of their trunk–and how this affects them. This, in my opinion, is one of the key elements that elevates his work above otherwise similar stories.
In Whedon’s Buffy-verse, nothing is immune to change, not even an episode that has already been shot. In the second part of our article on Whedon’s thoughts on the season four episode ‘Hush,’ he explained that, while filming, many TV directors must keep in mind the possibility that the episode will come in long and need to be trimmed down, and how that influences their style. Here he discusses how he deals with the opposing situation. This episode initially came in short, and while you might think this would make people panic, Whedon feels it’s an opportunity in disguise.
This has happened to us a few times—when a show will come in too short and we’ll need to make up new scenes for it. It’s always a great opportunity because you can really look at the final product and say, ‘Well, what is it that we need to bolster? What is it that we need to see? What can we accentuate?’ We’re never gonna put a scene in that’s literally just filler, that’s just there to take up space; there’s always gotta be a reason and often it helps you make a connection between two things that didn’t quite gel yet. So it’s actually a good opportunity, although production-wise it’s a great big pain. (00:11:50)
Fans have the luxury of going through a similar process without any of the restrictions imposed by production schedules or budgets, and with the benefit of hindsight. Although I can speak only for myself (even if I suspect legions of fans share the same opinion), it’s a compliment to Whedon and his Buffy team that, except for almost all of season four and maybe the production values of season one, there are very few things I’d change about the series. The seeds sown by Whedon in the first season clearly took root, and millions of fans reaped the rewards of a bountiful harvest for the next seven seasons.
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? Do you agree that the show does a better job of letting its characters evolve than others of its era? Did anything else about this episode, or the whole series, really stand out for you? How would you rank The Master in comparison to the series’ other big bads? Leave some comments below and let us know!
Images from Buffy the Vampire Slayer used under fair dealing provisions of Canadian copyright law.