“Welcome to the Hellmouth” provides an interesting premise and we’ll obviously come back for more, but it’s still getting its sea legs. It knows what kind of show it wants to be, and it’s figuring out in real time how to get there.
This recap of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1, Episode 1, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, contains spoilers.
For a borderline embarrassing period during my child and teen years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pretty much everything to me. My mom and I watched it religiously, and its unusually sarcastic sense of humor had a huge influence on both me and popular culture at large. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit the airwaves over 20 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. How well have the antics of our fave 90s feminist icon aged? With a new version of the show apparently on the horizon, we thought it would be as good a time as any to visit the classic genre show and go through an episode-by-episode recap of the series run. (Try not to OD on the nostalgia — you’ve been warned!)
Even during the pre-credits sequence of “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, we can tell that the approach of showrunner Joss Whedon is going to be very different from what we’re used to seeing on television. There’s the classic horror movie setup: a teen boy and girl break into a high school after hours, and each moment it becomes more and more clear that any second now that boy is about to sprout fangs and eat up his little girlfriend. Only — surprise! The pretty little blonde in the Catholic schoolgirl outfit is not in danger — she IS the danger. (In this scenario, Darla is the One Who Knocks.)
This subversion of horror tropes establishes immediately that this show is not going to be about helpless girly damsels in distress who are going to spend every episode in need of rescue. Instead, we have Buffy Summers, her objectively silly name a perfect juxtaposition to her role as a capable, confident warrior against the forces of darkness. Only she’s had enough of saving the world and feels a deep sense of injustice that her life is being dictated to her. This is a theme that will echo throughout the series, and is one of the reasons her character is so relatable — what teen hasn’t felt constricted and pressured by expectations of how they should be living their life?
Sarah Michelle Gellar does an excellent job right off the bat of imbuing her performance as a typical teen girl with the weariness of a disillusioned soldier. It’s immediately compelling and somewhat sad, considering the fact that the show is called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so we already know she won’t be able to escape her destiny for long.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth” is more than anything an exercise in world-building and the establishment of characters. Aside from Darla going to town on that random high school kid and the Master full-on Voldemorting himself out of a pool of blood, there is no monster of the week like we’ll sometimes see at other points in the show’s early seasons. Instead, we meet what will affectionately be known as the Scooby Gang — Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, and of course Jesse, who will definitely be on the show for a long time and not immediately die to illustrate the fact that vampires are Serious Business.
As we meet each character, we get a quick snapshot of their general archetype — Willow is an introverted ball of pure light, Xander is a horny goofball, Giles is English (only characteristic offered or required), and Cordelia is a high school beauty queen who clearly taught Draco Malfoy everything he knew about the whole “you don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort” schtick.
Also, we are introduced to Angel. Sweet baby David Boreanaz who at this point is comprised almost entirely of cheekbones, soulful eyes, and the kind of cool, spiky hair that is frankly unfair for someone who doesn’t even have access to a mirror. Buffy and Angel are sort of immediately flirty, even though they meet for the first time in a dark alley because he’s been creepily following her, which isn’t exactly the meet-cute that you want to tell your grandchildren about. Also, he insists on being mysterious and cryptic, a quality I have always found to be vaguely irritating. But this episode was just a tantalizing glimpse of Angel — more on him in future episodes.
By the end of “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, we’re fairly well-established in Buffy’s new life in Sunnydale. And it’s clear from the painfully 90s freeze frame cliffhanger with Luke (one of the Master’s henchmen) about to kill Buffy (as though we’re even entertaining the idea that a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer would suddenly become Buffy-less after just one episode) that even though Buffy has moved to a new town to get a fresh start, she hasn’t run far enough, and it won’t be that easy for her to escape her destiny.
Best Line: “What is your childhood trauma?!” Uttered by the glorious Cordelia after Buffy almost kills her with a stake in the bizarrely hip teen bar, The Bronze, which presumably serves… root beer? I’m not entirely sure but it definitely feels weird that so many kids are there. Also that Giles turns up, like can you even imagine hanging out at a club with your friends and your high school librarian is there?
Best Look: Kind of digging Buffy’s iconic blue button-down over a white tank — it’s simple and very late 90s but it’s fun and functional, exactly what a disgruntled slayer needs.