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The Banality Of The First Evil

Sarah and John revisit their issues with Buffy's biggest bad, and wonder what might have been if Joss Whedon hadn't had 184 other plates in the air.

Unfortunately, I had to miss the recording of last week's Extra Hot Great -- and, thanks to a Time Warner Cable area outage, everything else that happened on the internet for about four hours -- so I didn't get to contribute my own fulminations to that episode's nominee for The Nonac, Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "Amends."

My esteemed colleagues covered it ably, but a couple people have asked what exactly my transatlantic phone conversations with John Ramos about the First Evil consisted of. So, I thought we'd take a stroll down mem-grrrr-y lane and try to recreate those bitter dialogues.

John, if I recall correctly, I would send you 2-3 episodes on videotape (hee! we're old), and then we'd discuss what you'd just seen on our weekly call.
Yes, that's right; thank you again after all these years for going to the trouble so I could share your pain. Your asides on the tapes were easily the best part of S7. For example, "'Lies My Parents Told Me' (like, that this show is good)."
Yes, I did try to maximize the space on those little labels. Occasionally I felt the need to editorialize on a Post-It.
I don't think that episode in particular dealt with the First Evil, although I wouldn't know for sure, because thanks to your warning I never watched it. The only Buffy ep I negged on principle!
I've blocked it out entirely. I forgot Principal Wood even existed until recently.
But of course, as I mentioned on the podcast, we spent huge amounts of long-distance fees discussing the utter failure that was the First Evil. Since you didn't get to express your thoughts on the podcast (FE in the machine?), would you care to lead off the venting?
Why not? My complaint back then, if I recall correctly, had to do with Joss Whedon's stated lack of formal religious instruction. Because one problem with the First Evil, which you alluded to on in your comments, is that there isn't a First Good to balance it out. In religious stories and myths, you have to have that balance -- good vs. evil, struggle vs. resolution, seeking vs. homecoming…any story, really, but particularly in a religious tale, which because Buffy is supernatural we can classify in the same way. The ongoing tension between good and evil going back past the beginning of time is the fundament of most religions; you kind of can't get away with not having an equal and opposite force.
Right. In the first place, if you're going to set your story in a universe in which religious mythology and iconography plays such a key role, you can't really hide behind a shrug and a "well, religion isn't my bag." Make it your bag.
And it was such a strange way to be ignorant, too. It's not like Whedon didn't have his Joseph Campbell shit straight in most other ways.
To add to that, even going back to the Buffy film, you were always left with the idea that vampires and the Slayer were agreed-upon tools in the everlasting fight between good and evil. In the film there are many allusions to "the Covenant," it seems logical to conclude that the Slayer's strength, much like vampires' powers and limitations, are part of that agreement. The power of the crucifix, of course, is the most obvious example of how you have to incorporate some form of higher good into your story by definition.
That was another issue I had with Whedon kind of punting on the organized-religion side of it: you're already using aspects of it, specifically Catholicism (the crosses to some extent; certainly the holy water; the consumption of blood is an inversion of sorts of transubstantiation). It's like that argument I got into with that girl who didn't know who Judas was, and said it wasn't fair to expect non-Christians to know the allusion…um, what? Keeping in mind that I myself am not Catholic and also think it's totally fine to build your own universe with its own rules, which he had been extremely good at doing up to a certain point. The whole Key thing didn't really play, in the end, but it was worth taking a shot with it. But the sixth and seventh seasons were quite lazy in that regard, possibly because he was working on 48 shows at once and only cared about stupid Firefly.
Right. It's like, I don't think you have to have a theology degree to grasp the idea that the blessing of a priest isn't actually the end-all in giving the holy water its power. And we are NOT discussing Firefly.
Nope; shitting on it drive-by-style, moving on.
I would have loved to see what you wrote on THOSE tapes. … Okay, where were we? So we've got a First Evil with no First Good. In that context, what does it want? Compared to other demons, for example, who were bent on killing the righteous (The Judge) or sucking the world down its gullet (Acathla), I found its motivations vague, at best?
Yeah, it's…basically a noble gas, and doesn't need any other elements to bond with it. It's evil; it just…is. It's like when drug lords or other criminals in movies go to these elaborate lengths to fuck with people, and I can't stop thinking how shitty Mr. Killy is with time management. So I struggled with the First stalking Buffy. And for an age-old entity, it wasn't really very intimidating.
Right. It's supposed to be ultimate evil, but it can't even seem to do anything to Angel without the Bringers (or to Buffy without the ubervamps, for that matter), so in the end, it has nothing better to do than break down the self-esteem of a souled vampire who can't act?
It does seem like the incarnation of evil would understand that, if you're going to mess with the guy, telling him you're messing with him isn't the most effective way to get the job done. Like, oooh, look how I can switch forms! …Neat, I guess, but now we know you're just a hallucination and we can go about ignoring your try-hard ass, JENNY CALENDAR.
I mean, I know you hated Miss Calendar, and she's aged very poorly for me, but Angel killing her in "Passion" was one of the most upsetting moments for me in the series and was a really daring move, I thought. But she's just Smurfy here. The FE barely even mentions her death; why take the form if that's the case?
I hated her in no small part thanks to this episode, really; today, I appreciate her as a motivation for some wonderful work by Anthony Stewart Head as Giles. But you're right: if the First is trying to fuck with Angel via his horrible deeds, why not get specific? It's easy to forget just what a heartless monster Angel was in the back half of S2. His simpering throughout "Amends" doesn't suggest how terrifying he was, but…he really was.
The FE even references him being a disappointment to his parents. Who he...killed, right? No mention of that?
And wasn't the turning of Drusilla also some Gothic horror? Like, she was a nun novitiate?
YES! And we'd seen it on screen even at this point, too! "Becoming" did a far better job of showing what a monster he'd been when that wasn't even its main agenda. Now that we hash it out, it does seem like the show was trying to have it both ways in that ep: making Angel believe he deserved to die, while still keeping the audience rooting for him and thus not delving too deeply into how terrible he'd been.
And given how pitiable Boreanaz's acting is throughout, it might have been better served pointing up his past evil deeds, versus the soulmate shite. Because he could do smug killy dickwad like nobody else.
Agreed. One other related thought: The entire point of the gypsy curse was to make Angel live with the guilt and suffering over his deeds as a vampire. He'd done so for a hundred years. So if you really want us to buy him deciding to end his life, you have to make his past deeds as horrific as possible. This crap with random maids and shitty gamblers did not land.
Noooo, it didn't. "He frightened the help!" Well, the It Is Oi, Potato Lad accent IS quite scary, but…yeah, no.
Ditto the animal-pelt wig, but still.
Good God, that thing. The First Muppet.
BUT even on top of this, I could laugh off this travesty if the FE had been a one-off. S7 was a hate crime.
Could the First ever could have worked, had the show had Joss's full attention and he'd done a little more thinking about the implications beforehand? Or is it just flawed in its inception? I think we thought the latter at the time; now, I wonder if maybe he couldn't have made it work, somehow.
Well, this leads me to bring up another issue with him not having a handle on the mythology: The Slayers-In-Training. You have to assume that the Slayer's power comes from a source of good opposing the FE. Even in S7 it wouldn't have been too late to do that. The SIT's, however, make no sense. What does it mean for someone to be a "potential" Slayer? Never explained, because it makes no sense, and I resented the show making Giles act like it did.
Uch, I'd hoped to avoid this rant, but it just felt so…Poochie! Except they never went back to their home planets, unfortunately. But that's another great example of Whedon taking a BIG cut and missing in a big way. It doesn't line up with anything we know about Slayers' being called, from Kendra and Faith and those stories. If he'd taken a week and some notecards, he could have retconned it for most of us, but he didn't, and now what we used to know is retrospectively ruined because only we cared about it, not him.
It seems likely that he wrote the end (making all the girls Slayers at once) first and then worked backwards. But again: Makes no sense. The power has to come from a source of good, because where else would it come from, and as such, you shouldn't be able to game the system as they did.
AND it smacked of "let's get the band back together" from "Graduation Day," but that worked; this was an inorganic "we need a ton of people to defeat…what are defeating again?" ending, and you're right, he totally saw the smoking pit of Sunnydale in his mind first and then worked backwards. Except for the "worked" part. "Backwards," totally. So I guess I answered my own question.
It killed the concept of a Slayer even being "called." What did that mean, in the context of having seen S7? The SITs were in the Slayer minor leagues?
Or it's like Huntington's disease, and you might come down with it as an adult?
HA! "With diet and treatment, you'll be able to manage being a Slayer just fine."
But ain't no cure for "cheap and rushed," and that's my beef, at the end of the day.
And boring and horribly paced, don't forget that.
And badly acted, sometimes.
It might not have made any more sense, but if Ryan Murphy had run the FE, it wouldn't have been nearly as boring.
Murphy has, I think, a healthier sense of what he's capable of, and he's quite frank about the "pay no attention to the gimp behind the curtain" moments. I got the sense from Whedon (and obNoxon) that they weren't brooking any dissent about the plan, or admitting that it had some weak points. (Like, nothing but.) Murphy at least would have rushed us past the vague bits so we didn't have time to get bored or ask questions.
That is often the problem that comes with success; people stop taking criticism about their worst instincts.
There's a rat on a balcony in Boston who I think would agree.
Hee. Well, I'm done with the SITs -- I thought I was done with them long ago. But one final thought: If the FE is "absolute evil," the scariest power in the universe, shouldn't it merit a little more attention in the Watcher curriculum than a footnote in Giles's card catalog?
If I'm the card catalog, I'm not paying it much mind either. "It has a ton of spare time to mess with a single vampire. Can't be that important."
"Do NOT base a season's plot around it. You'd think this would be obvious."
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