Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by John T. Kretchmer
Original Airdate: March 10th 1997
It is always strange to watch ‘The Harvest’ as a single hour of television. In many territories, including the UK, both this episode and ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ were edited together to make a ninety-minute opening episode and while both episodes were directed by different directors thus indicating they were meant to be separate episodes, the point where the first episode cuts off on the DVD with a ‘to be continued’ caption always feels jarring when one has watched that ninety minute version so many times.
‘The Harvest’ has the feel of something approaching the middle of the second act of a movie; there’s a lot of building to the third act climax, and since we’re now introduced to all the cast there is a nice sense of sitting back and letting the chemistry flow.
A big chunk of the episode takes place in the library with a massive amount of exposition to get through, and while its topped and tailed with action set-pieces, the episode pretty much works as a solidification of its world.
A series solely focusing on Buffy slaying vampires and vampire-related matters might get a touch repetitive each week, so in a brilliant touch Joss Whedon’s opens the Buffyverse to every possibility with the Hellmouth where the sky is the limit in terms of supernatural phenomena. If confirmation is even needed, Giles even says at the very end of the episode that whatever the characters will face next might be vastly different to vampires.
Like The X-Files which seemed as if it was going to be simply a series about aliens in its first two episodes, Joss and the writer’s room seem to realise that the series needs more than just vampires if it’s going to justify a large chunk of these first ten episodes, and beyond should it get renewed. It says a lot about where network television, and television as a medium, was in the 90s that such a storytelling direction was taken, but as we’ll see, Buffy will also be ahead of many other shows of the era when it comes to being serialised.
Television in the 1990s was in a lovely sense of creative flux during the period. Twin Peaks had made a short-lived impact by focusing on one main storyline throughout the course of its run, or at least that was the plan until the network forced it to reveal the identity behind its infamously iconic murder mystery. The X-Files had baked into its own storytelling a balance between story arcs and standalone stories, having a long form arc that it would return to every couple of weeks, with monster of the week stories to fill in the gap between those all-important mythology episodes in its long season runs.
Shows that wanted to play with exclusively serialised narratives had a harder time surviving, due to networks either thinking that audiences couldn’t sustain an interest for so long, and shows with such long running narratives struggling to gain consistently high ratings; Steven Bochco’s Murder One focused on a single court case over its first season, was critically acclaimed and ensnared a small but devoted audience, but in order to gain a second season renewal it ditched the one case-one season format and instead split itself up into several cases over the course of its second season.
Buffy was about to be on the cusp of making serialised television a much more acceptable thing. Being on a smaller network probably helped, but on top of being a series that gave an identity to The WB Network, it would also indicate that audiences would consistently come back to shows that were sustaining storylines over the course of a season. The X-Files would put the bigger ongoing storyline elements on hold during the monster of the week stories, but as we’ll see with Buffy, it’s going to be able to do monsters of the week without sacrificing any sense of continuity between episodes, and it’s a format and storytelling style that will be one of the many reasons that Buffy is seen as an important show.
One aspect set up over these two episodes that would also become a recurring factor on the series is an overarching Big Bad for the season. The Master (Mark Metcalf) is similar in terms of stature to Lothos from the movie, but unlike Rutger Hauer’s bored performance in the 1992 movie, Metcalf is really great fun while feeling like a genuine threat; his character is restricted to a cave from which he cannot leave, gives bad guy monologues about his plans, but usually follows it with something witty or funny, and the dialogue is delivered humorously and naturally in a way that never makes light or takes away from the stakes (no pun intended) of the drama.
Even his dialogue exchanges with his henchmen and women are funny; Brian Thompson shows as up as Luke, The Master’s right hand man, and if you need any indication that Buffy is a 90s genre series, the fact that Brian Thompson is here tells you it a nutshell.
Then there’s Jesse; played by Eric Balfour who had a habit of showing up in a lot of television around this time (he would subsequently show up in Dawson’s Creek, 24 and Six Feet Under), the actor and the character was originally meant to be in the title sequence of the episode so to make his death at end of the episode all the more impactful, an early indication of how Joss wanted to play with the form of television in making the audience think that Jesse was going to be a regular only for him to be taken away at the end of these first two hours.
Introduced as part of the core cast in the previous episode, we expect him to be saved by Buffy here, get back to the library and have the show go back to what is going to be its form of normal, but the episode pulls the rug out from under us by not only having him turned into a vampire, but also having him be killed, accidentally at that, indicating a willingness to go into the realm of the unpredictable.
We might look back on the first season of Buffy a little more critically in terms of its production value and some of the scripts that were delivered, but the opening two episodes do function as a mini-mission statement of what Joss Whedon was aiming for, as well as hinting at a willingness, even at this early stage, to commit to darker, subversive decisions that the series would become famous for.