The juxtaposition of life and death, normal high school reality and the monsters that are threatening to destroy it, is most obvious in this episode, as the teenagers are preparing for the Spring Fling dance and are absorbed in their romantic problems, while Jenny is informing Giles about the signs of the upcoming apocalypse and while the Master is about to rise and the vampires to take over the world. Buffy is worrying about everyday things like biology class or having to romantically reject a good friend that she doesn’t see that way, unaware of the prophecy that Giles has learned of and isn’t able to tell her about. Her breakdown when she overhears Giles and Angel talking about her imminent death at the hands of the Master, might be the strongest and most memorable scene of the season. When she decides to quit her calling, it’s what makes Buffy a convincing and relatable hero – she’s not a perfect superhuman, super-selfless person that’s ready to sacrifice herself without a second thought, she is a real human being who doesn’t want to die before she’s really lived. Another touching scene is between Buffy and her mother – Joyce offers comfort to her daughter the best way she can even though she doesn’t know hat her real troubles are and mistakenly assumes it’s just boy trouble and regular teenage problems. (We also learn about how Joyce and Hank met and get the first hint that Joyce was pretty independent and assertive, not hesitating to go alone to the dance, and that she probably stole Hank from his date.) We really see in “Prophecy Girl” how Buffy is the Slayer who draws strength from her ties to the world, her friends and family: Willow is the one that makes Buffy go back to her mission instead of running away from it. When Willow and Cordelia find several students dead at the school AV club, killed by vampires, Willow is shocked to realize that the monster world is not something far away from their everyday life anymore – it has invaded their world and cannot be ignored anymore. When Buffy puts the leather jacket she got from Angel over the beautiful white dress that Joyce gave her for the dance and goes underground to face the Master, it’s the reconciliation of the duality of her character as “Buffy”, the girl who wants to live and love, and the powerful “Slayer” focused on the mission of killing monsters and saving the world. The first sign that the prophecy might not come true completely is when Buffy makes a choice to ask the Anointed One, fully aware who he is, to lead her into the Master’s lair (contrary to the prophecy that she will not know him and he will lead her into hell). But then the Master tells her that she’s the “lamb”, not the hunter, turning her into a scared and vulnerable victim, the kind of character she was meant to subvert, the teenage blonde horror victim, as well as the older archetype of a virgin sacrifice whose blood ritually restores the strength of an old, ailing king. For a moment it seems that her descent to the Master’s lair is a classic self-fulfilling prophecy and the proof that every attempt to beat destiny only results in it coming to pass – by trying to stop the Master from freeing himself from his prison she has given him a chance to do exactly that. The scene is truly dark and chilling and works wonderfully on the symbolic level – Buffy can’t win underground, because she hasn’t yet faced her own subconscious fears and demons that lurk below the surface. After what we’ve seen in "Nightmares", it’s not surprising that the monster that kills her comes in the shape of a demonic father figure, who also stands for Buffy’s unresolved attitude to her duty, tradition and destiny. But then her ties to the world save her again – as Xander brings her back with CPR. Buffy’s victory over the Master is a statement that people aren’t slaves to destiny and that they have a choice. While it’s not made clear in the episode why she finds new strength after her clinical death, that also works on the symbolic level – especially after what we’ve learned about the origin of the Slayers in S7 “Get It Done”: woman gets victimized; draws strength from her anger to fight back and beat the abuser; but there are consequences as she herself becomes more ‘demonic’ as a result (which we’ll see in Buffy’s behavior in the next episode, “When She Was Bad”).
This episode also has great character moments for all other characters. The season-long unrequited love triangle Willow/Xander/Buffy gets a resolution of sorts. The opening scene is a classic mislead as we first see Xander asking a good friend to the dance and saying he wants them to be more than friends – and it seems like it’s probably him asking Buffy out on a date; then we see he’s actually talking to Willow; then a moment later it turns out he’s just using her to practice asking Buffy out. It seems like Xander is totally oblivious to Willow’s feelings for him (or else that would be really cruel and insensitive of him), which is plausible since Willow has been much better at hiding them than he has been in hiding his feelings for Buffy – but it makes me wonder about “The Pack”, when Hyena!Xander was obviously aware of Willow’s feelings, and we know that Xander remembers everything he said and did in that state. My guess is that Xander does know on some level but that he’s ignoring it and suppressing it because he really doesn’t want to think about her that way. I think that Buffy, on the other hand, did notice Xander’s attraction – because, well, it was impossible not to – but didn’t expect it to be that serious, and chose to ignore it because 1) she wasn’t interested in him that way, and 2) she knew Willow was, and the whole thing could have made things too awkward and ruin the friendship. She tried to stir Xander in Willow’s direction in “I Robot, You Jane” and advised Willow to ask him out. Maybe she’s even giving him a little hint that he doesn’t get, when she tells him that she doesn’t think of him that way and that he and Willow are her best friends. The scene of Buffy rejecting Xander is very true to life, Buffy handles it very well – it’s never a comfortable situation, having to reject a friend’s romantic advances – but of course no amount of sensitivity on her part was going to make Xander feel better about it. His reaction is to start dissing her for her attraction to a vampire (and it’s not the last time he’ll do this in the show…) but I guess this time it’s excusable since he just got his heart broken. This is a great episode for Xander because we get to see all sides of his character – one moment he gets to be a bit of a jerk and self-absorbed as he’s confiding his sorrows in Willow and asking her to be his date for the dance, while Willow shows she has more character strength than it seemed when she flatly refuses to be his second choice, and doesn’t show her own pain while Xander goes to wallow in his own by listening to country music in his room. But then the next moment he shows himself to be really brave, devoted to Buffy, and a poster boy for free will, since he’s the one who doesn’t care about the prophecy and goes straight to Angel, a guy he dislikes and is jealous of, to make him take him underground to the Master’s lair. Xander finally gets his wish and saves Buffy, but in a different way than he dreamed of in “Teacher’s Pet”. Back then he was bothered by Buffy’s strength and his perceived inadequacy, which he saw as a slight against his masculinity, and fantasized about being a big manly hero to Buffy’s damsel in distress and sweeping her off her feet. This time he doesn’t go to play the hero and he’s not expecting to win her love, he just wants to help her any way he can, and he gets to save the hero Buffy exactly because he’s human and can perform CRP (which Angel can’t as a vampire).
Cordelia gets to be another unlikely hero, saving Willow and Jenny by picking them up in her car and driving into the library. Earlier on we see her being on rather friendly terms with Willow – that character development from “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” wasn’t for nothing – and she reveals that she even has real feelings for Kevin, the guy she’s now dating. Of course, this being a Whedon show, it meant that he had to die a brutal death, but it’s what later gets Cordelia to sit in their car at their old meeting place remembering him, which in turn leads to her saving Willow and Jenny and fighting the vampires with them in the library.
Unlike Xander, Giles is a believer in destiny and doesn’t hope to subvert it, but he shows his courage and devotion to protecting Buffy, when he nevertheless decides to go to the underground and face the Master on his own, instead of Buffy, even though that would mean a certain death for him – before Buffy stops him from doing that by knocking him out and going to the underground herself. It foreshadows several other important moments in the show when Giles is ready to go put himself on the line despite his lack of super-strength, and to even sacrifice himself to help Buffy save the world.
Angel is less heroic than Xander or Giles in this episode – not because he lacks courage or devotion to Buffy, but because he’s still ready to give up, before someone shakes him up into action (as Xander does here). He still has a long way to go to become a hero, and as we see later, his fatalistic streak means that he occasionally needs someone like Whistler or Doyle to give him a purpose. The scene between Angel and Xander is interesting as Angel seems to feel as much dislike and maybe even jealousy for Xander as the other way round, once he’s guessed that Xander is in love with Buffy, and because Angel shows a smug, arrogant streak he doesn’t show with Buffy (patronizingly calling Xander a “kid”) that foreshadows Angelus. It’s also interesting that he still won’t confirm or say aloud that he’s in love with Buffy, even though Xander is the second person (after Giles in the previous episode) to (correctly) assume that.
“Prophecy Girl” is pretty much perfect until the last 10 minutes or so, when Buffy is allowed a too easy victory over the Master out of the blue. He had to commit some classic stupid "Evil Overlord" mistakes for that to happen, starting with leaving her to drown in the shallow pool (breaking the rule #13 of the Evil Overlord List: “All slain enemies will be cremated, or at least have several rounds of ammunition emptied into them, not left for dead at the bottom of the cliff.” ). Now I guess we can put this down to over-confidence. But where were all his minions? Why was he alone up there? It's just too convenient. And while Buffy’s new confidence and strength after coming back from her death and the easy way she kicks his ass makes for a great symbolic moment, it isn’t really explained in the episode. The final scene – a shot of Master’s bones – is ambiguous however, and as much as we can see it as a proof that Master has been defeated, it can also be reminder that he was a special vampire who didn’t simply get dusted, and an ominous hint that he might not be finished… which is going to be confirmed in season 2 opening episode “When She Was Bad”. That episode in a way makes “Prophecy Girl” better as it means it’s not all wrapped up a neat little package with a bow on top.
Best scene: The library scene where Buffy learns she’s destined to die: “Giles, I’m sixteen. I don’t want to die!” Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance is really great and heartbreaking.
Master: You're dead!
Buffy: I may be dead, but I'm still pretty. Which is more than I can say for you.
Master: You were destined to die! It was written!
Buffy: What can I say? I flunked the written.
Buffy: Y'know, you really oughtta talk to your contractor. Looks like you got some water damage.
Master: Oh, good. The feeble banter portion of the fight.
Master (in booming sinister voice): Yes! YES! Shake, Earth! This is a sign! We are in the final days! My time has come! Glory! GLORY! (As the earthquake stops, looks over at the Anointed One, in normal voice) Whadaya think? 5.1?
Mythology: The Hellmouth is directly under the Sunnydale high school library. The Master is the first vampire we see using “the thrall” – the ability to hypnotize his victims. He doesn’t turn to dust like other vampires but leaves a skeleton behind. As we’ll later learn, Buffy’s temporary death lead to another Slayer – Kendra – being called, while Buffy was cut off from the Slayer line: Faith will be called upon Kendra’s death, but Buffy’s second death in S5 will not lead to another Slayer being called, despite Faith’s incarceration at the time.
Pop culture references: Star Trek: The Next Generation – Xander doesn’t appreciate Giles’ calmness and calls him “Locutus of Borg”.
What the slashy heck: Xander accusing Angel of checking out his neck (which Angel denies) is funny because it sounds so much like a guy accusing another guy of checking him out sexually (all the more so with the sexual overtones that vampire biting has in the verse). This is just the first of many amusing slashy moments in the show (Xander gets a lot of those).
The Scoobies, as of the end of S1: Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, plus Jenny, Angel and Cordelia as associate members.
Apocalypses averted: 2 (The Harvest, Prophecy Girl)
Character death: Buffy (sort of), The Master (that was the end of him… right? )
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)