Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a seminal work in both television as a medium and speculative fiction as a genre. One of the things that made Buffy such an addictive treat and a show worthy of its undeniable legacy is its deep and intricate lore. According to creator Joss Whedon in the DVD commentary of the pilot, Warner Brothers was particularly interested in all things having to do with the concept of the “Hell Mouth” that served as the central conceit for the show’s spooky happenings.
For all of Buffy’s wonderful storytelling and intricate worldbuilding, there were some serious cultural blind spots in the writers’ room. The most egregious example of this is the depiction of The First Slayer or “The Primitive” as she was referred to on the show. She was thankfully given an actual name later: Sineya. Her origin was the truly unhelpful and nebulous “Africa” found in many a western story.
In the penultimate episode of season 4, “Primeval,” the season’s arc came to a close when Buffy and her newly reunited “scoobies” invoked the essence of the First Slayer to bind them into a more powerful force so they could defeat Adam, a part-demon/part cybernetic Frankenstein monster. (This show is weird.)
It’s a huge love letter to one of the most salient themes of Buffy, strength through the reliance on and trust in her loved ones was her true strength, not her supernatural powers. However, in the Buffyverse no good deed goes unpunished. In the season finale, “Restless,” the gang has to contend with an affronted Sineya trying to kill them in their dreams because she was made to believe that to be the Slayer is to fight alone. Thematically, this is such a solid foundation to build from. The episode itself is regularly included on lists of best Buffy’s episodes. The events here reverberate throughout the rest of the show and set up the huge arcs of season 5.
As the first slayer, Sineya was forced by warlocks called the Shadow Men to take an undiluted dose of shadow demon energy into her. It made her a stronger, more effective weapon against the forces of evil. She was more powerful than subsequent slayers in her mystical line, but she lost some of her humanity in the process. Because of this, she spent her days shunned by the human settlements and villages she protected from vampires and other beasties. Sineya’s story is depicted quite poignantly in the Buffy comics, but most of her context is left out of her appearances on the show. In fact, in “Restless,” a Spirit Guide speaks for her because she’s lost human speech.
“I have no speech. No name. I live in the action of death, the blood cry, the penetrating wound. I am destruction. Absolute …. alone.” -Sineya
Throughout the run of Buffy, Buffy herself remarks that she is “only a girl” and laments that she has never had a say in being The Chosen One. It, therefore, makes poetic sense that Sineya was similarly also “just a girl” chosen. And repeatedly Buffy is seen as special not because of anything inherent to her but because she went against tradition and chose to partner with others to fulfill her sacred duty. But where Sineya’s television appearances fail is when we examine some of the tropes and downright racially motivated slights used against this figure of great strength and great sadness. The first issue is that because Sineya has lost speech, a spirit guide is used to speak for her. This spirit guide takes on the form of white Wiccan character, Tara McClay.
This prickles the senses in an unpleasant way for those who have experienced the emphatic white feminist undergrad hopped up on the power of suffragette sentiment deciding it’s her duty as an enlightened woman to give voice to the needs of a “primitive” woman from a backward culture that needs saving.
The next issue is Sineya’s physicality. Without the context of what she’d been through, this first meeting is a lot to take in. Sineya is hunched and bestial, reaching for Buffy with outstretched talons, daring not touch her form gleaming in the sandy desert setting. When she speaks, the few words she is permitted by the script, it’s with a deep bitten off growl through a mouth full of ruined yellow fangs. Her hair is a wig that has been mangled and matted — I’m guessing this was some failed attempt at giving her locs. It’s this last detail that prompts Buffy to quip that she should pay more attention to hair care. If that’s not a completely tone-deaf line played for laughs to make our flaxen-haired protagonist look stronger at the expense of the “ugly” other, I don’t know what it is.
When Buffy has her moment of realization that she’s talking to the first Slayer, instead of showing any empathy or connection or pausing to consider that she might be a rich fount of knowledge about her own origin, she snottily runs down all the reasons she’s better than Sineya. Buffy walks and talks and doesn’t sleep on a bed of bones. Way to show your privilege and good fortune there, Buf.
Before Sineya is defeated, she oracles one of the most important lines of the show, “You think you know what you are and what’s to come. You haven’t even begun.” This not only sets up huge events in the narrative but it also gives Buffy a new drive to learn about her origin and power. She goes on multiple vision quests to commune with her spirit guide. Instead of it taking on Tara’s visage, it takes the form of Sineya, which is at once a nice touch and a big cheat.
If I were redrawing Sineya, I’d place her in a specific region of Africa. Humankind started in Africa, but I’m guessing the slayer line is a few hundred or maybe a thousand years old, not millions. I’d have short flashbacks of Sineya’s life, contextualizing her for Buffy and for the audience. Above all else, I’d view her as a person and not a plot device to make Buffy look stronger by defeating her.
I’d then hire Ruth E. Carter who was already a prominent costume designer at the turn of the century. She’d do some research to find the best options aesthetically and bring her own imagination to making the look her own. There are valuable and interesting components to the story that are worthy of the narrative but the execution was offensively delivered.
The final issue with Sineya in Buffy is that the storyline is never closed. One could argue that Buffy rededicating herself to being a Slayer in more than just duty but in mind and spirit is what led her to make the world-changing decision she does in the series finale. She convinces Willow to rewrite the spell of the Slayer so that every girl with the potential will be a Slayer at the same time. Perhaps just before or even during the spell, Buffy and Sineya could have had one final reckoning about whether the Slayer should be alone or be legion.
After a scene designed to respect both their journeys, which champions female autonomy, Sineya would give Buffy and Willow her blessing thus allowing Willow to complete the spell to imbue all the Potential Slayers with their full power. After all, Buffy, Faith, Kendra, Xin, Nikki and countless others dating all the way back to, Sineya their foremother have paid the price for that power with their blood and their lives.