Every great hero needs a great villain, otherwise they cannot prove their mettle.
The longer Buffy Summers stayed in Sunnydale, the more outlandish were the villains she would face – from the modern Frankenstein’s monster that was Adam, to The Trio, to Dark Willow, to both Spike and Angel, to Glorificus (Glory), and ultimately to The First, the shapeshifting primal cause of all evil.
But in her first year in town, all fresh-faced and stakey, it was a vampire that was to prove to be her nemesis.
But not just any old vampire. A very, very old vampire, hailing from the 12th century.
Back when he bothered with names, he could be identified as Heinrich Joseph Nest.
For many a century though, the world of light and the world of blood both knew him only as The Master.
From a purely storytelling point of view, it was imperative that the Master get a slow start in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, so that the teenage Slayer could establish herself in her new life, and ultimately be ready to battle him.
So for most of his season (Buffy, Season 1), the Master is trapped underneath Sunnydale, unable to break through a force barrier. That let him act like a king in chess: personally impotent, potentially powerful, and sending out his minions to fight against the forces of ‘Good’ in general, and the Slayer in particular.
By the time we join Buffy as she arrives in Sunnydale, the Master has had a long afterlife, so his history is best told in two halves – the era Before Buffy, and the era After Buffy.
Some are born to great darkness, some achieve great darkness, and some have great darkness thrust upon them.
Heinrich Joseph Nest is a candidate for having achieved all three.
Vampires are of course usually made by other vampires, and their initial strength and power depends to a great degree on the power of the vampire that ‘sired’ them.
The man who would become the Master was sired by a descendent of none other than the demon lord Archaeus. Archaeus was immensely powerful, an opponent of Maloker (who became known as the Old One).
Literally overnight then, the Master became one of the most powerful vampires to have ever afterlived. The blood of Archaeus flowed through the Master’s veins, meaning he gathered a crowd of less powerful acolytes around him, both out of fear and hope that he might see fit to reward his servants with a drop or two of the Archaeon nectar.
The Seed of Wonder, a chunk of meteorite that brought demons (or Old Ones) to Earth was lodged in Sunnydale, sealing the Hellmouth with the demons on the inside.
But from early in his vampiric life, the Master felt himself its slave, drawn to it from the 12th century – which was awkward, given Europeans wouldn’t discover the continent for another handful of centuries.
That said, even in the post-Columbian era, the Master wasn’t as fast to skip across the ocean in search of the Seed as you might imagine.
He didn’t arrive in the Virginia colony until 1609, where – because he’s such a chucklemuffin – he posed as a priest. That was extra-special vampy laugh time, because having been undead for almost 400 years, his features had shrunk from those of the typical human, so he looked more like a Turok-Han.
Are you keeping up on your vampire evolution? The Turok-Hans were the vampire equivalent of Neanderthals. The stud of Sunnydale, he was never destined to be.
But a powerful sire of New World vampires? That was certainly within his grasp, and when a syphilitic dying prostitute named Darla revealed to the ‘priest’ that she had no hope of a salvation to light, he turned her into the first in a line of Archaeon vampires.
Ironically, given the location of the Seed of Wonder, the Master and Darla didn’t stick around all that long in the New World. By 1760, the Master was being introduced to his sub-sire, the mocking Angelus in London, England.
Angelus got a beating and a lesson for daring to suggest that vampires could live in the world above ground, but the division began a rupture in the world of the Archaeon vampires, with Darla preferring the above-ground offerings of fine clothes, parties and the pick of society’s blood.
The Master was to welcome Darla back to his fold 120 years later, after she and Angelus fought. But Angelus would also win back the affections of the fickle Darla.
Finally, in 1936, the Master arrived in Sunnydale, called by the Seed of Wonder, and with the plan of opening the Hellmouth, releasing the Old Ones and – well, basically, Game Over.
Rule #1 of efficient Hellmouthing – don’t put your portal to the world of demons in a state with a major geological fault line running through it. Only months after he arrived and got to work with his Hellmouth-opening ritual, a massive earthquake hit the town.
The exact metaphysics is sketchy, but as he was mid-way through the ritual, the Master found himself trapped between the worlds, prevented from rising into the human world again by an impenetrable barrier.
The lesson? Never put off until tomorrow the portal-opening ritual you can do today.
Trapped and with no hope of rescue until a very particular once-a-century night called the Harvest, the Master caught a whole lot of Zzzs, setting his alarm for 1996.
And this… this is where things get interesting.
Buffy Summers, the fabled Vampire Slayer for her generation, arrives in Sunnydale in 1996, unaware of its status as a Hellmouth.
It’s fair to say she catches on fast though, as the Master’s servants, followers of the Order of Aurelius, are determined to use the Harvest to free him from his dubious barrier of what-the-heck.
The Harvest works through a fairly ingenious, methodical, almost industrial mass slaughter, and the use of a sacrificial vampire ‘Vessel’ to feed all the power of the kills down to the Master, giving him the strength to break the barrier and get on with ending the world.
One of the Master’s highest acolytes, Luke, becomes the Vessel and mayhem ensues as Sunnydale’s only teen hangout, The Bronze.
Fun times for Sunnydale’s vamps. Except no-one’s told them there’s a new Slayer in town, and Buffy kills both Luke and a hearty handful of the other Aurelius vampires into the bargain.
Oopsie – Harvest canceled for another hundred years. The Master’s best and easiest shot of rising from his prison has been foiled by a teenager with a stake.
It’s fair to say he takes it badly.
What do you do if your arising has been foiled by a teenager with a stake? You send three kickass vampire warriors after her, naturally. The Three, who really should have workshopped a better name, try to kill Buffy – because, like, who doesn’t? When Buffy and the embryonic Scooby Gang emerge triumphant, the Master has The Three executed. Patience – not a big factor in the Master’s make-up.
Next batter up? Darla herself. Much more subtle than The Three, she uses her old lover against the Slayer. Angelus is in town, and has been hanging around, trying not to get Slayer cooties.
The thing with that is that long story short, yadda yadda yadda, Romany curse, Angelus has had his soul returned to him. While that makes him the vamp none of the other vamps invite around for the Harvest, it makes him relatively safe and slightly interesting to the Slayer.
Cue Darla’s plan to use Captain Cheekbones against Buffy, making the Slayer think her ally’s gone back to being the full fang version of himself, rather than the 2% vampire of Sunnydale.
Spoiler alert – Angel (as he’s now somewhat presumptuously calling himself) stakes the living daylights out of Darla to protect Buffy.
The Master… doesn’t take that well, either. In fairness, the longer the Slayer survives, the more depressed the Master becomes. His depression is soothed only slightly by the Anointed One, a devil-child from out of town
Weirdly perhaps, what with her being the Slayer and him being King of the Vampires, Buffy and the Master first meet in a dream state, caused by a young boy named Billy Palmer.
Billy’s in a coma, and inadvertently manifests Sunnydale’s nightmares. Briefly, the Master gets a moment of triumph, pushing Buffy into a dream-grave and filling it in. When Buffy breaks free, she’s a vampire.
But hey – if you’re gonna be the Bad Guy, you have to expect setbacks. Breaking Billy out of his coma collapses all the false dream realities, and the Master wakes up back in his prison, while Buffy wakes up with a forehead a lot less bumpy than she expects.
Y’know how sometimes, a cold war gets hot in a hurry? It’s that sort of thing that draws the Master to his ultimate destiny.
The Pergamum Codex is a prophecy that the Master really, really likes. Well, why wouldn’t he? It says he rises out of his prison, kills the Slayer and goes on to kick it all over the Hellmouth.
The thing about prophecies is they come with big, heavy portents. Oh, the portents. The Master’s little minions run rampant over Sunnydale, even picking off all-comers on school property – which Buffy just knows is going to be laid at her door somehow.
But, as the Master is keen to point out to the Slayer, prophecies are slippery things – they rarely tell you the whole truth.
When the two come face to face, finally, he manages to hypnotize and bite her.
Sadly, the Master decides to savor the moment and gloat. He only takes a taste of Slayer blood, but boom! That’s quite enough to bust him out of his prison. The word goes out and down – the Hellmouth is open, and so is the buffet.
But with a little help from Broody Angel and Xander Harris, the Slayer lives to kick butt another day. Or at least, later the same day.
The Master and the Slayer embark on one last battle on the rooftop of Sunnydale High, and in an unexpected turn of events, the Slayer flings the Master down onto a massively convenient wooden spike, killing him stone dead.
The Master, unlike most of his dusty minions, leaves a skeleton behind him. The Slayer buries him in a cemetery with rituals and holy water, to stop any other vampires retrieving him.
Plot twist! You can’t keep a good Master down. The Anointed One oversees the retrieval of the Master’s bones, and captures a bunch of Buffy’s friends, including Giles and Willow, for revivification ceremonies and bloodletting fun.
Buffy bursts into the revivification ceremony and sets about the Master’s bones with an animal fury. And a sledgehammer.
So the Master, notional King of Vampires, possessor of the cursed blood of Archeus the Demon Lord, finally ended his days as something that, in poor lighting, you could mistake for table salt.
But before he went, he had taught the teenage Slayer a lesson. If you’re going to live, love, and fail trigonometry on the Hellmouth, there’s a price to pay – and that price is eternal vigilance, because while few ever have the Master’s grandiose sense of occasion, other threats will always be coming in the night.
You might imagine that with his bones pulverized to dust, that the world had seen the last of the Master.
There are two other occasions when the Master returns to Sunnydale.
When Cordelia Chase engages the power of Anyanka the vengeance demon, she creates a timeline in which Buffy Summers never comes to Sunnydale.
Result? It’s Harvest time! The timeline she creates is one in which the Master’s Harvest plan succeeds, and Sunnydale becomes Vampire Central. Perhaps weirdly, he doesn’t immediately move on to his plan to open the Hellmouth, preferring to sit on a throne in the Bronze and be fed little teenage sweetmeats. That sums up the Master pretty well – great, grandiose plans, weak follow-through.
And when The First pays Sunnydale a visit, having pretty much the same plan as the Master had all that time before, to open the Hellmouth and let the demons out, it takes the form of the Master occasionally.
There’s one more outing for the Master in the Season 8 comic-books. He is reborn by the Seed of Wonder to serve as its guardian while Buffy and Angel decide whether or not they want to be parents to a new universe.
As ya do.
Sadly, this storyline has an even more ignominious end for the Master – he’s dusted by a single punch from the stronger, more powerful Slayer. It’s fair to say he’s going to be the laughing stock of Hell when the other demons get to hear about it.
Several hundred years of unchallenged power has made the Master an egomaniac, who expects the ultimate in obedience as his right, and punishes failure and disobedience with ruthless, fatal retribution.
Patient, he is not – despite spending 60 years imprisoned after botching his opening of the Hellmouth.
He displays sadistic tendencies, though they’re usually a reaction against the spirit-crushing boredom and depression of imprisonment and being surrounded by incompetent minions.
That means the Master’s core personality swings from depressed certainty that his followers will let him down to swaggering certainty in his own supremacy over not only his minions, but the worlds of light and blood both.
Like many despots, he has a dramatic superiority complex, refusing to feed off any other vampire’s leavings. But for all that, he believes in the importance of vampire loyalty and almost runs the Order of Aurelius as a Borgia-style family of corruption and death.
That old-school thinking is also evident in his relationship to the Order of Aurelius, which amounts to a genuinely religious adherence. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, he’s also what we might think of today as a demon supremacist – believing in the inherently ‘better’ nature of demons than humans, or even common-or-garden vampires.
Ultimately, by the time he encounters the Slayer, the Master has grown lazy in his notions of his own superiority. His counterpart in the timelines created by Anyanka establishes Sunnydale as a vampire kingdom, but never follows through with his initial world-destroying plan to open the Hellmouth – preferring to sit in pampered luxury than to usher in the all-consuming apocalypse he talked of creating.
In his physical appearance, the Master is slim but powerful, with a head that has shed most of its humanity, and now looks pale and wrinkled, with vampire brow-ridges. His nose is truncated, and his eyes yellow. Watch out for his long yellow claws, too.
He habitually wears a black leather Nehru jacket, with pants, boots and belt to match. It’s an outfit that doesn’t accentuate any of his features, but feels simple and business-like.
The Master has two claims to be the most powerful vampire undead when we first meet him. Firstly, he has the blood of a descendant of the demon Archaeus running through his veins, and there appears to be no vampire more powerful than him.
And secondly, he’s been growing in power since the 12th century, so he’s probably also the oldest vampire anyone’s likely to encounter without using some heavy-duty incantations.
It’s a combination that gives him some extra powers and abilities, above the usual vampire strength, agility, durability and fighting skills.
Where most vampires in the Sunnydale canon are extremely cross-averse, the Master has trained himself over his long afterlife to be able to look on them and even hold them without burning to dust.
Bizarrely, this is because he has conquered his fear, and so can regulate the pain of the touch of such a hated object.
As proved useful in his eventual encounter with the Slayer, the Master has advanced hypnotic powers, allowing him to control people without even the traditional “Look into my eyes.”
Encyclopedic occult knowledge
Again, more by virtue of having had centuries to study it and a deep and abiding interest in the subject, the Master is an expert in occult lore, ritual, and prophecy. Which is handy if you have to keep coming up with ways to break free from a metaphysical prison and murder a Slayer.
While he’s no Spider-Man, the Master has an additional sense to most people and vampires – he can sense the approach or presence of power.
No-one entirely knows why the Master, alone among vampire kind, left his skeleton behind after the second death. Normally, vampires would just turn instantly to dust on being staked, but he had enough power to leave bony remains behind him, which could, in the right circumstances, have seen him cheat death again and be revived.
It’s difficult to claim that the Master has true relationships with people – by the time the Slayer comes to Sunnydale, he is largely consumed by his own egomania. That said, relationships made during his history endure into his imprisonment.
The first of the Master’s Archaeon children, the Master’s relationship with Darla is extremely paternalistic. At first he is her whole world, her god and savior. When she’s roughly ‘teenage’ in her vampiric life, she quarrels with him and runs off with a lover.
She returns, runs away, returns again throughout their time together, but largely by the time of Sunydale and the arrival of the Slayer, she is the most adoring of his acolytes, willing to do whatever is necessary to bring about his ascension. Which is exactly how he wants her.
Naturally, the Master had a rollercoaster relationship with Angelus/Angel – the younger vampire could hardly be relied upon when he was a soulless fiend who wanted to live above ground.
By the time he has a soul and no compunction in killing his sire – a crime which shocks even the Master – his relationship with Angel is more or less hostile. That said, he retains an admiration for the purity of Angelus’ viciousness when he was an actively evil vampire.
The Anointed One
While The Master wasn’t necessarily one to get cutesy with kids, he recognizes, respects, and sometimes feels threatened by power.
Accordingly, he took the opportunity to establish himself in a mentoring role for Collin, the Anointed One. That relationship allowed him to pass on some of his wisdom from the ages of being undead, including the importance of conquering fear, so that nothing, least of all a Slayer, could intimidate him.
It’s fair to say this may have been useless advice, as the Anointed was eventually killed by Spike not with fear, not with crosses or holy water, but with the expediency of a lift and some sunlight.
You pick your wisdom, of course. Maybe “Don’t get fried by sunlight” was next on the Master’s advice list when he got super-stacked.
- Season 1, Episode 1 – Welcome To The Hellmouth
- Season 1, Episode 2 – The Harvest
- Season 1, Episode 5 – Never Kill A Boy On A First Date
- Season 1, Episode 7 – Angel
- Season 1, Episode 10 – Nightmares
- Season 2, Episode 1 – When She was Bad
- Season 2, Episode 7 – Darla
- Season 3, Episode 9 – The Wish
- Season 7, Episode 1 – Lessons (as a disguise of The First)
- Season 8 comic books, Issue 8 – Last Gleaming
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