A review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Once upon a time, there was a goofy little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s first TV outing, a mid-season replacement that only contained 12 episodes, premiered to mixed responses. Whilst the potential was clearly there, it was easy to write it off as just a little too silly, a little too… odd. Nevertheless, it was granted a Season Two, which premiered on September 15th, 1997.
And this is where shit got serious.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 2 is truly a remarkable season of television. This is the year when the writers realised that not only were they making something special here, but that they were capable of producing some incredible content. Whilst the first half does maintain some of the less than impressive traits of Season One, such as poor quality filler episodes (containing mummies) and some rather rubbish bad guys (the zombie from episode 2 and literally everything to do with the Anointed One (Andrew J Ferchland), it develops into something rather unique. It’s as though the show finally gains confidence to go to places that it never dreamed it would venture in its inaugural year, taking a fun little show and presenting a wonderfully complex and compelling character study. What it displays is dark. Is gripping. And is completely, utterly, heartbreaking.
So, let’s take a closer look at the year that changed it all for Buffy, both as a character and a show. This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two.
Kicking off three months after the event of Season One, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), Jenny (Robia LaMorte) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) return to Sunnydale High for a new year, fresh from their victory over the Master (Mark Metcalf). Things remain as weird as ever – mummies are resurrected and fall in love with Xander, Halloween costumes make the person wearing them become who they’ve dressed up as – as there’s some sort of reptile living in a frat boy basement that eats people. The newly titled Scooby Gang also have another problem to deal with – the arrival of newbie Vampire Spike (James Masters) and his utterly insane girlfriend Drusilla (Juliet Landau). Spike is a very dangerous threat, being one of the few Vampires in the world to have fought, and killed, two previous Slayers. Taking control of what’s left of the Master’s motley crew, Spike resolves to kill Buffy by any means necessary, whilst trying to figure out a way to cure his mortally wounded beloved, Drusilla.
Meanwhile, Buffy continues to be hopelessly drawn to Angel (David Boreanaz), the relationship getting more and more intense as time goes on. However, it’s not going to be a happy ever after for these two. It turns out that a big part of Angel’s curse was that he was always to suffer for his past crimes. If he experiences one moment of true happiness, the curse will break and he will revert back to the dangerous Vampire he was before. Alas, this is exactly what he experiences the first time him and Buffy, “make with the smoochies.” Literally overnight, Angel goes from the utterly devoted, loyal ally who Buffy has come to completely depend on – to Angelus.
If Angel was the most loving, kind-hearted boyfriend a girl could ask for, his evil alter-ego, Angelus, is the very worst example of an obsessed ex that you could imagine. Teaming up with Spike and Drusilla, Angelus proceeds to do everything he can to utterly tear Buffy’s life apart, stalking her, threatening her friends and killing anyone he can get his hands on. Broken hearted by the loss of Angel, partly by her own hand, Buffy must face her biggest challenge yet, and the prospect of killing the man she loves before he kills her.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Season Two. Where it starts, and where it ends up, takes all the characters on such an intense journey that it’s quite something to witness. Buffy starts the year as her usual chipper self, if slightly traumatised by her fight with the Master. She ends it as a broken, homeless young woman on her way to an unknown and lonely future. Willow begins the Season still being the shy girl in love with her best friend, and ends it with a boyfriend of her own, saving the entire world to boot. Xander ends up dating Cordelia of all people, and Giles? He has to deal with the development of his relationship with Jenny, the devastating events of her betrayal, and her truly haunting murder at the hands of Angelus. Each of these characters are tried, tested and driven to the point of despair this year, and each one is never the same after it.
A big part of Season Two is the introduction of the truly fascinating, and hugely entertaining, relationship between Spike and Drusilla. Spike, for many, is the best character to stem out of the Buffyverse, and it is easy to see why he is so popular. Masters plays this role to absolute perfection, being hilarious, intimidating and just a scene stealer every single time he appears. Indeed, the original plan was to actually kill Spike off about halfway through the Season, but Whedon decided to keep him on due to just how brilliant Masters’ performance was. Whether being an enemy to Buffy or an unlikely ally, Spike always leaves you wanting more.
Drusilla, meanwhile, is just as complex and interesting as Spike, with an extremely depressing backstory. It turns out that one of Angelus’ worse crimes way back when was taking a young woman who had visions of people in trouble, killing all of her family, driving her mad, and then finally turning her into a Vampire to suffer forever. Thus, Drusilla is completely insane, doted on by Spike, and entirely unpredictable. If Masters is utter perfection as Spike, Landau is equally as captivating. Both characters survive Season Two to make welcome returns later on, and it’s delightful that they do.
It’s the Buffy and Angel story, however, that forms the core of Season Two. Buffy, for her part, begins the year trying to stay away from Angel, being inexplicably drawn to him despite herself. By the time we are halfway through the Season, the two are literally inseparable, and seeing their doomed love affair, complemented beautifully by Chrisophe Beck‘s incredible Buffy/Angel score, is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying. It’s also fantastic to see Boreanaz come back a hell of a lot stronger this year, giving a much improved portrayal of Angel, if not quite on the always superlative level of Geller.
It is, however, when Angelus appears that Boreanaz shines, because, as an evil, souless monster, he’s a revelation. Boreanaz seems utterly liberated playing Angelus, and makes him the perfect combination of scary, hilarious and downright hateful. It helps, as well, that Angelus truly is a spectacularly well written villain. Everything he does is personal, as he knows exactly what he needs to do to hurt Buffy, and relishes every single second of it. Indeed, Whedon was initially hesitant about doing an evil Angel storyline, concerned that Boreanaz wouldn’t quite be able to pull it off. It says a lot, both for the writers and the actor, that Whedon admitted Boreanaz scared him in these episodes – and was so impressed he even started to consider giving him his own show. Talk about turning it around!
This does not in anyway take from Geller, or the absolutely spot-on work that she does this Season. Buffy is put through the absolute ringer here, having to deal with the loss of someone she loves alongside the continued guilt of her not being able to kill him, especially as the bodies start to mount up. The amount of times Geller has to cry, to fight, to put on a front, to be the bad ass, wise cracking Buffy we are used to or the lonely, mixed up young woman she becomes as the Season goes on – hell, if anyone had any doubt about her range before Season Two, they certainly won’t after watching this. Buffy is never quite the same after Season Two – the events here have ramifications right up until the very end of this show, and shape the foundations of a five seasoned spin-off. This is pure, unadulterated, character focused writing.
The entire evil Angel plot is the perfect example of how to give a good message, and tell a brilliant story. It’s just bursting with the real life lessons of being careful who you give yourself to, and what may end up happening when that person gets what they want. Evil Angel is the classic example of an ex who just will not go away, and is resolved to make your life a utterly hellish experience. The only difference is that Angelus wants to kill everyone Buffy cares about – and even succeeds in offing one of her friends. There is such a foreboding feeling that takes place throughout this arc. How can Angel ever come back after this? How are the gang going to be able to welcome him back? Will Angel ever be the same? Will Buffy ever be the same? Well, Season Three has plenty of answers in that department, but more on that next time.
So, we have some truly memorable bad guys. We have a fantastic story-arc. But what about the rest of the Buffy cast?
This is an interesting year for Xander, and he’s probably the character who receives the least development. That’s not to say he fails to make an impact, with his unyielding jealousy of Angel, and love for Buffy, shaping many of his decisions throughout the year. It’s also what throws him into the unlikely arms of Cordelia. Two characters who are complete opposites, who end up being in a weird relationship that, unfortunately, brings out the worst in both of them. Whilst Cordelia is prepared to sacrifice her “popular” status to be with Xander, he was never going to be able to truly make her happy and Xander, for his part, is simply too immature to handle a serious relationship. It’s also rather unfortunate that the whole Angelus plot brings out the best and the worst in him. The best is displayed through his brave standing up to Angelus when Buffy is ill in hospital, telling him to back off to his face, knowing full well Angelus could snap him like a twig without blinking. The worst is right at the end of the Season, when he refuses to inform Buffy of the last minute plan to try and re-ensoul Angel.
In contrast, Willow has quite a busy time here, getting some serious development and starting on a very intense journey that will lead her down some dark routes later on. For one thing, she finally stops mooning over Xander after seeing him with Cordelia, instead focusing her attentions on Oz (Seth Green), her love interest for the year. The fact that he’s a werewolf only seems to make her want to get closer to him, and seeing their lovely relationship slowly develop is a delight. Season Two also introduces Willow to something that will come to define her in later years – the art of magic. Showing an early appetite for the arts, she successfully manages to cast an extremely powerful gypsy curse in the Season Final. This new found skill gives Willow some confidence – never again is she the meek girl of Season One.
And Giles. Poor, poor Giles. There are so many haunting Giles moments in Season Two that it’s actually depressing to think about them. To watch his growing relationship with Jenny, and see it fall apart due to his undying loyalty to Buffy, his first and only priority, is simply spellbinding. See, it turns out Jenny was a member of the gypsy tribe who originally cursed Angel way back when, sent to watch over him and make sure he doesn’t lose his soul. Of course, she fails in this – and is partially responsible for the hell Buffy ends up going through. It’s because of this Giles breaks it off with her, and it’s only when Buffy seems ready to forgiver her can he even consider starting it again. Of course, Angelus has other plans. Like everyone else, Giles is never really the same after losing Jenny, and by the time Season Three roles around, he’s a lot less bumbling, and all about getting the job done. The one bit of happiness for him is how lovely his relationship with Buffy is, and how much these characters clearly care for one another.
Other characters introduced in this very packed Season include Kendra (Bianca Lawson) the other Vampire Slayer, called to duty following Buffy’s temporary death fighting the Master last year. Although Kendra isn’t around much, it is interesting to be presented a second Slayer who isn’t focused on the normal life that Buffy always craves. She’s completely focused on the task, which also makes her slightly lesser than Buffy, who always tries to move past the expected lonely and short life of a Slayer. Kendra therefore doesn’t last too long, offed maybe a tad too easily by Drusilla. There’s also the Judge (Brian Thompson), an uber demon from the dawn of time who ends up being a bit lame, and Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs), a nasty face from Giles’ past.
Despite the fact that this is undoubtedly a superb Season of television, there are some clunkers, especially in the first half of the Season. Whilst we have Spike to entertain us, it’s not really until Angel loses his soul that Season Two truly becomes brilliant. It is surprising, then, that the worse episode for me falls right at the end of the Season, just before the two-part Final. Go Fish really is dull. Xander joins the swim team to impress Cordy, and they are all being turned into fish due to the use of steroids. It’s not particularly interesting, it’s a bit of a chore to get through, and considering it falls between a brilliant run of evil Angel episodes and the superb Season Final, it’s rather oddly placed.
It’s much more fun to talk about the good episodes of Season Two, because when it gets it right, it’s sensational. It’s impossible to just talk about one, so here is five.
In fifth place is School Hard, Spike and Dru’s introduction. Spike invades Sunnydale High parent teacher night, leaving Buffy and co to have to save all the parents, including Buffy’s mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and Principle Snyder (Armin Shimermen). Entertaining, and a joy on re-watch, Spike sends some serious shockwaves rocking through the town within five minutes.
Fourth is Becoming Part 1. The first of the two-part Season Final gives us a detailed look at Angel’s past, including the circumstances of his original turning into a Vampire by Darla (Julie Benz), how he got his soul and the hundred years he spent in torment over all the horrible crimes he committed. It also features Buffy and co trying to restore Angel’s soul, for the first time, and it going horribly wrong.
Third – Becoming Part 2. Wanted for the murder of Kendra, Buffy is utterly alone in her final fight to stop Angelus unleashing hell upon the world through the unearthing of an ancient demon. Teaming up with Spike of all people, who is just as sick of evil Angel as Buffy is, Buffy has her final confrontation with Angelus. And ends up having to kill him moments after he finally regains his soul, thanks to Willow. Ouch.
Second – Innocence. The first appearance of Angelus is about as nasty as it gets, with one of our main characters, a guy we like, going on a horrible killing spree and relishing in his returned evilness. The worst thing he does, however, is mock Buffy, making her think that Angel has lost all interest in her because she wasn’t good in bed. We as the audience know that Angel is gone here, and its Angelus talking, but Buffy has no idea. And it completely crushes her. Innocence really does not pull any punches. Angelus is evil. And is about to become a serious problem.
But if you had any doubt of that – the first place has got to be Passion. It’s a few episodes after Angel lost his soul. Thus far, he’s been a bit of an arsehole and killed some people we don’t know, but there’s always this underlying feeling that they’ll find a way to get Angel back eventually. That is until this episode, when Jenny, determined to right her wrongs, discovers a way to do just that. And is brutally murdered by Angelus for her troubles, to be later displayed on Giles’ bed for him to find. This episode is truly the final game-changer for Buffy as a show. Throughout the sequence when Jenny is running for her life, we are expecting Buffy to jump in and save her at the end. She doesn’t, and in one move, the show tells us that Angel is truly gone. One of the main characters is killed off by another, and in that moment we know that even if Angel does return, things never can truly be the same. This is the episode where Buffy finally gives up on seeing Angel again, unknowing that Jenny’s solution is hanging about on a floppy disc, waiting to be found.
Season Two of Buffy is about as good as it gets on TV. When it’s good, it’s truly unbeatable, and a perfect example of writers taking some promising ingredients and creating something remarkable. Never again does Buffy feel this intense or dark, even in its otherwise flawless Season Five. Whilst not all episodes are perfect, Season Two is so full of strong writing, incredible characters and beautiful moments that it really deserves its classic status.
Thus, we move onto the fan favourite Season Three. A very intriguing year.
- Superb villains and an incredible story-arc
- A few weak episodes, particularly in the first half