Last month we began a series of articles breaking down the first season of the cult classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show debuted as a mid-season replacement on the WB Network back in 1997, making next Spring (when this article series will conclude) Buffy’s twenty-fifth anniversary. While the series never grew into the kind of pop culture phenomenon that was The X-Files or The Sopranos, it managed to seep into that very pop culture almost through osmosis, creating many of the styles and ideas that later TV shows would adapt to greater ratings success.
Buffy’s first season was a rocky one, being that it was entirely written, filmed, and edited for release before a single episode ever made it to airwaves. Showrunner Joss Whedon and his staff of writers (skilled in genres of comedy, drama, or science-fiction), were unable to hear any criticism or encouragement regarding any of the show’s initial strengths and weaknesses. Still, there was an obvious confidence in the material and the finale was excellent: The WB greenlit a sequel season soon after the first one ended. The twenty-two episodes that followed would comprise a season that turned Buffy the Vampire Slayer from a “quirky and fun little genre show,” into the future “cult favorite” it remains today.
Buffy’s second season is a tale of two halves, the first half being the show it was and the second being the show it would become.
The first ten episodes of season two feel like a better put-together continuation of the first season, with the same “freak of the week” plot structure, and reliance on “hokey but charming” situational drama, comedy, and horror, depending on the moment (and sometimes all three in the same scene). It would be easy to dismiss the first half, with lower-tier episodes like “Inka Mummy Girl” (which sees the gang contend with…an Inka mummy girl) and “Some Assembly Required” (where Buffy has to stop a kind of Frankenstein’s monster/resurrected star football player), and think the show had found a low-stakes groove and was primed to settle into a few years on the air being little more than TV fluff.
However that’s not what happened, and there are three key factors elevating the opening of season two, which are done well enough to make a viewer on the fence stick with the show in time to see it take its massive leap forward in quality.
The first comes in the second episode, which sees this season’s big bad debut: Spike. If you’re not familiar with what will become the template for Buffy, there are basically three components happening in any given episode: The first is the forty-five-minute plot driving that week’s action. The second involves some use of the season-long external threat that is looming over everything (the so-called “big bad” of the year). Finally, there’s the introspective angle that Buffy is wrestling with in any given season.
In season one, a typical Buffy episode would see the heroine contend with a killer robot, for example. At the same time, we’re reminded either through an action scene, a cutaway, or a bit of dialogue, that the villain’s big bad for the season (in season one it was the Nosferatu-looking monster, The Master) is plotting and scheming like Rita Repulsa on the moon. Also at the same time, Buffy would be fighting her inward challenge which, in season one, was her reluctance to embrace the mantel of Vampire Slayer.
Every year brings Buffy a new “big bad” to contend with and a new personal challenge to overcome. Since the show is, ultimately, one big metaphor for growing up, those personal challenges tend to relate to that journey: In season two, Buffy has to contend with the personal struggles that come with having a first serious love interest, the vampire with a soul, Angel. At the same time, there’s a new big bad in town, who just so happens to have a lot of history with that love interest.
Unlike The Master—who looked like he stepped out of a silent movie horror show, with his drab clothing, monstrous face, and Max Schreck-looking fangs—Spike is a Vampire for the late-20th century. He wears a leather duster jacket, has bleached-blond hair, swaggers when he walks, and talks with the confidence of a Vamp that’s killed not one but two slayers in his long life of evil. His first episode sees him monologue about eating a hippy at Woodstock and spending the next few hours watching his hand move in front of his face before he snaps and murders the villain we were led to believe would be the season’s big bad.
Spike is a revelation. He’s the kind of instantly captivating character that electrifies a scene and makes the already confident show feel like it had always been missing something before he arrived.
The second step forward in quality for the first half of the season comes with a pair of episodes that aired back-to-back, “Halloween” and “Lie to Me.” The former is easily the best romp episode of the show thus far, getting every ounce of comedic value out of every character in the cast (something the show would do simply effortlessly as it progressed), while the latter is a darker, more character-focused outing. To this point in the show, very few episodes had eschewed the “freak of the week” plot device. A Buffy episode almost always had some kind of one-off bad guy to be dealt with. In this case, the one-off baddie isn’t a monster or a demon; it’s an old friend of Buffy’s who just wants to become a vampire so he can avoid the death sentence his cancer has brought him. It’s the first episode since the Season One finale that puts the heart of the drama not on a fight with a monster but on a character making tough choices, and the success of the episode gave Whedon and co. the confidence to produce more hour-long outings that were about “people who happen to contend with monsters,” and fewer about “people fighting monsters.”
The final big step forward in the first half of the season was the two-part episode “What’s My Line” which, in retrospect, was sort of a mini-season finale, wrapping up a lot of the Spike vs Buffy plot that had been bubbling since episode two. Soon after this, the season (and the series) would take a turn like no other, and Spike’s role as a primary antagonist would never be the same. In that case, he and his love Drusilla (played exceptionally by Juliet Landau) make the most of their last big hurrah as big(gest) bads, even though it wasn’t yet apparent that they were about to be usurped.
Throughout the first half of season two, despite many of the episodes feeling like holdovers from season one, there was a strong throughline of Buffy and Angel’s blossoming relationship elevating everything else around it. The progression of their story this year made some kind of a climax inevitable. That climax came in the two-part mid-season showcase: “Surprise” and “Innocence,” which took the real-world horror of “girl sleeps with boy and wakes up to find he has changed” and put it within the context of a world full of vampires, magic, and demons with and without conscience-possessing souls.
Angel is a vampire “cursed” with a soul. That word is critical to understanding his character; he’s not blessed. It wasn’t a gift. He was once a ruthless barbarian demon, one of (if not the) most feared of his kind ever to roam the earth. But when he crossed the wrong people and tortured a group of Romani (“gypsies” as the show calls them), they cursed him in the most creative way possible: By restoring Angel’s soul but maintaining his vampirism, Angel was forced to feel the guilt of centuries of horror he inflicted. He spent the next several generations in isolation, living off rats, too guilt-ridden to feast on people, and never found a purpose in life until he met Buffy and decided to help her fight those who are as evil as he used to be.
But the Romani’s curse carried a catch.
Should Angel ever feel absolute, contented bliss, a “moment of pure happiness,” his soul would be taken from him and he would return to his barbaric, cruel, former self, the Vampire Angelus. That moment of bliss came after sleeping with Buffy. It wasn’t the sex that changed him back to Angelus (that’s a common misconception even among characters in the two shows), but rather it was the peaceful and quiet moments that followed. With contentment achieved, the Romani curse twisted its knife, and Angel was no more.
The remainder of season two follows Buffy as she wrestles with what happened to her lover. She moves from feelings of shame over causing Angelus’ return, to guilt over the same, to depression over losing him, to a fierce determination that she can save him until, finally, the grim realization that she has to kill him.
As wonderful as Spike was as a bad guy you loved to watch, Angelus was an absolute scene/season stealer. His first moment features him take a bite out of a lady who just inhaled a cigarette, and even though there’s no biological way it should happen, when Angel unlatches his fangs from her neck, he exhales the vapor as if he’d just taken a drag himself…
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It’s a moment that makes no “sense,” but is all about “style.” It’s about setting a mood and establishing how different Angelus is compared to Angel. In this one scene, Joss Whedon instantly told us exactly who this new version of Angel is.
“Innocence” is a Whedon-directed episode, only his fourth of the series so far, and already he shows a carefree “just go for it” attitude, unconcerned about the stodgy old rules of TV making or the way things “ought to be.” No hyperbole: Joss is the TV director’s Steven Spielberg; he just had a knack for creating scene after scene with memorable moments that transcended the medium itself.
There are still a few one-off episodes that followed “Surprise” and “Innocence,” like “Killed by Death” or the underrated “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” but the quality of the writing was stronger across the board, the pacing was snappier, and everything felt a little more supercharged in the wake of the two pivotal episodes mid-season. It was the true turning point of the show and even though there would be stronger seasons overall still to come, when examining the whole seven-year series, there’s a very clear divide that all fans can agree on: There’s the show before “Surprise/Innocence” and there’s the show after it.
The real brilliance of the Angelus arc is that it was an arc at all. Had it been the kind of one-episode problem to solve that so many episodes had done before, it would have gone down as a fun twist, quickly forgotten. Instead, Angelus remained evil, week after week, episode after episode, and just to ensure you sympathized with Xander’s almost eager readiness to stake the vamp’s heart and be done with him, Joss and co. made sure Angelus did some horrific and potentially unforgivable things. The climax of that came in the episode “Passion,” one of the show’s very best and the moment when everyone knew: Angelus has to be killed.
The story of Buffy and Angel is almost Shakespearean, had the thespian ever dipped his toes in the waters of horror-fantasy. Joss himself is a literal student of Shakespeare, having studied the playwright at Winchester College in England. That Shakespearean approach to the Buffy/Angel dynamic was woven throughout the story, but was never more overtly commented on by the show than in the episode “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The criminally underrated episode features the ghosts of dead lovers (tragic, ill-fated lovers, of course) possessing students and forcing them to reenact their final moments of life. The episode comes to a head when Buffy and Angelus are possessed by the lovers, forget who they are, and wax poetic about the nature of their doomed love. It’s a powerfully acted and wonderfully written scene that’s almost meta in the way it comments on the Angel/Buffy relationship and how it has been undone by the return of Angelus.
After that, and the embarrassingly out of place “freak of the week” episode “Go Fish,” all that is left is the two-part finale of the season, which features Angelus on a quest to unleash a demon on the world that would destroy…everything, forcing Spike to turn against him because, in his words “I like this world..billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs,” while the rest of the gang work on a counter-spell that will restore Angelus’ soul. There are so many seeds planted here that will sprout and bear fruit in seasons (and shows) to come, from Willow showing her proficiency in working magic, to Spike’s first taste of working for the good guys, to the tragedy of Angel and Buffy’s broken relationship coming to a head.
In the episode’s final moments, three important moments happen in very quick succession, but it’s the order in which they happen that make it the most Shakespearean, dramatic and gut-wrenching finale of the show: Angelus unleashes the world-ending demon (that can only be stopped with the death of the one who unleashed him), Willow restores Angelus’ soul, and Buffy drives her sword through Angel’s heart, sending him into whatever hell dimension the demon was about to ascend from.
Knowing Buffy does what she has to do after Angel is restored is what makes the episode so special: A copout finish would have been for Willow’s spell to work either too late or early enough to happen before the demon was unleashed. Instead, Angelus accomplishes his mission, meaning his death had to happen. From there, the cheap finish would have been for Buffy to stab Angelus and then restore his soul, but that would take the choice out of Buffy’s hands, and if there’s one thing this show loves to do, it gives its characters hard choices to make and then force them to live with the consequences of those choices.
Buffy sees Angel return to her, then she tells him to close his eyes, and then she runs him through…
Drama like that is earned, and the show will make Buffy live with the consequences of her actions for a long time to come.
Season two might have had a few of the same “meh” episodes that hindered season one, but once it found its stride, it became destination television for its legion of fans. Small, incremental steps forward happen throughout the first half of the season before the show takes a massive jump in quality that will continue for the remainder of its run.
Buffy’s first year was all about coping with her calling as the Slayer. Season two is about the challenges that come with a very complicated first love. Next season brings Buffy to her senior year of High School. As you can imagine, there’s much drama to mine from that setting, and with it, the show will have its most consistently great year of them all…