Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2

07/02/2012

This week I finished watching all seven seasons of Joss Whedon’s cult TV classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And because people have been politely letting me know they have to “go run a few errands” whenever I start my long rants about the show, I’ve decided to channel my thoughts into a series of writeups which I can just assume people are reading. As I said in the first article, this is mostly a discussion for the fans, so I will be venturing into some spoilery areas. You have been duly warned.

Season 2 

In many ways, Buffy season 1 was little more than an experimental EP. Not only had Whedon never run a show before, but all twelve episodes had to be written, cast, shot, edited, and delivered in succession before the premiere’s air date. Any potential developments the show would undergo had to be planned without the benefit of audience feedback, which means the first episode that could possibly be considered an “evolution” was the season 2 debut.

It’s no surprise then that the first half of Buffy season 2 is basically a re-imagining of Buffy season 1 — lots of “monster of the week” episodes, archplot villains who surface with a new plan for world destruction every few weeks, and plenty of high school hi jinx —  with a refocusing on the elements that worked best, namely the relationships. There are fewer doomsday prophecies, more personal anguish; less horror, more soap opera. The new big bads Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) are scary in their own way, but they’re also more youthful and attractive and better positioned to complicate the Angel/Buffy romance. And they’re not the only supernatural relationship complications. Of the villains in the first half of this season, the Frankenstein football player in Some Assembly Required used to date Cordelia, the soul-sucking princess in Inca Mummy Girl falls in love with Xander, two members of the demon-worshipping fraternity in Reptile Boy are on dates with Buffy and Cordelia, chaos-worshipper Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs) of Halloween and The Dark Age is Giles old best friend, Ford the vampire worshipper in Lie to Me is Buffy’s old best friend, John Ritter’s robot Ted is dating Joyce, and even the eggs from Bad Eggs are meant to represent the children of all of our main characters. In case you’re curious, I just covered all of the first 12 episodes and could go on.

Of course this is all just preparation for the series’ ultimate relational twist, when Angel loses his soul and becomes the evil, murderous Angelus. That plot kicks in at episode 13, Surprise, and continues through to the finale, highlighting the season’s ultimate theme, “It’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all… probably.” Relationally, season 1 was about the fear of failure and rejection. Season 2 is about the fear of success. Everybody has dark secrets that tend to hurt the people they love most just when they become closest. Angel’s scenario is the most literal — he loses his soul in a moment of “true happiness” in bed with Buffy — but Giles’ past as a demon conjuror almost gets Jenny killed, and Jenny’s gypsy secret causes Angel to lose his soul and start killing everybody. Meanwhile Oz discovers an animal side to himself he didn’t even know he had, almost killing Willow in the process. The centerpiece to all of this is episode 17, Passion, one of my all time favorite Buffy episodes. It features an Angel voiceover about the necessity of passion in life, while the same character is stalking and killing people for that very reason. Even though it’s not a Whedon-penned episode, it’s an incredible display of the contradictions that make Whedon drama work so well.

What Doesn’t Work?

Because of the nature and reputation of this season, I’m going to start with the bad news first. Despite being categorically awesome, this is not a perfect season of television. There’s a daring but borderline-distracting lack of irony in Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2, particularly for a show titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From season 1 we knew Buffy had a lot of comic potential, but of the season 2 “funny” episodes, Halloween, Bad Eggs, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, only the former is at all memorable — the only one memorable for the right reasons at least. I should be careful, because this is at least 80% a good thing. I love that a TV show is willing to go to such dark places and examine such intimate human emotions. I just felt like there were times when that came at the expense of the fun. Consider season 5, which was every bit as emotionally intense and thematically ambitious as season 2 but managed to be a rollicking thrill ride at the same time.

This is important because this season is a major transitional stage for the series. Season 1 is very episodic and season 3 is almost pure plot, so season 2 serves as a middle ground — which is basically a teen soap opera, albeit the Citizen Kane of teen soap operas. If you can’t get into Willow loves Xander but Xander loves Buffy but Buffy loves Angel so Xander dates Cordelia so Willow dates Oz but Angel’s a vampire so Xander hates Angel etc. then this season will get tiresome after a while. There are many, many, MANY sappy, music-driven relationship montages, which goes back to the whole, “no sense of irony” thing I was talking about earlier. It’s a comfort that almost all of this rings painfully true to anyone who endured high school, but a few parody episodes in season 3 (particularly The Zeppo, a personal favorite of mine) show that the writers weren’t unaware they maybe pushed that particular envelope a little far at times.

And while I appreciated one more run through the “high school is hell” formula, some of the lesser MOTW episodes like Some Assembly Required, Reptile Boy, Bad Eggs, and Go Fish felt misplaced and really upset the main plot’s pacing. I mean, Spike, Drusilla, and Angelus are arguably the greatest villains the show ever had, so why are we wasting so much time on the Order of Taraka, Ethan Rayne, and The Judge? And I love Xander as much as the next guy, but who the heck decided to interrupt the emotional momentum between I Only Have Eyes For You and the finale with an episode about him joining the swim team?

Lastly, the Kendra arc simply doesn’t play. I like it in theory. I like every single thing that happens on this show in theory. It highlights that Buffy’s greatest strengths are her perceived weaknesses: attachment to the world she lives in and her freedom to choose, i.e. passion which is the season’s central theme. But in a season filled with such colorful characters, Kendra’s blandness causes her to fade into the background quickly. Her death was an emotional non-entity, and even Buffy seemed to have a hard time mourning it while negotiating with Spike just moments after it happened. Considering the other alt-slayer story coming shortly down the road, this one felt like additional baggage in an already overcrowded story.

What Works?

With all of that negative nonsense out of the way, I can safely admit this season is pretty special — not my favorite but it runs a close 2nd. To list the number of improvements from season 1 to season 2 would take too long and include pretty much everything, so I’ll focus on how this season compares to the rest of the series. It is the darkest, most emotionally intense season; it gives defining moments to every member of its cast, from Giles down to Cordelia; it has the best villains — first Spike and Drusilla in the more pulpy vein, then Angelus in the more serious drama vein. It’s peppered from beginning to end with bittersweet character moments like Giles’ paternal speech to Buffy after her tryst with Angel and Xander telling a comatose Willow he loves her just before she wakes up and calls out to Oz. It’s all about love and loss and loneliness, three L words that make for great TV drama (the fourth one wouldn’t work its way into the show until midway through season 4). And perhaps most importantly, it is the defining moment for the character who anchors the show. This is Buffy’s best season of Buffy.

Of course, if Buffy were a real person she would probably object to that claim. She’s pretty darn miserable throughout this season, the piece de resistance being her having to stab the man she loves in order to save the world, but only after he’s been turned good again and while he’s trying to kiss her; and then there’s her leaving Sunnydale, her mother, and all her friends, hoping never to return. That’s the season’s final image, easily the darkest note the show ever ended on, and bear in mind Buffy died in two other series finales. That Joss sure loves torturing his protagonists. In this case it’s not just sadism (though lord knows there’s some of that going on too); if the show is going to continue its plea to viewers that they should try to live life to the fullest, then it needs to explore how that can go horribly, terribly wrong. And as a viewer, I was way more excited to see these characters in season 3 because I felt like I’d been to hell and back with them.

That’s why Passion is the best episode this season. It explores the dichotomy at the heart of the expression: is the fullness of human emotion worth it when human emotion leads to so much suffering? Leads people to do evil, unthinkable things? And in light of all the evil that has gone on in the show, not to mention the real world, there’s really no way a definitive “yes” can be earned without being trite or condescending — no way the characters can cap things off with a celebratory party and fireworks and  singing ewoks with drums. The best ending to such an inquiry is a bittersweet acknowledgment of the pain, with the addendum that life does go on. Season 3 does much to redeem the suffering of season 2, but season 2 is about digging — Whedon and his writers and actors digging down to the core of these characters and finding what’s there when everything else is stripped away. That intensity gives Buffy season 2 a kind of raw, un-ironic power the series would never again equal. After this, I don’t think Whedon ever bothered to take his character to so low a point ever again (season 6 included). He’d already been there.

Similarly, the best MOTW episodes are the darkest ones; the ones that throw a monster into the mix just to make us feel better. In Ted, Buffy momentarily believes she killed her mother’s boyfriend, until he conveniently and unnecessarily turns out to be an evil robot. In Killed by Death, Buffy similarly laments the death of children in a hospital, relieved when the cause turns out to be a Freddy Krueger-esque demon whose butt she can kick and not, say, cancer. In I Only Have Eyes For You, the “monster” turns out to be the spirit of a high schooler who shot a teacher he was having an affair with. Of course, the spirit only reenacts that one, very non-supernatural act over and over again. Rather than copouts, these episodes are brilliant instances of storytelling that allows us to consider the darkest implications seriously without undoing the basic tone and structure of the show.

Oh yeah, and I also love Spike. I could go on and on about him. He’s my favorite character in the entire Buffy mythology, not just because he’s got the whole Jack Sparrow trickster thing going on but also because he’s got genuine depth and James Marsters brings so much to the performance. I’ll save most of that discussion for a more appropriate time a few seasons down the road, but for now I’ll just say that his debut in episode 3, School Hard, is a much needed shot in the arm for a series whose villains had been pretty oppressively one note. He doesn’t just invade Buffy’s school and attack her mom, unearthing those last few safe havens she had left. He also turns right around and kills the vampires’ Chosen One — you know, the one prophesied to lead Buffy into hell — because he wasn’t much fun, now was he? Spike is evolution. Spike is unpredictability. And those are two cornerstones of Buffy storytelling.

Conclusion

Buffy season 2 is just about a masterpiece of TV drama. Joss is clearly excited with the possibility of taking his characters to darker places. But maybe he’s a little too excited, like Angelus looking at his carnage from a distance and smiling proudly. This season forces Buffy to acknowledge that she is alone; that there is a possible scenario in which everyone she loves will desert her and the only thing she will have left to rely on is herself; that the earnest pursuit of love and and responsibility can end very, very badly; that sometimes doing the “right” thing is what hurts the most. All of these things are true and probably essential to the character of the slayer — and they certainly produced great drama and made me want to stick around with these characters no matter what happened over the next five seasons. I’m just glad the show didn’t stay there.

Best Episode
Passion

Worst Episode
Go Fish

Other Classic Episodes
School Hard
Halloween
Innocence
Becoming

Nearly Classic
Inca Mummy Girl
The Dark Age
Lie to Me
Ted
Killed By Death
I Only Have Eyes For You

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One Response to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2”

  1. Holly said

    wonderful. just wonderful.

    reading this is making me want to watch all 7 seasons over again…

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