Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two
The first season of Buffy boasted a mixture of imaginative storylines and tired plots, a group of characters that varied between fascinating and shallow, and special effects that were generally rather cringe worthy. The second season of Buffy, on the other hand, fixes almost every problem that marred the first. A warning before we continue, though: this review will include SPOILERs for most episodes discussed.
After all that improvement-trumpeting introduction, I'd like to say that the second season explodes out of the gate. Alas, it does not. The opening episode – When She Was Bad – seems hell bent on milking the first season's weakest aspects for all they're worth. Cheesy vampires come up with a plan to resurrect a defeated and cheesy looking villain, and the world quakes (I suppose). Buffy, newly returned from a summer vacation while all the vampires too took a break, is traumatized by the Master's death, and those around her theorize that, because of that, she's decided she has to be invincible. This would all be a lot more effective if, in the end, Buffy didn't turn out to be essentially invincible and defeat all the vampires single handedly, save for the Annointed One who scurries off to enact more dastardly schemes. Yawn.
In fact, the season doesn't really kick off until the third episode, where things go from overblown to exemplary with all the speed of a jet engine. So what changes? Spike. Played by James Marsters, Spike is a relatively young and sadistic vampire that comes to Sunnydale to wreak havoc and find a place for his injured vampiric paramour, Juliet Landau's Drussilla, to recover. Spike is like nothing that's appeared before in the show, a vampire draped in sarcasm and irreverence, as exemplified by his scorn for his fellow vampires: If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. (School Hard) But Spike isn't just a witty monster. No, Marsters imbues the character with so much charisma that the viewer can't help but love him, and he grows more complex yet when one factors in his humanizing relationship with Drusilla. Soulless demons the two might be, but they clearly love each other all the same. As for Drusilla, Landau's portrayal of her is excellent, at once vulnerable and creepy, demented but somehow understandable. At the end of the third episode, Spike slaughters the Anointed One and takes over his lair, and the change couldn't be a more welcome one.
Much of the main plot is developed through the season's three two part episodes. The first, What's My Line, brings the main portion of Spike's storyline to a climax. In order to revive Drusilla to full health, Spike kidnaps Angel and plans to sacrifice him to her. To keep Buffy off his back while he does this, he evokes the Order of Taraka, a cult of deadly assassins. The double episode is filled with genuinely creepy moments and numerous instances of often surprising character growth, for Xander and Cordelia in particular. At the episode's conclusion, Drusilla is restored, Angel wounded, and Spike crippled. It's a mark of Marsters charisma that, even after being confined to a wheelchair, Spike still manages to steal every scene he's in.
The second group, Surprise and Innocence, contains a turning point for the season even more significant than the crippling of Spike. To celebrate Drusilla's birthday, she and Spike prepare to summon the Judge, a demon designed to cleanse the earth of humanity. The really interesting part, however, doesn't come until the very end of the first episode. After Angel and Buffy make love, the Gypsy curse mentioned in the first season causes Angel to lose his soul, turning him to Spike and Drusilla – and against Buffy and her allies.
Finally, Becoming parts one and two wrap up the season with a mixture of epic action and excellent character moments. Angel attempts to bring to life a world ending demon as Buffy and co attempt to restore his soul. In the middle of all of this, Spike has a change of heart and, after episode after episode of quarrelling with Angel, switches sides, saying to Buffy: We like to talk big, vampires do. 'I'm going to destroy the world.' That's just tough guy talk. Strutting around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You've got... dog racing, Manchester United. And you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's all right here. But then someone comes along with a vision. With a real passion for destruction. Angel could pull it off. Goodbye, Piccadilly. Farewell, Leicester Bloody Square. You know what I'm saying? (Becoming, Part Two) Of course, all that might make more sense if he hadn't summoned the Judge half a season earlier, but the twist is still fascinating, and further goes to show how different Spike is from your average vampire. Most of the climax is what you'd expect, but the exception is Angel's restoration moments before Buffy must kill him, an emotional high that's likely to leave any viewer more than a tad shellshocked.
It's in Becoming that the core of Whedon's beliefs, and the show's thematic heart, come clear. As things reach their bleakest, a demon from the sidelines tells Buffy: Bottom line is, even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are. You'll see what I mean. (Becoming, Part One) Buffy isn't a hero because she was chosen – through no fault or desire of her own – to be the Slayer. She's instead a hero because of how she acts as a Slayer, and because of the decisions that she makes once the inevitabilities of her life have played themselves out.
As is no doubt obvious from the outlines of just those three (double) episodes, Whedon is utterly unafraid to shake up the framework he's set up, and it's from that that the show's best moments come from. It's no longer a fair assumption that all good characters are safe, and the season's evolutions are often impossible to predict. Spike, audience stealing bastard that he is, is crippled, and Angel, love interest and major character, becomes an antagonist and then dies. The uncertainty that soon sets in rapidly becomes one of the show's greatest strengths.
The side stories in season two are almost universally at the high level set by season one's best episodes. As before, the various beasties that Buffy encounters are each metaphors for an aspect of her teenage life. Reptile Boy, for instance, shows us a group of frat boys that feed female sacrifices to their god – a giant snake that lives in their basement. Go Fish deals with a swim team that takes steroids. Before long, the members are themselves turning into monstrous aquatic creatures. These storylines are well executed, but the best part of them is often their connections to the rest of the show. Lie to Me, for instance, focuses on a group of humans who've discovered the existence of vampires – and have decided to worship them. The members of the cult are expertly depicted, coming off at once as desperate, deluded, and almost understandable, and the conclusion is – like everything featuring Spike – fantastic. That being said, Whedon's attempt to add a measure of moral ambiguity by making the human villain suffer from a terminal illness falls rather flat. No, Whedon, atrocities cannot be forgiven due to one's nearness to death. Still, the episode's excellent throughout. Others, such as Halloween, Bad Eggs, and Killed by Death include the vampires in more tangential rolls, but the blurring of side and main plots serves to keep the stakes high and the world believable.
That being said, the world does have the occasional gap in troubling moment above and beyond everyone in Sunnydale's herculean ability to forget mass murder within the hour of the blood drying. Principal Snyder is as enjoyable as ever in his quest to remove the 'pal' part of his job description, but the knowing discussions he has about the vampiric problem in episodes like School Hard and Becoming raise some awkward questions. First, if Snyder's aware enough of vampires to have a "usual story" in School Hard, why did he attempt to flee right into their clutches mere moments before? And, more importantly, why is he so hellbent on tormenting the Slayer in his midst if he knows the importance of her job? Furthermore, while the area around the Hellmouth is a fairly coherent place, the rest of the world is a bit sketchier. When Spike decides to evoke the aforementioned Order of Taraka to kill Buffy, one of his henchmen asks if that isn't "overkill." Excuse me? If there's one Slayer, who's the most dangerous thing since the sun for anyone of vampiric persuasion, why on earth wouldn't they slay her as quickly and surely as possible every time?
Finally, in the episode Halloween, Buffy attempts to reconcile Angel's relationship with her to his past and decides she must be lacking in comparison with the noblewomen he no doubt lusted after in his youthful days. Well, alright, that doesn't seem too likely, but Buffy's a teenaged girl who's never met a Victorian noblewoman, so the emotions works. When Angel hears of this, however, his answer is: I hated the girls back then. Especially the noble women. […]They were just incredibly dull. Simpering morons, the lot of them. (Halloween) I appreciate the sentiment, Angel, but the idea of the nobody human Angel's shown as in Becoming's flashback ever considering noblewomen as romantic partners is a tad jarring to anybody who views the past as anything but an extended high school dance. Still, the first of my two complaints stem more from a lock of information than outright flaws, and the third is hardly major.
The show's villains are not the only recurring minor characters. A problem for me in the first season was that, aside from the show's core cast, the rest of the school essentially consisted of blank bystanders who could be counted on to be either one shot villains, dead, or both by the end of their introductory episode. It still holds true that any new character is a beasty until proven innocent, but the greater length of the season allows the writers to often show us characters and items a fair while before they grow important. The greatest example of this is Seth Green's Oz, the guitarist who begins to date Willow midway through the season. Long before the two know each other, however, the character makes appearances, and, when it's time for him to join the main characters and especially step into the spotlight for the episode Phases, he's well established and sympathetic.
Any viewer quickly comes to understand the general structure of almost any episode: there's a menace, Buffy punches the menace, the menace either flees or dies. A large part of what makes the formula work so well is the impact all of this has on Buffy's character. Her arc is still primarily concerned with her attempts to balance being a normal girl and the slayer, but the brutality of the latter has now come to affect the former, and Buffy herself has to face the consequences of the violence she uses. That leads us to Ted, the hands down best episode of the season (and the show so far). Instead of focusing on one bogey or another, Ted builds a compelling story out of Buffy's personal life. Her mother – played by Kristine Sutherland – has a boyfriend, and the two have grown close. The newcomer, Ted, wins over all of Buffy's friends, but Buffy can't get over her dislike.
As the episode progresses, Ted threatens Buffy with greater and greater punishments. What makes this so effective, especially in contrast, is that these are emotional highs achieved without any more than powerful writing. As Ted continues to harass Buffy, he eventually discovers her diary – and more than a few mentions of slaughtering creatures of the night – and says that he'll have her committed if she ever dares interfere with him. So Buffy reacts as she does throughout the season: with violence. She kills Ted, but the cheery climax of slaughtering a vampire does not follow. Instead, Buffy is ostracized and under suspicion, and she's forced to deal with the consequences of murder. Of course, this is where Whedon's fantastic ability to have his cake and eat it too comes in. After he's extracted everything he can from Ted's death, he has Ted return as a monster, exonerating Buffy from that particular transgression but very much retaining the lesson that she is capable of such things. Oh, and as if all that wasn't fantastic enough, the episode's detective and martial climaxes are some of the season's best, too.
The other main dimension of Buffy's arc is her relationship with Angel. For the most part, Sarah Michelle Geller and David Boreanaz manage to make their interactions fairly believable, if never quite heartwarming, though there is certainly the odd and painful appearance of melodrama: Angel, when I look into the future, all I see is you! All I want is you. (Bad Eggs) To be fair, one gets the sense that the over the top nature of much of her relationship with Angel is intended, as a reflection of most teenage romances. Later developments in the season, however, rely heavily on their love being true, not just a temporary fling, so the parts played for excess or laughs feel odd when located near the more touching scenes. Oddly enough, it's in the scenes where Angel's an antagonist that their former relationship is the most believable. The villainous Angel works well both due to actor David Boreanaz's skills and because he does, after all, have motivation to engage in the kind of psychological, cat and mouse battle that all of the show's antagonists have engaged in to a greater or lesser degree. For him, the roundabout methods of attack make perfect sense, and episodes like Passion and I Only Have Eyes for You do an excellent job conveying a love gone horribly wrong.
The season one character that changes the most here might be Cordelia. Before, she was a hilariously over the top school bully with the occasional glimpses of personality. Over the course of the second season, however, she becomes a character on par with the others, develops a believable relationship with Xander, and most certainly manages to maintain her core bitchiness. Giles, also, grows considerably in this season, as evidence of his darker past comes to light, first in the episode Halloween and then, later, in The Dark Ages. Though the modern incarnation of everyone's favorite Watcher is still a stark white, it's quite fascinating to see him wrestling with the consequences of his own actions. His love interest, Jenny Calendar, also becomes a far more interesting character than she was before, and the way that their relationship changes between episodes is always believable and interesting. By the time of the episodes in which she comes to the fore – Surprise/Innocence and Passion – Jenny's got as much agency and mystery as any of the show's main characters.
At the season's end, Spike's left, Drusilla's gone, Angel's dead, Jenny's been killed, and a wanted Buffy has fled Sunnydale after being kicked out of her mother's home. Perhaps the biggest change, however, is my appreciation for the show. I'll be watching season three as soon as I finish this review – not because of promises that it will get better, or because I feel obligated as a reviewer, or because I'm out to pass the time – but because I genuinely care about every one of the show's characters.
And… done. Time to get out those DVDs...
Standouts: Ted; What's my Line?; Passion; Becoming; Lie to Me