A Heartbreaking Loss of Innocence

Feb 7, 2007 (Updated Mar 24, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Amazing writing, acting and character development across 22 entertaining episodes.

Cons:"Ted" is uncharacteristically weak. Low in extras, and in no way suitable for children.

The Bottom Line: "Best Television Ever" is a little dramatic, but definitely apt, especially for the momentous final arc.


Please Note: Although this review is tagged for spoilers, it should also be noted that certain crucial plot developments from Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season One are also mentioned.

Overview

If season one was the year in which “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” introduced itself as an excellent antidote to teen soap operas, season two proved that the show could easily compete with any of television’s big hitters. With a full roster of 22 episodes, the writers and actors were really able to develop and hone their craft, resulting in some truly amazing pieces. For ease of reference, here is a list of the season’s episodes in order. Highlights are in bold, lowlights in italics.

1) When She Was Bad; 2) Some Assembly Required; 3) School Hard; 4) Inca Mummy Girl; 5) Reptile Boy; 6) Halloween; 7) Lie To Me; 8) The Dark Age; 9) What’s My Line, Part One; 10) What’s My Line, Part Two; 11) Ted; 12) Bad Eggs; 13) Surprise; 14) Innocence; 15) Phases; 16) Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; 17) Passion; 18) Killed By Death; 19) I Only Have Eyes For You; 20) Go Fish; 21) Becoming, Part One; 22) Becoming, Part Two

As you can see, the season consists almost entirely strong episodes; pieces that I feel are not only good quality in terms of “Buffy”, but television as a whole. If you do not wish to read the longer commentary in this review, I can say without hesitation that 21 of the 22 episodes here are well worth your time. There are variations in quality between the ‘good’ and the ‘amazing’, but the quality of writing and acting is uniform throughout. Each script is intelligent and witty, and even episodes with overly slow pacing (“The Dark Age”; “Killed By Death”) or plain silly plots (the mutant fish-men in “Go Fish” and the preachy “Reptile Boy”) are very watch-worthy, stuffed with good jokes and interesting character exploration. More importantly, the best episodes (“Innocence”; “Passion”; “Becoming”) can stand up against almost anything else and come out on top. If I could mark above five stars, I certainly would here.

I explained the basic premise of Buffy in my review of its first season, but here’s a brief recap. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been chosen to be the Vampire Slayer, and is gifted with supernatural strength and abilities that render her crucial to humanity’s survival. She is assisted in her duties by her Watcher - and substitute father figure - Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), as well as best friends Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon). Vampire-with-a-soul Angel (David Boreanaz) provides Buffy’s love interest, while cheerleader Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) proves the most reluctant member of the self-proclaimed ‘Scooby Gang’. The plots usually deal with the various horrors of growing up expressed through supernatural metaphors. This means that a viewer can appreciate the show either as a throwaway romp or on much deeper levels, and single episode stories mix with long running plot threads to develop and explore the characters. This combines to form both entertaining and emotionally/intellectually stimulating television that almost anyone could enjoy, provided you excuse the odd low-budget make-up or costume faux pas. Highly, highly recommended.

Detailed Discussion

Season two opens with Buffy returning to Sunnydale after a summer spent in LA with her father, although she comes back a markedly different person (“When She Was Bad”). Fresh from her brush with death at the end of the last season, it takes a huge emotional catharsis for Buffy to return to her usual self. Her peace doesn’t last long, as she’s soon faced with a new threat. Punk-rock vampire Spike (James Marsters) and his insane lover Drusilla (Juliet Landau) arrive in Sunnydale and begin to stir up trouble – and it certainly doesn’t help Buffy to learn that Spike has previously killed two Slayers (“School Hard”). While dealing with Spike and Dru as well as a host of other threats (grave-robbers, a resurrected mummy and demon-worshipping frat boys), Buffy slowly grows closer to Angel. Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz have an amazing chemistry that makes them a hugely believable couple, and their tragic, doomed affair resonates incredibly strongly.

Buffy isn’t the only one whose life is changing. Willow soon catches the eye of the cool-yet-approachable guitarist Oz (Seth Green), and their budding romance is both funny and touching, enduring even when Oz is given a surprising affliction (“Phases”). Meanwhile, Giles’ rebellious past comes out (“The Dark Age”) as he gets closer to computer science teacher Jenny Calendar (Robia La Morte); Cordelia and Xander discover lust beneath their mutual hatred, and a clever twist in the Slayer mythology is revealed when Spike hires a group of assassins to kill Buffy (“What’s My Line, Parts One and Two”).

Overall, the first half of season two is highly enjoyable. There’s a strong echo of the show’s first year, with lots of subtle and important developments that prove absolutely crucial for the second half of the year. Spike’s savage wit coupled with his genuine love for Drusilla makes him a complex and fascinating villain, and comedy and drama are mixed to potent effect (“Halloween”; “Lie To Me”). The only dud turns out to be “Ted”, which plays an interesting stepparent scenario out in a clumsy manner. Its first half comes across like an overbearing melodrama, and the second falls to a stupid and unbelievable monster twist. The two parts end up badly harming each other, and having such an episode followed by the fun yet stupid “Bad Eggs” makes for a brief mid-season lull. However, after this point things step up massively.

I’ll take a moment to discuss the episodes “Surprise” and “Innocence”, which are arguably the centrepiece of the season and provide a pivotal plot moment. With the Buffy/Angel relationship slowly growing in intensity, things begin to get steadily more passionate between them. Buffy’s birthday dawns, but celebrations are cut short when Spike and Drusilla plot to raise an ancient killing machine known as the Judge. After a confrontation with the demon leaves Buffy and Angel running for their lives, they seek solace in each other. Unfortunately, there’s an aspect of Angel’s nature they’re both unaware of – should he find perfect happiness, he’ll lose his soul. In the show’s best use of metaphor, their lovemaking leads to Angel reverting to the monster he used to be. He wastes no time in persecuting Buffy, submitting the unknowing Slayer to some of the nastiest comments possible on her ‘performance’ and playing the role of the disinterested boyfriend to perfection. Although Buffy learns what has truly happened by the end of the episode, she is shorn of both her physical and emotional “Innocence”. One of the most painful and emotionally real scenes of the entire series comes in a minute-long segment with Buffy returning home, wrenching a ring Angel gave her from her hand before curling up on her bed and sobbing for all that she’s lost. Both Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz are immaculate in their roles, and the character development is astounding across the board, from Willow’s silent understanding of what’s happened to Giles’ assurance that he will level no blame at Buffy – just his support. Beautiful.

If those episodes weren’t amazing enough, the dramatic tension truly begins to escalate towards the end of the season. Angel steps up his game in the alternately horrifying and heartbreaking “Passion”, which may be my favourite Buffy episode ever (and is therefore one of the best hours of television ever). I won’t spoil what happens, but you will need tissues for the end. Anthony Stewart Head and Sarah Michelle Gellar deliver magnificent performances as the show’s landscape is changed forever, and Angel’s sickeningly cruel behaviour ensures a desire to see him die – and painfully.

It’s a true testament to the writers’ abilities that they were able to produce an episode as dramatically crushing as “Passion”, but could precede it with the light-hearted and hysterically funny “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”. Xander stars in a brilliant tale of ‘be careful what you wish for’, as a love spell he has cast makes every woman in town fall for him. It’s amusing enough when Buffy and Willow are fawning over the guy, but by the time Buffy’s mother, the school lunchlady and insane vampire Drusilla are wanting a piece of the action, it’s fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

Other episodes showcase a great balance of ongoing arc elements within a single episode story. The ghost tale “I Only Have Eyes For You” overflows with romance and tragedy, the spirit of a dead student in desperate need of forgiveness providing a perfect parallel for Buffy. The episode’s final twist is astoundingly elegant, and leads to a beautifully shot sequence that moves between the same scene taking place in the fifties and the present day. Every time I watch it, it takes my breath away to see the quality of writing, direction and acting, and the perfect balance of horror, comedy and drama ensures it a place in my top ten episodes.

Most shows will save the best for last, and “Buffy” is no different. The tension ratcheted up to nearly unbearable levels, the two part finale “Becoming” sees Angel beginning his biggest attack yet. He unearths a demon that has to power to suck the world into hell; however, Willow and Buffy make a shocking discovery that could change everything. The story is cut with fascinating flashbacks to Angel’s past, and as the episode progresses Buffy is slowly stripped of all that ever mattered to her. It’s true edge-of-your-seat stuff, crammed full of action and amazing character development as we see just how far everyone is willing to go. It’s topped with a final twist that provides a wonderful climax, leaving both the audience and the characters emotionally shattered. It’s astonishing, powerful stuff, and would definitely leave any viewer in fevered anticipation of season three.

DVD Extras

The "Buffy" season two box set is attractively packaged, including six discs. The menus are easy to navigate, and the audio and visual qualities are good. Extras are middling, but three brief featurettes exploring the show’s design and monsters are entertaining, as are commentaries on “Reptile Boy” and both parts of “What’s My Line?”, as well as Joss Whedon’s discussion of “Innocence”. TV spots and trailers are also included, as well as stills galleries and biographies on the actors. They’re nice little touches, but I would note that the focus is strongly on the episodes themselves instead of additions. But that’s no problem, as the episode strengths here easily warrant the set’s price.

Conclusions

Hopefully, this review will have conveyed just how impressed and moved by this show I have been. Ever since first watching these episodes in 1997/1998, I have been astounded at the level of depth and sophistication “Buffy” obtained in such a short time, and I find the dramatic and comedic powers to be as potent as ever, even after 20-plus viewings. Make sure you start with season one first to get an appropriate introduction and attachment to the show’s characters, but I have no reservations in proclaiming this box set as some of the best television ever. Clever, funny and emotional, it’s everything a viewer could want.

More "Buffy":
Season One
Season Three
Season Four
Season Five
Season Six
Season Seven


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