Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Idiot Box: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Retrospective - Season Two

Season Two of Buffy The Vampire Slayer came back with a bang after a shortened and somewhat creatively lackluster first season, beginning what I consider to be the prime hey day of the show from Season Two to Season Five. We're introduced to Oz, Spike and Drusilla for the first time, all of whom would become important fixtures to the show and the larger Buffyverse in following seasons, and we learn the secret history of Jenny Calendar, which sets up perhaps one of the most tragic moments in the entire series. We also learn the full implications of Angel's curse, which not only provided the main emotional conflict of the season, but sets up what will define his character through the rest of the series and into his own spin off. Season Two was the year that Buffy the Vampire Slayer transformed from a weird genre experiment into a credible if not mainstream pop culture phenomenon, giving its growing niche audience a surprisingly profound and ultimately heart wrenching story to justify their devotion. It was better than the last one is what I'm saying.

Season Two: (Second) First Impressions

Beyond the obvious and almost instantaneous leap forward in quality, the thing I notice first about Buffy Season Two is how reflective it is of everything we love about this show and its creators. It follows Buffy finally beginning to accept her role as Sunnydale's protector after just surviving death by prophecy only a few months earlier, only to be offered a chance to be normal with the discovery of another slayer just as she's found the man she loves, only to have both that chance and that man taken from her, leading to a gut punch of a final act where she must sacrifice everything she has to save the world. That's Buffy in a nutshell, and the perfect encapsulation of what we've now come to know as quintessentially Whedonesque.

It starts off a bit slow, with a premiere focusing on the last gasp of the Master's forces in which Buffy acts strangely without much explanation or resolution. This is followed by a run of middling episodes featuring frankenfootballers, mummies, and snake monsters, broken up by the excellent introduction of Spike, but after that, with the exception of two episodes that make it on my worst list, the rest of the season is pretty much flawless. This season feels like the writers finally slipping into their groove, far enough away from the freshman hurdles of just trying to get a show on the air and good enough to get picked up, where they can focus on telling the story they clearly had planned from the beginning.

The Big Bad(s): Spike, Drusilla, and Angelus

For some reason, when I first watched this show, I didn't like Spike and Drusilla as the bad guys of this season, but re-watching it again after so many years, I can't figure out why. They're a definite improvement on the Master, their less grandiose stature letting them get away with more of the silly irreverent dialogue without it coming off as too clever or meta. I guess the fact that they never really had a master plan beyond fucking shit up kind of bothered me, but that doesn't faze me as much upon second viewing. I still don't really understand why they care enough to assemble The Judge or awaken Acathla, as apocalyptic schemes seem a bit beyond their scope, but I think its easier to go with it now that I know where its going and that the specifics of the plot are meant to take a backseat to the emotional track.

Said emotional track is set in motion by Angelus, who if not for the Mayor in Season Three would easily be my favorite big bad of the series. With the possible exception of Glory in Season Five going after her sister, Angel is probably the villain whose actions hit Buffy the closest and the hardest, and they don't pull any punches in making this once beloved heroic character as evil as he should be, which is even more impressive when you consider that they almost certainly had plans to bring him back as a good guy in the next season. Whedon has always had this strange tendency to crush love and happiness wherever he finds it, often leading to some misguided moments of tragedy for the sake of tragedy (ending of Dr. Horrible, I'm talking to you!), but when it works, it works, and with Angelus, it's pitch perfect.

The Scooby Gang

We get two new additions to the gang this season, with Oz showing up in the background at first, then slipping in almost unnoticed as a love interest for Willow, and finally brought into the supernatural side of things after becoming a werewolf in the episode Phases, as well as Cordelia, who is elevated from her season one role as a minor antagonist to a full fledged member of the group. Cordelia was another character I never really liked, that is until they ported her over to Angel and gave her a little more dimension, and other than her rocky romantic relationship with Xander and its bitter break up next season, I don't think she ever really adds much. Oz doesn't really come into his own until the next season, and even then, only just long enough to make us like him before he skips out at the beginning of Season Four. 

This season we get our first inkling of Willow using magic, which would become a defining trait starting with Season Three and beyond, as well as the aforementioned relationship with Oz that serves to get her out of her nerdy shell and give her a little more self confidence. Xander's development is relatively slight and lighthearted, save for his infusion of advanced military knowledge due to a magic spell that will return at various points throughout the series whenever its convenient to the plot. On the other end of the spectrum, Giles takes a much darker turn this season, beginning with the revelation of his dark magic anarchist past, and culminating with the devastation caused by the death of Jenny Calendar.

The Arc Episodes

School Hard: The introduction of Spike, Big Bad for the season and eventually sort-of member of the Scooby Gang, School Hard is arguably the first really great episode of the season and an indication of the quality to come after a bit of a false start. Everything you're supposed to like about Spike at this point, before his ultimate redemption arc later on, is fully on display in this first appearance, literally smashing into town and taking over the Master's operation on the power of swagger alone and instantly presenting himself as a credible threat. Right out the gate he goes for Buffy's family, attacking her mother at parent teacher night, foreshadowing the personal toll this season would take on the character later on this year.

What's My Line, Parts I and II: This two parter introduces the concept of the second slayer, called into action after Buffy's brief death in the season one finale. Kendra wasn't really given enough time to be considered all that interesting a character, and in retrospect that might have something to do with their plans for Faith in Season Three, not wanting to have too much non-Buffy slayer representation before then. She pretty much only exists to reveal that the line has passed on and then to die later in the season to set up the next one. Other than that, it's a solid stand alone story as well, following a trio of assassins from an ancient and legendary order that never gives up, except this time for some reason. This pissed me off then and it's still stupid. They spend so much time pumping up the Order of Taraka like they never stop until the job is done, no matter how many of them you kill, and then after three of them die, they give up. Also, the bug guy wasn't nearly as cool as I remembered. Even so, its still a great episode and a classic for the series.

Surprise and Innocence: Not technically a two parter based on the lack of official numbering, but together these two episodes reveal the real bigger big bad of the season, as Buffy and Angel spend their first night together, breaking Angel's curse and unleashing Angelus. I had forgotten how little lead up there was to this twist before it happened. It has less of an impact now obviously seeing it coming, and even at the time, I had been told this was coming, so it wasn't shocking, but to watch this for the first time with no foreknowledge of it, Angel's first kill as Angelus would be pants peeingly striking. The metaphor of the guy turning bad after the first time out with the girl is a bit heavy handed upon second viewing, but it's still legitimately powerful to watch Buffy as the realization of what has happened slowly hits her, and this is definitely a solid point of no return for the season. This block of episodes also introduces the Judge, another supposedly big threat that fizzles rather quickly. Here is where I originally found Spike and Drusilla's lack of direction starting to grate when I first watched this show, but thankfully, the infusion of Angelus into their group gave them a new reason to exist.

Passion: I am almost hesitant to call this an arc episode, because while it is very important to the show from a character perspective and sets up a magical element that will play into the season finale, said element is only just barely important to that episode, in that it didn't need such a long set up, and the death of Jenny Calender doesn't really change the trajectory of the story, even if it reinforces the dynamics at work. This is the episode where anyone who wanted to still look at Angelus and see any good in him had their hopes dashed. It takes a brave show to go so far to make their audience hate a character when plans for that character's redemption were already in place. It's like the writers were building their own mountain they'd have to climb next season to make us like the guy again (as it turned out, enough to watch his own show). Perhaps second only to Season Five's The Body as the saddest episode of the series, and possibly Anthony Stewart Head's best performance as well.

Becoming, Parts I and II: The series finale, and up to this point the best episode in the series, with the final confrontation between Buffy and Angel in front of the mouth of a very ugly looking demon statue. The episode is the introduction of Whistler, a character we only just find out was integral to Angel becoming a part of Buffy's life, and it is an enigmatic performance that always seemed to demand a return, which never came outside of the canonical comic books. Apparently Whistler was supposed to be in the Angel spin off in the role that would be taken by Glenn Quinn's Doyle, and then again in the planned Gile's spin off Ripper that never happened, but he never made it back, which makes his one and only appearance here stand out as a bit strange considering. I still don't really understand why Angelus has any vested interest in ending the world via Acathla, but I can't deny the emotional weight of the ending, which even after so many years away from it is still as effective as it was the first time. This is also the episode where Kendra dies rather unceremoniously, popping up to say hi just long enough to get whacked. It feels even more contrived than it did back then.

The Best of the Rest

Halloween: A classic episode and the introduction of Ethan Raine, a recurring villain who never got his ending appropriately in the series, though he has since become a fixture of the comic continuation, specifically in Angel's series from what I understand. I always liked Ethan and wished they had done more with him. In addition to helping reveal Giles' dark side, the idea of a chaos worshiper, sort of a real world version of the Riddler or the Joker just mucking about with horribly power things for the fun of it, was a direction of villainy rarely seen on television at all, let alone in the Buffyverse. I always thought he had the makings of a great season long villain down the line, but nothing ever came of it. His first episode also provides a lot of great oddball character moments with the Scooby Gang becoming their costumes, giving Xander the chance to kick ass for once, though it definitely feels a lot more limited by budget constraints than it did back then. It seems like nowadays, with the technology for CGI improved, a show with this premise would have been able to do more.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: One of my favorite episodes of the whole series, as the Xander eps tended to be, as few and far between as they were. Apparently written as a way to let Sarah Michelle Geller off with a light episode, spending most of her time transformed into a rat, so that she could host SNL, it inadvertently created the opportunity to tell a sweet story within the Xander/Cordelia relationship before Whedon saw fit to kill it as he kills all love, all while exploring the dark reality of what messing with love via magic would be like. Considering how sexually provocative the show would get in later seasons (particularly Season Six), it's also interesting to see how tame it is given the premise.

And The Worst

Bad Eggs: I feel kind of bad putting this on here, because unlike I Robot, You Jane, or the next one I'm gonna talk about, this one isn't completely terrible. There are good moments in it and the monsters, at least in their little spider-like forms, can be legitimately creepy. The problem is twofold. One, The Gorch Brothers, wacky cowboy vampires who overstay their welcome as soon as they step on screen. And Two, the Bezoar beast, which holds so much promise as a giant Great Old One style super monster, but just lays there, literally. I'm a huge Lovecraft fan, and Buffy is full of teases like this that promise massive Lovecraftian carnage, but rarely deliver outside of the comics without the restraints of budget (and even then, really only in Fray, from what I've read anyway). I can't exactly blame them for not having the money to make the monster as bad ass as I wanted it to be, but it's just so disappointing nonetheless.

Go Fish: The only truly terrible episode in the bunch, which is strange considering it's also the first episode ever written by David Fury, who would go on to write many great episodes, including one that will show up on the best list in Season Three, and become one of my favorite television writers in general. Still, it's fucking fish people. I'm sorry, but Buffy has done a lot of questionable monsters and pulled them off, including living puppets and the actual Dracula, but maybe somethings just don't translate well. Apparently Gillmen as a parable for steroid abuse is the line. It would help if there were more scenes in the water where they would naturally hold the advantage, but except for one fight with Buffy hip deep in the sewers, they barely get to pose any sort of a threat. It's not quite as bad as Native American Ghost (we'll get to that one), but it's still pretty lame.

Final Thoughts

As I said, Season Two definitely feels like the writers telling the story they wanted for the first time, enacting a plan that was clearly well plotted out from the outset of the series. I wouldn't be surprised if the possibility of this story arc was what made Whedon so passionate about this idea to push for a television adaptation in the first place after the failed film that came before it. Upon second viewing, Spike and Drusilla are much less important to the proceedings as I remembered, but their kitchen sink strategy of slayer hunting is not as annoying or repetitive as I remembered it. Whedon has always tried not to create villains who are single-mindedly out to kill the hero, because naturally they can't succeed at that goal and will ultimately just start to look pathetic no matter how bad ass they looked when they started (something I call The Lord Zedd principle). It's why Wolfram and Hart always wanted to turn Angel evil and not kill him. Spike is the one bad guy in the series with this sort of single-mindedness, but he is charismatic enough that you can't help but love him no matter how often he fails miserably at doing the one thing he's supposedly best at, killing slayers.

This year and the next are rightfully considered by most to be the best seasons of the series, with the most solidly enjoyable episodes and the least insufferable filler. Fish monsters notwithstanding, it's mostly flawless in execution, taking a character and a concept that by all rights shouldn't be a deep and profound examination of anything, almost disarmingly so, and then hits so hard at an emotional core you never knew it had. To mention a few bits of miscellany, this is also the first season where we are introduced to the Buffy version of werewolves, which I'll talk more about in Season Four, but suffice to say I always found a bit disappointing considering my personal love for the classic monster. Also, the episode Killed By Death presents a demonic creature called Der Kindestod who was to this point my favorite demon of the week, due to his nature as a fairy tale monster, which happens to be a passion of mine (and a subject about which I've written a TV pilot I just might post here some day). More importantly, it's foreshadowing for one of the best episodes of the series later on, Hush, and its main villains, The Gentlemen.

Anyway, next up, my personal favorite Buffy season, where we meet the first evil slayer, the first evil thing to stake claim to Sunnydale, and the First Evil itself (briefly), in Buffy Season Three.

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