Television

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Two

Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, right from the start, a far more accomplished piece of television than the first season was. With the foundations already set into place, Whedon and his team of writers are able to craft the show they always wanted, and Buffy becomes a far more complex, darker and more dramatic piece of drama. For a show with such a strange, silly-on-the-surface presence, it’s surprising how powerful it becomes in its second year, turning into a considerably more mature and far more interesting television show. Season Two is when we reach credible TV, starting a solid run that would last the next four years or so. Two is also the season when, striped to its bare elements, we see the real core of the show, what makes it function; the basic plot, Buffy as the slayer, torn between life and her job, who falls in love and has to sacrifice her man for the world – sums up everything about the show really. Season Two, though not the best Buffy has to offer, is possibly the most definitive season of the show, and it’s certainly the season that realized the potential of the premise, opening it up into brave, exciting new television. Season Two is where Buffy really begins. b22The opening episode – ‘When She Was Bad’ is a good indicator of what’s to come. Having died, briefly, at the end of season one, Buffy returns to Sunnydale slightly broken – ok on the surface though far colder than before, inside she’s scared and traumatised by her recent experiences, and so lashes out at her friends. It says a lot that the show refuses to open with everything reset and the boldness of the writing, having our heroine so distraught, speaks volumes – this is a show where characters don’t forget, where important plot points get carried over with emotional baggage, and things are never as simple as standard television. Also standing as great foreshadowing, something the show will become known for, Buffy’s mindset is reflective of the entirety of season six; she died for a second here and came back upset, imagine the anguish when she’s been dead for a whole summer. The opening episode stands as a great representation of the entire show, pointing to the strength of the characters and the writing, and illustrates how Buffy differs from your usual TV fare. b26At the beginning, there are a few patchy episodes – ‘Some Assembly Required,’ ‘Inca Mummy Girl,’ – which feel like remnants of season one. Yet these episodes are put together with considerable more confidence than the first season’s similar fare, and the approach, early on, seems to be about making each episode an individual monster movie based on horror tropes – Frankenstein and mummies in the case of the above. But the drama is switched in season two, so that external issues revolve around the leads, meaning each episode works to strengthen the characters. Noticeably the dated 90s elements of season one, and the dreadful music, are all gone. The show also becomes vastly more creative, and has a lot more fun with its central concept, with ‘Halloween,’ ‘Ted,’ and ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ and standing as brilliant episodes which play with the formula to achieve very funny and very dramatic results. The writing is top notch here and the dialogue, combined with pop-culture references and general wit, make for a very funny show. ‘Lie to Me’ and the ‘The Dark Age’ give a hint at the darker, more sophisticated writing to come; the two episodes managing to have a huge dramatic impact, which is surprising when you consider you’re watching a show about a girl fighting vampires. b23‘School Hard’ is often considered the episode which starts the show proper and it’s easy to see why. A fantastic action heavy episode, it introduces great villains Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) – after the traditional horror Big Bad of The Master, it’s refreshing to have such young (despite their vampiric-ages) and fun villains, who have little or no interest in ceremony. Spike is initially threatening, having killed two slayers in the past, but is also very well written, getting some great lines throughout the series, and working with a nice, 70s punk Billy Idol theme. He’s an instantly likeable villain and becomes far more important as the show progresses. Drusilla is wonderful too – completely insane, the writers give her amazing, hauntingly poetic and very funny lines. Often when writing crazy, it’s easy to just throw nonsense together, but Drusilla’s madness has a kind of sense to it, in an Ophelia/Sylvia Plath style, which makes her all the more interesting. Though Spike and Dru ultimately do little but screw Sunnydale up, seemingly lacking an agenda besides slayer-cide, together the two make for a great Sid and Nancy of the vampire world and really alter the dynamic of the second season. b27Everything changes with ‘Innocence’ though. Joss Whedon considers this episode the greatest of the show and it’s easy to see why – it’s certainly the defining point. Buffy’s lover Angel loses his soul post sex and turns evil, becoming the Season’s Big Bad, and the boldness of this – shaking up the core of the show – says a lot about Buffy. This is a program which pulls the rug out from under its comfortable characters and audience and isn’t afraid to push its characters into dark corners for the sake of drama. ‘Innocence’ is a fantastic episode, and a great illustration of the show’s use of metaphor, with Angel’s switch an extreme version of the boyfriend who goes bad after sex; the boyfriend who doesn’t call you the next day and turns into a horrendous ex. The show builds its drama from the base of teenage problems, amplifying them into full on supernatural nightmares, and that’s really amazing to watch. ‘Innocence’ has great character moments and is the first episode to take a seemingly impossible to resolve plot and provide a modern, clever solution to it, with The Judge’s defeat standing as one of the most witty demises on the show, and really working on the old-school Gothic meets new world solution ideas that Buffy is famed for. Essentially, Buffy herself represents this – the old monsters in contrast with the new, streetwise slayer, and the show gets a lot of its mileage from this concept. b24‘Innocence’ is also the game changer. What was a fairly innocent, care-free show before becomes considerably darker, and there’s a sense after ‘Innocence’ that nothing will be the same again. It’s amazing that a show built on this premise can hit so close to home, but the powerful episodes post ‘Innocence’ are really something to watch. The show, in terms of style and drama, opens up after ‘Innocence’ and starts to become something really special. ‘Passion’ is another powerhouse episode, dark and poignant with great acting throughout, especially from Anthony Steward Head – this is where the audiences really begin to feel for these characters. Killing of Jenny Calender is an intensely bold and out-there move and very brave – Jenny was one of the cast and her death, especially at the hands of previous love interest and good-guy Angel, says a lot about how far the show is willing to go. For all of the show’s morbid humour and comedy towards death, loved characters can die in Sunnydale, and it’s shocking. The death is important to the plot in that it alters the group dynamic – Buffy is conflicted that she couldn’t kill Angel, Giles and Xander want him to pay, and the notion of turning Angel into a key-character killer – with the sole intention of bringing him back to the good-side next season, all makes for really powerful television. ‘Passion’ is a tremendously  sad episode in a show which will become full of sad episodes; the characters are so strong that when they hurt, the audience hurts with them.b25Angel himself stands as one of the key reasons for season’s two’s success. He’s probably the best Big Bad of the show, in that he manages to hit Buffy on both a physical and a psychological level. His mocking, stalker taunts – flowers and drawings of sleeping Buffy – are genuinely creepy, and it’s painful to see a once loved character acting this way. Boreanaz gets to show off some real acting chops here, though a lot of the credit has to go to the great writing – he is different when he’s evil, considerably more confident, somewhat sexier and much more crazed. He’s also one of the few genuinely threatening Buffy villains – when rewatching, its important to note that he attacks either Buffy or her friends in almost every episode since his turn – he feels everywhere, and it feels like he wants to kill Buffy and her friends, and that he wants to do so simply to torture the slayer. None of the other villains – though Faith and Glory come close – hit Buffy on this kind of emotional level. With season two, the stakes are much higher throughout, and the audience feel fear for the Scoobies – season one, three and four are considerably more comedic and lighter on the bad-times than season two, so the second year feels like a dark and powerful spot in the show, and serves as an indication for the emotional horrors of the later years. A lot of this impact comes from Angel as a fantastic villain. b210The Angel issue allows Buffy to really grow as a character. Whilst she remains innocent at the start of the season, this is year when the weight of her responsibilities begins to weigh heavily on her, and she becomes a slightly more distant figure, particularly by the season’s end. The show isn’t afraid to put Buffy through the runner and the sheer emotional distress pushed onto the 17 year old here makes for powerful television. Better still, though Buffy at times very nearly cracks under the chaos of her situation, she remains strong, and her final decision to kill Angel, the man she loves to save the world, says everything you need to know about her character. Her subsequent running away also speaks volumes, as though Buffy can handle the horrors of the world, personal trauma hits her head. There’s a lot of foreshadowing in the set up of her character here. Sarah Michelle Gellar gets a lot to work with her and delivers amazing performances – the scene in ‘Innocence’ where she cries on the bed standing out as her first heart-wrenching scene; she’s a great leading lady and over the course of the show, gets to work with just about every emotion an actress can tackle. Here she’s a young teenage girl first facing the big bad world and it’s kind of tragic. Gellar gives her best performance in ‘Becoming,’ arguing with her mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland – a woman with great comic timing who for an initial throw away-character, becomes an important and interesting addition to the show) about how she’d rather be upstairs gossiping about boys or studying, but no, has to instead save the world again. It’s a tremendous scene of a daughter and mother misunderstanding each other, their anger laced with a stubborn and very realistic love they can’t quite put into words. b28‘Becoming’ is an amazing two parter and to this point, the best the show has ever been. Though Angel’s master plot to destroy the world strikes as oddly out of character – why would he care enough? He seems to enjoy the world and the damage he can cause within it – its important to note here the plot is secondary to the drama and we really get some fantastic character moments here. Buffy is pushed to the edge and things become very bleak; the final sword-fight is fantastic as are the tense break-outs between the Scoobies – all arguing about the situation with their own valid points – and the ending, where Buffy sends Angel to Hell, is amazingly tragic, stunningly acted by Gellar and Boreanaz with a great score from Christopher Beck. The ending remains powerful after all these years, and this is one of the episodes which elevates the show into greatness, working like great tragedy; when people talk about how good Buffy is, this is what they’re referring too. ‘Becoming’ is a great season finale and proof of how brave the writing is – characters are left here in an absolute state on a brilliant cliffhanger; Whedon and co. aren’t afraid to pull their characters to pieces, confident in the knowledge that they’ll be able to write the Scoobies back up again. b29The Scoobies as a whole a much stronger unit here. The entire group are far closer here than any other point in the show, coming across as realistic friends before the world sends them on their separate emotional journeys. Willow again, doesn’t develop too much here, but the character is funny and loveable, and towards the end, we see hints of her dabbling in magic. In ‘Halloween,’ we first see Willow take the initiative and control a situation; Willow’s growth across the show is one of Buffy’s greatest elements, as she moves from mousy schoolgirl to confident woman, and it’s here we see the humble beginnings. Xander too, doesn’t get much development besides his comedic relationship with Cordelia, who becomes a regular this season and one of the show’s funniest characters – Xander’s lie to Buffy in ‘Becoming’ however hints at the grey-areas in his nature and suggests something a bit more jealous and complex beneath his cheerful exterior. Xander and Willow, however, don’t really begin to grow until season three. Oz (Seth Green) is introduced as Willow’s boyfriend; in an example of excellent writing, we see him in several episodes as a side character before he becomes a proper staple, and the show also gets a lot of mileage with his werewolf-for-puberty metaphor. Giles gets the most growth, with hints at a darker past creeping up throughout and his soul-crushing loss of Jenny Calender weighing heavily on his character this season. All of the core-crew give amazing performances and are remarkably likeable; this is one of those rare shows where the characters are so well-written and acted that the audience feel like they know them all personally. b21Whilst season one had little theme besides its base concept, Two expands this, and from this season onwards, each year has its own defining identity; each season is about something. Season Two is about passion and love, primarily, first love, and relates to that late teenage quality of your first lover, and how insanely happy you were, how you thought the world would end if you weren’t with them. This is when love is new and the influx of such positive emotions is unreal – happiness, joy, and lust for the first time. Conversely, the show explores when this love breaks down – the first breakup, the emotional hell you’ve never experienced before, the torments of an ex, and being against someone you were once so close to. Season Two is primarily relevant to youth and rewatching it slightly older, comes across as nicely nostalgic, and haunting in a way. It’s a season of love and loss really, as Angel beautifully states in a line which sums up the whole season – ‘Passion is the source of our finest moments; the joy of love, the clarity of hate, and the ecstasy of grief.’ It’s a season of being young, of discovering love and losing it, and the most teenage-themed of the series, setting us up nicely for the more rounded and mature graduation-heavy season three. It’s remarkable that a show built on the concept of vampire slaying can be this relevant and powerful.b211Season Two isn’t the best season of the show – it’s very well executed generally but slightly rough around the edges at times, and seems to struggle occasionally to fill its 22 episodes. It is however, an important point of growth, and pushes the show into darker, bolder territory, with real moments of television greatness. It’s the most nostalgic season, especially watching it now as an adult, it speaks volumes about what it was to be young, and emotionally is a hugely powerful season. The stakes are high and the threat is real in season two; from here though, the show only becomes more confident, and though we won’t hit these same emotional notes until season five, we’re given a much more well rounded, more assured and ultimately brilliant third season instead. For all the wonders of season two, things manage to get even better still.

Be sure to check out season three next.

10 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Two

  1. Pingback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Retrospective: Season Three | Some Films and Stuff

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  4. A fantastic review and on-point summary of Season 2. I’ve recently completed a rewatch myself and I agree with everything you’ve said here. The show truly came into it’s own; the unofficial beginning of Buffy. Great stuff!

    • Thanks V, glad you enjoyed the post! Two is probably my favourite season though I’d say five is the best – I agree two is really where it all kicks off. Be sure to check out the other seasons too!

      • I will to be sure! Five was a brilliant season too, I think that’s when the show hit its peak. So nice to read such an intelligent and articulate review of Buffy. Will you be doing Angel? :)

      • Thanks :) five is definitely the best, but generally I love the series between 2-5. 6 has some issues and I’m not a big fan of seven.

        Probably not as I really don’t know Angel half as well. I’ve only watched it through once on its original run years ago. If I ever get back into it I’ll give it a go :)

      • I have to say I loved Angel. It’ll never be as special as Buffy is to me but I think I’ve actually rewatched Angel more times, strangely enough! If you ever do give it a review, make sure you call by with the linkage.

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