Usually, I’m more interested in the journey than the ending, so I don’t have much sympathy when someone says “Well, it was good, but then the ending sucked, so therefore I didn’t like it.” Maybe my love of beginnings and middles reflects my journalistic training: Put the good stuff up front, because the end might have to be cut for space.
But the final five minutes and 24 seconds of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” second season (1997-98, WB) puts the lie to my dismissal of conclusions. This sequence pumps up everything we’ve seen to this point a notch higher, and gives it a fresh meaning: We thought we were watching a story about Angelus sending the Earth into a demon dimension. Then, when the world is saved but Buffy has to kill Angel to do it, we realize we were watching something much more personal — and painful.
Here’s a blow-by-blow breakdown of why “Becoming, Part 2’s” denouement is so artfully effective. You can follow along on your DVD at home:
36:58 — The Orb of Thesulah lights up, and we realize that Willow’s spell to restore Angel’s soul is working. Nice, cinematic camerawork frames the glowing orb in the foreground with Willow faded to the back. We cut to Angel gasping and slumping. Buffy gradually realizes what has happened and Christophe Beck’s beautiful Buffy-Angel theme quietly begins to play. Angel innocently says “Buffy?” I give a shoutout to David Boreanaz here, but he’ll soon have to surrender the acting baton.
37:51 — Buffy quietly says “Angel?” My stone-cold heart shows a hairline crack.
38:23 — Acathla’s mouth begins to open. A weeping Buffy, having to act something like 50 years more mature than her age, has the wherewithal to comfort Angel by kissing him and telling him she loves him.
39:07 — Buffy says “Close your eyes,” an echo of Darla’s words when she turned Angel into a vampire. Here’s the lump-in-your-throat kicker: Buffy’s voice cracks as she says it.
39:54 — After the tastefully understated special-effects shot of Acathla sucking a skewered Angel into hell, Buffy is alone in the empty mansion and her face turns all pouty and scrunchy. Her lips press together, she’s an innocent kid again, and Sarah Michelle Gellar solidifies her spot as my all time No. 1 actress. Don’t bother listing all the horrible movies she’s been in; at this moment, I don’t care.
40:00 — Sarah McLachlan’s “Full of Grace,” which stunningly was not written specifically for “Becoming, Part 2,” opens with “The winter here’s cold and bitter, the chill lasts to the bone/Haven’t seen the sun for weeks, too long too far from home.” A headache forms behind my eyes as I try to be manly and stifle the racking sobs that are coming on.
40:53 — Joyce finds Buffy’s cleaned-out room and a note on the bed. Even if part of me thinks, “You deserve it for the way you handled the news of Buffy being the Slayer last night,” that completely evaporates when Joyce’s face scrunches in pain in an exact mirror of Buffy’s. I’m balling and cursing Joss Whedon.
41:56 — As the gang theorizes over what happened, Nicholas Brendon’s facial expressions — including a perfect wince at 42:04 — tell viewers that Xander regrets not telling Buffy that Willow was trying the spell. Granted, Buffy still might’ve had to kill Angel, but Xander could’ve at least braced her for it, and he feels like crap that he didn’t. I love Xander for that.
42:25 — McLachlan sings “I never thought I could feel so low” as Buffy watches Sunnydale High — from which she had been expelled earlier in the episode — from across the street. The line “I feel like letting go” lands as Buffy turns and walks away.
42:58 — Buffy is on the bus out of town, and I curse my TV set for not allowing me to reach in and to give her a hug.
43:22 — The camera pans from the bus to an incongruously cheery sign reading “Now Leaving Sunnydale — come back soon!” and the song fades out with McLachlan lamenting that “It’s better this way.” I’m a blubbering puddle.
Now let me digress. Anyone who argues that Season 2 is the best “Buffy” season is just plain wrong. Season 3 — top to bottom, front to back — is superior. However, the last five minutes are so good that I don’t argue with fans who put Season 2 at the top; they’re voting with their broken hearts.
Here are my rankings of the 22 episodes of a season where “Buffy” started off as a cool little show and ended by taking its first steps into the company of the all-time greats.
1. “Passion” (episode 17, written by Ty King) — A lot of shows in recent years (“24,” “Lost”) have killed off main characters and were lauded for being daring. But for me, the best example of this art form is still when Angelus kills Jenny. Up to this point, Angelus had been toying with the Scooby Gang, drawing pictures of Buffy sleeping (he really is a fine artist, actually) and killing Willow’s goldfish. So even on repeat viewings it seems like Jenny will get away right up until the point that Angelus snaps her neck in the dim school stairwell. My favorite scene, though, is when Buffy and Willow get the phone call from Giles — we see it from Angelus’ perspective outside the house, we hear his voiceover about passion and see him grinning as Buffy slumps to the floor and Willow cries and is comforted by Joyce. Plus, Beck delivers some crazy good music behind it all.
Speaking of voiceovers, they are rarely worth doing, but “Passion” is a glowing exception: It not only makes the apocryphal-but-brilliant choice to use Angel, but also concludes with Buffy’s monologue about how she has accepted that Angel is gone. Once again, it’s the accompanying visual that makes it powerful: The diskette containing the soul-restoration spell falls between Jenny’s desk and cabinet. Like most of the dark “Buffy” classics, “Passion” is not without its laughs; I continue to love how Spike is irritated by Angelus’ style of taunting the Slayer — all Angelus is creating, he argues, is “one extremely brassed-off Slayer.” But Angelus’ approach reflects the theme of the episode, which is a valuable lesson for everyone, not just soulless vampires: If you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, there’s no point to it. Indeed, without Angelus’ love of causing pain, Jenny’s need to make things right, Willow’s crying, Giles’ need for revenge, Buffy’s stoicism, Xander’s resolve and even Cordelia’s panic about her car not being Angelus-proof, “Passion” isn’t the best “Buffy” episode ever. But it has all that, so it is.
2. “Becoming, Part 2” (22, Joss Whedon) — In addition to the last 5:24, which I outlined above, there are all the bonus rounds of pain we get on repeat viewings, such as Whistler, prone to premonitions, whispering that there’s “one more thing” Buffy can lose. Speaking of premonitions, this hour also features the delicious Spike-Buffy team-up. The scene of Joyce and Spike awkwardly sitting in the Summers living room is an early example of “Buffy’s” use of visual comedy in a serious moment. Also, Snyder expels Buffy and tells the Mayor “I have good news,” foreshadowing Season 3.
3. “Becoming, Part 1” (21, Whedon) — Xander reminds Buffy that Angel is a murderer, and Buffy says “It’s not that simple.” Flashbacks to Angel’s origin story — and, as a bonus, Drusilla’s — illustrate that point: He was a victim himself (of Darla) and he was tortured by having a soul for the better part of the 20th century until Whistler dragged him out of the rat-infested alleyways during Buffy’s freshman year of high school. It’s remarkable that this two-parter marks Whistler’s only appearance; he makes a major impact because he not only introduces Angel to Buffy (in a way) but he also narrates this story, hinting that something epic is to come (“You’ll see …”). He’s also the first of many good demons we’ll meet in the Buffyverse; eventually, that will get a bit silly, but here it adds depth to the mythology.
The L.A. flashbacks allow Whedon to cleverly rejigger scenes from the movie (now cast as Merrick, Buffy’s first Watcher, is the “Jump to Conclusions Mat” guy from “Office Space”); I’m not even bothered by the fact that Angel seeing Buffy in ’96 contradicts the pilot episode. Beck delivers one of his best fight scores during the pivotal library battle. As for the actual plot, there’s a “giant rock” (as Spike puts it) with something mysterious inside that Angel’s dying to get at; they’ve built entire movies around this concept (although not, perhaps, many good ones). “Becoming, Part 1” is all set-up, but a delicious set-up it is.
4/5. “Surprise” (13, Marti Noxon)/“Innocence” (14, Whedon) — We know this is an important two-parter because Buffy and Angel, acting like goofy teenagers the week before in “Bad Eggs,” now know they are in a tragic romance. “I try to stopping loving you, but I can’t,” Buffy says. Both Boreanaz (reveling in the deliciously soulless Angelus) and Gellar (no one cries into a pillow better) ratchet up their acting games in “Innocence.” Even with all of that, the most heart-tugging scenes involve Willow: Asking Oz out on a date in “Surprise” (the cutest scene in the series’ history), and in the next hour being crushed when she finds Xander kissing Cordelia (“You have gross emotional problems,” she tells Xander, and I agree) but falling in love with Oz when he refuses to kiss her to make Xander jealous.
The episode is undercut somewhat by all the sexist essays (and comments from Whedon himself) saying that Angel turning evil represents guys who use girls for sex, but luckily the actual text doesn’t play as a universal statement. Also rather ridiculous: Giles’ comments that “the next few months” will be challenging as Angelus continues to torment them (Does he suddenly know he’s part of a season-long TV arc?). And as many fans know, the sequence where Xander gets the rocket launcher plays out of sequence, and oddly, it isn’t corrected on the DVD. Still, the Buffy/Angel and Willow/Oz moments — not to mention the short-lived but entertaining Judge (the soul-sucking “Smurf”) and our first glimpse of the evil-and-loving-it camaraderie between Spike, Drusilla and Angelus — makes this is the first masterpiece since Season 1’s “Angel.”
6. “I Only Have Eyes For You” (19, Noxon) — This episode shows that just because an episode treads water in terms of the myth-arc, it doesn’t have to feel like filler. Rather, it explores the Buffy-Angel relationship by having them possessed by ghosts of doomed lovers from Sunnydale High in the 1960s. I don’t totally grasp Buffy’s obsession with not forgiving James — is she saying she shouldn’t be forgiven for unleashing Angelus or is she saying Angel shouldn’t be forgiven for turning evil? (As Cordelia says, “Over-identify much?” But how so?) The former makes more sense based on her previous behavior, but Gellar plays the latter. At any rate, the episode has nice continuity details — Giles hopes the ghost is Jenny, Willow takes over teaching Jenny’s class, and the police chief frightens Snyder with a threat of “going to the Mayor.”
7. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (16, Noxon) — This Valentine’s Day episode walks the thin line between comedy and horror while exploring the thin line between love and darker emotions. After Amy’s (yay, Amy’s back!) love spell backfires, every woman in Sunnydale becomes dangerously obsessed with Xander. The humor quotient gets ratcheted up with each of Xander’s encounters: Amy, Jenny, Buffy, Willow, Joyce … Drusilla?! Everyone except Cordelia, that is; Xander surmises that her hide is so thick not even magic can penetrate it, but I like the theory that Cordelia is already in love with Xander and therefore her behavior wouldn’t change.
“BB&B” is a great Xander ep, of course, but it’s also a great Cordelia hour. In the end, she rebuffs her friends and surprisingly (but totally in character) chooses to stay with Xander. By the way, I kind of fell in love with Cordelia on this round of re-watching Season 2. It find it adorable that she complains so much about fighting evil yet always claims her spot at the library table to help out; in that sense, she’s arguably the most heroic of the bunch.
8. “Halloween” (6, Carl Ellsworth) — The first and best “Buffy” Halloween episode gives great character moments to everyone, most notably Giles: We get hints of his dark past when he beats the crap out of old magic rival Ethan Rayne, who causes everyone to become the character they are dressed as. Gellar does a great job shifting gears when Buffy thinks she’s a noblewoman a la Angel’s younger days. And it’s refreshing to see Xander kick some butt, even if it’s only because he thinks he’s a soldier.
9. “Phases” (15, Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali) — This cute and funny episode brings Oz fully into the fold as one of the Scooby Gang as he finds out he’s a werewolf. The giggle-worthy moments: Giles says he and his books are in for a fascinating afternoon, Oz realizes he’s a werewolf (“Huh”), Xander imagines all the hurdles of Willow dating a werewolf (paralleling his past critique of Buffy dating a vampire), and Larry comes out of the closet to Xander. Halfway between funny and scary is werewolf hunter Cain, who sees werewolves as monsters (he isn’t totally wrong, since werewolves have been known to kill people). I also dig the werewolf costume — it will be updated for Season 3, but I think it holds up fine here, even if it’s obviously not Seth Green in the suit.
10. “Killed By Death” (18, Des Hotel and Batali) — I have a soft spot for this episode. It moves the action to the Sunnydale hospital (it’s remarkable how many amenities this small town has) and its creepy basement, where Buffy fights the Freddy Krueger-esque villain who sucks the life out of sick kids with his eye stalks. In a bit of character-building that is barely mentioned again, the 8-year-old Buffy saw her cousin die in a hospital (killed by Der Kindestod, it turned out). The flashbacks of little Buffy pretending to be “Power Girl” are cute; and here’s a neat bit of trivia: Mimi Paley is one of five actresses to play Buffy (along with Gellar, Kristy Swanson in the movie, Eliza Dushku in the body-swap ep and Alexandra Lee as young Buffy in Season 5’s “The Weight of the World.”).
Despite this being a filler episode, the tone is kinda dark: Buffy is bed-ridden, Angelus continues his taunts (I love when Xander stands up to him, saying “You’re gonna die. And I’m gonna be there,” then is relieved when Angel finally leaves), and Xander and Cordy return to their relationship troubles, but in a (slightly) more mature way (“Jealous?” Xander asks when Cordelia accuses him of staring at Buffy’s butt). Also, the writers make nice use of the fact that high school junior Cordy looks 29: She distracts an adult security guard via flirting.
11/12. “What’s My Line, Parts 1 & 2” (9, Howard Gordon and Noxon/10, Noxon) — Every surprise works well here. When Xander and Cordelia stop yelling and start kissing, it’s shocking for about a second, and then it makes perfect sense. The writers cheat a little bit by having Kendra beat up a plane attendant when we first see her, but it’s still an awesome cliffhanger when she announces “I’m Kendra, the vampire slayer.” (What’s with that accent though? Even Buffy is making fun of it by the second hour. I’m surprised the Jar Jar Binks negative stereotype police never got on Kendra’s case.) One thing that is blatantly telegraphed is Oz-and-Willow; they finally meet here when Oz takes a bullet for her and later remarks “You have the sweetest smile” amidst a discussion about animal crackers (Aw). Stray observation: Buffy’s career test — much to her surprise — says she would do well in law enforcement; maybe she was always more cut out to be the Slayer than she wants to admit.
13. “Lie to Me” (7, Whedon) — Although Jason Behr (later of “Roswell”) is always too understated as an actor, the role of Ford — Buffy’s old friend from Hemery High — works well for him because he doesn’t telegraph any of the three twists. First, he knows Buffy’s the Slayer; second, he makes a deal to give her to Spike; and third, he has cancer and wants to be turned into a vampire. In classic “Buffy” fashion, the Buffy-Ford conversation where he reveals his condition (without actually saying “cancer,” interestingly), is the big moment, and the final fight scene is secondary. As standalone episodes go, this one is visually and thematically dark, but of course it still finds room for humor, such as when Angel says vamp wannabes don’t know how vampires dress and a guy walks past him in identical clothes.
14. “The Dark Age” (8, Des Hotel and Batali) — It’s interesting to think about the paths not taken on “Buffy.” Here, we learn that Giles used to dabble in black magic with Ethan and others in Britain. It’s awesome to see Anthony Stewart Head brooding and unshaven, and later attacking Ethan in the library (Cordelia: “Why did he call him Ripper?” Giles hauls Ethan to his feet by his hair. Cordelia: “Ohhh.”) While this episode definitely adds depth to Giles — making him more than just the endearingly stuffy Watcher — it’s a shame that we got so few Giles-centered episodes from this point forward, and a further shame that the proposed “Ripper” spinoff never happened.
15. “School Hard” (3, David Greenwalt) — “From now on,” Spike says before killing the Anointed One, “we’re gonna have a little less ritual and a little more fun.” This eppy is rightly renowned as a Spike showcase, and indeed, the punk-rock vampire adds a welcome dose of personality to the show’s villain roster while also enriching the mythology. We learn that Angel sired Spike (later in the series, we’ll learn that’s not entirely accurate; Angel is his grandsire). Also, we see Spike’s emotions don’t only lean toward killing Slayers (he’s offed two of them); he’s also clearly in love with Drusilla. That human trait already makes him a more interesting villain than Season 1’s The Master, who chewed scenery with equal abandon. The second half of the episode is structured like “Die Hard,” and the school works great as a place for Spike’s gang to trap its victims, with Buffy crawling through air ducts and emergency axes being wielded as weapons.
16. “When She Was Bad” (1, Whedon) — The season kicks off with a beautiful portrait of the Buffy-Willow-Xander friendship. Buffy’s acting like a B-I-T-C-A, still peeved at the Master and his minions trying to kill her and prevent her from being a normal girl, and she blows off planning with the Scoobies. As such, Willow is captured, and Xander tells Buffy: “If anything happens to Willow, I’ll kill you.” It’s awesome to see Xander standing up for himself, and also for starting to appreciate Willow: In the insanely cute opening teaser featuring “Guess the movie quote” and ice cream on Willow’s nose, the longtime friends’ near-kiss is interrupted only by a vampire attack. With Beck providing the sweeping, cinematic score the show always deserved, and Sophia Crawford’s stunt work as the Slayer being showcased more, “WSWB” raises the bar: This ain’t “Buffy”-on-the-cheap anymore.
17. “Ted” (11, Greenwalt and Whedon) — This episode finds a clever solution around what could be a problem for the series: How can you have a huge battle against vampires in a church one week, and then have a nice little domestic yarn the next? Well, how about have Buffy kill a human (and not entirely accidentally). It’s tough to watch Buffy feeling like she’s losing her mom to a jerk that only she knows is a jerk, and even tougher when it looks like she might go to prison for murder. So when Ted returns from the dead, it’s time for a sigh of relief — clearly, he’s not human, and that’s in Buffy’s wheelhouse. Interestingly, Ted turns out to be a robot, apparently built in the 1950s by the human Ted. Don’t think about that too hard; just enjoy John Ritter’s spot-on guest turn. As someone who could steal Buffy’s mom from her, it’s no joke to say Ted is scariest villain of the season.
18. “Some Assembly Required” (2, King) — It’d be easy to criticize this as a “Frankenstein” rip-off, but the A-plot isn’t too bothersome to me (it bothered me more when “Frankenstein” became the overarching plot of the entire fourth season). The B-plot is the appeal: Giles is flustered about asking Jenny out, but she beats him to the punch, even asking him on a second date before he knows what’s going on. More subtly, the first hints of the Cordelia-Xander relationship are dropped when Cordelia tries to thank Xander for saving her life. He rudely shoos her away, then wonders aloud why he can’t get a date; it’s a heavy-handed joke, but still funny. Also, the Razorbacks football game helps Sunnydale High seem like more of a real high school than in the claustrophobic first season; the town will become more and more urban as the year progresses.
19. “Inca Mummy Girl” (4, Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer) — Like “Teacher’s Pet,” this is another episode showing Xander’s horrible luck with women, but on the plus side, at least Ampata genuinely seems to like him before she tries to kill him. I really like their scenes together (Ara Celi plays “generic foreign girl” better than Bianca Lawson does as Kendra), and it’s a shame that their relationship is never mentioned again, except as a punchline. This episode offers some important firsts: We hear a couple songs from Four Star Mary (the band most associated with the Bronze because they provide the tunes for Dingoes Ate My Baby; I bought their first couple CDs and spun them to death). New character Oz is mooning over Willow (although she doesn’t know it yet); this is a rare case where rather than anticipating something bad for a “Buffy” character, we can anticipate something good. Also, Jonathan is introduced, although he’s not named.
20. “Go Fish” (20, David Fury and Elin Hampton) — This was the first episode of “Buffy” I ever saw, and I loved it, which goes to show that the foundational elements — the Scooby Gang, the quips, the monsters and the high-school-is-hell format — are strong on their own. Compared to “Buffy” at its finest, of course, this eppy is shallow — pun intended — although it is fun spotting the guest turn by Wentworth Miller and the cameo by Shane West, both as Sunnydale High swimmers. Here’s a rare “Buffy” scene that doesn’t work at all: Cordy confesses her love for Xander, thinking he’s the fish man that just jumped in the pool, only to have the actual Xander sneak up behind her.
21. “Bad Eggs” (12, Noxon) — This is the first Marti Noxon-written episode, and you can tell she’s new at it: The story moves slowly yet feels padded with two simpleton cowboy vampires (the Gorch brothers) in addition to the main baddie, an underground demon that sends out its eggs to hatch and control people. The body-snatcher angle could’ve been a good high school metaphor, but nothing is done with it — you have to strain to bring your own subtext to this one. Also, it only feels like Buffy and Angel spend the entire episode kissing, but there literally are three scenes of them doing nothing but that. The redeeming qualities: The Buffy-Joyce clash further illustrates Buffy’s struggles to fit in slaying when she’s already burdened with high school expectations, it’s cool to see the Sunnydale Mall (sigh, I miss malls and the ’90s) and it’s fun to see Buffy and Xander team up while most of the cast plays possessed zombies.
22. “Reptile Boy” (5, Greenwalt) — Something has to rank last, and while I used to debate between “Go Fish” and “Bad Eggs” for this spot, on this re-watching I didn’t care much for “Reptile Boy.” For one thing, I don’t enjoy watching Xander get hazed by the UC-Sunnydale frat boys (many of whom appear to be in their 30s or 40s). Let’s see, good things about this episode … um … Buffy looks cute in that black dress?
How would you rank the 22 episodes of Season 2? Share your rankings and thoughts below. I’ll be back soon with a look at Season 3.