Sunday, 21 August 2011

'Which means we're still the undead's favourite party town.'

Continuing with my ├╝ber-geeky mission to review every season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we now get to season 2. After reading my first review, my friend Flowri demanded asked to be involved in the writing of future Buffy reviews and considering she is also an eminent Buffologist, I was happy to have her join me in the crafting of this post.

So this, my friends, is the result of two of the finest Buffy-orientated minds on the Internet at work. BEHOLD OUR GLORY*.

SEASON TWO: Originally Aired 1997-98

The Good:

Season 2 is altogether better crafted: for a start, there is a cohesive season arc that is far more intricate and well written than “the Master wants to escape” plot of season 1. There are also increased production values – there was a higher budget available for this season and it really shows. True, there’s still some sketchy CGI, but we’ll get to that. Apart from the odd monster-they-couldn’t-afford-to-show-right, this season looks better and is more tightly plotted. I think of this as the “convert” season; if you watch this season and still don’t like Buffy then the show really isn’t for you. That’s not to say I necessarily think season 2 is the best (although it is one of my favourites), but it contains some of the strongest episodes, some of the most resonant messages and some of the most entertaining and generally awesome characters of the show. If you reach the end of season 2 and still think, “Meh, I can live without this” then I don’t think there are any other seasons that will win you over.

Flowri and I are both in agreement that the plot of this season is just masterful. Call us sadists, but we love it. For the uninitiated, or for those poor of memory, this is the season in which Buffy and Angel consummate their luuurve, make with the sexing, and this moment of perfect happiness causes Angel to lose his soul and turn evil. It’s not a very subtle analogy, true – girl sleeps with boy, boy changes and gets mean – but it is handled so deftly and in a fairly original way. The performances are what really sell it: David Boreanaz’s acting has vastly improved in this season and you can see he really relishes playing the bad guy.

He also gets, like, a thousand times sexier

It’s a universal theme, something nearly all women have experienced at some point in their lives and so this really resonates with the audience. We really feel for Buffy and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s acting is, quite simply, brilliant. Buffy’s heartbreak, her guilt and pain, are palpable. It’s a brilliant story-arc – especially as it’s the plot you don’t see coming.

Season 2 initially seems to be all about the new bad guys, Spike and Drusilla (believe me when I say we will come back to them, at length) – a replay of season 1’s Buffy versus the Master. Instead we get the sucker-punch of Angel’s transformation and this season becomes about growing up, becoming an adult and dealing with the consequences of your decisions (as reflected through the episode titles: “What’s My Line”, “Innocence”, “Phases”, “Becoming”... You get the picture). Buffy works best when the show deals with real-life issues through monster-metaphors**, and as that’s the focus of this season it’s another reason why this story-arc is Buffy at its best.

This plot also shows us the true wonder of Giles: best father-figure ever. His speech to Buffy, after the reveal of how Angel came to lose his soul, is so moving and so loving. It’s exactly what Buffy needs to hear and exactly what every girl would want to hear if she were in a similar situation. Buffy expresses her feelings of guilt and responsibility to Giles, and what he says in reply is:

“Do you want me to wag my finger at you and tell you that you acted rashly? You did. And I can. I know that you loved him. And, he ... he's proven more than once that he loved you. You couldn't have known what would happen. The coming months are, are going to be hard, I suspect on all of us. But if it's guilt you're looking for, Buffy, I'm not your man. All you will get from me is my support. And my respect.” (“Innocence”)

Every time I watch that scene, I simultaneously get a tear in my eye and the urge to just stand up and applaud Giles. It’s fantastic and heart-warming.

Also he is very sexually attractive.

How great a father-figure*** Giles is to Buffy is also neatly contrasted by just how poor a father-figure Buffy’s actual dad is. Hank Summers is barely present in this season; we see him in “When She Was Bad”, briefly, during which time he tells Joyce just how little he understands Buffy. Hank has allowed Buffy to purchase lots of clothes and shoes (maybe that’s where she gets all her stuff from and why the Dungarees of Doom are the only things she wears more than once, for the entire duration of the show). When her birthday rolls around, Buffy tells her friends and Angel how she and Hank have plans, how they always go to the ice show together and it’s a really meaningful event. Surprise, surprise, Hank doesn’t show. He sends flowers and a card instead – trying to buy his way into Buffy’s affections again. Hank doesn’t get Buffy and doesn’t get how to connect to her, how to be her father now that she’s growing up and now that he’s divorced from her mother. Giles, on the other hand, for all his despairing of Buffy’s unconventional slaying, does understand her. And not only does he understand her, he accepts her.

The issue of step fathers is also handled pretty well in the episode “Ted”. Buffy’s jealousy, her struggle to accept this new person in her mother’s life, the friction between potential-step-father and potential-step-daughter all feels real and believable. This episode also features under “The Bad”, however, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

Moving on from parental roles, Flowri also highlighted her enjoyment of the “new” monsters introduced in this season. Season 1 was much more about the vampires, whilst 2 broadens its horizons. Other friends of mine have complained to me in the past about this: they point out that Buffy is a vampire slayer, so to have her tackling all these other monsters feels a bit like an X-Files knock-off. I lean more to Flowri’s feelings on the matter: if Buffy was just fighting vampires week in, week out, the show would inevitably get stale. More monsters mean more variety; it also opens situations up to being analogous for everyday teen issues. With monster-fighting.

Onto the best monsters of them all: Spike and Drusilla.

You have NO IDEA how much fanfic I wrote about these guys back in the day
Ahh, Spike and Dru. It’s important to note here that, despite being soulless evil psychopaths, theirs is possibly the healthiest relationship in the show’s history. As the Judge says, they share jealousy and affection; Spike is devoted to Drusilla’s well-being, is tender towards her, careful of her feelings and they clearly share passion. True, the arrival of Angelus throws a spanner in the works (and I love how the series Angel fills out the backstory of this), but then Spike goes to surprising lengths to win Dru back – he teams up with the Slayer, and we all know where that leads, Spuffy fan-service I’m looking at you. Ahem, anyway.

The love that Spike and Drusilla share humanizes them and makes them sympathetic. They’re engaging characters, we root for them (despite their opposition to the eponymous hero) and yet they’re still evil. Spike loves being the Big Bad, fighting the Slayer and smashing up the town. He revels in being evil, yet still has that core of tenderness and vulnerability that make him so compelling to watch.

Easy on the eyes, too.
Spike’s alliance with Buffy is also stand-out fantastic. It’s so unexpected, something the Master, Darla, Angelus or any of the typical vampires from this universe would never consider. The dialogue here, and in fact all of Spike’s dialogue everywhere, is just brilliant. Joss clearly relishes writing this character and it pays off.

This is also the series that introduces the long-running arc of Willow using magic; a plot that doesn’t gain prominence until season 6. Fascinated by the Wicca that Jenny Calendar practices, Willow begins playing with magic – the problem being the “playing” part of that equation. When they find the spell to restore Angel’s soul, Willow offers to try casting it. Giles warns her that it will involve “opening a door you might not be able to close” ("Becoming, Part One”) – a nice bit of foreshadowing that subtly sets an ominous tone for Willow’s continuing use of magic.

There’s more foreshadowing of the Mayor, especially in scenes with Principal Synder (who continues to be awesome). That, and having the same detective turn up whenever the police are involved, ties the show’s continuity together and makes the world of Sunnydale feel more real.

Then there’s Oz.

Mmm, voyeuristic.

To phrase it exactly as it is in the notes Flowri and I made: “Oz is so sweet. God how we love him. Generally, just Oz. Everything about him.” Which pretty much sums it up. Oz is a man of few words, but when he does speak it’s always hilarious or moving, or both. His scene with Willow and the animal crackers (“I mock you with my monkey pants” - "What’s My Line, Part Two”) is both laugh-out-loud funny and totally endearing. The way this show deals with werewolf mythology is also original: rather than having a man gradually destroyed by the wolf within, we see a werewolf who has a support network of friends and family. There’s also the Classic Joss Fake-Out, leading the audience to expect Larry is the werewolf (in "Phases”) and then having Larry’s big reveal of his homosexuality (which is also really maturely handled by the show). It all makes for a great twist, as well as the useful werewolf-changes-as-puberty metaphor.

Finally, there are some masterful episodes in this series: “I Only Have Eyes For You” has so many layers, so many ways in which it’s meaningful for the characters. Everything from the dialogue to the use of music in this episode is just perfect. As well as having the plot resonate with Buffy, the show’s writers skilfully acknowledge this by having Cordelia vocalise it, commenting on how Buffy is over-identifying with the situation. ”Becoming”, parts one and two, are brilliant as well. We adore how Angelus plays Buffy in this episode; how he tempts her into fighting him as a distraction so his gang can kidnap Giles. It’s Angelus’ line, “It was never about you!” and his laughing glee at Buffy’s despair that just make it. "Passion" is another high note, presenting Buffy and Giles united in grief and showing the extent of cruelty that Angelus is capable of. Anthony Stuart Head acts his damn socks off in this episode: the moment when he walks in to a stage set by Angelus, to find Jenny murdered in his bed – heartbreaking. And Head acts it so subtly; it’s all in the eyes and it gets me every single time.

The Bad:

Once again, I have Boyfriend to thank/curse for pointing this out to me, but dammit he’s right: the Scooby Gang are never prepared. They live in a town that is on a Hellmouth, they all know this, yet not one of them ever has so much as a cross on them. Hell, in ”When She Was Bad” Buffy berates Willow and Xander for this very thing – yet no lessons are learned from this and they don’t start carrying crosses from that point onwards. Hell, there are times when Buffy doesn’t even have a stake (which does lead to some awesome improvisation, but still). Also, they have their meetings in a public building. What the hell? Why don’t they meet at Giles’ place, where vampires can’t come in unless invited and where Giles could keep books on demonology and serious weapons around without anyone questioning this? Yeah, having teens go to an older man’s apartment every night would...raise questions, but them hanging out all the time at the library just leaves them open to attack after attack after attack. And they never learn.

So, they’re in a public building. Why then, in "Passion”, does Jenny ask Angelus how he got in? This is a huge gaping flaw in the show’s logic for two big reasons: 1. Angelus has been in the school before, namely in "Innocence”; 2. It’s a PUBLIC BUILDING so no invitation necessary. Yet Angelus still seems to imply an invitation would have been necessary, were it not for the school’s motto “Enter all ye who seek knowledge”. Yes, this sets up his funny, “What can I say? I’m a knowledge seeker” line, but that’s not a good enough reason to undermine the show’s internal rules this badly.

Now, Ted. The fact that he is a freaking robot jars with everything else in the show. Demons, monsters, hellmouths, fine: but bringing
Weird Science into this just seems out of place. It would have been better if he was just straight up a horrible person; it would have made him much scarier and given his storyline much more resonance. Failing that, make him a demon. Seriously, how hard is that in the Buffyverse? Robot Ted just feels silly and it undermines all the goodness of that episode.

Another stand-out awful episode is ”The Dark Age”. It comes so, so close to being excellent; however, as I touched on in my previous post, fleshing out Giles’ backstory just contradicts what season 1 had already said about him. Gah. Internal logic fail. Also, how they defeat Eyghon is just stupid and the effects of Angel’s demon fighting the Eyghon-possession are terrible - bad enough to get a mention in “The Ugly” section. Finally: hey, kids! Did you know that getting a tattoo removed is easy, leaves no scar or other mark, can be arranged in a day or two and costs about the same as a new pair of shoes?! It’s stupid all round. Ethan is awesome, though.

Speaking of bad episodes, we have ”Go Fish” - an episode that my friend
PJ Montgomery describes as “the nadir of season 2”. What this episode is supposed to even mean is anyone’s guess.

Next we come to The Order of Taraka. Apparently they will keep coming and coming, numbers in their hundreds, until the contract is fulfilled and the target is dead. But all the Scoobies need to do is kill three of them and they give up. This is sort-of awkwardly mentioned at the start of the next episode, but it feels like desperate ret-conning because the writers suddenly realised they’d left a gaping plot hole. If you create a legion of unstoppable assassins, they should be a legion of unstoppable assassins. Not just ones that quietly go away once the person who took out the contract apparently dies.

Except the contractor, Spike, hasn’t really died, so why would he call them off? Presumably he’s already paid for the hit on Buffy – it’s just bad business that the Order would stop trying once they hear Spike is dead. And as Spike lives, why don’t he and Dru ask the Order to come back and finish what they started? It’s illogical.

Another major gripe of mine is how little actual evil Angelus does. Sure, he kills a few Special Guest Stars, and they way he kills Jenny Calendar and displays her body for Giles to find – cold. So, so cold and totally evil and really well done. But that’s it. My cats do more evil than Angelus (for a start, they eviscerate way more things than he ever does). Now, Joss plays the long plot game. He was leading up to Angel turning evil for a long time, which means he had opportunity to prepare better for this. If it were me scripting the show, I would’ve had another member of the Scooby Gang (apart from poor, forgotten Jesse), either on board from the first episode or introduced in season 2. This person would then have been killed by Angelus, in a really brutal way. I know the show had to stick to ratings guidance, but you don’t actually need to show things on screen; just hint at what Angelus has done, and the audience will fill in the gaps with their own imagination. It’s a hard and fast rule of TV and film that what the audience can imagine is always worse than anything you can actually show. Angelus also only tortures Giles a bit when he kidnaps him in ”Becoming”. He, what, breaks Giles’ fingers? Roughs his face up a little? It’s hardly the kind of actions that warrant Angelus’ reputation as the “scourge of Europe”.

We also learn from this series that being evil makes you wear leather and eyeliner and start smoking. We will revisit this theme with Faith in season 3, and jesus is it heavy-handed.

There are some factual problems, too: the police don’t follow actual procedure (they need to say “Stop or I’ll shoot”, they can’t just start firing off rounds at a teenage girl). And how, exactly, does Spike strangling Drusilla knock her out? She is vampire. Vampires don’t breathe. They don’t have circulation. You need to breathe and have circulation in order to be knocked out by strangulation. IT MAKES NO SENSE.

Also, you know that whenever someone new is introduced, they’re going to be integral to the plot in some way. This is a problem endemic to television shows, sure, but there are ways around it; having a broader cast of extras would help. Larry, Amy, Harmony and Jonathan are the only repeat characters we see; even Cordelia’s friends change every damn time we see them. A wider cast of reccuring characters would mean that plot-points could happen that involved one of these characters, and it would come as more of a surprise as we wouldn’t know whether their appearance meant something was going to happen to them, or they were just there to fill a scene.

Flowri also pointed out how we never hear about the girl who died in order for Buffy to be Chosen. We meet other Slayers, and Potentials, but there’s nary a mention of the previous Slayer.

We also have a problem with the vampires not drinking blood when they kill people: Angelus snaps Jenny’s neck and Drusilla slits Kendra’s throat – but neither of them feed. Now, they’re vampires. Vampires are all about the blood-drinking. So why have them kill without also drinking blood? It doesn’t seem right.

And don’t even get us started on Kendra’s freaking accent – why not cast someone who was actually Jamaican?! ARGH.

The Ugly:

Once again, the special effects get a mention in this section. The rule is, if you can’t show it well, don’t show it at all! Joss mostly fails to heed this rule, unfortunately. Best/worst examples of this rule being broken are the shit snake/lizard/man demon from ”Reptile Boy”, the demon-fight/face-ripple of "The Dark Age" and the effects in ”Inca Mummy Girl”. Also, the swords from ”Becoming”: they’re meant to be the weapons for this big awesome final fight and instead they look like they were bought in a pound shop. There are some appalling stunt doubles, too: Spike’s double in ”School Hard” is a chunky guy in a spectacularly bad wig, and Angelus has a bloody awful double for the sword fight in ”Becoming, Part Two”.

“Reptile Boy” and ”Inca Mummy Girl” get another mention, this time for being generally terrible filler episodes, along with ”Some Assembly Required”. They serve no purpose to the plot of the season as a whole, don’t exactly develop any of the characters or their relationships, and would be better off on the cutting-room floor.

There’s also the Lolita overtones of the Buffy/Angel relationship: in ”Becoming, Part Two” we see the first time Angel sees Buffy – and she is literally sucking on a lollipop. She’s also fifteen. And shallow. And generally an awful person. And yet Angel inexplicably falls instantly in love with her – which is extra-creepy, given the fact that she’s fifteen. He also sees her cry, which means that as Flowri beautifully put it, “not only does he like them young, he likes them vulnerable”.

"Becoming, Part Two" and "What's My Line, Part Two" also feature the godawful Dungarees of Doom - the most hideous item of clothing anyone in America has ever owned, and what the writers apparently feel signifies Buffy's fragile state of mind during times of extreme emotional distress. Why would she even own these things? Why does she always wear them to show how upset she is? God how I loathe them.

Finally, we come to the ugliest thing about season 2: Xander Harris. To quote Flowri again, “It’s 22 episodes of him doing the ‘I told you so’ dance”. Xander is an ugly, ugly person in this season: he’s emotionally abusive to Cordelia and dismissive of Willow’s feelings. To cap it off, he rejects Willow’s love for him and then gets jealous of Oz when Willow moves on – Xander is totally out of line. The characters do acknowledge a bit of this themselves: in ”Phases” Willows says how Xander is so busy looking around at what he doesn’t have that he doesn’t see what he does have, which is the understatement of the century as regards Xander. ”Phases” also has some sexual tension between him and Buffy, which is just complicated to the max. Xander is pretty heartless towards Buffy, too: he’s still jealous of Angel and uses his transformation into Angelus as an excuse to vindicate his hatred. The vitriol with which Xander attacks Buffy on the subject of her feelings about Angel is so extreme; although to an extent Xander is right, Angelus does need to be punished for killing Jenny, Xander’s wish to kill Angel is based purely on selfish motives – if Angel wasn’t around, he’d have a chance with Buffy.

Which is made all the uglier when you consider how he’s dating Cordelia during this period.

Lying to Buffy is also totally unjustified: Willow sends Xander to find Buffy and give her the message that Willow is going to try the re-souling spell again (”Becoming, Part Two”). Instead, when Xander finds Buffy he tells her, “Willow says...kick his ass.”**** The world is very black and white to Xander, which is at odds with the increasing shades of grey shown by the other characters as the show develops. His attitude towards the Angel situation is very selfish and self-motivated; he’s glad that Angel is now evil and might potentially be killed by Buffy, all due to his jealousy. In ”Becoming, Part Two” he also completely forgets to tell Oz that Willow is in the hospital – he wants all the girls to be focused on him, attracted to him, and when they show interest in anyone else this ugly, ugly jealousy rears its head.

Compare Xander’s treatment of Cordelia to Spike’s treatment of Drusilla: yes, Cordy gives as good as she gets and a lot of the heat in their relationship comes from this banter, but there’s a line between banter and cruel psychological jabs, that Xander crosses all the damned time. Whenever Spike says something that inadvertently hurts Dru’s feelings, he’s instantly apologetic and comforting: if Xander sees that one of his barbed comments has actually hurt Cordy’s feelings, he celebrates.

Xander is also a total hypocrite: he berates Buffy remorselessly for loving a vampire, and warns that Willow shouldn’t date a werewolf because “that type of breed can turn on its owner” (”Phases) – yet in the very next season Xander starts dating an ex-demon! Apparently him going out with Anya is fine, despite all the evil she did when she was a vengeance demon – yet he cannot forgive Angel all the evil he did whilst he was soulless Angelus.

That’s all we got for this season, folks! Tune in next time for serious girl-crushes on Faith and what is approaching blind worship of Giles.

*That reads way more euphemistic than I intended.

**By which I mean, monsters that are metaphors for life issues: not monstrous metaphors, stalking the land, devouring helpless similes...

***Look, Giles isn’t my father, nor my father-figure, ok? Put your Freudian analyses away, dammit!

****This is referenced in season 7 – well played, Joss. It is also worth noting that there’s a chance if Xander hadn’t lied, Buffy would have held back when fighting Angelus and it could have gotten her killed. However, Xander doesn’t lie to save his friend; he lies because he wants his friend to kill the only man she’s ever loved. Because Xander is a dick.