I do not consider it hyperbole to talk about the second season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as scaling operatic heights, culminating with the glorious aria of "Becoming, Part 2," which I still relentlesly tout as one of the ten best dramatic hours on television I have ever seen in my life. I have watched a lot of television and have been teaching classes about this topic for over half my life, so I believe I can make a pretty convincing case. We witnesses the potential of this series in Season 1, when creator Joss Whedon held off on the revelation that the mysterious Angel was really a vampire, who just happened to have a soul and loved the Slayer, until half way through the abbreviated first season. In Season 2, we find out just how far true love can go wrong.
Love continues to be a very painful thing for the Scooby Gang, as Cordelia ("Some Assembly Required"), Xander ("Inca Mummy Girl") and Joyce ("Ted"), find out. Then again, prospects look much better for Willow ("Phases"), although we never really do take the Cordelia-Xander romance ("Go Fish") to be anything more than a cosmic joke, which does offer up the delightfully twisted "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" as the exception that proves the rule (footnote: Buffy spends most of the episode as the Buffy rat because Sarah Michelle Gellar was hosting SNL that week). Of the off-arc stories, "Halloween" and "Ted" are clearly the best of the bunch. But when it comes to romance, Buffy and Angel are truly on the road to hell paved with the best of intentions.
It is clear in the season premier episode, "When She Was Bad," that things are different. When Buffy dances seductively with Xander, taunting him with her sexuality, the ante has been upped considerably. The pivotal point in the season comes with episode 13 (of 22), "Surprise," when Buffy unknowingly undoes Angel's curse on the night of her 17th birthday by making love to him. Why the gypsies put in the Faustian (in the Goethe sense) escape clause via the moment of true happiness and contentment is debatable, but the galvanizing effect on the show is truly impressive. When Angelus brutally slays Jenny Calendar in "Passion," leaving her body in a grotesque display for Giles to discover in his bed (while opera music soars in the background), it is the symbolic Hellmouth of the show opening up. The audience is shocked into realizing how bad things can get, only the worst is yet to come. Giles's anger buys him one shot at Angelus, but Buffy has to rescue him. They turn on each other in anger, and Buffy actually slugs him to the ground before they collapse weeping in each other's arms. Buffy tells him, "I can't do this alone," but this proves to be most ironically incorrect.
Clearly Whedon constructs each season around two half-season story arcs. The first half of Season 2 heralds the arrival of Spike and Dru, and the quick departure of "The Annoying One." Of course now we look back and are amazed at what James Marsters has done with the role of Spike, but at this point it is Juliet Landau's ditzy psychotic vampire who provides the flair of the dark side. Whedon brings the first half to a climax in "What's My Line?," the show's first two-parter, where we are introduced to Kendra the Vampire Slayer. It seems Buffy's brief moment of death at the hands of the Master in "Prophecy Girl" has some long reaching implications we only begin to appreciate at this point. But with the return of Angelus everything changes. Spike and Drusilla are trying to reassemble the Judge, a grotesque who cannot be killed "by any weapon forged." Then everybody learns the truth about not only Angel's transformation but also Jenny's betrayal. Thus begins the deadly game of cat and mouse between Angel and his former allies, which culminates in the two parts of "Becoming."
Both parts of "Becoming" are written and directed by Whedon, and represent the apex of his work on the series. When Angeleus opens the portal to Hell, only his blood can close it, but things are not going to be that easy for Buffy. The dramatic culmination contains the best fight sequence (with swords) in a show that prides itself on innovative staging of its fights, and is an ultimately emotionally shattering experience captured beautifully by Sarah Michelle Gellar's slow dissolve into tears while the haunting Sarah McLachlan song "Full of Grace" is played. Joss Whedon had set this moment up from the first episode of the series. It is a payoff usually reserved for the final episode of a series and not simply the end of the second season. "Becoming" is truly an astounding accomplishment in the history of dramatic television and when you watch the entire second season again you can appreciate how brilliantly this shattering conclusion is set up.
The original theatrical film was a teaser, the first season on television was an appetizer, but the second season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was epic and once you see this, whether again or for the first time, you are not going to want to stop here. It was also nice to see that the extras went up a couple of notches for the Season 2 DVD collection, especially since we expect more goodies from Whedon and crew, especially given the high quality of "The Watchers Guide," the show's official companion volumes. There was a lot of thought put into this show, which means any and all insights and looks behind the curtain are greatly appreciated.