[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: Michael Lange | Aired: 01/19/1998]
It’s generally thought that Buffy the Vampire Slayer reaches its potential for the first time when “Innocence” [2×14] arrives, so it’s only natural to think of the episode that comes before it as inconsequential. It’s true that “Surprise” can’t match the explosive emotion and game changing moments that “Innocence” [2×14] offers, but it is a fair bit more important than initially meets the eye.
It’s easy to peg “Surprise” purely as the perfunctory ‘setup episode’, but there’s far more going on here. “Surprise” may have some setup, but at its heart it’s really a climax to everything the season has been building towards from the start. The season is about to make yet another thematic shift, and this one is going to result in some of the most painful and impactful moments in Buffy’s life.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a moment to review where we’ve been. Thus far, the season’s focused primarily on two themes: adolescent sexuality and moral ambiguity, each introduced respectively in “Some Assembly Required” [2×02] and “Lie to Me” [2×07]. Thus far nearly every episode has explored the nuances, angles, and details of these themes. All that’s left is for the characters to make their moves and see if they’ve learned enough to avoid the pain of repeating the mistakes others have made. To quote Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Q Who?”), as I sometimes do: “The hall is rented, the orchestra engaged. It’s now time to see if you can dance.”
If “Bad Eggs” [2×12] wasn’t a strong enough hint at what was coming next, “Surprise” confirms that it is quite literally the sexual climax of the season. “Innocence” [2×14] and beyond, then, has to deal with the aftermath of the act — the morning after. Although Buffy and Angel are the clear focus, all of the other couples are touched on as well, from Xander beginning to want more from Cordelia than hidden trysts to Willow starting to date Oz to Jenny being revealed to harbor a secret past. There are also more sexual references that show up, such as when Xander crudely asks Buffy about a pre-birthday spanking coming on. Jenny — the adult — appropriately responds, “I’d curb that impulse, Xander.” Hah, if only.
The opening moments of “Surprise” do a fabulous job of setting the tone for the entire episode — it’s my kind of scene: surreal, exciting, creepy, beautiful, insightful, and meaningful, all at once. Buffy’s having a prophetic dream again, which nicely includes both personal and “professional” hints of events to come. It’s clear that being the Slayer gives Buffy a heightened intuition and vague premonitions, but what’s so great about it is that it’s not just used to feed her plot information. The dreams are also useful in increasing Buffy’s self-awareness and recognition of what her subconscious is trying to say. Whether or not she utilizes its meanings in a constructive manner is another story, of course.
Let’s dig into the specifics of this dream, because there’s a lot of fun stuff in there. Buffy appears to wake up from sleep in a disconcerted state, already hinting at the beginning of “Innocence” [2×14]. After getting out of bed and walking into the hallway, we’re clued to Drusilla looking freshly fed and creepily stalking Buffy without her knowledge — we later find out that Drusilla is literally in, or sharing, Buffy’s dream. Buffy opens a door in her house that leads to the Bronze, where she finds Willow speaking French next to a monkey (in an amusing reference to “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10]) and then Joyce asking the mother of all questions, “Do you really think you’re ready, Buffy?” Notice the dreamy music playing in the Bronze?
Music often plays an important role on Buffy, and the lyrics of songs during key moments in “When She Was Bad” [2×01] and “School Hard” [2×03] have provided great examples of this thus far. “Surprise” is another episode to add to this list. The song this time is called “Anything” by Clement and Murray. The lyrics quite succinctly sum up just how ready Buffy thinks she is for her first sexual experience while simultaneously highlighting just how dangerous those assumptions are: “Take me over/I’m lying down, givin’ in to you/I’m a hurricane/I can’t describe this feeling, oh/Now that I’ve found this love/ I’d do anything for you/I’m a fire, burnin’ like a house aflame/I am motionless/ I cannot move/I only see you fly.”
These lyrics corroborate what has been increasingly apparent in recent episodes: Buffy is completely losing herself in Angel, and the result of that is going to be a hurricane of consequences that will swirl around everyone close to her until she reaches the breaking point. These feelings are dangerously similar to how Giles described Eyghon in “The Dark Age” [2×08] — they’d lose themselves in the demon high, but eventually one of them “lost control” and ended up dead. Now let me repeat the lyrics: “Take me over/I’m lying down, givin’ in to you.” Hmm… It looks like Buffy’s “drug” here is puppy love. One of the extensions of puppy love is quite often lust, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Also of note in the dream is how Buffy and Angel share a brief glance that one might describe as ‘perfect happiness’ right before Angel is staked by Drusilla. Again I say, hmm… I love the shot of Buffy reaching out for Angel’s hand, which has the Claddagh ring on, but failing to make contact with it as it artistically dissolves just out of reach — such a beautiful shot. Then Drusilla almost tenderly adds, “Happy birthday, Buffy.” Roll credits. Great opening scene!
After waking up from the nightmare, Buffy soon runs over to Angel’s place to see if he’s okay. Buffy’s rightfully concerned that her dream might be trying to tell her that something’s about to happen to Angel. Rather than actually addressing Buffy’s concerns Angel instead covers them up with a kiss that sparks an avalanche of them that they can barely pull away from, which nicely sums up the focus of their relationship recently.
Buffy has an insightful little chat with Willow shortly after all the Angel kissing. This conversation reminds us of the massive gap in life experience between Buffy and Angel, that Buffy is only just turning 17, and that Buffy is at least somewhat aware that she’s letting lust get the better of her. “Acting on want can be wrong,” she tells Willow. This statement is coming from the intellectual side of Buffy that has witnessed and absorbed everything that’s been happening this season. Buffy acted out of ‘want’ in “Reptile Boy” [2×05] and it really didn’t end well, as did Ampata in “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04]. Again, finding out about Giles’ history in “The Dark Age” [2×08] also provides precedent to be concerned. There are lessons, symbols, and signs in almost every episode this season that have been built to guide Buffy to smarter decisions that would minimize being hurt and the brunt of brutal consequences.
Yet… Buffy’s argument against all of the evidence in front of her is a classic teen staple: “What if I never feel this way again?” Buffy’s letting emotions, which are inherently fickle and inconsistent, be her guide. Even putting that aside, the argument itself is inherently flawed. For one, it’s highly unlikely Buffy will never feel love for someone again considering how many people start up new relationships at all ages. Even if she really never does feel like this again, that might not be such a bad thing. The most fruitful relationships have physical and emotional intimacy layered on top of a foundation of knowledge and understanding. Lust must be transformed into love, which is a notion that Buffy will eventually embrace (Season 7).
The inexperienced and naïve Willow innocently throws Buffy’s own motto from “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] back at her, to “seize the day.” This misplaced validation sadly seals the deal for what Buffy plans to do. It’s too bad Buffy doesn’t recall where that advice took Willow back then: she nearly got killed by a vampire! Now that we know Buffy is committed to sleeping with Angel, it’s a good time to return to Drusilla and what she symbolizes in “Surprise”: Buffy’s lust.
Notice how Drusilla is so prominently featured in Buffy’s dreams? Even before “Surprise”, though, it’s interesting how Buffy’s lust for Angel seemed to fire up right after Drusilla got back to full strength in “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10]. The two dreams Buffy has in “Surprise” really solidify this notion. In the first dream Drusilla is seen stalking Buffy with blood dripping from her mouth as though she has recently fed (or, metaphorically, Buffy’s lust has been fed), followed quickly by Angel being staked by Drusilla. This is all, of course, directly foreshadowing the end of the episode.
In the second dream Buffy and Drusilla are both seen wearing a similar, possibly the same, white dress. Drusilla is once again threatening to kill Angel, only this time by decapitation. It’s interesting that Drusilla first targets Angel’s heart and then secondly his head, confirming that Buffy is placing her heart before her head with regard to Angel.
The connections don’t end there, as both of them are about to unleash a dangerous monster — one intentionally, another unintentionally, which wonderfully parallels the respective parties each of them are a part of in “Surprise”. Drusilla is organizing her own party, whereas Buffy is getting a surprise party! This connection is never more visually apparent than when Buffy wakes up from the second dream. There’s a close-up shot of her looking very concerned that bleeds right into a close-up shot of Drusilla smiling. Why is Drusilla smiling? Because she’s (Buffy’s lust) about to win. Fabulous writing and visual storytelling — just thrilling.
Buffy’s not the only character that’s affected by Drusilla though! Now that Drusilla is back to full health, Spike seems to have lost interest in Sunnydale — he wants to move on and is apt to point out that nothing ever seems to go as planned here. This has been very true for Spike thus far, but it’s been equally true for Buffy. Back in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] the plan was for Buffy to get a fresh start — a clean slate — but it never really materialized. Buffy’s problems followed her to Sunnydale and then got even worse, as have Spike’s.
Since Spike is Buffy’s villainous counterpart (see “School Hard” [2×03]), it’s of no surprise that he has so much passion for Drusilla and how she elevates his un-life. Drusilla changed Spike’s world when she made him into a vampire, to the point where he adopted an entirely new persona that was wild, dangerous, and untamed. It will later be Buffy that inspires him to transform yet again, only this time into a person that can self-reflect and grow, all culminating in a soul. So, in a nutshell, the embodiment of Buffy’s lust in Drusilla nourishes Spike’s evil side whereas Buffy’s love will eventually nourish Spike’s soulful, good side. Buffy’s growth is tied to Spike’s growth, and vice versa, thus reinforcing their very real connection throughout the series.
Moving on, the scene between Buffy and Angel at the docks is suitably melodramatic, but I love how it serves the larger purpose of setting up the viewer to be unprepared for the other shoe to drop. Frankly, the overkill of Buffy and Angel melodrama seen in “Bad Eggs” [2×12] and “Surprise” would begin to become insufferable if there wasn’t a glorious payoff right around the corner. I have to commend Sarah Michelle Gellar for pulling off such a believable ‘girl experiencing first love’ routine — it makes it much easier for me to try to put myself in her shoes and have some empathy and understanding for what’s going through her heart and head. Boreanaz isn’t as affecting, but he gets the job done nicely as well, playing off Gellar. I will also admit to finding the Claddagh ring a really sweet romantic gesture from Angel. Naturally, right before Angel tells Buffy he loves her, a vampire jumps into frame, which feels like a nice little call back to the opening scene of the season (with a vampire appearing as Willow and Xander lean in for a kiss).
Although there was some very subtle setup for it, the reveal that Jenny isn’t entirely who she appears to be is still a bit of a shocker, yet thematically right at home in Season 2. Janus (from “Halloween” [2×06]) is still metaphorically flexing his influence on the story. The knowledge that Jenny is a member of the gypsy tribe that cursed Angel with a soul nicely ties her into the larger story and gives the character some needed additional texture. Jenny’s attempt to separate Buffy and Angel works out nicely for her: the Judge’s arm gives her an excuse to suggest that Angel get on a ship headed to the other side of the earth to hide it, which would separate them for months. It’s a good plan, at least until Spike’s crew gets the arm back.
It’s interesting that Jenny’s uncle makes an important point about the duty to her people and cultural heritage in the same episode Angel references his heritage, pre-vampire, when presenting the Claddagh ring to Buffy. What I think this connection means is that, in both cases, their pasts are important and still relevant to both of their lives. This is especially important when thinking about Angel. We eventually (“Becoming Pt. 1” [2×21]) will find out just what kind of person he was before being lured by Darla in that alley: an aimless, drunken, overgrown adolescent, which helps inform why he still lacks the discipline required to keep Buffy at a romantic distance. When Buffy decides to make her romantic move, Angel briefly suggests that it might not be such a great idea. With how much Angel has done and seen in his life he, more than Buffy, should be expected to show restraint. Unfortunately, when Buffy pushes the issue, Angel just gives in, confirming what he’ll eventually admit to Buffy in “Amends” [3×10]: “Look, I’m weak. I’ve never been anything else.”
The Judge doesn’t do a lot in “Surprise” because his purpose in the story doesn’t materialize until “Innocence” [2×14]. There are going to be a lot of actions that will soon be judged, both by the characters and us as viewers. I’ll dive into all of that in “Innocence” [2×14]. One bit I enjoyed here was how he immediately points out that Spike and Drusilla “stink of humanity… you share affection and jealousy.” Spike has retained more of his humanity in the transition to a vampire than Angel. Why is this? Well, I think it speaks to who both of these people were before they got turned. This will be looked into more after we get additional background on both of these vampires farther down the Buffyverse road.
During Drusilla’s party there’s a very fitting song titled “Transylvanian Concubine” playing in the background. The final lyric of this song is a great summary of Buffy’s big choice in the final moments of “Surprise”: “What have you learned from what has been shown?” In Buffy’s case, not enough it seems. Now the consequences are knocking at the door.
“Surprise” is a fabulous episode that doesn’t get much attention because of what comes after it. I think it would be a mistake to ignore just how seamlessly it utilizes all of the setup that has been building towards this moment, while also setting up the next set of stories. Its use of haunting, surreal music is revealing, emotive, and really pulled me into what the episode was trying to accomplish. “Surprise” also does a great job furthering Buffy’s arc and adding some depth to others’. “Innocence” [2×14] may blow the show open, but “Surprise” is no slouch.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Buffy telling Angel to “surprise” her with his birthday gift. Big mistake! This starts a tradition of traumatic birthdays for Buffy.
+ When Buffy tells Giles about Angel dying in her dream, he puts on like it’s probably nothing, but after she leaves his face has plenty of worry lines.
+ The way Willow tells Oz “well, you could be my… my date”, is adorable enough to make me just melt away.
+ Xander’s little parable of what Buffy and Angel might be like as a couple down the road isn’t a bad guess, even if it’s likely coming from a mean spirited place.
+ Buffy’s hilarious observation that the vampire Dalton keeps getting caught stealing things.
+ Oz’s awesome reaction to seeing Buffy slay a vampire for the first time. “Actually, it explains a lot!”
+ Drusilla having way, way too much fun threatening to poke Dalton’s eyeballs out.
+ The quick side shot of Jenny at Drusilla’s party, prepping Buffy for the eventual knowledge that Jenny might have some involvement in what’s going on here.
+ Ah, poor Dalton didn’t deserve that fate. At least his death looked cool!
+ Drusilla’s almost orgasmic reaction to seeing the Judge do his thing.
+ Drusilla confirming that she really did share dreams with Buffy. This presents a fascinating intersection of Drusilla’s psychic ability and Buffy’s prophetic slayer dreams.
+ The apocalyptic music playing after Buffy and Angel escape from the Judge not really being about the Judge. Rather, it’s setting up the tension for the much scarier threat about to be unleashed: Angelus.
– The Judge is really silly-looking. It’s also too bad they had to use the same actor who played Luke in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] for the Judge. The guy has quite a distinct voice.
– The Judge representing another apocalypse plot. There doesn’t need to be a threat of an apocalypse to have high stakes.
– Just how does Angel find the time to get dressed after rushing out of bed in the final scene?
* In the opening dream, Joyce says, “Do you really think you’re ready, Buffy?” The plate Joyce is holding then slips from her fingers and smashes to pieces on the ground. It’s obvious that this is primarily referencing the end of the episode, but it’s also eerily identical to the first moment Joyce shows symptoms of the illness (see “Out of My Mind” [5×04]) that will lead to her death in Season 5. Both times the dish breaks apart in the very same spot, and both times Buffy isn’t remotely ready for what’s about to happen. I’ll repeat Joyce’s line: “Do you really think you’re ready, Buffy?” Yikes!
* Spike is downing a lot of alcohol throughout “Surprise”, which he tends to turn to when he isn’t particularly happy. Being stuck in that wheelchair has really got Spike down, which will play an increasingly important role in the rest of Season 2.