[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 01/20/1998]
“The show works only if it resonates. That’s the most important thing in the show; people forget this. People like to talk about the monsters and the make-up and the fangs and the horns and the what-not. But the fact of the matter is, the only thing that separates this show from any other, if in fact it is separate, is the kind of emotional resonance that we can get to by playing the entire thing as true life. Just a little bit wonkier.” – Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon himself once called “Innocence” the most important episode of Buffy they ever did, and I think the reason why can be understood by looking at the quote above. As I’ve been analyzing Season 2 thus far I’ve been struck by just how thematically coherent the episodes leading up to “Innocence” — the ‘game changer’ — have been. What the opening episodes have lacked are consistency in execution, an occasional lack of subtlety, and taking risks with its characters.
“Innocence” elevates Buffy to an entirely new level by making life-altering changes to its characters and establishing the blueprint for how the show can operate at its best going forward. This is the very first time all of the characters’ most intimate emotions are laid out for all to see. What makes “Innocence” hold up so well in retrospect is that it’s the spark that sets the show on fire, with “Passion” [2×17] proving that the fire is here to stay. We will soon see a string of episodes that follow-through on what “Innocence” started, from “Phases” [2×15] turning Oz into a werewolf to “Passion” [2×17] killing off Jenny to “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] forcing characters to confront themselves to all the mayhem in the finale.
One of the nice side effects of Buffy’s turmoil throughout “Innocence” is seeing her find strength within all the pain. When Buffy pulls out that rocket launcher — which is absolutely amazing — and tells the Judge, “That was then. This is now,” it speaks to a part of Buffy that will become more and more pronounced as the series progresses. In what represents one of the larger themes of the show, Buffy often uses modern sensibilities (and, when necessary, technology) to subvert the ignorant and outdated. This was a characteristic Buffy showed in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] and will be one we see with increasing returns starting in Season 3.
In “Surprise” [2×13] I felt that Buffy’s core mistake was losing herself in Angel via powerful emotions and lust, which blinded her to the lessons offered earlier in the season. These lessons provided a convincing case that Angel is not remotely a good romantic partner at this time in her life and that she is simply not mature enough to be able to avoid the myriad of consequences that can result from sex. In a nutshell, Dream Joyce in “Surprise” [2×13] was right: Buffy simply wasn’t ready for this yet. Buffy let her heart trump her mind in this decision. Consequences don’t pick sides though, and they are making their presence known.
This brings me to the Judge, who’s there to make us think about how we should judge Buffy for her actions, and how hard Buffy should judge herself. There’s no doubt that Buffy made a mistake, but the question remains of whether Buffy deserves to be punished for that mistake. The key for me is in noting that Buffy did not set out to hurt anyone and certainly had no idea that getting too close to Angel would set Angelus loose. I, personally, do not think Buffy deserves any kind of punishment for her actions, not to say she doesn’t have a lot to learn from them. We’ll soon find out that Buffy doesn’t feel the same way and judges herself harshly — too harshly, in fact.
Doesn’t it seem like the show is punishing Buffy for her actions though? Well, this is where the distinction between a punishment and a consequence must be clarified. The former is a conscious act that is done to another, or oneself, as a response to a prior action; the latter is simply the given reaction to a prior action. If a person decides to jump off a building they will likely be seriously injured or killed when they hit the ground. The ground isn’t punishing that person for jumping off the building, it’s simply the consequence of that action, and knowingly doing it is obviously a mistake.
Going forward Buffy will be facing the logical consequences stemming from her actions in “Surprise” [2×13] (being blind to the wildcard Angel represented) and “Innocence” (letting Angelus live). These consequences don’t exist to punish Buffy, but are simply the likely outcome of allowing someone or something to take you over. Some actions are inherently risky and dangerous, particularly for an adolescent. Buffy will need to accept responsibility for those actions, learn from them, and then forgive herself so she can grow from the experience and move on. It’s great that consequences, changes, forgiveness, and letting go are some of the key themes that will round out Season 2!
In the short term, though, Buffy is sadly going to have to go through a heck of a lot of pain before she’s able to move on. Having the intimate details of her love life spilled out in front of everyone is horrifying — no one deserves to be hurt like this, and I feel absolutely awful for her. Buffy’s not the only one to have hidden information exposed, as Xander and Cordelia’s unworkable relationship — who themselves have been a comedic parallel to Buffy and Angel — is also uncovered. With Angelus being unleashed, Angel’s dark past has become a public affair as well. Everything is coming out in the open. It’s become the opposite of what Drusilla said in “Halloween” [2×06], “Everything’s switching! Outside to inside.” Only now it’s switching inside to outside.
Another theme that “Innocence” touches on is shame. There’s a lot of shame going around, from Angelus towards Buffy to Willow towards Xander to even Angelus and Jenny towards themselves. There is a difference, though, between feeling ashamed and being shamed. The former can be used constructively in self-reflection over actions you feel were inappropriate while the latter is generally used to beat you down rather than to help you back up and to grow from your mistakes — this is where the judgment often comes into play.
With Buffy already feeling ashamed over her actions, Angelus goes the extra mile to try to shame her into self destructing. The scene at Angel’s place where he just ridicules Buffy and their night together is brutal and all-too familiar for young women who have put far too much emotional investment into guys that ultimately only wanted one thing. Those emotions aren’t any less real, which makes Angelus mocking them pretty tough to watch (in the good way). The dialogue in this scene is absolutely brutal, and is specifically engineered to target Buffy’s greatest insecurities. It’s also just plain mean (“it’s not like I haven’t been there before”).
Thankfully, Buffy is able to find the inner strength to pull herself together and demolish the Judge, which metaphorically sees Buffy declaring that she’s done allowing others’ judgment of her actions to keep her down. Going forward Buffy needs support, advice, growth, and love, not to be judged, punished, or shamed. Love — real love — utterly absorbs shame, which is why the love Giles shows to Buffy at the end is so powerful. Besides, despite how she may feel, Buffy is in no way at fault for what happened to Angel.
The speech that Giles gives to Buffy is incredibly beautiful and moving: “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… has proven more than once that he loved you. You couldn’t have known what would happen. The coming months 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.” I honestly couldn’t have said it better myself and completely agree with every part of Giles’ sentiment (although I might define the type of “love” he is referring to differently). Despite this heartwarming vote of confidence, it’s going to take Buffy a while before she’s able to accept forgiveness, let go of Angel, and fully reclaim her identity from Angelus.
This brings us to Buffy’s decision to spare Angelus at the end of the episode: “Give me time,” she says. Although understandable, Buffy’s compounding one mistake with another here. When there’s an opportunity to knock off a walking consequence you take it. Since Buffy wasn’t able to do it, the consequences will be that much more harsh and unpredictable, perhaps reaching a peak with — but not limited to — the death of Jenny in “Passion” [2×17]. It’s unfortunate that Angelus has to do some serious damage to those closest to her before Buffy is able to let go of her investment in Angel, which is yet another side effect of relinquishing a piece, or all, of your identity — it leaves you unable to respond to dangers.
True to its title, “Innocence” has a few important things to say about innocence. Buffy’s innocence is, of course, utterly shattered in this episode. Although innocence is lost, the spirit of it can still be reintegrated into the person. Buffy’s innocence might be broken by Angelus, but it’s healed in spirit by Giles. The same goes for Willow in regard to Xander (lost) and Oz (healed) and Giles in regard to Jenny (lost) and later Buffy (healed).
Buffy also discovers that while she may have lost some innocence, she is still an innocent in most of this, which is best represented by the final scene. Joyce’s attempt at a birthday celebration is disappointing (“I didn’t have time to make you a real cake” — yeah, that’s the whole problem Joyce), but I’m relieved that she at least devotes a bit of bonding time with Buffy. Joyce asks Buffy how her birthday went. Buffy aptly replies, “I got older.” Joyce responds, “you look the same to me,” which reinforces the notion that despite her recent mistakes Buffy’s still a remarkable girl with noble intentions and a great heart. Yet… Buffy has been changed by the experience, and there’s no real way around that. Her episode ending expression shows that she knows it, too.
A quick aside: the dream Buffy has after crying herself to sleep is another winner. It starts by recapping her time in bed with Angel the previous night and is very tastefully done, sporting great music by Christophe Beck that strikes the perfect balance of romance, mysticism, and foreboding. Buffy soon sees Angel appear in the sunlight, which I take to mean his human side. The human Angel is able to communicate with Buffy to out Jenny’s involvement, which so happens to lead to eventually restoring his soul. Very nice.
Enough about Buffy and Angel though. Let’s talk about Angelus! How ’bout that opening sequence: Angel loses his soul, bites a women in an alley, and exhales her cigarette smoke. Angelus has arrived. Now that’s how you introduce a villain! I think it’s important to take a moment to identify just why Angelus is such a terrific villain. At the most basic level it’s a case of a good guy gone bad, which shifts the focus of the plot and is simultaneously scary and exciting. The former good guy, of course, can use all of his knowledge against his former allies, which adds a bit of spice to the character dynamics. It really works here because Angelus is Angel — not some completely separate entity — but without any guilt or conscious whatsoever to restrain the demonic impulses inherent in the vampire.
If we dig a little deeper we arrive at the metaphorical level, where Angelus stands in as a terrifying parable of the seemingly caring boyfriend who turns callous and indifferent after sex — something that is (sadly) all-too relatable for many girls and young women (in particular). This is the key metaphor for “Innocence”. It’s also what allows Angelus to cause Buffy so much pain. By going so all-in on Angel, he’s able to turn all of that intimacy and emotion right back at her so it cuts like a psychological knife.
The two key scenes that highlight this — at Angel’s place and at the mall — manage to squeeze out every drop of cruelty and pathos Whedon had at his fingertips. The earlier scene takes all of the intimacy Buffy feels towards Angel and stabs with her it while the later scene is both excellently choreographed and has a yet unparalleled intensity with which Buffy receives and delivers emotional and physical blows, each one being intense, personal, brutal, and suspenseful.
If we dig even deeper still we eventually see how Angelus fits into the show on a thematic level. This comes back to my description of how Buffy fundamentally tells its stories (see “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01]), which is that each villain represents an obstacle Buffy must overcome on the path to adulthood. Thus, Angelus — the very embodiment of the consequences of losing herself in Angel — is a major roadblock to growing up; Buffy must overcome the distraction of the adolescent boyfriend to further mature towards an adult.
Angelus says of his time with a soul, “What can I say? I was going through a phase.” It’s interesting that the next episode is titled “Phases” [2×15]. It also speaks to the common high school experience of seeing friendships and alliances in constant flux, sometimes even on a day-to-day basis. The fluid state of every current relationship in the show definitely plays into this notion. There’s also the physical phases, which relates to changes in adolescent bodies that can vary in age from person to person. Remember how “School Hard” [2×03] highlighted Buffy’s menstrual cycle when Xander pulled a tampon out of her purse and Spike made references of a “ripe girl”? These characters are all in a state of flux, in body, mind, and soul.
Buffy is not the only one that Angelus’ arrival has an impact on. The scene where Angelus makes himself known to Spike and Drusilla is another standout. Again, great directing and particularly framing by Whedon — I love the way Drusilla only partially appears in frame when she realizes Angel is losing his soul. Beyond that, the chemistry and interaction between these three characters (and obviously actors) jumps off the screen. Notice how one of the very first things Angelus does to Spike is ridicule and shame him for being stuck in the wheelchair? It’s hilarious and interesting that whether souled or soulless, Angel(us) does not like Spike and will always use Drusilla (“look over your shoulder, I’ll be there”) as a means to stick it to him.
Note that Angelus doesn’t seem to have any interest in destroying the world. He’s more interested in retaliating against Buffy, who made him “feel like a human being. That’s not the kind of thing you forgive.” Drusilla wants to wreck havoc using the Judge while Spike seems merely bored, with little motivation to enjoy life while incapacitated. It will be fun to see Angelus and Spike do a complete role reversal by the end of the season. Look to “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] as the turning point.
As great as Buffy and Angelus are in “Innocence”, most of the other characters get some sparkling scenes as well. My favorite has got to be the scene between Willow and Oz in the van while waiting for Xander and Cordelia to retrieve the rocket launcher. Oz’s response to Willow’s ploy to get back at Xander is so aware and mature, particularly in contrast to Xander’s linoleum line. Understandably, this is totally the moment Willow falls for him. It is important to note that Willow’s initial motivation to lip-lock with Oz was very much motivated by spite and maybe even a little vengeance, giving us another brief glimpse of an unsavory side to Willow that will become increasingly visible as time goes on.
I need to take a moment to bring some attention to the phenomenal acting everyone brought to the table for “Innocence”, particularly Sarah Michelle Gellar. David Boreanaz, while not quite as good as Gellar, is extremely well-suited as Angelus. I’m impressed with how well Boreanaz can twist Angel’s inherent melancholic broodiness into an obsessive, darkly romantic, glee. Everyone’s great here, but few in entertainment can match Sarah Michelle Gellar for a believable intimate and emotional performance.
“Innocence” is one of several showcase episodes for Gellar throughout Buffy. Although we’ve gotten glimpses of what she’s capable of before, this is the first time she’s been asked to put it all on the table, from start to finish, and she sure does deliver. It’s not just the facial expressions either, but also body language. Take the scene in the library early on when everyone’s concerned about her. What Gellar does with her arms and waist subtly tells us that Buffy’s incredibly concerned but is doing her best to not allow anyone to notice it. Joyce, to her credit, could tell something was off right from the start. Willow is the next one to notice something’s gone very wrong. Those subtle tells are just enough to get across that something is off, but not enough to be obvious. Gellar strikes just the right balance most of the time yet can bring the house down when called to.
To wrap this up, “Innocence” delivers, to come back to Whedon again, “The two things that matter the most to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers.” Emotional resonance isn’t easy to come by, at least for me. It requires likeable characters, intimate writing and directing, subtle setup, great acting, sharp execution, and honest follow-through. “Innocence” has all of these qualities and then some (rocket launcher!). It also showcases Buffy, the character, in her entirety, both at her lowest and at her best. Buffy can be incredibly vulnerable at times, but is equally resilient and strong. While a mistake might knock her down, Buffy will always eventually rise back up.
“Innocence” is genuinely a classic.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Drusilla being able to see the stars from within a building. In daytime.
+ The beautifully framed shot of Drusilla realizing that Angel has lost his soul.
+ Angelus saying, “To kill this girl, you have to love her.” Obviously this isn’t true, as we’ll find out soon enough, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be really hurt by it.
+ The speech about vengeance from Jenny’s uncle is very intriguing justification for how Angel’s curse works. I’m not sure I entirely buy it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
+ Despite Xander’s faults, he’s never been anything but loyal to his friends.
+ Xander being the one to come up with the rocket launcher plan. I like it. I can almost imagine Whedon sitting in his office having the same series of thoughts that Xander did when forming the plan.
+ Willow being able to put aside her disgust of Xander/Cordelia to focus on helping Buffy. This is Willow at her best.
+ The scene with Angelus in the school hallway is terrifying. I love the continuing intimate framing by Whedon when Angelus kisses Buffy and then throws her to the ground, backing out of frame like a predator whetting its appetite. Just incredible drama.
+ Buffy’s bedroom crying scene. The way she just curls up on the bed sobbing is extremely well directed and acted. I feel her pain even though I’ve never made her mistakes before — impressive.
+ Buffy’s violent outburst towards Jenny is understandable, albeit still startling.
* Giles saying “he’ll come after you” and “the coming months are going to be hard, I suspect on all of us” is so very true. Poor Giles (“Passion” [2×17]).