[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: James Whitmore, Jr. | Aired: 04/28/1998]
“My love must be a kind of blind love.” – “I Only Have Eyes for You” (The Flamingos)
“I Only Have Eyes for You” is one of the most beautiful episodes of television I have ever seen. Where “Passion” [2×17] wowed us with its horror and intensity, “I Only Have Eyes for You” changes us with its heart and compassion. This is not what most people would consider an ‘arc’ episode, because ‘arc’ has become synonymous with ‘plot arc’ in the serialized television lexicon. In my mind, though, great character arcs are the magic that makes television truly come to life; character arcs are ultimately what you can learn something from and connect with on a human level. With this in mind, “I Only Have Eyes for You” may not be integral to the season’s plot, but it is the very essence of the season’s humanity — a far more important quality to have.
With that said, for an episode so tuned into the characters, it’s incredible just how well written and structured this stand-alone plot is. As we know, that plot involves a spirit at the high school — James, a student — reenacting the 1955 killing of his love — Grace, or Ms. Newman, a teacher — over and over again in the days leading up the Sadie Hawkins dance at the school. What you may not have noticed is the extremely clever manner in which “I Only Have Eyes for You” feeds us the details of James’ shooting. An example of this is how the acting is so weak in the first two possessions, which I see as a sly nod to the fact that the possessed people literally aren’t ‘into’ the emotions that James and Grace are sharing, whereas Buffy and Angel are intimately connected to them.
We witness three distinct times when James possesses someone and fires up his ‘killing script’. The first possession involves a couple of students at the school just before and after the opening credits. James gets interrupted by Buffy right after he yells out, “Don’t walk away from me #####!” — something that will have increased relevance soon. The key takeaway here is that James is prevented from playing out the rest of his script, which keeps both the viewer and the characters in the dark over the parallels to Season 2’s story while adding a sense of mystery to what’s going on.
In the second possession James is able to find a closer match for Grace in the body of a teacher, but this isn’t good enough — it’s just a role and doesn’t properly replicate the emotional intensity of their relationship. This time around we gain the information that James shot Grace on the school balcony. Ah, but notice the perspective we see the shooting from: Giles, who sees it all from behind closed doors, does not know the trigger was pulled by accident and that James — had he not been interrupted again — was about to commit suicide. This lack of knowledge colors our perception of James in a more negative light and continues to obfuscate the stunning parallels to Buffy and Angel, thus letting the final possession be that much more of a revelation. This kind of plotting keeps us engaged to what’s happening throughout the episode while simultaneously setting us up for a powerful ending.
Another detail I appreciated was the manner in which James reaches out to Buffy. He probably first gets wind of his connection to her when she touches him possessing a student in the first sequence. It’s only after that moment does James begin to target her. He starts by invisibly sliding the 1955 yearbook in Snyder’s office onto the floor, which seems like an attempt to get Buffy to learn about him, but she just shrugs it off and puts it back. Being an angry spirit and all, I don’t think he took too kindly to Buffy so casually ‘walking away from him’, so to speak. Very shortly afterward, in class, Buffy’s teacher unwillingly channels James and writes — you guessed it — “Don’t walk away from me #####!” on the chalkboard. This is obviously directed at Buffy, because right before it happened she gets a vision of the past from James showcasing the student/teacher dynamic in his love for Grace. (Grace also references a Hemingway book involving a love affair that ends in tragedy.)
James finally does get Buffy to pay attention to him, but she doesn’t cast him in a very forgiving light after learning all the details — sans the accidental trigger pull — of the shooting. This is probably why when the Scoobies try to cast his spirit out of the school James is furious with them and yells at Buffy to “get out!” James wants Buffy out of the school so he can bring her back alone — without interruptions — and show just how similar the two of them are emotionally. This could also be why James manifests snakes at the school earlier on. (Snakes are often associated with lies. So this could be commenting on Buffy lying to herself about not feeling any connection to James. “You’re full of lies,” Snyder snarls at Buffy, but in reality it’s the high school itself that is full of lies, including “truth seeker” [heh] Snyder.)
“Do you realize that the girls have to ask the guys? And pay and everything?” – Cordelia
Cordelia’s amusing statement about the Sadie Hawkins dance at the school offers more meaning than initially meets the eye. The dance serves as a framework for just about everything that happens in “I Only Have Eyes for You”: it awakens the spirit of James to relive that fateful night in 1955, highlights the inappropriate power dynamics at play in the James/Grace relationship, reinforces Buffy’s feeling that she deserves to “pay” for what happened to Angel, and foreshadows the shockingly perfect role reversal when James possesses Buffy at the end of the episode. The common thread in all of this is Buffy: the choices she’s made throughout the season and how she’s handling the consequences of them.
The opening scene at the Bronze gets us up to speed with Buffy’s state of mind while also setting up the emotional challenges she’ll soon be confronted with. After Buffy denies a boy with a splash of Owenosity in him a date to the upcoming dance, Willow informs us that ever since “Killed by Death” [2×18] it’s been “All work and no play Buffy,” implying that she has been extra focused on slaying to try to make up for her recent failures. After everything that’s happened, Willow’s advice for Buffy to act “impulsive” in the dating realm is, at best, painfully naïve and, at worst, a bit insulting.
It seems that Willow’s not entirely in touch with, nor perceptive about, how the Angelus situation has impacted Buffy. This isn’t Willow at her best, and it implies that her approach to dealing with pain and failure might actually be even more self-destructive than Buffy’s. This is something to look out for in the coming seasons. To Willow’s credit, she does at least attempt to make the case that what happened with Angel wasn’t Buffy’s fault, but unfortunately it (1) doesn’t mean enough to Buffy coming from Willow — it needs to come from Angel — and (2) isn’t even something Buffy believes is true yet.
Later in the episode Giles suggests that James is lashing out because, being dead and all, he has no way to make peace with what happened. There’s a subtle lesson there for Buffy in that if she doesn’t make peace with what happened to Angel, she’ll start becoming bitter and lash out at those around her, including her friends. James is the worst case scenario for Buffy if she doesn’t move on, which is curiously the very thing she struggled to do in the beginning of the season (“When She Was Bad” [2×01]). Before moving on is possible, though, Buffy will have to forgive herself for what happened.
“I need you…” – Grace, whispering to Giles for help
“I Only Have Eyes for You” is primarily focused on Buffy, but, for a time, the episode splits off a Giles story that runs in parallel to what Buffy’s going through. Willow also gets in the action by dabbling with magic for the very first time. Right before James kills the possessed teacher in the second sequence, a feminine voice whispers to Giles in the library: “I need you…” Giles, understandably, thinks it’s Jenny calling out to him — after all, she did recently die traumatically in the school. Unfortunately for Giles, it isn’t Jenny reaching out to him now — it’s actually Grace trying to prevent James from harming her again. This moment is: (1) creepy, (2) sensible, and (3) sends Giles into an emotional frenzy looking for spirits in all the wrong places.
Giles gets so excited at the thought of communicating with Jenny, likely to appease his feeling of helplessness at preventing what happened, that he gets sloppy in his duties as Watcher by selectively ignoring important details about these possessions (like the gun) so it will fit his narrative that Jenny needs his help to move on. Buffy solemnly sums it up: “he misses her.” A side effect of Giles being distracted, which is similar to how Angel distracted Buffy from her duties as the Slayer, is that Willow ends up trying to do a spell for the first time on her own, something I’m not sure he would have approved of.
Willow’s plan to cast James out of the school makes for an incredibly creepy and atmospheric sequence: slamming doors, Cordelia’s face getting disfigured, a vortex appearing below Willow, and a swarm of wasps flooding the school. Buffy is never as consistently creepy as it has been in these last few episodes. Great effects work too! The binding spell doesn’t work for a few reasons: (1) Willow doesn’t fully know what she’s doing yet, (2) the spirit (James) is simply too angry and powerful for them, and (3) it isn’t necessarily an entirely “bad” spirit.
While all of this creepiness is going down, Giles is off on his own in the library still trying to find a way to communicate with Jenny. After hearing Willow yelling for help, Giles finally comes out of hiding, which results in a subtle yet powerful moment. A frightened Willow quietly reminds him that “Jenny could never be this mean.” Giles breaks my heart when he concedes, “I know. It’s not her, is it?” This is the moment Giles begins to move on from Jenny, even though he’ll never forget her. Now it’s time for Buffy to follow suit, although she has far thicker barriers to break through. The key for Buffy is offered earlier in the episode, when Willow gives Jenny’s rose quartz to Giles. The rose quartz, Willow explains, is supposed to have healing properties. What’s one of the best ways to heal? Forgiveness. There will be a lot more on this topic in a bit.
This banishment attempt only serves to anger James even more, and it certainly doesn’t resolve the underlying reason for that anger. Up until the end, Buffy is a harsh judge of James’ actions. Some early quotes include, “Sure I feel lousy. For her. He’s a murderer and he should pay for it” and “Who cares what he wants!” While at the school, Buffy is tasked with the hotspot: the music room where James committed suicide. When Buffy gets there she sees the ghosts of James and Grace dancing together — it was likely their secret spot — with the song “I Only Have Eyes for You” playing the background. The first lyrics Buffy hears? “It must be a kind of blind love. I can’t see anyone but you.” These lyrics will be repeated verbatim, but in a different context, soon.
After their previous failure, the Scoobies are forced into an informative conversation about James and what they need to do to help him move on. I’ll just quote this entire exchange, because it’s the moment when Buffy’s connection to James really begins to snap into place:
BUFFY: He wants forgiveness.
GILES: Yes. I imagine he does. But when James possesses people, they act out exactly what happened that night. So he’s experiencing a form of purgatory instead. I mean, he’s doomed to kill his Ms. Newman over and over and over again, and… forgiveness is impossible.
BUFFY: Good. He doesn’t deserve it.
GILES: To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It’s not done because people deserve it. It’s done because they need it.
BUFFY: No. James destroyed the one person he loved the most in a moment of blind passion. And that’s not something you forgive. No matter why he did what he did. And no matter if he knows now that it was wrong and selfish and stupid, it is just something he’s gonna have to live with.
XANDER: He can’t live with it, Buff. He’s dead.
CORDELIA: Okay. Over-identify much?
Once again, Cordelia’s observation is right on the money. Everything Buffy has been saying about James is also directed at herself. A lot of what Buffy says has truth to it: both her and James were selfish and made some poor choices. But Giles is equally right, thus more explicitly highlighting the core theme of “I Only Have Eyes for You”. Forgiveness is often the only tool we have to move on from painful experiences, but it’s not always easy to do. Sometimes we need to forgive someone else, but other times we have to forgive ourselves. We all make mistakes; we’re all only human. On the positive side, one of the advantages of being imperfect is that we always have something to strive for and work towards, thus giving our lives added meaning and purpose.
“There’s a gate! It’s opening! … It wants her. … It’s time, Angel. She’s ready for you now. She’s dancing. Dancing with death.” – Drusilla
Thanks to James, Buffy ends up going to the Sadie Hawkins “dance” after all, with a possessed Angelus as her partner. The role reversals — with James possessing Buffy and Grace possessing Angelus — is surprising yet couldn’t have worked any other way, which is a credit to how “I Only Have Eyes for You” is structured and written. The scenes between Buffy/James and Angel/Grace are absolutely magical — I could easily quote everything they say to each other because, honestly, all of it is so layered with emotion and depth. I also have to commend the actors here: Sarah Michelle Gellar is utterly heartbreaking and David Boreanaz puts in one of the best performances in his career. Christophe Beck turns in yet another sublime “performance” in his own right with his tender yet passionate score that slowly builds throughout the episode.
As we now know, everything James and Grace say to each other perfectly parallels how Buffy and Angel feel toward each other, and that James’ self-loathing mirrors Buffy’s self-loathing. Angel/Grace tells Buffy/James, “I just want you to be able to have some kind of normal life. We can never have that, don’t you see?” This is pretty much the exact reason why Angel will leave Buffy for good in Season 3, and has always been a hurdle in their relationship. Buffy hasn’t worried about that though because “I’m going crazy not seeing you. I think about you every minute.” Remember what she said to him in “Bad Eggs” [2×12]? “Angel, when I look into the future, all I see is you! All I want is you.” Suddenly all I can think about are the words in a song: “My love must be a kind of blind love.”
When the words “Don’t walk away from me #####!” make their final appearance, Buffy is the one shown uttering the word “#####,” which is that much more powerful considering all that Angelus has done to her recently. (The scene in “Innocence” [2×14] where Angelus casually jokes about their night of passion and then walks away leaving her completely distraught is totally being channeled through Buffy’s body as she says that word.)
On the school balcony we finally get the whole story this time, which makes this entire situation far more complex and ambiguous than we initially thought. First of all, right before the gun goes off, Buffy/James yells at Angel/Grace, “Don’t talk to me like I’m some stupid…” kid. This line highlights that teacher/student, adult/child dynamic in the relationship between James and Grace while also reminding us of how illicit it was for a slayer to have slept with a vampire in what’s also ultimately an adult/child dynamic. In both of these cases the adult deserves most of the blame for taking advantage of the child, even more so when they are in a position of power or authority over them.
When the gun goes off this time we discover the vital detail that the trigger got pulled accidentally! James did not really intend to pull that trigger, just like Buffy did not intend to pull the trigger on Angelus. After Buffy/James distraughtly walk back to the music room, Buffy looks in the mirror and all she sees is James reflected back — their souls are merged into one right now, sharing the same unbearable grief over what they’ve done. “It must be a kind of blind love” plays in the background now. “I can’t see anyone but you,” which in this moment has a brand new meaning: Buffy can only see James and vice versa — they’re ready to end it all together.
But wait! There’s a twist to this grisly ending: Angel can’t die to a regular bullet. Angel/Grace can break the cycle of self-loathing, which was how this story was supposed to end. Thanks to Angel’s immortality, James finally has a chance at forgiveness — a forgiveness Angel/Grace readily offers Buffy/James. (It now becomes clear why Ms. Newman’s first name is ‘Grace’.) Buffy/James is in shock: “But I killed you!” Angel/Grace then hits the nail on the head:
ANGEL/GRACE: It was an accident. It wasn’t your fault.
BUFFY/JAMES: Oh, it is my fault. How could I…
ANGEL/GRACE: I’m the one who should be sorry, James. You thought I stopped loving you. But I never did. I loved you with my last breath. No more tears.
The hard truth to both the Buffy/Angel and James/Grace relationships is that they are complicated. Buffy/James may have made some poor choices and acted out of selfishness and immaturity (likely contributed to by unstable upbringings), but Angel/Grace were the respective adults in these relationships and should have known better than to take advantage of children/students — the adults are the ones with the psychological and sexual power here. Did either Angel or Grace deserve to die for that? No, certainly not, but that doesn’t absolve them of blame.
Naturally, when something goes wrong in a relationship like this, the child is more likely to blame themselves and idealize the adult. This is why when Angel lost his soul, Angelus is more than thrilled to validate Buffy’s feelings that it’s entirely her fault. Heck, even Principal Snyder provides a background chorus for her self-loathing: “I’m gonna keep looking until I know exactly how this is all your fault.” Thankfully, Angel/Grace finally recognize their culpability and responsibility in all of this, which is why they apologize for their actions and properly take the bulk of the weight off Buffy/James’ shoulders, allowing both of them the opportunity to move on. There is an outflow of compassion for Buffy here that is hard-earned and cathartic. This entire scene is very well-written, being weighty yet poignant; haunting yet beautiful; powerful yet intimate.
After the spirits leave Buffy and Angelus’ bodies, there seems to be a brief moment of soulful residue left over where it appears that Angel is there rather than Angelus. This gives Buffy a moment of hope that Angel is back, but that moment is snatched away as quickly as it got there, thus completely foreshadowing the end of the season: Angel will get his soul back right before Buffy has to send him to hell; this moment emotionally prepares her to be able to follow-through on that one, which is an impressively subtle bit of setup for the finale.
After everything calms down, Buffy tells Giles that a part of her still doesn’t get why Grace would forgive James. Giles asks, “Does it matter?” Buffy, now having a bit of a change of heart through this experience, says, “I guess not”; she can now stop beating herself up over what happened and begin the long process of healing and moving on, which will still be quite the struggle as long as Angelus is still out there murdering people. But at least now Buffy won’t be feeling like, as Cain put it in “Phases” [2×15], “If that thing hurts anyone, it’s on your head.”
“I Only Have Eyes for You” is a masterpiece of the form. With themes ranging from blame and selfishness to forgiveness and love, the complexity and consequences of relationships have never been more apparent to Buffy. Season 2 does an excellent job looking at every angle of adolescent love and allows the characters to grow from those experiences. Mistakes have been made, consequences have been felt, and now forgiveness has been accepted. It’s almost time to fasten our seat belts, because the conclusion to this maelstrom of story is just around the corner. As for “I Only Have Eyes for You”? Well, let’s just say that it’s good for the soul.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Oh, the Balcony of Pain. Emotional moments always seem to happen up there: “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01], this, “Crush” [5×14], “All the Way” [6×06], “Dead Things” [6×13], and “Sleeper” [7×08], to say the least. I don’t necessarily think there’s any greater meaning here, only that, well, it’s the Balcony of Pain!
+ The song playing in the background at the Bronze is called “Charge”, by Splendid, and is performed by Whedon favorite Angie Hart (think “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07]). The lyrics often directly apply to the Buffy/Angel and James/Grace relationships, thus setting up where the episode is headed, such as “The way you love / Have you got a name for it? / ‘Cause I don’t understand it”, “Got a list tattooed on my memory / Of how our tryst should unfold”, “I’m falling from the opposite”, “My heart’s enlarged, and I charge / What do you say? / To a dream that won’t go away / ‘Cause I don’t know if I can stand it”, and “Forever isn’t something you want to be.”
+ Buffy looks especially badass wailing on the first possessed guy.
+ The gun dispersing into the air: nice effect!
+ Drusilla getting quite excited over their new home.
+ Spike mocking Angelus over how their new home is so friendly to sunlight.
+ The wasps making a pathway for Buffy to enter the school followed by the front doors opening by themselves is so very creepy. Fabulous visuals, again.
+ This Xander quote pretty much applies to Spike right now too: “I’m dead as hell, and I won’t take it anymore!” I don’t think he’ll be in a forgiving mood toward Angelus soon. I love that he — the former villain in the season — gets his own hero music for being back in business.
+ Angelus being possessed by love seems to completely throw him off the deep end. After this he suddenly becomes less enamored with a special end for Buffy, and more interested in just sending everything to hell. I can almost see him literally saying, ‘To hell with Sunnydale!’
– Willow still teaching Jenny’s old class and making forced jokes. This makes little-to-no sense.
* Snyder being in the know about the Hellmouth. The Mayor is also implicated. This is nice, subtle setup for Season 3.