[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon | Director: Joss Whedon | Aired: 05/12/1998]
“There’s moments in your life that make you, that set the course of who you’re gonna be. Sometimes they’re little, subtle moments. Sometimes… they’re not.” – Whistler
“Becoming Pt. 1” is an episode loaded with backstory, exposition, setup, and a few big showcase scenes, but it’s also one with a hefty amount of thematic depth. The problem with having this much backstory and plot in an episode is that it tends not to be as memorable on subsequent viewings as it is the first time you see it. Thankfully, though, “Becoming Pt. 1” doesn’t get too bogged down by this and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. This is a very good episode, but it’s a bit shy of being a great one, seeming content to leave most of ‘the awesome’ to “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22].
“Becoming” is bookended by two landmark events for Angel(us) and Buffy, the two characters the bulk of the season of has been swirling around. “Becoming Pt. 1” focuses heavily on the former, while “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] focuses heavily on the latter; the finale opens with Angel “becoming” a vampire, and it ends with Buffy going from Buffy, a vampire slayer to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as she takes back her identity from Angelus and puts the notion that being the Slayer is just a job to her to rest — it will now be at her very core.
Here in “Becoming Pt. 1”, though, the focus is squarely on Angel(us) and what led him to this moment in his existence: soulless and trying to suck the world into hell. The episode also takes a close look at some highly relevant topics, such as those of ‘choice’ and ‘destiny’.
“Bear witness… as I ascend… as I become. … Everything that I am, everything that I have done, has led me here. … I have strayed, I have been lost. But Acathla redeems me. With this act, we will be free.” – Angelus
Both Angelus and Buffy are tied to Acathla. For Angelus it’s the ultimate albeit slightly over-the-top moment to wash away his twisted love for Buffy and the forgiveness that was forced on him in “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]; it’s what will “redeem” him as a demon. Whistler will point out in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] that this was supposed to be Angel’s big day, but “I thought he was here to stop Acathla, not to bring him forth.”
This was supposed to be Angel’s time to step out of obscurity and assert himself as a person, but rather than fostering his own growth while assisting Buffy, he increasingly lusted after her instead. Angel was not only a distraction to Buffy’s personal growth, but Buffy ended up being a distraction to Angel’s growth as well. Now, instead being the one to stop Acathla, he’s the one setting it loose! As for Buffy, by sending Angelus to hell and stopping Acathla herself, she overcomes a major obstacle on the road to growing up. This is why Buffy, Angel, and Angelus all end up being tied to Acathla in a very personal way.
Angel was clear that he never was one for ‘proper girls’ in his pre-vampire days (“Halloween” [2×06]), and the flashbacks we witness here are certainly consistent with that. Angel, or should I say Liam, was a drunken, reckless, directionless pretty boy looking only for wild abandon. “With the exception of an honest day’s work, there’s no challenge I’m not prepared to face,” he informs Darla, who is on the prowl for her next vampire playmate. Well, he certainly got what he was looking for!
While Liam may not have known all the particulars of what being a vampire would mean, it’s nonetheless precisely what he wanted: to live without conscience, constraint, or remorse. Becoming a vampire was simply a more intense version of the kind of life he was already living. Angel is so remorseful not just because he remembers doing horrible things as a soulless monster, but also because of the choices he made before becoming a vampire. “Amends” [3×10] will shed additional light on this angle.
Darla tells Liam, “Close your eyes,” which I see as representative of his lifestyle of living in the ‘now’, regardless of the consequences to himself or those around him. Naturally, Liam is more than happy to oblige that request. Buffy, of course, will soon be repeating those words in the present. Where Darla turned Angel into a hellish creature, Buffy will send Angel to hell directly — one might argue as a sort of cosmic consequence for his choices thus far. As “Passion” [2×17] taught us, it all comes back to the choices we make, the consequences that result from them, and the doors that remain available to us after everything settles down — take careful note of where Angel first spots Darla: in an archway, enticing him to step through to another life.
The flashbacks sprinkled throughout “Becoming Pt. 1” emphasize characters both before and after the ‘big moments’ in their respective existences, which is what Whistler is talking about in his voiceover. In Angel’s case, we see several of these moments: becoming a vampire, working towards become a person, and now — soulless again — trying to become the bringer of hell. We also see the creepy pre-vampire Drusilla flashback (“And my child… God is watching you…”, Angelus tells her) and the ‘creepy in a different way’ pre-slayer Buffy flashbacks in L.A.
Drusilla exclaimed, “I don’t want to be an evil thing!” The fact that Angelus turned her into one anyway is not only incredibly sad, but it highlights the other side of the coin: sometimes we don’t get very good choices in life. After all, Buffy initially thought she was “destiny-free, really.” Drusilla and Buffy prove that sometimes life throws us a curve ball, and that “No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does” (Whistler).
“So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.” – Whistler
The New York flashback, with Angel and his rat hunting adventures, brings to mind “Passion” [2×17] again, particularly about how inviting people into our lives makes us vulnerable, but that it’s a whole lot better than the alternative. “Without passion, we’d be truly dead,” said Angelus. Well, he’d know, because he basically was in New York, and not just literally. “This is the stench of death you’re giving off here,” Whistler tells him. (Side note: this reminds me a lot of the early Angel/Doyle scene in the Angel pilot, “City of” .) Whistler teaches Angel that “not all demons are dedicated to the destruction of all life.”
Whistler goes on to admit that he’s “A demon… technically,” but that “I mean, I’m not a bad guy.” This brings home his entire point in both the voiceovers and the flashbacks. Whistler can’t help that he’s a demon — that was destiny — but he’s made an active choice to live in the world and try to help people despite whatever limitations he may have. This is what he’s trying to inspire Angel to do: “I mean that you can become an even more useless rodent than you already are, or you can become someone. A person. Someone to be counted.” Unfortunately, in the present, Angelus is back and rather than choosing to become more human, he’s doing the very opposite by removing any residue of love and humanity left in his system after “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]. “I have strayed, but with this act, I will be free,” Angelus recites.
Whistler didn’t choose to be a demon, just as Buffy didn’t choose to be the Slayer, but they do have a choice in how they utilize their respective situations and abilities. Buffy also didn’t choose to fall in love with Angel, but she very much had a choice in how she expressed that love — whether selfishly or selflessly. Unfortunately for everyone, she chose the selfish route in “Surprise” [2×13] and has felt the consequences of that decision ever since.
“The more you live in this world, the more you see how apart from it you are.” – Whistler
I’ll get into this more during “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22], but it’s important to recognize how being ‘different’ can lead to an incredibly isolated and lonely life. As the Slayer, this is a problem that is built into the very definition of the role: “Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness.” This is the life that Buffy was given, but there’s still the question of what will be the life that Buffy chooses. This is what the next several seasons will begin to explore in more depth. “Chosen” [7×22], of course, will brilliantly flip the definition of the Slayer on its head, but Buffy still has a lot to learn before she gets there.
Early in “Becoming Pt. 1”, Buffy is repeatedly questioned about her readiness to kill Angelus. I certainly understand everyone’s skepticism considering everything that’s gone down recently. Even Buffy is overcompensating a bit when telling a vampire that she’s ready to take the fight to Angel in the opening scene. It turns out that, yeah, Buffy really is ready now, but let’s not forget how many emotional barriers she had to break through to get there. Let’s also give Season 2 some applause for having such strong thematic cohesiveness and consistent character development!
Speaking of thematic cohesiveness, there are several scenes in “Becoming Pt. 1” that emphasize the importance of blood. Listen closely when Willow offers to help Buffy with her exams: “I will get you through this semester if I have to sweat blood.” Willow immediately clarifies that she means “metaphor blood,” which ends up being a very meta observation. Blood and its inseparable connection to life is a common theme that runs through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, often coming up during big moments in big episodes. Here in “Becoming Pt. 1” this reveals itself in several key scenes: Liam getting turned into a vampire after an intimate exchange of blood, Kendra dying due to blood loss, and the ‘key’ to opening Acathla’s portal to hell being Angelus’ blood. Exploring this further reveals some incredibly strong thematic connections between “Becoming” and “The Gift” [5×22], all of which I will get into soon (“Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22]).
“You can paint this any way you want. But the way I see it is that you wanna forget all about Ms. Calendar’s murder so you can get your boyfriend back.” – Xander
If there’s one standout scene in “Becoming Pt. 1” it is easily where Jenny’s attempt to curse Angel again is revealed to everyone in the library. The explosive, raw, and genuine emotions that pour out of everyone is a great example of the kind of resonance Buffy can muster when at its best. Xander comes off the worst in this discussion — a total ###, to be frank — and is still unable to differentiate between Angel and Angelus, with a clear jealous streak behind much of his attitude. Xander may not be entirely wrong in coldly claiming that Buffy desires her “boyfriend back,” but to make the case that it’s her only reason is really stretching it. Xander knows Buffy hasn’t forgotten about Jenny, not for a second. So he’s mostly just being petty and mean here.
Buffy’s decision to curse Angelus again, after — in a nice touch — spotting the Claddagh ring in her room, is actually an excellent plan. There is no guarantee Buffy will be successful in killing Angelus, even if she attacks him with all she’s got. Having Willow working to curse him again is a sensible first attempt (and later, backup plan) that accomplishes the primary goal of stopping Angelus from bringing forth Acathla, let alone his recent murder spree. If, as an added bonus, Buffy gets Angel back, they can deal with how to judge Angel then. But Xander has thoughts that go beyond simply stopping Angelus — he wants Angel gone too. I’ll deal with Xander more in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22].
While “Becoming Pt. 1” is strong thematically, it’s a little light in terms of character work. The one exception to this is Willow’s decision to try to curse Angelus via magic. Giles, in his very fatherly wisdom, knows (remember Eyghon in “The Dark Age” [2×08]?) that this is a dangerous development for her, adding that “channeling such potent magic through yourself could open a door you won’t be able to close.” Well… something will channel through Willow in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22], and it does open a door that she won’t ever be able to close. Note the use of the word “door,” this time by Giles (“Passion” [2×17]). This is the start of Willow ‘becoming’ a witch.
For all it does well, “Becoming Pt. 1” does have its limitations. Among these, as mentioned, is the relative lack of character work, but it also struggles to avoid feeling like the setup episode that it is. Between all the Acathla exposition, the numerous backstory flashbacks that, while interesting, aren’t nearly as fun in retrospect as on initial viewings, and Angelus’ weirdly cartoony histrionics and megalomania, “Becoming Pt. 1” simply doesn’t gel quite as nicely as I would have liked. None of these flaws sink the episode, but they do knock it down a notch.
While recognizing its flaws, “Becoming Pt. 1” still gets the job done. As the first step to wrapping up this complex and emotional season, it mostly works. It is thematically on point, touching on — or recapping — topics that include destiny, choice, blood, doors, and personhood. The scene in the library offers explosive character interaction that sets the stage for where everyone will stand in the finale. Then there’s the final scene, where everyone’s hurt, Kendra’s dead, Giles is missing, and the police think Buffy’s responsible for it all. Put it all together and we’ve got a very good episode on our hands.
It’s now time to hand the baton over to Buffy, because we’re about to find out just what she’s made of.
“This is a beautiful moment we’re having. Can we please fight?” – Buffy
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Christophe Beck’s reliably solid score. I particularly enjoyed the variations of the Buffy/Angel theme song — the tender flute version being my favorite — sprinkled throughout the episode.
+ The curator guy asking if Giles likes to be surprised, re: Acathla. “No, not as a general rule.” Smart! Remember the last time they opened a suspicious ancient box, in — wait for it — “Surprise” [2×13]?
+ Whoa, where has Oz been lately? It’s been a while, dude.
+ Xander’s fish stick reenactment of his previous night with Buffy. I also appreciated Oz’s critique of it: “Well, I thought it was riveting. Uh, I was a little unclear about some of the themes.”
+ Xander telling Cordelia he’ll be an expert in “the language of love.” Once “Primeval” [4×21] comes around, he’ll become increasingly known as the Heart of the Scoobies, so maybe that’s not far off. 😉
+ Cordelia screaming that Xander has “fish hands.” That’s quite the claim after “Go Fish” [2×20]! Haha.
+ Willow bossing Buffy into paying attention to her homework. Awesome. Willow should have pursued teaching instead of witchcraft!
+ Drusilla being all-around terrifying when they pick up Acathla.
+ Spike being all-around hilarious in this entire finale. Angel tells Spike that he never knew his history. Where does that sounds familiar? Oh yeah, Buffy’s not so great at history either. Connection? I’ll let you decide. 😉
+ Drusilla still taking care of the dog she named Sunshine, even while Angelus tries to suck the world into hell. Haha.
+ Angel staring at Buffy in L.A. when she was, like, 15, which is pretty creepy. This makes Angelus’ stalking in “Passion” [2×17] even more disturbing, if such a thing was even possible. It also reinforces the murkier aspects of their relationship.
+ It’s nice seeing pre-Sunnydale Buffy, who is shown to be very similar to Cordelia. Poor girl is in for a rude awakening.
+ Spike literally laughing at Angelus for failing to awake Acathla.
+ Buffy taking an exam in class as a vampire walks in and commits suicide in front of her. This is a nice, succinct visual representation of the “high school is hell” concept.
+ Hey, Kendra’s back just to die! Poor Kendra. Not the best character, but she served her purpose well enough.
+ Kendra’s legacy: Mr. Pointy!
+ Angelus drawing Buffy out and then coaxing her into stopping their fight: “And she falls for it every time!” This is a clever double trap that plays on what happened in “When She Was Bad” [2×01].
– David Boreanaz’s Irish accent. Its reputation for torture is well earned. Throw Kendra’s accent into the mix and it’s a full on massacre.
* Giles’ warning to Willow about channeling magic pretty much foreshadows her entire character arc for the rest of the series.
* Angelus taunts Buffy by saying “Hello, lover” only to be given that very same welcome right before Buffy takes him down in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22].