[Review by Mike Marinaro]
“My love must be a kind of blind love.” – “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]
Adolescent love. Some call it ‘puppy love’ or ‘teen love’. From a detached point of view this is a topic that is incredibly easy to trivialize, mock, or simply think of as an assumed rite of passage, but to those living it… it’s a hurricane of uncontrolled emotions. Season 2 chronicles the very common adolescent experience of investing way too much emotion into one person at the expense of their own personal development. This immature — “kind of blind” — form of love can have effects comparable to that of seriously addictive drugs, what with its euphoric highs, devastating lows, and potentially life-altering consequences. This is the obstacle that Buffy must overcome in Season 2, and it manifests in the form of Angel(us).
Season 2 has many positive qualities going for it, but the one that always sticks out the most to me is it’s romantic surrealism — its sense of tone, atmosphere, and emotional intimacy. An early scene that embodies this is Buffy’s ‘sexy dance’ in “When She Was Bad” [2×01], with its slow ‘in the moment’ directing, surreal music, and warm color tones. This haunting romantic vibe permeates the entire season, not just in tone but also in writing: e.g. Buffy’s pointed prophetic dreams and the deliberate overload of romantic melodrama leading up to “Innocence” [2×14].
Probably the biggest compliment I can offer Season 2 is that I can literally feel what Buffy goes through. This is a quality Buffy the Vampire Slayer can offer that few other shows can match, and one that will be present in its most emotionally compelling seasons (i.e. 2, 5 and 6). Back when I was in high school I certainly had a few crushes — fawning and fantasizing about girls I knew very little about — but I never acted on those crushes. I’d find a way to learn just enough about them to realize they wouldn’t be very compatible with me anyway, and that it would be a mistake to let my physical attraction overpower the importance of establishing a deeper personal connection.
I bring this up only because Season 2 is so good at conveying Buffy’s internal state of heart and mind that I can completely understand and empathize with her experience and decisions despite not having ever made those choices myself. In other words: I never experienced full-blown adolescent love but am able to feel what it’s like to experience it through Buffy. That’s an impressive and exceedingly rare feat for any form of art!
When we left Season 1, the show had just begun to offer signs of life thanks to Joss Whedon deciding to step behind the camera in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]. Season 2 doesn’t just improve the production values though. Whedon’s vision here is ambitious, deep, and shockingly coherent. It quickly establishes its primary themes — the dangers of adolescent love and the world becoming increasingly morally complex — and then expands on them through a variety of new characters, relationships, and conflicts, both external and internal. The season then impressively juggles all of these new elements with confidence, which is apparent in its well-paced structure.
We witness the formation and/or peak of several relationships in Season 2, and every important character gets pulled into the season’s web. I really appreciate how the season examines these relationships, highlighting how each one offers a different approach and that they all relate back to Buffy’s relationship with Angel. Xander and Cordelia are an example of a purely superficial relationship where both parties have selfish motives; Giles and Jenny showcase the only adult relationship out of the bunch, which provides an example of a more healthy pace and selfless way of expressing love; Willow and Oz offer a situation where one person is being selfish (Willow) and the other is being selfless (Oz); finally, Angelus’ continued ties to Buffy highlight how easily selfish love can become dangerous and obsessive.
This is, without a doubt, one of the show’s very best seasons, and it almost gets everything right. While Season 2’s first half may occasionally suffer from a lack of subtlety, the last half is quite likely the best individual arc the entire series ever put out and is loaded with life-altering characterization, incredible depth, creepy tension, real stakes, death, and powerful emotions. Even more impressive is how it accomplishes all of this without sacrificing its witty humor and youthful charm. None of this would work as well as it does, though, if the choices made by the characters didn’t have any real consequences. Fortunately, Season 2 establishes that this isn’t a show that sidesteps tough consequences anymore. The characters won’t be leaving the season anything like how they entered it.
So without further ado, let’s start digging into the details!
Note – Whenever you want to feel Season 2’s vibe, check out these very resonant songs:
– “Paralyzed”, by The Cardigans (for the first half of Season 2)
– “Easier Said Than Done”, by Morcheeba (for the last half of Season 2)
- Inconsistent first half.
- Occasional subtlety problems.
- Scattered development for all characters not named Buffy.
I’m thrilled to say that there is very little to complain about in Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If there is one key thing holding it back, it’s easily the first twelve episodes. As a whole, they are simply inconsistent, with some being great — “When She Was Bad” [2×01], “School Hard” [2×03], “Halloween” [2×06], etc. — and some being wholly mediocre — “Some Assembly Required” [2×02], “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04], “Reptile Boy” [2×05], “Bad Eggs” [2×12], etc. Interestingly enough, the only outright flop in the season is the oddly placed “Go Fish” [2×20], but that’s an outlier among the fabulous. That first half, though, really does struggle in stringing together consecutive good-to-great episodes.
So, what exactly is bringing these episodes down, then? Well, I think it mostly boils down to subtlety, or the lack thereof, and in some cases there’s a bit of thematic redundancy. Episodes like “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04], “Reptile Boy” [2×05], “The Dark Age” [2×08], and “Bad Eggs” [2×12] all have a meaningful thematic purpose within the season, but they’re just far too heavy-handed in how they deliver their messages. Examples include Ampata’s pining for a normal life to Buffy at the frat house to the ridiculous flashes Giles gets of Eyghon to, well, just about everything in “Bad Eggs” [2×12].
It’s a little too easy to see the seams where the writers are trying to balance subtext and text. Unfortunately, it’s not until “Surprise” [2×13] when they finally realize what the correct approach moving forward is. The subtlety flaw comes up in enough early episodes that it adds an edge of weakness to what is an otherwise remarkable season of television. A few other flaws include some isolated instances of boredom, weak execution, and questionable writing, seen most notably in episodes such as “Some Assembly Required” [2×02], “The Dark Age” [2×08], and “Go Fish” [2×20], respectively.
The only other flaw of note is in the relatively small breadth of character development offered by the season. Don’t get me wrong: all the major characters get their moments of growth and time in the spotlight here, but there are perhaps too few well-defined arcs for pretty much every character outside of Buffy herself. While I do think this area could have been handled a little better, I tend not to complain much when the lead character gets the kind of brilliant arc that Buffy does in Season 2.
- Impressive thematic consistency.
- Incredible character development for Buffy.
- Real stakes and occasional creepiness.
- Earned emotional resonance and an unparalleled sense of intimacy.
- Vastly improved (from Season 1) production values, music, and directing.
- Weaker episodes that still have value and are respectable.
If it’s not evident already, Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite seasons of television. Its strengths play to what I, as a viewer, crave most out of the form: a consistent intimacy with the characters, quality character arcs, coherent and deep themes, and earned stakes. It’s to Season 2’s credit that it accomplishes all of these things, and with an operatic ambiance at its heart.
At the core of what the season accomplishes is its strong thematic direction, which is used to inform Buffy’s life-changing character arc — i.e. the themes and Buffy’s arc are completed entwined with each other. Season 2 is designed to offer the first step of guidance for Buffy’s larger journey towards adulthood. The season is very clearly split into two halves: the first half, through “Bad Eggs” [2×12], functions as a setup to later episodes/seasons and gives Buffy a series of warnings about how selfishness is the bane of lasting love, where the last half shows the consequences of ignoring those warnings.
“Some Assembly Required” [2×02] gets things going by setting up the battle that will be waged between Buffy’s heart and mind regarding Angel. Daryl was so obsessed with having someone to love that he tried to build a girl out of body parts; Ampata, in “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04], was so desperate to have a chance at love that she was willing to suck the life out of people to keep herself alive; Buffy, in “Reptile Boy” [2×05], frustrated because everyone was trying to micro-manage her life, lashed out by throwing herself into an unhealthy environment; In “Halloween” [2×06] we see Buffy beginning to show signs of giving up self-growth to indulge in a princess fantasy. Why? Because she thinks that’s the way Angel would prefer her to be. Giles, in “The Dark Age” [2×08], reveals a darker past where he intentionally lost control of himself to Eyghon (‘I, Gone’), resulting in subsequent deaths.
All of these episodes are on point thematically to offer Buffy warnings, signs, and lessons that, if heeded, would have saved her tremendous amounts of emotional suffering. “Lie to Me” [2×07] then sets up the back half of the season by establishing the difficulty of making hard choices and parsing ambiguous motives. Everything comes together in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] when Buffy has to sacrifice the relationship she so badly wanted and send Angel to hell. This experience leaves Buffy harrowed and shut down, but not gone. Nearly every episode in Season 2 serves a key thematic purpose. This journey wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling if Buffy’s mistakes had been quickly washed over. Without being true to the consequences of life, the destination ends up being unsatisfying and hollow. Thankfully, Season 2 has the guts to take the story where it needed to go.
“Innocence” [2×14] is the first time in the entire series where we get a real sense of payoff. As good as “Innocence” [2×14] is, it wouldn’t resonate nearly as much as it does if, say, Angel had gotten his soul back by the end of the episode or if there were no lasting repercussions from Angelus’ time roaming free. After laying a bit of creepy groundwork in “Phases” [2×15] and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” [2×16], “Passion” [2×17] comes along to remove any remaining doubt about the show’s commitment to showing permanent consequences. The death of Jenny Calendar is the defining moment of the season, and an important one for the series at large. It validates our investment in the drama, heightens tense moments to come, and achieves a wonderful sense of emotional realism.
Following “Passion” [2×17] is a group of incredibly creepy and atmospheric episodes, with “Killed by Death” [2×18] offering solid follow-through and “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] soaring with its eclectic mix of horror, compassion, and beauty. The themes and character writing aren’t the only reasons why Season 2 works. The productions values have really stepped up from Season 1 as well, best illustrated by the vastly improved directing (Whedon!), music (Christophe Beck!), special effects (wasps!), lighting (sexy dance!), and visual staging (Angelus on Buffy’s bed!).
Not only are the highs of Season 2 way higher than the highs of Season 1, but the lows are higher too! Aside from the stumble that is “Go Fish” [2×20], all of the weaker episodes this season have some thematic and character value; episodes like “Some Assembly Required” [2×02], “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04], “Reptile Boy” [2×05], and “Bad Eggs” [2×12], while certainly not good, all have something to say that ties into the larger themes of the season, making their presence far more welcome and worthwhile than their closest Season 1 counterparts.
In all, Season 2 packs quite the wallop in every important area that Critically Touched cares about. Its positives vastly outweigh its few negatives, and what we’re left with is something meaningful, moving, powerful, scary, and beautiful.
Love, sex, obsession, selfishness, the loss of self, forgiveness, letting go, and a re-established identity. These are the many subjects that confront Buffy in Season 2 — a gamut that leaves her forever changed. The primary focus of Buffy’s arc is falling in love for the first time and allowing those powerful emotions to put her in a compromised position. In the first half of the season, Buffy’s passion for Angel steadily grows stronger until it reaches critical mass in “Surprise” [2×13]. The second half of the season then deals with the fallout and consequences of these choices and addresses some very intimate emotions and tough choices.
Buffy left Season 1 a child who had made the decision to step on the difficult path towards adulthood. The first stop on that trip, of course, is adolescence, an often awkward and traumatic period in any person’s life. Sometimes these traumas stem from external sources, like parents neglecting their children or bullying at school, but other times the traumas are caused by one’s own poor choices in the face of overwhelming evidence that suggests a healthier route. In “When She Was Bad” [2×01] we see a Buffy struggling to accept that she’s already left childhood behind, which is why the Anointed One (remember that guy?) is still around. Being able to let go of the past will be a recurring theme for Buffy throughout the series, and that’s no more apparent than in the premiere and the closing episodes of the season, albeit for very different reasons in each case.
As dry as the episode is, “Some Assembly Required” [2×02] turns out to have a lot of thematic importance that applies to Buffy’s character arc in the season. In Daryl, ‘the body’, and Chris, ‘the brain’, we have characters that represent the two sides of the debate that will be raging in Buffy throughout Season 2. Buffy must confront the struggle within between the body and the mind in matters of love and duty, despite the added hurdle of having an absent parent (Joyce/Chris’ mom). This kicks off a string of episodes that present warnings and lessons to Buffy of the dangerous choices that lie ahead.
“Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04] has Buffy defeat Ampata, who is killing others to keep herself alive with a literal kiss of death; “Reptile Boy” [2×05] has Buffy acting selfishly, which unintentionally leads her into danger; “Halloween” [2×06] shows Buffy how dangerous losing yourself in a fantasy can be, which is what her entire relationship with Angel represents; “Lie to Me” [2×07] prepares Buffy for the complex choices that adolescence will often throw at her and that sometimes there are no easy answers in life; “The Dark Age” [2×08] uses Giles’ past and the demon Eyghon (meaning, ‘I, Gone’) to highlight how dangerous relinquishing control of your body in the service of a physical or emotional high can be; finally, “Bad Eggs” [2×12] is the ultimate metaphorical manifestation of how messy sex can be when its repercussions are ignored.
Despite all of the warnings, Buffy made some selfish choices anyway: sleeping with Angel in “Surprise” [2×13] and letting Angelus live in “Innocence” [2×14]. This left the rest of the season to deal with the consequences. The second half of the season is also spent offering Buffy solutions to resolve the mess she’s gotten herself into. “Phases” [2×15] expresses the benefit of controlling one’s sexuality and redirecting those energies into more constructive endeavors; “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” [2×16] shows what can happen if love is allowed to be twisted into obsession.
“Passion” [2×17] is the ultimate consequence of Buffy’s loss of identity and uncontrolled passion, resulting in the death of Jenny Calendar; “Killed by Death” [2×18] and “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] switch gears to focus on the need to heal wounds and accept forgiveness; finally, “Go Fish” [2×20] and “Becoming” wrap up the season by forcing Buffy to let go of Angel, move on, and in an awesome act of inner strength, take back her inner self from Angelus and put the beat down on him with it.
In all of this, perhaps best exemplified by her experience in “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19], Buffy begins to understand the complexity and consequences of intimate relationships — this is the primary purpose of the season for Buffy. In her first taste of adolescence, Buffy comes to realize how our individual choices in life can affect the people around us and the full extent of the danger posed by losing oneself in another person or thing, as she did with Angel. In all of this trauma Buffy also learned how to begin the healing process and the virtues of forgiveness, whether deserved or not.
Buffy’s character arc doesn’t just touch on the primary themes of the season though. In topics that are related to those themes but take on their own life, Buffy is also forced to confront some fundamental questions about life as the Slayer — questions both internal and external. The “What’s My Line” episodes focus on what being the Slayer means for Buffy prospects in life. Kendra is used as a contrast to Buffy, but also as a means to reveal that Buffy can’t just treat her role as a job — it’s an intrinsic part of her life. This is something she begins to lose sight thanks to a selfish love for Angel, but then finally comes to embrace in the final moments of the season by doing what needs to be done and sending Angel to hell.
There’s also a nicely subtle thread running through the season that sets up what’s to come in Season 3. This thread relates to Buffy’s battle with authority. We see examples of this in her numerous clashes with Joyce (and “Ted” [2×11]), her occasional frustration with Giles when his demands seem unreasonable or he ignores her (e.g. “Reptile Boy” [2×05], “The Dark Age” [2×08], and “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]), her constant battle with Principal Snyder, and the growing hints that Sunnydale’s Mayor might be pulling some of the strings in her life. These threads all come together in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] when Buffy assaults a police officer, evades the law, gets kicked out of her home, is expelled from school, and then leaves town entirely.
Even with all of this going on in Season 2, Buffy still consistently shows us her hero cred. As often as she can be selfish, she can be equally selfless, and generally far more often than the other characters. Jumping off of “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], Buffy continues having to make increasingly difficult sacrifices to survive and grow. “Killed by Death” [2×18] reminded us that Buffy’s instincts as a protector pre-date being called as the Slayer and is a core part of who she is. Buffy may be flawed, maybe even childish at times still, but she continues to put her life on the front line of a nightly battle at the expense of living the normal life she would have always preferred. No matter how difficult the choice, Buffy will make the sacrifice and do what she can to keep people safe, despite being ‘just a girl’ on the inside.
Buffy leaves Season 2 fleeing from Sunnydale with a hardened heart that will take years to begin to soften. The season does an exemplary job at taking a core theme and exploring every little facet of it through the characters and their arcs, particularly with Buffy. This is a character that has fundamentally changed her outlook on love and will have numerous wounds to begin repairing with friends and family as Season 3 gets started. Buffy’s romanticized, naïve notions of love have been defeated. Buffy may have chosen the longer, more traumatic route to arrive at that destination, but she got there nonetheless. New challenges await her in Season 3.
On the surface Willow is an absolutely adorable character that is easy to root for. After all, she is so young, naïve, and innocent and helps Buffy fight the forces of darkness with technical skills, book research, and eventually magic. Looking at the series with the retrospective eye, though, reveals that Willow might just be giving us a bit of sleight-of-hand. Don’t get me wrong: at the core, I think Willow’s a decent person, but that superficial likeability can make it extremely easy to overlook her flaws. As the series progresses, these flaws start to seep to the surface with increasing regularity, but there are some notable signs of an ominous future right here in Season 2.
In “When She Was Bad” [2×01], Willow comes off as overly cavalier towards Buffy, not seeming to pick up on the fact that she’s not quite right upon returning to Sunnydale. Rather than trying to reach out one-on-one to Buffy, Willow comes to the conclusion that her odd behavior points to possession. Fortunately, most of early Season 2 paints Willow in a very favorable light, and even by the end of the premiere we see that she doesn’t hold Buffy’s emotional outburst against her.
An example of Willow at her best is when she comes to the realization that Xander will only ever see her as a friend, despite the hope to the contrary after their near-kiss in “When She Was Bad” [2×01]. In this regard, “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04] is a turning point for Willow as she decides to move on to new dating possibilities. It’s no small coincidence that this is the very moment Oz is introduced to the show. This decision proves to be an important one for Willow, because afterwards we see an immediate impact on her confidence: in “Reptile Boy” [2×05] she assertively snaps at Angel and Giles for placing too much pressure on Buffy.
“Halloween” [2×06] is perhaps the episode that shows Willow at her very best in all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s, of course, Halloween, and Buffy is trying to use the occasion to push Willow a little bit out of her comfort zone by getting her to wear a skimpy-ish outfit, but Willow won’t have it. Instead, Willow sticks with an ultra-conservative ghost costume, thus covering her body entirely — head included.
The genius of the episode is that everyone gets turned into their costume. This causes Willow to become an actual ghost, thus shedding the exterior costume and leaving her only with the interior one underneath. The crisis forces her to get somewhat comfortable in the outfit and — with Buffy essentially unavailable — take charge and relay information between Giles and the others. This represents a kind of natural personal growth for Willow that will become masked by her increasing use of magic.
At first glance, Willow’s relationship with Oz and the experience of being in a relationship seems to be a good thing, but it actually begins to uncover some of her biggest flaws. “Innocence” [2×14] is informative in this regard. It’s here where Willow discovers her former crush, Xander, is sharing some heavy kiss time with their shared enemy, Cordelia. Willow’s reaction is incredibly understandable even if it’s not her place to judge Xander’s choices.
The real problem is what she does with this information. Willow tries to bait Oz into a make-out session as a way to get back at Xander, which Oz immediately calls her on. So Willow’s motives to spark a kiss from Oz stem from a very selfish part of her, one that surfaces again in “Phases” [2×15] when she tells Buffy that Oz should “hurry up” and make a move on her. To Willow’s credit, though, she’s quite accepting of the whole werewolf situation and even tries to understand what going through that might be like. This is precisely why they share their first kiss at that very moment.
The final topic of Willow’s arc is her introduction to magic. This all gets started after Jenny is killed and Willow is left to finish teaching her class. The very first spell she tries — banishing a spirit from the school — doesn’t go so well in “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]. Another opportunity presents itself in “Becoming Pt. 1” [2×21]: to return Angel’s soul to him, which ends up being a lot more successful. Giles, though, gave her a dire warning about how exposing herself to this kind of magic might open a door she can’t close. It turns out that that warning was completely accurate.
In both of Willow’s spell attempts in Season 2 she was motivated by a pure desire to help the group, but that won’t be the case for very much longer. We’ll see, very early in Season 3, that the door Giles warned about is wide open now. As time goes by, Willow begins to use magic and its power as a kind of false confidence rather than doing the work necessary to gain it in a more natural way. Eventually, the magic will become inseparable from her. We leave Willow here in Season 2 about to embark on a very exciting yet very dangerous new phase of her life.
Xander’s arc throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, more than anyone else, a story about the guy who isn’t chosen. Where Buffy has a calling, Giles has a job, and Willow finds magic, Xander is almost always in a state of perpetual limbo and flailing around trying to find something that sticks. This directionless state is very evident in Season 2, where instead of a coherent character arc we see a grab-bag of varying actions, impulses, and attitudes. We see Xander at his worst and at his best; we see him being helpful and being incredibly petty.
The key topics Xander deals with in Season 2 involve sexual confusion, confidence, jealousy, and vengeance, the first of those likely being the most prominent. Within the span of one season we see him want to kiss Willow (“When She Was Bad” [2×01]), lose interest in her yet again the moment Buffy returns to Sunnydale, continue to lust over Buffy in his thoughts, start to fall for yet another supernatural girl in Ampata (“Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04]), and then embarking on a bewildering “relationship” with Cordelia that predominantly involves a whole lot of lusty make-out sessions in hidden places. While Xander does eventually start to care a little about Cordelia, he’s primarily in it for the physical interaction.
The first half of Season 2 is generally more favorable to Xander than the second half. Turning into an Army soldier for “Halloween” [2×06], in particular, gives Xander a nice little confidence boost that ends up attracting Cordelia to him that much more. But he had some nice moments of confidence even before that, notably when saving Cordelia from a fiery death in “Some Assembly Required” [2×02] and looking out for Buffy at the frat party in “Reptile Boy” [2×05]. Xander also sneaks into a local military base to snatch a rocket launcher in “Innocence” [2×14], kills a vampire from behind to help Buffy in “Phases” [2×15], courageously stands up to Angelus on Buffy’s behalf in “Killed by Death” [2×18], and joins the swim team to help investigate mysterious deaths in “Go Fish” [2×20].
Unfortunately (for the person, not the character), Xander’s flaws often outweigh his strengths in Season 2. We see a whole lot of consistent jealousy, selfishness, and pettiness out of him. Examples include his lack of empathy for Buffy in “When She Was Bad” [2×01], his incredibly condescending comments about Buffy’s male interests in “Lie to Me” [2×07], and his judgment of Willow for staying with Oz after the werewolf transformation.
The final stretch of the season really shows Xander at his worst, such as when he goads Amy into enacting fresh vengeance on Cordelia for dumping him in “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” [2×16] and then keeping his motivation a secret afterward, claiming he “deserves” something for not being able to tell the difference between Angel and Angelus, blowing up at Buffy for her complex feelings regarding an attempt to return Angel’s soul in “Becoming Pt. 1” [2×21], and — of course — ‘The Lie’ in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22]. All of these moments bring out the worst in Xander, and can often make him — jokes aside — a difficult character to like early in the series.
Despite all of his very evident flaws, I strongly feel that he’s an important presence on the show. There needs to be a character that has no special abilities or talents to provide a contrast to the rest of the group. His occasional pettiness also creates some nice sparks of drama between the core characters that might not otherwise be there. One of the many things I love about Buffy is how its characters are given the freedom to be flawed, say mean things to each other, and really disagree with each other on important issues. This works so well because all of the core characters, no matter their many flaws, are all ultimately decent people striving to be better. Fortunately for Xander, we get to start seeing some real progress in this regard in Season 3.
For the most part, Giles is a character that is inextricably linked to Buffy; almost everything Giles goes through as a character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is also going through. Rarely, if ever, does he get an arc that is completely independent of Buffy. Here in Season 2 this connection materializes in the form of a — you guessed it! — relationship with Jenny Calendar. Most of the relationships in Season 2 are built to show Buffy the different ways of being involved with another person: e.g. Xander and Cordelia show the superficial side, Willow and Oz show split intentions, while Giles and Jenny show the adult side.
This is why Giles’ primary arc in Season 2 is his relationship with Jenny. We get an indication that this is the case right from the start, with Giles zoning out Snyder in “When She Was Bad” [2×01] to chase after Jenny and then going on a “date” with her in “Some Assembly Required” [2×02] at an event — football — that they both know Giles has no interest in whatsoever. The key take-away is how mature their courting is, and how gradually it’s built over the course of the season. Although both of them share physical attraction for one another, they — unlike Buffy and Angel — don’t let that blind them to the process of learning about the other before things get intimate.
This learning process turns out to be vital for both of them. In “The Dark Age” [2×08], Jenny gets possessed and used by a demon that Giles — during his youth — is partially responsible for summoning. Although Giles’ mistakes may be in the past, they (“Ripper”) are still a part of who he is now, and the consequences of his past deeds continue to reverberate in the present. This is a red flag for Jenny, which prompts a pause in their continued relationship and is smart on her part.
Unfortunately, Jenny isn’t free of a hidden past either. Shortly after she decides to accept Giles’ past and continue forward in their relationship, the situation flips in “Innocence” [2×14]: Giles discovers that she’s a part of the very gypsy clan that originally cursed Angel and that she was sent there to make sure his suffering continues. This revelation proves to then be a red flag for Giles, who decides to put a pause on their relationship once again.
As time wears on, Giles begins to be willing to accept Jenny’s past and her involvement in the loss of Angel’s soul. Here’s the rub though: most of the harm Jenny caused went to Buffy, Giles’ charge and most important responsibility. Unless Buffy offered some measure of forgiveness to Jenny, Giles is adult enough to keep his distance despite personally wanting to resume the relationship. This is a wonderful example of a parent sacrificing their own desires for the sake of their child — an example Joyce could learn from a hundred times over (“Ted” [2×11], anyone?).
Jenny’s murder in “Passion” [2×17] hurts Giles immeasurably. It doesn’t help that Angelus murders Jenny right after Buffy gives the okay for Jenny to reconnect with Giles. Buffy will end up experiencing something very similar in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22]. Contrary to how he acted all season, Giles loses control to go after Angelus in a moment of passionate fury, very nearly getting him killed, which would have left Buffy completely without adult guidance going forward. This may have been completely understandable and human of him, but it doesn’t negate the risk he took indulging in his passion.
The impact of Jenny’s death spills into subsequent episodes, particularly “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]. When an angry spirit begins re-enacting a 1955 murder, Giles is quick to assume the female spirit that had been murdered is Jenny. In a last ditch attempt to say goodbye to her, Giles becomes obsessed and disheveled, thus leaving the kids at great risk as they try to stop the real spirit. This leads Willow to try a spell for the first time on her own and without any guidance, which may have cracked open a door that Willow will never be able to close.
Fortunately, Giles is eventually shaken out of his stupor by seeing how much danger the kids are really in. It also becomes clear that Jenny would never be as cruel as the spirit is being. Coming to this realization allows Giles to begin the process of moving on from Jenny’s death and getting his focus back on helping Buffy succeed.
Giles’ arc in Season 2 is very nicely done. It’s mostly used as an example and comparison point for Buffy as she embarks on her first significant romantic relationship. Buffy should have spent more time learning from Giles’ example rather than poking fun at him, because of all the relationships highlighted in Season 2, Giles and Jenny had the smartest, strongest, and most beautiful of them all. Jenny will be missed!
Cordelia, in her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is an example of what Buffy might have been like had she not been called as the Slayer — a mostly selfish, privileged teenage girl with the occasional bully streak. True to this notion, Cordelia’s relationship with Xander is a comedic, superficial, and less melodramatic parallel to Buffy’s relationship with Angel — melodrama which is even mocked in “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10]. For most of Season 2 Cordelia is wrapped up in this ridiculous and mostly amusing relationship, but she gets a sprinkle of unrelated standout moments too.
In “When She Was Bad” [2×01] Cordelia is the one who is able to offer Buffy no frills advice during an emotional breakdown; in “Some Assembly Required” [2×02] Cordelia offers Xander a heartfelt ‘thanks’ for saving her life; in “Reptile Boy” [2×05] Cordelia pulls Buffy to a college frat party to hook up with older guys only to quickly recant and return to guys closer to her age after what happens; in “Killed by Death” [2×18], Cordelia is resourceful and quite helpful to Buffy and the Scoobies.
If there’s one singular moment to remember Cordelia by in Season 2, though, it’s when she ditches Harmony and her old group of friends to be with Xander, despite knowing it will tarnish her image. This is a key moment where she actually follows-through on her claim of being an independent thinker who is capable of making her own choices, regardless of what others may think. As challenging as this move was, Season 3 will test Cordelia even further.
Anyone searching for the best way to introduce a new character should look no further than Oz. Making his first appearance in “Inca Mummy Girl” [2×04], he immediately ingratiates himself to the audience by noticing how adorable Willow looks in her Eskimo costume. This works even better because Oz doesn’t interact with any of the core characters in that episode, thus not raising the audience’s suspicion that this will eventually become a series regular. Everything about the way Oz is gradually introduced to the various characters throughout Season 2 is wonderfully subtle and natural, which makes it easy to find his added presence to be a welcoming one rather than an intrusive one.
It’s not until around “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10] where we really start to get to know Oz a little better; it’s here where his fun personality starts to shine. Although Oz rarely gets the dedicated character development I feel he deserves, his personality is one that really resonates with me. Oz just has a wonderfully dry/understated sense of humor and timing about him, which is much closer to my style of humor than the more slapstick style of one Xander Harris. Contributing to this is that Oz’s jokes tend to have a bit of sophistication to them, which is a joy to watch.
Oz isn’t in very many episodes in Season 2, but when he is he makes it count. Most of the season focuses on his budding relationship with Willow. (Of course.) I appreciate how Oz, the guy, is the one showing restraint in letting things get physical too quickly, while Willow, the girl, is the one that feels pressure to rush into it. Oz’s restraint, best seen in his rebuttal to Willow’s attempt to spite Xander in “Innocence” [2×14], is admirable and endears the audience to him even further. It’s always nice to see a teen have a motivation for a relationship that isn’t purely physical.
Things get complicated, though, when Oz turns into a werewolf in “Phases” [2×15]. Beyond fitting into the season thematically, this development also serves to make things as difficult as possible for Oz to remain in control of his more basic urges. True to his quality of character, he agrees to lock himself up during the time when he has the least control over himself: the days around and including the full moon. For a recurring character Oz is used quite well, although I wouldn’t have minded to see him around a bit more often at the end of the season. Despite becoming a series regular in Season 3, he sadly might actually get even less to do. Regardless: Oz is a very welcome addition to the show!
Angel primarily exists as ‘the love interest’ for Buffy up until the midway point of the season. This incarnation of the character is, to be frank, quite dull, having a generic brooding, mysterious quality about him that attempts to misdirect both us and Buffy from the fact that he doesn’t have much of a personality or direction in life at all. On his own, separate from Buffy, this all adds up to one boring and uninteresting character, and a generally poorly acted one to boot. This may sound damning, but fortunately his presence still offers real value to the season. This comes down to how his relationship with Buffy helps shape her character arc, most of which has already been discussed.
There are two episodes in the season that provide the bulk of Angel’s backstory and inform why his personality is the way it is: “Lie to Me” [2×07] and “Becoming Pt. 1” [2×21]. In the former, we learn about what he did to Drusilla, that Buffy has good reason not to completely trust him, and of several ominous hints that their relationship will not end well. In the latter, we see the kind of person Angel was before he even became a vampire: an aimless, selfish pretty boy who often came home drunk from the local tavern. This “man” was easily wooed by Darla and was all-too eager to run off with a stranger with the implication of wild abandon. It is with this background that we look at Angel, a guilt-ridden version of the same man. Take that guilt away, though? Well, that’s when things get really ugly.
Angelus is such a first rate villain because of his intimate connection to Buffy. He’s gotten closer to her heart than anyone else thus far — he’s her first love. So for him to use that intimacy to tear her down is utterly devastating. This isn’t just a simple ‘boyfriend becomes horrible after sex’ story, though. In his own twisted, demonic way, Angelus still loves Buffy! Where Angel loved her in a tender, romantic way, Angelus loves her in an obsessive, destructive way.
Although it’s never explicitly stated, I strongly believe that Angelus’ goal was to do to Buffy what he did to Drusilla: tear her down, make her a vampire, and then live an immortal live with a soulless, demonic version of Buffy as a partner for the ages. The end goal for both Angel and Angelus was the same: to be intimate with Buffy. This is why the Angelus arc in the latter half of the season is so operatic and powerful. The villain’s motivations are a play on very human failings — lust and obsession — and have a direct connection with the lead character.
When Angel returns in the final moments of the season, dazed and confused by what happened, right before Buffy runs him through with a sword, it’s a great reminder that he had no business getting romantically involved with Buffy and holds more responsibility for the way things went down than Buffy does. Angel barely has any idea who he is and has very little to offer in a relationship. (There’s also the illicit adult/child, slayer/vampire dynamic at play.) Before Angel can have any chance at being able to offer something to others he needs to fully discover what kind of person he is and what direction he wants to see his life pointed going forward. Season 3, to an extent, and Angel the series will go on to explore these questions in more detail.
[Spike and Drusilla]
For all the bluster Spike and Drusilla make when they march into Season 2 in “School Hard” [2×03], they’re actually not a very big part of the season. We’re initially meant to view them as the primary villains of the season, but after Spike gets seriously injured in “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10] the threat they represent begins to drift. This is, of course, intentional, because Angelus will arrive shortly after this and take center stage, with Spike wheelchair bound until the end of the season.
Despite not being the biggest threat, Spike and Drusilla serve an important purpose to the larger story and themes the season is trying to tell. At the most basic level, these two vampire lovers immediately fit into this season’s tale of relationships. All of the main characters are getting into relationships, so why shouldn’t the villains be in on the action as well? Rather than seeing the Spike/Drusilla relationship as meaning something in of itself, I see each person within it representing a different aspect of Buffy. Spike represents her confidence, impatience, and fire while Drusilla primarily represents her lust (and shares her gift for prophetic visions), the latter of which is never more evident than in “Surprise” [2×13].
Spike is of particular interest because he will come to have a much larger presence in the series down the road. The key concept that his introduction provides is that he is very much a villainous counterpart of Buffy. “School Hard” [2×03] used several techniques to convey their connection, from the symbolic (the red line on their cheeks) to the literal (their unpredictability and subversive nature). Where Buffy creatively slays a vampire in a pumpkin patch, Spike changes his time of attack simply because he gets bored waiting; where Buffy constantly breaks the rules of being the Slayer, such as keeping family and friends close by, Spike constantly breaks the rules of being a vampire, such as ignoring vampire traditions; where Buffy eventually breaks free of the Watchers’ Council, Spike breaks free of the Order of Aurelius.
It’s no coincidence that when Buffy finally confronts her guilt over Angel, forgives herself for what happened to him, and begins the process of moving on in “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19], Spike triumphantly stands up from his wheelchair and is back at full strength again. When Buffy is at her weakest — “Surprise” [2×13] and “Innocence” [2×14] — Spike is also at his weakest. These two do things their own way, which will eventually serve to unite them.
That process of bringing them together begins in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22], when a desperate Spike enlists Buffy’s help to stop Angelus from sucking the world into hell. The scene where Buffy’s tries to explain to Joyce who Spike is will come to define the relationship between them going forward. Spike may think he knows Buffy, but it turns out he’s singing to the beat of her drums. Drusilla will eventually see this change in Spike (e.g. the flashback in “Fool for Love” [5×07]), which is why we will find out in “Lover’s Walk” [3×08] that she left him because of it. It turns out that Spike’s arrival in Sunnydale will end up being a landmark moment in his existence. Season 5 will be when we begin to see these changes accelerate. Spike is yet another complex and colorful addition to the series that Season 2 can be proud of.
Season 2 is a really special season of television for me, one that transcends the sum of its parts and offers a vastly more complex and emotional experience than Season 1. You’d think this is because I personally relate to the character arcs and themes, but I don’t, actually. Every aspect of the season is built to emphasize intimacy: writing, directing, music, lighting, etc., which all combine to create this incredibly romantic, operatic vibe that can be felt in nearly every episode. It’s not often that a series consistently shows us the inner psychological and emotional lives of its characters, but Season 2 accomplishes this with aplomb.
The strengths of the season are numerous and include an impressive realization of its themes, intelligent writing, incredibly emotional and intimate stories (whether funny or sad), momentous character growth for Buffy, several ridiculously top-notch episodes, copious amounts of foreshadowing, and one of the best villains to ever grace a television screen in Angelus. The weaknesses of the season are few, and only one is of any real nuisance: the notable number of mediocre episodes in the first half of the season that suffer from heavy-handed messages and an overly blunt delivery.
While certainly not flawless, Season 2 still puts together an impressive package. It contains some of the most beautiful and painful moments of television I have ever witnessed, quite possibly the strongest individual arc of the series, and manages to successfully juggle its artistic integrity with a whole lot of entertainment value.
Adolescent love is like playing with fire. If an adolescent lacks strong and united role models in the house growing up, this phase of life will almost always be a psychologically and emotionally traumatic endeavor. Even with good role models the pull of selfish love and nascent lustful desire is immensely powerful. The key takeaway: focus on nourishing oneself and learning about others before getting entangled in intimate relationships. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s certainly clear now: actions have consequences.
Angel was a dangerous fantasy and a distraction to Buffy’s calling as the Slayer in which she almost lost everything to him. This experience will affect Buffy in ways both subtle and not for seasons to come; the fallout of Season 2 will be felt for the rest of the series.