Two episodes, broadcast over two nights, that changed everything for this show. This is the story that still defines Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the perfect expression of teenage emotional trauma as monstrous action adventure. The big turn still feels ambitious today, a brutal twist of the knife that is equal parts ridiculously melodramatic and fiercely poignant. This is critical, mighty television.
With all this import, it’s strange to be reminded the first episode is kind of weak.
There’s certainly plenty going on. Willow and Oz start dating in the cutest way possible, Jenny Calendar is revealed to have a secret mission of vengeance, Drusilla and Spike are gathering the pieces of a terrifying demon, and Cordelia thinks chips & dip = cooking.
However, through all this it’s Buffy’s relationship with Angel that stays in tight focus. The episode begins with a prophetic dream in which Buffy witnesses Angel’s death at Drusilla’s hands. (The dream sequence is superbly done, laden with symbols and a hilariously obtuse callback to the Monkey Pants conversation from What’s My Line part 2 – the show has now figured out how to present dream sequences that actually feel like dreams without being a waste of time, a magic trick that will be deployed multiple times in coming seasons.) Buffy rushes to Angel and they can barely control their desire for makeouts – the same beat from Bad Eggs but here played not for gleeful comedy but as an urge that threatens to overtake their sweet romance with something riskier. Then Buffy relates all this to Willow, and confides that she thinks sooner or later their relationship will become sexual. That’s the show opening with three scenes in a row entirely devoted to Buffy/Angel. And there’s more to come on this front. As with What’s My Line and Bad Eggs, the show has realized it needs to actually put the Buffy/Angel relationship onscreen where we can see it and tries to cram as much into this episode as possible. It’s great to watch as the two actors have solid chemistry – Sarah Michelle Gellar continues to build her performance and take the audience along her emotional journey, while Boreanaz is almost pleasingly wooden, deferring to his role as the love interest in a female-led show and not yet leavening his performances with the self-mockery that would become his trademark.
All of this intense relationship focus is intended to bring both characters, and the audience, to the climactic moment. After a tearful farewell (later rendered unnecessary), and then a showdown with Spike and Dru, Angel and Buffy seek shelter in Angel’s apartment. There’s a deliberate counterpoint to Angel’s makeout-heavy visit to Buffy’s bedroom window in Bad Eggs, and Buffy’s chaste sleepover there in What’s My Line part 1. The energy between the two is very different to anything we’ve seen before. Buffy cries, simply overwhelmed from the highs and lows of the last few days. This is perhaps the last piece of the relationship we needed to see to believe in it: Buffy allowing herself to be vulnerable, and trusting in Angel to catch her. And then the moment pivots into desire as the emotional intensity jumps to a different track and engulfs both of them. They confess their love for each other, and Buffy takes the initiative, and the camera cuts away. It’s a well-played sequence, surprising in its tenderness and rawness after the goofball makeouts and high melodrama that have characterised their relationship before now. The moment is grounded in real threat and emotional reality, giving it major weight.
Then the climax is Angel mysteriously walking outside and wailing and um what? If you don’t know what this actually signifies, and the portentous gypsy talk earlier doesn’t give much clue, then the ending is incomprehensible. If you do know what’s coming – and I think even on first broadcast most viewers had some idea – then you can read it as a chilling and exciting cliffhanger, but if not, it’s just bizarre. It’s a bit of a head-desk moment, the most important cliffhanger of the whole series so far, the one the show has been deliberately building too all season, and it’s a complete clunker.
But that’s the story of this whole episode: not really Buffy at its best, loading up with stuff but not really making much of it count. Two separate mook-fights over the Judge’s arm? Couldn’t the show have figured a better way of managing that? The obvious diagnosis is that everyone was so focused on what was about to happen, they didn’t tighten up the steps getting there.
That said: what was about to happen was worth getting excited about. So goodbye, early Buffy. It’s been fun, but this is where you finish. Everything’s about to change.
* Willow in a Blossom hat is love. Also, Seth Green is the best at delivering Whedonesque dialogue, they must have loved writing for him.
* Dru is in charge and in control of herself, but she’s still pretty loopy while Spike still has the wits in the relationship. Keeping Spike around definitely dilutes the recovery of Drusilla we supposedly saw in What’s My Line.
* It’s a two-part macguffin chase, right? Wrong! 3/4 swerve – the bad guy is fully assembled as of right now!
* Vincent Schiavelli! Another lovely swerve with Jenny – we know she’s pledged to harm Angel, and we think she’s taking Buffy away to some sinister destination, only to have her deliver Buffy to the previously-mentioned surprise party. Although there is a bit of weirdness where Jenny apparently drives Angel home to get some dry clothes, then drives him back again, and it’s only mentioned in passing. Missed opportunity…