In any television show, season one is usually spent working out what the show is exactly going to be – taking the ideas you have, trying them out, seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. All going well, you get renewed for season two, and by this time you have it figured out. You know what the show is about, you know how it’s about it, but you haven’t really done much with those ideas yet. In later seasons you’ll have to start looking for new angles and fresh takes to avoid repeating yourself, but here you have an open field. Season two is when you grab hold of the ideas and themes at the heart of your show and you chase them as hard as you can. In the history of television, few shows have exemplified this as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
This is part two of the finale, and it starts with everything in a very bad place. Kendra is dead, Giles is captured, Willow is badly hurt, and Buffy is about to get tangled up with law enforcement. The rules of end-of-season episodes are in play, which is to say, there are no rules. Everything is up for grabs. Buckle in.
Spike knows. Not too long ago, he was gleefully central in a plot to destroy the world using the Judge. Now he comes to Buffy for help – his true motivation is to extract Drusilla from Angel’s influence, of course, but he is also very clear that he doesn’t want the world destroyed. (As he says, “I’m in the world!”) This could be seen as an inconsistency or a change of heart, but I read it as just another sign of how close these characters float to the truth about their reality: that stuff with the Judge was middle-of-season, the world wasn’t ever going to end. But this is end-of-season, and while the world is still probably safe, a lot of things can get torn to pieces at a time like this. Trying to get out with your skin intact is a perfectly sensible strategy.
Buffy knows, too. That’s the point of the cliffhanger from last episode, where she is confronted by a police officer over the dead body of Kendra. There is no surprise in the resolution of the cliffhanger – Buffy gets away and goes on the run. She couldn’t allow herself to be processed by the police, but now she is on the run from them. We know from previous encounters with the police that they don’t belong in Buffy’s world, and their presence is a sign that the narrative rules are breaking down. With that end-of-season looming, they pose a real threat to her for the first time. The episodic nature of her life cannot save her this time.
Back at the end of season one, the show did an impressive job of throwing out as much of its formula as possible – the romantic triangle, Buffy’s attempts to maintain a normal life, her relationship with Giles. Here, even greater change is threatened. She could end the season behind bars. Snyder expels her from the school, so maybe this show doesn’t get to be a high-school drama any more. And maybe Buffy doesn’t keep her home life either, because Joyce finally finds out about her daughter’s extracurricular activities.
After killing a vampire right in front of her mother, Buffy finally confesses that she is the vampire slayer. Joyce tries to keep up but can only muster a litany of objections and sensible suggestions, none of which can work because we’re in Buffy’s narrative, not reality. And Buffy’s reply is to recite the entire premise of the show: “Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would *love* to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world… again.”
This is a culmination of some of the long-standing threads in Buffy’s development. There have been three significant arcs in her character this season: first, from When She Was Bad to What’s My Line, she came to understand her role as a slayer, building an understanding of what this means, including accepting that she has people close to her who love her and support her despite risk to themselves. Second, from Ted to Innocence, she followed this greater sense of self-confidence to admit, and act on, her love for Angel – which turned out to be a tragic mistake. Third, from Phases onward she sought self-mastery, expressed in her resolve to kill Angelus and to move past her guilt over his fall (achieving the first in Passion and the second in I Only Have Eyes For You). Throughout these final episodes she demonstrates what she has become across the rest of the season, and her decision to walk away from Joyce could only come at the end of all three of these arcs, having earned the attributes of self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-mastery.
Similarly, her showdown with Angel brings all of these together. She begins this battle and pursues it fiercely. When the momentum shifts to Angel, she stops his deathblow by catching his blade between her palms – her mastery moment, signalling that she has achieved a unity of purpose and selfhood. She finally demonstrates what it means to be the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer. From the moment she catches the blade it is clear she has won the battle, and her triumphant defeat of Angel is inevitable.
Except this show doesn’t care about triumph, except as prelude to pain. And so, as Buffy readies her own killing blow, Angel’s soul is restored. As the gate to hell opens, Buffy understands that she must kill him. Every shade of anguish flickers across her face, and then she drives the sword into her lover’s chest and watches him fall into hell.
I’ve seen this moment called weak by some, because Buffy has no real choice here – she must kill Angel or the world ends, so it ends up feeling like an unfortunate accident of timing without any real dramatic heft (c.f. the end of Romeo & Juliet). I disagree. I think it’s absolutely clear from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance that Buffy wants with every fibre of her being to do exactly what Spike did with Drusilla – to take Angel with her and leave, and let the world take its chances. That she doesn’t – that she has the strength and clarity to act as she does – is huge. If catching the blade is the ultimate demonstration that she has become the Slayer over the last two seasons, here is the ultimate demonstration of the cost. The choice Buffy makes here destroys her.
The core principles of this show have been, from the start, real threat and real emotions. The logic of those principles has trapped Buffy. She has chosen to do something too awful to bear, and the show has allowed her – encouraged her – to go through with it. This act will have consequences, terrible ones for her. The problem of Jesse rears its head here in its most extreme form. Buffy is no longer a fit protagonist. She is too damaged, too hurt. Now what?
The show has cultivated a method of rehabilitating traumatised characters over this season: love, specifically the compassionate and accepting love of close friends. This is the end of the season, and we know that Buffy could have three months of off-screen love and support from family and friends before she needs to return to headline another episode. She could return next season and as long as the show acknowledges the depth of her hurt from time to time, she could start out pretty much in her normal mode – quippy, fun, the kind of character you like to hang out with when you turn on the television.
Here is the show’s final swerve, then. In these two episodes the show has woken up, and it has shown that no-one is safe. Buffy knows. On some level, she senses she is a fictional character, stuck in stories that will hurt her and those she loves over and over again. So she does not want to be rehabilitated. She wants out. She exits the show’s milieu entirely, climbing on a bus and departing, rejecting the show that bears her name.
Except we, the audience, know she can’t really escape. The show will drag her back to us, when we’re ready, and she will be made to face what she has done.
Because she is our chosen one.
* Don’t worry, by next season the police have forgotten about Buffy. They don’t belong in her world, after all.
* At the time of broadcast, it was widely reported that Angel would be getting his own show, so the dramatic conclusion here was robbed of some of its weight.
* Giles’ torture is terrifying, although it does finally bed in the new version of Giles as the tough-as-nails badass that’s been gently pushed all season. The return of Jenny Calendar is played with maximum cruelty to the audience, a Whedon-show motif.
* Also cruel: Xander confesses his love to Willow, who wakes and asks for Oz. Xander has some odd moments this episode, once again showing he’s representing impulsive action. Most importantly, he lies to Buffy about Willow trying to restore Angel’s soul – it’s a selfish betrayal, and also ultimately meaningless, which just adds to the discomfort here.
* Oz, meanwhile, is still basically redundant. I guess they’ll find more stuff for Seth Green to do next season?
* Whistler is sadly underused here. He just spits out the plot info and saves the Scoobies a library visit. Disappointing after his build-up in the previous episode. I guess if Angel’s getting his own show he might be a recurring character there! That’d make sense, right?
* Giles: “They get inside my head, make me see things I want.” Xander: “Then why would they make you see me?” Giles: (considers) “You’re right. Let’s go.” Whedon used this joke again in the first X-Men film with Cyclops and Wolverine.
* Joyce making small-talk with Spike is priceless. Great comedic chemistry.
* I remember usenet running hot with upset viewers who insisted Buffy did not need to kill Angel – his blood would close the portal, so she needed only to cut his hand again! These people were silly.