Season Two’s Cult of Personality
April 24th, 2010
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When a show is making the transition between its first and second seasons, personality is perhaps its greatest asset. If you’re going to be creating new stories, and if you tied off a lot of the show’s loose ends in the previous season, you’re creating a situation where suspense and anticipation are replaced by creation and expectation. These are different beasts, and if you’re not ready to fully commit to a fast-paced serialized series then your best strategy is to use your show’s personality in order to “weather the storm,” so to speak.
What Buffy the Vampire Slayer does early in its second season is use personality as its ultimate goal, if not necessarily doing so in a straightforward or consistent fashion. The show has always been about its characters, and our attachment with the series’ strong but somewhat uneven first season is likely based on Xander’s wit, or Willow’s pragmatism, or Giles’ cantankerousness, or Buffy’s hidden vulnerability. However, while the second season does continue to rely on Xander’s one-liners or Giles’ dry sense of humour, it is not content to coast by: starting with the premiere, “When She Was Bad” and extending into “Halloween,” the show puts each personality under a microscope in ways which verify the importance of personality to the success of this series on the sides of both good and evil.
While it may seem extraordinarily risky for a show to dramatically change the personality of its eponymous heroine heading into its second season, I think it’s important to understand that Buffy was highly underserviced by the narrative in the first season. Because she was always the one saving the day, she ended up rescuing more than being rescued, a circumstance which resulted in stories that ended up resonating more with Xander or Willow than with Buffy herself. While her relationship with Angel has become a major component of the series, even there she was arguably overshadowed by the far more interesting Angel – the Pilot, let’s remember, took for granted Buffy’s transformation into the Slayer, and while “Prophecy Girl” showed some of Buffy’s struggles with the position it was a little late in the game to take Buffy too far away from the quippy ass-kicker that she appeared to be during the first season.
As a result, I think that “When She Was Bad” was a necessary and quite well-executed risk for Whedon, making his heroine almost unrecognizable as a traumatized Buffy recovers from a summer reliving her death at the hands of the Master. While a demonic event is the source of her trauma, her response was entirely human despite the presumption from everyone else that it was some sort of demonic possession; while I thought that there were a few exaggerations (like her dance with Xander) which worked a bit too hard to blur that line in order to mislead the audience, the reminder that not every slightly erratic human behaviour is in some way the result of the Hellmouth is an important one. Buffy is a teenager, someone who is capable of acting out of jealousy or out of spite, and Whedon very clearly wants to orient the audience to that potential this season. It’s a reminder that Buffy is human, and that humanity doesn’t always manifest itself as an emotional outburst when you’re told you’re going to die or when your family is in mortal danger. Humanity is messy, and Buffy’s personality needs to embrace both the good and the bad in order to ground the show’s supernatural premise in some sort of reality.
The second season has a lot of subtle adjustments of personalities which work in the show’s favour, sort of indulging a little less in the characters’ base desires in favour of a similar sort of balance. While Xander is still a bit lovestruck with Buffy, his obsession has petered down to a sort of endearing persistence; while Giles continues to be delightfully stuffy in his British way, his scenes with Ms. Calendar offer a glimpse into a lighter side of the character (more on Giles when I get to “Halloween,” I promise). Even Angel, before largely a complete enigma, has been given somewhat more human qualities which make his relationship with Buffy seem less earth-shattering and more consistent with how teenagers struggle to deal with that crazy little thing called love.
However, while those personality shifts are for the most part subtle (Xander is still mostly there for [great] comic relief, Giles is still the voice of authority and reason, Angel is still most easily defined as “brooding” even if he smiles every now and then), Cordelia’s personality has managed to make the most substantial change while remaining fairly consistent with what we’ve seen before. While the change in Buffy’s personality was meant to be jarring, reminding us of the character’s humanity and the ramifications of “Prophecy Girl,” Cordelia’s newfound knowledge of why Buffy, Willow and Xander spend all of their time in the library means that she is a very different character within the show’s dynamic. No longer just someone who keeps getting caught up in various plots, she is now “one of them” in the sense that she can whittle a stake, and she can understand what’s happening around her.
And yet, despite the fact that the show wants to use Cordelia more often and in a more prominent role, the character hasn’t actually changed that much: she’s still able to position herself as a rival to Buffy even while working alongside her, and she can still throw out an insult at Willow or Buffy if she feels like it. The difference is that rather than sensing that Cordelia’s personality has changed, I feel like we’ve been let further into that personality: we’re seeing a side of her that we never saw before but which seems to have always existed. She still retains some of her innocence, able to drag Buffy into bad situations unknowingly (as in “Reptile Boy”), but her awareness gives us an excuse to look past that in order to show that Cordelia is an actual human being rather than a bitchy scream machine. Charisma Carpenter continues to play the character as a “mean girl,” but we’re seeing a lot more depth of personality, which is working in the show’s favour as it makes good on the character’s expanded role in “Prophecy Girl.”
Of course, the most dominant personality early in Buffy’s second season is one Spike, as James Marsters makes his presence known in “School Hard.” While Spike is given various qualities which make him a more interesting threat than the Master, in particular the fact that he has killed two slayers before, the most important distinction is that he has a personality and that the personality is able to interact with our lead characters. While the Master had a nice sort of slightly “off” quality which kept things interesting, the character’s inability to move up to the surface meant that we never really got to see him match wits with Buffy, or to see how his supposed connections with Angel (hinted at by Darla and others) would manifest themselves. With Spike, however, his personality not only livens up the discussions within the vampire community but also makes for more lively, and personality-filled, interactions between Slayer and Slayer Hunter.
While “When She Was Bad” ultimately worked really well for me, its vampires were a pretty big letdown: their plan was vague, their methods were weak, and the anointed one was far less interesting when not paired with the Master. So when Spike arrives with Drusilla promising results on the “Kill the Slayer” front, it was like a breath of fresh air (forgiving the unintended pun considering a vampire has no breath), introducing someone who was a little bit unpredictable. Spike isn’t going to wait until the day when demonic activity is particularly potent, nor is he going to stay in on Halloween just because it’s what vampires usually do. He’s the kind of character where personality is more important than any sort of base instincts, and so his quest to murder the Slayer has less to do with the eternal struggle between Slayer and Vampires and more to do with Spike’s personal satisfaction and, now that they’ve had a number of altercations, his sense of pride. Marsters is a lot of fun in the role, and after “School Hard” it seems like we finally have an even fight in the personality department, as a Buffy/Spike showdown has the potential to build into something really complex and interesting over time.
As for the other episodes early in the season, they really depend on personality: “Some Assembly Required,” “Inca Mummy Girl,” and “Reptile Boy” all tell stories that center around the usual demonic activity made possible by the Hellmouth, but there seems more of a concerted effort to bring the villains to life (or back to life, as the case may be) with something approaching personality. Of course, a reanimated corpse, an Incan princess, or a cult of fraternity brothers (who gave me an excuse to use the reference in this post’s title) are not going to have much of a lasting impact, but they have enough personality that they seem like interesting foils to Cordelia, Xander, and Buffy at their various stages of character development. The show seems to be moving away from high school archetypes in these three stories, but the personalities the show creates are still important for speaking to the pre-existing characters, and seems consistent with the show’s intentions.
“Halloween” is a nice distillation of the politics of personality present in the season, as Ethan Rayne’s devilish plot to turn trick-or-treaters into their Halloween costumes results in some investigation into the depth of personality on the show. While that means a pretty romance-heavy realization for Buffy, as she realizes her attempts to be something from Angel’s past are ultimately misguided, for Willow and Xander it’s something different. For Xander, we see a part of his personality that we saw in “Some Assembly Required” as he quite heroically saved Cordelia from the burning warehouse; it says something to Cordelia, and us as an audience, that he can so be quite so convincing as a soldier even if an enchantment is behind the transformation. Similarly, with Willow, she tries to push her personality towards the much risqué attire that Buffy picks out for her but can’t do it: however, as a ghost she has no choice about what she’s wearing, and so she’s forced to live in that skin for a while, and eventually reconciles the sexiness with her personality just in time for a (sadly thus far personality-less) Oz to notice her. The show hasn’t yet entirely nailed down the characters’ personalities: while Giles has largely played a wise advisor, we learn in his interactions with Ethan that he was once something much darker (“The Ripper”), and that there are sides to him that we haven’t yet seen.
That’s the great thing about personalities: they manage to offer consistency alongside mystery, immediate results alongside future potential, and something for us to enjoy alongside something for us to observe. The start of the season season indicates that personality is not a constant in this world, and that there were no intentions of pretending that the events in “Prophecy Girl” had no affect on our heroine or those around her. On both the sides of good and evil, there are new personalities emerging, new conflicts resulting from those personalities, and all sorts of new potential as the season continues – that’s the kind of start that a sophomore series wants to have, and a start which encourages someone catching up to keep moving forward.
- While “School Hard” showed Buffy’s mother just what it is she’s been doing with her spare time, or at least mostly showed her, the show doesn’t really delve into the consequences: it pretty much just uses her knowledge as a way to get her off Buffy’s back, and to make Principal Snyder’s threats somewhat less damaging (in that her mother will be unlikely to take him seriously). It’s a bit of a cheat, but I’ll wait to pass judgment until Mrs. Summers actually returns to the show in a meaningful fashion and we see how her knowledge has changed their relationship.
- While Seth Green popping up as Oz (who has been a too exclusively defined as a love interest for Willow) was expected (since he’s on the
Chosen Collection DVD set and all), it took me way too long to realize that the other sacrifice in “Reptile Boy” was Jordana Spiro, who I now know from My Boys – this threw me for a loop, as she was really unrecognizable until late in the episode.
- I thought it was interesting that they never explained the science of “Some Assembly Required,” especially in terms of how he pieced his brother back together – however, the haunting image of the mother still living in the past where her son is still alive provided enough motivation that I bought the brother being pushed to overcome the boundaries of modern scientific belief in order to solve the problem.
- I think the season’s weakest element thus far is the way they’re defining Buffy and Angel’s relationship: it’s not clear at what point Angel decided he couldn’t stay away, and we don’t get enough scenes with just Angel to really understand the depths of his personality the same way we do Cordelia, which makes his constant presence seem more the result of his upgrade to series regular than a logical development in the Buffy/Angel story. I like their chemistry, but I feel like I missed a moment where their relationship became a dominant force in their lives, or at least missed the reasoning for it.
- This show needs to stop casting people who look like Charisma Carpenter: both the Inca Mummy Girl and Drusilla bear a resemblance to Carpenter, and while I’m not confusing the characters or anything it still throws me off.