“Surprise,” “Innocence,” and the Art of the Game-Changer
April 29th, 2010
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One of the interesting buzz words to emerge over the past few years within the television industry has been “game-changer.” Used to describe episodes which fundamentally alter our perspective on a particular series, or which send a series in a completely different direction, it’s become a common term which producers or networks will use if they want to drum up interest in a struggling series, or try to regain lost glory with a series beginning to lose its luster.
However, I hate that “game-changer” has taken on an almost wholly promotional context, because episodes which actually “change the game” are a really fascinating part of the television landscape. There is great benefit in a reinvention of sorts, as the producers of Lost learned when the Flash Forward structure brought new life to a series at its halfway point, but it is just as easy to fall off the rails: J.J. Abrams learned this lesson the hard way when his game-changing second season finale of Alias was a stunning hour of television but sent the show in directions it wasn’t capable of supporting.
What makes a good game-changer is something which lives on potential rather than mystery, which not only changes the game as we know it but also gives us a glimpse of how the new game is going to benefit the series moving forward. The change needs to feel like something which springs from the story rather than from a network note, and the consequences need to be something the show won’t live down but that it can also live with.
In other words, a good game-changer needs to be everything that “Surprise” and “Innocence,” the thirteenth and fourteenth episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season, embody: by merging romance with tragedy, and by turning its central character into an unwitting agent of terrifying change, Buffy moves beyond the limitations of teenage drama to something that strikes deeper into the limitations of the human condition.
Or, put more simply, Buffy the Vampire Slayer just got real.
A little bit of historical context first: “Surprise” and “Innocence” aired on back-to-back nights in January 1998, an event designed to transition the show to its new Tuesday night timeslot from its original Monday home. It’s a neat sort of paratextual narrative at play here: there are often circumstances where scheduling intersects with story, like when Lost’s third season was considered a creative failure based on what was largely a scheduling decision, but this is one instance where the narrative function of the episodes (to transition from one sort of dynamic to quite a different dynamic) was reinforced and even enhanced by the scheduling.
The WB Promo: “Surprise” and “Innocence”
It’s also important to note that “Surprise” and “Innocence” don’t really operate within a traditional two-part structure: while there is a cliffhanger between the two episodes, complete with a “To Be Continued…” chyron to confirm that we will be seeing the resolution of that story, the two episodes function as separate narratives. “Surprise” tells the story of Buffy and Angel finding love amidst the chaos of the Judge’s arrival, while “Innocence” depicts the destruction of that love at the hands of powers outside of Buffy’s control. They are obviously heavily connected episodes, but there is not one story being told here: rather, a story comes to its emotional climax in the first episode only to transition straight into a terrifying denoeument which turns out to be the start of a new rising action. The fact that the cliffhanger takes only a single day to be resolved plays into this sensibility: the show isn’t interested in drawing out the mystery of how things are going to change, but rather focused on demonstrating what has been changed, how it’s been changed, and what the ramifications of this are to the series’ future.
“Surprise,” you’ll notice, is actually a fairly linear episode. While Buffy struggles with the meaning behind her dreams and the anxiety over her growing feelings for Angel, the conflict normally present both within Buffy and within the show’s narratives regarding high school and Hellmouth is more or less absent. Even the reveal that Miss Calendar is actually a descendent of the gypsies who cursed Angel, who was sent to Sunnydale to watch over Angel and Buffy by her family, doesn’t really become a complication in “Surprise:” we presume that Miss Calendar is going to kidnap Buffy or place her in danger when she intercepts her at the school and drives her to the Bronze, and we worry that the Vampires at the Bronze are part of some sort of setup, but in reality that was simply where Giles had chosen to hold the party. The Vampire and Human narratives don’t really even run into each other until that moment: while Buffy’s dreams hint at the conflict to come, it isn’t until they stumble upon Spike’s men trying to pick up Drusilla’s present that the two sides of the story come together.
While Giles rightly points out that dreams are not prophetic, “Surprise” is all about things that you can’t stop from happening (not unlike, at risk of seeming a bit on the nose, birthdays). The Scoobies hatch a plan to keep the remaining pieces of the Judge from arriving in Sunnydale when all of the pieces have already arrived, while Miss Calendar hatches a plan to keep Angel and Buffy apart (as her Uncle instructed her to) which ultimately only brings them closer together. In both cases they’re too late to be able to stop the oncoming train: having returned to her full strength Drusilla is too strong to be stopped through defensive measures, while Angel and Buffy have fallen too far in love for even an intelligent plan like Miss Calendar’s (which really would have worked great if not for the vampiric attack resulting from their extended goodbye) to keep them from consummating their relationship. The central thesis of “Surprise” is that life changes: people grow older, and people develop feelings that they can’t really contend with, and for all of Angel and Buffy’s attempts (however feeble at points) to fight their love they simply can’t stay away from one another.
I know someone in the comments asked about how I was reacting to Buffy and Angel’s relationship recently, and for me “Surprise” works far better than it really should. The show doesn’t ignore the fact that there’s a substantial age difference between them – it even comes up in “Surprise,” when Buffy admonishes Willow for being weirded out about dating a Senior when she’s dating someone who had a bicentennial – but it has sort of struggled to keep their relationship realistic considering the fundamental differences between the characters. There were points, especially early in the season, where their puppy love felt like it was a bit forced, and that the anxiety surrounding Angel’s relationship with Buffy disappeared due to Boreanaz being upgraded to series regular and hanging around more often. However, in “Surprise” their relationship feels like what a relationship is supposed to feel like: it’s something that keeps Buffy up at night, and something which keeps Angel up during the day, and something which eventually is the one source of comfort after nearly dying at the hands of the Judge. Michelle Gellar and Boreanaz do a really strong job of selling the scene on the docks (as they confront losing one another) and their “first time” as something which feels like the culmination of their respective lifetimes.
For a teenage girl, or for a vampire with a soul, that moment is a “game-changer” in every sense of the word: it changes the way you look at a relationship, or in Angel’s case his entire existence, and building to that moment is something which allows “Surprise” to function as a substantial transition for the show even considered on its own. What “Innocence” does is present the most nightmarish outcome of that transition possible, turning Buffy’s anxiety over how her life would change after having sex with Angel into a horrifying reality she won’t be able to wake up from. It’s not Buffy’s fault that the game changes when she sleeps with Angel: she had no idea that this moment of pure happiness would break the curse and send Angel back into a life as a soulless demon, just as he had no idea that pursuing his emotions would eventually cause him to lose his humanity. However, their independent decisions to pursue that which makes them happy eventually tears them apart, a harsh reality which breaks down the show’s romantic depiction of love perhaps once and for all.
This isn’t entirely new, as Xander and Cordelia’s relationship is a twisted sort of love driven by hate, and Giles and Jenny have gone through various hiccups where love is interrupted by near-death experiences (or, in this case, by Jenny’s subterfuge regarding her family connection). But the episode is a direct hit to the series’ romantic core: Willow’s fantasies about Xander are shattered by walking in on the two making out in the stacks, a sort of less extreme equivalent to Angel’s (or Angelus’) cruelty as he takes advantage of a fragile Buffy by suggesting that he simply ran off because she wasn’t good enough, or because he wasn’t satisfied, or because their connection wasn’t real. The latter case is obviously more traumatic, but the former is just as earth-shattering for Willow, as even while pursuing Oz there was this sense that she was only waiting for Xander to come around. Hannigan and Michelle Gellar were both fantastic at bringing out the pain that Xander’s unintentional cruelty and Angelus’ intentional cruelty cause the two characters, and the combined impact on the show’s world view is substantial.
Oddly, the scene that felt the most “different” to me (in terms of subtle changes in atmosphere as opposed to major characters shifts, which I’ll get to in a moment) was Xander and Cordelia sitting in the army base as Xander searches for his bazooka of choice. The callback to “Halloween” aside, the scene struck me because it didn’t actually have any sexual energy: while Cordelia and Xander were talking about sex, and Xander offered his usual one-liner about sex, it was like they were stating facts instead of making quips. The scene, as scripted, would have seemed almost romantic – it doesn’t get more romantic than boy and girl, struggling to come to terms with their burgeoning relationship, alone in a weapons warehouse talking about sex while breaking and entering. However, as it played out, it was like they were remembering when times were simpler, lamenting the fact that all of the romance has been taken away from this world. It’s followed by the one beacon of hope: Willow, trying to convince Oz to make out with her, is rebuffed as Oz wants their first kiss to remain romantic, the one person left who isn’t so caught up in the chaos of it all that he can’t maintain an optimistic world view. It makes us wonder if anyone within the inner circle will ever be able to have such hope for romance or “happiness” ever again, and whether it will take people from outside (like Oz) for those parts of the show to become active again.
However, if scenes like that are meant to draw out the subtle changes which these episodes indicate, the rest of the main storyline plays out like a nightmarish (but compelling) glimpse into the future. I noted above that a good “game-changer” focuses on potential rather than mystery, and what “Innocence” does so well is give us a clear indication of what the show will be like now that Angel has moved to the dark side. It doesn’t just turn Angel into Angelus without giving us a sense of how the character will act or what his dynamic will be with Spike and Drusilla; instead, David Boreanaz is given a great deal of time to flesh out just what Angel is like without a soul, and the episode spends what seems like “needless” time with the trio which makes me excited to see more of them. It doesn’t hold off on a Buffy and Angel show down in the context of their new conflict, but gives us a kick-ass battle sequence in a water-soaked theatre lobby which gives us a taste before eventually revealing that Buffy (and, as a result, the show) isn’t quite prepared to stake her former lover quite yet.
But “give her time.” It’s rare that a game-changer is so honest about this particular point, but while the show unquestionably changes when Angel switches sides it isn’t quite so easy for Buffy to do the same. Her anger drives her to complete the task at hand, eliminating the Judge with a weapon which was not, in fact, forged, but it can’t get her past the connection that she and Angel shared. A lot of things change in “Innocence,” and the show may never quite be the same, but it’s not going to become something different overnight. While Angel quite literally lost his soul, leading to a sudden transformation that is meant to be jarring and shocking, the show intelligently keeps Buffy from changing in the same way. Buffy is a human being, and even when her heart has been ripped out and stomped on by the unfortunate circumstances of a broken gypsy curse she isn’t able to so easily get over the intense love of “Surprise” in order to bring this story to an end here. The game has changed, there’s no question about that, but Buffy’s character is not so reactive that it feels unnatural. She remains, even having been forced to mature very quickly over the past few days, a teenage girl: while her mother notices that something seems different when she returns from having spent the night with Angel, at the end of the episode she says that Buffy looks just the same. The life of the Slayer is wrought with roadblocks like this one, and while it may be the largest yet it does not entirely derail the character’s development up to this point.
Any “game-changer” is technically the creation of the writers: it may not be so transparent as a direct network note (I know this was Whedon’s personal choice), but we are always aware that it was Whedon who engineered this twist, and who turned Angel to the side of evil. However, what makes a “game-changer” effective is when it feels like something natural, something which actually happens in the context of the show’s universe. Angel turning to the side of evil is the result of a well-established curse which speaks to the heart (or lack thereof) of his character, and it emerges as a result of Buffy and Angel pursuing a relationship that has been a core of this season. Rather than feeling like something which happens to characters, it feels like something they unwittingly create, logical storylines reaching a conclusion which shatters any sense of their own reality. It changes the game in a way that they were entirely unprepared for but undeniably involved with, making for a complicated scenario which crafts more complex, rather than fundamentally different, character motivations heading into the remainder of the season.
This is, in many ways, Buffy’s first “moment.” While there have been episodes that showed progress, and episodes which indicated that there was something beneath the surface, “Surprise” and “Innocence” shatter our preconceptions in a way that I really should have seen coming. I know Whedon’s modus operandi, so I knew that he was willing to make changes like this one, but it’s different when you actually see it unfold for the first time. Many noted that they would like to go back and experience this for the first time again, and let me tell you: it’s pretty awesome. Sure, with the advent of DVDs the game-changer has a bit less of an impact, as I’m not waiting a week until starting the next episode and I know that the game will change numerous times over in the seasons to come, but it says something about the quality of these episodes that even years after the fact they can fundamentally change how I view a series that is so much part of the pop culture canon.
- I thought it was quite clever how the Judge was an unquestionably dominant threat but was not actually a dominant character: because it took him time to regain his power, it allowed for the wheelchair-bound Spike, the newly returned Angelus and Drusilla to remain the clear villains of the piece. The Judge remains simply a weapon at their disposal, which fit the episode quite nicely.
- I thought Oz was really underwritten up to this point, and I’d suggest that this remains the case, but I thought the way Oz handles being initiated into the Scoobies is necessarily laidback in an episode filled with drama. The show can’t handle another big personality, and I thought his dialogue with Willow here (as opposed to his dialogue in “What’s My Line”) really seems reasonably romantic rather than blankly endearing, which is a marked improvement.
- Buffy kicking angel in the nuts was just perfect: it’s just painful enough to feel like a small victory, and also vicious enough that it doesn’t seem like Buffy’s letting him off the hook completely. It’s a nice transition salvo for the next stage in their relationship.
- Yet another fantastic Buffy/Giles scene at the end of the episode: after I commented on their relationship in “The Dark Age,” there was a chorus of comments mentioning that this remains a key part of the series, so I wasn’t surprised to see that scene serve as the initial unpacking of the events at the mall.
- The next time I have a birthday cake with candles on it (which hasn’t happened in a while), I’m going to suddenly become super serious and say “I’m going to let it burn.” I’m hoping someone gets the reference.