May 4th, 2010
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Every good drama series boils down to character development, and I started my analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season talking about how Joss Whedon was willing to create clear consequences from the end of the first season within Buffy as a character. This wasn’t a show that was going to forget where it came from, where the events of the past were going to simple fade away. As we’ve discussed, there are occasionally episodes which offer a palette cleanser, a way to sort of wind down from particularly important episodes, but the show neither forgets nor forgives.
“Becoming,” the show’s two-part second season finale, is ultimately evidence of the importance of character to the show, but it’s an episode which feels like it’s doing a lot more heavy lifting than we’re used to. This is not to say that the show isn’t building on what has been done in the past, or that any of the character development in the episode feels unearned in any way, but the introduction of flashbacks and the ability for magic to undo substantial character development are nonetheless kinks in the series’ structure. It doesn’t revolutionize the show, but it very clearly reminds us that the rules can change at any moment, and that characters are sometimes slaves to fate or magical intervention in ways which threaten their happiness, their health, and their proper development as human beings.
It’s a non-linear, unpredictable sort of character development which offers a nice conclusion to a non-linear, unpredictable sort of season.
No, David Boreanaz can’t hold onto an Irish accent to save his life, but the flashbacks are nonetheless an important part of “Becoming.” We met Angel as a figure of complete mystery, and since then we met a monstrous version of the same character in his soulless form. There’s a really interesting lack of linearity here, as the flashbacks go from an innocent Angel being turned into a vampire (by Darla, no less), then a villainous Angel turning Drusilla into a vampire, then the Gypsy curse which restores Angel’s soul, and then Angel struggling to find his purpose in life on the streets of Manhattan before Whistler sets him straight and introduces him to a teenage girl who is going to need his help. In the span of those scenes, the show is building both the Angel we once knew and the Angel currently threatening to destroy all of humanity by unleashing Acathla, making for a rather chaotic series of emotions for the audience.
At first this seemed somewhat strange, as the rest of the episode placed Angel as the clear villain, and even rescued Spike from that fate by having him approach Buffy in an effort to stop Angel’s plan (and win back Drusilla). The show immediately established in “Innocence” that Angel’s behaviour places him on the side of evil, but even in an episode like “Passion” Angel’s behaviour is shocking primarily because of the fact that we’re still holding on to some sense of the “real” Angel, the one who Buffy fell in love with earlier in the season. By the time we reach “Becoming,” though, I don’t necessarily know if we are really holding onto that anymore, as Angel kidnaps Giles and threatens to destroy all of humanity, and the episode clearly builds to the fact that Buffy is finally ready to kill him, finally prepared to forget the past and move on.
However, nothing is that easy in this particular world, as the show discovers when Buffy finds the disc with the restoration spell on it and the potential for the Angel we met at the start of the series to return. While characters like Cordelia and Spike evolve within the structures of the show, remaining pretty much the same characters while becoming more recognizably human (or human-like) through their interactions with our core group, Angel’s character is at the whims of magical intervention more than anything he wants or desires. When the other characters find something approaching love or forge an unlikely alliance, they don’t suddenly turn into a completely different character, which makes Angel’s position in the series dangerously liminal. This is especially true for Buffy, who has to respond to the hope of his restoration while still preparing herself for the possibility that she might have to murder him.
As soon as Xander chooses to refrain from telling Buffy about Willow’s plan, you pretty much know where things are headed: while it may be unpredictable for Buffy that “her” Angel would suddenly appear right as she needs to kill him in order to keep her world being being sucked into hell, it’s not unpredictable for us. However, it’s as tragic as the show knows it is, and it comes after a satisfying action conclusion: the poetry of the moment is not lost by the fact that you can see it coming from a mile away, as Buffy and Angel’s shock at their roles within the conflict is so nicely played by both Gellar and Boreanaz that it makes up for any lack of surprise. The scene forces Buffy to shift gears without a clutch (which is one of my favourite metaphors for this sort of “sudden” conclusion, so forgive me overusing it slightly as of late), and that throws the character into a sort of psychological peril that eventually sends her running away wherever a Greyhound bus will take her.
However, the episode is smart about not having that be the only point of turmoil for the character. Sure, Kendra’s return brings back her terrible accent (perhaps to make Angel’s look less terrible) and she isn’t actually given anything to do, but her death and Willow injury give Buffy plenty of reasons to feel guilty, and when you throw in her mother learning about her position as Slayer (and being none too happy about it) you have a character who feels like she has nowhere to go. After the Master’s death (and her own, for that matter), Buffy returned as someone who had changed but also someone who had a support structure and a sense of normalcy which allowed her to return to her normal self, relatively speaking. Here, however, she placed that support structure in danger, and the weight of that responsibility combined with the weight of murdering the man she loved while he gave her puppy dog eyes is understandably too much for Buffy to be able to handle.
There’s all sorts of instances where characters reach their breaking point in “Becoming,” and a few who are able to move past certain limitations. In the latter category, Xander is able to finally tell (a comatose) Willow how he feels about her (not romantically speaking, but in terms of classifying their friendship as something more than “best buds forever!”), while Willow is able to even in her post-comatose state conjure the spell which restores Angel’s soul at the worst possible (but more dramatically convenient) time. These don’t feel like huge, life-altering moments like Buffy’s final stand with Angel, but they are nonetheless compelling characters moments that speak to their characters’ respective journeys to this point.
Meanwhile, Giles’ breaking point is quite literally tested by Angel as he tortures him for information regarding the Acathla ceremony, and “Becoming” offers another tragic saga in the death of Jenny Calendar. Some commenters took me to task for acting so nonchalant about her death, which they posited was the result of having seen Whedon kill off so many other characters in his other series (and, of course, the double-uppercut that is Serenity). However, I think it’s also the fact that we presume Giles can weather the storm somewhere better than Buffy could – yes, he does something rash and dangerous, but he’s going to remain strong for Buffy’s sake, and it won’t be the same psychological torment that it was for the young Slayer.
However, considering me less nonchalant about Drusilla breaking Giles by using some form of hypnosis and becoming an embodiment of Jenny Calendar. While Buffy had to keep seeing Angel after his transformation, Giles has been trying to move on from Jenny, so to see him in a delirious state reconnecting with the woman he loved and so wanting it to be real that he gives up the truth about the statue is almost as tragic as the episode’s climax. In the end, of course, Angel isn’t able to open the portal and the world is saved, but for Giles’s sense of closure and grief to be used against him is the sort of poignant cruelty that the show should bring out more often.
“Becoming” isn’t really all that shocking a finale: the flashbacks don’t reveal anything that we find all that surprising, Spike’s transformation from fun villain you love to hate and fun villain you love has been ongoing since he started playing second fiddle to Angel, and the audience (if not the characters) could see the ending coming from a mile away. However, too often “shocking” is used in place of something dramatically satisfying, and while there’s plenty of tragedy going around “Becoming” feels like a logical conclusion to the season in that it doesn’t feel like it becomes defined by that tragedy. To be clear, it creates plenty of uncertainty to carry into the third season (as we’re supposed to believe that Buffy’s mind has entered a state of peril), but it does so in such a way that feels like a gradual unraveling as opposed to a sudden destruction, allowing the events in the finale to feel like long-expected aftershocks from earlier tragedies rather than a new intervention. Whedon may be fond of non-linear character arcs and the magical insinuating itself in unexpected ways which disrupt characters as they try to grieve or come to terms with their situation, but he always has a sense of where these characters have come from in the process, a quality which brings this finale to life.
- One thing: was Drusilla actually named Drusilla before she became a vampire? It’s such a stereotypically vampiric name that I refuse to believe this is the case, but I’m too wary of wading into Wikipedia and the like out of fear of spoilers.
- I have another bone to pick with the series in season three when it comes to credit casting spoilers, but for now I’ll stick with this: putting Robia Lamorte in the credits for “Becoming Part Two” was just silly. I’ve seen her name go by too many times in too short a span not to notice it, and when the character already died it’s a little bit frustrating to know that she’s coming up at some point. Yes, you don’t know “how” they show up, but it still bugs me.
- I spent way too long trying to figure out where I recognized Max Perlich from, and why he was labeled a “Special Guest” in the credits – Whistler is an interesting character (that I presume we’re going to see again at some point?), but once I remembered that he was Rune on Gilmore Girls I was a bit distracted.
- The one part of the episode which feels a bit contrived is Principal Snyder pinning the murder on Buffy – I’ve felt that the character has become more complex in the past few episodes (with the bit with the Mayor, and the like), but here he turned into that old stereotypically evil authority figure who happens to put his energy into getting rid of Buffy at the exact time when she most needs to be able to be focused on the task at hand.
- The single best thing in these episodes? Spike in Buffy’s living room. James Marsters has always been pretty fantastic, but sitting there quietly with Joyce and discussing the last time they met had me in stitches. While Angel being a vampire created some interesting one-liners for Xander, he rarely got to be funny himself, so Spike’s actual humour was so fun in those scenes that I look forward to his continued presence in the series.
- One last thing, that I had wanted to talk about but got bumped from the above: it’s interesting to see Buffy’s actual “origin story” two seasons after you’d expect to see it. I wrote in my analysis of the pilot that we joined Buffy in media res, so to speak, so it’s fitting that both Angel and Buffy would get some retroactive character development here. It’s very strange to see Sarah Michelle Gellar playing so young again, and the sheer innocence of those scenes is nicely played by Whedon’s script (which was apparently lifted from his original script for the movie).