**Warning: Contains spoilers**
Well, I struggled through the first season, but I found Buffy's first full season to be even more entertaining upon a second viewing. The second season of Buffy is where the show took off, where it became something you could have never predicted on the basis of the first (and even much of the second itself) season. It does take some time to get going, but when it does, the show never looks back.
We open to the Scoobies returning to school after a summer break, fresh-faced and ready to keep taking on evil. Well, not exactly. Turns out Buffy is still reeling from the events of last season's finale, and does not put it behind her until she destroys the Master's body for good at the end of the premiere. From there it's the familiar quality rollercoaster that defined the last season: episodes like "Some Assembly Required," "Inca Mummy Girl" and "Reptile Boy" dig up the usual Monster Of The Week storylines that gets in some character development but not enough to excuse such flimsy plots.
The first glimmer that the show is about to take off comes with the arrival of Spike and Drusilla in "School Hard." Seemingly the Big Bads of the season, they hit the show like a storm; Dru is Angel's perverse trophy from his demon days; before he got his soul, he drove her to madness before turning her. She speaks in non-sequiturs that are both hilarious and frightening, because they make her totally unpredictable. Spike, on the other hand, is one of the few characters of these early days who instantly works: he's scary, suave, and absolutely hysterical. Sadly, at the end of the episode he and Dru sink back to the shadows and their appearances in the next few episodes are generally asides and not plot-relevant.
The nice part about the first half of the season is that even the weak episodes are, for the most part, a lot more enjoyable than the weak numbers in the first season (and sometimes even the stronger ones). For example, "The Dark Age" suffers from poor pacing and some disparate elements, but we get to see that Giles' badass side. The only episode that falls totally flat is "Bad Eggs." Why does every show about teenagers have to feature the "fake baby" episode? Otherwise, the first half is a fun ride. "Halloween" is a fun episode that shows Willow starting to come into her own, while "Lie to Me" and "Ted" both move the characters forward significantly, even if they both have glaring flaws.
But it is the second half that propels the season (and the show) into the annals of greatness. Buffy and Angel's romance heats up to the point that the two finally have sex...and all hell breaks loose. Starting with "Innocence," we see Angel's curse lifted; he was ensouled in order to cause endless torment, and if he ever experienced a moment of true happiness, the curse would break.
Enter Angelus, the series' defining antagonist and one of the all time great TV villains. I always love a villain who reminds me of Shakespeare's Iago, and Angelus is one of the few characters who can call him to mind and not sully Iago in comparison. What follows is a near perfect story arc that tears Buffy and her friends apart. Angelus is not content to simply kill Buffy; no, he wants to destroy her first. He starts off by ridiculing their relationship and builds to the horror that defines "Passion."
One of the darkest episodes of the series, "Passion" is proof that "Innocence" was no fluke, and that the show has gone off in a whole new direction. When Jenny Calendar tries to translate the spell to re-ensoul Angel, he casually snaps her neck, as if she is not even worth of being bitten. Last season proved that Joss and co. were willing to kill off a recurring character (Principal Flutie), but here they kill an important character, and in such an abrupt, final way. Jenny's death is all the more upsetting because it ruins Giles' chance of a happy life outside of being a Watcher, just as Angel's lost soul ruined Buffy's chance of happiness outside of being a Slayer. When Giles returns to his home and finds a trail of roses leading to his room and opera blaring, he smiles so broadly that your heart breaks even before he sees her staring corpse splayed out over the bed.
It all culminates with the masterful two-part finale "Becoming," a masterpiece of TV writing that shows Joss at the absolute top of his game. Angelus attempts to summon a demon who will plunge the Earth into Hell, creating eternal torment for any mortal. Spike, already resentful of Angel luring his beloved Drusilla away from him, strikes up an unlikely alliance with Buffy, one that foreshadows his future development. This episode completely tears Buffy apart: by the end of it all she's been chased by the cops, kicked out school AND her home. To top it all off, she must kill Angel after he's been re-ensouled. Say what you will about the caliber of the actors on this show, but I'll always stick by them; just watch the pain grow on Buffy's face as she slowly melts down when the totality of her situation hits her.
I've read that the concept of the Slayer doubles as a metaphor for homosexuality, and the scene between Joyce and Buffy in the kitchen does nothing but support that. Joyce starts off in numb disbelief, asking "have you ever considered not being a Slayer?" and gradually works herself up into a rage, saying simply "I just don't accept that!" It's an overt yet unforced allusion to parents' inability to cope with their child's sexuality.
The second season is such a quantum leap forward that it's hard to believe that the same writers (and even the same actors) are still at the wheel. The only complaint I have about the arc of the second half is the two standalone episodes that pad time between masterpieces like "Passion," "I Only Have Eyes For You" and the finale. "Killed By Death" and "Go Fish" are MOTW zaniness, which is why I have such a problem with them in the middle of the Angelus arc. Perhaps the writers thought that they needed something to lighten the mood a bit, but those episodes would have played so much better had they appeared earlier in the season or, in the case of the exceedingly dumb "Go Fish," in the first season.
Still, it's impossible not to enjoy this season, even the MOTW first half. If the first season was "My So Called Life mixed with The X-Files, the first half of this season was like a Red Dwarf for horror, one that played up clichés and mixed in a hell of a lot of character development. But after "Innocence," it becomes something wholly unique and incomparable. Things would only get better with the next season and, after a dip in quality with Season 4, returned to these heights for the remainder of its run (minus a few missteps in the final season). It's not perfect, but it's light-years ahead of just about any other show on television, before or since.
The first shot in the arm for the series comes with the introduction of Spike and Drusilla. The former is probably the series's most compelling character and the latter is just crazy fun. It also works as clever misdirection as it makes Spike and Dru the seeming Big Bads.
Here the show changed for good. Unleashing Angelus is something you could not see coming, and the depths of his evil makes the Master look like a Scoutmaster. The dark atmosphere is alleviated somewhat by the hysterical and badass showdown with the Judge, which involves a rocket launcher and one of the most memorable exchanges of the show.
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered
Xander always was left out of the loop for the important stuff, and Season 4 permanently created a separation between him and the other Scoobies when he didn't go to college (he still hung around of course), but there is an upside to him always on the sidelines: every so often he gets an episode devoted to him, and it's always hilarious. This is the first of such episodes, and it works both as a look into Xander"s (and by extension teenage males) immaturity when it comes to breakups and as a hysterical ride that results from the disastrous love spell. We also see Cordelia start to come into her own at the end of the episode when she reconciles with Xander.
"Innocence" kicked the doors down, but "Passion" burned the whole damn house to the ground. The death of Jenny (already discussed above) stands as one of the great shockers of the series and pushed the emotional stakes to the limit. Before this, we were just waiting for Angel to get back to normal; what's a few unnamed extras being eaten as long as he gets his soul back? But after this, you want Buffy to stake him. And just watch Anthony Stewart Head, normally the subtlest of actors on the show, break down in raw grief; it's almost too painful to watch.
I Only Have Eyes For You
A bold, ingenious concept: the ghosts of two lovers haunt the high school, and they possess Angelus and Buffy. Particularly brilliant is that the young man possesses Buffy and the teacher who tries to break it off imbues Angel. What follows is a meeting between the two spirits acted out by their living puppets that eerily and perfectly lines up with how Angel's lost soul has impacted his and Buffy's relationship. What started off looking like a fun standalone turned into one of the most emotionally resonant moments of the whole series.
Becoming, Pts 1 and 2
Hands down, this is the best season finale of the show and possibly the best finale of any show ever. Part 1 sets everything up in a brilliant trap by Angelus that lures her away from her friends, leaving them open for an attack. Then, in the second part, it proceeds to take everything from Buff: her home, her education, her lover and, through her own choice, her friends. It's amazing she was able to rebuild her life in a believable fashion in the next season.
Some Assembly Required
Bride of Frankenstein, Buffy style. Yeesh. There's really nothing to say about it because it is so insanely boring. The only highlight is that Giles and Jenny's relationship starts to form.
The first of what would become many mediocre blasts against fraternities. Considering how intelligent and allegorical the show is, why is it that not one of the episodes concerning fraternities or even jocks ever sent them up cleverly? The main plot here is just idiotic and doesn't even work as a bad, overt metaphor; it just is, and it is stupid.
Why does every show about teenagers have to have the episode where they get an egg or a fake baby and have to raise it? I never did something as pointless as that in school, and even if I did I wouldn't want to see it in every. single. teenage drama or comedy. At least this one puts a Buffy spin on it, but it's still one of the dullest episodes of the show.
Another episode that goes after jocks. The message: steroids changes you. How so in the Buffyverse? You turn into the Creature from the Black Lagoon, of course! In all fairness, this isn't a bad rainy day, escapist episode, but it is overwhelmingly dumb.