FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Surprise & Innocence
After the events of What's My Line, the gang believe Spike and Dru to be dead. Cordelia and Xander are still in the sort-of groping phase of the relationship and Willow and Oz are making tentative steps towards theirs. Elsewhere, Angel still remains under the gypsy curse that gives him his soul.
When it comes to television and film, I'm a fairly emotional person. I get wrapped up in the dilemmas of fictional characters quickly and easily and can sob at a scene far faster than I would like to admit. However, there are but a handful of moments like these that will stay with me, the mere thought of which could bring those emotions flooding back to the surface. The Surprise/Innocence two-parter has a whole bunch of those moments and it all stems back to when I watched Buffy the first time round.
If I remember correctly, I was around 11 when these episodes were airing on BBC2 and I had just managed to convince the family to start watching them with me. Partly because I knew they'd like it and also because I was really tired of having to sneak in VHS recordings when they weren't looking. It was around this time that I started realising I was watching something really, really good. And I can pinpoint the exact moment that this occurred to me. It was during Innocence as I stared aghast at Angel (second in affection rankings only to Billy Kennedy from Neighbours at this point in my life) killed someone. In cold blood. The credits music kicked in and I knew from then on, this wasn't just something enjoyable to watch of a Thursday evening, it was something I needed to watch every week. In short, Buffy is the first television show I ever became completely hooked on and it is entirely down to these two episodes.
Needless to say, these are two episodes I've been most looking forward to revisiting and thankfully, they didn't disappoint. After a prophetic dream, Buffy worries that Drusilla is alive and has designs on killing Angel. She's not far off the mark as the gang soon discover that Spike and Dru are assembling a demon of legend, capable of reducing the righteous to ash. Seeing as our Scoobies have nothing but good in them, the Judge is bad news. Even worse, one of them undergoes a complete transformation that has Big Bad written all over it...
Surprise is a somewhat misleading title in that there are few surprises that take place in this episode. There are a couple for the characters, like Oz discovering vampires exist and handling it with his deadpan charm or Buffy's surprise party, but anything major is held back. Instead, it's a slow build-up to the crushing series of revelations that are to hit the characters when we get to Innocence. Like gathering the piece of the Judge, Surprise starts to slot bits of information together to form a bigger picture. In this case, it is the revelation of this season's Big Bad and those already trying to stop it happening. The audience gets some information ahead of the characters, like the reveal of Jenny Calendar's heritage, but this only serves to heighten the suspense.
The episode does suffer somewhat for being the major set-up for Innocence; Surprise has a lot of foundation work to lay in but does so swiftly and there are plenty of twists to keep you interested. However, it is Innocence that lingers much longer in the memory. There's a poetic term, specifically related to sonnets, called a turn or a volta. The turn usually takes place around the ninth line or third quatrain (depending on what style you're reading) and signals a shift, a change in mood for the conclusion of the poem. As far as I'm aware, television seasons don't have a terminology to describe a similar shift so I shall have to apply the turn to Innocence, for that is what it is.
Other seasons have similar shifts in tone, usually to do with discovering bad guys (Faith and Willow are prime examples), but because it was the first, the Angelus reveal stands out like no other. It was a massive twist and one which cements the second season as a firm fan favourite. Primarily, it is the personal connection we have with this character through Buffy. As her boyfriend, Angel is the nice, dependable sort (albeit with fangs) who occasionally saves the day and looks good with his top off. To have him become the bad guy is just something I wasn't prepared for and it's massively important for the theme of this episode.
Joyce smashing the saucer in Buffy's prophetic dream at the beginning of Surprise proves to be something of an overriding image for these two episodes; relationships break down, hearts break and illusions shatter. For a show so grounded in the supernatural (and there's plenty of that here too), the episodes where humanity and reality break through that magical fog are the ones that really stick with you. Just think of The Body with its meditation on death, Hush with its emphasis on our ability to communicate without words, or The Gift and its message of sacrifice. Innocence is one such episode, in which our characters, and to a certain extent the audience, are forced to face up to the sudden, overwhelming realisation that some people just aren't what they seem.
As ever, the breakdown of the relationship between Buffy and the transformed Angel is another metaphor for teenage worries and experiences. In this case, it's the 'having sex with a guy immediately transforms him into a monster' fear brought to the fore in all its hideously soul-destroying glory (pun intended). Losing your virginity is a Big Deal and it's something so often discussed as a teenage girl fear (and I'm sure for others too). I'm also fairly certain a lot of people of all genders and persuasions have experienced a relationship development only for the other person to turn out to be a complete arse. Here it's maximised in a way that only Buffy can; it brings back the murderous, borderline insane vampire that Angel has suppressed via the gypsy curse.
I'm not going into the 'Buffy is punished for sex' criticism here as I'm saving that all for Parker Abrams and I also don't think it actually applies to this situation. That Buffy and Angel have sex in this two-parter is not the most shocking part about this turn in their relationship. It is, as it always is when teenage sex in high school dramas is concerned, about the consequences. The heartbreaking scene is the moment in which Angelus (for the sake of differentiation) tortures Buffy who believes she is speaking to Angel. He manipulates her into thinking it was just about the sex and slowly, painfully, breaks down the self-confidence we expect in our Slayer. It doesn't even matter that he's a vampire in this scene nor that she's the slayer. To paraphrase a rom-com, she's just a girl, standing in front of a boy and expecting him to love her. And he no longer does. The illusion shatters and she sees his true self.
It's also important to remember that Angel isn't the only person to be revealed as something different to the characters in these episodes and that people being awful isn't all just about sex. Throughout the season so far, there's been a constant theme of growing up, of accepting responsibility and the world around you, particularly for Buffy, but other characters weren't immune. Giles was even pursued by his teenage past at one point, something he'd always been running from and is forced to confront Jenny's ulterior motive. What this episode does so well is capture that loss of innocence (hence the title) so well and just as with Buffy and Angel, so too must the other characters go through it.
Despite the obvious Buffy-Angel-Christophe Beck theme heartwrenching, the most upsetting scene remains the moment in which Willow discovers Xander kissing Cordelia. It's the moment in the hallway when confronts him and tearfully confesses her feelings for him; "it means you'd rather be with someone you hate, than be with me". Maybe it's just my strong affinity with Willow's character, but there is something particularly galling about seeing someone being hurt by their crush in such a complete way. Unreciprocated love is a quintessential teenage experience and to have that happen in the midst of all this supernatural shenanigans just makes the show feel that much more human. It's another illusion shattering and one that is arguably worse than the Angel reveal.
The human/inhuman dynamic is obviously particularly important then in this episode, so it is fitting that we get a villain whose modus operandi is to kill of the humanity within people. Unlike some other Buffy villains, the Judge is actually worthy of his reputation and shown to be such, partially down to Brian Thompson's fearsome appearance (see Sunnydale Who's Who). His 'no weapon forged can kill him' schtick is built up well and fits in well with the sense of dread that slowly mounts over the course over the two episodes. It's what makes the climactic battle so satisfying. It's a freaking rocket launcher.
I haven't really spoken much about the villains in the episodes, mainly because I think they're not as important in the scheme of things, but that doesn't mean they're not effective. Juliet Landau in particular has a ball in this episode and is a lot of fun to watch, especially when Angelus returns. Speaking of, David Boreanaz is always much better as Angelus than he is as Angel during his run on Buffy and he's certainly more entertaining. Angel's character of tortured and brooding doesn't work until he gets his own series, but Angelus walks in fully formed with a predilection for torture that makes him truly despicable.
That being said, it's still really satisfying to see Buffy kick him in the balls.
Returning to the emotional person of the opening paragraph, she's still here and Surprise and Innocence still hit me harder than a lot of episodes. There's a lot to relate to here and the monster as metaphor has never worked better than it does in Innocence. This remains one of the soaring high points of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a brutal, emotional meditation on growing up and quite literally facing your demons.
Quote of the Week:
Joyce: "What did you do for your birthday? Did you have fun?"
Buffy: "I got older"
Inventive Kill: ROCKET LAUNCHER.
Let's Get Trivial: Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon provided the breathy noises for the flashback sex scene because they were too embarrassed to ask David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar to do it in ADR.
Sunnydale Who's Who: Is there a finer genre character actor than Brian Thompson? He clocks up two runs in Buffy, one as the Judge here and the other as Luke back in the first season. He's also particularly scary as an alien hunter in The X-Files.
You can view Becky's look at previous episode, Bad Eggs, here.