FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Becoming
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel was cursed with a soul by gypsies he had scorned, but a moment of true happiness with Buffy ensured he lost it again. He's been wreaking havoc in the lives of the Scoobies, psychologically torturing them and going so far as to kill Jenny Calendar, who had been close to translating the spell to restore his soul.
Buffy gears herself up to face Angel, but he has other plans. With the recent discovery of the ancient demon Acathla who is able to send the entire world into a hell dimension with one breath, Angel decides he wants to end the world. Meanwhile, Buffy and Willow discover Jenny's translation of the restoration ritual and it's agreed they will try to restore Angel's soul. An attack on the library leads to Giles' capture to discover how to do the right ritual and Buffy heads to the mansion to face down Angel, armed with a new unlikely ally.
If there's one thing that Buffy did consistently well throughout its seven seasons, it's the finale episodes. Sometimes two-parters, sometimes standalone, always the result of a season long arc, Buffy finales have always been cracking episodes, capturing the humour and emotion that makes the series so strong. Partly, it's because the threat of cancellation always hung over the show, which meant that the writers always wrote each season to bring the series to a largely satisfying close should that happen.
There's a constant sense of horror to Becoming, building from Buffy's desire to finish her battle with Angel, the impending end of the world scenario (neatly paralleled with Buffy having to take finals), the self-immolating vampire at the front of a classroom and Giles' torture scenes. It returns the second season to the slow build of tension that has been mounting throughout the last few episodes and the building sense of dread climaxes spectacularly in the final scene of Part One.
It's the first of several major flashback episodes, one which use some element of the past to explain a character's motivations. For Angel, it shows the episodes in his life that have been the most talked about; his siring, the killing of his family, driving Dru insane and seeing Buffy for the first time. It starts building towards his solo quest for redemption with the spin-off wasn't in the pipeline (announced shortly after Becoming aired). It's a useful technique, demonstrating how Liam, Angel's pre-vamp self, was always a bit of a twit so the fact that Angelus turned out so evil isn't a surprise. It also gives us a greater understanding of how much he has to make up for and how significant the regaining of his soul was. As he said in an earlier episode, 'you have no idea what it's like to have done the things that I've done... and to care'.
With the discovery of the curse that could restore Angel's soul, Willow and Buffy set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons when it comes to deciding his fate. It's a complicated moral decision and Whedon utilises the characters to represent different sides of the argument. Whenever the central characters fight, it's always particularly galling, like seeing a close family in the throes of a heated argument. Xander goes all out, bringing forth his callous streak to declare that Angel should die and Buffy is compromised by her feelings. Buffy sees it as a back-up plan, as does Willow who would perform the magic. Giles, meanwhile, is the most compromised of them all, understanding Buffy's position whilst also still reeling from Jenny's death.
Stakes always seems so much higher when the Scoobies are ripped apart and few scenes are as powerfully frightening as the one in which the gang are attacked in the library at the end of the first part. Whedon's reputation for killing off people suddenly wasn't quite as concrete as it is now, but after the death of Jenny, it felt like anyone could be next. At the end of the episode, Buffy is about to be arrested, Willow's unconscious, Xander's got a broken arm and Kendra's dead (goodbye Bianca Lawson, we barely knew you).
The haunting voiceover from Whistler about Big Moments cements this sense of loss; we have no idea how to follow this Big Moment and at this stage, neither do the characters. It's another example of a voiceover working particularly well and because it is a voice we're not used to, it adds a sense of detachment to the scene. Whistler is watching this play out with us. It also ties us back to Passion and recalls the slow motion discovering of Jenny's death. The message is clear; this is a game-changing episode and we still have the second part to come.
These Big Moments continue into the next episode, including Joyce finding out that her daughter is a Slayer. It's one of the lighter moments in the episode, post-alliance with Spike, which leads to a wonderful moment in which Joyce and Spike awkwardly bond over their previous meeting in School Hard. It soon gives way though into a conversation between Buffy and Joyce which leads to the latter running away from home. Their mother-daughter relationship is always one of the best aspects of the season, particularly as they try to negotiate understanding each other and this is sorely tested here.
Everything that occurs in this episode determines that by the end, Buffy is left entirely alone. It's a common theme in the season finales and whilst the series is at great pains to prove that she is nothing without her friends, it also points out continually that when it comes to the big fights, there's only so much help they can give. Becoming features one of the best explorations of this. It may be really obvious that the fight is not entirely David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar, but there's no denying that it is one of the best one-on-one showdowns of the series, probably second only to Buffy and Faith's clash in Graduation Day. The stakes are high and the tragedy of the outcome makes it just that bit worse. When Buffy kills Angel, she can't face her friends and departs alone; only now has she truly lost of everything.
Whilst Part One focuses on Angel's past, Part Two hints a lot towards key developments in future. There's another reference to the Mayor and his interest in Buffy, Xander tells Willow he loves her while she's unconscious and Willow begins practicing magic with the restoration ritual. These will have all flown over our heads when it first aired, but it's great to go back and catch them on the way through the rewatch.
And so to the heartbreaking end of the episode. It still pains me to this day that Xander is never called out on his lie, but without it, the ending wouldn't be so awful. Buffy saved the world again, but at great personal cost this time, something which this season has continually hinted towards. When she pulls off in the bus at the end, to the strains of Sarah MacLachlan's Full of Grace, it feels very final despite knowing that she'll come back. The ramifications of this episode also have a long-lasting impact on the third season, which is also arguably the series' most consistently good run.
Well, that's the second season everyone. It's all going rather quickly now. Also, just as the Angel series was announced after Becoming, I'm announcing that I shall be doing an Angel rewatch alongside the Buffy one when we get to the end of the third season. How very exciting. Well, for me anyway, I've only seen the entirety of Angel once through.
Quote of the Week:
Angel: No weapons... No friends... No hope. Take all that away and what's left?
Let's Get Trivial: The Mutant Enemy monster at the end dispenses with his usual 'Grr arrgh' to say 'Oh I need a hug'. You and me both, fella.
Demonology 101: Whistler is the first instance of a good demon existing in the Buffyverse, something that becomes increasingly important to both Buffy and Angel in their respective series.
You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Go Fish, here.