Ever been in trouble? I mean, like, really in trouble? Like maybe you're on the verge of failing a class, or you've broken something irreplaceable, or you've inadvertently caused an unspeakable evil to be loosed upon the world? You know that feeling of impending doom that hangs over you morning, noon and night, such that even when you have a moment of happiness–say, a friend tells a joke, or there's something good on TV–it fades as soon as you remember what's coming? You know that feeling? The feeling like Christmas is on its way, but in reverse?
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Season Two finale, our heroine has a lot on her mind. Finals are coming up, and she hasn't had time to study as much as she'd like, because she's been busy fretting over when Angel is going to make his big move and try to take her out. As it happens, Angel has even grander plans. A nearby museum has come into possession of a giant stone crypt containing the ossified body of the demon Acathla, and if Angel can reawaken the beast, he'll let loose Hell on Earth and "make history…end." The upside? If the world goes to Hell, finals will probably be cancelled. (Demonic invasion is kind of the ultimate snow day.)
Plot-wise and structure-wise, the two-part "Becoming" is a marvel, weaving together all of the season's major threads and seamlessly introducing new ones into a concluding chapter as assured and well-realized as any in TV history. (Honestly, the series could've ended after "Becoming" and it would've been satisfying. Depressing, but satisfying.) Let me tally up a few of the narrative elements that makes "Becoming" a classic:
-The Angel Origin. We'd heard the stories of how Angel became a vampire, how he sired Drusilla, and how he was cursed with a conscience. But actually seeing Angel get suckered in by Darla, and then tormenting Dru, then grappling with what he'd done for the first time…well, it really framed the action of the episode well, reminding us of who Angel has been, and who he can be. Best of all, we get a piece of the Angel puzzle that we hadn't known about before, namely the reason he came to California in the first place, and how he first learned about Buffy.
-Whistler. I'm always happy to see rat-faced character actor Max Perlich, but it was especially cool to see him in this role, playing a good-hearted (?) demon out to protect the world and remind everyone that they have a higher purpose. Perlich's voice-over narration–especially during the closing scenes of part one, as Buffy learns that she's been misdirected (again!) and that her friends are under attack back at the library (again!)–is particularly poignant.
-Spike. I'd almost forgotten the coolness of Spike–and that he was once this season's main bad guy–after weeks of watching him mope around in a wheelchair, but in this episode, as he hatches the plan to collaborate with Buffy in exchange for clemency, he served as a plot-driver, comic relief and a tragic figure all at once. From his sarcastic quip to Angel about the crypt of Acathla ("I'll have to tell my friends. They don't have a rock this big.") to the way he impatiently sits around the Summers' living room with Joyce while Buffy checks on her friends, Spike is at full strength here.
-Joyce. Finally, Buffy tells her mom to open her eyes to what's been going on, and understand what's at stake. (No pun intended). And does she? Not quite. Much as Spike can't understand why Buffy has to waste time placating her mother, Joyce can't understand why saying, "You'll do what I say!" doesn't have any effect on a person with a sacred responsibility. To her, the problem is much more simple than "The world is in crisis!" The problem is that she's lost control of her little girl. ("Have you tried not being The Slayer?" she asks, helplessly.)
-Jenny's spell. I'll get into the philosophical ramifications of Willow's efforts to restore Angel's soul in a moment, but for now just a word of praise for how it plays out, with Buffy finding Jenny's computer disc (after almost not finding it), and Willow researching what to do and delivering the necessary incantation in a spooky rush of Latin just as Buffy's about to pierce Angel's heart and consign him to Hell. Wicked timing, that.
-Swordfight! I think every supernatural teen drama should end with ex-lovers dueling with blades in a spooky old mansion, don't you? But even more than Buffy and Angel's kick-ass final fight, I loved the way it ended, with Angel's soul restored and Buffy realizing that the restoration doesn't matter. The only way to stop Acathla (who's always framed in the same shot with the restored Angel, as a reminder of the real threat) is to slay her beloved, soul or no. When Buffy finishes the confused Angel off, it's a heartbreaking moment. But it's not a cheat.
Or maybe it is. I have only two qualms about this finale (one of which I'll address down in the Strays), and one is that the summoning of Acaltha ultimately takes a big decision out of Buffy's hands. She has to kill Angel. It hurts regardless, but if she doesn't kill him, the world will end, which makes moot all the debates between Buffy and Xander about whether Angel The Boyfriend can be held responsible for the actions of Angel The Malevolent Entity. Is Angel a person in control of his own actions, and thus punishable for them? Or is he more like a shark, or a hurricane, or cancer: destructive, but a fact of life?
Then again, maybe taking the moral choice out of Buffy's hands is completely appropriate, given what this episode is really about. Throughout these 90 minutes of chills and thrills, characters talk over and over about "the change" and how if they follow the right steps, say the right words, fill in the right answers on the bubble-sheet or show up at the right place at the right time, they can move on to the next level in their lives. My favorite subtle bit of set-dressing in "Becoming" occurs during the cafeteria scene, in which the whole gang is sitting around acting all love-y and friend-y, while on the trays in front of them sits juice-boxes, Sunny D, and a package of animal crackers. Given what they're all about to go through, having them consume what amounts to a pre-schooler's post-nap snack is cruel, but appropriate. They're all kids, really. But when pressed, they grow up in a hurry.
Worse, they have no control over when and where it's going to happen. Buffy find's Jenny's disc by accident. Willow recites the spell while possessed by some unexplained force. Drusilla won't go along with Spike's plan. Angel can't get his Acathla spell to work right. Joyce can't stop Buffy. Xander withholds the details of Willow's plan from Buffy, but it makes no difference in the outcome. You can't force change. It comes when it comes. And it's over when it's over.
-So what about Kendra The Dead Vampire Slayer? To me, the waste of her character and her presence in part one of "Becoming" is the other major qualm I have with the episode. I understand her death from a narrative point of view–it's unexpected, and it turns Buffy into a fugitive–but I feel like more should've been done with Kendra, if not in the series than at least in "Becoming."
-On the other hand, Kendra does survive long enough to introduce to her favorite stake: "Mr. Pointy." For such a dark finale, there are several funny moments here: Buffy referring to Acathla as "Alfalfa" and "Al Franken;" Spike referring to humans as "Happy Meals with legs;" and Xander re-enacting Buffy's night patrol with a pair of fishsticks and a toothpick. ("And…scene.")
-Nice Season Two bookend: Xander telling Willow he loves her just before she returns to consciousness. Typical Season Two twist: Willow asks for Oz as soon as she wakes up. (And by the way, good Oz line, following Xander's fishtick play: "I was unclear on some of the themes.")
-Nice episode bookend: The way Buffy takes a long look at her school and her friends before getting on the bus out of town, much the way Angel took a long look at her back in L.A., watching her "become" The Slayer.
-Speaking of L.A., intentionally or not, I like the way the poster on Buffy's wall is framed in such a way that the word hanging next to her head while she's talking on the phone with Willow is "Angeles."
-Thanks for reading everybody, and thanks especially for being so thoughtful in the comment section, both in terms of clearly labeling spoilers and providing your own astute analyses (even when they contradicted my own). I hope to move on to Season Three before the end of the year, most likely in December. Someday, without warning, a post will appear. And then we'll be off and running again.