Marti Noxon must have been Joss Whedon's "golden girl" back in 1998, because she's back already with another two-parter (this time in partnership with Whedon, mere episodes after her previous two-parter and immediately following her "Bad Eggs"). You can't fault Noxon for commitment and productivity! As these two-part stories tend to go, "SURPRISE" was masses of set-up and exposition, as Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was plagued with dreams of boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz) being "dusted" by Drusilla (Juliet Landau) on the eve of her 17th birthday. It also introduced the unexpected reveal that sweet Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) is a covert gypsy sworn to ensure Angel is forever tormented for his despicable crimes as Angelus before he regained his soul. This was a strange direction to take Jenny down, but I guess it makes her more interesting than a dependable teacher Giles (Anthony Head) confides in and canoodles with. I just wish the scene where Jenny's real identity was revealed was written better, because it was so clumsy to have her creepy Uncle Enios (the late great Vincent Schiavelli) simply turn up for a classroom conversation that spelled everything out very, very clearly.
Also, to be honest, I've had my fill of Buffy's dream premonitions after season 1's gambit with The Master, so "Surprise" struggled to engage me with that attempt at tension. Drusilla's plan to defeat The Slayer by assembling a blue-skinned creature known as The Judge (Brian Thompson) also felt like something the show's done before (even if its technically hasn't), but I did enjoy many of this episode's smaller moments and romantic touches; like the beautiful exchange between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Oz (Seth Green) when they arranged to go on a date, or the scenes when Buffy and Angel got intimate—which were alluring, sexy and played very natural. Gellar and Boreanaz work well together, convincing us they're a modern-day Romeo & Juliet, and their relationship is certainly more dramatic and engaging than Twilight's insipid Bella/Edward ardour that feels partly inspired by this show.
It was also good to have Oz joining the gang's circle of trust after witnessing a vampire turn to dust; I continue to like the dysfunctional romance between Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who just can't bring herself to publicly admit they're involved; and I'm pleased to see Drusilla is more compelling now she's in rude health and the situation with her boyfriend Spike (James Marsters) has reversed itself now he's in a wheelchair. Spike and Drusilla are most definitely one of this season's best improvements over last season's clichéd Big Bad.
I was told "Surprise" is where Buffy the Vampire Slayer blooms further into something special and more emotionally complex, and I guess there were flashes of that with the mature Buffy/Angel love scenes, but I'll reserve judgement until the concluding part of this story.
Xander: I have a plan.
Cordelia: Oh no, here's a lower place.
Buffy turns 17 and the show takes its biggest step towards maturity with "INNOCENCE"; a quality the show also loses over the course of this concluding hour. It may have featured a blue giant with the power to turn humane people to ash with a single touch, but there was far more going on beneath the surface with this episode. As suspected, just as Buffy and Angel consummate their love on a rainy night (and, one assumed, Buffy loses her virginity), then fate conspires to have Angel lose the soul he was cursed with—meaning the legendary "Angelus" makes a return. This delights old friend Spike and Drusilla (who now have added strength in numbers), but stomps all over Buffy's emotions when Angelus takes great pleasure in belittling her and their night of lovemaking. And what a brilliant performance from Gellar in all the scenes where Buffy struggled to realise her dream man has turned into nightmare. I guess her premonition of Angel dying was half-true.
"Innocence" had a different feel to it than previous episodes. I think the show has just reached that natural tipping point, where there's enough confidence in the writing and a belief in the characters to aim for something higher than before. Joss Whedon obviously did a great job making the Buffy/Angel breakup feel more heartrending than I'd have imagined (speaking as someone who, by and large, couldn't care less about them until this two-parter), but he also did equally as well with the embryonic relationship between Willow and Oz. That scene where Willow, emotionally raw after witnessing Xander kissing Cordelia, asked Oz to act out his fantasy and kiss her, only to be gently refused in the most gentlemanly way, was excellent. A touching scene that instantly made Oz into one of the show's better characters, and actually gave me some appreciation for Willow (a character I thought I'd adore when I started these catch-ups, but have found hard to really engage with).
Overall, "Innocence" lived up to its reputation as a key moment in BtVS's history and I look forward to the series maintaining this level of skill for as long as possible. It'll be interesting to see how Angelus fits into the Spike and Drusilla dynamic now (is three a crowd?), and just how much mileage they get from the dilemma Buffy has over what to do with him. Kill to save the people and friends his presence endangers, or wait for a cure from gypsy Jenny? In the final scene, Buffy's asked to make a wish on a birthday candle her mother's lit, but she instead opts to just let it burn—a nice sign that her character's putting childish things aside now she's a year older.
(Oh, and I also enjoyed the poetic justice of Buffy kneeing Angelus in the balls to end their fight, considering the fact he broke her heart shortly after sex. That'll learn him.)
written by Marti Noxon (2.13) & Joss Whedon (2.14) / directed by Michael Lange (2.13) & Joss Whedon (2.14) / 19 & 20 January 1998 / The WB