Mar 26 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch: A Very Unhappy Birthday, Take One

“Surprise” opens with a stake and a poof, when Buffy has a dream about Joyce breaking dishes and Dru killing Angel.

The Angel part causes her to freak out, understandably enough, and the Slayer doesn’t waste any time checking that Angel is safe, shirtless and smoochable at home. Then she concludes that maybe Dru and Spike aren’t as dead as previously hoped.

I rather admire her for this. We’ve all seen the hero in countless dramas play not-so-bright before, haven’t we? All too often, they take refuge in denial, allowing the baddies to get an even higher jump on them. But Buffy goes right to worst case scenario mode, and even Giles, when he pooh-poohs her concerns, sounds half-hearted.

Deep down, they knew it had been too easy.

Behind the scenes, the gang plans a surprise party for Buffy’s sweet seventeenth, the broken crockery part of the dream comes to pass when Joyce vetos driving lessons, and most of all we learn that Jenny Calendar is a big liarpants, a gypsy sent to Sunnydale to ensure Angel’s soul is still paining him on cold winter nights.

“Break them up!” orders her uncle Cranky, neglecting to add the useful lifesaving tidbit: “before they get horizontal, for pity’s sake!” He seems to be wearing Donald Sutherland’s costume from the original BtVS movie, which makes it even harder to take him seriously. But he’s family, so Jenny goes along.

A second dream and some Scooby sleuthing reveals that Spike and Dru are not only alive but assembling the Judge. The team comes into one of the Judge’s arms, and since the Medium Bads can’t spark the apocalypse unless they collect the whole set, Jenny does her gypsy duty by suggesting Angel drag the thing off to the far reaches of the Gobi, or somewhere far away but with a seaport, to hide it. Nobody gets to eat cake, which is covered in vamp dust anyway.

But Angel going away wouldn’t be any fun at all. So the vampires recover the arm, and the Judge gets assembled after all. Underneath all his purple make-up, he sounds just like Luke, the vampire Buffy dusted in The Harvest. To prove his incredibly hazardous dangerousness, he kills poor Dalton, the nerdpire. Typical right? Even demons fall back on picking on the guy with the glasses. It’s like they’re a metaphor for mean kids or something. The Judge also gets a shot at Buffy, who’s snooping on the proceedings with Angel.

It’s a near escape, and Buffy and Angel celebrate by having hypothermic out-of-wedlock birthday sex. (Not that I’m saying they should’ve made the run to Vegas first. She is seventeen, after all. )

And you all know what happens next, right?

“Surprise” leaves off with Angel screaming Buffy’s name as the credits roll, and then, back in the Nineties, we all got to spend a week thinking “Eeeek! OMG, OMG! Does that mean what I think it means?” when we should have been concentrating on work or whatever we were cooking. Fingers burned, bosses annoyed, dreading the worst, all of fandom waited for “Innocence,” which according to our Wikipedia friends is the highest-rated BtVS episode in the history of ever.

Sure enough, it’s Angelus who climbs up off the pavement to avail himself of the nearest available snack and a bonus smoke. Off he goes to visit Spike, Dru and the Judge, where he gets himself certified a 100% USDA Prime Virtue Free Entity.

Dru is delirious with joy. “We’re a family again!” she warbles.

Even Spike is cautiously optimistic, at this point, about the prodigal’s return. Then again, maybe the fact that he’s assembled a world-destroying purple people eater (really, that’s pretty much what the Judge is—sort of an evil, hairless Barney with armor, am I right?) has left him thinking he won’t have to put up with the new situation for all that long. 

Asserting his natural leadership skills, Angelus clarifies their evil agenda: crush Buffy’s spirit, recharge the Judge, hit the mall, end the world.

All joking aside, “Innocence” and “Surprise” are so well-crafted it hurts. You can hear the snap of all those delicately planted story elements coming together in what turns out to be an unrelentingly cruel suckfest. Angelus declares open season on Buffy’s heart, and we are left in no doubt that he’s is going to treat her every bit as badly as he did Dru. It’s all so well crafted and shiny that it doesn’t lose a thing on rewatch.

While the Judge is juicing up and Angelus is getting his vengeance on, other Scooby relationships are taking a hit, too. Willow is deeply unimpressed when she walks in on a Xandelia liplock. And Giles and Jenny (Gilenny?) switch back from On Again to very much Off when her secret agenda is revealed. Uncle Cranky gets hoist on his own uninformative petard, which bothered me not at all. Oz, having only just found out the truth about vampires and Buffy’s destiny, gets promoted to team chauffeur.

It’s a lot of ground to cover when there’s an apocalypse to prevent. But Xander comes through yet again, proving that sometimes it’s all about knowing where to shop. He and Cordelia hit the local army base and manage to make off with a rocket launcher, which is more than up to the task of re-disassembling the allegedly unsinkable Judge.

(This leads me to think that the Watchers’ Council maybe ought to sell a few crossbows on Ebay and befriend a proper weapons dealer, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Anyway, Boom! Dru and Angelus dodge the explosion, the Scoobies move on to picking up the pieces, literally, and Buffy faces the really hard battle: fighting her ex-honey, and discovering she’s not yet ready to stake him.

The two endings to this pair of episodes—the “give me time” finish to the Buffy/Angelus punch up and the subsequent cupcake scene, with Joyce, later, are both note-perfect. They’re entirely believable and very wrenching. Because, really, what can Buffy say about this birthday except “I got older?”

At least she can hope that next year will be better.

A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. She also has a second story up here called “Among the Silvering Herd.”

1. DreamRose311
Ah, luckily enough we actually only had to wait a day, as Surprise and Innocence were the two night event that moved Buffy from Monday to Tuesday nights.
Alyx Dellamonica
2. AMDellamonica
Really, Dream? Hmmm, maybe it played out differently in Canadaland. It seems to me we were getting S2 from YTV on Saturdays or something.
3. Lsana
"That was then. This is now."
"What does that do?"

That has to be one of my all-time favorite Buffy moments. And yes, absolutely the Watchers Council needs to get some proper weapons. I wouldn't mothball the crossbows just yet, since they are quite useful for taking out vampires with minimal collateral damage, but I think there are more than a few situations Buffy faced where this rocket launcher or a few grenades would have been useful.

Also, maybe it's just me, but I liked Jenny the Technopagan better than Jana the Gypsy. The former just strikes me as so much more interesting than the somewhat stereotypical gypsies we get.
4. Gardner Dozois
Good episodes. Turning her First Love against her and having her forced to fight him makes for good drama. And, as I've said before, Angelius is much more entertaining to watch than the mopey, sullen Angel, rather funny in his evil way and chews the scenery with great gusto.

Yes, the Council ought to invest in some modern weaponry. Some flamethrowers would work wonders in taking out vampire nests, and some grenades wouldn't go amiss either. An automatic weapon like an AK-47 might not kill a vampire, but it would certainly hurt him and slow him down, letting Buffy have a chance to stake him, and it would give the non-superpowered folk like Xander something useful to do in battle other than getting beaten up every week. Taking out the Judge with the rocket launcher is a great moment, something they should have remembered the next time they came up against an immensely powerful demonic foe, but usually did not. (You have to wonder, for instance, what a rocket launcher hit would have done against Adam; since he was sewn together out of various parts, you'd think that he could have been blown apart into various parts too. But instead it was stakes and fists uselessly against him right down to the final episode of the arc.) I think they may have shied away from doing this more often because it leads to thinking about the secret weakness of supernatural folk like Buffy and the Charmed Ones, that you should just shoot them from a reasonable distance instead of fighting them closeup with fists and axes and giving them the chance to pummel you (or use their powers on you, in the case of the Charmed Ones).

Once again, Xander saves the day, and possibly the world, and, once again, gets no respect for it. You'd think that if he has all the knowledge and training of the Soldier Boy he once was in him, he'd be less scared of some of the punks and bullies that push him around, like in "The Zippo," having all that martial arts traiing to draw on; think he'd do somewhat better in the nightly fistfight with vampires, too.
5. Dr. Thanatos
Brilliant episodes: mix of love, sorrow, grief, wit, and linoleum references...everyone gets great lines, Buffy gets to blow things up , and setup for an amazing second half of the season.

BTW I don't think this is the same Angelus we saw in the latter portion of Angel. This guy is whimsical and creative; the other one just makes lame jokes...
john mullen
6. johntheirishmongol
These were wonderful episodes. I thought the rocket launcher rather reminded me of Indy pulling out the gun vs the guy with the sword. Here I am, big bad monster...aww sh*t!

Angelus is definately much more fun to watch than the sad, romantic Angel. It really allowed David B to find his way as an actor too, since he could play every emotion right to the hilt. It does crack me up that every baddie seems to smoke and none of the good guys do. And how much sense does it make for a vamp to smoke anyway? Other than to talk, they don't really need to breathe.

It was good to see Xander provide the solution, since he almost always gets the abuse. He seldom gets a chance to show off any skills.
7. Dr. Thanatos
Bad guys with protective prophecies never think it through. Not Macbeth, not the Judge.

Consider the Lord of the Rings:

Nazgul: No man may slay me. I have it in writing.
Eowyn: Here's my swimsuit photo, big boy. Now die!
8. Gardner Dozois
"Ah, but I was from my mother's womb untimely ripped! Bad news for Mom, but bad news for YOU too!"

Xander has frequently saved the day, either by direct action, as when he brought Buffy back to life in the first season, or by coming up with the idea that enables them to defeat the villain/solve the problem. He saves them all from getting blown up in "The Zippo" without anybody even knowing anything about it. When Willow is about to literally destroy the whole world, it's Xander who stops her, not Buffy; in fact, Buffy is pretty much totally ineffectual throughout all of that episode. And still they all treat him with condescension and thinly veiled scorn.
Alyx Dellamonica
9. AMDellamonica
In these early seasons, Xander's role (as opposed to Xander himself, because you all know I'm a Xanderbooster, right?) seemed very much to me to be The Girl. In my head, it was "The Girl from Police Story," for some reason. Get the coffee, be the victim, never get it right except when you do, and then never get the credit. It seemed a not bad gender reversal in some ways.

Xander's also the stand-in for Everyman, the ordinary humans Buffy is fighting to save from the darkness. It's a job with some terribly thankless moments.

But then, as Gardner points out, we got "The Zeppo." I could've used six more just like it.
Michael Green
10. greenazoth
If I had to come up with an adjective to describe Angelus here, and for the rest of the season, it'd have to be "juicy."

I hope that makes sense.
11. Dr. Thanatos
Angelus is here a cat, playing with his food...
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
12. tnh
It's always more fun to be the Thing than to be the scientists at the research station.
13. Bthecat
Best Xander line of the season.

Xander to Cordelia: "Cordy, I'm a 16 year old guy, lineoleum makes me horny.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
I'm with you, TNH--let's be the Thing!

Bthecat's proposed a fave line for Xander, but there are so many to choose from. I'm partial to the "Every woman in Sunnydale wants me for her cuddle monkey. Which sounds good on paper..."
Adam Weber
15. SvelteDesert
So I know I am a few months late to be posting on this particular thread, but I just started watching BtVS for the first time, and I have been following along with your posts as I go. I'll catch up soon!

I just wanted to say that while Ted was your gotcha moment, it was really these two episodes that grabbed me. I was really moved by how the show portrayed the downfall of Angel, and Buffy's reaction to it. It is rare that you find shows that are willing to go into that kind of emotional territory. While we don't know for sure, we are led to believe from Willow and Buffy's conversation that Buffy is a virgin. So when she sleeps with Angel, it's her first time. Think about the emotional consequences of that. Her first time is with a man she loves, and that very act destroys all that is good in him. I can't even imagine. And then I almost cried when she talks with Angelus in his room before she knows he isn't Angel anymore. I honestly can't think of another show that would take that on and push the emotional envelope like that. And despite being SF, it does it in a real way, not some soap opera, fake, packaged crap. Granted I don't think many teenage girls have their first time with a vampire who turns evil because of it, but there are a ton of teenage girls who's first time isn't quite as romantic as they might have hoped, and/or who are just being used by an older more experienced man.

Sorry its such a long post! The emotions, how real the actors and actresses feel, and how the show looks at issues of the heart in these two episodes just really hit me, so I wanted to share my gotcha moment.
Alyx Dellamonica
16. AMDellamonica
@SvelteDesert - if I hadn't been hooked by "Ted," this pair of episodes would definitely have done it. I'm glad you're catching up with the rewatch! By an odd twist, this week's essay is about Buffy's eighteenth birthday, in S3. I look forward to your getting there.

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