The Buffy the Vampire Slayer S2 finale opens with a flashback to the land of TeeVee History, where the men are men and the pubs are Ye Olde. Back in these longago times we see Liam, the callow youth destined to become Angelus, out on a booze-up with a buddy. He runs into Darla (Hi, Julie Benz, always happy to see you again!) who inexplicably takes a shine to him. Maybe it’s his bad manners, or his shaky Irish accent, but she gives him a wisp of a sales pitch about seeing the world and being all that he can be. Liam, bored to the teeth with everything around him, snaps up the bait.
“Close your eyes,” Darla tells him, before moving in for the kill.
Having handily established Angelus’s origins, we return to his present, where he’s once again following Buffy around. He’s stalking, she’s staking: taking on every vamp she can find and issuing “come get me” challenges that never get delivered because she is killing her own messengers. This doesn’t make sense on the face of it, but by now Buffy must know her ex is watching her—so I’d argue it’s pretty genius.
Once this fight has run its course, she dusts off Xander and they chew over the other great battle looming on their horizon—final exams.
“Becoming” is at once the end of the Angelus Big Bad arc and its own retelling of the whole Buffy story so far. Liam’s death is just the first stop on a little tour of his existence: we see an early Angelus/Drusilla encounter, the moment when a gypsy curse turns him into Angel by restoring his soul, the rat-eating guilt that follows, and we even get to see Buffy’s original calling.
While we’re checking out the flashbacks, the Apocalypse sneaks into Sunnydale. This time it’s in the form of a recently-excavated demon, Acathla, who is literally a hellmouth—he has it in him to open wide and suck the whole world into a land of yuck and torment.
But wait, there’s more! Kendra’s Watcher, always one to sit on the sidelines, checks his TV Guide, sees that the finale is on, and deduces that a dark power is rising in Sunnydale. He sends Kendra to California to pitch in where she can.
Things don’t get really juicy, though, until Willow and Buffy find Jenny Calendar’s back-up copy of a spell that could restore Angel.
(Do you see how important it is that you back up your files? Go, go now! This can wait!)
Finding the spell triggers an epic Scooby argument, one that pretty much exposes everyone’s open wounds over the loss of Angel and the murder of Jenny. Nothing gets settled—the whole group walks up to a big chasm of furious hate and ’no way will we ever agree on this!’ Then they all, just barely, dial it down. From blow-up to back-off, it is a stunningly realistic family fight.
Willow’s eager and willing to try the spell, though, and after a well-deserved mope over Angel’s Claddagh ring, Buffy signs on. The tactical rationale is that Angelus has by now stolen Acathla, and is sure to try to wake him up. Angel, being all good and stuff, won’t do that. I’d call this a reasonably tidy plan to save the world.
Angelus, sadly, hasn’t waited around for defeat or his soul to come knocking. He’s already tried to wake the big hellsucker, and failed, and figured out that he needs an outside consultant. So he sends Buffy a message, making a date for the big show-down he’s been avoiding all this time, and while she’s diverted he sends Dru and his crew after Giles. Chaos ensues. Cordy gets away, and Xander gets his arm busted. Willow is crushed by a shelf full of books and nobody notices they forgot to invite Oz...
(Hey, Team Buffy—should you maybe consider reinforcing the library door?)
...and Dru kills Kendra.
I feel as though I didn’t appreciate Kendra until she was gone. Seeing her on this rewatch, at least, I realized how much I’d liked her. It wasn’t just who she was—though Bianca Lawson is very appealing. I suspect I just plain liked that Buffy wasn’t so entirely alone in the world, and that she’d got something good out of dying at the Master’s hands. Anyway, it was a surprise when Kendra turned up, and a jolt when she died.
It’s an emotional blow for Buffy, too, but it’s also an enormous problem. Kendra’s death turns her into a fugitive from justice and gets her expelled from school.
With her friends dead, scattered or comatose and her Watcher vamp-napped, the unperson who steps up to help out with the stopping Angelus mission turns out, weirdly and oh so wonderfully, to be Spike.
Buffy takes Spike home, where they run smack into one deeply worried Mom figure. Before they can work up any kind of a decent lie to cover her secret identity—you gotta give Buffy credit for trying out the ’I’m in a band’ riff, but no—a vampire shows up and they kill him.
Buffy’s coming out scene with Joyce was painful to watch and I never really forgave Joyce for her entirely human freakout. I get that she has every reason to overreact—the cops have told her Buffy killed Kendra, she’s just seen a vampire attack end in a puff of dust, and her daughter’s yanked the blinders off a truth that—as you’ve all noted in comments on other BtVS rewatches—Joyce has been hiding from all this time. Somehow, though, I never quite get past that moment of ’if you go, don’t come back’ that wraps up this fight. This possibly says more about me than it does about either of the Summers women, or this particular script. But Joyce. Boo! Big parent demerits for you!
The upshot is Buffy is no longer merely wanted for murder, booted out of school, and unhappily single—she’s homeless, too.
“Becoming” has so many fantastic bits, big and small, it’s impossible to call them all out. Here’s some biggies: Whistler, the demon who should have been Doyle, calling Angel Stink Guy. Xander, pouring his heart out to unconscious Willow, and her reply as she wakes up. Spike and Joyce in the Summers living room. Willow working the soul-restoring mojo, taking a crucial early step on the road to becoming an Evil Avenging Mystic Lesbian of Death™! Giles nobly resisting Angelus until Spike saves the day by getting Dru to psychic him out (Hi, Robia LaMorte, I missed you too!)
Add your favorites to the list, folks—we all have this two-parter committed to memory, right?
Finally and most importantly, there’s Xander’s little black lie. Willow sends him to tell Buffy to stall Angelus, in case she can restore Liam’s soul. He decides, basically: screw that.
This decision of Xander’s was, arguably, the least heroic thing he did in all seven years of the BtVS run. It was a source of fannish speculation for years afterward. The intrawebs were rife with predictions about how and when that decision would come back to haunt him. Surely Buffy would find out, and fireworks would ensue. But though the truth all but came out, once, it never really directly cost him.
In “Becoming,” Xander gets away with sitting judgment on Angelus for Jenny’s murder. In a sense it is he who sends Angel to do the hundred years of penance in the Acathla Hell. That he chooses to punish Buffy a little too, by making her the instrument of Angel’s punishment, is certainly no accident. How wrong you think this is, though, is up to you.
Angelus the demon certainly deserved a time-out in the hot place. He was the big bad who made the fight against evil personal, who went out of his way to take away everything Buffy valued. Subsequent villains left their mark on her, to be sure, but I’m not sure anyone hurt her as badly.
Whatever you think of Xander’s choice, when it finally becomes time to deal with Angelus, the Slayer rises to the occasion.
And what an occasion it is! The swordfight choreography is breathtaking, and the dispatch of Angel is a gorgeous, understated echo of Darla’s original murder of Liam. We see the trust again. Like Darla, Buffy tells him to close his eyes before she strikes.
The real person who “becomes” in this finale is, naturally, Buffy herself. In killing Angel she embraces the sucky part of grownuphood that is about doing things you have to, like them or not. It’s not just that she chooses the world over her doomed love—how can she not?—it’s how clear-eyed she is about it. This isn’t Liam, agreeing to something he doesn’t understand. It’s not Xander’s revenge-driven, manipulative, and yet not entirely unjust lie. It’s just this terrible thing that’s got to happen, no matter the cost. It’s one of the most eloquent sacrifices on TV.
Whew! As the Mutant Enemy monster says, I need a hug now.
A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — 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.”