Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tor.com

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 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.”


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