The decoy villain phase of BtVS is over. Angelus is firmly established as the big bad secret ingredient of S2, and he’s made a few good cat-and-mouse moves since he lost his soul. He had a minor go at killing Willow in “Innocence” and a more serious one against Xander in “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”… and come up scratch both times.
A thing about TV villains is they lose legitimacy fast if they can’t pull off at least a few real wins. The alleged stone-cold killer who never manages to harm the heroine, or anyone from the core cast… who in fact only ever kills extras, will over time lose their power to impress audiences. How many shows have you seen do this—set up a scary bad guy, only to have him become ridiculous? (Sit down, Spike.)
This brings us to poor Jenny Calendar, and the tragic events of “Passion.”
The episode opens as Angelus shares some Deep Thots on the subject of passion, stalking Buffy through her day to day activity. (I’m not a fan of the voice-over, usually, but this monologue develops beautifully over the course of the episode.) Then he gives Buffy a creepy object lesson in her own vulnerability by watching her sleep and leaving her a pencilled portrait on her pillow.
In response, the Scoobies decide that hmmm, maybe they should do something about Angelus having access to all their homes.
(Also, this leads to the running gag about uninviting Angelus into Cordy’s car. I made such a point of saying Cordy was smart when I wrote about “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered,” and in this episode she’s at her self-centered and one-note worst. Sigh.)
Anyway, Buffy follows this train of thought to its logical conclusion and starts strategizing about ways to protect her mother while keeping her, at Giles’ insistence, in the dark about what’s really up. Jenny starts work on a more permanent solution: restoring the lost spell that’ll bring back Angel.
The early part of “Passion” is taken up with these preliminary moves. It’s almost chess, and Angelus is playing very offensively indeed: he makes a feint at Willow, then tells Joyce about having had sex with Buffy. The Scoobies dig into shoring up their defenses, unaware of Jenny’s plan as she heads off to the magic store (Is it the magic store? The layout looks wrong to me. Also, I love the phrase boogety-boogety store. It might be my favorite Angelus line.) for an Orb of Thessala. It’s a good plan, but Dru’s all over it: she divines what’s up, pretty much immediately. Jenny’s doom is sealed.
What I love in “Passion” is that Buffy shows such an enormous generosity of spirit. She’s under siege: Angelus’s invasions of her room, Willow’s house and the threat against Joyce come bam-bam-bam, one after the other, and despite the enormous distress they cause her, she finds space within her broken heart to clear the way for a reconciliation between Giles and Jenny. It’s more an act of kindness toward her Watcher than to Jenny herself, but even so, it’s incredibly compassionate, isn’t it? Breathtaking.
(And, not surprisingly, this episode comes back ’round, at the end, to the bond between Buffy and Giles.)
What happens, once these early moves are over and the board is set, is what we later came to recognize as a classic Joss Whedon storytelling pattern: split a couple, get them back together, and then—whammo! Bullet to the heart. (Wait, that’s later.)
“Passion” is one of those BtVS episodes that hits so hard that I entirely remember the first time I saw it. The couch I was sitting on, the light in the room, who was there, all of it. I perfectly recall the jolt of shock when Angelus killed Jenny. Killed! Deep down, I’d expected the BtVS writers to play by the standard rulebook of reset-button television shows. Of course Jenny would get away. At worst, she’d maybe have an artfully made-up bruise or two in the following episode. Getting hurt would cement her being taken back into the Scooby fold. Right? And somebody really did have to fix Angelus.
Snap. So much for that!
I could not freakin’ believe it when he broke her neck.
I’m betting you all remember the rest just as clearly as I do. The body display Angelus leaves for Giles. His peeking through the windows of Casa Slayer so he can personally savor Buffy’s reaction to getting the news. Giles’s solo attack on the old factory and the scene at Jenny’s grave, afterward.
If you’re like me, you probably sat there in a cloud of stunned disbelief. Feeling shock, maybe, and genuine loss?
How often does TV truly shock us, or make us grieve?
For me, this was one of those times. It was also the moment when Joss & Company put fans on notice: they weren’t playing around, here in the Buffyverse. Everything was up for grabs.
Brilliant and heartbreaking by turns, “Passion” ends with Buffy and Giles entirely on the same page: Angelus has to go. The episode’s developments dial up the tension on a story arc that was already taut as a bowstring. All that remains now is endgame.
Next week, penultimate moves: “Killed by Death,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and (insert strangled moan here) “Go Fish.”
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.”