For the past week, the web has been awash in thinkpieces about Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the series that debuted 20 years ago and changed the course of American television forever. That is not an exaggeration.
Buffy was one of the first shows to commit to season-long story arcs, with every episode containing its own adventure while being housed within a larger succession of chapters that led to stunning season finales. It was also a pioneer in its exploration of genre. Buffy Summers was a fabled fighter of dark, supernatural forces, but she was also a teenager. Her show was just as full of awkward romances and memorable witticisms as it was with stabby-stabby action sequences. And, of course, Buffy as a show was uniquely feminist, launching a tradition of badass warrior women that continues to dominate entertainment to this day.
Being a little before my time, Buffy didn’t really enter my cultural consciousness until my freshman year of college, when my best friend forced me to watch an episode with her. The following summer, I blazed through the entire series in a number of weeks, and have probably watched all seven seasons at least three times through. I am not proud, but I’m also not super ashamed, either.
So for the next week, to celebrate 20 years of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Critical Mess is going to join the worldwide party of Buffy appreciation. Plenty of people are talking about the episodes that boosted the show’s acclaim. The Season 2 finale “Becoming,” “Hush,” “Once More With Feeling” — these are all the best episodes, but they are not my favorite episodes. Every 42-minute segment is as deserving of critical attention as the popular ones (except for, perhaps, most of Season 1, when the show was still trying on a bunch of weird outfits).
For My Favorite Patrols, Part 1, I’ll rewatch “Passion,” the 17th episode of Season 2, and give it a more critical eye than I’ve done in viewings previous. To put the chapter into context: Buffy and Angel slept together a few episodes back, a night of carnal bliss that resulted in the loss of Angel’s soul. Now the fully evil Angelus terrorizes Buffy and her friends, while they struggle to find a way to revert him to his previous, tortured-but-nice self. “Passion” sees that struggle mount in tension and consequences, as it explores the ways certain characters are ruled by their passions, and looks even harder at the way those passions (usually of men) are visited on the undeserving and the helpless (usually women). It is a deft commentary on abuse, victim blaming, and female camaraderie — and it takes viewers for a much darker turn than previous episodes might have led them to expect.
We open on slow-motion shots of Buffy dancing with her friends, her head thrown back in a rare moment of carefree enjoyment. Angelus, the evil, soulless version of Angel lurks, by the wall, watching. In voiceover, Angelus delivers a monologue about passion, which “lies in all of us, sleeping, waiting.” Later, Angelus lurks again, this time over Buffy’s bed while she sleeps. We are acutely aware of just how fragile Buffy’s sense of security is. The voiceover continues: “Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have?”
(CUT TO: Opening Credits. Lauren rocks out to Nerfherder’s immortal theme song.)
The next day, Buffy talks her situation over with Giles. She’s worried for the safety of her mother, and the ever-so-British Giles urges her to keep a level head. “I know how hard this is for you,” he says, as the cameras switch to close-ups.
Cut to Buffy, who narrows her eyes, urging him to revise his last statement. He does not, as she recently point out, have an evil vampire stalking him, harassing him, and lurking in his bedroom while he sleeps. He could not possibly know how hard it is for her.
“So what you’re basically saying is, just ignore him and maybe he’ll go away?” Buffy asks, crumpling under the hopelessness of the notion. This is a dialogue countless women have had with men who cannot understand the stress and fear of living with constant harassment, or its more insidious cousins, stalking and emotional terrorization. This is the kind of stress that women can deal with daily, and which is impossible to ignore because (as is dramatically enacted in Buffy) it can become fatal.
Later, Willow echoes Giles and encourages Buffy over the phone not to let Angelus’ stalking get to her. “I swear, men can be such jerks sometimes,” she sighs, “dead or alive.” It’s another picture of low-stakes adolescence, as Willow paces her room in her pajamas, phone sandwiched between her ear and her shoulder. But she turns around to find an envelope on her bed — one that wasn’t there earlier — and in mounting horror pulls out the dead bodies of her pet fish, all strung up neatly on a line.
In the next shot, Willow and Buffy are both sitting tensely on Buffy’s bed. They talk over their fear and the weirdness of the situation — both in pastel PJs — while a string of garlic cloves hangs casually from the headrest between them. Michael Gershman, who directed this episode as well as the acclaimed “Hush,” makes expert work of keeping mundane teen drama and real horror in close proximity. As safe as the heroines may feel, the viewer is aware that danger is only a windowpane away.
At school the next day, a swaggering Xander catches up with Buffy and Willow on their way into class. He asks what they got up to last night, in the sort of casual tone that suggests he, at least, was not terrorized by an obsessed vampire.
“We had kind of a ‘pajama party sleepover with weapons’ thing,” Willow says.
“Oh, and I don’t suppose either of you had the presence of mind to locate a camera to capture the moment?” Xander teases/whines. Buffy half-smiles at this, and Willow doesn’t seem to hear, but it stings the viewer (well, this viewer, at least). This sleepover was occasioned by the girls’ mutual fear for their own lives. For Xander to joke that the sight of his two friends huddled on a shared bed might be of visual interest to him is, at best, callous — fairly judged, though, it’s just as creepy as dead fishes in envelopes.
Angel’s next target is Buffy’s mother, Joyce, for whom he is lying in wait as she pulls into the driveway at night. He is invasive and overbearing, opening her car door, towering over her and standing uncomfortably close while he demands to see Buffy. Joyce fumbles with the keys while Angel presses in on her from behind, and says he hasn’t been able to sleep since he and Buffy made love. This is a revelation that shocks and appalls Joyce, an act of violence in its own right, a retroactive plundering of her daughter. Gratified, Angel continues to bear in on Joyce, but a satisfyingly abrupt force keeps him from following her into the house. He stands dumbfounded at the threshold, only to see Willow and Buffy walk downstairs, Willow reading a Latin incantation to repel him, Buffy staring steely-eyed.
“Sorry, Angel. Changed the locks.” Buffy slams the door in his face.
Domestic violence crosses boundaries and thresholds usually respected in less-enmeshed scenarios. The home, usually a place of safety and rest, is made site and source of a victim’s battering. So when Buffy can turn Angelus away from her home, definitively, it is a crucial reclamation of the space around her, a staking of her camp. The home becomes, once again, a sanctum where she can sleep easy.
Angelus’ final quarry in this episode is Jenny Calendar, a cyber-witch and Giles’ erstwhile love interest, who bears partial responsibility for relieving Angel of his soul. When he finds her, she’s in the middle of translating an ancient Romanian spell that would turn him back into the good Angel that Buffy fell in love with. But Angel doesn’t want his soul back — that was torment. He wants to stay bad and kill people. So he destroys Jenny’s work and snaps her neck in a stairwell. It’s an ugly and sudden murder, and came as a surprise to viewers who had until this point enjoyed a television series of reliable moral rectitude. The good guys lived, the bad guys died — until this episode. Angel doesn’t bother to eat Jenny before he kills her, though. He has other plans for the body.
Back at the Summers residence, Buffy has an uncomfortable debrief with Joyce. She confesses that Angel was her first sexual partner while she stares at the floor and Joyce paces anxiously. “I really wish…” Joyce says at one point, “I just thought you would show more judgment.”
At this point, Buffy gives her the same withering look she gave Giles at the beginning of the episode. Buffy is fortunate in that she knows she’s not to blame for Angel’s reversal of character: it was an ancient Gypsy curse, and not her having sex with him, that turned him into a monster. But Joyce doesn’t know this. All she knows is that her daughter slept with the wrong guy, and is suffering the consequences. Buffy can’t be made to feel guilty for Angel becoming evil, but she can be made to feel ashamed of being a human woman who’s had sex. Joyce, an otherwise supportive mother, piles this shame on top of her.
It is no coincidence that Angelus terrorizes only women throughout the episode. Xander remains untouched, retaining the blissful teenage ignorance that he shared with Buffy in the first shot. Giles, too, enjoys a relative lack of Angel’s attentions — that is, until the end of the episode. Angel is at his cruelest and most elaborate for his terrorization of Giles. He decorates the Watcher’s home to make it look as though Jenny is waiting upstairs, champagne and romantic reconciliation at the ready. But what Giles finds is not a loving Jenny eager to rush into his arms, but her lifeless body sprawled on his bed.
Giles’ heart is broken, but it is Jenny who is dead. It is Jenny who died alone and terrified, at least in part because Angel wanted to threaten him. And though Giles’ pain was Angel’s goal, it is the other women of the episode whose grief Michael Gershman chooses to showcase. Angel watches through the window, creepy as ever, as Buffy hears the news over the phone. Blankly, she hands the phone to Willow, who bursts into tears while Buffy sinks to the floor. These are the women who know what it’s like to be haunted by Angelus, who are just as afraid for themselves as they are horrified at the loss of a friend.
After telling Buffy to grin and bear it for most of the episode, it should come as no surprise that Giles’ immediate reaction to Jenny’s murder is to take swift and foolhardy revenge. He heads straight to the warehouse where Angel and his cohort are camped out, berserking his fury with a crossbow and a flaming torch. However, Giles the British librarian is outmatched by Angelus the powerful vampire, and Buffy must swoop in to rescue him. (This, at least, is a fight she can win.)
“Why did you come here?” Giles snarls once Buffy has taken him to safety. “This wasn’t your fight.” As though she hasn’t long been victim to Angelus’ terrorization this entire time. As though Giles’ suffering was the only one worth repaying. At this point, Buffy gives him a deserving punch to the face.
There is no hopeful or constructive takeaway from this episode. That’s what makes it so exquisitely sad, so numbingly scary. There’s no way, truly, for Buffy to protect herself or her friends from the menace of Angelus. There’s no comfort Giles can take in Jenny’s senseless death. And there’s no path forward, Buffy realizes, but to swallow her feelings and kill Angel, before he takes someone else away from her.
Many say that “Innocence,” the episode where Angel turns into a bad guy while Buffy is still in a post-coital knockout, marks the turning point for the maturation of the series. But I would argue that that was just a prelude, a little teaser for what was to come four episodes later. While a show with the word “slayer” in its title was always going to contain violence, “Passion” deals with a different kind of violence, one that resonates more deeply with viewers, and that Buffy is not specially equipped to combat.
There is something to be said about excessive cruelty towards female characters for the sake of shock value and male character development. But while “Passion” deploys both of these usually lazy tactics, the episode embraces their ramifications rather than blowing over them. We witness Jenny’s death and hold our breath while she tries to run from it: Giles’ discovery of her body is an afterthought to this, not the main event. And the scenes where Buffy, Willow and Joyce talk through their experiences overshadow the experiences themselves. The episode is not about displays of gendered violence, but a celebration of how the characters deal with it, and at times a condemnation of those who would seek to blame victims for the sake of simplicity.
Another Angel voiceover bookends the episode as he meditates once again on the nature of passion. This is misleading. It asserts that the entire episode was about Giles and Angel, about their passions ruling them for better or worse. But that interpretation does a disservice to Buffy’s squinting, deadened eyes when Giles tells her to just wait patiently while Angel stalks her. It conveniently forgets a sleepover necessitated by terror, and a universally relatable mother-daughter discussion of sex, power, and vulnerability. If the episode purports to explore the passion of men, it reveals a less frequently told story: the effect these passions have on their subjects, on the women who have been learning to survive male passion their whole lives.
P.S. If you want to really hurt yourself the way I did today, give this theme from the episode (rudely titled “Remembering Jenny”) a listen, then head on over to Ed Sheeran’s “Afire Love.” Have a great day!!
For more Buffy-related content, check out the other installments of this series: