“Unless Hell freezes over and every vamp in Sunnydale puts in for early retirement, I’d say my future is pretty much a non-issue.”
Season 2 of Buffy seems to be much admired by fans and critics for its darker tone and dramatic choices. Things that are not exactly my cup of tea. But I enjoy the way in which you can see the acting and line delivery improving on season 1. The actors are familiar with their characters and therefore more at ease when it comes to the dialogue. Added to that, Armin Shimerman is a bit of an MVP in the short appearances that he has, and Cordelia grows into her own interesting side-character.
Still, the season has a rocky start. Having Buffy suffer from PTSD in episode 1 is a decision that gets the writers, the director, and Sarah Michelle Gellar into trouble as they have no idea how to adequately portray this within a 40-minute show. Things pick up from here with stand-alone-episodes, and the characters of Spike & Drusilla are introduced: Drusilla gives the show a wonderfully Gothic touch that it probably needed at this point and that in one way or another carries through to the end of the season.
The show, especially the stand-alone episodes, feature well-known genre topics, like witchcraft, robots, werewolves, mutants, mummies, demonic possession, love potions, and a Frankenstein theme – all with a nod to the tropes. Episode 4 (“Inca Mummy Girl”) does give Nic Brendon another chance at a lot of great solo acting (as does episode 16), and it also allows for a brief appearance by Gil Birmingham (Twilight).
While the first four episodes are already somewhat dark in tone, things get even darker from here on out. Episode 5 (“Reptile Boy”) is a criticism of fraternities, and the rape allegory is even more pronounced than in episodes 1×01 and 1×02. The main theme of episode 7 (“Lie to Me”) are the disappointments one encounters as one grows up.
Season 2 also tries to flesh out the Giles character a bit more. Firstly by trying to give him a love interest in Miss Calendar – something with I did not care about too much – but also by giving him a back-story that is more “colourful” than you’d expect. This is first hinted at in episode 6 (“Halloween”), but fully played out in episode 8 (“The Dark Age”), complete with a drug allegory.
This season also delves much more into Buffy’s “fate” of being the Chosen One. Season 1 was more concentrating on the point that she had no say in the matter and that she has a lot of responsibilities and duties to shoulder while trying to balance school and life as well. Season 2 more explicitly hammers home the point that her fate also means that she has to put her own needs and interests second and has to be willing to make huge sacrifices. School tests and “career day” emphasise that – while her schoolmates will be able to make choices and try different things in life – Buffy will simple continue to be the Slayer until her (probably early and violent) death. It is at this point, near the middle of the season that Buffy runs into another vampire slayer; something that is unlikely on a cosmic scale and simply not meant to happen. It allows her to compare notes and puts her life into perspective. But it also means that she glimpses the prospect of making a choice for herself, of walking away and leaving the fate of the world in the hands of that other Slayer.
While this season is much darker, more Gothic, and more concentrate on Buffy’s sacrifices, the show’s general highschool-drama and growing-up angles are not neglected. There is a parent-teacher conference, sibling rivalry, a critique of the sport-star cult in the US education system, as well as themes revolving around sexuality and relationships. Buffy also has to face up to the fact that her mother has started dating again. And as for “growing-up”, there is a lot of that throughout the entire season, as far as Buffy is concerned. If you watch season 1 and then compare that to the first episode of season 3, you realise how much the character has matured. The following exchange between Buffy and Giles, at a new personal low-point for Buffy in episode 2×07, sums up this major theme of season 2:
B: Nothing's ever simple anymore. I'm constantly trying to work it out. Who to love or hate; who to trust. It's just like the more I know the more confused I get. G: I believe that's called growing up. [...] B: Does it ever get easy? [...] G: You mean life? B: Yeah. Does it get easy? G: What do you want me to say? B: Lie to me.
As I said, the core cast are growing more into their characters and are thus able to further improve their performances. Episodes involving spells, mutations, possessions, etc., give the actors opportunities to play characters different from their usual characters, which must be a nice bit of variety in an otherwise exhausting 22-episode-shoot regimen.
While not series regulars, James Marsters (Spike) and Juliet Landau (Drusilla) are a welcome addition to the show, playing their colourful characters with ease. Which turns into a problem at times, when Marsters’s performance makes other actors in the scene look bad.
Another addition to the show is Oz (Seth Green), who is introduced as a semi-regular character, also providing further nuances in tone, humour, and dynamics.
There are a number of small cameo performances by veteran character actors – such as Richard Herd – and by actors who would go on to star in bigger roles later in their career, like Willie Garson (White Collar), Wentworth Miller (Prison Break), Conchata Ferrell (Two and a Half Men), Jarrad Paul (Monk), and the aforementioned Gil Birmingham.
The undisputed highlight of the season is the appearance by the late John Ritter as the new boy-friend of Buffy’s mom. While a lesser actor might have seen this as just another pay check, Ritter gives an outstanding performance in an interesting and difficult role.
As with season 1, the make-up, sets, props, and cinematography are not bad, but nothing to shout about. But the season’s darker, more Gothic tone allows the musical department to throw in an impressive score or two.
As I said, season 2 is a fan-favourite. But because of my own tastes and preferences, I rate this season at 6.5 to 7.0 out of 10.