Buffy has been to this point quite proven successful at silliness (Halloween and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered); internal legend construction (Angel); alienation (Out of Mind, Out of Sight); twists (What’s My Line Part 1); shock (Angel’s revelation in Angel and his reversion in Innocence, Principal Flutie’s fate in The Pack); sadness (Ford’s graveside in Lie to Me); as well as wit, irony, character development, and of course the trademark dialogue. What it hasn’t really mastered up to now is scariness.
Which is not to say that I haven’t found that specific scenes keep me riveted and anxious: Darla’s opening of the series in Welcome to the Hellmouth; the girl crashing through the frat house window and the subsequent pursuit through the cemetery at the beginning of Reptile Boy; or Drusilla stalking Buffy through her nightmare in the beginning of Surprise. Note that all of these scenes take place opening their respective episodes. Whedon and his showrunners know scary, but they use it mostly as an initial hook to get the viewer to tune in. After shooting their wad before the beginning credits, they’re free to present the show they want, with all of the successful points outlined above. The show is indeed witty, ironic, twisty, and sad, and too much emphasis on horror and terror wouldn’t leave space for those attributes to flourish the way they have.
In Passion, however, fear vaults to the forefront. Angelus burst shockingly into the story with Innocence; since then he has only threatened around the edges of lighter episodes, allowing the series to breathe a bit before diving back into the horror and menace of his character. By leagues he’s the most frightening of all the villains so far, not in appearance or violence, but rather in the perversion of his prior goodness and the savage exploitation of his former status as an insider. The insightful Angel has gotten to know everyone so well; the diabolical Angelus will use every scrap of this experience to inflict irrevocable emotional, almost spiritual agony on those who trusted and loved him.
Angelus has been the villain building silently since the pilot. We’ve already learned his M.O. It’s not like Cordelia flatly reading second-hand accounts of terror from thick, dusty books about The Judge, a failed villain from this season. No, we’ve heard of Angelus over and over, not just from dry library research, but also from Drusilla, who directly experienced the heinous acts, and worst of all, from Angel, who in his soulless state committed them.
Now that’s how to set up a bad guy.
Passion is how to follow through. Jenny Carpenter’s murder comes not only as a shock, but on the second round of viewing, it’s almost more terrifying. I still want to believe there is an escape for her, just up until she’s seized by Angelus at the window. Yet her death only serves as the entrée for Angelus. His masterful event comes with the staging of her body within the elaborate romantic scenario designed to bring Giles to the height of joy and anticipation only to crush him instantly with grief and a trapdoor into the void of permanent loss.
Almost as wicked is Angelus’s pornographic peering at Willow and Buffy as they receive the news on the telephone and collapse into sobs of grief. Here is the heart of his character’s evil. It’s not rampant destruction and taking of life; it’s methodically decimating people through exploiting them at their most human. Angelus doesn’t simply want to take souls. He wants to watch them crumble until there is almost no light in them to extinguish. His art is agony.
Even though I’d seen the episode before, I kept sensing that each of the aforementioned scenes, Giles’ discovery of the body and Angel’s grief-voyeurism, had to be the final one for the episode. Maybe I wished it would just end, or perhaps I figured that the intensity simply couldn’t play out any further. The closing battle at the factory does come as almost obligatory, as pathos gives way to rage, sending Giles and Buffy into an explosion of fury that ignites into a literal blaze subsuming everything around them and resolving nothing.
We now know that Buffy as she was will never completely emerge from the ruins of Passion.
- David Boreanaz excels as Angelus. He’s still had to grow into Angel, but I think he comes out of the wreckage of s2 for the better, no longer stuck brooding about and playing at romanticism. That certain romantic appeal died in Passion.
- Even the comical aspects of Angel no longer seem so pleasing in retrospect. One of my favorite bits from this season was when Buffy seemed incredulous that Angel would know about the high school career fair and demanded to know how he found out about it. “I lurk,” was his laconic response. Now that we’ve seen what Angelus does lurking, like peer through a window to voyeuristically delight in a tremendous grief that he orchestrated, the notion of him biding his time in the shadows loses any humor it once held.
- Drusilla, crazy as ever, moves through the episode clutching a dog she’s named Sunshine – whose owner she has murdered. Even in naming a dog, Drusilla is batshit crazy. Sunshine is one of only a handful of things that could be lethal to her, and she wanders about clutching its namesake.
- We’ve only seen Angelus kill women since his return: the blowsy but kind woman in the alley in the rainstorm at the opening of Innocence, Theresa in Phases, the girl outside The Bronze at the beginning of this episode, even the shopgirl he alludes to murdering for heart, and now Miss Carpenter. What are they telling us about Buffy’s boyfriend and the female sex?