Throwback Thursday, a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from over the years.
When I first decided to participate in Throwback Thursday, I chose Buffy's Becoming Part 2 largely because it is my favorite episode but also because I had already posted a review of Supernatural's What Is and What Should Never Be. The more I thought about it though, the more I saw similarities in these two. Therefore this is more review than my usual recap. If you are interested in those, you can find the Buffy - Becoming Part II recap here
and the Supernatural - WIaWSNB review here
. Instead this is my love letter to 2 episodes I will never forget. In many ways they are direct opposites. Buffy's is a mytharc heavy season finale, while SPN's is a standalone episode that takes a break from the heavy mytharc that follows. Buffy pulls at me from a great well of sadness but SPN gives me a rare moment of joy in a bleak world. Buffy is grounded in oppressive reality while SPN takes a playful what-if tone. Still, at the core they are fundamentally the same. Two reluctant heroes sacrifice of themselves to save a world that never really appreciates them. They turn their back on their dreams and step up to make the hard choices that all true heroes have to make. It also helps that they focus on two of my favorite characters. Buffy is the role model of what teen characters should be while Dean Winchester is my favorite TV character of all time.
Often people are shocked to find that these 2 are my favorite TV episodes. I'm known as a plot-driven, adrenaline-loving TV viewer with little patience for the emoangst of contrived or unearned drama and a staunch anti-shipping attitude. So Becoming Part 2 and What Is a What Should Never Be don't fit my normal pattern. In fact, it is what I typically dislike most in today's TV that drives my devotion to these two. I will readily admit that they may not be the most tightly constructed episodes ever aired and they may not have the crispest dialogue in parts, but both did something much harder in the entertainment world. They yanked tightly on my cynical heartstrings and would not let go. I watch TV to be entertained and both Buffy and Supernatural excelled at that for awhile. Still I will never forget the first time I watched these two episodes in particular because I was emotionally spent afterwards, exhausted in the bliss of knowing I had just gone through 42 minutes of intense, cathartic adventure with these characters and none of us were going to view the world in quite the same way again. Simply put, both of these episodes earn their drama through the slow buildup of their characters and it makes for compelling TV.
The Synopsis: (includes spoilers and the ending)
- Buffy is a vampire slayer. Angel is a vampire with a soul. They slept together so Angel lost his soul and reverted back to Angelus, a vampire bent on destroying the world. He finds the demon Acathla and tries to awaken him to literally suck the world into hell. He kidnaps Giles, Buffy's mentor, to help him do that and Kendra, another slayer, is killed during the fight. The police find Buffy kneeling over Kendra's body and now she's on the run, wanted as a murder suspect. She allies with Spike, a long-time enemy, to take Angelus down and inadvertently her mom sees them kill a vampire, ending her secret identity. Her mom doesn't take the news well and Buffy ends up kicked out. The principal also expels her after she returns to the crime scene to get the sword that can kill Angelus. Let's just say her day sucks. Learning that only Angel's blood can open and close Acathla, she goes to fight him unaware that her best friend, Willow, is preparing a spell to get Angel's soul back - mostly because Xander, her other best friend, doesn't tell her. Xander rescues Giles, Spike flees with Drusilla, and Buffy and Angelus begin an epic sword fight in one of the best action sequences of the show. Just when it looks like Angelus has beaten her, Buffy summons her inner strength and the battle ensues. She takes Angelus down and is about to strike him when Willow's spell works. Angel is back, confused but concerned as always about Buffy. They hug but as Buffy opens her eyes, she sees that Acathla has awakened and is creating a vortex to suck in the world. She realizes that to save the world, she must kill the man she loves. Telling him to close his eyes, Buffy stabs him in the chest and as he is being sucked into the closing vortex he holds out his hand to her, calling his name. She breaks down as he disappears. Having lost her love, school, and home in one day, she decides to leave Sunnydale and the life she made there.
- In Illinois, Sam researches a djinn while Dean tracks it to an abandoned warehouse, where it blue lights him. He wakes in an alternate reality where he lives with a woman named Carmen, his mom and Jessica never died, and Sam and he don't get along. At first Dean thinks his unspoken wish was granted and he experiences the kind of life he'd have lead if demons never attacked his family. It's the second chance he's been secretly hoping for since he was a kid. Dean has never been so happy nor has Supernatural been so light, almost painfully bright. Things are not perfect, especially with Sam, but he believes he can fix that. And then the other shoe drops. First Dean sees visions of a girl obviously dying. Then he realizes that by not becoming a hunter, all the people they saved over the years died. He's stuck between staying in the life where Sam and he can be happy or killing the djinn so things return to normal. In a pinnacle scene, Dean stands at John's tombstone asking why they always have to sacrifice themselves for others. Still, he's a Winchester and Winchesters sacrifice so he heads home to find a silver knife. Awakening Sam, in a play straight out of the pilot, Dean says he's stealing Mary's silverware to pay off a bookie and asks Sam to tell her that he loves her. A suspicious Sam gets into the Impala and refuses to let Dean do anything stupid alone. Dean's impressed and the brothers drive off until Sam finds out why and thinks Dean is crazy. Dean throws his phone out the window and they drive to Illinois where Sam learns the truth. In a big twist, Dean does as well. This fantasy world is all in his head. He's slowly dying in the warehouse instead. While fake Sam, Jessica, Carmen, and Mary try to convince him to stay anyway, Dean ultimately stabs himself awake. Real Sam finds him and they kill the djinn together before rescuing the girl Dean saw. In the motel later, Dean laments their lives but Sam says what they do is important and cements their brotherly bond.
To be honest, Buffy and Sam Winchester are more alike than Dean. They both want a normal life, but circumstances have forced them into the supernatural world. They both have supernatural gifts as well. However, as the gravesite scene here shows, Dean is less and less okay with hunting. Ever since his dad told him that he may have to kill Sam, Dean has questioned the life they live. He's not reluctant to kill evil but he is reluctant to have evil play out in his brother's life. He will protect Sam at all costs. All three have a penchant for saving the world…a lot, even if it comes at a high personal price, even if it demands the ultimate price. Let's face it. They've all died a lot too.
Still they are not alone. Dean and Sam have each other, forming the foundation of the whole series. While they occasionally get help from Bobby, Ellen, Ash, and Jo, it is for all intents and purposes them against the world. In this episode, Dean is largely on his own given that he is stuck in his own headspace. One of my favorite moments though is when Hallucination Sam refuses to let Dean go on his own just like Real Sam. It's a nice nod to the fact that (up to this point) the brothers may not always agree but they do always have each other's backs. It also shows at Real Sam's relief to finally find Dean in the djinn's lair and his worry when he doesn't know if Dean's alive. The Winchesters may not have much but they do have each other.
Buffy has the Scooby Gang. I love that while she is the Chosen One, she's not some Boy King character where only she can rescue and save. In fact, she wouldn't be alive without the help of her family and friends. It makes the role much richer and the character less annoying. It also makes her vulnerable. In the previous episode, Angelus knows her weakness and lures her away from her friends so that he can get Giles. Bad move. Attacking Xander, rendering Willow unconscious, taking Giles, and killing Kendra is the push Buffy needs to end things once and for all. Buffy may be the slayer but the Scooby Gang is her motivation. This episode also focuses heavily on her relationship with her mother. Joyce, having been in the dark for years, now refuses to accept her daughter's destiny and it tears the two of them apart. This, in turn, makes it easier for Buffy to walk out of her own life.
In Buffy, the sacrifice is evident. With the exception of her friends, Buffy has lost everything dear to her because of slaying. She lost her popularity and possibly her father with the stress that came in learning she was the slayer. She lost her innocence of evil and her carefree, somewhat spoiled, lifestyle as well. She even lost her life. In Becoming Part 2, what she loses most is her hope and willingness to keep going. Life has finally beaten her down and she wants to disappear. Slaying only takes and takes. One by one the things she still has in her life are stripped away. She's wanted by the police for murder, expelled from school, and her own mother tells her not to come back. She thinks nothing more can be taken from her but fate is cruel as she is forced to kill the man she loves. It would be bad enough to lose him through a villain or accident, but to have to do it herself is the biggest sacrifice of all. In that sword thrust, Angel may have gone to hell but Buffy also lost herself.
People tend to debate Dean's sacrifice in WiaWSNB, but for me it is a very real choice - one that comes into play in the very next episode. Yes, this world in which his mother never died is a fantasy and yes, staying would cause Dean himself to die in the real world. However, they clearly state that it would feel like an lifetime to Dean, a full life, maybe with kids, lived out in its entirety in his mind. He glimpses what joy feels like, not just for him but for the people he loves more than himself. To give it up means not seeing Sammy marry. To give it up means never getting to know his mother. In a very real sense, Dean experiences life outside of hunting for the first time and the chance to have that normal life Sam always craved. By giving it up for the real world full of death, uncertainty, sorrow and their father's threat hanging over him, Dean sacrifices a bit of himself. It's the part full of hope for a future instead of dying at the hands of evil. It's the part he ruthlessly shoves down through alcohol, sex, and violence - the part he rarely lets anyone see.
The Emotional Pull:
- Obviously the biggest emotional moment was Buffy killing Angel, but it wasn't the only one. Second in intensity was the conflict between Buffy and Joyce. For Joyce, it's the shock of realizing her daughter has a secret identity she didn't know or didn’t want to know about. She has to face the truth of supernatural creatures in the same moment she learns her daughter has been fighting them all along. When Buffy mentions how dangerous her job is, it is the final straw for Joyce. No one wants their child in harm's way and when Buffy starts to leave, Joyce utters an ultimatum very uncharacteristic of her and it ends up driving her daughter away at the exact time she needs Joyce the most. For Buffy, she finally tells her mom her big secret and her worst nightmare comes true. She feels like Joyce is rejecting her and it causes her to lash out harshly with certain truths instead of finding a more tactful way. It's the culminating moment of all her frustrations and anger at the life she's been forced into and it can't come at a worse time. On a happier note, Xander also gets a key scene at Willow's bedside. His pleas for her to wake up because without her he has no one to study with or talk about the day's events with were heartfelt and compelling. In truth, I like this speech a whole lot better than the broken yellow crayon one he gave to Dark Willow. Over the years it felt like Xander's friendship with Willow got shafted for her one with Buffy so this scene always holds a special place in my heart. Lastly, Giles scores a heartfelt moment with a Jenny hallucination. More and more I feel that killing Jenny off was a mistake, especially since there was no closure. It felt like they reconciled Giles and her just to make her death more of a punch, but she had so many things to add to the story in her own right. Therefore, the look on Giles' face when he sees her is heartbreaking not just from his standpoint but from mine too. I missed you, Jenny Calendar.
- The big emotional scene of WIaWSNB is also the scene I like least. Dean emoangsting over John's grave only makes me want to Gibbs' slap his dad even more. Good thing there are plenty of subtle and tender moments to choose from. For me, the single best emotional moment is when Mary cups Dean's face to tell him goodnight and he leans into her touch just a heartbeat more. The sheer longing on his face, the number of times he must have dreamt of this, breaks my heart. In 3 minutes he goes from a kick butt warrior to the 4 year old whose mother cut the crusts off his bread and sang him Hey Jude
when he went to bed. There's a vulnerability shining on his face that the guarded man of tragedy rarely lets show. It's also there when Mary first opens the door. He wants to believe that his wish came true, yearns for it, but at the same time his past experiences won't let him believe anything that good could happen to him. It's not until he verifies she is Mary that he can relax enough to hug his own mom. Even a hardhearted cynic like myself can't help but want this for him too. Sam comes through in a big way also. When Dean sees the girl and frantically tells her that he's got her, Sam realizes this ordeal went well past normal case issues for Dean. Later in the motel room, he soft voices Dean and reassures him that what they do is important and that they matter. Again Dean is vulnerable and watching Sam take care of Dean in this way drives home how much they mean to each other. It's Sam taking care of Dean the best way he knows how and it's beautiful, even if Dean's "woe is me" attitude becomes tainted by future seasons.
1. Spike: "The truth is I like this world. You've got dog racing, Manchester United, and you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's alright here."
2. Angelus: "So that's everything, huh? No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away and what's left?" Buffy: "Me."
3. Angelus: "Since when did you become so levelheaded?" Spike: "Right about the time you became so pigheaded. You have your way with him, you'll never get to destroy the world and I don't fancy spending the next month trying to get librarian out of the carpet."
4. Buffy: "Open your eyes mom. What do you think has been going on for the past 2 years? The fights, the weird occurrences. How many times have you washed blood out of my clothing and you still haven't figured it out?" Joyce: "Well it stops now." Buffy: "No, it doesn't stop. It never stops. Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is, how dangerous? I would love to be upstairs watching TV or gossiping about boys or God, even studying, but I have to save the world. Again."
5. Buffy: "Let me clear this up for you. We're mortal enemies. We don't get timeouts." Spike: "You want to go a round, pet, I'll have a gay old time of it. You want to stop Angel, we're going to have to play this a bit differently."
1. Dean: "This is dangerous and you could get hurt." Sam: "Yeah and so could you, Dean." Dean: "Sam…" Sam: "Look whatever stupid thing you're about to do, you're not doing it alone and that's that." Dean: "I don't understand. Why are you doing this?" Sam: "Because you're still my brother."
2. Dean: "Well…uh, the djinn. It attacked me." Sam: "The gin? You're drinking gin?"
3. Dean: "B**." Sam: "What are you calling me a b** for?" Dean: "You're supposed to say jerk."
4. Dean: "Aww Aunty Em, there's no place like home." Sam: "Thank God. I thought I lost you for a second." Dean: "You almost did."
5. Dean: "This isn't gonna make a lick of sense to you, but I kind of feel like I've been given a second chance and I don't want to waste it."
In both episodes, music played a vital part in key scenes. In fact, it helped make these scenes as powerful as they are.
1. Close Your Eyes (Buffy/Angel theme) was written by Christophe Beck, who also composed for Frozen and another zillion other shows and movies. It is one of my favorite pieces of instrumental music and perfect for the scene where Angel is restored and Buffy has to kill him. The bittersweet mood is captured in the slow, almost dirge-like pace and undertones and yet there are moments of beauty and light that run throughout. It's the musical equivalent of nostalgia before the dramatic swell and fadeout. Just stunning. Check it out here.
2. What a Wonderful World by the Ramones. This is such a good song-to-scene choice. Dean relishes doing the simple things like mowing the lawn and eating a sandwich his mom made him, things he has been deprived of his whole life. The tone and lighting are brighter than any in Supernatural's history so a rocking feel good song is just what's needed to sell the scene. Again perfection.
3. Full of Grace by Sarah MacLachlan. If ever there was a song that encompasses the weight of the world and desperation, this one does. And it does so beautifully. The lyrics fit exactly how Buffy feels at the end, pulled under by darkness and needing to let go of it all in order to find some solid ground.
Becoming Part 2 jumpstarts many future storylines. It, of course, introduces the Mayor as the Big Bad of season 3. More importantly, it kick starts Willow as a full-fledged witch with extraordinary powers. While I wasn't a fan of dumping her computer nerd status, it did change her whole character and became a major part of the show. Spike's betrayal has similar consequences including the disastrous decision to make him a good guy. He was the most fun, snarky villain of all until they had to go and redeem him. Killing off Kendra also allows for the introduction of Faith, a strong fan favorite. Sadly this episode also foreshadowed Xander and Willow getting together briefly and all the emoangsting that followed.
The djinn in WIaWSNB may be the coolest looking villain ever. I love all its tattoos and the blue hand glow rocked. Plus a villain that kills you by giving you exactly what you want has a more diabolical turn than most. This is also the episode where the Impala license plate changes to CNK 80Q3, and yes, in the Supernatural fandom that means something. :-P Plus this is the second time we see Dean not wearing the amulet. The first is when the shapeshifter stole it in Skin. It's also the third time we see Mary after the Pilot and Home and the third time we see Jessica after the Pilot and Bloody Mary. Both women, though dead, will come back periodically throughout the first 6 seasons.
- Season two of Buffy is one of my favorite TV seasons of all time. There are 1 or 2 duds, but overall the whole season was fantastic and having Angelus as the Big Bad was inspired. It made things personal and rocked Buffy to her core. Then to end it like this. I have never felt such loss for a TV character in my life and it is this powerful acting scene that makes Becoming II my favorite episode of TV. The sheer desolation is a physical force that still moves me even though I know how it ends. I will never forget how visceral this episode was when I first watched. It's the first time TV ever truly moved me, although it wasn't the last, and as such it is seared into my memory. Yes, some things don't stand the test of time and quite frankly I don't think it would be as powerful to anyone who didn't see it in the 90's. Nowadays every supernatural show has sympathetic "monsters" and there is far too much supernatural romance tragedy on for this to make much of a punch. But back then, it was a new thought first made popular by Anne Rice and perfected in the Buffy and Angel saga. Still the episode goes well beyond a supernatural romance. By systematically stripping Buffy down throughout these episodes, by taking away her school and mom and even her hope, they leave her with nothing but herself to cling to and when she tells Angelus that she still has herself left, it is an enormous stand for girl power. One that I still applaud today. There may be tons of teenage female heroes now but Buffy really began that on TV, leaving a legacy for some of my favorite characters to come. I saw her in Veronica Mars. I see her in Clarke on The 100. I see her in Katniss of The Hunger Games. I even see her in Harry Potter. In fact, I see shades of Buffy everywhere and for that I am grateful. Buffy changed the TV landscape more than I realized at the time and gave us a girl we could believe in that helped us believe in ourselves. She didn't just kick butt. She could be powerful and vulnerable. She could, when necessary, take down evil on her own, but she also needed her friends to help ground her and make that fight worthwhile. She sacrificed nobly but that sacrifice took its toll on her and in the end, her sorrow became ours. That's what makes this episode so powerful.
- Like Buffy, the second season is my favorite of Supernatural. It intensifies the mytharc, has some great standalones, and most importantly it stays about the brothers before the story got too big, too epic, and too filled with other characters. It also encompasses a nostalgic time for me as a viewer before the fandom took over. Still What Is and What Should Never Be is light on the action I crave. So why do I love best an admittedly emotional and sometimes emoangsty episode when I typically prefer to avoid those? I guess the short answer is because it's the one episode in which the Winchesters are happy. In a season of wild emotional rides, the writers finally give the brothers a free pass to feel joy for a moment and with that they give us, the fans, a pass to be happy with them. It may not have been real. It may have come with consequences, but they enjoyed life without worrying about something killing them. They felt hope for the future and a life beyond their reality. For me, it was a needed break before the incredibly depressing saga of Sam's first death. While I love the humor of Supernatural, it is usually gallows humor. Something to get through the depression and the fear and the loneliness. It makes me laugh, but I don't feel better about their lives. This episode is my respite and instead of getting tired of an episode I have watched more times than I can count, it actually grows more powerful the longer Supernatural is on the air. It got me through the emoangsting of season 4, the angel overload of season 5, the ever annoying Cas saga of season 6, the Amy issues and lack of Baby in season 7, and has been my solid rock in the Carver years. Whenever contrived drama and yet another round of brother fighting gets me down, I turn to this episode and it restores my faith in the Winchesters. It's my ultimate TV comfort food and I will forever be grateful to Raelle Tucker for penning it.
Screencaps by A Hell of a Woman
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