Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Becoming

“Unnghhh, I need a hug,” sniffles the Mutant Enemy monster thing at the end of Becoming.

Not content with piling on the misery in Innocence, Joss Whedon has returned with two loaded cartfuls of the stuff for the big season finale. A lot was expected for Season Two's closing bow – the Angelus, Spike and Drusilla sub-plot needed to be tied up, while telling a good story. Becoming accomplishes both these tasks in fine style, and surpasses all expectations (despite one or two issues). As season finales go, Becoming remains one of the best.

It's also one of the best examples of what I'd call the 'Trash the joint' finale – in other words, make a great big mess for the characters to resolve in the next season. The likes of The Gift, Grave and Tomorrow are good examples of this too, but it's Becoming that arguably causes the biggest plot tidy-up. It's a story that takes each of the core components in Buffy's life away piece by piece. By the end of the story, Buffy has lost her education, her family, her friends and her boyfriend – the latter being the cruellest example (read on). As Angelus taunts Buffy at one point: “Now that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends... No hope.” It will take a lot for Buffy to come back from the heady events of Becoming, and the whole shambles won't be sorted out in just one episode either.

In short, all hell is about to break loose, and not just from a random artefact called Acathla. With the end of the season upon the viewers, Becoming's main premise is typically apocalyptic. Angelus and Drusilla steal an artefact called Acathla which will suck the world into hell. Or as Giles more eloquently puts it: “The Demon Universe exists in a dimension separate from our own. With one breath, Acathla will create a vortex, a-a kind of, um...whirlpool that will pull everything on Earth into that dimension, where any non-demon life will suffer horrible and...eternal torment.”

It's heady stuff – quite what the horrible and eternal torment involves is open to speculation. Possibly it involves thumbscrews, sharp objects and electric chairs. Possibly it involves the looped catalogue of Take That. Just one question though. Why does Angelus want to suck the world into hell? As Spike later points out, it's a pretty stupid plan since it gets rid of walking human snacks. Presumably, Angelus is hoping to sign up for the King Of Pain vacancy in the hell dimension, but he'll be up against some strong competition if The Mayor has his way.

The Acathla subplot, daft as it is, remains the sideshow. Becoming essentially looks at the separate dramas of the main protagonists. Running parallel with Angelus' fiendish scheme is the Scooby Gang's own plan to restore Angel's soul – Angelus' very own idea of hell. The clattering computer disk wasn't just forgotten about at the end of Passion. The scene in which Willow first misses the disk after dropping her pencil and then experiencing deja vu is a brilliant one. “Wow” pretty much sums up the growing realisation that Jenny had stumbled on the cure. Which leads to all sorts of internal dramas between Buffy and her friends.

It's Xander who proves to be the most vindictive: “So this spell might restore Angel's humanity? Well, here's an interesting angle. Who cares?” In Xander's eyes, it's both a case of jealousy and the prospect of finally ridding the world of an evil monster who's destroyed people's lives. “You can paint this any way you want. But the way I see it is that you wanna forget all about Ms. Calendar's murder so you can get your boyfriend back.” One of Xander's traits in the early part of Buffy is that he sees things in black and white, as opposed to looking at all the options (see also Dead Man's Party). In time, his character will mature, but his hatred of Angel proves to contribute to the tragedy at the end, when he declines to tell Buffy about Willow's attempts to re-soul Angel.

The most effective method of showing the “shades of grey” in relation to Angel's condition is the set of flashback sequences in the first half of Becoming. It's a trick that will be used frequently in Angel's spin-off show, but Becoming not only fills in the key events from Angel's timeline, it stands as one of the finest examples of this method of storytelling.

The Buffy and Angel series, from this point on, fill in key back stories, such as Angel's past, and the histories of pivotal players such as Spike and Darla. On that note, it's great to have Julie Benz back, making the most of her cameo as the seductive vampire who offers to show Angel (or Liam) her world. And at home, it's not just this world that we get to see – there's a whole load of world building from the London abbeys of 1860 through to the Romanian woods of 1898 through to 1996 America. Parts of Angel's life are fitted together like jigsaw pieces: His sadistic urging to Drusilla to embrace her dark side. His devastated reaction on gaining a soul and reliving the death and destruction that he dished out like hot stew. Plus, his first tentative steps at achieving some sort of redemption.

Helping Angel along in America is a curiously dressed chap called Whistler. With a penchant for quirky hats and eyeball-destructing jackets, Whistler (demon, naturally) sets about leading Angel on the path of doing good rather than skulking about on the streets eating rats. He also has the patter off to a tee: “Well, yeah, you've been left alone for, what, 90 years already. And what a package you are. The Stink Guy!” It's easy to see why he would have filled the Doyle spot in the Angel spin-off. You could imagine Whistler speaking Doyle's lines, but in the end, he remains a curious one-off – even turning up to help guide Buffy (“I strongly suggest that you get there before that happens, 'cos the faster you kill Angel, the easier it's gonna be on you”).

Easy? This is not a set of episodes that's easy on anyone. Willow ends up in hospital thanks to a vamp ambush which results in the kidnapping of Giles. A brutal fate awaits the Watcher: not only is he tortured by Angelus, he's mind warped by Drusilla, who adopts the guise of Jenny in order to trick him into the secret of how to open Acathla. We've never seen Giles so beaten, physically or mentally – his last, dazed expression as Jenny 'leaves' speaks volumes. Mind you, even in such a state, he still gets to amusingly taunt Angelus: “You must perform the ritual in a tutu... You pillock!”

At least Giles gets to live another day, unlike Kendra making her other appearance this season. Thankfully, Bianca Lawson's toned down the OTT vocal yodelling, and gives a good performance. Kendra's death is a surprise, although it lacks the impact of other Buffy regular deaths such as Tara or Joyce – mainly because Kendra has only been in two stories, so there's not enough time for the audience to invest in her. The sequence is very well shot though, with eerie music, fast close-ups of Drusilla's hypnotic gaze and the casual swipe of Drusilla's nail against Kendra's throat.

It's not an easy one for Drusilla either. The shenanigans between her, Spike and Angelus come to a head here as William The Bloody decides to swap sides, leaving his beloved betrayed and furious. On the up side, at least James Marsters gets some great material here after being relegated to a set of wheels for the past few episodes. As ever, Marsters displays superb comic timing in his uneasy alliance with Buffy. Three notably great examples of Marsters' important contributions to Becoming: The chat about Manchester United and dog racing. The deadpan way in which he describes the Buffy and Spike band to Joyce ( “Drums, yeah. She's, uh, hell on the old skins, you know”). And also his delight at Drusilla killing Kendra (“Dru bagged a Slayer? She didn't tell me! Hey, good for her! Though not from your perspective, I suppose.”).

It's a shame that Marsters and also Juliet Landau depart as semi-regulars in this episode. Fortunately they'll be back in the future, and in the case of Marsters, the Buffy producers clearly recognised the potential of having Spike on the show full-time as a result of Marsters' excellent performances which combine the terror and humour of the character to perfection.

In the end though, Becoming knocks over every part of Buffy's world over like dominoes in a line. She has a big showdown with Joyce, leading to her temporary self-imposed exile. Joyce doesn't come off too well here, although in fairness, any normal mother would have trouble processing the fact that her daughter's the Slayer. “Well, I just don't accept that!” she pompously huffs at Buffy, before demanding that it stops now, as if Buffy's been skipping classes at school. While Joyce demonstrates considerable skill as a mother, she doesn't half bury her head in the sand. All the weird goings-on have resulted in bizarre brush-offs such as handy toasting forks. This will all come to a head in the early part of the next season, but it's still hard not to feel sorry for Joyce at the end of Becoming when she breaks down while reading Buffy's goodbye note.

Having just left home, Buffy's next port of exit call is the school. Snyder almost does a happy dance while expelling Buffy, although it's unlikely that any school board would agree with him that he has grounds for getting rid of her. It does lead to the great line: “You never got a date in high school, did you?” to which Snyder almost babbles: “Your point being?” By now, Buffy's too much focused on the bigger picture to bother with trivialities such as school – but there's one important last bit of heartbreak awaiting her.

The final sting in the tail comes as Acathla opens his big gob and Angel finally returns. Willow succeeds in casting the spell (the first indication that she's about to get in too deep with this magic lark), but it causes more trouble than it's worth. Since Acathla can only be closed with Angel's blood, Buffy has no option but to send him into hell. It's a superb sequence in that it's perfectly plotted with typical viciousness (happy endings can never be expected on this show) and also perfectly acted by David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Boreanaz has come on leaps and bounds as Angelus and Angel. There's a big difference between the sadistic evil of Angelus and the dazed, confused Angel with a world of pain in his eyes as he's sent off to hell. Top marks – and of course to Gellar, who again sells Buffy's pain in that gradually dwindling, blubby expression of tears after Angel has left the building. Gellar has been fantastic throughout, running the whole range in the acting handbook from the pre-Sunnydale bubblegum at Hemery through to the typically businesslike get-the-job-done approach of Buffy at the end. With her life in tatters, she has no choice but to board a Greyhound and set off for pastures new.

The end of the episode works like a charm and twists the knife for the viewer, thanks to the combination of Sarah McLachlan's Full Of Grace and the montage of Buffy leaving, Joyce in tears and the Scooby Gang musing on her whereabouts.

A memorable end to the finale which has again, seen everyone involved with the show working like troopers to make it the best they could. Break out the applause for the actors. Pile on the accolades for the direction which results in some vast, expansive filming to achieve a sense of the epic – and also the smaller set-pieces such as Buffy's slow-mo run into school, the creepy Jenny cameo (making great use of shadowy lighting and close-ups) and the well shot sword fight which is remarkably pacy. It's nice to see that the regulars took up lessons, since there's nothing worse than obvious stunt doubles shot from half a mile away.

And of course, plaudits for the writing. It's Joss Whedon's show, so naturally his vision comes through louder than a Spike And Buffy death metal song. It's a story that's both ambitious in scope and domestic in tone at the same time, resulting in real personal heartbreak for Buffy and her friends and family. The writing's sharp, intelligent and frequently funny (“If you're gonna crack jokes, then I'm gonna pull out your ribcage and wear it as a hat”).

After a shaky start to the season, the second run of Buffy has proven to be a massive success with some gripping, adult storytelling and top production values. Becoming caps off the season in fine style and best of all, makes this TV making lark look so easy.

Heartbreaking telly was never more addictive than this.