What is love?
Haddaway once asked that question, but I'm not so sure that he ever got an answer – rather a whole load of hurt instead.
It's a question that's been asked by billions of people over billions of years. Love can be the greatest feeling on Earth when it goes the way you want it to. It can also break the heart with the efficiency of a wrecking ball when it goes awry.
When it comes to love, Buffy The Vampire Slayer tends to go for the broken heart option. Especially in Season Two, which delights in hefting the hammer of heartbreak. Two Marti Noxon episodes from Season Two in particular examine the verb: to love. If Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered looked at the comical side of love making people “do the wacky”, then I Only Have Eyes For You takes a more serious approach.
The episode revolves around the spirit of a 1950s Sunnydale pupil who killed both his teacher lover and himself in a lovestruck fit of grief. “He killed a person and himself,” ponders Xander. “Those are pretty much two of the dumbest things you could do.” However, James' spirit lives on and is raising hell in modern day Sunnydale High school. Teachers are cursing on blackboards. Arms are grabbing hold of students from inside lockers. Snakes are even taking over the school canteen. School dinners were always bad, but they never reached this level of evil.
Well, unless a plate of smelly cheese pie was plonked in front of you.
Even more sinister manifestations are afoot. James is reliving the moment that he broke up with Grace Newman by possessing anyone unlucky enough to be in the school corridors. Worse still, a ghostly gun appears out of nowhere, but this phantom weapon still kills. The Sunnydale janitor finds this out to his horror when he shoots one of the teachers, after both have been possessed by James and Miss Newman. It seems that the scenario is set to play out for all eternity, and what's worse, the evil spirit manifestations are reaching fever pitch to the point where school is definitely out for summer.
I Only Have Eyes For You can be filed under “under-rated”. It tends not to get mentioned in the same hit parade as Becoming or Passion, which is a shame, since it's a superbly written and highly atmospheric episode. The episode offers the chance for both Buffy and Giles to lay some recent personal demons to rest. Giles, for example, is evidently feeling the loss of Jenny. Rather than offer a rational explanation for the spooky goings-on, he jumps to the conclusion that Jenny is reaching out from beyond the grave. “The gun is insignificant,” he insists. “It's the violence of the thing that matters.” On any other day, Giles himself would write this sort of thinking off as illogical hogwash, but his grief's obstructing his judgement. “He misses her,” says Buffy. “He can't think. Just a little more fallout from my love life.” It's only when Willow is nearly sucked into a phantom whirlpool that he regains focus – Willow herself tells Giles that Jenny couldn't be that mean.
The two get some good moments in this one. There's a sweet scene early on in which Willow gives Giles a rose quartz that belonged to Jenny. Giles is evidently moved by Willow's gesture (“It's very thoughtful of you”), and it's nice to see that the aftermath of Jenny's death hasn't been glossed over, which is something that other dramas would do. It's moments like this that add extra weight to future episodes such as Flooded, in which the two end up at loggerheads. A strong friendship exists between Willow and Giles, so it's all the more brutal when that friendship will be put to the test in future episodes.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Buffy's own personal demons are brought to the fore in I Only Have Eyes For You. Already, in the pre-titles teaser, Buffy cuts a mournful figure, fending off potential advances and staring morosely at a badly dressed bunch of scruffs perform on stage. It's evidently the Sunnydale equivalent of Rag Week this episode. Willow has picked up on Buffy's sour mood. “You've kinda been All Work And No Play Buffy... You came, you saw, you rejected.”
Naturally, Buffy isn't too quick to sympathise with James. “He should be doing 60 years in a prison, breaking rocks and making friends with Roscoe The Weightlifter”. As Xander points out, a merciful approach isn't too high on Buffy's radar – although this may have something to do with her own recent love blunder with Angel. “James destroyed the one person he loved the most in a moment of blind passion,” she says to the Scooby Gang. “And that's not something you forgive!” The subtext becomes the text, as Cordelia points out: “OK. Over-identify much?”
James is the perfect identification figure for Buffy to unleash some inner rage at. The recent trail of devastation in Buffy's life has hit home with a big bump. Her friends and family have been put in unnecessary danger, and what's worse, Jenny's death has been a casualty of a moment of blind passion. Buffy's grief is what James latches on to. Clumsy yearbooks and flashbacks to the past at first seem like coincidence, but it quickly becomes obvious that James has found a kindred spirit. It's this connection that allows him to draw Buffy back into a school full of wasps and help both to exorcise the personal demon. “James picked me,” muses Buffy at the end. “I guess I was the one he could relate to. He was so sad.”
The conclusion is very well staged. It's a clever trick to place Buffy in the role of James and Angelus in the role of Miss Newman. Not only does this mean that James and Miss Newman get final closure (thanks to a demon being impervious to bullets), it also re-enacts the tragedy between Buffy and Angel. Buffy literally kills the man she once loved dead with James' gun just like she did at the end of Surprise (metaphorically speaking). While the two passionately embrace as the ghostly spirits for a moment, reality kicks in quickly and brutally as Angelus returns to his normal evil state. Clever stuff from the mind of Marti Noxon, but also sterling work from Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz who act out the spirits of James and Miss Newman to perfection. It's said that this set-piece convinced Joss Whedon that Boreanaz was more than capable of helming his own show, and it's easy to see why.
I Only Have Eyes For You is one of those stories which can be appreciated on more than one level. The underlying themes of pain and loss are defined well, thanks to Noxon's sharp scripting. But it's also a really good horror story. It's bursting at the seams with many a memorable (and sometimes gruesome) set-piece. The best example comes in the third act when the Scoobies assemble a Mangus Tripod in the deserted school. There's a dizzying rush of action as the separated friends experience all sorts of ghoulish activity. Cordelia's face erupts into decaying blisters (as a result of the earlier snake bite). Buffy sees the skeletal cadaver of James. Willow is pulled into a powerful whirlpool on the staircase. Great stuff, and this sequence is directed with real flair by James Whitmore Jr.
The Sunnydale High corridors have become the place to fear of late, what with Angelus on the prowl in Innocence and Passion. I Only Have Eyes For You takes this notion to extremes, and Whitmore Jr adeptly turns the school into something out of your darkest dreams. The use of The Flamingos' I Only Have Eyes For You is inspired – a simple love song becomes a downright creepy soundtrack to spiralling events (thanks to the echoing, ghostly sound treatment).
Capping off this sequence is Christophe Beck's eerie, dramatic score (the recurring flashback chime is also scored perfectly). Beck is the best composer that Buffy hired, and judging by scores like this one, it's not hard to see why he was hired on a full-time basis for the next two seasons.
In between this spiritual madness, I Only Have Eyes For You finds the time to nudge some plot pieces into place. Snyder's back with a vengeance and his recent absence from the show has not made his heart grow fonder. He's spitting with rage at the thought of protesting vegans and is naturally quick to bark at Buffy over the latest calamity. But it's clear that he knows more than he's letting on as events reach a head in school. “We're on a Hellmouth,” he whispers to the investigating officer. “Sooner or later, people are gonna figure that out.” It's setting things nicely up for the next season in which we find out that Snyder's on pally terms with a certain Mayor Wilkins.
Elsewhere, the Spike – Drusilla – Angelus love triangle is reaching a head. Having found a new place to stay, Spike is evidently not impressed by Angelus' real estate skills. “It's paradise,” he muses. “Big windows. Lovely gardens. It'll be perfect when we want the sunlight to kill us.” He's also less than happy with Angelus trying to steal his girlfriend, and what's more Angelus isn't exactly being discreet about this. The cliffhanger moment suggests, however, that Spike may get the chance to get his own back on his old Yoda. It's amusing to see Angelus react with such disgust at his possessed experience. “I'm the one who was frickin' violated,” he bellows at Drusilla. “You didn't have this thing in you!” When Drusilla asks what it was, he spits out “Love!” as if it was a demon.
I Only Have Eyes For You is not the best remembered episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but it's one that proves to constantly reward upon rewatching. The themes of love and loss are cleverly entwined with some moments of great horror, both psychological and visual. The whole episode looks great, with plenty of spooky moments to keep viewers hooked. The flashback sequences are well done, and the acting continues to be of a very high standard.
Under-rated maybe, but there's always room for that in long-running shows like Buffy. Episodes like I Only Have Eyes For You prove that they have just as much to offer as the oft-touted classics, and stand up well to repeated viewings.