Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Passion

“There's never an easy way,” croons the Morcheeba lady at the start of Passion, and she's bang on the money.

The Easy Way does not exist in the atlases of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Angel. The path of true love is turned into thick, sludgy mud. The road of happiness is blocked by irritating, slow-motion roadworkers and their over-sized rotating red and green lollipops. Even the simple journey of life is more difficult to navigate than a broken compass.

If it's difficulty you're looking for, then Angelus is your chuckling representative. Having lost his soul, he's now taking his crusade to bring Buffy down town to Frowntown to warped new levels. Not only has he gone all creepy Stalker Boy on Buffy and her friends, he's also gone and called time on Giles' love life in the most brutal manner known to man.

In addition, he kills Willow's pet fish. The man's a bonafide scumbag.

But as the old saying goes, no pain, no gain. And when Buffy The Vampire Slayer inflicts the pain, invariably, the quality level of the show skyrockets. Passion is no exception, a dark masterpiece that broods more than Angel does in his whole seven years on TV. It's a story that takes the ongoing season arc into new waters by killing off one of the show's regulars. The word around the camp-fire is that Oz was rumoured to be Angelus' original target, but for some reason, it was ultimately Jenny Calendar that drew the short straw.

This was probably the right decision, given that Jenny's seeking some last minute redemption for her past sins. Redemption and sacrifice always equate with death in Buffy and Angel. The death of Jenny is one of the bleakest examples of this theme, and also one of the most ironic, given that she's on the brink of accomplishing her mission. It's also poignant, given that Giles is initially so blasé about Angelus' latest antics. “As the Slayer, you don't have the luxury of being a slave to your passions,” he warns Buffy. It's a significant statement that's turned on its head halfway through the episode for Giles. As he finds out, it's not a matter of luxury, it's a matter of instinct. The instinct that is “sleeping...waiting...” as Angelus narrates at the beginning. “Passion rules us all – and we obey. What other choice do we have?”

Evidently, in between planning deadly strategies for Buffy, Angelus has been brushing up on his philosophy. He's also been taking art lessons. Given that the real Liam (Angel's original, mortal name for those who are new to the show) was too much of a work-shy, drunken layabout to even contemplate scribbling a stick figure doodle, Angelus has obviously been enrolling in art and craft night classes. He probably fed on the tutor and the other pupils when class finished, but what the heck – that vampire can draw. Not only are his sketches of his chosen targets uncannily accurate, they also seem to be produced in record time. Oddly, Angelus is never captured with his trusty pad of paper and pencils – they're probably nestling in his capacious coat pockets along with a packet of fags and a Barry Manilow CD. Perhaps Angelus should have taken on a presenting gig to earn some extra cash – Art Attack would probably have lived up to its name.

Anyway, Angelus' drawings are freaking Buffy out. There's the creep factor in that the picture depicts her in a deep sleep, and also the fact that he can still enter her house. He's also attempting to get to Buffy through her mother. It's the classic case of the spurned partner who won't take no for an answer. Ambushing a freaked out Joyce, Angelus constantly pleads for a second chance. “Don't tell me, he's changed,” says Joyce in an earlier sequence. “He's not the same guy you fell for.”

Joyce is nothing if not observant, but luckily, this is a far better depiction of Buffy's mother than in Bad Eggs. After Angelus has let slip that he and Buffy slept together, Joyce handles the obligatory parental talk with just the right amount of authority and sensitivity (“Don't ever expect me to ever stop caring about you because it's never going to happen”). She even makes light of an awkward situation when Buffy asks how The Talk went (“I don't know. It was my first time!”). When she's given the right material, Joyce stands out as one of the key regulars in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. This is one of those occasions, and both the well written dialogue and Kristine Sutherland's subtle performance showcase Joyce's strengths to the hilt.

Fortunately, two of Buffy's friends – actually, make that one friend and an ex-friend teacher – are doing something to solve the Angelus problem. Willow's getting on with mystically changing the locks in the Scooby Gang's homes.

Elsewhere, Jenny's going shopping for a mystical gizmo called the Orb Of Thesulah, which is a pivotal component in restoring Angel's soul. As a result, Jenny's card is marked right from the start of the episode. Various subtle hints are dropped throughout the first 20 minutes. Willow is roped in as a substitute teacher the next morning. Giles looks as if he's coming round again to the possibility of a reconciliation.

But it's Jenny's secret mission that seals her fate. No doubt if Jenny had included Giles in her plan, there's a chance that she might have lived to have seen another day – but no. She chooses to work alone in a gloomy old school after hours. The woman does not understand the clichés of horror. “This will work,” she mutters to herself as Angel's restoration spell spews forth out of the printer – if you didn't know better, you'd almost swear that the machine's having a good old belly laugh at her expense.

The sequences in which Angelus confronts, hunts and kills Jenny considerably ramp up the tension. David Boreanaz brings out Angelus' sadistic side with some aplomb. “You know what I hate most about these things?” ponders Angelus, hefting the Orb like a putting shot, before furiously hurling the thing into a heap of powder and glass against the wall. “They're so damn fragile!” It's not only Boreanaz's superlative performance that clinches the sequence, it's also Michael Gershman's excellent direction. He judges the mood of the scene perfectly, bathing the school in a moody aura of black and blue. The ominous chase in the school corridors is very well done, using lots of POV shots of Angelus almost mocking Jenny's fleeing form, and swift cutting. The semi-silhouette shot of Angelus finally capturing and killing his prey is an evocative image, and one that's etched into the brain on account of its casual brutality.

Mind you, if that wasn't grim enough, then Angelus' treatment of Giles is just as bad, if not worse. Having arranged to meet Jenny at his house, Giles is fooled into thinking that he's entering into an evening of romantic smooching. Roses at the door. Champagne on ice. Romantic notes. Puccini on the stereo. It's car wreck TV at its most vicious. Nevertheless, it's another brilliantly executed scene, with Giles' expression of pure, uncomprehending horror reaching a crescendo of doom with the swelling La Boheme soundtrack and the champagne flutes clattering to the floor in small pieces. It's a morbidly wonderful demonstration of the show pushing the dramatic envelope with uncompromising clarity.

What started out as a mildly disturbing and thrilling instalment in the Angelus House Of Horror has become a fully-fledged classic. Passion lifts you off the edge of your seat with one relentlessly tense setpiece after another. Take the scene in which Buffy and Willow learn of Jenny's death on the phone. It's hard to call what the most unsettling aspect of this sequence is – the leering voyeurism of Angelus peeking through the windows and soaking in the misery of his enemies or Willow's uncontrollable grief, acted to perfection by Alyson Hannigan.

It's notable for another thing too – note how Buffy sinks to the floor almost in denial at what's happened. Giles said at the beginning that she couldn't become a slave to her passions, and from this moment on, she proves him right. She becomes efficiently business-like, leading the Scoobies into Giles' empty house and working out a plan to find and rescue him. She then takes on Angelus with near-superhuman strength that's almost a match for her former squeeze. It's only when he points out that Giles is about to become toast that she lets him off the hook. Tellingly, Buffy lets her guard down when hugging her sobbing Watcher and tearfully telling him that she can't do this gig alone. Giles has found out the hard way that the passion of love and the clarity of hatred do not take back seats in times like these.

While it's easy to assume that Joss Whedon's back in the hot seat, dishing out the pain, in fact, it's actually Ty King taking the writing honours. It's a considerable leap forward from his previous Some Assembly Required script – Passion is firing on all cylinders with a cracking pace and great dialogue (“Since Angel lost his soul, he's regained his sense of whimsy” or “Ira Rosenberg's only daughter nailing crucifixes to her bedroom wall? I have to go over to Xander's house just to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every year” are just two of the many brilliant lines that jostle for attention).

It provides the regulars with some of their boldest material yet, and they respond in kind with commanding performances. It's a shame that Robia LaMorte leaves the show as a regular at this point, since she's made Jenny into an integral member of the team. Juliet Landau and James Marsters aren't central to this episode, but they make the most of their screen time, flirting between domestic jealousy (Spike's getting more and more annoyed by Angelus' presence) and nutty menace (Dru taking Miss Sunshine The Dog to visit the Magic Shop guy).

The Scooby Gang get to run a fair gamut of emotions – Alyson Hannigan is just as good as Sarah Michelle Gellar when it comes to heartbreaking blubbing. Nicholas Brendon convincingly adds a more vengeful side to Xander when discussing Angelus' termination of contract. Gellar herself turns in another superb performance as Buffy, who one minute gets to play the worried daughter and the next, a worthy champion, keen to save her Watcher from becoming Angelus food.

David Boreanaz and Anthony Head, meanwhile battle it out for Scene Stealer. Boreanaz has the villainous, inhuman killer down to a tee by now, and Passion arguably sees him at his very best as Angelus. Stalking in the shadows, taunting Spike, killing innocent teachers – this is the sort of stuff that baddies are made of, and Boreanaz makes Angelus one of the most formidable examples.

Head, meanwhile, gets to show off his versatility, starting off the Passion journey as the kindly, unflappable Giles and then heading down the roads of bereaved shock, vengeful attacker and ultimately, broken man. Giles is never one to wear his heart on his sleeve and so it's all the more crushing to see him weep like a baby in Buffy's arms as his loss hits home. That's also Head singing in the background during the graveside scene, fact fans – and if you've ever heard Lean On Me by Eighties popsters, Red Box, you can also audibly hear Head warbling backup vocals.

Passion is another winner from this season. It's proof that breaking all the rules can lead to gripping drama. Up until now, everyone's made it home alive in time for tea, but Passion now shows that no one is safe in Buffy's world. It's an unspoken law that will be repeated a fair bit, both in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and in Angel. I actually can't think of anything to criticise this time around. Michael Gershman's direction is terrific. Ditto Christophe Beck's atmospheric score, especially the eerie, mechanical, almost predatory beat noise that accompanies Angelus' stalking activities. The acting is perfect, from the regulars right through to the goofy Magic Shop owner, who lets go of the fake accent with audible relief.

As Angelus himself concludes: “If we could live without passion, maybe we'd know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow...empty rooms...” Sometimes, long-running dramas need that kick, just to keep the viewers challenged and gripped – Passion is one such kick. It's shocking, uncompromising, but also compelling, unmissable TV at its finest.