Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Surprise/Innocence

Birthdays. A celebration of the annual 'hanging another year on the line'. Balloons, cake and presents do the job when you're younger, while Grandpa/Grandma joke cards and booze do the job for the older ones.

Buffy, on the other hand, is turning 17 in the bleakest fashion possible. Not only is she up against a giant blue joykiller called the Judge, she's about to find that her boyfriend isn't quite the man she thought he was.

Surprise/Innocence occurs at that mid-point segment of a Buffy season in which the rules change (think of the revelation of Adam or Travers firing Giles, for example). This two-parter is one of the biggest goalpost shifts in the series: the point in which Angel turns from the vampire with a soul to the evil Angelus.

Up until now, we've been fed scraps of information about Angelus' fiendish ways: How he killed his family; how he psychologically tortured Drusilla... but the big reveal is still a big shock.

The main premise of Angelus' return is handled well in the opening dream sequence. Forget the cheesy montage at the start of Welcome To The Hellmouth: this is the real deal. A spooky, unsettling scenario which neatly pre-empts forthcoming events. The party. Joyce wondering whether Buffy is really ready for whatever it is and dropping a saucer. There's even a neat nod to Willow's new relationship with Oz when she speaks in French: “L'hippo a pique ses pantalons”, harking back to Oz's championing of the monkey cracker at the end of What's My Line.

Worst of all, Angel is killed right in front of Buffy's eyes. The slow-mo crumbling effect of Angel's hand is superbly achieved here, and already sets the dark tone for what's to come. Technically, Angel is killed – the moment that he surrenders to that one true moment of happiness, he's out of here. “Dream on schoolgirl, your boyfriend is dead!” hisses Angelus. Just like in the dream, Buffy's powerless to stop this, since she hasn't been told that a bit of post-thunderstorm hanky panky really isn't a good idea. The fact that Drusilla stakes Angel in the dream nicely symbolises the fact that Angel is lost to the forces of evil. Seemingly forever.

The brilliantly handled dream sequence is just a taster for what's to come. It's actually assembled by two different creative teams: Marti Noxon, fresh from her bad Bad Eggs experience, is behind the typewriter while Michael Lange is behind the camera for Surprise. For Innocence, Overlord Of Pain, Joss Whedon ensures that the tension and tears don't let up until the credits have rolled. But the join is seamless, since the quality is of the highest standard for both instalments. It's a masterpiece of excitement, horror, comedy, and most importantly, tragedy that proves that when on top of its game, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is one of the best of its kind.

Surprise begins the two parter in slow-burning but compelling fashion. It's scattering the breadcrumb trail that leads to the devastation of the next episode. Buffy's first night of passion with Angel. Buffy's birthday. Buffy's unnerving dream. The assembly of the Judge. Jenny's real identity and mission.

As the episode unfolds, all of these separate elements start to draw together. Take Jenny's family reunion. Her Uncle Enyos is in town, and needless to say, he doesn't come bearing gifts or hugs but finger-wagging scolding. Turns out that Jenny is actually “Janna, of the Kalderash people”. She's a member of the gypsy family who cursed Angel, and it turns out that she's actually been in town to spy on Angel to make sure that he lives out his sentence of eternal pain. “Vengeance demands that his pain be as eternal as ours!” bellows Enyos – incidentally, is it me or does anyone else feel the need to yell “GET OFF MY TRAIN!!!” at the telly whenever Enyos shows up on screen?

Just me then?

With Jenny's shady mission in mind, the episode teases the viewer into thinking that she'll do whatever it takes to keep Buffy and Angel apart. There's a clever scene in which Jenny appears out of darkness, seemingly to lead Buffy into danger, when in fact she's only taking Buffy to her secret birthday party. Willow also nearly uncovers Jenny's real agenda after asking how she knew that Angel had turned – Jenny quickly replies that she saw his face. It's clever plotting, although it inevitably puts the lid on another Sunnydale relationship.

When Buffy learns the truth (from another enigmatic dream in which Jenny metaphorically lifts the veil at Angel's 'funeral'), it's interesting to see Giles take the side of his Slayer against his lover. His cold rebuttal of “She said get out” speaks volumes, not only of Jenny's betrayal of Buffy, but the fact that she'd kept a vitally important secret from him too. The Giles/Jenny love story isn't quite over however, as it takes a further vicious twist in Passion.

Buffy's birthday party isn't quite the celebratory fiesta that her friends were hoping for. It's got its very own gatecrashers in the form of a quarrelling vampire and an arm in a box. The arm actually belongs to the aforementioned Judge, a kind of walking form of pest control. Brought forth to rid the planet of humanity, the Judge obliges by burning anything that reeks of human to a crispy fritter. He's also one of those dudes who can't be killed apparently, which poses a further problem. To keep him from carrying out his mission, he's been dismembered and kept in separate boxes. The Buffy producers missed a trick with their video and DVD box sets – they should have included their free gift of a miniature limited edition numbered and boxed Judge body part. Collect them all and make a fortune on eBay in the future!

Inevitably, the Judge is reassembled by a revitalised Drusilla, who's throwing her own soiree to celebrate her return to health. As a particularly entertaining party piece, she sets the Judge on the swotty Dalton, who's regretting not staying at home with a good book. “This one is full of feeling,” rumbles the Judge, as he immolates poor old Dalton, who slowly vanishes screaming into skeletal ashes.

The Judge is a great monster, with an excellently designed mask – you wouldn't be able to tell that Brian Thompson's back, fresh from playing Master minion Luke (well, unless you have the telly on mute, since his distinctive voice does give the game away). Perhaps the only problem is that he's not featured enough – in the second part, he's reduced to cameo status after establishing that a visiting Angel has lost all trace of humanity. As Angelus himself puts it, why be in the choir when you can take centre stage?

He's not kidding either. After a moment of one true happiness (canoodling with Buffy), he loses his soul at the worst possible time. Throughout the first part, there are constant suggestions that Angel won't be around for very much longer, whether it's the ominous dream or his mini mission to whisk the Judge arm off to safer climes. A meaningful birthday present of a Claddagh ring, symbolising eternal love, doesn't help matters either. But I wonder how many viewers saw the twist of Angelus' return coming.

Innocence proves that the stories and revelations of Angelus' reputation scattered throughout the past two seasons were not kidding. Angelus is the lowest of the low, beginning his one man crusade to psychologically torture the girl who made him feel human.

One thing that Buffy The Vampire Slayer does well is to equate monsters and demons with the trials of growing up. Innocence tackles the thorny matter of the 'first time'. Angelus represents the cruel fiend who ditches the other half after a night of first time passion. “You got a lot to learn about men, kiddo,” chuckles Angelus at a disbelieving Buffy the next day. “Although I guess you proved that last night.” While the night before meant the world to Buffy, Angelus reduces her to a laughing stock. “It's what? Bells ringing? Fireworks? A dulcet choir of pretty little birdies?” It's rare for Buffy to be as wounded as this, and what's worse, the perpetrator's wearing the face of her boyfriend. As Angelus later explains to Spike, “To kill this girl, you have to love her.”

Who would have thought that David Boreanaz was capable of such a performance as this? Up until now, Boreanaz hasn't had an awful lot to do. Quietly understated brooding doesn't really offer much room for scope, but Innocence proves that Boreanaz is more than capable of delivering the goods – his performance as Angelus is like a cup of freezing cold water in the face, since it's such a stark contrast to Angel. With a confident swagger and a cruel line in black humour, Boreanaz brings this monster to life with total conviction.

A notable trait of Angelus is his malevolent glee. He not only enjoys spreading fear and terror, he positively revels in it. Whether it's the psychological mind games with Buffy or her friends (the scene in which he tricks Willow into coming to him in a darkened school corridor) or his amusingly incongruous “Don't you look spiffy?” to a none-the-wiser Judge, Angelus is having a blast at playing the Bad Guy. And likewise, David Boreanaz is evidently having a blast at playing the Bad Guy.

If Innocence pushes Boreanaz into new territory acting-wise, then it's also pushing Sarah Michelle Gellar into delivering one of her best performances. One thing that I've noticed that Gellar does very well is crying. Innocence showcases one of the prime examples of this blubbing oeuvre: the scene in which Buffy stumbles back into her bedroom fresh from learning that it was indirectly her fault that Angel went bad is a blinder. Gellar acts this superbly, slowly dissolving into a mess of sobs after clutching the Claddagh ring and then collapsing onto the bed in abject misery while crying for America. Again, it's a stark contrast to the Buffy that everyone knows, the cheerful, wisecracking, formidable Slayer. It's rare to see Buffy as a vulnerable victim, and Gellar portrays this side perfectly. Likewise, her teary heart-to-heart with Giles in the car and her quietly crushed stare at the fizzing candle at the end of the story are expertly played.

While the story revolves around the new-found conflict between Buffy and her former boyfriend, Surprise/Innocence gives the other regulars plenty to do. Xander and Cordelia's relationship is out in the open after Willow chances upon them secretly kissing in a corner of the library. While Willow is about to embark on a new relationship of her own, she's still feeling betrayed by Xander smooching with someone the two of them despised (loving the “We Hate Cordelia Club of which you are the treasurer” line of Willow's). Mind you, even Cordelia shows a hint of remorse in her expression after Xander runs off to explain to Willow. The shallow bitchy Cordelia of the first season is now receding into the distance, as she's becoming closer to the Scooby Gang.

About the only person to realise that smooching equals pain is relative newcomer Oz. In the way that only Oz can provide, he politely declines Willow's request to make out - “Well, to the casual observer, it would appear that you're trying to make your friend Xander jealous or even the score or something. And that's on the empty side.” For Oz, Willow kissage is a moment to be savoured rather than exploited in a tacky bid to take revenge on Xander. It's another step in the right direction for this couple, and the scene in which Oz asks Willow out sums up the sweetly shy spark that the two of them share. Many great Alyson Hannigan and Seth Green moments to choose from – for me, it's the amazed but delighted smile that Hannigan gives as Willow finally lands herself a date; and Green's quietly exasperated “Whaaaat??!?” when Willow asks Oz if he wants to make out with her in the van.

Xander and Giles also get some good material, with Xander's military knowledge cleverly used to help defeat the Judge. Giles, meanwhile, continues to grow as a character. Far from the remote librarian of the first season, Giles is taking on more of a father figure substitute to Buffy. He's quick to jump to Buffy's support, whether he's insisting that her surprise party goes ahead (“Buffy's turning 17 just this once and she deserves a party”) or telling Buffy that it's not her fault in the quietly moving speech in the car (“If it's guilt you're looking for Buffy, I'm not your man. All you will get from me is my support and my respect.”).

Spike and Drusilla are also hugely entertaining. Juliet Landau convinces big time as the bonkers Drusilla, who's tearing down her decorations in a mad frenzy or clapping with glee at Dalton's untimely combustion (“Do it again! Do it again!”). While Spike can be prone to making foolish decisions plan-wise, he's still a charismatic, scene-stealing presence, thanks to James Marsters' impressive acting talents. Even battered and bruised from his last encounter with the Slayer, Spike manages to demonstrate his gift for the wry one liner (“You can't see the stars, love. That's the ceiling”).

Right down to the smallest of blink 'n' miss it details, Surprise/Innocence is precisely written and packaged to create 90 minutes of spellbinding telly. It's designed for repeat viewings – you may be too wrapped up in the action to notice the colour coding in Buffy's clothes. The virginal white in Surprise gives way to the black in Innocence. Or there's the way in which Angel/Angelus end up in pain on the ground while soaking wet at the conclusion of both instalments. If Angelus hit Buffy where it hurts, then at least Buffy gets to repay the compliment where it really hurts. Refreshingly, the Angelus problem isn't wrapped up there and then – instead, it promises to be strung out till the bitter end, as Giles sombrely warns Buffy. There will be fights ahoy and plenty more tears to be shed before the season is through.

There's very little to fault this story. About the only criticism that I can level is that the big shopping mall showdown is a bit of a damp squib – and I'm not talking about the sprinkler system. Curiously, the shoppers don't seem too bothered about a great big demon stomping about and reducing them to charcoal. It also seems a bit pointless to one minute say that the Judge can't be killed and then the next, blow him to smithereens with a big gun. Cool slow-mo explosion though, and the “Arm!” bit is another great bit of understated comedy.

Otherwise, Surprise/Innocence is perfect. It treads a fine line between horror and humour (“You coulda just said 'Sssh' – God, are all you Brits such drama queens?”) and heroism and heartbreak. Or whatever other words beginning with H that you can think of. The quality of the scripts from Noxon and Whedon is of the highest calibre: ditto the quality of the acting, with all of the regulars working their hardest to deliver flawless performances all round. The direction is also top flight, with great, imaginative visuals for the dream sequences and well-staged action sequences. Lots of great effects too, such as the demise of the Judge, the slow-mo gatecrashing vampire, and Angel 'smoking'.

While Surprise/Innocence doesn't offer the happiest of birthdays for Buffy, it does mark the point where the show comes of age in dramatic and stylish fashion.