What a difference a season makes. I mean, goddamn. Compare the premieres, the finales, and – heck – even the “monster-of-the-week” episodes from this season and the first season and you’ll immediately see the difference. Its not so much in the number of episodes, either. Its true, though; season two is almost twice as big as its predecessor. While this means they have tons more time to spend getting to know the themes of the season, the characters that inhabit the Buffyverse, and the overlying arc they go on, this would all be garbage if not for the writing. For example, “Firefly” – another Whedon creation with equal staying power – has the status it does with only 13-episodes and a theatrical release. It has less content, total, than many shows that have just as large – but likely not as dedicated – a fan base. With less hours to spend with the characters, its the writing that brings it all home. In comparing the first two seasons of “BtVS”, I feel the same came be said.

If there is any one, major theme for this show – and, of course, this season in particular – its that growing up is a bitch. And a nasty, cold-hearted bitch at that. The season starts off so strong, with the characters getting into precarious situations, yes, but things that are easily tackled and resolved with a laugh, a slap on the back, and the promise that, next week, everything will be right where it started. Check the fun of “Halloween” for example, in which the entire premise of the episode (a blast from Giles’ past causes havoc by having people turn into the things they dress up as) is purely setup for the laughs and unexpected moments that follow. Sure, there are some connections to the whole season, and Spike shows up to do some damage, but its all about laughs, and having fun with the characters. No episode in the first season managed to do this kind of thing, period. Even when there were laughs, it was so overdramatic and the episodes took themselves far too seriously. Here, ideas are finally being allowed to stretch their legs, a bit.

Even after the end of pure garbage episodes like “Inca Mummy Girl” or “Reptile Boy“, episodes that – while crappy – have their bright moments of light-hearted character beats and dim-witted romance between the characters, you get the feeling that Buffy and co. are going to go to bed, wake up, and just wait for the next threat to show up at school. This all changes with the two-parter, “Surprise” and “Innocence” – a pair of episodes that alters everyone’s relationships and brings a cold wind through Sunnydale. All it takes is Buffy and Angel, getting into the boinking mood, and everything suddenly changes. Angel’s a bad guy, now, Spike and Dru have mostly formed Whirlwind again, and the quest to bring down a Slayer begins in full.

This is when “BtVS” changes, for me. Its suddenly about these people and not these characters necessarily. From here on, all of the characters begin new relationships with each other: Cordy and Xander are dating, Willow starts seeing Oz, and even Giles and Jenny make a few attempts at starting a thing of their own. Its a harsh time to be Buffy, who just lost the man of her dreams to a curse she couldn’t have known about. She still has her friends, her school, and her duties, but all of these things are constant reminders that Angel is no longer with her: Angelus is in town. And his constant pressuring of her emotional and psychological well-being is a cruel and heartless maneuver through torture tactics, running his former lover through quite the gauntlet before finally throwing down in one of TV’s greatest finales, “Becoming: Part 2“, an episode in which the three things she spent all season fighting to hold on to are thrown aside, out of necessity, so that she can escape her pain at last.

The sense of danger in this show is just better, now, too. I mean, in the first season, there was never any real sense of tension (aside from one brief moment in the school’s boiler room); it was all goofy, ugly monsters and tomfoolery. Granted, the low-as-sin production values in the first season saw to that sense of hokey-ness. But in season two, things are starting to get better. For the most part, the music works. It just works. No more awful score ruining moments (aside from “Killed by Death” that is). And the effects, while still clearly “made-for-TV” are infinitely better than season one’s attempts. Check the effects of that dude ripping the skin off of his chest in “Go Fish“, for example. Top notch, stuff. Then again, I am easily impressed. But the number one way in which this season improved, for me, was in the fight sequences. Compare Buffy’s battle with Luke in “The Harvest” – back in season one – and stack it up against “What’s My Line? Part 2” and its solid conclusion. Its a clear pick for best directed. And the outdoor fights, in the graveyards at night? Forget about it. You can now actually see stuff that’s going on. Its not a squint-or-you’ll-miss-it kinda shindig anymore, people. Its an honest to god brawl.

The inclusion of a few key things helps tie it all together, too. Seth Green’s turn as Oz is inspired, downplayed, and just damned comical. They introduced him into the core gang kind of like they introduced Cordelia, only Cordy found out through a slow burn. Oz found out when Buffy simply staked a dude. That was all it took. And Seth Green’s comedic timing and line reading did the rest of the job. And, when Jenny was a team-player, she added tons to the fold, to the group. Really, season two is when the core Scooby gang is both at its largest and its strongest, at least while Buffy is in high school. This allows everyone to play off each other with great dramatic, romantic, and comedic effect. And the show is about the characters, first and foremost. Here, they’re finally starting to shine.

People die, people love, and people change. These are the things we take away from season two. From here on in, its a crash-bang-boom series of events that takes us from the mediocrity of the first dozen-and-a-half episodes, and into the rest of the series. Buffy has a lot more growing up to do, but that pesky “responsibility” thing that plagued her throughout the season (hinted at with great over-the-top quality in “Bad Eggs“) is coming forward, rapidly, and with great desire to devour. Payoff was the name of the game when the season ended, and now we’ll move forward to see what there is to see for Buffy and co. from there. We’ve still got a long way to go, and the darkness we’ve seen these characters experience will only get darker and darker (see: Willow’s turn to magic, Buffy’s love for undead things, etc.).

Season two is a winner, is the bottom line.

Season Rating-
Average Episode: 79.8
Overall Season: 91

Favorite Episode: Halloween
Best Episode: Becoming: Part 2
Worst Episode: Some Assembly Required
Biggest Change of Opinion: Go Fish

Hottest Chick: Cordelia Chase. Duh

Favorite Character: Gonna side with Spike+Dru on this one. Cheap shot, but together, these two are cruel and awesome, and just a treat to watch.