Anyone who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer remembers ‘Innocence.’ It was a pivotal episode not just for the second season, but for the series as a whole. The previous episode, ‘Surprise,’ ended with (spoiler alert!) Buffy and Angel having sex for the first time around her 17th birthday. But the warm afterglow doesn’t last long. ‘Innocence,’ its direct continuation, opens with a profoundly changed Angel having a post-coital smoke…second-hand smoke, in fact, which he sucks through the neck of an innocent bystander. He has, in fact, become the deliciously evil Angelus thanks to the gypsy curse that changed him after experiencing one moment of pure happiness.
(So at least we know they had good sex . . . or at least Angel did.)
This episode also has a special place in the memory of Joss Whedon, the show’s creator as well as writer-director of this particular episode.
“This . . . to me is, and probably always will be, the most important episode of Buffy that we did. [It was] important for a lot of reasons. It was important for the WB [network] because we were moving to a new night and this was the episode we showed in our new slot . . . and they were worried if we could make it, and in fact we did very well . . . . And [it was] important to me and the other writers creatively because it fulfilled the mission statement that we first came up with – the idea of the emotional resonance of horror, the idea of the high school experience – and it also showed how much the show had evolved in the season-and-a-half that we had done.” (00:04:30)
That evolution is evident in the episode’s emotional maturity, and the completion of its turn away from single-episode storylines to longer story arcs, as Angel would continue to torment Buffy throughout the rest of the season. It was also a turning point for me as a fan. When Buffy and Angel stopped being star-crossed lovers and actually hooked up, I worried that the show might slip into sappiness or drink a little too deeply from Dawson’s Creek (also a good show in its prime, but not what I was looking for from Buffy). Instead, Whedon played with audience expectations and ratcheted up the tension by having Angel turn bad and sending Buffy and company up Shit’s Creek with nary a paddle to fashion into a stake.
The masterstroke was his ability to do all this while staying true to his goals for the show. In his commentary on the first episode of season one, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth,’ Whedon explained that his initial inspiration for what would eventually become Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the desire to play with audiences’ expectations of “the blonde girl in the alley.” He picks up that thread again in his commentary here.
“One of the distinguishing features of the blonde girl in the alley who always got killed was that she actually had sex. She always seemed to be punished for it, that bothered me, and I thought it wasn’t fair, so Buffy was created as a sort of stereotype-buster on that level. However, when we came back to do the series, we knew we had to keep her in high school for a while, and we had to bounce her age back to fifteen . . . so the issue of sex was one that we were going to have to deal with eventually . . . . [This episode] represents the effort to do that. What we basically wanted to show was a horror movie version of the idea of ‘I sleep with my boyfriend and now he doesn’t call me and also he’s killing hookers in alleys.’” (00:02:00)
With that in mind, Whedon was aware that the material in this episode had the potential to conflict with his initial goal for the show. As he says so bluntly, “I said I didn’t want to kill the girl who has sex and yet I punish the shit out of her. That brings up a lot of issues with me. I don’t like the idea of a reactionary message – that everything you do must be punished. I believe that Buffy and Angel were in love and that what they did wasn’t bad. At the same time I don’t want to be saying ‘All teenagers must boff . . . .’ It’s complicated. I don’t really want to be telling them one thing or another” (00:22:00).
Thankfully, he found a way to reconcile his concerns about representation with the practicalities of telling a horror story. “Inevitably, in a horror show, you end up punishing people for everything they do just so that you can find the horror, the real emotional horror, of everything they go through,” he says. “The important thing is to make the punishment emotional and not have her be axe-murdered, and also let her grow from it, let her be stronger, let it resonate on a normal emotional level instead of on some evil higher power that must put an axe into their heads just because they dared to have sex” (00:22:00).
Since the episode itself was a two-parter, it seems fitting to do the same with this article. So join us next time, when we’ll listen to what Whedon has to say about weaving together diverse strands of the story while writing this episode, creating the villains in season two, and more about the show’s resonance.
Want to know more?
– ’10 episodes that show how Buffy The Vampire Slayer blew up genre TV.’ Guess which episode made the list?writing for the A.V. Club, published
What do you think? How does this episode hold up against others in the series? What was your initial reaction when you first saw it? Did Whedon actually avoid reinforcing the stereotypes he was trying to break (e.g. the victimization of women in horror films who have sex)? Leave some comments below and let us know!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 2, Episode 14, ‘Innocence’ | Directed by Joss Whedon | Written by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, David Boreanaz, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head