Considering how revered the series has become in the decades since, it’s easy to forget that Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t great right away, in its abbreviated first season. It was pretty good, sure, but creator Joss Whedon was still figuring out what Buffy was during those early days.
It would take until the middle of Season 2 for Buffy to truly make the turn from good TV to burgeoning genre masterpiece — and the two-parter “Surprise” and “Innocence” stands as the proverbial corner where it happened. The midseason episodes were thrilling, heartbreaking, and featured one of the greatest twists in genre storytelling. It was 20 years ago — January 19 and 20, 1997 — that these episodes shocked fans and turned Buffy into a living legend, and Angel into a killer.
Oh, and the episodes almost certainly set Whedon on his path to becoming a geek god in the process.
“Surprise” and “Innocence” found Buffy and Angel’s relationship on the cusp of becoming physical on the Slayer’s birthday, and tackled the emotions of young love and sex in a raw and powerful way. Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, not realizing that moment of true happiness is exactly what’s required to free Angel of his soul: turning her lover back into the ruthless, inhuman killer who has stalked the world for generations.
The turn is shocking, and co-star David Boreanaz brings a cruelty to the role that cuts Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy to the bone. It didn’t hurt that Season 2 also introduced some of the series’ best villains in James Marsters’ Spike and Juliet Landau’s Drusilla, which gave the newly evil Angelus a chance to get his old gang back together to try and take down the Slayer (and destroy the world in the process).
In addition to being the show’s most-watched episodes ever, with more than 8 million viewers, the two-parter also represented the series’ move to its now-iconic Tuesday night slot on The WB’s (and eventually UPN’s) schedule, a spot it held for six years. The series originally launched as a midseason replacement at the burgeoning WB on Monday night, just two years into the network’s brief existence. Despite its low-key introduction at midseason with a 12-episode run, Buffy was the network’s first breakout critical and ratings hit.
WB wanted to use the series to anchor a Tuesday night slot that would eventually help launch new shows including Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, and the spinoff series, Angel — and it all started with “Surprise” and “Innocence.” The two-parter debuted on Monday and Tuesday of that week in January 1997, and viewers followed the series to its new timeslot in droves to see the fallout of Angel’s transformation. It was a perfect storm of scheduling logistics and creative execution, and it turned Buffy into a Tuesday night staple.
In the DVD commentary for “Innocence,” Whedon noted the network actually had some trepidation about moving its lone hit from its Monday night launching pad to an unproven slot on Tuesday. Those fears were obviously relieved when the ratings came back a smash, with Whedon noting “people responded to this” because of what “a pivotal moment it was in Buffy’s life.”
The episodes have obviously aged well, but even all those years ago, Whedon knew the place these episodes would hold in the series’ legacy. In the DVD commentary Whedon said he viewed “Surprise” and “Innocence” as the epitome of what the show could be at its best: telling stories of epic and deeply personal stakes within the same story.
“‘Surprise’ and ‘Innocence’ represent the mission statement of the show more than any other show we’ve done, because they operate on a very mythic level and very personal level,” he said at the time. “On the mythic level, it’s the hero’s journey. She loses this very important person to her. Angel goes bad and now she has to fight him. But on a personal level it’s about, ‘I slept with someone and he doesn’t call me anymore.’”
Whedon dug to the heart of how this trope-busting formula of a young girl who can kick butt could be used to tell stories that resonate on multiple levels, using vampires and superpowers as an allegory for the loneliness and insecurities we all feel. In the director’s commentary for the two-parter, Whedon called “Innocence” the “most important episode of Buffy that we did,” for the way it blended the “emotional resonance of horror” with the high school experience that is one of the most ubiquitous shared experiences in modern culture. The trick to good science fiction is to make sure it's relatable, and Buffy had a knack for making the monsters both real and emotional — and never was that more palpable than in “Surprise” and "Innocence.”
The episodes were also an early chance for the writing team to explore the concept of personal choices having consequences for these characters, though Whedon said they fretted over the way the “complicated” fallout of Buffy and Angel’s relationship was portrayed, and the message it might send to viewers. In the end, it came down to the simple fact that Buffy’s world isn’t a happy place. It’s set on a Hellmouth, bad things happen regardless.
“I don’t really want to be telling them one thing or another. But inevitably in a horror show you end up punishing people for everything they do, just so you can find the horror, the real emotional horror of everything they go through,” Whedon explained in the episode’s commentary. “Buffy drinks beer, not going to go well for her. Buffy has sex with her boyfriend, not going to go well for her. 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.”
The fallout from that Season 2 event was felt throughout the life of the series — eventually carrying over to the Angel spinoff, as well. The character of Angelus would occasionally recur, but it was “Innocence” that set the bar for just how menacing he should be. Angel’s turn is what eventually sets up his narrative exit from Buffy to establish his solo series, as he realizes he has to leave to prevent himself from being tempted again. Buffy also carries the baggage from her relationship with Angel, and it informs essentially every relationship that follows — most notably her affair with the eventually-souled Spike in the latter days of the series’ run.
The two-parter was a story about a loss of innocence (not much of a shock considering the episode’s title), and grounded Buffy with a humanity that hadn’t been realized up to that point. Despite the stakes, Whedon said he didn’t want “Innocence” to fundamentally change Buffy too much too quickly, which inspired the episode’s closing scene: a coda of sorts with Buffy sharing a quiet moment with her mother, as an old movie plays on the television. Buffy is still dealing with the loss of Angel as Joyce wishes her a happy birthday, and Whedon said he wanted that mother-daughter moment to reflect that innocence can be both lost, and found, all at the same time.
“It meant not just a loss of innocence, but the fact that the innocence isn’t lost. That Buffy is, in this sense, an innocent,” he elaborated in the closing of the episode commentary. “That she hasn’t lost anything of herself, even though she’s gone through a painful maturing process. And that’s why her mom says, ‘You don’t look any different to me here.’ As a way of stating that. That she’s still the same good person that she was.”
In an interview with USA Today at the series’ conclusion in 2003, Whedon himself ranked “Innocence” as his favorite episode of the show’s 144-episode run, saying it was “one of the ones where I first found out what we could do.” That’s high praise, especially considering it narrowly beat out the musical episode “Once More With Feeling” and the silent “Hush,” both episodes that likely lead the “Best Of” lists for most fans. Despite the stiff competition, it’s hard to argue with Whedon’s assessment. Those episodes might be brilliantly written and executed, but none of them rip your heart out quite like “Innocence.”
It’s proof that, even 20 years later, good storytelling still trumps all.