"He can't live with it. He's dead."
I Only Have Eyes For You is my favorite episode from Season 2, and if you're keeping score, I called Passion the best episode of the series so far. Which means that we've arrived at my favorite Buffy episode.
I Only Have Eyes For You is Buffy's attempt at ghosts, but at heart it's all about Buffy's guilt over the the loss of Angel's soul and the death of Jenny Calendar. I don't know if any future Buffy episode does as good a job of explicating the angsty inner turmoil stuff through the supernatural. (Bargaining [6x1] also comes to mind.)
The plot: Buffy laments that her impulsive romantic decisions led to stalking and violence. Meanwhile, two teenage lovers at Sunnydale have a dramatic breakup that ends with a gun!
Geez, don't drink the water.
For future reference, I've transcribed the breakup dialogue:
James: You can't make me disappear just because you say it's over.
Grace: I just want you to be able to have some kind of normal life. We can never have that--don't you see?
James: I don't give a damn about a normal life. I'm going crazy not seeing you. I think about you every minute.
Grace: I know. But it's over. It has to be.
James: Come back here! We're not finished! You don't care anymore? Is that it?
Grace: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what I feel.
James: Then tell me you don't love me! Say it!
Grace: Is that what you need to hear? Will that help? I don't. I don't. Now let me go.
James: No. A person doesn't just wake up and stop loving somebody. Love is forever. [Pulls out gun] I'm not afraid to use it, I swear. If I can't be with you...
Grace: Oh my god.
James: Don't walk away from me, bitch!
Grace: Alright, just...you know you don't want to do this. Let's both just calm down. Now give me the gun.
James: Don't. Don't do that, damnit. Don't talk to me like I'm some stupid...[Gun fires]
Buffy manages to interrupt the two before Teen Boy shoots Teen Girl. But the eeriness doesn't end there, as a janitor and teacher reenact the same scene, only this time Buffy doesn't show up in time to prevent a fatality. Also, Buffy spaces out in class and is suddenly transported to ye olden times. It sounds like the 50s--we hear a girl in the background yell, "OH YOU'RE KIDDING HE'S SO DREEEAMY!" In this "flashback," Buffy witnesses a hunky student, James, flirting with the English teacher, Grace. When she flashes back to the present, her teacher scrawls this on the chalkboard:
At the library, the Scoobies chalk this all up to a poltergeist. Willow digs up an old newspaper article about James and Grace--she tried to break it off with him on the night of the Sadie Hawkins dance, and he shot her in rage before shooting himself in the music room.
Giles explains that James must be reliving the night of the Sadie Hawkins dance as a kind of purgatory. He's doomed to continue killing his one true love over and over because he can't be forgiven. But Buffy minces no words telling the Scoobies that James was nothing but a scumbag and that she has no sympathy for him. She yells, "James destroyed the one person he loved the most in a moment of blind passion. And that's not something you forgive. No matter why he did what he did. And no matter if he knows now that it was wrong and selfish and stupid, it is just something he's gonna have to live with." I'm no Freud, but one might say that Buffy is Projecting.
Willow researches some of Jenny Calendar's techno-pagan websites (lol) and decides their only option is an exorcism, and they head to Sunnydale High late at night. Buffy catches a glimpse of James and Grace slow dancing to "I Only Have Eyes For You"--they had happy, loving times, too! But just like their love, the spell takes a turn for the worse, with Willow getting swallowed up by quicksand and Cordelia looking gross. Then they're all chased out by wasps? This James is not discriminating in his creepy poltergeist magic.
While all this is going on, Angelus, Spike, and Drusilla move into a new home. You may recall that Giles torched their last one. Drusilla rolls around on the ground having visions of the Slayer, who she divines is ready to confront Angelus once and for all.
Buffy hears James speaking to her, and, under his thrall, walks through the wasps and into Sunnydale High to help him resolve his unfinished business. But she has some unfinished business too, and when Giles expresses that there's no male character inside with her to reenact the story, you can guess what's coming.
Angelus appears, on the advice of Drusilla, to confront Buffy once and for all. But they become possessed by James and Grace--only Angelus doesn't stand in for the male character. Buffy does. She shoots Angelus, and he falls off the balcony to his death.
Only Angelus is a vampire, so he can't die! The cleverness never ends in this episode, I'm telling you. Buffy/James heads to the music room, ostensibly to off herself in remorse. But before she can, a revived Angelus/Grace appears and tells Buffy, "I'm the one who should be sorry. You thought I stopped loving, but I loved you until my last breath." Finally forgiven by Grace, poltergeist James is able to move on from purgatory, leaving Angelus and Buffy shocked by their compromising situation.
I cannot express how much I love this scene. Throughout the episode, we've witnessed an amount of under-the-surface self-loathing from Buffy unparalleled until Season 6, and in one beautiful scene, the series adequately handles the guilt Buffy would undoubtedly feel after endangering everyone close to her and the sorrow of losing her epic teen one true love. And the cherry on top of that is Buffy and Angelus do a gender role reversal--after all, it is the Sadie Hawkins dance! Any sensitive liberal arts kid worth their salt will get a thrill when macho David Boreanaz coos lovingly to "James."
And as messed up and twisted as the murder-suicide plot may be, Buffy's brief possession allows her to enact the murder of Angelus that she knows she will have to commit without actually killing him. Like James, she needs some sort of closure that Angel forgives her for the loss of his soul, and also the peace of mind that he truly did love her. The parallels in their stories are made clear through editing, as scenes of Buffy/Angelus and James/Grace cut quickly together until the dialogue is complete.
Yet somehow, even though we've heard the breakup dialogue three times, its full richness doesn't come across until Buffy and Angelus are forced to act it out. Pretty remarkable, considering the fact that if you scroll back up and read the dialogue, it is not exactly subtle.
And all of this is SO BRILLIANT that it's a bit of a bummer that Buffy has to explicate the Moral of the Story to Giles at the end of the episode. She tells Giles, "Part of me doesn't understand why she would forgive him," and he asks, "Does it matter?"
Which is great, because Buffy needs forgiveness from Giles as well. He is arguably the person most affected by the return of Angelus, and he totally breaks your heart throughout I Only Have Eyes For You by becoming a blathering mess once he senses ghostly activity. Willow offers him a rose quartz necklace she found that belonged to Jenny because it has healing powers, and he is really, really in need of some healing. He insists to the gang that the poltergeist is Jenny at the expense of logic and reason, leaving them to fend for themselves for the first time. Only when the Scoobies are nearly killed during the exorcism does Giles finally accept that the poltergeist isn't Jenny, because she would never be so cruel. This is not presented as a relief that she isn't tortured and stuck in purgatory, but tragedy that he no longer has any connection to her whatsoever.
Everyone just nails it in this episode. The poltergeist is classic Buffy but downright creepy, and the doomed romance comes across beautifully and un-schmaltzy--not always the case when it comes to episodes penned by Marti Noxon. Each actor takes their turn breaking your heart. Legend has it, this is the episode that convinced Joss Whedon that David Boreanaz was ready for a spin-off. That fact is pretty amazing when you consider what happens at the end of this season, but we shan't get ahead of ourselves.
Not since Angel back in Season 1 have all of the elements come together to present such a strong statement on love. Not love as a backdrop to the main event, which is Buffy's coming-of-age. Not love as distraction from the plot, which characterizes Buffy and Angel's relationship in Season 3. But love as the amalgam of every messy emotion, latent and expressed, that threatens to bring down the whole thing.