This opener to Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer contains a lot of reaction to the events of the first season. One criticism I had of the final episode of that season was that a lot happened in its 45 minutes that made it hard to unpack and get any kind of reaction from the characters. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was killed by The Master to fulfil a prophecy, resuscitated by Xander back to life and, after a rooftop showdown at the school, killed the evil vampire by kicking him through the roof, leaving him impaled on broken furniture. The episode ends as the characters come out of hiding and come together in front of his remains. It was a very good call by the writers to have “When She Was Bad” acting as an emotional response, not just for the characters but for the audience themselves, given that Season Two followed its predecessor by only a few months.
This gives Sarah Michelle Gellar the chance to really show her acting chops. Being killed by a vampire and coming back to life would have left some serious trauma, so I am happy that the writers gave this some thought. After spending the season being more open with her friends, she is closed off, overly confident and manipulative with the feelings of both Xander and Angel. All of this, it is revealed, is merely a wall that is preventing Buffy from completely breaking down, with dreams and private moments showing she is not far away from that. The scene where she is smashing the bones of The Master with a sledgehammer is heartbreaking to watch and even though she puts on a smile at the end of the episodes when she is back with Xander and Willow, you can tell that she is not completely sure she is out of the woods yet. Gellar’s acting is very good in this episode and considering its fantasy horror genre, Buffy’s breakdown feels real and is effective on screen.
At the start of this episode, we are reminded of the on-off relationship between Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan). My thoughts on the pairing hasn’t changed much in between watching the first season and this episode; Xander likes and cares about her deep down but his lust for Buffy has increased again after resuscitating her. Willow deserves better than being second best for the rest of her high school life. I hope that we see her breaking out of her soft characterization in future episodes and realizing that she doesn’t have to be someone’s back-up. I do think that the scripting was heavy-handed on the number of double-entendres in Xander’s lines, making him come across almost creepy at times.
Alongside the central three and Buffy’s watcher Giles, there are two other characters in the primary cast list. Charisma Carpenter is present again as the self-centered Cordelia; I hope for the sake of her character that she is given enough screen time to merit the position, unlike in the first season. This episode shows promise for her but doesn’t deviate her too far from her Season One persona yet. David Boreanaz has also been promoted to the start credits in his role as Angel, the vampire with a human soul who feels remorse and has developed a connection with Buffy that sizzles on screen. I think that this decision makes a lot of sense; the flashbacks to his past were great viewing for a pre-Twilight era and he brings a completely different dimension to the dynamics of the cast.
While the emotional complexities Buffy and the other protagonists are feeling are a big success in this episode, what should be the main narrative, the child-form of the Anointed One and his followers try to resurrect The Master, feels quite flat in response. I was not the biggest fan of The Master as a main protagonist; it felt like a lot of his scheming was repetitive and the constant need to show him in episodes felt forced. What makes this particular narrative sink also is the resurrection scene; it is lacking in any real tension and it just feels like a way to have all of Buffy’s friends (minus Xander and Angel) in danger because they were the closest people to The Master when he died. This is a bit of a plot hole as the resurrection could have happened years down the line and this need to sacrifice these could have been impossible. I also have severe doubts on the strength of The Anointed One as an antagonist on the base of his last line – “I hate that girl” – which came across as a comedic temper tantrum than something more menacing. Even with this, I look forward to seeing how this season will progress in terms of antagonists, with nearly double the number of episodes.