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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Passion

[Updated April 29, 2013]

In Noel Murray’s review of Passion at the AV Club, he said that this episode was “as good as television ever gets.” I rate Passion higher than Innocence; it’s on my short list for the best episode in the whole series (along with Becoming, The Body, and OMWF), which means in the whole history of television. Interestingly, Joss didn’t officially write it, though rumors say he re-wrote substantial portions of it. I consider those rumors likely true, since Ty King never wrote another episode, which would be inexplicable if he had really produced something as stunning as Passion.


I’ll start at the top, with one of the greatest scenes television has ever produced, one that stunned me when I first watched it and which still blows me away no matter how often I’ve seen it (and yet which, amazingly, has not one but two competitors for the very best in the series IMO). What follows was originally posted at ATPO by Akita in April 2002. Apologies if some of you have seen it before, but it’s so good it’s worth re-reading:

“One of the things I most love about BtVS is the skillful, often artful, way music is used not only to complement, but to add depth to various scenes. And indeed, if you pay attention, it often cuts like a knife. Of course, we can usually understand the words of the songs that play behind the scenes . . . .
Yesterday evening, I finally got a chance to tape "Passion" -- the S2 episode when Angelus kills Jenny Calendar. I ended up watching it several times. Each time I grew more intrigued with the opera music playing in the scene where Giles arrives at his apartment. As a true opera fanatic, I knew the music, of course; it is "O soave fanciulla," a particularly glorious moment in Puccini's ultra- Romantic, enduringly popular "La Bohème."
However, opera is not something with which I would expect the typical (be there such a thing) BtVS fan to be very familiar. And, sure enough, when I checked the shooting script, it says merely: "Giles hear MUSIC - SOMETHING SOFT AND ROMANTIC - coming from an album on his TURNTABLE."

So why choose an opera selection that few will understand? And why that particular opera? Well, Giles (as we learn through the course of the series) is passionate about music (many kinds of music) - - and he surely loves this recording, because the record sounds as if it has been played often. That seriously repressed Giles, who intellectualizes nearly every event in his life, would love something as lush and Romantic as this opera obviously tells us something about him -- or at least affirms what we have already suspected. That Angelus would choose this recording as the backdrop for his sadistic little play also says something about his own cruelty and the twisted nature of his definition of passion. For the passion expressed in the opera scene is a world away from passion as Angelus understands it; it is the innocent passion of first love: it's all trembling first kisses, lovely girls bathed in moonlight. (In the opera, Mimì -- a poor and frail young seamstress [we learn later that she is actually dying of consumption] -- has just met the struggling young poet Rodolfo in his moonlit garret in 19th-century Paris; after telling each other a bit about themselves they realize they are falling in love.)

Here's the way the music in the scene plays out (English "translations" taken largely from William Weaver's translation of the libretto; some from my copy of the complete score).

Earlier in "Passion", Giles and Jenny have begun to mend the break between them; Jenny in fact has said, obviously for the first time aloud, that she loves him. He is expecting to see her later that night, and undoubtedly has some romantic fantasies of his own as to how the evening will turn out (only we the audience know that Jenny is already dead). As this scene opens, we see him walking down the stairs to his apartment. As he comes to the door, he sees a beautiful, long-stemmed, red rose attached to it -- and we can now hear the music swell. It is a tenor/soprano duet:

Rodolfo : Fremon già nell'anima/le dolcezze estreme (repeated 3 times)/Nel bacio freme amore [Already I taste in spirit/The heights of tenderness/Love trembles in our kiss]
Mimì: Ah! Tu sol commandi, amor! Tu sol commandi, amore/Oh! Come dolci scendono/ Le sue lusinghe al core . . .[You rule alone, Oh love!/How sweet his praises/enter my heart . . .]

(During this, GILES tenderly pulls the rose from the door, smells it, smiles, and opens the door, hopeful, but perhaps still fearing to expect too much, because we begin to hear a breathless, slightly awkward exchange between the two lovers. . .)

Mimì: . . .Tu sol comandi, amor! [Love, you alone rule.] (Rodolfo kisses her. She pulls back.) No, per pietà! [No, please.]
Rodolfo: Sei mia! [You are mine!]
Mimì: V' aspettan gli amici . . .[Your friends are waiting . . .]
Rodolfo: Già mi mandi via? [You send me away already?]

(During this, GILES enters his apartment a bit hesitantly, calls out for Jenny, hangs up his coat, looks around, sees the wine, roses, and note, and walks toward them.)

Mimì: Vorrei dir . . .ma non oso . . . [I daren't say . . . what I'd like . . .]
Rodolfo: Di'. [Tell me.]

(On the words "Di'/Tell me", GILES opens the note and reads -- "Upstairs." The conjunction of the words and the act made me gasp when I first heard it.)

Rodolfo to Mimì: O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso/Di mite circonfuso alba lunar [Oh, lovely girl! Oh, sweet face/bathed in the soft moonlight]

(On these lines, GILES glances upward toward the bedroom, smiles sweetly, nearly joyfully, and with great expectation grabs the wine and starts toward the stairs.)

Rodolfo: In te ravviso il sogno . . ./Ch'io vorrei sempre sognar! [I see you in the dream . . ./I'd dream forever!]

(GILES climbs the stairs, sees Jenny on his bed, but only when he arrives at the bedroom door does he realize she is dead. As the champagne bottle drops from his hand, shattering on the floor, we hear Mimì and Rodolfo sing ecstatically:

Ah, tu sol commandi, amor! . . . [Ah! Love, you rule alone! . . .]

Oh, twist the knife. And then twist it one more time, because later as Giles leans against the wall, as Jenny's body is removed, we hear Mimì, alone, sing that line one more time: "Ah! Love, you rule alone! . . ." Then the soundtrack goes briefly totally silent, as the police bring Giles irrevocably back to what happened:

POLICEMAN: Mr. Giles, I need to ask you to come with us . . .

GILES (still dazed): Of course . . . . .yes . . . .procedure.

And lest you still think this is all coincidence, the music has been altered. Although it sounds seamless, in fact the first part we hear (from: "Fremon già nell'anima" to "Di'") in the scene actually comes at the end of the aria/duet in the opera and indeed comes in again in its proper place at the end in the TV scene itself.” 

Making the scene all the more heart-rending is the irony of Giles’ words earlier:  “I know how hard this is for you. (gets a look from Buffy) All right, I don't. But as the Slayer, you don't have the luxury of being a slave to your, your passions. You mustn't let Angel get to you. No matter how provocative his behavior may become.”
Passion would rate in my top 5 for that one scene alone, but it’s filled with brilliant moments: Willow pulling the fish from the envelope; Angelus’s confrontation with Jenny and her murder; the way we see Buffy and Willow react to the news of Jenny’s death while Angelus narrates; Giles’ confrontation with Angelus; Buffy telling Giles she can’t do it without him. Voiceovers are controversial – see Blade Runner – but I think they really work here. The poetry of Angelus’ monologue conveys the devastation of the scene where Buffy and Willow break down far better than any dialogue could. It’s world class.
At the end, Buffy refuses to let Giles’ passion destroy him. She can’t let him leave; she can’t do this alone. She’s not a slave to passion after all.
Some random thoughts:
The title seems ironic given the role of Angelus. He’s as cold-blooded – that is, passionless – a killer as there ever was. “Without passion we’d be truly dead.” Yes he is.
I’ve often thought there’s a good deal of self-interest by the Watchers in the rule forbidding the slayer to disclose her identity. If the identity of the slayer were widely known, the job of the Watcher would be at least as dangerous as the job of mother.
With the focus on music above, you might note (ahem) that in both scenes with Giles and Jenny in the classroom, a variation on the Buffy/Angel theme plays while they speak.
BB&B showed us how love can easily become obsession. Here we get confirmation of Angelus’ obsession with Buffy:
“Buffy:  (stares into space) It's so weird... Every time something like this happens, my first instinct is still to run to Angel. I can't believe it's the same person. He's completely different from the guy that I knew. (looks at Willow)
Willow:  Well, sort of, except...
Buffy:  Except what?
Willow:  (looks at Buffy) You're still the only thing he thinks about.”

Though he doesn’t bite Jenny, there’s still a very sexual vibe when Angelus kills her: “this is where you get off.” Angelus looks like he’s having an orgasm. Making this implication even more distasteful, if that’s possible, is that Giles is Buffy’s surrogate father.
Xander comes across as very self-righteous in this episode. Yes, he hated Angel previously, but not for this reason, and he obviously had no reason to suspect the gypsy curse or its consequences. It’s an unattractive part of Xander’s character which will increasingly annoy me personally as we go forward.
Keep thinking about it: Who’s right, Buffy in saying that Angel is “completely different from the guy I knew”? Or Xander, who treats Angel and Angelus as the same? In the essay on Phases, I raised the question of how Buffy should think of Angelus. I’m still not going to answer that yet, but Passion obviously raises the stakes. Pun very much intended.
Trivia notes: (1) Cordelia was worried about her car because she gave Angel a ride in Some Assembly Required. (2) Remarkably, Joyce remembered that Buffy told her that Angel was tutoring her in history all the way back in Angel. (3) When Willow told Buffy she was glad her parents didn’t let her have a puppy, I think that was a deliberate reference to BB&B, where Giles told Buffy that on one Valentine’s Day “Angel nails a puppy to the...”. (4) Having Angelus in vamp face when he killed Jenny was a conscious decision. Joss didn’t want to confuse viewers about who was doing what. Keep this decision in mind when we get to S6. (5) When Xander encouraged Buffy to kill Angelus, he used the phrase “Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill”, which was a 1966 movie by Russ Meyer. (6) Angelus was toying with Jenny when he said he’d been invited in to the school. It’s a public building and vampires don’t need an invite.

17 comments:

  1. There really isn't much else to add to this, Passion is one of the most heartwrenching and profound hours of television ever, and I imagine even moreso in 1997/8 when this aired, and killing off major recurring cast members was unheard of.

    And the little touches, like the coordination of the music in that scene, are an integral part of what makes it so beautiful.

    DB does evil so much better than he did broody, and S3 Angel and beyond is definitely improved on by his development in these episodes, where he goes beyond broody to tortured.

    SPOILERS

    And let's all wish a fond farewell to an integral part of the Buffy mythos, Magic Shopkeeper #1!

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  2. LOL. Yep, the life expectancy of a Spinal Tap drummer.

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    1. And I love that the show remembers that.

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  3. Excellent write-up for an excellent episode. It's also probably in my top five of BtVS eps. Fans of the show have different episodes that mark, for them, the moment that Buffy really became BUFFY, for me, this is it. When I first watched (some years after the original broadcast), I kept waiting for Season 2 to get "really good," which is what everybody told me would happen. I already liked it immensely with episodes like "School Hard," "Lie to Me" and "Innocence." But "Passion" was the first time my jaw dropped to the floor and parked itself there for the rest of the night-hours after the episode had ended. I've seen a lot of television, and a lot of great episodes of various shows, but something happened when I watched "Passion" that really moved me beyond what TV normally can do. When I'm getting people to watch Buffy and they (sometimes) struggle through the early going, I always make them promise to stick with it through this episode. Those who do are always hooked for good.

    My only one teeny tiny minor gripe with the episode is that I always wish Buffy and Giles's moment together after they escape Angel and the fire could have been extended for a few moments. It's such a wonderful, meaningful moment for the show, and it seems to cut away quite abruptly.

    Totally agree on Xander. From here on, it's tough for me to love the guy or even respect him much until well into S03, or maybe even S04.

    One last thought. Having Angelus narrate is a stroke of genius BECAUSE of his complicated relationship with the feeling of passion. I think, as viewers anyway, we're not totally supposed to have given up on Angel at this point. I think part of why Joss killed off Jenny was to show the audience that Angel really was evil. But what makes that evil . . . I don't know, hurt? . . . so much is that we still like Angel. Partially because (as Aeryl says), DB is just so much fun to watch, but partially because (as we've discussed earlier) we've really come to care about the character of Angel. And like Willow says, Angelus still only thinks about Buffy. It's a very complicated, dense situation, but I think Angelus is tormented by the fact that Angel had loved Buffy so much, also fascinated by it, also obsessed with it. All of which adds up to a very twisted but fun-to-watch form of passion.

    (apologies for the length!)

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    1. The narration was definitely part of the genius of this episode for me.

      Also, on Xander, I love him dearly, but he was kind of one-dimensional in S2. S4 really was where they started to let him get some more fullness to the character other than in single episode bits and pieces.

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  4. Hey, I'm the last person on earth to complain about length. Besides, they're good points.

    Just to follow up on your comment about showing the audience that Angelus really was evil, Joss says that they killed Jenny for exactly this reason. It also, of course, shows the audience that the writers really mean it when things seem serious -- death is a real risk in this show.

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  5. Yeah, I think that's why it's such a vital episode, and probably lies at the heart of what I mean when I say this is the episode that first really showed me what I was in for with Buffy.

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  6. Thanks for the analysis of the scene where Giles finds Jenny. It's devastating even if you don't understand the lyrics or the background of the opera, but with those interjections explained it's a work of art.

    VAGUE SPOILERS

    The questions of whether Angel and Angelus are the same person, whether Angel is to be held accountable for his actions while soulless, and whether he can ever be redeemed are things I still turn over in my head. I think the overall narrative (of both shows) does a good job of exploring this without ever really answering the question. Buffy and Cordy and Faith may be able to forgive him, but Connor, Xander, Wesley, Lorne, and Angel himself are all more conflicted. I just realized how gendered that division is.

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  7. CONTINUED SPOILERS

    We can add Willow to your list of those seeming to accept Angel. The gender gap is striking, but what about Giles? It's possible to read Amends and the subsequent episodes either way, I think.

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  8. CONTINUED SPOILERS

    Giles could definitely go either way. He's sympathetic to Buffy by the end of season 3, but never protests Angel's decision to leave. And there's tension between them when Angel returns in Pangs.

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  9. Cont'd SPOILERS

    Interesting questions. I think Giles being the only "adult" in the group (and I would most definitely count Angel as non-adult, despite his age), he takes a more pragmatic view than the others. Giles may never truly forgive Angel for Jenny, but he recognizes two important things: what Angel means to Buffy and how she needs him; and how much assistance Angel can be to the group. When you're constantly trying to prevent the world from ending, any help is good help.

    The gender gap is also interesting, and it might be a question worth coming back to, Mark, when you get to some of your later-season posts about Buffy learning to slough off patriarchal codes of leadership. She and the other women may have some sort of inherent sense of alternate terms of forgiveness as well.

    The overall question of Angel's responsibility I think is one of the great, deep, and lasting issues that the Buffy-verse raises (continuing, devastatingly, in the S08 comic). However one reads the show - metaphorically, "literally," or otherwise - it is not at all an easy question to answer and really strikes at the heart of Whedon's take on shades of grey and moral ambiguity.

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  10. CONTINUED SPOILERS

    The gender gap suggestion is new to me, which is pretty amazing considering how much I've read about the show. Kudos to Cait for suggesting it. I'll have to think about that between now and Amends, where I have a long post planned on Angel.

    It's obviously a question for later seasons as well, since as you say the issue gets raised over and over again. Some issues that occur to me now:

    1. Are we seeing a case of forgiveness, or is it a different understanding of the soul canon?

    2. Assuming it is a case of forgiveness, is there a gender statement here as Cait's breakdown suggests? And if there is, should we consider it a positive one or could it be seen as a form of the old stereotype in which abused women forgive men?

    Mind you, I'm just throwing out questions here; thinking out loud. I'm sure there are other issues I haven't seen yet.

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  11. CONTINUED SPOILERS

    Good questions. The gender breakdown is also a new revelation to me, although it is pretty much right out there. In any case, does Buffy forgive Angelus, or just welcome back Angel - can she see a difference that Xander and others won't accept (because they are unwilling to or because they can't see it)?

    The abusive lover question is a good one, which might have implications for a certain massive decision Buffy makes in Graduation Day pt.1 in regards to Angel - and the different reactions to that decision tell us a lot about different characters.

    Alternatively, it could be (and I, too, am just thinking out loud) more like the alcoholic lover - a person with a disease who can seek help for it. I wouldn't want to read to far into such a metaphor. But all of these possibilities reinforce my sense that Angel's level of culpability is one of the great questions of the show (which will play out in different, sometimes more dramatic, but perhaps not as effective, ways with Spike, Willow, and Anya).

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    1. CONTINUED SPOILERS

      I didn't see the gender thing either until I wrote out my comment up there and it was staring me in the face.

      I think the question about abuse vs disease will be interesting to revisit in "Beauty and the Beasts" (Pete, Angel, and Oz)

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    2. Hey, that was sooner than the rest of us saw it. Kind of like Newton and the apple.

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  12. Amazing dissection of one of the best and hardest episodes to watch. I don't know much about opera so your correlation between the subtle yet significant moments and the background lyrics add yet another wave of depth/stroke of genius within the scene.
    I love reading through these reviews. They always deliver-- either I'm nodding my head in strong agreement or I'm having Aha! moments. Thanks so much for posting such insightful analysis and keep up the good work! :)

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