The Darkness of "Passion": Visuals and Voiceovers, Sound and Shadow
In this essay, Rhonda V. Wilcox provides a penetrating commentary on one of the greatest Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes that Joss Whedon neither wrote nor directed.
In the little booklet accompanying the Chosen DVD set, Joss Whedon names his 12 top-10 Buffy episodes not "shot" by himself -- among them, "Passion". He also notes that his list is meant in part "to brag about episodes I worked on less visibly". "Passion" was written by Ty King and directed by Michael E. Gershman. Of course, Whedon (the former Hollywood script doctor) often rewrote or added passages for Buffy, collaborating with the credited writers. Most of us nowadays understand that a television show has many parents. Whatever its precise parentage, "Passion" is a wonderful creature -- or perhaps I should say creation, but it does seem almost alive to me. Its director, Michael Gershman, was the longtime Director of Photography for the series, and he shot the episode beautifully (it was the first he directed, but not the last). It's one of the visually darkest episodes of Buffy, and Gershman uses the interplay of light and dark to develop the emotions and ideas of the story. The writing is also particularly beautiful; and perhaps one of its most noteworthy elements is the memorable voiceover, enhanced by an extraordinarily effective use of music and sound. Those visuals and that voiceover work together to make "Passion" one of the great episodes of television.
"Passion" is the 17th episode of the second season of Buffy, many people’s favorite season. The show comes as one of an intense sequence of episodes. In the two-part 13th/14th, "Surprise" / "Innocence", the vampire Angel loses his soul (which gypsies had returned to him only to torment him) when he enjoys a moment of pure happiness as he and Buffy make love for the first time. So, Episode 14, Angel turns evil; episode 15, Oz turns werewolf (though Willow still kisses him); in episode 16, Cordelia comes out, publicly claiming Xander as her boyfriend. In other words, we have shows about (among other things) Buffy and Angel; Willow and Oz; Xander and Cordelia. We might say that the next episode, "Passion", is about the adults -- Buffy's Watcher, the librarian Rupert Giles, and computer teacher Jenny Calendar -- and it is indeed the episode in which Buffy in effect gives Jenny her forgiveness for Jenny’s part in supporting the gypsy curse and her blessing on a reconciliation between Jenny and Giles ("I don’t want him to be lonely. I don’t want anyone to be"). It is the fourth episode in a row about the central characters' romantic relationships.
But it is also the episode in which Jenny dies. Thus it is the first instance of a Whedon trademark, the death of a character in whom the audience is invested, the death of a character who is alive for the audience. Something similar occurs in the pilot, with the death of Xander’s best friend Jesse, but the effect is not as strong there, because in Jenny’s case, the long-term narrative form of television has been operating to create something like a relationship: we have known Jenny (played by Robia LaMorte) almost as long as the rest of the characters, now in their second season. In an interview on "Passion" recorded for the Chosen DVD, Whedon calls Jenny Calendar’s death a "very specifically placed pivotal moment in the show. We needed to kill somebody, because we needed to tell the audience that not everything is safe." I must confess that I couldn’t help thinking "Who better to kill than someone whose last name is LaMorte?" -- but that is simple serendipity, enjoyable though the wordplay might be. In any case, it seems clear that in "Passion" we see one climax of a set of stories about relationships driving towards a moment of mortality -- or, to put it another way, "Passion" is about sex and death. Among many other things. (In Buffy, there are always other things.) Almost every scene is ripe with meaning, and few more so than the opening of "Passion."
Opening Rhythms: Visual and Voice
The first shot of "Passion" gives us an unusual camera angle: we are looking down on the heads of dancers in the Bronze as they move to slowly swinging music in the dim light. We hear a female voice coolly singing about slipping the net and cutting free. Buffy and Xander dance while conversing, though we cannot hear their words; Cordelia and Willow chat at a table in the background; and even farther back, unseen by the others, is Angel, gazing at Buffy from the dark. Only we see him...