I may be wrong about this, but I think that the beginning of "Becoming (Part 1)" is the first time we ever witness a vampire being sired on-screen in the Buffyverse. How appropriate that it would be Angel, who is of course the most important vampire in the series (at this point), and that it's Darla who does it: the very first vampire we saw on-screen in televised Buffy. It's the first time we've really delved deeply into how Angel became the vampire he is today, which is where the episode gets its title: Becoming. Of course, we've been told a bit about it, but to see it dramatized on-screen is something else. It's particularly interesting to see the parallels between Angel's becoming and Buffy's own, as the show gives us its own version of Buffy's first encounter with vampires.
I don't think that Boreanaz's performance in this episode is as good as in "I Only Have Eyes for You," (the accent, in particular, is merely passable) but it's probably the best episode so far in terms of expanding the scope of his character. Until now, Angel has never really had much going for him as a character in his own right. He's only ever been considered in terms of his relationship to Buffy. The character is defined pretty much exclusively by his relationship to Buffy. Is he friend or foe? How does their relationship affect the broader context of Buffy's life? This episode offers us instead his perspective: the focus is on what she means to him in the broader context of his own narrative. It sort of equalizes them, which serves to ramp up the current conflict as well as laying the groundwork for further exploration of Angel's character in his own series (which is still a way off, and I don't know to what extent Joss had planned Angel at this point, if at all).
Back in the present, Joss is putting Buffy through one of the toughest emotional situations imaginable. You thought it was bad when Buffy had to come to terms with the fact that she has to kill Angel. Well, just when she's finally getting comfortable with the idea, the tables are turned, and she now realizes that there's a legitimate chance of his redemption... and she still has to prepare to kill him anyway. Yeesh.
When compared the last "part one" episode, "Surprise," this episode does a much better job functioning dramatically. Taken on its own, "Surprise" seemed pretty flawed, with many elements only bearing fruit in "Innocence." This episode does a much better job, because of the above dramatic threads. There's still plenty of setup for the big finale, but it feels more satisfying as an individual episode. There are a few hollow points: notably Kendra, who apparently shows up for no other reason than to say hello and die, but given the great cliffhanger that comes out of this it's hard to fault it. Overall, a very exciting episode.
- Xander using fish sticks to act out Buffy's staking of a vampire is a great moment of comedy, made all the greater by the fact that he's also drinking a from juice box (again).
- When Whistler approaches Angel in 1996, he claims to represent a higher power but he doesn't identify this power by name. It's pretty easy to assume that he works for "The Powers That Be," whose plans for Angel form a major part of the premise of Angel. Whether this has ever been specifically retconned on-screen I'm not sure, but given the way this episode lays the groundwork for Angel, it seems reasonable to make that leap.