< Part two
Back in May, we began a series looking at the cult classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show’s first year was easily its messiest, as the writers, actors, and showrunner Joss Whedon were all trying to get a handle on how best to present the core ideas at the heart of the show. And what are those core ideas? For one, it’s the notion of taking the teenage mantra “high school is hell” and making it literal: Instead of fighting proverbial demons, in the Buffyverse teens must contend with actual demons, while still struggling with all the “usual” drama that comes with being in High School. That drama is almost always filtered through the prism of this fantastical world and seen through the eyes of the heroine in the center, as she grows from a teenager to an adult.
As we’ve noticed before, each of Buffy’s seven seasons tackle some part of the maturation process, whether it’s accepting who you are (season one) or dealing with a first love (season two). Except who is Buffy? She’s not just an adolescent grappling with teenage drama; she’s the Slayer, a veritable superhero with the weight (and the fate) of the world on her shoulders, knowing not only that she has countless vampires, demons, and other monsters all vying to be the one to kill her, but also knowing that when she does die, her powers will simply transfer to the next “chosen” girl, who will carry on the fight after her.
In a twisted way, the very thing that makes Buffy so special and unique (she is the one Slayer) is also what makes her just one in a very long line of girls. She’s not the first Slayer; she’s more like the one-hundred thousandth Slayer, knowing full well that she will one day die and all she accomplished—all her many feats, all the victories she won that impressed and spellbound so many—will just move to the next one to pick up right where she left off as if she never existed. If you don’t think that’s worthy of an existential crisis, you’re crazy. That’s the underpinning that drives Buffy’s first season.
The trouble with season one was it didn’t quite live up to that lofty premise and instead “settled” for run-of-the-mill “freak of the week” plot devices and a very episodic television format. Some of that is because of that particular era of network television necessitated weekly plots and an episodic delivery. Some of it was because the show was still trying to figure itself out. Either way, Buffy’s first year can best be described as having “unrealized promise.”
Season two was a dramatic leap forward.
Once again, the show took the real-world struggle—in this case, “a girl’s first serious romance”—and wove it elegantly throughout the supernatural-filled season. Buffy’s second year is cleanly split into two halves, with the first being everything leading up to the epic two-parter “Surprise/Innocence,” and the second dealing with the fallout. In the build-up episodes, the Buffy/Angel romance is a budding one, flirting with the overused will-they/won’t-they trope, walking the viewer right to the edge of the cliff before savagely pushing us off at the end of “Surprise.” Angel’s turn to evil allows the writers to keep things from getting stale, adds a new villainous wrinkle to an already loaded cast of baddies (Spike and Drusilla, plus a host of one-off monsters), and creates a wellspring of drama in a plethora of ways (Buffy’s personal struggles, the death of Mrs. Calendar, the constant fear that Angelus might pop in, if only for a quick “boo!”), all in one fell swoop. It was a masterstroke of an idea, executed perfectly, and climaxed with (in my opinion) the series’ very best finale. All of the emotion, the drama, the anger, the suspense, and the excitement peaked exactly when it should, right in time for the final few minutes of the second season. If there were any doubts that Buffy deserved a third year, “Becoming 1-2” drove a sword right through them and kicked them back into a hell dimension.
If there is a flaw in season two, it’s that the overall arc of Buffy dealing with her first love was, at times, played a bit too subtly, to the point where a viewer might not even realize what the allegory of the season was until Angelus appeared in “Innocence.” It was something for the next season to improve upon, and boy did it…
Buffy’s third season is, top to bottom, the series’ best.
Maybe the thing I love the most about it—and that’s a very long list—is that it’s the season where the show finally clicked in every conceivable way. The humor had never been better, the drama was pitch-perfect, the supernatural thrills (the show was rarely ever genuinely scary) were all excellently balanced with the day-to-day “normal” drama, while the driving arc of the season looms over everything like a bomb slowly ticking down to zero. This was the year where everything Joss and co. learned in seasons one and two were put into practice, so of course (spoiler alert) this is the year where they ended things by blowing half of the show up and resetting the table for season four.
Season three is Buffy’s senior year in high school, and there is no greater source of drama from which to mine than teenagers faced with the reality that, whether they are mature enough or not (and most are not), Graduation Day is looming and when it arrives it will spit them all out into the real world one way or another. Unlike in season two, which only halfway touched on its year-long theme in the first half of the season, Buffy’s third year is saturated with talk about graduation, wrestling with the angst that comes with graduation, feeling the pressure over being unprepared for graduation, and so on.
Creating a supernatural foil to contend with is Sunnydale’s enigmatic Mayor, previously only alluded to and now given a spotlight role as the big bad of the season. Mayor Wilkins is a man who wants to become a demon and he has pegged Sunnydale High’s graduation day as his “ascension” day, when he will transform into a huge, snake-like monster and devour the whole student body as his first demonic meal. Complicating things is Faith, the new Slayer in town. She is the replacement for Kendra (barely mentioned in the season two write-up because, well, look how quickly she was brushed aside to make way for Faith) who, herself, was the replacement for Buffy (who was dead for a minute at the end of season one).
The rule that there can be only one Slayer is still technically true, and despite what I said earlier, to be technical: Faith is the Slayer but Buffy—by virtue of being resuscitated—still retains all the Slayer’s powers and—by virtue of her character development in season one—retains the inner feeling of destiny and purpose that compels to keep fighting the fight. So where does that leave Faith? She’s in limbo, detached from the Scoobie gang and forced to make her own rules (which get her into trouble and drive her away, right into the arms of the evil Mayor).
Faith is a phenomenal addition to the cast.
In many ways she represents the path Buffy could have gone down had she not had the support system around her that we’ve come to love over the past two years: Willow, Giles, and Xander are Buffy’s heart, mind, and spirit; her mother provides a stable home, Angel (back from his hell dimension) is a complication but still is a support in more ways than one. Faith, on the other hand, grew up with the worst of circumstances. She had an unloving home, no friends, no guardians or mentors to give her encouragement, no “love” life of any kind. In short, Buffy being the Slayer is a constant burden, because it always clashes with her own (deeply rooted, but still selfish) desires to be “just a normal girl.” Faith, on the other hand, sees being the Slayer as her identity, a purpose she has always sought after. Buffy didn’t need to be the Slayer to feel complete; it was something added to her that she spends seven years coming to terms with. Faith needs
to be the Slayer the power of the Slayer, or at least she thinks she does; it’s what she thinks makes her life have meaning. Because of that, and despite her very tough outer shell, she’s really the most vulnerable and fragile character of them all, making her the perfect person to be seduced by the dark side in the now-expected midseason twist.
With Faith on his side, the Mayor looks unstoppable, and as the Scooby Gang deals with how to stop Wilkins from unleashing a fully-formed demon, they also contend with ending the biggest chapter of their lives. Much of season three is therefore about coming to terms with self, something that is healthy and important as a teen prepares to graduate. Xander and Willow strike up an illicit relationship after they both find the perfect partner in Cordelia and Oz. Why do they do it? Because impending graduation makes teens do some of their first serious reflection and navel-gazing about their lives thus far. It’s something that happens again when you turn thirty, again when you turn forty, again when you turn fifty, then it takes a break until you turn sixty-five. At that point, you pretty much spend the rest of your life bouncing back and forth between navel-gazing and enjoying retirement.
So you can forgive a high school senior for the existential crisis that comes as the final day of “childhood dependence” ends and the transition to “adult independence” begins.
Buffy goes through a similar crisis of identity, as she secretly craves the freedom that Faith lives by so cavalierly. Angel—not graduating but caught up in it—goes through it too, as he starts to feel he can do more good outside of Sunnydale. Giles also winces at the prospect of not being the indispensable brains of the team anymore; a bunch of college kids won’t exactly be hanging around at the school library next year.
So how does the show tackle these crises of identity? With episodes like “The Zeppo” (Xander flies solo while the rest of the gang save the world), “The Wish” (Cordy deals with an alternate universe where Buffy was never around to screw up her life), “Lovers Walk” (Xander and Willow’s affair catches up to them), “Dopplegangland” (Willow looks darkly into the reflection of her ‘mirror universe’ self), and “Helpless” (Buffy loses her powers and her trust in Giles). Episode after episode in the season focuses in one way or another on the big themes at work this year. It makes season three (along with season five) feel like a modern, serialized TV show, despite most episodes being self-contained.
And as the year draws to a close it does such a spectacular job tying together those themes and bringing everything to such a satisfying conclusion that the whole series could have ended with Graduation Day 1-2 and the show still would have been regarded as one of the best. And the episode that perfectly nails the feeling of thematic closure is the penultimate of the season (if we consider the two-part finale as a single unit), “The Prom.”
To this point in the show, Buffy (the character) operated as a kind of Spider-Man; doing good on a local level and balancing super-heroics with a secret identity. Over the course of the first three seasons, though, her good deeds started to pile up in the form of background players, bit parts, and ancillary characters that she helped along the way. No one better represented that segment of the extended cast than the loveable sad sack Jonathan. Going all the way back to the early episodes of the show, Jonathan was a go-to character if ever there needed to be someone to represent the nerds, the dweebs, and the kinds of losers that today rule the world but in the 90s were the biggest target for high school bullies.
Jonathan was the center of one of Buffy’s more controversial episodes, Earshot, which dealt with the school shooting epidemic that plagued campuses across the country for a twenty-year stretch. This being Buffy, there had to be a supernatural twist; in this case, Buffy has a run-in with a demon whose blood infects her, causing her to develop the ability to hear the thoughts of the people around her. Much hilarity ensues until she overhears one student seemingly plotting to open fire on his classmates. In the end, it ended up being a misunderstanding (it was actually the lunch lady planning on poisoning the students), but still Buffy finds Jonathan with a loaded rifle…about to take his own life. She talks him down and the episode ends on a high note…but that didn’t stop the network from refusing to air it until weeks before the season four premiere. To be fair, the Columbine Shooting had occurred just one week prior, so everyone was a little sensitive. Personally, the message of the episode would have been helpful, not hurtful at the time.
Jonathan being saved by Buffy paid off in a big way in “The Prom,” in which the perpetually overlooked, side-eyed, and misunderstood school girl is formally recognized by her peers. Jonathan makes a speech saying what everyone in the school thinks but dares not to say: They’re ground zero for freaky stuff, monster attacks, and more, and more than twice Buffy Summers has been in the thick of it, keeping them safe. With that, he bestows upon her the “Class Protector” award and creates one of the sweetest and “earned” feel-good moments I’ve ever seen on TV…
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It’s the perfect way to end the episode before the finale, which features in its climax the entire school banding together to stop the Mayor’s ascension. The climactic fight of the season maybe isn’t as visceral and budget-busting as Joss would do in The Avengers, but for a TV show (with a shoestring budget) it works, and it mostly works because the director made it about the characters. If you don’t care about the people in the fight then special effects can only take you so far. If you do care, no special effects are needed at all.
Buffy’s third season built beautifully to a conclusion three years in the making and, at the end of it, the show had boldly declared that the next year (if there would be a next year) would have to shake up the formula in order to proceed. As you probably know, there would indeed be a fourth season greenlit by the WB Network and, true to his word, Joss offered up the Buffy we knew with more than a few new wrinkles to play around with…and a brand new show—Angel—to compliment things.
We’ll talk about both Buffy Season Four and Angel Season One next month.