Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three

Buffy: World is what it is. We fight, we die. Wishing doesn't change that.
Giles: I have to believe in a better world.
Buffy: Go ahead. I have to live in this one.

At the end of the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our titular vampire slayer's beaten and scarred and gone. Her lover's dead by her hands, her city's been ravaged, her ties severed, she's wanted by the police and expelled from her skill and fleeing the deaths and injuries and torture that have set upon her circle of friends and allies. In the closing moment of the last episode, she leaves Sunnydale behind.

With the opening episode of season three – the fantastic Anne – we find her entirely adrift in the big city, waiting tables under an assumed name, having turned her back on her destiny and her life and those around her. She's not the only one. Los Angeles seems a city composed entirely of the apathetic and the alone, those that fled their responsibilities and their lives and found that they had nothing left. Kids come here, a representative for the Family Home says, and they got nothing to go home to, and... this ends up being the last stop for a lot of them. The disillusioned and the destroyed wander the streets here, and they are quite literally no one.

And so it is that Buffy descends into hell, for, as a slave driving demon tells her, What is Hell, but the total absence of hope? The substance, the tactile proof of despair? Of course, this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rather than a Ligotti tale, and so our heroine is not about to be permanently defeated by depression, be it in emotional or demonic form. The fight scene that acts as the episode's climax may not be as spectacular as the chilling first half, but it, and the set up before, were are still enough to make the most composed viewer want to stand up and cheer. The episode's final blow, however, comes later, for our final shots are of Buffy returning home and of her mother opening the door to greet her.

By the end of the season's third episode, the status quo so shattered at the second season's end is essentially back in place, the awkwardness of returns and departures now buried. What is not so easily repaired, however, are the lasting effects, small mannerisms and flashes of character that never go away and never cease to inform the show's present. The way that Buffy's mother can't help but ask, again and again, if Buffy is once again departing.

But, of course, season three does not merely rest on its laurels once its players are back into position. Like season two, season three has a villain, and an overarching plot, that gives the arc shape while the characters evolve. Here, however, the balance is radically different. Structurally, the season can be largely divided into two parts, and, in the first, there's almost no greater conflict at all, simply Buffy and her allies dealing with struggles as they arise and, above all, facing the consequences of their own actions, present and prior. [Oh, and note: this review contains SPOILERS for near all episodes discussed.]

The problem that arises from this is essentially one of excess. In the last season, the moments of dramatic character change and upheaval, the times when the battle between good and evil was drastically rearranged by an event unforeseeable and revelatory, were the highlights. Here, though, the battle for good and evil takes a back seat, or perhaps slips out the trunk, and those moments of character change are all there is, which can, after episodes concentrated in such a fashion, render the illumination rendered less effective than it should be.  But, I stress, this isn't a problem of a weak element. Far from it. Put simply, many of these episodes (though obviously not all) are excellent.

The primary tool used here by Whedon and co is one of contrast, either introducing new characters or developing radical new situations to show their characters in new lights. And what those contrasts almost invariably show us is responsibility. Season two focused on acting in impossible situations, on how it's our actions, not our circumstances, that make us who we are. Season three shows us the consequences of those actions, and no move – no matter how justified or triumphant – is devoid of repercussions.

Nowhere is this theme more evident than with Angel – and yes, I know what you're thinking, fellow first time viewer (if you exist – oftentimes I feel the only one in the hemisphere that's not yet seen all seven seasons), Angel does return. My first thoughts upon this were something along the lines of: worst cop out ever. Thankfully, however, Whedon doesn't simply pop Angel into his old situations after a six line explanation about his death and move on. No, Angel returns as more beast than man, and, when he regains his sanity, it's something that feels earned, not something given by authorial decree. More important still, however, is the fact that Angel does not ever reintegrate himself among Buffy's allies in the way he once was. Giles still distrusts him – a tad sore over that whole torture issue – Xander's still doubtful, and Buffy knows that they can never again grow as close as they were.

All that, however, is merely the set up for the crisis at the heart of his character, which shows itself beautifully in Amends. For Angel is back for a reason, and he does not know what that reason is. What he does know is that the brutality of his past is returning to him, inescapable, and, in the episode, it's revealed that his savior is no force for good but rather the unsnappily titled First Evil. Despite that rather uninspired moniker, the creature's what it says on the tin, namely an evil that predates man and all else, a dark deity of sorts. And it is using Angel for its purposes. Desperate, he takes the only way out that he can think, but, as far as Buffy's concerned, that's just playing into defeat's hand, for there's never an excuse to simply give up, no situation in which you can lay the blame on the world and walk away. It's always up to you: You're weak. Everybody is. Everybody fails. Maybe this evil did bring you back, but if it did, it's because it needs you. And that means that you can hurt it. Angel, you have the power to do real good, to make amends. But if you die now, then all that you ever were was a monster. (Amends)

The next episode, Gingerbread, is another of the show's greatest and raising an entire host of fascinating questions that cut to the show's core. It shows the people around Buffy, the much-murdered residents of Sunnydale, rising together to, for once, try and take their lives into their own hands. And it shows how, due to their inexperience and the faultiness of their leadership, they simply make things worse in every possible way. It shows the reactions of the often off screen elder generation to the show's events. And, most interestingly of all, it shows how Buffy, despite having now spent years fighting evil, and having saved the world again and again, is no closer to victory than ever. Is victory even possible? If not, is there a point in fighting? To that last, a Buffy quote from the prior episode might reveal some further things about her character: Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do. (Amends) At its end, Gingerbread does as many Buffy episodes do, and the issues, once raised, stand aside so that the big bad may be sufficiently pulped. While the climax is great fun, I found myself still thinking about the moral questions raised well into the next few dramas and wondering how Buffy could ever sufficiently answer most of them without the easy out of a villain to maul.

Xander, Willow, Oz, and Cordelia spend much of the season involved in the messy business of life. The relationships of the last season – Xander and Cordelia, Willow and Oz – continue at first, and there's a damn fair bit of hilarious dialogue, but it is, of course, when things go to hell that it becomes interesting. Xander and Willow, see, soon discover that their oh-so-innocent friendship may be developing less oh-so-innocent aspects. And, as they each face death alone, they end up going for one last big smooch. Of course, in a quite successful instance of it's-not-deus-ex-machina-if-it's-bad, Oz and Cordelia walk in right at that moment, leaving our two good friends left to deal with the slight problem of a betrayal that's very much in their alley. What makes the whole thing work, besides the show's near mystical skill at managing to make us both laugh and care, is that there are no easy answers here, and the problem's refreshingly devoid of blameless misunderstandings or easily straightened out ruffed feelings. When Willow and Oz get back together, their relationship's deeper for its strife. And, when Xander and Cordelia don't, it's damn hard to blame Cordelia in any way.

Cordelia's rage at the whole thing leads us to The Wish, where a demon grants good old Cordy her wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale. Surprise, surprise, that turned out to not be such a good idea, and, in the course of the devastation to follow, we run into the vampire equivalents of Willow and Xander, which are evil, rampaging, and quite together, to the fury of Cordelia. The whole episode is damn fun and ends in the kind of bloodbath that's hilarious for how many lines it crosses and how many unkillable characters meet their abrupt ends. That evil Willow appears again some time later in Doppelgangland, sliding into Willow's life and sticking out like a leather-clad thumb, forcing non-vampire Willow to take the spotlight and take on some of the characteristics of her foe in order to defeat her.

Xander, too, gets one very focused episode, though his has less fangs. The Zeppo shows Xander alone, the one member of Buffy's Scooby gang at this point that's not either a member of a mystical cult or possessing of mystical powers, against a foe less grandiose than the end of the world, but still quite deadly: namely disillusioned (and dead) youths with a bomb, no morals, and a desire to fuck some stuff up. Here it's made clear that it's force of will and morality that make a hero in Whedon's world, not strength, though the latter certainly doesn't hurt. (Incidentally, this was one of several moments I had while watching the show where I wondered how on earth they got away with a show about violence done on school grounds to teenagers. Then I realized all this was the year of Columbine, and my jaw dropped…)

But let's circle back to The Wish for a second. It, like the preceding season's Halloween, is an episode where, as you could probably tell from my prior description, everything's changed in an instant, only to be changed back later, with both transformations occurring by magic. It works, for the most part, by being damn fun and takes advantage of its quasi-cannon status to end in a delicious bloodbath that's so great for its unexpected nature. But it's not the only such magic-changes-everything (for lack of a catchier title) episode in this season. The other, Band Candy, is far less successful, and is an example of a tendency that Buffy occasionally develops, namely that where the humor totally sabotages plot, believability, and character. As a result of some magic band candy, the town's entire adult population seems to go insane, devolving into… *gasp!* teenagers! Between that and Oz's soon-coming comment (They're teenagers. It's a sobering mirror to look into, huh?) one gets the sense that this is supposed to fall somewhere between profound and hilarious. Alas, neither quite comes off. See, the adults are not so much teenagers as simpering and giggly mental defectives, and, while the physical comedy of their every twitch might lead to a chuckle or two, the overall effect is so profoundly silly (it got that one, at least) that I'll admit Snyder's character in particular never recovered its gravitas. Other such problematic episodes can be found (Homecoming, for instance), but are thankfully not the majority.

In this season, the exploration of Giles's character is focused entirely on how he relates to Buffy. This works very well for the first half of the show, culminating in Helpless, where he finally breaks free of the Watcher's Councils far off and uncaring diktats and aids Buffy. This earns him their ire, something quite in keeping with the season's overall theme. Alas, this is where things get rather less fascinating. Giles is fired and nominally replaced by a new Watcher, Wesley. This all, of course, might have been more shocking if the new Watcher shtick hadn't already been played earlier in this very season in Revelations, but anyway. When we were first introduced to Giles all the way back in season one, he came off as a pedant, but, in the course of the show, we grew to realize the strength of the man behind the regulations. Wesley, on the other hand, is just a pedant. Vampire Willow had a brief but memorable stay, and Faith (soon to be discussed in full) makes us reevaluate large aspects of Buffy's character, but anyone who hadn't already grasped that Giles was more than the rules by the time Wesley showed up is likely of subhuman intelligence. All this might lead to some drastic change if Giles didn't stay around, essentially making Wesley just an additional and highly superfluous part of the group, basically just an annoying voice at conferences to be silenced by a clever jab or two.

But, of course, the season's center is the slayer, and the true soul of season three is Eliza Dushku's Faith, a second slayer who comes to Sunnydale, and a character as opposite from Buffy as can be. Now, this isn't the second time that Buffy's been met by another slayer. Kendra came in season two, first called forth during Buffy's brief death in the first season's Prophecy Girl. Kendra did everything by the book, while Buffy – quite literally – had never heard of the book, Kendra had no life at all outside her slaying, and so forth. But while the differences between the two were clear, they were also skin deep. Faith, summoned by Kendra's death in Becoming, is nothing like that.

Like Buffy, Faith has a loose interpretation of the rules, a general disregard for precise and arbitrary authority, and a perpetually rebellious spirit – along with, one must not forget, a witty sense of humor. But, for Buffy, these things function as a relief, as a temporary escape from the duty that she knows she must never forget  and a reason for that duty. That's not Faith at all. Faith is a slayer, and that's all she is, a woman defined entirely by confrontation and rebellion. The triumphs and tribulations of the job have come to dominate every aspect of her personality. Violence is her work and her relaxation. For her, the fight against evil has become more important than the reasons for the fight. In fact, she's forgotten those reasons entirely. The mortals around her have no purposes besides exploitation and cheap, meaningless sex.

So we come to the season's second half. Here, the character growth and plotting merge, leading to a succession of some of the show's absolute strongest episodes focusing upon Faith. In Bad Girls, while on a desperate demon-stopping mission with Buffy, Faith kills a man. Throughout Bad Girls and its follow up, Consequences, Faith is forced to face the realities of what she did, and she, unwilling and unable to accept the guilt, forces herself to believe it does not matter, that she, as a slayer, is entitled to anything – anything at all – that she needs in her fight:

Faith: What if he was? You're still not seeing the big picture, B. Something made us different. We're warriors. We're built to kill.
Buffy: To kill demons! But it does not mean that we get to pass judgment on people like we're better than everybody else!
Faith: We are better. (Consequences)

As Buffy and her allies turn on Faith, rejecting her logic, Faith realizes that, for her, the fight trumps the cause. And so it is that Faith comes to Harry Groener's Mayor Wilkins, the season's villain. Wilkins is a tidy, germaphobic, punctual, and warm hearted monster, a source of endless homey cheer and dark plans. The relationship that he develops with Faith is replete with a paternal love, a gift giving and forgiving tyranny that's twisted and fun and beautiful to watch. Throughout, no matter how dark her deeds, it's the flickers of unacknowledged and unallowed remorse that plague her and make her so fascinating to watch.

In the fight against Faith, Buffy and her allies have a major disadvantage. Essentially, that they're not batshit insane:

Giles: Faith has you at a disadvantage, Buffy.
Buffy: Cause I'm not crazy, or cause I don't kill people?
Giles: Both, actually.

But, as the fight continues and the stakes rise, that changes, and both Angel and Buffy flirt with the darkness they oppose. In Enemies, Angel goes undercover, pretending to be the turned Angelus and pretending to both join the Mayor and betray Buffy. The mission's a success, and he and Buffy learn what they meant to about both Faith and the mayor's plans, but, all the same, their actions take a great toll on their relationship. That, however, is nothing compared to what comes in the finale, the two part Graduation Day. As Angel lies poisoned and wounded, Buffy turns away from the Watcher's Council, and away from her morality, and sets out to find Faith and kill Faith in a last ditch effort to save her lover. As with her and Angel last season, Whedon doesn't allow her the easy way out, doesn't let his heroine simply kill a monster. No, after their confrontation and battle, we're shown a final scene with Faith, and it's on her human side that we turn away from her. The actual final confrontation with the Mayor – a bit silly, perhaps, but the show's damn well earned its upswing climax by that point – is enjoyable, but nothing compared to the turmoil that was the double episode's middle.

The third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents some of the series' finest moments, and radically advances the arcs of most of its characters, though it, over all, doesn't quite have the cohesion of the second season. Still, the occasional weak episodes are more than made up for by the general excellence of the rest. As it stands here, Buffy is a show both hilarious and involving, dark and bright and full of heart. It's also a show whose fourth season I'm about to go watch…

STANDOUTS: Anne, The Zeppo, Graduation Day, Gingerbread, Amends


  1. You know, I'm thinking about watching through these. They seem interesting enough to be at least filler while I do other work.

  2. Travis, there is no better show, I can't recommend it enough, though the effects are a little dated.

    Earshot, the episode where Buffy hears everyone's thoughts was actually postponed due to Columbine, and there was argument at the time about not airing the finale. The Zeppo actually aired shortly before Columbine, so it's orginal viewing wasn't tainted by that.

    Also, you didn't like Band Candy? WTF is WRONG with you? That's like the best ever(of course I enjoy the hell out of Season 4's Beer Bad, which is mostly universally hated). Joyce and Ripper? You can't tell me you weren't dying at that. And there was of course the payoff of that in Earshot. It will also deliver another amusing payoff during Season 4(just remember the word stevedore).

    Fortunately for Wesley he will soon find gainful employment at a plucky little detective's outfit based out of LA, as will Cordelia. Angel The Series isn't as good as Buffy, IMO, as they are VERY different shows, but what it does it does well, I'd recommend it too.