Buffy Season 3 Falters, but Turns Round Right
By Kristin Battestella
I stalled for a bit in my rewatching of Buffy the Vampire Slayer over other things, but I also have never been super enthusiastic over Season 3. After great strides in villainy and growing up in its sophomore season, round three seems somewhat uneven in its portrayal of rogue slayers, corrupt politicians, and romance run amok. Thankfully, the latter half of the season hits its stride and says goodbye to Senior Year in style.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) returns to Sunnydale High a little less than on the ball after running away last year. She competes with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) for Prom Queen, hides the resurrected Angel (David Boreanaz) from school librarian Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and butts heads with new watcher Wesley Wyndam Pryce (Alexis Denisof). Oz (Seth Green) still struggles with being a werewolf and Xander (Nicholas Brendan) can’t find where he fits in the Scooby Gang. Willow (Alyson Hannigan), however, takes a liking to witchcraft- and faces newfound guilt over kissing Xander. As if Buffy’s world couldn’t get any worse, bad girl slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) comes to town and corrupt Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) has more than a few demonic tricks up his sleeve.
Creator Joss Whedon takes Buffy on a slightly darker path this season. The core cast is a little older, somewhat wiser for the wear, and the first fractures of the gang show thanks to love, slaying, and graduation. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many mini series or short British shows, but Season 3 here is weak to start with moody, melancholy episodes that seem more like filler then a slow brooding build up. Plots pick up with the introduction of wayward slayer Faith and the villainous henchman Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman, The Dark Knight) in “Faith, Hope, and Trick,” but the first half of the season spends more time on individual character episodes and high school allegories. Some are a little slow and dated like “Homecoming” and “The Zeppo”- this season seems uneven and fractured itself because it has the uneasy task of showing us our gang as individuals. What alternatives are their outside of the group? What are the possibilities beyond high school? Is the season about the individual standouts and explorations of characters or is it about the slayer antithesis and the political Big Bads? There are some seriously dazzling one off gems here including “Band Candy”, “The Wish” and its follow up “Dopplegangland”, and of course the controversial but brilliant and still relevant “Earshot”. Beginning with “Bad Girls,” however, every episode speeds up the season long storyline and continues to build on the Mayoral villainy. Once we return to the strong bond and relationships being the glue against the monsters of life and high school, Season 3 conclude on a great two-part “Graduation Day” whopper.
I imagine there are some fans that prefer the dark and wild slayer Faith to our titular blonde cheerleader. It’s not that I don’t like Faith, but her up and down appearances don’t do the character justice. Faith should have been much more involved early in the season; and with the considerable amount she is there for the later half, why isn’t she in the opening credits? Now that we’ve had a few years to know Buffy and her world, why not always have a bad girl slayer around to further antagonize and remind us how uneasy Buffy’s balance between life and school and good and evil is? Interesting notions on how Faith should take up the primary slayer mantle while Buffy goes on with her life are dismissed for other ho-hum explorations before Faith goes too uber bad too quickly. Some of her physically different dark looks and style to Buffy’s sunny charm is also obvious, and her angry over Angel all the time and latent yet still totally jealous thing gets annoying, too. Her storyline is wonderful once it gets rolling, but it seems there are more Faith, bad Faith, and Buffy versus Faith opportunities to explore. Fortunately, later seasons do rectify some of the Faithy goodness, and it’s refreshing to have someone who doesn’t always do the right thing or has her own motivations for doing so. Faith- despite being so strong and capable- is so quick to err and get on everyone else’s bad bandwagon. How could two slayers be so much alike yet so truly different? In many ways, Faith is correct in her ideas that Buffy’s got bad in her blood and a secret joy at killing just below her do-gooder sensibilities. Her antagonism does indeed push Buffy to put her claws out and do the extremes she wouldn’t have previously done. In some shows, the writers would just keep going and going with nothing major ever really happening for these opposites. For each slayer to be true to herself, however, their relationship has to come to an end. Faith’s mirror half to Buffy serves to strengthen our fair leader. Buffy thought she wanted out of the Hellmouth, but her stance against Faith fully allows her to accept the slayer as who she is and will be.
Adding nicely to the somewhat uneven slayer dynamic is the great fatherly relationships and examinations with both Giles and Mayor Wilkins. Giles supports Buffy wholeheartedly in her schooling and her slayer training only to have their bond fracture thanks to her secrecy over Angel and the Watcher’s Council interfering in “Helpless.” For better or for worse, everything seems to break at some point this season- and it all leads back to the Mayor. Wilkins takes a while to build up exactly what he is - almost all season in fact. However, his equally fatherish dynamic with Faith is kind of refreshingly bizarre. Because they are bad and crazy, we expect neither to care; but Wilkins supports Faith the way the Scoobies uphold Buffy. Their affection is no less genuine-even bad crazy people can have feelings. I actually can never decide if I like Mayor Wilkins or not. He’s the evil politician with a hand in everything dirty in Sunnydale- and yet he is obsessed with cleanliness. Groener (Las Vegas, Dear John) plays it all a little too tongue in cheek and ironic- a corrupt official who is actually eevvviill! Perhaps one could find something kinky between him and Faith, sugar daddy jokes and all that. It’s also creepy that the Mayor sees many truths Faith seeks to hide- as well as the real dynamic between Buffy and Angel. Competent villains with a seed of the right are the scariest of all, even with the snake monsterness aside. In fact, if it weren’t for the monster bits, Wilkins might have been a good guy. He provides frank advice to the gang and even delivers the Class of 1999 commencement speech. His solid rearing and giving Faith the attention for which she so yearned also comes back to bite Buffy, too.
The ambiguous pairing explorations continue as our secondary players get somewhat deduced thanks to make ups, break ups, and illicit kisses. Xander spazzing over kissing Willow seems very annoying to me now. Cue the sappy music every frickin’ time, too, as if we don’t get it! Likewise, Willow gets weird with the make out guilt, and her ugly pink clothes and orange graphic shirts with overalls seem like a geeky regress- especially when we meet her cool vampire doppelganger. Again, it’s this antithesis what if I were bad possibility that allows Willow to come out of her shell more than silly boys. These seeds of witchcraft and gay leanings do nicely in combining the good, bad, positive, and negative characterizations that are to come for Willow much more than the smooches could. Unfortunately, the overplayed Xander and Willow attractions completely cheapened Oz even more. Hasn’t this character been disused enough? He’s barely a part of the gang, and his werewolf issues only appear sporadically as the plot requires. While we explore all these new difficulties with everyone else, we still know next to nothing about Oz. He’s in a band, likes Willow, and is a werewolf occasionally. Wow. One wonders why they graduated Seth Green to the opening credits if Oz was going to be so abused this season.
Angel’s return from the hell dimension is also a little slow and sometimes painful. Outside of his stand out episode “Amends” and a critical point between Faith and Buffy in the finale, I’m not really sure why they went through these repeated motions of the slayer and the vampire making googly eyes at each other. That part of Buffy’s life seemed over, why reopen old wounds? Frankly, this is a stagnant relationship that can’t go any further, and it is very nice that Whedon was able to spin off the character into something much more than Buffy’s wannabe boy. By contrast, the once shallow and one-dimensional Cordelia grows up plenty. We spend more time with her beyond the weird relationship with Xander and see that the popularity, wealth, and fashion of high school are behind her. Buffy, Xander, and Willow may learn up and down lessons about themselves in Season 3, but Cordelia is the one who has completely changed and developed into an adult ready to move on.
I know I’ve been very picky and probably whining and uneven and annoying just like my Season 3 complaints. Nevertheless, the players both regular and recurring and the guest stars do wonderfully all around. In addition to his pertinent observation, “Why couldn’t you be dealing drugs like normal people?”, we bid adieu to Armin Shimerman’s Principal Snyder in style. Kristine Sutherland’s Joyce also has some fun and becomes a more equal figure with Giles for Buffy’s slayer welfare. Robin Sachs as Ethan Rayne has always been more entertaining to me then Mayor Wilkins, and future Angel cast member Alexis Denisof’s Wesley is greatly repressed fun compared to how uptight we thought Giles originally was. Of course, James Marsters’ lone appearance this season as Spike in “Lover’s Walk” is sweet- simply because he isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. And future importants Emma Caulfield (Beverly Hills 90210) as Anya and Danny Strong (Gilmore Girls) as Jonathan make their presence known in memorable Buffyverse fashion.
Again, we may find quibbles with such old television effects in our CGI stylized eyes. However, the dusting designs in Buffy are more than tolerable; and though the “Graduation Day” finale would look a lot different if made today, the visuals in Season 3 are better than previous years. Boys will still eat up the dual gal slayer action and fight sequences, but fashions again have not stood the decade. Some of the short skirts and skimpy dresses are iffy at best and mostly kind of hoochie. Dingoes Ate My Baby is also still dumb, and most of the music presented has become really nineties dated now. There’s also a slightly different credit design and remix for Buffy, and sometimes, you just like to watch the opening sequence for all the cool action and sound effects, admit it!
Budding vampire fans looking for some quality examinations or old school audiences returning to the ups and downs of high school can find what they are looking for in Buffy’s Third Season. With so many characters coming and going or changing with too many things happen here, perhaps Season 3 is not the place to introduce one to Buffy. However, returning fans can revisit Senior Year and walk down memory lane with Buffy anytime. After all, only she can blow off high school in such style, literally.