Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 3

07/05/2012

And now the third epic installment of my Buffy journals. It’s for the fans. Heavy spoilers. Blah blah blah eatin the puddin. Enjoy.

Season 3

“There’s a certain dramatic irony to all of this. A synchronicity that borders on predestination.” These are the words Giles chooses to commemorate the final moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 3. Buffy’s response: “My brain isn’t really functioning on the higher levels. It’s pretty much, ‘Fire bad,’ ‘Tree pretty.’” Leave it to Joss Whedon to speak directly for the audience as his story draws to a close. They’re both right of course. If there was ever a season of Buffy that might betray to its own characters that their lives are part of some hyper-structured arc conceived by a team of writers, it was this one. Season 3 is self-referential and fastidiously literary in ways the show had never been and rarely attempted to be ever again. But sometimes there’s so much going on in so short a span that it’s easy for a simple viewer like me to feel overtaken by all that ambition. Instead of running to keep up, I occasionally found myself falling back on those basest sensory responses: “Mayor bad,” “Alyson Hannigan pretty.”

Is that a criticism? Partially, but it’s also a simple acknowledgment of one difficulty inherent in running such an offbeat show. At any point Buffy can work as a soap opera, a serialized adventure yarn, an episodic creature feature, a zany dark comedy, a complex thematic dissertation, and an experimental art film. Balancing these disparate tones and styles is always going to be difficult; even more difficult when the show tries to hit them all simultaneously. That wasn’t as much of a problem back in seasons one and two, which were about soul-searching and intimacy and deep, personal pain — topics that lean heavily toward the soap opera format. But season 3 is deliberately positioned as an antithesis to its predecessors. It’s about empathy and logic and Buffy understanding her place in the larger world. That new through line echoes through every facet of the show, from the writing to the acting to the shot direction; an enormous testament to the unity of the creative team and the vision of their leader. Now the adventure veers away from Buffy’s personal life and out into the community (the community occasionally including other cities, dimensions, and timelines), while the storytelling in general strikes a more lighthearted, self-reflexive tone. It’s not that the raw, intimate emotion is gone; it’s just one small part of a more expansive story. Because pain never looks quite so bad from a distance, especially when we know that no matter what happens the world will go on spinning

Like a synchronicity that borders on predestination.

What Works?

Speaking of this season’s shift in tone and style, the wondrously balanced central cast absolutely thrives in the new conditions. Consider my two favorite episodes, The Zeppo and Lovers Walk. Zeppo follows Xander’s misadventures on a night when everyone else is off saving the world. Lovers features the return of Spike, whose presence is a perfect storm for upsetting the relationships of Buffy and Angel, Xander and Cordelia, and Willow and Oz. At first glance these seem like lighthearted romps — in fact, they’re the two funniest episodes of the entire series (you heard me right. The series!) — but they each snuck up on me emotionally and ended up packing quite a wallop. My second viewing of both episodes actually produced tears. For Zeppo, writer Dan Vebber hammers through all the show’s normal paces but as they would be seen from Xander’s perspective. Manic hilarity ensues, naturally, but also a far greater audience realization of who Xander is, what he wants, what he needs, and how he can grow as a person. Lovers is a bit different. It doesn’t mess with the structure of the show so much as it balances everything the show does well into one tightly-knit package. The key here is Spike. I love Spike, in case you weren’t aware. Marsters makes him hilarious and terrifying and oddly relatable all at once, which drives a story that has such disparate elements as Spike attacking Xander and torturing Willow, Willow and Xander kissing, Angel and Buffy breaking up, Cordelia and Xander breaking up, a fakeout Cordelia death, Spike vulnerably opening up to Joyce about his relationship issues, and quite a bit of awkward crying. Oh yeah, and Spike driving down the road singing “I Did it My Way”. Did I mention I love Spike?

Season 3’s big story produces the same effect on a larger scale. At first the Mayor (Harry Groener) seems like the silliest major villain yet — almost a parody of the colorful characters that became a series staple in season 2 — but despite the zany contradiction of his “aw shucks” personality and his ambition for world domination, his relationship with Faith becomes one of the season’s most effectively moving subplots. And let’s talk about Faith (Eliza Dushku). It seems fitting that a season built around the idea of empathy should have the protagonists watching the most compelling arc from a distance. Faith’s fall from hero to villain is one of those stock subplots that lots of shows and movies attempt and very few manage to pull off. The trouble is always that the descent comes too quickly or feels planned and unnatural. If I don’t care about the character, then I won’t care that they’re becoming a villain. (my problem with Anakin in the Star Wars prequels) And if I do care about the character, what are the odds I will believe he or she is capable of suddenly becoming a lunatic killer? (my problem with Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight) It requires a delicate balance of setup and plotting so that the descent feels like a natural, surprising direction for the character and not a predestined blip on the screenwriters’ outline. Thankfully Whedon and his writers gave this story the amount of time it needed to blossom.

There are a number of other new characters this season who I love as well. Anya (Emma Caulfield) doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but her interactions with Xander foreshadow one of my favorite relationships in the entire series. Also, in keeping with the general universe expansion idea, smaller roles like Jonathan (Danny Strong), Harmony (Mercedes McNab) and Larry (Larry Bagby) are given more of a chance to shine as a Who’s Who of Sunnydale High’s finest. Dark Willow (or Vampire Willow, depending on how you want to categorize Willow’s Dark Phoenix arc in season 6) is a lot of fun in both The Wish and Dopplegangland, two episodes that were right on the verge of being classics. And Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman) is just one example of the glut of memorable henchman bit parts this season had to offer.

If the things I’ve mentioned so far were the extent of what season 3 tackled, it would still be one of the most ambitious seasons of television I’ve ever seen. But amazingly, I’ve only scratched the surface. The concepts of graduation, fatherhood, war, inner darkness, moral complexity, empowerment, crime and punishment, the rationality of committing evil to do good, and the absurd necessity of bravery and self-sacrifice all figure into the story in a major way. It’s a lot to make sense of in a short amount of time; almost too much. It helps that I’ve recently watched a couple other TV seasons that seem deliberately planned to mirror this one: Buffy season 7 and Community season 3*. Both of those seasons dealt with similar problems and addressed similar topics, too much for me to call it a coincidence. I suppose those are all natural directions for stories to take at this juncture in their development: moments of change, moments of growth, moments where the characters realize their place in the larger scheme of their universe. The conflict of these ideas makes for some fascinating drama and hilarious juxtaposition, even if the examination can be a bit heady (read: murky) at times. It’s telling that Joss and his writers felt compelled to repeat many of this season’s ideas more concretely in season 7, even if that on-the-nose approach ultimately made season 7 way less exciting.

*I could write a whole other series of articles on the parallels I’ve observed while watching Buffy and Community back to back. I’ll spare you all for now, but I swear it’s really interesting stuff.

What Doesn’t Work?

I’ve alluded to the fact that not every aspect of Buffy adjusted well to the show’s new priorities. In many cases this just meant I needed to adjust my expectations as a viewer. The grittier nature of season 2 would directly work against this season’s polished aesthetic, and while I miss the horror-centric monster of the week episodes, they would steal time from the hilarious and theme-driven adventures that replaced them. But sometimes the issue wasn’t a simple shift in priorities. Sometimes a character or subplot just didn’t cross over smoothly. And sometimes that did cut into the show’s dramatic effectiveness.

For instance, Buffy and Angel’s vampire attack/sex scene in the finale didn’t get the “Wow!” out of me I think Joss was looking for. What it got was more of a curious, “Huh… okay.” It’s not that the scene didn’t work. It was certainly interesting (a word my non-committal Midwestern personality allows me to wield like a samurai). I might even call it fascinating, and boy oh boy was it intense. But I can’t say it felt like the much-desired emotional release needed after 21 episodes of relational dramatic buildup. The audience is supposed to have been sitting on the former lovers’ guilt and sexual tension for the entire season, and this moment of sacrificial bloodletting, involving both characters letting their animalistic urges take over, is supposed to unleash all of that tension in a moment of sweet release. Unfortunately all the time they spent pussyfooting and miscommunicating and arguing in a nonsensical, melodramatic fashion meant that I felt less tense about this crazy couple and more exhausted by them.

Then again, my biggest issue this season is that I simply no longer care about Buffy and Angel. I know that sounds a bit harsh. Maybe I’m a sexist pig who can’t relate to a woman’s need for a brooding, sensitive hunk of undead meat, but I just couldn’t maintain interest in these two for yet another full season. I like Buffy, I don’t dislike Angel, and I loved their relationship arc in season 2 more than just about anything else the show ever tackled. But take a look at Spike’s face every time he sees them together in Lover’s Walk. That’s the way I feel almost every time these two characters appear on screen. It’s a deep, guttural cringe at the thought that all the energy in the plot is about to be sucked out by some long, irrational, melodramatic shouting match. Or worse yet, yoga. Vampire yoga.

I wish this complaint could be a one paragraph side-note and not a three paragraph essay, but unfortunately much of the dramatic thrust of this season is tossed behind the Angel/Buffy relationship. In fact, the big Whedon-penned emotional showstopper, Amends, makes them in many ways the crux of the entire season. On paper I can get behind that. The episode works because of its analysis of despair and the meaning of life — two things that are inseparable from Buffy and Angel’s doomed romance — but it does so despite the lack of chemistry between Buffy and Angel as characters. I realize the whole point of their relationship this season is that they need to move on, and there’s nothing that I find particularly stupid or unrealistic about their interactions; I’ve been just as irrational in my own relationships at times. But there’s a fine line between showing two characters who need to move on and making your audience scream, “Move on already!” It’s like Spike said: “Love isn’t brains. It’s blood.” When I stopped loving these two, I simply couldn’t make myself care no matter how much my head justified their presence.

Furthermore, I’m not a fan of Wesley (Alexis Denisof). His relationship with Cordelia produces some hilarious moments (gosh their kiss in Graduation is just about the most awkward thing I’ve ever seen), but otherwise he’s merely another comic relief bit part hogging the spotlight of funnier characters. Like the Angel/Buffy relationship, Wesley walks a fine line between successfully conveying how the gang feels about him — annoyed and disgusted — and making me legitimately annoyed and disgusted at his presence. He’s also one of those necessary pieces of a complex thematic outline that never really gels in the dramatic sense. He’s meant to serve as a foil for Giles in the same way that Faith is a foil for Buffy, but because he’s not all that funny and he’s never taken seriously, he just winds up being dead weight.

Conclusion

Buffy began this year where she left the previous one: in hell. Of course in the season 2 finale it was a metaphorically hellish feeling from when her mother disowned her and she was forced to kill the man she loved to save the world, and in the season 3 premiere, Anne, it’s literal hell. But either way it’s hell: a complete lack of hope. Yet by season’s end Buffy is saving the world once more, this time surrounded by her friends and classmates in an epic Braveheart/Lord of the Rings style battle for the soul of Sunnydale. It’s a thrilling tale of the triumph of the human spirit: a journey from absolute despair to self-actualization, guided by love and friendship. But it’s also the show’s most complicated arc, forgoing the easy “feel good” victories to find nuanced human responses to a whole series of existential moral dilemmas. Just like season 2 needed to see how the character would respond to the worst case scenario, season 3 needs a solid reason why Buffy shouldn’t just give up.

She finds it in empathy; in measuring the feelings of the people around her against her own pain and misery. But in doing that, she also finds the humanity in her enemies, the darker side of her friends, and the complex scenarios where she must exploit that knowledge for the greater good. And so this season becomes something of a master’s class in ethics. How far should one go to keep the world spinning? Does the good of the many always outweigh the good of the few? As always, it’s great to see Whedon push the boundaries of his little pulpy monster show as though he’s running The West Wing or The Sopranos. This isn’t just entertainment. It’s art.

Best Episode
The Zeppo

Worst Episode
Beauty and the Beasts

Other Classic Episodes
Lovers Walk
The Wish
Consequences
Graduation Day

Nearly Classic
Anne
Dopplegangland
Enemies
Choices

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