Monday, December 1, 2008

Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Season 3

After the finale of Season Two, it's a wonder they ever managed to continue with this show. "Becoming, Pt. 2" was such an emotional, gut-wrenching ordeal, and Buffy was so thoroughly broken that to rebuild the pieces seemed impossible. But never underestimate Joss Whedon. Though Buffy's readjustment was a bit too quick, the season quickly picked up and stands as the most consistently brilliant season of the show.

Things start off with "Anne," in which Buffy is working as a waitress in L.A. trying to leave her Slayer past behind her. She meets one of the girls who wanted to be turned into a vampire in "Lie To Me," and the two wind up captured by demon slavers. Freeing the captured humans makes Buffy realize that she has to keep fighting evil, and she returns to Sunnydale. The gang is upset that she abandoned them without even saying goodbye, but they forgive her when a contrived invasion of zombies crops up ("Dead Man's Party"). The first episode was pretty good, while the second was a letdown, but things shift into high gear and stay there when Faith hits the scene.

The perfect foil to Buffy, Faith is one of the series' most interesting characters. The two come to actively hate each other because they each represent the other's ideal: to Buffy, Faith is individualistic, free, and she fits in perfectly with the friends that on some level still feel alienated from Buffy for leaving; to Faith, Buffy has the emotional support she never had and, issue-laden as Buffy is, she represents normalcy for Faith.

Of course, none of this is immediately apparent. Faith is a breath of fresh air for the Scoobies, and even for Buffy. Jealous as she may be of her friends' instant acceptance of Faith, Buffy views her as a way out. As opposed to Kendra, who just showed up and (mercifully) left after a mini-arc, Faith sticks around, and Buffy (and others like Giles and Joyce) begins to think that this new Slayer can take over for her. Finally, Buffy can put the "Slayer half" to bed and live a normal life.

Such thoughts are only a fantasy, though, thanks to the appearance of my favorite Buffy villain: the Mayor. Never has there been a villain so evil yet so unassuming as Mayor Richard Wilkins III; he deplores foul language, slackers, germs and loves the comic Family Circus. He also wants to become a demon and has allowed the creatures from the Hellmouth to feast on Sunnydale's residents for nearly a hundred years. He's disturbing, and disturbingly funny.

The best development of the season is the tender relationship that develops between Faith and The Mayor. After accidentally killing a human, Faith cannot bear to be around Buffy because she does not want to accept responsibility for her actions, so she offers her services to the Mayor. Faith, clearly the victim of a traumatic childhood, comes to view Wilkins as the father she never had and, even more surprisingly, the Mayor truly cares for her. He had a wife whom he had to watch die as he retained his youth; Faith provides him the opportunity to really connect with someone again.

His plan to ascend into demon form plays out in the explosive (quite literally) finale, "Graduation Day." If "Becoming" was an all-out emotional punch to the gut, then "Graduation Day" is just the height of fun. It's got great jokes, some juicy character development (including the simple but affecting breakup between Buffy and Angel), and the effing school gets blown up. Who doesn't want to see that happen?

I've been reading some highly interesting reviews on Buffy courtesy of this guy, who points out something that, in retrospect, is so obvious I want to go back in time and whack myself on the nose with a newspaper for missing the first time around: the season is all about indentity. From the start Buffy is trying to squash one aspect of her identity to become someone more normal, and she must eventually come to terms with the fact that the Slayer is a part of her identity and not just some curse (which is as important a lesson to the audience as it is to her). The most obvious realization of this comes when Buffy decides not to go out of state to good colleges like Northwestern but to stay in Sunnydale to monitor the Hellmouth. The residents of Sunnydale recognize this identity when Jonathan awards her the Class Protector award at the prom in one of the most touching moments of hte whole show. Faith, on the other hand, has never had any identity at all, and her relationship with her surrogate father gives her something to cling to for the first time in her life. She proves that being a Slayer is not a guarantee of purity, and that Buffy is even more heroic for her goodness.

When you boil it down to its essence, this season lacks the emotional impact of the last one, but it pushes forward so much character development and the episodes maintain such a high quality throughout that it still ranks above S2 in my book. Now, I still prefer the flawed Season Six because of its emotional turmoil, but this ranks a close second.

Choice Episodes: too many to go into detail here. Will discuss some when I publish a top 25 episodes list.

Faith, Hope, and Trick
Band Candy
The Wish
The Zeppo
The Prom
Graduation Day, Pt. 2


Dead Man's Party - Yep, that's the only clunker of the season. Zombies are fun, but not when they serve for a cheap cathartic fight.


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