This was easily my favorite season yet of Buffy. It’s rather amazing to me that it wasn’t the work of just one writer, given how tightly the whole thing hangs together. Each episode tells a satisfying story on its own, but the season as a whole is an incredible story, with dramatic peaks and valleys, great surprises, and tons of character development for almost everybody. It feels fuller than the last two seasons put together, which is quite an achievement. So many connections, so much depth, such a smooth flow from one episode into the next. Awesome.
So, the short review is: I loved it. The longer review follows:
1) When I saw Ted in Season 2, I wished for a story that would fully explore the consequences of Buffy unleashing her slayer-power on a normal human. Beginning with Bad Girls, I got the next best thing this season, with Faith killing somebody and then flipping out. I wasn’t terribly interested in Faith during the first half of the season, but when she moved from flawed hero to conflicted villain, she turned into an excellent character. Watching the other characters try to trust her even as I believed (but didn’t know for sure) that she was not to be trusted made for wonderful drama. I’m glad that Giles made the point that accidents like Faith’s had happened before — it would be wildly implausible for this to be the first one. However, the idea that the Council makes a judgement about how the culprit should be treated is unsatisfying, I imagine purposefully so. Which leads into point #2.
2) I really enjoyed the way this season explored themes of guardianship and parenthood. There was Gingerbread, obviously — Buffy’s mom getting freaked about her daughter’s work was an inevitable plotline, and blending that with the town actually reacting to one of its many murders was a great choice. Having Buffy and Willow nearly burned at the stake by their mothers and the town was a nicely Buffyesque literalization of parental (and societal) anxiety about adolescents. Then there’s Gwendolyn Post in Revelations, a whole different kind of Bad Mommy. Many of the differences between Buffy and Faith seemed to come down to upbringing, comparing Buffy’s stable (albeit broken) home with a bunch of unspecified bad stuff that apparently constituted Faith’s childhood. So having Gwendolyn come in as the stern-but-loving parent that Faith never had, only to betray her and tell her she was an idiot for being so trusting, set Faith up perfectly for her next substitute parent. The Mayor’s evilness was never in doubt, so there was no question of his using her in the way that Gwendolyn had, and in fact he turned out to be someone who genuinely loved her, in his deranged and demonic way. In addition to this argument for the value of parents, there’s Band Candy, which shows what horrible shape Buffy’s world would be in if it wasn’t full of responsible adults.
Now that Buffy’s mom is hip to the secret identity and more or less at ease (Gingerbread aside) with the whole Slayer thing, we needed a new controlling-parent figure to cramp Buffy’s style, so that she could demonstrate her coming of age by leaving that control behind. Enter Wesley Wyndham-Price, who did an excellent job of portraying the Council Of Watchers as inept and out-of-touch as well as overly authoritarian. However, since Wesley was a mostly sympathetic character who didn’t turn out to be some kind of supernatural evil thingy, his annoying qualities wouldn’t be enough in themselves to push Buffy out of the nest, which is why we had Helpless, one of my favorite episodes of the season, in which Giles is forced by his own parent-figures to go against his better instincts and betray Buffy. The fallout from this represents a sort of coming-of-age for Giles as well as moving his relationship to Buffy away from father-daughter and more toward friends, and the whole thing was brilliantly told. Buffy follows Giles out of the Council’s employ in Graduation Day, Part One, resulting in a bit of dialogue I loved:
Wesley: This is mutiny.
Buffy: I like to think of it as graduation.
I ended up with a lot of questions about the Council Of Watchers after this season. Like, if there’s only one Slayer, why do we need a whole Council? What do the rest of them do? In my imagination, they’re a bit like the secret society whose name I forget in those Anne Rice books, which keeps an eye on everything supernatural in the world, so being Slayer-mentors would be only one of many projects for them. Also, is a Slayer supposed to outgrow her Watcher? If not, I kind of can’t believe this is the first time it’s ever happened. Maybe their mortality rate is so high that few of them ever reach that level of maturity?
Then there’s the rest of the gang, who seem to exist in this weird parent-free zone. I’m pleased that at least this is marginally explained for several of the characters. We see the benign neglect of Willow’s academic mom in Gingerbread, and Amends gives us a glimpse into the alcoholism and dysfunction that explains Xander’s isolation from his parents. Based on what we know of Cordelia’s father’s wealth, we can chalk her independence up to the “CEO too busy for his family” stereotype, though his reversal of fortunes seems to have brought him no further into her life. The only one whose family remains a complete mystery is Oz — the only bit about his family I can remember is when he calls his aunt to confirm that his cousin is a werewolf.
3) Speaking of Oz, I love Oz. Seth Green rules. I was so, so happy to see him listed in the opening credits this season. His understated quality makes his emotional moments very gripping. Also, he’s got so many funny lines, and delivers them so beautifully. Just a random example:
Cordelia: I personally don’t think it’s possible to come up with a crazier plan.
Oz: We attack the Mayor with hummus.
Cordelia: I stand corrected.
Willow is still my favorite character, but Oz is just a hair behind now.
4) Willow remains super-cute, and she had some great moments this season. Her confrontation with Faith in Choices was one of my favorite scenes of hers from this season, and her pencil-staking of the vampire in that same episode was another. However, best of all was her guilty romance with Xander. Something I love about continuity-heavy storytelling is the way that having seen characters through some history can lend a huge amount of emotional wallop to events. Knowing about Willow’s longstanding unrequited desire for Xander beginning in season one lent so much plausibility to her cheating on Oz with him. That whole story, and the way it turned out for all four of the people involved, was emotionally wrenching in the best way.
5) Which brings me to Cordelia, who finally gets her due in this season. She retains enough of the Queen of Mean qualities from earlier seasons that she felt like recognizably the same character, but she finally had enough holes poked in her (um, no pun intended) to give her the humanity and vulnerability that allows me to care about her. Her sweet adoration of Xander early in the season is endearing, and watching him cheat on her put me on her side in their relationship. Then, when her discovery of betrayal is followed up by a sudden and serious injury, I was hooked at last, worried about her and hoping she’d be okay. By the end of the season, she felt like a full-fledged, three-dimensional character to me, just as much as any of the others.
6) David Boreanaz is really starting to bug me, and I’m not terribly sorry to see him go. He spends wayyyyy too much of this season with this kind of hurt-puppy look on his face, angsting so endlessly that it becomes tiresome. Also, he seems like the weakest actor in the bunch. He seems to only have two faces: Worried, and Vampire. And the second one is due more to makeup than acting. He’s reminding me a bit of Patrick Swayze in Ghost, with his overly self-conscious “I’m-in-pain” expression and his faux desirability. This is not a good association. I hope that without Buffy around to moan about, he’s able to become a more interesting character in his own show.
7) The Mayor is such a fantastic villain. His weird Mayberry demeanor was a great hook, and Harry Groener was hilariously good at mixing menace with dorkiness. However, I HATED the mayor-demon saying “Well, gosh!” before the school exploded. That just did not work. Once he Ascended, he should have been pure demon — the dorkiness just seemed silly rather than creepy coming out of an actual monster’s mouth.
8) Another thing that I thought was a weak spot is the way the idea of The First was introduced, then immediately dropped. I was happy to have an explanation for Angel’s (inevitable) return, but the notion of the Biggest Evil In The Freaking World doing this as sort of a halfhearted gesture toward hurting Buffy, then vanishing away without a trace, was lame. I hope they follow up on that.
Favorite episodes: The truth is, I loved the whole thing so much that I don’t think I really could pick out specific favorites. They all felt like favorites. So aside from what I mention above, I’ll just make a few episode-specific notes:
- Homecoming: I realized partway into this one that I’d actually seen the second half of it already. I caught it on TV and was sucked in, I think because I saw Ian Abercrombie and said, “Isn’t that Mr. Pitt from Seinfeld? What’s he doing?”
- Lover’s Walk: I told those kids it would all end in tears, but did they listen? No. So typical of the way people on television never listen to me.
- Enemies: This episode made me so happy, because it totally suckered me. I groaned with disappointment when Angel seemed to lose his soul again, because it seemed like such a boring, retread plot. As soon as he said, “Second-best”, I just got this HUGE grin on my face. What a fun, fun thrill.
- Dead Man’s Party: Giles — “Unbelievable. ‘Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead!’ Americans.”
- Band Candy: Cordelia — “I do well on standardized tests. What, I can’t have layers?”
- Lover’s Walk: Cordelia — “I fell.” My reaction to this was similar to when Jenny Calendar died in season two.
- Enemies: Angel — “Second-best.” As I said above.
- Amends: Giles’ reaction to Angel appearing at his door.
- Choices: Oz suddenly smashing the urn. That gave me goosebumps.
- The Prom: Buffy’s “little toy surprise” from the graduating class. I’m realizing that I love to see when the world at large acknowledges all the weirdness in the Buffyverse, and this was such a touching recognition for Buffy.
- The Prom: In the category of “Best Music Cue”, we have The Sundays’ version of “Wild Horses.” Never has the line “Let’s do some living after we die” been so apropos in so many ways.
- Graduation Day, Part One: Buffy — “I like to think of it as graduation.” See point #2 above.
- Graduation Day, Part Two: The Cordelia-Wesley anticlimax. What a hilarious way to resolve the tension that had building between them for half the season. I also loved Charisma Carpenter’s delivery of the line “That’d be neat.”
- Graduation Day, Part Two: Buffy kissing Faith’s forehead. I think this is one of the more beautiful moments I’ve ever seen on television.
Next up: Angel season one and Buffy season four, under the guidance of my friend and Buffyverse Guru Jenny Nelson.