Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 3 revisited

Early in my Buffy-watching project, I swore off both DVD extras and Television Without Pity recaps, because they were just way too spoiler-laden. Now that I’ve finished watching all episodes of Buffy and Angel, I’m (slowly!) going back through the whole saga, reading the recaps and watching the extras.

I just finished season three of Buffy for the second time, and am amazed anew. What a marvelous achievement. It’s just such great television, and this time through I found myself appreciating a couple of things that had passed me by the first time:

*** IF YOU’RE READING THIS ON FACEBOOK, BE ADVISED THAT THE SPOILERS BEGIN BELOW ***

1) I liked the Mayor the first time around, just because his milk-and-cookies qualities made such a great contrast to his evilness and batshit insanity. What I appreciated about him this time, though, was the fact that because he really didn’t care about them, he was able to speak the absolute truth to Buffy and Angel. I loved the scene in Choices where he tongue-lashes Angel for selfishness in relation to Buffy. Everything he says is absolutely dead-on, and highlights the fact that even though they don’t look it, Buffy and Angel are a ridiculously May-December relationship. There’s a strong argument to be made that Angel is taking advantage of her — whatever she’s had to go through, she’s still an 18-year-old (if that) girl. The mayor’s genuine disgust with Angel in that scene is a fantastic way of completely dooming their relationship from an unexpected direction.

2) The resonance of the classroom scene in Earshot is just a thing of beauty. The Othello discussion serves the purpose of showing Buffy’s sudden classroom smarts, and her peers’ reaction to it, of course. The teacher’s explication puts focus on Buffy’s anxiety about Angel and leads us in to the attempted mind-reading scene, of course. But let’s take a look at what Buffy actually says about Iago:

“Well, he, um, he sort of admits himself that his motive are… spurious! He, um, he does things because he, he enjoys them. It’s like he’s not, he’s not really a person. He’s a, the dark half of Othello himself.”

The dark half of the protagonist? Doing evil for the joy of it, with spurious motives? Ring any bells about anybody from this season? Oh, right: Faith. Of course.

And listening to the DVD commentary from writer Jane Espenson reveals that this scene was heavily rewritten by Joss. Of course it was.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 7

Season 6 of Buffy was all about degradation — the characters debased themselves, their relationships disintegrated, and the Big Bad herself was a nightmare version of Buffy’s beloved friend. Season 7, on the other hand, exudes synthesis and uplift. “I have so much strength, I’m giving it away,” says Buffy, and strength is what we see, both within and without her. Friendships mend, and it’s once again the strength of Buffy’s team that allows them to fight the forces arrayed against her. The routine of Good vs. Evil battling it out in Sunnydale has become a bit worn by now, and consequently this season can’t quite reach the peaks of the show’s extraordinary middle period (seasons 2-4.) Nevertheless, I was really happy with season 7. It was a satisfying and well-executed end to a terrific journey.

And now, all the spoilery specifics

Buffy/Angel hiatus

The Buffyverse Watching Project is going on hold for a while.

My sister’s boyfriend is a comedy writer (sequitur coming soon…), or at least he’s been an aspiring comedy writer. He graduated from Harvard and worked on the Lampoon there, so he knows a lot of people in the biz, but has been trying unsuccessfully to break in himself for a couple of years. Then, last month, he learned he’d gotten a job as a writer for The Office! This is super exciting, not only because I’m very happy he’s landed a job, but because it seems to be one of the best things on TV right now. I haven’t been watching it, but (and here comes that sequitur I promised) I’m going to start this fall, so my summer project is to get caught up on the seasons I missed. I have several friends who watch it, and I’m looking forward to being able to participate in their conversations.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 6

And now, season six of Buffy, in which the characters I’ve come to know and love begin to morph into weird, unpleasant versions of themselves, or else disappear altogether. This unsettling trend was somewhat remedied by the end of the season, but once that end had come, enough bad things had happened that the Buffyverse appeals to me less than it did when the season began. Still, even if the season was a net loss, there were still plenty of wonderful moments to be had. In particular, there was one shining episode which joins the all-time hall of fame.

The usual spoilery list of details

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 5

Another season of slayage is through, and the subplots have finally come to eclipse the main plot. This year’s Big Bad was bigger and, well, worse. On the other hand, several of the smaller stories that wove through this season were riveting, and resulted in some of the best scenes and episodes ever.

1) There are, of course, lots of different themes running through any given season of Buffy, but if I had to pick one for this season, it would be family. Buffy lives in a family context this season more than she ever has, even going back to the high school years. College scenes are conspicuous by their absence, and several of them have to do with things like Buffy moving out or Buffy dropping her classes. She’s closer than ever to Joyce throughout, which of course serves to make Joyce’s death even more of a loss for her. Alongside that, the addition of Dawn, and of Buffy’s shifting feelings about her, allows the show to explore some really fruitful territory, opening up the question of what exactly constitutes family, and how we can choose to create family even without genetic connections. The episode that’s most overt about this is, unsurprisingly, Family. I’m always interested in stories about families of choice colliding with genetic families, so this episode really resonated with me. I loved seeing that the gang completely embraces, accepts, and loves Tara, even when they don’t fully understand her. That’s what family ought to do. Meanwhile, Spike finds himself on the other side of the coin — the gang rejects him without fully understanding him. They understand enough, of course, that their rejection is completely justified. It’s not until Buffy’s kiss in The Intervention that Spike is officially inducted into the Scooby gang, whose bonds to each other continue to deepen — Anya and Xander, Willow and Tara, Buffy and Giles. Her affirmation of Giles in Buffy vs. Dracula and his injury in Spiral highlighted their connection particularly well. All this closeness underscores Riley’s outsider status, especially during Joyce’s illness. When he exits the show, it’s to return to his real family: the military.

2) Dawn. Injecting Dawn seemed like a real Poochie moment, and I was really worried that the show had just jumped the shark (if I may speak in nothing but Internet TV lingo for a moment). Most irritating was the fact that she seemed to be the Buffy equivalent of Cable.

A word of explanation here for non-comic-book-geeks. My favorite comic growing up was called The New Mutants. This team, as you might guess from the name, was a sort of junior X-Men squad, adolescent mutants who were attending Xavier’s school to learn how to handle their powers. They weren’t meant to fight crime, but managed to get into plenty of scraps through wrongheadedness and bad luck. The first 54 issues were written by Chris Claremont, who basically created the modern X-Men that Marvel has been milking for the last 20-some years. It was a great comic during his run, especially for the period when Bill Sienkiewicz was doing the art. Anyway, after Claremont left, the book took a serious nosedive, and reached its nadir with the introduction of Cable. Cable was the creation of Rob Liefeld, the artist who joined the book at issue #86. The most annoying thing about Cable (and this is a highly competitive category) was the way he was introduced. Everybody suddenly seemed to know this guy. He was a brand new character, but people like Wolverine were giving him a familiar nod and casually referencing history with him going back years and years. My reaction to this was (and is): WHAT??? I call foul when a story suddenly pretends that somebody who’s brand new to the readers has been around forever. It makes me feel like the story hasn’t been playing fair with me from the beginning, and that it’s pointless to pay attention, since major events are being concealed for no good reason.

The parallel with Dawn is clear, I hope. Once it was revealed that in fact the whole thing was a big mindfuck, I felt a little better, but I’m still not sure the show came out better for having added this character. I guess as the Scoobies get stronger, Buffy needs somebody else to protect and somebody else to make her vulnerable. Even more so once Joyce is gone. Still, Dawn seems like kind of a one-note character at this point, which is especially bad when the note is “clumsy, annoying, stupid, and vulnerable”. Then again, I thought Cordelia was a one-noter for a good long while too. I’ll give it time, I guess. Also, I feel that not enough time is spent on the fact that this is an absolutely horrific thing to do to a person’s life and mind — the lives and minds of many people, really. I would expect somebody to feel really violated and to have some emotions about that. They certainly made a point of this in Superstar, so why not in a situation where the whole season is like one big non-comedic version of Superstar? Well, I guess Dawn herself does have a major meltdown when she finds out (quite understandable), but what about everybody else whose lives and memories have been altered?

3) The Harmony subplot is very funny, and the payoff in Angel is great.

4) Riley. Parts of Shadow are very telling in the way Buffy handles Riley. She doesn’t call him for support. She gestures for him to stay seated as she gets the news from the doctor. She waves away his sensible concern about doing a spell to save Joyce. It’s as if she groups him with Dawn in her mind in the “things I have to protect and who are occasional obstacles for me” category, which is reinforced by the fact that she keeps putting them together. Now, this attitude on her part is certainly understandable, but does not a balanced relationship make. How can a partnership survive when one partner believes she has 100% of the competence and 100% of the responsibility? I was highly annoyed at Riley’s flirtation with the dark side the first time I watched this episode, but on seeing it again, I’m more sympathetic. It’s still intensely stupid, but I’m more sympathetic, especially when it comes on the heels of the conversation in Family where he can clearly see that she’s withholding information from him. This storyline brings up an interesting question: what does it mean for the Slayer to have a relationship with a “normal”? Or, in more general terms, is it even possible for a superhero to have a healthy, functional relationship with a non-superhero?

Spike makes the point in Fool For Love that Buffy has only lasted as long as she has because of her ties to the world: “your mum, your brat kid sister, the Scoobies.” Riley is noticeably missing from that list (or at the very least, he’s lumped into the Scoobies, which is telling in itself.) Of course, the source is completely biased, but I think Spike is correct that Riley isn’t really one of Buffy’s ties to the world, at least not in a capacity separate from the rest of her friends. He’s not family, and he’s not really a friend. He’s supposed to be her partner, but how could he be such a thing? How could any non-supernatural entity really be Buffy’s equal?

Riley asks himself this very question in Out Of My Mind, and Buffy strenuously objects. In a way, they’re both wrong. Riley is certainly being irrational in wanting to hold onto his superhuman power even as it’s about to kill him. Even if he wasn’t in danger from it, getting into a competition with Buffy is a terrible idea — whether he wins or loses, he loses. However, Buffy is wrong too. “Do you think that I spent the last year with you because you had super powers?” she asks, and the answer is: that’s not the point. As Riley becomes more normal, Buffy distances herself from him. No, she doesn’t leave the relationship, but she leaves the partnership, becoming more protector than partner.

So is it possible for Super and Normal to live happily ever after? I think it might be, but two conditions need to be met. First, Normal must be very secure indeed, and leave ego out of the relationship. Competition is poison, jealousy is poison, and neediness is poison. An entirely separate line of work is probably a good idea. This, clearly, is not Riley. He’s young, insecure, and accustomed to being in charge. Also, demon-fighting is all he knows and apparently all he wants to do. It’s not like we see him pursuing his graduate degree in psychiatry or anything. How could he possibly tolerate being Buffy’s “save the world sidekick”? The second condition is that both partners, but especially Super, must clearly understand and acknowledge the different but equally important roles that both people play within and outside the relationship. Even though there will always be a huge discrepancy in physical power, the two can meet as equals if Normal has value in the world and isn’t treated as a liability or a nuisance by Super. Super has to allow Normal the space to be important, to be competent, and to be supportive. This, clearly, is not Buffy. As Xander quite rightly points out, she treats Riley as a convenience, and when she needs support, he is an afterthought.

Ah, I see we’re about out of time. Five cents, please.

5) I really appreciate that Tara is kind of odd-looking. Sometimes this show seems a little too full of beautiful people.

6) The Body. My god, what a masterpiece. Everything about it was unbelievably good, including its placement in the season. I had a bad premonition when Buffy told Joyce the truth about Dawn in Listening To Fear, but was lulled when she seemed to pull through okay, which made The Body all the more devastating. Not to mention that the character had been in place from the beginning — the beauty of continuity at work again. Watching the episode, I felt like I had lost someone I knew, and that people I loved were grieving. The entire episode was just brilliant. I suppose I’d have to go back and watch When She Was Bad and Hush again to be sure, but I think this is the best episode of Buffy I’ve ever seen. (It seems that all my favorite episodes are written and directed by Whedon. Fancy that.) I agree with kansasjenny that Anya’s confusion is piercing, but I think the part that got to me most was Willow’s panic about what to wear. It just perfectly captured that helpless feeling when a friend is going through a major trauma. No wait, it’s the horribly cruel but utterly perfect fantasy sequence with the paramedics. Or maybe Buffy’s exchange with the 911 dispatcher: “The body is cold?” “No, my mom!” But what about Tara saying, “It’s always sudden.”? Or the fact that Joyce is killed by nothing supernatural, and nothing Buffy can fight? I can’t choose what moved me the most.

7) Glory. I dunno, I was just pretty underwhelmed by her. The “wicked nasty in an unassuming guise” bit was done earlier and better with the Mayor, and in fact much of the Big Bad arc this season seemed a lot like a retread of season three, with the volume turned up. Season three had a wonderful sense of building menace as the Ascension neared, and I think the same thing was supposed to be happening here, but there was a Keystone Kops quality to the way Glory seemed so totally unable to identify the Key, only stumbling upon it through pure blind luck rather than deductive prowess in the end. In addition, the whole process seems rather fragile — dependent on a particular time, a particular ritual, etc. Maybe that’s not so different from season three, but I spent that season feeling certain that the Mayor would succeed, and this season I spent incredulous that Glory could even come close to succeeding. For all her godly power, she seems to spend the vast majority of the season screwing up and relying on comically bumbling minions. Where the Mayor was efficient, cunning, and crazy, Glory seems to be just crazy. Consequently, her plot thread repeatedly felt like a mere distraction from the other stories unfolding.

On the plus side, I did enjoy the running gag of all the various appellations Glory’s minions gave her. I also appreciated seeing Buffy so totally outmatched physically, forced into a situation where she couldn’t just beat up the enemy. (Though in a way I suppose that’s what she ended up doing after all.) I thought The Gift had a very interactive fiction-ish quality — inventory items and NPCs were cunningly leveraged to solve a variety of endgame puzzles, and Buffy’s final action would work perfectly as the climactic move of an adventure game.

Okay, let’s talk about that ending for a minute. Once again, I find I lack the expected emotion due to the fact that I’m watching these on DVD. Similar to when Angel kicked it in season two, I just can’t get too invested in the idea of Buffy’s death, knowing that there are two more seasons of the show left to go. Also, I just didn’t think the story made a compelling case for her to do this. Dawn offers to sacrifice herself, but why does Buffy’s offer outrank Dawn’s? They’re both innocents, and Buffy is crucially important to the world, as we saw way back in The Wish from season three. I was totally unmoved by Buffy’s final speech, and felt annoyed that she’d been killed off for such flimsy reasoning. Not too annoyed, though, since I know she comes back.

All that being said, I’m sure if I had actually seen this show air as the season finale, I would have been FREAKING OUT.

8) I thought that Giles getting skewered by the spear in Spiral was eerily reminiscent of Wash’s death in Serenity. I suppose I’m in the minority in having seen Serenity before I watched season five of Buffy. Was anybody else reminded of this moment while watching the movie?

9) The Weight Of The World — I’m a sucker for stories that literalize the mental landscape (going back to New Mutants 26-28, and probably before), especially when there’s a telepathic healer involved, so I loved that entire section of this episode. In general, I really dug the way Willow took charge of everything once Buffy and Giles were incapacitated. I also thought the set for Buffy’s mindscape was really well done — familiar and strange at once.

Favorite moments:

  • Family: Tara’s father — “We are her blood kin! Who the hell are you?” Buffy: “We’re family.” God, what a great moment.
  • Family: Willow and Tara dancing, floating six inches off the floor. A beautiful image.
  • Fool For Love: I quite enjoyed the “Billy Idol vs. Foxy Brown” Spike-Slayer subway car fight. Also, pre-vamp Spike. Hee hee.
  • Fool For Love: Spike/Dru’s awkward moment with the antler demon. “Okay, you guys obviously have a thing going on here…”
  • Listening To Fear: Willow — “Oh, I feel just like Santa Claus, except thinner and younger and female and, well, Jewish.”
  • Listening to Fear: Buffy finally allowing herself to cry, doing dishes with fiesta music on the radio. The fact that this scene also fits into the plot, preventing her from hearing the Queller fight, is an excellent bonus.
  • Listening to Fear: Buffy revealing the truth about Dawn to Joyce
  • Into The Woods: Best. Xander scene. Ever. In general, I really loved the dialogue in this episode, even more than usual.
  • Checkpoint: Buffy’s no-look sword throw, and “I’m fairly certain I said no interruptions.” Also the Scoobies’ enthusiasm after that moment. The Scoobies, especially Xander, are our stand-ins in the Buffyverse, and I love the way this moment made that explicit. Plus, as Xander says, it was excellent.
  • Blood Ties: Dawn’s “Is this blood?” scene was stunning.
  • Crush: Harmony’s Buffy imitation
  • Crush: Buffy — “Spike, the only chance you had with me was when I was unconscious.”
  • I Was Made To Love You: Tara tryin’ a little spicy talk
  • I Was Made To Love You: The zoom on Warren before he announces that April is a robot
  • I Was Made To Love You: The swingset scene was poignant, and the way April’s lifeless body foreshadows that of Joyce is chilling.
  • Forever: Overall I wasn’t too crazy about this episode (though really, The Body is a tough act to follow), but I loved loved loved Angel showing up after Joyce’s funeral, being there for Buffy. I especially loved the tight shot on Buffy’s hand, suddenly grasping his. I think the scene between them, sitting at the graveside, is the most loving interaction I’ve ever seen them have.
  • Intervention: The look exchanged between Buffy and Spike as he realizes she’s not a robot. It’s both a great fakeout and a real moment of growth between the characters.
  • The Gift: Not really a moment, but I enjoyed the way this episode brought in strands from a bunch of other parts of the season — the Dagon Sphere, the Buffybot, the troll’s hammer, etc.
  • The Gift: Giles suffocating Ben, his speech beforehand, and the way the moment calls back to his earlier “I’ve sworn to protect this sorry world” speech.

Least favorite moments:

  • Fool For Love: “I’d rather have a railroad SPIKE through my head…” Way to HAMMER home the point. Get it? Hammer?
  • Intervention: Buffy says, “You guys couldn’t tell me apart from a robot?” and I quite agree. I know everybody’s shaken up, but they’re so slow on the uptake it becomes implausible, especially in light of the joke in I Was Made To Love You, where everyone immediately understands that April is a robot.
  • The Gift: Suddenly saying that the troll from Triangle was a god and therefore his hammer has godly powers is kind of a lame retcon.
  • The Gift: Xander is not only pretty good with the wrecking ball, he apparently has x-ray vision or something. I can’t quite believe that he and Buffy worked out the timing of everything down to such a precise level that he could swing a wrecking ball through a wall at the exact right moment, so it has to be x-ray vision.

Favorite episodes:

  • Family
  • The Body

Least favorite episode:

  • Buffy vs. Dracula. This was just extremely silly. It felt more like a fanfic than a legit episode. I liked the callback to “Restless”, but otherwise, feh. Also, the reveal on Dawn made me groan very loudly. (Well, not really, because there was a baby asleep upstairs. But, you know — on the inside.)

Angel comments will follow just as soon as I can get them written up.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 4

It’s another season in Sunnydale, and while season 4 doesn’t quite manage to match or exceed the heights reached by season 3, it’s still a solid bunch of shows with some amazing standouts thrown in. Unfortunately, there are also a few really terrible and/or irritating moments, too, which is a first. Oh well, at least they didn’t show up for three whole seasons, and are still pretty rare in this one.

Okay, on to the numbered comments:

1) At the beginning of the season, it feels like repetition has begun to set in. Just like in Seasons 2 and 3, we have yet another premiere episode in which Buffy starts out unsure of herself for some reason, then gets beaten down, finds her power again, and emerges triumphant. Granted, this is an exhilirating way to start off a season (and was completely kickass in When She Was Bad, still one of my favorite episodes of all time), but it’s starting to feel a little shopworn. Time to come up with a new premise for the season 5 premiere, I hope. Also, the whole thing with Veruca felt too much like a rehash of Faith. “Hey, we had a lot of success with a sexbomb Slayer who lures Buffy to the dark side! How about a sexbomb werewolf who lures Oz to the dark side?” Even the Parker subplot just felt like a literalization of the Angel storyline, where Buffy sleeps with somebody and they turn into a bastard afterwards. Yes, this is a reality lots of women deal with, but it worked better when portrayed on a more symbolic level.

2) Why didn’t Buffy and Willow just room together in the first place? I wish there’d been a little explanation for this. Or did I miss it?

3) I’m so bummed that Seth Green left! As I’ve said, I totally love Oz. He was one of the best parts of seasons 2 and 3, and when his name disappeared from the opening credits I felt a real sense of loss. Granted, I didn’t start pining away and casting spells with unintentionally hilarious results, but still. I was sad. Also, the story that accomplished his departure was so generally lame that it felt hastily thrown-together, so not only was he leaving, he wasn’t even leaving for any real convincing reason.

4) Speaking of boyfriends, let’s talk about Riley. Now, I try pretty assiduously to avoid reviews and such before I watch the shows, so that I won’t be burdened by preconceived opinions, but sometimes it’s tough to avoid them. For instance, The Onion called him “a pill” recently, and kansasjenny characterizes him as “a big dumb guy.” He’s certainly a big guy, and the most male-model looking of Buffy’s boyfriends, but I have to say I feel like he’s kind of underrated. Unlike Angel, he’s usually a step or two behind Buffy, and his character arc in this season was roughly parallel to Buffy’s “graduation” from the Council last season, but that doesn’t make him dumb. I felt like the Buffy/Riley relationship was a refreshing break from the unrelenting angstiness of the last two seasons with Angel. Also, it’s not like he’s just Lois Lane-style bystander — he’s quite competent in his own arena, and has the flexibility to adapt to new information, which most of his military counterparts seem to lack. Yes, he doesn’t realize it when Faith is inhabiting Buffy’s body, but he clearly knows something is awry and suppresses his instincts due to the fact that Buffy has always behaved unpredictably around him, and hasn’t always been exactly forthcoming with the truth either. Anyway, “body switching” isn’t exactly in most people’s default set of expectations, even in Sunnydale. Buffy may have recognized Giles by “his eyes” when in demon form, but I think that was one of the weaker, less believable moments of the season. I think Riley gets a bad rap, is all I’m sayin’.

5) That same Onion article claimed that “The Initiative can be a yawn”, and once again I find myself having enjoyed it a fair amount more than that. For one thing, I really appreciate it when I see signs in the Buffyverse that the world at large is able to recognize and react to all the weirdness that seems to be afoot in Sunnydale (and elsewhere), and it seems perfectly logical to me that the military would want to try weaponizing all that raw supernatural power. I liked how the scientific approach of The Inititive challenges and contrasts with the standard “arcane tomes” route to knowledge that we take for granted after three seasons of the show. I will admit that Adam’s design hasn’t aged well, particularly the 3.5″ floppy drive in his chest, but he was still an effective villain, and the overall enormity of The Initiative resonated for me. The Big Bad arc this season was overall inferior to the one from season 3, but it was still enjoyable. In addition, this season had some of the best Little Bads yet:

  • Hush: What a great episode. Marvel comics ran a gimmick month a few years ago called “‘Nuff Said!”, where most of the comics published that month had no speech balloons, thought balloons, or captions. Hush reminded me of that, except that instead of being mostly confusing and/or lame, it used the gimmick for maximum effect, wringing both excellent drama and hilarious jokes from the forced silence. I also loved how its themes of silence and its opposites were so tightly woven throughout the episode, and that ending is killer. This one is on a level with When She Was Bad, and is in contention for my favorite Buffy episode ever.
  • Superstar: The opening scene and credits are just a beautiful mindfuck, and the kind that could only be done by a story with a fair bit of continuity under its belt. Having watched all along, we are privy to a sense of wrongness that is completely absent from everyone else in the beginning of the story. This is a flavor of dramatic irony that doesn’t come along all that often, certainly not to this degree of strength. Superstar makes the most of it, and does a phenomenal job of set dressing. All the little Jonathan homages everywhere were just delightful, and Danny Strong makes the most of his moment in the sun. Also, Xander’s man-crush on Jonathan is very funny. The whole thing is hysterical throughout, but I particularly loved Anya’s shrimp fixation and Buffy’s impatience with it.
  • Fear, Itself: I was surely influenced by the fact that I got to watch this one with kansasjenny, but it has some very fun moments, particularly Chainsaw Giles.

6) I was terribly sad for Willow when she lost Oz, and although I cheer the show for portraying a positive gay relationship for a major character, I must admit some trepidation about her new girlfriend. Like Buffy, Willow finds herself in a mentor role to a partner who is struggling through something she herself has already overcome. In this case, it’s Tara’s shyness and general social awkwardness. However, it isn’t this that makes me wary of Tara, but rather her highly suspect behavior in Goodbye, Iowa. The fact that she sabotaged a demon-revealing spell means I have to ask: is she secretly a demon? If not, what’s her deal?

7) The crossovers with Angel were inevitable, given that the spin-off launched during this season, but they mostly felt a little forced. The exception, however, was the Faith story that begins in This Year’s Girl and Who Are You?. What I appreciated most about this was the way it handled Buffy and Angel as exes. For the first time, we see a serious rift betwen them, and it’s clear that they really have parted ways emotionally. However, I like it very much that Angel returns to try to preserve their friendship, albeit at arm’s length. Anyway, more about Angel later.

8) Finally, let me just say: I love rockstar Giles! The reveal on him singing “Behind Blue Eyes” was absolutely priceless, as was the Scoobies’ range of reactions. Also, the bit in Restless where he jumps on stage and does his usual expository number in driving rock style was not only a great riff on Giles’ perpetual role, it was just a great riff, period.

Favorite moments:

  • The Freshman: Vamp flunky — “Are we gonna fight, or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?”
  • The Freshman: Kathy’s Celine poster. In general, the Kathy shtick (and Dagney Kerr in general) is very funny.
  • Living Conditions: Kathy — “I’m 3000 years old! When are you going to stop treating me like I’m 900?”
  • The Initiative: Slo-mo girl fight between Xander and Harmony.
  • Fear Itself: Chainsaw Giles and the reveal on tiny demon Gachnar
  • Beer Bad: Willow — “This isn’t sharing! This isn’t connecting! It’s the pleasure principle. That’s right, I got your number, id boy.”
  • Wild At Heart: Spike — “The big bad is back, and this time it’s– ack! argh!” THUMP.
  • Something Blue: Giles — “Stop that right now! I can hear the smacking.”
  • Something Blue: Demon — “I’m sorry to hear that. Oh well, here is my talisman, if you change your mind, give us a chant.”
  • Hush: The reactions to Buffy’s “How do I kill them” hand gesture
  • This Year’s Girl: Willow’s characterization of Faith as a “cleavagy slut-bomb”
  • This Year’s Girl: Xander — “We’re dumb”
  • This Year’s Girl: Buffy, after crashing through the window: “Hi, mom.” “Hi, honey.”
  • Superstar: Opening credits
  • Where The Wild Things Are: Xander — “What’s the deal? Is every frat on this campus haunted? And if so, why do people keep coming to these parties? Cos it’s not the snacks.”
  • Where The Wild Things Are: Giles’ tongue-lashing of the repressive orphanage director.
  • New Moon Rising: The parallel between Riley’s response to Seth’s lycanthropy and Buffy’s response to Willow’s lesbianism.
  • Primeval: The special effects on super-Buffy

Least favorite moments:

  • Oz’s lame excuse for leaving in Wild At Heart, and his generally asinine behavior throughout that episode.
  • Impotence parody in The Initiative — it’s wildly, maddeningly out of character, and it’s in the service of a joke that isn’t even that funny.
  • Giles’ willingness to get drunk with Ethan in A New Man. I just didn’t believe this. I recognize it was necessary for the plot, but it needed to be set up more convincingly or done another way.
  • Riley’s self-surgery in Primeval. I don’t know a whole lot about anatomy, but I can’t quite believe that you could cut into yourself and sever something that was grafted to your thoracic nerve. Even if you could, I’m pretty sure you’d be in no shape to fight afterwards.

Favorite episodes:

  • Fear Itself
  • Hush
  • This Year’s Girl/Who Are You?
  • Superstar

Up next: comments on Angel Season 1, which I watched concurrently with Buffy Season 4.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 3

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.

Favorite moments:

  • 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.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Two

So I’ve finished watching the Season Two DVDs of Buffy. Overall, I loved them. I thought the shows in this season were a huge leap over season one. There was more emotional depth, wonderfully engaging story arcs with real impact on the characters, great snappy dialogue, and some excellent acting, especially from Sarah Michelle Gellar. Further scattered thoughts below:

1) First off, something I loved in season one but forgot to mention: significant events. TV series can sometimes feel like exercises in departing from and then returning to the status quo. Now, I really don’t have much solid ground to say that from, as I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, but it’s my (possibly flawed) perception that lots of shows don’t really tend to shake things up very much, or if they do, it’s usually in a season finale or something. So I was delighted to see an episode in the middle of the first season where the school principal is killed and eaten. Not that I was happy specifically to see him eaten, mind you, but killing off somebody who was up to that point a fairly significant supporting player felt like a key moment to me. I was put on notice: take nothing for granted. For the same reason, I love that Xander confesses his crush on Buffy during the final episode of season one. A different show might have strung along his unrequitedness for season after season, but not here. In the Buffyverse, things change and develop, and I love that. The trends certainly continue in season two: Willow hooks up with Oz, Xander hooks up with Cordelia, Buffy sleeps with Angel (who then loses his soul), Jenny Calendar dies. None of these events are even in a finale or anything. (And the finale throws twice as many change-ups just to stay big!) This feeling that (almost) anything can happen really helps ratchet up the narrative tension.

2) In the “not so much helping the narrative tension” department: knowing that Angel gets his own show in two seasons. There are plenty of advantages to watching shows on DVD rather than as they are aired — no commercials, no waiting, extras (about which more later.) But knowing that Angel gets his own show deflated a lot of the intensity around his turn to evil halfway into the season. I couldn’t really get invested in worrying about whether Buffy was going to kill him or not, and despite the fact that she finally does, I have a pretty strong feeling he’s probably going to be okay.

3) Speaking of spoilers, I am also officially off DVD extras until I have watched ALL episodes of Buffy and Angel. Stupid spoilery commentaries. That goes for you too, Television Without Pity recaps.

4) Cordelia certainly gets a lot more play this season, and she’s got some nice character moments, but she still seems cartoonier than the other characters. Pretty much everybody else (in the main cast, anyway) feels like a real person, but much of the time she’s still a walking cliche, sometimes gratingly so. For instance: saying that the hospitalized Willow shouldn’t undertake the gypsy ritual because her hair looks really flat? That was just too silly. I just can’t believe that a real person would say that, even a shallow high school girl. It’s as if the writers really relate to Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, and the rest, but can’t get a consistent handle on how to write Cordelia as a human being.

5) I’m still loving the riffs on horror tropes — the mummy, werewolf, Frankenstein monster, aliens, creature from the black lagoon, etc. It’s like a little parlor game to think about how each of these mythos might play out in the Buffyverse. I begin to wonder how much is left in this vein, though.

6) Man, what a great cast, both principals and more minor people. Seth Green is hilarious! I think the only things I ever saw him in were a couple of Austin Powers movies — he was fine there, but kind of a one-noter. His portrayal of Oz is making me a fan, though. Also, Alyson Hannigan is still super-cute, and Willow has pretty much emerged as my favorite character. I just read that Nicholas Brendon is my age, and thus probably graduated high school about 10 years prior to playing a high schooler. Apparently I’m willing to suspend a lot of disbelief about who can portray a high school student.

7) Okay, I’m confused about the second vampire slayer thing. I can accept that in the Buffyverse, once a slayer dies, the next one is called. What does “called” mean, though? Kendra says that her parents sent her away as a very young child to go train with her Watcher, but Buffy only died a few months ago in story time. What gives? I think I’m missing some key piece of lore. Are slayers-to-be somehow notified at an early age of their status? Did Buffy’s notice get lost in the mail or something? Also, what if a slayer lives to a ripe old age? Or middle age, even? Are there potential slayers who train and sacrifice but are never called?

Favorite episodes:

  • When She Was Bad: Still my favorite episode of the season, and for that matter my favorite Buffy episode of those I’ve seen so far.
  • Ted: This was easily my favorite “little bad” episode of the season. Seeing John Ritter play menacing is a lot of fun, for one thing. Also, when it looks as if Buffy has killed a normal human (albeit a nasty one) with her slayer strength, the episode gets extremely compelling. I know it’s not practical, but I almost wish they had been able to play out the murder thing a little further. Everything seemed like it was going in a completely unexpected and rich direction, and while the “bad guy is a robot” ending made everything much simpler, it also made me a little sad.
  • Surprise/Innocence: These episodes worked for me in most of the ways they were supposed to work, but I was a little confused by Buffy and Angel’s choice to get it on when they’ve just barely evaded a bunch of vampires and the Judge. Didn’t anybody follow them? Don’t the vamps know where Angel lives?
  • Passion: Jenny’s death made me gasp out loud.
  • Becoming: After reading Daredevil and other Marvel comics of the past decade or so, I’ve discovered that I’m very interested in realistic treatments of secret identity issues and how they interact with the people you care about and the world at large. So I loved Buffy’s coming out to her mom, though “Have you tried not being a vampire slayer?” rang a little false.

Favorite moments:

  • School Hard: I got a huge kick out of seeing Buffy take charge and kick ass, and I appreciated that this behavior won her mom’s respect rather than earning the stereotypical parent disapproval.
  • Lie To Me: Buffy and Giles’ exchange at the end.
  • Phases: I loved Giles’ glee at getting to research werewolves. “It’s one of the classics!”
  • Bewitched, Bothered: Xander — “Do you know what’s a good day to break up with somebody? ANY DAY BESIDES VALENTINE’S DAY!”
  • I Only Have Eyes For You: Seeing Buffy and Angel play out the lovers’ conversation we’d heard so many times throughout the episode, with the genders reversed, was a wonderful bit of drama. Also, it pointed out that Sarah Michelle Gellar has five times the intensity of any of the other actors who spoke those lines.