Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (Season 3, 1998-1999)
Having recovered enough from the emotional trauma of betraying her greatest love, the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz, perhaps the most surface and non-threatening actor on the show – so, of course, in the true television fashion of the time, they immediately targeted him to splinter off for his own show, Angel), at the end of last season, the cutie high school vampire hunter (though no longer wearing those sexy little high school outfits from season one, some would say – harrumph — unfortunately) returns to Sunnydale (the town sitting directly upon that ol’ Hellmouth) where the Scooby Gang, led by doofus Xander (Nicholas Brendon), nerdy practicing witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and her werewolf boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) (Willow isn’t aware yet of her natural ‘inclinations’ – that being she leans a little closer to a 6 then a 0 on the Kinsey scale… and doesn’t have much need for all that yucky hard maleness), have been rather ineptly trying to keep up on the vampire slaying front, only to find Angel resurrected and driven insane from his torture in Hell (where Buffy had banished him), a new dangerously unstable (and even sexier) Slayer on the scene, Faith (Eliza Dushku), and the introduction of a few season-long threats, including the First Evil, a non-corporeal being manifested from all evil in existence (or some such thing) that can assume the identity of anyone who has died, who continuously tries to goad the tormented Angel back into embracing his wicked self… and then there’s this season’s Big Bad, namely Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener), who, underneath the affable exterior, is a nefarious evil with the dark intention of finally realizing his centuries-long goal of ascending to a giant snake-like demon by massacring all the students of Sunnydale High.
Having already watched almost the entire vampire series as I’m writing this (my daughter and I are halfway through the seventh and final season) provides some real perspective on where this particular season narratively sits within the slowly-building, always quality and ultimately brilliant (with season six of the seven season show being arguably one of the greatest seasons of any show on modern television, in the western world at least), genre-transcending series that is Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (just the name had me rolling my eyes at everyone who was gushing about it on its initial run – what an ignoramus I now stand revealed to be). Moving away from the more serial monster-of-the-week approach of the first two seasons (which still managed some immensely alternately poignant, funny and sometimes kinda scary episodes), this third season (along with the fourth) is the bridge towards laying the framework for the dark, gritty and profoundly difficult paths in life our main Scoobies will face as events, and life, unfold.
As with so much of what show creator Joss Whedon has done with it, I don’t think it’s an accident that this is also the final season of high school for the gang. Life, as we know, gets considerably more complex – and often painfully sad — from here; cuz (as happens with all of us, if we’re lucky even), the Scooby Gang grows up to realize facing off against high school monsters is the easy part.
Along with the emotionally troubled, easily swayed to the dark side Faith, another nice addition is vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caufield), who starts off fun enough and not particularly someone you’d think would likely be recurring… but whose growing presence through the later seasons as an ancient sociopathic creature caught in a cute girl’s body trying really hard to learn how to be human becomes a great metaphor for… well, people in general. Caufield displays an amusing sensibility and eventually will become one of my favorite characters (her speech in season five as she grapples with the painful ‘human’ emotions she is feeling at the sudden – and harrowing — death of one of the regulars on the show is up there as one of the great moments on the show); okay, it’s true she doesn’t ever reach the heights of brilliance of James Marsters with his evil, yet hyper aware and psychotically romantically inclined vampire Spike, but no character on the show really does (with the awesome season three scene of the love-torn, blonde-coiffed, black-trench coated baddie zooming down the highway in a car with darkened windows straight out of Near Dark to the strains of Sid Vicious’ punk version of “My Way” determined to win back his psycho vamp love Drusilla, played by the genuinely gaunt and creepy Juliet Landau, being just a glimpse of the awesomeness to emanate out of this character, and actor — talk about the real dark raging vamp who deserved his own show from “Buffy”!).
There’s also the eventually pivotal, though far less exciting, arrival of a second watcher, taking over for the demoted Giles, the nerdy, initially cold Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof). Wesley will go through many a character transition, all the way into his eventual move at the end of the season over to the new “Angel” series where he’ll really find his inner mojo (as will Charisma Carpenter’s High school queen Cordelia, who’ll join Wesley on that show), though he’ll always remain a bit of a bland actor (something overall “Angel” struggles with in comparison to the wildly dynamic group on “Buffy”, but more on that in another write-up coming soon!).
As usual (at this point, anyway, though they’ll become less prevalent by seasons five and six) there’s some wonderfully light and enjoyable episodes in the fray, such as when Giles (Anthony Stewart Head)’s trouble causing nemesis Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs) creates a Halloween candy that turns all the adults who eat them in Sunnydale into acting like impulsive (and horny) teenagers, with Buffy coming to the amusingly awkward reality (for her and for them) that Giles and his mom courted and had sex while under the one-night spell (something they’ll be living down for the rest of their time on the show).
The arrival of Evil Willow, with Hannigan playing the twin role, is exciting, but doesn’t reach anywhere near the dark profound intensity that will come with Willow in the pinnacle season (that being six), when she is consumed, like the heroin addict metaphor the show plays on, with the all-encompassing high of uncontrolled, and eventually powerfully destructive, magic. Hannigan’s Evil Willow is just a morsel against the mind-blowing transformation she will eventually achieve.
As easy going as the season often plays it, it eases admirably into playing around with the darker stuff. Buffy literally being driven insane by the ability to read minds is a particularly good example (in an episode that also effectively weaves back in Danny Strong’s high school dweeb Jonathan, introduced as prone to bad behaviour from the constant pain of not fitting in, a character who Whedon and the showrunners will cleverly figure even much more intricately in later seasons), as well as the interesting path of the unstable Faith character (her possibly supernatural meeting with Buffy in a dream of ominous portends in the final episode provides an early glimpse at some of the truly daring at the time storytelling that was to come on the show… even if I still don’t understand what most of those numbers and symbols are actually supposed to mean!).
The show is about life and the often painful changes that come. Season three ends their association with high school, with Buffy led to the painful reality that being a slayer means she won’t be able to go away to college, and Xander (Nicholas Brendon) accepting that he has no special gifts (including not being particularly bright academically). Of course, the great thing about the horror genre is it gets to play these things out on grand metaphorical level, such as having the vindictive Principal Snyder eaten by the Big Bad of the season, Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener) who has transformed into the demon Olvikan, with Buffy and the Scoobies then blowing him (and the entire school) into smithereens.
You see… it’s like that in life. There’s no going back.