Slayerfest ‘98

Written on epinions, May 2004.

By Buffy the Vampire Slayer — The Complete Third Season, we seem to have a pretty good handle on Buffy and her Scooby gang of pals in their final year at Sunnydale High (and the final year of Sunnydale High). Now the theme for this third year is, as the mayor states in the season-ender commencement speech, change. Personal change — facing the past, considering the what-might-have-been, deciding what kind of people we want to be, and making choices for the future.

There is the nostalgic past. Buffy tries to reclaim a bit of her popular-girl glory from her pre-slayer days and take Cordelia down a peg by campaigning for Homecoming Queen (Homecoming). And the entire adult population of Sunnydale enjoys an episode of adolescence (Band Candy) in which Giles’ boyhood “Ripper” persona reappears and, in a role reversal, Buffy tries to keep her gum-chewing boy-crazy Mom out of trouble.

Then there is the what-if past. What if Buffy had never arrived in Sunnydale (The Wish)? You get Evil Willow — skanky, and “kind of gay” (Doppelgangland). What if Buffy didn’t have a strong mother, reliable friends, a trustworthy Watcher, and Angel’s undying love (when he’s not evil). You get midriff-baring Faith, the new Slayer in town, Watcher-less, “five by five” and fancy-free (Faith, Hope & Trick). Ironically, Faith has only faith in her own physical capabilities. Faith is the id to Buffy’s ego. “Want, take, have” she instructs Buffy on a cashless shopping spree in the weapons, er, hunting portion of a sporting goods store.

As for the present, at season’s beginning, Buffy is another teen runaway who can’t face life at home (Anne), but duty calls and reminds her she can’t run from herself. Buffy’s mother Joyce is also still reeling from events at the close of the previous season and struggles with her daughter’s recent coming-out as a vampire slayer (“I marched in the slayer pride parade”, she protests), not to mention her new-found knowledge about the existence of vampires, etc.) It seems the rest of Sunnydale isn’t entirely oblivious to the strange happenings in Sunnydale as Mothers Against the Occult (MOO) whips up a hysterical frenzy (Gingerbread) in a jab at library book censorship, school locker searches, and, oh yeah, the Salem with trials.

The Scoobies face decisions for their post-grad years — college, career, and their roles in the fight against evil. Angel has to decide whether he can live with what he’s done (Amends), and whether that life should be with Buffy. Cordelia faces life without lots of money (The Prom). Giles has to choose where his loyalties lie — with his charge or with his employer (Helpless). Xander shows he can play the hero instead of the guy who gets donuts (The Zeppo) and anonymously save the world (quite fitting, considering his comic-book tastes). Willow finds she can be an active player in the fight for good (Choices), not to mention an effective witch. In fact, the entire class of ’98 shows some pride in their unusually low mortality rate and they’re willing to Fight, Fight, Fight! for their school (Graduation Day).

This season features the richest set of nemeses yet. Spike makes a brief but memorable return as a pathetic lovelorn loser (Lover’s Walk). And the thousand-year old vengeance demon Anyanka who introduced us to Bizarro World gets to try life as a high school student (“and I’m flunking math” she laments). Mr. Trick introduces some color to the Sunnydale vampire community (Sunnydale is largely of the “Caucasion persuasion”, he notes. And the creepiest part of Sunnydale’s evil mayor is his apple-pie wholesomeness (“drink your milk”).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Third Season on DVD is released in pretty much the same format as the second season DVD set, minus the fancy menu transitions of the latter but similarly equipped with a few commentaries and some production featurettes. The DVD set also continues the tradition of quirky organization of the special features — the featurettes on wardrobe, weapons and special effects are on the final disc, yet the featurette on Buffy-speak (really, Joss-speak) and the season overview reside on the third disc (why would you want to watch the season overview after watching half the episodes?)

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the wardrobe featurette is actually more interesting than the one on weapons. And the explanations of how the special effects crew implemented increasingly ambitious CG effects in the three-week post periods gives me a greater appreciation of the demands of the TV production schedule. That said, the quality of the CG monsters hasn’t quite kept up with the other production values of the show (the big bad at show’s end is pretty cheesy).

But the consistent excellent writing, strong themes and continuous story arc make this one of the best Buffy seasons in my opinion (I’ve opined in a separate review that Season Two is the best, so this would be a close second). Nearly all the episodes are memorably original and witty, so I couldn’t even pick a favorite — Band Candy, The Wish, Doppelgangland…. I do have a favorite moment — just a few seconds at the end of Helpless expresses the father-daughter relationship between Giles and Buffy with beautiful economy and no dialog. There is just one episode that leaves me cold, Amends, maybe because there’s a lot of Angel soul-searching, maybe because I generally don’t like ghost stories, but, typically, it lays an important foundation for later seasons.

The end of Season Three marks the end of an era (“We survived”, Oz remarks, referring to high school, not the various monsters and apocalypses) and would have made a fitting final season, but fortunately, it’s just intermission.